Young and Red-headed
Today, my eyes are blue and rheumy like my father’s, beginning to cloud with cataracts. My vision is speckled with floaters like a chattering of starlings roosting in my eyelids. When I look into the sky the starlings never stop talking.
Today, my chin is unremarkable; even its twin thinks so.
Today, my mouth is bowed into a pout. Even though I have the cast iron skillet my mother used only for cornbread-making, I cannot replicate her cornbread with its perfect golden skin, its grain-smell heating up the kitchen, calling us in to supper.
In the beginning: The child dreams of her mother as an angel—a literal angel suspended from the ceiling in the nursery—cherub featured, broad of face, eyes wide as globes beneath ginger curls. Her face is an aura of kindness. A nightlight shadows the wall and animates her storybook wings which flutter gently behind her wide face. The nursery smells of baby talc and cigarette smoke. Mother-angel floats over the dreaming child’s crib singing a cradlesong about lost children:
And when they were dead, the robins so red
brought strawberry leaves and over them spread
And all the day long, they sang them this song:
Poor babes in the wood, poor babes in the wood.
The child cannot hear the tune but never forgets the dream of Mother as Angel. (Later the child will collect dangling angels and hang them from charm bracelets, curtain rods, lampshades, Christmas trees.) The child’s dream converts to myth; the myth stirs the holy spit and glue of memory, which is benevolent and dreadful as a seraph.
Age 5: In a home movie I am riding a pony. I have no memory of this event, but there I am on a little Shetland pony with my cousin riding next to me, and we are smiling and looking into my mother’s movie camera. My hair is redder than I remember it ever being.
We pass by my mother’s camera, and I turn around to smile and wave to her. My smile is sweeter than I remember it ever being.
My torso is chunky and squat. Older women say, politely, I am just short-waisted but my mother is a seamstress, and I know that code.
Age 12: Miller’s Department Store in downtown Knoxville rises like a mid-century modern aquarium at Henley and Clinch Streets, its glass windows, glazed sea-blue tile, and undulating canopies containing busy shoppers rather than fish.
Miller’s is the place you ride the city bus to with your grandmother. It is a special occasion store—like when you have a birthday or join the church or get all A’s on your report card. If your family is working class like mine, Miller’s is where you see rich white women shopping in high heels with matching pocketbooks.
My grandmother and I are on the elevator, the doors about to close when they suddenly bounce open again to admit two women. One is a nurse, all in white: shoes, stockings, dress uniform, nurse’s hat. She is holding onto the other woman, guiding her into the elevator. The woman is distressed; maybe she is crying, slumping into the nurse. My grandmother pushes me off of the elevator just as the women enter.
What’s wrong with that lady?
We just needed to get out of her their way is all my grandmother says.
Later I hear my grandmother whisper to my mother that we had seen a woman at Miller’s having a nervous breakdown.
Maybe this is the moment I become afraid of illness. Maybe this is the moment my instinct ripens into one of fleeing rather than of staying to help. Maybe this is the moment I know I will never be a nurse.
The goldfinch hang upside down on the thistle sock feeder like trapeze artists. We wait for them to return outside my mother’s nursing home window every spring, dazzled by their yellow acrobatics. At the birdhouse feeder next to the thistle sock are gathered house finches and redbirds. They fly in and fly out with regularity in the mornings and the late afternoons. If my mother is propped in her bed at a certain angle, she can see the sky outside her window and the occasional soaring of a great blue heron who has taken flight from the river bank behind her building.
At least it’s on the Holston River. At least it’s next to a park. My sister and I had said these things to each other about the nursing home we had chosen for our mother.
Many years before her illness, Mother wrote a letter to the birder who used to have a weekly column in the Knoxville News Sentinel. She wrote about the killdeer family who had nested in the ditch across from her driveway. She could see them clearly as she stood at her kitchen sink washing dishes. The father killdeer only had one leg, and since killdeer seldom fly, he jumped around with amazing alacrity. Mother called him “Hoppy.” The mother killdeer would perform her “broken wing” act if a human or predator got too close to her nest, which Mother could see was in a gravelly part of the ditch, completely exposed. When the chicks were born, she was delighted in how cute they were, unlike the splotchy, blind broods of robins or wrens.
Baby killdeer are born with their eyes open. Baby killdeer always come out running.
