SOUTHERN LEGITIMACY STATEMENT When we unexpectedly showed up at Grandma’s house on any given Sunday, she would send one of my older brothers into the yard to catch a chicken or two. She was quicker and more efficient at wringing the chicken’s neck, so she would deftly, with a flick of her wrist, turn a domesticated fowl into an impromptu lunch for a crowd. After the chicken finished flopping around in the yard, it quickly entered the cast iron skillet and I always got a thigh.
Whichever brother had caught the chicken was rewarded with the other thigh. It was a long-held family secret that this grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather) had actually been a Union soldier from Iowa.
The only girl among 7 siblings, I was excused from many tenant farming chores, but I shelled my fair share of peas, chopped many a garden row, learned to swim in a pond, and I know exactly how to pick out a perfect watermelon. I attended a small Southern Baptist university and received a M.Ed. from what was Memphis State University.
Since retiring from teaching and after raising two above-average children, I continue to live in Jackson, TN right across the street from that same Southern Baptist university where my husband and I walk our exceptionally lazy dog, Louie. We may or may not always pick up after him.
Last time she held Jesse, he had nursed his fill and gently drifted off to sleep, just like always. He was her easy baby, the one who always woke up happy and smiling. Jesse had this one ringlet of hair right at the nape of his neck. In the heat of the day, it always curled up tight, just like his fist did when he grabbed ahold of her blouse as he latched onto her nipple at his night time feeding. He would look at her with eyes that seemed like he had always known things about her that no one else knew. He seemed to see her soul and the troubles she kept buried deep inside. Those eyes that were neither blue, nor brown nor green, nor hazel. There just wasn’t a name for this color because this color wasn’t even fully formed yet. Staring into Jesse’s eyes felt like looking into another world.
Nursing a baby was hard on Lizabeth. But so was everything. She rose before dawn, got the fire going in the cookstove, made a fresh batch of biscuits, a pot of coffee and cooked up a hearty breakfast for her brood of five older kids. These morning chores were usually done with Jesse bound across her chest while he contentedly nursed his fill. Her elderly husband, Willie, helped as best he could, but he had lost his vision awhile back when he was working at the stable forging some horseshoes. When he hammered the iron, a shard of metal splintered off and hit his left eye. The other eye had a cloudy cataract over it that had formed many years ago which finally robbed him of his right one, too. He was good to help with the chores, and he taught himself how to weave baskets and cane chair bottoms that he sold to folks. This helped out a lot. But the bulk of the day to day work fell on Lizabeth and the children.
Lizabeth hadn’t ever intended on marrying Willie. She had known him most of her life. He and his first wife, Maggie, had lived down the road apiece with their children. Pete and Edgar were a little older than Lizabeth, but Sarah was right at Lizabeth’s same age, so they grew up playing together in the shade of the trees at the edge of the field and watched over Sarah’s little brother, Jimmy, while their parents and older brothers worked the cotton. When Lizabeth was about fifteen, Maggie died. They were never really sure what happened to her. She just took sick one day, and about a week or so later, she was gone. Next thing Lizabeth knew, Willie was at her house asking her Pa if he could court her. Within a month, she was a married woman with married woman responsibilities and duties.
The babies came quickly. The first two were girls, only 14 months apart and so close to each other you’d have thought they were twins. Lula and Myrna entertained each other from the time they were toddlers. They seemed to need no one else to be happy. Then came Joe and Monroe. Joe was trouble from the minute he took his first breath. He cried inconsolably and was colicky. He struggled learning to talk, took months to potty train. He was hateful to his brother and sisters and to both of his parents, rarely smiled and would have temper fits over everything that did not please him. Monroe was the perfect baby, but as he got older, he seemed to be into everything and had to be watched every minute. His days were full of adventure and joy, but he was a handful. One minute, he would be staring into Lizabeth’s eyes and telling her how much he loved her; the next minute, he would be on the roof of the shed or in the pasture with the bull. Lizabeth lived in fear that he would get hurt and she wouldn’t be able to piece him back together. Then came Della. She was the delight of Willie. He named her for his mother and was always partial to her. She was another easy child, like Monroe. She adored her daddy the most, maybe because he adored her so. Her thick brown hair fell naturally into perfect ringlets all over her head. She was smart and wanted to read Monroe’s school books long before she could go to school. She stayed by her daddy’s side and helped him with his tasks that he could not see to do. She learned to cut white oak slats that were long, straight and limber enough to be woven into baskets big enough to use to pick cotton.
When Jesse was born, Lizabeth prayed he would be her last. Her body was tired. Her soul was drained. The other children were older and she didn’t expect she’d have any more. Six children and a disabled husband to care for was more than any woman should have to deal with. Six children of her own. And then there were the older children from Willie’s first wife. Sarah had married Sam Culver from Middle Grange right after Lizabeth and Willie got married. They came to visit every few months, usually on a Sunday. Lizabeth was always happy to spend time with her childhood friend, cooking together and tending their children together. Pete and Edgar were off in the penitentiary for bootlegging. The revenuers had caught them running whiskey one evening over on Oakhaven Road, with a load hidden under the seat of the old wood wagon. Lizabeth and Willie had warned them what the Book of Proverbs said: “Treasures of wickedness profit nothing…” but they were always wanting easy money, and for a while, they seemed to have a lot of it. Jimmy was grown now. He married once but she ran off with that R.T. Dunlap and never once looked back. Jimmy just seemed to quit trying after that. He did a few odd jobs, stayed wherever someone would be kind enough to offer a place to sleep. But he never bothered asking Lizabeth or his daddy for a place to stay or for any money. He would just have the occasional Sunday dinner and asked for nothing more.
