One Day at a Time
by Brenda Wooley


It is a cold February afternoon in Western Alabama, and we are on our way to visit Kathleen, the younger sister of my husband's stepmother.

Kathleen and her husband, Lloyd, have lived on the same farm, in the same house, all of their married life. Lloyd retired from his job years ago—he is 72—and now mows lawns. Kathleen, who is 63, ran a bakery for years, then closed it and began making cakes in a renovated barn next to their house.

"She gets all kinds of orders at Christmas and times like that," Blanche said, "and she gets 30 dollars a cake."

They are tall, finely textured three-layer cakes: Italian Creme, Red Velvet, Mississippi Mud and Caramel Walnut. Caramel Walnut is my favorite, and Kathleen sends one over every time we visit Blanche. It is the best cake I've ever eaten.

Even though I want to see Kathleen one more time, I dread it. I feel it will make me even more depressed. Max and I both retired six months ago, and I thought I would be happy, lunching with my friends, reading the books I had always wanted to read, and I looked forward to spending time with Max. But I can't seem to get going. I miss my job as editor of our city newspaper . . . the deadlines, getting up at the crack of dawn, calls in the middle of the night. I felt young then, and now I feel old, used up, trudging off into the twilight.

Max keeps busy renovating our house in his spare time, playing golf with his friends, and enjoying each day as it comes. He knows I'm depressed, but he doesn't know what to do about it. He tries to cheer me up each morning. "Today is the first day of the rest of our life, honey," he says, a big smile on his face.

We drive down the main highway and turn onto another blacktop road where black-and-white cows are meandering across the highway. A few stand in the middle of the road staring at us with interest as they chew their cuds.

"At feedin' time them cows go across this road and you just have to wait," Blanche says, "and they ain't afraid of cars; they just take their good ole sweet time."

We sit watching them slowly make their way to the other pasture, and then we drive on, turning onto a narrow gravel road. Max drives slowly, and I know he dreads reaching our destination. Blanche sits in the front seat, her grey newly-permed head cocked to one side.

"My baby sister ain't gonna make it," she says, sighing as she takes a deep pull on her Marlboro, "What am I gonna do without Kathleen? Since George died and Lonnie treated me so awful, I don't have nobody except Prissy."

Prissy is Blanche's 13-year-old Poodle, who languishes in her lap all day and eats only round steak, which Blanche cuts into bite-size pieces.

"Maybe it's time to call him, Blanche," I say,"After all, Lonnie is your only child and you haven't seen him in 20 years."

"And you've never even seen his wife or your four granddaughters, either," Max says.

"I'm not never gonna talk to that boy or see him 'til he apologizes," she says, flipping her Marlboro out the window and lighting another. "He called me a god damn bitch right after your daddy died, Max. I'm 80 years old and I put up with George all them years and I ain't gonna put up with awful talk like that from Lonnie."

Max nods and says nothing. We have this discussion every time we visit.

"I've had a awful life," she says, taking another deep drag from her Marlboro.

We drive past the former dairy barn, where Kathleen made her cakes. It is red, trimmed in white. "A Little Piece of Heaven," is stenciled over the door. As we round the curve, their house comes into view, a well-cared-for house, white with dark green shutters. It reminds me of a gingerbread cottage, only lacking Hansel and Gretel to complete the picture.

A bluish-spotted dog lopes up to greet us as we park in the driveway.

"Hello, Blue," Blanche says, as she opens the car door and slowly unravels her tall, thin body. She forgets about me in the back seat and slams the door in my face.

In the house Hannah Lee, a neighbor, is stirring something on the stove. She is chubby, with a kind, round face. "She said she might could eat some soup," she says, smiling.

Lloyd comes into the kitchen to greet us. His hair and beard are coal black except at the roots. They are white.

"I'm sure glad y'all came," he says, shaking hands with Max and giving me a hug, "Come on in."

"Kathleen always dyed his hair for him," Blanche whispers to me as we enter the house, "She done everything for him."

The kitchen is cozy and warm. In the middle of the dining table is a beautiful flower arrangement in colors that harmonize with the rest of the room, green, cranberry, white. The flowers look real, but when I touch them I find they are made of tissue paper.

"Ain't they pretty," Blanche says, "Kathleen is so good at making things."

