What a Day That Will Be
Her granddaughter doesn’t understand her grandmother’s faith, but can’t question how it has sustained her and her family for many years. A short story by Lillian Howell.
“I’m so tired. Nothing I do matters, and I feel like I’ll never amount to anything. What is my purpose?” My eyes stung with tears. My will to keep going waned with every passing day.
“You know what to do, love heart. You just trust in the Good Lord, and he’ll take care of you,” Mee Maw said, her quiet confidence shining through her simple words.
I faced my grandmother Nancy at the kitchen table. I had affectionately called her “Mee Maw” since I could remember. Out of nervous habit, I ran my hands over the rough oak surface of the table, imagining how shiny and new it would have been in the late ’50s, when she and my grandfather married. How many Saturday mornings had they sat, coffee in hand, dreaming about their future, about their children, about their life together?
One blistering Georgia July day in 1960, my grandmother began her day in this kitchen. The sun shone through the pleated curtains as she prepared the percolator and cast-iron frying pan for breakfast. She puttered around the house for a while, opening the windows for what was sure to be a scorcher of a day. Her husband, Francis, slept in. Nancy walked down the hall to the bedroom, her slippers squeaking on the parquet floor. The bedroom door was slightly ajar.
“Francis? Frankie? Are you awake?” she asked, head poked through the doorway.
Francis rolled over, both hands covering his head. He muttered something about a headache and rolled over again, facing the wall.
“I’m sorry your head hurts. Don’t forget, I have a beauty shop appointment at one o’clock. Doris is putting me in a permanent. I’ll leave little Stephen with you, but I won’t be too long.”
This was the fourth headache Francis had had this week, and she was beginning to get concerned. He’d taken to his bed on three of those days, which was completely out of character.
Francis grunted approval and went back to sleep. Nancy quietly closed the bedroom door, making a mental note to call Dr. Simmons. This was the fourth headache Francis had had this week, and she was beginning to get concerned. He’d taken to his bed on three of those days, which was completely out of character. Nancy walked back down the hallway and heard Stephen begin to cry. He was almost 10 months old and had just taken his first steps the day before. Francis was beaming with pride, shouting,“That’s my boy!” loud enough to be heard in the next county. He phoned everyone he knew to tell them the news. It isn’t every day that your son walks for the first time.
A couple of hours passed, and Francis finally ambled through to the living room, still holding his head. He was in good spirits, if a little run down. He was excited for an afternoon with Stephen all to himself. Nancy didn’t get permanents that often, and he was going to treasure every second of time with his baby boy. Francis muttered a prayer of thanksgiving that he was a teacher and had the summer free. It would be bad enough when the fall semester commenced, but for now, he was going to savor this precious father-son time.
Nancy met Francis in the living room. She read off a litany of instructions for Stephen’s lunch preparation, then hastily grabbed her purse and opened the front door.
“I’m going to be late if I don’t go right now. I’ll see you two heartbreakers later.” She smiled and patted Stephen on his wispy-haired head, and planted a kiss on Francis’s cheek. Nancy walked out the carport door and headed to the white Oldsmobile parked in the drive.
“You look awful pretty, Nan. I love you,” he called out as she got in the car. She smiled and waved.
Francis took Stephen back into the house and through to the nursery. The nursery was lined with teak bookshelves, and though Stephen was only an infant he had quite the impressive library of picture books. Francis pondered which to choose, then selected one at random.
“'A Fly Went By.' That’s your favorite, isn’t it, my boy?”
Together they made their way to the living room, and took a seat on the weathered corduroy recliner. The green fabric was old and moth-eaten in spots, but the chair had belonged to Francis’s father and was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the house. He settled in to the seat, and opened the book to the first page.
“I sat by the lake. I looked at the sky. And as I looked, a fly…”
Francis stared at the page in disbelief. The words were muddled, drifting about on the page like leaves on a pond. He rubbed his eyes and started again. What in the world was happening?
“I sat by the lake. I looked…”
Francis couldn’t go on. Sensing something was terribly wrong, he scooped up Stephen and made his way out the back door. He rushed across the lawn, through the back gate and over the small footbridge that led to his parents’ house. He barrelled through their front door, giving his mother a fright. She sat at the kitchen table, listening to the radio and hulling peas.
“Frankie? Are you okay?” his mother asked.
“I’m OK, mama. I just have a headache. It’s a real bad one. Would you mind keeping Stephen? Nancy’s getting a permanent put in and I need to go lay down.” He omitted the part about the failed story time. He didn’t want to terrify his mother and besides, he didn’t even know what was happening.
Jimmy pedaled his bike along a residential street as he did every afternoon, cutting through to the ball fields behind the elementary school. The school year was about to be back in session, and he and his friends were having one last hurrah before sixth grade. They had planned to meet and throw the ball around a while, maybe play a game or two. The losers would pay for everyone to have a Coke float and Moon Pie at the Dime Store. He silently prayed that he would win, since he only had a quarter to his name. Just the idea of a Coke float on this humid, hot day was glorious. He pedaled faster.
As Jimmy passed the newly built ranch house on the left, midway down the street, he stopped. Did he hear someone crying? He knew the couple had a baby. It was probably just close to nap time. He paused a moment. Hearing the sound again, curiosity got the better of him and he decided to investigate. He hopped off his bike and walked onto the car port. What he saw would stay with him for life: the husband was lying headfirst, halfway down the steps, moaning and crying. A pool of acidic bile lay at the bottom of the steps. Something terrible had happened. The man had attempted to crawl out the door, hoping someone would save him. Help had arrived, and the shell-shocked young boy screamed as loud as he could.
