Me, Momma, and Ralph T.

A Story of Courage

Me, Momma, and Ralph T.

What kind of reason do you need to give up on your kid? Winning the Irish Sweepstakes? Maybe smashing in your brain and coming down with amnesia? Losing your job?

Any respectable reason would have strengthened my spine—given me a backbone. Or at least a good story to tell.

No, I am so sorry. My momma won’t be able to pick me up from play rehearsal this afternoon due to her terrible case of amnesia that has wiped out every last memory she has of my existence. In fact, she currently is of the belief that Bobby Kennedy, along with his handsome president brother, have arranged a special White House hearing regarding the debate of butter vs. margarine that she must attend. She prefers butter.

Momma did not give me a respectable reason. Much less a good story. All she gave me was a cloud of dust as she drove off with Ralph T. Momma was never one for long goodbyes.

And there I stood.

We had been living in the boarding house for 13 and a half days when Momma and Ralph T. left for good. June 14, 1962.

It should have been the perfect summer. I had recently discovered I had talent after all. Chubby Checker constantly encouraged us to twist on the radio. Momma and I could twist up a blue storm! I had finally accepted that if my daddy had to be dead, his outlaw brother (though missing a screw or two in his head) could not possibly be the worst man that Momma could’ve married. He didn’t beat her. Or me. He smiled real big when she walked in the room. And whenever a cashier handed him change that equaled less than 49 cents, he put it in my palm.

Here kid, take it. A rainy day or a bill collector ain’t never more than 8 steps away.

His generosity had accumulated $28.07 in my pocket over the fourteen months he, Momma and me fumbled around the country looking for our flock.

After they left, four and a half days passed before I found the courage to tell Mrs. Thelese my troubles. If I could have hid it longer, I would have. But living in a boarding house is as private as urinating in a glass bathroom with all windows wide open. Everybody knows everybody’s business. And even if they try and look the other way, sounds and smells and movement get in their heads and tell all. People don’t sit down for supper. Don’t show up in line for a turn in the bathtub. Keep their door closed tight. No lights. No radio. No show.

Something’s up, they’d whisper.

I had to tell.

Mrs. Thelese owned the boarding house clear and free from any bank payments, debt, or husband. It was hers. This amazed me. Mostly the part of no husband. No man calling the shots. There are times that she and this old house seem one in the same. Always have. Difficult, if not impossible, to separate one from the other. Her voice is trapped in the woodwork, her footprints creak in the floorboards. And to this day, I expect to see her when I fix coffee before the sun rises.

Maybe that is why after forty some odd years I never want to leave this old house. The dead live here. And the living never die.

Somehow, I knew that I could trust Mrs. Thelsese. She is the reason that I believe in angels. Because she was mine. All those months riding around God’s creation looking for a flock had revealed nothing but slamming doors and traveling on for Momma and Ralph T.

Maybe they looked too hard. Tried too hard. Maybe they needed to do good and show good and their flock would have noticed. Would have followed them anywhere. Maybe they just didn’t want a kid tagging along.

Ralph T. never practiced what he preached. Never shut his mouth long enough to hear that what people really needed was hope. A reason to believe. Or help fixing a flat tire. Someone to listen long enough to let them hear their own thoughts. Not bullshit.

Ralph T. never learned this. But I did.

I found my angel in Mrs. Thelese. And she found her flock in me. Neither one of us were looking. But we couldn’t have needed each other more.

This is the way that life works.

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Tracy Coffee Gayle

Mother of 4. Wife. Author of Tilt-A-Whirl and Valerie, Jean, and Me.  Kentucky writer and teacher. 

See all posts by Tracy Coffee Gayle