Ketchup and Mustard Initials

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Frame your story as an adult recalling the events of their childhood.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Sad Creative Nonfiction

I took each step slowly as if the four steps to the pulpit were a barrier between the past I’d always known and a future that I wasn't ready to face. My feet seemed afraid to cross that threshold, each step growing increasingly steeper to climb if in no other place than my heart. 

They’re all waiting on you, I thought. Get a move on. 

I’d rehearsed time and time again and thought I was ready. There seemed a disconnect between my physical self and my mind, though, a chasm between the image I maintained in my mind's eye and the actual person. Like a shameful secret, I kept my emotional self locked away, afraid of what others might think should I allow him to surface for even a moment. Yet there he was, struggling against the walls I'd imprisoned him in. Relax, we don't have time for this right now. I have to get through this eulogy.

I shuffled across the church’s old carpet, closer to brownish grey than its original light azure, and approached the worn, wooden podium, its microphone bent downward in a clear sign not to use it. No need bothering with the microphone even if it did work; I spoke loud enough for everyone in the small chapel to hear.

I unfolded sheets of yellow notebook paper from my pocket, flattening their creases so they’d lie flat and not slide past the small lip at the bottom of the tilted podium. I was worried about such things - not that anyone in attendance would have minded. Such a trivial thing to worry about, but it was something I could control. So I fretted over it. 

Control was something I’d found lacking since receiving the grave news just days before. I'd worked hard to retain some semblance of control over things in the interim, pushing aside things that could interfere with my ability to control my situation... like emotions, feelings. There was too much to do to allow that little boy I'd imprisoned to come out and run roughshod over my mental state. Maybe later.

Mom died suddenly on September 12th. She never provided any postmortem wishes nor did she have life insurance. I took on planning funeral arrangements, mapping out a detailed schedule for the service. Scheduling a pastor. Getting the mortician to finish her death certificate so he could release her remains to the funeral home. Picking out a container for her cremains.

With so many things to do, I dove in headfirst, occupying my mind - and my heart - by inundating myself with tasks. Trivialities, like writing an obituary blurb, took on the added relevance of distracting my troubled soul.

Losing myself in these tasks meant I didn’t have the mental capacity left to grieve; I'd yet to shed a single tear in the days since Mom's passing. There was too much to take care of, too many things that required my attention. Or did I just occupy my mind to avoid facing the emotional devastation of losing of my mother?  

“Thank you, Pastor Smith, for those wonderful words. If Mom were here, she would have also thanked you – then told you to cut it out, saying all those nice things about her.” Muffled chuckles rose from the pews.

I'd even rehearsed these remarks, down to the poorly timed attempt at humor. Everything had to be perfect, lest I face the judgment of everyone in attendance should I flub even a single word. To mess up during my own mother's eulogy... everyone would see me, flawed and exposed. Embarrassed, even. Today was not the day to allow my emotions to get the better of me. 

“In all seriousness, thank you everyone for coming out today. The show of love and support for Mom is overwhelming; she's up there, happy, looking down on all of the loved ones who came to give their respects. While I'm sure she would have loved to have been here among all of you, at least Mom was able to bring us all together again. I just wish it was under better circumstances.”

I paused, as rehearsed, and scanned over the faces staring back from the pews. Half looked at me, fanning themselves in the early September Carolinian heat in the old church. The other half were lost in thought, likely grasping at precious memories that had already begun to fade.

“We’re here to celebrate the life of Sherry Jennings, beloved mother, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. While we’re saddened by her passing, I’d like to take some time this morning to celebrate the time we had with her - rather than focus on the fact that our time with her has come to an end. As the saying goes, ‘don’t be sad that she’s gone, be happy she was here’.”

The faces looking up at me nodded in agreement. The others maintained their thousand-yard stares, oblivious to my words; they didn’t need my remarks to remind them of what we’d lost. 

“Mom never had it easy. She had my brother Randy when she was just 17 which forced her to drop out of school. Then, just over a year after Randy came into this world, I was born. Mom was 18 with two children, no high school diploma, and no career prospects. She was set up for a tough life even before my father abandoned us two months after I was born.

“We were lucky, though; Mom met Dad, fell in love, and got married. Soon, Matt and Daniel joined the family. By the time Mom turned 25, she'd been married twice and had four sons. She wasn’t perfect, I’d be lying if I stood up here and told you she was, but she did the best she could with what little we had.”

Obsessively rehearsing my speech meant that I didn’t have to think about what I would say next; therefore, my mind was free to wander. As I described how we four brothers came to be, I pictured my young mother, stressing about how she’d afford even the most basic necessities. I thought of the selfish man-child who'd left her when she was still a teenager, too scared of the situation he’d created to stick around. I also recalled that none of her worries ever showed through. She never hinted that we struggled as mightily as we did. No matter the hardship, she put on her best face for her sons - setting aside her well-being for the sake of ours.

