Mother’s Day Tribute

The Collection

My mama collected people the way others collect dolls or miniature decorated spoons from every city they’ve visited. It wasn’t just her hobby, it was more her vocation. And, it was a very time-consuming one, since people tend to make unruly collections and don’t usually stay where you put them. You might think people would have objected to being collected; but, by and large, they didn’t. Mama’s assemblage was simply too large for her to demand much from any one individual. Besides, if someone got misplaced or lost, Mama would probably turn up unannounced on their porch trying to find out what had happened. So, usually, they just decided it was easier to cooperate and stay in her fold.

Mama’s collection included friends from elementary school and high school, classmates from her brief stay at college before she got married, and assorted relatives from her large extended family. After she married Daddy, she added Daddy’s family, neighbors and former neighbors, people they met at church, and other tourists we met on our summer vacations to Biloxi or Gulfport. Every year her collection grew larger and more unwieldy, and it was a wonder that she was able to keep track of everyone in it.

My daddy was a solitary man who owned a family hardware business in Baton Rouge before the big chains took over. At first, it really was a Mom and Pop store. Daddy attended to the ordering and sales, and kept the walls densely stocked with various dangling metallic objects, while Mama kept the books. But Mama was unhappy there because the books were kept in a small, cluttered office which didn’t afford her much chance to meet people. Also, most of the customers were men intent on picking up a length of pipe or a few washers for a project, and they showed little interest in being collected. Shortly after I was born, Daddy hired his sister, my Aunt Ina, to look after the books. This worked out well for Daddy because Aunt Ina was very efficient and focused. Mama was pleased with this situation too because Aunt Ina wasn’t capable of keeping much of anything to herself, and this enabled Mama to keep track of what was going on at the store without having to take out time from her true calling.

I don’t mean to imply that Mama neglected us. The house ran rather smoothly, and she always took an interest in me and my friends, even as she added their mothers to her collection. On the other hand, tending to her ever growing assembly did require a lot of her energy. Christmas time was the worst. Christmas season at our house started right after Halloween when Mama got out all her Christmas cards, stationery, pens, stamp dispensers, and address books and spread them out on the dining room table. For the remainder of the year, we had to eat in the kitchen at the chrome dinette set with the red vinyl chairs. During that time the family ate a lot of tuna fish or bologna sandwiches with canned soup. Mama tried to tell us it was because we were fasting for Advent, but Daddy and I knew it was really because she needed the time for her collection.

At slow times of the year, like February or October, Mama made a point of trying to spend time with me. It was then that she took me shopping on Canal Street in New Orleans to buy our spring hats or winter coats at D.H. Holmes or Maison Blanche. On the rare occasions when Mama cooked a big Sunday dinner, I watched her and noted how she measured out just the right amount of cayenne pepper to flavor her gumbo or deviled eggplant. Sometimes I wondered what it would have been like to have a big family like some of my aunts and uncles did. I wondered if I might have had a sister or brother if it hadn’t been for Mama’s collection.

When I was fourteen, Mama undertook the task of teaching me to drive. After she had gone through the basics, she stopped paying much attention. It was lucky that there wasn’t much traffic on the streets of Baton Rouge in those days. Later, I believed that I had taught myself to drive, as I had taught myself so many other things.

At first we just drove around the neighborhood, but later we ran errands in other parts of the city. I used to love best the Saturdays when Mama accompanied me to the main library downtown. I drove there in our elongated 1956 Plymouth with the nascent fins, with Mama observing the scenery out of the passenger window. Mama was particularly proud of her parallel parking skills, which she hoped she could impart to me. Under her direction, I would pull up close alongside the car in front of me and cut my wheels earnestly as I slid into my allotted space. When it worked, it was like a dream and Mama and I would get out and admire the way the tires snuggled against the curb. But, in the beginning, most of the time it didn’t work, and we just abandoned the car with its fins splashing toward the sidewalk and at least a yard between the front end of the car and the curb. “All the better when you’re ready to pull out,” said Mama.

