A Promise for Ma

A lock of sandy brown hair slid down the forehead of the nine-year old boy sitting like a statue on the black horsehair sofa. A lone tear slipped down his cheek, and he started as the clock in the hallway struck two. Dong, dong. He shuddered. His mother was dying. She told him on their railroad trip across country. She had rheumatic fever as a child, and she never expected to marry or have a child. Perhaps her son cost her life. But, even so, she was willing to pay the price. He was a special boy, this man-child: large for his age, and bright. She had no trouble keeping him on track with his studies while they traveled, but she was a teacher and he, a most apt pupil.

But she taught him more than math and literature on the long ride from Wisconsin to Arkansas to meet her family. She shared her faith, and she took him to services far different than the Catholic mass he attended in Wisconsin. He had made his first communion, and she had dressed him, combed his hair, and told him she was proud, but on their journey together she taught him he needed Jesus Christ alone. She was in her thirties when she met his father, Edward, a railroad man. Edward was a good, if stubborn, Catholic, and he came to adore her, this gentle schoolmarm. He had asked her to teach him to read and write—he’d only had six weeks of schooling—and she did. Edward was bright, but he’d been pulled out of school after six weeks the first fall after their immigration from Germany. He had to dig potatoes to support the family, and he never returned, getting himself a job on the railroad when he was young.

Over the course of their weeks together, Edward fell head over heels with his tutor, and they were married.  Married ladies didn’t teach school, but she didn’t have to teach anymore, although she picked up a little extra money teaching music. Out of their union a son was born, and now the boy waited on the couch for his mother to die. He felt himself slipping and felt fear clench his belly. He was told to sit, be quiet, and not disturb his mother. Maybe, if his feet touched the floor, he could push himself back up on the slippery couch. He swallowed a big lump in his throat and looked around. He could hear his mother’s heart beating from the bedroom. He was used to that—although he didn’t usually hear it when she was resting, only when she swept the floor or scrubbed the clothes. He tried to do the chores he could—he brought in the water and the wood, because he didn’t like to hear that or see her trying to catch her breath.

His aunt bustled past, stopped, glowered, and swept her hand against that unruly lock. “He needs a haircut,” she muttered to her husband.

“That’s the least of what that poor boy needs,” his uncle replied. He paused to drop a hand on his shoulder. “Are you doing all right, boy?”

“Yes, Sir. Can I see my ma now?”

“Soon. Father O’Hare is with her now.”

The door opened with a bang, and the priest rushed out with an angry look. He ignored the greetings, leaving without a word. His aunt and uncle exchanged glances.

“I’ll see if your mama can talk to you now,” his uncle said and slipped into the bedroom where his mother lay. He came out, his eyes glistening, and motioned for him to come. The boy let his body slip to the floor and followed him.

His beautiful mother reached out to her son. “Come, Lyle.” He took her frail hand and thought of the robin that fell from its nest last summer. When he picked it up, it fluttered in his hand, just like Ma’s hand did. She smiled and pushed that unruly lock back gently. “I love you, Lyle. Never forget Mama loves you.”

“Is it time, Ma?”

“It’s time, but I’m not afraid, and don’t you be. I told you. I’ll be in heaven with Jesus, and I’ll watch over you.” Lyle felt another tear and another trickle down his cheeks. “Promise me, Lyle. Promise Ma you won’t smoke a cigarette, or drink a drop of whiskey, or kiss a woman until you are twenty-one. Can you promise me that?”

“Yes, Ma, I promise.”

“Be a good boy—you are a good boy. Do your chores. Study hard.”

“I will, Ma. Don’t try to talk. I wish you didn’t have to go.”

Lyle tiptoed and leaned to kiss his mother’s cheek. She smiled and closed her eyes. The fluttering ceased.

“I love you, Ma,” he whispered, and he thought he saw the corner of her mouth lift.

A sob erupted from the chair where his dad sat keeping his vigil. He stood and pulled the sheet over his wife’s face. He walked to the door and told the watchers in the hallway. “It’s over.”

“Ed, why was Father O’Hare angry when he left out of here?” his uncle asked.

Edward shook his head. “Alice didn’t waver. She refused the last rites, said she didn’t need a mediator between God and her save the Man, Christ Jesus.” He glanced at his son. “I’m not so sure that trip was good for Lyle.”

“Lyle will find his own way, Ed, and I guarantee you Alice will see to it.”


This is a biographical account of my father, Lyle Edwafrd Seeman, who retired from the Army a Major General