By Sean Dietrich
A crowded restaurant. I’m eating breakfast with my mother and sister. The newest addition to our family is here, too. My niece. She’s a toddler with reddish hair and the face of a renaissance cherub. Right now, she’s in a highchair, eating crayons, pooping her britches. She’s a happy little thing.
The waitress comes to take our order, but we’re not ready. We just got here, and we’ve got a lot of talking to do. “Three coffees, please,” Mama says. It’s been so long since we ate breakfast together, I almost forgot how to do it. But it all comes back to me. Mama looks better than she’s ever looked. She’s five-foot-one. All my life, she was five-foot-two, but age has claimed an inch. She’s tough. She started waiting tables at twelve. During her twenties my father paid for her school by crawling on iron buildings. He worked double shifts; she studied all night to earn her degree. My father put her through hell, then he left this world unannounced. She worked whatever jobs she could find. I remember wandering into Chick-fil-A to see Mama behind the counter. I had just gotten off work. She handed me two sandwiches wrapped in foil, and a double-order of fries. “You’re looking scrawny,” she said—that’s what mothers say. I reached for my wallet.
“No,” she said. “This meal’s on the house.” Then, I saw her dig money from her purse and place dollars into the register. My sister is sitting beside my mother. She is magnificent. She’s a living rendition of my mother’s high-school senior portrait. I remember when Sarah was born. I can still remember holding the gangly baby. I remember her sticky cheeks. I remember when she ate crayons. I remember when she sat in the dugout at my Little League games. I remember when she stood beside me at my father’s funeral, holding my hand, saying, “What’s gonna happen to us?” I remember sleeping on the floor beside her bed, every night for years. I did it because she was afraid to be alone. She’d wake up after a bad dream and squeeze me until I choked. Later in life, I remember the three of us, cramming into an old Nissan at three in the morning. We were delivering newspapers to the sleeping world. It was decent money, but hard on the body. I remember my sister saying once: “I hate this stupid job, Mama! Why do you hafta throw a paper so early?” My mother smiled and said: “Someday, life isn’t gonna be this hard. I promise. And one morning, you’ll wake up and say, ‘Look, Mama. We made it. I can’t believe it, but we made it.’” We must’ve thrown seventeen million papers in our day. Anyway, I have my share of memories. The memory of being at the county courthouse on lunch break, watching my sister become a married woman. I remember Mama was there. I remember we were crying. I remember a lot. These are my women. We grew up together. We learned how to be human together. We made mistakes together. Too many mistakes. But we tried hard, and we loved harder. I’ve been calling one of these women “Mama” for as long as I’ve been breathing. The other has called me her “brudder” for almost that long.
My mother holds my niece in her lap. She uses a high-pitched voice when she wipes crayon bits from my niece’s little mouth. You’ve never seen a more tender sight in all your life. Look, Mama. We made it. I can’t believe it, but we made it.