December 1988 :
Sitting on the back deck her husband had built with his own hands, in his favorite chair, Norma Dunn sighed deeply as memories of their life together replayed in her mind. A gentle breeze flowed around her, blowing strands of her long black hair just enough for it to rest around her sad, brown eyes until she finally found the energy to push them back behind her ear with her free hand. A glass of red wine in the other, she sipped slowly with her eyes closed as she tried to let the sounds of Sam Cooke soothe her aching heart.
It had been exactly one year, one month and ten days since her husband had passed, and to Norma it still hurt just as badly as that very first day. She often wondered when the pain would end, had private conversations that she hoped he heard, asking would she ever be okay without him. The answer she gave herself was always the same; no.
Didn’t help that the absence of their children in her life and home only added to the loneliness she felt on a daily basis. They didn’t understand how much she needed comfort, human contact, someone to ask if she was okay. Even if she lied and said yes, she needed to be asked. No one would get that, or so Norma felt. Then again, she never gave any of her children a reason to assume she wasn’t doing okay. She chose to stick to her ritual of drinking wine alone and letting her tears fall with whatever rain fell. Letting them blow away with the wind as she pulled her sweater up to her chin. She’d put on her happy face once she’d gotten it out of her system.
As she opened her eyes, just out in the backyard, she could envision her beloved Isaac running around, chasing all five of their children around one of the two large weeping willow trees that had always given their home what she thought was the old southern feel. Surrounded by nothing but land and trees spread unevenly around their old antebellum styled home, the home they’d meant to use as one of their retirement homes, in Louisiana. The other being in Florida.
The middle of nowhere it sometimes seemed, other homes far and few. A little getaway, paradise as they’d called it.
Different types of animals. Some cute, some ugly, and some they wouldn’t dare go near that often wandered right into their backyard from other yards, areas, and God knows where else. Peace and quiet most often, with the exception of crickets and other small insects and critters moving about late at night. Hot summer nights, cool fall and winter days. Laughing, screaming, playing some silly game that he himself had played as a child when he lived in Jamaica. Bird watching, searching every inch of the house for various types of snakes at the insistence of their sons. Horseback riding and dance lessons with their daughters, carpentry and boy scouts with their sons, camping in the backyard with them all. Norma could see and remember it all.
She randomly looked towards another tree, to the right side of the backyard and smiled at the tree house he’d built them. A tire swing hanging from one thick and sturdy branch, a regular swing hanging from another. On that same tree, towards the back where no one thought to look, he’d carved his and her initials inside of a heart. It’s forever, Love carved beneath it. She could picture and see it without even having to get up and go to it.
The joy in his eyes, the pride he showed as he hugged and kissed each child’s forehead, careful not to pay too much attention to one without giving the same amount to the others. The amount of joy he got out of calling her his wife, how quick he was to let everybody know that she was his, and he was hers. It amazed her how he always found the time and energy after long days in courtrooms and offices, just to simply LOVE his family.
His love for her and their family, his over the top festive attitude that he seemed to have and show twenty-four, seven. His deep voice booming with his thick accent, his hearty laugh, and infectious smile; Norma missed it all dearly. And once again, she wondered how she’d gotten so lucky to have it all. And, what had she done to have it all taken away.
She could only take a sharp, deep breath, starting up another one of her one sided conversations. “Babe, you came to me in a dream one night and told me that I shouldn’t feel this way but-” She paused, taking a deep breath. “Sometimes I find myself wishing that I could just be with you now. Why’s the wait so long?” Norma wiped away a few tears. “But then I remember that my work’s not done. Wrangling your kids together, I can only imagine how much longer that’s going to take me. I don’t know what happened, I really don’t. We all used to be so close and now, everything’s changed. Rochelle and Corrine have school, and they need to focus, that’s fine. Noah’s got school and his precious baby, that’s fine. Shelby’s so wrapped up in that husband of hers and Jr., well Jr. doesn’t even come home to see me anymore. Can’t get a contact number on him that lasts longer than a month. I just don’t know what I did wrong to drive him away once you left us.”
She continued speaking, rambling, expressing her concerns. Oblivious to the fact that her youngest daughter Rochelle was standing behind her, listening quietly with a solemn look on her face. Norma’s face couldn’t be seen, but Rochelle knew she was crying. She could hear her mother trying hard to keep her voice from breaking. She could hear the tiny sniffles in between words, she could hear it each time her mother slipped between her native accent and the English accent she’d picked up later in life when living in London for many years.
“I miss you so much Isaac, it still hurts so much. Your smile, the way you held me. I imagine my short frame against yours, you standing over me all tall and regal, and I just break down and cry. Your beautiful arms enveloping me, that gorgeous dark skin against my brown skin, pretty brown as you called it, holding me closely as you comforted me, pushing any fears I had right out of my mind with sweet words. I miss you, I miss your words, your love. Everything.”
