One could never please Othermama and she would often make hateful, insulting comments to those she loved the most.
Mama claimed she had the tongue of an Adder. But I loved her dearlyeveryone didin spite of her way with words. Othermama was my Mama’s Mamamy maternal grandmother. She’d lived with us for as far back as I could remember. I’m the youngest of four childrenmy Mama’s “baby girl.”
Othermama was the only one in our family who could think straight when the family got into troublelike when we didn’t have any food in the house or couldn’t make the house payment, and in those days it seemed we were always in trouble. Othermama was the only one who knew how to cook. Mama only used the stove to light a cigarette when she couldn’t find matches. Othermama wanted it that way. She was the head of our householdqueen of the kitchen, and a devout Christian. We entered her kingdom at our own risk. Nobody could open the refrigerator without her asking, “Just what are you looking for?"
When I was fifteen, Mama had to sell the house we’d lived in for ten years due to financial problems. But we didn’t leave the small town of Quicksand, North Carolina; in fact, we just moved a few miles down the road. As usual, Othermama saved the day. She heard about a house for sale from a friend and called the man who built it. She then talked the man into letting us rent it with the option to buy. It was a ranch-style house built from old bricks that was located at the end of a long bumpy dirt road near a lake. The house was brand new and looked fine from the outside, but on the inside nothing worked right. The cheapest building materials had been used, and even the switch plates on the walls weren’t screwed on straight. The place reminded me of the fun house at the county fair. At first glance, the ceilings seemed sturdy but we soon learned they were made out of a cardboard type material.
Days after we moved in, a panel in the kitchen ceiling started to bulgesoon after, a small hole appeared. The landlord said he’d send somebody to fix it but he didn’t say when. I was sitting in the kitchen one night studying for a French test. The door was closed so the TV in the living room wouldn’t bother me. Suddenly, although I was alone, I felt a presence. I looked around thinking maybe our dog Tuffy was lying under the table but she was nowhere in sight. I went back to conjugating verbs. Next I heard a noise that sounded like someone chewing on something. When I looked up, the chewing noises stopped. I figured it might be my imagination, after all, we did live out in the country. Nights were filled with mysterious noises. But a few minutes later, the chewing started again. It seemed to be coming from the damaged ceiling above the refrigerator. Then I thought I saw little pieces of something fall out of the hole in the ceiling. I quietly got up from my chair and tiptoed across the kitchen. The opening in the ceiling panel seemed quite a bit larger than it had the day before. Without making a sound, I placed our step stool by the refrigerator and stood on it to get a better view. Our overhead kitchen light was dim. To save money, Mama rarely ever used more than 40-watt bulbs. Squinting into the semi-darkness to get a better look inside the hole, it took a minute to realize that two beady eyes were starring back at me. My screams brought everybody running.
It was common knowledge that field rats (and I assumed that’s what the creature was) could be as big as small dogs. The next day the landlord plugged up the hole the rat had gnawed in the ceiling, but I never felt comfortable in that house again. However, I tried to make the best of it, because Othermama said we must rise above adversity. I wasn’t exactly sure what adversity meant but I figured it had to do with Daddy. Daddy always had steady work but he drank and gambled away most of what he earned. On Saturdays, I would mop and wax the floors and polish our cheap modern mortgaged furniture to a shine. To the naked eye, I suppose the place looked presentable.
The black-and-white kitchen floor tiles had been laid crooked, but that didn’t bother me so much. It was the discolored tiles that nearly drove me mad. Some were so discolored (more yellow than white) the floor never looked clean. That’s what led me to use Texize that day. I had no intention of killing Othermama. I just wanted the floor to look nice. My girlfriends, Nancy and Jill were coming to visit. I rarely had friends over. For one thing, I had very few friends, and for another, I was always afraid that Daddy would drive up drunk and make a scene. Not that he would be ugly to my friends, au contraire, he would flirt with them, I’m sure. Such a scene was too horrifying for me to risk. Rather than suffer humiliation, I kept to myself most of the time. When I wasn’t doing my homework or watching TV, I would go to my bedroom and listen to rock & roll on the radio and dancedo the shag with my partner, the bedpost. I would pretend that I was at a sock hop at school dancing with Ward Laney, President of the Student Body. Ward was a champion shagger and the best-looking boy at school.
