I trap my daughter’s hair under a worn-out handkerchief. I will fix the small Afro when I get back, I think I’ll try cornrows this time. “Shayla, please try not to scratch for mommy.” I sigh, she vigorously rubs her arms instead. I have to clip her nails too. I don’t want her to get scars, something else for her father to blame on me. My great-grandma hands me two large oven mitts. “What do I do with these?”
“Put them on her hands. I’ll give her another oatmeal bath while you’re gone. We will beat these chicken pox, eventually.”
“Thanks GG. Need anything while I’m out?”
“No dear. Tell Tasha we said hi.”
I wrestle with Shayla as she doesn’t like wearing the mitts. “Will do.”
As I pick up my keys my little girl runs to me, “Pwease don’t go mommy!” Clinging to my leg, she starts crying making me feel worse for leaving. The large oven mitts are almost comical on her tiny arms, going so far up they almost touch her shoulders.
My scrawny ninety year old great-grandfather strides over and picks her up. “Get going. She’ll be fine.”
I hide my tears and turn to walk out the back door. The only door we use now so my little girl doesn’t fall off the six-foot high porch.
My stomach is churning more with each step I take to the old clunker I own just for making this trip once or twice a year. I go through my pre-check ritual, making sure the tires and lights work. There’s nothing leaking or the well-kept engine isn’t making any funny noises. “Either would be a no-go until it’s been sent to the shop.” We don’t take chances with cars in this family. There have been too many car accidents, it’s almost a family tradition. I chuckle at my own morbid joke as I turn the ignition over.
Trying to calm my nerves, I start to sing a jingle from elementary, as I pull out onto highway 6. “G-A-double L-A-T-I-N spells Gallatin, Missouri.” My singing is horrible, but it does the trick, soon I am able to glide cautiously down the road and not be as paranoid as usual. I move to the “Bulldog Fight Song” we sang at every pep rally, as the car eats away the miles at a steady pace.
The freshly re-rocked drive to the gate feels as smooth as a gravel road can get, but the anxiety and nausea returns as I pass under the wrought-iron gate. Only one word between its pillars, “Cope,” but it feels as if there should be more and give entrance to Auschwitz itself. I park the car, take a deep breath…then step out into my own personal hell.
There’s great-uncle Dean, 35 due to drunk driving. A third cousin, another car accident at just 21. Oh, great-aunt Sherry looks good. Cancer wasn’t too kind to her. “Just a few more feet.” There are more family members here, but I try not to think about the multitudes of others here for one reason or another.
Finally, my mother’s spot comes into view, “Crap.” I trip in a hidden mud hole, but pinwheel my arms to stay upright. I’ve had enough practice thanks to my clumsiness.
The sky is crystal clear today, the opposite of my heart. “Hey, sorry I haven’t been back for a while. I’ve been pretty busy. Your granddaughter, Shayla, turns one tomorrow. She looks just like you did when you were younger.”
I hold the picture of my little girl for her to see that they share the same frizzy dark brown hair and dark blue mesmerizing eyes. Shayla’s hair is obviously curlier thanks to her father’s heritage. Unfortunately, you can’t see the gold specks that flicker in the light when she is up to no good. “She didn’t get your beauty mark though. She does have the slanted line birthmark on her right shoulder, she wouldn’t be family without it.”
Her crystal clear laugh rings through the air brought on by the breeze, but says nothing. Leaving me to wonder what she would think of my child and the situation I have found myself in, and how similar it is to hers back in late 1990.
I hate this place, no matter how much maintenance the owners do to it, it still smells of death and looks about the same.
“I would have brought her to see you, but the family says it’s not appropriate.” A single tear wets my cheek, “John left last month his reason being that he tried to love his daughter but just couldn’t, so Shayla and I are back to living with great-grandma and grandpa.”
Carefully, I move a vase of old flower stems, the petals all dried and blown away by now, to sit next to her. “You’d be proud of me. I have stopped drinking while I was away. The postpartum has really been kicking my ass… sorry, arse I know how you don’t like the cursing, but the family is helping me get a handle on the depression though. So no plans of taking myself and eight other family members for a ride to play chicken with a train.” A soft chuckle escapes my lips before I can stop it. “Sorry, bad joke, I know. Your mom didn’t mean for it to happen.” At least we don’t think grandma Joy meant to kill six of her seven children, one of her sisters and herself when they were out running errands. The police believe the car stalled and they couldn’t all get out of the car before the locomotive rammed through the ’57 Chevrolet. “Guess crazy kind of runs in the family.”
Silence tears my words from me as I think back to the story my great-grandparents told me last year when I turned eighteen. They were always ranting and raving that I was turning out to be just like Tasha Raelynn and if I wasn’t careful I would end up in the same place she is.
I think I am off to a better start. I managed to keep my legs closed for eighteen years. Two years longer than she did. My boyfriend stuck around longer as well. No one in the family knows who my biological father is, but Shayla knows hers. Though we did both meet the boys in high school and had children out of wedlock. Which to most of the family, including many who have survived the war and grew up in a more straight-laced time, believe that is a Cardinal sin.
A woman looks at me funny as she passes to visit one of her relatives. I glare back, I’ve not seen her here before, and perhaps her family is new here. She carries a bouquet of red roses and drags a reluctant husband down the aisle. Again I laugh as I picture a similar experience.
Shortly after she got pregnant, the baby’s father disappeared. My great-grandparents were up in arms about it, much like when they heard my news. I remember great-grandma hissing, “Tasha Raelynn came home practically pulling this poor scrawny boy’s arm out of the socket. Proclaiming that he is the one that got her pregnant.” All while she scowled over her coffee at the memory. Great-grandpa just quietly sucked on his corncob pipe, judging me as always.
“I saw the home movie where you brought him ‘round for a time to make it seem like a real relationship. I can’t believe you ever tried to pass that little gay boy off as my dad. Of course the family saw through it immediately, you couldn’t hide the fact that he was wearing his mother’s pearl earrings or beige lipstick.” I scoff at her naiveté, another thing that separates us. I’m not as gullible as she was back then. “Of course the great-grandparents had more colorful words for him, as they have more colorful words for everything they consider ‘indecent.’ You should hear half the things they say about Shayla being half African American.” I push my anger aside, not wanting to mar this meeting with bitterness.