SECOND BLESSING

CHAPTER ONE

SHE WAITED FOR REVIVAL TO begin. Sitting on the right-hand side of the Damascus Southern Baptist Church, near the middle of the fourth pew. A gold plaque stuck on each end sanctified TO THE LOVING MEMORY OF ARTHUR FRANCIS HAYES MAY 10, 1919–MARCH 5, 1986. Chin up. Shoulders square. Back straight. Knees together. Feet crossed at ankles. Hands cupped in lap. Momma always said a lady never reveals her true age and carries good posture to the grave.

Stared forward. Past the linen covered Lord’s Table. The store-bought yellow chrysanthemums wrapped in green foil. The new white flickering candles and the cross shining gold. Scrutinized the blood-colored dossal hanging behind the altar. Decided the fabric was soiled. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! Should’ve been professional cleaning. Another detail I would’ve done. Looked away. Wagged her head. Shrugged. Silently snorted.

A linen handkerchief, edged with frail lace knotted by her great-great Granny Fannie in Ireland over a century ago, laid folded between her hands. Hands smoothed over a dozen times each day with Jergens Lotion. Three bottles never below half-empty. One is on my dressing table, another in my bathroom medicine cabinet, and the third on the kitchen sink windowsill. Sometimes in winter before retiring to bed, Mildred rubbed the lotion into her hands then slipped on white cotton gloves. Another one of Momma’s beauty secrets like coating your teeth with Vaseline. Of course, I only did that before marrying. Looks silly on a woman my age. Wish somebody would tell Clara dentures ain’t supposed to shine. Screwed her wedding band back and forth like wringing out clothes. The gold circle washer had been on her third left finger since Arthur slipped it there. And will go with me to the grave.

Mildred stood five-foot-four in her stocking feet. Weighed ninety-five pounds in her birthday suit. Her crown of glory a tarnished halo circling her head. All the Good Lord has to do is plop on the gold one and give me wings.

Every Friday afternoon at four, she sat in Shirley’s beauty chair with pink butterflies covering her for a silver rinse. Her gray, which started as strays at nineteen, outgrew Clairol’s Golden Brown Number Fifty-three after Arthur died. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Thank God, I hated that smell! Like mixing ammonia with rotten eggs. One more thing a wife must endure for her husband’s vanity. Like wearing enough powder and paint for a Jezebel. Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth.

Her tresses were confirmed into a sensible coiffure not long after saying, “I do.” Arthur only nodded when he first saw my transformation and went back to reading his newspaper. Like most things throughout our married life he knew this was meant to be.

Every six weeks, less than one-fourth an inch of curl was snipped from her ends. A person could count on five fingers the number of beauty parlor appointments missed before her fall. I was even there the day after Frankie was buried though it nearly killed me to leave the house. Momma always said, “No matter the heartache, life goes on. Just put on a smile and go forth. Stanford women are made that way.”

God know Momma carried her crosses, bless her soul, like I lug mine. Life ain’t nothing but a see-what-happens-next struggle. Because of Eve, life for us women is cursed. At least I’ve outgrown the monthly flow. Ain’t nothing more disgusting or humiliating than having your innards drop.

Round gold-rimmed spectacles with rising half moons looped around Mildred’s ears. Large like Daddy’s with hanging lobes. Sat squarely upon her nose. Small and pinched like Momma’s, slightly curved up. Blue veins shone under her skin, pale and tissue paper thin. I jokingly warn, “On the outside, not in.” Of course some see the truth as a threat.

Through the years, brown spots more vulgar than freckles from pinhead to penny size had marred every inch of her body. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw!

“Time’s beauty marks,” I laugh about in public, but curse in private while rubbing on fading cream. Another grow old gracefully joke that is no more funnier than the alternative. Mildred always wore long sleeves in public because of the flab like a roster’s wattle hanging under each arm. At least it ain’t under my neck. Again like some people I know.

Her old rose suit, sewed on her momma’s pedal Singer, took about three months to complete. Thanks to frailty and cataracts in each eye. Young Doc Hamilton warned against strenuous strain after my fall, but I just couldn’t do nothing. Lying in bed all that time idle would drive a body crazy. Snorted inside. My whole life has been strenuous strain. My heart is like that Timex commercial on TV, ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’.

Blindness would just be another tribulation to struggle through. Might even make life easier, not seeing when your house is a mess or whom you’re talking to. Of course, I’ll know Clara’s shrill shriek even if I was tone-deaf.

Tapped her right forefinger against the corner of her jaw. Her nails, just a shiver like a new moon, were always filed and clear coated, never enameled with a color. Makes a woman look cheap and whorish.

Learned how to sew the summer I was eight. Momma was sick, bursitis I believe, she always suffered a frail disposition, and her legs were too weary to pump the pedal. I sat beside her while she guided the needle. After awhile I got so good at stopping and starting just by seeing I begged her to let me try. Started out on flour bag scraps. Pretty soon, I was ripping out seams and hemming them up faster than Momma. That was the summer Daddy said I grew faster than a cultivated weed. Momma even said my stitches were straighter than Aunt Bessie Bea’s. The poor dear had to do professional sewing down at the pants’ factory after Uncle Jessie left. Everybody whispered it was for another woman, but I heard Aunt Flossie tell Aunt Myrtle it was for a man. “Didn’t I tell you he walked funny?”

I pieced together my first quilt before turning ten. Girls that age now don’t know how to thread a needle. Still have it folded up in Arthur’s war trunk in the attic along with a real pretty wedding ring one I was planning on giving to Frankie and Linda Sue to put on their bed in their new home, but…

Sighed. Wagged her head back and forth. Dropped her hand into her lap. Drummed her right fingers against her left arm. Again stared into the curtain behind the altar, but saw something else. The fingers stopped. Clinched around her wrist. Gripped and let go.

Momma always said, “There’s no need reliving yesterday’s sorrow, misery will probably visit again today.” Poor Momma, before losing her mind, she spouted optimistic clichés like breathing. I catch myself doing the same.

“Make the best of a bad situation.”

“Look on the sunny side.”

“Make lemonade out of lemons.”

“Put on a happy face.”

Each of those sayings probably pushed Momma further over the edge. No, I can’t think that. We, especially us women, either pretend or drown. It’s been in our blood since Eve. Maybe that’s the only way to survive. Pretend or keel over and die. Too bad you can only do that once. But that’s all right.

That quilt will be just another treasure Catherine gets after I’m gone. Maybe I’ll go ahead and put it on her bed now, that spare room could stand some brightening up. They just don’t make colors like those anymore. If it’s pretty in the morning, I’ll have Catherine air the quilt on the clothesline to get the mothball smell out. Ain’t nothing like the fresh scent of outdoors inside. I hated putting her on the other side of the house, but couldn’t bear her staying in her daddy’s old room. Nobody except me has been in there since… 

Blinked. Bit her bottom lip. Stared into the floor. Her son’s room looked the same as the day he left to marry Linda Sue. That was another shocker. My baby running off and marrying, but I guess everything worked out for the best. At least Frankie left something behind beside photographs and memories. Too bad Catherine ain’t a boy to carry on her daddy’s name.

