by Tom Gorzycki
“When I die, Christopher, I don’t see a bit of sense in everybody traipsing all the way to College Station for the burial. If your father wasn’t already waiting for me in that silly family plot, I’d just have to put my foot down, and I mean it.”
Catherine Land hated the thought of lying beside her mother-in-law, Mumsie, for however long it took the Lord to take her on to glory. Nobody knew for sure how long He made you wait, and what if she had to lie there for a long time? Well, she just might not do it.
Then again, her husband, Herb, would be on her other side, and there was a comfort. But why in heaven’s name hadn’t somebody thought to put her on the outside of Herb with Mumsie on the inside? That way Mumsie could be next to her precious son, Herbert, and Cap, as Herb called her, would rest a long sight better beside her husband with nothing but a pretty patch of mowed lawn on her other side.
“You’re going to put your foot down?” Christopher asked.
“Why are you laughing at me?” Christopher wasn’t taking this nearly as seriously as she wanted him to.
“Well, Mama, you’ll be dead.”
That was funny. But what she meant, of course, was that she’d put her foot down before she died, and she still might.
“Now, you listen to me, Son, and I want you to be serious for a minute. I’m thinking about calling that cemetery where Big Bill and Snooks are buried right off I-10 in Houston to see if there’s an empty space fairly close to where they are. It’d be a case of pure-d selfishness on my part to ask everybody to waste a perfectly good day driving all the way to College Station just because Herb’s parents bought that family plot where they lived.”
“Big Bill always said none of that mattered anyway, Mama. Remember?”
For Pete and pity’s sake! Of course she remembered what her own father had said about his burial. Sometimes she honestly believed she liked Christopher better before he went off to college. What Big Bill had said was not to spend too much on a casket because his soul would have left his worn out old body long before they got around to a funeral. He had also said, “carcass,” instead of “body,” but she wasn’t about to repeat that.
“I haven’t finished making up my mind yet, Son, but if and when I do, I want you to tell me right now whether you’ll take care of it for me. Otherwise, I’ll have to get one of Billie’s boys. Luke, I’m thinking.”
Luke. Of all her sister’s boys, Luke always made Cap feel the best, because anybody could tell she was his favorite by the loving way he grinned when he imitated her Texas accent.
“Where’s my glices?” She remembered that one from Luke last Thanksgiving, and there wasn’t a trace of meanness in it either.
One time right out of the blue Christopher asked her point blank what she stayed mad about all the time. Who was he to be criticizing his mother?
She never realized anybody saw her that way, and she had been praying about it ever since. Then again, maybe other people didn’t see her that way. Maybe that was just her son, the big shot professor, talking. And, anyway, she didn’t stay mad all the time, just sometimes.
But one thing’s for sure, the Lord wanted Cap to set a good Christian example and if that’s the way other people did see her, well, she’d have to do something about it.
Goodness knows, she had spent her entire life trying to please the Lord. But you had to think about your shortcomings before you could pray about them, and the very thought of Mumsie was like popping the lid off a pressure cooker. Sometimes the world would be going along just perfect. Cap’s soul would be happy in the Lord, tenderizing a cheap cut of meat or something and swoosh, just like that, all kinds of sinful, ugly thoughts would fill her right up.
That was Mumsie’s fault. If Mumsie hadn’t been so bloomin’ hateful, all the while pretending she was absolutely the most pious person who ever lived, why, then Cap wouldn’t have so much trouble forgiving her. Mumsie kept Cap from setting a better example of her Christian faith! That’s what kept her in a bad mood so much of the time. Cap couldn’t think of another living soul who wouldn’t stay mad at a woman like that. Not one living soul.
On his drive back home from his visit with Mama, Christopher’s memory kept hitting automatic replay. Automatic because he didn’t seem to control it. Like the time Cap took over after Billie’s first bout with depression and announced to Herb she would go take care of the boys “because it was the only sensible thing to do.” She never once asked Herb for an opinion. Hell no, Cap Land made decisions and issued decrees, and then Dad always accepted them without question. Every time. And now, here she was, trying to control events beyond her own death.
