I remember that day in 1973 like it was yesterday, although it was almost fifty years ago.
On that Saturday morning, my brothers and I had been horsing around inside — running, wrestling, and, generally, just being kids. This we did despite having been warned (on more than one occasion) not to. You see, my mother’s home was filled with little keepsake items that she had gathered over the years. Those items she proudly displayed all over the house; on shelves, tabletops, and anywhere there was free space to add another. It’s not like they were anything of value. For the most part, they were just little knick-knacks that she picked up here or there. She said that these were her memories. I never understood that as a child. Weren’t memories something kept in your mind?
In retrospect, I wonder if my mother was maybe just a wee bit of a hoarder. Of course, if she was, I could easily forgive that failing given the dire, poverty-stricken circumstances in which she had grown up. She was, after all, the child of migrant workers who moved across the country staying in one-room shacks with dirt-floors while the family harvested whatever was in season being paid very little to do so. Perhaps, it was the lack of “things” in her childhood that caused her to appreciate those “things” as an adult.
Among the keepsakes was a ceramic dragon that adorned the top of the coffee table. This was a gift to my mother — something that my father had brought home when he returned from his first tour in Vietnam where the dragon is a symbol of power, strength, and good luck for the worthy. He passed away during his second tour and we never saw him again, except in his dress blues lying prone in a box. Maybe that’s why this “thing” meant so much to her. It was one of her memories.
This particular icon was two-feet long, maybe eight inches high, and about four inches wide. It was colored green with bejeweled, red eyes, and white, not-so-precious stones adorned its torso giving it a shimmering appearance when the light struck it just so. The feet were red and the tail split in three at its tip with each tip being a slightly different shade of blue. From its gaping jaw protruded a forked red tongue and its eyes were made of rubies. Well, not really rubies, but red glass that, as a child, was easily mistaken for something far more valuable. There were times when I could have sworn the eyes of that dragon were watching everything I did — and, of course, reporting any transgression to my mother (the true dragon of the house).
But that is neither here nor there. The point is, we knew better than to horse around indoors. We knew that if our play resulted in a broken tchotchke that there would be hell-to-pay. As she often put it, Mama wouldn’t “brook no bad behavior” from any “young hooligans” in her house!
Naturally, at one point one of my brothers (to this day, I couldn’t tell you which one) ran into me and I fell back onto the coffee table knocking the ceramic dragon over and to the floor. It broke into several pieces — way too many to ever properly repair. Just as surely as I heard the ceramic in that dragon crack, I knew we would soon hear the crack of the belt.
Of course, my brothers scattered. I was the youngest and they left me there sitting among the ceramic shards to deal with my mother’s wrath. I recall looking down at the mess and thinking that we hadn’t meant to break it. We were just playing. But that didn’t matter to my mother. She was furious! At the time, I was not sure why. It was just a stupid dragon, after all. But I knew that, regardless of the reason, I was in trouble. She yelled at me demanding to know how this had happened, even though she must have been aware that we were rough-housing. Knowing that if I squealed on my brothers they would be angry with me, I took the blame. Not wanting to get them into any trouble, I said that I had done it alone.
From the corner of my eye, I saw my brothers peering through the window waiting to see what would happen. I was an obstinate child and my mother gave me that look — the look she sometimes gave when she knew that I was lying and she knew that I knew that she knew that I was lying but that she would be unable to break me from my story.
Mama didn’t take her eyes off of me for a full minute — all the time saying nothing. When, finally, she spoke, it was with resignation in her voice, “That’s the story you want to stick with?” she asked.
I nodded my head.
“Well, I guess you’d better go get the belt,” she said.
Head down, I went to her bedroom closet and pulled the belt from the nail on which it always hung and brought it back to her. She put me over her knee and gave me three quick swats.
“That was for rough-housing in my living room,” she said. “Now, go get the soap.”
I knew what this meant, and I didn’t want to do it, but I did as I was told.
Mama made me bite down on that bar of soap for a full minute before she let me wash it out and when I did, the water hit the soapy film on my tongue causing it to lather. Biting the soap was one thing. Washing it out quite another.
After, she said, “And that was for lying.”
In my darkened room, I threw myself across the bed and cried. I didn’t cry because I had been spanked. My mother never did so with any force and it had hardly hurt at all. Nor did I cry because my mouth was still foul from the soap. The taste was terrible, but hardly unbearable. No; I cried because I had disappointed the dragon.
At dinner later that night, when my family sat around the dining room table, everyone was very quiet. There was none of the usual banter that occurred. Truth be told, that banter had diminished after my father had failed to come home, anyway. Mama sat silently, her eyes red as if she had been crying, but for the life of me, I could not understand why she would have done so? She didn’t get the belt — what was she sad about? She didn’t break her memories. It was me. I had done it. If anyone should have been crying, it should have been me.
After dinner, my mother dished out a piece of pie for me — chocolate and coconut cream, my absolute favorite. She told my brothers that they weren’t getting any dessert that night; they should pick up their plates and go clean the kitchen. In that moment, I knew that even broken into pieces, the ceramic dragon still was able to tattle to my mother. How else could she have known about the part my brothers had played in the whole matter?
“That’s not fair!” they said. “Why does he get pie and we don’t?”
“Because I said so,” was the only explanation she gave. That was the only explanation she ever gave to her children. As she so often said, she owed us no explanations. She was the mother and we were the children. Period.
While my brothers cleared the table and cleaned the kitchen, my mother took me into the living room (with my pie! I never got to take food outside of the kitchen!) and we sat on the sofa watching television while my brothers toiled away at their chores.
When I finished my pie, I smiled at mother and said, “I am sorry about the broken things. I love you, Mama.”
And she replied, as she always did, “I love you, too, or I wouldn’t put up with up with your shit.”
