Smoke Screen

In our family no one ever separated and God forbid they even think of divorcing.

Granny Love always said, “Course they’s some orta-had nevah got hitched in the first place.”

My Aunt Bertha Mae was scared to divorce.

“God may strike me dead ifen I divorce. I jest wants to be rid of ‘im,” she would say.

This is her story.

Bertha Mae was the oldest daughter in her family of three children. They lived in the family’s hundred-year-old, bulky two-story house on the edge of a township called McCleary Station, 20 miles outside the city of Talladega, Alabama. Her father was the only doctor within 30 miles. Times were hard in the 1950s and often patients could not pay their bills in cash, so they brought dried beans, peas, and home-canned vegetables, lard and freshly ground cornmeal. The family cellar was always full.

Homer Ghee was from the township of Wetumpka. His father, a District Attorney, had ambitions to become a state representative. Those ambitions included plans for his son to build a career as an architect.

In 1952, Bertha Mae was the first female in her family to enter college when she attended the University of Alabama Nursing School. Homer Ghee was working toward a degree in engineering. They met at a homecoming football celebration, fell madly in love and moved in together. Within the year she was pregnant and they dropped out of college, married and moved into the large house with her parents. Homer was nothing special, as far as her family could see. He was handsome, with sharp, blue eyes, was a good dresser and excellent dancing partner, but he was vague about his future. He and Bertha Mae went dancing at the Armory most Saturday nights.

After the birth of their son, Homer enlisted, departed for boot camp and was sent to Korea. His company was ambushed while on an early morning patrol in the mountains near the 38th Parallel. He took shrapnel in his neck and face, some loss of sight in his left eye and was medically discharged. Homer returned changed — restless and bothered by nightmares. The fun loving boy was replaced with a sullen, angry young man. Bertha Mae gave birth to their second child, a daughter, eleven months after his return home.

The first crack in their marriage was when Homer, newly medically discharged, removed Bertha Mae’s name from the checking account.

“We have little money and I can manage it better-n you,” Homer said.

This forced Bertha Mae to ask for money for household expenses, which Homer often forgot, and when he did remember it was never enough. Within a month of Homer’s taking over the finances, they realized they could not live on his military retirement income. They decided Homer would look for a job allowing Bertha Mae to be a stay-at-home mom. Homer found temporary work as a mechanic and gas-pumper at his Uncle Ben’s gas station but seemed unable to stay on the job. Soon, Homer began coming home in the early afternoon with liquor on his breath and demanding sex as his right. When rejected, Homer would storm out of the house and disappear for weeks without leaving money for Bertha Mae. He always returned from these trips as though nothing had happened.

Realizing Homer was not taking responsibility for his family and falling deeper into depression and running away, Bertha Mae insisted he go to his father for help. His father offered Homer a salesman’s job at his life insurance company.

The sales job entailed long hours, looming quotas and travel far from home. Homer moved his family to his home town of Wetumpka, 165 miles away from her parent’s home, into a small house that his father gave them. After spending months there, often alone, Bertha Mae high-tailed it back to her parents. She and Homer lived between the two homes for many years.

Bertha Mae’s parents died within six months of each other from the 1959 influenza epidemic. The house and two acres of land had been deeded to Bertha Mae, free and clear of any debt and she announced to Homer she would be living there permanently.

With a secure job, Homer finally got his self confidence back and won awards for his sales ability. Yet he repeatedly refused to take a District Manager’s position that would mean a desk job and more time at home. Soon, though, Homer’s bad eye was giving him problems. He tried to hide his vision problem from everyone. Slowly the blindness in his left eye prevented him from safely driving a vehicle. Now he took the desk job.

With more time at home, he and Bertha Mae argued more. Their twelve-year-old son refused to go fishing with his father; stating it was no fun, boring and they never caught any fish. Also, he was adamant he would not play football, nor any other ‘ball’ sport for that matter. The boy loved to read, draw and put together airplanes and cars and paint them up in loud colors. Homer accused Bertha Mae of coddling their son and making a sissy of him.

Meanwhile Homer grew bored and restless at his job, losing many workdays. Once his father became aware of his son’s absence from work he retired Homer. He gave his son a generous retirement monthly income package and encouraged him to go home and seek help for his anger and inability to adjust to adult life.

Homer now spent lots of time on the creek banks fishing, though he never brought home any fish. He once spent his full-month military retirement check for a deep-sea fishing rod and reel that could only be used in the ocean, which was 350 miles away.

One night there was a particularly brutal argument between Homer and their son. The boy insisted he would not play football.

“You are no son of mine,” Homer said as he departed the room.

