K. M. Fields tells the touching story of a young girl whose mother is killed by a shooting star.
When Mama was fifteen, she found out she was carrying me, so she and Daddy got married. They were young and in love, Mama always said. Because Mama was young when I was born people sometimes thought we were sisters instead of mother and daughter.
Growing up I liked a lot of the same things Mama did. I don't know if I liked those things because Mama liked them, or she liked them because of me. We liked watching the same cartoons on Saturday morning as we ate cereal sitting on the living room floor. We liked the same TV shows later on too. We both liked chili dogs with beans and mustard but no onions. We liked wearing big hats with bright ribbons and driving with the car top down. We liked listening to the minor league Redwings on the radio, and buttered popcorn at the Saturday matinee where we sat in the back row so nobody could kick our seats. We liked reading stories about the old West and ranchers and mail order brides and doing crossroad puzzles and dipping chocolate bars in the peanut butter jar.
We didn't agree on everything. That's just normal. Mama liked Coca-Cola and I liked Mountain Dew. I didn't like her country western music, and she certainly didn't like some of my rock and roll. But we both agreed that Elvis Presley really was the King. Not many people can argue that anyway.
We hardly ever fussed even when I didn't do the dishes or she forgot to pick me up after softball practice and I had to walk home. Really, we were both lucky, because we liked to spend time together, just talking.
We talked about school, softball, about her line job at the shoe factory she hated, about what sounded good for dinner, or even baseball depending on how the Redwings were doing. We talked about books we read, the stars, silly celebrity news, about important and not so important things. As I got older we talked about what I wanted to do with my life. Mama dreamed my dreams with me and I dreamed her dreams about wanting to go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower.
We talked about boys, especially right before she died. By then I liked boys. We talked about men sometimes too, because, well, Mama liked men.
We laughed so hard about silly things we nearly peed our pants. If we got too sad, like when we watched a movie, we blubbered together like old women at a country funeral. Mostly though, we laughed.
I don't want you to get the idea that Mama and I were a couple of banty hens always cackling about this or that. It wasn't like that. We liked our quiet too, and private time, alone and away in separate rooms of the house. It's nice having time alone, especially when you can get up and go into the next room to see the person you're alone from. We could go for hours, sometimes even days without saying a word to one another it seemed. It wasn't because we were mad at one another either. It was just nice feeling quiet.
When Mama was a little girl, she learned the names of the stars and constellations from my grandpa. She never forgot them. She and I used to sit in the back yard at night and just look up at the sky. She'd point out the constellations, stars, and even planets if we could see them. The easiest constellation to find is Orion, the hunter that sits high in the summer sky. It's easy to find because Orion has a line of three stars that makes up his hunting belt. Hanging below the belt is a sword made of two stars and a cloud of star dust called a nebula. Orion's left foot is a shimmering blue star called Rigel, and his right shoulder is the funny-named red star Betelgeuse. Those are two of the brightest stars in the sky, Mama said, even though they might not look like it to us so far away.
I learned a lot about the stars from Mama. I learned that Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the Earth's sky. I learned that Arcturus, The Bear Watcher, follows the Great Bear constellation, Ursa Major. I learned to find the bull constellation, Taurus, by following the line of Orion's belt, and how the orange eye of the bull is called Aldebaran. Mama showed me Mars just under the moon and Venus flickering white and blue.
If there was one thing Mama knew more about than men, it was the night sky. From time to time she promised to find me a telescope but she never did. Even though I really wanted one sometimes, not getting one was all right too. I could see well enough if Mama pointed well enough.
Mama was a pretty woman. She liked to show off when she was in the mood and she was in the mood plenty. But then, Mama had a lot to show off. She had big brown eyes the color of dark chocolate. Flecks of gold floated in them if you looked close enough. Men admired her legs and she obliged by wearing bright, flowery sun dresses in the summer to show them off. And goodness, Mama had curves where a woman's curves should be! She had curves like the women on the old calendar that hung in Daddy's garage for years after he died. I used to wish I had Mama's curves.
Her hair was dark auburn. She kept it shoulder length, and it was always just this side of being out of control. Strands of hair poked out no matter how hard she tried to keep it in place. When her hair was sticking out and the sun behind her it looked like she had a halo around her head just like a saint in the Catholic church.
When Daddy died he left us a big white Pontiac convertible. We had to patch the blue canvas top with duct tape and replace the tape every spring. The floorboard was rusted out in places and we could see the road pass under our feet as we drove. When it rained we put towels down to keep water from splashing in.
We'd put the top down on the convertible and go for a drive in the summer just for something to do. Mama would wear one of her big hats. Her favorite hat was of yellow straw and had enormous red and white ribbons wrapped around it. She'd tie one of the ribbons under her chin and let the other ribbons whip through the air like candy canes as we drove.
