MAMA AND THE CONTRACTOR
BY BETH HOLT ~ COPYRIGHT JUNE 18, 2015
Our magnificent mother, Marguerite, has always been a night owl, and even while technically asleep, she often prowls the house – sleepwalking and sleep-talking through many a strange conversation. She reared four daughters, walking the floors for countless hours through several years with crying babies. When the youngest turned out to be quite the midnight squaller, Daddy joked, “ ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring – not even Mama and Margie.” Mama came by her nocturnal habits through the hard work and perseverance of motherhood.
When our boys were little, they’d wake up to catch her raiding the freezer in the middle of the night, claiming a low blood sugar attack. She’d dish out enough ice cream for everybody, and they loved the forbidden flavor of Memomma’s midnight snacks.
One night, I was up late, working at the computer, when she waltzed into the living room sporting silky pink pajamas and a hair net. I watched as she danced an elaborate pantomime in front of the TV set. Her arms gyrated in several directions as she lifted her knees, one at a time, then put them back down and wiggled a bit.
“Mama! What in the world are you doing?” It wasn’t the first time I’d asked that question of our remarkable mother, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“Doing? I’ve got to get out of these panty hose!”
Another night, Daddy was snoring like Darth Vader in the king-sized bed when Mama grabbed hold of his head and shook it. Daddy wasn’t as polite as I was, and he woke up hollering.
“Marguerite! What the hell are you doing?”
“Just take it easy, Martin L. I gotta get this ham in the oven!”
So I shouldn’t have been surprised at the latest episode. Back in the winter, my sister, Carole, brought Mom to visit us in Powhatan, to meet the eleventh great-grandchild, Evelyn May Holt. We had a grand time hearing Mama proclaim, once again, that she’d “never seen a child that young” do whatever newborn Evie was doing at the moment. My sister was so busy taking photos of Mama holding Evie that we didn’t take any of Carole holding her great-niece, which breaks my heart – we had no way of knowing it would be our last visit together in this life. The next morning, when they’d planned to leave, Carole awoke with a virus, so she holed up on the third floor for a few extra days – days that are precious to me now. I got to pay her back a tiny bit, in Gatorade, for all the cooking, cleaning, and nursing she did for me last summer. I promised to take care of Mama while she recuperated.
In the wee hours of the next morning, as Carole slept quietly upstairs, I heard an odd noise. The numbers on the bedside clock glowed 4:00. I threw back my half of the covers, and ran to the stairs to investigate. Mama stood in the foyer below, one hand on the door casing, as she peered into the darkened den. I sighed.
“Mama? What in the world are you doing?” I called down the stairs. “It’s four o’clock in the morning – not time to wake up yet. Let’s get back in bed.”
“Beth, I can’t go back to bed yet – not till somebody does something about these wild kids. I’ve been dealing with them since two minutes after midnight!”
Kids? For a minute, I thought she was talking about my grandchildren, who often sleep in the den, but they’d not stayed over, so it couldn’t be them. I walked down the stairs to see what was going on.
“Look.” Mama pointed toward the sofa. “There’s two of them, just as wild as they can be, and they’re riding around on that ceiling fan! I’ve been awake since 12:02, and they’re up there in the attic, making that ceiling fan turn, riding on it and keeping me awake. See? Lie down on that sofa, and you’ll see. It’ll start turning, all by itself. See? And they’ve done something to the electricity.”
I looked up at the ceiling fan. It hadn’t moved an inch. Mama kept talking.
“Somebody’s got to call an electrician. She’s gonna break those fan blades if she doesn’t get down from there.”
“Come on, Mama, let’s get you back to your bed before we have to call the men in little white coats. There aren’t any kids here tonight.”
“Beth – there are TOO. I am not crazy. There’re two of them. A boy and a girl. And they’ve messed up the electricity.
“Wait here a minute, Mama. I’ll be right back.” I fairly flew up the stairs – not an easy thing with my new hip – and woke up my husband.
“George, my mother is off her nut. She’s really lost it this time.”
“Sounds like she’s sleepwalking. It’d be best to get her back to bed.” Ever the calm one in the face of disaster, he turned over and resumed snoring.
I went back down to Mama, took her by the arm, and tried to coax her up the stairs.
“Come on, Mama, let’s get back in bed now. You’re sleepwalking.”
“Beth, I am not asleep, I’m wide awake. And I can’t get back in that bed. Everything in the bedroom is soaking wet, and I had to take the pillows and put them in the laundry room by the radiator to dry out.”
