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By Julie Cannon
Center Point Large PrintCopyright © 2004 Julie Cannon
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Chapter One: Homecoming
Imogene Lavender never imagined her mother would be coming back. When she left, she said to Imogene that she was shaking the dust of Euharlee, Georgia, off her feet. She didn't even stop to pack her things. Left a dresser and a closet full of clothes, a bathroom drawer overflowing with curlers and combs and creams, and, most amazing, her prized antique trunk stuffed with photographs, letters, ticket stubs, and corsages. Locked tight, but just sitting there in one corner of her old bedroom.
Imo stood in the kitchen at dawn, coffee cup in hand, paralyzed by this recollection coming so fast and thick. Normally an act of her will, along with constant busyness, could keep this and other painful memories at bay. But today, the day she and Lou were to drive to Pamplico, South Carolina, to the Carolina Arms Apartments, to bring her mother back to Euharlee, she couldn't fight them.
In another recollection she was an apple-cheeked five-year-old. She was following her mother outside into the hushed grayness of early morning to gather eggs for breakfast. Her mother's voice floated back to Imogene as she stepped carefully along a path through beds of tiger lilies. "Look at all the tiny spiderwebs between the lilies, Imogene!" she whispered as she knelt down. "Just covered in that sparkly dew! Looks like a fairy world outside, doesn't it?" Gently she touched Imo's shoulder, turning her small frame to look out over the lawn. "See? A fairy world right in our own yard." Her voice trembled, breathless, coating the words like a soft blanket, breathing into them such awe that the lawn in the lifting fog of morning seemed to have an almost magical quality.
Standing there, Imogene clutched the egg basket tighter. She looked out at the glittering world and back at her mother and said softly, "Oh! It really is, Mama. But where do the fairies go when the sun dries the dew up?"
Her mother laughed and kissed her cheek. "Why, they curl up inside the very center of the lilies. They go to sleep and wait for the darkness to come back out. They have to keep their skin purely white."
"Yes, sugar pie. Purely white and pearly white." She held out her hand to take Imogene's. "Let's go fetch those eggs. We'll carry them on in the house and then you can help me roll out the biscuits and we'll rub one with butter while it's hot and sprinkle on a little cinnamon-sugar for you."
Imo tiptoed along, squeezing her mother's hand to say, Yes, a cinnamon-sugar biscuit would be good, exhilarated by the sharpness of the cool morning air and the sparkling fairy world.
This was Imo's first real memory, and so full of tenderness and safety that she wouldn't have minded being able to crawl back into it and stay awhile. There were no words to explain the contentedness in her heart back then, the sweet mystery of having each need met, of feeling secure and loved no matter what. There seemed no need to doubt that things would always remain that way.
Stay here awhile. Just stay in this particular moment of your memory, she pleaded with herself, determined to savor the feeling of security. Not all of your memories of Mama are sweet, so don't you go any further, Imogene Lavender. Don't you cross that line into where the pain began!
She gripped the front edge of the sink and ground her teeth together. She willed herself to focus on the amber liquid in the Palmolive bottle: "Tough on Grease, Soft on Hands!" she read. But it was too late. Her eyes were drawn to the windowsill, to a small black-and-white ceramic Holstein cow that was a cream pitcher. As she studied the jagged lines of glue at the cow's neck and hoof, her sweet memory dissolved into one that was disturbing.
Imo watched herself at eight years old perched high on a kitchen stool, sipping coffee-milk while Mama stirred grits and turned ham in a skillet. Her daddy was sitting at the small wooden table in the kitchen drinking his black coffee and listening to the radio as the county agent talked about the peach crop. He wasn't very talkative or playful in the early mornings, but Imogene was just as happy to have her mother's full attention.
"More coffee, Jewelldine," he said when the weather report was over. He had the earnest look of a man waiting for inspiration, for energy to begin his day. "Reckon I'll work down in the bottoms this morning, in the corn. Sounds like we got us a purty day coming."
Jewelldine nodded and poured coffee for him. Next, she set the boiler of grits down onto a folded towel near his elbow, stood a minute flapping her hands over the pot, then turned back to get the pot lid left on top of the stove. "Flies sure are bad this summer, Burton." She settled the lid in one swift stroke. "Shoo!" She stuck her bottom lip out. "They're pesky little things!"
"I'm putting a bounty on these flies. Penny a piece." He grinned and took a fresh gulp of coffee. "I'm gone hire Imogene here to catch 'em, and bring 'em in, dead or alive. Put the girl to work."
