The Way Mama Tells It

HAIRLD! GUESS WHO’S here to visit. It's Aileen!

I was telling Lylah Battle about Mary Alec Poole—you know how Mary Alec is, she makes her children all go out the door in the morning in the order of height? Well, age.

Hairld! We’re in the den. Come see Aileen!

And I looked over at Mama and I said, “Mama, what are you doing?”

said, are you doing?” “Nothing,”Mama said. Like a child.


And, Aileen, she was taking notes!

She didn’t want to let me see them. I said, “Now, Mama, I have a right to see that,” and she said, “Why?”

I said, “Honestly, Mama!” I believe if she could get up from a chair quick as she used to, I believe she would actually have run off into the next room. I went over there and made her show me what she’d written down.

Hairld! It’s Aileen. You know Aileen. Aileen Loach! Hairld!

She had written—scribbled, you know, but I know Mama’s writing, it’s the first I ever saw. She doesn’t cross her t’s. Never has crossed her t’s, and never will. It’s a wonder I cross mine. She had written, “I thought I was bad because I alphabetize my spices.”

I said, “Mama, I didn’t say that.”

“What is your trouble with it, then?” she said. That’s the way she talks now. Either gets it from the children or from television. And the tone she uses! She’s gotten right snippy. I mean, you know Mama, she would always come out with the strangest things, but it’s bad enough to talk to children the way they are, without your mother getting just as snippy, or I believe worse. And there’s nothing you can do to your mother.

Hairld! Where are you?

You know how it started. Aileen! You don’t know about this? I know you know about it, you just don’t want to say you know about it because you know how torn up I am that everybody in the world knows about it.

Well, you’re sweet. I think you’re just being sweet, but you’re sweet to be that way. I know I can tell you things, Aileen. Because you have good sense about what to repeat. That is exactly what Mama has lost every least speck of. I lie awake at night, worrying. What has Mama told today. What is she getting ready to tell. To an audience.

Hair . . . uld! Aileen and me are in the den!

That’s what I’m telling you. Aileen, you just don’t know. It’s . . . I don’t know. Mama is so quiet at home, can’t get a word out of her. I wouldn’t mind a little adult conversation from her. She’s as bad as Hairld.


Mama could be company to me. But no, she sits there saving it up.

Of course, I know you know she got down so low when Lily died. That cat and her used to be like they were almost the same person. They’d rock and watch television, rock and watch television, Mama and that cat. Lily would not sit on anyone else to save her life, just Mama. But every now and then she would go out and get little birds and chipmunks and things—

What? No, Lily would. Honestly, Aileen, you’re as bad as Hairld.


Hairld has decided to be Hairld tonight, I’m afraid.

And what the vet believes is that she got ahold of a mouse or a bird or something that had died from getting ahold of something. Mama said Lily wouldn’t get ahold of anything that wasn’t moving, but the vet said, well, it might have been some little animal that had just got ahold of something. Mama would never accept that explanation. Just would not accept it.


He can hear me.

You can hear me. Hairld!

Anyhoo, Lily came in and tried to throw up—when that cat couldn’t throw up, you knew she wasn’t herself. And died. And Mama was left—well, I know it was hard on her, but . . . She sat there on that rocker and said, “I haven’t got anything to hold.”

I said, “Hold the children, Mama.”

She said, “They hurt my lap.”

Well, I know they do squirm. “But, Mama,” I said—


She didn’t seem to have any heart for TV anymore. She wouldn’t even want to get up in the morning; you’d have to send the children in there right after breakfast, when they had jelly all over them. Even that didn’t get her up one morning—I had to let them go out and play in the pouring rain and then run jump in bed with Mama wet as little drowned rats.

So I told Hairld to take her down to the senior center. Maybe I was wrong. But I thought maybe they’d teach her to crochet. I said to Mama the other day, I said, “Mama, why don’t you crochet?" Other people’s mamas crochet—or dried arrangements. But no.

Mama took a course in storytelling.

That’s what I’m telling you, that’s what the problem’s been.

Hairld! Hairld!

SHE GOES TO festivals. They have festivals in it. All over the state. She wears an old-timey hat. And she tells stories.

And Mama doesn’t tell stories about princesses and bears. No. Not Mama. She tells stories about us. Yes.

