Ma Mère

They called her Ma Mère. She was French and tiny, fragile - at first - in the flat, dry landscapes of eastern Montana. Where the wind never ever stopped blowing. Where she could look across the muted landscapes of wheat and sky and see nothing, forever. Her life would be set – laid out in front of her, day by day – like the long table in her kitchen: each plate, cup and tine set in perfect order. But she didn’t know that when she left.

No one could say for sure what possessed that woman, delicate of bone, steeped high and well in Chicago society, to dash off west with the wide-eyed blonde boy. But many guessed. Perhaps it was love. Maybe she was clamed by his warm and elegant way of speaking. Maybe he smiled at her as though she was the only person in the room. Perhaps she looked into the eyes of her mother one day, and seeing a vacancy there, fled while her own vitality was still intact. Maybe she wanted to find her bones and mettle in the great new promised land of Montana. Perhaps it was a lark, another madcap impulse that she followed like so may harmless ones before this. Perhaps it was love.

Whatever shiny reflections lured her to this parched and endless land eventually dulled into the harsh corners of daily farm life. Like sunshine on a lake, her great and dazzling destiny disappeared in the night void of Montana skies. Her days were spent in an endless stream of chores and children. That and nothing more. It was hard: the killing of chickens – the plucking of their feathers, follicle by follicle, to the naked flesh; the flesh-branding, castrating, and horn-sawing of young hysterical cows; the hooking of worms and the gutting of fish, gullet to gills. And the dirt. The endless layer of dirt on things, dusting her finest everything, from her heirloom furniture to her paisley dresses. It required discipline, and a remarkable detachment, that she never knew she had and never particularly wanted. It was more than a year, but before her youth should have been spent, that her wild, curly hair was tamed - first into a thick braid, and finally into a tidy, practical bun.
She had nine children by Alonzo all told; seven living. In the early years, when she could still hold all of her children in her lap at once, things were different. Life was play and play was adventure. Every thing had to be created. A farm of nothing yet lay before them. It demanded their attention. It demanded they breathe life into waiting lifelessness.
And they did. Alonzo with his plow; she with determination. And everything else. She gave up a lot for this life, and by God, she would make it her own. She would draw on reserves she never knew she had, and skills she made up as she went: organization, creativity, courage, blind ignorant faith, willingness, forgiveness. She gave all these. And she gave her body. She would eventually, silently, refuse this one last thing: to forgive. But that was much later.

Much earlier, there was fun to be had. And nowhere more so than in Ma Mère’s kitchen. Before any one else in the dark mornings, before and after morning chores, before and after all the rest of the work was done, the children could go there and find Ma Mère. And where they found Ma Mère, they found attention. They would all go to the kitchen to gather for sugar and sweets, fresh fry-bread, a story, and chance to help, a hand brushed softly on their cheek.

There was something about Ma Mère. All the country folk said it, and the little ones knew it. Not a child in the county could pass by Ma Mère without her hand automatically dropping to touch their head or their shoulder. It was an unconscious gesture that everyone noticed but Ma Mère. She simply did it with natural generosity, like she did most things. They all called her Ma Mère – child, grandchild, neighbor, young and old – even after the touching and the fun had stopped.
In the early days, though, it was all fun. Cooking flapjacks with Ma Mère was not so much making breakfast as making play. She always made a big “R” with batter on the hot griddle for Raymond, and a “J” for Jimmy. Then together they would make flapjacks that looked like ducks and snakes, butterflies and stars.

In this way, chores became games, games became days, days into nights. And nights - under the rough wool blankets in the dry hands of her husband – became children. And more children.
Before the oldest were caring for the youngest, Ma Mère got tired. And still she bore children for Alonzo. Maybe she secretly dreamed of champagne dance parties, silk dresses, and white gloves. What then, when she wiped her chapped and soapy hands on the thin cotton of her dress, did she feel? And what day was the last day she could stand it any more?
Folks around Scoby talked a great deal about that day. But never to Alonzo.

My father told me her story once as I dusted her cheerless portrait in its rough frame of brass.

“You look like her,” he said. “Ma Mère.” There was respect, and a longing, in his voice. Dad was just a boy when his grandma walked north. He told of how Ma Mère dressed herself in Hank’s clothes, as he was the most slender of the boys: jeans, wide belt and boots, a pair of soft leather gloves. She tied her one, treasured, silk scarf around her loose hair, and walked up the single-track road, north, step by little step.
What Alonzo saw when he looked up from his plow that afternoon was a lone figure on the horizon. He recognized Ma Mère, her slender back stick-straight, walking. He watched his wife shrink into the wheat fields, and didn’t move a muscle.

What he could not see at that moment, as his horse patiently shifted its weight under the leather harness, was Effie. His youngest girl was sitting in a pile of dust at the front gate, her fingers clutching the wire mesh. She was weeping quietly for her mother. Nor could Alonzo see every dish, cup and plate in Ma Mère’s kitchen shattered into countless chards on the clean, wood plank floor.

I look around my own kitchen: Cuisinart, microwave, cell phone, double-wide Amana refrigerator.

Just then Allison Rose comes in, dripping water across the Mop-n-Glow floor from her yellow swimsuit. The little pink flowers are faded against the lemon-yellow, and the three rows of ruffles are drooping across her rear-end. But she refuses any other swimsuit, and I concede. I almost always do.

I pat her little round belly as she waddles by, making fast headway to the fridge. There she knows she’ll find a single-serving, self-contained juice box. She’ll pick cranberry. She always does. Having successfully removed the straw from its plastic wrapper, Allison struggles to poke it through the little tinfoil hole in the top of the box. She brings it, in frustration, to me.

She hands it over, and that simply, I make her world right. She isn’t worried for a moment. She still has complete confidence that I can fix anything; that I know everything.
She jabbers on about how the dog is dirty, pizza would be good for dinner, and Warner always hogs the beach ball. Her hair is going every which way.

“Hmmm,” I say.
“When is Daddy coming home?” she asks, seriously, as she sucks in the juice. She’s squeezing the box to get more, and now juice is on her swimsuit and on the floor. She looks down as if to say, “Now how could that have happened?”
“Later,” I say. “Daddy will be home after work.” After a few cocktails with the gang, I add, but only to myself.
“Okay.” Allison runs out the French doors to the thick green grass of our backyard. She looks like one of Ma Mère’s little flapjack ducks, her head intently forward, her arms folded back. Her juice box has been forgotten. And I have given her everything she needs, for the moment.

An annoying loop of hair falls into my eyes as I watch her from my stool at the kitchen counter. She throws a chubby leg over the side of the plastic wading pool. I notice Warner’s orange Popsicle melting on the deck, and push the wayward curl out of my face. It falls right back again.

The sounds of splashing and laughing mix with the warm breeze through my kitchen. I have nothing better to do at this moment but watch my children play. They are indestructible. They are fragile. They are perfect. How can a woman bear to love this much?

I wonder this sometimes. But mostly I wonder what exactly happened to my life? How, from where I started, did I ever get to here? What haphazard combination of choices brought me from Madison Avenue to Blue Sky Lane?

Remembering a loose bundle of cast-off plans and the many arrogances of youth – when I had a career, dry-clean-only clothes, and time – I bring my hands to my head. I can feel the wedding band fall against the diamond ring that started all this. I rest my face a long, long time in the hot darkness of my palms, absorbing, without hearing, the noises outside. When, some time later, I look up, it’s north I see. It’s Ma Mère.

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Dedicated to my Gramma, who told us stories, and to her family, who inspired this one.