My grandmothers, Nell and Lena, with me on one of New Jersey’s beaches. (1983)
When I learned that my maternal grandmother grew up with nine siblings, I was in awe. With each family gathering, from reunions, to deaths, to weddings, my Grandma Lena would talk to her remaining brother, at that time the other two passed, and five sisters, or at least the ones in attendance, and they would talk on and on and on about their shared past.
While I was in college, by then majoring in English secondary education (I knew I could never verbally state my desire of writing for a living), I sat down with my grandma one afternoon to hear these stories once again. She aided her memory by writing down a list of her family members: mom, dad, and the rest with birth dates, spouses, and if applicable, death dates. Then the stories spilled out; I took through notes and recorded our conversation. Immediately following, I attempted to write something. It was called “A Mississippi Family.”
Here’s part of the “something,” told from Lena’s point of view:
Whenever I see any of my sisters, I think back to my childhood, which was a rather naïve time for us, back in Shaw, Mississippi. At the time, it was a small town filled with farmers, local merchants, and basically Italian folk. I was born in Boyle, Mississippi, but grew up in Shaw, Mississippi. My father, seeking the American dream, moved my mother, and at that time my brother, Tony, and sister, Leavia, and I to Shaw. Eventually, there were nine of us Gabucci kids – three boys and six girls – Tony, Leavia, Lena, Dannie, Pete, Tena, Paula, Josephine, and Joann. We were born in this order – myself being the third child to be born to my parents, Angelo and Maria. They were married in Lizzola, Italy and immigrated here in June of 1913.
Our home was part of a newly established farming town. We lived in a one floor framed home that rested on concrete blocks. The house itself was made out of wood, and painted a pale white color, nothing too fancy. The bedrooms were on one side of the home, divided into three sleeping areas – one for the girls, one for the boys, and one for my parents. The front door lead one straight though the house right to the back door. The front door led to a large porch where we found ourselves spending many evenings talking and laughing about the day’s events. One side of the house had buckets that contained rainwater, which we used for washing our hair, bathing, doing dishes, cooking, and other chores. Directly out the back door was the hen house, adjacent to the barn. Mostly us kids picked cotton, even though the nigger men my father owned helped our family. My father grew all sorts of produce like watermelon, corn, pears, and melons.
My Mama taught us girls the duties of a wife. It was more like she taught my sister Leavia and I than all of us girls.
Paula was the worst when it came to washing dishes. It was like she was allergic to soap and water, that she ran out to the outhouse to go to the bathroom right after dinner every evening. Since Leavia and I were among the oldest, we had to help Mama mend and wash clothes, and to help with the baking and cooking. The other kids had to help Papa in the cotton field, feed the animals, gather wood, and maintain the kerosene lamps.
An average day would begin around sunrise, when we would need to complete our morning chores. We would walk to school around 8:00 to learn the daily lesson. We attended school in a one room schoolhouse that was three miles away from our family’s home. Our teacher, Miss. Crabtree, was fond of us kids. She had firm rules, and rather high expectations, but she was pleasant. She was rather plump, and had pretty blond hair tucked back into a bun. She always wore simple dresses and a matching sweater, since she was always cold. I think there was a draft by her desk. I thought I remember hearing from my classmates that she never married, because her sweetheart was forced to move with his family. I think she went into the teaching profession because it filled her maternal instinct.
By 3:00, we would walk back home to finish up our after school chores. Leavia and I would help Mama prepare supper. I would set the table, churn the butter, and prepare the vegetable for the meal. Leavia, was Mama’s assistant cook, who would help make the other dishes with her. I think Leavia became a better cook since she worked along side Mama in the kitchen.
This routine only lasted until we reached the age of 13, so really we were only educated up to the seventh grade. This was enough to get us by. Now we were able to provide the help Mama and Papa needed on the farm. The boys would help Papa in the barn with the animals, plow the field, and maintain the crops. The girls would work more with Mama making clothes, washing clothes, cleaning, baking, and cooking.
My Mama was a very kind and pleasing woman. One spring evening in the kitchen, when it was just Leavia, her, and I, kneading bread, she gave us a piece of advice I will always remember. “Dopo mi sarete lasciare, siccome quando sono lasciate mia mama nell’Italia, non avrete dimenticare il vostro passato. Usolo divenire meglio dei avostri papa e io.” She warned us that after we leave her, we should not forget our past and to become better than her and my father. I wasn’t too sure what she meant by “better”. I feel they took a huge risk in traveling here in the first place. Even though they were in their early 20’s, they still made a sacrifice by leaving their homeland to come to an unknown country. From what I have gathered, they did not know anyone here and made it to Mississippi because ama thought the named sounded beautiful. Papa liked the weather, because when he arrived and talked to some other Italians, he learned about the ideal weather conditions for farming. Mama said that his eyes lit up when he figured he could work his own land, to grow his own food, his own way; no one is there to boss him around.
