The Middle Distance 1.7.11: “Homebody”

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photo by Sean Cayton

Did you ever notice how people throw out their stuff right at the Do Not Litter sign? $500 fine, it says, and all around it, Budweiser cans and a busted McDonald’s bag. I saw this yesterday when I was walking the dog on the east end of Galveston Island. A stream of trash under the tall and threatening Do Not Litter sign. As if a driver had seen the sign and crossed over deliberately, just to dump his load there on a dare.

“What is the matter with people anyway?” Mama says.

This morning’s paper, the front page story is about a woman who reached into her purse for a pack of cigarettes while a robber held her at gunpoint in a supermarket parking lot. Dangerous move, said the cops, and that was what the story was supposedly about, not the guy sticking a firearm in her face but her audacity and a word of advice to others who might find themselves in this situation: Don’t reach in your purse or you might get shot.

Mama shakes her head and sighs, reaching for her morning cup of Taster’s Choice. She wears a knit cap since she lost her hair in chemotherapy, and is wrapped in a bathrobe as thick as a mattress, even though it’s 68 degrees outside and 74 inside. She is tiny, sinking down inside that big robe, her weight fluctuating below and barely above 100 these days.

When I am not here visiting her, she sends me headlines from the Galveston Daily News to make me laugh. “Naked Woman Assaults Burglar” was one of our favorites, the story of a woman in town who bolted out of bed naked and chased her intruder outside, pursuing him with a tire iron in circles around the car parked in her driveway while the neighbors called 9-1-1.

It doesn’t take much to make us laugh.

This Christmas we had a dandy time with the kids all here and mountains of gifts and two good hams and sausage-and-biscuit breakfasts and turkey dinners and altogether too much rich food. Now we’re recovering, settling into 2011 with quiet hopes and low expectations.

We were sorry not to receive a Christmas card this season from our old neighbor in Kentucky who, most years, recounts the sad accidents of her life in curlicue script on a candy-cane embossed card. “That is the saddest thing I’ve ever read,” says Mama, about to bust, laughter tears pushing out of the corner of her eyes. Then we bust loose and read the precious, pitiful sentences aloud, grateful for some good black comedy.

I am grateful this year for no gushy mass-mailed letters filled with glowing hyperbole about the wondrous achievements of a family I otherwise like and admire, if not for their mother’s annoying tendency to brag. Every year I want to take these testimonials to perfection and burn them in the kitchen sink, one by one. I saw this once in a movie, a woman in a slip standing at the kitchen sink, lighting the mail with a wooden match and dropping the flaming tatters into the sink.

I know I sound like the Grinch Who Hated Christmas, and I’m not. I loved every second of rejoicing and over-indulgence, and have simply settled down to the business of facing a new year out here in the middle distance. Where I must remember to refrain from expressing concern over my children’s lives lest I interfere, where last year’s cataclysm has led to this year’s uncertainty. Where cancer has shrunk out of sight for the moment but will surely return, this time without chemotherapy.

Mama sits in her chair and writes her cards. The dog snores on the couch next to her, and I sit across the room reading, noticing that even my hands look like hers.

“I’m a homebody,” she told her doctor last week when they finally had the talk about whether she needed to consider moving to an assisted living facility. She said it humbly, but I could tell it was her badge of pride. She is a true artist of homemaking, able to turn a little into a lot, loaves into fishes. She moves about the house now like a cat in her stocking feet, arranging and rearranging, clearing and cleaning.

Outside, this morning’s gray downpour has turned to sun and steam. Mama goes down for her nap and the dog and I sneak out for a walk. We’ll pick up trash on the east end today, scanning the marsh for the sight of white birds lifting off, pure and pristine against the winter sky.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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4 Responses to The Middle Distance, 1/7/11: "Homebody"

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    I’m so glad that you could spend time with your mom. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Liz Arnold says:

    My mother always called those letters “brag letters”, and we would get several each year. My favorite was the mother bragging about her 10 year old daughter shooting her first elk! Usually those letters were so long, that we’d have to wait until after Christmas to read them – who had time in the midst of the busy season?! So glad I can visualize your Mama’s sweet home and her cute hat as I listen. My love to you and MB

  3. kay johnson says:

    I love it that your mama’s proud of being a Homebody, and think of those “brag letters” as proof-positive of a construction that exists only on paper.

  4. Paula says:

    Kathy, Granny E. was a homebody too, so is Mom. I’m thinking it’s called independence.

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