Homer rose early the next morning, made the coffee and was on his second cup when Bertha Mae arrived in the kitchen. She took her mug of dark, steaming coffee, inhaled the aroma of chicory, and opened the door to go out onto the screened-in back porch.

“I think, today, I’m gonna leave you for good. You heah me, Bertha Mae?”

Bertha Mae called to her cat, “Come on Suga”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“No, I done quit talkin’ bout it. Suga, come on.”

“That’s our problem, you and that cat. She gets more attention than I do.”

Bertha Mae heard the front door open and click shut. Good riddance.

She stood looking out the open canopy-window over the kitchen sink. The early morning sky was slowly opening up to a soft orange light that seemed to color the air and gave the green bushes and shrubs a dusty orange glow. Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud grunt and then she heard a chair scoot across the floor. She saw Homer sitting at the dining room table pressing his thumbs to his temples. She just stood there looking at him, thinking that his strength always seemed so big to her; now, she realized how small and slight he was. In all the times he left, Homer had never announced he was leaving. She had never felt afraid until now. Can I do this alone? Should I beg him to stay? Will the children and I be safe?

Dressed in overalls over long johns, he came out, moved the cat from the doorway with his foot and closed the door. The cat screamed and dashed into the hallway and hid behind the chiffarobe.

Much too early, Bertha Mae needed her ritual “toddy of courage.” She reached for the Southern Comfort, poured a little into her coffee cup, and added a smidge of water. She coached Suga from her hiding place. The cat, stretching and rubbing against her leg, looked over at the empty food bowl. Bertha Mae filled the bowl with nibbles and walked out onto the screened-in back porch.

She sat in her double-seated rocker, just out of the sun’s reach. Suga sat beside her and began tongue-bathing. Bertha Mae rocked back and forth, singing her favorite gospel song, “There will be Peace in the Valley some day, Oh Lord. Yes! There will be peace…”

Later that day, Homer Ghee walked away from Bertha Mae and their two young children. He left with only the clothes on his back, his custom-made pipe and special-blended tobacco pouch.

She still had the checking account Homer set up for her years ago and the monthly deposits continued in his absence. She remained a stay-at-home mom, became President of the PTA and participated in the flower club.

Years passed. Their children married, moved out, and had children of their own. Bertha Mae and the children had discussed cashing out Homer’s life insurance policy so they could attend college; but the insurance company said he had not been gone long enough. Bertha Mae, meanwhile, adjusted to the hollow sounds in the big house she loved. She was born and raised in this house. The front of the house sat up high, on solid rock pillars. Her father dug out a root cellar under the porch, which provided a cool, dry place year round for food and children alike.

In time, with the children gone, she grew to enjoy her single life. The checking account supported her. She volunteered one day a week as a hospital greeter. She hated any unexpected interruptions, insisting friends and family phone before they come over—‘to be sure she was home.’ She woke every day, stretched, and rose from her bed, changed from her nightgown into her day dress, and tied the ruffle-trimmed apron around her waist. She then inspected for “grays” on each curler encased-bunch of hair. It was a daily chore. In the past when she found them “loitering about,” she would just jerk them out. With her hair getting thinner, this was now the biggest decision of the day before she went down stairs.

Every morning, Bertha Mae filled the coffee-percolator and placed it on the stove.

One day, as she stepped out onto the back porch, she felt the chill and saw the pre-dawn air was rich with musky dew. A white-orange light reflected upon the sky from somewhere barely over the horizon. Pale fog hugged the ground and glowed as it lay in smoky layers in the hollers and valleys behind her home.

Her last chore of the day was always to mix sugar water for her three hummingbird feeders. This morning, she saw that one was already drained. She was puzzled at the loss of a liter of nectar at a time when the hummers were resting. She was irritated. She wasn’t sure if the irritation she felt was because of the disappearing nectar or because of her friend nagging her to come to the Amory Dance every Saturday night.

“You need to find a man ’cause you’re talkin’ to yorself,” Eufaula said.

“I done had me one man and I don’t need no nutter-one!”

Or perhaps, her irritation was the result of learning, just the day before, that in fact she could have claimed Homer as dead and collected his life insurance years earlier.

Bertha Mae poured her second cup of coffee and went to the front porch swing. She never sat on this swing without remembering how she and Homer Ghee sanded, stained and put the beautiful walnut-boards together. The one project they accomplished without an argument.        Swinging and combing the fur of her cat, she heard a scratching sound and then a grunt. Thinking it was the swing grunting and the scratching sound was Suga’s claws on the wooden swing-boards, she paid it no mind and continued brushing.

