Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Shadows

Louise Colln


I once lived for a year in a house that was not capable of being home to me. It was shadows that made it bearable; a weaving flicker laid across the patio by a stunted maple tree; the dark contour of a hole in concrete breaking the geometric line cast over it by the square building formed by four identical units, each unit opening onto the patio.

In the exact center of that inner square was a long gray table with narrow slabs of cement forming benches on each side. A few feet from the table, the concrete had crumbled away in an elongated area about four inches wide. Over to the side a maple tree did its poor best to grow in the ten-by-ten inch space it had been given. There wasn't a broadly curved line anywhere in the range of my vision...except the shadows.

My sister, Trudy, flew in from California and placed me in that square within a square even before Mama got out of Intensive Care. There was no question as to whose life was to be changed.

"You can quit your job, Susan," she said to me, while we sat waiting to go in and stand beside Mama's bed, looking down at her stroke-closed eyes. "You'll have more time to paint your little pictures and let Mama stay at home. You know the promise we made her."

I nodded, though I hadn't been involved in the promise.

Mama loved the big house where she had raised us and her prize winning petunias. She had supported us after Dad left, with long hours in a real estate office, but somehow she found time to care for her babies...her petunias and us.

The petunias took blue ribbons every year at the city flower show. Trudy was queen of every high school ball. I hid away with my paints and, for such a long time, only lived to get into junior high so I could enter my favorite painting in the yearly contest.

A few years ago when Trudy and her very successful husband decided Mama was too old to stay in the big house alone, my opinion wasn't asked. I was uneasily accepted by my older sister as the feckless one, who, at the age of thirty-two, hadn't accomplished much of anything. My "little career"...there were always quote marks in her voice...was working in a tiny art gallery in Chicago and painting in my spare time.

Mama agreed to sell her house and move into the Senior Citizen's Housing Complex, extracting only one promise.

She was already visiting some of her garden club friends in nursing homes. "Promise not to stick me away in one of those places so long as I'm alive enough to care. That's like burying me before I'm dead. If I stop caring where I am, make any decision you need to."

Now, watching jerky forms drifting across a TV screen in the corner of the ICU waiting room, I heartily agreed with that promise. Not my strong Mama, one of those women who sat slumped in a chair staring straight ahead in a nursing home. And maybe I could paint better if I was with Mama again.

Mama's doctor told us that she might learn to walk and talk again if she really worked at it, though she was partially paralyzed on her right side and seemed totally paralyzed in her will. She was moved to the rehabilitation unit of the hospital. I went back to Chicago to end my job.

Patricia Eleph, who owned the tiny upstairs gallery, gave me a handful of paints. "Bring some good paintings when you come back," she said.

Alone in Mama's apartment, I couldn't paint. All the themes in my mind were crushed under the memory of her drooping head and the dreariness of the straight lines caging me in my hollow square.

I got to know bright-eyed Marge Sanders who lived directly across the patio. The people in the other two units never came out, though they were physically able.

"There's just no reason," Marge said, forlornly, looking at the gray patio. "It was better before Selena had her stroke. Your Mama and I were friends."

Mama didn't progress in rehab. The only words she spoke were a slurred, "Tard. Bed nawr." She didn't walk at all.

But Vera Moss, her therapist, insisted that there was something still of Mama in that stroke-changed personality, if only we could bring it out.

She looked sad when she told me that Mama was to be dismissed. "But maybe when you get her home she'll be motivated to fight," she said.

How could Mama remember that the gray cage world I was taking her back to, was supposed to be home to her? The big house we loved had already been replaced with a supermarket.
She sat staring down into her lap on the drive home and said her three words, "Tard. Bed nawr," when we arrived.

That was the pattern of our lives through fall and winter. We went twice weekly to rehab for therapy. Vera suggested that I try to make her aware of things like the date and weather.
So I brought out my sketch pad and, each morning after breakfast, I put Mama's wheelchair in front of the kitchen window. As she sat with her eyes on her folded hands, I sat beside her and colored in the date and the weather in the patio. I dripped rain across the pad, making the number run off the edge of the paper or piled snow high and put the date on top of it like a birthday cake.

