An Undergraduate Literary Journal from UW-Milwaukee

What My Momma Knows Is True

Fiction by Emily Tobias

Momma says that my little fingers are like sausages. When she tells me this, my nose inches real close and I giggle when I smell bacon. I know my fingers don’t smell like bacon for real but it’s funny how my mind always thinks they do whenever Momma says it. She says lots of things that come true fast. That’s one thing about my momma; she seems to make things real just by saying so. It’s like magic. I remember when I learned this about my momma because it was just last year when I turned 6. And now I notice it all the time.

So when the glass elephant is dropped into my hands, I think it might be the grease off my sausage fingers that makes it slip and slide and drop, plunk onto Granma’s thick pea green carpet. I am shocked because I feel a pain shoot through my body like the elephant would feel. But the bushy carpet buries it and I don’t even hear the thud. I try to jump from the cushion of the couch cloud but my bottom is stuck in between the crack. I wiggle and squirm and finally my feet find the ground. I am a fish with my hands flipping through the carpet and I can’t see them—that floor is so furry—and then, phew, I find it. Not with my eyes, no, but with my pudgy little fingers. The shiny black elephant is safe and I cradle it like a baby-doll. I feel a tear in my eye because I thought she was lost in that sea for all time.

I sit down where I am safe. On the plaid couch that eats my bottom. I hold the elephant nicely and wipe the tear away with the back of my hand. I look at my momma ‘cause she is sitting in front of me, waiting. She is waiting to talk to me. Most probably to talk to me about something she knows. I can feel this is serious because what Momma says comes true and we both know this. Uncle Jerry and Poppa also know this. I think about it because the whole family is here, and that only happens on birthdays or other special days. I wonder if it’s my momma’s birthday, and I feel sad that I maybe forgot a special present for her. But then I think that there should be cake in Granma’s kitchen for a birthday and there is not. So I know that it’s not Momma’s birthday, and I am glad I did not forget about her.

“Ebbie, do you want to keep the elephant you gave Granma?” Momma asks me. The question pokes at the quiet room where Poppa stands smoking his cigarette near the kitchen doorway. Uncle Jerry looks at me. It seems he is waiting, too, but I don’t really know why.

I love the smooth, heavy, glass black elephant. It feels like a soapy bath that my momma runs for me at night. She puts bubbles in the bath and makes it really hot so that I have to sit on the side of the tub and be scared to put my toes in. I always tell her that it’s hot but she tells me to put my toe in and count to three. She promises me that if I am brave enough to get to three, the water will not feel hot anymore. I do this and every time my momma’s words come true. The water feels like a cozy blanket, and I slide in until my nose sits on top of the big bubbles. Each time I know that I am brave and that my momma is right about what will happen.

The elephant’s edges are round; its long trunk is silly but strong. It is as hard as the stones on the sides of Granma’s house but is so good to feel with my fingertips. I found it to buy for Granma two years ago when the family took a vacation in the station wagon together. I don’t remember where we went but I am sure my momma would know. I also don’t remember where the photos that Momma shows me of the beach and the sun are from. The only thing I really remember is riding in the car home because we went straight to Granma so I could give her the elephant. I am not sure if Granma knows that elephants are my favorite animal. I like them so much because their name starts with “E,” just like mine does. “E” for elephant. “E” for Ebony. But I do know that Granma loves this elephant so much because it came from me.

“No, Momma. I don’t wanna keep it! The elephant is Granma’s. She would be so sad to lose it. We cannot take it away!” I feel angry at Momma for thinking about taking Granma’s gift away. She needs the elephant to always remember me.

“Ebbie, there is something I need to talk to you about. It is important, and it is something I know is true, so it is time that I tell you. I always tell you the truth, right?”

“Yes, Momma. You do. I know you do.”

“Good. You trust me and I trust you. So I am going to tell you something that you have to promise me you will trust is true. You will not understand it right away but you will come to understand it in time. I promise you this.” Momma looks straight from her eyes into mine. I can see the line that connects us right there in the air. She is seeing inside of me.

