I sat in my car and smoked a cigarette, blowing smoke out the open window on the driver’s side. From where I parked, I could see my mother passing back and forth in front of the kitchen window. Any second now, she would stop, turn, look out the window and see me. Then, she would open the door of her townhouse and summon me. If I hurried, I could be gone and she would never even know I had been here. I could call her from home and tell her I was sick. Tell her the kids were sick. Tell her I had leprosy. Tell her anything to get out of this.
Of course, I knew none of that was going to happen. I would not run, she would see me, and that would be that. There was no escape. Familial duties are the most difficult to avoid.
The door opened and she stepped out. Standing straddle-legged on the porch like a captain on a slippery deck during a storm, she put her hands on her hips and stared at me. I stared back, puffed smoke out the window and waited.
Finally she said, so quietly I could barely hear, "Camilletje. Now."
"Camilletje" is Dutch for "Little Camille" and is meant as an endearment. Her expression wasn’t all that endearing though, so I sighed, opened the door and got out. Knowing it would annoy her, I flicked my cigarette across the parking lot before I reached into the back seat and retrieved my small bag of belongings and a stack of papers.
She said, "Why must you flick like a hoyden?"
I said, "I am a hoyden. So?"
She glared and I thought, Good. Be pissed. I’m pissed. Let’s all be pissed together.
As I passed her on the porch on my way into the townhouse, she asked, "Are you going to be gracious about this?"
I shrugged, "Am I ever gracious about anything?"
"Camilletje, I am asking you to be gracious."
"Mother," I turned and dumped my stuff onto the kitchen table, "I am here. I am doing what you asked me to do. Being ‘gracious’ about it was not part of the deal."
"It’s your turn!" she snapped.
"My turn?" I snapped back with growing anger. "We’re taking turns? Since when?"
"Will you help me?" She was nearly in tears.
"I am helping you! See? Here I am--albeit lacking the required level of grace--but here just the same! What do you want from me, Mom?"
"A little tenderness would be nice!"
"Winning the lottery would be nice, too, Mother. But I don’t see it happening."
She reached for a chair beside the kitchen table and lowered herself heavily into it. Pressing her face to her hands, she murmured, "Forget it. I won’t go. You’ll be impatient with her and I can’t have that. Just forget it."
"When was I impatient with her?" I shouted. "Name one time!"
"You’ll be impatient!" she shouted back. "You don’t want to be here! You don’t want to do this! Your sisters are busy and I cannot very well ask your brother! What am I to do? Just not go?"
I leaned against the sink, folded my arms and took a deep breath. "Mama," I said gently, "I will not be impatient with her. Can you tell me you truly believe I would ever be unkind to her? Can you?"
Mama shook her head.
"Okay," I said. "Now, get your stuff and go. Have a great time. Don’t worry about anything. I’ll handle it."
Mama stood, glanced around for her bags and said, "She’s been fed, bathed and changed."
"Diapered already?" I asked nervously. "I cannot do the diapers. I can’t. I’m telling you right now, I can’t."
Mama nodded. "All diapered and Carol will be here bright and early tomorrow morning to relieve you. She’ll be fine until Carol gets here."
"All you have to do is keep an eye on her and get her to bed in an hour or so. Once she’s asleep, the house is yours."
I grinned, "Can I have a wild party and invite cheap men?"
Mama grinned back, "You may have a wild party and invite expensive men. Save an old, rich one for me."
"Tall, short, fat, thin, bald, beard?"
"Doesn’t matter," Mama laughed, "as long as he’s very rich and mostly dead."
I laughed, too, and helped her get her things to the car. Watching Mama settle in behind the steering wheel, I asked, "Where is she...now, I mean?"
"In the living room. She will be good for you. I promise."
"Yeah," I muttered. "Fat chance."
I stood on the porch and watched Mama drive away, wishing and hoping she would change her mind and turn around, but knowing she wouldn’t. Mama needed this. A small vacation. A rest. From her. I walked back inside, closed the door and felt my chest and throat fill with a kind of suffocating fear. She was in the living room. Doing what?
