by Helen Middleton Amos
MARSHA shook her head quickly when Dr. Abbot proposed sending her mother to the hospital.
“We’ll take care of her here,” she said firmly. “She’s almost 90 and has never been in a hospital in her life. She had six children in that upstairs bed, and typhoid fever besides, and that’s where she always said she wanted to die.”
The young doctor sighed. “My own grandmother would probably be the same way, if it came to that. Well, there isn’t much more I can do for her, actually. The stroke affected her speech center in the brain, and her heart is weak. Just make her comfortable, and I’ll be back in a day or two.”
Marsha watched his car disappear down the farm lane and went upstairs to her mother.
Her mother lay quietly in the big double bed she had shared for so many years with her beloved Peter, gone a decade. Her snowy hair seemed part of the white pillow.
“Is there anything you need?” Marsha asked. “Here’s fresh water, and you can reach the little radio if you want some music.” She looked like a doll, Marsha thought, blinking back tears. So little remained of the robust, laughing woman who had made life a cheerful adventure for her brood despite back-breaking work and sparse funds. But, if it weren’t for the wistful look in the dark eyes, she seemed content. Her pink nightgown matched the columns of rose buds on the ivory wallpaper. Through the open window came the delicate scent of lilacs and the sound of birds chirping in the maple near the house. But what did she want so much that, though she could not speak, her eyes were pleading?
“I can’t figure it out,” she told her husband and the hired man at supper. “Mother has no pain, the doctor said, and I try to anticipate her needs, but she wants something. I’m sure of it.”
After the meal, Marsha and Bill went upstairs. “Good. You ate your supper,” Marsha praised, “even if it was a small portion, you got it down.”
Her mother smiled, then turned her yearning gaze on Bill, as if perhaps he would understand and grant her wish, even if Marsha didn’t. He eased his long frame into the rocker where his mother-in-law had nursed her babies so long ago. “Seeding’s nearly in,” he said, “Frank’s finishing up the back field this evening.”
She nodded. She had taken an active part in running the farm until well on in her 70’s, and he knew she was still interested. Born in this sprawling, grey-brick house, she had never lived anywhere else. Fitting that she should die here. He swallowed hard. She had always been good to him, and his warm affection for her never faltered. He stood up and put his strong hand over her frail one. “Better spell Frank for a while,” he said and left the room.
There was a companionable silence, then, between Marsha and her mother. They could hear the frogs croaking in the farm pond and the distant sound of the tractor. Spring twilight came softly, but Marsha made no move to put on a lamp. Memories flooded her mind, and she reminded her mother of years gone by. “Remember the hot summer nights after chores when we’d all go to the creek for a swim? And the time Aunt Mary’s fiance from the city came and didn’t know one end of a cow from the other?” She chuckled. “Guess he thought milk grew in bottles.” The old rocking chair creaked as she moved back and forth. “Then there was the June some of us got jobs picking strawberries at Miller’s and were let go after two days because he said we ate more than we picked.” Finally Marsha reached for the light switch. “Better go down and tackle the dishes,” she said “Time does run on when a person gets talking.”
There was good humor in her mother’s eyes, and Marsha thought how comforting it was not to see the wistful pleading, at least for now.
The next afternoon as she settled her mother for a nap, Marsha had an idea. She fetched a pencil and pad from a drawer and put it on the pillow. “Even if you can’t talk, Mother,” she said, “you can write us little notes.”
Her mother reached eagerly for the pencil, made a few uncertain marks on the paper and began to weep. “Never mind, Mother,” Marsha spoke quickly. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t realize you were too weak to write. We’ll get along just fine without it.”
When the men came in to wash up for supper, Marsha asked Frank if he’d like to go up and see her mother. “Sure would,” he said. “Me’n the Missus seen a lotta years together on this place.” Marsha went, too, and her mother’s eyes lit up at the sight of him. “Man ‘n boy, I been work’n’ here a long time Missus,” he said. “You’n me seen a lotta changes.”
She nodded. Marsha could see Frank would take up her mother’s mind for a while so she left them together.
He wasn’t her only visitor, of course. The new minister called, and when he came downstairs his hearty face was grave. “Mrs. Green isn’t long for this world,” he said earnestly. “I prayed with her, and she’s ready to go, I’m certain.” Marsha’s eyes filled with tears. This young man believed in telling it like it is, she decided and couldn’t blame him for that, but it hurt to have what she already knew put so bluntly.
Marsha’s brothers and sisters came, with their children and grandchildren, and she sent them up two at a time.
“We don’t want to tire Mother out,” she’d explain, serving coffee, cookies, and milk in the big farm kitchen.
