Friday, April 22, 2016

Locked and loaded: My mother's shotgun

I saw her shoot a snake once, the only day I held a shotgun, even though she wanted to teach me how to use it when I was a junior in high school. The first time I noticed Mother's shotgun,  woman two blocks away had gotten murdered in her own home by a man she sometimes hired to do work around the house. That's neither here nor there, but it was terrifying as well s tragic. I knew the woman's daughter from the swimming pool, but not well.  Later Grace McPherson went to live with her aunt. Dickie McPherson had already been paralyzed a few years before in a swimming accident, and I don't know where he went.Mother took me out in the front yard and told me I should learn to shoot. I declined. I was pretty sure I would not be able to find where Mother kept the shotgun anyway in the event of a home invasion. Also, I wanted to block out Mrs. McPherson's murder.  I turned and went back into the house, which I think made Mother mad.

The next time I remember seeing the shotgun was the day of the snake, about twelve years later. By that time, Mother had remarried Gerry and moved to his house in north Meridian, but she still had a cabin she had inherited from her parents down at Buckatunna Creek south of Quitman. I always loved the camp and I used to drive down from Memphis and stay in the  cabin with her when the twins were eight or nine. I had all but forgotten about the McPhersons and my girls were swimming in the creek. It had a nice sandy bank, where my grandfather used to put me in the canoe and take me out for a paddle. the creek hd a rope swing, and you could see where the old bridge used to be. It was a nice place to splash around. So when the snake slithered from the woods onto the sandbar, I figured we should do something before the girls found the it. I think it was probably just a black snake, but Mother went up to the cabin anyway and came back with the shotgun.

A word about the shotgun. It's what Mother calls a "side by side," two barrels. It was a birthday present her father gave her when she was twelve years old, so that makes it...69 years old. I guess after World War II it seemed natural to have a gun, or maybe just down in the Mississippi country where you see copperheads and moccasins as a matter of course. Mother has promised me I could have the shotgun when she's gone, but I know she'll take it with her if she can.

She showed me how to shoot. I was less resistant this time. Maybe it was that we were down in the country and I was thinking about shooting a snake, not a person. I didn't have very good aim, but I gave it a try. I know snakes flip and flop a while after they're dead, but this one either had a whole lot of nerve endings or my aim was worse than I thought. We waited half an hour and it was still moving around. Mother said she didn't think it was quite dead and she took the shotgun from me and shot it some more. She shot it a whole bunch of times. I didn't seen how it could still have any life in it or even be in one piece.

Eventually, the snake made its wriggly way to the water and I could just picture the it being swept downstream and coming up against the girls' legs. I got a stick and walked over to where it drifted in the eddy. I hooked it with the stick and flipped it back on the beach. Then Mother picked up the gun and I leapt out of the way while she shot it  few more times. A few minutes later we all went back to the cabin to get some cheese and crackers, and when we came back, the snake was gone. I speculated that it found its way back to the water or a hawk came along and picked it up.

But this is not about the snake; I got sidetracked. It's about Mother's shotgun. A few years later than that, I had moved to Georgia and my oldest daughter had gone down to stay with Mother awhile to get away from her unsuccessful marriage, so this anecdote I heard from her, but I believe. It has quite a bit of verisimilitude. By that time, Mother had become less inhibited about drinking, and Emily told me one night Mother got mad at Gerry about something  and called him a drunk (he was also given to excessive drinking but nicer about it), and she shot at him as he sat in his recliner in the den watching Turner Classic Movies. I never quite understood how he managed to escape with his life if it was the shotgun, but I've seen the holes in the chair and I've heard her call Gerry a drunk who lives off women with my own ears. Emily says the police came, but they went away without arresting anybody.

Mother and Gerry went back to their daily routine, golfing and drinking and playing bridge until Gerry died of a pulmonary embolism, not a gunshot wound, in 2007. We went to the funeral but we also began to make more regular visits to check on Mother. At Christmas, she was in a state.  Since Gerry died, Mother had been both lonely and concerned for her safety as an elderly woman living alone. She confided the concerned for her safety part to us, and we inferred the loneliness. She told us she could protect herself, though.
"I keep my shotgun close in case someone tries to break in." She drank three or four water glasses full of wine and acted like she enjoyed the visit.  However, things went quickly to hell when she picked a fight with Kathy about the twin bed Kathy asked if she could take back to Georgia. It had been a Christmas present when Kathy was thirteen.  Mother got agitated and told her we could have anything she owned, but not that bed. I was quite irritated with her at that point; she made Kathy cry.

I'm not sure if that was the visit where she told Kathy she had been a failure as a child, but I do remember that she was so outdone with the bed requests that she kept on and on about Kathy's greediness. She told Kathy that her being elected class favorite was a mistake. Many, many of  Kathy's classmates, she said, came to Mother to complain about Kathy's being selfish. This supported Mother's objection to giving Kathy her twin bed until I pointed out that Kathy had been elected class president the next year, so her classmates had seemed to think rather well of her.

That was about the time Mother called the police and told them to come arrest her daughters, as they were robbing her house.The police came to see what was going on, and I began to understand those Investigation Discovery shows like Snapped.  The whole situation was so ludicrous I could hardly believe where it had gone wrong and why I was trying to explain to two uniformed officers while my sister wept in the background and Mother glared at me over their shoulders. I remembered how satisfying it had been to hold the shotgun and I knew I better go back to Georgia fast.

But first I wanted revenge. I knew Mother's shotgun was in plain view just under her bed, so when the policemen asked us if we could calm Mother down, I mentioned the shotgun and how she liked to fire it off at family members. Reassessing the situation, the policemen strenuously suggested we go to a hotel. I said we would just drive back to Atlanta. I was furious at Mother and afraid to trust myself around the shotgun. I saw that it wouldn't be that hard to go from shooting a snake to aiming at a person. We got out of there. I stopped at a gas station, got a huge cup of coffee and powered down I-20 till we got home at three in the morning and I was over my anger.

That visit made us wary. The next Christmas, we still slept, or tried to, at Mother's. She was in bad shape, drunk when we got there, so we spent most of the day trying to find a rehab facility that would take her in.  Mother was agreeable one minute, livid the next. That night we both slept lightly. The pull out bed was dirty and she had no clean sheets, so Kathy slept in the clothes she had driven over in. I changed into pajamas, but I laid out my traveling clothes on top of the mattress to sleep on. It was a mistake. All night long I felt as if I was lying inside a chalk outline. Kathy said later she just knew she would wake up with Mother standing by the sofa, double barrels trained on us.

We've gotten--not wiser, but maybe safer. Now we stay at Comfort Inn when we go over. We ascertain location of the shotgun immediately after we get to Mother's house. We have a code word: "antihistamine." When one sister says it, it signals the other sister to go find the shotgun and move it. We usually put it somewhere we think Mother will find it after we leave but not before. We hope that she will just think she moved it when she was less than lucid.

We don't ever have a drink while we're there, so she has to sneak and go have hers in the bathroom and we do everything we can not to agitate her. We talk about Turner Classic Movies and we agree with everything she says. Neither of us relishes the thought of ending up like the snake. I can too easily imagine myself flopping around, nerves refusing to die until Mother shoots me some more.  Now whenever the police are called to Mother's house, and it's happened a few times, I make sure one of us tells them right off she keeps that shotgun under the bed, fully loaded, and they better see that it's there way before they try to convince her to come anywhere with them. It just seems like the prudent thing to do.

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