Coyotes Howl in Fallbrook

Early in the Mornin’

By Beth Escott Newcomer


The kitchen is cold this January morning, but that doesn’t matter: Kay sits there in her chair bundled up in an ancient housecoat, layered over yesterday’s sweat suit, just like she would if it were the hottest morning in August. This is her uniform. Don calls it her ‘mantle,’ a kind of cloak of security.

“Is there any coffee?” she asks. I pour her a fresh cup, open the spout of the pint carton of half-and-half, set the sugar bowl next to her, and lay a teaspoon on a napkin.

“Did you sleep well?” I ask.

“Mm-hmm,” she replies, “And you?”

“Very well, thanks,” I say and begin to unload ingredients from the refrigerator: eggs, garlic, mushrooms, butter, a wedge of Parmesan cheese. I begin breaking eggs into a bowl.

“How about a little music?” I ask, and without waiting for a reply, I put on a CD. Ray Charles’ voice pours out of the small boom box on the kitchen counter, singing “Early in the Mornin’,” his classic rendition.

“Who is that man singing?” Kay asks.

“Ray Charles,” I say.

“Ray Charles?!” she replies, “I didn’t know he sang. What a voice, what a voice.” She smiles and closes her eyes and taps one toe and pats her knees with both hands in complex syncopation, perfectly accompanying the backbeat. She puckers up and adds to the top note her own special improvisation of soft dry meandering whistling. She was and still is a natural musician.

I set the oven temperature and then slice up a pile of Italian brown mushrooms. While I mince the garlic cloves, Kay turns to me and asks, “Say, who is that man singing?” and I reply, “Ray Charles,” and she says, “Oh yeah, you just told me that.” Then, after a beat, she adds, “I didn’t know he sang. What a voice. What a voice.”

This whisk has seen better days, I think to myself as I whip up the eggs in the bowl. It’s bent and a little rusty, yet not one of the series of housekeepers and cooks who’ve worked this kitchen over the years has seen fit to ask for a new one. A true craftsman doesn’t blame his tools.

Kay is sipping her coffee, still whistling, and turning the pages of the Parade magazine that came in the Sunday paper. Every picture of a puppy or a baby catches her eye and I can hear her chuckle to herself, one hand covering her mouth.

It’s been drizzling this morning. When the dogs come scratching on the screen door to come in, they are a chaotic pack, so happy and excited and damp and muddy and demanding attention. I let them in and they swarm around my feet. Don brings up the rear, says “What smells so good?” comes over and gives me a kiss on my cheek.

“Hi, Mom,” he says, giving Kay a little wave.

Now Ray has moved on to “That Lucky Old Sun,” one of my favorites. I start to sing along softly, imperfectly, unconsciously, as I watch the butter slowly melt in the skillet.

Kay asks, “Who is that man singing?”

I say, “Kay. It’s Ray Charles.”

And she says angrily, “I know that!” and suddenly pushes away from the table, leaves her coffee cup, her Parade magazine where they sit, and walks off, out of the kitchen, pulling her robe tightly around her.

“What did you say to Mom?” asks Don, as he switches off the Ray Charles CD mid-track and starts rummaging through the strange little collection of CDs that have accumulated there.

I am annoyed: I like that CD. I move the skillet from the stove, the butter half-melted, and take my cup of coffee with me out of the room, making a point only the dogs can hear. They follow me hoping for a snack.

I end up in the TV room, and I ask myself why I bother with big elaborate Sunday breakfasts for those two, each more oblivious than the next. I answer: Because I enjoy the tasks; I find cooking relaxing; this is my family, now. And I like the way the little life movie looks in my mind the three of us sitting around the table, reading the paper together, making yummy sounds, the dogs begging.

And I sigh, thinking about all those champagne brunches on leafy patios with gangs of smart girls, talking about men and books and movies and food, and I wonder if they miss me anymore.

I can hear Kay’s dry whistling drifting out of her bedroom. It’s a new and avant-garde composition, one I’m quite sure will never be repeated. I walk to her door and stick my head in and say, “Yoo-hoo. Anybody home?”