Shoving my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans, I sauntered into the living room, calling a cheery, "Hey, O! What up?"
She sat there, perched at the edge of a pink, wing-backed chair, like a frail bird. Her nightgown, like the skin beneath it, hung in loose folds and a few wisps of fine hair drooped from her bald head. Those blue eyes, once so piercing and clear, stared blankly into nothing. My Oma.
I sat on the ottoman before her and took her hands in mine, noting the difference between my flesh and hers. The skin on my hands was pale--almost translucent--smooth and elastic. Brown spots covered her hands and gnarled fingers; the skin was withered, wrinkled, lifeless. I stroked her wrists with my thumbs and murmured, "How’re you doing, Sweet O?"
Her gaze wandered over my face and she said, "Not bad, for an old gal." I smiled and she smiled, too. It was going to be okay. Everything would be fine. I had worried and fretted for nothing.
I left Oma sitting in her chair while I took my bag of clothes up the stairs to Mama’s room where I was to sleep that night. When I returned, I glanced into the living room and the chair was empty. My heart began to thud with a sickening rhythm and I glanced down the hall to the front door, making sure it was still closed and she had not ventured outside. Her previous jaunt into the neighborhood had occurred one night in the dead of winter and it took us nearly an hour to find her. She’d been cowering under the slide at the playground, wearing nothing more than a single slipper and a sweater (which she had on backwards), crying for my mother. After that, the new rule was "Keep The Chain On The Door!"
I latched the chain on the door as I hurried past it, muttering, "Good grief! Oma! Honey? Where are you?"
"You make that man stop!" she shouted and I followed the sound of her voice into the kitchen. She stood before the window, her arms folded tightly across her chest. Her eyes were wide and she was trembling.
Following her gaze, I stared out the window. A few cars in the parking lot. A tree. Settling dusk. No man. Not even a child or a dog.
"That man!" she pointed and the violence of her trembling increased. I looked hard into the parking lot. Nothing.
"What man? Where?"
"That man! Make him stop this minute or I shall call the constable!"
"The constable?" I looked at her and grinned, hoping to catch her floating mind on a bit of barbed humor. "Welcome to America, O. No constables, here. Or bobbies, either. Here, we have policemen. Cops. The Heat. Ya know...Johnny Law?"
She was not to be distracted. "Make him stop!" she cried again.
"What’s he doing, O? Tell me," I said, standing behind her, wrapping my arms around her shoulders and kissing the top of her head.
"How dare he yank at that child! How dare he!"
"You wicked man! Vile creature!"
"O, there’s nobody..."
"Stop! Make him stop!"
I let go of her and strode to the window. I leaned and peered through the glass. She patted my back frantically, shouting, "Please!"
I said, "You mean that man?"
"The one with the kid?"
"The one tying a scarf around some kid’s neck to keep the cold out? That man?"
Oma quieted. "Is that what he’s doing?"
She stared hard, narrowing her eyes at nothing. "Such a nice man," she sighed. "What a loving father. And a fine-looking little boy!"
"His daddy ain’t bad, neither," I said, and winked at her. Oma laughed and told me I was dreadful. She said nice girls don’t think such things and I watched her walk back into the living room and perch once more on the edge of the pink chair.
With the stack of papers I’d brought with me, I sat at the dining room table where I could keep an eye on her and began to work. Editing college research papers earned me a little bit of money and gave me a chance to learn new things. The stack before me consisted of psych research which I found completely engrossing. With a red pen, I studied each line, looking for any mechanical, grammatical or structural error. My thoroughness had earned me a reputation among the students and that reputation translated into cold, hard cash.
Now and then, I glanced up at Oma. She continued to sit placidly, her hands folded in her lap. I chided myself. All that worry and angst for nothing. The night would pass peacefully and there would be no "episodes." Each time I finished with a paper, I would look up at her again, just to be sure. I was in the middle of the third paper when movement caught my eye. I put down the pen and watched her. Oma’s hands moved busily over...nothing. I recognized the motions, got up and headed for the kitchen.