Mama and I then climbed the wide concrete stairs, flanked on either side by a weary grey lion, and went into the big lobby of the main library. Carrying her address books bulging with scraps of paper and secured by rubber bands, Mama went left up the stairs to where the phone books from neighboring towns like Port Allen and New Roads were kept. I turned right and went to the card catalogues to search out the call numbers for books on ancient Egypt, or molds, or whatever project I was working on at the time. I knew that Mama had enough material to keep her busy, and I was confident that I would not be disturbed until I was finished with my search. I was free to get lost in the stacks of books, and I believed if I were thorough enough, I might discover a passage that revealed the very essence of Alexandria or a secret about the inner workings of sporangium.

When we were finished at the library, sometimes Mama and I walked down Florida Boulevard which ended where the Mississippi straightened out long enough to frame the eastern bank of the city. At that time, a thriving downtown shopping area ran parallel to the river. On one of these walks, when I thought we were headed downtown for an ice cream cone at the Rexall Drug Store, Mama turned off unexpectedly on one of the numbered streets and announced that we were going to stop by and see if her second cousin, Alice, was at home.

My mama was the youngest of eight children, and she had a lot of older relatives that I had never heard of, much less seen, and this cousin Alice was apparently one of them. Alice was no doubt going to be called on the carpet for not staying sufficiently in touch. Mama stopped for a minute, surveyed the houses on each side of the street, then indicated one on the opposite side. It was one of those small frame houses, common in that area, that was much longer than it was wide. They didn’t look too appealing from the outside, but were surprisingly spacious and comfortable when you went in. This house was painted white and had a wooden front porch fringed with pale blue, green, and pink Hydrangeas. Mama pulled open the screen door and knocked on the heavy wooden door behind it.

The trim woman who answered the door didn’t look much older than Mama except for the grey hair that waved back from her face. She had a pleasant, but curious expression. “Good afternoon, Alice,” said Mama. “I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Katie. We were just at the library, and I thought we’d stop by. It has been such a long time since I’ve heard from you.”

“Well, how are you? Please come in.” I recognized a trace of a French accent around the edge of her voice that I noticed in the voices of many of my older relatives.

Mama and I sat side by side on a tailored, fawn colored sofa. Alice said she would go and get some coffee since she had a fresh pot made, but she probably didn’t, because she disappeared into the back of the house and was gone a long time. This gave Mama an opportunity to appraise the living room, with its low, polished coffee table and color coordinated chairs which faced the sofa. Mama nodded in approval of the decor. On a piano in a far corner of the room, there was a picture of a man. Mama wondered aloud who he might be, since cousin Alice had never married. There was a round table under a window, and next to a clear vase of cut Hydrangeas, was a smaller picture of two children. “Those must be her sister Ella Mae’s children” remarked Mama. She squinted so as to try to see them better, but Mama was really too well mannered to get up an make a closer inspection.

Alice returned to the room with a silver plated tray holding a matching coffee pot, a demi-tasse coffee set decorated with violets, and a plate of pecan bars. After I answered the obligatory questions about school, I set about adding enough sugar and evaporated milk to the thick, dark coffee to make it palatable, and listened to their conversation. Mama filled in her cousin on recent news about some of their mutual relatives. Alice nodded absently, and didn’t add anything to Mama’s comments. Mama finished her first pecan bar, then picked up another.

“These are really delicious,” she said. “I must get this recipe. They remind me of the times my sisters and I used to visit Aunt Odile. Do you remember when you and Ella Mae used to come over to visit us there, and we’d all pick pecans from her grove?”

“No,” said Alice, stirring her coffee and looking down.

“You must remember,” insisted Mama. “You and Ella Mae used to tell scary stories to my sisters and me while we sat on the ground cracking pecans. Aunt Odile made the best pecan pies from the nuts we had gathered.”

“I was never there.” Alice looked up sheepishly. I added more sugar to my cooling coffee during the long pause that followed. Alice looked down and tried to smooth a wayward thread which had extricated itself from the weave of her linen skirt. I squirmed in the uncomfortable silence. Mama, however, was unabashed. She looked long and hard at her cousin. When Alice finally looked up, it was Mama who spoke first.

