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Mom Pruitt

In this short story, a hardworking, southern woman refuses to rest, despite a weakening heart.

     

      She was a big-boned woman with determined jaw and narrowed hazel eyes. To the townspeople of Lawsonia, Maryland, she seemed typically lower-class: her husband hauled barely emough crabs and oysters from the Massaqua River to support his family. But, for Mom Pruitt, daily drudgery had ripened into self-sacrifice. When she awoke that Saturday morning in the 1950s, she waited quietly for the return throbbing in her chest to subside. As sunrise pinked the bureau, she scanned the smiling portraits. She couldn't get sick; the children would be arriving tonight for their Easter visit. There was cleaning, food to prepare...and Charlotte begging her to rest. Mom Pruitt sighed. Taking care of people was good for her, made her feel important. 

      "Fixing the coffee, Mary?" her husband drawled sleepily. He was a hulking man with pixie face and bearded stubble.

      She thought he was still handsome. "Few minutes, Chet."

      He grunted, rolled over, and resumed snoring.

      Feeling better, Mom Pruitt donned a faded housedress and wound her coarse gray hair into a neck bun. Thank the Lord for housework, she thought while brushing her teeth. On Maple Street, the six children had scarcely allowed breathing time. Now, as her unmarried daughter, Charlotte, usurped her duties, she'd begun reliving the past, like the elderly with nothing to do. Fearful of uselessness, she hurried downstairs and through the parlor to the kitchen, where Charlotte was already perking coffee, its tangy aroma permeating the large room. Surprised, Mom Pruitt wrapped an apron around her rugged frame, and dropped bacon into a hot frying pan. 

     "You're up early," she said in her nasal, Eastern Shore twang.

     Charlotte, who weighed nearly two hundred pounds, had delicate pink skin and deepset dark eyes. Wearing an emorous housedress, she busily set the table with its checkered red cloth. "Well, if I don't get here first, you'll do all the work."

     "What else am I supposed to do?"

     Charlotte scrutinized her mother and said gently, ""You look tired. Is the pain back?"

     Mom Pruitt resolutely faced the sink. "Nope."

     "Ma, don't lie to me!" There was a strained silence. Charlotte repressed her anger. "If you feel bad again, I'll get Doctor Ward."
     "We can't afford it! Anyway, I said I'm okay so quit fussing!" Rinsing her hands, she watched Charlotte's mouth tighten. ""Well, you can finish preparing breakfast, if you want," she said, relenting. "I'll sit outside for a while."

     Charlotte nodded eagerly, and Mom Pruitt walked to the front porch. The sunny sky and tingling salty air promised a nice day. She opened the squeaky screen door, descended the stoop, and stood, her hands fisted on hips, surveying quiet, tree-lined Cove Street. The white clapboard houses behind neat lawns contrasted with her dilapidated weather-beaten gray house. It faced a scrubby yard trimmed with struggling petunias. She envisioned the back of her house: the crumbling garage and outhouse and the large yard overrun with weeds. 

     Tired she climbed the stoop and sat in the rocker, guiltily rocking back and forth. She glanced at the rusting glider where a daughter and future son-in-law had courted, the wicker chairs overflowing with family, and she felt a terrible emptiness, as though, with the children grown, her life's purpose seemed completed, the remaining years unnecessary. Sighing deeply, she smoothed her apron. Chet would be downstairs soon. She should help Charlotte, instead of wasting time, feeling sorry for herself.

     "Good morning, Mary!" It was a neighbor, Mrs. Georgia Walters. A haughty woman with a crown of magnificent silvery hair, she bent over the pink roses lining her immaculate porch. With poised spade, she smiled and said with feigned sweetness, "Resting a bit?"

     "Yup," Mom Pruitt replied sheepishly. Embarrassed at being caught idle, she hurried inside to bake biscuits.

     When Chet came downstairs, Charlotte wanted to serve breakfast, but her mother retorted in exasperation, "At sixy, I've been serving breakfast a lot longer than you've been eating, so hush up and give me some peace."

     "Charlotte, quite bossing your mother around," Chet said, buttering a biscuit. "She got used to taking care of young'uns and cleaning, and she enjoys it. Don't tell her what to do." 

     "Yes, Daddy." Charlotte sighed in resignation and sat down. The trio ate in silence.

     Aftewards, Chet left to work on his boat, a skipjack used to catch oysters and crabs, and Charlotte left to buy groceries at the nearby A&P. 

     Left alone, Mom Pruitt vigorously scrubbed a tubful of dingy parlor curtains, and then hung the laundry on the backyard clothes line. Panting, she hurried upstairs to sweep her bedroom, when a stabbing pain doubled her. She collapsed, gasping, onto her bed.         