Texize, a milky-white, all-purpose cleaner, had a fresh outdoor smell that I liked. We used it on the floors and the bathroom fixtures. Most of the time we diluted it with water because full-strengthit was way too strong. I had already mopped the kitchen floor once that day, but some of the tiles appeared to be dingier than ever, so I decided to mop it again. I had no idea that it was my own shame I was attempting to scrub away. And, I wouldn’t learn until years later that shame could never be removedonly managed.
This time, instead of mixing the Texize in the bucket of water, I decided to pour some into a smaller container. I found an old purple-flowered jelly glass under the kitchen sink, poured about a quarter of a cup of Texize into the glass then added water. It occurred to me that it looked like a glass of milk, but at the time, I thought no more about it because it sure didn’t smell like milk. Even though it was diluted, one whiff burned my nostrils, making them feel down right raw.
I poured a small amount of the Texize on the middle section of the kitchen floor then took the mop to it. Maybe this was just what was needed. More Texize. More muscle. The tiles began to appear a little brighter. I was about to pour more on the next section when Mama called me to the phone. It was my friend Nancy confirming directions to our house. Just as I was about to leave the kitchen, Othermama came in through the back door.
“Careful,” I warned, “floor’s wet. That’s Texize in the glass. Leave it on the table. I’ll be right back.” Othermama had a habit of coming behind you and undoing whatever you’d done. Like, if I hadn’t told her to leave the glass alone, she would’ve probably poured the contents out. That was just Othermama’s way. She always wanted everything in its place. I knew she thought I was crazy for mopping the floor again. She contended that people would like me for myselfnot for the clothes I wore or the house I lived in. She also insisted that people wouldn’t judge me by my Daddy’s drunken behavior. I desperately wanted to believe her. But deep down, I feared that our floor would never be clean enough for company to walk on, I would never be good enough to have friends, and worse yet, I feared I was doomed to dance with a bedpost for the rest of my life.
I returned to the kitchen, picked up the mop, poured the diluted Texize on the floor and set out to finish the job. Othermama had a meatloaf baking in the oven. As cooks go, she was the best. “Sure smells good,” I said. Othermama ate up compliments. When she didn’t say thank you, I glanced up from the mop I was guiding across the floor to see her standing by the kitchen tableher pretty features twisted in a pained expression. In one hand, she held the jelly glass with the purple flowerswith her other hand she clutched her throat. Othermama was of Scotch-Irish decent. Her short white wispy hair had once been the color of chestnuts, and they said she’d had a fine figure. Now, at age 72, she had a figure like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
“Damn if I must say it!” she gasped. Othermama never cursed or used the Lord’s name in vain.
“Othermama,” I said, “what did you do? Oh no, oh, no. You didn’t! Mama! Come quick!” I screamed. “Othermama drank Texize.” If she died it would be my fault. I pulled out a chair for Othermama and she sank down at the table.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, fighting back tears.
“I thought it was milk,” she said with a short cough.
“I told you it was Texize.”
“Guess I didn’t hear you,” Othermama said.
“I’ll get her something to make her vomit,” Mama offered. Mama seemed calm for some reason. She was always the one who fell to pieces when somebody got hurt. The sight of blood made her feel faint.
“What about a raw egg?” I asked.
“That won’t do it,” Mama said, and I remembered she was right. Othermama loved raw eggs. Sometimes she drank them in orange juice. The very thought of eating a raw egg in anything made me gag. I felt helpless and weak all over. “I’m sorry, Othermama. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt. I only meant to clean...”
“Oh hush,” she said, pushing herself away from the table.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To the bathroom.” Her voice seemed higher pitched and more quivery than usual. Was the stuff eating away her vocal chords?
Mama was still looking in the refrigerator for something to make Othermama throw up when it occurred to me to call the drugstore. The druggist, Mr. Dinwitty would know what to do. He was a kind mansmoked a pipelooked like a professor.
“Quicksand Drugs, Dinwitty speaking.”
“Sir, Mr. Dinwitty, this is Niki Bradshaw.”
“We have an emergency.”
“Othermamamy grandmother just drank some Texize and we don’twe don’t know what to do.”
“How much did she drink?”
“One or maybe two big swigs,” I said. “It was an accident.”“O.K., calm down, Niki. Was it full strength?”
“No sir. I added water.”
“Good. Would you say there was more water than Texize in the glass?”
“Oh, yes sir. Lots more”
“Twice as much?”
“Uh, yeah. I think so, sir.”
