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Authors: Reba White Williams

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Angels (10 page)

BOOK: Angels
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She handed Coleman a book called
Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden.
I looked over her shoulder while Coleman turned the pages. It’s full of pictures of flowers and herbs and other plants, and tells how they’re used in healin’ and in food. (Dill is used to flavor vinegar and cooked dishes, especially fish, and to cure tummy aches).

“I have another present for you, Dinah,” Miss Rena said, and she handed me a little book she’d made herself. The cover said
My Favorite Recipes by Rena Dorman
. I looked through it, and one of the first recipes I saw was “Tofu Egg Salad.” I was so grateful I didn’t know what to say. But Coleman did.

“Miss Rena, you should have a booth at the festival, and show your herbs, and sell your soap and shampoo. And you should come to school, and talk about being an herbalist, and about how Christians can’t be witches. A lot of children would like to know about you and about herbalists.”

Miss Rena looked surprised, but Miss Ida spoke up. “That’s a wonderful idea. Will you do it, Rena?”

“Well, of course, if you think it’s the right thing to do, and the children would enjoy it—”

“Absolutely,” Aunt Polly said, firm-like.

I had a feelin’ Aunt Polly was thinkin’ about Tiffany Cranford’s foolishness. I know one thing: Coleman won’t get a scolding. I laughed inside. That child! She asked the white-witch question to get Miss Rena talking about what she does. It was real interesting, too. I bet she’d already thought about Miss Rena havin’ a booth at the festival.

When we got home, Freddy came by, and he and Coleman had a talk about bats. He backed up what her books said: bats are good, not bad. The two of them made a plan about how to get the word out, and they started right away. He helped Coleman write a report about bats, and she turned it in to Miz O’Quinn. Miz O’Quinn liked it so much, she asked Coleman to read it out loud in class. When Freddy heard that, he made a bat house for her to take to class. Her report was so good everybody clapped, and then we all made bat posters to put up around school. Freddy’s going to get his brother to install the bat house near our barn, so bats will come live there and eat all the pesky mosquitoes. And Miz O’Quinn has submitted Coleman’s report to the school paper; they’re going to print it next week!

Coleman’s tryin’ hard not to show how pleased she is, but when we got home and Aunt Polly told us Miss Rena will for sure have a booth at the festival, and she’s comin’ to talk at school assembly in November, Coleman jumped up and down, and clapped her hands.

Polly

The Fall Festival was the best ever. Mexican Americans and other Latin American countries were represented in the “settlers” part of the pageant, and the best two exhibits were the Day of the Dead altar set up by the Mexican children, and Rena’s booth, hung with dried herbs, and little bunches of fresh herbs, and with her soap and lotions and potpourri for sale. Lots of people stopped to chat with her and to buy things.

The Day of the Dead altar was decorated with crepe-paper flowers in orange and red, and all the Mexican American children brought photos in remembrance of family members they’d lost, and the favorite foods of those who’d passed away—tortillas, chili peppers, special bread, and I don’t know what all. They lent little objects they’d brought from Mexico: a tiny rocking chair, a tiny fishing pole, and a garden hoe—favorite things of the dead loved ones whose lives they celebrated. The children wore Mexican costumes and explained exactly what they were doing and why. Everybody learned from them and enjoyed it.

Dinah

We had a good time at all the Halloween doings and trick-or-treating for UNICEF, but the festival was the best. Miz O’Quinn told us we could wear our costumes after we took off our tree heads ‘cause those tree heads are hard to walk around in—we changed in the gym’s locker rooms—so Coleman and I got to be Pooh and Kanga one more time. After we looked at everything, and spoke to everybody, we decided to visit the fortune-teller, Aunt Mattie, one of the Gullah people. Everybody says she’s got the “sight.” I don’t believe in the sight any more than I thought Miss Rena was a witch, but I did it for fun when Miss Ida said it was all right. (She said we were to take what Aunt Mattie said with a grain of salt, but that Aunt Mattie is a wise old lady, and it’s always good to listen to old folks.)

And Aunt Mattie’s mighty old, maybe as old as Granny Byrd, and real black. Her face is shriveled up like a prune, and she wears a bonnet like they did in olden days. (Some people say she wears it ‘cause she’s bald.) She gets paid money for tellin’ fortunes by the people runnin’ the festival, but the price we pay is another food item for the pantry—Miss Ida gave us each a jar of peach preserves to use for whatever we wanted, and fortunes are what we picked.

I went first. Aunt Mattie told me I am goin’ off to school, but still in North Carolina, and then up north to more school and to live and work. And I’ll get married up there and have children—maybe twins. But she says I’ll never forget Slocumb Corners, and a part of me will always stay here. She thinks I’ll come back and spend time here after the twins are born. I don’t think I’m moving north, and I can’t see myself marryin’ a Yankee. I’ve never met but one Yankee, that Miss Seaman, and I don’t think I could marry anybody like her. And I don’t like the sound of the food—sweet corn bread and coleslaw! Ugh!

