“Mama, why does Daddy get his name in the Bible twice, and mine’s in there just once?” I was five when I confronted my mother as she stood at the kitchen counter, barefoot in her sleeveless blouse and pedal pushers, dipping a wet chicken leg into flour.
My mother dropped the chicken back onto the plate and reached over to turn off the electric skillet, milk dripping from her hands and making the hot grease pop.
“Let me see.” She rinsed her hands under the faucet, dried them on a sackcloth towel, and joined me as I hoisted the family Bible with its white faux leather cover and gold-edged pages onto the table.
My mother sat down and I climbed onto her lap.
“See, Mama, it says Richard Lavon Evans at the top and again there.” I pointed to the family tree inside the back cover.
“That’s not your daddy, honey. That was your brother. See, there’s a ‘Jr.’ after his name.” The corners of her mouth turned up slightly but her lips stayed pressed together, refusing to reveal her gap-toothed smile. Her hazel eyes turned from their usual green to brown.
“Where is he?” There was nothing I wanted more than a brother.
“He was older than you, but he died right after he was born.” My mother rubbed my back gently, as I reached up to wind my fingers through her wavy black hair.
She expected me to take the news hard, but because she had two brothers and a sister, she was unaware that a dead brother was better than no brother at all. She was prepared for the questions about the color of his eyes and hair and what his life had been like in those few hours before he died, but I was more interested in what he might have become. Would he have preferred The Beverly Hillbillies or The Red Skelton Show? Where would he have sat at the dinner table? What kind of ice cream would he have gotten from the truck that rolled through our neighborhood every afternoon?
“I need to finish dinner before Daddy gets home.” She shooed me off her lap.
My mother never spoke of Richard Jr. again, but I often ran my finger over his name in the Bible and daydreamed about him as my defender and confidant.
I knew I wasn’t alone in wanting siblings. One Christmas my aunt entertained all the adults sitting around the dinner table with a story about my cousin, Susie, going door to door on the Air Force base trying to trade toys for babies. As I sat at the kids’ table eavesdropping, I then heard my mother regale the family with the story about my pediatrician saying I needed a little brother or sister and I had thought we were going to stop at the drug store on the way home to pick one up.
My mother and aunt laughed along with everyone else, but what I didn’t understand was that having only children wasn’t their choice. My mother’s one desire in life was to be a mother, and if toys could have been traded for babies or if babies could have been bought in drug stores, she would have had a passel of children. Instead she had only one—me—and one was better than none, and so she did her best with what she was given.
My early childhood came straight out of a 1960s television show where the parents were infinitely patient and wise. My father worked as the manager of a grocery store, bringing home all the leftover holiday candy and stuffed animals from the potato chip displays. My mother was a homemaker who filled our kitchen with the smells of pot roast and peanut butter cookies and filled my closet with rickrack-trimmed rompers. Of course I got a spanking now and then for drawing a picture of a naked boy on the back of an offering envelope in church or stealing a keychain with a dangling skull at the dime store, but mostly I was indulged.
Just as it never occurred to me that my mother wanted more children, it also never occurred to me that my mother’s childhood might have been different from mine. On Mothers and Fathers days, she scoured the racks of greeting cards at the grocery store looking for those that said, “the world’s greatest,” and I never questioned whether they were deserved. I thought my grandparents must have indulged her just as they did me. Every time we visited, my grandmother took me to Kresge’s, gave me a dollar bill, and then waited patiently while I decided how to spend it. If it was summer my grandfather hand cranked ice cream in the back yard, and just as the cream began to thicken, he would ask if we wanted him to add anything.
“Strawberries,” pleaded my mother.
“No. Plain vanilla,” I insisted.
“Plain vanilla it is.” He finished the cranking and threw an old towel on top to hold in the cold air.
My first inkling that things might not be as perfect as they seemed came shortly after my grandfather died. I was in my mid-20s, and we were gathered at my mother’s house for Christmas. My mother was only in her forties, but already her wavy black hair had turned to fine gray curls, and her body had grown soft despite vigilant exercise and constant dieting. On the day before Christmas, my mother was stirring chocolate pie filling on the stove while I played dominoes with my grandmother at the kitchen table, already covered with a tablecloth decorated with bright red poinsettias.
“Granny, remember when you used to take us to Kresge’s and give us a dollar to buy anything we wanted?” I was already fondly recalling some of the things I’d bought: a Slinky, a magic card trick, a fake Barbie.