* * *
The following week at school, my teacher, Mrs. Jacoby, said that we were going to make something from clay. She gave us our clunch and told us that we could make whatever we wanted out of it. I had never been good at arts-and-crafts, and, even at the tender age of seven, I understood my limitations. When Mrs. Jacoby asked me what I wanted to sculpt, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a new dragon for my mother.
I spent hours shaping that clay trying to get it just right. I wanted the sleek lines and curving body of the original. From memory, I carefully worked that clay making it look as close to the broken one as I could. I added the back plates, the three-tipped tail, and the forked tongue. Of course, we had no gems to embed into the clay, but I vowed that someday, when I was older (and rich enough to afford these precious stones), I would add them to my creation. In the meantime, Mama would have to be satisfied with what I could do. After the clay was finally shaped, we put it into the oven to bake and dry. Later that week, we colored it. I spent hours trying to get the coloring just right. When it was done, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
That Friday afternoon, just before school let out. I carefully wrapped my dragon in paper provided by my teacher who was also kind enough to find a box that could hold this priceless item. Carefully, I carried this package with both hands for the half-mile or so it took me to walk from the school to my home.
At the front door, I reached into my shirt and pulled out the key that dangled from the chain; the very key that would let me into the house where I was expected to wait patiently until either my older brothers arrived home from their school or my mother from work — whichever came first. I set the dragon down on the porch, unlocked and opened the front door, then, retrieving my package, I went inside. The house was, as always at this time of day, very quiet. The only sound emanating within its walls was the self-satisfied sound I made as I carefully unwrapped the dragon and positioned it just so on the coffee table — a surprise for my mother when she returned.
It wasn’t long before Mama came home. I sat in the living room and heard the keys jingle in the front door before it opened and she called out for me. I stood excitedly and called back, “Mama, come here. I got something for you.”
She came into the living room, and I pointed to the dragon on the coffee table. Looking at her face, I couldn’t tell if she was going to laugh or cry. Eventually, she opened her arms and I ran into them. As I buried my face in her bosom, I heard the little sniffling sounds she made. Had I made her cry again? How stupid of me! Even as I tried to pull back and look, she held me so tight that I could not possibly have freed myself if I so wanted.
* * *
Many, many years later, in 1997, as a young man, I went home to visit the dragon lady. As we made the tamales that we often did during the holidays, we talked — not about anything in particular.
“I got too much crap in this house,” she said at one point.
“Yeah, well, why don’t you get rid of some of it?” I asked.
“I want to, but what do I get rid of? Everything in here is a memory. Sometimes, it’s just too hard to let go of things, to know what to let go of, even when you don’t need them anymore. We grow attached to them and they grow attached to us. They stick to us like leeches bleeding us dry. But, leeches serve a purpose. Did you know, in the old days, doctors used leeches to bleed their patients? Of course, you do. Those leeches treated many conditions. The question is, which of the leeches that are attached to you is one that you can pull off and which is one that is helping you heal?”
“Well,” I said, “that may all be true, but they are only things after all.”
She gave me a little smile then replied, “But some things become such a big part of you that you don’t know where you end and where they begin. Some things are a burden, but other things are a blessing. How to know which is which?”
I looked around and on the shelf and saw the dragon. I smiled, “How about that stupid dragon?” I asked. “It was only an art project for kid in school. Besides, it’s just a broken rock now.”
“Shut your mouth,” she said through that smile. “That’s the first thing you ever gave me. I am taking that to my grave,” and we laughed.
* * *
On that Tuesday morning in September, four years later, I was just shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, no longer a boy, but not quite yet a man. All morning long, Mama had been on my mind. I sat and drank my coffee watching the news when it happened.
Like millions of people across the world, I sat in horror as the events of that day unfolded. While they played across the television, my telephone rang. I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was my older brother calling. Thinking that the call was to check in on me given the tragic events, I answered the phone.
“Yeah, yeah, I am all right. The Pennsylvania crash was far away from here. . .”
* * *
All air traffic was grounded — no flights, no trains, no busses. No way to get to home except to walk, swim, crawl, or drive on my own.
For thirty-six hours I drove until, finally, I crossed the city limits of my hometown and I went straight to the hospital on the south side of town – not stopping anywhere else before, and it was the wee hours of that Friday morning when, finally, I entered her hospital room.
But Mama wasn’t there. Looking down at her form, I realized that lying in the bed was nothing but an a broken dragon. Whatever life force existed within her was gone. My mother, my beautiful mother, was no more. At that very moment, I knew that my life was forever changed. How would I ever find the man that I was meant to be without her wisdom and guidance? I felt the anguish well within, but I would not cry. Angrily, I shook my head to clear the tears that threatened to engulf me. And, when the cloth that had been covering her forehead slipped, revealing the ugly Frankenstein-like scar where the doctors had cut to try to fix the aneurysm, I saw the broken shards of the dragon.
Gently, I replaced that cloth over her forehead then reached down and kissed her cheek.
“I love you Mama,” I whispered, then turned and walked away. And, I swear, I heard her say “I love you too, or I wouldn’t put up with your shit.”
I drove to the house, unable to cry, feeling numb. Three thousand dead in New York and another few hundred in Washington DC and Pennsylvania, but more importantly — at least to me — one beautiful woman in Texas.
I snuck into the house about three a.m., trying not to wake anyone. I fell into the living room sofa, but could not sleep. Instead, I wandered the darkened house examining each and every one her memories.
* * *
The memorial service was held that Sunday, but, to be honest, I don’t really remember much about it. These twenty years later, it’s all just a blur. But, before I left that Monday morning I saw the dragon sitting on the shelf. I picked it up and carried it away with me.
Today, I know, that I will carry that dragon with me always. It’s one of my memories.