Purple was always my favorite color. I wanted everything to be that color. The walls of my bedroom, my stuffed animals, dresses. Everything. Because purple seemed to make my eyes happy somehow.
But the walls of my bedroom were beige. My stuffed animals were long ago given away to the Salvation Army. And I had to wear my brothers’ hand-me-down clothes. Overalls, flannel shirts, tennis shoes.
I had one church dress. It was denim. Pieced together from old jeans my father wore out. Lucky for me, my mother had patched up the holes.
The teasing from other kids was merciless. It didn’t help that she gave me the same haircut as my brothers.
“Ain’t gonna have no girlie girl in my house,” she’d say. “You just teach them kids a lesson. Knock their lights out or somethin’. They’ll leave you alone.”
“But, Mama, they call me a boy,” I’d say, trying my hardest not to cry. “The girls won’t play with me and the boys just push me around.”
“Nothin’ wrong with lookin’ like a boy. You should’a been a boy anyhow. Never wanted a girl. Too much trouble. Now quit your cryin’ and get your chores done.”
I hated her. There was nothing I could do when I was little. I never got to make a decision. She controlled everything. But when I got older, into my high school years, I knew that I needed to take over my life. All I could think to do was rebel. It was how I could fight against her.
Every time I got drunk it was to hurt her. Every time I slept with some guy I hardly knew it was to show her how much trouble I could be. All my friends were having fun. The only thing I wanted was to punish her.
She kicked me out on my sixteenth birthday. I came home from school and my things were packed in a duffle bag on the porch. The door was locked. She sat, looking out the dining room window. Stone-faced.
I left the bag when I walked away.
The next day I was waiting tables at the diner in town and living in the apartment upstairs. I got paid in greasy food and cockroach infested living quarters. Tips were mine. At the time it didn’t seem like such a bad deal. I had a lot to learn.
One thing that I did learn was how much money I could make by playing up my cleavage and tightening the apron around my waist. Red lipstick didn’t hurt either. Neither did the big hair. I made enough money in tips that I bought all the purple dresses I wanted.
My parents and brothers would eat dinner there every Thursday. I’d take their order, pretending they were just another customer. They’d ask for chicken fried steak and lots of gravy. We all pretended that we didn’t know each other.
But my dad would always leave a twenty for the tip. It must have been his way of making up for never defending me. Never telling my mother to back off and let me be a girl. The money was his offering to earn forgiveness for my ruined childhood.
It took me a few years to realize that I had to get away. I left. Moved to a bigger city. Finished high school and went to college. Found a good job and a good man. Every Christmas I’d send a card to my parents. Sent pictures with every child my husband and I had.
Eventually, I forgot that this wasn’t a normal way for a family to work. It just stopped hurting. They were a part of my past that only deserved a couple of letters a year. They never wrote back. Never tried to get a hold of me.
It was just as well.
I ain’t never been a soft person. There’s no use in this life for cryin’ and carryin’ on. I had some hard times. Ain’t a person on this earth who hasn’t. Life’s tough. If ya’ wanna survive you gotta be strong.
My husband and me was married forty years and then he died. Had himself a heart attack and fell down dead. I had a son die a year after he was born. My daughter don’t want nothin’ to do with me. Yeah. Life’s hard. Get over it.
I’m dyin’. God seen fit to let me get cancer. It’s all over my body now. Ain’t gonna be long before I go to meet my Maker. The pastor been over to the hospital to see me most weeks.
“You feelin’ at peace?” he asked.
“Yup. I believe I am, pastor.” I knowed it was a lie.
I think he could feel that fib on account he asked me every time he seen me. The last time he come he pushed a little more. Got a bit of the truth outta me.
“I ain’t gonna have no peace ‘til I see my daughter. She done a lot of harm to my family. She best make that right before I die. Else she gonna regret it all her days.”
He looked at me funny. Kind of sideways. “Do you think it would be good to ask her forgiveness?”
“Now, what do I need to do that for? You can just walk yourself right on outta here. Accusin’ me of wrongin’ my own daughter.”
It sent me into a coughin’ fit so powerful bad the nurse come in and sent him away. I been coughin’ so bad they think I got the pneumonia. It made me glad they sent him packin’. Don’t need that kind of talk ‘round me no how. Tryin’ to make me feel like it’s all my fault, Sharon runnin’ off. She never did fit in our family in the first place. I questioned God many a time why He found fit to send her to us. Last thing I wanted in the world was a daughter.
Bein’ a woman never served me too well. Didn’t want any child of mine to suffer so like I did. Ain’t no use thinkin’ about that now. What’s done is done.
First time I held her I seen she was a pretty baby. Knowed she would be a beautiful woman. Bein’ beautiful in this day and age is a dangerous thing. I mighta been too hard on her. But it was all to keep her safe. Figured that if she looked like a boy and could fight like a boy nobody’d wanna mess with her.
Her will was too strong, though. She wouldn’t have none of it. So, I let her go off. I couldn’t do nothin’ for her. She did okay. Got herself through college. She’d send pictures every now and again.
