"Gramma Idgie, why you looking so sad?"
I glanced up to see the twins staring at me curiously. Accompanied by a patented Threadgood shrug, my expression changed from melancholy to mischievous. "I ain't looking sad, Jamie," I replied and ruffled hair just like his father's. Hell, he had Buddy's hair.
"Now, Ruthie, Jamie, what'd I tell you about bugging Gramma Idgie?"
With a snorting chuckle, I met Stump's gaze. "Nobody's bugging me, Stump. Just curious about why I'm all quiet like." He moved to sit next to me, staring back at me with curious eyes. I weathered his gaze for as long as I could handle it. "Spit it out, Stump. Your mama and me didn't teach you to be mincing your words."
"I just worry, Aunt Idgie." The words eventually came out in a low tone, as if to keep his children from hearing him. "It's been near on thirty years since Mama died, but you still seem like it was just weeks ago."
My smile turned bittersweet and I patted his hand. "I know you love Jenny and the kids, but you don't have what we did. And it's not every day you come across a love like your momma and me had. It was… Your mama was everything to me, Stump. You know that. And I don't care if she's been dead a minute or a thousand years; I can't forget that kind of love. I can't give up on Ruth. It just wouldn't be right."
He nodded and closed his eyes in remembrance. I could easily track the emotions crossing his face as each treasured memory of his short years with his mother played through his mind. When Stump finally met my gaze again, I didn't miss the tear in his eye, and I knew he accepted where I was coming from, even if he didn't understand it. "She never stopped loving you, Idgie," he finally said. "I can still remember all the times Mama told me how important you were to her, things that I'd never understand until I had my own person to love with all my heart. I think I get it, but what Jenny and I have is so different from what I remember you and Mama having."
"It's different for everyone, Stump." I couldn't help but reassure him. His wife was a wonderful woman, and they did truly love each other. "Hell, it nearly didn't happen for me and your mama. Did you know that?"
~ ~ ~
"Ma'am, visiting hours are over for the night."
The anger permeating Ruth's face at the nurse's interruption would have made me laugh if the circumstances were any different. But they weren't. Buddy was lying in that sterile hospital bed, sleeping deeply thanks to the drugs they kept giving him after his surgery. From what the doctor'd said, he would recover just fine, and he was young enough to adjust to the loss of his arm much easier than if he'd been older. It would just be a matter of time for the initial wounds to heal, and they wanted to keep him as calm and quiet as possible. Which meant drugs and sleep.
It also meant that his mama couldn't really deal with the situation yet. Not that I was any better, mind you, but he wasn't dead. He would live and grow up to be every bit the man he was named after. Ruth just had to get past her initial shock and worry to see that. And staying in this damned hospital day in and day out wasn't going to help.
"I'm sorry, but you must be new around here," Ruth replied, the ends of her words clipped off harshly in her anger. "I am this boy's mama and I'm not leaving his side until I know he's gonna be all right."
"Ma'am, I understand he's your son, but we have rules for a reason."
I shook my head at this nurse's audacity. I understood the rules, so did Ruth normally. But clearly this nurse didn't have kids.
"Come on, Ruth," I finally said, looping an arm around her shoulders. "Let's go get us some supper and then we can come back. I bet Sipsey's got dinner waiting on us."
"Idgie," she warned, missing the grateful smile the nurse flashed at me, and swayed slightly into my body.
"That settles it, Ruth Jameson," I growled at her. "I'm taking you home for a hot meal and a good night's sleep in your own bed." She started to protest, but stopped when she swayed against me again.
She simply nodded and moved to press a tender kiss to Buddy's forehead before following me out the door. And she didn't say a word on the ride back to the café. Just like I'd said, Sipsey had a big old meal waiting for us. Ruth tucked in and ate like a starved 'possum. She put away more than even I did; I was never so impressed with my Ruthie than I was right then.
Except she promptly threw it all back up within an hour, whimpering and clinging to me as her body heaved. I clucked and soothed her with murmured nonsense until she settled against me, weak and spent. When I was sure she wouldn't vomit again, I pressed a gentle kiss to the tip of her nose; gathered her up in my arms; and half-carried, half-dragged her up to the bedroom. I continued to lightly pepper her face with tender kisses as I got her out of her clothes and into her nightdress.
"I don't know what I'll do if Buddy doesn't make it, Idgie," Ruth said as I finally got her tucked in under the covers. "I simply want to be dead if he's gone."
~ ~ ~
"Did she really say that?"
I grinned sympathetically and held a hand over my heart. "Cross my heart. She truly loved you, Stump. And it near to killed her when you lost your arm."
He unconsciously rubbed at the stump of his left arm. "Rumor has it you were pretty shook up yourself, Aunt Idgie. Big George once told me that he found you crying your eyes out while I was in surgery, that you worried I'd die just like your brother did. That true, Aunt Idgie?"
I grimaced and silently cursed the gentle giant I called my friend, even in times when such friendships weren't considered right. "Big George had a big mouth on occasion, but he didn't tell no lies. And I had to be strong for your mama, so the only time I could cry was outside, sitting with Big George on the steps." I paused to blink back a few tears before meeting Stump's gaze with a smile. "But you survived and thrived, and that's all that matters, right?"
"Gramma Idgie?" Ruthie's soft voice startled me; I'd forgotten the twins were even still in the room. "What was Gramma Ruth like?"
"Your Gramma Ruth was one of the strongest women I ever knew. Smart, strong, loyal, pretty as all get out, too. She was everything to me, Ruthie, and you remind me a lot of her."
"But you said something about it almost not working for you and Mama. What happened?" Stump asked then, pulling Jamie up into his lap as Ruthie climbed into mine. "I always remember you two as being so close, so in love."
"Your daddy's what happened." It was hard to admit it, even all these years later. "I thought I'd hate your mama when she ran off to marry your daddy. But it didn't last long when we saw he was hurting her." From the corner of my eye, I could see the twins getting restless and worried at my words, so I shrugged and ruffled my fingers through Ruthie's hair. "But that's no matter now. Your mama and your daddy done both died and went on. And I ain't never gonna forget Ruth Jameson for as long as I live, no matter what. I loved her more than anything else in the world, still do. And for as much as I love you, and Jenny, and the kids, I do wish I was with Ruth. I've missed her something terrible all these years."
"Naw, don't you worry about me, Stump. I ain't gonna leave you behind all of a sudden like. I'm too stubborn to leave this world. You just need to let me have my memories of your mama, 'cuz they's all that's keeping me going some days."
He hesitated, and I prepared myself for a battle of wills the likes of which I hadn't seen since my Ruth had died. But he just nodded and leaned over to press a kiss to my cheek. "Yes, ma'am, I understand."