Returning with an armful of hand towels, I shook them loose and set the untidy bundle on the ottoman before her. She reached for the first towel and folded it. Then the second one, and then the third. She would do this for hours if I let her.
I went back to the dining room table, sat down and tried to work, but my gaze strayed to her no matter how hard I concentrated on the stack of papers before me. Her fingers creased the seams of each towel and her hands smoothed it flat before she reached for the next. Always so fastidious and tidy. Always so formal and proper.
"Camille! Come, dear! Where are you? Camilletje! Come along!"
"Here I am, Oma!" I raced to her through the kitchen, full of excitement, wondering where we might be going.
Oma knelt and smoothed my shirt, tucking it into my shorts. She ran her hands over my braids and said, "Your hair fights those braids, doesn’t it?"
"Where are we going?" I asked, squirming away from her persistent hands as she pulled up my socks and re-tied my sneakers. "And I can tie my own shoes now!"
Straightening, she said, "I should hope a girl of seven years can tie her own shoes. Don’t be such a wriggle worm. We’re going to the woods beyond the field."
"Oh!" I cried, clapping my hands with pleasure. "The woods! Oma? Why are we going to the woods?"
She reached for her purse and said, "To get branches of leaves for a wreath. Some gold and some red and orange. You needn’t bring a jacket. ‘Tis quite warm today."
Hand in hand (I was not permitted to cross the street by myself) Oma and I started for the field. We must have been a sight. Oma in her lovely blue dress, stockings and tidy pumps, with her purse over her arm--and me, all arms and legs and braids, skipping beside her. Once we crossed the street and crested the hill leading to the open field, she let go of my hand and I rushed into the high grass.
With Oma walking steadily behind me--never hurrying and seeming for all the world like a fine English lady out on a stroll in Trafalgar Square--I ran madly, intoxicated with the freedom of Indian Summer in Virginia under a bright, cloudless sky.
I hid from her in the grass, shouting for her to find me and I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, "I’ll not find you, you naughty thing, hiding from your grandma."
I yelled, "Oma! I’m a lion!" and rushed past her, my hands stretched out before me and my fingers curled into claws. "Roooooooooooooooooar! I’m a lion!"
"Aren’t you silly?" she said, continuing with unruffled calm as she made her way across the field.
"Oma!" I shouted, racing up behind her, "I’m a lion and I am going to EAT YOU! ROOOOOOOOAR!"
Without breaking her stride even the tiniest bit, she said quietly, "You know what happens to lions who eat their grandmothers, don’t you?"
I stopped in mid-leap and watched her swaying blue dress moving serenely before me. "No," I said. "What?"
"They don’t get a cookie with their tea, of course."
"Oh," I replied and flopped onto the ground, wondering what I should be next. It came to me in a flash and I pulled off my shirt and tied the sleeves under my chin. Jumping to my feet, I flew past her, screaming loudly enough to send birds from their hidden places, flapping into the sky.
Oma gasped, "Oh! Dreadful! Camilletje!"
"I’m Tecumseh! I’m Tecumseh!" I shouted, whooping and jumping, my braids fluttering their full length straight out behind me.
"I’m Tecumseh! I’m Tecumseh! WOOOOOOO! EEEEEEEEEEE! YEOW! YEOW!"
"Oma! You can be my Indian princess!"
"I will spank your bottom if you do not put that top back on this instant!" she retorted.
I stopped at the edge of the field where the forest began and moped, waiting for her. She called to me again, "Put that top back on, you naughty girl!"
"Tecumseh never wore a top!" I called back defiantly.
"She certainly did!" Oma insisted as she came to stand before me. "Tecumseh is a proper young lady who does not scream like a savage and run about half-naked."
"Oma!" I protested as she untied my war bonnet and pulled it back on over my bare chest, "Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief and he did NOT have to wear a DUMB SHIRT!"
She extracted a clean white hanky from her purse and began vigorously wiping my face and chin. "What nonsense," she murmured. "A young lady running about naked. What would your mother say?"
"Mama lets me do anything I want!" I snapped.
