|Mother and Child by Ronnie Biccard|
Every time she saw the girl, Harlene Johnson would say a silent prayer to Lord Jesus to give her the strength to smile and keep her mouth shut.
“Mornin’ Missus Johnson.”
Strength, Lord, Harlene thought. Just give me strength. “Good mornin’ to you, too. How’s your momma and daddy doing?”
“Oh, fair to middlin’. They’re worried sick about Frank, Jr., but I keep telling Momma that the Lord will deliver him back home to us.”
‘Cause you and the Lord are real close, I’m sure. You know how he loves lying little tramps.
“Well please tell them both they’re in my thoughts and prayers. Junior, too.”
Harlene breathed a sigh of relief as the young woman smiled, nodded and flitted off to greet a group of her school friends.
Lord knows they need prayers with a son off in war and a daughter like you.
Harlene could feel the lines in her forehead deepening and her cheeks growing flush. Her hands began to shake.
I’m sorry, Lord. Please forgive me for my hateful thoughts.
She took a deep breath and ran her hands down the front of her jumper right as Lorraine Booth approached from across the fellowship hall.
“Why Lorraine, hon, did you get a wave in your hair?
It was quarter to one by the time Harlene left church. She knew Emmit would be waiting outside for her when she arrived home. A small part of her dreaded seeing her son, which in turn brought a twinge of shame. But Harlene occasionally allowed herself the indulgence of resenting her son, justifying her feelings with thoughts of all she’d done for him.
As she turned onto Mullins Street, she could see Emmit standing in the yard. Her sister-in-law, Tallie, was sitting in an old metal folding chair with a bowl in her lap, undoubtedly breaking beans or shelling peas.
Emmit ran to the carport, waiting for Harlene to pull up. Before she could even get the emergency break set, her son had the door open and was pulling at his mother’s sleeve.
“Momma, did you go to the Lord’s house? Did you go there, go there today?”
Harlene forced a smile as she got out of the grey Chevette.
“Yes, dear. You know I go to church on Sunday mornings.”
“But Momma, you didn’t get me up. You didn’t get me up for the Lord’s house. How do I get to heaven without going to the Lord’s house? I need to go, Momma.”
“Emmit, the Lord will understand if you aren’t there. He knows you love him in your heart of hearts. We’ve talked about this. We talk about this every Sunday.”
“I know, Momma, but I love to hear the choir sing and putting my money in the plate. And I want to go and do the talking back to the preacher.”
“It’s called responsive reading, Emmit, not talking back. And you’ll get to go back. Just not now. We gotta wait ‘til September.”
“Why September, Momma?”
‘Cause that’s when she leaves this town.
“That’s when the worst of the heat is over. You know how bad the heat makes you feel, hon.”
“They has fans at church, Momma. They has fans. I’ve always managed to be nice and cool.”
Harlene suddenly felt very tired. And very old.
“Emmit, no more talk of this. We read our Bibles every night and your Aunt Tallie plays hymns for you all the time. You’re getting enough church at home right now. The Lord’ll understand if you ain’t there on Sunday morning.”
“But Momma, that’s the only place I get to see her…”
Harlene winced at the word “her.”
“Dammit, Emmit, that is enough!” she snapped, instantly regretting both her words and her tone as Emmit flinched and backed away from her. He dropped his head and made his way to the porch, past Tallie and her bowl. She watched his lanky frame disappear into the house.
Harlene closed the door of the car and walked toward the house. As she climbed the three stairs up the porch, Tallie kept her eyes on the peas in her bowl as she spoke.
“Har, you gotta take that boy back to church. You can’t keep him locked up here forever.”
“I will take him back. But not ‘til school starts.”
“You gonna have to forgive that girl ‘ventually, Harlene. Lord don’t like us to harbor hatred. Makes our very hearts hard.”
“It’s not hatred,” Harlene snapped. “I’m just protectin’ my son. My only son.”
She opened the screen door and glanced over her shoulder at her dead husband’s sister.
“’Sides, that girl ain’t yet to ask for forgiveness.”
Maxine McCalahan was seventeen when she married Louis Bethune, a twenty-year-old farmer’s son who convinced Max to cross state lines, lie about her age and become Mrs. Bethune. She was pregnant before her eighteenth birthday and gave birth to the first of four children in the spring of 1944.
The baby, a girl, was named in honor or her great grandfather, Harlow Bethune. Louis took one look at his new daughter and fell head over heels in love.
Harlene was as good a baby as anyone could want—-sweet natured and independent. She rarely cried and seemed just as content in her crib as in the arms of her mother.
It got around town quickly that Maxine Bethune was suffering from a bad case of the baby blues. Louis had confided to his mother that Max didn’t seem to like to hold the baby and that he would often come in from the fields to find Harlene in her crib, his wife sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette and crying. Ella Bethune, who disliked Maxine solely for being born a McCalahan, made a point to share this news with her hairdresser, sewing circle and her Sunday school class.
Maxine’s bout with the blues lasted longer than the usual few days. Six weeks after his daughter’s birth, Louis found himself doing the largest share of feeding and changing. He would return from work to find a hungry—but oddly quiet—Harlene in her crib, her diaper soaked and soiled.
Then one day when he came home for lunch, Harlene was lying on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket. Maxine was nowhere to be found. She didn’t arrive home for almost three hours.
As she walked through the door, Louis, holding their sleeping daughter to his chest, could not contain his anger.
“What the Sam Hill do you call yourself doing, leaving our baby alone?”
“Louis, calm down ‘fore you wake her up. I just had errands to run. Now move if you will, I need to soak awhile.”
“Errands? What errands? What was more important than watching after our daughter?”
