~ By Paul Ramirez ~
She was gone! I could tell because the wind was whistling through the cracks around the cardboard thin door. If she were inside then she would have stuffed rags into the door cracks to keep the howling snow outside. She always stuffed rags! I could feel the dark cold, trying to get inside our tiny four room house. Where was she?
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! The steady, dulled sound outside seemed to be fighting against the screaming, angry wind. The storm was steady, insistent and it frightened me. With every new gust the door cracks whistled, jerking me out of my slumber, reminding me that she was gone. The dying firelight flickered valiantly as it peeked though the grate of our wood burning stove. It reminded me I was safe, warm and cozy, but yet, I felt uneasy, guilty somehow. Something was wrong. It was like I was supposed to do something. She was outside in a raging blizzard, chopping wood and I was secure under layers of blankets, just waiting and trying to be certain that she would return.
It would be several years before we had the luxury of a gas stove and chopping wood would become unnecessary. But for now, in order to survive being devoured by the white monster storm, someone had to be big and brave and strong enough to get out there and chop. At fours years old, it sure wasn’t me or my five year old brother or three year old sister. Nope, it had to be her, she was the one who understood the danger of the situation and besides she was the only one big and brave and strong enough to swing that heavy old axe.
The door finally swung open allowing a slice of icy wind to enter. A split second later, Mama, arms hugging the wood, kicked shut the door, dropped the life-saving wood and quickly, expertly, crammed the rags back into their cracks. Whew! She was back. Reaching four foot, ten inches, she was more than twice my size. Her ninety-eight pounds outweighed my two siblings and I combined. She was the biggest person in our lives. There she stood frosted with snow and ice. Her usually jet-black hair and eyebrows, poking out from under her blue bandana were icy white. The hard won load of freshly chopped wood would be enough to feed the hungry stove for a few hours. Then she’d simply go and chop some more. There were three children and we would stay warm.
“Mama!?” I whimpered, relieved to have her back again. “Shhhh, go back to sleep and stay covered. It’s going to get colder by morning.” She sternly whispered as she stiffly, patiently nursed the fire back to health. With the rags in the door cracks, the fire stove well-fed and Mama back, all my fears and childlike troubles vanished. Even the cruel enemy storm would help lull me back to sleep.
Twenty five years later I questioned her about that first memory. I was curious. I had to know what it was like for her, what she felt and thought and how she kept going. She had three small children to care for and no one to help her. Not only was there no running water, there also wasn’t a faucet, a toilet, or even a telephone. There wasn’t much of anything that many folks consider important when raising a family.
“Mom, what was it like being alone and always having to work so hard just to survive?” I asked, hoping she would give substance to my vague memories.
“How could I ever be alone with three kids? Besides I always had my Faith.” She replied, matter of factly, with just a shade of humor.
“I mean weren’t you scared? So far from everything and not even having a telephone?” I needed to know.
“There were times I was worried there wouldn’t be food or that we’d run out of wood or other things. I prayed alot and worked and always had God.” Her simple answer carried just a hint of vulnerability. “Sure it was hard,” She continued, “and I had lonely times but I had three of you and I just couldn’t quit. When it got too hard for me I just prayed more. That’s how I made it. Without God I don’t know what would have happened.” She was easing into her most potent Mama role. Her most common, always gently insistent role. Talking about how it really wasn’t her so much as Him. She wasn’t gonna take credit. She certainly never has and never will. I love my Mama, so much!
She’s sixty-nine now, still busy as usual, although at a slower pace. She gets her exercise in aerobics class, yard work and keeping her suburban home clean rather than chopping wood. Volunteering at a senior citizen’s nursing home and caring for her twelve grandchildren she’s vital, growing and still seeking.
Someday she’ll really be gone. What a sad day that’s gonna be with all the sadness and crying and that heavy, black funeral stuff. That’s only normal, I suppose. But there’s gotta be some joy, too! I mean, we all know how to chop our own wood and we certainly have her legacy of dedication and Faith. Yeh, we’ll be alright. It’s that darned, windy cold, sneaking in the house. That’s what I wonder about. I oughta ask her to help me stuff a few rags in my door cracks before He calls her home. It’s certainly gonna be a little colder when she’s gone.