     As she lay there, hoping the pain would disappear before Charlotte returned, she saw herself at twelve, walking with Mama to Emmanuel Methodist Church, while Papa worked on his boat. My, how upset Mama had been about Papa working on Sundays, but they'd sorely needed the money, so she'd never complained. Mama was the hardest-working woman Mom Pruitt had ever known. Why, right up to the day before her fatal hemorrhage, Mama was still helping Papa haul crab nets!  Mama used to say that most folks worried themselves sick over unimportant things. Not her, thank the Lord! She was too busy getting food on the table. Mom Pruitt smiled wistfully. Yup, that was Mama, all right. She sure hoped she was like her. 

     "Ma, you in the kitchen?" Charlotte called out, banging the front door with her groceries.

     "I'm upstairs, cleaning!" Quickly, Mom Pruitt straightened the photograph of grandson Johnny, smiling cockily in his army uniform. She'd raised him after his parents died in an automobile accident, and always thought he was a cute little devil. Bit spoiled maybe, but deep inside; a good boy. He'll do all right. She clucked her teeth and smiled, recalling how he used to turn up the kitchen's battered Philco until the house shook with hillbilly music, and he ran her ragged, fetching him things--aggravating poor Charlotte. Then he left for Fort Bragg, and the house grew more and more silent. Charlotte said it was a good thing, because he was killing his grandmother with thoughtless demands. Mom Pruitt shook her head. Charlotte couldn't imagine how much she missed him.

     Sighing, she wiped the old oval mirror above the bureau. Well, there was no use fretting about the children not needing her anymore. She still saw them holidays, received letters and snapshots. If she kept busy, like Mama, she wouldn't think about it so much.
     Charlotte lumbered up the stairs, and filled the narrow doorway. "How come you finished the curtains?" she said, panting. "That was my job." 

     "Well, it's done, so stop fussing. Make lunch and I'll do the bedrooms. We still got the towels to wash."

     "Ma, Doctor Ward said you've got to rest, if you don't want the pain coming back."

     "I already rested," she said impatiently. "Anyway, is he gonna do our work?" She smiled. "Go along now, and stop worrying. I'll be all right." 

     "Well..." Charlotte hesitated, her dark eyes studying her mother. "The tuna fish sandwiches are about ready, so you'd better come down soon." Anxious about the older woman over-exerting herself, she lingered a moment longer and finally left.

     Relieved, Mom Pruitt dusted, swept, descended the steps to clean the porch, and ate a sandwich in the kitchen. After lunch, she breaded chicken for dinner while Charlotte tackled the parlor. Methodically coating the chicken, she glanced occasionally past the window's gingham curtains at the sunlit oaks outside, her mind flickering over the past. If she'd finished school instead of working at sixteen, she might have learned a hobby, like Mrs. Walter's gardening, that could have replaced the children's absence. Hobby...well, what would Mama say to that! After years of struggling on Water Street, she'd probably shake her head. " Mary, " she'd say, "your house needs reshingling, the back yard weeds need cutting, and you waste time over foolishness."

     Sighing, Mom Pruitt peeled potatoes over the wobbly sink. Yup, that's what it was--foolishness. She had plenty to do, despite Doctor Ward. Besides, the pain never lasted long. She'd just have to keep it from Charlotte who'd worry.

     By late afternoon, ominous gray clouds threatened rain, but the sky finally cleared and the sun popped out, as though the weather were trying hard to cooperate. Pleased, Mom Pruitt hung washed towels on the backyard clothesline and later served an early dinner to her husky son, Davey,  who showed up at six o'clock with his Mexican wife. Soon afterwards, an older son, Hank, arrived with his little boy, Bunky. She happily served dinner again, but barely noticed the pain returning because she was busy resetting the table for Johnny, and then her youngest, daughter Shugie who arrived with her husband.

     While Mom Pruitt and Charlotte finished washing the dishes, Jenny, the Rosenbergs' granddaughter from next door, dropped by and played checkers with Davey's wife--as they used to before the Coast Guard transferred Davey back to Mexico. Except for the absence of her youngest son, Donny still stationed in Korea, it was like old times. Contented but tired, Mom Pruitt gratefully sat at the kitchen table to shell a bowl of peas.

     After the game, Jenny leaned her elbows on the checkered tablecloth and smiled. "What's new, Mom Pruitt?"

     Mom Pruitt smiled back as her fingers shelled the peas. "Ella Mae's mother ran off with Billy Landon's father," she offered  jokingly and paused. "Well, you know I ain't a big talker," she added shyly. She'd always been shy, and now that Jenny was going to college, she felt self-conscious and couldn't think of anything else to say.

     "Oh, nothing ever happens in this hick town," said eighteen-year-old Johnny. "Boy, I sure am glad I joined the army. See something of the world." 

     "Huh," Charlotte retorted playfully. "The only thing you're gonna see is the back end of a barracks!"

     The others laughed. Mom Pruitt grinned despite herself.  

     "Get me a glass of Kool-Aid, Mom?" Johnny said.

