Maw Surry by Tiffany Williams
At the funeral, Leah thought about dancing. She recalled all the fiddle-fast clogging songs on Friday nights at Bill Wright’s Picking Parlor. All those legs bending, feet flailing against the scuffed, bowing hardwood. Holding hands and spinning in big, quick circles with her sister, May. Getting tired and dizzy, then sitting in Maw Surry’s lap and sipping cold lemonade through a straw the color of the American flag. And Maw Surry’s strong, soft hand patting out a rhythm on her back.
Maw Surry always took the girls to Bill Wright’s on Friday nights for bluegrass picking and clogging. They looked forward to it all week. The people at the Picking Parlor danced up a storm, clogging to beat ninety, like their bodies were holding furious spirits struggling to dance their way out. Everybody always had a big-eyed time, the men and the women, the kids and the old timers. There was Ida Vanhoose, a doughy, older woman who hopped more than danced. And Jim Miller, whose feet moved quick as spits of fire from a kiln. The whole time he clogged, he had an open can of Coca-Cola sitting still on top of his head. Leah and May were dying to see it drop.
Maw Surry was used to seeing familiar faces at Bill Wright’s, but she never expected Levi Bentley to show his sorry self, seeing as he knew that’s where she would be, and he knew better than to be around her.
Levi Bentley was Maw Surry’s lawful husband. They had been married thirty-seven years, separated for the past five months. Maw Surry never talked much about Levi, except to say how awful he was and how she wouldn’t give him the time of day if he were to come back around. She sure changed her tune when she saw him clogging in the corner with Jackie Rose, that ole trashy rip from up Beefhide.
Leah spotted them about the same time Maw Surry did. They were hugged up in a corner making eyes at each other. Jackie was tossing her long, kinky mane over one shoulder. Maw marched right up to Levi and that woman, parting the mass of people like a fine-tooth comb through wet hair. Leah and May were left standing there, holding hands and breath. They watched as their mamaw stuck one jointed finger in Levi’s face, almost touching the tip of his nose. Then Jackie pushed her way up to Maw.
“Why don’t you mind your own business. Levi ain’t a thing to do with you no more,” said Jackie. Maw Surry stared her down. Then she grabbed a fist full of that smart-mouthed woman’s hair. She slung Jackie to the ground. Maw hit her several good times in the face. Levi bent down and tried to get her off his new woman. Maw Surry kicked at him, hitting right around his shins. Jackie was reaching for him, her arms and legs jutting straight out in front of her like a stiff, bloated dog lying on the roadside. Maw Surry stood. She grinned 'til she was almost laughing. Then she reared her arm back and punched Levi right on the cheekbone.
“Sometimes a woman has got to defend her own honor,” Maw Surry said as the sheriff led the three of them to his car and opened the door, directing them to sit in the back.
Later on, Leah and May’s father came plodding through the jailhouse with his tongue between his teeth and started bellowing phrases the children had not heard before or since. When he was facing Maw Surry, he took a good look at her. Leah could hear his breathing. “Woman, ain’t you got a lick of sense?”
He didn’t much act like he wanted to, but he bailed them out. Their mother hadn’t come with him. Her nerves could never handle something like that. When the girls got home, she vowed that her babies would never go another place with Maw Surry, even if Maw was her own mother. But they reckoned they’d still see her. Mom would not disown family.
The next time Maw Surry was over for dinner, Mom tried to talk sense into her. “People are gonna think awful of you. You need to straighten yourself up and get back in church,” Mom said. But Maw Surry didn’t pay her much mind.
“There ain’t no need for me to go. Mabel and Gladys go enough for the whole dang family,” Maw Surry said, tapping the prongs of her fork against her bottom lip. Mom paused from chewing her chicken and glared across the table at her, but Maw didn’t seem to notice she was being looked at.
After dinner, Maw Surry walked home. She always wanted to go alone.
Maw Surry’s white, single-story coal camp house stood at the head of Chopping Branch, about one-half mile up the road from Leah’s. Hers was the one with the horse shoe overtop the front door. Maw Surry liked to say she kept a horse shoe over the door and a rifle in the bedroom closet, “one to bring good luck, the other to guarantee it,” she’d say, not cracking a smile.
