The Soul Food Cafe works collaboratively with and actively supports the work of many artists. Worth Studio is the creative child of Stephanie Hansen. Hansen is just one of a cast of artists who have found inspiration in the halls of this labyrinthine cafe and taken up residency in the Artist's Loft. Make sure to check out her Artist's Journal while you are there.

 

 

Soul Food Cafe Patrons

Truth of the Heart by
Stephanie Hansen

In 1966, my father bought my mother a little blue summer home on Lake Erie as a wedding gift. She, in kind, presented him with a beautiful ornately carved stone bench to place under one of the estate's welcoming willows. I remember my mother sitting for hours on that uncomfortable seat looking out at the silver-gray waves and the gray-green algae that collected along the shoreline for miles, baking in the summer sun and choking the sweltering summer air with its musty, moldy stench of dead fish and clay. I wondered what she was really looking at - or for - knowing the lake itself wasn't beautiful enough to hold a grownup's attention for as long as it held hers. After several years, the embankment eroded until the bench sat on its very brink. My brother, Jake, who was five, and I, who was then four, were forbidden to sit on it, citing it as too dangerous for little boys and girls.

So we stood on it instead. When Mom wasn't looking, we clambered up and grabbed armloads full of willow branches and, gripping tightly, swung out over the steep embankment yelling, "Geronimo!" The sensation of flying through the air made my heart fill to bursting with indescribable joy. I remember screaming with laughter and squealing with delight.sounds that brought Mom screaming and squealing - though not, with laughter and delight. Our particular offence was oft repeated. We were scolded, spanked, and sent to our rooms, only to be let out later looking for an opportunity to return to our willow games. Mom was seriously considering chaining us to the porch when it happened that Jake and I lost our taste for soaring.

Jake dared me to look down after I abandoned myself to the air over the rocky shoreline twenty feet below the embankment. And I did. And if Jake hadn't been swinging on the same gathering of branches as me, I wouldn't be here now. When I looked down I was struck with terror at the sight of the jagged gray boulders inconceivably far below me. In a split second, my subconscious mind saw me battered bloody against the shore. Instinctively, I let go of the branches, freeing my hands to stave off the disastrous and - I thought - inevitable landing. Jake, luckily strong for his age, was able to hold onto me by my long mane of curly, white-blond hair until he touched back down on the stone bench and could haul me up over the precipice to safety.

I didn't make a sound at first. My head throbbed, pain seared the backs of my eyes, and strange flashes of light obscured my sight. I threw myself to my hands and knees at the base of the tree not knowing I would fall so hard it would crack two teeth. My blood and breath roared in my ears, filling my senses, until the sensation of Jake's hot urine trickled helplessly onto the backs of my legs. It was then I heard the wretched gasping. My vision cleared and I lifted my head to stare into the eyes of our mother, also on her hands and knees, one hand clutching her chest, eyes wide, face white, choking and suffering her first heart attack. ******************************************************************************

We had more time. Twenty years. Still, we couldn't know it would end so soon. In that time, I asked her a question that I wish she hadn't answered. I asked her what she was looking for in the silver-gray waves during those humid Erie summers.

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"I was looking for what might have been, Anna. I was looking for what should have been."

"Are you talking about the divorce? God, Mom, you and Dad split twenty-four years ago! He left behind two babies. 'Might have been'? Yeah, might have been three babies, or even four. Count your blessings."

Slowly, almost absently, Mom raised her right hand to massage her breastbone. Balling the hand into a fist, she pressed it there, looking resolute, consciousness fading back to a wave or a wonder that had long since crashed to a distant shore. I waited a moment for her to come back. Then I gave her yet a moment longer before I reached hesitantly to touch the clenched hand which she reflexively drew even closer to her. For an eerie moment, I was sure she was trying to burrow through her own chest in order to get a hold of the heart itself. To tear it out in revolt or to caress with compassion, to discard or to claim, I'll never know.

