by Carolin Messier
Everything that reminded Daddy of Mama was his favorite. He never let me forget her. I lived her through all of her favorite things. Books of all kinds she adored. She’d loved them so much that she’d gone to college to study literature. She was only one of a handful from Chester High School to go off to college. All the way to Chapel Hill she’d gone. Jane Austen and the Brönte sisters were particular favorites but she believed every book was a treasure and the printing press the greatest invention of mankind. Said it raised the possibilities of common folks to rise to higher thought through access to ideas and information. Or so Daddy told me. Most of what I know of my mother I learned through his eyes and voice. I know she was human with a beating heart and lungs that breathed because they stopped, and she was gone. But through his eyes she was an apparition, not quite a saint because she had a fun-loving, devilish side, but an otherworldly creature that inspired love and admiration for her in those she touched.
After I’d left Watson to pursue my life and tried unsuccessfully to form a family of my own, I wondered whether he would have loved her so much if she’d lived past 33. If she’d lived to argue with a disorderly son and hate the new neighbors who moved into the pale yellow house at the end of the lane. If she’d lived would she have become common in his eyes, just an ordinary, good woman? Would he have adored her so deeply? She’ll always be young and beautiful to him. She’ll always be full of fire and sweetness. No one will ever match the tone of her humming voice as she washed the dishes after supper while he read the paper or added up the accounts. She was preserved at the perfect age of 33 at the height of her bloom, like a prize winning garden rose hung upside down at the peak of its blossom, setting its petals into a permanent rouge. You’d think that would be hard to live up to, to have a perfect woman for a mother, but I was a part of her left behind, her growing legacy and greatest work Daddy said. If such a thing is possible, he almost loved me too much, enough for two.
Mama had been the promise of her parents’ dreams. She was born healthy and bright-eyed when they were already in their fourth decade. They’d long since given up hope that they’d ever be blessed with a child after Granny Taylor suffered five miscarriages early in their marriage. So after Mama had proved her robust constitution by putting on nearly two pounds in the first month, Granny and PawPaw Taylor presented her at the West End Missionary Baptist Church over in Newbury to thank the Lord for his blessings. When the pastor asked the baby’s name, they told him Evelyn Louise, meaning life and renowned warrior. Knowing the grief they’d suffered, he smiled his approval, held her up for all the congregation to see, and preached on how the Lord bestowed life that should never be taken for granted, that we needed to fight for it. She’d been given a strong and noble name, but instantly became known as Evie Lou to everyone who saw the good natured infant. When she grew up it still stuck, but it never really suited her; she was too elegant and had a far away vision. She was an only child, like me, but had her mother her entire life. When Mama died Granny Taylor said her own inner light went out, that there was no more oxygen to feed it. She said it wasn’t natural for a mother to outlive her child. Even though she’d always been a hardy woman, she was gone in less than a year at the age of 74.
The women in my family don’t last very long. They’re not weak or sickly; they just live so fully and burn so brightly that they burn up. At least that’s what Granddad says. And their men mourn them and carry on alone; there being no other women ever be able to fill the places they left bare and empty.
Daddy always called her Evie. He thought the Lou was too country for his literary lady who’d gone to Chapel Hill to study English and became Watson’s librarian shortly after her arrival. His Evie had shoulder-length chestnut hair and a welcoming smile that started in the left corner of her lips and expanded until her eyes sparkled.
Every year on the date that marked their anniversary, Daddy would raise a glass at supper and retell the moment he first laid eyes on Mama. She’d been new to Watson, having grown up in the next county over. Along with two suitcases, six boxes of books, and a freshly-framed diploma with the letters B.A. after her name, Granny and PawPaw Taylor delivered her to Widow Norton’s place two days before she was to start as the assistant librarian at the County Library, the pride of downtown Watson. The widow had placed an ad in the regional paper seeking a tenant for her attic apartment, and my grandparents thought that was a good place for their only child to call her first real home away from home. The two rooms tucked into the over-sized dormers under the roof were furnished with a pair of reading chairs and a side table, a kitchenette and dinette set, bookshelves and a single bed. Widow Norton didn’t meddle in her tenant’s business like some old ladies would. The apartment was private with its own entrance reached by a stair up the outside of the house, but she was a pious Baptist lady and so had furnished the place to discourage gentleman guests. After delivering her few belongings and Granny fussing over the hanging up of clothes, the three of them walked the six blocks over to Jenny’s Kitchen and Cafe on the widow’s recommendation to share a final supper.
That’s where Daddy first saw her. They’d settled into a window table after being greeted by the single waitress who’d invited them to seat themselves. He’d finished afternoon deliveries and was on his way to meet up with Shep Beaumont and Stevie Garrett when he walked right by the picture window that framed Mama just as she looked up from her plate of baked ham and corn pudding and laughed at one of PawPaw’s jokes. He always said that the light in her eyes and sparkle of her smile nearly blinded him, they were so bright. I guess they did because he stubbed his shoe on a crack in the sidewalk pushed up by the roots of one of the elms that lined Lee Street, and would have fallen flat right there, had he not managed to keep upright thanks to an exaggerated Jerry Lewis move. And that’s the first time Mama noticed Daddy: eyes wide, mouth agape and arms flailing.