"Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you."
Deuteronomy 5:16

Mamma ate: chicken salad, sweet potatoes, licorice twists, cake. Put anything near that woman and it was sucked into the vortex of her desire to stay alive for one more year.

Not that Mamma was sick; she just wanted to keep influencing things, such as impressing her friends and making her daughter come every week.

Mamma smacked her lips when she ate. Wet clicks accompanied her breathing when the flat of her tongue slapped against the top of her mouth.

Jeanette checked her gag reflex at the door and bade her mother a fine morning. Tired from the hour and a half drive after church, she put down her purse and started to sink into an overstuffed chair.

"I have my list," Mamma started. Not 'how is your life' or 'would you like a cup of chai tea.' "I need bananas, eggs, milk, and I want to go to the pharmacy. There's a sale on vitamins, a two-for-one." Mamma would spend as much as a hundred dollars on fish oil and on stuff that promised to fill out her thinning hair.

Mamma's house smelled like lilac, hyacinth, and rose sachets that didn't quite mask the smell of old woman. There was something nose curling about old bodies, and it wasn't just that they weren't showered enough because getting in and out of the bath was awkward. When a body ceased to grow, and began to sink into itself, it smelled like death.

How horrible, how sinful it was to think such things! She was going to hell.

Mothers were precious and it was a privilege to serve them—as well as one's children and one's husband at the same time.

"Do you want to use the bathroom before we go?" Jeanette ventured.

"Why?" Oh, Mamma was good, really good, at letting things hang in the air. She knew full well that Jeanette wouldn't dare suggest that she was a little stinky today.

Mamma launched into a tirade against an acquaintance who had said something about another acquaintance, and how they all were mad at the first acquaintance this week. She punctuated her verbiage by flourishing a cup of cold coffee, which sloshed onto the tablecloth. Mamma didn't have friends, but her acquaintances at the Club were many. She said they played bridge and a little cribbage, but Jeanette had seen the poker chips in a side drawer.

She lifted Mamma's coat, the one with the real fur collar, from the rod in the hall closet. Hidden by the closet door, Jeanette dug a sticky roller out of her purse and rolled bits of gray hair and things she didn't want to think about off the coat. Mamma was shedding.

Mamma set her coffee cup down. "You ready now?"


"Well, I'm not." Mamma rose. "This sweater is too hot."

She made her way toward the bedroom, waving away the antique gnarled cane Jeanette offered, but running her nails along the wall, as if her own daughter couldn't see she needed the support. Without giving her daughter any credit for caring, Mamma would wash up and change into a dress, earrings, and flats.

Jeanette sat on the sofa. Why couldn't she have kept her mouth shut? They would have been on the road by now.

What a bad Mennonite she was! Of course, the other women in the church were lifelong, farm-bred, real Mennonites, and they didn't have a rich mother with an inheritance that she held at her kids' necks like a sword. Safe within their oh-so-kind little world, they had no idea what real life was like.

Mamma would have the upper hand today, and why was that different from any other day, especially lately? Mamma knew what was up. Of course, she wielded the bludgeon of her money and city acreage with practiced skill. That was a given, but this new reason for Jeanette coming every few days must have her scheming unexpected moves.

Sometimes, Jeanette wished she had never heard those Mennonites singing and ventured into their service. She had simply been looking for the new breakfast place that everybody was talking about, but that singing had flowed out of the windows of the church and lured her in. She'd only wanted breakfast, after all, but it was just after Neil and she had come back from a business trip to Taiwan, and she'd been made susceptible.

On one of her lonely days in Taiwan, she had met some Mennonite girls who said they were on holiday from teaching in China. They invited her to spend an afternoon, walking and talking in Old Taipei City's crowded markets. It was something she never ever would have done on her own. The girls spoke some Mandarin and conversed easily with outdoor fish vendors. Dodging mopeds and trucks laden with produce, they found a tea house, ate little cakes, and spent the afternoon just talking. The girls didn't seem to mind her questions, like why they weren't wearing bonnets. They appeared to sincerely like her company, and they listened to her. It was such an exotic afternoon.