Mama only grunted, but Imo was pleased by this notion of herself working. She figured she could swat all the flies in the house before her daddy came back in for lunch at noon. He'd be proud and Mama would be happy.
Imo's biggest ambition was to make her parents happy, especially Mama. When her toys were not neatly put away or she was too loud and hurt Mama's head, or when Mama scowled at the muddy stains on her dresses and shoes, she was stricken to the heart. What made her take up this burden of worry, Imo couldn't quite say, but perhaps it was on account of being an only child for so long. Mama tried hard to have another baby, and she cried often about it when no more came for years and years. Then she stayed in bed for weeks on end, not speaking and barely eating, after the birth of one that died before it was born. His tiny grave had a lamb carved into the headstone. There had been other babies lost, too, and Imo knew her mama wanted a baby boy more than anything else on Earth. She said he would carry on the family name and help Imo's daddy work on the farm. The fact that no living boy babies ever came made her mother feel sad and angry.
Sometimes Mama didn't smile all day. Sometimes she acted mad at Imogene's daddy. Today, though, Imogene was delighted when she bent and kissed him on his whiskery cheek. "I swannee, Burton. A bounty on a fly!" she said, and there was something joyous in the way she wrinkled her nose and bustled over to the oven wearing a red hot mitt on her hand to grab the biscuits out. She slid a golden biscuit onto a cheerful plate with the alphabet marching around the rim. She set this down in front of Imogene and tied a dish towel around her neck.
The three of them ate with the warm smell of sizzling ham circling the tiny kitchen, and the happy twang of Earl Scrugg's banjo over the sound of a second pot of coffee percolating. When his plate was clean and his coffee cup empty, her daddy stood, pushed back his chair, and stretched. He bent over Imogene and kissed the top of her head tenderly. "See you later, Jewelldine," he said to his wife, patting her hand. He left them still sitting at the table.
A fly settled onto the cow cream pitcher in the center of the table. Imogene studied the fly's vibrating wings. She figured she could kill that fly. Please her mama.
She lifted her hand, moved it above the cream pitcher, and held it motionless a moment to fool the fly. In one split second, she brought her hand down fast as lightning. Too clumsy, she struck the cow and it clattered onto its side, the head and one leg breaking off and cream splattering everywhere.
Imogene froze. She stared at the white puddle seeping across the oilcloth and underneath their breakfast plates. Mama loves that cow, she thought. She sought Mama's face to say she was sorry and tell her it was an accident.
Mama's eyes flashed angrily. "You broke it!" she hissed, reaching for Imo's thin arm and holding it hard.
Imo drew her shoulders up to her ears. "I'm sorry, Mama," she said finally in a hoarse whisper. "Stop, please, you're hurting me."
"Hurting you?" Mama cried through clenched teeth, squeezing Imo harder. "Hurting you? Listen, missy, you broke my lovely pitcher! Ruined the table!" She pushed her stern face right up into Imo's and whispered, "And now I will have to teach you a lesson. You need to learn how to behave!"
Imogene's heart was racing. Her mother had spoken harshly to her on many occasions, but this was the first time she had lifted a hand to her.
"Yes! I need to teach you!" Each word of Mama's threat felt like a slap.
Imo stopped breathing. "Mama," she pleaded, tangling her fingers in her hair, "Mama, I'm sorry. So, so sorry. I mean it. I promise I won't ever do it again!"
Mama didn't seem to hear. "I'll teach you, Imogene Rose Wiggins!" Mama released Imo's arm and used both her hands to press Imo's head down onto the table, into the cool cream puddle. She held her face in it for a long while, mashing it hard against the wet oilcloth.
So stunned she could barely breathe, Imo stopped resisting. Her chest ached from her swallowed sobs. Her blouse was cold and wet and the ends of her hair sodden.
Finally Mama released her, swiped her hands on the pockets of her apron, and said calmly, "Okeydokey, let's get this cleaned up, dear." She strode over to the screen door that led out onto the back porch, opened it, and shooed a fly out. "Do it immediately," she said, staring out across the yard.
Imo nodded, patting her face dry with the hem of her blouse. Clumsily she slid from the tall stool and went to the sink for the dishrag. Mama was a scary presence behind her as she washed and dried the table and the dishes and then collected the pieces of the ceramic cow.
She had never seen Mama quite like that before - so furious, and possessed by this terrible, cruel thing that took shape and began to live in her then. After that morning in the kitchen, Imo knew her life would be different somehow. A barrier had been knocked down, one that had been the dividing line between Imo's former innocence and her new uneasy life with Mama.
