On the occasion of her youngest child’s fiftieth birthday, Martha might have been feeling all kinds of things. Pride, because she had raised not one, but three tiny, squalling infants to middle age. Gratitude, because although they’d never been rich, they’d gotten by; pleasure, because she saw her three children every day: they’d celebrated each holiday, birthday, and special event together for the better part of a half-century. Most mothers would be elated. Martha was just tired. Too damned tired. She’d worked hard, harder than most women, although she’d never had a paying job in her life. At seventy-eight, she was too old, she supposed, to go looking for a job now, which made the present situation difficult. Mr. Sullivan from the National State Bank had been nice enough, but quite clear.
“Mrs. Scott, you have to come in and talk with me,” he’d said. “You haven’t had enough in your account to cover the mortgage or the property taxes for quite some time. I’m not sure what you’re doing about paying the grocery bills, but you are acquiring some serious debt.”
Martha and Jim had had their money in National State all their married life, which she was certain was longer than Sullivan had been on this earth. She could remember a time when their account had been a fairly impressive amount. Jim’s parents left him some money, and the hardware store that he owned did well until the big box stores forced him out of business fifteen years ago. It was a shame, she thought as she wiped down the kitchen counter top with a clean dishrag and began preparing for this evening’s special meal.
Birthdays were always an occasion in this family, with a dinner of the of honoree’s choosing. Tonight, Patrick requested the meal he’d opted for since he was ten years old: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and lots of brown gravy to pour over everything. Naturally, there would be cake for dessert. He preferred yellow cake with white icing and large pink roses, which he swiped at and licked off his fingers before blowing out the candles. It was sort of a family joke. When the cake was brought to the table, everyone would shout, “Don’t eat the roses, Pat! Don’t eat the roses!”
Patrick would smile, giggle, and quick as a wink snatch and gobble the bright pink clusters. Then everyone would have to yell at him to blow out the candles before they melted into the cake, while he rocked back and forth laughing.
Martha put two large onions on the cutting board. This September would mark two full years’ worth of birthdays and holidays without Jim. It seemed a lot longer ago that she and the girls had come home from shopping on a sunny Saturday afternoon to find Patrick kneeling on the floor beside his father.
“Daddy…Daddy…Daddy…Daddy…,” he cried, rocking back and forth, while the chicken noodle soup glistened on his face and soaked into the fabric of his jeans and into the dead man’s hair. Martha remembered how her mind had felt numb and slow. She hadn’t known where to start—call the paramedics or the police? Clean the floor? The packages had fallen from her arms, and still she stood, unmoving. Ruthie and Gracie, bless them, tried to help. When Martha could move again, she’d asked them to take their brother to his room, help him change his clothes, and stay there with him. Then she made calls and did the things that had to be done.
Not many had come to pay respects. Although Jim had grown up in this town, he had never had a lot of friends. Unlike most people, Martha had seen his kindness instead of his weakness. She wiped her sleeve across her face. Damned onions—she chopped savagely at them.
“Hi, Mom, I’m home,” Gracie announced banging through the door awkwardly as she heaved herself and a large grocery bag into the kitchen.
“I got some stuff,” she announced. “There’s some bananas, but they’re kinda black. And there’s tomatoes and lettuce, and some bakery bread they aren’t supposed to sell after today.”
Gracie displayed her treasures proudly. She had been bagging groceries at the Jewel down the street for a few years now, and sometimes she was allowed to bring home products that were past their sell-by date. Occasionally, she brought home meat that was a little gray around the edges, but when it was trimmed up and thoroughly cooked, it was just fine.
“Is Ruthie here?” Gracie asked her mother.
“Yes, dear. She’s upstairs resting.”
“Oh. Did she have a bad day again?” Gracie’s simple question made Martha feel as though another thousand pounds had been placed on her shoulders.
“I’m afraid so. I swear those treatments seem worse than the cancer. She was sick in the car on the way home. The poor thing hasn’t eaten more than soda crackers for two days.”
“She looks funny with that wig,” Gracie giggled.
“Please. Don’t tease her about that. She’s real upset since her hair fell out.”
Martha could cope with seeing her daughter without hair; it might grow back. It was the deep purple circles under her eyes and the gray color of her skin that made Martha fear the odds were against Ruthie surviving another six months.
“Grace, why don’t you go watch TV with Patrick. He has cartoons on, and I bet he’d like the company. I’m busy getting dinner ready, but in a while you can set the table.”
