The State of Things
Mother has not come home. She walked on down the mountain the day after I began to bleed as a woman will do. There were reasons for her to leave, quiet and secret reasons that only a grown woman can know in her own soul, things she didn’t see fit to tell me, but as the girl who was being left, it seemed to me that she went because she had done all there was to do by me. Her man had run off years ago, and her daughter was a pure grown girl, and surely, there was no other need the most practical of mothers could have felt. I knew how to sew with the even, strong stitch of my mother and the mothers before her, and there was a journal scratched with memories of motherly warnings she imparted on my foolish mind, but also memories of warm chocolate drinks we shared in china cups she had purchased straight from a catalog.
The first nights I spent without mother were satisfactory, which is such a high flying word, but really, it’s the only word I can fit perfectly into my mind for those nights. I ate cold but tasty suppers, and I went on to bed with a familiar quilt, a new book of old love stories, and a cup of tea, which I had been taught would stain my teeth if sipped from the comfort of a bed. But it was those later mornings, those mornings of the second and then third week when I found myself to be what I had not yet considered myself in danger of becoming; I discovered with an alarming calmness that I was a girl abandoned. I was fifteen, with the body of a woman and with what I considered the mind of a sage old woman, yet it was my soul that was young yet, not done being raised and that yearned for the steadiness of a mother’s watchful eye and firm, yet soft hand. On those mornings, I didn’t hear the eggs sizzling in the greased up skillet, and I didn’t even listen for the ruckus of woodpeckers darting across the sky. I just stared at the empty high back chair mother had always claimed and then thought to myself that being alone, without a mother or a daddy wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t unbearable, but it wasn’t natural. The floorboards beneath my feet were scrubbed up good, but I swear, they trembled like the whole house could fall in on me. It was a sad way to be up on a mountain alone, the girl without kin. Surely, I thought, I would turn out to be a strange old granny woman, a witch maybe. Children might one day cast lots on who could be brave enough to come up to my window and catch a glimpse of my solitary soul. But then weeks turned to a month, and I started to smile when I thought about being alone. Not a smile for every hour, not yet, but at least a smile and a bit of daydreaming of a fanciful sort now and again. And then I began pouring my own cups of steaming chocolate into my favorite of the fancy china cups, the heavier, bluer one, and that might have been what done it for me. Those sweet and bitter drinks moved me away from my dark place and out into days where there were possibilities brewing. I might just see something beautiful this day, I said to myself one morning after sipping down the warmth from the fancy cup. Though on that day, I didn’t see a terribly beautiful thing, but I did send word to that missionary who travelled these parts now and again, told him I had changed my heart and that yes, he could come calling. I grew up a garden of sweet smelling herbs and flowers, and I found myself laughing at the idea of becoming the old witch woman up the mountain one day. My despair had turned lighter. And when the first spring rains came, I considered this: a time for a beau is this moment.
Soon after, my missionary, Joshua, came. He kissed me, and then I kissed him back. We kissed in the doorway of my cabin, not even speaking a word, and then I pulled him towards me, until he was inside my kitchen, the kitchen that had once belonged to mother, and he shut the door behind him with his boot. It felt good to kiss on him, and I was not ashamed to throw my effort into it, for to tell the truth, I was hungry for a good kiss, a good grown-up woman and man kiss like I had never before had. And when he tried to pull away from me, I pulled him right back towards me, placing my palm real firm on the back of his neck. And he laughed right up against my mouth, and I didn’t care what he thought of me, even if he thought I was a sinful woman, because I needed that embrace just then. I was grown that day, without the touch of a man, and it was time for me to know a little of it. He walked with me, back towards the wall, until my backside hit the closed door to my bedroom, and this time we both stopped kissing together, he resting his forehead on mine, me trying not to look up into his eyes.
“Welcome.” I said to him.
“Ella.” His voice was a deep whisper, an unsteady sound coming from such a steady man. And then I thought that maybe I could love him. I thought that he might just be someone who could warm up my heart. We’ve not kissed like that again, for it wouldn’t be proper, and I did like to keep things in order, to keep them proper, as much as a girl living alone could.
There’s a bolt of white fabric out there somewhere for me to purchase and sew into a wedding gown. It will have a high collar, and I will fasten my mother’s golden ball collar pin to it.
He wants to marry me. And I want him, too. I do. It’s just that the season has not yet come for Joshua and me. And I know we will be a good thing, have a good life together. He will be a hard worker and keep up the house and do whatever work needs to be done to keep us clothed comfortably and fed well. There may be babies, and he will be a fine daddy to them, laughing and carrying on and teaching Scripture and all. But if a body rushes the seasons, rushes the timing of things, then even the good things in life can go sour, even the best life can fail to grow and thrive the way it ought to. So I lay alone in my bed at night. I’m not too cold or too terrible lonely just now, yet I think it will be a good day when I’m joined with a husband. There’s a bolt of white fabric out there somewhere for me to purchase and sew into a wedding gown. It will have a high collar, and I will fasten my mother’s golden ball collar pin to it. I will look the part of the virgin bride, for I will be one, and I will be as happy as a young girl with her first hat pins on the day I wed Joshua, for though I have no family, and I have known much sorrow, seen more endings than beginnings, I still feel there is youth left in me yet.
I think that when I marry, I will send out a wedding announcement to be printed in newspapers all around, as if I am a fine woman who wants to put on airs and let everyone read her name. But there is only one set of eyes I hope will see the news of my marriage, and so I will send the announcement to a hundred papers. I will spend weeks finding papers in both Kentucky and Virginia, and maybe Tennessee. I will inquire of places to send my news because my mother is out there somewhere, and I want her to know. A mother should know when her daughter marries. That is something that cannot be argued against in the world, far as I can tell. How good or bad the mother is or was for her daughter should not even come into question when considering if she has the right to know of such a blessed event in her daughter’s life.
My mother deserves to know this. All mothers deserve to know such a thing. And there is another universal truth I have come to learn about mothers and daughters and that is this…a mother will always wrong her daughter in some way, whether it be a small way or a tragic way, whether the daughter even realizes it or not, and whether or not it is intentional or even unavoidable. That’s just the way of things, for when a role is that important, that crucial to the life of a daughter, then failure is certain, in some way or another. And my mother failed. She failed miserable, but she also did right by me in many ways. There is no forgiveness necessary then. My mother abandoned me, but she is my mother, and I love her, and I need her. I need her until the day she dies, and if she walks into my door on this very day, then I would welcome her embrace. Lord, to see my mother again, to smell the mint and the scent of the woods in her wild hair. That would be a fine thing.
Brittany Hampton grew up in southeastern Kentucky and now lives in the North Carolina foothills where she teaches creative writing courses and music lessons and homeschools her three young daughters. She received the MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her fiction has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, The Pikeville Review and Relief. She won the James Still Prize for Short Story from Lincoln Memorial University’s Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. Most recently, her short story “Harmon Jackson” was included in the 40th Anniversary edition of Appalachian Heritage.