Jimmy ran as fast as his legs could carry him out of the carport, tearing through the hosta beds as he careened toward the neighbor’s house. Mrs Wilson stepped onto the porch, removing yellow rubber gloves from her hands. She had abandoned her dishwashing when she heard the commotion coming from the front yard.
“Please! Call an ambulance!” Jimmy bellowed. Mrs Wilson ran inside the house and dialed the emergency services. Struggling to stand upright, Jimmy leaned against the neighbor’s iron porch railing and cried.
Nancy sat in the salon and idly flipped through a Woman’s Day magazine. The acrid smell of permanent wave solution hung in the humid, heavy air. Nancy’s beautician, Doris, described her weekend in the Smoky Mountains in forensic detail as she rolled Nancy’s hair.
“Nancy honey, we saw a bear. Can you believe it? I was just telling my Gene that I thought I’d never get to see one, and there it was. Lord have mercy, I took enough pictures to fill ten Life magazines. It’ll cost a fortune to get them developed.”
Nancy laughed. She and Francis had seen a mama bear with three babies when they were in Tennessee back in the spring. A black bear sighting wasn’t that uncommon, but she let Doris have her moment. Before she could respond, Nancy saw a woman burst into the salon, practically pulling the door off its hinges. It took her a second to register that it was her sister-in-law, Louise. Her screams were as shocking as her clothing – Louise was dressed in a calico housedress and apron. Strands of hair were flying all about her head, as if she had stuck a fork in a light socket. Louise never left the house in anything short of her Sunday finest. Something was seriously amiss.
Strands of hair were flying all about her head, as if she had stuck a fork in a light socket. Louise never left the house in anything short of her Sunday finest. Something was seriously amiss.
“Nancy, Frankie’s had a stroke.”
The ambulance arrived within minutes. Nancy and Louise came roaring up the driveway in Louise’s Buick just as the ambulance arrived. Nancy flung the car door open and ran toward her husband. The gurney was boarded into the ambulance, and she took a seat beside him. Silently, she prayed for a miracle. Within minutes they were bouncing and weaving through traffic, sirens blaring, lights blazing. Nancy gripped her husband’s hand so tightly her knuckles turned solid white. The Good Lord would see her through this. He’d seen her through so much in her life. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey,” as the old hymn said. She was trusting now, more than she ever had in her life. She looked down at the gurney. Francis moaned and writhed, and then a whisper escaped his lips.
“I love you, Nan.”
He closed his eyes. Nancy wouldn’t hear him speak again.
A half hour later, the ambulance arrived at St. Joseph’s Infirmary. Two nuns met my grandmother at the door, ushering her through the ambulance bay and into the emergency ward. The nuns who silently walked back and forth between wards offered comfort, as if a manifestation of our Lord’s mercy here on earth. They silently paced the halls, heads down, hands clasped in prayer. If their woolen, black habits were burdensome in the Georgia heat, they never let on. The nuns tended to the sick with the patience and kindness demanded of their vows. They had bound themselves to Jesus and their corporal act of mercy: caring for the sick.
The comfort was short-lived. Francis passed away three days later. He was only 36 years old.
The community mourned the loss of such a great man. Francis was a dedicated husband, Christian and teacher. He began teaching in a one-room country school and had worked his way to a spot at the town school, which was opened for the viewing. The gymnasium was full to the brim with students and colleagues tearfully queuing to pay their respects.
Nancy sat in silence in the Oldsmobile as Louise followed the hearse to the graveside. There, she stared in disbelief at the spray of roses spread over Francis’s coffin. The crowd of mourners waved paper church fans in a syncopated rhythm, a feeble attempt to stave off the heat. A trio of men from the Baptist church choir assembled beside the grave, singing sweetly of Jesus and the glory of heaven.
“What a day that will be, when my Jesus I shall see, and I look upon His face, the one who saved me by His grace…”
I looked at my grandmother seated across from me, and I wondered how she managed as a 26-year-old widow with a 10-month-old son. She had survived, she told me many times, through prayer and trusting the Lord. She raised my daddy with the solid support system of the extended family and he never wanted for anything. Nancy had an unwavering belief in the Lord and that suffering was just part of life, a part that everyone had to accept.
“Mee Maw, did you ever wonder why God let things happen to you? Why Francis had to have the stroke? My daddy grew up without a father. How is that fair?”
“Of course, I did. Anyone would in that situation, honey. That’s normal. The thing is, you don’t dwell on it. The Apostle Paul said that all the suffering we endure here in this world won’t hold a candle to the beauty stored up for us in heaven. What a day that will be. Can you imagine how beautiful it will be? I’ll get to see my Frankie, I’ll get to see my sweet mama, and it won’t even be like a day has passed. We’ll sing and shout the victory there, all together. Won’t that be amazing?”
“Yes. It will be,” I replied wanly, wishing I had the faith of my grandmother. Despite my doubt, I had to admit my feelings were improved. Mee Maw Nancy had a way about her that always left me feeling encouraged and loved. “I’ll be OK. Will you pray with me, Mee Maw?” No matter my age, Mee Maw was always willing take our troubles to the Lord.
“Of course, doll baby. Give me your hand.”
I took my grandmother’s hand in mine. Her skin was paper thin and stretched over knuckles swollen and red from years of rheumatism. I met her eyes and she gave me a smile. She looked so frail in that moment and the realization of her age washed over me – I wouldn’t have her forever.
“Let us pray.”
Lillian Howell is a writer of short fiction who lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Originally from northeast Alabama, she delights in retelling the stories passed through the generations of her family. Lillian is in her final year of undergraduate study at The Open University, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree with honors Creative Writing and English Literature. She lives in a seaside cottage with her husband, two cats, a pug and a parrot.