She done good for herself. Ain’t no reason I should ‘pologize to her. Fact is, she should be thankin’ me for pushin’ her outta the nest a little. Made her the woman she is now.
But I ain’t gonna see her again before I pass on.
A letter came in the mail for me. From my brother, Jimmy. It’s sad when you don’t even know your brother well enough to recognize his handwriting. He wrote that he had news to tell me. That he couldn’t find my phone number or email address. All he had was my home address.
The letter said that my mother is dying.
And, apparently, I’m supposed to care.
He wrote that she didn’t even realize how far the cancer had spread. She didn’t realize that she had less than a few weeks left. He wrote that he was too afraid to tell her.
And, so, I’m supposed to do what?
She would want to die at home. But they would need help. Someone to get the estate in order, set up a hospital bed in her living room, sit with her in between Hospice nurse visits. He asked if I would come.
Why would I come? Wasn’t it too late? Had he not gotten the clue after I’d been gone for thirty years?
His phone number was printed in a careful hand at the bottom of the letter.
“Whatever you decide, give me a call,” he’d written.
I dialed his number. That turned out to be a mistake.
“Come on back, Sharon,” he’d said. “We need you.”
It took me a little over an hour to drive the seventy miles back to that house. Pulling into the drive way put a sick feeling in my stomach. The house looked the same. Just more worn down. Shingles were missing from the roof, the porch sloped, the eaves sagged. I dreaded what the inside looked like.
I was right. When I opened the door, I was smacked by a thick, dank odor. Rotten food mixed with mildew and some kind of animal smells. It hadn’t been like this when I was little. I couldn’t think would might have happened.
The first thing I did was go to the store for disinfectant. And lots of it. No one deserved to die in that kind of filth. Not even her.
Never did wanna die in no hospital. Guess I never thought about me dying anyhow. Just ain’t somethin’ you keep on your mind. But the doctor told me it won’t be long.
The next week or two an’ I’ll be dead. Makes me feel all kinds of alone. All I wanna do is go home and sit in my chair. Don’t wanna be here no more. Jimmy said he’d get me home today. I never counted on nothin’ so much in all my life.
What I ain’t happy about is who’ll be there.
“Mama,” Jimmy said. “Sharon’s at the house gettin’ things ready for ya’.”
“Now why would she do that?” I asked.
“We got a hospital bed for ya’. And she wanted to help out.”
“She ain’t gonna be there when I get home, is she?”
“Well, course she is, Mama. We all gotta take turns sittin’ with ya’.”
“You’ll take a extra turn, Jimmy. Don’t you think for a second I’m gonna sit with her alone.”
“It ain’t gonna be your way right now, Mama. This is how it’s gotta be else you ain’t goin’ home.”
“She movin’ all my stuff around? I won’t have her throwin’ my things out.”
“I don’t know. But it don’t matter.” His eyes was tired. “Let’s get you home.”
So he went to get his pick up. Makes me get to wonderin’ if me dyin’s gonna cause anybody grief. Or if they’ll be glad I’m gone. I ain’t the easiest woman to be ‘round. I knowed that my whole life.
Makes me glad I ain’t got nothin’ to leave behind for them.
It took so many hours to get the living room rearranged for the hospital bed. The cobwebs swiped away and the floor vacuumed makes it look so much brighter. And yet, even with the sunshine streaming in, there’s a darkness inside. But that has more to do with my memories than anything.
Memories made me dizzy. The day my mother found out I started menstruating.
“You ain’t gonna wash them filthy clothes in my washin’ machine,” she’d said.
I had to do all my laundry outside on a wash board. Even in the winter.
I remembered the beatings over burned biscuits, dusty corners, forgotten homework. She’d spit and swear and bite. When she was really mad, her voice would deepen to a growl. Her eyes would narrow and her lips would pucker.
She’d wake me in the middle of the night to scrub the kitchen floor or rake leaves. At meals she would serve me far less food than my brother.
“Don’t want no fatty in my family,” she’d say.
Looking back at all that, I know she was torturing me. Trying to see how much I could survive.
And the whole time, my dad sat in his chair or at the table or in the yard. He did nothing. Just watched, trying to pretend that it wasn’t happening.
He was just as guilty as her.
The memories make me so angry. I got sick in the toilet. This was the last place I ever wanted to come back to.
I’m back home and I ain’t happy ‘bout it. They ain’t lettin’ me sit in my chair. Ain’t even lettin’ me have a smoke. I’m sittin’ in this hospital bed doin’ a whole lot a’ nothin’.
And Sharon’s here.
Jimmy took off for work. Won’t be back ‘till supper time.
“Mother, would you like a cup of coffee?” Sharon asks me.
I ain’t gonna talk to her. Ain’t said not one word to her since I seen her. She brung me daisies from the store. Cleaned up the whole house. Must’a threw out a whole bunch of my stuff. But I ain’t gonna ask. Don’t got nothin’ to say to her.
“If you don’t want to talk to me then you won’t get anything,” she says.
I just turn my head away from her. Guess I just gotta wait for Jimmy to get back.
I was cleaning my old bedroom. Boxes were stacked from the mildewed carpet to the water stained ceiling. Mostly full of ancient newspapers and spiders.