Dad said her house was junked up, but Leah thought it was an endless maze of treasures. It reminded her of the Dry Fork flea market with all its eclectic goodies laid out. Except at Maw Surry’s she could play with whatever she wanted, and nothing cost anything. She was even allowed to touch the expensive-looking whatnots. Maw Surry decorated with all sorts of them: sparkly, shiny, many of them handmade. There was one collection she prized above the others, however, one she had made herself. Maw Surry was the King Midas of would-be taxidermists. Everything she spray-painted gold turned to figurines. There were field mice, moths, June bugs, crickets. A diverse herd, each one frozen in its death pose. The field mouse on the coffee table looked like it had died of pure shock.
She set the critters all over her house, most in the living room, a few in the bedroom, and one on the back of the toilet. Leah’s favorite was a large moth with perfect wings. Neither of them was frayed or broken. In death, this moth could’ve passed for a gilded butterfly.
All those little wretched animals were given a chance to be beautiful. Leah was proud of her mamaw for being able to make such things. When she got older, she was going to get Maw Surry to teach her how to quilt and how to make moths like that.
Mom was entirely repulsed and refused to allow her babies to visit after she had discovered that her mother had lost her mind and had started decorating with spray-painted vermin. Dad supported this decision, adding: “That woman is crazier than hell.” Mom usually defended Maw Surry, but this time she kept quiet.
Maw Surry was not at all like Dad. She wasn’t nearly as hateful. And she didn’t get upset when they asked a lot of questions, like Dad did sometimes. Leah and May felt free to ask her just about anything that crossed their minds. When May asked, “Why is the little couch called a love seat, Maw?” Maw Surry said that it was the seat of love, and that if May and her sister sat there for a few hours with their eyes closed, they’d be sure to get married to handsome men one day.
When the girls asked where babies come from, Maw Surry was direct. To her way of thinking, they were six and eight and it was high time they learned. “Babies,” she said, “come from bad decisions and too much moonshine.” They nodded, not wanting her to think they were too young to understand.
Some days she was soft, slow snow. Some days she was the beating hot sun that wouldn’t let up, that beat down on a person so long they felt they’d faint before the day was through. . . . Maw Surry never let anybody get too tired of one season.
As Maw Surry turned to leave, May leaned over to Leah to sneak a whisper, her eyes as big as quart jar lids. “Daddy is all the time drinking moonshine.” Leah’s only answer was to sit solid on that love seat and close her eyes. She tried to think about how she’d like to have a husband one day, but instead she kept picturing Dad’s belly spilled out overtop his belt buckle.
Maw Surry wasn’t a bit like Mom, either. Sometimes it was hard to believe they were made of the same stuff. Maw Surry let them do things Mom would never agree to. They got to pilfer through the candy drawer anytime they wanted, usually before dinner. And whereas Mom was too timid to raise a hand to them, Maw Surry would raise whatever she could get her hands on. Their backsides met with fly swats, belts, and, once or twice, the side of a butcher knife. Whoopings with butcher knives were the worst, but the girls sure learned quick to quit what they were doing and never attempt it again.
Some days she was soft, slow snow. Some days she was the beating hot sun that wouldn’t let up, that beat down on a person so long they felt they’d faint before the day was through. Leah liked her that way. In the heat of August Leah was ready for cool fall winds, and in the dead of February she was sick of snow and would rather just see the sun. Too much of either made her want the other. Maw Surry never let anybody get too tired of one season.
Although Maw Surry was in the winter of her life, Leah could look into her eyes and see who she had been when she was young. Crows feet grow around them and they sink in sometimes, but eyes don’t lie. Maw Surry had a mean look to her. Her eyes were usually squinted, like the sun was in them. But when they weren’t, Leah saw straight to those blues, and was certain she had been beautiful. And feisty. Maw Surry’s eyes told the flat out truth of youthful years lived at the mercy of pure meanness. Leah knew she couldn’t have found a truer blue in the seas or the skies if she had tried.
When Sarah Bentley—“Maw Surry” to most—died that Friday in June, her sisters Mabel and Gladys were grateful, praising the good Lord she didn’t pass on a Sunday. Being that they were Old Regular Baptists by birth, Mabel and Gladys had long been warned of the dangers of dying on the Lord’s Day. Everyone is to stay where they are on that day. Says so in the Bible. It would’ve been devastating for them to have known their sister’s soul was stuck on earth, not able to fly home to heaven. So they prayed about it. And they prayed a prayer of thanks once this prayer had been answered. Mabel and Gladys were good church-goers. They always worried about things like God and dying and their sister Surry getting to heaven.
Leah was surprised at how it had happened. She had known her mamaw all her eight years, and knowing her like she did, she figured it would’ve been entirely different. She expected her to fight and scratch and kick before being taken from this world. Instead, Maw Surry lay there, day after day, dying slow without a sound.
