Attala County, Mississippi

         




From "Sunday Afternoon Rocking"
14 July 2001, Jan Philpot

When Mama Died


I reckon in ever body's life there is somethin that changes it all, and I reckon for me it was when I was eight and Mama died. But wasn't much different from what a many went through, I don't reckon. And I reckon we just did what most folks did, and luckier than most.

When Mama died there were ten of us, and Mary Belle was the eldest, but she wasn't old enough to take care of us, being only eleven herself. And so when Mama died we weren't real sure what that meant, only that one day she didn't wake up and have the kitchen humming with bacon and eggs and a fire started to keep us warm. When Mama died we woke up cold and it was cold all the day long, because Mama was cold.

And the ladies from the church house, and Mama's sisters, they come. And they washed my Mama and brushed her hair till it was sleek and shiny, and got her ready to put in that black shroud. I reckon that is the only time I ever knowed of Mama havin something new to wear, and it is a shame it being a black shapeless thing like that. They washed up the baby brother that never was a real brother too, don't reckon he even ever cried like a real baby does, nor even saw anything at all in this world. They put him in a long white gown. And they took the old treadle sewing machine that was my Aunt Bet's and Uncle Henry brought it up on the wagon. And Aunt Bet and Miz Martha set there and made Mama that black shroud while Uncle Henry and Papa pounded nails out at the barn making a coffin to lay her in.

For hours I heard that pounding, and ever time I heard it I thought it was like makin it all final. Must have been what was goin through Papa's mind too, cause I went out to talk to him and he didn't want to talk. Sweat was pourin off his brow and down his cheeks and I think it was mixin with tears, only I ain't never seen him cry. And he just went on a poundin and a poundin, and Uncle Henry watched him a minute and tole me to get on back to the house and look to the little ones. And after a while, Uncle Henry and Papa climbed the hill and I knowed where it was they was goin. Aunt Bet, she hugged us a lot, and her lips pursed up like she was afraid if she didn't hold them tight something might come out that wasn't what she wanted, but she didn't say nothin and just went back to makin that black shroud, and I don't reckon any of us cept maybe MaryBelle, quite understood what this was all about. But we knew one thing, cause we seen it done enough. When folks make black shrouds, and pound nails to make a box the size of a grown person, when they climb that hill out back, well that means someone going to be buried IN that ground, and it mean they ain't gonna be seen no more neither, leastways not on this earth they ain't.

When the preacher comes around, which ain't nothin but oncet a month, if that, he says they's a better place than this and he says it so fine that it is summer all the year around, and plenty to eat and always warm. He says they is flowers ever where, and streets of gold runnin right through the middle of it all, that ain't all he says. And sometimes he gets lit up and his face gets red, gets to hollerin and jumpin and you can feel the flames a lickin' at your toes, he makes it all seem so real. But now I reckon Mama done gone to that place where it is summer all the year round, and flowers ever where. Cause I don't know of nothin bad Mama ever done.

So anyhow, us youngins mostly hung back out of the way till Miz Martha figured out we probly hadn't had nothin to eat and then she went to the kitchen and fixed up a bait, and I reckon that was the first thing that seemed right about all the day long, and so we ate but Papa did not. We didn't see much of Papa at all. Seems like the makin of that coffin and the diggin of that hole was what Papa had on his mind and he didn't much want to be around us right then, it seemed.

When Mama died the house was full of folks, and Mama lay in that coffin all still with that baby on her arm. And the folks set there all the night long, and I reckon one after another of us got carried up to bed when we fell asleep there wishing Mama would move and those folks would go away. I kept starin at the pennies they layed on Mama's eyes, and thinkin that made her look like somethin she was not and like whatever it was, it was starin wide at the ceilin and listenin to us all carry on. But it wasn't Mama.

And next day they put Miz Martha tole us we best be kissing our Mama. I reckon some of us did and some of us did not. I did. But she weren't really Mama. Her cheek was cold and she didn't tell me to tuck my shirt in nor grin and say "get on with ye!" nor nothin. And that is when I knew what that preacher meant the time he said the body we lived in was just a house for the soul to live in. Mama done moved out.

When Mama died seems like even ole Blackie knew somethin was bad wrong. He didn't jump up on nobody, nor chase the cats, nor nothin. He just hung round with his tail down waitin for something and I didn't know what and I don't think he did neither. The little ones was even quiet, cept for Henry Joe who kept tuggin at Papa and wanting to know why Mama would not get up. I reckon even if the most of us was not real sure how or why our world was changed, we knew it had.

When Mama died they put her in that hole that Papa and Henry Joe dug, and we was told to each take a clod of the dirt and throw in after her, and I reckon some of us did and some of us did not. Seemed like something I did not want to do, but Papa looked at me stern and bein the oldest boy I did what he said do. And Uncle Henry did the preachin and the prayin cause weren't no preacher to do it unless we waited for two more weeks, and that ain't somethin you can do. And it bothered me cause I could see snow was in the clouds, and even if Mama already cold, something about knowin that snow going to be piled up on that spot of fresh dirt didn't feel good and made me want to tell them she gonna need a quilt or something. And we left Mama up there on that hill, and come home, some us for the last time.

When Mama died, I reckon that was the last time we all lived under one roof like one family. Henry Joe and baby Aaron went home with Aunt Bet, and that is where they stayed. Cause Papa could not take care of them and Mary Belle had her hands full lookin out for the rest of us and doin the cookin and the washin and such. We helped her best we could, and Papa didn't put up with nobody not. Mary Belle married three years later and the three least ones went to live with her and her new husband. She married a boy from over on the ridge who been left without his folks too, and little ones left behind. They say they could take care of them all better they just do it together, and I reckon they was right. Married to give the little ones a home and did nigh all right they did, and had a bunch of their own too.

And Papa raised the rest of us till he got sick hisself. And then we put him up there on the hill by Mama. By that time I was fourteen so I was mostly a man, and the girls they went to stay with Miz Martha's oldest girl Malissa, and the boys they stayed with me and we made out best we could. So we got grown, best we all knew how, and I reckon fact of it is some of us don't even know "when Mama died" cause they would be hard put to say who they Mama even was bein raised by Aunt Bet, or Mary Belle, or Malissa, or even by me.

We just done what folks did, and was right lucky we had folks and Papa lasted long as he did. That's how it was when Mama died.

Copyright 2000JanPhilpot






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