This very old story is one of my favorites and I’ve kept it and re-read it from time to time to help me remember to see life through my children’s eyes, and to never forget the power of a mother in the home. —Diane
“Lookee here,” Billy said, displaying a small, plastic jeep, shining new, from the top of his pocket.
Tommy looked at it with interest, wishing he could have one just like it.
“And lookee here,” said Billy, showing a bright top and a sack of marbles, still in their red mesh bag. They were beautiful marbles of clear, polished glass, and caught the light in small pools of blue, yellow, crystal, and red. Tommy’s fingers wanted to touch them, but he didn’t reach out. Billy always had new things—new pencils, new erasers, and new toys.
“Where’dja get them?” Tommy asked.
Glancing around, Billy leaned closer. “Come with me down to the five-and-ten after school, and we’ll get you some.”
“I haven’t any money,” said Tommy.
“Don’t need money. You just take them. I’ll show you how.”
“That would be stealing.”
“Naw! All the kids do it. They got lots of stuff down there.”
“I don’t want to. My mother wouldn’t want me to,” said Tommy.
“Yah! Ha! Mama’s Boy,” jeered Billy, forgetting not to whisper loud.
Miss Deering looked at them, which meant not to disturb the class.
When Tommy tried to be still the feeling came stronger and stronger. He looked out the window, but that didn’t help. Only there was dirty snow and black smoke and chimneys and ugly brick walls. It wasn’t like Still Valley where you could see the foothills, except for the cottonwoods along the creek bed.
All these things crowded in on Tommy until he couldn’t stand it—even the things in the room, the wigwams and the green trees and the reared-back Indians that the second graders had painted on wrapping paper with poster paint. All at once Tommy had to get out, or he was going to bawl. He had to see mother.
Miss Deering’s voice reached out to stop him when he left his seat and went toward the door, but he went right through the sound like wading the little canal when the current was swift. Sometimes she just let him go, but today she followed him out to the hallway where he was putting on his galoshes.
“Tommy, come back,” she said. “You know it won’t do any good to go home. Your mother won’t be there until five. Why won’t you stay until school is out?”
Tommy didn’t answer, just went on fastening his galoshes.
“Don’t you want to be promoted? If you keep going home every day in the middle of the class period you will not learn all you should. You will have to stay in the second grade a long time, and people will think you are dumb!”
Still Tommy didn’t answer. It was just words that the teacher was saying. The sound of her voice beat up in his ears in waves, like irrigation water backing up against a dam. She put her hand on his shoulder, but he wriggled free and ran out the door and down the steps.
Maybe mother would have a headache and would have sick leave, like she did one Saturday, when she was home all day. She pulled him in bed with her and he was warm and comfortable, almost like being in Still Valley again.
It was nice there, especially in summer when the cottonwoods floated gauzy seed pods down, and when you could lie on your stomach on the bridge and fish for pretty rocks, or look into the glassy water until you could see yourself speeding upstream.
Mother’s fingers were sometimes butter-sugary from making cake, and you could lick the bowl. You could go with her to see if the setting hen had stolen her nest in the woodpile. Mother knew why a four-leaf clover had four leaves, and where God was, and why the old sow grunted instead of talking.
“Heavenly Father, make mother have a headache,” he prayed as he went along, and then almost skipped. He almost remembered that she had been sick a little before she went to work. He was sure she would be home this time.
But mother didn’t have a headache, and she wasn’t home. The furniture was there—the new pink davenport and the overstuffed chairs that you couldn’t put your feet on, but the house was empty. Tommy ran through it shouting: “Mother! Mother!” so loud his ears rang when he quit, but there was no answer.
The little hand on the clock was between two and three, so Tommy took it down off the shelf and sat with it between his knees on the living-room floor, because the kitchen had cold breakfast dishes on the table, and the beds looked like old hens at molting time, and the bathroom had damp towels on the floor.
Tommy waited and waited and cried awhile because he thought she might not come at all, and it seemed like a million years until the little hand was on five and she opened the door.
“Mommy!” he said, and was so dazzled he couldn’t tell what she looked like.
“Tommy Haran!” she said, snatching the clock from him. “If you break my alarm, I’ll never get to work!”
It was then that he noticed the two straight marks between her eyebrows, and that her hair was tight in little iron curls and her mouth was sticky with red stuff she used to “keep herself up.”
When she saw that he sat so still and that his mouth was dumb with the lump in his throat, she hugged him and said: “I’m sorry.” She even smiled, but her face was like the apartment when he came home. Her features were there, like the furniture, but she was gone.
“We have to hurry now—get the house cleaned, supper and to bed with you. Mother’s having company—some of the girls from the plant.”
“I don’t want them,” said Tommy. “Call them up and tell them not to come.”
“Why, Tommy! That wouldn’t be polite. Besides, this is your daddy’s last night on swing shift, and he’ll be home evenings after this.”
They weren’t girls, though, when they came. They were big ladies, like mother, and they sat in mother’s living room and laughed and all talked at once, and sounded like the pullets when you jumped suddenly into the coop and said “Boo!” Tommy was shut in the bedroom and he still wanted his mother.
“Mother! Mother!” he shouted until the cackling all stopped, and mother came through the slit of light from the opened door. “There’s a Tiger in the closet,” he said, so she left the door open a little crack, and said “nonsense.”
“Children are certainly a headache,” she said when she went back to the living room. Maybe Heavenly Father had answered his prayers.
“Tommy’s always been such a mama’s boy,” she went on, and Tommy, hearing her, wiggled with shame. “You know he gets so homesick for me he just gets up and leaves the schoolroom every day. Just like that—nobody can stop him.” They all cackled again.
“His father wants me to quit work and stay home,” his mother continued.
“That would be a mistake,” said a lady, and her voice sounded like she thought she was smart. “He’ll have a mother complex if you don’t look out.”
“That’s what I think,” agreed his mother. “Besides, I want to get a few things.”
“Do you think you’ll go back to the farm after the war?”
Tommy held his breath, listening.
“I’ll say not! Never a new thing, and nothing but work! I didn’t know how bad it was until we moved. I finished paying for my overstuffed last pay day. Now I want to get two tables and two blue lamps—”
Tommy’s stomach hurt with disappointment, and he cried a little because he couldn’t remember what his mother looked like with her hair loose and her eyes soft, but the next day he didn’t come home. When the feeling came, he chewed his pencil and thought fast about the blue lamps and about her thinking he was a mama’s boy.
And after school he went with Billy down to the five-and-ten.
— Alice Moore Bailey