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Shifting the Bowl: A Short Story

Shifting the Bowl by Chris Pepple @2005

I shifted the bowl on my coffee table so I could dust and get ready for the evening. Six couples from my husband’s new firm were coming by for dessert and I knew they would come down and watch TV. I had three hours left to get the pies ready and eat a light dinner. Really that was plenty of time, but I felt frustrated by the way the afternoon was going. I always put so much pressure on myself to get things perfect. Plus, I really wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having company.

Daniel wasn’t thinking the way I think when he invited them over. I thought we still needed to finish unpacking boxes and hanging pictures before we even thought of entertaining anyone. But he seemed excited about the idea, so I went along. I know he wants to make a good impression on his new co-workers and their families. I also know that he was both nervous and excited about this move for us, so he considered guests a good way for us both to feel a part of this place. He felt a little guilty about taking me away from so many friends, so inviting some women into the home gave him hope that I would bond with one or two of them.

I swished my dust rag across the table and knocked over the bowl and the golf magazines beside it. Maybe I should just put this bowl away or find a place for it in the guest bedroom. It didn’t seem to go with the décor of an entertainment room. I desperately needed to work on the color scheme in the room. I headed upstairs with the bowl, but had to stop and answer the phone on the way. I grabbed the cordless and kept walking.

“Hey, Dad. How’s your day going?” I asked as I grabbed a couple of towels to take up with me. I enjoyed chatting with my father on most days, so I thought his call would be a nice accompaniment to my chores. I stopped in the middle of the staircase when I realized he was crying, however. “Dad, what is it?” I asked even though I didn’t feel prepared to know. If he was crying, the news must be hard to handle. My father was the rock in our family. He held me when I cried, but he rarely cried in front of me.

“Your Mom’s here at the hospital. I had to call the ambulance. I just didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never seen her like this. She…” his voice drifted away for a moment. “Oh, the doctor’s here. Wait, your brother just walked in, too. I’ll have him call you back. Pray, Sweetheart.”

Before I could respond, I heard a dial tone. I couldn’t move from my spot on the stairs. I needed more information. I needed him back on the line with details. I needed him to say, “I’m sure she will be fine.” More than anything I needed to hear my mother’s voice. I wanted her to tell me she would be fine. I sat on the steps and breathed deeply as I hugged the bowl and towels close to me. My prayers for my mother flowed through me with each breath, prayers for her healing, for her comfort and for her voice to be on the line with the next call.

I wondered what to do next. I tried to call Daniel at the office, but the receptionist said he had gone to a meeting. He didn’t answer his cell, so I left a message for him to call back. In frustration, I dialed my brother’s cell phone. No answer there either. I shouldn’t have even tried when he was talking to the doctor, but I felt helpless in the moment.

I knew Ben would call me soon. My brother carried the same strength as my father. He would assess the situation, and then he would call me with his formal big brother voice to let me know that he was handling the details. After a few minutes on the phone, his tone would change to let me know he was my protective big brother who would help make things better and would keep me updated. Before we ended the call, he would say something ridiculously funny to make me smile and put me at ease.

No need to start driving to Vicksburg until he called to let me know if Mom and Dad needed me there. I should be wise and just stay put until I had news. After all, there was no need for panic. Maybe Mom’s problem was just a mild reaction to her new medicine. Or maybe Dad just overreacted. He usually didn’t, but then again he could be really overprotective of Mom at times, especially as they had aged. My Dad never wavered in his love for my mother and for all of us in his family. He could have been worried about her and wanted to have her checked rather than let a pain or a minor problem blossom into something bigger.

An incoming reminder on my cell phone brought my mind back to my tasks at hand. I finally forced myself to continue up the stairs as I waited for my brother’s call. At the top of the staircase, I paused at my desk to check my cell phone to see if anyone had called on that. While I waited for either phone to ring, I pretended to try to find the perfect spot for the bowl, but tears flooded my eyes. I had to weep at the sound of hearing my father weep. I had to weep at the thought of my mother being seriously ill. Logically, I knew my parents were older and not in the best of health, but emotionally I still felt as attached to them as I did during my childhood days when we spent every Saturday evening together playing games and then preparing for Sunday worship. I wasn’t ready to picture them any other way.

