Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter 119

6 September 2009
Ava slept fitfully most nights. Ordinary aches and pains that she never quite got used to, and the usual worries of the eldest generation kept her mind working long after she pulled up the covers and sent her greetings to Adam.

Tonight started out no differently. First her left hip, then her right knee decided that lying down and resting was worse than being up.

But getting up convinced her right ankle that it was tired, and the last one to complain was the one who decided for the lot. She went back to bed.

She put a glass of water within reach, moved the cat out of the warm spot she claimed, and crawled back in settling the cat comfortably in the crook of her arm.

The cat turned around twice, then curled up, twitching the end of its tail in part annoyance and part satisfaction. The dog on the rug sighed and put his head on his paws, then curled up and hid his face under the tip of his own tail. Cats had all the look.

Ava noted this with amusement, then closed her eyes. She had watched this type of rivalry for so many years...

"How did my mother put up with us all those years?" she wondered, half aloud.

Her mother had been a kind woman, but firm. Not one of her children, or for that matter nephews, nieces, or neighbor's children ever got away with any unkind words or actions, nor even the usual sibling pranks without Ma's unequivocal reprimand. And no child ever went without a serviceable winter coat and shoes, either, nor a bit of pocket money on their birthdays. Ma had always seen that the town council took care of everyone, and no one had argued.

Ava smiled as she remembered the summer that Ma had thrown a birthday party for herself and invited all the neighborhood children. The backyard had been transformed into a festival hall, with long tables (boards on sawhorses), and streamers, and flower garlands that Ava and her sisters had gotten up early to make. At one end, the ground had been swept clean for a dance floor.

The children had filed in at the appointed time, cleaned and pressed as Ma always liked to say, with small gifts for the "birthday girl" who put them in a neat pile at the head of the table. At the right moment, Ma had clapped her hands and the mothers from around the neighborhood trouped in with cakes, sauces, punch of all flavors and roasted vegetable trays. Soon, even the town council had appeared, bearing either gifts or food until there was little room to sit to eat. But they all managed to fit, somehow.

Then "band" came in, taking up stations around the yard, surrounding the party-goers with cheerful tunes. Some of the older children had started the dancing, and before long the adults had joined in, imitated by the youngest children. The middle-aged children had clustered together, pretending to take no notice of the dancing until Pa had grabbed his youngest niece and swung her into the line dance.

It had been a gala of magnificent proportions.

But what stuck in everyone's memory was that, as Ma had finished opening the presents everyone had brought, she continued pulling packages from the pile, handing something to each person who had come. A handkerchief, a tie, a beautiful pillowcase for a hope chest, a neatly worked sheath for a pen knife, a small stuffed doll. Every person in the village had received something from Ma.

And then, in the middle of the following winter, Ma had slipped away in the night, with Pa at her side and her children sitting quietly in the next room. No one had known, when they celebrated her life, that she already knew her time was nearly over. She had kept it secret from everyone, even Pa, until a month had passed, and she had found herself unable to get out of bed one morning.

Ava stirred fitfully in her sleep. Ma had spent part of each day with each of her children and the grandchildren who were old enough, claiming to need their help to sit, to turn, to eat; insisting they take shifts so that she was never alone when the sun shone. She had, uncharacteristically, alternated between demanding, and wheedling... and sleeping. Ava, the eldest, with a family and the farm to run had found the dual demands exhausting, and more than once snapped at her mother, waiting for the expected reprimand.

But it never came. Ma would look at her with wide, surprised eyes, and then close them and go back to sleep, no reproach just surprise.

Ava would sit there then, her work in her lap, one grandchild or another at her feet, and wonder how long it would take before she became as patient and wise as Ma.

She never felt she had. And yet, through the years her patience had grown until the children didn't remember ever being scolded harshly, nor unjustly. Just like Ma. And through the years, her ability to work through her own tiredness had improved so that, working slowly she managed to always have things done on time -- or a little early. Just like Ma.

When Gilly had a problem with one of the children, Ava would give the child a break -- and Gilly -- and ask the child to come help out for a few days. Just like Ma.

And when a child -- or a young couple, or an older person -- was known to be going without, Ava made sure they got what was necessary. Just like Ma

And now, in her restless sleep, Ava remembered her mother's final words.

"Ava, you feel overwhelmed now, but someday you will be the anchor for your family, and for this village. It is hard to be patient sometimes, I know I have struggled with it all my life. I see myself in you, so much. Don't fret over me. All this will soon be over, and you will have a fine life ahead of you.

"Make of the future what you will, but remember that I have loved you always, and I always will. It isn't fair to you to have to take on so much, but then you know, life isn't fair. Always, some are favored more than others. All we can do is the best at any given moment."

Ma had sighed deeply, and asked to be propped up before she finished her thought.

"When you speak harshly to one person, remember how it feels; you won't be so quick to respond that way the next time. And when you are kind and generous, remember how it feels; you will be quicker to act that way in the future. You will do fine, Ava, when I am gone; you will do fine."

And her mother had closed her eyes, and Ava had smoothed her hair and set the blankets to rights before going to put a kettle on for her mother's evening tea.

Ma hadn't awakened for her tea. She had slept for three days, and then on a sunny afternoon, just as Ava opened the window to air out the room, she had opened her eyes and smiled. A smile of welcome, or recognition? Pa entered the room just then, and took his wife's hand, kissed her gently on the forehead, and let the tears fall.

Ma was gone.

Ava woke up. The cat was sleeping at the foot of the bed, the dog had gone to another part of the house. She looked around, noticing the dim highlights the dawn cast in the room. Her ankle felt fine, but her hip twinged as she started to sit up.

There was something she needed to remember...

This is the first installment in seven months. Some continuity has been lost, and the author apologizes for the poor quality of the prose. We will continue following Pancho and Sebastian, Nan, Tor and the rest of the Babble family as time allows. Thank you for your patience.