The Winnowing

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     I didn’t realize that some folks thought my momma was crazy until after
she was dead. My small family had just finished our last family meal of ham hock
and beans on that grey early December afternoon along with the last of momma’s
fried squash she had put up that summer before she passed.

     Memaw Maggy had taken over the cooking in our house when momma
started confusing the sugar with the flour. “I remember telling your momma Nell
that a good meal does things for good people. No matter her troubles, she always
had enough sense to keep you fed the way a growing boy should be.” She said as
she sat down beside me in her pastel hummingbird apron.

     Before that day I had never wondered if momma might not have been right
in the head. To my naive eyes we seemed to make out alright on our own. She
saw me through school all the way up until I had started junior high just a year
earlier. Around that same time all the walk had finally gone out of her legs, and
she could no longer get out of bed to go to the county engineering job she loved
so much. She only had a few months left by then.

     Of all the times I had felt like I didn’t belong at our family gatherings, this
was the one to beat ‘em all. Mostly what I remember is an empty house, nothing
left except for the tattered furniture. The years since momma’s passing have
blurred the memory of those that were present at that final family meal. I sunk
low into the egg yolk colored couch as they spoke. Strands of momma’s light
crimson hair had weaved itself into the upholstery.

     “Yes sir, that sure was some mighty fine eatin’.” My grandad Fletch said as
he untucked the napkin from his denim shirt.

     “Say Lloyd, you really oughta go on out to Potter’s garage and see about
that clerking job.” He said to my uncle. “I hear it pays pretty good and there ain’t
a lot of getting up and down that needs done.”

     Fletch, memaw Maggy’s second husband, but just the same as any
grandfather to me, had always been the kind to be more comfortable in the seat
of his Farm All tractor than an easy chair. He was scraping out his pipe into the
ashtray on the cherrywood end table as he marveled over the meal we had just
finished. His Lowry feed and grain hat was already back on his head covering thin
patches of his dull silver hair.

    “Yeah, I oughta.” Said uncle Lloyd as he stared out through the picture
window that framed the barren plains stretching toward the blue lit horizon.

     Lloyd had lost his job down at the auto parts factory a decade earlier when
a rotating turbine took a chunk of important muscle out of his left leg. Worker’s
compensation had taken care of everything except getting him back to a
productive way of life. He still wore his khaki work shirt with the torn pocket most
days of the week. As I had grown taller through my early teenage years his broken
body seemed to grow smaller under the weight of not being useful.

     “That was one thing about your momma, boy, she couldn’t abide sitting
around for too long. She was always after me to make more of myself when we
was younger too. I guess I’ll never understand how she managed to do so well at
that engineering job all them years. Job like that one’s enough to drive anybody
to their sickbed.” He could hardly look in my direction.

     A rainbow of soft blue and yellow threads from momma’s unfinished
sewing streamed over the edge of a basket at the end of the couch. I only realized
later that there were a lot of loose threads in the town where I grew up. In the
end all it would take was the scandalous talk of our neighbors to unravel a mind
like momma’s.

     “She had her own rough start just like anybody else, Lloyd. Thought for a
while there she might not get going in any direction.” Memaw Maggy said. “She
only made it into that county transportation job ‘cause no other man in town had
the education for it like she did. No woman ever could get along working a job like
that before her.”

     She shook her head in disapproval. “The things she told me some of those
dirty old men said out on the job site, enough to make the preacher beat the devil
out of all of ‘em with the good book.”

     “Well, the way she took it is a lot more than I can say for most of the ladies
in this town, that’s for sure. You can be proud of that boy.” Lloyd said.
“She just had more gumption before her sick spells took hold then you did
Lloyd, that’s all.” Memaw raised her chin as she spoke.

     “Was that the same gumption that led her down to the riverbank on so
many occasions?” Lloyd asked “Seems to me that sort of gumption’s the sort a
woman can do without.”