We'd go down winding roads between cow pastures and corn fields, past tobacco plants and fences lined with honeysuckle. In the low valley the honeysuckle smelled so sweet we could taste it on our tongues, and we'd pull off to pick a honeysuckle bouquet for the kitchen table.
On Sundays, we'd dress up for church. The men seemed to admire Mama in her Sunday best, the women, not so much. After church Mama would throw her hat into the back seat of the convertible and let her hair down. We'd toss our Bibles on the top of the hat to keep it from blowing away. Bible pages ruffled in the wind sounding like playing cards flipping against the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel. Sometimes the pages of the Bible would get so torn up we couldn't get the Bible back together again. We lost a few Bibles that way but we never lost Mama's hat.
If we scraped enough nickels and dimes together we'd stop at the Creamy Whip for a vanilla ice cream cone. I'd get mine dipped in chocolate and Mama would get colored candy sprinkles. We'd sit under the shade tree at the Creamy Whip before driving home to spend the rest of a lazy afternoon.
I'd only just started school when Daddy died at the mill. I knew something bad had happened when Aunt Jewel picked me up early from school one day and drove me home without hardly saying a word. Mama was curled on the couch with a pile of wet tissues on the cushion beside her. Her eyes were red. When she saw me she grabbed me and squeezed so tight that Aunt Jewel said later she had to make Mama stop because I was turning blue.
After that, every now and then Mama would find herself a man. She always let them know straight away that they wouldn't be staying, and they didn't. Some man might spend a night or two or even a week at our house, but almost never more than that. It was kind of like Mama had checked out a book from the library. She either liked what she read and kept flipping pages until she was done, or she'd find another book. And Mama was a fast reader.
I never blamed Mama for stuff like that. I knew about the birds and bees early on, and Mama had explained how a single woman might need some attention occasionally. Mama enjoyed a lot of things - ice cream, chili dogs, drives in the convertible - but I think she enjoyed men most of all, maybe because she didn't have them all the time. She always said that men weren't as sweet as ice cream, and that they usually needed more work than the convertible ever did, and she wasn't interested in a lifetime fixer-up.
It was a Saturday night in late August, but it was an October sky. The weather was sweater cool and the stars were crisp and shining like crystal in a fancy chandelier.
Mama had been drinking. She did that sometimes, but not often. She wasn't a mean drunk but she could get contrary if things hadn't been going right, and she was feeling put out that night. She'd been complaining about things I can't remember now, probably some things at the shoe factory, but when the stars came out, she stopped. Soon she was smiling, and then we were laughing about a TV show we liked and looking up at the sky.
We were sitting in my grandpa's old metal glider, leaning back so we could see the stars. We'd painted the glider candy apple red that spring to hide the rust. We straightened our legs to push the glider bench back and then let our knees bend so the bench swung forward again. We swung slowly. No amount of oil could stop that glider from squeaking.
I had told Mama how I felt about Jimmy that night. She listened and nodded and told me to watch myself and behave. I kind of thought that was funny coming from Mama and all but I told her I would. Truth was, I had already misbehaved with Jimmy that summer but there are things you don't tell your mother, especially if she's been drinking.
We sat together being quiet. We listened to a few cars pass the front of the house and crickets chirp. Lightning bugs blinked all around the yard and up into the trees. It was a pretty show. There was a barn owl making noise somewhere, and we heard the TV blaring next door. Mrs. Bixler was a good neighbor but awful hard of hearing.
Our dog Blackie had died that spring. He'd been 12 years old and a good boy. We both missed him but Mama was missing him special that night I think. She'd just said that maybe we needed to go to the animal shelter soon and find another dog.
I was getting ready to tell her that I thought that was a fine idea but I didn't get a chance. Instead, I heard a sound like an arrow shot into the side of a tree in a movie, a quiet thuk!
Mama turned to me and blinked. She seemed surprised. "Sophie," she said. "I think..."
Well, I never found out what Mama thought. She just closed her eyes and tipped her head onto my shoulder like she'd suddenly fallen asleep. And that was that.
After the commotion at the hospital about what on earth had killed her - turned out to be nothing on earth, now that I think about it - I realized that the sound I'd heard had been the shooting star.
Did you know that shooting stars aren't really shooting stars? Well, now you do. They're really called meteors when they're streaking across the sky and meteorites after they hit the ground. Mama taught me that too. So I guess what I should really say is that Mama was killed by a meteorite. But it sounds more romantic, don't you think, to say she was killed by a shooting star? That's what I thought too.
That meteorite, that shooting star, was a tiny thing, a little piece of gravel about a quarter the size of my smallest fingernail. But it put a hole clean through my mama's head and out the other side just like a tiny bullet. Because meteorites are so hot from entering the atmosphere, there was no blood. It had cauterized the wound. It took the hospital considerable time to figure out what had happened. It took longer for people to believe it.
