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Authors: Olive Ann Burns

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BOOK: Cold Sassy Tree
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There were those in Cold Sassy who had the same idea. They said the land Mattie Lou's daddy owned was why Ruck Blakeslee was so taken with her. She knew they said that, but it never worried her.

She always called him Mr. Blakeslee, and I never heard him call her anything but Miss Mattie Lou. Once when I was little bitty and Papa and Mama went to Atlanta on the train to buy for the store, I stayed at Grandpa's house and slept on the daybed in the back hall. About daybreak I heard him stand up to use the pot. The bed creaked as he flopped back down, and I heard him say, "Turn over, Miss Mattie Lou, so I can put my feet up to yore stomach. They's cold."

At the time, I wondered how Grandpa could get his feet up that high, tall as he was and short as she was. Only when I was older did I think how funny for a man to call his wife Miss Mattie Lou when it was just the two of them in bed. Papa called my mother Miz Tweedy in front of Queenie or neighbors, and Mama in front of me and Mary Toy, but I knew she was "hon" or Mary Willis when they were by themselves.

Everybody in Cold Sassy admired my grandmother. At her funeral, I heard somebody say, "Miss Mattie Lou just reeked of re-fine-ment, didn't she?" and I knew what was meant.

Her refinement wasn't like Aunt Carrie's. Granny didn't sit on the porch reading Greek and Latin and Shakespeare, or get up lectures for children, or recite poetry. She didn't think she always
knew best, the way Aunt Carrie did, and didn't throw off on people who said "I seen" or "I taken," like Aunt Loma, and didn't make children practice manners, like Mama. But Granny was a fine lady anyway, never mind her grammar or her country ways and never mind how plain she was.

To my thinking, it was refined that she didn't fuss at Grandpa about not having the house wired for electricity. When Mr. Sheffield, the mill-owner, bought a Delco generator for the mill and contracted with the town to install twenty street lights and run wires to all the houses and stores on both sides of the railroad tracks, practically everybody got electricity except Grandpa and the mill workers and the colored folks in Pigfoot Bottoms. But you didn't hear Granny complain about having to trim wicks, clean smoked-up lamp chimneys, and fool with kerosene when other ladies could just pull a ceiling cord to get light.

Grandpa wouldn't pay to hook into the new water main and sewer system, either. Said he didn't mind going to Egypt, which was what everybody in town called privies. He never seemed to notice that Granny was still drawing well water and emptying slop jars after other women were turning faucets and pulling tank chains.

Still and all, Grandpa loved Granny. Nobody would doubt it if they'd been down there with him and her like I was after she had her stroke.

She got took one night early in June. I remember I was at a magic show in the brush arbor and they called me out.

The family sat around Granny's bed till nearly daybreak. She moaned a lot and hiccupped, but never spoke a word. Not even to Grandpa. We went home for breakfast, and I remember how Papa kept patting Mama's hand. "Please, God, don't take her," she prayed between bites.

We could hear Queenie moaning in the kitchen as she fried salt mackerel, her tears splattering in the hot grease. Then she went to singing a Nigerian grief song learned from her daddy, who was lured onto an illegal slave ship in 1848, when he was only twelve. The slavers brought him to an island off the Georgia coast and hid him there till he got bought for Mr. Bubba Tate; that's how he ended up in Cold Sassy. Queenie always sang her daddy's African words, but you knew by the wailing and moaning that they meant death.

"Don't you dare sing that!" Mama yelled from the breakfast room.

Soon as we could, Papa and I hurried to the store. We knew Grandpa wouldn't get down there that day.

We were so busy we none of us went home to dinner, not even Miss Love, who put aside her hats to help wait on customers. All we had was crackers out of the barrel and rat cheese off the wheel. Dr. Slaughter came by the store from the sickbed about one o'clock. He told me Granny was "tol'able." But when he went over to the cash register where Papa was, he said, "Hoyt, she's dyin'. And she cain't stop hiccuppin'. Hit's wearin' her out."

You have to understand that Dr. Slaughter was a fine physician. He had not only read medicine for six months under a doctor over in Athens, he'd gone two whole years to medical school up North. So if he thought Granny was dying, I never doubted it was going to happen. "God's mercy is our only hope," he said as he went out.

I went back to the storeroom and knelt down on a sack of cow-feed and prayed harder than I ever had before in my life. "Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on Granny Blakeslee," I begged. "Please, God, spare her. If Thou wilt just let her live, I promise I'll be a better boy. Please, God. Please...."