As I grew up, many thought my sister Leavia and I were twins because we acted, reacted, and thought the same in regards to the pranks we did to each other. One summer she was seeing a boy who lived down the road from us. She was very serious about him. So one Friday when she was getting ready for a date, she asked me, “Lena, could you tell me when Joe is coming towards the house. I want to fix my face before we go on our date.”
“Sure I will,” I replied. She foolishly trusted me to let her know, but I was dying to see the calm and collected Leavia flustered because she is does not look perfect for her Joe.
“Lena, why didn’t you tell me Joe was here! I wasn’t ready!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot. It must be the heat.” Of course she knew I was up to no good and wanted to catch her off guard. Naturally, Leavia never forgot and repaid me with this joke when I was getting ready to go on a date with my one and only love, Vic.
The Biondini family also lived down the road from us also. I met Vic in the fourth grade. He was the ass who would sit behind me and pull my hair during class. Outside of class he would pick on me maliciously. His warm sea blue eyes are beautiful, but when he his love for working on cars cost him his left eye; when we was taking apart a car engine, battery acid shot into his eye. We drifted apart after school was over, but we reunited and became in engaged when I was 20. We married a year later in June. It was a simple wedding on a very pretty day.
Even after two moves and several purges, I would look and relook at this piece along with the notes I collected from that day. Knowing that my grandmother had been buried for two years, last summer I decided my first novel would be doing something new with her stories. I wrote about a 65,000 word manuscript, attempted to gain some interest, then put this piece aside. By December, 2016, I was itchy to return, so I did and made some revisions. The final piece is around 95,000 words and tells a fictionalized account of my grandma’s stories, starting with her eighteenth birthday in 1938 until the early 1950’s, told from her and her sisters, Tena’s and Paula’s, points of view.
Here’s the first chapter from SISTERS FROM SHAW:
Mama just gave birth to her thirteenth child yesterday. As she pushed ‘im out, there was peace. No cries. No coughs. No nothing. Mama passed ‘im usin’ the same motions like she done the rest of us. When he crowned, his head of dark brown hair was damp, but his eyes were sealed shut, like the lids never formed. The good Lord knew that he wasn’t gone to open those eyes at his Mama.
It’s just as well since she is forty-five-years-old. She’s too old to have any more chilrun, but not too ol’ to be my Mama. She knew what was gone to happen. Up till she bore down, she kept rubbing the right side of her belly. Now I think about it, she stopped noticin’ his kicks ‘n movements for us to feel a while ago.
Once he came out, she sighed ‘n said, “Just as well.” Then she held ‘im wrapped up tightly in the quilt she just made.
Papa didn’t come in to see her or the baby. He said, “Let your Mama take care of this. It’s not her first time.”
Mama came from Lizzola, Italy. She tol’ me it was a small town in the northern part of Italy. Her father knew my father’s father, so they arranged to have her ‘n Papa wedded. Both of ‘em left for America for a new life without knowing anyone except each other. But her Mama did give her a gold necklace with a crucifix blessed by the Pope, hisself, Pope Pius X to guide her throughout her journey across the ocean. Mama would say that my grandmother wished for her to have a better life here than she had in Italy. With yet another death of a sweet baby, would Mama tell us that she has lived a better life?
Once Mama and Papa arrived, they first settled in New York. It was just too busy for ‘em, so they decided to travel south for warmer weather. Mama found the name Mississippi to be beautiful, so Papa looked into what kind of life they could have here. After movin’ from one small town to another, they settled in Shaw. Papa liked the idea of workin’ his own land to grow his own food, his own way with no boss. With ideal weather conditions, he is able to grow cotton, which is sold to textile manufacturers in the area.
As soon as I woke up this mornin’, I peeked my head in Mama’s room. On a typical day, she would have been up before the sunrise, but this ain’t no typical day. She was still sleepin’. Even if Mama doesn’t feel good today, she would never complain. She’s too busy tryin’ to make other people happy. Right now, it’s mine ‘n Leavia’s job to try to make her happy.
Tomorraw we gone to bury the baby, Dominec, but he’s no more. Papa decides to assemble a coffin for ‘im. I knows – he’s gots to keep busy, gots to keep movin’. If he don’t, how can the rest of us continue?
“Lee, what do you want for supper tonight?” my older sister Leavia asks, snappin’ me out of my thoughts as finish rinsin’ the last dish from the breakfast run.
“Tonight? Oh anythin’ will do.”
“What do you mean ‘anythin’? It’s your birthday, Lee. I want to do somethin’ special for ya.”
That’s right. I got so caught up with the baby ‘n Mama that I forgot about my birthday. Eighteen. I’m now a grown woman. I may be the third born, the second daughter, but I can be seen as another mother to my siblin’s. Leavia ‘n me – we work pretty good together keepin’ the other kids in order.
Our oldest brother, Tony, is too busy workin’ with Papa on the land ‘n on his car to care about our younger siblings. “That’s women’s work,” he constantly reminds us. That ‘n the fact that he’s been tryin’ to court a young girl by the name of Streena, he simply doesn’t have time otherwise.
