by D. L. Andersen
Thunder wakes me. I hear the sound rattle the windows as rain pelts against the glass that separates me, safe and warm in my bed, from the city outside. A flash of lightening lights up my room in a surge of brightness. I see the calendar I won at Gertrude Hauptman’s birthday party. We played pin the tail on the donkey. Mommy says it’s already a year old, but I like the pictures.
In the next flash of lightening I try to read the month. M-A-R-C-H, and then the numbers, 1-9-3-1. I hold my breath and count the seconds like Daddy taught me.
1,2,3,4. Crash! Thunder shakes my bed and rattles the window. That means four miles. Daddy said so. He is very smart. He knows about science and weather. Things just spill out of his head whenever I ask a question. Walter says that’s ‘cause he went to Washington University and people used to call him the “walking ‘cyclo-pedia,’” but I don’t know what that means. Walter does. He’s in the seventh grade at Rose Fanning, and he says I’m too young to know. I’ll just have to go to a university someday to find out.
I know Mommy will be coming in soon. I heard her door click open down the hallway. She always does when there is a storm. I’m not really afraid. I’m almost eight years old now, but Mommy insists on coming. I hear her footfalls, soft like the beating of her heart when I lay my head against her chest.
Light oozes in under the door making funny shapes flitting around the room. The shadows hide behind the dresser just before the door cracks open, and Mommy peeks in the room. The knot of the scarf sits right over her brown finger wave curls resting prettily on her smooth forehead. I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. Maybe she will go away and let me listen to the storm alone this time.
She speaks softly but with that warble-dee sound that I know means she is scared, though she always tries to make it seem like I’m the one who’s scared. I’m never frightened by storms, that is, until Mommy comes in.
“Sweet baby?” She steps farther into the room and tip toes to the bed. “Are you all right, honey? Mommy’s here, now.”
She sits on the bed and pats my counterpane. I know I can’t fool her. She’ll know I’m not asleep. Somehow she always knows. I wiggle and yawn and open my eyes to see her smile, even in the dim light of my room I know she smiles at me.
Another spark of lightening and a crash of thunder, I forget to count this time. Mommy shudders.
“I know you’re scared, my sweet,” she pulls back the covers, “I’ll keep you safe. Come with me now.”
I know I must, but I just want to sleep. If I can sleep the storm will go away, but I can’t. I never can. Mommy won’t let me. Once I told her no, I didn’t want to go sit in the dining room, and she left me alone, but I heard her crying all night long. The next day Daddy said I was a bad girl for making Mommy cry and I should do as she tells me. He says times are hard enough for folks even here in St. Louis. Daddy still has his job at the electric company, but Mommy says he might lose it any day just like Mabel Fletcher’s Dad did, and they had to move to Milwaukee.
She pulls me to her and lifts me up. We walk to the dining room in the center of our flat. She sets a chair in the center of the hallway, the very center of our home and sits. Her arms beckon me to crawl up on her lap. Her long pretty fingers wiggle like she wants to tickle me.
I think I’m too big. Almost eight is too big to sit on Mommy’s lap, but I know she will not hear of it. I settle on her lap and she presses my head to her shoulder. I still fit on her lap because I am small. I wish I were tall like Gertrude Hauptman. I wonder if she is sleeping through the storm or if her Mommy makes her sit in the dining room on her lap like a baby.
Another clap of thunder, Mommy shudders and holds me close. “It’s okay, baby. The storm won’t get us here.”
She begins to hum. I know the song. It’s the one she always hums, the one her Mommy used to sing to her.
Once there lived side by side
Two little girls
She always starts by singing the song before she tells me the story. I don’t want to hear the story. It scares me more than the storm. I try to plug my ears.
“I was only eight years old…”
She begins like she always does. Her voice is still all warble-y like the man on the radio Daddy calls a crooner. I try to think about the man who sings right before my favorite show, Little Orphan Annie.