On sunny, windy, days I drew the bare maple's spidery shadow sliding about the patio; now draped across the table adapting itself to the sides of the cold slab; now spread flat on the concrete; now stretched so that its tip plunged into the hole beyond the table as if it were trying to take nourishment from the unexpected bit of soil.

Mama never looked at my pictures. When I tried to persuade her to see them, her response was always the same; her guttural, slurred, "Tard. Bed nawr."

I stacked the calendar pages on a table in my room. They made it look like I was producing some work.

When we went in for therapy, Vera spoke again of lack of progress. "If we could only get her to work with us.” She placed a ball in Mama’s palm. “Move it, Selena," she insisted quietly. "Move your fingers. Squeeze the ball."

Mama let the ball roll from her palm. It clung for a minute on a fold in her knit jog suit, and then fell to the floor.

Watching her, I suddenly saw that hand as it had looked when I was thirteen, palm up, and curled as now, but carefully holding a prize petunia, its deep blue ruffled petals lying against her fingers like a caressing pet.

It was a Friday afternoon. I couldn't respond to the big yard around us, nor the trees brushing their leaves together high above our heads. I could only feel my unshed tears pushing against my skull.

"I didn't win, Mama. Not even an honorable mention."

She was on her knees beside her petunia bed, carefully choosing the best bloom for the Saturday morning show at City Hall grounds. She sat back on her heels.

"Oh, Honey, I'm sorry. But there'll be other shows, Susie, and you'll win."

"Mama, I couldn't even win an honorable mention in a rotten junior high art contest." I'd expected first prize. What good was talk of other contests?

Deliberately, Mama leaned forward over her petunias as if she was dismissing my problem. Then, with a quick, graceful motion, she pinched off her best flower, the big double petaled dark blue petunia, the one she knew would take first prize in tomorrow's show. She held it out to me, cupped tenderly in her hand, the stem inches too short for showing.

"To me yours was best. You get my award," she said simply. Not a put-on. Not for show. Just giving me what she thought I deserved, the best blue of the bunch.

The bones of my head ached from my bitterness. "I don't want an old flower. I want the prize. And I'll never try again as long as I live." I turned and ran to my room, finding some sort of angry comfort in passing my hurt on to her bent figure, hand holding out her ruined flower to no one. And now I could cry.

Later, after she'd let me cry it out and come back to her she'd hugged me, accepting the sharing of my hurt as though she deserved it, and we didn't even have to say “forgive.”

Someone else's petunia took first prize at the show, but I kept the flower she picked for me floating in a brandy glass in my room long after it had wilted. I hadn't realized that I'd memorized the soft lines of the flower curving against her strong, square hand, the angled thumb. But I could see it now, line for line, as Vera turned away from the lifeless hand. And I knew what I would do.

I would give her back her petunia, let the flower penetrate to wherever that lost part of her hid. The hand that wouldn't clench itself around a rubber ball would hold a ruffly blue petunia. Mama's subconscious mind would remember the fragile feel of it and wake her to life again.

When we got home I put Mama to bed and called Marge to come stay with her. I bought books and sacks of soil and sphagnum moss. I found a big old bread pan and put in a soil and moss mixture and my seeds and covered it with wet newspapers.

I had no worry that Mama would discover my secret. She saw nothing as we sat before the window and my daily pictures changed from snow to rain to shadows of leaves on the patio.
I had always marveled that each year the beginning of leaves on the trees escaped me. One day the bare trees stood in the sun, the next we were surrounded by green. This year, I watched the knobby bumps on my little maple change to tiny perfect leaves that turned their paler undersides up in the thunderstorms of May, giving the tree the touchingly vulnerable look of a skinny young girl whose skirts are blowing.

I moved the flat of seedlings to the light and thinned them carefully. I had a very small place to set them in that hole in the patio concrete.

