The last time I saw my mother alive, she was on her way to
serve the poor.
She was wearing one of her favorite dresses, a blue cotton knit
with a sash at the waist. She'd had it for years. It was her favorite
not because of style, but because it was comfortable and easy to
wash. "This dress will do just fine," she would say whenever I
bewailed the notion that she wore it so much to Hope Center,
people might think she slept in it. She was far more careful in dressing
for work, starching blouses and skillfully mending old skirts so
they would not bespeak her lack of a wardrobe. She'd add one of
her three pairs of dime-store earrings, sometimes an inexpensive
necklace. But any jewelry was out of the question at the Center,
where it would only get in the way or, worse, remind the homeless
and hungry that their needs were far beyond our own. As for the
blue cotton dress, it had been spit up on by mewling babies, dirtied
by the spilled soup of children, even torn by the clutching hand of
a frightened young mother. Mom would drag home from another
long evening at Hope Center, her beautiful face lined with fatigue
and a thick strand of her dark auburn hair straggling out of its
rubber band, and shake her head good-naturedly over the day's ruin
of her dress. Then she'd wash it by hand and hang it up to dry for
the next time.
I often volunteered alongside Mom at the Center. After my
homework was done and her workday as a receptionist at an insurance
firm was finished, we'd hurry through a simple meal, then
drive to the two-story brick building in downtown Cincinnati that
provided room and board to the poverty-stricken. Saturdays, I
always went with her. Except that Saturday. My high school
sophomore finals were the following week, and Mom had insisted
I stay home to study. "You stay home too," I'd pleaded. "You're
exhausted, and you haven't given yourself a day off in weeks. Let
somebody else fill in for you just this once."
"Oh, but I can't," she'd replied softly. "I promised little Jianying
and a whole group of children I'd read to them today, and then I've
got to teach that class on how to interview for a job. And besides,
Brenda's sick, so I've got to oversee cooking dinner." Brenda Todd
had founded the Center ten years previously and acted as manager.
Mom had been her "right-hand woman" for eight years.
And so, on that horrific Saturday, my mother kissed me goodbye
and walked out the door of our small rented house and down
our porch to leave. I followed, still protesting. "Then at least let
me come with you. Maybe I can help with dinner, and you can
come home after the class. I'll get somebody to give me a ride
home. I can study all day tomorrow."
She placed her hands with firm gentleness on my shoulders.
"No, Jessie. Stay here and study. And maybe I can find someone
to replace me tomorrow. I wouldn't mind a day in bed." She smiled,
trying to hide her tiredness as she slid into our battered Chevy
I will always remember that smile. It is cut into my brain like a
carved cameo. I can picture her blue dress; the paleness of her
cheeks, void of makeup; the warmth of her brown eyes. She'd
placed her worn white purse beside her on the seat, its bent handle
flopping forward. Something about that old purse tugged at my
heart. I thought of the long hours she was about to put in-again-for
no pay. How many dresses, how many purses could she
have bought had she spent as much time earning money?
Mom hadn't led an easy life herself, yet she was always thinking
of others. Her husband-my father-had wandered away when I
was a baby, leaving her with nothing but dark memories of his alcoholism. Years
later, he was killed in a drunken fight in some bar
halfway across Ohio. Her one sister lived in a tiny, remote town
in Kentucky, and they rarely saw each other. And Mom had been
estranged from her parents for years before their deaths. After the
one and only disastrous time we'd taken a chance and visited them,
I'd declared with all the righteous indignation a ten-year-old could
muster that we'd never go back again. Within four years of that
visit, my grandfather had died from cirrhosis of the liver, and my
grandmother from heart disease.
As Mom slipped the keys into the ignition, the smile I've held in
my memory faded from her lips. Then, for the briefest of moments,
her eyes slipped shut, and I watched an expression of despair spread
across her features. Anxiety for her hit me in the chest, and I was just
about to argue with her further about staying home when her eyes
reopened. She noticed me gazing at her, and the expression vanished.
She smiled again, a little too brightly. The car started and she began
to pull away from the curb. I saw her left hand come up, fingers
spread. It was a small wave, intimate. "Thanks for caring," it seemed
to say, "but you know I'll be fine." I lifted a hand in return, managed
a wan smile back.