After Aunt Mattie told her fortune, Coleman looked funny. She said Aunt Mattie knew about her guardian angels, and told her she’ll meet some more. (I’m not surprised to hear that; by now I reckon a lot of folks know about those angels.) Aunt Mattie says Coleman will have to do a lot of givin’ back to others, ‘cause so much good is goin’ into seein’ that she is taken care of.

“Did she talk about your husband and children? Or where you’ll live?” I asked.

Coleman shook her head. “No, she said I’ve been doin’ pretty good so far helpin’ others, but I need to keep it up, and try hard my whole life to pay back for what the angels are doing for me. She says every time I’m in big trouble an angel will come, and I should never forget to be grateful. Nothin’ about getting married, but I didn’t think she would; I’ll never get married.”

I couldn’t believe it. “You won’t? Why not? Don’t you want somebody to take care of you? Don’t you want children?” I asked.

She laughed. “No, I’m goin’ to take care of myself. And I’ll have a dog instead of children. I’m going to be a writer when I grow up, and what with that and paying back for all the help I’ve had, I’m going to be mighty busy. I’ll be an auntie to your children, though.”

I like my fortune better than Coleman’s, even though I know I’m not moving up north, and I’m not goin’ to marry a Yankee. If you need guardian angels all the time, it’s because you meet up with a lot of dangers. I want to be safe. I like thinking about havin’ a husband to take care of me and my children. We never had anybody taking care of us—Aunt Polly and Miss Ida and me—and I think it would be grand. I’d rather have a husband than all those angels. But Coleman is different—I can see that. I hope she stays with me always, like Aunt Polly and Miss Ida stayed together. Even when I’m married, even when I’m old and gray, I’ll want Coleman nearby. And I hope she won’t need those angels. With Aunt Polly and Miss Ida and me praying for her, maybe she won’t get in trouble anymore.

NOVEMBER
Polly

While we were eating breakfast, Coleman asked if she could have some money for stationery and stamps. I couldn’t imagine why she wanted it. To whom would she write?

“There’s stationery in the desk in the library,” Ida said.

“Yes, but I want my own to keep upstairs in the drawer in my table,” Coleman said. “I’ve been thinkin’ I should ask Mr. Sherrill for pocket money and an allowance.”

“Why do you need an allowance?” I asked. “We give you everything you need.”

“Everybody gets pocket money,” Coleman said. “Freddy gets it, and all the Byrd children at school. In books people get pocket money, like in
Little Women
.
Dinah and I should, too. We need it for private things like stationery and stamps, and Christmas presents. Is it all right if I call Mr. Sherrill?”

Why does this matter so much? I’m worried that it means problems ahead.

“Of course you may call him,” Ida said.

There was no time before school, but Coleman called Mr. Sherrill as soon as she got home that afternoon, and after they chatted a few minutes, Coleman said he wanted to speak to Miss Ida. Coleman looked at Dinah and rolled her eyes toward the stairs. When the two of them vanished toward their room, Ida told me what Mr. Sherrill said.

“He apologized for not thinking of an allowance for the girls—he knows our circumstances, of course, and he said he should have done it long ago. He’s going to check on what the right amount should be—talk to friends who have children—and send it to them every week. He’s also going to open a savings account for each of them at the bank here, with a deposit of one hundred dollars for an emergency.”

“Lucky girls,” I said. “Most children do chores for their money.”

She frowned. “I can’t imagine those girls working harder than they do now. What chores do you want them to do that they don’t already do?”

I was furious with myself. Why had I said that? I was ashamed, and I admitted it. I told Ida what I’d really been thinking. “If Coleman has money, do you think she might leave? Run away? She’s a wandering kind of child.”

Ida shook her head and smiled. “No, Polly, I think she’s here to stay.”

“I pray that you’re right. I can’t imagine life without her.”

“I know,” she said. “But we have to give her all the freedom we can, while still keeping her safe. Writing letters is harmless, and something she should know how to do. If Coleman is in a hurry to buy her stationery and stamps, I’ll give her the money, and she can buy them this afternoon.”

I sighed. I can’t help but worry that something—someone—from out of Coleman’s past will reach out and hurt her. Or someone will take her away from us.

“To whom will she write?” I said.

Ida shrugged. “If she wants us to know, she’ll tell us.”

Dinah

As soon as Miss Ida said we could, and gave Coleman the money, Coleman and I went to the store to buy stationery. She wanted plain white—no kittens, puppies, or flowers she said—and two pens with black ink. Then we went to the post office and bought ten stamps.