Under the three of us, there’s Dannie, fifteen, Pete, thirteen, Tena, nine, Paula, six, Josie, three, ‘n Joann, two.
Our entire house is up on cement blocks. The whole of it isn’t big, but comfortable. Behind the front porch is a family room that flows into the kitchen. Next to that is the boys’ bedroom, then the girls’ bedroom, ‘n then my parents’ bedroom. It’s one big rectangle with a door or just a threshold to go in ‘n outta the rooms. As long as it ain’t bitter cold, most of the time we spend outside. We have an outhouse to use when the need arrives. ‘N we wash usin’ rainwater that’s been collected in buckets.
The main job of us kids is to pick cotton. Papa does have some nigger men come ‘n work for ‘im now ‘n then, but for the most part, he expects us to pitch in. We also grow all sorts of melons, corn, pears, ‘n other produce. This is only the beginnin’ of things to do around here. We still have the animals to tend to.
Since I am one of the oldest, I don’t have to do too much in the field; I need to be in the house. I don’t mind cleanin’ up the place. Leavia prefers the kitchen; she loves cookin’ all sorts of meals.
“Now how about some polenta ‘n I’ll see if I can get a few chickens from the grocer. I can have Pete pull some vegetables to cook ‘em with the bird,” Leavia suggests.
“That sounds good. Maybe I’ll see if the girls can pick some strawberries. Could you do a shortcake for dessert?”
“That sounds good, Lee,” Leavia says while comin’ up next to me for a hug. “It’s still your day. You’re officially an adult now.”
The very thought of turning this age makes my head spin. When we were younger, Leavia ‘n me would hide among the high corn stalks. Throughout late summer into fall, we would drive Papa mad as he would uncover the few areas where the corn did not grow so well that season. Those areas were so flat from us stompin’ out an area just for us. There we would share our dream of findin’ a pair of brothers who would marry us. Then we would live closer to town livin’ in matching houses next door to each other. That way we would never go a day without seein’ each other. But now that my time has come, what am I gone to do with my life? Should I stay here? I don’t know. There’s too many kids still.
“Le…na!” a familiar, sweet voice calls.
“Lee? Where are you?” the same voice asks drawin’ near. I hear the front screen door slam shut. In come Tena, then Paula with Josie ‘n Joann trailin’ behind her. All four come walkin’ in like steppin’ stones of descendin’ size. Their dark brown hair is constantly maintained short by either Mama, Leavia, or me to keep the dirt out as much as possible.
“In here girls,” I call back from the kitchen. “You all need to be quiet now, Mama’s
The four of ‘em find me behind at the counter. I look down at their bare feet already turn’
a deeper brown than the tanned skin they have. They all are wearin’ their simple play dresses; it’s the coolest thing we got around here for ‘em to wear.
“We’re hungry, Lee,” Tena states.
Just as this request comes in, another knock with a “Hello?” is heard. I know this voice too, but it’s not one I’m related to, just yet; it’s Leavia’s sweetheart, Joe.
“Oh, no! Is that Joe?” Leavia exclaims as tries to look at her face in the small oval mirror hangin’ in the kitchen.
“Yeah, he sure is. Lea…via…your boyfriend is here to visit,” I sing.
“Hush now Lena!” she says as she runs outta the kitchen, but then stops to walk in the seductive way she’s been practicin’ to the front door.
“Alright girls, let’s see what we have here,” I say as I look around in the cupboards ‘n in the icebox. “Found some bread from last night’s supper. How about some cinnamon toast?”
Eight eyes expand wide, “Yes!” they all cry.
“Hush! Shush…don’t wake up Mama,’” I scold.
Their eyes contract together, causin’ ‘em to bow their heads down, which makes ‘em shrink littl’ further into the wooden floor boards.
“Go out on the back. Mama’ll hear you if you stay on the front porch. I’ll bring the toast out to you all when it’s ready.”
The four scamper outta the back. Leavia steps into the kitchen lookin’ all over. “Are the girls gone?”
“Um hm. Ain’t there supposed to be a chaperone for you two?”
“Get outta here Lena! Go keep an eye on the girls!”
“I’ll be done in a minute. Hold your horses.” With that she’s back to Joe in the livin’ room.
I find the girls sittin’ on the back porch, so I hand out their pieces of toast. “I’m gone to go see where everybody’s at. You girls eat this now. ‘N stay out of trouble.”
I know that Papa ‘n Tony got up early to work on the coffin, after they did their mornin’ jobs. I’m sure Dannie ‘n Pete are tendin’ the fields till they need a break. I feel the sun’s rays upon my skin. Not a cloud in sight. It’s early afternoon, an’ another scorcher.
Like I thought, Papa ‘n Tony are in the barn fixin’ up the coffin. Papa’s forty-eight years are showin’ as the sun skims the profile of his face. The sun’s rays showcase the white flexes throughout his once chestnut brown hair. The wrinkles crease deeper into his forehead, as do the dark rings under his eyes. Papa caresses his hand over the top of the coffin to feel the evenness of the well-sanded wood. He looks down at Tony who’s been kneelin’ while sandin’ the sides. Papa must not have slept last night. Come to think of it, Mama was in labor the night before too. He didn’t sleep much then either on the floor.
