By John Thomas Tuft

When Mama Sadie put on her black and white polka dot dress everyone knew things were taking a turn toward the serious. Mama Sadie only wore the dress for Sunday going to meeting, funerals, and dealing with high falutin’ folks like the mayor or chief of police or the all too rare occasion of going to the Woolworth’s lunch counter for pie and coffee to celebrate another successful drive for the library or the March of Dimes. She drove around town in a pink 1963 Buick Skylark with a black top, horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose, hands positioned at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, and her piety firmly tucked like the good Methodist that she was, into the shiny black handbag with the gold clasp on the seat next to her. And every evening when she locked the doors and turned out the lights, she paused before her framed photograph of the 35th President of the United States to whisper, “Gone too soon,” before retiring for the night.

“The greatest gift we can give is dignity,” Mama Sadie would say. “That’s what my Arnold used to tell me when he went out the door each morning, four of the a and m, to go do his milk route. They’re not customers, he’d say, they’re thirsty people.” She stopped to sigh. “I cleaned houses for the folks who ran the mills and if there’s one thing I learned, it is this. People are designed for love. Period. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, can fill that hole. And if you know that you are loved, you treat others with dignity. Just like if you never are loved, then other folks are just something to use or push out of the way. Period. ‘Nuf said.” Arnold passed away when Sadie was barely fifty, and her life became more of a struggle, albeit a dignified one. She simply would not allow herself to deal with it in any other way. Even then, however, the next ten years aged her twenty.

So, when Henry Chalmers, III, came courting, Mama Sadie did not quite understand. “I’m no spring chicken, Henry. My hair’s gone gray, everything sags, and I ain’t got much more than the clothes on my back.” Henry drew himself up straight and proclaimed, “I want to give you everything that you have ever desired.” “All I want is for you to take me as I am,” was Sadie’s dignified reply. “That’s all I want from anyone or for anyone.” But she let Henry talk her into putting on the black and white polka dot dress and take her somewhere fancy, the new Applebee’s on Route 28. “I want to buy you a new car, new furniture, and bring you presents. I like to spoil my women,” said the eager suitor. Mama Sadie took all this in, pondering it in her heart. Then she asked, in a voice so quiet that Henry had to lean over the table to hear, “What do you get out of this, Henry?” Henry sat back, a big smile on his face, “Well, I get to go around town with Mama Sadie on my arm. People will see us coming and think, why those folks got everything!”

Mama Sadie picked up the extra rolls and wrapped them in a napkin and carefully placed it into the shiny black handbag with the gold clasp. As she let Henry help her with her coat, she said, “They’re not customers, Henry. They are thirsty people.” Henry scratched his head at this and as they were getting into the car, the police chief pulled up alongside, calling to her, “Mama Sadie, we need your help.” He motioned for her to get in and they sped off. Henry followed, curious. He caught up to them outside the moldy trailer on the outskirts of town. Kyle Kendrickson, disheveled and drunk, was being pushed into the back seat of the police car. An ambulance prepared to cart away Kathy, a small woman with bruises and cuts and haunted eyes. The four Kendrickson kids, ages 3 to 13, sat on the couch, looking defiantly desperate and hollowed out. Mama Sadie opened her handbag and split the fancy Applebee’s rolls between them.

She turned to Henry. “You want to give me everything? Love these children. Then I will have everything, as will you.” Then she sat down among the kids, in her black and white polka dot dress, and put her arms around them. Henry backed away, not prepared for this kind of extravagance. She looked to the police chief. “Homer?” He nodded. “I sent a deputy to get your car, Mama Sadie.” And so it came to pass, that the evening that began with urgent desires for love and attention, ended with Mama Sadie driving her 1963 pink and black Buick Skylark back to her little house, horn-rimmed glasses firmly resting on the end of her nose, hands at 10 and 2 and her black handbag resting next to her, held by the fragile hands of a 13 year old, while the other three squabbled in the back seat.

After they were in bed, Mama Sadie locked the doors, turned out the lights and paused in front of the picture of the 35th President, and beside it the picture of her Arnold. And with a sad smile, she whispers, “Gone too soon.” ‘Nuf said.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.