Mamma always had a love for other people’s possessions. When I was growing up, this created a sense of confusion and doubt at home. We’d be visiting at Aunt Cathy’s or our cousin’s house down in Coultree County. Mamma would admire a new piece of silver or some fine china statuette. A few days later, I would see the object of her desire in our house. One day, when I was old enough to figure out something was wrong, I asked her about it.
“Mamma, isn’t that the serving spoon Aunt Cathy had last Sunday?”
Mamma would just sort of wave her hand dismissively. “She knew how much I loved that piece… Isn’t it lovely?” or “Wasn’t that a thoughtful gift?” and trail off without really saying anything.
Late at night, I could hear angry words behind closed doors. I couldn’t hear the words but I knew what Papa and Mamma were fussing about. Sometimes the item would end up back where Mamma first saw it. Sometimes it would disappear entirely, and it would be years before I knew what happened to it.
As I grew older, visits to other people’s houses grew more infrequent. I would ask Mamma why we didn’t go visit Aunt Cathy or Uncle Lee any more, and she’d just shake her head.
“Them sisters and brothers of mine got too uppity. Think they’re too good to have the likes of us in their fancy homes. ” And that would end the subject.
Finally, we stopped going to anybody’s house anymore, and no one came to visit us either. I missed my cousins, and even a lot of the neighborhood kids stopped coming around.
That’s about when my Mamma started going shopping. She would catch the bus into town and spend hours at Kresge’s or Woolworth’s. She never came home with any bags or packages but the next day, I’d sometimes see some new trinket on the sideboard or the shelf in the front parlor.
Mamma and Papa really started going at it then. They’d be up late at night, shouting in the back bedroom. I’d hear Papa yelling and Mamma crying, then doors slamming. Sometimes Papa would leave and wouldn’t come home until the next night. Then I’d see Mamma wander through the house mumbling to herself or banging her fists against the side of her head.
I was older then and it didn’t scare me as much as it did when I was just a kid, but it still made for some long nights. I wanted to help and make the yelling go away, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I knew by then that Mamma was stealing, and it was wrong, but I wanted all the yelling to stop, and I didn’t want Mamma to hurt herself.
Then one day, Mamma went shopping and didn’t come home. It got late and started getting dark, and I got scared, even though I was too old to be afraid. Papa finally got home and I told him Mamma didn’t get back from shopping. He looked upset but he wouldn’t say anything. He just heated up some dinner and called Mrs. Torrance next door to come keep an eye on me while he went out.
I told Papa that I was ten and didn’t need a baby-sitter and I wanted to go with him to find Mamma. We were arguing about it, when someone knocked at the door. Papa opened it and there was Deputy Miller from in town. He had come to speak at our school once the year before.
Papa went out on the porch and talked to the deputy for a bit. Their voices were low, so I couldn’t hear what they were saying. A few minutes later, I heard the car drive away, then Mamma and Papa came back in. Mamma was crying, but Papa looked really mad. He walked her back to the bedroom and slammed the door, and then he came back and sat in the front parlor in the dark.
It’s been fourteen years since I was back in the old house on Emily Place. When I came into town to arrange for Papa’s funeral, I didn’t stay there, but got a room over at the new Days Inn by the Interstate. When the funeral was over, I took Mamma back to the home in Tyrone. Some folks called it a rest home and some called it an old folk’s home. When my Papa took my Mamma there when I was thirteen, they called it a sanitarium.
Mamma has been there ever since, and once I got old enough, Papa let me go visit. She’d always talk about coming home when she ‘got well enough’ but she never did. Sometimes I’d go talk to one of the doctors they had working on her and he’d just shake his head and say she wasn’t ‘working on her issues’ or ‘had a difficulty dealing with reality.’ I didn’t know what all that meant; it just meant she wasn’t coming home.
The doctor or nurses would sometimes take me in her room while she was in the sunroom. They’d search and find a pen that belonged to one of the doctors or a book that another patient was missing. I used to confront Mamma on it, but she’d just wave her hand and say, “It was so nice of them,” or something like that and smile that old tired smile of hers.
One time when I went to visit, they had her strapped down in her bed. They had these brown leather cuffs that wrapped around her wrists and ankles that kept her from getting up or moving around much. I asked Mamma why, and she just started cussing and thrashing, yelling at me like it was my fault. I ran out of the room and asked the nurses. They told me that Mamma had ‘tried to hurt herself again’ and ‘it was for her own good.’
As I got older, I’d stop by and visit her doctor before going to her room so I wouldn’t be surprised. She never got over wanting other people’s possessions, but I’d gotten used to that. It was when she was strapped down and ranting, or drugged to where she didn’t know who I was that I had a hard time. I was just glad she had behaved herself during the funeral.
Now I had to clean out the old house and get it ready to put up for sale. I’d lived down in Charlotte ever since I got out of high school, working in the mills, and I had no use for the old place. There were a lot of memories there, but most of them weren’t good, and I just wanted it behind me.
I was in the attic when I found the old chest. It was a large Lane chest, made of oak on the outside, and lined with cedar. The rusty hinges squeaked when I opened it, and the smell of cedar was mixed with the musty smell of things left too long in one place.
There was Mrs. Torrance’s hand-made embroidered blanket and Aunt Cathy’s silver serving spoon. There was a set of brass bookends, and a small wooden carving I had seen at Uncle Lee’s. The chest was full of all manner of treasures that I had seen at some time in our house but had disappeared after one of Mamma and Papa’s fights. At the bottom lay a small penknife that my grandfather had given me when I was just a little boy.
I had always wondered what happened to that knife. I put it in my pocket and cried.