Stella Ridley: The Chapter That Can Never Have a Number or a Name

In retrospect, I realize that something Mamaw Rennie said to me once–apropos of nothing, of course–was never far from my mind for all the long months I sat with Matu when she was sick and then when she was dying: “woe to the mother who dies before her children have reached the age of appreciation.” Having obsessive and superstitious tendencies of thought, I often wished that Mamaw had not said it and I had not heard it, for it would often just plop onto the racetrack of my mind and zip round and round. How can woe come to a dead person, I would wonder–were we not supposed by our religious teachers to enter into a state free of the sufferings of life? Then I would wonder with the kind of delicious horror with which one wonders such things whether instead we entered a bad-joke afterlife when we died, an afterlife in which all the things we try so hard to evade or recover from in life would settle in permanently, an eternity of woe or loss or psychic injury, the kind of injury, say, that betrayal inflicts when it not only destroys whatever present happiness you have but also eats backwards eradicating a past which has become a lie anyway, but I digress.

Wearying of meditation on the mysterious workings of woe, I’d tell myself that it was probably just some old folks’ saying that Mamaw had confused with some other saying, but try as I might to dismiss it, it would return to me at the oddest times, or what seemed the oddest times, when, for example, I sat next to Matu’s bed while she slept, which is to say, while she slept but never truly rested, rarely slept for longer than half an hour, though she would often sleep again after gazing at the ceiling for an hour or so. Then I would immediately think that such a statement wishes woe to the parent rather than just observing that woe will be the case, or I would become entangled in speculation about how perhaps the woe was somehow retroactive from the moment of death if children had not reached the age of appreciation—and what on earth could that mean anyway–and I’d construct some phase-shifting plot whereby one’s future death reached back into one’s life and fiddled around and generally messed things up. But no matter how loopy or lengthy my worrying away at what Mamaw Rennie said was, and even after I settled on the probability that it meant that mothers were fortunate if they lived long enough for their children to grow up and appreciate them, I could postpone only for so long a thought that deeply saddened me, I’m not sure why: I would fret over the word “appreciation” and wonder why it had not immediately seemed jarring and inappropriate to me in the context of thinking about mothers. I would wonder why my mind had not stamped “love” over it. When Matu died, my mind flew apart and jetted off in every direction, and no matter where I landed, the mind taxis that greeted me there never took me to any real destination, or perhaps the only real destination for me was the fact of Matu’s death and the fact that I was now an orphan for the second time but with no Wolf to watch over me and no other mother’s love.

I have often wondered why we do not have official angelic managers of death, ethereal sorts of people or perhaps angels disguised as people who are never surprised or dismayed by any of the things about dying that are so unacceptable for mere mortals, things such as the fact that death does almost everything short of turning our bodies inside out as one system after another shuts down. And perhaps such beings could have counterparts in angelic managers of grief, for unless dying is swift or death is sudden, grief starts for the living before the dying are dead, and it is an obscene grief that must be hidden from the dying and will not allow us the peace of being of one mind, a shameful grief, too, for it is so stubborn that one worries that it may hasten death, or weirdly postpone it. But then who can escape the guilt that attends death, when the one great failure of our lives if we live long enough will be that we cannot make the dying or the dead we love live again for themselves in the world as they live for us in our hearts?

Matu was dying. Molly was in some distant place with a name we couldn’t pronounce and thus often couldn’t remember, five days away from messages hand-carried from some owner of a telephone, weeks away from mail, months and a treacherous overland journey away from us. Deena was similarly inaccessible, in a cloud forest searching for some cryptic marvel. Adela was nearby, but inaccessible in ways that mail, telephones, and caravans can do nothing to remedy—it was more or less necessary to go to the police to find out where Adela might be unless one stumbled by accident upon one of her drugged-out buddies and was successful in eliciting reliable information about her whereabouts. Thunder–the honorary man of the household–was mostly at home with me, but Thunder, well, Thunder could be sitting right up next to you and be light years away, though I loved, still love exactly that about him: he had a winged head.

Romana, that witchy virago of my girlhood, had been living for years in the guest cottage behind Matu’s house—living there, in some ways, as if Matu’s house wasn’t really there. It was no secret that she was a conjure woman, and those in need of things that could not really be had visited her—especially when the moon was full or some criss-crossy planetary thing was going on—at odd hours of the night and early morning. It occurred to me more than a few times that Romana might have hastened Matu’s death—sometimes I suspected it, sometimes I wished for it. After all, Matu and Romana had various secret agreements and affiliations–when they were together, the only others with them were whatever loose spirits might be wandering about the place. Papaw Rennie was living in Matu’s home too and had been since Mamaw Rennie died, but he was in an advanced stage of gleeful ambulatory dementia and believed Matu to be his own mother. In short, I was basically alone with Matu with the exception of the doctors and nurses and sundry soft-handed assistants and an assortment of Matu’s admirers and erstwhile friends who came and went and came and went and never stayed.

Of course, I didn’t really think much about where Uncle Robber might be since his most enduring quality was his absence, well, that and his huge neglect of Matu, which was not exactly the same as his absence, and, of course, his international procreating activities. When death was very near, Matu cobbled together a heartbreaking semblance of herself and asked where he was. “Where is Robert, oh, where is Robert,” Matu said. “He’s here, Matu, he’s here in the next room,” I said, “Shall I get him?” “No,” she said, “No, just tell him.” “Tell him what, Matu?” I said. “Tell him,” she said, and then in the moment in which she might have told me what to tell him, she was gone.

I was idly wondering why I had lied about Uncle Robber, or what I would have done if Matu had asked to see him, when I heard rustling at the door, and then Romana was standing next to me at Matu’s bedside and in that small space between Matu’s last breath and our grieving, she said, “Hell too good for that man.” Then Papaw Rennie was there and he had flung himself or fallen over Matu’s bed and was sobbing and crying out “Oh, Mama, Mama, Mama.”

I forgot to say that within a few days of first going home to care for Matu, I had run across her journals—years and years of them written in her crisp slanty hand. They were my only companions as I sat next to her bed reading and reading in the hollow of every night, reading things that unraveled everything I thought was good or certain in my life.




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