Rochelle turned and walked back inside, closing the patio door as quickly and quietly as possible before she made her way back to the kitchen. She’d been calling out for her mother for more than ten minutes, finally deciding to check the backyard. That was where Norma sat daily. And what Rochelle assumed was just her mother meditating or praying, she now understood what those private moments were. It was the way she handled her grief, something she probably never would have seen or noticed if her mother could help it.
Pushing her own hair behind her ear, Rochelle took a few deep breaths and pulled herself together before heading into the pantry to find something to cook.
It had been months since she’d cried, and she wouldn’t let today be one of the days that she did. Her mother would forget all about her own grief, just to comfort anyone else around her. Rochelle knew first hand that sometimes you needed those moments to worry about no one’s feelings but your own, and she didn’t want to rob her mother of that. She and her siblings had done enough of that over the years, especially the past year as multiple attempts to come together began and ended on sour notes.
Coming out of the pantry a few minutes later with all she’d need to make a small meal, Rochelle was a bit startled to see her mother walking in, smiling as if all was fine.
“Oh, when’d you get in, Darling?”
“Not long ago. I was looking for you but I figured you were busy.” She really wanted to ask why her mother had put on a brave face, but she also knew her mother preferred to act tough around others.
Norma smiled. “Never too busy for you, Rochelle. That’s a cute dress you’re wearing by the way. Don’t understand how you weren’t cold today, but cute.” Rochelle looked down at the short, white crochet dress she was wearing and smiled, thanking her mother. “How is the job search going?”
Rochelle simply shrugged, setting the ingredients for her favorite, seafood lasagna, down on the counter before searching for a few pots and a casserole pan in one of the bottom cabinets. “So-so.”
Norma looked at the nineteen year old, admiring her blemish and scar free, golden brown skin tone. Rochelle was her twin; from her big brown eyes, to her chubby cheeks and wide smile. All of her children had inherited her high cheekbones, beautiful facial structure that had come from her side of the family, and her skintone, but it was Rochelle that had gotten every bit of her beauty from Norma. Kept her hair long, but most often curly, just like her mother as well. In fact, all she’d gotten from her father was his height. “Just so-so? I’d imagine that you’d have found something by now, as persistent as you are.”
“I thought I would have found something too, especially with it being the holidays. I mean, someone always needs extra help during the holidays, right?”
“I guess. Not that you even have to work. You have money at your disposal, anything you want. I told you, you should just focus on school for now, relax when you have a break.”
Rochelle smirked. “That would be nice. Sophomore year has really been wearing me out, but you know me, Mommy. I can’t just sit around and do nothing. Besides, it’s like Daddy always told us; we’ve got to work for what we want.”
Norma nodded. “Success and riches are fine; but it’s much more satisfactory when you’ve earned that success and those riches on your own-”
“Instead of riding someone else’s coattails or name. Exactly.”
“And will you still have that attitude when you turn twenty-one and you’re able to have access to the trust fund he left you?”
There was no doubt or hesitation in what Rochelle would say. “Of course. I don’t even know what I would do with it.” If Rochelle had to be honest, she’d probably forget she had the trust coming until she got a call, at any point after her twenty-first birthday, asking what she wanted to do with it. She’d never been spoiled or overly concerned with her parents’ money, never wanted to do anything more than go to school and write music for the artists she loved. Major recognition and fame weren’t on her list of concerns even though she’d kind of grown up in a bit of her father’s spotlight. Sitting in the background would be good enough, as long as she got to do what she loved most.
As far as always wanting to work, whether she had to or not, Rochelle would always try to find something to do; most jobs for the experiences, most jobs because she wanted to earn her own money, for a tiny bit of independence in at least one area of her life. Much to her father’s surprise, and slight disapproval, she was always somewhere trying to make her own money with little hustles, from lemonade stands to selling mini-children’s books she’d written and put together herself in her early teens. She’d worked every job that a teen could work beginning at age sixteen, and she felt that there was still more she could do. Unlike three of her siblings, nothing was beneath her and if she was able to do it, she would. “I did sign up to do some volunteering at the children’s hospital though, so I’ll be doing that. But anyway, Mommy, are you okay?”
Norma gave a quick nod, walking over to the sink to wash her hands. She stayed silent a little too long for Rochelle’s comfort, but she finally responded, throwing on her standard smile once Rochelle looked in her direction. The same one she’d been using for over a year now. “I’m fine.” She was broken inside, and Rochelle could finally see it in her mother’s eyes. Norma’s eyes were usually warm, inviting. There was always a bit of happiness; it was gone today.
Rochelle pushed the pots and pans on the counter where they couldn’t fall and turned back to her mother, speaking softly. “I miss Daddy too. If you want to talk with me about it, I want you to know that you can. You’re a lot like Noah, you like to bottle up your feelings until you boil over, but I’m here. I hope you know that.”
Norma just smiled, that was what she needed. Just to hear it. “I know Rochelle, thank you. You just focus on yourself, and school, and those dreams you have. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Mmhm. Now get out of my kitchen. I love you dearly, but cooking is not a gift you were blessed with. I’ll make your favorite for you.”
Rochelle laughed, kissing her mother’s cheek before heading up to her room, looking back at her mother once before she disappeared out of sight.