A few days later I found where the shooting star had hit the ground. It had buried itself a couple of inches in the dirt right in front of where Mama and I had been sitting. I dug it up. At least, I think it was the shooting star. For all I know it might really have been a piece of plain old gravel, but I'm pretty sure it was the shooting star. It was grey and black, bumpy on one side and smooth on the other. I wondered if it had Mama's blood on it, and figured it did. But I decided to keep it anyway.
I've often wondered how something so small from so far away could have changed my life like that. Of course, it changed Mama's even more. She became a bit of a celebrity after that. Do you know how many people have been killed by a shooting star? Well, let me tell you, not many.
Mama's picture got in the local paper. It made the evening news on national TV. I even saw Mama's picture in one of those papers at the end of the grocery store checkout line. Mama would have been proud, if she hadn't been dead, I mean.
A few people came to our house to look around. I think they couldn't believe what had happened. I looked out the kitchen window one afternoon to find a half-dozen men standing around in the back yard. I tried to be kind, and served sweet tea and biscuits, but it was odd seeing strangers milling around, pointing at the sky and crawling around on their hands and knees looking for something I had tucked in my dress pocket.
I didn't tell anyone I had the shooting star. They might have wanted to see it or hold it, and maybe even take it. Mostly people are nice but you have to be careful, and that piece of rock was all mine. I wasn't sharing it with anyone.
People collected money for me at the church, and there was a charity raffle that fall on account that both my parents were dead. Aunt Jewel came to live with me because I wasn't old enough to stay by myself, or so I was told. I didn't mind. It was nice to have her around.
Jimmy stopped coming by. That was fine too. I got tired of people for a while, especially Jimmy. He seemed to only have one thing on his mind and I didn't want to give it to him anymore.
After Mama died, I would stand in the back yard looking up at the sky and clutching the shooting star my pocket. I felt sorry for myself. I was angry. It didn't seem fair that my mother had been taken away the way she had been, mid-sentence and all.
I wanted to fling that tiny rock back into the sky. I held it in my hand so many times with my arm drawn back, ready to throw. But I always stopped myself. I knew that throwing that silly rock away wouldn't help anything. It wouldn't bring my Mama back.
Looking up at the sky just seemed to be the thing to do after Mama died. It was what we'd always done. I started to check the newspaper to see when meteor showers were supposed to come, and I'd slip out of bed at 2 AM to see them blink one by one across the starry sky. When I stood in the back yard at night looking up, I stood tall and angry, just daring any shooting star that came along to try to kill me too.
Of course, nothing ever happened. One of them might have killed my mama but shooting stars are magical things. You don't see them all the time. And it's almost always a surprise when you do.
Aunt Jewel worried about me from time to time, but I think deep down she knew I was going to be fine. She might have known I was going to be fine long before I did. She really is a jewel.
I missed Mama though, sitting outside squeaking away in the old glider trying to remember the things she'd told me. I wanted to remember what she'd said about my daddy, the stars, my grandpa, about hard work and what I was like when I was little. I wanted to remember what she said about life and love and other things.
After a while I realized that most of what I remembered was us laughing. My mama wasn't the smartest of women, I know that. But she could be wise in her own way. I think maybe the wisest thing my Mama ever did, probably without knowing she was doing it, was to teach me how to laugh.
Laughter is an important thing. You need to remember that. I think that without laughter, life isn't much.
I remember one time at the Creamy Whip, Mama's ice cream cone dropped right down her Sunday dress. It was a low cut yellow dress admired by the men at the Baptist church, so the cone went into the dress, not down it. She sure squealed. That night she called me into her bedroom. She was standing in front of the full length mirror in her panties, like she was admiring herself. She had her hip sticking out and one hand on it. Her other hand was in the air with the index finger out and her bra dangling off it. Her breasts looked like rainbows from the red, green, yellow and blue candy sprinkles on the ice cream cone that went inside her dress.
She looked at me and grinned. She wiggled her eyebrows. We started laughing so hard! Our sides hurt and we could barely catch our breath. We fell onto the bed with tears in our eyes. We found sprinkles in the bed the next morning, and we laughed about it for days.
One night when I was standing outside like I did most every night, it occurred to me that what had made me laugh before Mama died would probably always make me laugh. And I knew that Mama would have surely laughed at what had happened there in the back yard the night she died. It truly was the silliest thing. So I laughed.
That night I also saw a shooting star. I smiled. And I took that piece of gravel from my pocket and flung it into the sky.
Thing just kind of went on after that. You'll find life does that. I grew up, other things happened, and now there's you.
Sometimes I think it's funny that I call you my shooting star, but you are. You came into my life as a big surprise and now you're just streaking along, growing up as bright as they come. You make me smile and you make me laugh. You are the light of my life, little girl, and I hope that when something finally happens to me, you are the last thing I see, just like my mama saw me.
I wanted to tell you about your grandma and that shooting star. But I guess I told you a little about me, too. Mama didn't live to see you but she would have been mighty proud of you.
She'd have called you the brightest star she'd ever seen.