Friday, August 26, 2011

In the Summer, Mary Came

My paternal grandmother had four grandchildren, but I missed out on grandparents as a child. My maternal grandmother died when I was seven. Most of my memories of her center around her illness. She was soft spoken and gentle natured, but she had little strength for dealing with grandchildren. My grandfathers had both died before I was born. The only one left was Grandmother, the woman who was the mother in our household. She could not afford to indulge us as I do my grandchildren whom I can return to waiting parents full of sugar, gifts, and broken rules regarding bedtime and breakfast food. Lest you think I am whining about this, let me assure you I am not. These are simply the facts. My widowed father turned to his mother for help in raising his children, and she turned to him for help running her farm. Theirs was an unusually good relationship based on clear communication and respect. If they ever did disagree about how we should be treated, we never knew about it. They presented a united front.

The only grandchild my grandmother could indulge was our cousin, Mary. She was Irish and Catholic thanks to her father. She lived in North Little Rock and attended her local parish school. Her tales of the teaching nuns scared us, Methodists, half to death. My brother Luther was 14 months older than I, and Mary was six months older than he. The two of them had a tight bond that continues to today. Since Mary wasn’t there a good portion of the year, Luther and I were playmates. Our sister was several years younger and usually played alone or with Jackie, a black child of one of the sharecropping families.

In the summer, Mary came to stay most weeks. She came on Sunday afternoon and stayed until Saturday morning when she had to be home in time to go to confession and attend Mass on Sunday. Her family came for Sunday dinner or supper and the cycle began again. When Mary came, she and Luther paired up, and I found myself left out. I didn’t like that one bit. Mary shared my room and my big double bed when she was there but little else. When we were together, we argued, mostly about God. We’d been arguing, discussing, pondering God since we could both say the word. Otherwise, we didn’t spend much time together.

She and Luther had much more in common. They both loved sports. Mary’s dad had been a professional baseball catcher, even playing for the Cardinals for a season in the early 1930. She had inherited his natural athleticism. My brother excelled at individual sports such as bowling and golf. While he could shoot perfect basket after basket in our backyard and hit a mean long drive of a baseball, he seemed to have trouble coordinating his actions to those of a team. He and Mary spent hours playing flies and skinners, shooting baskets and pitching horseshoes.

It was a horseshoe game that changed Mary’s and my relationship forever. Luther and Mary had been playing for some time. It was not unusual for them to be neck and neck in any game with a score involved, and such was the case that hot July afternoon. Luther is pretty laid back by nature while Mary is passionate about…well, about just about everything she has any interest in at all. She doesn’t do anything half way. So, when Luther’s score topped hers, she wanted a chance to get even or better yet, to pull ahead. Luther, however, had had enough. Like I said, he’s laid back; but he is also stubborn. He decided to quit on his win, and Mary argued with him. His mind was made up so he walked away leaving her fuming. He hadn’t gotten far when a horseshoe whizzed past his head, and he did the sensible thing. He ran. The chase was on. Luther was just trying to get away. Mary, on the other hand, was bent on murder. The harder she ran, the madder she got. Not only had she lost the game, she was losing the race as well. She chased him across a cotton field where he lost a shoe. He didn't think it prudent to stop and pick it up. They ran through Grandmother’s vegetable garden, Mary crying hysterically and yelling, “I’m gonna kill you!”

Grandmother, Jane, and I heard the commotion and ran to the back porch. Grandmother called to Luther to get in the house. As he ran in, she directed him to his room and told him to stay there until she called him to come out. He didn’t have to be told twice. Grandmother turned just in time to block Mary’s entrance. Mary adored our grandmother above all other human kind including her own parents so there was no way she would do any harm to her. She stopped dead in her tracks. Grandmother led her to the kitchen and sat her down in a chair. She was still crying and muttering threats and her anger was high. Grandmother did what seemed to her to be the most dramatic way to put a stop to an uncontrolled outburst. She threw a cup of cold water in her face. As Jane and I gasped in astonishment, Mary’s tantrum came to an abrupt halt.

Grandmother drew up a chair opposite Mary and gently wiped her dripping, flushed and feverish face with a cool washcloth as she calmly talked her through all that had happened. Then she did the strangest thing. She assigned Mary and me to an afternoon together. I thought she had lost her mind. We had almost no similar interests except our religious arguments, but here we were, having to seek some common ground. And we did.

I don’t remember what all we talked about that afternoon aside from sharing our negative experiences of dealing with my brother. I do remember sitting for hours on the front porch swing, drinking lemony, sweet iced tea and talking and talking. It was a significant turning point for both of us—the beginning of a close and loving friendship and sisterhood that is still an important part of both of our lives. Mary eventually forgave Luther, but I have been eternally grateful for their battle of titanic proportion. It brought Mary and I together in a way neither of us would have ever guessed that it could. It made us sisters more than cousins. We still argue, discuss, ponder our varied takes on God, but we do it with love and connection, more than either of us would have ever imagined that July day. I can’t imagine my life without her.


  1. I wonder if I could get away with throwing a cup of cold water into one of my girls' faces when they are mad. The one I'm thinking of would probably just throw one back at me.

  2. This was a lovely memoir, and it took me back to my childhood with my cousin.