“Pa, why don’t you go in to rest. Go lay down in the boys’ room, huh?”
“No, Lena. I’m fine. Just need some coffee,” he gently says touchin’ the smooth wooden texture. He looks up rubbin’ his thumb ‘n index finger on his chin noticin’ the rough growth on his face.
“Leave Pa alone, Lena. He’s okay. We. All. Are. O…kay,” Tony says firmly. “We need to get through one more day, then ever’thin’s back to normal.”
I should listen to ‘im; he is my older brother by six years. His blue eyes cut through the shagginess of his dark, curly hair. He’s right. I know that we’ll all be okay, but I can’t help worrin’ so.
“Where are the boys?”
“Last I saw…Dannie ‘n Pete was in the garage. I think Pete’s trying to convince Dannie to help him take apart that old engine. Pete just wants to tinker around with it. Dannie just wants to avoid the house, so he’ll probably help ‘im,” Tony replies.
“Joe’s here, Papa.”
“Yes, sir.” I glance over my shoulder to see Leavia ‘n Joe walkin’ out on the back porch. I wonder if Leavia got uncomfortable with him again. She tol’ me that she’ll call me or Pete when she feels that way. But if we ain’t within ear’s shot, she steps outside with ‘im. Papa stands up straight knowin’ he better greet Joe.
I stroll around the other side of the house to the garage. We only have one car that actually runs, a Ford Model A, that’s goin’ on ten years old. There is one other car that’s up on blocks. This one Pete managed to get ahold of when a friend’s father was going to junk it. Pete convinced the man that he would love to have it, just to see how it works, for free.
Pete’s face has black grease marks on his right cheek and forehead. “Hey, Lee. How’s Mama doin’?” he asks.
“I am gone check on her next. I had to get the girls settled. Leavia’s in the kitchen tryin’ to figure out supper, that is once Joe’s gone.”
“Yeah…I guess it’s a special day today. Right, Dannie?”
Sittin’ on the dirt ground in his overalls, Dannie’s slicked back hair glistens in the sun. “Yep. I think it’s someone birthday, today,” Dannie casually comments. “Hey Lee, you may want to be on the lookout. That kid from down the way was lookin’ for you earlier.”
“Who? Victor? Oh my Lord! What does he want?”
“I think I know…” Dannie playfully says while winkin’ at me.
“Don’t you dare…” I threaten.
“So Leavia’s visitin’ with Joe now. Huh? An’ you have a friend too? Tony acts like he’s practically married to Streena,” Dannie says. “There’s three leavin’ Pete. That’ll give us more room ‘n food. I kinda like you three gettin’ hitched.”
All of a sudden, I am burin’ like the sun’s beams are goin’ straight through me. I am sure my face is flushed with color. This Victor belongs to another Italian family that lives a few miles down from us on their own farm. We used to go to school together. He was a pain in my ass, pullin’ my hair every day. That was only till I was thirteen when school was over. Now he stops by once in a while. He makes me uncomfortable the way he half-smiles at me ‘n eyeing me just so. It’s not like I’ve got anything to show him!
“Dannie, I need a different ratchet to get this here piston,” Pete demands knockin’ me out of my memories of Vic. I do wonder how he’s doin’. I can’t recall the last time he stopped. by.
Dannie jumps right to his feet, ‘n starts lookin’ around the tools. “I think I know which one to try now, Pete. Hey, Lee. You better tell Leavia to make sure the food is good tonight. No sister of mine will be served dog shit for her birthday dinner.”
“Dannie, leave her alone. You know her food’s even better than Mama’s,” I say. I don’t know why he picks on Leavia so much.
“That’s enough,” I add leavin’ ‘em be. I walk around the rest of the house towards the front. It’s quiet up here. That’s good. The girls must be in the back still. I cross to the porch ‘n open the door to Mama’s room.
As I walk in, I have to squint my eyes till they adjust from the bright sun to the darken room. “Lena?”
“Mama, how are you feelin’?” I ask as I make my way to her side of the bed. She always sleeps on the side closest to the door. She does this so she can get up right quick to answer any of our calls that may happen in the middle of the night.
She has pulled herself to an upright seated position with at least three pillaws propped up under her. “I’m feelin’ better. I’ve noticed my tummy is still stretched out. What can I expect after havin’ so many of you,” she says with a slight smile in her gentle, somber tone. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a body like Rita Hayworth.”
“No, I don’t think so. No matter how much walkin’ you do, those babies leave a permanent mark across your middle.”
“What day is it?”
“Oh, Lena,” she falters like she’s failed me. “It’s your birthday. You’re eighteen. My God, how you’ve grown up,” she takes my hand.
“Such a pretty girl. Happy Birthday, honey,” she adds drawin’ me into her open arms. I warmly sink into her embrace. Her solid arms bring me in even closer with a slight squeeze. I smell lilac talcum powder mixed with her perfumed sweat.