But there it was again. The sound was distant and too soft to be heard clearly. She began to swing and brush in earnest. Then she heard a dragging sound. Suga went on alert.

Bertha Mae stopped swinging. Silence. Then they resumed swinging. There was that sound again; loud and much closer now. Sliding and scraping and bumpety-bump, slurred mumbles and grumbles from a human; this noise was moving toward the end of the porch.

A faint mist of odor she couldn’t immediately recognize floated up through the wide-plank porch floor. Suga bounced onto the floor, arched her back, tail in the air, in a defensive stance and screamed. This sent chills up Bertha Mae’s back.

Suddenly there was smoke curling up between the cracks of the porch floor.

“Who goes there?” Bertha Mae shouted.

She crept toward the noise coming from underneath the planked porch floor and the smell she was sure she knew. Suga rubbed against her leg with arched back. The noise moved toward the end of the porch. The cellar door creaked open.

A gray-haired head popped up and turned to face them. Homer Ghee, with his hand-made pipe in his mouth, was puffing his special-blend tobacco, smoke twirling into the air above his head.

The first thing that came to her mind was that she had just mailed the forms claiming Homer as dead and collecting his life insurance. Should she be nasty and argue or play nice?

Bertha Mae reached up and placed a hand on each of Homer’s shoulders, as if to verify authenticity. His face furrowed with wise creases and his blue-eyes burned brightly. Satisfied that the person was indeed Homer, shaking him roughly, she said, “Homer, we have to make you disappear again.”

“Huh?” He muttered as he grinned with a display of tartar-coated teeth.

“You sick Bertha Mae? You lookin’ mighty funny.”

She gave him the stink-eye, cold and direct. Then she released her hold on his shoulders, walked over and flopped down in the swing next to Suga.

The swing seemed to move of its own accord as Bertha Mae began to brush the cat.

Finding Jerry

I was raised at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, at the crossroads of the Coosa River and the spring fed Choccolocco Creek, in rural Alabama.

In 1943, when I was five years old, Daddy finished his studies at Trinity College, in Henderson, Tennessee. He graduated as an ordained minister and obtained a church congregation in the township of Pell City, 15 miles from our home at the time. The position came with furnished housing for the minister and his family. He proved to be an exuberant and popular minister.

Daddy was hired by two other churches in nearby communities as their Sunday preacher. Jerry, Sue and I had to go to church three times every Sunday as he wanted some of the family with him. He needed us to help keep the congregation in tune and on track with the singing. Afterward, Daddy put his hand on our shoulders.

“Good job, Little Man,” he’d say.

“Good singing, my Little Bird.”

Daddy was hired for a 15-minute radio program and his sermons became so popular, especially with the shut-in audience, that his time was extended to a half-hour. Unable to immediately fill the time with sermon, he created The Adams Quartet with his children. Daddy selected a song related to his sermon of the day. He taught us harmony and soon we too were a big hit.

Daddy functioned as song leader as well as preacher for all three churches. Yet even this was not enough to support a growing family. So he took a job as manager of a 400-acre cotton, grain and livestock farm located in the township of Eureka, ten miles from the church; five laborer-households had been living and working on this property for many years. With Daddy’s leadership, this farm became a family community they called Dogwood Hollow. When he began each workday with a prayer, the workers started calling him Preacher. Dogwood Hollow provided many hidden creeks, rivers, waterfalls, caves and ravines for us to explore. The fathers built a community-farm-swimming pool on the calm edge of the Coosa River. They took advantage of large boulders blown out of the earth by an old quartz processing plant. These boulders created a perfect, curved, quartz wall on the river-sides of the pool. There were at least ten children in each household and with kinfolk and visitors, a lot of people played in this gigantic river swimming pool.

Beyond the pool, at the center of the wide Coosa, was a turbulent current that local farmers used to float logs to the processing plant 15 miles downriver. We were warned it was dangerous, but we wanted adventure and always played a game of ‘getting loose from the dragon.’ The river was full of snapping turtles, tadpoles, cat fish; crappie, bass, and of course water snakes. People said that if you left this river wildlife alone no harm would come to you; so we did.

The first of July, in 1948, my Daddy’s sister, Alma, brought her three daughters to visit. They lived in the township of McCleary Station and were anxious to experience country life. The oldest daughter, Vida Mae, was 18, and planning a wedding at our house with Daddy performing the services. Her soldier-boyfriend was arriving soon from Germany. We country kids were usually lulled to sleep by the night sounds of crickets chirping, wolves howling, bull frogs croaking, a low cow-moo nearby, and then, shortly before midnight, a distant long-lonely whistle of the train as it roared across the Coosa on its last trip of the day. All this scared my city cousins. They slept lightly, jerking upright in their beds at each sound.