I went to my room and set the bowl on my nightstand. As I looked at it, I could picture my mother’s hands holding it. She carried that bowl to our kitchen table many times. Mom used it as a fruit bowl. That memory brought her voice flooding back through my mind.

“Beth, come in here and set the table!” she would call to me as I tried to sneak out the back door to see if any of my friends were coming up the sidewalk. “Beth, get back in here, Dear. You know dinner will be ready soon. I could use a hand for a minute.” My mother should not have had to ask for my help as much as she did. Instead, I should have been more of a willing volunteer. But through my pre-teen and teen years, I thought I had so much more important things to do. I wanted to be like Mary Alice Walker who had the newest clothes, the ones I had only seen in magazines that hadn’t made their way to our smaller stores. And she had much more freedom than I did. I envied her walking through the neighborhood to socialize as she pleased. Her mother hired people to help with meals. I was obligated to help with ours.

I remember walking into the kitchen noticing that Mom had the bowl full of fresh apples and oranges each evening. She kept two bananas stretched around each side. They were never browning or overly ripe as mine in our home often are. Mom arranged the bowl as carefully as someone else would a centerpiece of flowers. She could always turn the simple into something beautiful.

If I tried to reach for an apple before the meal was served, Mom would laugh as she swatted my hand. “I know tuna isn’t your favorite, but your Dad loves it, and you are not going to ruin your dinner with an apple, young lady.” Mom knew that I dreaded tuna night in our house. Whenever I smelled it cooking, I tried every excuse not to eat it. I knew that Mary Alice Walked would never eat a meal that consisted of tuna.

“Will you call your father and your brothers in for dinner?” my mother would always ask. If he was home, my father was always easy to find. He relaxed in his chair each evening when he got in from work. Sometimes he watched television. Other times, he read his favorite books. I could tell he had had a hard day at work if I came to get him and found him asleep. If he was napping in his chair, I wouldn’t wake him until I found my brothers.

Ben was the second easiest to find. He would be in his room studying. He knew he wanted to be a veterinarian and knew he needed to get a scholarship to accomplish that goal. He kept his nose in a book and his mind focused on the subject before him. When I knocked on his door each evening, he would always answer, “Thanks for telling me. I’ll be down as soon as I finish this one page.” He never actually came until Dad called up to him to tell him he was holding up our prayer before the meal.

Austin was harder to find. I usually had to go outside to track him down unless Mom found out he had a test and was making him study in his room. He did his best, however, to keep her from finding out when assignments were due and tests were scheduled. To find him when he was out of the house, I just had to listen for voices in the neighborhood. If guys were yelling about a great throw or a good catch, Austin would be there. He played both football and baseball well. If no talk of sports could be heard, then I had to listen for girls chattering about upcoming dances or parties. There I could find the boys leaning over a fence eyeing the girls and daydreaming about who would be dancing with whom. Of course, none of the guys had the nerve to actually ask any of the girls to dance. But my brother and his friends sure looked cool leaning back on the fence and grinning as if they were the Fonz himself.

Once I rounded everybody up and we gathered at the table, we all prayed and then listened to Dad tell about his day as we ate. I loved his tales of who did what in town. As sheriff, Dad knew everybody. He never revealed personal secrets—things he learned on late night calls to houses where the families would be gossiped about the next morning—but Dad sure could tell about interesting things that happened throughout the day. After dinner, Dad grabbed a banana for his dessert. I grabbed an apple to keep from starving since I hid most of my tuna under half of my roll. I helped Mom clear the table of everything except the wooden bowl. That stayed there until the fruit was gone. Then Mom would shift it to the counter until she could refill it.

I can still remember my grandmother using the bowl, too. She mixed her biscuit dough in it. As a young child, when I stayed at her house I loved waking up to the smell of breakfast cooking. I always snuggled under the quilt she had made, and I stayed there until she called me. Then I would quickly slip on my clothes and head to her kitchen. By the time I got there, the bacon and eggs would be cooking. The biscuit dough would be mixed, and I would help her roll it out and cut the circles using an old jelly jar. I set the table while they cooked. We ate them with the fresh molasses that the neighbors always sent over. My grandfather would head off to work after breakfast. My grandmother and I would clean the kitchen.

