By Karen Brode
When I was in second grade, I stayed at the Teagues’ house after school until my mother got off work. The Teagues lived just a block from Raynal Elementary School where I went to school. I walked down the sidewalk to their house as slowly as possible so I wouldn’t get there any sooner than I absolutely had to. Each sidewalk square could take fifteen steps if I moved slowly enough.
Mrs. Teague took care of a group of kids after school. Sometimes we were allowed to go outside in the backyard, but most of the time, she arranged us around the television in a semi-circle so we could watch cartoons. The Mickey Mouse Club came on at 5 PM and my mother got off work at 5 PM. I watched the brown clock with the beige minute hands tick slowly past 5:20 when I knew that my mother should have been there. Anything after 5:20…I wouldn’t let myself think too much about that. I forced myself not to think about it until 5:30.
My father had died the month before. I knew that people, even parents, could be snatched suddenly away. No matter what I did to try to stop them, tears would start down my face at about 5:22. Each time a parent came to claim a child, I felt more alone.
If it got to be 5:30 and my Mother wasn’t there, I listened to the closing song of The Mickey Mouse Club in a panic. Would someone come to the Teagues’ house to tell me that my mother was dead? What would happen to me? Where would I go? Who would take care of me?
M-I-C See you real soon! K-E-Y Why? Because we like you. M-O-U-S-E.
When I did finally see through the glass-paned front door that my mother’s car had driven up, I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving that Mother was safe. Mrs. Teague gave me a Kleenex and suddenly became so sweet and concerned about me as my mother came to the door. Mrs. Teague hugged me and acted as if she and I were really good friends, when a few minutes before, she couldn’t have cared less about me.
In my childish mind, I believed that I had been so special, but then I wasn’t. Mother worried and was sad. She cried a lot when she thought I didn’t know.
When Mother and I got to our house, I ran to the porch in the gathering dusk and jumped up and down, clamoring to get in. Going to the bathroom was discouraged at Mrs. Teagues’ house.
Mother fumbled with the keys and finally opened the door. As I pushed my way in, I remembered how dark and cold it was inside. It didn’t really seem like home anymore.
It would be a long time before supper was ready. It was just Momma and me in the kitchen with darkness outside the windows. I stood at the kitchen window and drew pictures and wrote my name in the condensation. She didn’t notice or tell me to stop. There were remnants of the Christmas stencils she had put on the windows the year before. I scratched at these but they wouldn’t come off.
She lit the gas stove in the living room as soon as we came in, but it took a long time for it to warm even the living room. The kitchen was cold. She poured soup into a pot and a cracker box was opened. Tea boiled on the stove and then we sat down to eat and I said my standard prayer.
God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. Amen.
Then it seemed warmer, more like things used to be.
After supper, I sat close to the gas stove in the living room trying to get warm. Mother hung a blanket in the hallway to try to keep the warmth in the living room. I stretched out on the floor in front of the stove and opened my math book. The TV was on and I heard David Brinkley report that troops were being sent to some place in southeast Asia called Vietnam.
I finished all my math problems right away, and started on my spelling words. Then, all I had to do was read a story in my Pathways reader. I knew I was smart. I could tell from the way Miss Mitchell treated me at school.
I closed my books and put them on the table by the door and stretched out on the floor in front of the stove. I looked in the newspaper and saw that The Beverly Hillbillies came on at 8:30. I would get to watch them right before bed. Then I turned to the obituaries and looked at the ages of all the people who had died that day.
In my dreams, my mother would live to be as old as the oldest person who had died that day, and someday I would get married and have six children and a really nice husband and I would never be alone again. My children would not have to stay at a babysitter’s house. They would have a real home to come to after school, and there would be a big dining table and I would fix nice meals and ask the children how their day was. And my mother would live with us and have her own room and help me cook and take care of my children.
Mother was asleep on the couch and snoring softly. I turned the television down low and found the Sears catalog. First I turned to the men’s section and carefully cut out a tall man in work clothes and placed him on the floor. He looked very confident and happy. Then I turned the pages of the catalog looking for a wife for him. Finally, I cut some children out.
Mother stopped snoring and lied so still on the couch. I watched her for a few seconds and then cut out a baby from the baby section. Every now and then, I looked back at Momma lying so quietly.
Finally, I got up and touched her arm and asked, “Momma, are you okay?”
She was startled and opened her eyes. I felt silly when she looked at me and asked why I had woken her. I didnt want to admit that I was afraid that she was dead and I was alone after all.
After my bath, I put on my pajamas and shivered in the hallway before going to my room. It was cold and it seemed scary and far away from my mother. I asked if I could sleep with her and she said it was okay.
I knelt on the floor by her bed and bowed my head and said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
It was a gruesome prayer anticipating death in your sleep, but it was the prayer I had said all my life.
As we lie in bed waiting for sleep, we heard Ruff, our collie dog, in the backyard howling.
“He did that so much before your Daddy died,” Mother said. “Animals just know things, I think.”
I shivered as Ruff howled again.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.