The doctor said sugar was what took her. His face was solid as he informed the family of her passing, like a weatherman disappointing viewers with news of cloudy skies and likely showers. Leah did not particularly care for this doctor. She wasn’t much on doctors in general. When Mom took her to see her pediatrician, Dr. Rau, Leah always felt her stomach knot up.
Going to see Maw Surry for the last time felt like going to see Dr. Rau. That familiar feeling greeted her at 7:30 that morning, accompanied by Mom. Mom announced her presence with a flick of the light switch, the glow of the ceiling fan light revealing her long, tall figure gliding across the hardwood toward the bed. She touched Leah’s shoulder lightly, “Time to get up, baby doll.” If Leah had forgotten what the day was, she would’ve been reminded by Mom’s tone. What she carried on her heart, she carried on her voice. Mom was predictable that way.
Usually it took more coaxing, but Leah was awake and sitting up in bed thinking through things just minutes after Mom had turned on the light. Soon after, May came stamping into the room like a morning cherub. Her hair was deep chestnut with glints of gold threaded through, and that morning it was sectioned off and wrapped tight around piglet-pink sponge rollers. Sleeping in sponge rollers meant two things for the morning to come: You would look ridiculous, and something important was going to happen. May did look ridiculous with those rollers in, but she was redeemed by her warm doe eyes, framed by thick, black lashes that had such curl it seemed they might’ve just been taken out of rollers themselves.
“Mom says come on and get up. It’s time to get ready.” Mom was tactical—it was impossible to get irritated with May. She was too little and too sweet. May came over and hugged her big sister around the neck, then hurried back into the bathroom to watch Mom put on makeup.
When they were dressed, Leah and May looked like they were ready to hunt eggs. Fluffy white crinoline poofed out the skirts of their dresses, and lace and ribbon lined their collars and cap sleeves. Mom had put them in their pale blue Easter dresses they had worn just two months before. She and Dad were wearing black, but apparently their mother thought it morbid to dress her babies that way.
The four of them walked down the gravel driveway to the car. Dad put May in the car, then made sure all the doors were shut and locked. He drove fast with one hand on the wheel. “This is just a part of life, girls. Just another natural part of life."
Leah looked out the window. The trees seemed to lean over them, their leaves passing by in a green, whirling blur. She had seen these leaves in all their ways, had seen them drained and crisp-thin, falling. But right then it seemed they’d always been early-summer green, and always would be.
Leah knew from experience what happened at funerals. All the family you hadn’t seen in a while, all the family you saw all the time, and all the family you didn’t even know you had put on whatever they owned that was black. Everybody sang. Most everybody cried. In particular, she knew that the preacher said all sorts of nice things about whoever was laying in the box beside him. That was the problem, and that was the primary reason Leah was nervous. She was worried sick the preacher wouldn’t have a thing nice to say about Maw Surry. All those people were going to gather together to be reminded how awful she was.
The preacher had to say something about Maw Surry, and surely he was no liar. “Well, folks, she wasn’t much count—a cussing, fussing, fighting old woman. Pray for her soul. Amen,” was probably at the nicer end of things he might say. Thinking about it made Leah’s chest pull tight, like plastic wrap stretched over leftovers. She looked out the window to soothe herself. She watched the trees move slow, like they were dancing underwater.
Because they were the closest kin, Leah, May, Mom, and Dad had to sit in the front row along with Mabel and Gladys, who looked like they had taken a head-start on crying, their faces pink and swollen and wet. Leah sat between Mom and May and sank into that soft navy velvet that lined the wooden folding chairs. Right behind them sat all their red-headed cousins from Michigan. Even though there was a lot of pressure to cry if you sat up front, Leah was glad those cousins were sitting behind her and not the other way around. She and May were sure to get distracted by those blazing manes, and Mom had already told them they were to pay full attention to the entire service.
The room was heavy and low, with the air that bears down on grief so dense it seemed the ceiling was inching toward the floor. The walls were overgrown with flowers. Tulips, peonies, roses, calla lilies, irises. Flower taken from the ground to spend all their days dying. You could smell their decay, the sharp, sweet scent of a desperate life, conscious of certain death and little else. They looked beautiful, dying though they were.