Even while rehearsing my remarks, I hadn't taken the time to reminisce about the life Mom had to lead once we were born. Without realizing it, I'd shut out all memories of Mom while writing a eulogy to her.

Something squeezed tight on my chest. Not now...

I refocused on my planned speech, distracting myself with something I could control.

“Despite there being four of us, Mom tried to make each of us feel special. It’s hard with four boys – everything was done four times; it was hard to individualize. But there were always things she would do to make sure each of us felt loved - individually. One example: we ate a lot of bologna sandwiches as kids, with ketchup and mustard…”

As images clarified in my mind, memories solidifying from being little more than foggy dreams state to a crystal-clear picture, my resolve weakened. Each image flashing through my mind chipped away at the walls I'd forged around my heart.

There she was, standing in the kitchen handing out plates with open-faced bologna sandwiches - each with red and yellow lines on the white bread. I could see her toothy, gapped grin as she handed each plate out. Her voice played clearly, as distinct as a recording, as I recalled how she’d call out “boys!” when the sandwiches were ready.

A lump formed in my throat, interrupting my meticulously planned speech. No... no, no, no. I gulped it down, suddenly terrified of everyone in the pews watching me. I had to collect myself before continuing. 

“…with ketchup and mustard spelling out our initials on the bread. Ketchup for our first initial, mustard layered on top for our last.”

Years had passed since I last thought of pieces of Merita bread with letters slowly squirted on them. I could see them as clear as if they were sitting next to the yellow sheets of paper in front of me. I paused - unrehearsed - and for a moment forgot I was in front of a sanctuary full of people. 

I reverted back to a six year old boy looking anxiously for the red M with the yellow M on top. The thought brought a smile to my face - and a swell of moisture to my eyes. I don't care about the people in the audience; this is about Mom. I miss you Mom.

The realization that I was about to cry caused me to snap back from my moment of weakness. I returned - but not completely to the 25 year old working hard to maintain the facade of an emotionally stable man who could pull off a eulogy for his mother without tearing up. One part of me fought to refocus on anything other than sandwiches in an attempt to stem the tide of oncoming tears; the other missed Mom terribly and fought the facade. For the first time since her passing, the other side felt stronger.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, clearing evidence of my losing battle before continuing.

“She found ways to make each of us feel special, to make all of us feel special. Even when we had nothing, she still made things happen for us. One year, I re- um, I remember… I remember...”

I can’t get the words out. My mind had already raced ahead to the scene I was to describe. I gulped back rising sobs as I pressed forward.

“…um, I remember seeing her in the kitchen of our tiny trailer, spooning turkey and gravy from a Hungry Man microwave dinner. I saw the tears on her face, but she still smiled her typical toothy smile as she told each of us ‘Happy Thanksgiving’.”

You were doing the best you could, weren’t you Mom? How hard did you fight to hold everything together? To even hold yourself together?

An audible sob escaped before I could squelch it. I wiped away the accompanying tear only to feel its partner forge a new path on the other side of my nose.

“She made sure we had everything we needed, even if she couldn’t always give us everything we wanted. She was everything a mother should be and more. 

"One of my fondest memories…”

Another crack in my voice; my walls were all but gone.

“…was when I had earaches as a young boy. They would wake me up in the middle of the night; my screams would wake everyone in the trailer. My mom would come to the bedroom, medicine in one hand and my favorite book in the other. She’d sit next to me, pulling my head into her lap…”

My feeble attempts to control my emotions were finally, completely overpowered by the life-changing loss of the woman who formed the basis of my entire world. Everything always went back to Mom; my earliest memories, my fears, my loves and hates. Nothing made sense if she – or now that she – was gone.

I still fought, though I no longer fought to suppress the emotions that I’d ignored for days. I now fought to get even the smallest words out between cries.

“… head tilted to the side while she dripped the medicine in my ear. It hurt so bad, but she stayed with me, cradling my head between her hands while I waited for the prescription to take effect. She’d check on me, ask how I was feeling. I don’t remember her leaving the bed on those nights, she stayed with me until I felt better then would read Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs until I fell asleep.”

All of my extensive planning had gone off the rails. Notes were pointless, and I no longer looked to them for guidance. Mom had given me all the guidance I needed, memories of her more than enough to memorialize her. I continued, in between sobs, to describe memories that came flooding back. My thoughts traveled down long lost neural pathways, recalling events relegated to distant corners of my subconscious. 

The joy with which she responded when she saw my report card in 3rd grade. 

The black eyes she endured from a boyfriend she stayed with after Dad went to prison – just to make sure she could pay the bills, since she couldn’t afford to by herself. 

The pride she displayed when she watched my basic training graduation.

They all came flooding back, those and more. The eulogy now took the form of a verbal slideshow depicting events of my life involving Mom.  

I never needed to rehearse, I just needed to give in and allow myself to feel what I was feeling. I just needed to stop suppressing my inner self.

I continued recounting memory after memory, struggling to breathe as I balanced speaking and bawling. After a while, I realized that I’d taken a substantial amount of time just recalling the fondest memories of my life. Was this eulogy about her? Or me? 

