Mama, rub my poor tired feet," he had moaned wearily the
day before he suddenly died. And she, bone tired, having worked
shoulder to shoulder beside him in the hot searing sun, gathering
corn on the hillside to feed their livestock this winter, had
flounced impatiently to his side, massaging his aching, calloused
Now standing beside his coffin, she prayed he hadn't felt her
anger and resentment. His sun-reddened face was still. The pale
forehead, protected from the sun by his old straw hat, was free
from the furrows and creases of life's daily burdens. His worn
hands were folded serenely across the new blue serge suit. He
had found peace at last. She had never seen him so dressed; she
would have preferred him wearing a new pair of overalls, his daily
wardrobe, but the children had argued it wouldn't be proper, and
had pitched in and bought the suit. She fought a moment of panic
and anger. How dare he leave her alone in the world to face the
same weary problems with no one to turn to? The children had long
since fled the harshness of their mountain farm, and the corn
was standing in the field and the mortgage due at the bank. He
had always been there to solve these problems. Or create them.
Where would she go? How would she live the rest of her life? Live
here alone in this aging mountain shack, waking at dawn when the
rooster crowed, boil coffee and make biscuitswithout him
sitting there, fussing and criticizing? Should she move down in
the valley in one of those government housing projects, filled
with widows whose lives had suddenly endedwhere a body couldn't
spit out the door without a dozen prying eyes staring out behind
lace curtains? Or perhaps, move in with some of the children,
and which one?
They gathered around him now with frozen faces, almost fearfully,
as if he would arise from his pine coffin and again control their
lives. They stared silently at the man who had raised themsurely
he had loved them, but harshly, as he had also cared for her.
Had not his constant presence, his back-breaking labor in providing
sustenance for his family not acknowledged his unspoken love?
Her childrenshe had nursed and cared for them, protecting
them from his wrath, and they had left home one by one, quickly,
and the passing years had turned them into aging strangers, some
of them with grandchildren of their own. Many of them bore the
unmistakable appearance of the one lying before them now, so quiet
and so still.
It seemed they had looked at her accusingly back then when they
were young, as if to say, how dare you marry this miserable man
and bring us, unasked, into his cruel, angry world? And it seemed
they accused her nowfor as much as they had despised their
fatherhe had been a permanent rock, unyielding, undying,
a perpetual monument, and now, he was gone, leaving them to their
own bitter memories.
"I did the best I could for you," she told her children.
Her cold fingers touched his colder brow. "And so did he,"
she added softly, looking at each of them. "He did the best
he knew how."
When all the children had finally left home, it had seemed easier
for him, free from the burdens and worries of feeding and clothing
his ever-growing family. At last, it was just her and him, like
back in the far away beginning. Children themselves when they
had married, fleeing from their barren, coarse impoverished lives,
they had searched for a better life. But the roots were too deep,
and he had stubbornly clung to the way he was raisedspare
the rod and spoil the child, while she prayed the harsh lessons
the children learned would somehow further them in their new lives.
In latter years, he had mellowed like a frost-bitten persimmon,
and the seasons came and went until last year seemed as only yesterday,
and all the yesterdays flowed haphazardly like the tumbling white
waters roaring through the mountain rocks, plunging forever onward.
She thought again of his aching feet, and remembered with another
stab of pain how just a few days ago she had stubbornly refused
to laugh at one of his numerous stories, still vexed by the sharp
way he had spoken to her when a fattening hog had slipped past
her in the barn lot. Crestfallen, as if she had thrown a dishpan
of cold water on his face, rebuffing his awkward apology, he had
stumbled from the room with his shoulders bowed.
Sometime, you just had to love a body in spite of himself, fighting
against his demons that raged inside, threatening to engulf him
completely. Perhaps she had helped hold those demons in check,
simply by just being present, although she knew others saw her
as weak and him as strong. She had not even flinched the one time
he had struck her in a drunken rage. He had dropped instantly
to his knees, wrapping his arms around her faded skirt, weeping
and despising his weakness and the whiskey that drove him wild.
Wonderingly, her hands had fallen on his tousled unkempt hair
while tears slipped silently down her stinging cheeks. In her
own weary strength, she had endured, and through the years had
found hidden energies that enabled her to rub his aching feet
while her own had throbbed with pain.
"Mama, you'll have stars in your crown," one of the
children said. "You never turned your back on him."
"I never turned my back on any of you," she said, wondering
if they had forgotten all the times she had come to their aid.
"And he never turned his back on me."
A shamed silence stole across their flushing faces. It was as
though by escaping, they had simply obliterated their existence
on this mountain farm. The memories were still too painful to
Always, when the children were young, it had been her with themagainst
him. Her crippled fingers reverently traced his cold face. Now
always, it would be her with himagainst them. She saw the
face of a young bright-eyed boy with his cowlick slicked wetly
against his head, standing before her holding a bouquet of wild
mountain flowers in his hand. "I"ll take care of you
the best I know how," he had said humbly. And he had. The
best he knew how.
What she wouldn't give to be able to rub his tired calloused feet
just one more time!
Billingsby is a Weakley County, Tennessee, farmwife and poet.
Her novel Wildwood: Confessions of a Moon Wife has recently
been released and is available online through Amazon, Barnes and
Noble, and Books-A-Million. Her poetry has been published in perodicals
including Windmills (UTM), The Jackson Purchase Historical
Society, Lyrical Fiesta, The Family Farm, and