I felt of her pajamas. Dry as a bone. “Mama, you don’t look wet. What are you talking about?”
“Beth, I’m telling you, it’s all WET! That’s why I had to come down here and lie on the sofa at two minutes after twelve. And if you’ll just go in there and lie down there yourself, you can see that ceiling fan start turning all by itself. That girl is up there riding on it and making it turn.”
I wasn’t sure how an imaginary girl stuck in a non-existent attic could be riding on a fan in the downstairs den, but there was no point in arguing with Mama. Our cousins don’t call her “Aunt Arguerite” for nothing. I left her there for a minute, and this time, I had to hobble back up the stairs. My new hip was no longer willing to lift my leg, so I picked it up with my right arm, one step at a time, and pulled myself up by the handrail. I flipped the bedroom light on.
The room looked a mess. The dresser drawers were all open, and the bed was stripped bare. The sheets, blanket, comforter, and pillowcases were draped around the room, hanging from the desk and dresser, as if to dry. And not one item was the least bit damp. And then I remembered what she’d said about the pillows.
Back down the stairs we bounded, my new hip and I, and I ran to the laundry room where we’d placed a radiator to keep the pipes from freezing on this cold winter’s night. Mama was telling the truth — she’d taken her beloved little-round-neck-pillows, propped them up on a stool, and cozied them up to the radiator. Right then and there, I thanked the Good Lord that she hadn’t burned the place down, and thought back to the night she left fish frying on the stove and set our Burlington house ablaze. Mama’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but sometimes, that woman is just plumb dangerous.
“Stay right here, Mama, I’m going to get the bed made up.” My hip was keeping an accurate count of the trips up the staircase, and it screamed at me. I put the bed back together as fast as I could, turned around, and limped downstairs yet again.
“Okay, Mama – everything’s all dry now – let’s go back up and get in bed.”
“Beth, I can’t go anywhere until somebody does something about those kids in the attic.”
“Mama. For the last time — this house doesn’t have an attic. And there are NO CHILDREN HERE TONIGHT! None. Nada. Zilch. Zero. NONE! I promise!”
“There are, too! There’s two of them. A boy and a girl, and they’ve messed up the electricity and are riding on that ceiling fan. Come look, you’ll see ‘em.”
I looked. By this time, I thought maybe she was the sane one and I was bonkers. But no kids were in sight. Mama kept talking.
“The boy, he’s in seventh or eighth grade. I asked him why she was up there, and why she couldn’t get down — and he said the damn contractor left her there!”
“The damn what??” By now, I knew there was no sense in talking sense.
“The damn contractor!”
“Okay, Mama, let’s go on upstairs and I’ll get her out of the attic.”
“But you’ve still got to do something about this electricity, before the house burns down.”
This – from the woman who’d just put two dry pillows up against a hot radiator.
I took her by the arm, and we walked into the den. The ceiling fan didn’t move, but there in the dark, tiny little lights – some red, some blue, some amber– glowed eerily all over the room from the TV, the cable box, the VCR, the DVD, the phone chargers – all that technology she embraced at eighty, but sometimes no longer recognizes at ninety-five. No wonder she had the heebie-jeebies. It looked weird to me, too; I couldn’t blame her for thinking the electricity was messed up. I turned on the overhead lights, and convinced her that all was well.
We got back to her bed, and she stretched out her hands to touch the Venetian blinds. “See? I told you – these things are soaking wet!”
“It’s okay, Mama. Look — I dried them off.” We’d been sleep-talking, sleepwalking for over half an hour.
I sat on the edge of her bed, and patted her on the back. I glanced up at Grandmother’s lovely wedding portrait on the wall, the one I’d slept under so many times as a child, and realized that Mama and I had changed places. How many times had she put me to sleep under that portrait, patting me on the back, singing lullabies till I closed my eyes, waiting quietly in the dark till my breathing became regular? And this night, it was my turn. She kept talking about those crazy kids for a while, and I patted till she got quiet. Her eyes closed, and her breathing became soft and rhythmic.
I climbed back under the covers next to my husband, and hoped for sleep to come again soon.
The next morning, at the breakfast table, I handed Mama a cup of coffee.
“Mama, do you remember anything that happened at four o’clock this morning?
“Nope.” She took a sip, then cocked her head. “What are you talking about?”
“D’ya remember anything about the kids on the ceiling fan? The girl in the attic?
“Oh, yeah, a little…”
“How’d she get up there?”
Mama picked up a spoonful of cereal, blinked, and thought for a moment. She looked up, smiled and shrugged.
“Something about a contractor!”