by David Norris
My daddy left my momma on the day I was born. My momma left 10 years later. I learned to make and fry salmon cakes when I was in the 5th grade: draining the liquid from the can, removing the little row of bones in the middle, adding an egg, crackers all mashed up and a little flour to make it hold together, along with some chopped-up onions. Frying them slow over a low heat.
I learned to wash my clothes in an old wringer washer. I would take them out, covered with suds, wring them out a bit, and then drop them into a great big washtub of clear water. Then I would wring them out again and guide them through the squeeze-rollers on top of the washing machine. I’d carry them outside, clean off the clothesline with a wet cloth and then hang them up. I learned how to iron them too. At the age of 10, I learned to arrange my own schedules, plan my own amusements, and for the large part, make my own rules. Somewhere along the way, by the time I was 16, I was setting my own curfew.
My mom was a single mother at a time when such women were severely looked down upon by society. When the only man she ever loved left her, she returned home to her estranged father and her grandfather. She went to work at a grocery store, and on Wednesdays, her day off, would cook spaghetti. I remember jumping off the bus on those days, hollering at the top of my lungs, “Sketti! Sketti!”
My grandfather Bud was the black sheep of the family, and my great grandfather, Pop, was the pillar of respect. They called Pop “the old gentleman.” He was retired from the paper mill and already a widower by the time I was born. Bud was a two-time loser, once divorced and once widowed himself. They had been “bach-in” (bachelor-ing, in formal English) before my momma showed up. She did the best she could, working the rotating shift at the Kroger store, getting off late one night and starting to work early the next day.
Then one day I came home and Bud was sitting in the living room with tears in his eyes. I looked at him and he just stared back at me. By this time his legs had started to go and he spent most of his time sitting in his old chair that had most of his “bad habits” stuffed down into the sides of it. He said, “Your momma’s gone, and she ain’t coming back.”
I didn’t understand. He looked at me with a great sadness in his eyes and said, “She went away for the weekend and she married that man she’s been seeing and she ain’t coming back.”
And she never did, but she had her reasons, another story.
After that, I was raised by these two elderly men, the black sheep and the “Old Gentleman.”
This is Pop’s story.
On Saturdays, Pop and I went to town. I helped him get dressed. He had several of his fingers cut off at the mill, and he could not tie his own necktie. Someone had knotted it for him, and he would slip it over his head. I buttoned his top collar button and then slid the tie up for him. We then walked two miles around the mountainside to the city bus stop, and then rode into town. I went to the Saturday matinee at the Strand theater and he sat on the bank portico and talked with the other old men. He was about 75 at this time.
After the movies, we would go down to the Greek Grill and have a fish sandwich with cole slaw on it, and then walk up to Rusty Fridley’s newsstand where I read Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny comic books for free while he talked with the other men as we waited for the bus.
Then one day when I was 16, I came home from school and learned that Pop had fallen and broken his hip. He was 86 at the time. He had fallen while bringing a bucket of coal up the steps. When old people fall, they don’t get back up. Pop took to his bed and never stood or sat up again. At the time of his fall, he was a robust man of about 200 pounds. By the time he was nearly gone, he had wasted away to the size of a child. I remember changing his diapers one night at 3 a.m. He looked up at me and said, “Honey, I wish I could die.”
That made me cry, and I told him, perhaps with childhood innocence, that he would be well again some day.
Shortly afterwards, as I lay in a hospital bed myself, nearly 100 miles away, recovering from a football injury, the phone rang. It was my mother’s husband telling me that "Pop died today, peacefully.”
Sometimes we just have to let them go.
David Norris has lived in Asia since 1985. He currently resides in Seoul, Korea, where he lectures in writing and literature for the University of Maryland University College Asia. His work has appeared in The Chariton Review, Taproot Literary Review, Poetry San Francisco, and The Dan River Anthology. David was born in the small town of Covington, Virginia, way up in the Alleghany Mountains. He left when he was 20 and has been traveling ever since.
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