Withdrawing my hand from hers, I whispered fearfully, "Mom? Mom?"

When she finally looked into my eyes, I could see that she had left the shore but had returned only as far as some other yesterday. "Anna?" I barely breathed.

"Yes, it's me, Mom. Mom?"

"He only left behind one baby, Anna.

"Dad? But I was already born. You told me all about the day he took me home from the hospital. How Uncle John was there and how Aunt Lottie made Dad his favorite roast.and."

"Yes. But.. I thought I wouldn't be so lonely if I had Jake. At least with a baby to take care of.but it was worse. Jake's father was gone so much, so far away.. Anna? Do you understand? He tried to pretend he couldn't count, but he could see. They could all look at you and see.. It was too much for him to bear." She knew me too well to expect a response right away and as when I left, she remained by the side of some nameless road in a yesterday not my own. I wasn't shocked by the revelation. I wasn't angry. Please understand: my 'father' had tried to pretend he couldn't count in the same way I had pretended I couldn't see. It all started years ago when I was just a girl. When Mom dressed Jake and I in matching clothes when we were very young, and then in clothing as similar as possible later on as dictated by gender fashion. But it was never in fun. She was serious about making us look as alike as she could. And she watched us - me more closely than Jake. Her eyes devoured my every movement quite obviously looking for something in particular. From the beginning, I'd sensed correctly that it had something to do with my absent father.

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Later that day, sitting on my couch, drinking a soothing blend of peppermint and chamomile teas, I resolved to next ask her what she had been hoping or dreading to see in my gestures and gait. But I would never know. I never got the chance. The three phone calls I'd ignored that day left these messages:

Jake: "Anna? Mom's in the hospital. It's her heart again. Call me on my cell phone . "
Jake: "Anna? Pick up. Mom's in the hospital and she's not gonna make it this time."
Jake: "Anna? I'm sorry. You're too late. Call me on my cell phone."

I should have called him. I didn't. I couldn't. I had somewhere else I needed to go. I couldn't leave her sitting all alone on the side of that nameless road. ******************************************************************************

At midnight I pulled into the driveway of the cottage. Opening the car door I heard the sound of the willows whispering as they swayed in the chilly breeze, telling secrets in the late Autumn night. I could hear the waves, too, inky black with white frothy crests roaring dully, manipulating the futures of rock, pebble, shell, and discarded glass. 'Ashes to ashes', I thought. The cottage was boarded up for the season, but I didn't want inside anyway. In the September starlight, which was hardly any light at all, I moved toward the Erie shoreline, guided by sound and a swallow's instinct. The stone bench had been moved four-and-a-half feet back and now sat just behind and to the right of the most beloved of the stately willows, whose roots hung heartbreakingly exposed out of the side of the badly eroded embankment.

Drawing the woolen coat and scarf tighter around me, I laid down on the bench. And I waited. And I listened. For a long time, I listened. Waves, wind, breath, owl, killdeer, coyote. And then I heard it. I heard myself, as a small child, calling "Mom? Mom?" in the night. I heard myself call to her to quench my thirst, to rub my back, to stroke my hair, to ease my cough, to banish bad dreams, to exile bad monsters, and to quell the loneliness of nights that became suddenly, inexplicably empty, cavernous, overwhelming.

And for the first time, she didn't answer. That she had died did not burden my heart. Death is natural. That my mother would never answer me again, never again come to me in the darkest of nights, no matter how loudly I called, no matter how much I needed her, that.that is unnatural. With no mother to stay my tears, I cried myself to sleep.

The sound of Jake's car door slamming raised me from a desperate sleep, stiff and shivering, staring up into the vibrant ultramarine blue of a breaking dawn. The seagulls cried, "Oh no! Oh no!" the killdeer pleaded its name, and the morning bird - the crow - squawked a pitiless, merciless sound that would forever ring in my ears as a death toll.

Copyright April 2001, Stephanie Hansen, all rights reserved.