Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Mothers (05/02/05)
TITLE: Cotton and Satin
By Lisa McMillion
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They tell me I sang about Jesus' nail scarred hands before I knew their significance and to the top of my lungs in public places. They were the songs she taught me. As the redeemed applauded in the grocery store parking lot, my grandmother shopped quickly inside to stay on the schedule of whoever had driven her to the store-- she would not drive herself. They played songs about clothes in suitcases, about discontented relationships, and abandonment-- her rowdy sons and daughters-- tapping their fingers impatiently on the steering wheel of the grand Thunderbird she had bought them, while I imagined Grandma racing through the aisles grabbing flour, milk, and cubed steak like she was on Beat the Clock. My uncle sang an old country tune about a woman going from cotton to satin, from Birmingham to Manhattan, from a pick-up to a long limousine -- anything to stop the call to repentance and the extra attention from Piggly-Wiggly patrons.
As I sprouted toward an average height, discontentment about my origins began to settle in my young, cartilaginous bones. On more than one occasion, Grandma used her best qualifiers to describe me. I, in turn, would let my imagination make ridiculous illustrations as she talked. “Up on my high horse” was a good one (Godiva-white stallion, giraffe legs). “Too good for your raisin’” was another (prima ballerina, balancé atop a dried grape). Maybe I, too, deserved satin instead of the clothes Grandma picked out for me, ever mindful we were on a fixed income-- shared. Still, I couldn’t imagine satin feeling better than the cotton smocks stretched over her ample bosom, pillowing my profile with large, pressing hands. I learned later her sisters teased her mercilessly about her hands and feet when they were just girls. The triune of pastor’s daughters from his second marriage would wait in the parlor in, no doubt, cuts from the finest bolts of cloth, while she picked berries for their afternoon cobbler. Unfortunately for them, their malevolence peaked at a time when Grandma’s sanctification was rather cartilaginous itself, and I’ve heard tales of what passed between those berries and the table, but I won’t repeat them here. I wonder if I’d have gone to her with peer problems instead of retaining them like water what advice she may have given me. Sanctified advice, of course.
My grandmother would never reveal to me why she insisted I live with her instead of her daughter. She’d always say she needed me, which provided a surfeit of platform upon which to feel sorry for myself. I have come to the conclusion Grandma was determined to shield me from the addiction that had taken my grandfather and metastasized to Mom, or that she was taking the sting out of being unplanned and of a questionable destiny-- what she insisted vinegar did for sunburns. (I spent many a sultry Southern summer smelling like a bowl of greens.) Her own mother succumbed to pneumonia when she was just ten years old, and she was left to care for her baby brother. She spoke of the night she died, how she held Junior tightly in bed, how the floorboard that creaked in concert with her mother’s watchful steps creaked still, as if her spirit had come to tuck them in one last time. She described the feel of that cotton blanket with her scent still upon it, how soothing it was against her skin. I imagine satin would’ve let her mother slide right off of it and away for good…
Grandma died the year after I was married. She came to my wedding in a beautiful, sequined satin gown. There’s a close-up where I bent beside her wheelchair at the reception for one last press into that great maternal chest. Her hand nearly covered my face, her smile into the camera had that same look of knowing something we didn’t that both mystified and amused us. My husband would look at the picture and provide the caption “Granny’s gotcha” every time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that life is in the going from cotton to satin and back to cotton, for that is where the oil flows and where the pearl of great price can be found. As my imagination begins to chisel early drafts of my own epitaph, as well as I can make it out now, it reads: Do not despise a small beginning, but if you do, don't despise the small beginning-again.
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