     "I'll get it," Charlotte said, rising awkwardly. "Don't cause her no trouble now."

     "Me? Trouble?" Johnny ruffled his blond curls in mock innocence. "What trouble do I cause?"

     As Mom Pruitt hurried toward the filled pitcher on the countertop, Charlotte snapped in frustration, "You know what I mean! She ain't no spring chicken anymore.  So stop pestering her with, 'Get me this, and get me that!"

     "What's the matter?" Johnny said, surprised. "Ain't Mom feeling okay?"

     "Charlotte!" Her hands fisted on aproned hips, Mom Pruitt shot her daughter a warning look.

     "Mom, there's no reason why folks can't help themselves," Charlotte said, exasperated.

     Mom Pruitt pulled herself together, and poured a drink for Johnny. She handed the cup to him, and said by away of apology, "Shoot! You know Charlotte. Acts like I've got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel."

     Johnny, relieved, playfully squeezed her arm. "I bet Mom feels lost without us bothering her."

     That's it exactly, Mom Pruitt thought, and sighed. If only Charlotte could understand that...

     After the peas were shelled, she postponed for once the ironing, and joined the others gathered on the porch. Twilight was Mom Pruitt's favorite time. After the chores were done, she liked to sit outside in the rocker, not saying very much, just watching the day slowly unwind. But this evening, exhausted, she sat in the rocker and glanced about, surprised at her lack of enthusiasm. The children, filling the wicker chairs and glider, chatted among themselves, catching up on their news. After they left for the kitchen, Chet sat down nearby. His chair tilted back, his bluejeaned legs propped up on the porch railing, he spat tobacco into a rusty, corner spitoon. 

     Mom Pruitt frowned as the ugly brown stream shot by, and checked herself. Chet had few pleasures left--let it be.  

     On the yard's scrubby grass, Bunky wrestled noisily with the chemistry teacher's son from across the street. Mom Pruitt eyed them warily in the dusky light. She'd often hollered at Bunky for playing too close to the petunia beds. Sure enough, giggling, he rolled right into them. 

     "Bunky! Get away from them poor petunias!" she yelled. "Can't you see how hard they're trying to grow?"

     Emnbarrassed before his older friend, Bunky said sheepishly, "Grandmom, we ain't hurting the flowers..."

     She wagged her finger and shouted as fiercely as she could, "You mind me now!" A band of pain tightened around her chest. Turning abruptly, she stumbled into the darkened parlor. From the porch, she heard Chet's slow, deep voice--quietly reprimanding. "Bunky, you mind Grandmom about them petunias. I ain't gonna tell you again."

     Mom Pruitt sat, heaving, in a worn parlor armchair, her heart feeling as if a mighty hand were squeezing the life from it, and suddenly she grew frightened. "Please, Jesus, not yet..."

     In the kitchen, Johnny  turned on the Philco and shouted something; peals of laughter erupted above the hillbilly music sung by Hank Williams.
     What a shame to get sick now, Mom Pruitt thought; the children were having fun and she had to spoil it.

     Walking to the porch to chat with her father, Shugie, alarmed, stopped in the parlor. "What's wrong, Mom?" 

     She struggled to reassure blond little Shugie. "I...I..."

     Laughter exploded in the kitchen. 

     Furious at the seeming indifference, Shugie rushed to the kitchen and stamped her foot, her plump face reddened with anger. "Be quiet, y'all! Mom's sick and nobody cares."

     They stared at her in stunned silence, thunderstruck, while Hank Williams cheerfully finished his song.

     "And shut off that damned radio!" 

     Johnny, dazed, clicked it off.

     Charlotte recovered her composure and rushed to the parlor. She gently guided her mother into a small bedroom across the hall, while Shugie called Doctor Ward.  

     Vaguely, Mom Pruitt felt herself helped onto the bed by Chet and their sons; her head was eased against the pillow. She heard chairs scraping in the parlor across the tiny hallway as the family gathered, whispering. She wished they'd speak up; not knowing what they were saying was worse than noisy chatter. 

     "Mom, please try to rest," Charlotte urged, reproaching herself for neglect. "Doctor Ward will be here soon." She turned off the bedside lamp while blinking back tears, and tenderly kissed her mother's forehead. Then, anxious not to upset the older woman lying quietly under a blanket, she left the dark, shadowy room; the door closed softly behind her.

     Mom Pruitt, overwhelmed by pain and dizziness, longed to rest, but she remembered how, at fifteen, she had pleaded futilely with Mama not to die. She gripped the blanket, determined not to bring her children that same terrible anguish. Clinging to her lifelong habit of self-sacrifice, her only source of fulfillment, she clenched her fists, forced her eyes open, and stared stubbornly past the faded curtains at the moonlit window. She must stay awake, she thought, and fight death as hard as she could--for the children's sake. She died moments later.