“If you’re up for it, you might want to sit outside for a bit today. Get some fresh air.”
“I think I just might. Is Leavia makin’ your dinner?”
“Ya. You know how Leavia is in the kitchen. She is always ready to fix one meal or another.”
“Have you explained to the girls about the baby, Lena?”
“I will. Papa ‘n Tony are makin’ the coffin. It’s just about done…it’s so tiny…” I let my sentence drift off not sure what else to say next. This is the first time I recall the death of a newborn, of a sibling, but not my Mama. Nine of us are grown or growin’ up out of the thirteen pregnancies.
“Make sure you wrap ‘im up in his quilt. I don’t want ‘im to be cold in that box.”
“I sure will Mama. He’s in the crib right now waitin’.”
“I’m gone rest some more, but then I’ll get up when it’s time for supper.”
She moves some of the pillaws to the right side of the bed, allowing her head, neck, shoulders, ‘n back to lay flat on top of the mattress. I quietly leave the room, being sure to close the door behind. At least the screens are open in the windaws.
Instead of heading through the house to the back, I go back outside to the other part of the house passin’ the rain buckets. I notice that they are half-filled; not good when eleven bodies need to be bathed. A bit aways from the house, behind a bush, I find the girls lookin’ like they are bleedin’ from their mouths. The red has flowed all over their cheeks, mouths, fingers, ‘n dresses.
“Leavia! Come on out here,” I playfully yell marchin’ up the stairs of the back porch.
“Wait a minute,” Leavia yells as she finishes dryin’ her hands off on the towel. I guess Joe finally went back home.
“Take a look,” I say to her. She opens the back door, while I hold it for her to come outside. I stand there with a smile on my face. Our four sisters simultaneously look up at Leavia as they finish nibblin’ like bunnies on the few strawberries left in the basket.
“Oh Lord!” Leavia shouts! “Tena, I thought you were watching ‘em! Not givin’ ‘em ideas!”
“We were hungry Leavia. You had us pick all of those strawberries. They looked so good; they were juicin’ all over our hands as we picked ‘em. Since they were already sort of smashed, we might as well eat ‘em. We couldn’t wait till tonight,” Tena explains.
“Sorry, LeeLee,” Joann says hangin’ her head low with those coffee colored eyes droopin’ even lower. Josie nudges herself between Joann ‘n me.
“I’m sorry too…” Josie adds lookin’ at me then steppin’ in to give me a hug. “We didn’t mean to ruin your dessert.”
“It’s okay. Come on in girls, I’ll clean you all up,” I say guidin’ Joann ‘n Josie up the step ‘n inside by takin’ their hands. Paula ‘n Tena follow behind. “Tena, you can clean yourself up. Then help Paula. I’ll get these two straighten’ up.”
“Lena, how about a puddin’ for dessert?” Leavia questions.
“If you feel like it.”
“It’s just too hot for the oven anyways to make a cake. I’m doin’ the whole meal on the stove top.”
With the six of us in the kitchen, space is limited. I slip off Joann’s ‘n Josie’s dresses. Paula ‘n Tena see what I am doin’ an’ follow along. Once the girls are down to their underwear, I run into the bedroom to get ‘em all new play dresses.
“I’m gone to have to take these out to soak them in Oxydol till tomorraw’s laundry,” I say as I inspect the damage done by the strawberries. It’s gone be hard to get these stains out; vinegar may be a solution. We’ll see. Then I inspect their faces for additional damage. I take a wash cloth from under the sink, wet it, rub some soap in it, ‘n then rub Joann’s face. She squirms around, but I’ve got my left hand on her right cheek. “Too hot, LeeLee,” she tells me.
“I know, but I’ve got to clean you up. Red stains stick, so I gotta rub ‘em off. I’m almost done.” I see Josie waitin’ out of the corner of my eye with her hands together. Tena grabs a second wash cloth ‘n lathers it the same way for her ‘n Paula. Thank goodness they’re gettin’ older.
After I finishin’ up with Josie, the girls tumble into their fresh clothes ‘n out they go.
“Wait a minute,” I request. Before she steps off the stoop, I pick up Joann in my lap ‘n put my arms around her. I smell the soft Ivory sent from her face ‘n sneak in a kiss on her cheek. Josie starts to wine, “LeeLee…me too,” so I move Joann to one side to make room.
How do I explain what happened to the baby to them? I guess the truth is best.
“Now, you know Mama was sick for a few days, right?” All of their eyes nod in agreement. “Well, Mama is feelin’ better an’ should be walkin’ around like usual soon,” I say as my stomach starts to get into knots. “You know the baby she had in her belly?” Again, they nod. “Well, God decided that he belongs back with Him. Up in heaven. Not with us. So tomorraw, we are gone to bury him.”
I pause expectin’ to say more.
Tena asks, “Is that all, Lee? Can we go play now?”
“Yep, that’s all. Don’t go too far now. An’ don’t get too messy. Supper’s soon. We gone to have it early since we didn’t have no dinner.”
