Nobody in Husband's family has read Funeral In A Small Town, because there is some concern that some of the things I have written might be construed as offensive, or cause hard feelings, even if presented in the guise of "fiction". But this past weekend when we were there, the woman who is the subject of the other piece, Miss Jimmy, came up, and husband mentioned that I had written about her. MIL expressed interest in reading it and reluctantly, I agreed to email it to her when we got home.
I didn't, but Husband did, on the sly. Last night while the boys were at ball practice, I was taken by surprise when she called to tell me how much she loved the piece. She said she and FIL had both cried reading it (FIL cries at the drop of a hat, so that's not necessarily any kind commentary on my skill) and she said it brought her right back to that little house that night we were there together so many years ago.
Some of you have read this piece, some of you have not. So here it is. Tell me what you think. Can I make it work? Can I marry the stories of these two women succesfully?
We are traveling down a rutted, sun dappled, tree lined road in a sleepy little Southern town. It is so picturesque that it could easily be mistaken for some utopian 1950's TV town.
If a person didn't know better, they might almost expect to see a primly coiffed woman in a pill box hat and day dress walking to market with a shopping bag over her arm, or a freckle faced boy with a slingshot hanging from his back pocket climbing an aged oak, far above the sidewalk.
On the surface, it's the kind of town that makes outsiders long to pull up stakes and move there, happily sacrificing 24 hour convenience for Rockwellian charm.
As we turn the corner however, the view turns to images more in keeping with a UNICEF commercial than that of a picture perfect whistle stop town. There are barefooted and big bellied children playing in front of sagging, dilapidated homes; doors propped open with cinder blocks to dispel the gloom inside. There are dogs wallowing in yards devoid of a single blade of grass. They snarl and snap at anyone who ventures near; fierce from hunger and neglect.
There are stoop shouldered women hanging out threadbare laundry, there are overalled men tinkering beneath the hoods of late model automobiles. An infant wails and it is a plaintive sound, as if it doesn't really expect to be heard; doesn’t expect any solace or comfort. This street is also sun-dappled and tree lined, but it does little to combat the air of dejection and destitution. It is a profoundly hopeless place.
In this part of town, white and black live side by side in a kind of desperate harmony. It seems that poverty is a great equalizer.
As we approach an intersection, I recognize a small house with peeling paint and crumbling stone columns. The graying boards of the front porch are bowed with age and rot. A torn screen door swings to and fro in the breeze. It has not changed much since the first time I saw it, except that it is empty now, and even more forlorn. No curtains grace the windows and no cheery light shines from within as it did that bitter November evening almost 12 years ago......
My mother-in-law and sister-in-law seemed oblivious to the abrupt change of scenery. Their faces were bland with acceptance, while mine undoubtedly registered shock and horror. Never had I seen such profound poverty, such pervasive and immeasurable need. It made my underprivileged childhood seem affluent in comparison. In an unconscious gesture of protection against something I could scarcely comprehend, my hand stole to my swollen belly.
Dear God...to raise a child in this filth.
I thought about the clean and cheerful nursery at home; the piles of tiny, snowy underthings and receiving blankets washed in Dreft, the AAP approved baby equipment impregnated with Microban, and the carpet I had steam cleaned myself with scalding hot water in an effort to eradicate all traces of pestilence left behind by former occupants. I thought about the pediatrician I had already selected and the vaccinations I had already scheduled.
As I thought about these things the happiness I usually felt was replaced deep and aching sadness. I was ashamed at how I had taken them for granted, and I was angry that anyone should have to live the way these people do. But there was also a creeping melancholy and a little resentfulness at having my warm and comfortable holiday marred by such ugliness. The baby kicked hard as if to punctuate these thoughts.
"Here we are!" my mother-in-law chirped brightly. I was puzzled by her cheerful tone.
Doesn't she see?
She opened the trunk and extracted bags and boxes which she divided among us. I got two enormous shopping bags from Sears. My unpregnant sister-in-law got a huge plastic crate full of canned and dry goods, with a large foil covered platter balanced on top. My mother-in-law carried an unwieldy autumn floral arrangement and several gaily wrapped gifts.
She knocked on the weathered door and called out, "Miss Jimmy? It's Linda. Can we come in?"
There came no reply, but after a few moments the door creaked slowly open, and a wizened face peered out into the night. In a quavering but emphatic voice she exclaimed over God's goodness at bringing her visitors and flung the door open wide in welcome. We traipsed in and laid our spoils down on a bed covered with an old chenille spread. Aside from a listing bureau, several mismatched chairs, and a small drop leaf table, there were no other furnishings in the ramshackle little room.
There was a microwave and a hotplate on the table. A pitcher and washbasin were at her bedside. A worn but heavy quilt covered a sagging doorway. I realized that she must be living in this one room.
She embraced my companions, and as I turned to introduce myself I stopped and stared. Standing before me was the personification of Mother Abigail. So precisely did her appearance match my mental image of the fictional character that I was momentarily speechless, and I know that my jaw dropped open as I studied her.
