“Mama Queenie, why do you always sing?”
“I always sing so’s God knows exactly where I am when he decides to take me away, little baby.”
Queenie raised me. My own mother raised me too, of course, but Queenie was the one who was always there. There when I got home from school. There when I fell out of a tree or wrecked my bike. Queenie was the one who cooked my supper and who took me fishing and who didn’t shout or holler when I accidentally caught her arm with my hook casting my fishing line. As many nights as not, it seemed, Queenie was the one who put me to bed and listened to my prayers and checked under the bed and in the closet and left the hallway light on ‘just in case’.
Hence the ‘mama’.
She sang all the time. All the time. If she wasn’t talking to me, she was singing. Even when I was talking to her, there would be a sort of hum. She sang when she cooked and when she did the washing up after dinner. She sang in the car, a ratty, rusty old thing that I’m fairly certain had no seatbelts at all and I know for a fact it had no air-conditioning. But that was back in the ‘70s and people then weren’t so terrified some kid was going to get killed or maimed riding down Main Street in the maid’s car.
When I went to my fancy college up north years later, I studied Southern history and they told me all about the ugliness of my predicament. I felt guilty. I still do. Taking her from her own children. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that. Women work. Some women work for other women. And some women work taking care of children who are not their own, so they can take care of their own children. Those are economic truths.
The truth to me, then and now, was that this singing, humming, smooth, soft, and kind woman was my Mama Queenie.
That’s why I was with her when she died.
My own mother had died a few years previous. Cancer. It was long and slow and ugly. She begged to go in the end, and I begged along with her. Modern medicine doesn’t make dying easy, but, in the end, we got there. And she was finally at peace.
So, when Mama Queenie’s daughter called me and told me my other mother was in the hospital, there was only one place I would be.
I sat there, in the room, with her family. Her daughters and her sons and her grandbabies and her great-grandbabies. Everyone came and went and we laughed and we reminisced. For once, Mama Queenie was largely silent. Every now and then she would chuckle to herself in a dream. Once or twice she called out to a long dead sister or aunt.
Then, suddenly, in the quiet, she was humming. We all recognised the tune:
“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”