UPFRONT, GAMMA GERT’S PRAYER GROUP, the Wild Women of God, offered sympathy and support. Their unyielding loyalty to my gamma aside, they, along with the rest of the townsfolk, did their own share of tsk-tsking behind our backs:
“It’s a shame about Gertie’s boy. What he done.”
“A shame for her you mean.”
“Bad things happen to good people—”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“They say young Vidalia done lost her mind—”
“Well, thank the Lord she got Gertrude Kaye lookin’ out for her.”
“If Jesus hisself came down from the cross and told Gert to throw that boy out—”
“She wouldn’t do it. Y’all know she wouldn’t do it.”
“It just don’t seem fair.”
“Life ain’t fair. Who don’t know that?”
The Wild Women’s bimonthly prayer callings at the River of Hope Springs Eternal Church and Pool Hall commenced with a Baptism of Tears for new members or any constituents in need of refreshing. Purifications by dunking took place at the Go Forth Creek followed by a processional to the pool hall for spirits, vittles, and benediction.
Each woman appealed to her sisters-in-prayer at one time or another and nary a one was denied. Sustenance flowed in proportion to need, not propriety.
They prayed over ornery in-laws, wayward children, and over-zealous revenuers. But mostly they petitioned against cheating-hearted men, and that any straying husband be stricken with the lockjaw, or an agonizing, slow-death version of the clap.
The Women left any other of life’s sundry social quandaries and improprieties to be remedied however they all deemed fit, depending on an individual’s inclinations. Their creaky, squeaky gate of support, hinged on various theories of right and wrong, swung loose and wide, being more of an evolving system than one set in stone. The undercurrent of acceptance and protection from within this sodality ran steady and impenetrable.
Those Wild Women made no distinction between the Haves and Have-Nots. Though their sisterhood consisted mainly of the latter, all were welcome here.
Gamma solicited their indulgence and the Women responded in kind. Momma was, as a wounded baby bird, taken in under their most colorful and abiding wings.
Loyal to a fault and ever true to her charges, Gamma said and did whatever she thought best to dispel rumors that her son had driven his child bride mad having beaten her badly enough to cause my misbirthing.
“After all, JB never had no decent role model,” Gamma’d offer up.
“And in the end that ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.”
Now, no one blamed Gamma for her son’s misdoings, but surely she could have tried just one little bit harder to hold him accountable.
To her credit Gamma’s blind spot wasn’t limited to blood kin. She was just about as duly unsighted of my momma’s odd behaviors as she was her boy’s.
“We shall pray for Vidalia Lee, my sisters. She’s sliding down a razor blade barefooted. What the gal’s gone through is just a phase,” Gamma insisted to her choir. “She’ll get through it all though, in her own way. In her own time.”
Gamma was right, in her own way. And while Momma busied herself fancying I was her’s to care for, I’d set my spirit to figuring, without straying beyond the boundaries of my calling, how I might help her find her own self, and what exactly could be done about the situation at hand.
“But Gertrude Kaye, Vida Lee reckons her baby is still here,” Mabel Minor insisted.
“Ain’t nothin worse to befall a woman then what befelled our Vidalia.” Gamma spelled it out, yet again, for her guard.
“Gertrude? Maybe the girl needs have herself a nice long rest at the Brandywine. Me ’n Mable might could carry her there for you,” old Sally Anne Seamens interjected.
“That child gets all the rest she needs. I see to it!” Gamma insisted, attempting for the umpteenth time to put an end to the matter.
“Now, Gertie, dear, we don’t mean no disrespect but that girl, why, her head ain’t on straight no more. Not since—” Beverly Eberly said, wrinkling her brow.
“We all seen it, Gert. Vida Lee talks to a baby that ain’t there.”
“There ain’t no baby Gert! No baby, a’tall.”
“Hmmph. And how do y’all know that?” Gamma demanded.
“Know what?” MabelSallyBeverly, like a three-headed monster, exclaimed in unison.
“How do y’all know there ain’t no baby?” Gamma repeated with a heavy sense of calm. “Ain’t nobody knows what Vidalia sees from behind her own eyes. Y’all know that’s right.”
Humbling herself, Gamma Gert concluded her grand sermon on the porch, “My dear sisters, who I stuck with through hell and high waters, can I hear a amen?”
With a fervor of those gone before in their own madnesses and mayhems, any air of dissension subsided and the Wild Women responded in kind, “Amen, Gertrude Kaye. Amen.”
OUR TENDING HAD FALLEN TO Gamma Gert by default, and like everybody else excepting my momma, she couldn’t see me nor hear me. Just the same, she cared deeply for Momma, always responding most gently and directly to her needs, however questionable or outlandish. Gamma fulfilled whatever it was Momma required, and then some.
Gamma Gert’s seat-of-the-pants efforts freed me up to carry out my own mission within the limited terms and time frame to which I had agreed. Why, truth be told, I’d only just overstepped my boundaries but once. And I reckon that particular diversion, which will be spoken of by and by, was somehow acceptable on some higher level and in keeping with what all was expected of me.
GAMMA GERT KEPT MY FOLK’S room-off-the-farmhouse-kitchen clean enough. She laundered their clothing and bed linens as needed, stretching the sheets and covers tight with proper folds and creases in all the right places. She saw to it Momma changed her undergarments regularly and that she bathed at least once a week. Gamma brought Momma breakfast in bed most mornings, and dinner sometimes, too, whenever she fell blue and strayed even further than usual from the here and now.
Day after day, week after week, stationed by my momma’s bedside, Gamma pitted hope against common sense as she rattled on about any old thing, from comings and goings on our side of town, to who married who, and who left who for who, to who got caught with their hand in the till, as well as any other late-breaking or life-enhancing scuttlebutt. In her own way Gamma Gertrude loved my momma and truly did not want her left so far behind that she’d never catch up.
Vidalia’s phase, Gamma persisted, was just something she needed get through and come back around from. “There ain’t no stick big enough to measure what’s right or what’s wrong for a woman summoned to bury her child,” she’d say with a certainty.
Through many miseries and tribulations heaped upon Gamma for the better portion of her life, she’d kept up her own version of The Faith. I expect it helped carry her forward after losing JB’s daddy to the wanderlust.
According to legend, Clayton Booth Jackson had deserted Gertrude Kaye, along with their brand-new baby boy, behind a filling station, just outside of Belle Glade. JB was no more than a mere suckling at Gamma’s then barely budded, fifteen-year-old breasts. Though it was Clayton Booth who’d left them and of his own accord, it was always his own mama JB chose to hold responsible for their abandonment.
“YOU DON’T NEED FRET NONE,” Gamma liked to tell Momma. “It’s all gone work out, one way. Or another way.” Until such a time, Gamma Gert was agreeable and satisfied to nurture us with her good eye close up on Momma and her blind eye trained on her boy.
Momma and I got on just fine tucked back in that farmhouse so long as JB kept his distance. And he did, for the most part. Oh, he came around now and again looking for affection and whatnot—most especially when his lady friends were busy with their paying customers.
Yep, other than those times, we got on just fine.