Mildred kept her body, like her mind, scrubbed clean. She bathed every night before bed and important social functions like U.D.C. or D.A.R. with Ivory soap then sprinkled on talcum powder, always lilac scented. Earlier for Revival, she dabbed a few drops of the accompanying cologne behind her ears and on her pulse. Catherine gave me that set for Christmas last year in a lovely gift box with scented stationery. A touch of rouge spotted here and there then rubbed into her sharp cheekbones.

Momma always said those movie starlet cheekbones came from her mother. Many a night she cried herself to sleep for not having any. “But that,” she would firmly stress shaking her finger up and down, “was before realizing my Second Blessing from Our Savior and seeing the unfading glory of true beauty.”

I know in my heart that is true, but I’m still thankful for both. Believe Momma went to her grave a wee bit jealous though she never admitted it even to herself. Of course, by that time, Momma was so out of her mind crazy she didn’t know whether she had a body, soul, or sunken cheekbones.

Mildred never smeared makeup on her cheeks or washed in fragrance, a common mistake of so many older women. Makes them look like clowns and smell like trollops. I still douse with vinegar to rid myself of womanly musk. Even though I’m past my prime, a woman can’t be too careful. Knew one woman who attended her church who looked utterly silly and reeked of honeysuckle, but again wasn’t calling any names.

Even has a skinny dead fox biting its tail clinging around her neck like Momma and women of her generation wore. And wears white after Labor Day! I bet she’s two hundred pounds if an ounce and her dresses are skin-tight. Shameless at her or anybody else’s age. I wouldn’t let Catherine leave the house looking like that. This woman’s elbows sag to her knees while her breasts nearly touch her belly. Plus she has the gall to make Shirley dye her hair jet-black like a hick country singer. That’s enough to cause Shirley to lose her beautician’s license. Not counting that time when Frankie was a senior in high school, Shirley whacked my hair a good two inches with me all the while hollering no. I swear folks sometimes go crazy.

Closed her eyes. Sighed. Each organ note thumped inside her head. Adding to the piercing throbbing I’m positive has been continuous for nearly a month. Before leaving, also at noon and this morning after waking up, she took two extra-strength aspirin tablets drowned by water. I forget the brand. I’ve tried them all and one gives just about as much relief as the other, which is none. Opened her eyes. Snorted.

I’ve seen Daddy plenty of times in the middle of doing something unfold one of those BC Powders. Put the paper against his lips. Jerk back his head like swigging. Continue what he was doing without missing a beat. Not talking a swig of water or Coke or anything. I tried it once and nearly choked. Hope I don’t have a brain tumor.

Just last week Clara was telling me about one of her sister’s Gloria’s friend’s husband in Wilson City who kept complaining about a headache for a week and one day while strolling down the sidewalk keeled over dead. A shock clear out of the blue. Clara said Leland was only forty-three years old. Left his wife Gail with four kids, seven car payments, a twenty-year mortgage, and hardly any insurance. Guess we’ve all got to die of something someday. I just don’t want to leave a financial burden when I do. Want folks to remember me for something else besides a stack of bills.

Placed her forefinger against her chin. Blinked. Shuddered. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Can’t dwell on horrible stories like that, God knows they’re everywhere. Can’t pick up the newspaper without reading over a hundred. The TV is worst. Every time you click it on you see blood, destruction, and children starving somewhere else. That’s why I seldom turn it on, except of course to watch my stories and some of the game shows. What happens does. The Good Lord will call me when He’s ready, which I hope is a good long while. At least I hope He lets me see Catherine married with children. I’ve always dreamed of seeing her walking down the aisle all dressed in white wearing Grandmamma Taylor’s cameo. The cameo, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, waited in Mildred’s safe deposit vault at the First National Bank of Wilson City alongside her will.

Smiled. Surrounded by music. Amazing Grace was her favorite hymn. Each word a blessing, the melody like floating on water. Someday I’ll experience the joy of sitting on a cloud, bouncing up and down. It’ll be a thousand times softer than sinking into one of those old feather mattresses we use to have at home.

Harriet only plays the old favorites, which she does for free. That’s how things ought to be, folks giving their talents to the Lord. That organist in that big Presbyterian Church in Wilson City only plays classical stuff. I forget her name, probably something hyphenated, another current snobbish trend I loathe. I’m sure she’s paid as much or more than our preacher. Clara told me she had the nerve to call what we play in our church, “Hippity hoppity music for holy rollers who handle snakes and speak in tongues.”

Humph! Pish and pshaw! I told Clara that was a typical response. Those Presbyterians are nothing but a bunch of snobs with money who pardon my French, think their excrement doesn’t smell. Of course, there’s a vulgar version of that expression, but I’m too much of lady to think it. They think Heaven is a saints’ county club with eighteen holes and us regular folks who know how to bend our backs won’t get in even through the back door. But that’s all right. I know the Lord doesn’t see things that way.

The time I went to that Presbyterian Church, only because Virginia Mason’s grandson Chris by her second daughter Julie was getting christened, I was utterly ignored. Felt like I should be sitting in the kitchen with Beulah. It looks more like a big city high school auditorium than a sanctuary. There are even microphones. They ain’t at all friendly like us Baptists. Even those Methodists are a bit uppity because they’re so self-righteous. But what do you expect from folks who serve Communion to just anyone?

Wagged her head back and forth. Dropped her hand. Shrugged her shoulders. Silently snorted. Humph! Pish and pshaw! But that’s also all right. ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first.’ The Good Book says so.

Frowned when the tune stumbled. Harriet might not hit all the right notes, but she plays from Christian duty. Will go to anybody’s wedding or funeral. Why, she even played at Old Man Hodges’s service and he claimed to be an atheist. Bet he didn’t tell Saint Peter that at the Pearly Gates.

Audrey, Sam’s widow, wanted him eulogized in a church, but none of the preachers around here would do that. Even religion plays by the rules. At least they didn’t bury Sam outside the cemetery fence like long ago. There’s a blank grave in Canaan on up the road folks ain’t sure who is buried under. Some say a boy and some say nothing, but that’s another story.

Audrey settled on the funeral parlor chapel in Wilson City with Old Man Stewart doing the preaching. Vernon claims to be a minister, but he cusses, drinks, smokes, chews, and has over a dozen illegitimate kids, pure and mixed. A tomcat with three balls has more morals. Smells better too. That diploma from that institution in Chicago proclaiming Vernon a preacher means nothing. I heard that University only exists in the back of comic books.