“Where was the glass of Texize?” he asked. I took a deep breath. “On the kitchen table,” I said. “I can explain, sir. She loves to eat and sometimesrather than waste food, she’ll eat what’s left on a plate or drink what’s left in a glass. It’s not a good habit and we’ve told her. This time she decided to finish what she thought was a glass of”
“Go get the bottle of Texize and read the label to me. I’ll wait,” Mr. Dinwitty said. I could hear terrible retching sounds and over them, Mama’s sweet, patient voice coming from the bathroom.
According to Plato, Socrates drank Hemlock and died peacefully. First his feet went numb, then his legs. When the poison hit his heart…If Othermama died, I would have to die, too. I couldn’t live without her. Nor could I live with my guilt so sitting for years on death row waiting to be fried in the electric chair wasn’t an option. Like Mama, I feared the sight of blood so cutting my wrists was out of the question. The law of retribution required “an eye for an eye.” I would hold my nose and drink what was left in the bottle of Texizefull strength. Given the circumstances, it was the only decent thing to do. I began reading.
“Slow down,” Mr. Dinwitty said. I could hear him puffing on his pipe. My throat felt dry but I began again and attempted to pronounce each word clearly. Othermama’s life depended on it.
“Texize. Pine Oil disinfectant. Banishes bad odors.”
“Just the ingredients, please.”
“Yes sir. Wait a minute.” I was so frightened it was hard to focus my eyes. “Harmful if swallowed. No. No. I’m sorry. Here it is. Active ingredients: Steamed distilled pine oil 80%. Vegetable soap 10%. Inert ingredients”
“That’s fine, Niki.
“Will she be OK, Mr. Dinwitty?”
“Pinus palustris,” he said.
“Huh?” He began to spell it out. After the ‘p-i-n-u-s,’ I stopped listening. Was he talking dirty? My face grew hot. “I beg your pardon?”
“Pinus palustris, my dear. The common name of the longleaf pine. Longleaf pine is the state tree of North Carolina”
“Oh,” I said.
“Has she regurgitated?” he asked.
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Good. Have her eat bread. I don’t believe she drank enough to worry about or to have her stomach pumped. I think she’ll be fine.”
“Oh, thank God. Are you sure” I asked.
“Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,” he began, “The summer land where the sun doth shine, Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!’ That’s our state toast,” Mr. Dinwitty explained. “And yes, Niki, I’m sure. Your grandmother will be fine.”
“O.K.” Thanks again.” I waited to hear him hang up before I placed the receiver back on its hook. My face still felt warm.
“What did he say?” Mama asked. Othermama, looking pale and somewhat shaken followed her into the kitchen. I thought it best not to tell them about the toast to the Pinus thing so I said, “He wanted to know if she had vomited and I said I thought so.”
“I did.” Othermama said, sitting down at the table again. This time I sat down beside her. I gently placed my hand on her fleshy arm. Her skin felt cool, clammy.
“He said he doesn’t think you drank enough to have your stomach pumped. You should be fine. He said to eat bread.”
“I’ll get it,” Mama said.
“Just a couple slices,” Othermama said. As she ate, Mama and I exchanged glances for the first time. I knew what she was thinking and she was right. My actions were careless. Regardless of Othermama’s bad habits, I had to be more careful.
“Niki,” Othermama said between bites, “tell me. Why in the name of goodness did you put Texize in a drinking glass?”
“Well, I wanted to use a smaller container. I found the glass under the sink and figured you used it for cleaning. Why did you drink out of it?”
“It looked like milk.”
“But Othermama, how can you drink from someone else’s glass? That’s disgust”
“Let’s settle down,” Mama said. “Niki, your girlfriends should be here any minute.” She turned to Othermama. “How do you feel?”
“Thirsty. I think I’d like a glass of milk.” Mama and I both burst out laughing. Othermama joined in. Color slowly began returning to her face. The crunch of tires on the gravel in the driveway signaled the arrival of Nancy and Jill. I kissed Othermama on the cheek and went to greet them at the front door. Maybe Othermama was right. So what if the walls of our house were made of beaverboard and the kitchen ceiling with the ugly patch job still sagged. I did the best I could do with what I had. My beloved Othermama was alivethat’s all that really mattered at that moment. I opened the front door eager to greet my friends.
Actress and writer Diane Kimbrell has lived in NYC for many years, but was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her literary credits include "The Raleigh Review," "The Battered Suitcase," the "Dead Mule School of Southern Literature," "Subtletea," "Muscadine Lines," the "SFWP Journal," "River Walk Journal," and “Dew on the Kudzu.