The Alabama-Florida State game is on television. My mother-in-law is watching with me. She’s sitting in her recliner, Velcro shoes propped in the air.
She just had surgery, she’s too weak to cheer. She’s been in the hospital for two days. Doctors discharged her only a few hours ago.
When she arrived home, my wife and brother-in-law helped her limp into the house on weak knees. I carried purses and offered verbal assistance.
They ushered Scarlett O’Hara over the brick steps, through the hall, into the living-room—where she sits now.
On the wall behind her are graduation photos of her children—framed in gold.
On her sidetable: a magazine, with her redheaded son-in-law’s article in it. She shows this to visitors.
“You can’t write about me tonight,” says my mother-in-law. “I’m not wearing my pearls. You’re only allowed to write about me if I have pearls on.”
My wife disappears, then returns with a strand of pearls. She fastens them around the sophisticated belle’s neck.
“There,” my wife says. “Now he can write about you.”
My mother-in-law knows, of course, I’ll write about her. This is why she starts telling detailed childhood stories during the most pivotal moments of the SEC football game of the century.
She knows I like her stories.
There’s the story, for instance, of when she lost her pet duck. The duck escaped and flew over Brewton, Alabama’s downtown during hunting season.
The fellas sitting in front of the hardware store shot the bird dead. The duck made the front page of the paper.
Then there’s the one about her pet baby alligator. She loved her alligator. She dressed it in girly clothes, took it to tea parties, and let it sleep beside her.
One autumn morning, her alligator quit breathing. She buried it in a shoebox. She wore a black dress, and quoted the 23rd Psalm. She had no idea, at the time, that alligators hibernated.
Mother Mary also talks about a period in history which is only remembered in black-and-white photos now. A time before her rheumatism slowed her. When she was slender as a bird, with dark hair, and sharp eyes.
They were happy days before the world was all-electronic. When teenagers ran barefoot through South Alabama. A time of dances, sawmills, Sunday-school teachers, coon hunting, and floral-print dresses.
When church and football were part of the same religion. When small towns shut down early on Thursday afternoons, just because.
When Sunday dinners were worth looking forward to. When family was everything.
It was a time when children had no cellphones, but used pocketknives, marbles, decoder rings, slingshots, roller skates, checkers, piggy banks, and footballs. When she had her whole life ahead of her—without a trace of arthritis.
Interception. Touchdown, Alabama.
I cheer. My wife cheers. My coonhound howls so loud she almost knocks my beer over.
I apologize to my mother-in-law for interrupting her story. I ask her to keep talking.
But she doesn’t answer. She’s already asleep with her mouth open. My wife removes her Velcro shoes and covers her with a blanket. My dog licks her limp hand.
I wasn’t going to write about her tonight, I really wasn’t.
But she is wearing her pearls.