Aunt Mary and Uncle Sid came from the city and stayed for a week. “It’s so nice to have you here,” Marsha told her aunt as they did the dishes together one day after lunch. “Mother sleeps an hour or two every afternoon, so we can have a good visit.”
They carried a pot of tea and cups and saucers on a tray and sat in lawn chairs in the shade of the old maple under the invalid’s window.
“Marsha,” her aunt began when they were settled, “do I imagine it, or is your mother asking for something?”
“I’m sure she is,” Marsha said slowly. “I’ve tried and tried to figure it out, and I’ve done everything I can think of, but every once in a while she looks at me with such a pleading in her eyes I can hardly help crying right there in front of her. It’s so frustrating, not to be able to help her.”
Her aunt patted her hand. “I know, dear. You’ve done a wonderful job here, housekeeping and caring for your mother, and I know the whole family appreciates it.” Her blue eyes were sympathetic. “I wish I could understand what she wants, though.”
She sipped her tea with relish. Marsha felt better, just having her here. In her eighties, her white hair made a halo around her head in the sunlight. With no children of her own, she had always been close to Marsha.
“Has everyone come, at one time or another?”
“Except for you and Uncle Sid, they all live fairly near, and most have visited more than once. They don’t stay long with Mother, but I know she’s glad to have them.”
There was a little silence, and then, “What about Priscilla?” her aunt asked.
Marsha flushed. “I – I forgot all about her,” she said. “It’s so long since I heard her name mentioned – I should be ashamed.”
“Nonsense! Since she decided to run off with that renegade drummer fifteen years ago, nobody’s heard a word from her that I know of.”
Marsha nodded thoughtfully. “With Aunt Edie and Uncle Nels gone, and her an only child, she probably figured the family didn’t want to have anything to do with her. Even Mother never mentioned her.
“It’s a wonder. I always thought Priscilla was the favorite grandchild even though she had that spark of rebellion in her since she was little.”
Marsha frowned. “I don’t even have an address,” she admitted. “I suppose they move around a lot with the band.”
“Very likely. Tell you what – when Uncle Sid comes in we’ll ask him if he knows how to put out a tracer. I think there’s a booking agent in the city who might have a list. What was the band’s name, anyway?”
“The Gypsy Jivers, if I remember right. What an odd name.”
“Not really. I can recall someone saying at the time the leader was dark and handsome enough to be a gypsy.”
Marsha laughed. “Aunt Mary, you’re something else. Here, have some more tea.”
Over supper of steaming beef stew and strawberry shortcake, talk turned to Priscilla. “Used to call herself Prissy-Prissy before she could say Priscilla,” Aunt Mary recalled. “Nobody knew why she always said her name twice. Priscilla-Priscilla.”
“Mother would laugh about that,” Marsha said. “After a while she’d say it, too, but none of the rest of us did.”
“Priscilla was named after your mother, of course,” Aunt Mary said, “but she was a maverick, all right.”
“Mother felt so badly when she married that Tony, was it? I caught her crying more than once. Maybe she knew the kind of life they’d lead, traipsing from one place to another. I know she watched for letters for six months or so, and after that she didn’t say anything more about Priscilla.”
Uncle Sid telephoned a friend in the city later that evening. “Jake’s an odd duck, himself,” he explained before he dialed. “Hangs around all the bars in town, listening to the music, as he puts it. Knows a lot of the band boys, too. Maybe he can help us.”
After he put the phone down, he turned to them with a grin. “Bingo!” he said. “Jake remembers the Gypsy Jivers being around a few years ago. He took a liking to the lead singer. Gets a card from him now and then. Said he’d talk to their agent and let us know.”
“Wonder why Priscilla didn’t get in touch with us?” Marsha said. “Mother would have been so pleased.”
Aunt Mary agreed. “At least we’ve got a line on her,” she said. “Let’s do the dishes and go up and have a visit with your mother.”
In a week the call came. Bill answered, and Marsha knew from the look on his face as he handed her the phone that it was important. “Aunt Marsha?” the voice sounded hoarse and far away. “Priscilla here. Is grandma sick?”
Marsha drew a long breath. At last! “Not really. She’s just old and wearing out. Had a stroke a while back, and the doctor says she’ll slip away one of these days.”
“D-do you think she’d like to see me? I – I could be there by Friday.”
“Nothing would make her happier,” Marsha said firmly. “You were always her favorite, you know.”
“I – I’m afraid I was a big disappointment to everybody,” Priscilla said sadly. “Bull-headed and all – I just had to have my way.”
“Don’t think about that, Priscilla. It’s all water under the bridge now. Come on home and see Mother.”
Marsha wasn’t quite sure what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this gaunt, greying woman looking much older than her thirty-five years who got stiffly out of the car when Bill brought her from the station. Somehow, she didn’t look like anyone Marsha connected with the Gypsy Jivers. Her makeup was all wrong, too yellowish for her sallow skin, and her shabby clothes hung on her thin frame like those of a scarecrow. Marsha stifled her amazement as she took the workworn hand. “Thank goodness, you got here,” she said. “Come right in and have a bite to eat before you go upstairs.”
Bill carried a battered suitcase into the house as Aunt Mary came hurrying, Uncle Sid close behind her. “Welcome home, child,” Aunt Mary said heartily. Priscilla’s eyes filled with tears. Over a steaming bowl of chicken broth and thick ham sandwich and coffee, Priscilla briefly filled in the years.
“Not much to tell, although I know you’re wondering. Tony’s band never amounted to a helluva lot. We went from one hick town to the next, him drumming away, and me picking up whatever work I could get – a week as a waitress here, another as a barmaid there.” She drew thoughtfully on a crumpled cigarette. “Landed in your city once,” she said to Aunt Mary, “but I didn’t have the face to call you. Figured I’d made my bed so I’d better lay in it.”
“I know we raised a ruckus over your leaving with this – this Tony, but it was because we loved you and were afraid for you.”
“I guess, although I couldn’t see it then.” She ground the butt in her saucer. “Well, let’s go see the sick.”
Marsha went in first. “The doctor said Mother’s heart is weak,” she told Priscilla on the landing. “I’ll sort of break the news you’re here.”
“Mother, there’s someone here to see you,” Marsha began as she fluffed the pillow. “You – you haven’t seen her for a while, but know you’ll be glad she’s come.”
Priscilla entered the room uncertainly, as if fearful of her reception. She walked slowly over and pulled the rocker close to the bed and took the blue-veined hand in her rough one. “Do you know who I am?” she asked.
Recognition suddenly flared in the other woman’s eyes. “She knows!” Marsha said. “Of course, she knows.”
Relief shone on Priscilla’s face as she settled back. For the next half-hour she reminisced about her childhood visits to the farm, and she soon had her grandmother smiling. “Remember the time Grandpa put the duck’s eggs under the hen, just for fun? And how she nearly went crazy when they hatched and headed straight for the pond?”
“And she ran around the edge calling and sputtering?” Marsha added laughing. “I haven’t thought of that in years.”
Marsha watched her mother carefully and resolved to shoo the visitor downstairs at the first sign of weariness. There didn’t seem to be any – not yet, anyway – so she settled herself on the cedar chest to enjoy the conversation. Gradually she became aware that, though her mother smiled and nodded, the wistful look was still in her eyes. Marsha sighed. If Priscilla wasn’t what she wanted, then what was? Every single one of her living kin had been to visit. Priscilla was the last one.
Suddenly, her mother turned her gaze directly on her granddaughter, and the pleading in her eyes had a quality of desperation. “Priscilla, what do you want?” There was a softness, a love, in the voice that Marsha never dreamed existed.
A radiance like sunshine breaking through a storm cloud suffused the old woman’s face. She smiled delightedly, and a frail hand went out to pat her granddaughter’s arm.
Marsha saw that her mothers eyes were clear and merry, with no shadow of pleading or want. A miracle! What had Priscilla done that none of the rest had been able to do?” And suddenly she knew. Happy as her mother was to see her long-lost granddaughter, she craved more than that. She wanted to hear her own name – Priscilla – the name she’d heard all her growing-up years when she was young and vital and happy, not a speechless old woman on her death bed. Mother and Missus and Grandmother and Aunt and Mrs. Green were all she’d heard for sixty years and more. Even her beloved Peter had fallen into the habit of calling her Mother. But she was more than that, Marsha thought. Inside she was the same Priscilla who danced till dawn and drove a tractor to help out a harvest with a baby on her lap, who had laughed and loved and lived life to the full here on these acres. She had yearned to have someone call her given name, her own name. And now it had happened.
Marsha rushed over and threw her arms around her niece. “You did it!” she babbled. “You did it! None of the rest of us knew what Mother wanted, but now I know. She wanted to be called by her very own name, and you did it.”
“I always called her Priscilla, don’t you remember? Many the scolding I took for it from Mom and Dad, but I figured since we had the same name, I might as well use it. Priscilla, I called her and myself, Priscilla-Priscilla.”
So now Marsha knew the origin of the double name that had puzzled the family. She turned to her mother, her face alight. “That’s it, isn’t it?” she asked gleefully. “You wanted to hear your name once more.”
Her mother nodded and smiled. Her tired face was serene.
Marsha didn’t grieve as much as she thought she would when her mother died peacefully in her sleep a short time later. Priscilla had had a good life, she thought, and slipped away happy in the knowledge that, despite everything, her errant granddaughter had granted her last wish.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Mademoiselle and Univers. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 390 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770