“Ordinary Rituals” A Story

What follows is an excerpt from my recently completed novel, I’m Not Going to Heaven. I’m Going to Birmingham: A Story of the South.  

The main character, Charlotte Cade Gibson, eleven years old, is based on my favorite aunt who was in her forties when I was born. I wanted to imagine the child who might have grown up to be the aunt I knew. I am satisfied that I have come, at least, very close.


Ordinary Rituals

 Charlotte Gibson was eleven the year her father, John Warren Gibson, died. Her sister, Marcella, was a year older, but it was generally understood among all the siblings that Charlotte was the one they would like to have in charge in an emergency. In both appearance and temperament, she was very much the person she would remain for most of her life. With her thick, dark hair and flawless skin, she was already a beauty, and she possessed an uncanny calm under pressure and an ability to think clearly in the worst of circumstances. But once in a while even Charlotte—who was, after all, still a child—was caught off guard.  And that is what happened in 1919, in a little town just north of Birmingham, when the second wave of the Spanish Flu hit the state of Alabama and much of the rest of the nation, as well.

Although everyone knew about the flu epidemic of the year before, Charlotte had heard that a lot of the people who got it had nothing worse than a low fever and chills, stayed sick for a week at the most, and then got well. She wasn’t too worried. Still, because she was in every way her daddy’s girl, Charlotte kept a sharp eye on him when she heard that the disease had returned to some of the large cities, including Birmingham. Just two days before he died, John Warren was out at the far edge of their small farm, mending fences. Charlotte had gone with him, and she could swear to it. He had been quite well. “Charlotte Cade, could you look over there where my tools are and bring me the small saw?”  Charlotte was always eager to please her daddy and had learned what every tool was, so she had no trouble picking up the small handsaw that she knew he used to trim the fence rails.

“Here it is, Daddy, and I went ahead and brought the middle size hammer and the right nails to put that rail back where it belongs.” Charlotte grinned. She was pleased with herself.

“You are the best girl I have, Charlotte, but don’t you go telling anybody. Nobody needs to get their feelings hurt.”

The next morning, he woke burning with a high fever, shivering uncontrollably, and hurting all over. In spite of her pregnancy and because she refused to ask her neighbors for help, his wife Nell was with him all that day and the children, including Charlotte, were forbidden to enter the room. As soon as it got dark, the children went to bed as always.  It was a large family, with Marcella and Charlotte the oldest, followed by their one brother, Stamford, who was eight. After that, came “the babies”: Kendall Ida, age five; Virginia, three; and, Beryl, just turned one. And their Mama, Nell, was pregnant and already showing.  Everyone had been excited about having a brand new baby in the house.  But that night, Charlotte and Marcella couldn’t quite imagine another one in diapers to take care of, and they just barely got the younger ones tucked in before they crawled under the covers in the bed they shared. They stayed awake a long time whispering.

“Marcella, what do you think’s going to happen to Daddy?” Charlotte tried to keep the fear out of her voice, but Marcella was afraid, too, and she responded as directly as she could because she knew Charlotte didn’t like being told anything short of the truth.

“I think, Charlotte, that our father is terribly sick, sicker than anyone knows how to fix. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am awfully worried. I did peek in the door just an hour or so before we came to bed, and I can tell you he wasn’t any better, and I’m afraid he was worse.  His skin looked blue, and I could hear him trying to get a breath.”

Charlotte was silent. After a while, she reached over, took Marcella’s hand, squeezed it hard, and the two girls fell asleep.  When the sun was up, Charlotte raced into the front room where she found Nell with her hands around a cup of coffee, crying softly.  She didn’t dare to ask, so she walked into her father’s room.

Charlotte had spent her eleven years on a farm, and she knew what death was.  She had seen stillborn calves and dead chickens and even dead goats and cows. Some were messy because they had been torn up by other animals; some just looked pitiful, smaller in death. But they all looked basically like they had when they were alive—the chicken still a chicken, the goat absolutely unchanged from a goat.

Charlotte had never seen a real dead body—a person–and this wasn’t just any person. This was her father. Except this body, with its blue skin, the bubbles of spit still hanging on the mouth, the eyes open and black, looked nothing at all like her father. For just a minute, Charlotte was terrified and wanted to run out of there as fast as she could move. But she didn’t run and pretty soon she got up her courage and reached out to touch her father’s hand.