Of course, the funeral home chapel was packed for Sam’s service. Folks wanted to see how Vernon did, which wasn’t either good or bad. Just another fill-in-the-blanks eulogy, any third grader could do the same. At least Vernon wasn’t drunk during the sermon, but by the time he got to the cemetery he was. Nearly fell into the hole.

The very next day, Audrey went down and joined the Assembly of God. Said she couldn’t live one more minute with the thought of that happening to her. Figured those folks were as strict as you could get around here without joining an order. Besides, all of the Jehovah’s Witness live in the other end of the county. Now if she ain’t on her knees at the altar, she’s in the kitchen baking for a sale trying to catch up for all that time being a heathen. Guess it takes lightning for some folks to see the light. No wonder Paul was a martyr. He didn’t have a choice.

At least I won’t have that worry when I die. They’ll wheel me down in front of the church altar just like Arthur, Momma, Daddy, Frankie, my sister Matilda, and my little dead baby son. Hung her head. Dabbed at her eyes with the corner of great-great Granny Fannie’s handkerchief. Swallowed. The coffins like railroad cars followed each other in her mind. Again she was hurling down a black hole. All of my life has been about letting go. All of my pearls have been shadowed by sorrow.

For four nights in March or April, depending when Easter fell, Damascus Southern Baptist held Revival. Beginning with Communion and ending with the laying on of hands. Mildred sighed inside. An enormous undertaking for the Church, stretched out more than Easter and Christmas combined. Momma told the story until her dying day of how, when Revival began, she told the Church Elders it wasn’t fair to those preparing, mainly her, to crowd another event into that month. Each year I understand more and more the wisdom of her words. Humph! Pish and pshaw! I swear, after the children’s Easter egg hunt on Saturday afternoon, I nearly have to be risen for sunrise service the next day. If Jesus had been running around all week like me, three days wasn’t much of a rest.

Mildred had always sat on the Revival Committee, along with every other event thought of. Even after Arthur died, two years and fifteen days on the fifth. I stopped counting the hours and the minutes after six months. Snorted inside. Actually presided, but Baptist still bicker about giving my gender leadership roles. Counted on her fingers all that needed done. The list was in her notepad in her purse.

Make sure the Church is in order. There’s always something major to do. Last year it was buying a commode for the women’s bathroom in the Fellowship Hall and the year before repainting the Sunday school rooms.

Tapped the inside tip of her index finger. Arrange accommodations. Having the preacher and the guest speaker at my house for supper the last night of Revival is tradition. Last year I served a lovely pork roast and veal the year before. I’m sure by then they’re sick of chicken.   

Her middle finger went down. Select a speaker. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Everybody and his brother thinks he is Billy Sunday. Cut out all the praise the Lords, hallelujahs, and amens and there ain’t twenty words of sermon.

Finger four followed. Select music. Last year, one group even sent a cassette with orchestrated music. After hearing the first notes I shouted no. As I told Clara, “Start allowing taped music in church and before you know it folks will be dancing down the aisle to drums.”

Tapped her thumb repeatedly, but couldn’t think of anything else. Thought about looking at the list in her purse. Decided no. Shrugged. Snorted. Stared forward. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! It’s too late now anyway. Heaven preserve us!  

On December 31st, while taking down the Christmas tree, Mildred fell off of a kitchen chair. Cracked her right hip. Smashed the porcelain angel that has been in our family for ages to bits. Never did believe that silly superstition of having everything cleared out by the first of the year bringing good luck. Momma always said my fragile disposition was a result of high breeding.

Her fingers almost touched the spot, but quickly jerked away. Even though the bruises have faded any pressure is unbearable. It’s pure agony just getting dressed. Snorted. Sighed. Wagged her head back and forth. Stared at her cane hooked over the pew in front.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Guess I’m doomed to spending the rest of my days leaning against that like Daddy did after his stroke. But that’s all right. It’s sturdy just like me, probably from an oak that had survived many a storm.  

Then, making my misery worst, while recovering in the hospital, where I didn’t want to go in the first place, pneumonia set in that lingered through February. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! Thank goodness, Catherine came back to see me through my illness. That has been my only blessing in this fiasco.

After helping Mildred hobble into the church, Catherine went back outside to park the car. Nothing really but a red tuna fish can. One of those cheap foreign jobs made in country where you can’t drink the water. Every time I get in, I start praying and don’t stop till we’re there. If I were able, I’ll kneel down and kiss the ground. I swear my bottom is just inches above the blacktop. A wreck in that and even a teaspoon will be too big to pick up the pieces. Too bad I sold Arthur’s Ford last year after I stopped driving. Now that was a car. Big, black, shiny, could hit a tank without a scratch. My feet barely touched the pedals. Had to sit on two pillows to be high enough to see out to steer. They don’t make cars like they use to. Or anything else for that matter. The old things and ways are lost forever. The world is spinning to hell. Getting there without the hand basket.

Smiled. Hand before mouth so nobody would see. Even before Catherine arrived, Mildred schemed for her to stay. Even though I’m more than capable of making it on my own to the grave, I’ve been denied seeing that sweet face.

Catherine agreed to stay after Mildred got her a job at the hospital. After all, I’ve been on the board since it opened. Thank God, I knew my fall had a purpose! Another Florence Nightingale if there ever was. If I believed in reincarnation, which I don’t, once here is enough, I would swear they were the same. Finally, something went my way.

Blinked. Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth. Crisscrossed her arms. Drummed her right fingers against her left elbow. Again felt her blood pressure soaring.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! The Revival Committee didn’t consult me about anything! Claimed it unnecessary worry, said I only needed to concentrate on getting better! Even planned a potluck supper in the Fellowship Hall for Wednesday night! Will probably have folks eating off paper plates like Clara did at Earl’s wake. Use plastic forks they wash and use again! Don’t they realize I need this to help me forget for a while? After Arthur’s funeral it was a blessing to plan something that wasn’t connected to death. Who do they think is the major contributor of this Church? The light bill couldn’t have been paid plenty of times without me and Damascus Baptists would’ve been praying in the dark. No wonder we ended up with this, this… Racked her brain for the appropriate word. Right forefinger pressed against her chin.

Heathen, she finally decided. Snorted. Bit her bottom lip a number of times without even twitching, the pain like scraping a finger against a needle. Nodded. Momma always said, “Call an ace an ace and a spade a spade.” I swear, sometimes you wonder what happened to folks’ brains.

Crossed her arms the other way. Left fingers drummed her right elbow. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! This is an outrage, a blasphemy and a disgrace! I tell you somebody is going to pay!

Nearly had one of her spells when Clara telephoned with the news. Catherine even had to get my smelling salts. Good thing I was already in bed. It would be one thing if we just had to suffer thorough his speaking one Sunday or on a Wednesday night when hardly anybody is here, but this is Revival! Everybody attends, even those just here on Christmas and Easter! Shuddered inside remembering that awful day.

“Mildred, this is Clara. You won’t believe what I heard!” Her best friend’s voice, unnaturally paced and pitched for a Southerner, blurred.

Mildred sighed. Stuffed another pillow behind her back. The telephone call, not expected for another twenty-five minutes, interrupted her favorite game show on TV. “Clara, slow down. It can’t be all that bad. I’m not dead yet.” I almost told her to call back after my show, but thought better of it. Thank God I did. There’s always a first time for everybody. She was her best friend’s voice of reason, à la Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio, though seldom heard. God knows none of the Harpers have any sense and it’s a wonder the Blakes ain’t idiots and free bleeders. I hope to God Catherine wasn’t affected.

Clara took a deep breath. Exhaled slowly. “The Committee has just done the most horrible thing. They’ve invited this ex-, ex-, horrible person from Elsewood to speak during Revival!”

Mildred snorted. Ignored her game show where a fat black woman in an ugly hat and dress was hoping to win a refrigerator by spinning a wheel. “Horrible person? What did he do, not tithe ten percent? And even though I wouldn’t be caught dead in Elsewood, I’m sure there are a few good people there. Once folks said nothing good would ever come out of Nazareth, but see what happened?” She prided herself on being fair. She wanted the black woman to win the refrigerator.

“But this is different.” Clara’s voice climbed steeper. “He, he was a drunk! He took drugs! He’s been in prison!”

Immediately the telephone receiver weighed a ton. Reached for her purse as Clara related every horrifying detail. For some, the worst the circumstances, the more pleasure in telling the story.

Mildred stared at the cross. Took a deep breath. Exhaled. Shrugged. Crossed her hands in her lap. Nobody will ever know. Momma always said a lady shows her true worth during a crisis. I’ll just sit here every night during Revival with my head held high smiling. There’s nothing else to do. In the end, when it’s too late, the Committee will see their mistake and cry out wondering how they could’ve been such fools. Of course, it will be vulgar of me to say, “I told you so,” even though I’m justified. Her thin lips smiled. Frowned.

Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! If only I’d been well enough, they would’ve seen temper! Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple would’ve seemed like a child’s temper tantrum. They would see what I’m made of. Both great-granddaddies, Joshua Henry Stanford and Samuel Milton Taylor, didn’t almost rise to be first lieutenant in the Confederate Army because they were afraid. No siree, Bob! They had guts! Were willing to die for what is right!

A couple of years ago, Mildred gave a talk to the United Daughters of the Confederacy about both of her great-grandfather’s bravery. Fully documented in the family Bible. Every little old lady there was impressed. Clara even wanted me to send a copy of my speech to the national newsletter. Which I agreed to, but not done. Before the fall I was always going. Knew that was the only way to survive. Staying in bed all this time thinking nearly killed me.

Touched above her heart. Again banging like a shutter in a hurricane. Sighed. Beyond tired. I can’t get excited! Young Doc Hamilton told me to stay calm. Maybe I should take another pill.

Francis Paul Day! Humph! Pish and pshaw! The words sizzled on her lips hotter than a coal from hell. If matters aren’t horrible enough, that heathen has the same christened name as my beloved son! A heathen not worthy to spit polish my boy’s boots!

“Frankie,” as they called him, was an early casualty of the Vietnam War. Such a good boy, shot down in the prime of life in a forsaken rice field far from home. Closed her eyes. Saw her son alive. The warmth of love flooded her body.

Would ponder for hours his portrait in the parlor over the mantel. His dress blues, the American flag in the background always made her heart flutter. Sighed. Shuddered. Now he’s frozen like that forever.

All the girls swooned over his curly coal hair, velvet green eyes, strong broad shoulders, and shy sweet smile. A perpetual straight A student, captain of the high school basketball team, president of the Church’s youth. He helped old folks, animals, and children. No telling how many trees he climbed to rescue a kitty. Warmth rushed to her cheeks like followed by wine, though she never sipped except on special occasions like Christmas or her birthday.

Smiled, wiped tears from her eyes. Often imagined life with her son growing older. Not forever staying twenty-one. Never wanting to, but always waking up.

Frankie and Linda Sue will live close-by in a house that could be on the cover of ‘Southern Living’ or ‘Better Homes and Gardens’. There’ll be more children, at least one of each and maybe as many as five. The boys replicates of their daddy and the girls as sweet as their momma. Perhaps a Millie named after me. They’ll eat dinner with me after Church on Sunday. Even the youngest will have perfect manners putting Milton’s lot to shame. Frankie will have an important job like his daddy did in the courthouse or maybe hold a public office. He’ll be an important community leader, respected by young and old. He’ll know how to organize a decent uplifting revival.

Shuddered like somebody was waltzing over her grave. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Of course, Frankie would have the good sense not to invite this heathen to speak. Even his youngest baby would! Squinted. Snorted. Frowned.

Francis Paul Day! Humph! Pish and pshaw! Any fool can tell he’s one of those troublemakers you read about in the newspaper every day whose life is the supreme example of decay! He is everything evil with the world today! Drugs, alcohol, loose sex, God knows what else. Probably broken every Commandment at least a hundred times. Doesn’t the Committee realize what sort of degradation they’re exposing the young people of Damascus to, our leaders of tomorrow? What do they expect of somebody from Elsewood? Elsewood was what Mildred’s momma called, “A white trash community.”

“Now I’m not saying there’re no decent folks there because there are. Remember Abraham argued with the Lord about saving Sodom for the sake of one. And I feel comfortable associating with those folks though they’re not in our class. But I’m certainly not bringing any of them home.”

Yes, Momma.

Mildred saw Francis Paul Day in her mind before they met. Tall, gaunt, slumped, pale with greasy shaggy hair, droopy mustache, shifty eyes, an air of sleaze about him, and, sure enough, that’s how he is in the flesh. Humph! Pish and pshaw! They’re all alike, burnt-out hippies who have supposedly seen the light and gone straight. Will pump drugs in their bodies, but won’t eat red meat.

Virginia told me they had one to speak in her church a couple of months ago and how disgusting it was, but I guess the Committee felt they had to keep up. God forbid, but folks follow trends in religion just like in everyday life. Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth. Closed her eyes. Wrapped her arms around her tighter. Humph! Pish and pshaw!

When she hobbled in, Francis Paul Day stood in the vestibule alongside the Reverend Cobb. Looking like Mutt and Jeff, white trash next to holy. What else could I do except shake hands?

Immediately the blue ink tattoo jumped out at her like a rattlesnake coiled in the grass. A Star of David circled with the numbers 666 under. About the size of a quarter crooked between his right thumb and forefinger. Caught her breath pulling back. He pressed her hand like wringing out a washcloth. O God, please don’t let me faint! I don’t have any salts!

The bottle kept inside her purse had expired and she forgot to send Catherine to the drugstore for another. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! Who ever dreamed I would need it in the House of Our Lord? Thank goodness, I had on gloves! The gloves now folded in her purse would be put back on before leaving and then rinsed out in Clorox at home.