Imo didn't know exactly what seized Mama at certain moments, but it seemed like she became an entirely different person. Something told Imo that nothing she could say or do would head things off during these spells with Mama. She just had to wait them out. Endure. After these fogs passed, Mama acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. You would have thought she might say "I'm sorry, sweetie. I must've lost my head," or try to make amends of some sort, but Mama blazed right on ahead with the day's agenda. Come bedtime, she turned back the covers on Imo's trundle bed and patted the pillow before tucking Imo in. She'd kiss her cheek and listen as Imo said her prayers.
"What time are we going to leave?" Lou's voice jolted Imo out of her memory.
"What, sugar foot?" Imo asked, shaking her head and looking at Lou standing barefoot in her nightgown.
"I said, what time are we leaving? I'm going to go get ready."
Imo tried to calculate the distance from Euharlee, Georgia, to Pamplico, South Carolina. "Nine-thirty or so," she said. "That ought to give us enough time. Don't wake Jeanette and the baby. We'll leave them here so we'll have room for Mama's things."
The truth of the matter was that Jeanette hadn't stopped fussing since yesterday morning when they'd moved her and Little Silas into Lou's room to create a spare bedroom. She'd hollered and kicked the walls and let out a string of filthy words that made Imo's ears burn. All Imo could do was hope against hope that when the girl and the old lady were face-to-face they would click, and pray that if this miracle didn't occur, then Jeanette would just learn to accept her over time.
"Alrighty, Imo." Lou smiled. She knew the real reason to let Jeanette sleep. "Where is it we're going again?"
"Going to the Carolina Arms Apartments in Pamplico, South Carolina," Imo answered, untying her apron. "Located along the Great Pee Dee River."
"She lives on a river?"
"That's what Mr. Dilly said."
"The Pee Dee River," Lou mused. "I wonder if it's as pretty as the Etowah."
Imo watched Lou leave. I don't have the faintest, she thought to herself as she sank down into a chair at the kitchen table, mashed up a crumb with her pointer finger and absentmindedly rolled it around on her thumb. She was trying to make sense of it all, thinking about what Mr. Eugene Dilly, the manager of the Carolina Arms, had said about Mama and the Great Pee Dee River.
He said they'd found the old woman more times than they could count, either swimming in the river or setting out on a flat rock in the middle, fishing with a bamboo pole. Mr. Dilly said he did not want to be responsible for a resident drowning. "We simply cannot restrain Miz Wiggins. It is bad enough," he said, "to have a patient with such a severe case of senile dementia, but during her spells of what the doctors here are calling extreme paranoia, she is amazingly strong. Crafty, too. Plus, her money's run out again. She's a month in arrears."
This was not a surprise to Imo. She and Silas had been sending money off and on for years, and since his passing she hadn't refused the old woman's demands. Thank the Good Lord in Heaven that with the money from Silas's life insurance policy, and her monthly check from social security, combined with a small inheritance from Silas's uncle Bud, they managed to get by. She had supposed she would go on sending money any time Mama called. That was the only time she ever called, when she was broke, but to Imo's mind, the checks she sent were a small price to pay for the peace the distance between them brought. Gladly she would have sent every last penny she had not to be going today.
Oh, the hole Silas's passing had left in her life. He would have been her rock to lean on during all this. He would have made things better. He always knew what to do.
Imo desperately held on to the notion that Mama couldn't be "getting even worse, if you can believe it," as Mr. Dilly claimed when he described her latest escapades. He said that Jewelldine Wiggins must be going back in time to her childhood because she was now calling him Pepaw whenever he hauled her up out of the river. "Tried to hop up in my lap oncet," he laughed. "I rode down to the river in my pickup truck when somebody said they seen her out there in the middle, up on that big ole rock, and I got her back to the bank, up the hill, and opened the passenger door for her and told her 'Hop on in and I'll carry you back home,' and then I went around and got behind the wheel and before I knew it, Miz Wiggins was trying to get in my lap! Calling me Pepaw and pouting about me making her go inside and it not dark yet. Telling me to carry her on home with me and Memaw and not to make her go back home to her folks' house. Said her father would whip her good. Course, she wouldn't fit, what with the steering wheel and all." He exploded in laughter. "Gol doggit! Was funny, it sure was.
Excerpted from 'Mater Biscuit by Julie Cannon Copyright © 2004 by Julie Cannon. Excerpted by permission.
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