Her sparse hair was gathered into a tiny little bun atop her cottony head. Her kindly brown face was heavily lined and her smile revealed pink and toothless gums. Her faded robe was belted beneath her low slung bosom, and fuzzy slippers matted with age peeped out from beneath the frayed hem. She was diminutive, but stood ramrod straight. Her eyes, though hooded by prodigiously wrinkled lids, twinkled with humor and intelligence. It was impossible to guess her age. She was both infantile and ancient; an ageless and sexless being that exuded quiet dignity despite her squalid surroundings.
"So, this is Linda's first grandbaby." she said. "That is a blessed thing."
She laid a gnarled hand upon my belly and caressed the bump of my baby's behind. I am not the sort of person who encourages or cultivates physical contact with strangers. So ordinarily, uninvited belly fondling, which is disconcertingly common, would arouse irritation and resentment in me. Her touch however, was curiously comforting and I did not object as she continued to follow the contours of my baby's body with her warm and capable feeling hands. She cupped them together just above my pubis, cradling the baby's head almost as if preparing to gently coax the tiny form from my body.
She looked me in the eyes and said "God has given you a strong and healthy boy. He is good to you, child."
She held my gaze as I weighed her words. She couldn't know how I struggled with faith. She couldn't know that I felt like a fish out of water here in the South, where religion is a way of life and beliefs are handed down from generation to generation like a wedding gown or baby blanket, cherished, unchanging and uncontested. But I felt as if somehow, she did know.
Since my unborn baby had stubbornly refused to reveal its sex on the ultrasound, I did not know if her assertion in that regard was correct, but again, I had the uncanny feeling that she had not simply hazarded a guess, but rather stated an unequivocal truth. I admonished myself for being taken in by such foolishness. She had a 50% chance of guessing correctly after all.
She can't see into my womb or my soul.
And yet, the feeling persisted.
After serving us hot tea and butter cookies from a battered tin, the rest of the visit was spent examining the treasures we had brought. Her thin and faded robe was exchanged for one that was brightly colored and heavily quilted. One bag yielded several sets of fleecy sweats, an array of matching turtlenecks, a multitude of flannel nightgowns, sturdy cotton underwear, heavy woolen socks, and a pair of thick soled house shoes that made her sigh with pleasure.
The other bag contained two new pillows and an electric blanket with dual controls. There were creams and lotions and soaps that made her giggle like a young girl, and necessities such as deodorant and Fixodent. Even the toilet paper was exclaimed over, and she allowed that her tough black fanny wasn't accustomed to such quilted softness.
I was humbled watching her, and a little surprised at myself. I am not by nature a histrionic person, nor am I often given to flights of fancy. But this tiny, shabby little black woman had affected me deeply, and I didn't know why. Reflecting on it years later I came up with the same ridiculous answer that struck me that day. Neither skepticism nor pragmatism could dispel the notion that there was something otherworldly about her; a spark of divinity that could not be diminished by her poverty.
When it was time to leave, she hugged us all and said "Praise Jesus, for he has truly blessed me today."
Linda didn't seem to mind that Jesus was getting the credit for her generosity, though I knew that she had spent many hours choosing things that would see Miss Jimmy through the winter in her drafty, decaying old house and paid for it all herself. It didn't seem quite fair that she received no thanks for her effort.
But Linda only smiled and said "Jesus can't help blessing you Miss Jimmy."
She patted my stomach once more and murmured "Bless this baby Lord, that he may do thy service."
We left, and several months later I gave birth to a baby boy, seven weeks early. The neonatal team was standing by, ready to deliver life saving measures to my premature infant. They didn't hang around for long, however. My son was a whopping 5 lbs. 14 oz. and came out complaining loudly about the state of things. After they had established that he was breathing well, I was allowed to nurse him. He latched on easily and maintained a vice grip on one breast or the other for most of the next two weeks. He was indeed, strong and healthy.
After the hubbub had died down and I was alone with my baby, I thought of Miss Jimmy, who had died quietly in her bed several weeks earlier. I never saw her again, and she never met my son. I had envisioned placing him in her thin arms and watching her face as she cooed to him. I couldn’t have said why I felt compelled to take him back to her, but I was gripped by inexplicable sorrow at not being able to do so. I tried to console myself with the knowledge that he had already been touched by her.
Many years later I learned that when they found her, her teeth were frozen in a glass beside her bed. That little detail lay on my heart like a stone, heavy with the indignity.
I return to the present with a start. My son is talking to me, but it takes me a moment to clear my head enough to respond to him.
"Mom. Mom. Mom! Why are you staring at that old house?"
"You and I went there once." I reply. "Nanny took us there to see a lady."
"The one who predicted I would be a boy?" he asks. He knows the story well.
"Yes, that's the one."
"Was she a sorceress?" asks my youngest.
"No." says my oldest. "She was an angel."
I never told him that. I look at my husband who shrugs. He's been around this stuff his whole life and doesn't find it strange at all.
"Maybe." I say. "Maybe she was."