One True Friend Who Loved Lake Loudon

Mother, if I could go back and change something, it would be that one day. That bright day in April of 1982 when the whole world was green and alive, but you were gray and dwindling. When I was sixteen, steamy with hormones, and you were fifty-something, parched with emptiness.

Earlier that day, I easily talked you into giving me your grocery money, telling you that it was mine to begin with. I was angry that you didn’t correct me. Angry that I had to babysit you while Daddy worked. Angrier still that you didn’t remember me, didn’t know my name. 

You called me “Rita.” 

When I was little, you told me about her, your best friend in grammar school, a slight, shy girl who was mentally challenged, and you took her under your wing. You kept her safe from the bullies who constantly belittled her. I didn’t care. How could you remember this long-ago friend and forget your own daughter?

You asked, “Rita, now where is it we’re going again?”

And I said, “The mall.”

When I pulled into a parking space, you looked straight ahead. You didn’t get out of the car. You didn’t move. I had to come around and tell you to get out.

“Why?” you asked blankly.

“Because we’re at the mall now.” I said those words quickly in a low voice. I was embarrassed for anyone around us to know about you.

I did not take your hand when we were crossing the busy parking lot. I didn’t look back to see if you stumbled when you reached the curb. I didn’t wait on you when I got to the heavy glass doors. I just kept walking.

I went first to J.C. Penney’s. I wanted a new dress to impress a new boy. He had sandy blonde hair, a beard and a bubble-windowed van with chrome side pipes. I wanted to leave Tennessee with him, to go somewhere far off. Away from places where you had to drive 30 miles to get to a mall. Away from trailers and fields and distant, mournful mountains. I wanted a city full of lights and noise–sophisticated, dispassionate people who never shouted in church because they never went there.

When I entered the store, I glanced back just for an instant and saw you shuffling along in your halting way, looking right and left, desperately searching for anyone, anything that seemed familiar. Finally, you stopped and stood there like a frozen shell of a thing.

I took my time. I tried on three dresses, turned this way and that in front of the changing room mirror. They weren’t exactly right, so I tried on three more. When I found the perfect dress, I went to the makeup section. I wanted Blush and Brush by Maybelline and the new Maxi crease-resistant eye shadow trio by Max Factor, and watermelon Mood Magic lipstick.

I headed next to Afterthoughts on the other side of the mall. I needed some earrings to match the new outfit. Almost there, I stopped at a concrete bench, sat down, pulled out the new lipstick from my Penney’s shopping bag and ripped it from its plastic container. Taking a compact mirror from my purse, I watched myself slather Mood Magic across my lips and smack them together to feel the rich creaminess. I wondered if people, specifically male people, could, indeed, sense my mood now.

Rising from the bench, I saw you again near the fountain, right in front of the food court. The sound of rushing water reverberated through the tall expanse of the mall ceiling. You were holding out your hands as if to reach for someone. Passersby eyed you and frowned. Shook their heads.

There were so many earrings in Afterthoughts. I needed just the right shade to match the blue and white sundress I bought. It took some time to wade through all the aisles, to find the right pair. There were dangly ones and some with feathers. The color choices overwhelmed me: azure, navy, teal, midnight blue. Green-blue like the lake you loved. I grabbed a pair.

And then I saw the sunglasses. I wanted round ones with gold rims and rose-colored glass.

I went to the hat section next. A big, floppy, straw hat would look nice with my sundress.

It was while I was trying on hats that I first became aware of certain startled voices coming from just outside the store, overpowering the echoes of the fountain’s constant, spurting water: “God, look at that,” and “What the hell?” and “Jesus!” and “Oh, bless that poor woman’s heart.”

I was interested in how the various hats looked on my head when I cocked them sideways and posed before the little mirror at the end of the aisle. I raised one shoulder and smirked a little like the models in Teen Beat Magazine. Then I put on the sunglasses to experience a more complete effect of my new look.

I didn’t think the ruckus outside had anything to do with you. I couldn’t think of that because I couldn’t think about you at all. You left me. You went away when I needed you most. When I had questions about men and sex and right and wrong. All that was left was this thing that looked like you, that sounded like you, that could still walk around and talk a little while saying nothing.

I took my time. I paid for the earrings and the sunglasses and the straw hat.

I walked out of Afterthoughts. A trio of boys my age passed me. One of them hollered, “Hey, baby! How’s about we make some beautiful music together?”

I rolled my eyes and smiled at the same time.

One of them said, “She’s hot but a little stuck up,” as they continued to stare at me.

 Then I looked around for the thing that looked like you and there you were waist high in the fountain, soaked to the skin, joyfully splashing around.

A security guard was attempting to help you out. You blinked and said, “Who are you? What are you doing?”

“Ma’am,” he said, “I’m trying to help you out of the fountain.”

“I don’t need any help,” you insisted calmly. 

“Yes ma’am, you do,” he responded, extending a hand. “Somehow you got into the fountain. Let me help you out.”

A crowd had gathered by this point, gawking, whispering. The three boys who stared at me were doubled over with laughter.

“I told you. I don’t need help, mister,” you said, and then you pointed in my direction. “I’m just here with my little girl enjoying the lake like we do every Saturday. See her over there? She’s the sweet one with the red hair.”