Back in the States, though, she was finding that the Mennonites were a force, apart from regular people. She was fascinated, but attending their church required learning another language, where Peace and Justice! and Ambassadors of Reconciliation! were thrown about as if everyone should understand their meanings. God's Kingdom on Earth! Commitment! and apparently the most revered one, Glad Suffering! They wanted people to do things, like tutor kids who couldn't read and serve dinner at the homeless shelter. They read the Bible together and expected everyone to discuss it. They had potlucks, where you had to bring something, and little groups that went to organizations like the 'Peace and Justice Center' and 'Mothers for the Environment.' She went to church alone, of course. Neil wouldn't come with her. With the kids away at college, he liked his Sundays free for sleeping in and football.

How could these Mennonites ever understand what being tethered to someone like Mamma meant? A month ago, Jeanette, with absolutely no help from her brother George, had taken Mamma to a court appearance in which Mamma was roundly scolded by a judge for failing to signal before a left hand turn, thus fender-bending an oncoming car. All this could have been taken care of at the scene with a little insurance and the poor-me charm Mamma did know how to use, except that the oncoming car had sported revolving blue and red lights on the top. Off to traffic court they'd gone, with Jeanette having to drive an indignant and scared Mamma, who came very close to losing her license. Since Mamma did know how to play the game, though—and uncharacteristically kept her mouth shut at the traffic judge's onslaught—she had saved her license.

Jeanette's guilty pleasure at seeing her mother admonished soured at the realization of what had to come. Two long years stretched ahead before Mamma would have to get her license renewed. She'd never pass her next driver's test, but in the meantime, she could get behind the wheel.Nightmares of careening cars, sudden stops, and bursting airbags were invading Jeanette's dreams. Mamma, always a fast jerky driver, was becoming a truly lousy one.

Jeanette fidgeted on the sofa and waited for her mother.

Three times a week, since the accident, Jeanette had driven the hour and a half to Mamma's house and the hour and a half back. She claimed that she wanted to spend more time with her mother. Neither of them viewed that excuse with any degree of seriousness. They were getting on each other's nerves. Mamma surely knew that Jeanette was rearranging her busy life to come here and prevent her from driving, and Jeanette knew that Mamma knew and was using the opportunity to torture her.

Mamma would never torture George. Why did mothers pinch, pummel, and kick their daughters, but wait in desperate anticipation for their sons to give them a glance?

"Well, are you ready?" Mamma sailed into the room, decked in a purple hounds tooth suit and shoes too small.

"Sure." Jeanette helped her mother on with her coat. Mamma got her cane and purse, and proceeded to dig a comb from her purse and run it through the back of her hair. "I hate it when women look like they've just slept on their hair." Shards of hair and other things rained onto the coat.

"You look fine, Mamma," Jeanette said. "But there's serious ice outside. Don't you want to wear boots?"

"No, you'll help me."

"Of course I will."

The steps were negotiated by Jeanette walking backward in front of her mother, while Mamma alternately pushed her away, then grabbed onto her wrist. Jeanette tried to help without slipping on the ice herself. That was all she needed.

Mamma made a point of asking if they were going to take her car, and would Jeanette like her to drive this time?

"Oh, I can drive today, but let's take yours the next time." Jeanette attempted to maneuver her mother. Batting her away, Mamma held onto Jeanette's car and made for the driver's side, her rings clicking ominously on the car's brand new finish.

"Oops, I thought I was driving," Mamma said gaily, upon 'realizing' that she was on the wrong side. Jeanette had to help her through ice and dirty snow to the passenger's side. This game was getting old.

When Mamma was situated and had taken her time finding and buckling her seatbelt, which she insisted had to be buckled before the car was turned on, giving a long story about an acquaintance whose family had starting driving before she could buckle her seatbelt and . . . Jeanette sat behind the wheel and rubbed the fingers of one hand hard against the palm of the other while Mamma finished her tale. She imagined a mountaintop with wild flowers and grazing deer. After enjoying the sun's rays and petting a baby deer, she'd jump right off the mountain's edge and fly away, free as a bird.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. In adult Sunday school, they'd said that the 'honor-your-mother' commandment started in Exodus and didn't quit until Ephesians, all the way through the Bible. They had to be kidding.

