Wild Parsley by Waldron Caldwell
The Broken Circle
We stood in the hospital room unable to move. We knew that people didn’t live forever in this world, but Mamie wasn’t supposed to die. She was our rock. She was the one that we compared everyone to to judge their worthiness. She was our matriarch. She couldn’t just die and leave us alone. Part of us wanted to be angry, but the bigger part of us just wanted her to open her eyes and tell us everything was going to be all right just as she did when we skinned our knees as children. But we weren’t children anymore. We were grown women who now had to accept that Mamie was gone and our bond with her was now broken. Incomplete. And would never be the same.
My sisters huddled and we all, except for one, cried together. Julia never cried. Not because she didn’t love Mamie, but she knew that she would be the one who would hold the rest of us together. She didn’t have the luxury to have her broken heart show. She would have to express her grief in solitude while she laid on her pillow. Even though she wasn’t the oldest of us, she knew that Mamie had groomed her to take the reign of the family if anything happened to her.
The hospital let us stay in the room with Mamie’s body until we were ready to leave. She died with Julia holding one hand and Gertie holding the other. Elisabeth, Ava, and I stood at the foot of her bed. We watched her take her last breath and all of our worlds stopped turning. The last breath was long, but not labored. When she exhaled for the last time, she was in peace.
How do you let go of something that had always been there in your life? Suffered every broken heart with you? Guided you, taught you how to read, and taught you about God? How do you accept that the mainstay of your life as you knew it, just left you alone? We had never awakened to a day when Mamie wasn’t breathing the same air as we were. It was surreal.
“She look mo’ like momma now, don’ she Gertie?” asked Elisabeth.
Those words made my heart skip a beat. Mamie told me I was only two when momma had died. I never knew her. I couldn’t remember her face or how she looked. I only had one picture of her, and I kept it in my bedroom in a shiny brass frame. I never failed to tell her good night. I envied the sisters who knew our momma and got to hold her and tell her they loved her. Now Mamie was gone, too.
There was a light tap on the hospital door. Pastor Washington from our church stuck his head in and asked, “I-I-I-I was j-j-just wonderin’ if you l-l-l-ladies might w-w-want to have a p-p-prayer?”
“What you goin’ do, Pas’er? Resurrect ‘er?” Elisabeth asked.
“Elisabeth!” Gertie scolded, “The pastor just wants to offer comfort to the family.”
“Well, she done gone ova yonda, Sista. He can’t pray her to get no betta now.”
Pastor Washington looked at Gertie and said, “B-b-be happy to s-s-sing a s-s-s-ong of p-praise with all of y-y-y’all.”
“W-w-well, I says no thank y-y-ya!” Elisabeth said to Pastor Washington, mocking him.
Julia finally stepped in with, “We all thank ya for stoppin’ by pastor, but we are finishin’ up here. There’s a lots to take in and a lots more for us to take care of.”
“Certainly, J-J-Julia. J-J-Just let me know if I-I-I can b-b-be of service. D-d-don’t forget the p-p-play coming s-s-soon.”
With that, Pastor Washington left the room and we actually felt better after the interruption. It allowed us to break the shock and rebound our emotions.
“I am so glad tha’ man left. Ever Sunday after preachin’, I start to stutterin’, too. Afta two or three hours of him, I jus’ wants to slap ‘im upside his head to help ‘im get the words out. Don’ know why he would go inta preachin’ no way,” Elisabeth said.
“Elisabeth, Pastor Washington is a man of the Lord. You shouldn’t be so critical of him,” Gertie said and gave a deep frown.
“I ain’t bein’ critical. I jus’ bein’ honest.”
“Okay, that’s goin’ be enough. Like I told the pastor, we gots a lot on our plate now. We need to be gettin’ back to it. It’s what Mamie woulda wanted us to do,” Julia told us all firmly.
We gathered ourselves and the things we could carry out of the room. With bowed heads, we touched Mamie’s hand that was still warm, but frail in appearance. We opened the door of the hospital room where Mamie had died but did not suffer long. The hallway was full of our friends who had tears welling in their eyes. We would never be able to remember all of the faces of the people sharing warm embraces that lined our pathway to exit the hospital. Mamie was such a beloved woman. She would have been proud.
She had touched all their lives in one way or another. Mamie nursed the ailing with chicken soup and homemade biscuits. Always looking for the good in people. It bothered her that so many youths found themselves outside the law and helped them with legal aid. Then, she would do what she could to help the families incorporate the children back into their fold. She would always say, “The best thing you can give a child is love”.
It took almost an hour for us to make our way through the crowd. By the exit door stood Judge Holcombe, a dear friend of Mamie’s. There was a single tear rolling down his cheek. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face. His heart was broken, too.
I remembered back to the first time I had ever seen Judge Holcombe. I was just a little girl sitting in his courtroom. He was sitting way up high on the bench. At least at the time, it appeared that way to me. He wore a black robe and a large pitcher of iced water sat to his left. I remember it so clearly. He slowly poured the water into a tall, clear glass until it overflowed. A law clerk cleaned up the spilled water with a white bar towel. He hit his gavel to let everyone there that day know that court would begin.
