It was the story that brought her to life.
My regular Sunday night teacher had the flu and Mother was substitute teaching at our small, rural church. Pansy Baptist Church sat between two cotton fields and always smelled of old hymnals and pot luck dinners. The plywood attendance board testified of ten present that night. I was the only child.
As Mother and I settled around the class table, I asked her to tell me a story. I expected the one about Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand, as these were her favorites, but instead she began one I’d never heard. Her eyes went distant as she began:
“This story took place long ago in a simple two-roomed shack not too far from here. It was cold outside, being December and all, but inside, when you stood close enough to the wood-burning stove, you could actually feel the glow of warmth on your cheeks. Getting up next to the heat wasn’t always easy because nine people lived in that little place. But that night, with their bellies full of beans and cornbread, it seemed quite cozy.
“When the table was cleared of chipped pottery and crumbs of corn meal, Mama began to transform the singular space from dining room to master bedroom and nursery. She, Papa and the baby would nestle down in this room, while the six older children sprinted across the breezeway into the other.
“As the three older boys jumped into one of the metal-framed beds, the three little girls scrambled into the second. In the summertime, this room felt cramped, but here in the winter, the children welcomed shared body-heat as they snuggled underneath the handmade quilts. They giggled and whispered, with the restless, excited murmur of children on the night before Christmas.
“The children told stories and shared memories, laughing especially about the fiasco of last year’s smuggled orange. The two youngest girls had found this intended gift the week before Christmas and snuck it under their bed. After enjoying the citrus segments, they realized the need to dispose of the peeling. Unable to think of another plan, they consumed the rest of the evidence leaving them a very bitter taste of the whole experience.”
Mother chuckled to herself as she told this part of the story, as if she knew just what it tastes like to eat an orange peel. Then she continued,
“The next morning, one little girl awoke extra early to a fine dusting of snow upon her bed. Like her mother’s flour sifter, their old house kept out the larger portions, while allowing the most delicate particles a powdery entrance inside. She could hear her mother stoking the fire next door, so the little girl quietly slipped past her dreaming siblings and into the adjacent room.”
(The two roomed shack where my mother was born. Mother is second from the right, in white. Her mother is standing in the breezeway in the background. Other girls are unidentified.)