An old photograph shows her just tall enough to nestle her head on my father’s shoulder. “I’m built for comfort, not for speed,” she joked once, but she could move quickly enough with hairbrush in hand if I was naughty. Mama had a dancer’s grace. I know she danced as a child. I became a ballerina in her cast-off pink satin toe slippers, and a tap dancing fool in her black patent leather tap shoes.
“Like this,” she would say, clicking her feet against the cement porch floor. “Brush, hop, tap, step, tap.” I repeated the words under my breath until my feet could do it without coaching. My mother would tap beside me, her sneakered feet slapping the beat beside my own. Sometimes we’d stack her old polka records on the tall silver spindle of the record player and hop madly across the living room floor dodging the chairs, the footstool, the sofa, whirling and laughing until we were out of breath. When the music stopped, she went humming off into the kitchen to resume ironing or start dinner.
Mama wore her hair in a sausage roll at the back of her head even when it was cut short and the color had faded from flaxen to grey. I loved to watch her as she stood in front of the mirror early in the morning, her elbows bent, her hands reaching for the tiny hairs that escaped the rolled net that held her hair in place. On summer mornings she wore a morning coat—a thin, flowered cotton dress with buttons all the way up the front. On winter mornings she bundled against the cold in a chenille robe, thick, and belted at the waist. Not until her housework was done did she dress for the day. She was in her fifties before she traded her skirts and blouses for shorts and slacks.
When I was a small child, where she was, I wanted to be also. I would plead illness just to stay home from school and be with her. Her daily routine seldom wavered. Up in the mornings before the rest of us, she had the kettle hot and breakfast ready when we stumbled, sleep-befuddled, into the kitchen. She drank two cups of morning coffee, one standing by the stove just after the coffeepot stopped percolating, and the other sitting at the table with my father as he drank his own. Every weekday she packed four lunches, one each for my brother, my two sisters, and me. I carried mine in my much-loved green metal lunch box. Even when I stayed home she would pack my lunch in it. Then at noon she’d fix a tray for herself, bring my lunch box to me in bed, and eat there in the sickroom with me.
She sang as she went about her daily tasks, “Singing makes it less like work,” she often said, which may explain why I whistle while dusting or washing the supper dishes. Often, too, she would stop what she was doing, seat herself at the piano, and play for half an hour or so. I would scramble up on the bench beside her, watching her fingers fly along the keys. We would play together, two-part practice pieces by Bach or a madcap version of chopsticks, each of us playing faster and faster until one of us made a mistake. Then she would laugh and give my shoulders a one-armed hug.
When things went wrong or Mama was angry, she went out the edge of the garden where an old apple tree stump served as a chopping block. She’d swing the ax, thump! against log after log until her anger translated itself into a pile of firewood. If winter snow obliterated the chopping block, she’d coax us children to go skating or sledding with her. Before long she’d be having so much fun that her bad humor would simply vanish into the cold air.