Lisa Reutzel and Cara Mayo

Cara Mayo
Inspiration Piece

Summerhill Park
By Lisa Reutzel


I was only seven years old when Momma died, but I still remember the last time I saw her, standing on the bridge in Summerhill Park, waving goodbye to me with a cheerful finality I was still many years away from understanding.  We would cross that bridge together every morning on our way to my school.  Most of the kids in my neighborhood walked to school in leaderless packs, like bachelor wolves, but my mother liked to walk with me.  We lived on Cherry Blossom Lane, even though there weren’t any cherry trees on our street to blossom, just a row of haggard oaks, their branches drooping like old people’s skin, leaves casting shadows across the single-wide trailers.  I hated walking past the rows of trailers with their lawns littered with car skeletons and trash, vicious barking dogs baring their terrible teeth at us from behind chain link fences.  Daddy always complained that we lived on the wrong side of the tracks, but I never understood what he meant by that, because not even the train bothered to pass through Summerhill back then.

My favorite part of each morning was the walk through Summerhill Park.  It wasn’t much of a park, just a few low rolling hills, a rickety playground, a duck pond, but I had nothing to compare it to, so I found it beautiful.  I loved the hills with their blanket of grass instead of the scrub and cactus that grew everywhere else.  Green wasn’t a color that could be found in much abundance in the desert towns of Southern California, so one learned at a young age not to take it for granted.  The pond was at the edge of the park, the water fuzzy with algae and as green as the hills, giving off the same odor as the boy’s bathroom at school.  Sometimes, Momma and I would stop and toss stale bread crusts to the birds, watching them dive head first into the murky water for their treats.

The bridge passed over one small corner of the pond, and on the other side was a neighborhood of neat little houses with white picket fences and porches with swings and foundations that secured them to the ground.  I knew without having to be told that this was the right side of the “tracks” Daddy was always talking about.  Bicycles sat in the front yards and roses grew in planters around the porches.  As we walked beneath the magnolia trees with their huge waxy leaves, I wondered what it would be like to live here.  How grand it would be to have a swing set and curtains over the windows instead of old yellow sheets.  I asked Momma if she thought we could have a house like one of these someday and she would just smile and say wouldn’t that be nice.

I was too young to understand when Momma got sick.  I couldn’t remember my mother ever being sick before, and maybe she didn’t know much about it either, because she kept right on doing all the things she’d always done – making tortillas for my lunch and walking me to school and going to her job cleaning other people’s houses.  When her hair fell out, she just tied a pretty red scarf around her head and acted like she was glad to be rid of it because she wouldn’t have to spend so much time shampooing it anymore.  I didn’t say anything, but I missed Momma’s beautiful hair, and whenever I’d come across a strand stuck in the couch cushions or hidden on the floor behind the bathroom toilet, I would lovingly gather it up and put it in the little white envelope I kept beneath my pillow.  After a while, Momma’s skin turned yellow.  It started in her hands and worked its way up her arms, over her shoulders, and across her face until even her eyes were the color of old mustard.  She grew thin beneath the silky material of her loose dresses, her bones sharp angles like the ones I created with my Tinker Toys.

I don’t think Momma was afraid of dieing.  She always said that dieing was something everyone had to do, just like breathing and eating, and what was the sense in being afraid of something as ordinary as that?  The day my mother died, she walked me to school, just like every other day, though she didn’t go all the way.  She stopped on the bridge and said that I was old enough to go the rest of the way by myself now.  She was breathing hard and her yellow skin looked pale as an unripe lemon and I didn’t want to leave her there, but she said she would be fine and to go on so I wouldn’t be late.  So I went, looking back often over my shoulder to make sure she was still there, still waving, until the pretty little houses swallowed me and I couldn’t see her anymore.  That afternoon, Daddy picked me up from school, and I knew as soon as I saw the old blue truck sitting there next to the curb that Momma was gone.

We buried her a week later at the cemetery in Morrow Valley, since Summerhill didn’t have a cemetery of its own.  We could only afford a graveside service, so everyone gathered next to the gaping hole in the ground and Reverend Hank, who I liked because he kept a jar of penny candies in his office at church and let each of us kids have one every Sunday after services, talked and then I turned away as they lowered the box with Momma in it into the earth.  All afternoon, people came in and out of our house carrying casseroles and baskets of bread and the day seemed more like a party, which is how I thought Momma would have wanted it.

Not long after Momma died, Daddy got a job driving long haul between California and Vegas, and we left the little trailer on Cherry Blossom Lane and went to stay with my Aunt Mona in San Diego so there would be someone to look after me when he was away.  I liked living with Aunt Mona and Uncle Pete and my cousins, Laurel and Katie, who were both older than I was and liked to dress me up in their old clothes.  I liked San Diego and Balboa Park, which made the park back in Summerhill seem small the same way the wide gray Pacific made the little duck pond seem as insignificant as a puddle.  I missed Momma, but every time I got sad, Aunt Mona would hold me on her lap and sing to me and stroke my hair, and somehow, that made it a little better.

I grew up and cut off my braids and got my hair done in a wedge, which my cousin, Laurel, swore made me look just like Dorothy Hamill, who Aunt Mona took us to see in Stars on Ice when I was twelve.  I didn’t return to Summerhill until the year after I graduated from high school.  I went to visit Momma’s grave in Morrow Valley and took her a bouquet of yellow daisies, her favorite flowers, and then I drove back to the old neighborhood.  I wanted to walk those streets I had once walked with Momma and sit in the park and feed the ducks and see if I could still feel her there, since she seemed to have disappeared from most other places in my life over the years.  But I hardly recognized my hometown when I got there.  The single-wides on Cherry Blossom lane had been replaced by tall narrow houses that looked as though someone had pressed them from identical cookie-cutters, and a line of evenly spaced trees, not cherries but jacarandas, their canopies of bright flowers like purple mushroom clouds, marched down the street straight as soldiers.  I went to the park, but the duck pond and the bridge where I had last seen Momma were gone, replaced by a baseball field, a little league game in full swing.

I thought it should have made me sad to see the old neighborhood so drastically changed, but as I walked back through the unfamiliar streets, I didn’t feel sad at all.  When I got to my car, I stopped and looked at the house that now sat where our old trailer had once stood.  I stared at the pretty beige walls and the Spanish-tiled roof and the gabled windows.  My mother would have liked a house like this, and I could almost see her there, sitting on the porch swing, pushing her legs back and forth, shelling walnuts that she would bake into a loaf of sweet bread in the perfect kitchen.  The thought made me smile.



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