“You’re blowin’ this way out, Louis. I fed her ‘fore I left. Not like she’s gonna get into anything anyway. She can’t even roll over yet.”
“What if somethin’ had happened? A… a fire, or somethin’?”
“There wasn’t no fire. Nothin; happened. She’s fine. I’ll bet she slept the whole time.”
As she breezed past him, removing her coat and tossing it on the sofa, Louis fought the urge to grab his wife. He wanted to shake her and scream at her for leaving their child alone, helpless. He took a deep breath and addressed her as she made her way to their bedroom.
“God only knows who saw you out there, Maxine. Don’t you think they were wonderin’ where the baby was? What are they gonna say?”
When she turned on him, there was fire in her eyes, but not the fire she had lacked since the baby’s delivery. It was anger as fierce as his own. She took a step toward him, her thumbs clenched inside her fists.
“I don’t give a good goddamn what they say!”
Louis sucked in a breath and stepped back. He wasn’t sure whether it was Max’s anger or the blasphemy she had never even uttered before that rocked him most. He took in a shaking breath and stepped back, setting the baby down on the couch.
He met her eyes and cautiously chose his tone.
“I don’t understand, Maxine. I don’t understand why you’re doing this. She’s just a little baby—“ His voice broke. “Our little baby. Why don’t you wanna take care of her?”
Maxine stopped but didn’t turn around. She felt like a bubble, ready to burst if blown any bigger. She knew better than to tell her husband the real reason she didn’t take care of the baby.
Maxine hated her new responsibilities, even more than she’d hated being pregnant. She hadn’t wanted to have a child, but being young and motherless since the age of six, she had no knowledge of how to prevent it. She had hated the way her body expanded and the lines it left in her soft skin. She hated the mornings spent leaning over a bucket, throwing up until she dry heaved. And as she lay with her legs spread on the delivery table and writhed in pain, she had secretly sworn this would be her first and last.
Now she hated all of the late night feedings and disgusting diapers. She hated the sour smell on her clothes from where the baby spit up. She hated being stuck at home all day with no one to talk to, her schedule dictated by someone else.
But mostly, she hated the way her husband stared at this child like it held the secrets of life. She hated how he no longer kissed her deeply when he arrived home. She hated the way he ran his fingers across the baby’s cheek.
The baby. She was sick and tired of the baby. She was tired of hearing about the baby and talking about the baby and even looking at the baby. All Louis cared about was that little lump of a human.
“I am going to soak for awhile, Louis. We can talk about this when you simmer down.”
As she shut the bedroom door and began to undress, she could hear her husband weeping in the next room, his sobs punctuated by occasional words.
“I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
Never, not even when he’d been angry enough to raise a hand to her, had Louis apologized to Maxine. Could it be he finally realized how little attention he’d paid his wife? Did he possibly understand how lonely and unhappy she was?
Maxine crept to the door, cracking it open just enough to see her husband sitting on the couch. Harlene, awake now, was across his lap, her eyes gazing up into his face. As he rocked, his tears fell into her pink baby blanket.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
And then, in an almost whisper, “Don’t worry. Daddy will take care of you. Daddy will always take care of you.”
Maxine shut the door. Her lips parted, trying to form around a word.
Lost, she said, though no sound came from her lips.
I have lost.
“Now Harlene, I need you to listen and listen good. I know it hurts, I know you’re scared, but you must keep breathing, must keep pushing!”
Harlene shook her head and bit her lip hard enough to draw blood.
“I want Sam!” she bellowed. “Get him in here now!”
The nurse cooed and pushed Harlene’s hair from her face.
“Now Missus Johnson, you know we don’t allow the men back here. We’re trying to spare them from seeing all of this.”
“Sp-spare him? He ain’t a fool! Get him back here! I need him, don’t you see that? I need him!”
The doctor and nurse glanced at one another, their eyes drifting to the nurse across the room, diligently working on the child Harlene had just delivered. The doctor nodded his head toward the door.
“But Doctor Wilson, we—“
”Hush. Just go get the father.”
Better he see us in here trying to save that baby, he thought.
The nurse hurriedly left the room.
“Harlene, I need a couple good pushes to get this baby out. Can you do that for me?”
Harlene sobbed from both exhaustion and fear. She was yet to hear a sound from her firstborn child. Sam burst through the door, ahead of the nurse, and rushed to Harlene’s side.
“I’m here, Har, I’m here now. Shh, I’m here.”
“You have to get her to push, Sam. A couple more pushes and we’ll have the other one delivered.”
Sam took Harlene’s hand in his but looked at the doctor.
“Other one? You mean one’s been born? Where is it? I don’t hear no crying, Doc!”
Harlene wailed and pulled at her hair as she was struck by both a contraction and the reality she would soon face. The doctor pushed away from the table and dropped his head. He spoke without looking up.
“We delivered one, Sam. They’re working on him, doing all they can do. But we can’t forget about the other one. I need her to push.”
Sam turned to his wife and took her other hand in his own.
“Look at me, Harlene. Look right here in my eyes.”
Harlene locked eyes with her husband, clutching his hands hard enough to breakt them. Sam began to take deep breaths, occasionally whispering, “It’s gonna be fine” and “You can do this.” Soon she was doing the same. Within a few short moments, she was calmer. A look of determination returned to her face, her impending sorrow momentarily forgotten.
“I’m ready,” she said quietly. “I can do this.”
In took only two hard pushes for the tiny life inside Harlene to enter the bright, cold delivery room.
“Please breathe,” she heard the doctor saying. “Please, God, please breathe.”
Suddenly a squall pierced the air as the newborn spent his first breath making known his arrival.
“Thank God!” one of the nurses shouted.
Thank God, Harlene thought, as exhaustion took over and she lost consciousness.