Passages

BY HAZEL MAY

Lizzie did not want to go to the beach that morning. She was still sleeping when Mamére walked into the girls’ room and pulled hard on her feet, which hung slightly over the top bunk.

“Elizabeth Louise, it’s seven o’clock, get up!”

Lizzie rolled over, sighing audibly.

“Please, Mamére, not this morning.”

“You lazy girl! You have ten minutes to get dressed and meet me downstairs.”

When Lizzie emerged from the room, her mother Louise and her younger sister Anne were already up making breakfast.

“Mamére’s waiting on you.”

“I know, I know. Can I at least have breakfast first?”

“Here’s a biscuit,” Louise said, “You better take it with you. You know Mamére.”

Lizzie rolled her eyes, grabbed a towel and her book and went to meet her terrible grandmother.

Mamére had wanted Lizzie’s help with the crab lines that she had set out earlier that morning. When they got down to the beach, Lizzie fibbed and said she was afraid of going out into the water just to get out of having to go anywhere near those disgusting chicken necks Mamére used for crab bait. But, Mamére did not fall for it, so the two waded out to where the lines were and began to check the bait.

First Mamére lifted the line, put her net down into the water, and quickly scooped out two feisty crabs blue and grey in color and walked to the shore to dump them in the basket. Then she headed back into the water to repeat the process. Lizzie just stood there, knee deep, holding the net vertically and outside the water as though it were some kind of flag.

“For God’s sake, girl, just follow me.”

Mamére guided Lizzie along the line, showing her how to lift it and what to do with her net and how to scoop.

“He’s a big one,” Mamére said, “now go and drop him over there in the basket.”

The work continued until one basket was completely filled and Mamére asked Lizzie to bring it back to the camp, which Lizzie was relieved about. No more chicken necks.

“Take this basket back to the camp while I go back out. There are more crabs on the line, but probably only enough for one more basket, so you’ll be getting off easy today. I’ll meet you back at the camp with the rest. Your mother can begin to prepare the rest of the food, and you and your sister need to help, Elizabeth.”

“Yes, Mamére,” Lizzie said, wishing the sand would swallow her up.

As Lizzie picked up the basket and headed away, she turned to look back out at her grandmother and saw that familiar portrait she was so accustomed to seeing every summer: the water, the sky, the lines, the nets, her arms, lifted and working.

Mamére, or Cora DeGravier, as she was known to most, was a sturdy, stocky woman in her mid-fifties with black and gray hair and a deep olive complexion. She was a striking woman, more for her boldness than her beauty. As long as Lizzie had known her grandmother, she had looked upon her as a force and feared her as such. Cora had raised eight children and buried two of them, along with her husband and her parents. Tears had been a waste of time for Cora, however. She had cried a few during those saddest moments of her life, but had dried them up and gotten right back to the work in front of her, whatever that may have been. There were no soft parts to Cora, and if there ever had been, they were long gone by now.

Lizzie continued her walk back to the camp. The morning sun streaked her light brown hair as she felt the warm, soft sand under her feet. As she looked down at the crabs trying to claw their way out of the basket, she instantly understood the natural desire to want to be free. She had just turned twelve, and she was starting to feel her own inner rumblings for independence. For now, it was only an indistinct hum that came and went, but she could feel that soon, this hum would be a resounding chorus announcing that the time had come to cross over.

When Lizzie got the camp, she placed the basket of crabs near the shed just as Cora had instructed and then headed upstairs, through the screen door, and into the kitchen where her mother and Anne were.

“How’s the crabbing coming along?” Louise said, smiling.

Lizzie rolled her eyes and Louise, putting her arm around Lizzie gave her a gentle, rallying pat on the back.

“I brought in a basket of them downstairs and Mamére is going to bring in one more. She wants us to start preparing the other things for the boil, but can I please just take a short break first?”

“That’s fine, Lizzie, but just a short one. We need your help out here to finish things up.”

Lizzie stretched out on the bed, opened her book, took a deep breath, but before she could even get through the first sentence, she heard Cora’s grating voice.

“And where is Miss Elizabeth?”

“She asked for a short break, and I said it was fine,” Louise told her mother.

“Well that is just ridiculous,” Cora said, heading for the bunk room.

