Mama was standing near the door. She wearing her gray winter coat, although it wasn’t buttoned, and a red felt hat, which was sitting crookedly atop her head. She was also moaning, her moans punctuated by gasps, as she tried to tell Della what she wanted done during her absence. “The sheets,” Mama said between pale, tight lips, “I want you to change the ones in our room…
Two days after Christmas I was startled from sleep at three o’clock in the morning by the slamming of a door, followed by frantic whispers and hurried footsteps in the hall. Sitting up, I glanced at Lena, whose face was dappled with moonlight from the window near the bed, but she was snoring away. Of course, she’d always been a sound sleeper, and I figured she could probably sleep through anything, even the Second Coming, so not bothering to be quiet as I slipped from bed, I shrugged into my chenille robe. My heart was hammering between my ribs and my mind filled with images of the white-robed mob that had paid us a visit in October. I thought, What if they’ve returned? What if they hurt Uncle Joe this time? What if they hurt Della? My bare feet slapped on the cold wood floor as I then dashed for the door. I jerked it open, stepped into the hall, and almost collided with my daddy.
“Ruth,” he said, “what’re you doing up? You oughta be asleep.” He was carrying a brown leather suitcase in one hand, John Deere cap in the other. Brushing past me, he added, “Get back to bed.”
I started after him.
He glanced over his shoulder. “I said, get back to bed.”
I slid to a stop. “But where’re you going?” For some reason I couldn’t explain I expected him to say he was leaving, that he’d had enough of Mama’s complaining, not just about his gravy but everything else he did and everything he was.
Instead, he said, “It’s your Mama’s time,” and continued on toward the kitchen.
“Time for what?” I called. Not receiving an answer, I hurried after him, and as I entered the kitchen, I saw what all the fuss was about.
Mama was standing near the door. She wearing her gray winter coat, although it wasn’t buttoned, and a red felt hat, which was sitting crookedly atop her head. She was also moaning, her moans punctuated by gasps, as she tried to tell Della what she wanted done during her absence. “The sheets,” Mama said between pale, tight lips, “I want you to change the ones in our room the day before I get home. The last thing I want is… is to come home to dirty sheets.”
Daddy touched her arm. “Evelyn, we oughta-”
“I know,” she said and shook his hand off. “I also want you to clean out the pantry, throw out anything that looks like it might’ve ruined, and… and scrub shelves.” She began buttoning her coat. “When you dust the knickknacks in the parlor, don’t just dust around them, move them so you can clean under them as well. And… and no matter how much they whine, I don’t want you to give the children a bunch of sweets. Sissy already has a cavity that needs to be filled.” She straightened her hat. “Also make sure they take a dose of cod liver oil every day, especially now that it’s flu season.”
Della nodded, saying, “Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Caldwell. You don’t have to worry. I’ll take good care of the house and children.”
Moaning, louder this time, Mama wrapped her arms around the bottom of her stomach and rocked from side-to-side.
“Evelyn,” Daddy repeated, sounding both worried and exasperated as he tugged on the sleeve of her coat. “If we don’t get to the hospital, you’re gonna have this baby right here in the middle of the kitchen floor.”
“All right, all right,” Mama said and finally turned toward the door. When Daddy opened it, a blast of frigid air snaked into the room, making the flames in the fireplace dance higher, before Mama stepped out onto the back porch.
I shivered and pulled my robe tighter.
Daddy looked back at me. “Ruth,” he said, “you young’uns mind Miss Della, and don’t go giving her no trouble. I’ll call you from the hospital soon as I know something.” He closed the door; and only seconds later I heard the cough of the Ford’s engine as it sprang to life, followed by the crunch of gravel beneath its tires. Then, silence.
I turned to Della. “Does having a baby hurt?” I asked, since it was the foremost question in my mind after having just witnessed my mama’s obvious distress.
Walking toward the fireplace, Della said, “Yes, having a baby hurts, but most women say it’s worth all the pain.” She shrugged. “Not that I’ve had a baby myself, but I have seen one be born.”
“You have?” I was impressed. “Really? When?”
“When my mama had my sister, Angel. I was right there helping Granny Rose deliver her.”
“Your sister’s name is Angel?” I pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. “Why’d your mama name her Angel? Was it ‘cause she looked like one when she was born?”
Rubbing her hands together, Della held them out toward the flames like maybe they were cold. “It was because my sister didn’t live long after she was born… maybe thirty minutes… so Mama said God had meant for her to be an angel all along.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Sorry” seemed somehow insufficient. But I said it anyway.
“Me, too,” Della said, as she removed the screen, knelt, and placed another log on the fire. She stared into the flames as the log smoldered for a moment then began to burn, sending a spiraling column of bright sparks up the chimney to disappear into the cold January night.
“Do you think Mama’s baby will die?” I asked and felt tears well into my eyes. I wiped them away. Newborn babies can’t die, I thought; they haven’t even lived.