Of course, that heathen will be at the door with his tongue hanging out anxious to hear how good his sermon was and I’ll have to tell a white lie in Church. Well, it won’t be the first time. Every Sunday morning I have to tell Clara how pretty she looks. Thank goodness, those aren’t my good gloves. Fine lace can’t stand harsh bleaching.

Now, after a few more stumbles, Harriet was into the chorus of Blest Be the Tie. Mildred smiled. Opened her eyes. Touched above her heart now beating slower. Thank you, Lord.

Mildred led an honest, clean, hardworking life. One day I will proudly hand God my résumé of achievements. Including, but not limited to, taking care of my family, volunteering in the community, slaving at home, clerking in the store, sacrificing in the church, being everything for everybody.

She was a rock. Drudgery and fatigue will never prevent me from marching forth. Her parents, William Titus and Emily Jean Taylor Stanford, opened Damascus’s first dry goods/hardware store after the Depression. Which some folks called ‘The Panic’ and others just ‘Hard Times’. Of course, I was too young then to really understand the true horror.

‘Stanford’s Whatever You Want’ sold everything from hats to shoes, dolls to marbles, combs to shampoo, coffee to tobacco, nails to shingles, sausage to cheese, needles to thread, apples to potatoes, overalls to underwear, chewing gum to jaw breakers. Daddy even had a place outback where he butchered cows and hogs.

I will always remember walking into the store that first morning, September sixteenth, 1938, before it opened. “Six to six, six days a week.” The air warm, but cool. The windows and door mirroring the dawn. The wood floor clean. Drowning in the smell of new. Giant glass jars of rainbow suckers, saucer cookies, hard rock candy, and bubble gum lined the sparkling glass counter behind the giant cash register. Every item waited to be bought and carried home. I thought that store must be like Heaven. I had never seen so much in one place before.

Milton, Mildred’s older brother who served with Arthur during the Second World War, took over ‘Stanford’s Whatever You Want’ after their father suffered a stroke paralyzing his right side. I’ll never forget that day, Wednesday, November fifth, 1958, a little after ten in the morning.

Daddy was reaching for a paint can on the top shelf for old Mrs. Porter. I warned him a million times about that wobbly stepladder. Said I would do any climbing. But Daddy was feisty like me, an inheritance that’s sometimes a curse. I was standing behind the meat counter wrapping pork sausage thinking about Frankie going out on his first real date that Friday night to the school dance with Alicia Cooper, Eva and Franklin’s daughter. Of course, it would be properly chaperoned going, there, and coming home. I remember wondering whether Frankie said he was wearing his white or his blue shirt when Daddy shrieked. Grabbed his chest. Collapsed and hit the floor following a gallon of sunshine yellow. You can still make out the stain, no matter how often scrubbed.

Of course, I took over. These matters just fall our way. Even if Sister were alive I would’ve still had the burden. The oldest female is always the one in training to take up after her mother. Also I didn’t have any outside demands. Back then it wasn’t proper for a lady to operate a business on her own. Now days, thank God, a woman can do anything, probably the only stride of the current generation. Also my home life was somewhat settled then. Frankie was fourteen, busy with school and sports. Arthur never came home from the tax collector’s office in the courthouse during the middle of the day. That was right after Julian who had just gotten his driver’s license ran Wilodean’s car into the creek, so they just had Milton’s truck. Swore he wasn’t drunk, but I knew better. It’s difficult, warning your son against associating with his cousins.

Anyway, I took over the family home. Which, thank God, is only two miles from ours for over sixteen months until Daddy died on March fourth. Julian and his live there now, following another epic squabble succeeding in further smearing of the family name. Humph! Pish and pshaw! A pity and a shame, the place is more dilapidated than any white trash or colored folks shack. Don’t know how anybody living close to the cemetery get any rest with all the spinning Momma and Daddy are doing in their graves.

The wind was blowing so hard the day of Daddy’s funeral that the tops of the trees nearly touched the ground. Then Momma, who suffered every other disease in a medical dictionary, moved in with Arthur and me until she joined Daddy in the cemetery two years, two weeks and six days later.

May the Good Lord forgive me for thinking this, but it was a blessing. They were both harshly demanding. Nothing I did or could do was right, Momma worst than Daddy. Toward the end he curled up in bed like a shriveled shrimp, gasping like a fish on dry land, constantly moaning, “Sweet Jesus this” and “Sweet Jesus that.” Babbling foolishness about things in the past or in the future, but never at the moment. Momma, always so prim and proper, she never lifted her hand at the store, wasn’t any help with Daddy. When she was able, all she would do was sit, wring her hands and look pitiful. Thank God, Beulah was there helping. She did all the cooking, washing, and cleaning while I wiped Daddy’s bottom and spooned soup between his lips. It was like tending to a grown baby.

After Daddy died and Momma moved in with us, she turned violent and downright vulgar. Would take off her nightgown, which I put on her at least a hundred times a day. Throw food. Holler. Would spread her legs before company. And, may God rest her soul, talk vulgar. Make a sailor blush. I didn’t know she knew those words. She even corrupted the expression females in our family have been using for years into depicting bodily functions. Old Doc Hamilton said that was her mind rebelling against her, saying things she wouldn’t. In my heart I knew that was the truth, but it was still embarrassing.

Finally folks were good enough to quit stopping by the house because I never knew what Momma would do. I had to stop attending all my clubs and church activities. My only real free time was Friday afternoon at Shirley’s when Wilodean came to sit with Momma. Beulah was afraid to stay with Momma by herself. You know how easy her people get scared and I can’t blame her. Sometimes Momma even frightened me. No telling the affect on Frankie. I think that’s about the time Arthur started seeing… 

Sighed. Wagged her head back and forth. No, I can’t think ill of the dead. It might not have happened. Even if it did, you can’t blame him. At that time, I wasn’t much of a wife. Men do have animalistic needs.

After Momma died, the thank-you notes mailed, the will probated, life almost got bearable. Of course, Milton got everything of value. Daddy was of the old school that girls didn’t matter. But that’s all right since Arthur took care of my needs, and, God forgive me for thinking this, but my parents’ death finally gave me freedom. Then Frankie jumped up and joined the Army. He married Linda Sue a week before leaving, which I still don’t understand. Then the telegram came.

I will never forget his funeral. It rained cats and dogs the night before. Though the sun shone bright, the ground stayed soggy. Birds hidden in the trees and bushes sang. Brother Wright, who baptized Frankie, gave the eulogy. Folks, some I didn’t know, filled the church and stood outside.

A marker outside the post office bears Frankie’s name. The Army wanted to bury my son in Arlington, but I had to have him close-by. Linda Sue even gave me the flag over his coffin. Now that Arthur’s gone I keep the flag draped over Frankie’s bed. Clara actually had the gall to tell me she thought that was morbid, but she doesn’t understand how it is losing a child.