Most days, Lizabeth would be up before daylight, have breakfast ready for her family, get them all fed and off to the field to hoe the cotton before the heat would get too bad. This day was no different. By 6:00, Lizabeth, Joe, Monroe, Lula and Myrna were on their way to work in Mr. Cogden’s field. She hoped they would get that field finished before dinner so they could start on Mr. Bullard’s field tomorrow. Della stayed behind to help Willie with some baskets he was planning to work on. She was too little to be much use in the field, anyway, and Willie’s baskets brought in a little extra money for the family. Jesse rode to the field perched on Lizabeth’s hip. The little tuft of hair on the nape of his neck was already getting curly from the humidity in the air. There was no breeze that day. Lizabeth decided she needed to send Monroe back to the well to get a bucket of water and the dipper to make sure nobody got too hot.
Once they got to the field, Monroe made sure everyone’s hoe was sharpened with the file he kept in the pocket of his overalls. While the 4 older siblings began their day of labor, Lizabeth sat down in the shade of the corn crib that was at the edge of the field where she nursed Jesse, hoping he would doze off to sleep. That would let her get a good hour or two of work done before he needed her again. He grasped the edge of her shirt with his right hand and he locked his eyes into her gaze. She stroked his cheek and twirled that one little curl at the nape of his neck as he satiated his hunger at her breast. Satisfied that he was sound asleep, she checked the pallet she had made for him in the corn crib, and when she was satisfied that he would be safe and out of the harsh sunlight, she laid him down, fetched her hoe, and joined her other children in the field.
Lizabeth quickly caught up with the others in the cotton field. She knew how to work quickly and deftly. Her children were always surprised and the speed of her work and they knew she would have the cleanest row of cotton in the field; not a single weed or blade of grass would be left behind. As she neared them, the 4 became quieter and she could tell that they were guarding a secret that she would have to unravel at some point, but in the meantime, she just kept her head down and pondered what they may have been sharing. That boy, Billy Phelps had been coming around. Was Lula secretly seeing him without permission? And Joe was always into something. Now that he was a teenager, no telling what he had gotten himself into. He had been running off in the evenings with that Daniel Burgess who was never up to any good.
Deep in thought and worry, Lizabeth’s brain didn’t register what her ears were hearing. Sensing something was wrong, she righted herself on her hoe, raised her head and seemed to sniff the air. She turned, and for what might have been a second or what might have been an hour, she could not decipher what her eyes were seeing. Three of her older children began yelling and running toward the corn crib. Myrna stood frozen, mouth agape. The others were running with an urgency, Monroe leading the way, the others screaming in horror. She stood rooted at that spot in Mr. Cogden’s cotton field. She felt like her feet had grown roots deep as the Johnson grass she had been hacking out of that row of cotton. Staring at the corn crib as it creaked, swayed, snapped and finally collapsed under the weight of years of exposure, Lizabeth couldn’t move. What her eyes were seeing and what her ears were hearing did not make sense. The wind wasn’t even moving. The old beams that held the roof buckled falling onto that carefully prepared pallet that held her baby, Jesse. As her brain began to process what was happening, she began moving toward the corn crib. She felt as if her legs were mired knee deep in mud as she plodded forward.
Lizabeth didn’t really remember much after that. She didn’t remember moving those decades old timbers from the rubble to get to her Jesse. She didn’t remember Joe lifting those heavy timbers like a full grown man and throwing them to the side. Nor did she remember the sobs that arose from Lula and Myrna at the sight of their baby brother. She didn’t really remember what his body looked like as she grabbed him, pallet and all, and ran all the way back to the house. She didn’t remember Monroe and Joe running all the way to town to get the doctor. She did remember the doctor telling her that there was nothing left to do for Jesse. She did remember bathing his body and dressing him in the white gown that Sarah brought for him to wear, taking care to curl that one tuft of hair at the nape of his neck. She did remember the gentle way that Willie caressed Jesse’s body with his fingers, memorizing every feature and the tears that flowed from Willie’s milky, unseeing eyes.
When night fell, Lizabeth’s breasts rose in anticipation of Jesse’s lips suckling his way to slumber. She winced in pain as Sarah bound her chest tightly with the same length of cloth that she had used just that morning to bind Jesse to her while she made biscuits. It was soon wet with the warm sustenance that was now unneeded. She wondered how much of the dampness was from her leaking milk and how much was from her tears. The bindings would eventually cut off the flow of her milk, and she prayed that it would cut off the pain in her heart. Her heart ached for those nondescript eyes that knew her better than anyone. Her arms ached for the baby that would never again curl his hand around the edge of her blouse as he drifted to sleep, latched to the breast that now cried for him.