As we cleaned, my grandmother told me stories of her life growing up on a farm. I enjoyed the tales of her early childhood. She knew how to make the dough for bread by the time she was five. By age seven, she helped regularly in the garden. She pulled weeds and planted seeds. She dug for potatoes and picked beans, crawled around for red strawberries and reached high for plump figs. She rode to school on the back of her brother’s horse, holding a warm potato in the winter to keep warm. Her mother sang to the family every morning while breakfast was cooking and morning chores were being completed. In the evenings, her father read to the family from books borrowed from the small library donated by a former teacher who passed away without any living relatives. The current teacher built bookcases in the back of the school to hold the collection of classics in American and world literature.

My grandmother claims to have rarely gotten in trouble, remembering herself as a quiet child. Her brother, however, remembers one time when she angered their mother and was punished by their father. One day she saw a bird struggling to build a nest. She watched as it flew from place to place gathering twigs and bits of fluff from plants. The bird even found an old string tossed by her father when mending a broom for her mother. My grandmother felt sorry for the birds once she realized how hard they had to work to prepare even the simplest of homes. She snuck into the house and made her way to the kitchen. She hoped to find old rags to cut and leave for the birds to line their nests with. As she moved through the kitchen, however, she spotted perfectly designed nests already built and ready to be lined. She had spotted her mother’s wooden bowls.

My grandmother’s tender heart for animals gave her no option. She had to use at least some of the bowls for the poor birds struggling to make homes. She grabbed two and headed straight for the tree by the back fence. She could climb on the rails and reach the lower branches just enough to secure the bowls in place. She added the shreds of a dishtowel she cut with her father’s hunting knife left on the back porch. She felt pleased with her accomplishment until her mother began trying to prepare for the next meal. After searching the house, she called each child in for questioning. Needless to say, my grandmother was not a good liar. She turned herself in, retrieved the bowls, and accepted her punishment.

I can still her telling me that as we ate together before washing the breakfast dishes. After she washed the wooden bowl after our meal, my grandmother would put it back on the counter. Later in the morning, I would find my grandmother kneading dough in the bowl before leaving it to rise for bread for dinner. I would find a smaller bowl and pretend to knead my own dough and get it ready for a meal with my dolls. But no other bowl I used during my lifetime seemed to hold as many memories as this wooden bowl I now held.

My mother gave me this bowl when we moved into our new house last month. She knew that bowl held a lot of memories, and she wanted me to have it. Now I wondered if she knew that her time with me was short. Did she know this day was coming when memories would be all I had to hold on to?

The ringing of my phone pulled me back to the present. “Ben, how’s Mom?” I asked. He told me that she had suffered a pretty serious heart attack. She was hanging on, but I needed to come. I rang Daniel and he answered this time. He told me not to leave until he got home so he could drive me down. I reminded him to tell someone to spread the word around so no one would show up at our house tonight.

I was ready when he came to pick me up. I had packed a bag in case we needed to stay a couple of days. I rang my daughter and told her what was going on. I wanted to hug her right then, but I knew I had to head to Mom instead.

As we drove to Vicksburg, I prayed along the way. I also let memories of Mom wash over me. I dozed for a moment then heard my cell phone ring. It was my daughter just checking with me. She had gone by the house just to be there. She said she didn’t feel much like being in the dorm right then. I knew she would put in a movie and stay up waiting to hear back from me. If she found the wooden bowl, she would probably fill it with popcorn, salted and lightly buttered just the way we both liked it.

One day it would be hers. I could picture her hands holding the bowl and talking with her own children. Maybe when they picked it up, they would feel my grandmother’s and my mother’s hands touching theirs for just one moment. I kept that thought with me as I caressed my mother’s hands in the hospital and tried to find a way to begin to say good-bye. How could it be her time to leave this earth already? I felt unprepared for my journey in life to continue without her voice and her physical presence as part of my routine.

The time came without my permission. The day after my mother’s funeral, I shifted the wooden bowl to the center of my kitchen table. I filled it with freshly baked blueberry muffins .I needed to stay busy using my hands in the kitchen. When I saw the bowl, I saw my mother’s and my grandmother’s hands reaching out to me with love. I smiled as my son grabbed a muffin and whisked by me on his way to catch a movie with friends. A new memory for an old wooden bowl.

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