Oma put her hands on her hips and regarded me with obvious disapproval. "Indeed," she said and walked past me into the woods.
I followed her for a time, watching her gather small branches of autumn leaves, picking and choosing carefully. Then, I spied a tree that liked me. I scrambled up the trunk and hung upside down from one of the thick, low branches.
"Oma! I’m a bat!"
"Dreadful," she shuddered absently as she made her way through the underbrush.
When she passed by me, I made slurping sounds and giggled, "I vant to suck your BLOOD!"
Oma’s blue eyes sparkled and she began to laugh. I laughed, too. She stood right in front of me and leaned close. The tip of her nose touched mine and she crinkled her face as we rubbed noses. Her hands played lightly with my dangling braids and she said, "You’re a silly creature."
"Do you love me, Oma?" I asked.
"Of course I do, darling."
"Do you love me best?"
"Now, now, Camilletje. I have five grandchildren."
I reached down and played with her hair and her ears and asked, "But do you love ME best?"
Her eyes were warm, gentle, full of tenderness and she murmured, "Come down from there, you silly thing. All your blood will go to your head."
"Oma?" I said softly, feeling her face with my fingertips and carefully touching her eyelashes, "will you stay with me forever?"
"Do you promise?"
"Will you always love me and never go away?"
"Of course, my darling. Now, come down. It’s nearly time for tea."
When she folded the last towel, Oma sat back against the chair and I looked at my watch. It was time. I stood from the dining room table and went to her. Her eyes were closed and her breathing deep and heavy.
"Oma?" I whispered. "Come on, honey. Let’s go."
She held onto my arm as we approached the stairs and I said, "Mind the tea cart, O. Careful," as we stepped around it. Her gaze lingered for a moment on the flowered tea pot and the delicate china tea cups and saucers.
"Did you buy the biscuits?" she asked.
"Yes, Oma. I bought them.
"The children will be here, soon. Are the presents wrapped?"
"Yes, Oma. All wrapped."
"Will Jack play carols on the organ this year?"
"Yes he will, O."
She stopped on the fifth step and began to pull at me. I held her fast and asked, "What’s wrong?"
"I haven’t set the table!" she said, reaching for the banister. I took her hand and held it.
"The table is set, Oma. I set it myself."
"Well, very good, then," she said, nodding her head. "You know it must be just so for Christmas Tea."
"It’s perfect," I said, urging her up the steps. If she fought me here, now, there was no way to tell whether she would fall into the banister or down the stairs. I had to get her up the stairs and lock the gate.
When we reached the top, she turned suddenly and tried to push past me. I blocked her, my arms outstretched, my back to the fifteen-step drop behind me.
"What is it, Oma?"
"Did you take the pudding off the stove?"
"Yes, Oma. I did."
"And the hard sauce?"
"All made and ready to go."
"We need a snip of holly from the garden for the pudding."
"I got it, Oma."
"Very well," she sighed and we continued down the hall to her bedroom.
We were right in the doorway when she grabbed the doorjamb and started to scream. I stumbled back, my throat choking with fear. She clenched the doorjamb and slid down to the floor, crying out, "Jesus! Help me! Oh, God! Save me!"
"Oma!" I got down beside her and tried to pull her up, but she fought me, twisting and screaming. I grabbed her arms and she started to kick, her bared legs flailing wildly against a chair. "Oma! Stop it! Please!"
"Jesus! Lamb of God! Help me! Please! Oh, Jesus! Please help me!" She clawed at my arm and I jumped back. Her nightgown was up around her waist and she cowered on the floor, old, bald, diapered and frightened, clutching the doorjamb as though it would save her from drowning.
I turned and ran. Maybe to call 911. Maybe to get help. Maybe to get out the door. To get away from her! Away from her! Away!
I slumped on the steps and watch her writhing and fighting. I put my hands over my ears to block out the sound of her cries. "Oma, please!" I sobbed again and again, like a chant that would make it all go away. "Oma! Please, Oma!"
"What is it, dear?" she asked softly.