She is sitting on the edge of her unmade bed. She looks over at me and says, “Just us chickens,” then cheerily adds, “Good morning, stranger,” and I can’t be sure if she’s joking about the stranger part. “I haven’t seen you in a long time. What brung you around these parts?” she asks with a country hick accent.

I walk over, sit down on the bed and put my arm around her. I give her a little squeeze. I say, mirroring the silly accent, “Well, it’s Sundee, and I brung some eggs and I’m fixin’ to cook ‘em up jus’ fer you, Sweetie.”

And she says, “Oh goodie,” like she’s a little girl in her high-pitched, teeny voice.

And I say, “Why don’t you come out into the kitchen and read the paper while I put the finishing touches on the frittata? Don’s out there already.”

And she says, “Don’s here?! I didn’t know he was coming over today,”

And instead of saying, “Don lives here, Kay, remember?” I just say, “Yup. It’s always nice to see him, isn’t it?”

I help her up off the bed and take her hand, and we walk back down the hall to the kitchen. She takes her place at the table.

“Is there any coffee?” she asks. I pour her a fresh cup, open the spout of the pint carton of half-and-half, set the sugar bowl next to her, and lay a teaspoon on a napkin.

“How about a little music?” I ask.

Don looks up from the paper and says, “Sure, if you can find anything good over there,” and so I take the Ray Charles CD once again and pop it in the small boom box. “Early in the Mornin’” pours smoothly out of the speakers.

Kay is bopping in her seat, tapping her toe, and patting her knees with both hands in perfect time to the backbeat. “Who is that man singing? Do you know?” she asks.

“Ray Charles,” I reply.

“Did you know that he sang?”

“Yes, Kay, I think I knew that.”

“What a voice, what a voice,” she says dreamily. And she closes her eyes, puckers up and begins to blow an eight-bar solo. It’s a little dry but somehow right on the money.

♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦

Beth Escott Newcomer is a Southern California-based writer and graphic designer. She lives in Fallbrook with her husband Don.

Image by Alan Light via a Creative Commons license.

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13 replies
  1. Millie Gordon says:

    This is a precious commentary, full of love and respect.

    I could say I wish I’d had that gentle relationship with my own mother, but our experience was completely different.

    Obviously Kay deserved all that love and patience.

    Reply
  2. Kate Dollar says:

    this story is so honest, touching on all the feelings of all the players. I lost my Mother to the dreaded Alzheimers after a ten year battle. i watched her fight like the warrior she was, to hold on to herself, to be the person she had been but…in the end, she still tried to communicate but the words were a jumble of letters that made no sense. Yet. I would see something flit acros her face, an irritation. I knew somewhere locked in that mind was her truth she just could like get that brain to fire up. Days would come when I would grow so despondent and want nothing more then for it to end. Days were I would put my arms around her and feel so grateful for her soft, smooth skin, her graceful hands. To this day, I am forever in awe of the way such brave people hang onto life and the braver people who help them on that journey.

    Reply
  3. Kat Grom says:

    Nice writing. I can see the kitchen, the wet dogs, the frustration…Kate was lucky to have both of you for the music, the food, the companionship.

    Reply
  4. Stephanie says:

    I feel like I know all the players in this little drama in less than a page. I love how much gets conjured up in the memory of “leafy patios with gangs of smart girls.” Great little piece. Makes me think of my (step-) mother-in-law Mary in her later years. You captured all elements of the disease and the unease that attends it.

    Reply
  5. Mike Croghan says:

    Is there a way to get this piece in front of every person who is or has been near a loved one ravaged by this disease. So very much in here to comfort, to remind, to understand. Beautifully done. Beautiful.

    Reply
  6. Joanne Escott says:

    I’ve read this before and was very touched by it again. You really are a compassionate person, Beth. One of your loveliest traits. What’s extra special is that you can express your thoughts in such a subtle way that leaves such an impression on the reader.

    Reply