     “Naw, it was her smarts that made her feel like she had to keep looking for
people that felt the way she did about things around here. If she hadn’t felt so
obliged to find the ones with hopes beyond this town, she might have been able to see how close she was to the edge. Sayin’ she had an easy time of it ain’t no
better than them chatterboxes at the beauty parlor sayin’ her troubles was

     The edges of the room seemed to blur as the front door opened. Uncle
Lloyd stood up silently and walked out into the luminous space beyond.

     My Aunt Sue Ann had always felt it her duty to defend the more decent
womenfolk around town. “Now Maggy them ladies was just concerned, that’s all.
If it was just a body sickness well that’s one thing but ailing in the mind scares
people.” She said.

     “Concerned hell, all them petty gossipers was worried about was catching it
themselves.” Memaw said.

     “Well, what’s a body supposed to think when they see a lady they’ve
known since she was a little girl wandering around town at all hours going on
about radios in cars and women flying planes?” Sue said.

     Maggy replied, “Lot worse places she could have ended up. Them women
wagging their tongues about my Nell’s walking spells is what got people to saying
she couldn’t control her impulses at night. What’s a slander like that got to do
with folks’ concern, Sue?”

     “Now Maggy, you can’t expect to keep a thing like that from people. You
expect folks to not be worried about what might be going around?”

     “But it wasn’t catching Sue, the clinic was sure of that. It just got to where
she couldn’t stay still. She said it felt like trying to escape the whole world falling
in on her. Imagine having thoughts that heavy pushing down on you. The
therapies they gave her started to work. She wasn’t crazy, she just couldn’t help
but go to walking when it got so bad.” Memaw said.

     “That clinic didn’t know nothing.” Sue Ann shook her head. “Them shakes she was
having didn’t get much better after the treatments they gave her. Always did
wonder if that place didn’t make the poor dears worse off than they started.”
She adjusted her violet-shaded shirtwaist as she spoke.

     “Seems like the best thing to do for ‘em would be to make sure they get
their home life in order. A right and proper home life is the remedy for any

     “And what was wrong with my Nell’s home life Sue? She was doing just fine
with her important job and raising the boy here on her own.” Maggy said.

     “Plenty wrong if it made her sick in the head. There’s more to keeping a
home than having a roof and a job. A woman can’t do it proper like all by herself
without something coming unraveled eventually.”

     “What’s proper Sue? Staying in the house from dusk ‘til dawn only going
out to get the washin’ and go to the market? She might not a done the right and
proper thing for a woman as far as you’re concerned but don’t go to thinking she
got to ailing just because she worked a hard job and didn’t get married.” Maggy
almost stood up as she gripped the knobby wooden arm rests of the rocker.

     “Well, I guess a woman with all the smarts Nell had could see her way to
doing more than taking care of her family. Not me, the space inside my four walls
was always plenty for me to manage.” The ring on her left hand shone silvery
white where the gold had worn off.

     Aunt Sue’s husband had passed on back in ’43 just before I was born. I had
overheard momma say one time that Sue had taken on the habit of speaking into
the air at any moment as if he was still there. A lot of people she passed by in Falls
Creek had a way of knowing what it felt like to not be heard so they just let her

     “You remember them sewing patterns she used to do Maggy? She used to
make some of the prettiest place mats and embroidered napkins. It’s a wonder
she had the time to do anything like that with working.” said Sue Ann.

     “Well, she only had time for those things once the medication made her sit
still for a while. She never could be kept inside for very long while she was still
working.” Maggy said impatiently.

     “But she was so good at it, Maggy. What a shame she didn’t have more
time for that talent. Might have done her some good and kept her away from
some of them folks that got a hold on her thoughts.” Sue said.

     “Your momma’s thoughts were just too big for this town.” She patted my
leg as she spoke. “If it hadn’t been for her there wouldn’t no more businesses
opening up out along the highway.”