But there was a photo album. My mother wasn’t one to take pictures. I couldn’t think of a single picture that was taken of me as a child.
I flipped through the pages. The photos were old, brittle, glued to black pages.
“Lil’ Eleanor,” read a caption in curly graphite.
It was a picture of my mother. As a child. Held by what I guess was her father. I look closely at her face. It’s a look of horror in her young eyes. She’s leaning away from him. But his hands seem too strong for her.
Turning the pages I see pictures of corn and cows and pigs. No more of her and that man. I close the album. A few pictures fall loose.
They are new photos. In color. I pick them up. My daughter’s toothy grin. My son’s smiling smirk. Our family by a Christmas tree. On the back of each is written “Sharon’s”.
“Mother,” I say, walking into the living room. “Would you like to look at this photo album?”
Her neck cranes to see me.
“There are some old pictures in here. I thought you’d like to see them.”
I turn to the picture of “Lil’ Eleanor”.
“Put it away.” She turns away from me.
“Was that your father?”
“Put it away, hear?”
“Mother, don’t you want to see this picture?”
She just grunts.
Been thinkin’ ‘bout my father. Ever since Sharon found that picture. Ain’t nothin’ I like to remember. He done me wrong. Shouldn’t no one have a father like that.
Don’t wanna think ‘bout him no more. He can rot in hell. Bet he already is.
“How’d she do today?” Jimmy asked, walking in from work.
“She wouldn’t talk to me,” I answered. “The chicken’s almost done.”
“Smells good, Sharon.” He takes off his work boots. “Thanks for helpin’ me today.”
“She slept most of the day.”
“Yeah, the doc said she’d do that.”
“Hey, do you know anything about grandpa? Her father?”
“Huh,” he thought. “Nope. Ain’t never heard her tell a’ him.”
“Interesting. I found a picture of her with him.”
I showed him the album.
“Looks like a scary guy.” He massaged his feet with his hands.
“Jimmy, that you?” my mother called, weakly. “I ain’t feelin’ good.”
We walked to her. She was pale. She looked like she was shrinking.
“What’s wrong, mother?” I asked.
“Jimmy, I need a doctor.”
It’s comin’ close. Can’t hardly breathe. They got some tubes up my nose. Sharon’s sittin’ next to me. I won’t let her touch my hand, though.
Maybe she gonna ‘pologize to me.
I so scared a dyin’. Don’t like this fallin’ feelin’ I got. Somethin’ makes me think I ain’t gonna get to them pearly gates.
I must’a done wrong by somebody. Just can’t think what I could’a done. Or how to make it good.
I’m just so tired a’ livin’. But too scared a’ dyin’.
“Mother, I’m leaving for the night,” I say, thinking I’ll get the silent back of her head in response.
“Where ya’ stayin’?” she asks. “That new motel in town?”
“No. I have reservations at the Holiday Inn.”
“Well, ain’t that fancy.”
Her voice is getting weaker. Quieter. Softer. I can tell that breathing is becoming difficult for her. Had Jimmy told me what kind of cancer this was?
“I’ll be back first thing in the morning when Jimmy goes to work.”
“Don’t bother.” She coughs. It’s violent. Brings tears to her eyes, sweat to her brow. “Ain’t gonna make it to mornin’.”
“Would you like me to stay?”
“Why’d I want that?” Another coughing fit. “You gettin’ me all riled.”
I just stand there. Looking at her. Knowing that she’s right. That she’s giving up on living.
“Then, if you’re sure that you’ll die, I’ll stay.”
I go to the kitchen to make coffee. I’m going to need it. Things will be made right tonight.
I keep feeling like sinkin’ in the bed. Almost like fallin’ asleep, but deeper.
“Mother,” Sharon says. “I forgive you.”
“Ain’t never been sorry,” I says, not feelin’ the words comin’ outta my mouth. “Ain’t never did nothin’ wrong by ya’. I been a good mama.”
“You can’t really believe that.”
“What I ever done wrong by ya’?”
“You didn’t love me.”
“You don’t know nothin’.” I look away. “It was all ‘cause I love you.”
Her words stun me. Like I got hit in the head and the pain hasn’t set in yet.
“I don’t understand,” I whisper.
“I love you. But it ain’t easy lovin’ a little girl. So much fussin’ and carryin’ on.”
Her face sags into the pillow. She’s blinking her eyes so slowly. Even her ear lobes look strange.
“What happened with your father?”
“I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout that.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“I say I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout him.”
“Was that why you were so hard on me? Why you wouldn’t let me be a girl?”
“It wasn’t for fun that I done all that. You gotta be tough if you gonna be a woman in this world.”
The coughing starts up again. “An’ all you could think ‘bout was gettin’ away from me. You shamed me and your father.”
“I was wild because I wanted to hurt you.”
“It was stupid.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“Turn on that t.v., would ya’? I wanna see the news.”
The anchor man is talking about war and gas prices and weather. It all seems so empty. My mother is dying. And we understand each other. At least a little.
The room gets dark. I turn on a light. There’s a purple glow to the sky.
“Would ya’ look at that,” my mother says. “That still your color?”