6

I
T WAS
all over town about Granny's stroke. Several ladies who went down to the house came by the store later and told us how she was, but at three o'clock we still hadn't had any direct word from Grandpa or Mama or Aunt Loma. Papa said he sure did wish Mr. Blakeslee had a telephone at home. Finally Miss Love said, "Mr. Hoyt, why don't you send Will up there?"

So Papa said, "Will, run and see how your granny is and how Mama's holding up. And ask Mr. Blakeslee if that case of Castoria ever came in from Athens. Chap Cheney's wife needs some for the baby."

Aunt Loma was at the door to greet people. When she saw it was only me, she turned away without speaking. Her eyes were swollen and she held a handkerchief to her mouth. As I went in, Mrs. Means came out with her baby, who had not only spit up but had soiled his diaper, I could tell. The front hall and parlor were full of neighbor ladies, but instead of it being a gaggle of sound like at church meetings, the talk was all whispered. My mother hurried toward me. I was fixing to ask her about Granny, but her face told me.

"Pa won't let anybody in the sickroom," she whispered. "Not even me and Loma." Tears welled up in her eyes. "But he'll want to see you, Will."

"Is she still hiccuppin'?" I whispered back.

"No, it fine'ly stopped, thank the Lord."

Granny was propped up on pillows in the big high-back walnut bed. Her eyes were closed. Her face looked gray. I thought she was
dead, but when I stared hard at her chest, I saw a faint rise and fall. Not knowing what to say or do, I tiptoed in and just stood at the foot of the bed, one bare foot on top of the other, and looked at her and Grandpa.

He hadn't seen me come in. Sitting in a cane-back rocker pulled up by the bed, he was resting his left elbow near Granny's head. The empty knotted sleeve lay crumpled against her gray hair, and he held her small right hand in his big bony one. He was staring at Granny like she could hold on to life if only he didn't blink. But all of a sudden Grandpa's chest started jerking in the strangest way, and his eyes squeezed shut. Between the heavy mustache and the bushy, white-streaked beard, his mouth stretched across his teeth in a fierce smile. Then his lips squeezed shut. Though he made no sound, his chest kept jerking. I didn't know what to think. It scared me.

But then he gasped, and tears ran down his cheeks as he buried his face in his hand.

I had never in my life seen a grown man cry that way. Preachers and sinners cried at revivals, and old Chickenfoot Creesie, a colored man, would cry when he came to our back door begging vittles for his children on a cold winter day. But not silent like this.

Grandpa would of hated being seen. I sneaked out of the room, went out on the back porch, and stood watching Granny's White Leghorn rooster chase the dominecker hens and the Rhode Island Reds. Then I went in the kitchen, where several ladies were talking. The table was just full of good things folks had brought in, and I ate some fried chicken and a piece of lemon meringue pie.

When I peeped into the sickroom again, Grandpa was bent forward in the rocker, his arms and head resting on the bed by Granny's side. Her eyes were still closed, but her right hand brushed across his mane of dark hair.

"You need ... y' hair ... cut ... Mr. Bla'slee...." Her words came weak and slurred. The left side of her mouth drooped like a rosebud gone too long without water. "Soon's I git ... better ... I'm go'n ... cut it ... trim y' beard."

At which Grandpa got up quickly and stood a spell before the window, getting aholt of himself. After he sat back down in the rocker, he gently pushed the hair off Granny's damp forehead,
then blew his nose loudly—like a foghorn, tell the truth—and said, "I seem to of caught a li'l cold, Miss Mattie Lou."

That's when he saw me standing in the doorway.

"Grandpa," I said, "why don't you go get you some lemon meringue pie? I'll sit with Granny."

He started to argue, but Granny smiled a tiny one-sided smile and said, "Let Willy ... I ain't hardly ... seen ... m' Willy...."

Soon as he tiptoed out, she closed her eyes. I think she slept. In a few minutes Grandpa was back with a dark red rose in his hand, biting off the thorns and spitting them out as he walked toward the bed. When Granny roused a little he held the rose close to her face. His hand was trembling. He said gruffly, "Here."

She tried to take the blossom but it fell to the sheet. Picking it up, he sat staring at it, then spoke real low to her. "I remember you had a red rose like this'n in yore hair the day I decided to marry you. Recollect thet Sunday, Miss Mattie Lou?"

She kind of nodded and just barely smiled, her mouth listing to the left.