I learned about the baby the day of my son’s funeral. Lord knows that’s the only reason I was somewhat able to stumble on. I must have quilted dozens of blankets, knitted a hundred booties. Used up all of the yarn in Milton’s store.

When Catherine was a year old, Linda Sue married Harriet’s son, Billy. They moved to Slidell, Louisiana, where Billy now owns three or four car dealerships. Harriet constantly brags to Clara and me about her son’s success trying to make up for how things were. God knows Billy and Linda Sue would’ve never gotten married if Hoyt and Earl were still alive.

I can’t blame Linda Sue for getting married again since she was still in her prime, but they didn’t have to move away. My heart was ripped apart again. For years, I just saw Catherine at Christmas, sometimes at Easter. It’s a crying shame watching your only flesh-and-blood grow up in snapshots. I sure Clara feels the same. Many nights I sat in that rocker in the parlor in the dark with Frankie’s flag across my lap rubbing the stars, crying and praying for my Catherine to come back to me.

Mildred sighed like somebody beyond weary. Once I looked forward to March, the start of spring, the dogwoods and azaleas bursting out new, my birthday on the thirteenth. But now, I feel I’m drowning in sorrow. Wish I could stay in bed the whole month, but that’s silly. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Life goes on no matter what. Living is nothing but a see-what-happens-next-struggle. Maybe Revival can rejuvenate me this year.

Remembered. Wagged her head back and forth. Glanced up. Snorted. Humph! Pish and pshaw! God only knows how. It’ll take a grander miracle than the parting of the Red Sea and turning water into wine.

Before Catherine came back, Mildred had lived alone. The dirt hadn’t even settled over Arthur good before Clara was telling me to sell my home and move to Wilson City. Could hear her best friend now.

“You don’t need this big house to keep up.”

“It’s twenty minutes to a decent grocery store and almost thirty to a hospital.”

“You’re down here off the main road by yourself with the closest neighbor across the hollow. If a convict came through and hit you over the head nobody could hear your cries for help.”

But Mildred couldn’t sell her home. It’s closer than my breathing. For once Clara was uncharacteristic practical. The house is enormous, inconvenient and isolated. I would tell any other widow to do the same. But Arthur built it especially for me. We moved in after our honeymoon. Named it, “Hayes’s Haven”. It’s the house I want to die in.

Every first time visitor was guided through the maze inside and the gardens out. In pleasant weather, beginning and ending in the swing on the L-shaped front porch lined with Boston ferns, and in foul, the parlor. The porch ceiling, of course, was painted the traditional blue.

As Momma explained, “To fool gnats, wasps, spiders, bees and other creepy-crawlies into thinking it’s the sky where they are vulnerable to prey. The superstitious also believe the color wards off evil spirits. But those of us with a Second Blessing don’t hold onto such nonsense.” Mildred always worked that bit of information into her tours.

“Of course, the house wasn’t as big in the beginning as it is now. For three years, the old part, which is now the parlor, is all there was. It took over thirty years to piece this giant puzzle together.”

“My gardenia bush started out as just a twig from my Grandmamma Bernice Jean. Arthur said the day I planted it I wouldn’t live to see it hide the pump house, but in three years it did. The soil here is as fertile as Eden’s.”

“Why, this kitchen is so big both me and Beulah can be in it all morning fixing a meal without seeing each other.”

Sometimes the house did seem too large and too still, but Mildred had adjusted to being alone. She was all she had left. “It’s really not that bad,” she would say in case anybody asked. “You do what you must.” She’d spent many nights rocking on the front porch, listening to the creatures, waiting. Before Catherine, I was alone. Everybody else is gone. Sighed. Dabbed great-great Granny Fannie’s handkerchief under each eye.

Of course, Milton lives in Damascus and runs the store, but there’s hardly anything on the shelves. Just keeps it opened so his cronies will have someplace to go, more drinking going on inside than any smoky old juke joint.

Brother and I were never close from Day One. He tolerated Sister but not me. I was just part of the house like a piece of furniture. Used when needed but otherwise ignored. Maybe it’s because I spent more time with Momma and Daddy, but so did Sister. Besides Milton was always too busy, mostly with girls. Think he tried to set a record for deflowering them, black and white. Folks talked about him, but it was like boasting. Milton was doing something they were afraid to, reckless and careless with our strict values. I once even heard Daddy say, “Well, after all, boys will be boys.” Humph! Pish and pshaw! Men just can’t think with their big head.

Milton has his own family and I’m shut out, again without doing anything wrong. Maybe someday things will be different between us but I doubt if that fence will ever mend. We get along by ignoring each other. We pretend at not feeling. There is no hate or love, just a void. But that’s all right, I can’t be bitter. Life’s too short. God proves that every second of every day.

There are no tender feelings between any of my nieces or nephews and me. Nearly all of them many times married or divorced, some numerous times. Some of their children now married or divorced with hectic lives of their own. None of them have time for an old widowed aunt. None of them ever call or stop by. None of them ever remember my birthday. I remember all of their birthdays. Always send a card and never get a simple thank-you. Of course, there’s never money inside the cards. Social Security and a pension don’t go far these days, but it’s the thought that counts. Even though rooted in obligation. Put her forefinger to her chin. Sighed. Shrugged. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw! We were once a proud family, a giant sprawling tree. Now our family tree has root rot.

Sister and Clifton had a girl, Virginia Jean. Sister’s and Momma’s middle names put together. Most everybody calls her “Vergie” except me. It’s a shame to ruin a good traditional name. Virginia Jean was born a year after Frankie in August, on the fifteenth, so that makes her forty-two. She teaches elementary school, the third grade I believe, in addition to running a household. Women now have so many choices, not like in my day. We either got married or became old maids. Thank God Catherine is free to reach her full potential as both a person and a woman.

Virginia Jean married George Turner the Saturday before Frankie left overseas. George is a shoes salesman like his daddy Howard was. They live in Mobile. Virginia Jean and Frankie were more like sister and brother than cousins. Her wedding was the last time Frankie was in this church alive.

Virginia Jean named her first son Frank in memory of him. Even now when I see that boy I can’t help crying, which, of course, is done in private. Frank is at the University of Alabama now on a football scholarship. He loves sports just like his namesake. Virginia Jean says all the girls are crazy about him, which is another namesake characteristic. Frankie is a fine young man. He’ll make a woman a good husband someday. The two little girls, Amy and Alice, parents should be whipped for burdening their kids with similar sounding names that will forever be mixed-up, are now young women. Amy is learning to be a secretary and Alice is finishing high school.

Mildred sighed. Sister was only twenty-three when she and her stillborn son died. After a proper mourning period, Clifton married a woman from Florida. I can’t remember if her name is Rita or Norma though we exchange card each Christmas. They live in Niceville, which is Rita’s or Norma’s hometown.