Tena leads the girls in a skip-a-long fashion. Paula is a mirror to her, but Josie ‘n Joann, with their chubby baby legs, find it difficult to skip. So both waddle along attemptin’ to bounce side to side.
I pause for a minute to take in the sun. Even as the afternoon passes, its sting is still harsh. I hear Leavia choppin’, sizzlin’, ‘n stirrin’. “You need any help, Leavia?”
“I…I gots it. No…no trouble, Lee. Could use some com’any though,” she calls out of the kitchen windaw.
As I walk into the kitchen, the smell of brownin’ onions ‘n garlic hit me. She has the browned chicken pieces on a separate platter ready to go back into Mama’s big pot.
“What are you makin’ me?” I ask walkin’ towards the corner where the stove is set. I come up next to her left side, since she has a wooden spoon at the ready in her right. In this house, a wooden spoon is not only for stirrin’ ingredients together. The spoon is a way of punishment. If a child steps outta line, Mama sure will correct his or her behavior with a quick whack on the butt. If you’re a real bad child, she may just break it on you.
“Now that this has browned, I add a bunch of tomatas, fennel, pepper, some orange skin, ‘n water to the pot. Once this boils, I bring the heat back down to a simmer ‘n add the chicken back to finish cookin’.”
“Why the orange, Leavia?” I question movin’ towards the table to sit.
“It helps blend the flavors together. I’ll take out the orange skin before I serve it. I’m plannin’ on makin’ some pasta for the side. Your puddin’ is in the icebox.”
“You made it already?”
“I had to once I sent the girls out to get the strawberries. I knew those weren’t gone to make it back here. It’s just too hot to make any sort of cake. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Nome. It’s fine. Whatever you make is always good. How’s Joe?”
Leavia turns directly towards me, blushin’. “He’s fine,” she says with a smile on her face. “He just wanted to check on all of us with what happened to Mama ‘n the baby. That’s all.”
“Uh-huh,” I say as realize I better get back up to work on dishes she has pilin’ up in the sink. I get the water goin’ while I pour a few beads of Super Suds outta the box. I start movin’ my hand round to get the bubbles goin’. That’s one thing that we never run out of doin’ – the dishes.
Soon, I hear shufflin’ of feet. Mama comes in through the doorway wearin’ one of her house dresses; this one has longer sleeves that stops slightly above her elbows. Whenever we make dresses, hers always has to have the longer short sleeve to cover up her “flags” as she calls ‘em. The danglin’ of the skin on the back of her upper arm drives her crazy. At times, she would like to cut ‘em off when she grabs a handful of that excess skin.
“How’s supper comin’ along, Leavia?” Mama asks. Upon seeing her, I immediately walk towards her to help her sit down. Maybe the walk from the bedroom to here has worn her out.
“Oh, Lena…you could keep on doin’ the dishes…” she says slightly outta breath.
“I will Mama,” I say walkin’ back to the sink. “Leavia has ‘em pilin’ up.” I steal a peak out the windaw to see if Papa ‘n Tony are headin’ inside. I’m sure by now the coffin’s done an’ waitin’ for the baby that looks like he’s sleepin’ soundly in his crib. By tomorraw, he’ll sleep forever safely in the comfort of the soil this family has nurtured.
“Oh you girls. I appreciate you both helpin’ even more around the house these past few days. These things happen in life, an’ there’s nothing you can do about ‘em. Except…pray,” Mama says as she clasps her hand around her crucifix.
We all pause for a moment of silence. That poor sweet baby; we are your family even though you never woke up to be with us.
“What are you makin’ for Lena, Leavia? It smells real good,” Mama asks.
“Ah…ah…it’s this chicken dish with tomatas, onions, garlic, ‘n there’s some orange skin in it for flavor. At the end, I’m gone add a squeeze of orange juice,” Leavia explains.
With constant hungry mouths, she’s always experimentin’ in the kitchen havin’ whoever’s around to taste this ‘n try that. I am not a food scientist. I’ll do the dishes. I cook when I have to, which is when I’m hungry or when people need to eat ‘n no one else will volunteer. That’s it.
“Now, I want you both to know that I am fine,” Mama says rather firmly. Leavia ‘n me turn around to face her.
“You girls are just gettin’ too old. I hope whatever comes your way in this world makes you happy. I am happy with my life here an’ with ya’ll, thanks to sweet Jesus lookin’ over me,” she says kissin’ her crucifix. “But I want you to never forget us an’ this childhood you have had. I want you to remember it so you can make your life better than what your Papa ‘n me have done.”
Mama is now up an’ has managed to turn both of us all the way around to face her. We look at each other known’ that our Mama is serious. So we each kiss a cheek, leavin’ her comments in the air. Knowin’ she has made her point, she drifts back to the chair.
“Hey Lee. It’s just about ready. Call in everybody to wash up for supper.”
I walk out of the kitchen onto the back porch. “Hey! Time to eat! Come in everybody!” I yell, standin’ at the door holdin’ it wide open.
