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Summer Sunsets MAG
Mama and I sat on the porch watching the orange and pink sun disappear into the blue hills. It was that quiet time just before nightfall when Mama's eyes don't look so tired and her thin shoulders don't sag with the weight of so many days' work. Her blue-green dress didn't fit as well as it used to. Mama had lost a lot of weight since the doctor told her she had heart trouble. She still worked like a dog though. She had to, she said, so I could go to college. I had won a partial scholarship to our state college, and she and I worked our fingers to the bone to pay for the rest. Mama was so proud of me. I could see it in every look. I would be the first in our family to go to college. Now it was the middle of August, when the heat was so oppressive that we only worked till the afternoon. We did house chores till bedtime. But we always tried to see the sunset.
"Wasn't that a beautiful sunset, Lizzy? Your daddy and I used to watch the sunset every night before you were born. The summer sunset is the cure for all troubles, I think." She looked so dreamy and faraway I got a little scared.
"Mama, Mama, come back to me, Mama." She gave a little laugh.
"Don't worry, baby. My mind's here. That's just the trouble." She pulled herself up from her chair and went into the house with a sigh. I looked over our tiny farm. It had been in Mama's family for years, ever since the Civil War made us free.
But I didn't understand. Why should it bother her that her mind is here? That's how we keep on living. That's how we overcame our troubles. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be? I guess she just meant that since Daddy died there was so much work to do. But Daddy had died almost before I could remember. I feel bad that I don't remember him. Mama still misses him though. I hear her crying into her pillow some nights. A muffled noise that makes my heart hurt. It hurts because I know that I can't help her. I gave the sky a last look before going inside. The stars were starting to come out, filling our southern sky with tiny diamonds.
Mama was peeling potatoes at the sink. Her head was bent over, and I noticed some grey hairs in her hair that hadn't been there before. Gently I took the potato and the knife from her. "Mama," I said softly, "I'll do this. You sit down and rest. I'll make supper."
"Thanks, baby. I am tired. There's just so much to do. Every day it seems there's a new chore. I don't know how I'll do it when you leave."
I turned to look at her. She seemed so much smaller and weaker than I'd ever seen her. I put down the potato and knelt by her side. I put my head in her lap and took her cool hand in mine.
"I'll be home every weekend, Mama. I won't go if you don't want me to."
"Oh, no. You're going. I'm so proud of you." She put her hand on my head. I felt like a little girl again. Her hand felt just as it had when she used to brush my hair, soft and soothing. "My little baby's all grown up. I love you, Lizzy. You know that, don't you?"
"I know, Mama. I love you too. So much." Seeing her look so frail had put a new thought in my mind. That someday she would be the one to leave, forever. When I looked up again I saw tears in her eyes.
"Oh, Lizzy," she sobbed. I wrapped my arms around her waist and let her cry. "Oh, Lizzy, it's so hard sometimes. So hard to face every new day. I'm so scared."
"Shhh, don't talk, just cry. It's okay. Don't be scared. Everything will be all right. I'm here and I always will be." After she had calmed down a bit, I helped her to her room and into bed. Before leaving I opened the window to let the cool night breezes in. I kissed her on her forehead and tried not to see the deep lines engraved into the soft, brown skin. "Go to sleep, Mama. Things will seem better in the morning."
But later, as I sat in the kitchen alone, I wasn't so sure. I didn't know what to think. My mother, the most wonderful woman in the world, was growing older and getting frail. I had to be the strong one now. She had always been the one to comfort me. When I hurt myself, or things were hard at school, I could always turn to her for support. Now it was my turn to help her. I'm not ready! my brain screamed. I don't know what to do! I had to get it together. "Mama needs you," I said to myself. "Don't let her down." I went to bed that night resolved to do even more, so that Mama could rest. I felt at peace with myself and the world. I soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I awoke very early the next morning. I made Mama a large breakfast: eggs, pancakes, bacon and tea. I did all her chores; fed the chickens, weeded the gardens, did the laundry, dishes, swept the porch, cleaned the house, everything.
While I worked, Mama went over memories and talked to me. She told me about my father: how he talked, the things he liked to do. She told me stories about everyone in the picture albums like Aunt Emily who taught school, and people who weren't in the albums, such as Great, Great-Grandma Elizabeth who had been a slave. I heard about the time her brother, Jimmy, had jumped in the river because he thought it would make the fish fly out. She told me how her grandfather had looked the first time he was allowed to vote. She showed me Grandma's trunk that had been locked up at the foot of her bed for as long as I can remember. She showed me her wedding dress with the Irish lace neck, pink and yellow baby clothes that had been mine. She showed me letters that were tied with faded blue ribbons. For the first time in my life I felt as though I had stepped out of the shadows and into the waiting arms of my family, family that I had never known until today. Once in a while, I would see a tear falling from Mama's big, brown eyes. And I knew it wasn't dust as she said.
That night as we sat on the porch watching the sunset, it was my turn to be tired. It was worth it, because Mama looked so happy. Strangely happy, like she was going to see a long-lost friend.
"Do you suppose they have sunsets in Heaven?"
It was then I knew. I knew why she had chosen today to tell me about my past. I smiled softly even though I could feel the tears sliding down my cheeks.
"I'm sure they have the most beautiful sunsets in Heaven, Mama. Tell Daddy I love him, Mama." I took her hand and squeezed it, as if it would make her stay. She smiled pure love at me, closed her eyes and was gone. n