My life began with a funeral. My 17-year-old mama, nine months pregnant, in a boat, out on the lake to scatter the ashes of my dead father (because Uncle Billy said he would’ve liked that,) had been feeling pains all day. She thought it was gas. Uncle Billy wished it was gas. A flooded motor and two hours of hard labor later, I was on Mama’s tummy, wrapped in an old ratty fishing net. Daddy lay, forgotten, in the corner of the boat. Mama eventually put him in the liquor cabinet, next to a dusty bottle of Wild Turkey. He would’ve liked that, too.
Mama was scared of boats and water after that. By age eight, I figured out that if I wanted to get out of chores, all I had to do was push off in daddy’s rowboat and Mama would leave me alone. She wouldn’t even go to the dock to wave me in for supper. She’d ring the dinner bell on the porch.
Boats were also a good place to think, and I was doing a lot of that lately. Graduation was soon and my boyfriend had asked me to marry him. I’d known him my whole life and people expected us to get married. It was how things worked. Mama was a widow with a baby by the time she was my age.
Then there was college. I longed to go to college, the farther away the better. Ten applications sent and not a single reply. The few kids I knew who wanted to go to college already had their letters, their futures, in their hands.
The bell rang.
I rowed back to shore and walked to the house, stopping by the mailbox on the way in. Nothing.
Mama had dinner on the table. I pushed around the peas with my fork. “I think I should get married on the dock.”
Mama smiled. “You don’t want me at your wedding?”
“You can watch from the porch. We’ll get you some binoculars. You won’t miss a thing.”
Mama smiled over her coffee cup.
We ate in silence for a while. When Mama spoke, her voice was soft. “And school?”
I sighed. “I don’t think anyone wants me. You know how it is, mama. My grades are okay but this is just a country school.”
Mama squeezed my hand. “You’re smart, baby. You can do anything.”
“Thanks, but you have to say that. You’re my mother.” I pushed away from the table. “I’m going back out.”
My fingers trailing the water, I thought about my future. A wife. A mother. It was fine. It really was. But there’d always be a part of me that wondered, “What if…”
I heard the sound of a boat motor. I sat up and saw Mama heading toward me in that old rickety boat, waving something white in the air. She stopped alongside me, breathless, as our boats swayed in her wake.
“Mama! You’re in a boat! On the water! What…”
Mama waved me off. “This came for you.”
I took the envelope from her hand. The return address said “State University.”
“Open it,” Mama whispered.
I held my breath and ripped open the envelope and scanned the letter. “I got in. Mama, they want me!”
She hugged me. “Of course they do, sweetie.” I tried to pull away but she held me tight.
“Mama? You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“Terrified,” she said as she let go and started the motor. But as I watched her maneuver the boat toward shore, her hands were quite steady.