"Mrs. Banks, you've got ninety days...
Cora whipped those egg whites. She needed to take her aggravation out on something. Those darn kids--every last one of them, recalling her eldest son, Avery Jr's phone call, informing her all the children were coming for a visit. This gave Cora cause for concern. It’s not often they’d all invade her house at once. Perhaps a couple at a time, except on special occasions like holidays. Cora searched her mind for the last time they had a get-together, yet she couldn't wrap her mind around the details. She had every intention of telling him the entire family couldn't come yet allowed the thoughts to go unspoken. Instead, she took her frustration out on those eggs whites, whipping them until glossy peaks frothed over the sides. She couldn't help but recall how Avery Jr. was always after her to get her finances in order. The last time, he outright asked her.
“Mama, are you paying your property taxes? I got this letter saying you were ninety days behind. It also says if you don’t pay, they’ll put a lien on the property." Is this true mama? She cringed just thinking about his prying words. She gazed down at Mutley, her ever faithful hound dog.
“Why dem kids got to be up in my business?" She asked an expectant Mutley, who could only search her eyes in response to her mumblings
"My affairs are mine. They should be worrying about their own troubles. Well, this is just nonsense.” Mutley laid his bulk down with his head near her feet, swishing his tail.
Cora folded the egg whites into the batter before pouring it into a greased and floured loaf pan which she then placed on the bottom rack of the oven. She wiped her brow with a stained lace hankie and swatted at a chicken feather swirling to the kitchen floor propelled by the whir of a fan which served only to blow around the sweltering summer heat. Mutley gazed up as if he sensed her musings before she voiced them, ears lopping down, a loyal glint of unbounded love in his old tired eyes.
“And that darn Mr. Finch. He’s the one that started this, getting my children involved.” The furrows in her forehead deepened as she recalled the last time Mr. Finch came to her home. She was down at the river’s edge when he came up behind her, his footsteps crunching twigs.
“Good day Mrs. Banks. I knocked on your door but when there was no answer, I thought you might be down here. Sure is a beautiful day.” Impatience sparked a serious note in her eyes as she watched him take off his hat and wipe his brow. She gave him a good going over not missing the genuine kindness in his eyes.
“You know you didn’t come for small talk Mr. Finch. Say what you got to say.” He pushed up his silver-framed glasses shifting his body from one foot to the other.
“Well Mrs. Banks, it really pains me to keep bothering you. I must deliver this document. This is an attempt to collect a debt. You’ve got ninety days to comply. Mrs. Banks, look, I’ve got parents of my own, and let me just say there are resources that can help. But you’ve got to be willing.” He moved back as if afraid she'd swing at him which made Cora’s eye’s smile.
“Sonny, this piece of property has been mine for fifty years. Been living here longer then you've been breathing, more n likely. You go on back to your big city and think about what’s right and what’s wrong. Good day now.” His eyes widened in frustration. He tipped his hat, nodded good-bye, then turned and walked the path leading to his car. She remembered watching him walk away and asking herself why she found it necessary to be so irascible.
A sweet smell enveloped the kitchen, warm and inviting. Her house was heady with the smoky goodness of ham. A bothersome look etched itself across her face, and the sweat found solace in the wrinkles with decades of stories to tell. Though she was past the stage of impressing, there was little doubt her children would think she was losing her faculties with such an unkempt mess. She did her best to straighten things up, sweeping the floor of the dirt and feathers, putting away stacks of yellowed newspapers. She winced from the shooting pain in her hip, then muttered something about the numbness staying longer and the pain more frequent. She busied herself with slicing the ham, inhaling its succulent aroma as tender, pink slices layered the platter. Satisfied the work in the kitchen was done, Cora went to the porch and sat in the rocking chair Avery had built for her.
She picked up one of the many panels of material that lay in a basket. She’d been quilting most her life, quilted a spread for each one of her children: Avery Jr. and Jack, Irene and Westley, Louann and Billy, Elizabeth and Lillamae, planned to quilt one for each of her grandchildren, but they started stacking up just like the panels and it just got away from the good intentions. She stopped rocking and reached for the glass of sweet tea growing warm from the heat of the day.
"You're a good friend Mutley." She patted him on the head. His tail hit the porch with cozy thumps.
