Willa wonders if her mother
It’s not that Mama complains. Mama never, ever complains. Maybe that’s why Willa is suspicious. Mama just gets up at four-thirty every morning and trudges to the shop, works a double shift, keeps an eye on the old man, cleans the place, puts in the orders, pays the bills, goes home and does housework. Doesn’t say much, always looks way too tired.
Is this really what she wanted? Sometimes Willa tries to get her to talk about it. To reminisce about when she still had dreams. Willa wants to know when the dreams fade. When a person’s spirit gives up and the body just keeps on trudging.
But Mama’s kind of hard to talk to. She’s busy cooking or cleaning and if you distract her she gets upset at having to do something over again. "Once is enough" she grumbles.
Willa decides to sneak up on her. "It’s gotta be something that gives her a break" whispers Smart Willa. "Start with the laundry, then get her to show you how she does the bills. Maybe the orders after that."
Willa likes this idea because her Girlfriend Campaign has made more laundry anyway. And it’s easy to scoot home and get it almost finished by the time Mama’s done at the shop.
The first time she takes over the laundry, Willa puts on water for tea, hoping Mama will sit down with her for a few minutes. It’s already past Willa’s bedtime, but she is patient as Mama herds the old man up the stairs and into his chair in front of the TV. He’ll be asleep in a minute or two.
Willa wants to surprise Mama, so she stays in her room and finishes putting on her nightshirt, listening to Mama shuffle down the hall from hamper to empty hamper, smiling as Mama pauses too long at each one. Willa pokes her head into the hallway. "Last load’s in the dryer" she offers.
Mama looks at her and blinks, and blinks again. Like she doesn’t understand. Willa pads down the hallway toward her, slippers flopping softly on the wooden floor.
"I did the laundry, Mama" she says very quietly. "Wouldja like a cuppa tea?"
Mama nods and Willa leads the way into the kitchen. "Why aren’t you in bed?" Mama asks when they get there.
"Dunno, couldn’t sleep" says Willa. "I’ll go soon. How `bout chamomile?"
Mama nods again and sits down at the kitchen table. Standing behind her, Willa gets the teabags and watches her breathe in and out. Mama's still trying to understand.
Willa brings the tea to the table and sits down too. She looks at Mama’s tired confusion. "How old were you when Grammy and Grampy bought this house?" Willa asks.
Mama seems startled. "Oh" she says. "Oh." She tries to sip the tea but it's still too hot. Willa waits. "Well" Mama says finally, "I guess I was about seven or eight." Willa thinks she wants to say more, but Mama stays still.
"Who lived downstairs?" Willa asks after a minute.
Mama looks up from her tea, and Willa sees the curiosity in her eyes. "Downstairs?"
Willa nods. "Anybody you could play with?"
Mama’s eyes brighten as they look back over the years. "Downstairs" she says again, almost whispering. Then she remembers. And smiles. "Yes" Mama says, "we rented to the Samuelsons and I played with Alice. She was a year older than me. A wild thing."
Willa realizes she can’t recall the last time she saw her mother really smile. "Tell me about her" Willa says.
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