A slice of long ago

My mule neighbors

All my life, I wanted to live in the country.

I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard. 

I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.

To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.

Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.

The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.

I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.

See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul. 

Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.

So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there. 

And, in a way, I was.

In 1937.

*******

He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.

I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.

I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .

All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.

“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.

He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.

Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:

Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.

That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.

“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.

“Bless you.”

******

Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.

That is how my father came into the world.

Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”

Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.

Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.

Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before. 

Living here means that long ago is never far away.

*******

Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”

Still born

Lost in France WWI

WWI digital collage by jinterwasCC BY

“In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences . . . .” -Woodrow Wilson, 1915

By Christmas, she’s too weak to get out of bed. She listens to him singing carols with the children in the front room by the fire, his resonant bass filling the house. If the pain would stop, she thinks, I might could play a song or two for them . . .

The piano stands silent as she drifts in and out on the sound of his voice.

He peers in at her. How strangely frail she is, birdlike, lying there with her black hair spread like wings over the pillows, skin as white as the sheets, dark circles around her eyes. Until the lost baby in September—poor, stillborn thing—she’d been tireless, out in the cotton from dawn to dusk, all the while keeping an eye on their three children at the edge of the fields.  

Her strength hasn’t returned, but she’s alive. He is grateful, for he walked the valley of that shadow once before, fourteen years ago. Just down the dirt road, over the canal footbridge, under a stone on the land his father gave for the building of the church, lies his first wife. Nineteen years old, buried in her wedding dress, holding the infant who never had a name to inscribe on the stone:

a place made vacant

in our home can

never more be filled.

A place now filled by a woman who’d been twelve at the time of her predecessor’s passing. 

She opens her eyes. Huge, black eyes that look straight through him, making him shiver.

“Francis. Go get Mama. Please.”

Turning back to the front room, he kneels with the children—ages six, four, and two—and gathers them in his arms. “Listen to Papa. I’m fetching your Grandmama. Stay close by Mama, hear?”

The older girl and boy nod. The two-year-old squirms against him. He hands her to her big sister. “Mind her. Keep away from the fire. I’ll be right back.”

The six-year-old regards him with solemn eyes, big and dark, so like her mother’s. “Yes, Papa.” She grips the little one’s hand, tight.

He grabs his coat and cap. The children watch him through the frosty window, hearing the echo of his boots running over crunchy patches of snow.

They file into the bedroom where she lies with her face turned toward the other window and the winter white world beyond. 

She moans as the pain in her middle cuts like a knife and the whiteness deepens to gray. I am turning inside out. If I didn’t know better, I would think . . . 

Then the darkness swallows everything.

*******

Day blends with night, it all runs together, until a cry shoots through him. He bursts into the bedroom, blue eyes wide with shock.

There, in the quivering circle of red-gold light cast by the kerosene lamp, stands his mother-in-law, her face shining with perspiration. Before he can take it in, she crosses the creaking floorboards to hand him a wriggling, wailing bundle.

How can this be? How can this be? pounds his heart. The baby was stillborn nearly three months ago!

His wife, smaller, paler than ever, watches from the bed, black eyes glittering in the lamplight. “Merry Christmas, Papa, one day late,” she grins. “It’s another girl.”

Who is very much alive, crying for all she is worth, here in his arms.

His instincts kick in. He jiggles the infant and begins to sing, softly, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The newborn and her mother both drift away on the sound of his voice: “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

*******

“So, you see,” says Grandma, “I was a twin.”

“How can that happen? Having a stillborn twin but not the other for almost three more months?” I’m hanging on her every word as she makes up her four-poster bed. Through the window of her room, with its tongue-and-groove walls painted a cheery pastel pink, I can see her homeplace just on the other side of Granddaddy’s garden. The tin roof gleams bright silver in the morning sun. For a second, I see it in the icy December of 1915 . . .

She shrugs. “It’s rare, but it happens sometimes, even with animals.”

“But how did she not realize she was still expecting for that long? She’d already had three children, not counting the one she lost!” My  great-grandmother went on, in fact, to have a total of eight children, all of whom I know. Not counting the lost one, of course. Grandma’s twin.

Grandma shakes her head. “There’s no telling. Women didn’t go to doctors like they do now. When she lost that baby, it came early. She just didn’t expect there to be a twin remaining, I guess. Women lost babies all the time. My sister had stillborn twin girls. I was there and saw them. They looked like tiny dolls, not quite finished . . . ”

She says this with a matter-of-factness that I cannot comprehend.

“It’s so mysterious, that you were still born after all,” I say after a bit, following her to the kitchen, where she ties on her apron.

“Oh yes,” she says, flouring the spot and croaker that Granddaddy caught in the creek. “Life is full of mysteries, that’s for sure.”

“You’re kind of a Christmas miracle, then, aren’t you?”

Grandma chuckles, placing the fish in the frying pan where they sizzle and pop, sending up a fragrance that makes my stomach growl.

“Just one day late,” she smiles.

She goes about her work as usual, while I drift away on the sea of her stories, filling in the minor details that have been obscured by time, envisioning these great-grandparents who died before I was born, sensing the tenor of their daily lives, yearning to know more. I halfway expect, as I go out on the back steps to gaze at the empty homeplace, that I might see them in one of the translucent windows, waving to me in recognition.

I have to stop myself from waving back, in case anybody else happens to be watching.

*******

Happy Birthday, Grandma. Your stories live on.

Love always from your and your Papa’s namesake.