On Saturday, 4th of July, at the crack of dawn, after a restless night of sleep, my cousins were scared out of bed with the noise of the roosters crowing. I rolled over, yawned myself awake to the smell of baking biscuits, sizzling bacon and chicory-laced coffee. After we finished breakfast and washed the dishes, we asked mother if we could go to the river. Mother was always nervous and afraid her kids would get hurt if she or Daddy were not with them.

“No, something bad might happen.”

I could usually get Daddy to let us do what Mother forbade. My brother Jerry urged me to ask him if we could go. Daddy was busy with his Sunday sermon and closed his thick, weathered Bible.

“Yes, but not for long.”

We hurried to our bedroom to put on our homemade bloomer swim suits. We always swam in our flour-sack underwear or the clothes we wore to the field that day. Vida Mae gave JoAnn a store-bought swimsuit she no longer wanted. It was the first one we had ever seen and thought it cute with its very short skirt and tight-fitting body. JoAnn was the envy of the neighborhood.

We hurried down the trail, passing all the other families out in their yards. At the house nearest to the trail, in the shade of a Mimosa tree, Maw-Maw was turning meat in a large, smoking drum with the smell of barbecue in the air; J.C., their oldest son, was moaning on his harmonica. His father, Jim Bo, was beating on his lard bucket drums and Ma Truss was setting on the front porch, fiddle to her ear, stomping her feet as the fiddle cried out. We told them that we was gonna show our city cousins what fun it was to swim in the river pool. As we entered the cool, pine-needle carpet floor of the thicket, we met a crowd of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze. Butterflies and bees smothered vines of honeysuckle. We skipped and danced our way to the swimming pool, whistling as we went.

At the pool, we opened the gate and climbed the rock steps onto the warm, smooth boulders. In the forbidden center of the river, the water roared and rolled, like a storm blowing in.

“Jerry, the water is very rough. Please don’t go into the current,” JoAnn shouted.

Jerry, grinned at his bossy sister, spread his arms and executed a perfect swan dive. He surfaced very near the strong current. We watched. He stayed in the current. He wasn’t moving out of it. Instead he started moving in circles, as if he was caught in a whirlpool.

“Stop that Jerry,” I yelled. “You gonna make yourself dizzy.”

JoAnn realized Jerry could not break free of the swift current. She jumped in. We heard a crack, like a tree limb breaking, and a cry of pain from her. She was up to her shoulders in water. One foot had lodged into a crevice of the smaller boulders with her foot turned backwards. Vida Mae and I tried to pull her foot loose, but the foot was turned the wrong way and lodged tightly. JoAnn was hovering over a boulder and trying to keep her face out of the water. But soon she tired and started to cry, which really scared me ‘cause I had never seen my sister cry. As JoAnn struggled, Vida Mae went into the water pushing and holding her up. She yelled at us to get Daddy. As I turned to leave, I looked back and saw Jerry riding down the center of the river like a log on its way to the pulp wood factory.

My sisters, Nita and Sue, and I went running through the woods yelling. As we passed Jim Bo’s house, I told him what had happened; he rang the “in danger” bell on his porch.

Daddy had heard us yelling and was outside at the edge of the yard when we got home. He grabbed his rock-moving pole with a sharp end and took off running. Mother would not allow us to return to the river. Daddy had stopped long enough to ask me where Jerry was. I told him he was caught in the river current. His shoulders slumped.

Hours passed as we waited for Daddy’s return. The clock ticked loud in the unnatural silence. Not a dog barked, nor a bird chirped. As the sun set and the moon rose, Daddy returned from the river. He looked scared and lost. We asked where JoAnn, Vida Mae and Jerry were. He told us they would all be home when they found Jerry. I begged to go in search of him ‘cause I knew all our hiding places and thought that Jerry probably had got free and was in the woods, maybe playing a trick on everybody.

Seven days later, JoAnn and Jerry’s bodies were brought to the house in a metal box lined in silk and velvet and placed into our living room to lay-in-wake. We didn’t know what that meant. Sue and Nita were scared, confused and crying and went to our bedroom. JoAnn and Jerry were just laying there not saying anything. I asked the man who opened the lid what was wrong with them.

“You should just think of them as sleeping.”

“But, Jerry don’t sleep like that…you need to take his arms down. He likes to roll into a ball to sleep.”

Nobody had told us what happened. JoAnn’s hair was in place with lifeless perfection. How I wished I could ruffle it up and blow on it to see it dance again. Jerry’s collar was up on his chin, when I reached in to flatten the collar I saw two prong-like indentations under his chin. The man told me that Jerry had been bitten by a water moccasin and that he probably only felt a sting before he died.

