Mothers are not supposed to die.
At least not while their children are still being raised.
But someone forgot to tell that to the universe, because my mother died six weeks before my 14th birthday.
It was five a.m. when the sheriff came to our home to deliver the news. As I opened the door, his voice wavered as he spoke.
"Is your daddy home, young lady? I'm afraid I've come with some bad news."
"No, sir. He hasn't gotten home from work yet," I said as I tied my mother's sweater around my waist (something I had always done to hide my wide hips and large legs).
"Listen, I’ll be back a little later after I find your daddy. But you call me if ya'll need anything before he gets back, you hear?"
"Yes, sir.”
A little over an hour after the sheriff left, I could hear footsteps on our back porch. I opened the door to find the members of the Elm Street Baptist Church Women’s Auxiliary Club.  After they entered, I could hear the ladies whispering all morning about my father.
“You know he spent last night with that girl up the street,” one of them said. They all nodded and continued to prepare the food.
“And you know she’s ‘spectin a baby too,” another lady whispered.  “That Sophie never could keep a man for long”. 
Sophie was my mother’s name. 
Just then, my father walked through the front door. He looked like he had been crying.
“Daddy!” I said as I ran to him. What happened to mama?”  I asked. 
"I know you don't want to hear this, James, but this is YOUR fault. If you hadn't been out running around..." one of the church women said.
"Elsie!" one woman said in a raised voice. "That is ENOUGH!" The women rushed out of the kitchen and within a few seconds, they were all gone.
At my mother’s funeral a few days later, a petite woman entered the church and kept her head down as she walked to her seat. She sat right behind me and my sisters, but when I looked back and tried to catch her eye, she pulled her hat down over her face.  Was she the woman the church group was whispering about?
After the funeral, my father immediately began to make arrangements for someone to take care of my sisters. I begged my father to let my sisters stay with us. But his mind was made up. “I have no way of taking care of all of ya’ll,” he said.  “Maybe once I figure this all out, your sisters can come back.”
About a week after my sisters left, my father began to disappear at night.  One night I decided to follow him. I made sure I stayed far enough behind him so that he wouldn't be suspicious. He ended up at a small house about two miles from our home. As I approached the house, I could see him sitting on a porch with a woman. But as I looked more closely, I recognized her as the woman from my mother's funeral. They seemed to be in a deep discussion. I cried as I walked back home. Maybe the church women were right about him.
The next morning I decided to confront my father.
“Daddy, where did you go last night?”
“Baby girl, please don't ask me questions like that. I just needed to take a walk. It's been a long few weeks, so I decided to clear my head."
"By talking to that woman?" I asked. I knew I was stepping over the line.
“What woman? Wait a minute. Is this what you’re all upset about? You actually LISTENED to what those silly church women were saying? Let me show you something,” he said, as he reached down into his pocket to retrieve a small gold box. “I was not hiding another woman from your mother. This is what I was hiding," he said as he opened the box to reveal a gold ring with a red stone.
"That lady you saw me with last night is a healer. Her name is Maya. She was working on a special healing that was going to take away your Mama’s cancer. I had to keep bringing her pieces of your Mama’s clothing and mine so that she could work on it.  She finally finished it a couple of weeks ago and put it in this ring. All I had to do was give this ring to your mama and she would have been healed. That's what I was planning to do the night she died.”
“But those women, they said you were with Maya.  They said you were her boyfriend and she was having your baby! They said...”
“Hush about that now.   I never loved anyone but your mama.  She was my life. That's why I was heartbroken the night she died. It was my fault.”
“Your fault? How?” I asked.
“Your mama knew that I was spending my nights somewhere else, and she was determined to find me. On the night she died, I thought I saw her through the bushes in Maya's yard. So I yelled out her name, but she took off running. I couldn't find her anywhere! As soon as I got back to Maya's house, someone called and said your mother had just been hit by car. If I had been straight with her, she wouldn’t have had to sneak and follow me around.  She wouldn’t have run out into the street and been hit by a car.  She would be alive.” 
His eyes were filled with tears. 
"It wasn't your fault, Daddy," I said as I put my arms around him. "You were just trying to help Mama get better! I don't blame you at all!"
"You sure you don't blame me?" my father asked.
"I'm positive," I said. "But I do have a question to ask you."
"What is it, Ladybug?"
“Do you think the girls could come back home? They need you, daddy. They need us.”
After a few minutes passed, he turned back to me.
“Okay, Ladybug. Call your Auntie.  Tell her we’re coming to get the girls.” Less than a week later, we were finally back together as a family. 
As soon as we entered the house, my sisters ran back to my mother's bedroom.
"Mama!" they yelled.
“Mama’s gone.  Ya’ll know she’s gone,” I said as I wrapped my arms around them. My baby sister's eyes filled with tears.
“Gone forever?” she asked.
“Yes. She’s gone, babygirl. But her spirit is watching over us right now!"
"I miss her," she said as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"I do too...hey, I have an idea!" I said. "Why don't we make a collage with some of mama's photos?"
“I guess that would be fun...” my youngest sister said.
I went into my parents' room and pulled out the photo albums. As we looked through the album, I picked out photos of my mother wearing some of her favorite dresses. I even found a photo of her wearing her orange dress, the same dress she wore on the night she died.  In the photo she was standing with her hands on her hips with her head thrown back, laughing.  For the first time I saw myself in my mother.  I inherited her large legs, hips and arms.  I also had the same golden skin and thick, wild hair. I could finally see my own beauty.
Mama was right: I was beautiful. 
I went to my mother's closet and tried on the purple polka dotted dress she had wanted me to try on the night before she died. It was a little too big, but I liked it. 
"You look so pretty!" my father said as I walked into the living room. As I reached out to hug him, I noticed how beautiful my arms were. Sure, they were larger than most girls my age, but they were strong.
I decided to go out on the front porch and sit for awhile. As my neighbors passed our house, some of them did a double-take.  "Girl you look just like your mama!" one neighbor said as she passed by.
Suddenly I felt beautiful, alive, and ready to conquer the world. I had my daddy and my sisters, and in some ways a piece of mama’s spirit was inside me. 
Just then, my baby sister came outside and asked if we could go for ice cream.  Without thinking, I stood up and started put mama's sweater on to hide my arms. But instead, I left the sweater on the chair and took my sister's hand. I walked to the store with a newfound confidence, with my round hips and legs swaying to the rhythm of the wind.