“Elizabeth, come out of there right now. There is work to be done.”

Lizzie threw her book down onto the bed, jumped down from the top bunk, and marched past Cora without acknowledgement.

“You will come with me to get the boiling pot ready downstairs,” Cora said to Lizzie.

Lizzie wished at that very moment that Cora would fall immediately into a pot of scalding hot water. She knew it was a horrible thought. A truly terrible thought. She took it back instantly. But then she wished it again as any good twelve-year-old who was angry at her grandmother would have done.

When they got downstairs, Lizzie saw the crabs again, still making an effort to escape. She hated it. She hated Mamére.

After Cora set up the pot, she realized there were missing parts that were left upstairs that only she knew where to find. She instructed Lizzie to gather the utensils hanging on the wall in the shed while she went back upstairs.

Once Cora had disappeared from sight, Lizzie looked at the crabs again, looked at the pot, took a deep breath, then scooped up the two baskets, and started racing towards the beach. She had to steady herself while still maintaining her speed so that the crabs wouldn’t topple out of the baskets. It felt like the longest shortest run of her life.

When she got to the water’s edge, she placed the baskets upright in the sand, knelt down, and took the first one and turned it horizontally, gave it a push and watched as the crabs spilled out into the water. Then, she did the same with the second basket. She gasped.

They were gone. Free. And she was free, if only for the moment. She sat there and looked out at the pink-streaked sky. What had she done? Mamére would kill her for sure.

Lizzie knew she needed to go back and face Mamére. When she got back to the camp, Cora was just coming down the stairs. Apparently they had been gone on their separate errands for about the same amount of time, which had brought them back here together. Now.

“Well, don’t just stand there, Elizabeth,” Cora said, “where are the boiling utensils I asked you to find?”

“I’m sorry, Mamére.”

“For God’s sake, Elizabeth, don’t be sorry, just go get them.”

“I mean, I’m sorry for this,” Lizzie said, dragging the two empty crab baskets from around the side of the shed.

Cora walked up to where Lizzie was standing.

“Elizabeth!” She stood there unable to say anything else for a few minutes. “What have you done? Do you know how much work that took?”

Lizzie couldn’t speak at first. And then the words finally came.

“I let them all go. I wanted them to be free. And maybe I’m not sorry after all. You’re the meanest grandmother ever. Aren’t grandmothers supposed to read books and sing songs and bake cakes and play…”

Before Lizzie could finish her sentence, she was met with Cora’s harsh, grey eyes and almost instantly felt the quick, cold sting of Cora’s hand across her face. Anne, who had started to come down the stairs to ask if they were ready to begin cooking, quickly turned around and went back upstairs.

“Go upstairs and tell your mother what you’ve done.”

Holding her hand against her trembling cheek, Lizzie climbed the steps up to the back deck, walked into the kitchen, and told her mother what she had done. They ate sandwiches for dinner that night, and it was decided by Cora that they would leave the next morning. Lizzie and Anne were told to get things in order in their room before going to sleep.

“How’s your cheek?” Anne asked.

“You saw that?” Lizzie said, rubbing it again.

“Yeah, Mom asked me to go downstairs to see if it was time to start cooking, and when I got there, you and Mamére were arguing, and I saw what happened.”

“She hates me,” Lizzie said, starting to cry.

“Don’t say that,” said Anne.

“Maybe not, but we’re just different.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.”

“Well, why don’t you go tell that to Mamére,” Lizzie said, shoving her bathing suit in her tote bag.

“You win, Lizzie. I’m going to sleep.”

“Come on, Anne, I’m sorry, I just feel like I can never do anything right when I’m around her.”

“Is that why you took the crabs and let them go?”

“I don’t know,” Lizzie said, “I felt bad for them, and I guess I just wanted to make Mamére as angry as she had made me.”

“Well, I think you did that,” Anne said, laughing as she took the bag she had started to pack and dramatically tossed the clothes out onto the floor, mocking Lizzie’s release of the crabs into the water.

“Really, Anne?”

“I think she still loves us, Lizzie. She just has a weird way of showing it,” Anne said as she repacked her bag and crawled into bed.

Lizzie finished packing her things, flipped the light switch, and climbed up to the top bunk.