"I hadn't laid eyes on you since you was a li'l girl, till thet day. You was sech a sweet thang," he said softly, his face close to hers, his hand caressing her cheek. "Yore eyes was all feisty and yore feet patted out the organ music whilst we talked. Was thet really the first time you ever set outside with the young folks, Miss Mattie Lou?" There was a twinkle in his eyes, a slight teasing in his voice, almost like he'd forgot how sick she was. "Gosh a'mighty, girl, thet rafter-rattlin' preacher give us plenty time to git acquainted thet day, didn't he? And I was after you like a charged-up bull. You recollect thet day, Miss Mattie Lou?"

She struggled to speak, her voice a whisper. "'Member ... the brush arbor ... Mr. Bla'slee?"

As Grandpa held her hand tight and tears rolled down his cheeks, I thought how Granny used to tell me about them camping out under a thick brush arbor their whole first married summer while Grandpa and Uncle Ephraim Toy built her a two-room house out of poplar logs so big it took just five to make a wall.

I had figured out long time ago that my mother must have been conceived under the brush arbor—and I blushed to think about that now. Whether such memories were stirring in Grandpa, who
can know. What he said next was "Miss Mattie Lou, try real hard and git well. You hear? Please git well. I don't want to live 'thout you."

But Granny was asleep again, and soon was breathing so loud and deep it was like—I don't know what it was like. I'd never heard anybody breathe that way.

He looked over at me. "Will Tweedy, git on yore knees, son. Hit's time to pray."

I knelt down on one side of the bed and Grandpa on the other. Holding Granny's right hand, he rested his bowed head wearily against the edge of the feather mattress. Then for all the world like we were at testimonial time at the Baptist church with forty-five people listening besides God, he commenced to pray.

The way Grandpa prayed wasn't like other people prayed. You'd of thought God was an old crony of his instead of somebody who could strike you down dead if He had a mind to. "Lord?" he began, then stopped to honk his nose into a handkerchief. "Lord, I'm tempted to ast You to make Miss Mattie Lou well, like You was one a-them Atlanta doctors, or maybe Santy Claus and her a Christmas present You could give me if'n You jest would. I know Thou don't mind me hopin' she'll git well, Lord, or wishin', but hep me not to beg You to spare her.... Oh God, You know my sin!" he cried suddenly. His voice had an awful sound, like he was about to break half in two.

What could be his sin?

Granny's harsh breathing and the hushed voices in the parlor filled the silence. Finally he went on. "If'n she lives, Lord, I'll be thet thankful. If'n she don't pull th'ew, I ain't go'n say it was Thy will. You wouldn't kill her, Lord, to punish me.... Hep me remember my faith that Yore arrange-ment for livin' and dyin' is good. Hit ain't fair or equal, Lord, but it keeps thangs movin' on. Hep me not forgit my faith thet whatever happens, it's all right.... Hep Will Tweedy here see thet we got to accept dyin' in exchange for livin' and workin', and havin' folks like Miss Mattie Lou to love. And be loved by."

My grandfather's voice was stronger and calmer now. "Lord," he added, like it was a postscript on a letter, "please forgive the ways I ain't done right by Miss Mattie Lou. Please, forgive me. She don't know, and ain't nobody else knows, but I know and
You know, Lord, what I'm a-talkin' bout. And please hep her stand the sufferin'. Hep her not be skeered. And wilt thou please comfort them grievin' daughters in the parlor, Lord, and Will Tweedy here, and li'l Mary Toy. Give them heart's ease. And me, too, Lord. A-men."

Granny didn't die that day. Next morning she was better. She could talk clearer and she took some chicken broth and sassafras tea when Mama brought it in to her.

Everybody except Grandpa said it was God's will. Some said He spared Miss Mattie Lou because so many folks were praying for her. The Presbyterians said her getting well was preordained. Brother Belie Jones, the Baptist preacher, said God just wasn't ready to take her Home, praise Jesus, or else He had something more for her to do here before she passed into the Great Beyond.

Grandpa didn't say anything at all. But there wouldn't of been more joy on his face if he'd just won a fist fight or made a hundred dollars on a land deal. If Cold Sassy folks would bother to remember that day and how happy he looked, they'd know Miss Love was nothing more to him at the time than a way to make a profit on ladies' hats.

7

M
RS
. A
VERY
down the street kept saying, "Now don't y'all git your hopes up too much. I seen it many a time—a sick person gits better just fore they go'n die."

BOOK: Cold Sassy Tree
6.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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