Within a few minutes, the four girls come out from the fields. They still managed to keep clean. Maybe they were playin’ hide-n-seek in the corn fields. Then, the men walk up together.
“Smells real good, Leavia,” Tony says movin’ into the kitchen. On his way in, he pats my shoulder ‘n leans in to kiss my cheek. Even while workin’ on that coffin all day, he still manages to keep his white shoes spotless.
“Hey, Papa,” I say since he’s the last one to come inside. He holds the door for me allowin’ me to enter before ‘im.
“Before we eat, let’s take a moment for prayer,” Mama leads. “In the name of the father, the son, an’ the holy spirt.”
“Amen,” we all chorus.
“Lord, we would like to thank you for another day of life and of being together. We would like to thank you for givin’ Lena a beautiful eighteen years. We ask that baby Dominec be brought back into your lovin’ care. We thank you o’ Lord.”
“Now, who’s ready to enjoy Lena’s birthday dinner?” Pete asks.
“I am!” the girls shout as one.
The routine starts with everyone pickin’ up a plate ‘n a fork from the counter. Then, goin’ over to the stove for Leavia get a portion. Since we don’t have a table big enough for all of us, we move to the front porch where the sun has already passed. We eat breakfast on the back porch, ‘n supper on the front. That way we always eat in the shade.
As usual, no sounds could be heard. The silence of a fine meal. Just chewin’, scrapin’ of forks, wipin’ of mouths, the occasional “ummm…” with a bite – these sounds make Leavia so proud of her cookin’. While I work my way through my plate, the combination of the browned chicken with the tomatas, onions, ‘n garlic blend well together. But it is her addition of the fennel, for my favorite licorice flavor, with the sweetness of the orange juice makes this one tasty dish.
“That was great, Leavia,” Papa says as many of us echo his thoughts.
“I don’t know why you put in orange juice. This ain’t breakfast!” Dannie nags. Leavia simply picks up her plate an’ goes back inside the house waitin’ for all the of the empty, but dirty, dishes to return.
“Dannie, why do you have to be so cruel to her?” I ask. He just ignores me, by lookin’ around the yard. “Why do you do it? What has she done to you?” I continue to demand answers.
He stands up from edge of the porch to lean against the post. I walk towards ‘im, but Papa, sittin’ in his rocking chair, holds up a hand to prevent my path. Instead, I turn round ‘n head into the kitchen to help Leavia, slammin’ the screen door behind to catch up with my sister who ran into the protection of the kitchen. This is one place where she is the boss.
“I’m sorry, Leavia. I don’t know what’s with, Dannie. He never stops!”
“Don’t worry about it, Lee,” Leavia says closely to me. Now we are both standing next to each other at the kitchen sink, both starin’ outta the windaw. “I…I don’t know why, but I guess…I…I’m his target. Whenever he’s mad at life…he just takes it out on me.”
“It ain’t right.”
Pete comes into the kitchen carrying a tall stack of plates, followed by Papa with more. I find the routine task of dish washin’ to be rather soothin’. My blood pressure decreases with each soapy wash, then rinse. Leavia dries ‘n restack for breakfast the next day.
“How about your dessert?” Leavia suggests. “It’s not your shortcake. It don’t have no strawberries, but it’ll still be good.” She goes to the icebox to get out Mama’s blue colored glass bowl. “It’s a grits puddin’.”
“Oh, I bet that’ll be good,” I say over my shoulder.
“So instead of it bein’ a savory grits, like for shrimp, this one’s sweet. I heated some milk
on the stove. Then I added some sugar ‘n vanilla extract. I cooked the grits the usual way with butter ‘n water, but then I put the puddin’ milk mixture into the grits. On top is some cut up peaches, just picked today, an’ not by the girls,” Leavia says while getting out bowls ‘n spoons.
“Pete! Could you tell everyone it’s time for dessert?” I yell outta the kitchen windaw.
In less than a minute, the girls are first for a taste. Then everyone else gets a scoop. When I eat my bowlful, I am surprised that I am enjoyin’ these grits. Usually, I hate ‘em ‘n would rather eat nothin’ if that’s all there is. It must be the creamy puddin’ that has smoothed out the grainy grits. The peaches are just ripe that the juices help loosen up the puddin’ with each stir, ‘n they have given flavor to those tasteless grits.
Instead of me doin’ another round of dishes, Mama tells me to enjoy the evenin’ with a walk. I do love my after-supper-walks. None of the kids want to come with, ‘n Leavia’s gone to stay to help clean up with Mama.
I decide to head south along the trampled path created by children, farm workers, ‘n their animals. This leads me to a stream where I can sit for a minute in quiet. Each walk provides me with some time to think about…anything.