Folks still whisper how horrible and bloody Sister’s death was. Old Doc Hamilton swore there were more than eight quarts of blood in Sister’s body. He stopped drinking for three months. Beulah says that on every anniversary, you can hear Sister’s screams echoing throughout the hollow.

Sister and her baby, he wasn’t named either, are buried in the church cemetery, a row down from Momma and Daddy. My baby, Arthur, and Frankie are on the far side, with a space in-between for me. Like my baby, who was just a couple of hours old, his headstone, shaped like a thumb topped with a lamb, reads ‘Infant of…’ followed by the parents’ names. Wonder if my boy and Sister’s boy are playing together in Heaven? It must be wonderful to be eternally young. Imagined a couple of angelic Cupids circling the Throne. Paused. Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth.

Humph! Pshaw and pshaw! Too bad Milton’s kids didn’t turn out that way. But, then again, nobody expected better. Brother is just another incarnate of the bad seed, an offshoot of Cain. The Bible says, ‘You reap what you sow’, another one of God’s truths that should be etched in stone. Each generation from those loins grow meaner. As Momma always said, “You can’t beat the breed out of a dog.” Yet she wouldn’t see the flaws in her son.

Mildred knew that someday Milton’s bunch would be prancing around underground waving pitchforks. Probably rough up the Devil. They could even make him change his ways. Momma always said, “Whatever goes over the Devil’s back must come under his belly.” Amen to that.

Put her forefinger against her chin. Tapped gently. I suspect Milton resents not being a junior, even though he carries Daddy’s first name. Brother’s name could be Jesus Christ and he would still be a disgusting man. Besides that’s a terrible shadow to place on any son. That’s why Arthur and I didn’t make Frankie a junior. Nobody should grow up in the shadow of another. Her hand fell into her lap.

Milton married Wilodean Thompson, Harriet’s youngest sister, who everybody calls “Wilma” except me. Whenever I hear that name I think of the cartoon character. Giggle to myself imagining Wilodean hitting Milton over the head with a club, which she needs to do often. Both up and dropped out of high school. Milton a month shy of turning legal and Wilodean just a couple of days into so Daddy had to go to the courthouse and sign. With Milton telling Daddy every step of the way, “The only reason Wilma and me want to hurry is because we’re in love and can’t wait.”

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Yeah, I thought when Momma told me. Snorted to myself without her seeing. And pigs fly. A couple of seconds more and Wilodean would have been showing.

After six months, which they all pretended to be nine, Julian came. Mildred crossed her arms before her breast. Put her forefinger to her lips. That makes him what, one-third legal bastard? Yet because of Brother’s influence, he’s a whole.

Shook awake. Shocked at such thoughts, especially in the House of the Lord. Must be that medicine, thank God nobody can read my thoughts. Paused. Waited for her mind to drift back to where it was before. Oh yeah, now I remember.

Milton and Wilodean begat more—Pierce, Amos, Thelma, Charlotte, and Tommy. She hardly had time to put the baby clothes up before it was time to drag them out again. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Bet she welcomed that first hot flash like a cool breeze.

Those kids are trouble with a capital T. Just a matter of time before each has a police file thicker than the Bible or dead from an illicit substance overdose. Simply scandalous! 

The boys are downright vicious and the girls vile and sneaky. Each went from sucking on a pacifier one day to a cigarette the next. The same with the tit to beer or whiskey bottle. And their first word, obscene. From knickers on up, those boys don’t own a pair of pants without a ring imprint through the right back pocket. Well, except for Pierce, he’s a southpaw. The girls keep their snuff cans in their purse. Guess they consider that a ladylike quality. No manners whatsoever, wilder than March hares.

Those kids have always called Milton and Wilodean by their first names. Now their kids are doing the same. If I had ever once called my parents by their christened names, I would be down on the floor where I very well should be.

Momma was always fretting over those grandbabies. Called them her, “Dear, poor, lost angels.” Humph! Pish and pshaw! They only need the belt, which she and Daddy should have used on Milton more often if they did ever. I’m no stranger to a belt or a switch and am a better person for those beatings. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ is as true today as it ever was. God only knows how those kids got grown, except for Amos killed in a car wreck at seventeen. It was whispered that he was intoxicated by alcohol or dope, I bet both, but in death you cover things up. Make the deceased a martyr. Turn sinners into saints.

Glanced around. Wonder if the walls have been wiped down and the tops of the windowsills dusted? Squinted, but couldn’t see. Wagged her head back and forth. Snorted. Probably not, since I wasn’t here. I swear, no matter how often you clean in here there’s enough dust for God to populate every pew. Of course, Beulah and Clara did the physical labor, but she supervised. Her mind drifted back to before.

Julian is married to Lois Marie Willis, Eli’s granddaughter, and they have four kids with another one on the way. His was also a had-to marriage, but what do you expect? Pierce married Rita Joanne Cumbie and they have five. Their youngest two are twins, common in Cumbie women. Thelma married Jim Roberts, his folks aren’t from around here, Birmingham I believe, and they have three. Charlotte married Orison Baker, Virginia Mason’s grandson by Julie’s first husband. Their third one is due in May. Hopefully the marriage will last that long. There have been rumors of trouble since they said, “I do.” Little Tommy, who’s taking over the store, married Nancy Hunter. Her folks aren’t from around here either. I forget where up north. So far they don’t have any children. Surprised she wasn’t pregnant the day they said, “I do” like the others. Probably been on the Pill since the day she started flowing. May have even had an abortion. There was a doctor in Canaan just up the road that supposedly did them long ago.

The whole clan lives within hollering distance of each other. After every family gathering, which thank God isn’t often, I have to take to my bed for two days. Those kids and their parents seem to enjoy playing havoc with my nerves. During the last Fourth of July picnic, I must’ve been crazy to go, Leroy, Thelma and Jim’s youngest, caught a baby black snake in the woods. Tried putting down all of his girl cousins’ backs. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Pigs don’t squeal that much. Thank goodness, Momma and Daddy aren’t alive to see what this family has deteriorated into. Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth. But if they were it wouldn’t matter. Milton caused blindness.

Maybe, before Catherine came back, I was too alone. But life has had its bright moments and I’m content with my memories. After all, those are the only things that can’t be taken away. Smiled thinking of her wedding day, May 15, 1942. Clasped her hands to her breast. Arthur looked so dashing. All of the girls agreed he was Rudy Vallee handsome. He’s four years older than me, but always seemed younger. At times I swore I raised him as much as Frankie.

I wore Clifton’s sister’s Rachel’s wedding dress and veil, white satin with a princess waist and leg-of-mutton sleeves. That morning, Momma gave me Grandmamma’s cameo to wear on a white ribbon around my neck. That will go to Catherine after I’m gone. Sister, my maid of honor, gave me a new slip to wear. Eloise Hadley, who kept all us girls giggling, sewed a blue ribbon on my underwear. She moved away soon after. First to Atlanta but we’ve lost contact through the years. She has, or had, probably retired now, a career selling insurance or real estate, I forget which one. Don’t think she ever married. Mr. Hayes was Arthur’s best man and Milton escorted Eloise. I didn’t want Wilodean in my wedding at all, but Momma insisted. Of course Wilodean was pregnant so I let her serve cake.

