(For my Father)
Mama’s house is at the end of the shortest street in Bennetsville. It isn’t even what you’d call a street, really. Just a little hook off the main road that circles behind Jason’s greenhouse. I don’t know if there’s even a street sign there. Us locals know where to find it, and travelers don’t have no reason to look. Nothing there for them to be interested in, ‘cept maybe the greenhouse or the little church just past that. But for me, it’s home.
Or, it was.
Growing up on this little street means you know all the neighbors, and their dogs, and their cats. It means chain link fences with gates that barely hold onto rusting hinges, and sprinklers to run through on hot days, watermelon on Sunday afternoons, brick steps leading to cement porches, and hydrangeas. Every house has a big hydrangea bush in the yard. But Mama’s is the prettiest. It’s blue. Bluer than a clear autumn sky.
I stop to run my hand over the cluster of petals before climbing those two brick steps onto the porch. The blooms reach over the iron handrail that shifts when you put your weight on it. A few petals fall down and speckle the sandy earth beneath the bush, almost like little snowflakes. I shake my head, knowing that’s the closest thing to snow this old house will ever see.
The bricks at the corner of the steps are starting to pull away from the house. One has already cracked and chipped. I should fix that. Mama wouldn’t want the steps to look so shabby. But later. I’m not here to fix the steps today.
It’s Sunday. And I have my guitar.
I take a seat in one of the plastic porch chairs. Three white chairs sit along the length of the porch, and Mama’s rocker rests just beyond the reach of the open door. The legs bend a little as I get comfortable. These chairs have held uncles way too heavy for the seats, and sometimes two or three of the grandchildren drinking melted popsicles. But I sit, and rest my guitar on my knee, plucking the first string. It’s gotten a bit sharp, so I turn the key on the headstock ‘till the tone mellows. A quick strum across the neck puts my mind at ease.
I begin to pluck the strings with my right hand as the fingers on my left press against the frets. Just a little something I made up to get my fingers moving. The sound that echoes from the polished wooden body is rich and warm, resonating in my chest. I close my eyes and take a breath, allowing the music to take over. I’m just a means for the music to release itself, after all.
“Mmmm, son, that’s sounding good!”
Mama’s voice breaks the silence. I look over, and there she is in her rocker. Her hair’s up in the same little bun, right on top of her head. She’s wearing the same pink polyester mumu, and some worn out slippers. Still smelling like rose soap from the dollar store.
And she’s smiling that sunshine smile.
“I’m not even playing anything yet, Mama,” I tell her, shifting a little in my seat so I can face her.
“But it’s still good! Mhmm! Can’t nobody play like my son!”
She leans back in her rocker as the breeze sweeps through the little porch. It’s warm, but it’s still a breeze. The stray strands of her hair dance around her face, and the hydrangea shakes.
“I’ve been missing you,” she says.
“I know,” I reply, softly. “I’ve been missing you, too.”
“You didn’t come the last couple of Sundays.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
I pull the guitar a little closer, and the melody comes. I’ve played it a thousand times, maybe more. It’s Mama’s favorite. When she hears it, the song starts in her throat. Her head begins to sway a little, and her eyes close. She steps away from me, from the porch, from everything around us, and is there in that song. A soulful hum begins its harmony with my guitar, running up and down the scale, finding the sweet places where it dances with the melody.
And Mama sings.
“Swing low, sweet chariot. Comin’ for to carry me home.”
“Swing low, sweet chariot. Comin for to carry me home …”
A shudder goes through me. Maybe it’s the wind. Or maybe it’s a spirit come down from Heaven, just to sit on that porch, and hear Mama sing. Most people can’t bring the spirit, because they don’t understand the song. Not the way Mama did. That song had been there with her through all of it.
It was there when me and my brother were born.
It was there when Daddy left.
It was there through all the hungry days.
It was there through all the lonely nights.
And it was there the day I got my first guitar.
“I looked over Jordan, and what did I see? Comin’ for to carry me home.”
“A band of angels, comin’ after me. Comin’ for to carry me home …”
I take a breath. My fingers continue along the neck, still calling the music forth. “Why’d you have to go, Mama?”
She shakes her head. “Oh, son. That’s not for me to know, or you to know. Only the Lord knows when, or why.”
I dig my fingers deeper into the chords. “But I need you.” My vision blurs, but my hands don’t stop. “Who’s going to pray for me, now that you’re gone?”
This time, I feel her hand resting on my arm. Her touch is so soft, so gentle. You wouldn’t know they were the hands of a warrior. Of a woman who fought on her knees each night as prayers for her family filled the throne room of God.
“You know better than that,” she tells me. “I prayed for you every day on this side, and I’m still praying on the other side, too!”
The music stops. My hands shakes. And I look up, but …
She’s not there.
She’s not sitting there, wearing pink, smiling at me. The rocker is empty. Her slippers aren’t on the porch, next to the door.
The door is shut. The door is locked.
And the smell of rose soap isn’t lingering in the air.
She’s not there.
… no, that’s wrong.
She’s there. Even if I can’t see her.
It’s Sunday, after all. It’s our porch day.
“Play my song for me, son.”
The breeze sweeps through once more, and her rocker gently sways back and forth.
The chords form as I softly strum.
D … G … D … A7
“If you get there before I do. Comin’ for to carry me home.”
“Tell my friends I’m coming there too. Comin’ for to carry me home …”