Feels Like Home
The heat hits my cheek like a slap, but it doesn't hurt; it feels fantastic. I'm freezing in the intense heat of an August afternoon in Texas. I instantly stop shivering as waves of warmth smother me like a blanket while lying on my stomach on the steaming concrete next to the baby pool. I hate that I'm forced to swim in the baby pool because it's always freezing cold. Plus, I'm not a baby. I'll soon be eight-years-old. I could easily close my eyes and go to sleep, but I can't stay out of the pool for long. My mamaw will catch me napping on the concrete and insist that it's time to go home. She has already been sitting in the hot sun watching me, and my pesky little brother, for almost two hours. I haven't really given her too much thought because I'm having too much fun. Occasionally, I'll glance over at her just because it's comforting for me to see her face in the crowd of people observing the "babies" in the baby pool. Over four decades later, it's just now hitting me how miserable she must have been at the time.
How much fun could it be to sit on hard, wooden bleachers and try to stay in the shade in 100 degree Texas heat? She didn't even get any relief once she finally got us in the car. Of course, she'd immediately turn the air conditioning on high, and I'd immediately start whining about how I was possibly going to die of frostbite. She would put up a little fight, but as sure as night follows day she'd eventually turn the air conditioning off. The one thing she wouldn't do for me was turn the heat on, but that didn't keep me from asking her to do just that about 100 times between the swimming pool and the sno-cone stand. We almost always stopped by the sno-cone stand before we headed back to whatever house or apartment she happened to be living in at the time. Over four decades later, it's just now hitting me why we didn't always stop by the sno-cone stand. It was because she didn't always have the money to buy sno-cones.
Money or no money, she had the uncanny ability to make a house feel like home. At times, she lived in an apartment complex, but eventually she saved enough money to buy her own tiny two-bedroom house not far from the train tracks. I loved that house. I can still picture it in my mind, and I can see her in the kitchen whipping up her most awesome chocolate pie which was just one of her specialties. She's baking while a Dean Martin record is playing on the huge stereo in her little bitty living room, and I'm playing jewelry store with my younger second-cousin, Martha. She was a couple of years younger than me and very easy for me to boss around making her one of my favorite people. I always made Martha be the customer and I was the owner of the jewelry store. Mamaw had a small collection of costume jewelry which I would proudly display to my customer. When we grew tired of playing jewelry store, we would play shoe store. Mamaw had way more shoes than jewelry. One pair in particular always struck my fancy. They were high-heels with a slightly pointy toe and they were covered in gaudy silver glitter. I always got to be the customer when we played shoe store, and I made Martha remove my sweaty sneakers and stinky socks so that she could help me try on all the fabulous shoes. Inevitably, I would use my play money to purchase the gaudy silver glitter high-heels. Over four decades later, it's just now hitting me why my mamaw owned gaudy silver glitter high-heels. Those were her dancin' shoes.
She never lacked for a dance partner; unfortunately, she was never lucky in love. Her name was Maxine McAnelly Melton Jones Millsap and that tells you about all you need to know. In between husbands, money was always tight even though she had a good job as a nurse. She put herself through nursing school right before I was born. That was no easy task, I'm sure. At the time, she had three teenagers at home and a very uncooperative husband who happened to be my papaw. Of course, she would choose nursing because taking care of people was second nature to her. Over four decades later, it's just now hitting me why she was such an amazing caregiver and homemaker. It was because her parents died when she was very young.
I can't imagine how lonely she must have been with no parents to give her love and affection. Mamaw always told me that after she, and her younger brother, moved in with relatives she always felt like she was on the outside looking in. What a terrible feeling to never feel like you really belonged. To never feel like you really had a home or a real family. To never feel like you were anything other than an obligation. That's the reason home and family became so important to her later in life. That's also the reason she lavished me with attention, affection and unconditional love; things she never got enough of. Over four decades later, it's just now hitting me why she had three husbands. It was because she never got enough attention, affection and unconditional love so she just kept trying.
I most certainly loved her. For a long time after she died of lung cancer I would pick up the phone to call and tell her about my day. I would have the phone in my hand before I remembered that it wasn't possible to hear her voice, but I still talk to her in my mind. I would give anything to be able to give her my attention, affection and unconditional love on this day, her birthday. I can't do that, but I can remember our time together. I can remember helping her bathe after she got so sick and weak. I couldn't get her out of the bathtub even after I climbed in with her to help her get out. We got so tickled she almost froze before she could get the strength to stand up. I can remember how excited she got when it was her birthday or Christmas or a family reunion because those were occasions she knew we would all be together. I can remember her suddenly deciding that we needed to go see a play in the evening or drive to Sweetwater and go to the Rattlesnake Roundup or visit the prairie dogs in the park by the baby pool. She always wanted to have fun and we did.
She and I would have slumber parties when I was a child and sometimes even after I was grown. The routine was always the same. Before we would get into her bed, she would spread pink cold cream on her face. I would lay next to her and breathe deeply because I could smell the cold cream and it smelled like her. We would whisper our thoughts to each other while she smoked one last cigarette before sleep. I'd watch the glowing tip of her cigarette in the dark hoping that it would never go out so we could keep talking. She'd eventually put the cigarette out and tell me it was time to close my eyes. Off in the distance, we could hear the train whistle as we fell asleep side-by-side. I'm so thankful for my wonderful memories of her. So many memories. I can no longer glance over at her for comfort, but I can remember her and it feels like home.