The people from Mabel and Gladys’ church sat near the back as designated singers. They all had on faded browns and dusty blacks, and their hair was salty gray. They were crumpled, cut-out paper dolls, hunched over their hymnals and pushing pitched air. To start with, they sang “Amazing Grace,” slow and with a limping beat. If everybody had started clapping to it, it would’ve sounded like they were trying to catch dancing lightning bugs between both hands but kept missing. The rest of the people in the room started to sing along. Leah knew most of the words and wanted to join, but her throat felt hard and thick, like it was packed full of dried cement from chest to chin.
After the singing, the preacher stood up. Earl Quillen from the Old Regular Baptist Church on Pine Knot Road where Mabel and Gladys went. He struggled up to the podium that was waiting for him. He looked like he might break. Before he started saying awful things about Maw Surry, Leah closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to be there to witness it. She tried to take herself back to a night at Bill Wright’s, some night with Maw slapping her thigh and singing: get down boys, go back home, back to the girl you love. Treat her right, never wrong, how mountain gals can love.
“Sarah Bentley,” the preacher started, “was a good woman.”
Leah’s eyes shot open. She saw the preacher standing there, sopping sweat beads from his high forehead. He gripped the podium and rocked it left and right. After every few words he would pause, throw his head back and say, “Jesus, Jesus,” like he was looking for the Lord in the ceiling. Leah thought he looked nervous.
The preacher said her name again—Sarah Bentley. So he knew who he was talking about. He continued—how she was a faithful member of the Old Regular Baptist Church for twenty-five years, but how she got sick and couldn’t make it to services in her later days. The congregation sure had missed her. How she had wished she could come to services, and she still loved and worshiped the Lord in her own way. How she was a kind and gentle creature who loved her family and was a friend to anyone she met. How she lived a good Christian example, and that we should all try to live a life like she had led. Then he preached a big long sermon about not drinking beer and not keeping company with strange women and how hot the fires of hell burn. When he was done, everybody sang that song about a day without clouds, a home far beyond the skies where there wasn’t a storm cloud in sight.
Leah looked up at the man standing beside Maw Surry, singing with what breath he had left after threatening all those crying people for the past two hours. She was sure Earl Quillen was the lyingest preacher ever was.
After the last song, a line wormed around the room. Everybody standing to see Maw Surry one last time. One last look before the lid closed. Leah did not want to see her. She had looked at dead bodies before at other funerals, and every time she expected to their eyes to pop open and stare up at her.
Leah walked up to the coffin. It was long and pearl blue with a big silver bar on the side. Dad bent down and lifted her from under her arms. On his hip, she could see Maw Surry. Her mouth was tucked in tight at the corners. Somebody had teased her hair up big and dusted her face with baby powder.
“You look green as a gourd, baby doll. You gonna be okay?” Dad was in the habit of commenting on Leah’s condition using fruits or vegetables. She was green as a gourd when she was ill or ill at ease, pretty as a peach when she got all dolled up for church, and plum ornery if she didn’t do just what Dad told her to do right as soon as he told her to do it. Maybe Dad was right this time, though. Maybe she was that green, like a weak-stomached cartoon character on a ship on a lapping sea. She felt like she had drunk a bucket full of salt water and it was waking against the walls of her stomach.
The cars leaving the funeral home for the gravesite turned their headlights on and drove at a creep, one behind the other. The procession looked like a line of miners, crawling on all fours out of the hollow purple darkness of the earth into the open light of day.
They had to walk a ways up the hill, past staggered rows of headstones. Leah was careful to walk between them and not step on any grave, avoiding bad luck with each deliberate placement of each foot. Some of the headstones were light grey and chalky. Some were deep charcoal and slick, like slate, and soaked up the hot sun. The steady rays slid down the stones and heated the ground. Leah searched the grass in front of them, expecting to see steam rising up like liberated spirits.
All the family stood around Maw Surry one last time. Earl Quillen had come, too, but this time he was reading strictly from the Bible, which prevented his telling any more lies. The earth’s smile was an open rectangle beneath the box, eager to accept its prodigal. The freshly dug dirt piled to the side smelled warm and new. Leah would remember Mom’s quiet crying and the smell of Old Spice on Dad’s neck, which she smothered her nose in as he held her on his hip. Dad was swaying easy, like he was keeping time with the breeze. Leah imagined she was dancing. She could see Maw Surry. She was laughing as she spun Leah out onto the floor, like unraveling string from a spool. Then she brought her back home.
Tiffany Williams, a native of southeastern Kentucky, is a high school teacher in Pikeville, Kentucky. Her writing has been anthologized in We All Live Downstream and Motif: Writing by Ear.