Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

My daughter, Anika, will turn 10 years old this year. Sometimes I look at her and see an image of the child I used to be. She has the same big brown inquisitive eyes, the same dimple in her cheek, and the same long brown hair. I look at her and I see all the women in my family – my sisters, my aunts, my cousins, my nieces; my mother.

She is the last grandchild my mother was able to know before she died.

When I was a little younger than Anika, we lived in the first “house” my parents ever owned. It was a double-wide trailer so far outside the city limits that Reno, my hometown, was a 30 minute drive away. We had a few neighbors—young couples with children wanting to own a little piece of land they could call their own instead of paying rent, and old people tired of caring for their homes and wanting a smaller, easier space to care for.

My mom did not like living out there. When we first moved there, she did not have her driver’s license and felt isolated and trapped, too far from the city to be able to even run to the store for milk if we needed it. But I loved being “stuck” out there.

My dad was often gone until 3 or 4 in the morning. When he first started working for the dairy, they still delivered milk to people’s front porches. By the time I was a little girl, he was busy delivering to grocery stores and convenience stores and driving a big truck.  He worked hard to support us, so Mom and I were alone together a lot. Sometimes, she would get lonely at night and she would let me sleep with her. I would climb up into her bed and snuggle right up against her. She would wrap her leg around me and pull me close and we would both sleep soundly. I could feel her heart beat softly against me, feel her breathing, and the warmth of her body around me. I could even smell her. She always smelled like Caress soap.

Most days, I would sit in a big brown leather barstool at our kitchen counter and watch her clean or cook dinner. She would buy craft projects and make things for people. She bought me a bunch of play-dough, so I could make things too. She let me use her old green plastic rolling pin to roll out the play-dough, and then she’d let me use one of our glasses so that I could cut out cookies. She showed me how to roll the dough to make hot dogs and hamburgers. I once made a whole feast for my dad. He made us both laugh when he actually took a bite of the cookie.  He spit it out real fast, but he said it looked so real he just couldn’t help himself.

Our trailer park was up on a hill, and there were only about 10 trailers – mobile homes, they’re called now – back then. Down the hill was a little mini-post office with a gas station. Beyond that, there was nothing but sagebrush, scorpions, and black widows.

The best part about living out in the middle of nowhere was the thunderstorms. Somehow, they seemed bigger out there. The lightning was brighter. The thunder was louder. The rain poured harder. During thunderstorms, Mom would wrap me up in a blanket and we would sit outside on the porch. She loved the smell of rain and loved the wildness of the storms. Storms in Reno weren’t as wild as the ones she’d endured as a child in South Dakota, but from the way she always started thinking and talking about her childhood, I knew that’s what they reminded her of.

As the rain splashed around us and the smell of the lightning filled the air, we would cuddle under the blanket and watch the storm.  I loved being near her, feeling her warmth under the blanket, feeling my heart slow down from its normal racing, my breathing slow almost to a sleeping state. Calm. In the midst of raging storms I had my most peaceful moments with her.

Whenever we had a hard rain, whether it was thunderstorm or just a downpour, Mom would put a big bucket outside and catch the rainwater. After the bucket filled, she would lay me up on the long counter to the right side of the kitchen sink scoop all of my long hair down into the sink and wash it. I would lay still and wait for the moment when I felt her fingers kneading my scalp and running through my hair. Then she would rinse it with the rainwater. The rainwater was always cold but it made my hair smell so good. When we were done, she would wrap it in a towel so big I almost could not hold my head up. We would go sit on the sofa and she would the brush my long hair until it was shiny.

Before I was born, mom was a beautician. She went to beauty school in Reno right after high school, on a scholarship to the Prater Way Beauty College. She was good at it, but stayed home with me after I was born. People came over quite often to get their hair cut or styled. My dad had seven younger brothers and sisters and my mom had four, so even just taking care of their hair was enough to keep her busy, but lots of people came for haircuts. When someone would come over, she had a way of smiling and making them feel welcome, like there was no one in the world she would rather spend time with. I would climb up on my barstool at the kitchen table and watch her work.

I didn’t realize it then, but I know now that Mom’s haircuts lasted just as long as the person needed it to last. It all depended on how much they had weighing on them that Mom could help them work through…but she never took the drape off and finished the haircut until she felt like they were done with everything they needed to work on. I am not sure, thinking back, how many people actually needed haircuts when they came over, but they all left feeling better than when they came; whatever was troubling them when they arrived weighed less on them when they left.

I don’t cut hair the way she did, although I cut my husband’s hair since it would otherwise never get cut. I do sit on the front porch with my kids when it storms, wrapped in a blanket. I tell them about other rainstorms in my life. I cuddle with them every night before they go to sleep, hoping they don’t grow up too fast. And I wash my daughter’s hair in the kitchen sink; I’ve even used rain water once or twice.

Mom has been gone for … six and a half years. At least this time I didn’t stop to count the number of days. It wasn’t just an automatic update in my head when I woke up. For a while that’s how I counted my days—by how many I had lived without her. Six years seems like a long time to people; six years to get used to living without her.  Six years of not being able to pick up the phone and tell her something. Six years without her in my life and being Nana to my kids.

I’ll never stop missing her. My life is like one of those bas-relief maps we used in elementary school…all of the details stand out, life-like, reminding me of all the moments she is not here to be a part of. Everyone says that time will heal the pain, and I know they’re right to some degree. I make it through most days without crying now. I don’t pick up the phone to call her, forgetting she wouldn’t be there to answer,  like I did the first year.

But like the scars I bear from the children I gave birth to, I don’t want the pain of my mother’s loss to ever heal completely. I want to miss her, to keep her close to the surface, to feel her loss to some degree. I don’t want her to fade away and become just a stray thought now and then.

So I will keep talking about her to my children. I will keep singing the songs that she taught them, and keep telling them how proud she would be of the amazing people they are becoming. I will talk about her to keep her with us, to keep her memory alive for my kids and for me.