She stood like that for only a few minutes before her sense of responsibility—already far greater than her eleven years—took over, and she walked out and sat beside her mother who was still crying and had opened a jar of whiskey that she was pouring into her coffee.

Charlotte took a deep breath and said, as gently as she could, “Mama, I expect some of the neighbor ladies will be getting here soon. Would you like me to brush your hair and pick out a dress for you to wear? I think that dark blue one would be real pretty.”

Nell looked up at her daughter. Dear Charlotte, always knowing what to do, always thinking about how to get everybody organized. She was a big help at times like this, but sometimes Nell had to admit Charlotte was more than a little bossy. Sometimes Charlotte got on her nerves. Just for a second, Nell had the urge to scream that she wanted to be left alone. What she finally said was, “Charlotte, baby, if you can give me a few more minutes just to sit here, maybe make me one more cup of coffee, then I will really thank you if you can do something with this hair. And you’re right about the blue dress. I think it will even fit over this baby.”

By the time the first of her neighbors arrived, Nell’s hair had been brushed and pulled up into a knot above her pale face, lovely and sad-looking. Charlotte had been right about the blue dress. It was dark enough to clearly signal mourning while still flattering Nell’s hair and complexion. And it hung loosely over her pregnancy. When the first knock at the door came, Nell seemed to freeze, and Charlotte actually thought for a minute that she might bolt.

“Now, Mama, I don’t want you to worry about anything today. Let’s go open the door together—it looks like it’s Miz Henry from the next farm—and then you sit right back down in the kitchen and let her take care of Daddy.”

With that reassurance, just as Emmeline Henry knocked on the screen door, Nell started forward and, in a weaker voice than Charlotte had ever heard, she turned her smile on her neighbor, “Emmeline, you are much too kind, and I am grateful. I am going to need a whole lot of help to get through this.”

“And you’ll get it, Nell. Don’t you worry. We’ve got some pretty great neighbors around here, and I know that Martha Flannagan will be right behind me. She was taking a ham out of the stove at my house, and she’ll be bringing beans and something else—maybe a pie—and will be staying to see to your husband.”

Emmaline saw no point in mentioning that Nell could have asked her neighbors for help anytime, and maybe given them some help in return, if she hadn’t been so stand-offish. Emmaline had never figured out whether Nell Gibson thought she was better than the rest of them or was just shy, and she guessed it didn’t matter now. What Emmeline couldn’t know was that Nell was a bit of both.  She was certainly shy, or at least very private, because she felt that she had let her life get away from her and it made her feel ashamed. She had married John Warren Gibson, the very first man who had asked, when she was only fifteen and, it felt like before she knew it, there were all these children. So, she did feel sheepish about asking her neighbors, with their two and three children, to help her with her houseful. On the other hand, and just as strong an influence, Nell had been her parents’ only child and her father’s darling. He never let a day pass that he didn’t tell her she was the smartest and the prettiest and the most wonderful girl in the whole wide world.  In short, Nell was so confused about how she felt most days that it seemed easier just to keep to herself and let people think whatever they wanted.

Emmeline Henry was a simple, straightforward woman, generous, kind, and not given to thinking too hard about anything other than the job in front of her.  Today Nell needed their help, and they would all show up to do what they could. The Henrys were good people, and today was no exception. Emmeline walked in firmly, gave Nell and Charlotte quick hugs, put two large covered dishes on the table, took off her coat, and turned to Charlotte.

“Honey, let’s walk out on the porch for a minute.”

“Yes ma’am, Mix Henry.”

And once Emmeline thought they were far enough from the open door, she began. “I want to give you an idea of what’s gonna happen, Charlotte, because your mama seems like she’s too weak and upset to take it all in.” Charlotte just nodded, and Emmeline continued. “When Miz Flannagan gets here, which I expect will be soon, we’re going to need all the soft cloths you can find and the biggest pot you have, filled up with real warm water. Why don’t you get the stove going and the water on, if you can wrestle us out a pot. I’ve brought a special soap and some real sweet-smelling herbs from my garden, and we’re gonna take good care of your daddy.”

“I can get the pot easy, Miz Henry, and I’ll get my sister, Marcella, to help me fill it and heft it up onto the stove. Should it be boiling or not that hot?”

“Go ahead and let it boil, sweetie. It’ll cool off fast enough, but don’t you all try to lift it once it’s hot.”

