Last words of O. Henry
Her name was Mary but as a small child I could not pronounce it and so I called her Mimi. She and her family were part of the Croatian diaspora of the early 20th century. She was second generation and spoke English fluently but she never learned to read or write. She certainly never drove a car – that skill was carefully guarded by her tall, silent husband whom I always circled warily.
She was of middle height with thin mousy brown hair that only looked good on Saturday when she had a standing appointment at the local beauty shop for her regular wash and set. She had a plain oval face, large ears and a distinctive nose. As a young woman, her body must have been delicious for even in middle age, which are my earliest memories of her, she had fine, heavy breasts and slim hips.
Mimi cleaned houses for a living but her own home was very plain and drab, like a floor that had been washed with Spic and Span so many times that all of the shine was gone and only gray linoleum remained. There were very few decorations or knick knacks in the house except for one I remember well. It was a little figurine of an old peasant with a kerchief, or babushka, on her head and broom in her hands. Mimi told me she was a “stada baba,” a name meaning “old grandmother.” She would say to me, “One day when I’m an old stada baba with a babushka will you come see me at the Poor House?” I would say yes and she would laugh and hug me.
In those days the County Poor House was the terrifying specter and the only option for those who were poor or without children to care for them in their old age. Social Security was still a new-fangled idea and many people like Mimi who worked on a cash basis never even had a number, a regular paycheck and certainly no medical insurance – like many people today.
There were three local radio stations in our valley in those days and every Sunday afternoon one of them would play the music of the ethnic tribes of Europe. There was the Italian Hour, the Polish Hour, the Serbian Hour, the Irish Hour, the German Hour and so on. When the Serbian Hour came on at 1 o’clock I would go over to Mimi’s house and she and I would dance to the wild gypsy music of the chardash. We would twirl and spin around until we were both out of breath and dizzy. Then she’d laugh and say “Let’s have a little nip.” She would pour me a bit of beer in a small jelly glass and say “Now, don’t tell your mother.”
By her forties, the years of scrubbing floors on her knees, of hanging out of second story windows to wash them, of soaking her hands in water that was too hot and full of chemical cleaners, eventually exacted a price on her strong peasant body. Her joints became swollen with rheumatoid arthritis and her thin arms and legs were often dark with bruises from falling. There was always the look of pain behind her eyes.
Sometimes at night I would be watching television and hear the back door open. Mimi would hobble in and say “Don’t be mad at me for bothering you, Marie. My legs hurt so bad and I just didn’t want to be alone anymore” (for her husband worked nights). Always she would apologize for interrupting me, for intruding her pain into my superficial teenage life. Often she would cry. We would watch a few programs together and then at nine o’clock she would go home.
Before I relate my final conversation with Mimi, I have to include another piece of information. As a child I had always slept with a night light on for I was afraid of the dark; that was when I felt most alone. To be in the light meant to be happy and loved.
One night, many years later, when I was in my early 50’s, I woke up within a dream. I was in a cloudy kind of place and, although it had been more than 30 years since her death, I was talking to my dear neighbor. I heard my mind saying to her mind, “How happy you must be now, Mimi. You don’t have any more pain. You can do anything and it doesn’t hurt. You can even smoke as many cigarettes as you want.”
This was really a projection on my part because Mimi never smoked. I was the 30-year, two-pack a day nicotine addict who was one year into abstinence.
I felt Mimi smiling as she replied. “You don’t understand. You only come here when you don’t want anything anymore,” and I instantly understood that she was perfectly right. Heaven is being without compulsions and desires.
As she was leaving me she turned back to add, “You know, Marie, up here the light never goes out.”
A jolt shot through me and I immediately woke up. I remembered that just the year before I had lain in Intensive Care, drifting in and out of consciousness, living in a half-land of darkness and shadows. I had been afraid then that the light might go out for good. Now this kind woman from my childhood had come back to tell me that there was nothing to fear, that a place of safety was waiting, a place where the light was eternal.
I never forgot Mimi’s last visit. I think maybe she is waiting for me. When I arrive the music will start to play and we will both be young and beautiful and we will dance chardash again.