“I love you, Annie Lou.”

“I love you, too,” Anne whispered.

In the living room, Cora and Louise sat, only lit by the lamplight, Louise on the sofa, and Cora in the rocking chair.

“I know you’re upset with Lizzie,” Louise said.

“That girl has three skills: sleeping, reading, and resisting authority” Cora said.

“Mom, please.”

“Well, Louise, it’s true.”

“It’s true that she does not have an interest in learning some of the skills you would like to teach her. And some of those are important, I agree. But she’s twelve, and I think you’re being a little unfair.”

“When I was her age, I was forced to quit school to work on the farm where your grandfather worked as a sharecropper. I worked at least four hours a day in the fields and the rest of the day in the house helping my mother with cooking and chores. If there was any time left over, which there rarely was, we’d get to walk into town for a scoop of ice cream once a week. Work is what we did. Enjoyment came last or it never came at all. But it taught us how to be of use, how to do things, how to be resourceful. And those are all important and necessary things, Louise.”

“I understand all of this, Mom, but Lizzie is living in her own time and experience. And even though she could learn so much from you, you can’t force it to happen. She’s going to have to want it to happen first. You and Lizzie, you’re made of different stuff, you know.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

 “It’s been a long day, Mom. I think I’m going to lie down. I’ll pack up in the morning.”

“Louise,” Cora stopped her.

“What is it, Mom?”

“Was I hard on you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, growing up, was I hard on you?”

Louise cleared her throat, and took a long, thoughtful breath. She had waited for this moment all these years, had imagined over and over again all the things she might say to her mother if she ever got the chance. Now though, standing here, she felt that all these things had long expired and didn’t mean much anymore.

“You were, and it hurt me a lot, but I got over it. But Lizzie might not. Goodnight, Mom.”

The breakfast table the next morning was a quiet circle of jams, jellies, butter and biscuits that Cora laid out before the others woke. Louise came out of her room, poured a cup of coffee, and went to wake the girls. As she started to crack the door, she could hear them already awake and laughing. She smiled to herself.

“Breakfast is ready, girls.”

“I’m not hungry,” Lizzie said.

“We have a long drive ahead of us, Lizzie,” Louise said, “you might want to eat something.”

“I’ll be fine. I’m just going to stay in here and finish getting ready.”

Anne followed her mother into the kitchen and sat down to breakfast along with Cora, who didn’t question what Lizzie was doing. The three of them ate without much conversation, cleaned the table and kitchen, and went off to dress and gather the bags for the trip home.

Lizzie and Anne got in the car first, making sure their crossword puzzles and pillows were near. Louise made one last check of the trunk and then shut it. Cora climbed into the passenger’s seat. Louise turned the key and as they started moving fumbled with the radio to try and find a decent station. As she was doing this, Mamére was fumbling herself, with something of a different nature.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Louise asked.

“Oh, just rearranging some leftovers I brought from the camp.”

“Lizzie,” Cora said, looking through the rearview mirror, “I thought that by now you’d probably be hungry so I packed some things for the ride home.”

Lizzie and Anne exchanged a quick glance and a perfectly-synchronized raising of the eyebrows that only sisters would have the know-how to do. Besides, Mamére had never called Lizzie Lizzie. Ever.

Lizzie thought for a minute. She was hungry. Starving actually. She had been that way since the moment she woke up that morning. All that over there at the camp had been pure resistance, her last stance against Mamére. And so it was with all of the hunger pangs inside of her that she decided to answer Mamére.

“Yes, Mamére, actually, I wasn’t hungry until just now.”

“Well, I know how bananas have always been your favorite, so I made this banana bread especially for you. It was my grandmother’s recipe, and I haven’t made it in years…until now.”

Cora turned toward the back seat and reached to hand Lizzie a piece of the bread, and when she did, their hands met, and Cora couldn’t help but to hold tight to Lizzie’s for a moment until their eyes met.

“Thank you, Mamére.”

“You’re welcome, Lizzie.”

As they continued to drive and the beach was almost out of view, Lizzie turned around to catch one last glimpse. Just for a moment, she closed her eyes, and she could see that familiar portrait of Mamére: the water, the sky, the lines, the nets, her arms, lifted and working, and today, all she could think was that it was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen.