Excerpt from “Tangled Tales of Freedom” by BBerry
Our great grandmother, Momma Lennie was a five foot two inch tall force, who easily packed the power and momentum of a runaway steam locomotive. No one in the family had the guts to stand up against her and those crazy enough to do so never tried it again. At the same time she was the epitome of grace and kindness; in fact, some might describe her as a pushover. There was that time that uncle Henry, an avid wife-beater, who was working on demolishing his third wife, sent the latest Mrs. Bastion to the basement to wait for him. He had pulled that maneuver with each woman who had fallen for his demonic charm and married into the family. What baffled us is why the woman would actually go there to wait for him. This time he pulled it during the celebration of a cousin’s baptism and he made the mistake of doing this in front of Momma Lennie and the rest of the family. The room became silent as the first snow and Henry stood up after his wife disappeared adjusted his pants as if there were a lascivious reason for his wanting to meet her downstairs. Once he left, a few of us children sneaked out the back door to peer in the side basement window. Henry was busy pummeling his wife like prizefighter when Momma Lennie bust in the door waving a thick belt above her little frame like a shaman’s staff. Henry turned quickly in a rage still holding his wife’s arm. Momma Lennie yelled for him to stop hitting the woman and let her go then stomped her foot.
“I said let her go and don’t hit her again!” She stomped her foot again “I mean nan’ anotha lick!” She shook the belt like a witch doctor, as our eyes grew huge in silence. Uncle Henry stood six feet three inches; he had to hunch in the low-ceiling basement, but his eyes were glazed in anger. I was ready to run and get my dad when Momma Lennie told him to get out of her house and not to come back. We finally heard his wife start to cry as he moved quickly past Momma Lennie, and then we high-tailed it towards the front of the house to avoid being caught. We Knew uncle Henry wouldn’t go back through the house. We made it to the bushes in front of the house to witness Henry jump in his car and screech away. Momma Lennie always said there was something not quite right about him, but she wouldn’t tell me what. She worried about his children, but his youngest Jenny was the sweetest cousin we had. We always suspected that she might not actually be uncle Henry’s, but Momma Lennie claimed she was. No one could say why she was so certain, but clearly of all the grandchildren Jenny seemed to have closeness with Momma Lennie beyond the rest of us. Five years later, Henry was onto his fourth wife and Momma Lennie was no longer there to protect her or any of us. She died in her sleep just shy Jenny’s twelfth birthday.
Momma Lennie left the house and all her assets to us grandchildren, which infuriated our parents. The house itself had been in the family for a couple generations. There were mysterious aspects about that house even our parents didn’t know. The most mysterious being a room in the corner of the basement, which no one could remember anyone entering or seeing unlocked. According to my mom, no one had been in it. Now that Momma Lennie had passed we all just figured it would remain locked, since we had no plans of selling the house. The family met there every Sunday; no other relative had a house or yard large enough to accommodate everyone. The five chosen heirs gathered one Saturday to sort through Momma Lennie’s bedroom and papers. Since all of us were over 18 except for Jenny, her father, uncle Henry, tried to assert control over her share of the inheritance, but Momma Lennie planned for that possibility before she died. Only the heirs would have a say in the distribution of assets and the house was off limits to everyone until the heirs were allowed to sort and inventory the assets; Jenny would retain her share in the power as Momma Lennie wanted. Since her passing the family dinners had been held inconveniently elsewhere and the pressure was on us to finish sorting everything. We gave up our Friday night social lives to try and finish, reopen the house for Sunday dinners.
Momma Lennie’s bedroom was meticulous. Her clothes remained neatly folded or hung in an organized manner before we reached the very back of her wardrobe. One of the cousins found old luggage stacked to the top back there; we each had two bags to explore. Jenny opened an old travel case full of vintage jewelry none of us had remembered seeing Momma Lennie wear. It all looked unusually valuable, but the real find was a single old key that didn’t fit the front or back doors of the house. Before putting it in the “don’t know what to do with it” pile as we continued opening the other cases, Jenny jumped up and screamed “The Door!” which startled us from the unexpectedness of her actions.
“I’ll bet you this is the key!” We looked at her as if she was nuts.
“Of course it’s a key numnutz, we need to know what it goes to.” Cousin Bobby said annoyed. He hadn’t wanted to deal with Jenny because she was so much younger than the rest of us despite being mature for her age.
“No brainless, I’ll bet this is the key!” She said excited and smiling. We all looked to one another. It was too unbelievable to accept. Cousin Theo shook her head with a look of concern as she spoke.
“That room doesn’t have a key. My dad said that was the reason no one ever went in.” Cousin Bobby rolled his eyes becoming even more agitated. He had given up a skating with his girlfriend for this, he wanted to hurry up, and finish even though he knew it would probably take all weekend to sort.
“Just stop with the nonsense! We’re not here to play games Jenny. The adults in the room still have a life!” Bobby was Jenny’s favorite cousin; it was obvious his response made her feel bad as she cast her eyes to her feet. As usual I tried to maintain harmony.
“Okay listen, let’s just set the key aside and after we finish here we can all go check the door. Besides Bobby, we all have to be here not just you and I’m sure Jenny, Theo and Richard have things they’d like to be doing on a Friday night as well. I know my fiancé would like me to be with him, so stop picking on Jenny.”
“I think we should go check it out now, then we’d know Maddie.” Cousin Richard suggested.
“God, it’s late Richard, I don’t want to go rummaging through basement stuff, let’s just finish upstairs. If we do, then we can open the house back up and finish the basement stuff in a couple weeks. No one’s going to go in the basement anyways. It’s not like anyone’s here to do laundry anymore. We can just tell everyone the basement’s off limits,” Theo whined. She always whined. Jenny’s face had perked up. Bobby stood up and threw the items he had in his hand on the floor.
“Fuck, let’s just go try the damned door and get it over with. You know it’s not going to fit anyways.” Bobby gripped exasperated. In unison we all said Bobby’s name in admonishment. Momma Lennie didn’t allow such language in her house and dead or not it wasn’t right to dishonor her in this way. “Alright, alright! Sorry Momma Lennie,” he said looking towards the ceiling.
“It’s late.” Theo sighed. “Why don’t you guys go check it out and I’ll continue going through these cases.” She acted as if she wasn’t interested, but I could tell she just didn’t want to go to the basement. She never liked it and hated when we played hide-n-seek down there as youngsters.
“We can’t do that Theo. You know the will says we have to sort everything together.” Jenny spoke up timidly. We looked at each other then everyone stood up and we headed for the kitchen to get to the back door, because the basement didn’t have an inside entrance. Theo grumbled the whole time. “How’s Momma Lennie going to even know! You guys act like she’s in the room with us.”
“She is Theo! She’s always near protecting us!” Jenny was getting angry, but she was right. Momma Lennie always stayed closed to us in a particularly protective manner especially Jenny. She often told us she would always be with us in spirit, but then who doesn’t say that to their grandchildren. As we filed towards the basement with the moon casting shadows, I suddenly wished we hadn’t found that old key. There was no reason to believe it would work, but I wanted turn and run back upstairs and wait till morning. I didn’t want to try that cursed door at until daylight, certainly not in the moonlight. For the first time in my life I wondered why Momma Lennie never had a porch light at the backdoor or basement, but I couldn’t say anything; ‘fraidy cats were always mercilessly teased among us.