“That’s a lot of stamps,” I said. I’ve never written a letter, except thank-yous, and I was real curious why she was doin’ all that writing and mailing.

“I know. But I got to write to all my angels. Ever since Aunt Mattie told my fortune, I’ve known I had to write ‘em, and let ‘em know I’m all right.”

“Oh,
that’s
why all those letters,” I said.

“I should have done it before now,” Coleman said. “I feel bad I haven’t. I hope they’re all right.”

Miss Ida told us that after we finished our shopping, we could go to the drugstore for a fountain coke, which is a big treat. Miss Ida and Aunt Polly wanted me to find out from Coleman how she’d like her birthday party. This seemed like a good time to ask her, and she didn’t have to stop and think for even a second before tellin’ me.

“I want two parties,” she said. “I want a party at school for everybody in our class with a cake or cupcakes and lemonade like Holly Jones had. And I want another party at home for just us and our best friends: Aunt Mary Louise, Freddy, Miss Rena, Mr. Sherrill, and my angels—Miss Jenny Byrd, Miz Kahama, Miz Shah, Miz Lopes, Sarah Ann—have I missed anybody? Oh yes, Miss Laura Byrd, and I want Granny Byrd, if she’ll come. And we’ll have a big supper, and you and I’ll help cook.”

“I don’t know if those people from far away can come,” I said, worried she’d be disappointed.

“I reckon they’ll come,” she said. “I’ll write when we get home.”

She wrote and wrote before and after supper, and put her letters with her books to mail on the way to school.

Polly

Everybody is already talking about Christmas—making plans and arguing. They start earlier every year. Each church has its own service, its own crèche on the lawn, and its own carols program, and then there are the school and civic programs. There are always arguments over who’s doing what when, and conflicts with two events the same night, because no one will give way. Not exactly in the Christmas spirit, which is about love and joy and thanking God for the birth of Christ. I don’t like it a bit, but no one seems able to stop it.

Anyway, before we get to Christmas we have Veterans Day—it’s a school holiday—and Thanksgiving. In our part of the world, we take Veterans Day, November 11th, very seriously. The federal government closes its offices but leaves state and local governments to make their own choices; in Slocumb County, we close the schools and teach the children what the day’s about.

I don’t think Coleman has ever observed Veterans Day, because she asked so many questions about it. During the week before the day, they studied it pretty thoroughly at school—they had veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars come and talk at assembly—and the second grade put together a scrapbook of pictures from old magazines on how veterans were treated after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. I’m sure Mrs. O’Quinn explained about Veterans Day. Even so, Coleman kept asking me why this, or why that.

She wanted to know why we weren’t wearing poppies, and I explained that we wear poppies in May on
Memorial Day
, not Veterans Day—that Memorial Day is when we remember those who’ve died in the service of our country, especially those who’ve died in battle or from wounds they received in battle. On Veterans Day, we honor the
living
who’ve fought for our country.

“But why wear poppies for dead veterans and nothin’ for live ones?” she asked.

I had forgotten why, but then I remembered “In Flanders Fields,” the poem by John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Then I described the fields of crosses marking the graves of our American boys who died fighting in France during World War I, and how red poppies grow all around the cemeteries.

“That’s so sad,” Dinah said, tears welling up in her blue eyes.

“It is,” I agreed, “but remember, those boys are in heaven.”

“I’d like to see the crosses and the poppies, but I still think we should wear flowers for the live soldiers,” Coleman said.

“I’ll tell you another story about Armistice Day, which is what we used to call Veterans Day.” I told them about how France and England had established “Unknown Soldier” graves and monuments to symbolize and honor the unidentified dead. And how the US government asked a sergeant to choose one of four caskets, each containing an unidentified body from an American cemetery in France. When the sergeant made his selection, he laid a bouquet of white roses on the chosen casket.

The body of the US Unknown Soldier was brought home and arrived in Washington, DC, on November 9, 1921. For three days, thousands of people passed by the casket lying in the rotunda of the Capital. President Harding requested that flags be flown at half-mast, and that all Americans pay silent tribute while the casket was lowered into the tomb at eleven a.m. on November 11, 1921. On the plain white marble tomb, these words are written:

Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God.

The girls were silent, and then Coleman spoke up. “I know what—let’s us wear white roses on November 11th. There are prob’ly still some in bloom around here—Miss Rena might have some and Granny Byrd. And if they don’t, let’s us buy four white roses at the florist.”

On November 11th, the four of us wore white roses pinned to our dresses to honor the living soldiers.

Dinah

I was helping Miss Ida in the kitchen on Veterans Day when Freddy and Coleman came back from their walk lookin’ so excited I thought they might float off like Mary Poppins. They beckoned me to follow them upstairs, and when I got there, Coleman whispered, “We saw the Lord God bird.”

