I can still hear Selma Walker’s voice, clear as a bell, singing Precious Memories. Selma could sing like no one I knew, almost as good as the ladies on the radio. Now Selma was not a pretty girl…her eyes looked at you from different angles making you wonder if she were looking at you at all. But when Selma sang, you forgot about that.
Mama’s face was tear-stained as she listened to that song. I didn’t understand how anyone could cry when Selma Walker sang Precious Memories; but, then again, I was only twelve and I didn’t understand a lot.
I remember the feeling of the sun, beating through my threadbare dress just a couple of days before. It was late in the spring and the rain had left a faint smell of perfume in the air, the same as the wash when you hang it on the line. But down in the delta, rain never sank into the ground. It kind of ran off the top into the ditches and creeks and already the dry dust was back, covering my feet with its cool, silky smoothness.
I paused in the shade of the lilac bushes to scratch a new mosquito bite. Seems to me the lilac bushes were more beautiful that year then I could ever remember. Their sweet smell hung moistly in the air and big bumble bees buzzed around them, far too busy to take notice of me. It was getting to be right at supper time so the sun was not quite overhead. It was still beating down on our little white house with all the sultriness it can on a southern springtime day.
I made my way down the dirt driveway, swung around the corner and suddenly stopped. Mama was sitting in the porch swing like she did every night waiting for daddy to get home. There was something wrong, though. Mama wasn’t swinging. Mama never, ever sat still in a porch swing.
Albert Buckley was there with his shiny black car. I kind of got excited because Mr. Buckley owned the cotton gin daddy had been working in. He never condescended to visit the families of his workers unless it was mighty important.
Then I got a look at my mama’s face. It wore an expression I would never forget. Her eyes were staring ahead, not seeing anything, and it was the most desolate thing I had ever seen. Tears pooled in the bottom of those eyes and two thin silver lines were drawn down her cheeks reminding me of the clowns at last year’s state fair.
There was nothing funny in that face, though. It gripped my heart and made my legs freeze. I felt that face in the pit of my stomach and, somehow, I knew my life was about to change forever.
And so there I was, listening to Selma Walker sing Precious Memories. She always drew out the last line so that it sounded like she was singing “Precious sacred scenes un-fo-woled.” She finished and then looked at me and smiled. A great girl of eighteen smiling at me was quite a sensation. I smiled back feeling pretty good about myself, until I looked up and was confronted again, with mama’s face.
Then everyone left. I didn’t turn and see them leave, just heard their feet as they walked through the cemetery, crunching on the gravel drive, and making their way to their cars or town.
As I sat there, a breeze blew up, cooling my hot forehead, and causing the tent over the coffin to ripple. It brought to me the sweet smell of the freshly turned earth that would soon be over daddy’s coffin. The grass rustled and a cloud of dust blew across us as we sat in the chairs. I could feel sweat trickling down my back and calves as I waited for mama to move.
Quietly, I turned my eyes and glanced about me. The cemetery was on a bit of a rise at the edge of an enormous cotton field. Scrawny looking cottonwoods edged the graveyard and little sparrows chirped around us. It was the spring of nineteen forty-three and death seemed to be a constant companion. I noticed several new headstones, provided by the government, for the young men from our town who had gone to war but would not be coming back.
My little brothers, Danny, Ray and Arnie were wriggling but still Mama sat, staring at that coffin in disbelief. She seemed to be waiting for daddy to raise the lid and say, “Let’s get a move on, Ruby,” like he always did.
But the lid never rose. To be truthful, I had my doubts daddy was ever in there at all. They wouldn’t let me and the boys see him on account of his accident, but mama and my Aunt Pearl had looked inside as the coffin stood in our living room the night before.
I saw from across the room as she opened it. She stepped backward and fell against Pearl’s bosom crying, “What have they done to my Phil?” Within reason, I knew it must have been bad, so I never asked to see him. Still it made me wonder whether he was really there or not. It was all pretty hard for me to comprehend.
Mama finally rose and I did too, feeling the sweat roll down my legs. Mama lingered beside daddy’s grave for a minute with a kind of angry expression. Then she sighed. It was the heaviest sigh I have ever heard. She often told me later that she felt like she heard my daddy tell her, “You got to get on with it, Ruby. Sorry, but I ain’t coming back.”
I never really understood why funerals were so sad. It wasn’t like my daddy was doomed to perdition. He was a good Christian man and he was in a land of bliss. I wondered why we didn’t celebrate something like that.
But there was no celebration. I climbed into our old Ford with mama and the boys and we made our way home.
The old white house with the big porch swing was strangely silent. The car drove down the two dirt lines it had dug into the grass and stopped. The bees buzzed their greeting from the lilac bushes and Peewee, our old dog, came barking from the back. But that was it…no daddy.
Mama looked at me and said, “Hurry, Savannah. They’ll be here any minute.”
I hopped out of the car and we opened the wooden screen door. Turning around, I said , “Arnie, don’t let the screen door [slam!]…slam.”
Mama quickly began uncovering plate after plate of fried chicken. I got out the boiled eggs and we sat those along the table. Mama’s face was wearing the concentrating look it always wore when she was trying to see if she could feed everybody. Lately, it seemed, she had been wearing that look a lot. Shrugging, she told me, “Well, honey, it’ll have to do.”
The front door opened and a familiar voice called, “Ruby? We’re here.” Pearl was my mama’s younger sister. Aunt Pearl had never seen fit to marry. It wasn’t that she was ugly, exactly, but she wasn’t pretty either. She had a high sloping forehead and deep set eyes that made her forehead the first thing you saw when she approached. Aunt Pearl’s eyes would twinkle and she would tell me, “A high forehead is a thoughtful forehead.” Aunt Pearl, it seemed, was very thoughtful.
She had brought along the church ladies and they helped set up a buffet, each bringing a dish of whatever food they could spare. After everything was ready, folks started coming to the house with faces anxious to peer at the young widow and her family. But mama hated pity and saw to it there would be no reason for it to be offered. She stood and unflinchingly greeted each guest with a solemn, tearless face, playing her part perfectly throughout the long, tiresome day.
With the slamming of a door, people began spilling out onto the porch and into the yard. Daddy’s brothers were there: Uncle Pete, Uncle Willie and Uncle Henry. Uncle Pete and Uncle Willie had their own families, but Uncle Henry never married, so he spent a lot of time visiting at our house. Not only was he daddy’s little brother, he was his best friend. The Hicks brothers stood in a tight circle talking real intent about something but I didn’t think to pay them any mind. There was a sink full of dishes that I needed to attend to.
Then, as suddenly as people came, they began to leave. One by one, their footsteps could be heard walking across the porch and off into the distance. I sighed with relief. I wanted my house back. It had been a long day of rising early to dress, helping mama dress the boys and now this. My thin lumpy bed seemed to be heaven at that moment. My feet ached and the small of my back was tired.