She wins awards.

She was in the paper about it. You didn’t see it? Well, it was the Spartanburg paper. Somebody sent it to us. Aileen, I opened that paper up and I said, “Oh, my Lord.” They quoted her stories in the paper. Stories about me and Hairld, stories about the children—and stories about nearly everybody we know.

And there just doesn’t seem to be any stopping her. People come by and pick her up and drive her to these festivals. She’s so popular. I guess she is. I could be popular too if I told everything I knew, but I wouldn’t have any friends left.

Hairld! You know what he’s doing. He’s upstairs looking at television. And if he was sitting here he’d have that one right there on and be sneaking looks at it, if I was to beg him till I was blue in the face. Television has just about killed the art of conversation.

I said to Paula Dale Lovejohn yesterday, I said, “Paula Dale, you are going to hear about this. If I don’t tell you about it, sure as the world somebody is going to tell you about it, so I’m going to tell you about it. I’m just as embarrassed as I can be, but my mama is going all over the state telling about how that washing-machine repairman showed up to fix your washing machine in your basement with a cast on his leg and went downstairs and it was so flooded from the washing machine that you kept worrying that his cast was going to melt, and then you looked down and the water had floated up all those cat BMs all around him from back behind the furnace where you didn’t know the cat had been going? And he didn’t want to say anything about it and you didn’t want to say anything about it and finally he said he believed his cast might melt and he thought he’d come back when the basement had had more time to drain and you were so mortified about it. Only the way Mama told it, she made it even worse, because—”

You didn’t hear about it? Oh, Aileen, I wish you could have seen Paula Dale’s face. When she told me and Mama about it. You know how Paula Dale is, how just-so she is about everything, and then to have cat BMs—it wasn’t even her cat. No. She doesn’t have a cat. For that reason—that she’s so just-so. Oh, Paula Dale can’t even stand to have cat hair in her house. But the washing-machine repairman didn’t have any way of knowing that. I thought Paula Dale was going to die when she came over and told us about that repairman and the expression on his face and all—and he was so nice about it, that’s what made it worse, and his cast had a little child’s writing on it.

And of course Mama just sitting there. But we didn’t know Mama would repeat it. And make it worse. Because—

No, see, we didn’t know then. We knew she was telling stories but none of us had had time to go hear her and of course she hadn’t let on to us what the stories were about. And she wasn’t writing down notes then. Now she is. She doesn’t even care really if you catch her at it, she just doesn’t want you to take them away from her.


But I told Paula Dale, I said, “Mama is not the same person she was. We do not know what to expect of her any longer.”

I told Mama, “Mama, when we were children you didn’t tell us stories.” Mama said she was too busy raising us. She said we wouldn’t sit still long enough. She said she didn’t realize she knew any stories back then. I just gave up trying to reason with her.

I finally felt like I had to go hear her perform. I went to the big state finals of storytelling, which Mama came in second in, which I thought she should have won against the old man who did win—he just went on and on about outhouses and snakes.

Hairld! Hair-uld! I could cheerfully kill him.

IT WAS A FOLK-story festival, they called it. Now, Aileen, we are not folk. You know that. We weren’t ever folk. We children may not have had every advantage when we were coming up, but we were not folk. I have seen the way folk do a drawing, and from the time she was thirteen my sister Janelle could draw a horse or a deer all to the life. It would be as if it was standing in front of you.

Hairld! You are being rude to Aileen!

But I listened to Mama hold forth on that stage, Aileen, and she could have just as well been somebody else entirely. And people just applauding, and laughing, and their eyes getting wide. And my face burning. And of course afterward Mama is just in a world of her ow n. She doesn’t want to talk to us about it. It’s as if we don’t have any say over what she thinks or does.

And Mama talks about what people look like. Like you know how Lloyd Salley is always looking like he’s just getting ready to say something? Kind of beginning to smile and lean forward and even just barely open his mouth so you keep leaning forward to hear whatever it is that he has just thought of to say, until you realize that he isn’t ever going to say anything, that’s just Lloyd? Mama describes things like that. And if that ever gets back to Lloyd, I don’t know what he will think. Course I guess we’ll never know, if we have to hear it from Lloyd.