Christopher looped back into that memory where Billie defended Cap by saying, “Yes, Christopher, my big sister is the ultimate control freak, but all I know is that things always get better when she comes.”
But, of course! Give Mama a situation where people expect her take control? No wonder Billie’s kids loved Aunt Cap. Every time their mother fell into depression Cap had their household back up and running according to God’s own plan in no time. She didn’t simply understand scripture, she could extrapolate corollaries. Just take for example the obvious truth that God had designated men, never a woman, to take out the garbage. Now, there was an unadulterated application of God’s plan for the cosmos if there ever was one. It was also pretty damned convenient.
Well, hell. Why couldn’t he quit revisiting the worst in his mother, especially now that she was reaching the end? Mama had her good qualities. Like the innocence of her aesthetic when she dug clay from the yard, fashioned a bird from it, and then baked the damned thing in her kitchen totally oblivious to the cost of “firing” her own pottery project instead of finding someone with a kiln. Christopher had been a grown man when she did that. Such uninhibited innocence. Dad must have adored that childlike quality enough to give in to his new wife in the beginning, but, Jesus, somewhere early on his father should have claimed a little authority for himself.
“No, Bud,” his father told him once, “I learned a long time ago if your mother doesn’t get her way, she just goes kind of crazy or something.”
Maybe it was a good thing Mama married a man who loved her enough to let her have her way. Whatever happened to that pottery bird, anyway? Probably among life’s forgotten detritus shoved away in a dusty box somewhere. He wished he had that bird. It was really pretty good.
One time Mumsie told Herb if Cap said the Brazos River was on fire he’d tear off down there to help put it out. Somehow Mumsie always came out the villain when Mama retold the story. Christopher figured Mumsie had come pretty early on to see Cap in a way he never had until the day of the smile.
Billie had just returned from Canada, and she invited everybody to a barbecue so she could show off her new house. All the men were outside on the deck, so Cap thought she was alone in the kitchen with her sisters when she said, “I do believe I have better control over my husband than either of my two sisters.” When she realized Christopher had overheard her, Cap looked straight at him and smiled in triumph. She might just as well have slapped him hard.
That smile set Christopher off on his revisionist history and installed the automatic replay on his memory. Before the smile he he had always assumed his mother insisted on calling the shots out of excessive worry about things she didn’t understand.
Like that damned small craft warning! He had been in high school, and that one had exasperated him almost to the point of rebellion even then. Christopher and his buddy, Dan Dunnigan, were trailering the jon boat to the bayou, and here came Herb, flashing his headlights to pull them over.
“Cap heard on the radio there’s a small craft warning and she wants y’all to come on back home.”
“Good grief, Dad! Small craft warnings don’t have anything to do with the bayou. Did you even tell her that?”
“Better come on home, Bud.”
Jesus! That edict had come before the smile, but Christopher had wanted to throttle his mother even then because he believed she had called off his fishing trip from the vantage point of her enormous ignorance. No, her smug triumph that day in the kitchen had revised all that. The veto of his fishing trip didn’t have a damned thing to do with his mother’s ignorance of small craft warnings. Okay, so maybe a little. She was certainly just as ignorant of small craft warnings as half the other subjects of her decrees.
By the time he pulled into his driveway at home, Christopher still hadn’t decided yet what to do about Cap’s burial. There would be time for that. When his father died, everybody went to College Station to see him buried in the family plot, and afterwards they all met at Big Bubba’s Barbecue Restaurant for lunch. Christopher called ahead and reserved a room with a large dining table that would seat everybody. What was wrong with that? Dad would have loved it.
Grief had easily given way to a celebration of what a loving man, uncle, brother-in-law, husband, or father Herb Land had been. It was perfect. You almost felt like he was still sitting right there with them enjoying an extra side of Big Bubba’s potato salad until Cap stood from her place at the head of the table, and in that sappy voice she equated with reverence delivered the obligatory homily about how first and foremost Herb Land had been a man of God.
Total mood killer.
But, dammit, if he was going to be honest about it, Christopher had admit his mother was right even if God had to pull rank in a close race. Cap Land undoubtedly had taken the lead a few times, but God finally won out, and nobody who ever heard one of Reverend Land’s intercessory prayers ever doubted that “first and foremost” Herb Land was a Methodist preacher.
On the first anniversary of his mother’s death, Christopher met Luke to help him plant a rose at the head of his favorite aunt’s grave. When they finished, Luke unfolded a couple of aluminum chairs and handed Christopher a beer.
“Maybe that rose should’ve been red,” said Christopher.
“Mars. The power of command. That stuff is red.”
“Never thought about the color,” Luke said. “The yellow one just reminded me of Cap when I saw it.”
Luke shook his head in pleasured disbelief. “Yeah, old Cap could sure dish it out,” he said. “But you know what I remember? I mean besides all the times she came to take care of us every time Mama went down like she did?”
“Fun. What was Cap, fifty, when she learned to ski behind that boat you and Herb bought together? Bounced on her butt for miles and didn’t have the strength in her legs to stand up, but, damn, Christopher, she never once quit smiling.”
Luke was right. She never stopped smiling, and she stuck with it until she became a pretty good skier. Those were good times at the lake.
“Tell you a good one on old Herb,” Luke said after a while. “You were up north somewhere, Vermont maybe, and I went out to the lake with Herb and Aunt Cap to fish for crappie. It’s getting late, and Herb wants to quit before dark, but Cap is catching ‘em and she keeps saying, “Okay, Herb, but just one more cast.” I had put my rod away for Herb’s sake, but Cap kept boating those crappie. So, now it’s getting really late, and she comes out again with that, ‘One more cast, Herb. Then we’ll go.’
“Herb doesn’t say a word. He hands Cap a minnow out of the bait bucket and then pours the rest of them out into the lake.”
“Oh, man, I’ll bet Mama gave him hell all the way to the boat ramp.” said Christopher.
“No, not really. You could tell by her tone she was kind of warning old Herb to be careful about overstepping his authority, but all she said was, ‘Why, you old horsefly!’ Until she said that, I had been trying hard not to laugh because I figured she’d come down hard on him for dumping those minnows.
“You old horsefly.” Luke celebrated the memory with another chuckle. “Anyway, it was good and dark when we got back to the boat ramp, so I guess she won her point after all.”
After Luke left, Christopher picked up his folding chair and set it down between Cap and Mumsie.
“Excuse me, Mumsie,” he said, “but I need some privacy here.” He sat with his back to his grandmother for awhile listening to distant ravens as they ushered out a fine, summer evening. His eyes passed lightly over his mother’s grave to rest on his father’s tombstone where a heavy brass ornament identified Herbert Land as a Methodist clergyman.
All the other visitors left the cemetery, and it was getting late. Christopher didn’t care. He waited, intensely sensitive to the sudden quiet that announced the death of an angry lawn mower. What Christopher did care about was whether he would be able to feel a conversation with his parents. Feel it. He knew he could never hear it, any more than he could hear the voice of his father’s god.
Finally, he picked up his chair and moved it into the stretch of well kept lawn on the other side of his father’s grave.
“That’s better,” he said. Beyond his father lay Catherine Land, every bit as mute and inaccessible between her husband and Mumsie as the day Christopher walked away and left her there.
“Any man who loved a woman as much as you did,” Christopher said aloud to his father in the gathering darkness, “deserves at least this much.” He felt a kind of all-encompassing acceptance from his father. Nothing, yet, from Mama. Finally, he stood up and collapsed the folding chair.
“We’ll try it again this same time next year, Mama. Maybe we can work something out then. You old horsefly.”
many years at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, retiring as Associate Dean for Fine Arts and Language Arts.
Born of second and third-generation native Texan parents, Tom Gorzycki spent most of his life and professional career on the Texas Gulf Coast. He has degrees from two Texas universities, Lamar and The University of Texas at Austin, and a third degree from The Bread Loaf School of English in Middlebury, Vermont. He also spent a fellowship year at The University of Massachusetts at Amherst as recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. He lives in Silver City, New Mexico.