I looked at Freddy. He nodded. “We did,” he said, his eyes like saucers.

“Are you sure? Couldn’t it have been some other bird?”

He rolled his eyes and frowned. “No, it could
not
have been any other bird. I know every bird in these woods. I always knew that woodpecker was livin’ in our swamp.”

“What are you goin’ to do?” I asked.

“What do you mean, ‘do’?” he said.

“Well, how will y’all tell everybody? Get it in the paper, and on the radio and the TV?”

Coleman looked at me like she thought I was daft. “We’re not goin’ to tell another soul. They’d come from all over, and scare the bird, maybe kill it. That’s what happened to those birds in olden days. It’s a big secret. You’re the only one we’re tellin’.”

“That’s right,” Freddy said.

I was flabbergasted. “Well, I never!” I said.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Freddy said.

Coleman nodded. “But it was grand to see that bird. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I hope there’s lots of ‘em out there.”

“If there ain’t a whole lot now, maybe there will be if they’re left alone,” Freddy said.

“And we should say a prayer of thanksgiving for seein’ that woodpecker, and ask the Lord to watch over His bird, and keep it safe,” Coleman said.

Freddy nodded. “We will,” he promised.

Well, I don’t know if those two saw the Lord God bird or not. But if they did, they’ll never tell—and if that bird is there, it won’t be hurt on their account. Maybe God let ‘em see His bird because He knows they’ll keep it a secret.

Polly

We had a meeting yesterday of representatives of all the groups planning Christmas activities—the churches, the civic organizations, everybody—at the community center, the only place that would hold us all. The meeting was held after school so the principal and some of the teachers could attend, and Dinah and Coleman asked if they could come with me. I told them I thought they’d be bored, but if they really wanted to come, I didn’t see why not. Mary Louise was planning to be there, but Granny Byrd has bronchitis, and Mary Louise wanted to wait with her for the doctor. Sarah Ann, who’s home from college for a long weekend, represented the Byrds.

For a while, the meeting was chaos, with everybody arguing and carrying on about dates and such, and some people got angry. Then, Sarah Ann stood up, and polite as can be, told the group that most small towns like ours work together to celebrate Christmas. They have a single caroling evening, with all the choirs participating. They have one Christmas pageant, with all the children taking part, and a Christmas dance for the kids home from college and high school students (that crowd always complains about not having enough to do over the holidays). Some towns hold a secular Christmas music concert, with the school band and glee club and a sing-along. She said there’s usually a big Christmas tree downtown with a tree-lighting ceremony that everyone attends. Churches confine their special services to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and of course, put whatever they want on their own lawns.

In the stunned silence that followed, I stood up and congratulated Sarah Ann for saying what a lot of us had been thinking for years. Then everybody got in the act, and before you knew it, we were organized. We appointed committee chairs for each event, signed up volunteers for the committees, finalized the calendar, and went home. Before we left, Coleman and Dinah hugged Sarah Ann and told her how wonderful she is. I agree. But when I went over to thank her and tell her how much I appreciated what she did —Ida and I’ll get to go to all the Christmas programs for the first time—she laughed.

“Coleman suggested it to me and asked me to put it to the crowd. She said she was too little—nobody’d listen to her—but I was the perfect age: I wasn’t too young, or too old. But she doesn’t want folk to know it’s her idea.”

I might have known. Thank you, Lord, for all our blessings, especially for bringing Coleman home.

Dinah

I was glad to be at the meeting and hear Sarah Ann talking. After she sat down, Aunt Polly and the rest of ‘em got everything settled about the Christmas programs, and Coleman and I wrote down what days everything’s goin’ to happen. So much fun to look forward to! But when we went home, we had another upset.

Polly

The churches and civic organizations work hard to see that no one in town goes hungry at Thanksgiving. They put on a big spread in the community center, and several churches serve turkey dinners in their halls.

But for some families—I guess poor but proud would describe them—and some of the folks too old or infirm to go out, they deliver baskets to their front doors, so they can cook at home, and most people don’t even know their neighbors are eating a charity meal. I was astonished when we got home from the meeting to find a basket on our porch stuffed with an enormous frozen turkey, and a ham, and yams and white potatoes, and white and wild rice, and I don’t know what all—enough food to feed an army—with a big orange satin bow on the basket. I had no choice but to bring it inside (if I didn’t put that turkey in the freezer right away, it would spoil) but I felt ashamed.

Charity! Just when our fortunes had improved so much, and we were feeling so good about life. We’re still poor, of course, but we have enough to live on and are able to put a little by. We don’t need
charity
.
I was discussing the basket with Ida, trying to decide how to give the basket back and to whom, when Mary Louise dropped in.

BOOK: Angels
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