I struggled to understand what ‘died’ meant.

“Are they gone live in these boxes now?” He nodded.

“Are they gonna have to live in our living room?”

I learned much later that they had removed JoAnn and Vida Mae’s bodies from the river immediately; both had drowned. The boulders submerged in water were slick with slime and it was difficult to move onto the top. Each girl grew tired and began to struggle for life. JoAnn could not move her lodged foot and was unable to remain high enough over the boulder to keep her face out of the water. Vida Mae made her way over to another boulder closer to the bank, but with her strength gone and a slippery boulder, she was unable to pull herself free of the river. Both girls drowned while trying to grasp boulders, heads barely beneath the water. Vida Mae’s body was taken to her home and lay in wake until her boyfriend arrived from Germany. JoAnne’s body was taken to the funeral home. Jerry’s body was found 12 miles downriver three days later resting on a deserted beaver dam. We were not allowed to go to the funeral or gravesite. Weeks later, I kept thinking maybe they were all wrong and I would find Jerry lounging in one of our hideouts, laughing.

My mother folded into herself. Her grief was so that she stayed in their bedroom, forbidding Daddy to enter, curtains drawn as she exited our lives. I kept searching for signs of the mother I once knew—the woman easy to laugh and the last person in the room to be quiet. I was missing our time lying on a quilt in the shade of a sycamore tree painting cloud pictures or mother tickling me and slobbering a kiss into my dimple telling me,

“I’m filling your sugar bowl.”

Only recently, we had been sitting on a log stool, back to back, laughing and trying to push each other off the stump.

During mother’s withdrawal from our lives, Estelle, a family friend and neighbor, kept rotating all the casseroles brought to our house by the congregation and community, so that we had plenty to eat. But, we were so traumatized that nobody was ever hungry and much of the food spoiled.

Mother’s fading from the family was a terrible time. Weeks later she finally re-emerged. She did her chores and would sometimes sit on the porch. One sunny day not long after that, she and I sat there. Mother rocked in her old oak chair, with the faded, flowered cushion and me in Daddy’s oak rocker, which smelled faintly of tobacco he used in his old corn-cob pipe. We were not talking or playing the radio we were just being – me and her, silent. After the deaths, it was like that; Mother never talking. All of a sudden she said:

“Peggy, you know none of this would have happened if you’d just done as you were told.” Then she made the creaky rocking chair move. We just kept rocking. Quietly, I cried till I could hardly breathe, tasting my salty tears as they flowed down my face.

Daddy found me later in the barn, crying my eyes out, heart-broken. He told me I was his “little bird with a broken wing…”

“Mother hates me!”

“Well, right now she hates me, too!” He placed his arm around my shoulders.

“What happened was not your fault. You know that, right?”

After a few more anguished tears, slowly sniffling, I nodded. He then said he was taking me to visit his mother for a while. A fragment of a smile tried to find its way up from the past weeks of sorrow.

Since I was a very young child, I spent six weeks every summer at my grandmother’s house. We called her Granny Love and she told the greatest stories; sometimes ghostly, sometimes funny. She and I always took turns making up songs and stories.

When I arrived, Granny put her worn hand in mine, and then she brought me into an enveloping hug and sobbed. The guilt and the grief over JoAnn and Jerry and the wishing it all away became fresh and raw again. I snuggled into Granny’s frail arms and we cried into each other’s shoulders so deeply that I could feel the sorrow from her soul blending completely with my own. When Daddy entered her room, Granny cradled her child and his child and we all cried and wrapped our arms around each other tightly and squeezed. We swayed together.

“Lord’s gonna take care of everythang,” she said.

I had never seen my Daddy cry and I was shocked to see the tears rolling, freely down his face and he snorted just as I did, trying to stop the tears; we all three, laughed over this.

In the time I stayed with Granny, she gave me attention and love and told me over and over how proud she was of me. Then, Daddy took me home.

“Thangs gon’ be alright—someday it won’t hurt so much,” Granny Love told me.

She died seven days later, in her bed, all alone. I always wished I could have held her hand until the end, but then maybe not. In her wisdom, Granny knew how fragile she and I were and sent me home.

I returned home to find Mother with dark smudges under her eyes and still withdrawn, angry at me, at Daddy, at the world. Gradually, she began to return to her role as wife and mother. She went on to have three more children: two girls and one boy, as if to replace those she had lost. But life was not the same. Mother became bitter and unforgiving. Daddy, previously loving and jovial, withdrew, too.

They loved their first-born children so much that, after their deaths, they could not find it within their hearts to love their others as much.