by Sandra Atkins
“Watch out, crybaby, hurt will let the Devil in,” Mama sneered. I remained sitting there after the attack, dumbfounded, as cold and insignificant as common field stones littering a diamond mine. My mind seemed to disconnect with my body, making my mouth go slack with shock, and my eyes daze with confusion. I don’t remember the exact words which had set Mama off, only that I wish I hadn’t said them.
Mama sat across from me, talking to her sister one minute, the next she was upon me. I recognized from television and friends that a mother’s hands should nurture and caress, or, maybe the knowledge was just instinctual. But, the hands that flailed and clawed at my torso and face, pulled and tore at my clothing, contained no such loving properties. Maybe that’s why the lonely feelings of shame and humiliation immediately overwhelmed my twelve-year-old spirit. It’s as if Mama had yanked all of the good feelings out of me. What remained was nothingness. I felt like nothing at all.
Willing myself back to the present. I realized that I couldn’t wig out now, not right here in the middle of the room of family and friends gathered at my house for Mama’s seventieth birthday party. I thought, ‘I should have said no to hosting this affair’, but I always agreed, like a good daughter. Mama had a hold on me, even at forty-five. Mama’s hands seemed to have a grip on me now, pulling the veil of time back as she shrilled, “That girl’s crazy.”
I had perused all of the self-help books on the market. Longing to be a modern, liberated, and independent woman, I sought all the help available out there that my modest income could afford. But, somehow, inside I was still that scared and humiliated twelve-year-old who felt like she wasn’t worth a dime. No amount of water could wash away the shame. No amount of make-up could elevate me to a normal human being. Through the years, I had tried to fill the void with the usual rebellions: illegal drugs, sex, rock-and-roll. Later, I changed to prescription drugs, marriages, and opera. The faster my mind ran, the more the past caught up to me.
“Charlene,” Mama called. “Stop daydreaming and look at this beautiful baby.”
I hurtled back to the party in time to see Mama pick up my niece’s baby. Smiling, I acquiesced, “Yes Mama, she’s a beauty alright.”
“Quit sniveling, you cry baby. Hurt will let the Devil in.” Mama’s laughter rang throughout the hallway and rooms, bouncing off the dingy walls with yellowed paint and the old, plank floors which had long since lost their luster. Her mirth rang, not like a joyous bell sounding out a special occasion, but like one that had been malformed in a skewed mold, the metal warped and broken. I was eight years old again. Betty Davis shone in eerie shades of black and white on the television screen in the dim light. I crouched in the most distant corner of the room, my little fingers jammed into my ears, my eyes squeezed shut with all the strength I possessed. Mama only turned the volume up on the TV, in spite of my prayers. I ran from the corner, too engulfed with fear to have direction. She donned an old wig of hers and a Halloween mask that lay atop a mound of discarded memories in a nearby closet.
I ran. I screamed. I ran in circles. My screams ran with me. The windows framed the darkness outside. The rest of the house rested in darkness. There was nowhere to run. The memory ended with a continuous trail of screaming.
“Charlene. Charlene. Do you want to hold this baby, since it don’t look like you’re gonna have one of yer own.” She paused with the baby in midair. “Now, you haven’t been drinking, have you?”
“Oh Mama,” I pleaded even now, as my mind focused on the party again. Mama slowly transferred the tiny bundle to my arms. I breathed in the smell that is only common to the newborn, as I brought the child carefully to my chest. I buried my face into the tiny neck, drinking in the newness. The smell reminded me of an actual good memory that I had of my childhood. Oh how exciting it had been to open up that new, yellow can of Play Dough. How distinctive and wonderful that smell had been, also, the color so vivid and inviting. I felt a twinge of some strange and foreign feeling as I held the little infant, longing perhaps. Was it the fact that babies are new that makes grown-ups gravitate to them like a moth to a flame? Is it because babies are so innocent? No, I thought it was because they had obtained no scars from life as of yet, soft and unblemished outside and inside.
Mama, now free of the baby, sat beside her only son, Dwayne. I had always calculated that if Dwayne had arrived first, I would never have been birthed into existence. Mama lived for these visits from her son and doted on him unabashedly every reunion. Dwayne had moved up North as soon as he could, so we did not see him often, mostly major holidays and of course, Mama’s birthday. He had always managed to avoid Mama’s wrath. That focus was reserved for me, Charlene this and Charlene that, still was. The more distant Dwayne became, geographically as well as emotionally, the stronger Mama tried to hold on to him. But, he never stayed long. And, the more Mama pushed old Charlene away, not that Mama wished me gone entirely. No, then she would have no one on which to take out her aggression.
I hadn’t noticed, but I was humming softly to the baby. My niece, the child’s mother, suggested sweetly.
“Charlene, maybe you could start us out?”
“D…do what?” I sputtered.
“Start us singing Happy Birthday,” my niece patiently explained.
“Oh, oh, yes,” I acknowledged as I rejoined the party once more. As I opened my mouth slightly with the first note, Mama chimed in, patting Dwayne lovingly on the leg.
“Oh, let Dwayne do it. He’s got such a lovely, deep voice.”
I closed my eyes and began humming softly to the baby again. The loud, exaggerated strains of Happy Birthday faded as I drifted back to my past yet again.
“Charlene, hush, hush. All you do is babble on about nothin’.”
“But, Mama,” I protested. “Look at all the fuzzy caterpillars I picked up.”
I held the Mason jar up for Mama to see. Being somewhat of a Tomboy early on, I presented my collection to Mama with obvious pride.
“Charlene,” Mama shrieked. “You take those disgusting creatures back outside now before they git outta that jar.”
Dwayne, a year younger than me, blurted out, “I reckon you don’t want to see my fuzzy catakillers either?”
Mama laughed at his cute mispronunciation and patted him on the head.
“I’ll betcha that you got more in there than Charlene.” She beamed down at him with pride. “Don’t stick that lip out, Charlene. Hurt’ll let the Devil in.”
“Goodbye, Charlene,” someone called out. My eyes popped open. “I think you and the baby were almost asleep.”
“I think so,” I responded, glad for the offered explanation.
Time had gotten away. People were leaving the party. My niece walked over and retrieved the baby. Regret filled me, having empty arms again. Of course, Dwayne skipped out with the rest of the crowd. Only Mama and I remained, alone. Mama fidgeted on the sofa, her hands flitting back and forth–touching her hair, her face, brushing her clothes, the fabric of her seat–like the caged canaries I had once, when the cats drew near.
“Well, I’d better git too, Charlene.”
Mama unhooked her coat from the rack by the door and slipped it over her shrinking, fragile frame. She slowly turned.
“Charlene, I…I’ve been thinkin’ a lot lately, about things in the past.” She paused. “I…well, you know I had to raise y’all by myself and…”
“I know, Mama,” I inserted quickly. Maybe, I wanted to prevent Mama from finishing that sentence. I chose, maybe, to fill in the blanks rather than face final disappointment. Just maybe, I suspected Mama may be right about one thing, getting revenge by hurting her would let the Devil in after all, to damage my soul beyond repair. But, as surely as that baby that I held earlier was without scars, I finally noticed Mama’s. Not physically with my eyes, but, I finally looked into and beyond the hurt evident in her face, her manner, her quivering, brusque voice as it always repeated, “Hurt’ll let the Devil in, girl, if you let it.” A tear rolled down my cheek for Mama. If only she had followed her own advice.
All I could say was, “Happy Birthday, Mama.”