She addressed me by my favorite name behind Mom and Aunt, the one that gives shape to identity–
“Mama D, why do you talk to us?”
I cocked my head to the side not sure what she was really asking, like maybe I was saying too much or dragging her down one of my seemingly never-ending bunny trails. A dozen switchbacks, so easy to get lost.
She understood the question in my eyes and explained, “I mean, my mom listens to me and all that, but you t a l k with us. You give us so much time….” and then I understood what she was asking.
Maddie was sitting at the end of our oval oak table when she floated her question, the same table at which she had joined us for dinner many a night since we met my daughter’s junior year. Abbie’s back was toward me initially, but she turned to face me for the answer. She wanted to know, too. I don’t recall if I was cooking or cleaning, but I was leaning against my oven facing them, my daughter behind me; that means she was washing dishes or making a snack, busy about something or nothing.
I should have warned them the answer would take a while. But even I didn’t know it in full until I began talking.
The sting in my heart served warning.
It was the Friday before my 40th birthday and three dear,
neighborhood friends invited me to lunch at the Garden Cafe, home to the
best Buttermilk Pie in the world and placeholder of memories. Among
many, it was the first place I wore my Princess Dress, the dinner
celebration of another friend’s 40th. It’s important to note the Garden
Cafe is not some fancy schmancy restaurant; it’s casual dining done well in Small Town, USA.
When we arrived for my pre-birthday lunch the hostess collected menus
and led us up the stairs, me assuming because downstairs seating wasn’t
available. At the top, startled, I realized this was no intimate
luncheon among four friends.
It was a surprise lunch with a group of women who had been my family for the 14 years we had lived in SC.
I took my seat at the end of three tables pushed together and tried
to absorb the faces of those to my right and left, women whose hands I
had held, whose babies I had diapered, whose prayers I had begged and
returned. Friends who had been living out their stories along my own
since we were newlyweds.
What no one knew at the time was, later that afternoon, I would be
traveling to Tennessee to house-hunt. My husband had just accepted a
new job; we hadn’t even yet told our children.
I folded my arms on the table and buried my face as tears filled my eyes.
Only I was privvy to the secret:
This wasn’t a 40th birthday celebration. It was my going away party.