A book of gospel songs lies near me on the table, and propped in the corner next to a hutch filled with ceramic cows and hens is Lloyd's guitar. He and Kathleen have sung in a gospel group for years.

"They go all over the place, a-singin'," Blanche told me, "nursing homes, malls, churches, everywhere."

"Come on in and see Kathy," Lloyd says, "She's looking forward to seeing y'all."

Kathleen lies in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room, oxygen tubes in her nose. She is pale, her hair thin.

Blanche puts her hand on her forehead. "How you doin', honey?"

"Not too good," Kathleen says.

Their living room is homey. A cushy hunter green sofa faces a matching love seat, hardwood floors are shining, and lovely homemade crafts adorn the walls. Over the fireplace are pictures of Kathleen and Lloyd when they were young, Kathleen a laughing girl with flowing blonde hair, Lloyd in his army uniform, dark and handsome. Kathleen was 14 and Lloyd was 23 when they got married almost 50 years ago. A large graduation picture of their only child, Lloyd Jr., is positioned between his parents. He died in the Viet Nam war.

Lloyd introduces us to a man and a woman who are sitting on the hunter green sofa, Tootsie and Oxford, who sing in the gospel group with them. There are fresh comb marks in Oxford's damp grey hair, and his face is smooth and red, as if it had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad. Tootsie is plump, her skin like parchment paper. She clasps her hands, stopping every now and then to caress each finger from top to bottom, reminding me of my grandmother's ritual of putting on her nylon gloves to go to church. She has a diamond on every finger, and they sparkle and flash as she caresses and clasps, and then caresses and clasps again, as they discuss an upcoming engagement of the gospel group with Lloyd before going in to see Kathleen.

"You'll be up and a-singin' with us before you know it," Oxford says, patting her shoulder.

Kathleen tries to smile as soup is brought in to her. "I'm not hungry," she says.

"You better eat some, hon," Blanche says.

"Can you eat just a little?" Lloyd says, holding a spoonful up to her mouth.

She shakes her head.

"You got to eat to keep your strength up. Try to take a spoonful."

She sighs and opens her mouth.

The little house is overflowing, so Max, Blanche and I go outside and stand in the driveway, where Tootsie and Oxford join us.

"My little sister ain't gonna make it," Blanche says, lighting a Marlboro.

Tootsie nods, a sad look on her face, "You might as well get ready for it, honey."

Several friends from church come outside, and they all say their goodbyes then head down the driveway, conversing in hushed tones and shaking their heads. They look back toward the house, and then they get into their cars, Oxford and Tootsie leading off in a Lincoln Town Car, the others following in a large silver Chrysler.

In the living room, Blanche combs Kathleen's wispy hair as Lloyd prepares to feed her chicken noodle soup.

"Come here, Sarah," Blanche says, laying the comb down.

She leads me into a cold bedroom and opens the closet door. Inside are sequined pant suits in all colors, bright, sequined blazers, and high heels in many colors, the majority of which are gold or have gold on them.

"When she sings, she just shines," Blanche says. She goes back to the kitchen and removes a picture album from a drawer of the hutch. "Look at these."

They are pictures of the gospel group on stage. Kathleen is in front at the mike, the others clustered around her. I recognize the pants suit Kathleen is wearing. It's the gold one with sequins on the shoulders that I had seen in the closet. On her ears are long, gleaming earrings. Behind her is Lloyd, playing his guitar, and they look happy, both smiling.

Later, Lloyd turns on the stereo and puts on one of the group's CD's. They are old religious songs I remember from my childhood, "I saw the Light," "Church in the Wildwood," "Precious Memories," but when they begin, "One Day at a Time," everyone stops talking and listens.

"That's her best one," Lloyd says, "Don't y'all think she sounds just like Christy Lane?"


It is two months later and we are headed toward Kathleen and Lloyd's house. It is April, and everything is budding and green. The same cows are grazing on either side of the road.

As we turn into the small gravel road leading to their house, Blanche takes a deep breath, "I don't know what I'm gonna do without my baby sister."

Several cars are clustered in the driveway of the gingerbread house. Blue lopes out to meet us. Blanche gets out of the car, flipping her Marlboro on the grass and grinding it out with the sole of her tennis shoe. She starts toward the house, turns around and stomps it again. Blue rushes up and pees on it, then lopes away.

Hannah Lee is taking a pan of cornbread out of the oven, and Lloyd greets us.