I remember being there where my oldest sister, then herself the mother of four children, threatened to pull out her razor and cut the throat of her now dead husband. Elisabeth didn’t cut him that day. Well, not with her razor. Mamie had counseled her before court started to watch her temper. After Leroy had accused Elisabeth of being an unfit mother while she did without new shoes or clothes to make sure her children had their needs met, we all held our breath and kept an eye on her purse where we all knew she kept a well sharpened straight blade razor just in case she needed it. When the judge asked her if she understood the charges being brought against her that day and she told his honor that she didn’t, we all knew to be prepared to jump to the floor and pray. Sure enough, when the judge explained to Elisabeth that Leroy was saying that she was a bad mother, we all hit the floor. We had all seen Elisabeth with her razor before after Leroy had pulled some of his shenanigans. If Mamie had not talked to Elisabeth before court had begun, we would all have been attending Leroy’s last rites. But Mamie had control. Elisabeth did pick up her purse and after the judge asked her how she felt about the charges, Elisabeth walked over to Leroy and beat all the hell out of that man that the judge would allow. About five minutes’ worth before he called the bailiff to rescue Leroy. Mamie smiled at the judge, and all went well and the charges were dropped. Judge Holcombe knew Mamie well, and he knew that Elisabeth worked two jobs and still took in odd jobs to do the best she could for her children. Judge Holcombe also knew Elisabeth was less than well educated, but knew her to be a good mother.
Leroy rubbed his head and asked the judge if he planned to do anything about the beating he just took from Elisabeth. Judge Holcombe took a long drink and sat down his glass of ice water and told Leroy he was a fortunate man to have a wife as good as Elisabeth and even more fortunate that he didn’t call a lunch recess and let her finish bashing his head in. After that day in court, Leroy knew well enough not to accuse Elisabeth of anything. Especially when she had her purse.
Today, Judge Holcombe was grief stricken. He waved Julia to come to him. Where once he sat majestically up on his bench, he now leaned on a walking stick to keep his balance. It steadied him and allowed him to walk. He reached into his suit and withdrew an envelope. It was thick and had something written on the front of it that I couldn’t quite make out.
“Here, I want you to have this,” Judge Holcombe said to Julia.
“What is it, judge?”
“Just something to help keep things running smoothly. Mamie told me only months ago that you would be keeping the farm and baked goods going. I wanted to help if you know what I mean.”
Julia slipped the envelope inside her jacket pocket. “Yes, the farm will still be up and running as usual and thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
She rejoined us looked us all in the eye. “The funeral home is on their way to pick up Mamie’s body. We goin’ to have to get her burial clothes ready. Let’s go and get all of this taken care of.”
The words, “burial clothes”, gave me a slight tingling up my spine. I wasn’t sure I would be able to look at Mamie in a coffin. I knew she had already handled the arrangements and that was probably what the judge had given Julia. She always told us that she had everything done so we would not have to worry about picking out a casket or anything else. Mamie knew how difficult something like that would be for us.
Julia drove the truck home and Ava and I rode with her. Elisabeth drove her car with Gertie beside her. I noticed the envelope poking its way out of Julia’s pocket.
“Julia, what did the judge give you in that envelope?”
“A donation,” she responded.
“You mean, he knows about…”
She quickly shut me up with, “Yes, he knows.”
“So, he is a client?”
“Has been for a litta ova a year. No more about this now.”
Ava looked on and didn’t say a word. My mind, however, was racing. But I knew that Julia would give me the details later.
The rest of the ride home was quiet. I turned to look back at Elisabeth and Gertie in Elisabeth’s car. They were both looking straight ahead. Very much out of their norm. They were chatterboxes, especially when they were together. I turned back, closed my eyes, and thought of Mamie.
I knew the paper would call her a saint. Cookham is a small town in South Carolina and most likely, everyone by now would know of Mamie’s passing. No one in Cookham could break wind without someone else ready to analyze what they had eaten. Mamie abhorred gossip, and she didn’t mind taking down a switch to one of us that she caught telling some off-handed hearsay, especially about someone who attended the local A.M.E. Church to which she was a member. We all belonged to it faithfully. All seven of us. Now just five.
Mamie had assumed responsibility of our caretaking when our mother passed away when I was just a little girl. I was never told what my mother had died from and I had always been afraid to ask, but considering what Mamie raised on the farm, I suspected my momma died from cancer. That was years ago and there were not as many medical advances as there are today. That, plus the fact my mother was black. I remember Mamie speaking of the colored waiting rooms at the doctor’s office even for me when I was young. I never understood why I had to be the last one Dr. Shipley saw after he treated all the white children. I thought it only as an adult issue. One day they would grow out of it.
I did decipher from Mamie’s comments that she had not cared too much for my father. She labeled him a deadbeat. At age three, I had not a clue what that meant. But from the tone in Mamie’s voice, I knew it wasn’t a good thing. I, also, knew better than to ask about him. Mamie wasn’t a violent tempered woman, but there was something about my father that could cause Mamie to say words that I never knew existed. “Son-of-a-bitch” was never on my vocabulary lists from school. When I heard that we had another bitch in heat, I always looked around for my father. He was never there and was not likely to be. We didn’t need him. We had each other and Mamie had taught us to take care of our own and take on a few of someone else’s if need be. The entire town of Cookham would miss Mamie Nesbit even more than they would ever know.
My thoughts stopped when the truck did. Julia didn’t hesitate to jump out and get ready to go inside. I was a little reluctant. My chest felt vacant, and the house looked empty.
The three-story house stood majestic on its thirty-acre farm surrounding it. Pecan and walnut trees scattered the landscape of the freshly mowed two-acre lawn and grew tall against the house’s yellow paint. It had just been reroofed and the shingles gleaned in the sunlight.
Yellow was Mamie’s favorite color. A prime color she always called it. She often dressed in yellow and had pale yellow roses on each side of the house. Purple flowers of every kind sprinkled the recently mulched beds between the rosebushes. Wild or purchased, Mamie loved flowers. She had a gardener’s green thumb and talked to her plants as though they were the best friends she had ever had. She respected them as much as she did people, maybe more. Mamie said that flowers were God’s paint on canvas. When the world got too dismal to take, Mamie always went to the barn and potted seedlings. She taught us a lot about planting. And harvesting. And we learned. Oh, how we learned.