I needed to wrap things up, but I didn’t know what else to say.

I simply ended it with the most sincere thing I could possibly say in that moment.

“I miss you so much Mom.”

***

Sherry Anne Jennings (1968-2013)

July 10, 2021 17:38

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18 comments

K. Antonio
21:28 Jul 16, 2021

I honestly couldn't critique this even if I wanted to. This piece was just a sweeping tide of emotions. I lost my dad when I was 20 and had to do all the funerary arrangements at that age, and to this day I still can't get over the entire process of having to face the reality of death. It's tough, I'm sorry for your loss. I've said this before, in my language grief or mourning is translated to "fighting" in a way I guess having to cope with going through life without a loved one or family member is sort of like a battle. This piece was l...

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Michael Martin
00:31 Jul 17, 2021

Thanks for that, I know that others have experienced this in their lives but it's good to see that I'm not the only one who struggled, and still struggles, with death.

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Riley Boock
20:29 Jul 12, 2021

I'm speechless. What a lovely story to share! You epitomized the beauty of life and the heartbreak of death in this piece. I'm very sorry for your loss; it's evident she was with you while you wrote this.

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Michael Martin
20:36 Jul 12, 2021

I felt the same with yours; I could feel your grandmother's presence with your piece. I've found that, during times of loss, I've felt emotions much stronger than I did at any other time in my life. Love, anger, hatred... they all paled in comparison with the pain I felt after my walls finally came crumbling down. I sobbed from places so deep within myself that I didn't realize they ever existed. Thanks for reading, I truly appreciate it :)

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Andrea Magee
04:32 Jul 30, 2021

Tears, tears, tears, and more tears. You are truly skilled with evoking relatable emotions about relationships, life events, struggles and triumphs. I'm sorry that you lost your mom and have had to navigate in this world without all her love and support that helped you in your formative years. When I read your stories they seem a sort of therapy. by sharing the raw and ugly that has touched you and writing about it so well. I always feel it's your roadway to healing. Excellent job. Please continue to write and share.

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Michael Martin
12:20 Jul 30, 2021

Thank you, it does help to talk about things. I spent my entire life hiding everything, bottling things up and hiding myself. I alluded to that in this story, but little by little I'm trying to work on it.

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Andrea Magee
12:41 Jul 30, 2021

You're welcome. It shows, in your writing, you are working on it ...keep at it.

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Andrea Magee
11:35 Aug 02, 2021

Hi Michael.....Is there a problem with the Reedsy website.....I haven't seen any activity on my account for like 4 days?....Is that common?

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Michael Martin
15:44 Aug 02, 2021

I have no idea; they've been doing updates, starting with last Thursday I think. I'm not on the admin team here so I have no idea, unfortunately.

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Andrea Magee
15:47 Aug 02, 2021

Gotcha.....perhaps that's it. Last Thursday was the last activity on my account. Seeing your reply to my message tells me that my account is not blocked lol ( no reason it should be but still). The little orange notification dot on activity is a highlight for my day.😊 Thanks

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Kate Winchester
22:20 Jul 23, 2021

Your story is beautiful and touching. You really know how to bring out the emotions, and your story is very well written. I’m sorry for your loss and I’m sure your mom is watching over you.

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Michael Martin
18:06 Jul 24, 2021

Thank you... for both your kind words as well as reading this piece. Obviously this one has a bit of a deeper meaning for me than most of my work. I'll have to go check out some of your work as well :)

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Kate Winchester
18:33 Jul 24, 2021

You’re welcome and thank you. 😊

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Jude S. Walko
01:30 Jul 21, 2021

My God. Every week, my ego gets the best of me and I think "Why can't I get shortlisted or maybe even win?" My stories are at least better than half on here ... me, me, me. This is the first time I am able to say, unequivocally, that this is a masterpiece and I strive to be able to someday write like this. The words flow like beautiful poetry, the picture painted is pristine. We get to know the characters quickly and we are involved and indebted to their life experiences. This is what short story writing is all about. Ultra-creative, emot...

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Michael Martin
05:21 Jul 21, 2021

I... am humbled by your response. I genuinely appreciate your kind words, I put a lot of work into this one - both in terms of writing as well as emotions. Thank you for taking the time to read and leaving such a heartfelt response. (This is a true story, it was my emotional battle delivering Mom's eulogy.)

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Kanika G
16:28 Jul 20, 2021

This was so touching, Michael. I almost cried. Such a precious bond you had with your Mom. She had a tough life, but I can see that she brought you up wonderfully. This made me think of my son and my special bond with him. Thank you for this lovely, touching story. Loved it!

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Michael Martin
21:15 Jul 20, 2021

Thank you for the kind words. She did have it tough, as did we four brothers, but she was a good woman, a great mother. Btw you can never hug that son of yours enough... I promise :)

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Kanika G
01:21 Jul 21, 2021

Yes, I agree. I hug him day and night. :)

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