“I’m hungry now.”
“There are some cookies in the pantry. Take a few to Patrick, but don’t you two spoil your dinner.” Gracie was severely overweight, but a few cookies wouldn’t do any harm now.
Martha glanced at the clock and figured it would be about two hours until the meal was ready. She ought to check on Ruthie. In all the years since she’d been diagnosed, this was about the roughest day they’d been through. Today, for the first time, Martha could see a flat look in the eyes of the doctors and nurses. They were trying to spin out a little more time for Ruthie, but only because that was what they were paid to do. Everyone knew what was coming.
Ruthie had been Martha’s last hope. Ruthie, who had worked so hard all through school, could have made it on her own. Before she’d gotten so sick, she’d made good money at the Hobby Lobby. She would have been able to help her brother and sister, even when the day came that Martha no longer could. Maybe this family had a lot of what the teachers called “deficits,” and maybe these kids weren’t quite like everybody else’s kids, but they stuck together. She and Jim had given them that at least.
Back in high school, when she first met Jim Scott, she thought he was handsome, even though her younger sister gave her a lot of ribbing about having a crush on the weirdest boy in town. Martha was the only person who would talk to him in English class. She had been pretty good at English; Jimmy Scott was hopeless. He never understood the poetry or the stories. Once, the teacher had asked him to read aloud. He’d sounded out words like a little kid, and everyone laughed. Sophomore year, they were in the same math class for two weeks until Jim had been transferred to the highest level math the school offered. Martha only saw him at lunch, but one day she walked up to the table where he sat alone and asked him how he was so good at math when he couldn’t read. He stared at her for such a long time, she wondered if he understood her. Then he quietly said, “Numbers make sense.”
“Well, would you help me with my homework sometime?” she asked. She wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t much of a line, but it worked. They met at the library to study, then they went to a movie, and by the time the yearbook came out their senior year, they were comfortable in each other’s company. College was never an option for either of them. Jim didn’t pass the physical for the navy or the army. What he did was figure out how to cobble together enough money to buy a small shop in town where he began selling hardware. Pots and pans, nails and hammers. The kind of things folks needed on a Saturday morning. He and Martha got married a year after graduation.
Fifteen years later, when they were used to the idea that they would never have children, Martha fell pregnant. Ruthie was a sweet, calm child, but she seemed to catch every cold or flu bug that came around. Eleven months after Ruthie, Gracie was born. Even more placid than her sister, she slept through the night from birth, seldom cried, and found everything in the world around her to be agreeable. She didn’t talk until she was three and a half. When Patrick was born, exactly eighteen months after Gracie, there were no illusions. In the delivery room, the nurses were too quiet. The doctor said only that the baby appeared to require some extra care. Patrick was whisked away before Martha could see the twisted features, before the Apgar score was discussed in solemn, pitying tones around the nurses’ station. No one told Martha that he could live to be fifty and never be capable of dressing himself or learning his own address.
Martha had never been a particularly religious person, but just lately she’d been thinking there had to be a better place, and the notion had come to her that Jim was calling. It took a long while to figure out what she should do about it, but now she was certain, and the knowledge filled her with peace.
In another hour, the comforting aroma of meatloaf would fill the kitchen with its rich warmth. The potatoes would be whipped, the gravy stirred, and the beautiful birthday cake, covered in huge pink roses, would be brought out of its hiding place in the cupboard.
This night there would be another special treat: mugs of frothy hot chocolate, topped with marshmallows and sprinkles to mask the taste of the tablets that she’d ground to a fine, silky powder. Martha was so tired. It was time for everyone to sleep.
The next morning, or later that day, maybe later that week, people would talk. But then they had always talked.
“Can you believe Martha North and Jim Scott got married? What a pair!”
“Can you believe they had children?”
“It’s hardly surprising those kids are…well… just look at the parents.”
“Really, though, it’s such a shame.”
“How could she do that?”
“She must have been almost eighty, but still…”
“I heard there were financial troubles, too.”
Martha tucks her children in, one by one, singing softly until all three are in that better place. She finishes her cocoa and remembers what the doctors and ministers and people on the talk shows say about the miracle of children, which is true enough, but she wishes that someone would have told her the deeper truth of widows with mortgages, taxes, medical bills, and pre-school children in their fifties.
Mary Driver-Thiel is a writer, teacher, and artist who lives in the Chicago area. She would rather write bios for her characters than for herself because their lives are so much more interesting.
© 2012, Mary Driver-Thiel