Della looked at me and smiled. “Ruthie, your baby sister or brother’s going to be just fine. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“But how do you know?” I asked. Hadn’t she just said her own baby sister had died?
“I know because your mama is going to have her baby in a nice clean hospital, where she’ll be looked after by doctors and nurses who know all there is to know about delivering babies.” Saying this, Della glanced back into the flames. “My mama wasn’t in a hospital. All she had was Granny Rose and me, and I was just a child.”
“Is Granny Rose your grandma?” I asked, expecting her to say yes.
Instead she said, “Granny Rose is a midwife. Everybody calls her Granny.” Then, as if anticipating my next question, she added, “A midwife is a woman who helps other women give birth at home.” She sighed. “Granny Rose knows a lot, and she did all she could. She tried to save Angel… tried real hard… but I guess she just didn’t have enough know-how, at least not as much as a doctor.”
“But,” I said, “didn’t they have hospitals back then?”
“Back then?” Della’s lips curved into what might have passed for a smile, except it was filled with sorrow not happiness. “Ruthie, it was only seven years ago. They had hospitals, but my mama, she couldn’t afford to go to one.”
“Why? Didn’t she have any money?”
“She had some but not enough. A woman can’t make much money cleaning up other folks’ messes. And my daddy, well, he drank all his money away.”
Wanting to change the subject to something less depressing because I didn’t like making Della sad, I decided to ask her a question I had been carrying around for a long time now: “Do folks make babies the same way horses and cows make ‘em?”
Della’s brown eyes grew even larger than they normally were. “What?” she said, sounding somewhat bemused.
“You heard me,” I said. “I wanna know how folks make babies. I asked Mama not too long ago, but she told me I wasn’t old enough to know that kind of thing. So I asked Daddy, but he just turned red, kinda like a beet, and told me to go ask Mama.”
Laughing, Della stood and brushed her hands off on her robe. “I swear, Ruthie, but you can come up with more questions than any child I’ve ever known.”
“Well, I also asked Uncle Joe. He told me folks find ‘em in rabbit boxes out behind the barn.” I sighed resignedly. “In my opinion, that don’t make no sense at all. Heck, what would a baby be doing in a rabbit box?”
“Ruthie,” Della said, “it’s time you got back to bed. You can’t stay up the live-long night.”
Not easily dissuaded, I said, “But I’ve seen what the bull does to the cows and-”
“I’m going to bed,” Della said and yanked the belt on her robe. “If you want to sit here all night by yourself, just go right ahead and do it.”
I mumbled, “Don’t see why nobody won’t tell me how babies get made.”
“Ruth,” Della said (she called me Ruth only when she was aggravated), “Go to bed.”
It was around nine o’clock the next morning before Daddy called from Crawford Long Memorial Hospital in Atlanta; and since Sissy could run faster than the rest of us, she answered the phone while glaring at my sister and me, probably because we were jumping around and demanding to know if we had a new brother, a new sister, or both. Green eyes shooting sparks, Sissy finally hissed, “Ya’ll shut up. I can’t hear a word Daddy’s saying.” Then, when she disconnected the call, she put her hands on her skinny hips, stuck out her suddenly quite noticeable breasts (I later learned she stuffed her bra with tissues), and said, “I swear but ya’ll are such heathens!” She sounded just like mama.
Rolling her eyes, Lena said, “Well, what kinda baby is it?”
“It ain’t no kind yet,” Sissy said, “cause Mama’s still in labor.” Turning away and heading toward the hall, she added, “Daddy says he’ll call again after while.”
“After while” turned out to be almost eight o’clock that night; and this time I answered the phone (I had camped beside it all afternoon with a stack of books to read), so I got to announce the news to everyone else: We had a new baby brother; eight pounds, six ounces; with a head full of thick, black, wavy hair. I also got to deliver Daddy’s message to Della: It’d be late when he got in, but he hadn’t eaten all day, so he’d “sure appreciate it if she wait up and fix him a bite to eat.”
Mama pulled a tissue from the box on the table beside her chair and dabbed at her eyes. “It wasn’t my fault, but I still felt guilty. I guess because I was the one who hired that girl.”
“Mama,” I said, “what exactly do you think happened while you were in the hospital with Horace?”
“Ruth, I don’t think anything. I know things happened..”
“Like…” She hesitated. “Well, for one, your Uncle Joe, he… he tried to force himself on that girl.” She clasped her hands in her lap, looked down at them. “There I was, not out of the house for hardly a day and he has to go and do something like that.”
“How do you know he did anything?” I asked.
“Sissy told me.”
“Yes, Sissy. She said she saw him trying to kiss Della and… and putting his hands where they didn’t belong.” Mama shook her head. “What on earth would make a white man want to do something like that with a colored girl? For the life of me, I just don’t understand. I’ll never understand.”