I sighed in worry as I watched Mom ease down our street and
turn right. Then she was out of sight. Two blocks from our house,
she would turn left and begin the climb up Viewridge, which
curved to become visible from where I stood.
I fervently wished she had stayed home to rest.
The distinctive sound of a mail slot opening clanked through
my thoughts. I turned to see Jack, our mailman, pushing envelopes
into the Farrells' house next door. Calling out a greeting, I waited
near the curb for him, shielding my eyes against the sun.
"Hi, Jessie," Jack said as he drew near, pulling our mail from
his cart. "Almost done with school for the year, aren't you?" He
folded the envelopes inside a magazine and held the bundle out
to me. I raised my hand to take it. That's when the squealing
It was a long keening, the unmistakable sound of frantic brakes.
It's not the noise itself that immediately draws your eyes, it's the
expectation of what's to follow. Jack's head jerked up. I whirled
around, scanning Viewridge, and caught sight of my mother's car.
Then I saw the vehicle reeling toward it, pulling a trailer. Fishtailing
badly. Dread bolted me to the sidewalk.
Time slowed, suspended in the suddenly suffocating air. In the
next second it looked like Mom swerved onto the shoulder toward
safety, but she had little room. I remember the nausea that seized
me at that moment, even before the inevitable crash. I felt as if I
were watching a horror movie, shouting "No! No!" at the screen.
Then I heard the words yelled and realized they were my own.
Jack murmured a prayer. Vaguely, I registered the sound of mail
hitting the sidewalk.
The crash played forever. There was the smash of impact as the
truck hit the side of my mother's car, a grinding of metal and gears,
the lingering screech of twisted vehicles careening to a halt. Then
utter, dead silence. My feet still would not lift from the sidewalk.
Screams gurgled in my throat.
My next memory puts me a block away, breaths ragged with
sobs, running, running
She had such a good heart."
"Your mother was the most giving person I've ever known."
"Dear child, you can know she's in heaven, for all the loving
things she did."
Words of solace poured from the mouths of all who attended
my mother's funeral. Hope Center's large gymnasium, cleared of
its overnight cots for the homeless, was filled with men, women,
and children who wept with me for my mother. Little Jianying
Zheng, her doe-brown eyes brimming, wordlessly pressed a white
rose into my hand. Her mother placed both palms against my
cheeks, her gentle fingertips conveying what her tightened throat
could not. In that simple motion I understood the depth of her
gratitude. My thoughts, numb as they were, flashed to the recent
night this tiny Chinese woman and her five children had come
home with Mom to sleep on our floor, the Center being too
crowded to take them in. Mei Zheng and her children were
immigrants, her husband recently dead from an illness he'd picked
up in a filthy overseas refugee camp. Mom had seen that they all
were fed and bathed, patiently trying to understand their broken
English as they told of their troubles. After dinner, Mei Zheng
had pulled a small statue of Buddha from her ragged knapsack,
and the entire family knelt before the statue on our checkered
kitchen floor to give their thanks. I had never seen such outward
religious obeisance before and was touched by it. As long as I
could remember, Mom had instilled within me the understanding
that one's soul is more important than earthly matters. How one
reached God was up to the individual, she said; people throughout
the world found him through differing religions and beliefs.
Mom taught me that the way was not important. Her personal
way was living a life in service to others.
"They're so content, even when they have nothing," Mom had
whispered to me as we tiptoed from the kitchen out of respect for
the Zheng family while they worshiped. "Theirs is a wonderful
religion-peaceful, revering all life, never violent." Mom abhorred
violence, her burning aversion long ago forged at the lightning
quick hand of her intemperate father. From my earliest days, she
had taught me never to raise a hand against anyone. As she lingered
to look back at the threadbare, kneeling figures, her lips curved at
During the funeral service, that scene-the tiny frame of Mei
Zheng bowed low, her dark hair spilling onto the kitchen floor, and
my mother's loving, accepting smile-rose before me again as Ralph
Crest, the minister from the Unitarian Church two doors down from
the Center, spoke his eulogy. Mom's closed casket was covered with
flowers, from expensive arrangements sent by nearby business
owners to hand-picked daisies and day-old bouquets foraged
throughout the city by those whom Hope Center sheltered. I knew
without a doubt which ones Mom would have liked best. I sat on the
front row of hard folding chairs between Aunt Eva Bellingham,
Mom's sister, and her husband, my Uncle Frank. I had seen them
only once before, also at a funeral; that one for their only child,
Henry, who had been killed in the Korean War. I was only seven at
the time, yet had felt the weight of the grief from those around me
pressing down on my own small shoulders. I had wanted to comfort
my aunt and uncle then; now they were trying to comfort me.
