Mother was not unaware of the swirls of gossip centered around her in our community. At one point, it had become so ubiquitous that it forced her to refrain from attending our local church. The church of which both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were instrumental in establishing. It was for this reason among others that led to a life changing conversation.
Looking back, I can correctly surmise the age of five had been a monumental juncture in my life. Perhaps that is the reason most of my memories from that period are so vivid. With eyes closed, one of those memories rushes back demanding critical reflection.
I can clearly hear Mother’s voice calling me inside from early morning play. As I ran in, she motioned me toward and we sat at our kitchen table. I can see that big, ancient, well-seasoned, beautiful round table sitting squarely in the middle of our kitchen. Throughout many decades, that table had held service for countless, humbled but delicious family meals. Many life times of tears, some shed from happiness but legions more from grief and longing stained its untreated surface; it had served as a desk and warm place to complete hundreds of hours of assigned homework for children and for doing piecework for my grandmother’s lovely quilts. But perhaps best it of all it had provided a tired and weary body a welcoming place to catch a breath and reflect. It was there at this achingly familiar fixture where Mother picked me up and sat me on her lap. I can remember catching a subtle whiff of her special scent which consisted partially of Long-Aid hair dressing, (the pink jar), Camay soap and Jergens lotion; those fragrances mingled with the unique smell of the fairly new oilcloth covering our table. Dinner, already simmering on the stove, also lent its mouth-watering aroma to the cacophony of odors coming together in unison almost as if to cover the stench of fear that would soon give rise in that kitchen.
Oh how I wish I could remember what was simmering in Mother’s pot that day, how it tasted, whether I had eaten that evening’s meal or if I had gone to bed without dinner as I sometimes did when some fear or fright caused my stomach to clench. I have no memory of those wished for things. Where in my memory did they go and why am I unable to grasp and hold unto them? Those lovely things I would much prefer to remember but they will not come to me however, the frightful ones come without bidding. Maybe the fear Mother’s words caused me erased those things I wish for but cannot recall. Her words, her warnings, meant only to protect me, had the affect of a door closing upon my childhood and a slow spiraling away from that which was familiar and so sadly fleeting. The ache of a childhood which was pulled away too soon had no ready salve or poultice to soothe that painful extraction.
On that morning as we sat there, I remember nuzzling my face against Mother’s neck and inhaling another comfortable fragrance. A fragrance of which I still associate only with her. Avon’s Topaz Cologne, a sweet, spicy scent which she had earlier delicately dapped in the hollow of her neck, invited me to lean in closer and just as I was about to totally give in to the comfort I felt leaning there against her breast, childishly enjoying this rare moment of bonding, she asked me what turned out to be a most worrisome question. She asked if I knew a particular woman of whom she named. At that tender age, my circle of family, friends and acquaintances admittedly wasn’t extensive but because of the size of our community its people were well known to each other. Unsure whether I should say anything I instead kept my head down, nodded and waited for her to speak again. As I waited, I somehow sensed she was about to say something that was going to change my life and not in a good way.
“Aunt Sally”was one of my mother’s love names for me, one which in my estimation, she only used when something bad was about to happen; “Just close your eyes Aunt Sally”, she would say while she too frequently extracted splinters from my errant fingers. “Open wider Aunt Sally”, while pulling a loose but stubborn tooth. When telling me that it bothered her more than it bothered me as she was forcing Castor oil down my throat at the beginning of both winter and spring; “Swallow it Aunt Sally, it’ll be easier if you swallow quickly”. At the clinic in town…“don’t cry, be a big girl Aunt Sally,” as I was getting drilled by a needle as long as an Épée and likely just as painful! Always, always something bad followed, “Aunt Sally”. This time was no exception.
“Aunt Sally, If you ever see this woman anywhere and I’m not with you, stay away from her”, she said. Her words didn’t sound as light as I believe she wanted them. I nodded again, this time frightened by the anxiety and desperation she tried to prevent but couldn’t keep from finding a home in her voice. “Do you understand?”, she asked; her voice now hard-edged and tight with tension, yet even so, she allowed her soft right hand to gently cup my chin as she lifted my face upward, my eyes then meeting hers. “I won’t always be with you baby, so you need to learn now those things and people to stay away from”.
This conversation and warning took place during a time when children lived purposeful yet carefree lives, especially in farming communities. During a time when they had no worry of “Stranger Danger” as long as they stayed within the confines of their communities. Because within the confines of those communities, children where looked after, loved & protected by all the adults. It was that whole “it takes a village to raise a child” thing. Well, that highly regarded adage worked for everyone, except us. In a community of mostly similarly, economically situated families, an unspoken of caste system was nevertheless established and because of party-line judgments, we were at the bottom.
My whole, albeit immature & incomplete understanding of the adults around me had begun to shift. Having only recently learned that adults lie, I was now being told I would have to somehow protect myself from one of those adults and that left me without the necessary vocabulary to express what I was feeling. Whatever it was that I felt in that moment, elicited such a strong emotion that it was as though I had inwardly grown an additional appendage, useful only to create fear and it was effectively performing what it was created to do.
During those interminable moments, Mother sought to prepare me not only for a world where not all adults could be trusted but also a world of which she would not always occupy was frighteningly nightmarish. But I remembered her words and the warning she issued that morning…Until I didn’t.
…To be continued.