I feel a rush of heat up in my curly black hair. It feels like there is a fire up there, and if I had a mirror I think I would see that my ears are red. I am fiery and hot. My heart thumps around in my chest, and my sausage fingers are slippery with sweat. I am afraid that Momma is mad at me, and I try to remember if I said something naughty on the playground that Mrs. Apple told her about. I feel trouble creeping in all around me like when nighttime comes and I can’t get sleepy. Then I remember that Momma asked me to trust her, like she does when she tells me to practice the letters I learned in sign language when I can’t sleep. She promises me that this will make me sleepy, and every night when I am scared of not finding my dreams, I realize more that what she says is true. I remember this and it waters the fire in my head. I pet Granma’s lovely black elephant and I feel better so that I can hear my momma. I want to know what she knows is true.

“Do you remember a little while ago when I told you Granma was sick, Ebbie? Do you remember that I told you it was different than a runny nose or a scratchy throat?”

“Yes, Momma. I remember. You told me that Granma was sick but that I might not notice because she is so strong. You told me that she will never talk to me about it because she didn’t want me to worry and because if she talked too much there would not be as much time for her to play with me. Then you told me it was important for me to know even though Granma didn’t want me to so that one day I would understand better what was most surely gonna happen.” I am proud because I think I remembered right. The sides of my mouth curl up but the house with my family inside isn’t happy that I’m starting to smile. So I don’t.

“Well, now is the time that I talked to you about. This is the time for you to understand better, but you must trust me that you will not understand it all. And that’s okay.” Two tears, not one like I had before, are crawling down my Momma’s face, and she catches one in a Kleenex cupped on her lap.

“Today is the day when Granma will go away. She is done living with us here in this house and you will not play with her like you usually do each day. Things are going to change because Granma is leaving us, and today we must each say goodbye. This is why your uncle and your cousins and your Poppa are here together. We are together to say goodbye, and you must try to understand just enough so that you can say goodbye, too. You will miss Granma when she is gone, but you will never be alone, and you must trust me that this is true.” Momma is very sad now, too many tears to catch. I try to put all my thoughts and feelings where they are supposed to go but there are too many and they get lost in my mind, somewhere I cannot find them. I understand right away that Granma is dying. But I am so, so mad because I do not understand why.

Maybe that mad feeling makes me remember. I remember. I remember. It was so long ago, way back when I was only 5, a real little baby. I can tell how much I’ve grown when I think about how much less I knew back when I was a little girl. I feel like a big girl now because of what I know. I remember when I was mad at Granma, sort of like I am mad right now, because it is hard not understanding adult things. Poppa’s car was bouncy and my head slapped the top of the Jeep ‘cause my feet were too tiny to hold me down. We bobbled down the driveway, and the blocks of salt made scratchy noises against the metal in back. I couldn’t wait to grab Granma’s big hand. She always held my sausage fingers tucked in tight so the tips stayed warm. She didn’t wear the wig on those walks of ours, just a pretty silk scarf tied in a knot behind her ear. She looked so silly, Granma, like Poppa with little loose hairs dancing around his head. I ran fast from the truck, leaving Poppa standing there. I threw the screen door away from me and yelled, “Granma, Granma, Granma! The deer are gonna love these blocks today. Granma! . . . Granma? Where are you, Granma?”

I couldn’t find her in the normal spots near the window with a big thick book, in the kitchen rolling the chicken parts in flour, in the bathroom cleaning her fake teeth. I couldn’t find her so I felt mad, that same feeling again. I was mad then like I am now, ‘cause I don’t understand what I should already know.

I ran and ran and finally I found Granma in the weirdest place when the sun was shining and the house seemed as mad as me ‘cause the stairs squeaked as I ran up to her bedroom. I found her there, in the room, in the bed, swallowed up whole by the pillows and covers. I scrunched my face up, and when that smell tickled my nose, my yell broke something heavy and hushed in the room. “Granma.” Just like that, plain. She rolled over. It sounded like her throat hurt ‘cause it squeaked out when she told me that I had to go ahead without her. Poppa had to help me lift the blocks out of the truck and lay them out in the yard so that the deer could lick ‘em up. He didn’t hold my hand and that made me even more mad, and I didn’t care whether the deer were happy or glad ‘cause Granma wasn’t there. When I remember now how mad I was then, I feel like I am growing up way too fast.