I stared at her. She was still on the floor, her nightgown now up around her armpits. She turned her head and watched me in return, her eyes suddenly soft and full of concern. "Tell me, darling," she asked. "What’s wrong with my treasure girl?"
"Oma," I wept, still huddled on the stairs, "please be good and don’t hurt yourself. I can’t stand to think of you hurting yourself.
"Hurt myself?" she blinked, confusion on her face. "Why on earth would I do that? Come, now. Tell Oma what’s wrong."
"This is wrong!" I cried, gesturing in her direction. "Everything about this is wrong! How could God let this happen? How?"
"You mustn't be irreverent," she chided me.
"Irreverent?" I yelled. "Irreverent? I will be irreverent! How could God turn His back on you like this? You have loved Him all your life! You taught us all how to pray! You taught us all how to trust and have faith and now look! Where is God now? Where is He when His servant needs Him the most?"
"Camilletje," she said, her voice low and somber, "I will not tolerate that kind of talk. Shame on you."
I sighed, got up and went to her. She nodded her head, her eyes following my every movement as she murmured, "There, there, now. There’s my treasure girl. No more tears."
I helped her from the floor and she let me tuck her into bed. As I pulled the blankets up under her chin, I remembered something and hurried into her bathroom. Then, with a small blue plastic container in my hand, I sat on the edge of her bed.
"Oma," I said, "here’s the situation. This thing is for your teeth and your teeth happen to be in your mouth. They need to go in here and I ain’t a-goin’ after ‘em. Are ya with me?"
She laughed and, with her tongue, shoved both her uppers and lowers forward until they protruded from her lips. I made a face. She grinned around her teeth and worked her jaw up and down, making them chatter at me.
"Oma, gross," I said, rolling my eyes. "Come on."
She laughed again, deep in her throat, and said, "Hewwo! I’n wa Hees Nonter!"
I started laughing. "Oma! Stop it! You are NOT the Teeth Monster! Come on!"
"No! No kisses!" I was laughing and crying at the same time. "Come on! Give ‘em!"
She clacked at me a few more times and then, with her fingers, removed her teeth and dropped them into the container. I shuddered and set it on her dresser.
"That was pretty disgusting," I muttered.
"Wasn’t it, though?" she asked, her lips stretched into a toothless smile.
"Yeah. It was."
I leaned to kiss her goodnight but she reached up and touched my face and I stopped. "What’s wrong?" I asked nervously.
"Darling," she whispered, "I know what they are saying about you and ‘tisn’t true. You’re not bad girl, darling. A bit wild, perhaps, but never bad."
My eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, Oma."
"They think I don’t know you are in trouble, but I do. Of course I know. You’re my treasure girl. I need only look into your eyes and I know. Darling?"
"Young girls fall in love and they are foolish when they do. But your Oma is with you. You needn’t marry him if you don’t want to. I will help you. Your Oma is with you, all right? Remember that."
I slumped forward and buried my face in the blankets at her breasts. Years of pain that had been locked inside me broke free and I wept as she cradled me close to her, stroking my hair and murmuring, "There’s my good girl. There’s my treasure. You needn’t be afraid. Oma is here."
That is how she fell to sleep that night, healing an ancient wound, an ugly gash in my soul.
The next morning when Carol pulled into the parking lot, I was sitting on the porch, my bags packed and smoking a cigarette. When Carol stepped from her car, I flicked my cigarette across the parking lot.
She said, "Mom hates that."
"Yes," I replied, "and I’m terribly concerned about it."
She leaned against her car and asked, "Are you trying to win The Family Bitch Award?"
I clasped my hands together around my pack of cigarettes and gushed, "And I would like to thank the academy for believing in me! You love me! You really love me!"
She shook her head and laughed. Then she asked, "How’d it go?" I shrugged and stood, reaching for my bag and papers. "You beat her and lock her in the closet?"
"Absolutely," I said as I headed for my car.
"You know, Camille," Carol called to me as I opened the car door," some people might get the impression you don’t have a gentle bone in your body."
I looked up at her, grinned and said, "They would be right."
© Camille Moffat 2001
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