And I ran. I ran as fast and hard as I could to my car, threw my bags in, and screeched out of that parking lot. I left you there. Thirty miles away from our house. Left you to strangers who had to figure out who you were and where you belonged.

* * *

Mother, if I could go back and relive one day to keep it just the same, it would be that clear, warm day in September of 1990 when we went back to the lake for the last time. That golden day when I was older and wiser and you were beautiful like a sunset benediction.

I had grown still in the sacred silence of your misremembering. I had become humbled and soft and hushed in the quiet of your lost dignity. It was the year of our irony, the strange time of my homecoming—my becoming—and your muffled goodbye. It was the year I became a mother and lost a mother.

Again, you called me “Rita,” but you did not ask where we were going. You didn’t speak much at all by that point. Perhaps you somehow discerned that your confused words brought shame upon others or yourself. Perhaps your mind simply couldn’t match words with emotions or objects any longer.

When I pulled up to the lake you loved, you instinctively turned your head in the direction of the great, blue mirror reflecting God’s face of sun and sky. I came around to help you out of the car. I could see that you wanted to get out, to somehow move your increasingly fragile shell of a self toward the silvery water. 

The trees whispered down an old song about life’s circle: birthing and innocence and the coming of steamy hormones. Marrying, having babies, paying the mortgage, getting a divorce. Questioning, aging. The awareness of one’s own ending and then the ending itself, followed by the beginning of someone new in the same place at the very same instant, starting the cycle all over again.

I held you steady as we began our descent. I monitored each hesitant step, assuring you that you would not fall. At last, we came to a wooden bench and I helped you to sit down. You gazed out at the scene beyond: blue-green water stretching into sky, sun glinting off the shimmering surface, children scurrying about, birds soaring high and diving down.

I did not want to impress any boy. I did not want a new dress or earrings or sunglasses or a hat. I did not want a faraway life in a crowded, noisy, flashing neon place. The boy with the sandy blonde hair, beard and van with chrome side pipes was now a soon-to-be-ex-husband who walked out on me two days after I took the pregnancy test. The city became a concrete prison devoid of holiness, far removed from brooding blue hills that radiated time and truth. What I wanted now was a new old you in this new old place. A replay of the mother who dried my tears on the first day of first grade. Who made matching dresses for me and my Barbie with the bubble hair-do. Who taught me about wildflowers, bird calls, and the flow of old rivers. Who took me to the lake every summer Saturday, hoisting me up in her arms to play and splash away the afternoons until they faded. The one who said, “Just relax and breathe deeply. Imagine that the water is embracing you,” when I was learning to swim. The person who would have offered sage advice at each step in my journey had she been well enough to do so. The mother who would now become a grandmother. The one who would have moved heaven and earth to save me from myself.

We sat in silence watching the gentle water lapping at the shore, listening to other mothers and daughters as their lilting voices rose and fell. The cadence of the water and the mothers and the daughters enveloped us like a Sunday hymn.

Two months earlier, when Daddy died and I went through your things before moving you to the Lifecare Center, I found a weathered photograph of you and Rita standing in front of Grandmother’s house in 1944, you with a sheltering arm around the smaller girl in your charge, both of you clad in snow white dresses.

“Here, Mother,” I said, pulling the photo from my purse. I placed it in front of you and your shaky hands grasped hold of its frayed edges.

For the first time, I noticed that Rita’s eyes were dancing with a certain kind of light that remained clear in the photo despite the passage of time. Those eyes divulged her feeling of complete safety in the moment, of knowing she was forever, wholly loved by her one true friend.

You smiled. You glanced from the face in the photo to my face. You looked straight into my eyes and said, “Rita, I love you. I’ve missed you so.”

“I love you, too,” I said, “and I’ve missed you more than I could ever tell you.” I was stunned that you were talking and that your words made some sense. 

“Remember when we got baptized here?” you asked. “How beautiful and still the lake was?”

I had never been baptized here, but I said “yes, I remember” anyway.

“And we wore those matching white dresses?”

“Um hum.”

“And you were scared about the preacher dunking you under the water?”


“But I told you not to be afraid, to take a big, deep breath and close your eyes and think of the sky like a giant stained glass window and the water like a mother’s arms just waiting to hug you.”

Your eyes were fixed then on my face. “Rita, do you know who you remind me of?”

I paused, gazing back at you, unsure whether I wished to know the answer, nevertheless asking, “Who?”

“My daughter. She has the same kind eyes as you. And she is sweet and good, like you. I always knew that.”

I took your hand then, Mother, and placed it over my stomach so that you could feel the baby move. You smiled but said no more, sinking back into muted darkness.


  • Patty Ireland holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and is an Associate Professor of English at Pellissippi State Community College, where she directs the College’s annual Young Creative Writer’s Workshop. Ireland is a published writer of short stories and poems as well as an established BMI lyricist/composer. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal, Appalachia Bare, and the anthology 23 Tales: Appalachian Ghost Stories, Legends and Other Mysteries, among others. She is currently at work on both a debut novel and a memoir.

  • One Wonderful Sunday is a 1947 Japanese film co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was made during the allied occupation of Japan and shows some of the challenges of life in early post-war Tokyo. The film is notable because of a fourth wall-breaking scene at the climax.