I am growing up very, very way too fast cause now I wish that I wouldn’t have gotten mad when Granma was too sick to help me with the salt blocks. Wishing for something else seems like a very grown-up thing to do.

I shift my bottom out from the crack of Granma’s couch cushion and stand on my feet. I hold out the heavy elephant, straight out to the world. I shout at each of them, “Well, no one can have this elephant because it is Granma’s, and if Granma doesn’t keep it I am going to throw it away. I am going to give it to the deer to carry away into the forest because none of you can have it. It’s not yours and it’s not mine. It’s hers!”

What I remembered and what I know now makes me run. The bathroom door slams— bang!—and shuts them all out away from me. I don’t want them looking at me. I don’t want to see my momma’s face so sad and puffed up. I hug the elephant tight and crouch in the corner near the potty, the tightest corner I can find. I am so mad I could scream but instead the tears burn down my cheeks so hot. Too hot, they burn.

It is quiet all around me. I cannot hear Momma or Uncle Jerry or Poppa or the cousins outside the door. I cannot hear anything but the trickle—drip, drip, drip—of the sink. I am sleepy but wide awake, afraid of finding my dreams in the corner of Granma’s bathroom while she dies upstairs. So I stand up with an ache, still holding Granma’s, no . . . my soft, black, glass elephant. I find the mirror through the smudgy light in my eyes. I stand there looking at myself and all of a sudden, I see her behind me.

Granma pulls the comb through my frizzy black hair. She tells me that my hair is as naughty as I am sometimes and giggles when she kisses my cheek. She drags the comb hard backwards and grabs each clump of hair with a fist to hold it all together in one thick bunch. She combs and pulls and combs and pulls until the hair is smooth against my head. My eyes look wider and the sides of my head throb from the stretch but it feels so good. It pulls me together all tight and sturdy. Granma looks so happy from above me in the mirror. I am warm when she touches me. I blink and look, blink and look. Granma is gone but I can still feel her hands on my shoulders, and her kiss is still sloppy on my cheek. She is gone but she is still here.

I turn the door knob of the bathroom very slowly. The squeak is the loudest thing I hear because it is quiet and dark in the house. Momma is waiting for me right outside the doorway and I crawl deep into her arms, leaning against her chest when she hugs me tight. Momma doesn’t say anything to me because she knows I am ready. My momma knows me.

My hand is resting in hers and the elephant is tucked nice and tight into my other arm. I will not let it fall again. The stairs up are long and each one is harder for me to climb. But I get there, right up to the door of Granma’s room, and I smell that something sour. It makes my nose tickle again, and I do not want to go in because I am afraid. But I trust my momma and I am brave. She lets go of my hand as I slide into the room.

Granma is lying very still with her covers tucked all around her. She looks like a butterfly before it pops out. Two pillows are under her knees and I see them poking up. Her eyes are closed and it is dark in the room, so I know she is trying to find her dreams. I wonder if she is practicing her sign language letters or if I should show them to her. I tiptoe to the edge of her bed and slide my sausage fingers under the blanket toward where I think her hand might be. I want to touch her hand but I cannot see the way so I feel around for it. I set the lost elephant right next to her on the table. I let it go and I find her hand.

Granma’s eyes open slowly. She finds me in the dark room but moves very little. She smiles at me and I feel proud again.

“Ebbie, my dear, I love you very much. I will always remember you, and I will always need you. You are my favorite, dear, of all the children, of all the people I have known. You will never be alone because I will always be near you.” Granma’s words are scratchy and soft.

The shiny, round, soft, black elephant is staring at me. I can’t quite find Granma’s eyes in the dark room but the elephant’s eyes are sparkling and so I see them bright. I never looked so long at the glassy elephant eyes, and for a second, I forget about Granma because she is so quiet and thin. Right now I swear that Granma is looking at me right through those elephant eyes! I feel the life of it and then Granma’s hand slips right out from under mine just like that.

I want to find her hand again but for some reason, I think it’s time to let go. So I drag my hand slowly out from under the covers and go toward the door. I look away from the elephant on the table and look for my Momma after I cross over, and she is there waiting for me. I do not understand all of this but I trust my Momma ‘cause everything she says is true. I am not alone. I know because she told me so.