"What should I do about this predicament? Should I go on ahead and clear up the accounts so the kids will quit nagging, and Mr. Finch will stop pestering me? What would papa do, you reckon?"
Memory of her husband caused her eyes to swell with tears. He was a hard working man who believed everyone should work sunup to sundown with Sunday’s off in honor of God. He demanded respect in a quiet way. He expected the children to contribute to the household which they did. Farming was a hard way of life, but with God’s grace there was abundance. Together they planted and harvested, all of which was sold or traded at the general store in Arvonia. Avery loved to take the children to town. They’d all pile on the back of the flatbed truck, laughing when they left and still laughing when they returned. He was an imposing man with eyes the color of warm molasses, but dare to defy him, and they’d turn stern and black.
Cora’s thoughts were interrupted by the buzzing of a bottom-heavy bumblebee. She swatted at it to give warning she wasn't amused by its whizzing about. She raised up out of the rocker and stood on the edge of the porch looking out toward the barn then to the chicken coop which was leaning desperately, as if one pull of the termite ridden planks would cause it to crumble in grateful mounds before casting a thankful smile. She didn’t go in there much any more. Thus, the chickens had free range of the yard and the house, congregating only when feed was thrown their way. She walked down the steps then stooped and clutched a handful of soil, breathing in the iron-rich smell, admiring the deep reddish color similar to an aged-worn brick. A warbler soothed her with its insistent song. She noticed a trail of thick dust mushrooming into the cerulean cloudless sky.
My children are coming in a blaze of dirt and ruckus. With that thought, she lifted herself back up the stairs and leaned against the railing waiting pensively. When they all piled out of their cars and walked up the porch, she received each son and daughter as they kissed the paper-thin velvet of her cheek and gently squeezed a frail shoulder.
“Oh mama, you’re looking good as ever.” Cora gazed at her youngest, Lillamae, who was always a bright spot in her day. Never a day gone by she wasn’t ready for a smile, been that way from the start.
“I’m as good as I was yesterday, daughter, reckon I’ll be as good tomorrow. God willing.” Lillamae helped her mama to the rocker.
“Go on and sit a spell. You don’t always have to be doing for everyone.” Lillamae’s smile like to drown out the sun with its brightness. Unlike Louann who Cora noticed, was wearing a scowl.
“Louann, how’s Roy and the boys?”
“Mama don’t you remember me telling you that I left Roy? But the boys are just fine. Growing like weeds, like to eat me out of house and home.” Cora’s sharp eyes didn’t miss the spark of impatience in Louann’s eyes.
“Girl don’t be rollin' them eyes at me. I just asked you a simple question that seems normal to be asking.” The lines around Louann’s eyes softened.
“I’m sorry mama. I’ve been so tense lately with the divorce and work. I’m so glad summer is here though. I need the break. The kids I had in my classroom this year, my-my-my, they were so mischievous.” Cora nodded, and then gazed to her sons who were talking about whatever it is men folk talk about.
“Avery Jr, just what’s so important that you all had to come faster then a jack rabbit to a hole with a coyote after him?” Avery’s hair was as silver as Coras--his eyes the same color of blue. He was a bit shorter than his brothers, a bit stockier, yet it suited him.
“Now mama, what makes you think there’s a motive? We came because we love you, and it’s been much too long. And besides, I haven’t had a good meal since Barbara passed.” Sadness touched his eyes with the mention of his wife, who died of cancer. Grief still had a serious hold on him.
“Ooh goodness mama! The smells coming out of the kitchen got my stomach turning summersaults.” Westley rubbed his stomach. Cora’s blue eyes danced with joy.
“Son do you have to make light of even the smallest thing? Still a joker now aren’t you?” She smiled inside of herself as Westley reached for her hand. Her hand was cold, her fingers long, slightly bent and sculpted from age, yet strong. His smile nearly ate up half his face.
“Ah mama, it’s the smallest things that bring the greatest pleasures. Now, if we promise to eat all that fine food you fixed and clean up after, you’ve got to promise to play the organ.” Westley was putting on the charm; it came natural to him. So much like his father.
“Westley, you all know I don’t be playing that organ much these days. It needs a good tuning, and quit trying to charm me. It doesn’t faze me much anymore.” She pushed aside his hand as he tried to squeeze her cheek. Cora was chuckling with delight. Irene got up and stood behind them. Her hands on her mama's shoulders. Irene was tall and willowy. The perfect balance between her mother and father, Cora’s eyes, Avery’s length, Cora’s fairness, Avery’s practicality. Irene announced it was time to see about dinner.
“Well everyone, I’m going in the kitchen to set the table for dinner. Is that okay?" Cora looked up at her eldest daughter.
“Go on ahead Irene and take Liz Beth with you. Lord knows, she needs to get more familiar with the kitchen.” Cora snickered. Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide.
“Ah mama! I can cook!”
“Humph, a little bit. You can warm something up out of a can.” Cora shook her head, smiling. Elizabeth didn’t care for the kitchen much. It’s not that she lacked the ability. She just didn’t much like it. She wanted to be outdoors trying to save all the critters.
She was her only tomboy. Didn’t care much for girlie things. She always chattered with enthusiasm about her work as a marine something-or-other. She was still trying to save all the animals but instead of snapping turtles and woodland creatures, it's dolphins and whales. In spite of the questions rising up in her mind casting shadows of doubt, she swelled with pride. Her children were well-to-do and good-hearted. They had their troubles but what’s life without all the highs and lows anyhow? It’s the hard times that build character and fill a body with thankfulness. After saying grace, each platter and bowl was passed. Cora listened intently as they talked among themselves. Louann started grumbling interrupting everyone's joy. She was fanning herself, and her voice was sparked with irritableness as she asked Cora if she could open a window.
“Mama, I don’t how you can stand the heat. The fan does nothing but blow around hot air. Why don’t you let me open a window? Maybe we can catch a cool draft.” With a stern eye, she was reminded whose house it was.
“I have the shades down cause what sense does it make to let the sun in, and if I open the windows, I‘d be swatting at flies all day.” Louann didn’t miss the strict tone. She was the one child who dared to have the last word and tried her patience. Cora thought she still had too much sass coursing through her, but she wasn’t stupid, for she had spent many nights in her bedroom and many weekends cleaning the chicken coop. Cora knew deep down Louann meant well, right now she was just bitter and reacting to all the grief Roy brought into their marriage.
With the help of Avery Jr, Cora got up and walked into the parlor. There, she sat at the organ hesitating for a moment before playing “The Old Rugged Cross.” Her children gathered around her and began singing; afterward, they settled down on the porch to watch the sun as it began its lazy descent throwing a profusion of colors across the sky. They watched in silence, awed by its beauty, gazing at the palette of colors now fading into the darkening sky. Soon, the sun gave way to the moon and clouds, all serenaded by the sharp call of the whippoorwill. They talked until golden lights from the fireflies danced about the yard like tiny sparks of tangelo-glow. Cora gazed toward the sky.
“I feel a storm a coming.” It was said in a near whisper. Billy looked over at his mama.
“How can you tell mama? I don’t see any clouds.”
He was her youngest son and the most handsome, not because of his chiseled good looks and strong dimpled chin, but because he had kind eyes and a good heart. He just had a way about him that was reassuring, perhaps that's why God called him to be a what-cha-ma-call-it for troubled kids. She just couldn't unravel the right term off her tongue. Her thoughts were more tangled these days.
“Son, anyone who has lived around these parts as long as I have, can get a feel for the changes. I can smell the rain. There’s no special knack, just a knowing way down deep.” It seemed hours passed the way they were talking and laughing and sharing thoughts. Talking came easy as a gentle summer rain, easy as the way morning dew lays itself down over the responsive grass.
As predicted, the clouds came swirling in. They gathered around the moon, congregating, growing in force, looming over the earth below. Claps of thunder rumbled in the distance, as quick flashes of lightening cracked across the sky. The rains came, big sporadic drops at first splattering against the roof making notes of a drum, rat-a-tat-tat. As the heaven's opened up, the rain's poured down. Each jagged flash of lightening was God’s hand reaching across the heavens, each clap of thunder, a chorus of amens. The army of dark clouds began to disperse, parting in different directions. The rain eased itself down. Silence came again, save for the call of the whippoorwill and the occasional drip-drop of water rolling off the roof. Stars filled the sky and the moon took back its chair.
“Sometimes mama, I can understand why you love it here so much.” Jack said pensively with a calm resolve alight in his impressive hazel eyes.
“Jack, the threads of my life are woven into this place. I can’t imagine living or dying anywhere else. Been here since your father and I married almost sixty years ago" Remembering brought a soft smile to Cora's lips but a tinge of sorrow to her eyes.
"I was seventeen, your father nineteen, when he brought me here. Nearly caused my heart to stop with the surprise. We lived and loved and fought and found joy for nearly fifty years before God called him home. When your father was here, it was might easier--my thoughts, a bit clearer. Now it seems, my memories are as silver as my hair, as frail as my breath. But I love it just the same." Jack searched his mama’s face saddened by her frailties. He knew this old house was too much for her, but she’d never admit it. He also knew, she was suffering with bouts of dementia from the stroke. They can only thank God, she didn’t lose her speech and her ability to walk. She refuses to go to the doctor anymore, or perhaps they haven’t insisted enough. She just wants to live what’s left of her life, in her home, and be left with her sweet memories of how it used to be, when Avery Sr. was still alive.
“Mama, you must be exhausted.” Avery said with concern. “It’s been a long day. Why don’t you go and rest. We’ll clean up. We can talk more in the morning.”
“I am a bit tired. I can’t keep up like I used to.” She bid her children goodnight as Elizabeth helped her up the stairs.
In her room, Cora lay on her bed. Her long silver hair spread fan-like across the pillow. She felt weak, a sudden awareness steeped in fear and dread swept over her. Her mind was foggy, but her senses were alert, heightened. She realized the children must have came back in the house. Her room was just over the kitchen. She could hear them talking in spite of the clatter of dishes; their voices seeping up attacking her fears. She pulled herself up out of bed and limped toward the door despite the pain shooting from her hip down her leg.. She heard Jack say they must find a way to convince her it was time to sell the house.
“We’ve got to get mama some help. She’s going to fight us all the way. She can’t keep up with this house any more. It’s too much for her.”
“And how are we supposed to do that Jack?” Elizabeth asked. “Lord knows mama will never sell, and it would break her heart if we forced her.”
“Elizabeth, we're not trying to force mama to do anything. We need to reassure her maybe one of those assisted living places for seniors would be best, for her own well being. She can’t take care of herself anymore.” Louann faced Elizabeth with determined eyes.
“Louann, don’t be so cruel. We all know the trouble mama’s been having. We should have dealt with this a long time ago. She might need that hip replaced and Lord knows we haven’t been so quick to help. It’s somewhat our fault for ignoring the obvious.” Avery Jr. said as stern as a Judge giving sentence to a rabble rouser.
“I don’t know Avery.” Lillamae turned and looked out the kitchen window into the black of night; her shoulders drooping from the notion assisted living might be their only recourse.
“Mama just isn't receptive to it. She regards those places as no different then a nursing home. There must be a better way.” Lillamae turned back around facing her siblings, her eyes full of worry.
“I understand your reluctance Lillamae. I’m sick about it too. It's difficult to picture mama anywhere but here or down at the river. It's all she's known. So don't think I like the idea any better. Yet, these homes are like living on your own. Almost like a Condo with built in nursing.” Westley’s voice was shaky as he tried to convince himself more then his siblings.
“Listen, we can all see she’s not well. She puts on a good face. Not one of us can deny that mama hasn’t been the same since the stroke. We need a plan of action. I see no other option but assisted living.” Everyone nodded their head solemnly taking in all Westley said.
“Facing the truth about someone you love is never easy.” Louann said as she walked around the kitchen shaking her head.
“Just look at this place. It’s in shambles, and mamas not keeping herself clean. Her clothes are hopelessly unkempt.”
“My God Louann, when did you become so mean?” Billy said laced with an accusing tone. "Before you say anything more, let me say, I refuse to hear this nonsense about mama's appearance. You've been ranting on it far too long. Let's keep this focused."
“Listen Billy, I’m not trying to be mean, just realistic. I’m concerned about mama’s health.” Then Louann pulled a napkin out of her pocket and unfolded it revealing chicken feathers.
"Did you know that mama lets the chickens in the house?”