The house was strangely peaceful with just mama, the boys and Aunt Pearl. Mama was pale and she looked beat. Her dark, beautiful hair was disheveled and her eyelashes moist with tears that she wouldn’t let fall.
“Come on, Savannah,” Aunt Pearl said. “Let’s get these boys to bed.”
I followed her to the back room that was really not a room at all. It was a lean-to that daddy had sided, and it was small. There was room for only one tiny trundle bed and Danny, Ray and Arnie all shared it. Danny yawned widely and told Aunt Pearl he wasn’t tired. She laughed and put his pajamas on anyway.
I went to my room and put my nightgown on. Daddy had hung newspapers on the walls for insulation and the damp musty smell of our house was coming back now that the food smells were gone. I was glad. It felt and smelled like home again.
I padded down the paneled floor toward the front room. The floorboards creaked underneath me but I was silent. I peered around the corner and saw Pearl talking to my mama.
“They said they was doing what was best for you,” Aunt Pearl said.
My mama smoothed her hair out of her eyes. Those eyes burned with a fire I had never seen before, but would see quite a bit afterwards. “They can’t make me,” she said. “They don’t know what’s best. It ain’t what Phil would want and I ain’t going to do it. No one will separate my family.”
“They’ll be here in the morning,” Pearl warned.
“So will I,” mama said meaningfully, her blue eyes burning with determination. “So will I.”
My mama never came to bed that night. I know because I shared the bedroom with her and daddy. There was a closet in the back of it and daddy hung a curtain partitioning it off. I had strict orders never to peek around that curtain.
I heard enough in my little corner, though, to know my mama and daddy loved each other a lot. I also heard enough to know times were hard. Words I never knew before were murmured in the night when I was supposed to be asleep.
Banker, mortgage, crash; things I couldn’t understand. But these words translated into daddy having to work for Albert Buckley or anyone else needing help and losing his own farm. They meant wearing old clothes, eating less meat and working hard to make sure the garden in the back yard grew.
Daddy got some chickens right after that. We began to eat eggs almost every day. My shoes grew tighter and tighter and when I mentioned it to mama she shushed me right away saying, “Don’t let your daddy hear you, Savannah. He’s doing the best he can. When the money’s there, you’ll get your shoes.” Come time for me to go to school in the fall, I had my new shoes.
But when I woke up the next day, I knew mama hadn’t come to bed. I also knew, within reason, she was tired and anxious about something. I crept down the creaky little hall and glanced around the corner. Mama was sitting on the bumpy old couch in the living room, her chin leaning on her hand. Her eyes gazed up at her wedding picture.
It had hung in the living room for years. She and daddy were so young when they got married, him eighteen and her fifteen. Mama had the most beautiful dress on I had ever seen, a kind of testimony to the fact that times weren’t always so hard.
Once, I asked her, “Where did that pretty dress go, mama?”
She smiled and answered, “It went to pay the doctor for little Arnie.”
I always reckoned she thought it was a fair trade. Little Arnie brought a happy glow to her eyes none of the rest of us could conjure. I always thought he was what you call a change of life baby, seeing as Ray was six years older than him, but now when I look back, I realize mama was only about twenty-seven when she had him.
My mama was staring at that picture with a pensive expression I had never seen before. Her eyes seemed to say, “If only things could have been different.” It had never occurred to me before that my mama might have some regrets but that morning, with the sunlight beating on her pale worn face, I realized that she did.
I made a movement and her tired eyes looked toward me. She forced a weary smile and asked, “How you doing today, Savannah?”
I shrugged. “I’m alright, mama.”
She rose and told me, “We best get breakfast. They boys will be awake pretty soon.”
She walked across the room, slowly, and something in her form made me stop in amazement. I hadn’t really looked at my mama in a while. I had been playing and working in the garden and fishing. Spring was a blessed time in the country. When I wasn’t at school, I was outside or doing chores. When I looked at my mama moving towards the kitchen, it hit me. My mama was going to have another baby. No wonder she looked so tired and worn out.
Her eyes met mine and she smiled tenderly. “Yes, sweetie,” she said. “We’re having another baby.”
Congratulations seemed to be a little silly at that point. I just nodded and ran outside to the chicken coop to hunt for nests. It never occurred to me that there was no money for that baby, or even for us. I just figured things would go on the way they always did.
When you’re young, you don’t realize things like your house isn’t paid for. You don’t realize children outgrow clothes or that taxes have to be paid and all these things take money. You just know that you’ve got a roof over your head, bought and paid for by mama and daddy and that there’s food on the table because they put it there.
You forget how many hours chopping cotton in the sun it took daddy to buy that ham, or how many eggs mama peddled in town to get that sugar to put on your bread and butter. You just know it’s always there and always has been and that’s just the way it is…taken for granted.
When I came back into the house the boys were awake, each with blond hair sticking straight up and sleepy grins. Arnie was three, Ray was nine, Danny was ten and then there was me…a big family in a small house.
I handed mama the eggs and then herded the boys down the hall to get dressed. I came back in time to hear a gentle tapping on the door.
Mama took a deep breath and I saw her glance in the mirror and straighten her hair. She seemed to know who was on the other side. I had no idea.
She quietly walked to the door and opened it. My daddy’s brothers came into the house, their large frames seeming to fill it. They were tall, broad-shouldered men with fingers yellowed from tobacco and muscles hard from years of back-breaking work.
Uncle Henry was the last to enter and when my mama saw him she visibly shuddered. It was the shudder of Gethsemane and Uncle Henry was playing the part of Judas.
At one time Uncle Henry and my mama had been school mates and good friends. In fact, it was Uncle Henry who introduced my daddy and mama. Aunt Pearl told me plainly one day that Uncle Henry had been mighty sweet on my mama. Told my daddy all about her and told him he was in love.
My daddy, anxious to see this angel of Henry’s, was never more surprised when he, too, fell in love with her. It was a nasty love triangle until one day when daddy drove off with my mama and Ruby Malone became Ruby Hicks.
That is where the triangle ended, and it truly did. My mama always lovingly told daddy she got the best of the Hicks bunch, and it was true. But, if daddy was number one in her book, Uncle Henry was always number two.
It was Uncle Henry who rushed over the day we lost our farm, life savings in hand, and willing to do all he could to help. Unfortunately, it would have taken a lot more than Uncle Henry’s money to save it. Never mind, though, because that simple act of kindness stuck in daddy’s mind for the rest of his life.
Uncle Henry was a favorite with the boys, too. He favored daddy a great deal. He had the same happy eyes and sandy hair. When I was younger I loved to play with Uncle Henry.
There is a natural aversion in girls, however, when they reach a certain age, to males. When I became eleven and started to fill out, I suddenly became very shy around men, especially Uncle Henry. He never understood why I stopped wrestling or why I didn’t like to be tickled anymore.