I had room for one good plant in the broken concrete. I transplanted the four best seedlings there and watched to see which three must be pulled to let the strongest one grow. I planted the rest of the seedlings in pots and placed them about the patio for the pleasure of the old people in the other units. But Mama's perfect petunia had to grow in the ground for her to see and touch.

Already I could see her hand against the gray of the concrete, the graceful curve of the fingers caressing the petals with their gentle touch and being caressed, in return, by the tiny, breeze impelled movement of the velvet ruffles.

The picture was so strong in my mind that the sketch took only minutes, lines going from mind to pad as if some deeper part of me was guiding my hand. I repeated it for days on the calendar I was still drawing for Mama.

I took her outside each day in her wheelchair now but we ended as always, with the three garbled words, "Tard. Bed nawr."

While she slept, I worked with oils. The giving strength of the fingers and the soft richness of the dark blue petals came to life on the canvas, contrasting with the hard, ungiving grayness of the ribbed cement beneath it, until it seemed that the shadow tipped jaggedness of the broken area was an oasis where the hand could finally come to rest in the brown earth.

The petunias thrived, both in the ground and in the pots. I chose the best one to stay in the ground. I found myself staying out for awhile in the evenings to talk with Marge and the residents of the other units who couldn't resist coming out to give me advice on the flowers.
They brought out chairs and pots of their own, poking and pruning and arguing about the best way to care for them. Mornings, now, when the sun got above the roof line, there were many shadows...of chairs, of flowers and their containers and of the leaf covered sprigs of our tree.

My petunia budded and bloomed; the perfect dark ruffly blue I needed. It was time to wheel Mama out and use that flower to awaken her, bring memories out of her darkened mind.
She took a long time with breakfast and dressing. I didn't rush her. It was almost as if we both were clinging to the routine we had built, unsatisfying as it was; afraid of the changes and hard work before us.

Then, relieved that no one was out there, I pushed her rapidly across the patio. It was so different from my usual slow progress that I seemed to feel a difference in the bowed body in front of me, almost a startled movement. Did I imagine it?

I maneuvered the chair beside the hole in the concrete. "Mama, look at the flower," I said, speaking firmly and distinctly, as Vera had instructed me. "Look at the petunia, Mama."

She didn't move. Gently, I placed my hands about her head. I tried to turn it to be sure the flower was in her line of sight, but felt resistance. Her conscious resistance, or the freezing of unused muscles? If she saw the bloom, she didn't acknowledge it.

I felt a surprising reluctance to break off the petunia that I had hovered over for so long. It seemed wrong to take it away from its source. But Mama had picked hers for me.

I pinched the blue blossom off and placed it in her curled hand, moving the satin petals to fit the space between her palm and fingers.

For a moment the flower laid there and the pictures I had been painting came to life. Then it slipped out of the unmoving hand, clung briefly to her robe and fell to the concrete.

"Tard. Bed nawr," she said.

After I put Mama to bed I kissed her. "I love you Mama," I said.

I stood at the window and watched the maple's shadow withdraw itself from the headless petunia and regain its own shape as it left the table to finally lie tucked completely under the tree.

Mama had told us before we were ready to hear her meaning what she chose; for herself, to not be pushed if she became too tired to fight; for us, to not linger, clinging to an impossible hope.

I called Patricia Eleph to say I was bringing some good paintings to Chicago. Then I placed a call to Trudy in California.

"Mama doesn't care anymore," I told her. "No, you don't need to come. I'll find a good home for her myself."

***

Louise Colln is the author of San Antonio Seduction, published by Premium Press America in April, 2006. She has written four novels for Heartsong Presents: Birdsong Road, Falling Water Valley, Mountain House, and A Place for Love (published internationally and reprinted in an anthology). Louise has adapted three children's classics for Dalmatian Press. Her Poetry in Two Voices was read at the 2005 Romanian Writers' Festival. A resident of Franklin, Tennessee, Louise is a board member of the Tennessee Writers Alliance and secretary and board member of the Williamson County Council for the Written Word.

© Louise Colln

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012