Hairld! I know what you’re doing! Sitting at that TV, and every now and then burping, or whatever it is that he does—it’s more like a hiccup than a burp, but frankly I don’t know what it is. Hairld and I have been married for eighteen years and I still don’t know what it is. I don’t think he knows.

Paula Dale of course is just as hurt as she can be. But she doesn’t know what to say to Mama. I try to talk to Mama about it, and she says it’s a free country. I say, “Mama, that’s what we all say. But you know, and I know, that when it comes to talking about people we know—people can stand being talked about behind their backs, as long as it is behind their backs. But when you do it out where all they have to do to hear it themselves is join the crowd, it’s treating them like they’re not right real.”

Mama says let them sue her.

I say, “Now, Mama, you don’t want to start talking like that, because people will.“ And not only that—Hairld says old ladies can get away with a lot, but they can go too far.

Hairld! Come in here! Aileen is going toget her feeeeelings—no, Aileen, he knows he ought to at least stick his head in here. I take up time with his old sour friends. Well, I do. I make it a point.

Hairld says it is not out of the bounds of possibility, even in this day and age—Hairld says there have been fires in this town that haven’t been investigated as hard as they might have been. Like, the Metzes. Oh, yes. The firemen theorized it started in their Parcheesi set? Nobody believed that.

Because—and it’s not just telling stories about people. It’s—that’s what I was telling you. Mama makes them worse.

Hairld! It wouldn't hurt you one bit in the world to just


The way Mama tells the story about Paula Dale and the washing-machine man and the cat BMs: it was Lily that did them behind the furnace.

Of course maybe it was, but the way Mama tells every story, it involves Lily. Lily being sent out by Mama. To do things.


Hairld and I are going to have a knock-down-and-drag-out when you go home, Aileen. No, no, don’t you feel bad—it’s Hairld. He won’t even watch TV with me anymore. Because we agreed that when one of us wants the other one to look at them, then he has to look away from the TV and look at the one who’s talking and listen. And to Hairld that’s like—you’d think he was taking poison.

Mama says storytelling is an art form. She says it’s her art. I say, “Mama, we are happy for you to have an art. That is not the point.”

Mama just looks at me like—you know how a toddler will get sometimes, all of a sudden in a crowded grocery store or somewhere just get to bucking you so hard they lay flat out on the filthy floor wallering and actually kind of grinding themselves down into the floor yelling when you try to pull them up? Mama looks like she is just literally about to do something like that.

Hairld! You might as well make your mind up, I am not going to stop calling you until you come down here and see Aileen!

Aileen, I don’t know what to do. If we’d been better about going to church I’d take Mama in to counsel with the pastor but I don’t know what the new pastor’s name is and I hate to ask, because you know the last one was Reverend Tinkle and they’ve been accused of not renewing him because of his name and they’re sensitive about it. And if there is anybody in First Melrose Church who has heard the story Mama tells about the last time she went to church there—Lord . . .

That lady was there that Sunday, you know I’ve told you about her, poor soul, she’s’ not all right, wandering in the aisle peering under the pews like she was looking for something and muttering in the middle of the sermon and getting closer and closer to the altar, and the preacher didn’t know what to say and finally he said, sort of smoothly but with a little nudge of his head so that maybe somebody would get up and lead her somewhere without him having to say right out, you know, that he wasn’t so enthusiastic about suffering her to come unto him—he said, “We are all searching here, together, as one, that the holiness of God’s word be heard and paid attention to,” and somebody in the Board of Stewards caught his meaning and took her arm as she was bending over peering and she looked up surprised and said in that right-out-loud voice like people who aren’t all right don’t know any better than to use, she said, ”Somebody’s sitting on my dollar. Cause I didn’t put it in the collection. Cause I got that dollar from Mr. Lef’wich for being sweet to him.” And everybody turned to look over at the Leftwich family. And with that Lily jumped through an open window right into Mr. Leftwich’s lap. Which is all true except for the part about Lily, which just makes it a better story—to Mama.

Hairld! You're going to miss Aileen!

Mama always, I don’t know, puts such a point on her stories.

Hairld! Aileen's going; to have to leave!



Hairld, a hear ate you! A great big bear got you and ate off your legs!