“But when did Sissy tell you this?” I asked.
Mama shrugged. “I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was a year or so after Horace was born… maybe the spring of ’59.”
“So why’d she wait so long?”
“Said she didn’t want to get me upset because I’d had such a difficult time with Horace. Then it just kind of slipped her mind, at least for a while.”
Slipped her mind, I thought, not Sissy. “Mama,” I said, “What exactly did she tell you?”
Sighing, Mama said, “Your sister told me that she’d gone over to Sarah Jacobs’ house the night after I had Horace. She was going to spend the night, and your Daddy was going to pick her up the next day. But she and Sarah got into a squabble… you know how teenage girls can be… so Sissy told Sarah she didn’t want to spend the night after all.” She pursed her lips disapprovingly. “But instead of calling your daddy to come pick her up, Sissy was so mad, she just grabbed her overnight bag, marched out of the house, and headed for home. And I imagine one reason she waited so long to tell me what she’d seen was because she’d known how upset I’d be over her walking that lonely road all by herself… in the dead of winter and at night.” Looking at me expectantly, she asked, “How far was it to the Jacob’s house, anyway? Had to be at least two miles.”
“More like a quarter mile,” I said. I knew, however, the distance was irrelevant. A half-mile, a quarter-mile, twenty miles, it wouldn’t have mattered. Mama had never wanted her daughters to go anywhere unescorted; and in order to dissuade us from doing so, she’d issued dire warnings of the possible consequences, mainly that we would be “kidnapped by gypsies,” regardless of anyone’s never having glimpsed even one gypsy caravan in the vicinity of Fairburn, Georgia.
“When Sissy got home,” Mama said, “everyone was asleep, or so she thought; but since she wasn’t sleepy, given she was too upset, Sissy decided to go to the barn and check on the kittens that old gray cat had given birth to in the hayloft.” Saying this, Mama smiled. “That was so like Sissy. She always did like cats. Remember that tabby cat she used to dress up in doll dresses and push around in a baby carriage?”
I returned the smile as I said, “Yes, I remember; she called it Miss Whiskers.”
“That’s right, Whiskers. I’d forgotten that cat’s name. Anyway, when she got close to the barn, Sissy heard a commotion of some kind, so she ducked behind the Chinaberry tree. You recall it? It got struck by lightning the following spring, so your daddy had to chop it down.”
“Yes, Mama,” I said, “I remember the Chinaberry tree.” As much as I wanted her to tell the story and leave out all the little side trips down memory lane, I knew I had to be patient or she would end the conversation.
“So,” she said, “Sissy saw Della and this man, he-”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you said she saw Della with Uncle Joe. Now you’re saying ‘this man.’”
“It was your uncle,” she said, frowning. “Joe Caldwell… and he was trying to kiss Della, who was pushing him away… like this.” She held her hands out to demonstrate, shoving at the air. “Sissy said he had her pinned against the barn, and Della was struggling, but he wouldn’t quit. Then he…” She glanced toward the window, lowered her voice to a whisper. “Then he started rubbing her breasts and pushing himself against her.”
I waited, but when she didn’t say anything else – just continued to stare at the window – I asked, “Then what happened?”
Sighing, Mama looked back at me. “Sissy didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know? But why?”
“Because she got cold and went back to the house.”
Oh, Good Lord, I thought, that’s so like Sissy to leave in the middle of things just because she got a little uncomfortable. “Mama,” I said, “it probably just looked like Uncle Joe was trying to force himself on Della, leastways to Sissy. She was a kid. What did she know about things like that?”
“Your sister said he was forcing himself on her,” Mama said, “and I believe her. He’d probably been drinking again, and couldn’t control his baser urges. You know what liquor does to some men.”
“Still,” I said, “I don’t see how she could be so certain it was Uncle Joe. It was dark outside.”
“Maybe it was dark,” Mama said. “But she knew your uncle when she saw him, and it was Joe Caldwell with that girl.”
Regardless of her certainty, I was not convinced because of something she had said earlier, and I now reminded her of that comment. “But you said you knew Della was involved with someone else, not Uncle Joe.”
Frowning, Mama looked down for a moment then back at me. “Yes, I did say that, because I could tell by the way Della looked at Joe Caldwell that it wasn’t him she wanted. No, ma’am, it wasn’t him at all.” She sniffed. “Of course, her wanting someone else sure didn’t stop him from wanting her, and that’s why he forced himself on her that night.”
At that point I realized I was more than a little aggravated with both my mama and my sister – with Sissy for assuming that some man she’d glimpsed in the dark and from a distance had been our uncle, and with Mama for being so easily convinced that Uncle Joe was the kind of man who (drunk or not) would force himself on a woman. Besides, I knew something my mama and sister didn’t. I had, after all, read Della Gaddy’s journal.
To be continued
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