Charlotte and Emmaline Henry were talking quietly, and Charlotte, who had been thinking hard about what she wanted to say, got up her courage—seemed like she was needing to do that fairly often—and turned to Emmaline, “Miz Henry, I want to ask you an awful big favor.”

“You go right ahead, Charlotte. I expect the answer will be yes to anything you’ve got in mind.”

“I’d like to help with Daddy. Just me. Nobody else would want to, but Daddy and me, well, we were close, and I would just, well, I guess I would kinda like to say goodbye. I don’t know . . .”

“Charlotte Cade Gibson, you are an unusual girl. I will admit I never would have thought about you wanting to help in there, but I say ‘why not?’ So, yes, sweetie, you certainly may join us and help just as much as you like. You have to promise you’ll go slow and wait for me to tell you what to do.”

“Oh, yes ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I surely will. And, oh, thank you, Miz Henry, thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome. Now let’s get on back inside and see what we can do for your mama. Oh, and here comes Martha Flannagan, so you go hold the door ‘cause it looks like she’s carrying a load of stuff.”

And so the morning went. The women arrived with food, with their own scented soaps and ointments and with one or two soft cloths each, until there was a respectable pile. These were poor farmers’ wives, and the soaps were often no more than slivers, the ointments the last traces in a jar that had been put back for the next death. This was what they did. They took care of each other in death as they always had in life, the rituals familiar in this small community. But Nell was an exception. She never came to help when someone’s husband died, never wanted to even think about it, and she failed  entirely to see the irony in the comfort she was now taking from having her house full of these same women and knowing they were taking care of John. Emmaline called Charlotte over, “Charlotte, honey, do you think your mama’s gonna be all right? She’s putting an awful lot of that whiskey in her coffee. I know sometimes it helps but more often I think it’s just apt to make things worse.”

“Yes ma’am, Miz Henry. We know about the drinking, and I’ll tell you the truth. We’re worried near to death. Some days Mama just seems like she’s so wound up she can hardly sit in a chair, and ever since the baby was there it’s gotten worse.  I really am afraid some days that she’s just going to go flying off down the road and never come back.  And the drinking can’t be good for the baby, right?” It wasn’t a conversation that had any kind of satisfactory conclusion, so they just drifted off and Charlotte headed inside to get snacks ready for when Kendall and Virginia came back in from wherever Stamford had taken them to play.  Bless him. It was exactly the kind of help she needed.

In the afternoon, the men came in a small wagon, hands washed, to stand around the front room, shuffling their feet and talking in low voices about crops and the weather.  They didn’t stay inside long, and some of them went out to take care of John Warren’s chores for that day. They fed the few animals, checked on the fields and repaired a couple of places where a fence rail was pulling loose. Those that didn’t help on the farm unloaded raw pine planks from the wagon, carried them out to the barn, and began the work of building a coffin.

Inside, Charlotte stood ready as the job of preparing her father’s body for burial began. She had to admit that she felt afraid at first, remembering the grotesque face and swollen mouth. Mrs. Henry had explained to her that they would wash every inch of the body with the scented soaps and the cloths, would rub it with oil, and sprinkle some of the herbs all around the bed. Emmeline watched Charlotte carefully to be sure she wasn’t going to get upset, limiting what she let her do at first, handing over a damp cloth and pointing to a hand or a calf and showing her exactly how to rub, very softly, in circles.

Finally, Charlotte turned to her and asked, “May I wash his face?” Emmeline hesitated. “Are you sure, Charlotte?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’d like to see if some washing and some of your oil might smooth it out a bit. It looks kinda scary the way it is.”

“You’re right about that, honey, but look again and you’ll see that the blue is fading out of his skin and the swelling is going down, so you will be doing your daddy a real service if you really think you can.”

Charlotte spent a long time on her father’s face. She didn’t hurry. She was no longer afraid. When she had finished with the oil, John Warren’s face looked young and relaxed. More important for Charlotte, he looked like her daddy again, just dead. And Charlotte wasn’t afraid of dead.

For the next two days, the Gibson house was filled with neighbors—friends, and even some strangers—come to pay their respects to John Warren and to offer their sympathy and their help to Nell.  On the third day after his death, John Warren was carried in a new pine coffin to the Bucksville cemetery for burial.  Because the land was so iron-rich, digging with ordinary tools was nearly impossible, but some of John Warren’s friends, who had gone to work in the big furnaces at Tannehill, came with their miners’ tools to break through the hard ground to bury one of their own.