One day I overheard him ask my mama about it. Peeping around the corner I saw her smile at him. She told him, “Henry, Savannah’s turning into a woman and she’s embarrassed. She loves you as much as always, but things will never be the same.”
And they weren’t. That was the part of growing up I always hated. Things were never the same. Things I enjoyed the most as a child, became things I was no longer able to do.
So, that morning, when the Hicks boys came to our door, Uncle Henry, most of all, looked abashed and uncomfortable. Uncle Pete was the first to talk, as usual. Uncle Pete was the oldest and I reckon he assumed he was the boss. His solemn face wore its usual frown as he told my mama, “I guess you know why we’re here, Ruby. We’ve been talking and I think we got things figured out.”
My mama’s face flushed a little and she said, her voice trembling, “What have you got figured out?”
“Ruby, the way we figure it, if Danny and Ray come live with me and Savannah and Arnie go to Willie’s it won’t be much of a burden to anyone. Danny and Ray are old enough to work in the fields a little and Savannah would be a help around the house, plus she could look after Arnie.” I gasped in horror but nobody seemed to notice.
“I see,” my mama said looking at the floor.
Her steely blue eyes turned to Henry, after a pause, and she asked coldly, “Who are you taking Henry? Peewee?”
Henry’s face flushed terribly and he bit his lip but said nothing.
Uncle Willie shook his head and declared, “Ruby, we ain’t taking anyone. We’re trying to be a help is all.”
Mama rubbed her chin. She knew their motives were kind and she knew they truly cared. She also knew that no one was splitting up her family.
She took a deep breath and said calmly, “I know you boys mean well, but I’m sorry. The kids ain’t leaving.”
“Ruby you ain’t thinking straight,” Willie told her. He began to pace as he discussed my mama’s list of problems. “You got four children on your hands to clothe, you got rent to pay every month, five mouths to feed and,” he turned to her meaningfully, “you’re gonna have doctor bills in a few months. Ruby, you ain’t got one red-eyed cent. How you planning on paying for all this?”
My mama’s lower lip trembled and she replied, “I don’t know Willie. I only know this, if I have to live in the Ford and eat bread and water, then that is what I’ll do. I can not have my babies taken from me, even to live with folks that love them.”
Uncle Henry stepped forward then and said lowly, “Ruby ain’t you being a little selfish right now? Think about what’s best for the kids.”
Mama’s eyes turned up to him and hardened. I knew that she expected Henry, most of all, to be on her side. “What is best for my children is to stay with me as long as they can. They just lost their daddy; don’t take me away, too.”
The three men turned to each other and three sets of eyebrows went up doubtfully.
Uncle Pete asked, “How are you going to work, Ruby? You’re having a baby.”
Her mouth set in a determined line. “I ain’t dying. I’m having a baby. I can find some sort of work, I know it.”
“Half the men in town can’t find work and you think you can?” Uncle Willie asked incredulously.
“Yes,” mama replied clearly.
At that moment the door burst open and Aunt Pearl rushed into the room. Smiling, she told my mama, “Ruby, I got the answer to your problems.”
Aunt Pearl’s answer turned out to be a gray little shack in the middle of an enormous cotton field. It was a creaky ramshackle little place with no electricity, no water and angry mice…but it was free.
Now of all the earth’s mover and shakers, of all the Gettys, Rockefellers and the like, there wasn’t a soul alive who could hold a candle to Aunt Pearl when something needed to get done.
Knowing mama would need help; Aunt Pearl went to the most logical place of all…where the guilt ran deepest. First thing next morning, Albert Buckley was faced with the determined forehead of Aunt Pearl. Truth be told, Mr. Buckley was feeling mighty bad about daddy dying at his place and really did want to help mama anyway he could. He owned an old tenant house that had been empty for years and was more than happy to let us have it.
So we moved from the old white house with the big porch swing. We had just enough money in the bank to pay for daddy’s funeral. I didn’t realize you had to pay for funerals. We had to pay the undertaker, buy the cemetery plot and even Selma Walker didn’t come free.
Uncle Henry and Aunt Pearl were there early that Saturday morning when we started loading up to move out. I quietly crept down the hall and then stopped. My mama was in the living room staring at her wedding picture.
The tears that had stood so often in her eyes since daddy died were falling to the floor. Taking a deep breath, she silently reached up and pulled that wedding picture off the wall. The paint behind it was much brighter than the rest of the room. She held it in her arms for a minute, almost as if she was holding daddy himself and I saw her bend down and kiss that picture.
Suddenly, my heart began to ache. It was an ache I had never felt before. After all this time, it finally came to me…daddy wasn’t coming back. I started to cry and mama’s head jerked up quickly. Seeing me she said, “Don’t cry, Savannah. Things’ll be okay.”
I reckon you could say things were okay. Aunt Pearl sat beside Uncle Henry in his truck and mama drove us kids out to the little gray house. We had always lived next door to the Price’s. Now we lived next door to no one. The house seemed so lonesome and desolate that my breath caught in my lungs when I saw it.
Uncle Henry paced around muttering under his breath. He was clearly unhappy about something, but Aunt Pearl took things in hand the way she always did.
Uncle Pete and Uncle Willie were waiting outside the house when we drove up. Aunt Pearl devised a way of making unloading the truck a game and before I knew it everyone was busy and laughing. Everyone but Uncle Henry. He stood aloof from the rest of us, watching, but saying nothing. Several times I saw his eyes meet my mama’s and a look, almost of disapproval, passed between them.
After everything was unloaded mama told me she was going into town and Uncle Henry drove her. After they left, the women all got busy unpacking boxes. The house was dismal as I remember it. There were leaves and nests and dirt everywhere.
Aunt Pearl swiftly stuffed rags into the broken windows and got out a broom. Turning to me she said, “This place will be beautiful when your mama gets home.”
I didn’t believe her. It was so small and run down. Newspapers were neatly pasted to the walls, but they were yellowed and filthy. The cupboard was nothing but old coffee cans with slabs of wood on top of them. The house consisted of one big room for the kitchen and living room and one small bedroom in back. That was all. The outhouse was quite a distance from the house but, in the heat of the summer, I learned to appreciate that fact.
Aunt Pearl began sweeping and, taking a cue from her, I went to the pump, filled a bucket with water and began wiping off the cupboard shelves.
I paused and watched Aunt Pearl for a moment. She could always make the best of a bad situation. She was so like my mama, but she had an added luster, an added zest for life. My mama lived life, Aunt Pearl loved it. Mama rolled with the punches, Aunt Pearl threw ‘em.
It took me years to figure out that my mama was just plain worn out. I never knew how much work it was to raise children. Years of work and worry had taken their toll on her.
Aunt Pearl once told me that the best years of my mama’s life went by in a haze of diapers and laundry. I didn’t rightly know how to take that, but seeing as I didn’t ask to be born, I decided it must not be my fault.
When mama got back from town that afternoon, I wouldn’t say the house looked beautiful, though Aunt Pearl did. Aunt Pearl always seemed to think if you said something enough that made it true.
Mama didn’t care though, because she was happy. She got a job at the bakery and money would be coming in. We would be able to eat. Uncle Henry was clearly unhappy. He muttered under his breath things like “on her feet for twelve hours” and “working with a hot oven” but, like everyone else, I just ignored him.
It was more fun to be happy with the rest of the family. He stood there for a moment beside the door and he was looking at mama strangely. I’ll never forget that look. It was a kind of wistful haunted expression that I had never seen on Uncle Henry’s usually good natured face.
But it seemed to me that his good nature died with daddy. I don’t recollect seeing him smile for a long time after daddy died. After another moment of unhappy muttering he picked up his hat and turned to Pearl saying, “Let’s go.”
Aunt Pearl looked a little surprised but turning to mama shrugged and said, “Well, my ride seems to be leaving. I’ll be over tomorrow to help.” With that, the house emptied leaving an awful, frightening silence.
After everyone left, I turned to my mama curiously. “What’s wrong with Uncle Henry? Why is he so angry?”
My mama sat down heavily on the couch and shrugged. “Your Uncle Henry thinks I’m doing the wrong thing. He thinks I should have let you kids go live with your uncles.” A curious looked crossed her face and she asked me, “What do you think? Would you like to live with Uncle Willie?”
I sat down on the floor at her feet and lay my cheek on her leg. Snuggling there I knew that I would rather starve to death than ever leave mama alone. “I don’t want to ever leave you, mama. Not as long as I live.”
She smiled and stroked my hair. “I reckon some young man will change your mind about that sooner or later. As long as I know you’d rather be here than with Uncle Willie, I’m satisfied.”
And she was. It was that satisfaction alone that kept her rising every day at five o’clock to get to the bakery. It was that satisfaction alone that kept her on her feet long enough to finish the supper Aunt Pearl and I began every day. She’d come home every afternoon close to five o’clock, and the boys would gather around her breathing in the sweet smells of frosting and sugar. Sometimes, on good days, she’d bring leftover donuts to us.
It was during this time that I realized how much my mama depended on Aunt Pearl. Even though she was younger, Aunt Pearl always took the lead. She was our main source of encouragement.
Uncle Willie’s wife, Mavis, came by as much as she could. Uncle Pete’s wife had just had a baby and was only able to visit a few times. Truth be told, these women were as busy and run down as mama, trying to tend to their own families. Uncle Henry was angry enough that he was merely civil to mama when he saw her in town. Aunt Pearl came, though, almost every day.
Once, my mama said, “I don’t know how I can ever repay you, Pearl.”
Aunt Pearl shrugged. “If I ever have children, you can watch them for me.”
That was kind of a running joke between them because Aunt Pearl had declared often she would never marry. She had offers, I knew.
One day I asked her about it and she smiled. When she smiled her eyes squinted making her forehead seem even larger. “I just reckon the right man never came along,” she said in answer to my question.
We were peeling potatoes and Aunt Pearl looked kind of pretty to me that day.
“How many boys asked you?” I asked curiously.
Aunt Pearl’s blue eyes twinkled at me the way they did when she was terribly amused by what I did or said. She screwed up her face in thought for a moment and then answered, “Three”
She nodded. “Virgil White asked me once. Lester Cross asked me twice and three years ago Narvel Deck asked me.”
“And you didn’t want to marry any of them?” I asked in amazement.
Aunt Pearl laughed. “Virgil was a drinker if I remember correctly. Lester had a roving eye and I was the fourth girl he proposed to. Narvel was too lazy to even change his mind. I figured if I couldn’t get any better offers than those, I’d just as soon stay single.”
And she did. Aunt Pearl never married her whole life. She was always happy, though. I never knew her to be idle or moody a minute. I learned a lot from her.
One day, after mama came home from work with her feet so swollen she could hardly walk, I announced, “I ain’t ever gonna marry.”
She looked surprised. “If you don’t want to marry, then I reckon you shouldn’t.” Her eyes became a little dreamy for a minute and she told me, “You know times were never really easy for me and your daddy after we got married. But, I wouldn’t trade one second with him for a lifetime of ease. You ever find a man as good as your daddy was and you won’t be able to help but get married.”
She smiled a bittersweet smile then and turned her eyes toward the darkened cotton field. My mama missed my daddy so much it made me ache.
We never went back to school that spring. Mama drove to work too early, Pearl went the opposite way and mama’s standing feud with Uncle Henry caused her to be too proud to ask him to drive us. I spent that spring taking care of the boys. It was hard work, but I didn’t mind. While my cousins went to school and learned history and geography, I stayed at home and learned about laundry and taking care of babies.
The four of us kids hoed up a big piece of land and planted vegetable seeds. I remember working in that garden with the sun soaking into my skin. It was a lovely drowsy feeling and I took my time, never to anxious to go back into the dank little house.
We waited for that garden and, in the meantime, there just wasn’t much to eat. Sometimes we’d walk down to the ditch and fish. Aunt Pearl came by most days to help me start supper. Whenever we had fish Aunt Pearl would say, “Your mama is going to be happy tonight.”
And she was. Mama devoured that fish with a hungry smile and told us all how proud she was of us. It was a nice break from the beans and cornbread we ate most nights.
In spite of the lack of good food, I grew a lot that spring. Mama shook her head one night when she drug herself home from the bakery telling me, “You’ve grown three inches in the past three months.” I needed a new dress and mama brought one home from town with her one day. It was an old cotton work dress and I knew, within reason, it came from the church barrel, but I didn’t mind. I knew when the money was there, I’d get a new dress.
And so, spring limped by with little rain. It seemed as if life itself had fallen into a drought cycle…an endless harsh glare under which nothing could flourish. The hungry nights were bad, but the endless days were the worst. It was cruel, really, mama having to go to work because, not only did we lose daddy, in a sense we lost her too. The boys never really said much, but they grew strangely quiet as summer approached. Mama was worried. I heard her talking to Aunt Pearl one night. I was in the back bedroom and they were talking lowly because the boys were sleeping right there with them on the floor. I couldn’t make out much of what they said but I distinctly heard my mama say, “Uncle Henry,” several times.
Whatever decision they came up with, I never knew exactly. I only know that the very next weekend Uncle Henry showed up at our door in his truck. He had on old coveralls and a fishing cap and he turned to Danny and asked, “You fellas want to fish with me?”
I’ll never forget the look that passed between Danny and Ray. It was a joyful expression of bliss and almost before I knew it, they were both in the truck and ready to go. Never mind the expression that passed between Danny and Ray, my mama smiled at Uncle Henry so sweetly that it melted my heart. They were gone all day and mama and I did the wash. We were hanging up the clothes when they got back.
She looked beautiful that day. Her cotton dress was swaying in the breeze and her long dark hair was hanging down her back. When mama worked hard, the blood seemed to rush right up to her skin. Her face was flushed and her eyes sparkled with life. When the truck pulled up, the expression on Uncle Henry’s face told me that he thought mama looked beautiful, too.
The boys rushed out of the car with a string of fish and mama exclaimed in delight. Uncle Henry climbed out of the truck and offered to clean the fish and she happily took him up on it. Being pregnant, things like cleaning fish made her awfully sick.
Uncle Henry looked younger that day than I had remembered. His hair was hanging in boyish bangs on his forehead and his face was burnt from the sun.
He stayed for supper and that night the old house in the cotton field didn’t seem quite as lonesome as before. I watched him wrestle with Danny, Ray and Arnie and something in me felt funny, a kind of tight swelling in my chest that stung at my eyes. I think mama felt that way, too. She sat in the rocker very quietly, mending the knees of Danny’s pants. Her eyes would look up from the trousers occasionally though and they seemed content.
Uncle Henry left right after the boys went to bed. I knew mama was real happy that she and Henry had patched things up. He had been a good friend for years and it had bothered her when he stopped coming around.
I reckon Uncle Henry just had to be invited, had to feel needed before he would intrude. He was around a lot after that Saturday. It was good for the boys and I think it was good for mama. He helped her with things like moving furniture or lifting heavy, wet quilts out of the washtub. He even fixed the porch and put up a porch swing for us. I think it was good for Uncle Henry, too. Seems like after that, he started to smile again.
Mama never liked working in the bakery, but she loved the feeling she got when they paid her every week. She didn’t know the word for that feeling but she told me once, “It makes me feel like, for the first time, I’m in charge of something. Like I can take care of myself.” She didn’t use the word independence, but that’s what she meant. That bakery job, however, created a tension between her and Uncle Henry that I was never able to understand.
He hated that she worked so hard in the back room. He hated that her feet swelled so bad. But I think he hated most of all the money she got paid on Friday.
One Saturday afternoon, toward the middle of July, I was at the pump when I heard Uncle Henry’s truck pull up. The old Ford had breathed its last and had been stalled in our driveway for two weeks. Uncle Henry had been taking mama to work and bringing her home and I was surprised because they were early.
I went to the house to meet mama and, instead, found Aunt Pearl and the boys standing on the porch. Their faces were filled with the mixed emotions of surprise, fear and worry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Pearl was staring toward the old barn behind the house and she looked at me and said, “Your Uncle Henry done went and got your mama fired.”
“He told Mr. Cooper that there was a law against working a pregnant woman so hard. Scared Mr. Cooper so much he turned right around and fired her.”
I stared at Aunt Pearl in disbelief, then ran to the barn and crept inside. Uncle Henry was looking at mama and her back was turned toward him. She was trembling all over and I could tell she was upset.
I slipped behind an old wagon box where I could see and hear them without them seeing me. Not that they would have cared. They were too intent on communicating something to each other.
Henry’s face was pleading and anxious. His blue eyes were staring at mama sorrowfully, his jaw was clenched and tense, but his mouth was turned up in a slight triumphant kind of smile.
Apparently, they had been there in silence for some time because he asked, “Aren’t you ever going to talk to me again, Ruby?”
My mama turned around and faced him and I will never forget her face. Now, my daddy was a real good man and he hardly ever gave her cause to be mad. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw her look at my daddy the way she looked at Uncle Henry that day.
Her dark hair seemed electrified with rage; it seemed to stick out everywhere. Her eyes sparked with it and her mouth quivered with a fury I have never seen before and would never see again.
“Why should I speak to you, Henry? Why? You’ve made it so I can’t feed my children! You’ve taken the only thing I ever had for myself and thrown it away from me! No! I don’t think I will speak to you again!”
She began to stomp toward the house but Henry grabbed her arm. “Please, Ruby,” he pleaded. “Please listen to me.”
“What?” mama snapped. “What have you got to say to me?”
“Let me feed the children,” Henry begged. “Let me take care of you. I’ve got plenty of money. I’ve just got me to feed. I’ll buy your food. Just please stop working so hard.”
“No!” mama cried. “I don’t want to you to take care of me, Henry.”
His face fell when she said it. “Why? Would that be such a bad thing, Ruby?”
She began wringing her hands in agitation and said, “Don’t you see? I’ve been taken care of before. I want to take care of me. You’re holding me back, Henry!”
Uncle Henry stared at her in amazement, his eyes as wide as they could go. After a moment, he asked lowly, in disbelief, “What am I holding you back from, Ruby?”
“You’re holding me back from providing for my family. You’re holding me back from being my own person. Henry, I went straight from living with my daddy to living with your brother. I ain’t ever had a dime to call my own and I ain’t ever had a thought in my head that wasn’t put there by someone else. This is the first time in my life where I’m thinking for myself and doing what I want to do. I’m my own person. I like it.”
Henry was dumbfounded. He stood looking at my mama for a moment his head cocked to the side and his hands in his pockets. He looked embarrassed and sad, but he also looked at my mama with new eyes, I think. He seemed almost proud of her at that moment and a slow smile covered his sun-burnt face.
“Tell me the truth,” he told her. “You like getting up at five in the morning?”
“You like working on your feet so long your shoes don’t fit and they look like that?” he asked pointing to her red swollen feet.
Mama nodded again and Henry rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. He seemed to be thinking and finally he shrugged. “I’ll take care of it for you then, Ruby,” he told her. “I’ll tell Mr. Cooper there’s a law against firing pregnant women.”
My mama smiled in spite of herself and Henry instantly relaxed. “Can I rub those swollen feet for you? They look so bad they make mine hurt.”
The electricity seemed to flow out of her hair and she was at once soft and gentle again. “Come on, Henry,” she said nodding toward the house. “Stay for supper.”
I remember the sunset seemed to be real beautiful that night. We all sat on the front porch eating watermelon and Uncle Henry and mama sat on the swing, Uncle Henry rubbing her feet.
The June bugs buzzed all around us and their little claws dug into the screen door. Little Arnie was running in the yard catching lightning bugs and laughing as they tickled his hand.
He let them go and watched them fly away lighting the night sky as they left. It occurred to me then that Uncle Henry, just like Arnie, was learning that some things are more beautiful when left to fly on their own.
Poverty affects everyone in different ways, but it does affect everyone. I always heard that children were resilient. Helpless is a better word. They just don’t have any choice in a lot of matters so they make the most of it and hope things will turn out alright in the end.
But, when you’ve spent a lot of time in a helpless fashion it gives you the overwhelming desire to have some control or responsibility. Even Arnie, at three years old, wanted desperately to be in charge of something.
When mama brought our chickens from town, Uncle Henry eventually built us a nice coop right beside the cotton field. Now it was the boys’ job to keep an eye on the chickens, to feed them and gather the eggs. They weren’t pets – they were food.
But, of course, Arnie was too small to help. He tried, but the thing about small children is this: though they really want to help, trying to teach them is more work than doing it yourself. I don’t know how it came into his head, or what he was thinking, but it seems one day Arnie decided it would be his job to pet the baby chicks. He thought if he loved them and petted them they’d grow up bigger and stronger and that was how he tried to make himself useful.
There was only one problem with Arnie’s self-made job: sometimes he forgot to fasten the chicken coop.
One hot summer day, I had just finished hanging up sheets and decided it was time for Arnie’s nap. Being only three, he could get real mean and ornery if he didn’t get that nap every day. I began to search for him and spotted him on the porch.
He was sitting there and his little face was pale and tight. For a minute I thought he was sick and I rushed to him. He was crying and I knew something bad was wrong. It wasn’t the cry of a child afraid of getting into trouble. This was a devastating cry that came from a miserable heart. I knelt in front of him and asked real anxious, “What is it Arnie? What’s wrong?”
He brushed the back of his hand across his eyes and tried to speak but he couldn’t answer me. He kept pointing to the chicken coop and wailing so I got up and ran across the yard to see what was wrong.
The door stood open and I walked inside. I peered into the little box Uncle Henry made and then I gasped. Every little chick we got from the last setting was gone. The chickens, the layers, they were all still there scratching for their supper, but our little chicks had vanished.
Footprints around the water dish told me a fox was responsible. Mama would be so disappointed. She had boasted that we would have fried chicken for supper next summer and our mouths watered in anticipation. Now, we would need those chickens for laying.
Arnie understood that. At three-years-old, he knew his carelessness had robbed the family of many fried chicken dinners. He stood beside me tears streaming down his face and choked, “Mama’s gonna cry, ain’t she?”
My heart softened toward that little boy. He was hardly more than a baby and the only thing he was worried about was his mama crying. I picked him up and hugged him tightly. “I reckon mama will be disappointed,” I told him. “But it ain’t nothing for you to cry about, Arnie. Let’s take a nap. I’ll lay down with you.”
And I did. I lay beside him and stroked his hair and sang a lullaby. I reckon that was the first time anyone had done that since daddy died. It had been hard on all of us losing daddy like we did, but Arnie lost mama too and I really think that broke his heart.
She came home swollen and hot from the bakery that night and I had to break the news to her. Her eyes closed and her brow knitted together like it did when she had one of her headaches.
Arnie crept into the room and was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. His large round blue eyes looked at her pleadingly and she smiled at her baby.
“Come here, Arnie,” she told him. He crept up into what was left of her lap and she held him in the rocker and rocked while I finished supper.
Uncle Henry came by that night with ice cream and looked a little disappointed, too. He and Arnie walked to the chicken coop together and they held hands. I saw Henry bend down on one knee and tell Arnie something. I never knew what he said, but I guess that wasn’t important.
What was important was that Arnie’s little face lit up like the wick of a lamp and he hugged Uncle Henry real tight. I believe that was the first night Arnie ever called Uncle Henry “daddy” by mistake.
My mama looked real surprised when she heard it and I saw her eyes turn to Uncle Henry with some interest. Uncle Henry didn’t seem to hear, he was busy taping the handle of the hoe back together for Ray. I believe it was at that precise moment the baby kicked for the first time.
Mama jumped and we all turned to her surprised. She blushed, embarrassed to be so excited about a fifth child. But her excitement was nothing compared to Uncle Henry’s. He rushed across the porch and, without asking, put his hand right on her stomach. A delighted laugh escaped him when he felt the gentle nudging from my mama’s abdomen.
Uncle Henry loved children and he had never been able to be around to share a pregnancy like this before. It was new to him and he seemed to enjoy it. As he knelt there with his hand on mama’s stomach, their eyes met and he smiled.
“Feels real strong, don’t he?” he asked.
Mama smiled and nodded. Tears came to Henry’s eyes and he told mama, “Lord, Phil would be so proud of you right now.”
Mama’s breath caught in a sob and, before she could stop them, tears began to trickle down her cheeks. Her hand covered Henry’s and she squeezed it.
“He’d be proud of you, too, Henry.”
With that, the chickens were forgotten. So you don’t get fried chicken. So you eat beans for supper again another year. A mistaken name, a gentle nudge, a few tears all work together to remind you of what is important: Life and its renewal, death and its resurrection, and all of a sudden, fried chicken just isn’t that important anymore.
The old Ford had been dead in front of the house for two weeks when Uncle Henry finally found the time to come out and see to it. I watched from the house as mama met him with a cup of coffee and he stood talking to her before he began his work.
I did my morning chores and then went to the garden to pick some tomatoes for supper. I stayed gone longer than I meant to and by the time I returned the boys were all standing on the porch cheering. Mama stood next to the car and Uncle Henry was wiping his grease covered hands on a cloth. The Ford was running.
Mama packed a supper of boiled eggs, potato salad and tomatoes and we drove to a large sandy bar by the river and ate there. Then, Uncle Henry showed Arnie how to put a worm on a hook and the boys all fished.
Arnie reeled in his first fish and I’ll never forget the excitement in his voice when he cried, “Daddy! Daddy! Look, I caught a fish.”
Uncle Henry’s face flushed red with embarrassment and he glanced at mama. She smiled at him gently and he turned to Arnie and helped him take the little fish off the hook.
As we drove home, Uncle Henry said, “You’re quite the fisherman, Arnie.”
Arnie snuggled against Uncle Henry’s strong arm as he drove the car and I was surprised to see a tear pool in the bottom of Henry’s eye. He quickly wiped his hand across his face and I pretended not to notice. For the first time in my life, I realized that Uncle Henry had been lonely.
Right about this time, a strange thing happened, my cousin, Billie Jean, got married. Billie Jean was only three years older than me and the whole thing was so hard for me to understand that I wanted to talk to someone about it. I tried to talk to mama, but she was tired and had one of her headaches.
“But why would she go and get married like that?” I asked Aunt Pearl one day when we were making jelly.
The house was filled with the smells of fruits and spices and it was real hot on account of the stove being on all day. Aunt Pearl never sweated a whole lot. She’d just get these dainty little drops all over that massive forehead of hers.
When I asked her, she took her apron and wiped those drops away. “Why, she married him because she loves him.”
“But how…how do you know if you love someone? She’s awful young.”
Pearl thought for a moment. “Love’s kind of a funny thing, Savannah, and there’s different kinds, too. There’s a love that comes in a passion, that’s how your daddy loved your mama. The first time he laid eyes on her he knew he had to marry her.”
“Then there’s another kind. It’s a kind that lingers and puzzles. It ponders and wonders, blossoming at just the right time. Sometimes you don’t even realize you love someone and then it hits you out of nowhere. And sometimes you know you love someone but the time ain’t right. Either way, that’s the kind of love that puts passion on the back burner in order to think things through. That’s a waiting kind of love.”
“Well, which kind is best?”
“Ain’t no better way to love, just different ways.”
Together we poured the plum jelly through little screens into the Mason jars and then sealed the lids on. I wasn’t like Aunt Pearl. I was soaking wet with sweat and tired. But my mind wasn’t tired. It was running with a thousand questions and finally I had to ask, “Aunt Pearl, you think I’ll ever marry?”
Aunt Pearl put down the wooden spoon and crossed over to me. Putting her hands on my shoulders she scrutinized my face. Then a knowing smile lit her eyes. “You’re like your mama and she was always the marrying kind. Not that she was crazy about boys…it was more of a needing to be needed. Even though she was only three years older than me, she always took care of me. She helped my mama cook and clean and after your grandma died, Ruby was the only thing that kept daddy together.”
“After Ruby married, daddy just kind of dried up and died. Marrying Phil Hicks was the first and last selfish decision your mama ever made. There wasn’t another man living that could have made her do that. I don’t think she ever regretted it either. When I look at your brothers I see your daddy in them.”
She turned back to the plum jelly and I pondered what she had said. Suddenly, Ray could be heard singing, “you get a line, I’ll get a pole,” like daddy always had. I heard Danny’s laughter as he ran up behind him tackling him to the ground. Arnie’s plaintive, “wait for me,” was answered by his brothers knocking him over and tickling him. His howls of laughter drew me to the door. I smiled at the sight. Suddenly, Pearl was beside me looking out. She smiled and, as if she could read my thoughts, said, “Names ain’t the only things handed down through generations.”
I reckon the heat is what woke me up the next Monday. It seemed to bear down on me and press me into my mattress. I was surprised to find mama hadn’t gone to work yet.
In a whisper, she asked, “What are you doing up so early?” Her face was pale and tight and her hair soaked with sweat.
“It’s too hot to sleep,” I told her. “Why ain’t you up?”
“I don’t reckon I’ll be working anymore.”
My heart stood still. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s okay,” she answered. “It’s just the baby. Do you think you can walk to Uncle Henry’s and ask him to get Aunt Pearl and Miss Anderson?”
I nodded, the heat forgotten. My heart was pounding with nervousness and my stomach tight and painful. I quickly pulled on my dress and told mama, “I’ll be right back.”
“Take your time, sweetie,” mama told me. “Babies ain’t ever in much of a hurry.”
I hadn’t been to Uncle Henry’s house in a long time and I hadn’t been to town since daddy died. In front of me was the old feed store, the door was pushed open and held that way by a big sack of grain. The gray weathered wood was never painted but there was a big Ralston sign hanging on it that kind of dressed up the place.
I walked past the feed store and McCormick’s grocery store, past the two taverns and the post office. Finally, I turned down a dusty dirt road and Uncle Henry’s house was in front of me.
It was so quiet. I could see Uncle Henry in my mind sitting on that metal rocker and watching the passersby that went happily about their business on the street in front of him.
“Hello, Henry,” a voice called from the road startling me from my thoughts. I looked up and saw him climbing into his truck, getting ready to go to work at the factory.
“Uncle Henry!” I called running after him.
The blood seemed to drain from his face. “What’s wrong, Savannah?” he asked.
“Mama wants you to get Aunt Pearl and Miss Anderson,” I told him.
“It’s happening now?”
I nodded and Uncle Henry slammed the door to the truck backing out so fast I know he never looked to see if anyone was coming.
I was walking back home on the dirt road beside the cotton fields when I heard a car coming real fast. I turned to see Uncle Henry’s truck. “Get in,” he ordered.
I ran around and climbed beside him. “Where’s Aunt Pearl?”
“I sent her on to get Miss Anderson,” he explained. “I didn’t want your mama to be alone that long.”
Neither of us said a word as the truck drove down the road. The dirt flew up in a cloud behind us and Uncle Henry was driving much too fast. I didn’t say anything, though. Truth be told, I was anxious about mama too.
The truck pulled into the yard. The chickens were clucking and occasionally the rooster would crow. The boys were all in the front room when Henry ran in and, without a good morning, he went past them into mama’s room.
I followed him and heard my mama say, “Henry, for heaven’s sake! What is it? What’s wrong?”
He knelt beside the bed. “You okay, Ruby?”
Mama laughed a little at him and said, “Of course, Henry, I’m …” At that moment, a pain gripped her and she closed her eyes. Henry’s face grew so pale and frightened that I felt sorrier for him then I did mama.
He put his head on the mattress beside her and said, “I wish it didn’t have to be like this. How long’s it take anyway?”
Mama shook her head. “It’ll be a few hours, yet. Do you think you can bear it?”
He opened his eyes and shook his head. She was looking at him teasingly and he told her, “You always were a feisty one, Ruby Malone.”
She reached over and squeezed his hand. “You’re pretty plucky yourself, Henry Hicks.”
Looking around she asked, “Where’s Pearl and Miss Anderson?”
“I sent Pearl on to get Miss Anderson. I didn’t want you alone out here.”
”Alone?” mama cried. “I’ve got a houseful of good strong children. I wouldn’t have been alone.”
“Well, I would have,” he replied.
It occurred to me, then, that when Uncle Henry looked at mama, he didn’t see a pregnant Mrs. Phil Hicks. He saw the same Ruby Malone he knew in school and he remembered something and loved something in mama that I could never understand.
Aunt Pearl and Miss Anderson arrived, but there was no hurrying on their part. They were chatting and looking at the chickens. These were women who knew something about babies.
I took the boys swimming down at the ditch and we stayed a long time. When we got back Uncle Henry was sitting on the swing. He looked worried and I asked, “Anything, yet?”
He shook his head. “It ought to be real soon, though.” He looked a little angry when he told me, “Your Aunt Pearl sent me out of the house. She said I was making everyone nervous.”
I tried not to, but I had to smile. It was easy to see how Uncle Henry could be making them nervous. He couldn’t sit still. Even in the swing, he was constantly twitching or wringing his hands.
A moment later, I heard Aunt Pearl’s voice calling, “Henry?”, except when she said his name it always sounded like “Hanry.”
He rose and ran into the house and I followed him. Pearl was smiling widely and she said, “It’s a boy. A big strong boy.”
Uncle Henry bolted past Pearl and into mama’s room. I followed at his heels and mama was lying in bed, a tiny little bundle wrapped up in her arms. She looked at us and smiled, asking, “Ain’t he beautiful?”
In a way, I guess it was Uncle Henry who named that baby. He immediately went to the bed and picked him up. There was none of the usual manly awkwardness. He’d waited months to see that child and he wasn’t disappointed.
“Lord, Ruby. He’s the living image of his daddy.” And he was.
The baby was immediately named Phillip Daniel Hicks, Jr. I know my mama was thinking about daddy that day. As she gazed at that little bundle, though, I think in a way she felt like she had a little piece of my daddy back.
Mama took to sitting in the porch swing a lot after that. She couldn’t go back to work and suddenly her days were long and endless before her. She stared out across the cotton field as if she was studying for something and sometimes I’d see her sigh.
I reckon she had a lot on her mind right then. She lost her job at the bakery and we had no money coming in. When she was having that baby, she seemed to have a fire. After he was born, it seemed that fire began to flicker and die out.
She cooked and cleaned and sat. It seemed like days since I had seen her smile. Uncle Henry was worried. He never said anything, but I could see it in the anxious glances he cast her way when she was staring off at nothing.
I reckon Phil was about three weeks old the night Uncle Henry brought ice cream over. But mama didn’t seem happy, not even then. After the boys went to bed, mama fed the baby. Her eyes looked at his tiny face sadly. Uncle Henry grabbed one of his feet and said, “He sure is getting big, Ruby.”
My mama smiled a little but soon the forlorn expression came back to her face. Crossing the porch, I said, “Let me put him to bed, mama. He’s almost asleep.”
She handed me the baby and watched as I took him inside. His wrinkled pink face was content and sleepy. His thumb was in his mouth and his big eyes half closed. He felt so warm and soft I wasn’t anxious to put him down.
I finally left him in his cradle and then crept back into the front room. I walked to the table and blew out the coal oil lamp. The moon was bright and the stars were shining beautifully. I stared at them out the door for a minute.
“…seen you like this before,” Uncle Henry’s voice was saying.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” mama answered him. “I’m fine. There’s not a thing wrong with me.”
“No, Ruby,” he said sternly. “It ain’t true. Out with it. I’ve known you for years.”
“No. There’s nothing wrong.”
I heard Uncle Henry’s loud footsteps cross the porch to mama where she sat in the swing. Through the doorway I saw him kneel down and look into her face. “Please, Ruby,” he pleaded. “Don’t shut me out. Don’t you know how much I want to help you? Can’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
Mama sobbed, then. Loudly. It took me by surprise, because I really didn’t think she would say anything to Uncle Henry. “Henry,” she said in a sob, “I’m going down. I can’t pull myself together. After Phil died, I was so busy with the moving and working. Now I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.” I saw her shake her head. “I ain’t going to make it.”
Henry sat beside her and I saw him take mama into his arms. She was sobbing against his shoulder and he said, “That’s nonsense, Ruby. You’re going to make it. Don’t be silly.”
She sat back and looked him fully in the face. “Henry, how am I going to feed these children? We’ve got hardly any food left. I can’t go back to the bakery. What am I going to do?”
“You’ve got me, Ruby. You’ve got Pete and Willie and Pearl. You ain’t gonna starve.”
Mama closed her eyes and her lower lip was trembling. Her nostrils flared and even her ears were quivering. She continued in a soft voice, “And it’s more than that. I’m so lonely, Henry. I’m so tired. Every day I drag myself out of bed and I don’t know what for. I’m too tired to take care of my children. It’s just so hard.”
Her face was so sad at that moment that my heart ached. Uncle Henry took her hand into his and squeezed it. “Ruby, please. It will be okay, I promise. Can’t you smile for me?”
My mama’s forehead was knitted, lines of worry drawn deeply into it. Frowning, she replied, “No. I can’t. If anyone could make me smile it would be you, Henry. I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
Henry’s eyes searched her face and he smiled. “Please,” he said almost teasingly.
She looked at him for a moment and then sighed. I saw a small, gentle smile cross her face and she shook her head. “I don’t know what we would have done all these months without you. Why you’re so good to us I’ll never know.”
He looked at her a moment and then his face flushed with nervousness. He seemed to be thinking hard about something and mama asked him, “What’s the matter, Henry?”
He took her hand again and said looking down at it, “I reckon it might be a help to you if you married me?”
He repeated, “I was wondering if it might be a help to you to marry me.”
Mama’s eyes looked at his face wonderingly. “Henry,” she said softly, sadly, “I care too much for you to trap you into a marriage of convenience for my sake.”
Uncle Henry rose and I backed away from the doorway so he wouldn’t see me. I heard him walk across the porch, his footsteps agitated and heavy. Finally, he stopped and turned to mama. “Damn, Ruby,” he said in an annoyed voice. “What’s a man got to do?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You still don’t see? Ruby, it wouldn’t be a marriage of convenience. Not for me, anyway.”
“What are you saying?”
“After all this time, don’t you know?”
My mama gasped. “Oh, Henry,” she said. “Not after all these years.”
“I can’t help it,” he answered. “Lord knows I tried not to love you. You were my brother’s wife, for God’s sake. My sister! I couldn’t help it and I still can’t.”
“But it’s been years,” mama objected. “You can’t mean you still love me.”
“It’s been fourteen years, Ruby. And, yes. I do.”
My mama began to cry then like her heart was breaking. “Henry, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.
“You didn’t ask me to, Ruby,” he said. “It ain’t your fault. I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d have known it’d make you cry.”
Mama began to sob loudly enough where I was afraid she would wake up the boys.
I peered back out and saw Henry quickly cross the porch to her. “Ruby, for heaven’s sake! Don’t! I shouldn’t have said anything. I just thought maybe…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I won’t mention it again.”
He rose and walked to the post of the porch, leaning against it and gazing out at the darkened fields. His head was bent and he seemed uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and said in a low hoarse voice, “I reckon I ought to be leaving.”
He started to climb down the steps when mama’s voice called after him in a choked sob, “No! Don’t leave.”
He stopped and turned around. Mama rose from the swing and I watched in amazement as she ran across the porch and into Uncle Henry’s arms. I heard her sobs muffled against his shirt and I heard her whispering to him. I couldn’t hear everything she said, but I know she told Uncle Henry she loved him, too. I could see it on his face, even if I couldn’t see hers. They stood there in the moonlight for some time and I sat in the front room, my eyes riveted on them.
It never seemed odd to me really that mama would marry Uncle Henry. He and daddy were so alike that at times it was as if daddy never left. Everyone thought it was a fine idea, even Uncle Pete and Uncle Willie.
Sometimes in later years, mama would look at Henry and say pitifully, “Fourteen years,” shaking her head. Uncle Henry would only smile and say to her, “It seemed like days.” I reckon he really felt that way.