By Grace Washington
Sunday mornings were always busy in Momma’s house. All five of us kids knew church attendance was mandatory. Even I, who had been off at college over the last year, knew not to question that.
Being the oldest, it was my job to help the younger ones get ready. I had just stood up from buckling my baby sister’s shoes when I caught my mother looking in the mirror in her bedroom. Outside that room I felt the chaos of five young people getting their hair pinned back or worrying about where they put their gloves. Inside Momma’s bedroom, it was completely still.
“What you looking at, child?” my mother asked, her eyes still turned toward the mirror while she adjusted her hat.
“It’s just so quiet in there,” I said. I walked forward to the doorway and leaned against the frame.
It had been months since my father had passed away. The last time I had been home, he had been confined to the bed that was now perfectly made, without the hint of a wrinkle. He had shriveled up to nothing by then, but his presence was anything but quiet. He was in such pain and misery and so very helpless. I was at college when he died, but Momma told me to stay put. She didn’t want me to miss a day of schooling.
“I’ve got church folks who can help out,” she had said over the phone. Her voice had sounded so tired, so worn.
So I had stayed at school and finished my semester there, telling myself that it was only a couple of weeks, trying to believe that she would need my help more once the reality of things set in.
Momma turned from the mirror and smiled. That weariness I had heard in her voice on the phone showed up in the wrinkles that tugged at her eyes. She was forty-five, but she looked sixty. She had the same expression on her face that I had seen on other black people as they aged. It was the look of resignation.
“We all ready for church?” she asked. She walked past me and patted me on the shoulder.
“Yes ma’am,” I said. I walked to the table and put my own hat on. “We’re ready.
All of us moved toward the door and I noticed as Momma walked through, her shoulders relaxed and her posture grew more confident. We were going to church as we had done every Sunday since before I was born, but it was the first time I realized what it gave my mother. It was a way for her to feel more hopeful and secure about her life and the world in which she lived.
The walk to the church was not far and we met up with others along the way. I had grown up around all of them. We were like extended family, really.
I watched Momma greeting the other families. She was so graceful, so much more alive than any other time. Her smiles were effortless with her lady friends at church. I thought about the many times I had seen them gather at one another’s homes after worship and how everyone raved about my momma’s bread pudding
No wonder she loved it so. It gave her so much and helped her keep going. As happy as it made me to know she was well loved and respected, my year at college had opened my eyes to a life different than this. It was a hoped-for life, but it was a life without the weary ways of hard labor and racial injustice. I felt sad when I realized that there were borders in every part of my Momma’s life, lines not to be crossed. She had accepted her lot in life a long time ago, but I couldn’t let go of the possibilities of something different.
Walking with those families to church for the first time since returning from school, I couldn’t help but feel a world apart. I think they felt similarly. Sure, they smiled and were kind, but they looked at me differently, as if I had crossed one of those borders, as if I had betrayed them somehow.
My sister Pearl seemed to believe I had and she told me so.
“What you think you’re doing?” she had said before I left for college. “You just going to make life harder for all of us!”
I remember then struggling to keep my mouth shut. What did she know? She was 15, beautiful, and boy crazy. With all the boys who flocked around her, she was headed toward babies and marriage before she was 17. I didn’t think she had a lick of sense. But since returning from school, I was starting to think maybe others felt the same way.
Still, I did my best that summer to fit back in and to help out Momma. I put on a uniform, just like Momma’s, and I accompanied her to her cleaning jobs. When she wasn’t at the nursing home taking care of old white folks, she was cleaning their families’ houses. She worked so hard. I wanted to take some of the burden off her if I could.
No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t shut out the year of college under my belt. It had opened my mind, raised my consciousness. Momma never questioned her existence. She didn’t have the luxury to think about it, I guessed. And she didn’t understand why I did. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help. I especially wanted to make Momma’s life better, but as the weeks passed, I didn’t think change would come in time to save her.
That first morning of work together, she and I left before the sun was over the rooftops. The early summer air was fresh, not yet sticky like it would be later in the day.
A few minutes passed before either of us said anything. It was enough to be together, to listen to the birds busy in the trees and bushes.
It was Momma who broke the silence. When she spoke, I realized that she had been holding whatever it was in. Her words came out awkward and hurried.
“Gracey, there’s something you need to know.”
I stopped walking and turned to look at her. She stopped too, but she looked off in the direction we were headed. I had the sensation that she was afraid to go on but also afraid not to.
“We’ve got a job to do today,” she said. Her fingers dug into the pockets on the front of her apron, which was part of her uniform.
“Yes, ma’am.” I held my breath and dared not rush her. She seemed skittish as an old hen.
“It’s just,” she said and then paused for too long. She was searching for something. “Maybe you oughtn’t to come with me.”
I felt my shoulders stiffen. Was Pearl right? Had I made things harder for our family by going to college? Is that what this was about?
Before I could protest, Momma raised a hand to my arm. “There’s a man at this first job,” she said. “He’s…he’s not a good man.”
My cheeks burned hot with anger at the thought that someone had hurt my mother. I wanted to scream, but I knew it would do no good to anyone.
Instead, I took a deep breath. My lips trembled as I said, “Momma, has he hurt you?”
She looked down and then off again toward the place where we had been heading. “His wife is usually there,” she said.
She didn’t answer my question directly, but she didn’t have to. I tried not to hate anyone. Being vindictive and resentful never did anyone any good. But sometimes, I just wanted to take matters into my own hands and hurt those who hurt the ones I loved, especially Momma.
“You can’t go there, Momma,” I said. I heard the pleading in my voice and I couldn’t control it. “Please. Let’s find something else.”
She shook her head. “If I don’t go, there won’t be anything else. Word gets out that I’ve up and quit for no good reason I won’t get another job anywhere. Gracey, I need the money.”
I looked into her dark eyes and I felt all her weariness weighing into my shoulders. Survival was why she put up with this life. She just needed to get through another day, get her kids fed and grown. I wanted to take all that from her and give her a good life. I wanted her to have respect and ease and comfort. And then I felt the resignation I had seen in her. It crept up into my shoulders and neck. She had no other choice. There were hungry mouths to fill and no other way of making do.
“I’ll go with you, Momma,” I said. I tried to speak evenly so she wouldn’t hear the heartbreak in my voice. “Maybe with two of us there….”
I didn’t finish the sentence. I wouldn’t have been able to without being honest. The truth was that I hoped with us both there he wouldn’t try anything and I wouldn’t have to kill him.
Momma nodded. She held out her hand and I took it. She wrapped my arm in with hers and we walked the rest of the way in silence.
Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice.