Chapters 1 and 2 (condensed)
The day my mother dropped the plow lines and took off on the mule to who knows where, my life got a hole in it. As she rode into the trees toward the Clinchfield tracks, the last words Mama said were “Don’t follow me!” I was only nine years old so, yes, I did take it somewhat personally.
Daddy found her living with some of her relatives over in Tellico Plains. She wouldn’t come home, so he swore out a writ of lunacy against her, and the sheriff took her to the insane asylum in Knoxville.
Finally, after two years of silence, Mama wrote a letter to our good friend Nancy. Right away I was mad, because she had written to the neighbor instead of to one of us, instead of to me, and after all this time.
Nancy knew it would open old wounds when she told us. She came to our front door looking formal, her apron off and her hair in a twist.
“I want Isabel to hear it,” she said to my daddy. Nancy took a folded paper out of her pocket; it was the cheapest kind of rough stationery, with writing done in pencil.
Nancy’s daughter, Jewel, who was my best friend, was already with me: she had brought an arithmetic book, and was trying to explain about long division. “Try this next one now,” she said, and printed out 1365 divided by 7. “Just remember your times tables. You memorized them.” She took a moment to hand me an eraser, just in case, then pushed the paper over to me.
“Bring down the 6?” I asked. I could do it, but it was hard for me. I knew what lay ahead too—geometry and algebra. Any equation with a letter in it was a mystery I didn’t care to solve. I cooked and sewed, could read a yardstick’s fractions and measure quarter, half, thirds of a cup. What else was necessary?
I looked up from the problem. Daddy set his mouth in a line, which meant he didn’t like Nancy sharing the letter out loud, but he had always put Nancy on a pedestal because of her education and his business dealings with her husband. He would never tell her no.
She cleared her throat and read.
Dear Nancy, I am writing you after all this trouble to ask if you can get William to let the children come to visit me. I have missed them something terrible, especially Isabel. Some say any woman that did what I did does not deserve to have her children, and William might agree, which is why he swore out a writ of lunacy against me and has not brought them. But there is a doctor here who has been very good and I have come to understand that nervous prostration caused me to do as I did.
Nancy paused but did not look up. “Nervous prostration,” she repeated.
I am mostly over it but perhaps it is better that William and I stay apart. I am so much better now and my brother John is working with a lawyer to get me released to his custody. After all I never hurt no one, and was always a good mother. I would appreciate your testimony in this when the time comes but meanwhile if you could have a word with my husband perhaps it would soften his heart to let them come to me.
Nancy let out a big shaky breath and read the last lines.
Thank you for all you have done for Walker and Miller and Isabel.
P.S. I am enclosing a letter for my older daughter, Molly. If you could get this to her I would be most grateful.
I sat there with my hand hovering over the tablet, trying to get 7 to go into 66, but my mind was a blank from the letter as well as the math. To hear Nancy read Mama’s words brought so much confusion to me that my first response was to push it away. After two years, I did not know if I wanted to see her. She knew how my Daddy was, how his temperament was so severe; she must have known how I would have to suffer it once she was gone. Not to mention how the burdens of the household would fall my way, and me still a child. Maybe my mother was half-crazy. You have to forgive somebody if they are, I kept telling myself.
Daddy sighed. “That is all well and good, Nancy. But I cannot take time out from the fieldwork to go traipsing off to Knoxville to the lunatic asylum. I don’t think anyone is forgetting that she is the one who left these children, and now she wants to see them? And I do not know that it will be good for this girl to see such sights as may be there in that place.”
He wanted to keep me away from Mama, but he did not want to admit that to Nancy. He was going to act like a protective father and argue against it as best he could.
“William, all the things that have happened between you and Martha are beyond any conversation we ought to have,” said Nancy. “But Isabel now—I will take her myself to Knoxville. If she is with me she won’t be in any danger. Pardon me for saying so, but I feel the girl has a right to see her own mother.”
Nancy came and stood behind Jewel and wrapped her arms about her. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Nancy was clearly showing Daddy what my loss of a mother looked like. And she was also telling Daddy that she knew my mother’s leaving came from somewhere, and that he was in that somewhere, somewhere.
There was a moment of stillness where I could hear the air of the universe buzzing in my ears. Nancy was looking at me, to see what I wanted to do. “Walker and Miller can drive us in the wagon; they may want to go as well. If we start at daybreak we can be there and back by nightfall.” Nancy rocked up on her toes, trying to say the right thing, but Daddy kept a blank expression while he thought.
At long last he turned to me, his eyes doubting, but searching my face. “I want to go, Daddy,” I said, when he did not speak himself. I could hardly bear to see Jewel bring her hands up to hang on Nancy’s arms.
“And if you have any town errands we can surely take care of them while we are at it,” Nancy added.
To this day I do not know—did I say I wanted to go just to get a trip away from the farm, from the work? Or to have a chance to spend a day with Nancy, who had been like a mother these past two years, or to actually see my mother? Maybe it was all of those things. Regardless, I stood up and went to my father, and took him by his hand, which was tough as a piece of shoe leather, and laid my cheek against his sleeve. He smelled of tobacco, sweat, and the mule.
Daddy sucked his cheeks and looked away out the window. He could not take it, any kind of an outward display, no matter how subtle. “All right,” he said. Jewel raised her eyebrows at me and softly clapped her hands. Daddy shook me loose.
“Ryan’s Point Insane Asylum in Knoxville. It started out owned by an Irishman named Cornelius Ryan,” Nancy had said. Ever the teacher, she had filled the time of our travel with details about the flora and fauna we were passing. She also told us the history of our destination.
“Before it was a hospital that fine building was a rich man’s estate, and prior to that the land was Cherokee hunting ground,” Nancy explained. I sat in the middle of the wagon seat between her and Walker. Miller had not come. He preferred livestock to people, even his mother, and had stayed to help Daddy.
I was enjoying this ride. It was so pretty, with all the pine and poplar forests rolling away toward the Cumberland Mountains on the north and the French Broad River and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge on the east. But there was no comfort to me in knowing that my mother had been sent back to a place that her ancestors had known very differently. Such a free spot, before.
“Mr. Ryan ran a successful granite business, but closed up once the War started. During the fighting the Yankees got hold of the place and used it as one of their headquarters. Then, after the Surrender, the property became so corrupted and rundown the Ryans didn’t want it anymore.”
“I guess the family decided that once the Union Army had vacated the place, it was no longer fit for any sane Southerner,” said Walker.
“Indeed! They sold off the property to the State of Tennessee to make a loony bin.” Nancy laughed.
I pursed my mouth and she hushed. “I’m sorry, honey, I’m sorry I said ‘loony bin.’ But I can joke about it because I do not think your mother is crazy.”
“Tell what you think happened to her, then, Nancy. The Change cannot do it; else lots of other women would be there.” I had never asked her about this directly before, and I cast my eyes out into the yellow field we were passing, an open pasture with a black horse and a white horse in it, with the forest in the distance. There was a light breeze blowing and the manes of the horses lifted as they grazed on the juicy grass. Walker kept his eyes straight ahead and flapped the reins a little to speed our own horse. I knew he would be deaf to any conversation about The Change.
“I think…” Nancy stretched her neck back and sighed. “I think your mother has a particular kind of spirit that can’t be boxed in. Not only that, but she needs happy people around her.”
I was glad Nancy was going to be honest with me. “Yes, and I understand that being with Daddy can be like being with nobody. Well, not nobody, but somebody with a hard shell you can’t get through. And all he does seem to want is for work to get done. He never talks about nothing else.”
“That’s right,” said Nancy. “He and Martha are not compatible in their dispositions, that’s for sure.”
The asylum sat on a beautiful piece of ground, up on a knoll, with stone entrances and a park of big oaks where the ill can sit and compose their thoughts or be escorted by their nurses. There is a view of the Tennessee River, which elevated people’s minds and soothed their souls. I expected the place to be upsetting and dirty, like an orphanage in Charles Dickens, but it was peaceful, with only the sound of crickets chirping in the ten o’clock grass. In the distance I could hear two other things: the regular ring of a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil and the rush of a small waterfall.
We made our way through the stone portals of the institution. Granite knobs, bald and blank-faced, were on top of the entrance posts. We rode through a grassy park up to the main building with its wide porch and tall columns.
We stopped at the front steps, and Nancy climbed down from the wagon. “Wait here while I find out where she is.” She hurried up the steps to the administration office. Walker tethered the horse and strolled out on the gravel to roll a cigarette. He took short nervous puffs and looked out over the green expanse. “Wonder who keeps all this lawn cut,” he said. “This is a lot of grass to tend.” He rubbed the back of his neck as if he himself might be facing the task.
I started looking around, wondering if I might glimpse my mother. People were walking on the paths. They didn’t look particularly crazy to me. It just struck me that they were unusually pale, and some of them were wearing dressing gowns or robes.
“Wish I had me a mirror,” I muttered. I had forgot to bring a comb, so I licked my fingers and drew them through my windblown hair, and then picked at the corners of my eyes. Why did I care what Mama thought about how I looked? I don’t know, but I did. Finally, I stepped down to the ground. On the porch of the building Nancy had entered was a line of white wicker rocking chairs. Most of the patients in those rockers were old women. They did not speak, and only one or two looked my way. One lady lifted her arm up above her head and kept picking at something in the air with her skinny claw fingers.
There was a girl among them, maybe eighteen, looking out of place and sitting forward in her rocker with her hands clasped tight in the folds of her skirt. She was pretty, with dark hair pulled back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. Her head ticked just a little, like she was attached to a wire, and her eyes glittered side to side. She darted her look in my direction, so I said, “Hello, it’s a pretty day, idn’t it? Are you havin’ a nice day?” And she pulled her mouth down and slowly shook her head, saying no. She kept doing it as I backed away.
Nancy came down the steps, holding her skirts to keep from tripping. “Your mama’s in the laundry,” she said. “That’s where she works.” She pointed across the grounds to a four-story brick structure. “In there, then to the basement and the grounds out back.”
“Just a minute, I have to get that fruit I brought,” said Walker, and he went round to the back of the wagon, lifted up a quilt and took out a bushel basket of peaches. He and Miller had picked them off our own trees. Walker set the basket on his hip and began giving them out to patients who had suddenly materialized in a circle round him, each with a hand outstretched.
One man started jumping up and down, reaching for the basket. “My, my!” he insisted, pushing a lady aside.
“Hold on there, fella,” said Walker, pulling back. “There’s plenty to go around.” He shook his head and looked to me, the crease deepening between his brows.
“What strangeness here, Isabel,” he said. My mouth dropped open as I watched the scene.
“Mize well give them one too.” Walker nodded up at the rockers. He took the basket up to the porch and gave one each to the old women, as well as to the young woman who was there among them. She rolled it between her hands, feeling the fuzzy skin, and stared at Walker with her large brown eyes.
“Take a bite of it, honey. It’s fresher than anything,” he said. But she continued to hold it and so Walker set down the basket and took the girl’s peach and cut a section out of it and peeled it, then offered her the piece. She opened her mouth and waited, so Walker fed it to her with a quick dart of two fingers, like she might bite. Her hands came up around his wrist and held his cuff as she chewed the peach. Then her eyes welled with tears.
“My Lord,” said Walker. “What kind of a place makes people cry to eat peaches?” He pulled away from her as gently as he could.
The building we had been sent to was dreary after the sunny grounds and there were blue flies buzzing loudly in the dim light. I startled and grabbed Nancy’s hand. Down the hall someone shouted over and over, “Come on and help me. Now no, don’t. Come on and help me. No, don’t.”
I smelled bedpans. Looking in the doorways to the left and right, I noticed rows of white-painted iron beds, maybe five or six to a room. In one doorway, an old man with a scruffy beard and red eyes sat in a straight-backed chair. As we passed, he stuttered and croaked, then scratched at the crotch of his union suit—that was all he wore. Walker stopped and gave him a peach.
In the next room, a bare-chested Negro in overalls sat on the side of a bed picking out a tune on a banjo. He had beautiful shaped arms, and long supple fingers with nails like mother-of-pearl. His song was so jangly and sprite I could not help but bob my shoulders. Nancy and Walker began to do the same. The Negro broke off. “Howdy, folks,” he said. “Nothing like a little music to lift the mood.”
“Nice tune,” said Nancy.
“’Preciate it.” The banjo player gave us a full smile and saluted.
We nodded like a row of puppets and walked on. “Wonder what he’s doing here,” Walker murmured. “He can’t possibly be an inmate.”
“A place like this has questions aplenty.” Nancy moved ahead down the hall. “Pandora’s box, you might say.”
We descended a wide staircase. I trailed my hand along the banister, which was made of polished wood, and smooth as glass to the touch. At the bottom, we saw we were in the laundry. It was a relief to smell soap and water instead of…what? What could I call the odors that weighted the air of these hallways?
A woman with a stack of towels came out of a doorway and stood staring at us as if mesmerized. “Do you know where Martha King is?” asked Nancy. The woman had a long scar on her cheek. “Mar-tha,” Nancy said again, like the people here were deaf and slow as well as mentally ill. The woman pointed through a door to a yard strung with clotheslines. A woman was there, hanging sheets.
“How crazy can you be if you have the wits to do laundry?” Walker whispered to me.
“Martha,” Nancy called to the woman at the clothesline, and Mama turned around. The sheets billowed in the wind, pushing her in our direction. She had three clothespins in her mouth and several more in her fist.
A feeling came over me like I was four or five years old, and I nearly screamed to see her. I wanted to run and bury my head in her apron. At the same instant, I felt how bad she had hurt me, and I realized I was going to punish her by standing still. I wanted to study her a little more, anyway. Mama’s braid had been cut off and her black hair hung just below her ears. It made her look like she had a wig on her head.
Walker was beside me; he had stayed rooted too. “She never would have agreed to have that braid cut. It was done to her. And she’s much thinner than I remember,” he whispered.
Walker saying that, his understanding, made my heart break open. Things had happened to my Mama. She put her hands up to her face and all the clothespins fell around her on the ground. I went to her then and put my arms around her waist. She cradled my head and I could feel the moisture of her tears in my hair. “Look at you, look at you,” she said, and then we didn’t say anything, we just hugged and looked and hugged again.
Mama let go of me with one arm and got hold of Walker. “Hey son,” she said. “Hey Nancy,” and hugged her too. “Thank you,” she added. “Thank you for coming. Let’s go sit down.” She led us to some benches under the trees.
“How do you feel?” said Nancy.
“I’m OK,” Mama said. “I feel good.” She gazed at Walker and me. “How’s Miller? How’s Molly and Samuel and Dora?” she asked, naming Molly’s husband, and their baby.
We stood twisting our fingers in awkward silence for a moment, seeing she was not going to ask about Anyone Else.
“Molly and Samuel are fine,” said Nancy. “I brought you a letter from them, and a photograph of Dora. You never saw such a head of hair as that child has. And, we brought you all kinds of other things. Can you come with us to our wagon?”
“What time is it?” said Mama. “If it’s lunch I have thirty minutes.”
“Almost noon,” said Walker. He looked at the pocket watch he had brought. Daddy had lent it to him for the trip. Mama widened her eyes at it then looked away up at the trees.
“We brought you a picnic.” Nancy raised one finger in anticipation.
"All right,” Mama said. “Just let me finish hanging these sheets. Maybe we can drive a little ways out on the grounds to eat. I hate to have something special and not share it.” Mama looked past us to the doorway of the laundry. The woman with the scar on her face was standing there smiling.
“That’s Tilda,” said Mama. “Her husband is the one that laid that mark on her cheek but he claimed it was self-defense and they put her in here.”
“Is that the way the world works now?” Nancy clicked her tongue.
“She may never get out,” Mama continued. “She don’t have any children and her own brother won’t stand up for her.” Mama sighed and smiled tight-lipped at us. “Well, I don’t want to tell about unfortunate things. I want to talk about you all and hear the news. I’ll join you as soon as these are pinned up.”
We waited in the wagon for her, then drove out into the park and set up under some oaks.
“I hope this is some of your favorites,” said Nancy. She brought out the fried chicken and a buttermilk pie and set them on the quilt we had spread under the trees.
“I thought you might want one of your quilts,” I said. I sat down on it, holding the sack with some of the gifts we had brought. The quilt was a wedding ring pattern she had made before I was born. It was blue and white, with just a little red, and one of the prettiest she’d ever done.
Mama knelt beside me and ran her finger along some stitches. “Oh my, I do remember making this.” Her smile was sad. “I would love to keep that quilt, honey, but it would not be a good idea. It would just get stolen while I slept. I would rather you have it. What all else have you got there?” Mama raised her eyebrows at my sack. She moved close to me and put her arm around my shoulder. “I sure have missed you all,” she said, and kissed my forehead.
I was getting more confused by the minute. My mama did not seem the least bit insane. She seemed perfectly like her old self, only there was all that missing time, and we were at Ryan’s Point.
“It’s got Molly’s letter in it. And the baby’s picture. And I made you a blouse.” I cast my eyes down and handed over the sack.
“Oh my, would you look at how big Dora is!” Mama said, tilting the portrait in the dappled light.
“She is fat as the dickens,” said Walker. He chuckled.
“Why, Walker,” I said. “You surprise me. I never knew you had a soft spot for young ’uns.”
“And she has a temper, for a baby,” I added. “She will stomp her foot if she doesn’t get attention when she wants it.”
“Tell her the other news.” Nancy swatted at my hand and cut her eyes at Mama.
“Well, Molly’s going to have another baby,” I said.
“Oh my,” said Mama. She wiped at her eyes. “Looks like I am missing everything.” She pulled out the blouse. It was black and white striped, with black buttons down the front. I had made it on her foot-treadle machine, but the buttonholes I had done by hand. They took me forever.
“And would you look at this pretty thing. What nice work on the buttonholes.” She pulled me to her again. “I can wear this on Sunday for church. Thank you, honey. Thank you so much.”
She looked at all of us. “This is what you need to know: there is a hearing coming up in ninety days. I am going before a judge and some of the administrators here. My doctor is going to recommend that I be released. But, he says if they do release me, I will need to go back to William. They all believe a wife belongs with her husband.” She paused, looking especially at Nancy. “I have tried. You know I have tried.”
Nancy nodded. Walker stood up and rolled another cigarette. He was close to Daddy, and women were mostly a mystery to him. Maybe he thought he was like Daddy himself, but he was not.
“Children,” Mama went on. She spoke particularly in Walker’s direction now. “Your father is not a bad man. But I cannot live with him anymore. It would kill my spirit.”
“But what about us?” I asked. “Don’t you want to be with us?”
“Of course I do,” Mama said. “I will try to work something out with Molly and Samuel and stay with them. I will promise the judge and those others whatever I need to promise. They don’t need to know I am with Molly instead of with William.”
“Why did you run off like you did?” I kept my voice even and subdued. “Why didn’t you go and live with Molly then instead of running away and having it turn out like this?”
“Isabel, there are things you don’t know yet about married couples. Molly and Samuel had just gotten married. They did not need me barging in on their love nest.” She looked away.
“They don’t need that now,” she added, “but it can’t be helped. There are things you just don’t know about married couples,” she repeated.
“Well, who is going to eat the rest of this chicken?” said Nancy. Her voice was very bright, and she bustled over the picnic basket. “And the biscuits?”
There were some squirrels in a nearby tree, watching us. One of them had a big length of his tail missing. I wondered if an inmate had chopped it off. He seemed like a happy squirrel, though. He just had his scar now, like Tilda. The clouds were lifting, and we all sat together in a patch of sun. It was a good couple of hours, and then afternoon started to fall into evening.
“It will be hard to travel, after dark,” Mama said, “and I have been lucky to have this time with you. I will have to thank Tilda and the other girls for covering for me while we visited.” We all stood up.
“Take them the rest of this food,” said Nancy. She began to wrap the leftovers.
I listened to the wind in the trees while I gathered courage for my final question. “Can I see where you live before we go?” I bit my lip and waited.
“I suppose you can, but it is nothing but a room with a bed. Nothing I would… call home.” She looked out into the distance before her eyes came back to me. She reached and took my hand. “Come on then. I live in the same building as the laundry. You can help me try on my new blouse.”
“We will meet you back there with the wagon,” said Nancy. “Walker, will you hand that basket up to me?”
He did so and then took the quilt with both hands and flapped it up from the grass and shook it.
When we got to the clotheslines, Mama led me inside and up the same stairs we had followed down to find her. We followed the hallway, and Mama stopped at the door where we had seen the banjo player. The rooms looked alike, but I knew it was the same one, as I could see the depression on the cotton coverlet from where he had been sitting.
“Is that your bed?” I asked Mama.
“Yes,” she said, then saw that I appeared stricken, staring at the place where she said she slept. We could hear the echoes of a woman screaming somewhere in the building. Gradually the voice was replaced by sobbing. I gripped the doorjamb and steadied myself.
“Don’t be sad for me,” Mama said, and pulled me to her. She did it just like she always did, but inside myself I was still keeping my affection a little reserved.
Mama continued. “Yes, it is bad here for some, but my situation is different. You can see I am not like that.” She tossed her chin in the direction of the crying. “I will not be away from you much longer, I hope.”
“I’m not sad.” Our eyes met. “Well, try on the blouse,” I said.
“Your blouse is just lovely,” said Nancy when Mama and I returned to the wagon. “It fits you to a T. Isabel did a beautiful job.” Walker had brought the wagon around, and we were having goodbye hugs and kisses.
“She really did. It is a wonderful thing to have it.” Mama twisted her fingers on a button and stroked the fabric of her sleeve.
“I hate that you have to leave, but I feel like we’ll be together again soon,” she said.
She walked after the wagon for several paces as Walker urged the horse forward. “Be sure to give my love to Molly and her family,” she called.
I watched her wipe her tears, the flats of her hands across her face like the wings of a bird. I found I had a pain in my rib. It hurt so much that I could not turn around and watch her as we drove away.
I dreaded the sight of somebody sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter. We were not a corresponding bunch, and a personal letter always meant there was something unusual that had happened. First there was the letter Nancy got, and now here one was again. Good or bad, a letter had to be gone over again and again until the paper was soft and the words could be digested, like an unfamiliar food.
I was twelve when my Daddy received the letter I will never forget. It was only a few months after we had visited my mother and on that day I officially took her place.
It was just after dinner, and the kitchen table was a mess of dirty dishes and coffee cups.
There were cornbread crumbs all over. The postman had brought the letter earlier in the day, but when I saw the return address of Ryan’s Point and it looking so important, I did not give it to Daddy until he was finished eating.
“It came this morning,” I said. He took up a bread knife and slit it open, then sat reading the page and studying it. In a second, he put his head in his hands and threw the letter down in a desperate way on the kitchen table beside the milk pitcher. The envelope immediately got a molasses stain on it.
I grabbed the letter quick and went to shake it free of crumbs. Below the seal for the Tennessee State Institute for the Insane it said:
As you may have read of the recent fire and tragedy at our facility in Knoxville we regret to inform you of the death of Martha Franklin King and wish to extend our deepest sympathies on the loss of your loved one.
But we had not heard of any such a thing, of a fire! We did not subscribe to the Knoxville Sentinel and had no way of knowing. “What does this mean?” I shrieked, my fingers whitening on the edge of the table.
Daddy put his cheek down against his shirtsleeve and raised it up again. I was astonished to see a tear in his eye, and he put his palms together in a way that looked like prayer. But Daddy did not pray, at least not like that.
He said, “Sweetheart, I think you know what it means.” He spoke to me so kindly that I shrank back in fear. This loving tone was not his way either.
I felt hysteria spilling out of me like there was a rip in my chest. “Tell me!” I pounded my fist on the table. “It’s not true!”
He did not answer me. His jaw was clamped tight, and he had gotten busy gathering cornbread crumbs into little piles with the side of his hand and wiping up the molasses.
Suddenly I hated the sight of him. “I’m going to Nancy and Jewel’s!” I screamed. “You! You are the cause of this! She would not be dead but for you!”
He did not correct me or stop me when I stormed out. He just turned his head away.
Now that I’m grown, I have compassion for the girl I was. I did not want to be the woman of the house; that is the story of my childhood and my life. I just did what needed doing, waiting for the person who was really in charge to come in and rescue me. But from then on, wherever I lived, the work of the place always fell to me. There was never a house I could call my own.
No one ever will rescue you, deep down you know it, but it’s like you have two lives—the one where you work because you have to and the one where you know who you really are inside your head.
Do you know—we never had any kind of a funeral service? Or any kind of a burial? Daddy did make a few inquiries, but he was told that the wing Mama was in burned completely down. They said it was an inmate, got ahold of a match and set his own clothes on fire, and then ran through the halls, lighting curtains as he went.
The letter continued.
Due to the severity of the blaze it was deemed necessary to raze the structure. The site has been declared a burial, and a memorial plaque commemorating those lost in this tragedy will be placed on the grounds.
It was, we learned, hard to tell who was who.
Daddy never said, but I think he was relieved. I felt he did not want her to come home if she was not going to be in his household. If she had come back, he would have claimed to everyone that he had a borderline lunatic on his hands. He would have tried to keep her in line, like always.
Several weeks after the fire, the minister made the announcement in church, offering “Condolences to the King family in the recent loss of their wife and mother, who was killed in a tragic accident while away in Knoxville.”
Most people didn’t even mention it, but you could tell they knew the story and didn’t want to embarrass us by talking about it. Nobody brought food to us. There was only Nancy coming up to say, “You all are eating at our house tonight. I don’t want to hear any excuses.” Nancy made Mama's stack cake for the dessert she served us, and then she gave me the recipe in Mama’s handwriting before we left.
So that is how it was for me. The main result of my mother’s death was that it ended my thinking that some miracle would allow her to come back and take care of me. She could not even rescue herself from her own life.
I have a tintype of Mama that was taken before she got married. In it, she looks pretty, with her long hair pulled back from her forehead and combed out around her shoulders. Her head is tilted, like she is listening to something. She is waiting, with no lines on her face. And so I like to think she had gone back to being that person, the one she was before it all got sidetracked.
I had aspirations for the girl in this picture, like she was a character in a novel I had just started to read and not my mother who went out and plowed when Daddy told her to. I wanted it all to have a happy ending. Now she can always be the one who still has a chance for everything to go well.
After Mama died, Nancy gave me the book, Jane Eyre. You were afraid of the madwoman in the attic and even hated her a little, but later you felt sorry for her. Oh but what Jane went through, and all the misunderstandings she had in her search for love—much of it was beyond her control. The only thing that mattered was keeping a strong attitude and spirit, and remembering that she did love Mr. Rochester.
The letter did not change much for my daddy and my brothers. They kept on growing corn and tobacco and raising hogs on our little farm. They got up before daylight and were out 'til after dark. I looked for signs of their grief, but if they had it, it was hardly different from Miller’s usual quiet and Daddy’s hard attention to business at hand. I did notice, several days after the letter, that our good luck charm, the three ears of corn that always hung by the doorway, had been ripped down.
“Did you do it?” I asked Walker.
“I did,” he said, and his voice broke, and we hung on each other and cried. But even Walker could not express much more about what the loss meant to him.
At twelve, I barely had gotten my breasts, but I was the closest thing to a housekeeper they had, and I was always strong. I had used a broom and toted water since I was little, even when Mama had been here, so the men did not consider it unusual for me to be running a household. Molly used to do it with me, but she had left and got married. She told us she was in love with Samuel, and I know she was, but maybe too she thought it would be easier to deal with housework if it was not under my daddy’s eye.
Mend this. Clean and cook that. I was bossed a lot, but my daddy said, if I looked like I might complain, “There’s always bosses, no matter how old you get, so best learn to mind.”
He was right. Over the course of time I learned it’s better to work with life, rather than rage against it, or anybody in it, who might have power over you. Hateful feelings work against a person in the long run.
I did go to school off and on a couple of years, as Daddy allowed. As I said, I loved books, and Nancy, always mindful of my motherless situation, got hold of them for me. Clothes too—Molly dropped by often enough with Dora and the new baby, Sally, and she never came without food or hand-me-downs.
Gradually, with Jewel’s help, I learned to read just about anything. Jewel herself stayed in school, and graduated salutatorian of her 8th grade class.
My daddy did not care too much for books himself. He could read the Bible. “This is the only book I need,” he said, time after time.
Once, only once, I neglected the washing for several days in favor of this story about a girl detective trying to find an emerald that was stolen from a museum.
I was in the middle of the most exciting part. The heroine was so brave and beautiful, and she was so close to recovering the treasure. Just then my daddy came out of his bedroom in his long johns and threw a pair of muddy denims at me. “I ain’t got nothing else to wear but these overalls, and I been patient, Isabel, waiting for a clean pair to show up. Now, I want you off your high horse with that reading. You get the wash pot boiling and I want clean clothes today.”
Well, I was so mad. I got up from there and was hot enough to light the stove with a scratch of my finger—I didn’t need a match. I got the water going, and then I turned on my heel and flicked my dress up behind me at the empty doorway where my daddy had just been looming. That was my opinion of the whole laundry business.
I sat right back down to the book, where the heroine was hanging off the top of a train trying to keep the emerald she had found away from thieves.
Meanwhile, the wash water boiled up and I didn’t know a thing about it until I heard it running over and sizzling on the stovetop. Well, Daddy heard it before me, and he come striding into the kitchen in his underwear and his boots.
My daddy was six feet five. It took him three steps and one sweep of his big long arm to reach over and rip the story right out of my hand. I stood up and said, “Daddy, that’s Jewel’s book from the library.”
He didn’t even turn around. He said, “I’m going to town today and I will give the damn library back their property. Now let’s see some washing going on in here.”
I got up slow. Dark blotches had come up in front of my eyes.
I wanted to scream at him so bad, but I knew that back-talking your elders led to a whipping. I could feel my voice stuffed back in my throat like a swallowed sock. I went over to the pot on the stovetop and put one hand on each handle. The hot steam laid itself over my face like a thin wet cloth. And before I knew it, in my anger I jerked the pot, hard, and the scalding water came lifting toward me in tongues, then fell and hit my legs. The skin ran just like melting wax and sagged to a stop at the edge of my high-top shoes. And then I screamed, oh yes.
It felt so good to scream, but I got these long white scars on my legs now.
So you learn. You learn to keep your disappointment in, under control, or else you wreck yourself.
Later I went and looked for that book so I could finish it. I never did find it. I sort of have a suspicion Daddy did something with it instead of taking it back. Jewel and Nancy never brought it up, what with my legs.
In a way, I was glad it happened. After that, the housework made me feel close to my mother, who had also learned about burning. Nancy kept telling me things about her: how she made the best apple butter, what a beautiful singing voice she had in church. That was Nancy’s way, making sure I kept a good opinion of Mama. For years people gossiped behind their hands. Part Cherokee, what did you expect?
I look now at my spreading scars, the water tracks permanent down my shins, and, after I remember my mama, I think of the girl on the train in the book I didn’t finish. I wanted things to turn out triumphant for her, so I finish her story in my mind. There she is, standing right up on top of the boxcar, panting a little. She is starting to resemble my mother in her early tintype, but with a brunette curl tumbling over one eye. The thieves have fallen off down a ravine miles back, and in her fist she’s clutching the emerald. The train goes on around the bend into the dark tunnel with smoke pouring out of the smokestack, but, oh Lord, it is all right. She has got it, the great prize, it’s hers, and she won’t let it go.