“I just did that to get you kids out of the house so you wouldn’t drive Pa nuts.” She played the double-five.
I glanced at my mother. She stirred faster but never looked up from the pan.
I laid the three-four on the table.
“Did you mark my ten points?” My grandmother stared at the notebook paper where I was keeping score, waiting for me to add another x to her column.
“Pa couldn’t stand all the noise, and it was the cheapest way to entertain you kids. Every one of you would take an hour trying to decide how to spend a dollar.” She laughed as she looked down at the row of dominoes in front of her.
“I thought you did it because you loved us so much.” I was genuinely hurt.
“That’s another fifteen.” She played the three-five.
A few years later, in the toy aisles of a Wal-Mart, the inkling that my family was not as perfect as I imagined became irrefutably clear.
My mother was visiting for the weekend and had insisted on taking my four-year-old son, Mitch, to buy a toy. As we wandered through the store, I closely followed Mitch up and down the toy aisles until he found the Thomas the Tank Engine section. As he rummaged through the packages, I realized my mother was no longer behind us. When Mitch finally found the train he was looking for, we doubled back through the aisles until we found my mother standing frozen in the middle of the baby dolls.
“Where did you go?” Her breathing was quick and shallow, and tears rolled down her cheeks, dripping on her t-shirt.
“We were in the boys’ toys.”
“I couldn’t find you.” She began shaking.
“We’re right here.”
Fortunately Mitch was focused on his one-way conversation with Percy the train and never noticed his grandmother’s panic.
Later that night, after dinner, my husband took Mitch upstairs for a bath and bedtime reading, and my mother and I burrowed into the ruffled pillows on the living room couch.
“Did I ever tell you I had scarlet fever as a kid?” she asked.
“Don’t think so.”
And then she told me how she had come down with scarlet fever and when the doctor in Snyder had been unsuccessful in treating her, he told Both of her parents worked, so her father put her in his patrol car and drove her to Dallas where he checked her into the hospital and then told her he’d come back to pick her up when she was better. She spent six weeks in the hospital alone. She was seven.
“Are you kidding me?”
I couldn’t imagine leaving my son alone for even one night.
“I’ve been afraid of being left behind. That’s why I got so upset when I lost you in the store.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know.”
A year later my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Maybe it was the fact that she’d let the genie out of the bottle by telling me about the hospital or maybe she was afraid that if she didn’t share her stories, they would be lost, but time and time again, she would ask, “Did I ever tell you…”
And my answer was always. “No,” as she knew it would be.
Her stories became increasingly painful until she reached the last one.
“Did I ever tell you about the night Jim attacked me?” Jim was her older brother, disabled not only by an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck but also from the excuses my grandparents made for him.
“No.” I held my breath.
“You were a baby. Your daddy had an overnight work thing, and we were spending the night at Aunt Betty’s.”
I nodded for her to go on even though I didn’t want to hear anymore.
“Granny and Pawpaw and Jim were there too, and it was the middle of the night when I woke up because someone was touching me.” She paused. “When I realized it was Jim, I started screaming. It woke everybody up.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well the next morning, Daddy took Jim to Big Springs.” We both understood that by “Big Springs,” she didn’t mean the dusty West Texas town but instead the mental hospital there.
“I was so surprised. I didn’t think Daddy’d do that for me.”
I started to cry, and my mother rubbed my back, just as she had done when I was a child.
My mother died a few months later. Along with her most painful memories, she also left me a box of photos. They document my mother’s life as she wanted it to be, but I see the reality.
One photo shows my mother as a freckle-faced little girl with barrettes holding back her wild hair, and I imagine her lying under the white sheets of a hospital bed, her face buried in the pillow as she cries, believing no one will ever return for her.
In another, she is a young woman with porcelain skin—her freckles now so faint, they’re barely noticeable—and she holds me as a swaddled newborn. I imagine her holding another swaddled baby, once again in a cold and antiseptic hospital room, and she sings softly to my baby brother who has only hours to live.
Then there’s the photo of my mother standing in the front yard of my grandparents’ house with her adult siblings. They mug for the camera, but I see my mother’s unease, and I know this was taken shortly after my uncle was released from Big Springs. I leave this photo at the bottom of the box because it reminds me of my mother’s final story, the one that haunts me less because my mother was attacked by her own brother and more because she was surprised that her father chose to protect her. Her father, my grandfather who made me vanilla ice cream.
I wish, just once, he had made strawberry.