The Church looked like a garden. Gardenias peeked out among evergreen sprigs, smilax vines, and magnolia leaves. Sister and Eloise wore floor-length pink dresses with full skirts and puffed sleeves. Carried white carnations. Laurie Beth, Aunt Dolly and Uncle Vince’s daughter, was the cutest little flower girl scattering petals everywhere, and Joseph, Aunt Freda and Uncle Hardy’s son, was a precious ring bearer. Mrs. Hopkins sang, “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life”. I carried half a dozen white sweetheart roses. Still have the remains, pressed in my wedding book.

After the reception at Momma and Daddy’s, Arthur and I drove down to the beach in Mr. Hayes’s Ford. I didn’t know what to expect, Momma never gave me the ‘birds and bees’ talk, and all the whispering us girls did late at night was scary and confusing. But I knew Arthur was a gentleman, and we were in love. It wasn’t until the third night when we consummated the marriage. I was surprised how quick it took. Wasn’t really disappointed or overjoyed because I didn’t know how it was supposed to be. But Arthur seemed satisfied, which was the important thing. Over the years, it became just another chore like waxing the floor. Would recite the Twenty-third Psalm to myself until things were over. Seldom got past ‘my head anointed with oil’. Blushed. Hoped nobody noticed. Smiled. Surprised I can think such thoughts to myself especially in Church. Well, that part of my life is over. That’s just something else we women have to do.

Once, during our third or fourth year of marriage, Arthur suggested that we try something different instead of him just grunting on top of me. I wanted to agree since the Bible says a wife should obey her husband, but after he explained what, I just couldn’t. The very thought is disgusting even though I’m aware some couples do. Long ago Clara, again in another one of her off-the-wall, out-of-the-blue moments told me she sometimes did that with Earl and my mouth immediately felt dirty. Imagine the germs! Although Arthur never mentioned the incident again and pretended he wasn’t disappointed, looking back I wonder if my refusal helped cause what happened on down the road.

Sighed. Crossed her arms before her. Humph! Pish and pshaw! No, I can’t think like that. We don’t know how life will be. It’s a see-what-happens-next struggle. There ain’t no choices. You like to think you’re in control, but you ain’t. It’s like you’re thrown into a big box after birth to bounce around until you’re all bruised up and worn-out. Death is the only escape. You hope it’s to something better, but you ain’t sure what. Sometimes I even wonder and me with my Second Blessing. I don’t care if the streets of Heaven are gold or not as long as they’re clean and I don’t have to sweep them. One of the few joys of Mildred’s life was walking barefooted across a dirt-free floor.

Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth. Surprised at her thoughts, but not really shocked. Ever since January, life has seems so…worthless. Knew this feeling grew from being sick, spending all that time in bed, having too much time to think, mulling over her days. The devil works in an idle mind too. Her eyes grew weary reading or watching TV. Sappy romances that in real life never happen. Nobody lives happy ever after. Game show host are today’s snake oil peddlers. Soap operas are stupid because everybody is beautiful and never pay bills.

Mornings and afternoons were wasted on trivial matters from the past like “Why did this happen?” or “I should’ve done this”. Once Mildred spent two whole days pondering, “Why did Linda Sue and Frankie choose to live those weeks before his leaving at Clara’s house instead of mine?” Of course Frankie was in and out several times each day and they ate every meal with us out of necessity due to Clara’s culinary skills, but it wasn’t the same.

Snorted. Humph! Pish and pshaw! An utterly silly waste of time! Well, that’s water under the bridge now. Maybe we’re better off going through life without a thought. Work yourself exhausted from dawn to dark, then go to sleep to get up and do it again. Sighed. Wrung her hands. Just wanted to forget.

Life is like that old seasick joke. First, you pray cause you’re afraid you’re going to die. Then, you pray cause you’re afraid you’re not.

Trudging up the aisle to her pew, Mildred nodded at familiar faces. Even during Revival, there weren’t many she didn’t know. The pews were overflowing like for weddings or funerals. On ordinary Sundays they’re mostly empty and Wednesday nights less than that. Bill King, who ran Damascus’s only gas station, sat in the pew behind hers next to his wife, Doris, twin daughters, Sue and Sally, either six or seven, and Billy, Bill Junior, somewhere in his early teens. Bill always looks so nice cleaned up. Usually his coveralls are so coated in grease you can’t read the name on front. Between him and those kids, bet Doris spends all her time doing laundry. Bet their clothesline is permanently sagging.

Tolbert Marshall, who owned Wilson City Hardware, sat in the pew before hers next to his wife, Elise, and their son, Eddie. Mildred smiled. Eddie’s such a fine young man. Hope Catherine finds somebody like that someday.

Glanced around. Snorted. Milton’s crew were scattered about. Appearances won’t get you into Heaven.

Clara Harper, wearing sunflower yellow, sat in her left fourth row pew. Dedicated to her husband, Earl, who died before Arthur. Beside her youngest daughter, Lucy, son-in-law, Hank, and one of their boys, Mildred wasn’t sure which. She snorted to herself, blinded by her best friend’s dress. Well, you can’t beat the breed out of a dog. She carries the gene to be flamboyant. Miss Thelma screamed gaudy. I’m surprised Linda Sue knows how to dress herself properly.

Catherine walked up and tapped Mildred on the shoulder. She had her daddy’s green eyes, her momma’s sweet smile, and, fortunately, Mildred’s high cheekbones. Catherine wore the soft pink dress with the lace collar Mildred sewed for her granddaughter last Easter. The moment she saw the material, she knew it would be perfect for her granddaughter’s skin tone. Mildred held out her hand and pulled her granddaughter into the pew beside her. Such a dear, sweet girl, a little bit overweight, but with such a beautiful face. Hopefully, her life will turn out better than mine. God forbid if she knew the thoughts of her ancient granny!

“Are you all right?” Catherine whispered brushing back her shoulder-length hair behind an ear.

Mildred gave her granddaughter’s hand a squeeze as she sat down. “Yes, dear.”

Harriet finished playing Blest Be the Tie. The Reverend Cobb strutted up to the pulpit. Francis Paul Day sat down in the left front pew.

Mildred frowned. Snorted. Dagnabbit! Humph! Pish and pshaw!

Revival at the Damascus Southern Baptist Church had begun.

SECOND BLESSING is a 99 cents Kindle Countdown Deal April 25-30, 2017.

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About John Northcutt Young

I write. Remember making-up stories from spelling words in the fifth grade. A journalism degree followed. Thanks for looking.
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