"Come on in," he says, smiling, "Kathy's looking forward to seeing y'all."

The top half of his hair is black, the lower is white, and his golden brown eyes look tired. We follow him through the kitchen, the island of which is stacked with food that people have brought in, stews, sandwiches, casseroles, and a layer cake with one piece missing. The cake is nothing like the luscious three-layer cakes for which Kathleen is famous.

A woman, who looks to be in her eighties, sits at the table. Her face is dark and splotchy with age spots, and she has a lost look in her huge brown eyes.

"That's Lloyd's sister," Blanche says, "She's got 'Old Timer's' disease."

Blanche goes in to see her sister, and Lloyd insists that we go too. I feel I am intruding, and I know Max feels the same way, but we follow him to the hospital bed.

"Wake up, babe," he says, "Look who's here."

Kathleen, almost totally bald, her face ashen, doesn't respond.

In the kitchen, Lloyd's sister sits staring into space. She looks up at me and smiles, "Do I know you?"

As Max and I are standing outside with Blanche while she smokes, a Lincoln Town Car eases up the driveway. Oxford and Tootsie, along with another couple, get out and wave to us as another car drives up. More people arrive, and they are forced to park in the yard. The driveway is packed with cars.

"Some of them sings in that gospel group with Kathleen and Lloyd," Blanche says, "All those others go to their church."

Later, she and I walk around the yard where several dogwood trees are blooming and early spring flowers are beginning to bud.

"Kathleen's flowers are looking bad; she always took such good care of them," Blanche says, lighting another Marlboro. "She used to take me every Saturday to get my groceries and to yard sales. I don't know who's gonna take me now. I don't know who's gonna clean my house, either."

"Don't worry," I say, "You'll find someone to do it."

She stops in her tracks, cocks her permed head and looks down at me, "I'd like to know who?"

A large group of people come out of the house. Lloyd is carrying his guitar; Oxford and several other men are carrying fiddles. The women are carrying hymnals.

"We're gonna have a singing," Lloyd says, smiling.

"Y'all come on over here and sing with us," Tootsie says.

We go back into the house where a large group of people talk quietly. The pastor of their church has arrived and sits, holding Kathleen's hand, his head bowed.

"We better go," Blanche says, "We gotta get back to Prissy."

Walking to the car, Max puts his arm around me. "I don't know what I'd do if it were you in that hospital bed," he whispers.

As I look into Max's brilliant blue eyes, an overwhelming urge sweeps over me, for home, familiar surroundings, the little things, like our nosey neighbor next door, the paperboy who throws our newspaper in the bushes instead of the driveway, and our neighbor across the street, with a sunny smile and a wave for everyone, even though he is in a wheelchair. I see our remaining days stretched before us like a blank slate, filled with family and friends and all the things we love, and the time to enjoy them. Hoards of people surround us; misery, pain and sadness hang in the air. Death hovers, but I am at peace.

We back out of the driveway as the group begins a song, the fiddles, guitars and harmonicas whining and moaning. It reminds me of the Bluegrass music on the Grand Ole Opry show we listened to on Saturday nights when I was a child back home in Kentucky. Only Tootsie seems out of place, singing lead in her raspy voice and making half circles in the air, her diamonds sparkling.

As we drive past the barn, I look up at the stenciled sign, "A Little Piece of Heaven," and I imagine Kathleen there, just a few months ago, baking her cakes, maybe humming "One Day at a Time." That was before her hospital bed was sitting in the middle of the living room, before all of her flowers went unkept, before crowds of people took over her house, before someone brought a layer cake that couldn't hold a candle to one of hers, and before the devastating illness began to slowly suck the life from her body.

"I bet Prissy's about to pop; we shouldn't a-left her this long," Blanche says.

We drive past the cows again. Several stop eating and gaze at us with huge brown eyes, and I think of Lloyd's sister, whose mind is slowly fading, leaving the scared and empty look in her eyes; I look at Blanche and imagine her sitting in the recliner, Prissy in her lap, gazing out at the world that she gave up long ago; and I think of Lloyd, whose hair will soon be totally white since Kathleen will not be here to dye it for him.

As we head west, the setting sun peeps through the trees and illuminates the highway, casting slashes of sparkling beams across the meadow, reminding me of Tootsie's diamonds as she waves them back and forth, keeping time with the music and singing lead on Kathleen's songs.


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