It is only fitting that, on this day in particular, I continue sharing excerpts from the book I’m writing about my mother. This is her birthday. She died three years ago at age 95, and I still miss her. I am not sure when I will never miss her, or even if that is possible.
Anyway, this is one of my favorite pictures of her. It was taken a couple of years before she died.
We loved to go to the lake in Lake City, Michigan with our sketchpads in hand and spend several hours drawing and talking, or drawing and not talking. Either way was okay.
She also loved flowers, pansies in particular, so these are for her.
And now here is the excerpt, picking up from what I shared last Friday. It’s long, but it finishes a chapter, so I wanted to include it all. Enjoy…
For the rest of the dinner hour, Evelyn’s legs trembled from standing in one position for so long, and hunger rumbled in her stomach. And still nobody looked at her, except for Sister Honora who seemed fixed on watching, as if wanting to catch Evelyn in some other transgression. She didn’t know if Sister Honora would make her wear the dirty panties during evening prayer. She fervently hoped not. But she tried to steel herself for the possibility. She didn’t want to cry. Not for hunger or for humiliation. She wanted to be strong like her sister. Viola never cried when the sisters hit her or insulted her or made her do horrible things. Viola would just set her jaw and look them in the eye and hold the tears back.
Somehow, Evelyn needed to find the strength to do that, too. Otherwise the other kids would learn how weak she really was and take advantage.
Evelyn stood for another painful hour as evening prayer followed dinner, and her only plea to a God she wasn’t even sure was listening was that the session would end before her legs gave out and she fell. Once when Maria had toppled over in a heap during a punishment, she had received ten hard smacks with Sister’s cane on the back of her legs. The same fate would have Evelyn hobbling for days.
Finally, when Evelyn thought she could stand there no longer, it was over. Sister Honora closed the book of evening prayers and walked down the aisle to Evelyn. “Take that filthy rag off your head and get washed.”
“Yes, sister.” Evelyn turned quickly and headed to the washroom. She took off her clothes and stepped into the large washtub that was used for bathing. The water was cold, but she didn’t care. She took the bar of lye soap and scrubbed her hair, and then went under the water, holding her breath for a long time. She wished she could stay under forever. Never have to face Sister again. Or be hungry. Or be teased by the other children.
Sputtering, Evelyn burst out of the water, gasping for breath. Two older girls were in the washroom. “Hurry up,” one of them shouted. “Get your stinky self out of here.”
Evelyn quickly got out of the tub and dried herself with a rough towel. Then she pulled on the clean clothes she had grabbed from the sleep room and dressed. She took the wet underwear to one of the sinks and washed them, soaping and rinsing and soaping and rinsing again to get the odor out.
After lights were out for a little while and all was quiet in the sleeping area, Evelyn heard a rustle of sheets and then felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked up at her sister. “Here,” Viola said, holding out a hunk of bread wrapped in a napkin.
Evelyn grabbed the bread and took a large bite, sending a cascade of crumbs down the front of her nightgown.
“It’s making a mess.”
“Oh, brother,” Viola said, lowering herself to Evelyn’s bunk. A dim shaft of moonlight from the window fell across the front of Evelyn’s nightgown, and Viola saw the crumbs. She brushed them into her hand and then licked them off. “Be careful. If Sister finds crumbs, we’ll both get punished.”
Viola sat on the edge of the bed. “Finish now. Then I’ll clean up the rest.”
“Why are you being so nice?”
“Because that’s what sisters do.”
“But you weren’t nice in the dining hall.”
Viola looked off into the darkness. “I couldn’t.”
Evelyn didn’t understand why, but that was just one more thing she didn’t understand about this place or how differently her sister acted when they were alone. This sister. The one who would sneak her food at night, was the sister who always made Evelyn feel better for a little while. She poked Viola to get her attention.
“Are we ever going to get out of here.”
“I don’t know.”
“When I’m a mother, I’m not going to do this.”
Viola frowned. “What.”
“Give my babies away.”
“That’s years and years away. You don’t know what you will do.”
“Yes I do.” Determination pushed her upright. “I’m going to have a house. Like Miz Beatrice. And three children. And a father. And a mother. And kittens who don’t run away.”
Evelyn giggled. “You always say that.”
Viola sighed. “And you always say the silliest things.”
“It’s not silly. It’s perfect.”
Viola sighed again, then put an arm around Evelyn. “You’re right.”
“What do you wish for?” Evelyn asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think about it much.”
Viola paused for so long, Evelyn wondered if she was going to say any more, then Viola pulled her into a tighter hug. “We have to think about now, Evelyn. How we are going to survive now.”
“Will you still take care of me?”
“When I can. But you have to learn how to take care of yourself.”
A cold shiver of alarm ran down Evelyn’s back. “I don’t want to.”
“You have to. I’m going to take care of myself, and that will mean that sometimes….”
The sentence trailed off, as if Viola wasn’t sure how to finish it, and then it hit. The reason Viola ignored her at dinner.
“I’ll be good. I promise.” But even as she said those words, Evelyn knew it wouldn’t matter. Being good had not made her mother love her enough to keep her. It had not kept Miz Beatrice from getting The Cancer. And it was not going to make her sister chose her over what would help Viola most. But Evelyn didn’t know what else to do but try.
That’s all for me, folks. I hope you have a great weekend. As usual, I welcome any feedback on this excerpt.