“I’m worried. Mama’s getting worse. She got turned around in the grocery store last week and panicked when she couldn’t find me. She told the manager her little girl was lost. I heard them paging me and hurried to the front and she was crying like a baby. ” Louanne’s eyes filled with tears as she fidgeted in the high bistro chair. Her spoon clattered as she stirred sugar in her coffee. The sun streaming through the cafe windows highlighted her blue-veined fair skin. “Mama’s been trading there forty years! We’re going to have to do something. She can’t stay by herself. I’d take her home with me but I just can’t. I was ashamed to tell you, with y’all both doing so well, but me and Robert had to get his mama to go in with us on the house or we couldn’t have ever gotten it. Then he up and died. It was taking both our paychecks and Mama M’s check to make the note. Me and the baby are sleeping in my room, the boys in another, and Mama M in the third. When we got down to just mine and Mama M’s checks we couldn’t make it without me going on night shift. She’s having to watch the kids at night now because I can’t pay a babysitter. It’s more than she bargained for and she is not happy about it. We’re stuck together, like it or not. The house is half hers and you know her and Mama don’t get along. I can check on Mama on my days off, but I’ve about got all I can handle. I’d give anything if Mama had kept her house so me and the kids could’ve just moved in with her.” Tears spilled down Louanne’s pale cheeks. “I’m sorry to dump all this on y’all but I’m about at the end of my rope.”
Betty Murrell’s three daughters had gotten together at Bonnie’s Bistro to discuss what to do about Mama who was showing some confusion lately. Louanne, the youngest, lived just a few miles from their mother Betty. At twenty-nine, she’d always had a hard row to hoe. She’d gotten pregnant her senior year, and married Robert Martin just weeks before the baby was born. Robert was a good fellow, but had a hard time hanging on to a job. He’d finally gotten on as a long-haul trucker just before their third was born. Delighted their future looked secure, they finally got enough pulled enough together to buy a house once his mama agreed to sell her house and throw in with them. With his truck-driving pay, Louanne’s job as a dispatcher on the police force, and Mama’s social security check, they were squeaking by. Mama M made the down payment with proceeds from the sale of her little house. They managed pretty well till the company Robert worked for went under. Desperate, he started a yard service, working from dawn till dark six days a week. They could no longer afford the luxury of health insurance with his job loss. Having lost his health benefits, he didn’t see his doctor or check his sugar like he should’ve and stroked before long. Of course, he had no life insurance. Neither Louanne nor Mama M would have chosen to live together without him, but neither could afford to buy the other out. Louanne had to take a night shift for the higher pay, and Mama M grudgingly watched the kids from seven in the evening till Louanne got off in the morning. Louanne took all the extra shifts she could, but it was still rough, especially with Robert’s medical bills hanging over her. Every month, she worried the lights would be cut off. It was a miserable situation. She felt guilty living with Robert’s mama when she needed to make a place for her own, but it wasn’t her choice. Mama M. had as much claim to the house as she did. Louanne’s nerves were strung tight and she was always on the verge of tears.
Barbara, the worried-looking middle daughter, squeezed Louanne’s hand and spoke. “I’ve been thinking Mama isn’t just right for a while. Seems like she’s done some odd stuff the last year or so. I couldn’t believe it when she just up and sold the house and moved into that dinky apartment. I never saw that coming, the way she loved working in her flowers and yard. Remember the way she painted the house inside and out, every two years. Then she just quit her job on a whim after being a nursing supervisor for years. That story about being sick of it just didn’t hold water. She never missed a day! Mama’s not but fifty-eight. She always planned to work till she was sixty-five. And remember last Thanksgiving when she put dinner on the table, then sat down to eat without calling any of us to come to the table! That was really weird.”