"It's cold in here," said Mamma. "Let's get going."

They arrived at the pharmacy, the one on Blight's Road. "Not the one on Dale. Terrible service, and they don't even speak English anymore, and I don't mean to be nasty, but what are you going to do when it's the truth?"

Jeanette pricked her ears. The Truth. She might be able to use that one today.

They bought vitamins at the pharmacy, then dry goods at the grocery. They took letters to the post office, where Mamma chatted with the clerk while a line formed behind her. They shopped at Nordstrom's for a silk scarf and matching purse.

"It's time for lunch," commanded Mamma. "Let's eat at the Club; they have a very light souffle and salad on Wednesdays."

'And two pieces of pineapple upside down cake,' Jeanette thought. 'And mints that you'll shovel into your purse when no one is looking.'


Club Rose Hill was an older venue, not as rich as the newer clubs, but very nicely laid out on a golf course, with an inside pool and a restaurant and bar. Pops had joined when she was a little kid, so she knew it well.

At the entrance to the restaurant, Mamma held onto a nearby chair and flourished her cane toward a group near the back. They waved, and Mamma made her way toward them. Jeanette would be introduced to everyone at the table, even though they had known her since childhood. It was Mamma's way of taking the spotlight for an allotted time, which was allowed by the women because they expected their own moments of glory. As they aged, though, it seemed that each of the women lost track of what the allotted time was.

"Jeanette came up to help me again. Isn't that nice?"

As if by design, Mamma's friend Louise, who drove everywhere, even to Florida, spoke up. "Well, I saw you out on the four lane the other day. I waved when I passed, but you didn't see me." Louise boasted about her driving and kept all the other women wanting to drive coast to coast. "Good to see you out and about."

"Well, of course!" said Mamma. "Lots to do."

So Mamma was driving on the highway.

The old biddies started in on—did you see such and so with that man from Chicago, and how she was hanging on his arm—and wasn't that a shame with her husband just gone from the world only last year—and isn't that man a cousin of those McCauley's from Cleveland?

Jeanette stood on one foot and then the other, waiting. Finally, Mamma said that they just had to get to their table, being that this one was all filled up, so goodbye until next week.

"Let's go over there. Missie Haaff will ask us over if we don't get into a corner," said Mamma loud enough for poor Missie Haaff to hear. "I can't stand hearing about her trips."

When they were settled in, and Mamma had decided to get the full buffet, Jeanette swallowed hard. Carefully, she unfolded the piece of paper she'd brought along. Please help me, dear Lord.

"Mamma, I have something I'd like to talk to you about."

"Just a minute, dear." Mamma waved the waiter over and ordered a glass of Pinot Noir with ice water on the side.

Jeanette tried again. "Um, Mamma, you talked about 'the truth' in the car, do you remember?"


"Well, you did, and I need to try to tell you the truth about a very difficult issue. You know I love you."

A microsecond passed as they contemplated that.

"And I'm sorry you've had to experience what you had to go through."

"What have I had to go through?" Mamma picked up her napkin and shook it out.

"The traffic court, Mamma. See, I wrote out a little list of things that it might be good to consider. Just a few rules, maybe, for driving? You don't have to read it now, of course. You can call me later with your thoughts. We don't have to discuss this now."

"Give it to me."

Jeanette passed the note to her mother. In it were such things as 'consider the speed limit, consider using the transportation provided by Home Health, drive only in town, etc.' Mamma read it thoroughly, folded it carefully, and put it into her bag. When she glanced up at her daughter, she looked ready to kill.

