My mother was a teenager when I was born, and on the night that she became a very young widow I was three. We were waiting for my father to come home from a road trip. He'd promised me a new Barbie doll, and my mom had agreed to let me wait up for him. I remember telling my mom that time seemed to pass more slowly after dark, and she smiled when she said that was a fact.
Before her husband died, she was full of mischief and fun. She was a lover of fables. Partly for her amusement, partly for mine, she loved to tell tales, and I believed most of them. Sometimes I understood that her stories were fantasy, but at other times I held fast to them, hoping for the promised magic. I can still recall trying to kiss my elbow, because she'd said if I could accomplish this feat, I'd turn into a boy. Another kiss and I'd turn right back into a girl, she'd assure me, so I wasn't to worry if I found myself transformed. With a glimmer in her eye, she'd encourage, "Just keep trying." She had a great smile. It was a sly smile, the kind my grandmother described as "Looking for all the world like you're up to something" and usually she was.
She was charming and her stories were enchanting. Once, when I lost my first baby tooth, she whispered to me, "Don't let your tongue touch the spot where your tooth was. That way, when the new tooth comes in, it will be gold!" She opened her mouth to reveal the possibility. I moved in close to peer in and I gasped a little as I spotted her golden treasure. I loved being next to her velvety skin. She smelled like Noxema lotion and Ivory soap and when she held me I felt safe and cherished. When I finished my inspection of her golden tooth she slowly closed her mouth, her face returning to that ever-present smile. "Let's go put this under your pillow." she said. "Tonight while you're waiting for the Tooth Fairy, try pushing on your belly button. If you do it just right, you won't believe what happens."
"Your arms AND legs will fall off!"
Always up to something.
When the call came we were seated around my grandmother's dining room table, enjoying a dinner of black eyed peas and cornbread. My grandmother made her cornbread with kernels of freshly shucked corn nestled inside. Served hot from her iron skillet, each bite was sweet and buttery warm. I'd wanted to take my plate into the living room to watch the Ed Sullivan show to see Topo Gigio (I was pretty sure he was real, too!) but the adults had insisted that I sit at the table with them. They'd left the set on for me, a big boxy piece of furniture with a black and white screen, so that I could hear it from the next room.
My mother picked up the ringing telephone with her usual jovial greeting and after a moment I heard an unfamiliar sound come from her, an alien wailing noise. I looked up from my plate to see her collapse into her chair. This was not one of her pranks. This was really happening. My father was dead.
From the television set in the next room I could hear Pat Boone singing, "I'll be home, my darling. Please wait for me. Wait for me."