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Porch Lights(6)
Dorothea Benton Frank

Jackie had called just an hour before to say that they were north of Columbia and if the traffic continued moving along she would be home in time for lunch. She used the word home. I didn’t know if she meant it to mean her home or my home, but that simple word home coming from her was so wonderful to my ears. And I hoped with all my heart that she still believed this was her home.

I had done everything within my means that I could think of to set the right tone. My largest pot was filled with okra soup, simmering on the back of the stove, and my rice steamer with warm fluffy white rice. Not an hour before, I had pulled a pan of brownies and a pan of corn bread from the oven, and they’d filled the kitchen with the delicious smells of butter and chocolate. The table was set with a cheerful tablecloth. I’d even cut some flowers from my garden—oh, all right, they were sprigs of white oleander that I rinsed to baptize the bugs away—but I put them in the middle of the table in my mother’s small Fiesta ware red vase and the mood was set. All there was left to do was pour the iced tea, drop in a lemon wedge, and put a blessing on it all. Soon I’d be sharing a meal with the two very dearest people in my world. Buster didn’t know what he was missing.

Oh! What an old fool I was to worry so. A ten-year-old boy didn’t give two figs about how his bed was made, but I made and remade his trundle bed three times. Three times! But you know, in view of his nightmares, I wanted that bed to look so comfy that he’d curl up under those covers, forget about his worries, and sleep the best sleep of his life. The quilt was new and had puppies all over it. Maybe we would name them together. Plus, I put fire escape ladders in every bedroom closet to ease any anxiety he and Jackie might have.

For fun, I bought him a stack of new comic books and a new yo-yo, a book on the history of baseball and another one packed with true stories about the pirates that once sailed the waters around Charleston. Then in a moment of whimsy I picked up a crazy Hawaiian-print bathing suit for him—the young people call them board shorts—and a T-shirt from the Charleston RiverDogs plus a schedule of their ball games. Would Buster come down and take him to a game? I hoped so, and if I had the occasion to speak to him again in this lifetime I would drop the hint. Diplomatically. If he wouldn’t go, I would, even if it was a hundred and five in the shade, which it usually was this time of year. We could eat hot dogs together and whatever else they had. Lord! I haven’t had a hot dog in years!

Lastly, I found a miniature picture of Jackie taken on the morning of her First Communion, reframed it, and placed it on his night table. It was such a precious photograph. There was Jackie in a beautiful white organza dress, her veil billowing in the breeze and her two front teeth gone missing. I remembered that morning like it was yesterday. It was good for a child to be reminded that his parent was once a child too.

I gave a gentle yank to the smiling ceramic shrimp that was attached to the cord hanging from the ceiling fan to circulate the air slowly like the breeze of a waltz. From the doorway I appraised it all for the tenth time. Charlie’s room, which was right next door to Jackie’s, had never looked more inviting.

Jackie’s room had been her bedroom when she was a little girl, but it had long been turned into a guest room. After Buster went off fishing I had our Charleston rice poster bed moved in here, because frankly, I was getting too old to be climbing up bed steps to go to sleep. What if I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom? If I wasn’t fully conscious I could fall and break a hip. I would be found three days later by my neighbors, dehydrated and in agony. So I pushed Jackie’s twin beds together in my bedroom and had GDC Design Center make an upholstered headboard so it looked like I had a king-sized bed, which I needed like another hole in my head. Still, it was better than being found in an undignified heap on the floor. It wasn’t that I worried about osteoporosis. Thankfully I had the bone density of a much younger woman; I was a true Steel Magnolia. It was more like I just worried about everything, but I worked very hard not to let my anxieties show.

Jackie’s room looked rather amazing too, if I said so myself. I dressed her bed with all white linens and lots of pillows, including two antique European squares trimmed in hand-crocheted lace. I carefully folded my mother’s delicate handmade quilt over the foot. I had mended and repaired that quilt more times than I could count, but it was still so beautiful to me. The pattern was a mosaic of flowers in a large basket. Naturally all of the flowers were faded with age, but I could imagine how vivid they must have been when the quilt was presented to my mother as a wedding gift from her great-aunt. That was back in the day when a young girl learned to sew at her mother’s knee and grown women put great stock in the quality of their needlework. A wave of nostalgia washed over me. There were very few quilting bees around town these days, and it would be an extremely rare occasion to see generations of women gathered around a hearth doing needlepoint. These days young women play Bunko, drink white wine, and furnish their homes with a bed in a bag from some discount retailer. I know this because that’s how I acquired Charlie’s bedding and I did love to play Bunko and have a glass of wine myself. But still! What has this world come to?

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