“I was only eight years old, just about your age, living in LaPlata with Mama and Papa,” she says like I’m hearing it for the first time, as if I didn’t know before, but I do know. I hear it all the time, when there is a storm and sometimes when there isn’t. I know what comes next just like I know the song that always comes before Little Orphan Annie or the song we sing every morning to start our school day at Rose Fanning.
“My mama had long beautiful hair,” she says, “brown and shiny as a skein of fine silk thread.” She runs her hand across the back of my head. My hair is not long, but it is brown. I wonder if it is like Grandma’s; the Grandma I never knew.
“She held me just like I’m holding you.” Mommy’s voice stops and she inhales a little gasp that always feels like it gets caught somewhere between the long ago and the now time. “She got very sick one day, but I always brushed her hair every night before bed. One hundred strokes.”
Mommy’s robe feels soft but also prickly beneath my cheek. She smells of fresh cotton and the sour clean scent of her pomade. A siren blares by the front window down Humphrey Street sending swirls of red light around the living room walls. I turn my head to peer through the archway between dining room and living room. Mommy says when she was small they called that room the parlor. Marcy Hawkins says parlors are for funerals and dead people.
“She promised she would get well,” Mommy says, “If I would just brush her hair. I prayed so hard…”
Her fingers gently trace the back of my head. I feel prickles down my back, as if someone else touches me too. Maybe if I count the silence between lightening flash and thunder I will not think of Mommy or the story she is telling me.
1-2-… I don’t get any farther when a crash rattles the table, and the lamp in the corner, with its fringed shade, looks as if it dances with its own shadow, two little girls side by side, just like the song says.
Used to dress just alike, hair down in curls
Blue gingham pinafores, stockings of red,
Little sunbonnets tied on each pretty head.
“But she didn’t get well. Did she, Mommy?”
“No, my sweet.” Her chest heaves, and I feel my cheek press deeper into the fuzzy chenille of her robe. “They buried her holding a lily.”
I shiver without meaning to. We can’t ever have lilies in the house. I brought one home last Easter morning after visiting the German Lutheran Church across from Tower Grove Park. I went there with Gertrude and her family to see the sunrise over the trees in the park. I had never seen anything so pretty as that sun shimmering through the trees and the park filled with beautiful flowers. The ladies dressed like the spring flowers with Easter bonnets on each pretty head.
Mommy wouldn’t speak to me all day after I walked home with the potted lily. Daddy said I should never do this again. He threw the lily out in the back alley with the garbage, but I smelled the sweet scent in every corner of the house for a week after that. I didn’t know why then, but I do now. Mommy is still talking. I haven’t heard this part of the story before. Maybe it will be different this time.
“God wasn’t listening then, when I was only eight years old.” Mommy holds me tighter now and rocks. “I stopped praying, but now I only hope he won’t leave you motherless like he did me.”
I always hate this part of the story the most because I know what it will bring. I try to think of something else, something that makes me smile. The only thing that comes to mind is my favorite radio show.
Always wears a sunny smile,
Now, wouldn’t it be worth a while,
If you could be,
Like Little Orphan Annie?
The words do not make me smile. They send a chill up my leg that crawls across my tummy and catches in my throat. I don’t want to be an orphan like Annie, like Mommy was.
“I hope I never have to leave you.” Tears are trickling down her face. I feel them warm and salty on my cheek and in my hair.
She begins the song again.
In sweet dreams of childhood, we hear the cry,
“You can’t play in our yard,” then the old reply:
She holds me and rocks me just like always until the thunder fades away like the sound of the trolley car rumbling far along the tracks downtown. Beyond the dining room the door to my room creaks. Maybe it is only the wind, but maybe not. It could just be the rain pattering gently against the window.
The storm is done now. Mommy tucks me back in bed and returns to her room. My counterpane smells like lilies, when it didn’t before. I lay alone in the silence, but not completely alone. A shadow crosses the wall behind the dresser.
You can’t holler down my rain barrel
You can’t climb my apple tree
I don’t want to play in your yard
It you won’t be good to me
It’s her. She’s come just as she always does. She left Mommy, but she won’t leave me.