Give Away - M.E. Proctor
Mamma has always had a love for other people's possessions.
I know because she told me. Not in those words exactly and not for many years, but I had long figured it out by the time she confessed.
I’m not exactly truthful here.
I hadn’t figured everything out.
For years, I thought I was living with a saint, and what a pain in the behind that was. Father Joseph in his Sunday sermons and the weekly catechism class regularly praised the virtue of charity. He relished telling us the story of Saint Martin cutting his cloak to give half to a naked beggar. I could have told him that Mamma didn’t cut clothes in half, she gave them whole. I could have told him of my favorite blue dress, the one with the white collar that made me look like Alice in the old Disney movie. “Oh, it matches the color of her eyes,” people crowed, to my utter delight. I had found the dress on my bed one Sunday morning. A present, Mamma said. I wore it for a few weeks and then it disappeared. It wasn’t in the laundry basket or the washing machine, it was totally and forever gone.
Mamma said: “I gave it away.”
“Why?” I said. “I love that dress.”
“Because it didn’t belong to you.”
“And now it belongs to somebody else, is that it?” At twelve, I already had a sharp tongue and a keen sense of the transient nature of material goods. You could say, I had been well-trained.
Because the dress wasn’t the first object that appeared in my life one day and was gone the next. A doll with bright green eyes and a purple velvet dress had shared by bed for a while, a brown teddy bear with white patches on the ears and the paws was my favorite for a couple of weeks, a yellow bicycle came and went, then a blue one with a wire basket in front, and a pair of cute mary janes lasted about ten days. Many other so-called gifts made cameo appearances. I won’t list them all, you get my drift. In Mamma’s house, material goods were temporary.
“Things don’t matter, Shannon,” Mamma said. “It’s what’s in your heart that counts.”
As a teenager, buffeted by constant peer pressure, Mamma’s decision to live our lives on a higher moral plane didn’t strike me as a worthy philosophical choice. I didn’t get why she was constantly giving our stuff away. It would have been easier if she didn’t give us things to begin with. I was in a constant down, frustrated to the point of almost running away a couple of times. The lack of material resources held me back. I didn’t even have enough cash for a bus ticket. None of us in Mamma’s foster home had any pocket money. I had a feeling she didn’t want us to buy anything. If we did, she would probably give that away too. You could say I became interested in Zen Buddhism as a defense mechanism. Sitting down to meditate – on my misery mostly! It wasn’t a good premise but it got better after a while – kept me from completely losing it. It was also a way for me to prove Mamma wrong.
It isn’t the heart that matters, Mamma, it’s the mind.
When the cops came to our house, I realized it was neither. It was the fingers.
Mamma’s sticky fingers.
The cops didn’t find anything, not that time, and not the next time or the one after that. Getting rid of the mary janes before they left an indelible foot print was a smart strategy. The other kids living in Mamma’s house didn’t have a clue why the police came knocking. They had been bounced from one foster home to the next and all they knew was fear. Fear of being moved again, fear of losing brothers and sisters again, and mostly fear of losing Mamma, the only solid and loving anchor they’d ever had. I was older, I understood what she did, what she had been doing for years. I was torn between dismay – Mamma is a common thief! – and admiration for her boldness. She took things, not for their monetary value, but because she knew her kids would enjoy them. For a short time, but still, the joy was there, and she knew the pleasure lasted longer in memory because it was so brief.
She also couldn’t help herself.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. Mamma ended up in court because she was lax on the donations front. A PlayStation tripped her up. She was fostering Liam and Dennis at the time, vivacious thirteen-year-olds who had way too much fun with the gizmo. Her heart wasn’t tough enough to take the games from them. I was finishing law school by then and I wished I had been further along to be able to represent her in court. Anyway, her public defender did a good job; she got rapped over the knuckles, ordered to go to counseling, and was slapped with a fine and probation. The problem is it messed her up; she was like these highly talented athletes who stumble and struggle to regain their balance, and the more they struggle, the worse it gets. Mamma got the yips.
I went to talk to her. I tried to lift her up. This wasn’t the end of the world; if she wanted something for the kids, she could buy it. She wasn’t destitute. My arguments were wasted. You see, if she couldn’t take anymore, she couldn’t give. Her whole reason for being was pulled from under her.
She never fully recovered.
Her doctor called me with the bad news. Mamma was in the hospital. She had suffered a stroke. I wanted to know if there was brain damage.
“At her age, most machine parts are worn out,” the doctor said. “She asked for you, Shannon. You’re her shining success, you know.”
That was an exaggeration. Mamma had fostered dozens of kids. Some had done better than others, but none of them had taken the wrong fork in the road. She was a compulsive thief and a remarkable woman. She knew a thing or two about quirks and human foibles. She was ideally suited to fix broken souls.
Seeing her thin and shriveled body on the narrow hospital bed gave me a shock. I’d always known her so strong. Curtains were pulled around her to shield her from the sufferer in the other bed. When I suggested moving her to a private room, the doctor said that it didn’t matter. She could be gone in a day, maybe she would last the week but it was doubtful.
“What about the boys, Liam and Dennis?” I said.
“They were here yesterday. They’ve been placed with a family in town. Good people, I know them. And I told social services that I wanted them to be kept together.”
He gave me the address and I promised to check on the kids.
Mamma was sleeping and I didn’t wake her up. I sat by the side of the bed and watched her. She looked much older than I remembered. I had never known her as a young woman. She was in her sixties when I came to her house, as a baby. She always said I was the exception and special because she saw me taking my first steps, like a real mother. She didn’t have to uproot bad habits. I had no scars or bruises that needed tending, like the other kids. She had me from the very beginning. And she was the only mother I ever knew.
“Shannon,” she muttered.
The stroke had frozen the right side of her face and her smile was lopsided. It looked like she was commenting on the irony in the world. It was an illusion. Mamma was remarkable but she had absolutely no sense of humor.
“I’m here,” I said. “You don’t have to talk. It’s good just to sit with you.”
She sighed. “Things you have to know,” she said. “I’m not a good person.”
“That is nonsense. You’re the best person I know. I’ve seen what you did for the kids, all these years. Nobody could have done a better job, Mamma.”
“I took things from people,” she muttered. “Lots of things.”
“Material things, unimportant things, worldly possessions. Replaceable things. I didn’t always like to hear you say that but I remember every word. And you gave everything away to people who were more in need than we were,” I said. “I used to be upset when you gave away the things I loved. I’m not anymore.” I could smile about it now.
“That’s because I only took what I loved,” she said. Her voice was a whisper.
I couldn’t imagine her loving a PlayStation, but she knew the boys would be over the moon with delight. I understood what she meant.
“Of course,” I said. “Why would you take something you hate?”
“I loved you at first sight,” she said. That lopsided smile again. “You’re the only thing I took that I never gave away.”