When I was not quite ten years old, my mother sent me to spend the summer by the ocean. She packed my fondest Mary-Janie baby doll that has never left my side and two pieces of my Sunday best outfits for church and special gatherings.
We picked the red organdie “party” dress with a flared skirt that had a silk flower trimming just above the skirt’s ruffles, which had a matching jacket, the best feature of which was trimmings on the side pockets. For my second outfit, we chose my sailor dress in mustard yellow and a blue close-fitted cap-like hat.
On the last evening before I had to leave, there was still one thing I planned to do. It had taken a long time for my mind to agree with itself because I was not sure Mom would allow it. When I finally decided, most of my courage had left me. Memory fails me now; I cannot remember if I practiced my words. I did, however, arranged when I would pop the question!
After supper, I waited until Mom took her place in the rocking chair by the fire and paid close attention to time it just right. Before she picked up her sewing basket, I took a deep breath and steadied my voice. “Mommy, it would mean so much if I could take our picture with me,” I paused because my voice came out squeaky and shaky, “for when I think of home?” My heart pounded hard against my chest.
I was sorry as soon as the words left my lips; I would have Grandma but Mom would be here alone. She left the sewing basket in its original place and looked at me. The side of her face that was facing the fire lit up in an orange glow and the other side was in shadow, but I saw the sadness in her eyes. Her pink lips were small and thinly pursed together. As I watched, she turned to look at the picture, perched above the fireplace mantle.
In the picture, we were a complete family. Mom used to hum as she cooked and cleaned. Tommy and I made up new games and stories. Before supper, Father said grace and always thanked God for the bounty for which we received. On Sundays, we walked to church together and Father reminded us to ask God for His blessing and protection for the week. As much as I could remember, we were happy, too.
Then brokenness seeped in, not all at once, but little by little. Mother started to volunteer regularly at the Women’s Hospice, so Mrs. Flynn stayed home to keep an eye on me. Father’s work took him further out of town so that he did not come home every night. Before long Father took Tommy along and that meant I had to play by myself.
Occasionally, I asked Father to take me with him but he said I was too young. Tommy was only a little bit older, I said, but Father had made up his mind. When I started to wonder what Tommy did while Father was at work, he did not say very much. Sometimes, Tommy stared at nothing and when I asked him to play with me, he walked away sulking.
Nobody wanted to say anything except for Mrs. Flynn, so when she became my friend, I spent most of my time following her around as she completed her chores around the house. Sometimes, I caught her sighing “poor child” while she looked at me.
Eventually, I asked Mom to find a new helper. Mrs. Flynn started saying things that did not make any sense, like “all good things end” or “God can mend a broken heart”. I also told Mom that Mrs. Flynn called me “poor child” and sighed a lot. I was sure Mrs. Flynn had “old people’s sickness”.
Regarding my question about the family picture, Mom did not answer. Silence stretched on for a time, punctuated only by the occasional crackle and hiss of the fire. That night, I went to bed with Mary-Janie and fell asleep after Mom planted her kisses on my forehead and cheeks. We both said, “I love you” to each other like we had promised when there was only the two of us left.
…..to be continued.