About Beginnings, Endings

[Continued from previous post, 12/27/2007 about my first memories…] 

Three months after the thermometer incident and shortly after my fourth birthday, Judith Ann was born.

My broken left arm had been in a cast for six weeks, all during the month of hot August, and I couldn’t get it wet. I couldn’t play in the wading pool, and I couldn’t take a bath. The stink inside the cast was building. Because of my predicament, I’d gotten a lot of attention from Mama. I didn’t want a baby sister or brother to horn in on all that. I wanted to keep on being an only child, didn’t want anyone in my spotlight.

Mama told Dr. Ringold about my snotty attitude. “Tell her you’re pregnant,” he said, “that there’s a baby in your stomach, and there’s not a thing she can do about it.” I got Mama back by announcing to everyone I encountered on the main street of downtown as the two of us shopped, “My mama is thirty-three and she’s pragnant.” It sounded like a short “a” to me, and I spewed it back that way and even pronounced it that way for the next ten years. Then I spent the remaining months of Mama’s pregnancy worrying about that baby in her stomach gettin’ food on it. I watched Mama chew her meals comprised of every food group. I wished she’d just stop eating. Every bite Mama swallowed dropped on that baby. Green beans. White sticky mashed potatoes. Meat loaf with a red pasty tomato topping. All splattering on the baby’s head and dripping to its shoulders and sliding down its body. And the baby would be sitting in a mixed up mush of grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, meat. It was quite a nasty arrangement in there, and I felt sorry for the poor child.

Then there was the whole issue of how Mama got pregnant in the first place. When I asked how that baby got in there, she told me she prayed for a baby and God gave it to her. For a long while, I was afraid to pray at all. I didn’t want anything showing up in my stomach.

I was at Aunt Dean’s on November 15, the day Judith Ann was born. Aunt Dean wasn’t really my aunt, but I stayed at her house on Victoria Avenue while Dad worked and Mama went to classes at Delta State College on the GI Bill. That day, Dad came to get me.

“You have a new baby sister,” he said after he picked me up. I pushed away, pushed to get down, not because I was angry about having a new baby sister, but because I didn’t like to be held or managed or stopped from moving at my own time and speed. I ran ahead of him down Aunt Dean’s three concrete front steps, with the brick and concrete sides, and down the sidewalk to the car parked at the curb. The sun was higher than the trees in the yard, and it warmed my face.

I was a big sister.

When she was still brand new, Mama let me hold her and feed her a bottle. She was a tiny mass of warm softness and hard bones that moved and poked against her gown. She had a sour smell about her, especially her breath, yet mixed in was a sweet smell of baby oil and baby powder. She wore layers of cotton. Her head was bare save a few dark brown strands, and she had a sunken soft spot on top that Mama said not to touch or my finger might poke through it. Her forehead fit around her eyes like she was wearing a mask. Her mouth looked funny, too. She had no teeth, and it appeared that someone had stitched a seam along her gumline where her bottom front teeth were supposed to be. “Her teeth are all sewed up,” I said. I got a laugh out of Mama, who thought that was a cute thing to say, so I repeated that line a lot, at least until Judith Ann got her first teeth.

This was not a still child. Unlike the dolls I’d had and fed, this one moved against me, as I sat like an Indian chief and tried to support her head so it wouldn’t flop backward and break her neck, while I held the bottle up so the Carnation milk would be at the bottom and the baby wouldn’t drink air and get gas. She kicked and waved her arms and even looked up at me while she sucked.

It was hard work, being a big sister.

The best part about it was that right there at first, Mama sometimes slept in the room with the new baby. When she did, I got to sleep in the bed with Dad. Every time, he’d lay his arm across the pillow and rub my head until I fell asleep.

***

I guess that to keep balance in the world, when a new person enters it, an old person must be taken away. So three months after Judith Ann was born, Great Grandma Lee Ora George Neal passed on to glory. She was the first dead person I ever saw. Dad took me to the funeral. Just the two of us went because Mama had the newborn baby to take care of. Dad and I drove four hours to get there — Dockery, Ruleville, Doddsville, Schlater, Greenwood, Winona, Kosciusko, Philadelphia.

There was a long line of people at the funeral home, filing by the coffin to look at the sixty-eight-year-old woman, still, silent, dead, but appearing to sleep. When it was our turn, Dad picked me up so I could see, above the heavy velvet material of the drape that covered the bier. His handprints under my arms are still there.

The birth of a sister I’d have for the rest of my life, the death of an ancestor plucked from the world like an old brown pecan that dropped from its branch — both changing the landscape of family — struck me as events that would change my world, instinctively let me know that life is dynamic, that life begins … and piercingly, life ends.

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