Momma is in the kitchen, sitting at our dining table in the head chair. She is speaking on the phone which is mounted on the wall just above her. The phone is an old dirty, yellow Trimline phone. Daddy, being the telephone man that he was, added an extra long cord so that Momma wasn’t tethered too tightly to the one spot. However, Momma enjoyed sitting in that chair because it was right next to the coffee pot. I, on the other hand, loved the long cord because I could talk to my friends, for my daily, allotted 12 minutes and stand all the way in the living room while doing it. Because of the expense, this was the closest thing we were getting to a cordless telephone.
Looking as cute as I possibly could, not sure that I was really all that cute in my awkward pre-teen body, but I primped for a very long time. This was in an effort to get a certain boy to ask for my number on this particular day. As I make my way toward the door, I am daydreaming about Chad and can’t wait to run out for school. I round the corner from my room and then I see Momma in that chair, with her cup of coffee. Her head is cocked to the side and the phone is tucked snugly between her ear and her shoulder. Tears are flowing down her cheek and I can tell by the look on her face that she is listening intently.
Seeing Momma cry of course bothered me, but considering my cousin had just passed away this sight was not quite as shocking as it had been earlier in the week. I do want to ask her what the matter is, but my 11 year old mind discounts her state of emotion to another sad day of reminiscing about Danny. I assume that she is speaking to my Aunt Brenda and feeling so very sorry for her loss.
Continuing toward the front door, I gave Momma a little nod and a wave and proceeded to run down the hall. Momma stops and jolts upward to a quick standing position, “Carrie, stop, stay here,” she says to me in a firm but somewhat concerned voice. “Momma, I am going to be late to school. I have to go now,” I explained. “You will not be going to school today. I need you to stay here and watch the boys. Papaw has been in a car accident and I need to go to the hospital to see him,” she gently replied.
For as long as I live, I will never be relieved of the guilt I feel for what I said next. I swallowed hard and after a long pause I informed Momma, “I must go to school today. I have band practice. I don’t want to stay here and take care of the boys. You should go to the hospital after school!” Before this day, I do not remember talking back to my mother. Is it because this was truly the first time or was it just that this was such a memorable circumstance that it is first lasting memory I have of outward defiance? I have no way of really knowing. I do know that I felt horrible after she lashed back, “young lady, your grandfather has just been in a very serious car accident and he might not live until you get out of school. You need to go to your room and think about how incredibly selfish you are acting right now!” As she said this to me, she cried harder and I could tell dealing with my pre-teenage attitude was the last thing she needed right then.
Of course, I didn’t know and could not have known the gravity of the situation because Momma was trying to protect me from that. I went to my room and I could hear her speaking to the phone, “I know, I know but she has such an attitude and I don’t need this right now. I really don’t. I just can’t take it!” At that moment, I understood the adage, “tail between your legs.” My tail was so far between my legs it was tickling my nose! I wanted to take it back. Take IT back!
There was no way I could take it back. I did not relish in the fact that I had chosen the most inopportune time to realize boys existed. What kind of person did that make me? There my mother was, in the kitchen, crying and I was just going to walk away. The shame was tremendous but it would only prove to get worse.
Momma went to the hospital and I stayed at home from school that day and watched the boys. They were 10 and 4 then. We played really well together and for the most part they listened to me when I needed them to. I learned at a very, very early age how to tend to adult business. I was cooking, cleaning and looking after little ones by the age of 8. Momma and Daddy never went far or were gone for long but they did leave us alone often. So asking me to watch the boys was not out of the ordinary. Daddy was very strict about school, however, so the fact that Momma asked me to stay home from school was not common.
At the end of the afternoon, Daddy arrived home. It was pretty late in the afternoon. He explained that Papaw had been in a very serious car accident earlier that morning while he was on his way to work. This was in early January in 1980, during the winter, when the sun is blindingly bright. Daddy explained that Papaw had not seen the 18-wheeler stop in front of him in traffic. Papaw continued at an estimated speed of 55mph and ran his car under a completely still rig with a full load. Papaw’s small 4-door dodge went completely under the trailer.
Daddy continued to explain that Papaw had been rushed to the hospital and had undergone surgery to save his life. He survived the surgery but died later that day from complications. Papaw had begun to bleed internally from a wound that the surgeons had not discovered during his surgery. He bled into his lungs and died almost instantly.
As Daddy gave us the news, I was of course full of sorrow and sadness. I thought about how sad Momma would be. I worried about how my Memaw would get along. But, worse, was the guilt I felt for the way I had treated my mother. My mother never said another word about that incident. It was guilt that I owned.
The timing was unbelievable. My grandfather’s death came just one week following the death of his oldest grandson and my cousin, Danny. My family was shattered and heart broken. Once again, my brothers and I were too little to attend the funeral.
My Memaw once full of laughter was now broken and grief stricken. She had been married to Papaw for many, many years. She was fully dependent upon him. In fact, Memaw had never learned to drive a car. She used to tell my brothers stories about when she was little that she rode in a covered wagon to Texas with her family. When they could finally afford a car, she was with Papaw and it was the man’s job to drive. There was just never any reason to learn. Now in her 70’s and a widow, what would she do?
Momma was devastated to say the least. The novelty of seeing her cry, had quickly worn off. I was so very sad for her, for Memaw and for myself. I just could not really grasp the reality of what was happening to our family. I tried hard not to ask too many questions, as it seemed when I did, it just made matters worse.
Following Papaw’s funeral, Momma sat down with me. We talked about a lot of things. She wanted me to know that she would need my help taking care of Memaw. Of course, of course I would do whatever it took to make Memaw the way she used to be, to make Momma the way she used to be, to put our family back the way that it was. “Why couldn’t we just go back to the way we were?” I asked.
Momma tried to answer my questions as best as she could. She just kept telling me it would take lots and lots of time. Momma took a deep breath and a long pause and while she held my hand she said, “Are you listening, Carrie? It is very important that you hear what I am about to tell you.” “I am listening, Momma,” I replied. Momma spoke softly but with a very firm tone. “Death comes in threes. I believe this. First was Danny, then was Papaw and next will be me. I do not know when or how but I know it will be me. I will be next. You must take care of things, Carrie.”