"Thank you, for sharing your opinions." Mamma's voice was soft. She leaned back in her chair and waited as her wine was delivered. "Don't forget the ice water," she said to the waiter. She turned back to Jeanette and spoke even softer, one eyebrow lifting. "I will drive as I see fit. I will drive where and whenever I want. Neither you nor anyone else can stop me. And dear, it is simply not your business. Go take care of your children." She paused. "And your husband."

Jeanette wanted to wound her mother so, so much. A riot of comebacks targeting her mother's many faults and messed-up marriages danced on her tongue.

But the only thing Jeanette could think to do was get up and go to the buffet. She picked up a plate and loitered among the hot dishes, loading up on food she wouldn't eat. When she brought the plate back to the table, her mother got up, stumped with her cane to the buffet, and came back with a full plate, carried by a waiter.

Mamma dug into her food. "Do you think I don't know why you're coming up here?"

Jeanette picked at her food in silence.

"It's my life, not yours." Mamma stabbed at a piece of ham.

A few of the ladies came over to chat. Mamma did a bang-up job of covering, and the ladies gradually drifted away. Mr. Ridenour stopped by for a few old jokes that he laughed at himself. He passed a little gas and bid them good-bye.

Mamma wiped her mouth and put down the used napkin, soiled by yellow salad dressing and red lipstick. "You brought your bathing suit, didn't you? It will take me a minute to put mine on, so don't be in such a hurry to go back. You want to miss the rush hour traffic, don't you?" It wasn't a question, and Jeanette didn't want to remind Mamma that it was Sunday. The weekly swim, so that Mamma could boast that she was doing her exercises, was mandatory.

Jeanette tiptoed through the now slushy snow to her car. She struggled not to get behind the wheel and drive away, leaving her mother stranded at the Club. Honor your father and your mother: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and on and on and on. Some of the verses ended with—or you must surely die! Shuddering, she opened the back seat door and dug out the bag containing her bathing suit, cap, and goggles.

Together they walked to the locker room. Mamma didn't ask to hang onto Jeanette, and Jeanette walked behind, feeling condemned. They changed, Mamma taking much longer than needed. Wrapping towels around themselves, they shuffled to the heated pool. No one was swimming on this cold day, so they had the pool to themselves.

Mamma dropped the towel on a chair, ditched her cane, and made her way toward the stairway into the shallow end.

Jeanette said, "Can I help you down the stairs, Mamma?"

"Of course not." Mamma proceeded to grab onto the railing and slip. Jeanette held her mother's waist while she inched down into the water.

"Don't hold onto me," she said, and let go of the railing to bat at Jeanette's hands.

Jeanette let go but stayed close behind.

"Now, just let me do my exercises, will you please?" said Mamma.

Jeanette put on her goggles and dipped to her shoulders in the warm water. It was no use talking to Mamma; she was too difficult. So, when the inevitable, horrible accident happened and Mamma had killed other people, and the lawsuits began, she'd make her lazy brother deal with it. George could do something for once. She'd never have to talk to her ridiculous mother again.

'Honor your . . .'

Swiftly she rose, surprised, and the words flowed fast. "Mamma, I know things have been hard since the accident, and I wish I could come and we would just have fun. But, Mamma, life is not going to give us only what we want. And, I'm a complete coward if I don't face things with you."

Mamma worked her legs in the water.

And, and, I do love you.

Jeanette dove under the water and came up half a pool length away.

"I know, I know, I know it, okay?" Mamma was shouting.

Jeanette dove again. She struck out under the water with fluid movements. When she was out of breath, she surfaced and turned toward her mother. "Thank you, Mamma," she called from across the pool. It was all there was to say.

"Just leave it alone." Mamma continued to exercise, marching in the water while grasping the side with both hands.

Jeanette dove under the water and swam toward her mother's wavy legs.

About the Author

Greta Holt

Greta Holt has published stories in magazines and anthologies, including the Southern Indiana Review, What Mennonites are Thinking, and CMW. She attributes her interest in writing to the camaraderie of her writing group and to the writing conferences she has attended. She is the recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships in fiction. Greta is a member of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, which sponsors the Mennonite Arts Weekend.