Charlotte Cade went home to put her younger siblings to bed, to try to convince her mother not to drink too much whiskey, and to stay up late whispering with Marcella under the big quilt. Even after she heard Marcella’s breathing deepen and knew she was asleep, Charlotte lay awake remembering the feel of her father’s skin on her hand. She felt the great silence of the house around her, broken only by an echo of her father’s voice, “Charlotte Cade, could you look over there where my tools are and bring me the small saw?”

“I’m here, Daddy. I’m right here! Please come back.”

But John Warren Gibson would not be coming back, not ever, and the sound of his voice was dimmer, as Charlotte heard him say, “You are the best girl I have, Charlotte, but don’t you go telling anybody.” She never did, and because she was wise for her years, Charlotte knew of course that the voice she heard was only her imagination, only just the sound of her missing her daddy so much, but still she felt strangely peaceful.  What she didn’t know was that it was the last time she was to have any peace for a very long time.

Aware that their mother was sad, that she was expecting a baby, and that she was pouring more whiskey into her coffee every day, Charlotte, Marcella, and even Stamford  took on the chores on the farm. They didn’t complain about watching the babies when Nell wanted to catch an occasional ride with a neighbor and spend an afternoon walking around Birmingham, “just to get a little relaxation,” she explained.  Butthen one morning, as Charlotte was sweeping the front porch, and Marcella was following behind with a bucket of water and an old mop, giving it a good scrubbing, a dusty, slightly battered automobile pulled up out by the fence and a man climbed down and started toward the house. Charlotte had looked up at the unfamiliar sound of the car’s engine and had time to turn back to Marcella and whisper, “We do notknow anybody with an automobile, Marcella! Who is this?” Marcella just shook her head.

Then they heard the screen door open behind them and Nell stepped out onto the porch, obviously pregnant, but looking very pretty in one of her best dresses, her hair freshly washed and shining. Charlotte stood with her mouth open, utterly silent, so confused she couldn’t even think of a question to ask. She knew one thing, although she couldn’t have said exactly why she knew. This—whatever it was—wasn’t good. Marcella looked straight at her mother and said, “Mama, you sure look pretty. What’s going on?”

Nell laughed self-consciously and said, “Now Marcella, does something have to be going on for your mama to look pretty?” By this time, the three little ones were clustered behind her, but she spoke only to Charlotte and Marcella, “You girls, I’d like you to meet a particular friend of mine. This is Daniel Darden. And Daniel, these are my two oldest girls, and my helpers around this place.

“Charlotte, Daniel knew your daddy. Daniel used to farm but then he took a job up at Tannehill. He works that big furnace. What do you think about that?”

Charlotte was staring at Daniel and looking every once in a while at her mother. “I reckon that’s fine, Mama. Are you about to go somewhere?”

“Well, yes, darling. Daniel has offered to drive me in his automobile into town to get a few things we need. I won’t be gone too long and I won’t worry about the children as long as you and Marcella are here.”

“Yes ma’am.” With that, Charlotte picked up her broom, turned, and walked into the house, shooing the smaller children in front of her. Marcella just said, “Well, Mama, we’ll be here when you get back.” Neither girl had acknowledged Daniel Darden. All the children were listening carefully as the car started up and drove away. Kendall Ida, five years old and always full of questions, couldn’t get them out fast enough. Charlotte sat in the big chair, pulled Kendall onto her lap, smelled the sweet little-girl hair, and couldn’t say anything except, “I don’t know, Kendall. I don’t know.”

Six months later, Nell Gibson and Daniel Darden were married, and the following exchange had occurred:

“You can’t make me give up my kids, Daniel. You cannot make me do that.”

For a long time, they just sat, neither of them speaking, until Daniel got up, stretched, and before he headed out to his car, said, “No, Nell, I can’t. But I can’t stay if you don’t.”

The buildings in which the orphanage was housed were large and, if they had been recently painted, would have been a stark white.  But on the day Nell Gibson left her children there, the paint was peeling and several of the shutters on the main building were hanging loose. Charlotte could hear them knocking against the windows. She wondered why the glass hadn’t broken. She wondered a great many things that day and for most of the days for years to come. But Charlotte being Charlotte, she took Marcella’s hand in one of hers, and Kendall’s in the other, and she saw to it that Marcella and Stamford were looking after the others, and they walked up those stairs as proud as if they were entering a palace.

Aunt Dean

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