"Marie Susanna Callum was a deeply religious woman," Mr.
Crest was declaring in a voice of hushed reverence. "She gave
wholeheartedly and unceasingly here at Hope Center, yet asked
God for nothing for herself. And because of that, she has certainly
found her salvation today, now that she has passed from this world.
"You know, every once in a while, Marie would visit our
services. And I want to tell you of a day a few years ago when she
came with her daughter, Jessie. Marie looked so tired, and I knew
she had been working even more than usual here, preparing meals
and serving. I believe you'd lost one of your volunteer cooks at the
time. After the service she shook my hand and thanked me for my
words. Seeing the lines on her forehead, I said, 'Marie, don't you
ever get tired of giving?' I said, 'Some people would insist you've
already done enough good for one lifetime.' And you know what
she replied? She looked me straight in the eye and said in her soft
voice, 'Well, Minister Crest, I'm afraid I'd have to disagree with
those people. No amount I can do will ever be good enough.'"
Never good enough.
A knife cut through me at the words. All too well I remembered
the day they had been hurled at my mother through the gritted,
tobacco-stained teeth of her hateful father. How furious I'd been at
him that day. And how hurt I had been for Mom, my eyes suddenly
opened to the childhood abuse at which she'd only hinted. I struggled
to push the memory away as a sob rolled up my chest. I could hear
others crying behind me, the shaky whispers of women shushing
their young children. I thought at that moment that I would simply
die, for the sorrow was more than I could bear. It was going to split
my chest wide open. How could my wonderful, self-sacrificing
mother be dead? I squeezed my eyes shut, swooning in my seat. Uncle
Frank hastened his arm around me and held me tightly.
"What a marvelous testimony for one who had already done so
much," Ralph Crest concluded. "Yes, Marie Susanna Callum was
forever compassionate to the needs around her. She was always
ready to do more."
I shuddered against Uncle Frank's broad chest. Despite the
minister's interpretation of Mom's words, they spoke to me only
of wrath and judgment. How could she even have formed those
words with her own tongue, especially in reference to herself?
After the service, I rode to the cemetery in a solemn black limousine
with my aunt and uncle. I barely remember the journey.
Only that Aunt Eva hugged me so hard I could barely breathe,
weeping, "My poor chil', my poor chil'; Lord Jesus, help us take
care a her." It was a fitting day for a burial, the air oppressive with
humidity, a light drizzle beginning to fall as we stood before the
grave site. When they lowered my mother's casket into the earth,
taking what was left of her away from me forever, I sank to my
knees, wracked with sobs. I cried for the loss of her, then cried
harder that I wouldn't even be able to tend her grave. I was to
leave the next day to live with my aunt and uncle in the tiny town
of Bradleyville, Kentucky, a town I'd seen only once, when their
son had been buried.
The ceremony finally complete, I still could not get up. Aunt
Eva and Uncle Frank knelt beside me, oblivious to the rain, and
prayed aloud for God's comfort, long after everyone else had gone.
Still, I could not leave. Finally, Uncle Frank rose, gathered me
tenderly in his arms, and carried me from the grave, my head
lolling against his starched white dress shirt, now wet and wrinkled
from the rain and my tears.
Nothing could have prepared me for the change in atmosphere
and pace that I found in Bradleyville. The town was even
smaller than I remembered. It contained all of two stoplights, both
on Main Street. The first was upon entering the town along Route
622 after a series of stomach-dropping hills; the second heralded
the one-block downtown area. In between the two was the post
office, in which Aunt Eva worked. Past the second light were the
grocery store, the Laundromat, Miss Alice's sewing shop, and Mr.
Tull's Drugstore on the right. Across the street lay the hardware
store, dime store, and bank, plus a small police station that included
a tiny holding cell (hardly ever used), the fire station, and the
doctor's office. There were two churches at strategic locations on
different side streets off Main-a Baptist and a Methodist. Continues.