“Louann we are aware. Didn't Billy just ask you not to mention this? Really, this is the least of our worries.” Irene said with a severe note of terseness. She almost wanted to slap her sister for being so obstinate.
Cora heard just about enough. She couldn’t believe it. Her own children plotting against her. She couldn’t listen anymore. If only she'd lingered a bit longer; their resolution would cause her heart to swell with joy. Her children talked well into the night excited with the prospect of sharing Billy's decision to move in since his work was the closest and the least demanding. With a heavy heart, she gave in to sleep and found herself dreaming of her late husband. Her silvery hair spread out fan-like in a grand trail behind the sweeping of her body as she folded into the waiting arms of her beloved Avery. She was weightless, a peaceful calm washing over her as she became one with the river.
She woke with a start, and sat up quick. Her heart was pounding in her chest--resounding in her ears. "Are you trying to tell me something Avery? Don't go sneaking around like that if you ain't going to stay long enough to help me with this predicament," she asked out loud; then winched as she dressed her ninety pound frame in one of those Church-going dresses Louann bought. "I reckon I need to go sit by the river. Decisions always seem a might easier to make and solutions a lot clearer down by the river," Cora announced. She was thankful the house was still, no need for explanations, no one to question her mumblings.
The light of the fading moon was saying a fleeting good-bye through the sheer curtains. She was clutching Avery’s picture to her chest talking to him as if he was standing next to her. “It ain’t right Avery, our children talking about putting me in an old folks' home. Talking like they don't have any sense or sympathy because I'm old and forgetful sometimes." Cora replaced the framed picture and walked out of the bedroom, down the stairs and out the back door.
Dawn was ever close. It stretched across the sky, a welcoming hello. Soon, it would burst open, pushing forth various colors to tantalize even the most discerning eye. The call of the whippoorwill and the fading chirp of the crickets were the only sounds filling the air as she stepped off the porch ignoring the shooting pain in her hip. She bent and gathered a handful of soil still damp from last night’s storm. Mutley was soon at her feet. She patted his head, rubbed his back for a good while.
"Don't you be following me now, you hear?" He wagged his tail and nuzzled his head against her leg. Mutley looked up and gazed in Cora's eyes, as if begging her to stay. A lump formed in Cora's throat.
"Now you listen to me real good. Don't you worry none. I'll be back real soon. I've got some contemplating to do. Now go on back up the porch." Mutley whimpered a bit, but sauntered up the steps.
She headed for the trail leading to the river’s edge. The river was rolling at a steady pace but not raging like it sometimes does after a storm. She found a large flattened rock, then gave her surroundings a good going over, making sure there were no moccasins slithering about before she sat down to ponder awhile. The sun was cresting over the tip of the various trees along the James River: Sweet Buckeye, River Birch, Cypress, Possum Oak trees, their leaves still wet with dew shimmering under the rising sun. She breathed in the various smells and marveled at the shrill of the whippoorwill fading with each second the sun rose higher.
Cora stood and took a deep breath, relishing the scents assailing her nose as she walked toward the river’s bank. It wasn’t until the chill of the currents swooshed around her knees did she stop and take heart. Then without hesitation, she felt ready to resign herself to the steady flow of the river, oblivious to the ever slight sound of crackling twigs and hurried steps whispering on the tail end of the early morning breeze.
Just as her hair spread fan-like over the surface of the river, she was dragged from the river to its bank. Before she could protest and cough up the water weighing down her lungs, Mutley was licking her face like he was licking gravy off a plate and wagging his wet tail sending a fine spray of water through the air. Cora was beside herself with a mixture of disbelief, angst and glee. After coughing and spewing up water and regaining her composure, she could no longer hold back the tremble of laughter brewing inside and she giggled and squirmed till her sides hurt. All the while, Mutley, sensing her joy, wagged his tail like he was swishing away and army of gnats. Cora pulled his lug-head to her chest and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Mutley, how’d you know” You’re so old, how’d you find the strength?” Cora gazed in Mutley’s aged yet faithful eyes and shook her head. “Like I said, tried and true.”
“Well, I guess God appointed you my angel,” then she patted him and scratched behind his ears, “I guess we best get on home. It’s time for a family meeting.”