“He came with her. Mary said it didn’t matter what anybody thought.”
“Mary’s the daughter?”
“No-o-o-o. Mary’s the mother. I can’t remember what the girl’s name is, but she’s the one that lives up north, someplace in New York. Anyway, that’s where she met that nigger man she married.”
“What? Why, I have to watch everything I say to you, Lana!”
Lana was returning Helen to her rural east Texas home, having driven her mother into Dallas for her annual eye examination. She had hoped they could have an enjoyable morning. Although she looked forward to putting this trip behind her, to resuming her busy life in Atlanta, Lana had promised herself she would make every effort to keep the visit a pleasant one. Helen continued her tale about Mary’s daughter, clearly irritated by Lana’s reprimand.
“Well, that colored man, then. I know we’re not suppose to use the N word anymore, but that’s what he is, Lana. And black as pitch! I’m telling you, he walked right into that church carrying that baby, and sat down with the rest of the family. Right there on the front row.” Helen clicked her tongue, and shook her head. “Looks like that daughter would have been ashamed!”
“Ashamed of what?” Lana gripped the steering wheel tighter.
“Ashamed of herself, of course!” Helen shuddered. “O-h-h-h, that’s just awful! Marrying something like that and having that baby! I didn’t even tell Ed.” She glanced sideways at her daughter. Lana stared straight ahead. “Ed says that’s what wrong with this world. Certainly is not what the Good Lord intended!” Helen made a sniffing sound and threw her nose in the air.
“Oh, so this man from New York’s not good enough for Mary’s daughter because he’s not white?” Lana noticed how white her own knuckles had become from clenching the steering wheel. “As if Daddy knows the Good Lord’s intentions.” She shook her head incredulously.
“Don’t you start in on religion, Lana. You know we certainly can’t agree on that.” Helen fingered her tightly curled, bluish hair
“This has nothing to do with religion. But, since you brought it up, why is interracial marriage so awful?”
“Everybody knows we’re supposed to stay with our own kind. Surely, you still believe that!”
“Oh, Mother.” Lana could not remember how long she had struggled with her parents’ bigotry. She craved more elevated discussions with both her parents, but she longed especially for her mother’s enlightenment.
“Well, I know you think I don’t know anything, since I don’t have your education, but I do know what’s right.” Helen took a handkerchief from her purse and wiped at a discoloration on the car’s dash. “And I’ve lived a lot longer than you have.”
“What color do you suppose Adam and Eve were?” Baby steps, Lana told herself. Keep it simple, we might make a little headway.
“Oh, I don’t know, Lana. You always want to start something. How’d we get off on this anyway?” Without waiting for an answer, Helen muttered under her breath, “What color were Adam and Eve? I just don’t know what to think about you sometimes.” Then raising her voice again, she said, “I know we’re all made in God’s image, but surely you don’t think her marrying that African American is okay?”
Lana responded with her own question. “What about us? You and me? All women?” Her earlier resolve to avoid unpleasantness evaporated. “Whose image are we?”
“I’m sure not gonna get into it with you over all that equal rights stuff. No ma’am. Let’s just change the subject right now.” Helen twisted in her seat, her back toward Lana. She crossed her arms tightly across her breast and stiffened her shoulders.
“Please talk to me, Mother, just this once, about something important. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid, why, what do I have to be afraid of?” Helen picked at a piece of imaginary lint on her skirt.
Her mother reminded Lana of a fly caught in a web. Refusing to struggle, she kept her web of prejudice and sexism intact. Oh, Mother, don’t disturb anything, be quiet, and be still. Lana’s mind grew weary with the hopelessness. She took a deep breath. “There’s a Cracker Barrel.” She flipped on her blinker. “Let’s stop for lunch.”
“You know better than that. Ed said for us to come straight home.” Helen clutched her purse.
“My treat. Come on, Mother, you’ll enjoy it.” Lana changed lanes.
“No! I have to go home and make Ed’s lunch.”
Lana flipped off the blinker. Her stomach knotted, the familiar sensation squeezed her throat, strangling her in the congealed realization of its impossible permanence. Home sickness.
Her father always came first. Always had. She will never give herself, us, a chance. Lana stared straight ahead, fighting back tears. Her mother would not risk breaking even one of the ancient strands trapping her, not even to connect with her only child.
Lana felt the comfortable return of anger. Wrath she could handle. She could forge it, like a hot piece of steel, and she wielded it now, her weapon of last resort. “How’s it feel to be in prison, Mother? To have your own personal jailer? I don’t know how you stand it.” Lana’s foot pressed and the car accelerated.
“You say the most hateful things! I’m not in prison, and slow down this car!” Helen grabbed for the dash. “Besides, I don’t like to eat out.” She fell back against the seat uneasily. “You don’t ever cook, do you?”
“Well, if you had, Ray might’ve stayed with you.”
Lana raced ahead, ignoring the remark. Everything outside the windows blurred. Her words fell like chips of ice. “Ed wants you home, Ed wants you to bring him his meals, Ed wants you to watch football. Why don’t you just sit at Daddy’s feet like his servant, Mother, and wait for his next command?”
“You oughta be ashamed, talking about your daddy like that.” Helen pinched her lips together and narrowed her eyes. “You better not ever say anything like that in front of him.” She tugged at her skirt. “Now, slow down before we have a wreck.” Helen checked her seat belt.
“He makes sure you vote–
“Don’t be silly. Of course I vote.”
“No you don’t. He does. Twice.”
“I always vote, Lana. Everything is an argument with you.”
“You vote exactly the way he tells you to. You do everything the way he tells you.”
“Well, he knows more about it than I do.”
“You didn’t even vote for Deana, your own niece, when she ran for constable last time.”
“Ed says that’s no job for a woman. Besides, he knows that man, oh, what’s his name? Runnin’ against her, you know, used to be married to–
“That’s what I mean, Mother. Daddy gets two votes.”
Helen turned in her seat toward her daughter. “Lana, of course I do what he tells me to, don’t you remember anything from church?” Tears threatened. “The man is over the woman. The Bible says!”
Lana relaxed her foot, slowing down for the exit. “I saw a movie the other night,” she said calmly, “and one of the characters said something that reminded me of you.” She released her grip on the steering wheel, stretching her fingers to get the color back. “She said she didn’t know which was worse, church or jail.”
“Oh, my, Lana, please don’t talk about the church like that.” Helen snatched the lacy handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her eyes.
Ahead, her mother’s church sat so close to the oil topped road it appeared to be directly in their path—Freewill Baptist Church. Lana smiled wryly.
She turned into her parents’ driveway, stopping the car abruptly. Her clear blue eyes penetrated her mother’s faded gray ones. Lana let her hands fall to her lap. “I give up.”
Helen looked bewildered. “I don’t know what in the world you’re talking about, but I am so glad to be home!” Quickly, she slid from the car. “You’re not coming in for lunch?”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
“To say goodbye to your father?”
“You can tell him for me.”
“You coming back Christmas?