“You’re not Alice,” she said flatly.

“No, I’m not.”

“And this isn’t Alice’s house.”

“No,” said the woman previously known as Alice. I’ve lived here for the past ten years —since my husband died. My name is Katharine Moore. I’m afraid I don’t know Alice.”

Mama abruptly put down her coffee cup. “I’m so sorry,” she said. But her tone sounded more accusatory than penitent.

Katharine Moore extended her hands, palms out, and in a lilting, high pitched voice urged us to stay and finish our coffee. She noticed what a syrupy mess I had made in my coffee cup, and brought me a glass of iced tea. She gave Mama the recipe for the pecan bars. With her identity established, Katharine Moore was relaxed and animated. She laughed often and made a genuine effort to include me in the conversation, even when it turned to the azaleas and how beautiful they had been that year. When Mama said we had to go, Katharine Moore was so dignified and gracious escorting us to the door that I liked her just as well as if she had been my cousin three times removed.

Mama and I walked back toward the car, and she muttered something about how she must look up Alice’s correct address because it really had been too long since she had seen her. Since I was fourteen, I was somewhat of an expert on embarrassment. I was mortified for Mama for having made such a faux pas. I was embarrassed for Katharine Moore and wondered what had prompted her to invite us in. Had it been loneliness, boredom or extreme politeness? Actually, I needn’t have worried about either of them. After we had crossed the street and walked about a block, Mama told me to wait. She walked back until she stood opposite Katherine Moore’s house, and pulled an envelope out of her purse. I saw her copy the street numbers painted on the curb in front of the house, and knew that Katherine had been added to Mama’s collection.

— Kathie Isaac-Luke

Kathie Isaac-Luke was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has a Master’s degree in nursing and traveled to many countries while working in that profession. Her poetry and short fiction reflect her travels, as well as her Louisiana origins.

Kathie lived in San Jose for a number of years, where she was program director for Poetry Center San Jose and editor of the journal, Cæsura. Her poetry appears in numerous journals and anthologies. Her poetry collection, Chrysalides, published by Dragonfly Press, was selected as runner-up at the 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival.

Kathie’s short fiction appears in The Call: An Anthology of Women’s Writing, published by Dragonfly Press. Her short story, “The Collection,” was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart prize. She currently lives in Sonora, California, and reviews plays for The Union Democrat newspaper. She has poems forthcoming in two new anthologies to be published in 2014.


She lay in the bed looking through the window at a corner of the red brick building, its white gutter, and a fragment of September sky. Not wanting to think piercing about that blue.

Before that, she had observed the deflation of her body beneath the sheet and light blanket.

Before that, a wheeled cart had squeaked down the hall past her door bringing the newborns to be nursed.

Before that, her husband had held her hand until she urged him to go home for some sleep. Then she couldn’t let go.

Before that, he had been pulled over for speeding on the way back to the hospital. Then the police had escorted him, with sirens.

Before that, the two of them had called the friends who were keeping their small daughter overnight, for the second time, their throats raw.

Before that, they had called those same friends, many friends, family, all waiting—to announce a new name that felt fresh and sweet on the tongue.

Before that: In the white room alive with breathing, with deliberate breaths, the final push, which led to her husband’s stunned joy. The small wet cap of dark hair. A thin slice of silence, no more than a hairline crack. And how the crack had seemed mended by a faint cry.

Before that, they had been driving north to the hospital exit, singing all the throbbing love songs they could think of. She was silent only during each contraction.

Veronica Patterson’s poetry collections include How to Make a Terrarium (Cleveland State University, 1987); Swan, What Shores? (NYU Press Poetry Prize, 2000), Thresh & Hold (Gell Poetry Prize, 2009), & it had rained (CW Books, 2013), and two chapbooks—This Is the Strange Part (Pudding House, 2002) and Maneuvers: Battle of the Little Bighorn Poems (Finishing Line, 2013). She is a writer, freelance editor, and teacher. She currently teaches creative writing for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
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