Write On!

How I Met Her Forever

In Responses on July 13, 2012 at 3:19 am

by Jennifer Phifer Strange

We were few at her funeral as she had outlived almost everyone she ever knew. Except me. I had grown up with her—my mama was her daddy’s sister, and we lived down the road until the house burned down. She came to live with us when we started school, but she went home after a few weeks. Horses put their heads through the broken windows to watch us eat, and she hadn’t ever seen anyone act like my daddy. So her daddy bought her a pony and that was that.

Skip over the decades, and there I was—the only one older than her at her funeral. Her tall brothers sat tall in the pews while her son hung his head, hoping he’d done right in the end. Listened to her granddaughter say a few words, heard the preacher say some things from John, passed by the casket, and we were out to the cemetery for a few hours of Texas-style standing around.

Every morning for the next week, I found myself thinking about her at breakfast, always suddenly realizing my eggs were cold because I’d been staring out the windows, hoping to see a nosy horse. But it had been years since a horse visited me. My daughter Lorna came every day to help me write a letter—I keep up—and every day I wanted to write to my friend (we called each other sisters even though we were just cousins). She hadn’t written me in years, what for the tremors in her hands, but I still sent her news. If you don’t have news from home in Texas, you don’t have news.

Then one week after the funeral, I got mail. Few letters came for me, so when Lorna arrived at my door with full hands, I expected her to have a half gallon of milk or maybe a bar of chocolate, but certainly not mail. Instead, handed me a postcard and asked if I needed help reading it.

“Well, sure, now. What’s on the back there?”

Lorna turned the postcard around, and I could see several brown head of steer poking through a fence. She interpreted for me: “Looks like Lubbock. Cows.”

“Don’t know anyone in Lubbock. What’s it say?”

She turned it back again and read, “I’m not dead. Meet me tonight at Guido’s Pizzeria. Tell no one.”

Lorna had combed my hair countless times like I had her own when she was young. The press of the bristles through the thin hair and against your own palm. By the time she turned sixty, she had learned just my right balance of salt in peas to make me sit back and groan. But now she looked around my room like she had walked into a joke. “This isn’t . . . what is this? You’re playing me now, mother. Okay, now.”

I just sat a spell. Maybe dementia had suddenly come in full dress and taken its place at my table. We would start a five-course meal and never finish, enjoying repeat helpings of the dessert until we just fell asleep. Or maybe my hearing played out. Lorna and I stared at each other because neither of us dared to look at that steer head again. I played the dementia card and said, “Sure could use some apple juice.”

Lorna didn’t move for a good thirty seconds except to furrow her brow, but she finally set the postcard down on my bed tray and left for the kitchen. My hands ached from gripping the seat on my rickety white chair. My left knee twitched.

I thought of my cousin and my friend—how we had run together from the bull in her daddy’s back pasture, how my mama made us raisin cobbler every time we asked, how we watched each other marry, how she kept us in lotions from her sample closet. I thought about how real it had been to say goodbye, and how I had remembered again that day how I am the oldest person I know. She could not say, “Oh, come now,” that day like she had so many times before when I had lamented my age. Older by days, but old enough. She could not say it because she had not come in the flesh that day. She could not say so many things.

When Lorna brought back the apple juice, she took her time with the cup and straw. She was testing me. I thanked her and sipped at the cup while diverting my eyes to the window. Some men had cut the grass that morning, and Lorna had replenished the hummingbird feeder the day before. Wind chimes outside offered some melody with the hot breeze. Maybe it would rain today.

“How do you like that?” I kept my eyes on the window. “I don’t know one thing about getting a green thumb, but this weather looks ripe for tomatoes.”

As Lorna leaned down to kiss me on the forehead, she pressed my hair flat to my ponytail and tucked the wispy edges behind my ear. She would want to go through the rest of the mail now—her daily routine. I took another sip of the apple juice as the sound of her soft shoes disappeared down the hall.

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