Barbara had recently moved over sixty miles away to Middlesex where she was a high-school principal. She was divorced with a fifteen-year-old daughter. She hadn’t told her family that when she and Alan split, they were so deep in debt from his gambling, they’d had to file bankruptcy. Barb and Betsy had moved into a two-bedroom apartment, a real stepdown from the house with a pool in a gated community they’d lost. She’d only learned the extent of Alan’s gambling when it was too late to salvage anything. Betsy was making Barb pay for the move, blaming the available parent for having to leave her friends and school. Alan had always indulged Betsy and was letting Barbara bear the blame for their breakup.
As she collected her thoughts, Barbara shifted in her chair and dug in her purse for her lip balm. She sighed. “I guess I could try to figure out a way to move Mama in, but it’ll take me a little while to find a bigger place. I just signed a new lease, so I am stuck for five more months. Mama keeps asking me about Alan. She forgets why I left him and goes on and on about how much she thought of him. That’s pretty hard to listen to. Vanessa, if you could meet me me halfway in Brewster on Fridays and Sundays, I could take her on weekends. Maybe Mama has enough stuck back to hire some help till I can move, but I’ll still be at school all day, after that. I have ten more years till retirement and I can’t afford to take an hour off work. Betsy is doing all she can to make things harder. I couldn’t depend on her to help with Mama. Vanessa, you don’t work and have an extra bedroom. I don’t guess you could take her during the week, could you?”
Vanessa spoke up quickly. “Oh, no. You know how bad Mama and Joe fight. It would never work. I can try to get Jessie Ruth, Joe’s sister to stay with her. Joe’s been having to help Jessie Ruth anyway since she lost her sitting job with Mrs. Barker. She can’t make it just on social security. It’s about to break us.” Vanessa, the elder sister was very active in her church, and better off financially than either of her sisters. She knew a lot about what was best for other folks, a habit that ruffled feathers. She was exceedingly proud that her husband,Joe, owned a construction company, though not as proud as he. Joe was known to be a difficult man, at home and in business.
Barbara jumped back in before Vanessa got off too deep into her Jessie Ruth plan. “That won’t work. Mama can’t stand Jessie Ruth. That woman’s always preaching at her and wanting to drag her off to that weird church of hers. Mama’s always gone to Cypress Baptist and doesn’t need another church. She will not want Jessie Ruth in her business!”
Louanne backed her up. “Look, Vanessa, the last thing Mama needs is Jessie Ruth! Did you ever think there might be a good reason she lost that job? That woman’s a mess. Jenny Barker said she robbed her mama blind when she was staying with her. Robbie Murphy down at Kroger said when she was checking out her groceries that Jessie Ruth had filled Mrs. Barker’s cart up with pork chops, chips, ice cream, and soda, stuff that Mrs. Barker didn’t eat. The whole time Mrs. Barker kept fussing and Jessie Ruth kept right on piling it on the counter. Jenny said her mama’s grocery bill just about doubled when Jessie Ruth was taking care of her. Robbie tipped Jenny off and they got rid of her.”
”Now, I know that’s not true. Jessie Ruth’s a fine Christian woman. She wouldn’t steal!” Vanessa bristled at this accusation against her husband’s sister. “You better not be saying stuff like that to Joe!”
“I don’t intend to talk to Joe about that or anything else. You know we don’t gee-haw!” Louanne spouted. Vanessa and Joe had tried to tell her how run her business after Robert died. She still didn’t have a lot to do with him.
Barbara tried to smooth things over. “Look, we’re all worried. Let’s just wait and hear what Mama’s doctor says. Maybe there’s something he can give her.”
Vanessa irritably summoned the server. “You need to take the pie off my check, Hon. I told you I wanted vanilla ice cream, not whipped cream.” The dismayed server looked at the half-eaten pie, knowing it would come out of her pay.
“That’s okay. I got this.”Louanne said empathetically as she scooped up Vanessa’s ticket, though she really couldn’t afford her own portion.0
“No, you don’t!” said Barbara. “My treat.” She wasn’t about to worry Louanne with her own troubles.
Louanne gave her a quick hug. “Thanks, Sissy.”
“You ought not to pay for an order that girl messed up,” Vanessa grumped.