Today, I pray that Mama is gone to be alright. She says that’s she’s lost babies before, an’ that death is part of life. I wonder if she is happy she came to America like she said. Maybe she would have been better if she stayed in Italy. I’d be there too…I guess. I’m not sure I would know what our life would be like. I’d probably be married by now. Leavia would definitely have a husband ‘n have a few chilrun too. Would Papa have to find us husbands? Or could we marry who we want to like here in America? I wouldn’t be comfortable with a man I don’t know. Especially one that I am married to that I don’t know. I wonder…how awkward would the weddin’ night be. Oh…how horrible! I would be nervous to begin with seein’ a naked man ‘n ‘im seein’ me, but what’s expected would be even worse with a stranger.
“Hey, Lena!” a figure calls out.
I turn around to see, but the western sun blinds my eyes. As I put up my left hand to block part of the brightness, I recognize the voice. “Hey yourself, Vic.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I’ve been callin’ your name for a while,” he says in a winded manner workin’ on catchin’ his breath.
“Nome. I was thinkin’.”
“You were thinkin’. Huh? Well…about what?”
“Oh…,” Victor says as he looks down at his feet. “I’ve stopped by earlier wanting to talk to you ‘n let you know that I’m real sorry about the baby.”
“Oh…yeah. Tomorraw he’ll be buried.”
“My whole family is.”
“Sure…thanks. I…I’ll let my Papa and Mama know,” I say.
We are two of the few Italian families out here, we try to stick together. Most of the other farmin’ families out here are white, but they are from England or Ireland. There are a few black farmers; chances are they are part of a second generation of former slaves. We leave ‘em alone. We ain’t even supposed to be talkin’ to ‘em. Most people are just tryin’ to get by in life with help from President Roosevelt ‘n his plans. We just live day to day at least providin’ for our own with the hopes to get money from sharecroppin’, but that may not last too much longer.
“Mind if I join you on your walk? It’s gettin’ late an’ you shouldn’t be walkin’ in the dark alone.”
“Sure. I don’t mind the company.”
“Oh…also, Happy Birthday, Lena.”
“Thanks.” We walk a for a bit allowin’ the crickets ‘n frogs to fill the night air.
“I’ve been doin’ some thinkin’ too, Lee. About the future.”
“Oh, yeah? Whatcha been thinkin’ about?”
“About you…an’ me…maybe….”
I look down tryin’ to hide the smile I can’t help but make.
“What do you think about the idea of us seeing each other? Would you like that?”
“I think that’d be alright. Leavia’s got Joe. ‘N Tony’s got Streena…I might as well have
someone of my own too.”
“Sounds good to me too,” Vic says softly grabbin’ my hand, which he allows both to naturally settle between us.
“I hope you’re not expectin’ much from me. I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”
“That’s alright. We can figure it out together.”
For a few minutes, dusk fills the air. The auburn haze of the sun’s settin’ shadow conceals our bashful admiration for each other.
“It seems that some women today are crazy,” I start to say as we fall into step. “Vic…look at the First Lady. Would you want me to be runnin’ all over the world like a politician? Like a man? I don’t think so. How does she take care of her chilrun ‘n home if she’s always out?”
“Lena, I highly doubt I’ll be president, so you needn’t worry.”
“Well, she makes it look like she knows what she’s doin’. I couldn’t do that. No way.”
“What do you mean? You could do anythin’ ya want. It’s women like her who make it easier for women like you do what you want.”
“I have no education. Mama ‘n Papa needed me to be done with school as soon as I could,” I shyly say.
“Well, what do you enjoy doin’?”
“I like to sew. I’m good at makin’ dresses for the girls ‘n Mama ‘n me.”
“There’s an idea! See you have somethin’ in mind that you would like to do,” Victor says glancin’ at me like he does with his half-grin. As he does so, I look at ‘im directly into his eyes. My middle is really in knots now. Breathe, Lena. It’s just Vic.
Victor keeps me com’any as we walk down the stream ‘n then back up north towards our families’ farms. He walks me the extra way to my home. By then, dusk is long gone providin’ us with the twinkle of twilight.
“Okay, Lena. It’s been fun. You have a good night ‘n I’ll see yea around,” he mentions as he kisses me on the check. As he pulls away, he says, “Happy Birthday.”
I touch my cheek ‘n reply, “Thanks. Yeah, I’ll see ya.” Then I step up on the front porch ‘n walk inside. In a thick haze, I walk over to the girls’ bedroom. Tena, Paula, Josie, ‘n Joann are already in bed. Leavia has just finishin’ gettin’ ready for bed herself.
“How was your walk?” she asks.
“Really? I think Victor’s sweet on you, Lena.”
“Oh yeah? And Joe ain’t on you?”
“Don’t you worry about Joe ‘n me. We’ll get married soon enough. What you’ve got is no longer a friendship, but a courtship with Victor. This is news to Papa, but don’t think he didn’t have an idea…. Just so you know, he’s the one you’ll have to share the news with.”
“You’re right,” I sigh ‘n get ready for bed. I may share the news with Papa, but only once I decide if Vic’s what I want. I don’t know what’s gone to happen tomorraw let alone what can happen in a few weeks, months, or years from now. Soon enough, I doze off listenin’ to the stillness of my sisters’ breathin’ knowin’ that they are here for me no matter who I choose to be.