In another dream my parents can always walk unattended. No wheelchairs banging into walls; no dead limbs heavier than the weight of the world.
In this dream my father takes an incline at a trot. He is on a mission to fix somebody’s washing machine, his toolbox swinging light as a dinner pail. The zeal of his stride makes my dream legs ache.
In this dream my mother dances around the sewing notions on her dining room table, Ray Charles on the stereo. She unbolts layers of creamy taffeta across the living room floor, stumps on her knees to pin the pattern, cuts and sews a bridesmaid’s dress in an afternoon.
In this dream my father climbs the ladder to the attic while my mother below wrestles Aunt Ala’s old walker to hoist up to him. He stores it between the joists, caged protector held in the hot darkness just in case.
At my mother’s nursing home my instinct to bolt kicks in, but I force myself to stay. Every day I must will myself to delay my escape.
I focus on Roger, my mother’s day-time nursing assistant. The two of them have developed a morning rhythm, their ballet. He changes her diapers without flinching. He lays a clean washcloth in the bottom of the plastic basin, draws warm water, and brings it to the bed so Mother can wash her face and upper body. He opens her closet and asks her which shirt she wants to wear that day. He doesn’t use the lift to get her from the bed into her wheelchair. He simply scoops her up in his arms and sets her down again. Roger makes perfect hospital corners of the bed sheets. He teaches me how to do it. He breaks a lot of the rules with my mother because she is kind and grateful for his care. He doesn’t report all the contraband in her night stand (hair spray, bobby pins, Advil, scissors). Roger and my mother carry out their dance routine for four and a half years.
When my mother dies on a Christmas afternoon, I find Roger around the corner from her room. He is propped against the wall, crying a little, with his hand covering his face. But he won’t talk to me. He won’t hug me. Instead, he rushes past me down the hall to answer the call light flashing above Mrs. Swaggerty’s door.
A night-time apparition of my mother as an angel is the purest recollection I own. Could I have experienced such a vision as a toddler? Thinking rationally, it wasn’t a memory at all, of course, but a dream penetrating my whole life, a phantasm of my mother’s disembodied head, talking and singing a sad song while swinging from the ceiling as if she were an angel. An image so bright and garish it marks me indelibly.
My sister is not here yet, at least in my dream, because I am standing in my crib when I see my mother’s face. It’s the first time I feel wonder and fright simultaneously. Maybe I am wearing the green footed pajamas and holding the cat pillow Mother has sewn for me. The walls are undecorated but the nightlight makes shadows. Perhaps my parents are turning over in their sleep down the hall. Mother is snoring. Daddy is humming, as was his habit to hum, waking or sleeping.
What happens to us when we sleep, when we dream? “Dreams are the soul’s home movies,” is a line from a long-lost poem I copied into a notebook once to illustrate metaphor. I recently had all of my mother’s home movies digitized so I can watch them from my computer screen. I copied over the films onto an external hard drive to give to my sister, but she tells me she cannot watch them. They make her too sad. She’s overwhelmed by our young selves with our young parents in our young house in our young suburban neighborhood, surrounded by all of our now-dead blood kin. My sister claims she never dreams about our parents.
But I continue to dream of our mother. Occasionally, I dream a variation of the Mother-Angel dream of my babyhood. I dream my mother gossiping with me in her kitchen. She is always young and red-headed and healthy in my dreams. She is hilarious and loud. I dream we choose the fabric for my wedding dress. Sometimes I dream my mother is my daughter.
When I was pregnant, I was visited in the night by a little girl dressed, absurdly, like Holly Hobbie. Just like my Mother-Angel hallucination, I have convinced myself, of course, that it was a dream, not reality. But I watched that little bonneted prairie girl walk into the bedroom and over to my side of the bed and pat my arm.
She becomes my little girl ghost and, like my mother, I am waiting for her to return.
Marianne Worthington is co-founder and editor of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to Appalachia since 2009. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, CALYX, Chapter 16, and other places. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and artist’s grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Berea Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship. Her poetry collection, The Girl Singer, was released in late 2021 (University Press of Kentucky) and was awarded the Weatherford Award for Poetry in March, 2022. Marianne grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and lives, writes, and teaches in southeast Kentucky. Visit her website at https://marianneworthington.com/