     “My teaching her to sew real young didn’t do near as much for her as her
book learning did later on. I guess some of my lessons did take after all. She
started out making those little half-moons and suns out of my blanket scraps.
Lord knows she was all thumbs and no patience when I would try to help her. And
it’s a wonder she ever made it out of the house dressed proper on account she
couldn’t match colors to please a blind man.” Memaw said.

     She ran her fingers over her apron as her voice struggled to recall the times
before momma could no longer be left alone in the house. As I saw the heavy
expression on her face, I began to fidget with the buttons on my shirt.

     We all looked around the room from one remembrance of momma to
another. I felt like no one else could see the faint limestone streaks tattooed into
the dark brown carpet by the soles of momma’s work boots. The old upright
piano with a songbook of her favorite forties jazz tunes waited to be picked up by
the movers. The threadbare burgundy throw rug was still in front of the kitchen
sink where she had stood and washed the dishes on Saturday mornings as she
told me all about how the rest of the world was so much bigger than our little
town. She was she still present in so many ways.

     The door opened again. Aunt Sue pushed her tired body up from the couch
and took more color from the room as she passed through to the outside.

     “Your momma sure was good help on the farm too, boy.” Grandpa Fletch
remarked. “Yes sir, I remember when she was coming up we always had more
chicken and tomatoes than anybody could ever eat thanks to her. Your momma
plucked every one of them chickens herself too. She always saw to it that some
poor soul in need would get our extra crop. We didn’t run out on anybody that was hurting like they do nowadays that’s for sure.” I saw the pride displayed on
his face as he adjusted in his chair.

     Fletch had left his first wife in the next county over one steamy august
night to marry my Memaw Maggy. He never did say exactly why he left, only that
she had made him the happiest man this side of Dixie.

     “Now Fletch, you know Nell never had no talent at plucking chickens. Quit
trying to make her out to be the farm hand she wasn’t. She never could learn to
milk the goats right either.”

     Fletch threw up his hands. “She tried is all. More than I can say for a lot of
folks her age.”

     Memaw continued, “A girl as smart as Nell wasn’t meant for no farming
labor. I’m afraid she learned to hate the life it took to live off this land. Besides,
being on the farm with the chickens and the pigs kept her off the dance floor with
the young men.”

     Maggy dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her bawled up tissue. Her
hands held together as if they were threading a needle in supplication to a spirit
only she could discern.

     “I hated that for her. No mother wants to see her only daughter grow up to
be alone.”

     “She sure didn’t end up celibate on account of us.” Fletch said.

     “Well, we didn’t help none either, Fletch. You’re forgetting about the
decent young man she brought home from college that one time. I thought he
was nice enough, but he was just too big city for you.”

     “Now I liked him fine Maggy, but she had plenty of opportunity with the
boys around town here if she just hadn’t been so worried about what they would
think because of her troubles. Poor thing lost all her self-confidence when she
started gettin’ sick.” The corners of Fletch’s mouth turned down.

     “I hate that it took her the way it did but them nervous spells just got too
strong for us to go chasing after her every time she ran off. We just couldn’t do
nothing more for her Maggy.” Fletch had taken out his handkerchief.

     The thick aroma of the after-supper custard pie still hung in the air. Fletch
got up, and when the door opened, he departed.

     Memaw Maggy looked at me. I saw momma’s sparkling reflection carried in
her eyes as she stood up.

     “You were the one she needed.” She folded the grass green afghan and
place it gently back on the rocking chair. The door held open as she stepped out
into the open space. The colors all faded then as yellow dots of light swallowed up
the edges of all that was left.

     As I gathered up the loose strands from the sewing basket on the floor and
placed it back on the table, I didn’t understand why they all had to leave that day,
but momma’s memory remained.

Travis is a writer of short fiction and poetry. He lives in Lebanon, Tn. and works at the Lebanon-Wilson County Public Library. He enjoys crochet and being outdoors. He can be reached at

NOVUS Literary and
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Lebanon, TN