cambridge book review

Burning

Norma Gay Prewett

Like Elaine Benes of Seinfeld fame, I once sneaked a peek at my own medical records left lying on the examining table. One doc’s remark began, “This interesting lady presents with …” (and the gory details followed). I know what “interesting” is code for—it is a way of saying “whack job.” But I use interesting in the sense of eccentric and quirky in a very good way, as Kurt Vonnegut once said, “like a girl with one blue eye and one brown.”

My interesting mother died four years ago this year, 2010, on my 56th birthday, April 23rd. Actually, my six sisters claim that she waited to die until one minute after midnight in kindness to me, and that sounds like my mother. But what my sisters don’t know is that I like the perfect circle circumscribed by her dying, if death be necessary, on my birthday. I look so much like her that my father, in his last days, sometimes mixed us up and thought he was talking to her, and I have begun to take on her eccentricities, which were many, so it is fitting that our lives coalesce in this way. Nobody can take that away from me.

My mother had a closetful of superstitions and individualizing traits—she could be a clown, play practical jokes, build odd things out of spare parts, but what I think may have been her most unusual trait was her need to burn—to burn with a clear and purposeful flame anything that annoyed her. She could clear whole swaths of paper goods, for example, if she suspected unwholesome introversion. I shall always wonder whether the day she “cleaned” my little desk in my room (okay, my shared room since I never had a room all to myself until after college for about three months) was the day my particular muse music died for the first time—whether those early soulful poems were my very best, the work of a thirteen-year-old genius of epic proportion—instead of the moody maunderings of a pimply malcontent.

Many was the late Fall or early Spring day when the school bus (actually driven by my dad, but ours was not the last stop) lumbered up our lonely gravel road through billows of both dust and smoke which, much to my everlasting shame, cleared just enough to reveal my mother’s bearish form—dressed in Daddy’s overalls and a tatty sweatshirt, hoisting a rake or shovel to greet Dad. She would be burning the side ditches, a fairly common country sport, which I now know promotes good growth the next year, but for her was just satisfying in every way. If a new broom sweeps clean, a new burn burns really clean, clearing away ambiguity and messiness. Even today, my sisters and I tell each other about our cleaning projects by using the phrase “going all Bonnie on it.” Hers was a literal scorched earth policy.

She burned things that were not ordinarily considered flammable. The epitome of this arsonist’s heart of hers may be represented by the day I came home from school and found Mama dismantling the cook stove. This time, she wasn’t just in a cleaning frenzy either. She took off everything that easily detaches—burners, burner pans, knobs, hardware—and tossed it out the back door. Then, she got the axe. I am quite convinced my mama had an excess of testosterone, and, except for when she fell on ice carrying a full chamber pot (yes, I was born in the 20th Century but we did live in a cold old, unplumbed rental farmhouse until I was nine) and slipped a disc in her back, was strong like bull. About five feet tall and maybe 150 pounds, she had worked out by working—toting full tubs of water for bathing and laundry, heavy wet clothes back and forth to lines, and anything else she took a notion to pull, push, or carry.

Then, axe in hand like some mad suffragette, Mama Bonnie dragooned as many of us children as were within catching distance. We were put to work finishing off the stove like a pack of jackals on a carcass. Mom was probably chewing her tongue and muttering imprecations about the “dad blame” thing and maybe about Daddy as she attacked. (She would later learn to drive, take a job, and have her own checkbook all in one year, but at that time was still dependent on Dad’s income as a janitor, bus driver, sometime mailman, carpenter, factory worker, and tenant farmer—none of which made for excess wealth.)

Practically howling, and getting into the spirit of it all, we helped her send the last of the cook stove careening into the snow-packed yard, where she poured gasoline on it and attempted to set it aflame.

Well, of course it didn’t burn all that well, but I caught the bug. The only thing (besides my early oeuvre) that I differed with her about was the big old ugly, but playable, piano she immolated one day when she heard tortured “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Chopsticks for six hands” one too many times (and her with one of her “sick headaches” probably). It wasn’t like I could play or anything, but I did have a sister who seemed to have some talent. But the thing had been foisted on our family by the school music department’s having shed it and maybe she felt humiliated that her home was considered the final destination for all discards. More likely she was having a bad day and on her last nerve—and had a can full kerosene and wanted to see what a piano looked like on fire. I thought it had given our home a literal veneer of respectability. She saw it as fuel. But she was my Mama and I miss her every time I smell smoke.

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March 31, 2010 - Posted by | memoir, poetry | , ,

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