Back to the World
by James Shaffer
Table of Contents|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,
11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18,
19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25
It wasn’t planned, but nature took its course, the way the slow, patient flow of a river gouges out a canyon. It twists and turns through valleys and flatlands following a path of least resistance, circling round mammoth boulders, dropping off the edges of glistening, flat rocks, seeking another level, another empty space to fill, flowing onward to the sea, its final destination.
During my growing-up years, my daddy hired himself out to local ranchers and farmers. It was hard work, and he hated it. Whether he returned from the war a different man, I don’t know, but I remember during those years, his outlook on life was grim. He suffered inside.
Maybe it was the war or his wounds, but self-loathing consumed him, punished him in some way for the things done to him by someone else. He could have lashed out. He could have taken it out on my mama and me, but he didn’t. He protected us from the awful vision that dogged his waking hours. So I think he loved us in his own way. He just didn’t love himself.
He turned inward and drank heavily. When he finally had enough alcohol to forget, he gambled away almost every penny. That way, when he woke up from a drunk, he felt even worse. It was his gambling and owing the bookies that eventually got us into trouble. It was his pattern, skirting boulders, like the river, except he had no sea at the end to empty into, no destination — no hope.
No matter what he did, my mama never spoke ill of my daddy. Like our nights under a simple backyard tent, she made the most of what she had in her world, and she was grateful for what was given her, however little. She was thankful that Tom had returned alive from the war. That he’d been wounded hurt her deeply. That he felt wounded inside hurt her even more.
While he worked at tearing everything apart, she tried to help him and us by keeping everything together. That was her contribution to our family. She was hopeful and, when she quoted from the Bible, she said, “Hope is not a shameful thing.” She admonished me. “No matter what you do in life, remember that Johnnie.”
In my small, naïve way, all I could say was, “Yes ma’am.”
Mama couldn’t grab every paycheck Daddy got before he spent it all or gambled it all away. She knew that. She also knew that we had to eat. When I was little and Daddy was far away, she took on jobs she could do at home.
From her schooldays she’d had some accounting classes so she started doing a few people’s tax returns and kept the books for some of the ranchers. Being resourceful, what she didn’t know about, she read up on. But when Daddy returned, she needed to find something that took her away from the house, something that got her out.
Helen Pearl was still tending to the midwife business, and my mama worked her way into being her assistant. Then, under Helen’s tutelage for the practical, Mama took a correspondence course and became a qualified midwife herself. It was more than a job to her. It was a calling.
“Ain’t no greater thing than to help bring a life into the world,” she exclaimed. Though she treated it as a calling, she didn’t see herself as God’s assistant, as some might. “God moves in mysterious ways,” she said, “ways no one can tell.” If she’d been asked, she would have said she was only a servant, “If you’re gonna be used in this life, better be used by God.”
I spent my formative years accompanying my mama on her birthing sessions. She’d plant me somewhere in the house she was visiting, usually in the hallway on a chair with a book. “Johnnie. You sit there till I come for you. Read that book. Learn something,” she instructed.
For the months and years that followed, I think I read an entire library. Mama chose the books. One week was history, the next a novel. It continued that way for weeks on end. One week she handed me a short story in French along with a French grammar book and dictionary. I looked at the books, then at her. She knew what I was thinking. “Figure it out. This is going to be a long one, Johnnie; you’ve got plenty of time.”
We’d talk about the books I read. She didn’t test me, but she asked me lots of questions. I hoped my answers were good. She never said. I didn’t know it, but I was being home-schooled before it ever became popular. There were no regular schools in our neck of the woods, but my mama wanted me to have an education. So she taught me.
I spent those years with my nose in a book and my ears perked for the painful screams of birth. I learned the rhythm of birth from the screams. They were followed at the end by a silence suddenly broken by the desperate wail of a newborn baby. It didn’t happen all the time; most of the time, but not all the time. When it didn’t, the silence was followed by sobs and cries and another type of wailing that comes from profound grief.
My mama’s comforting voice was part of that grief. Sitting downstairs in my chair, I could still hear my mama’s voice from on high. I couldn’t make out the words, but sometimes it felt, in a slow, careful cadence of comfort, like she was almost singing.
At those times, I remember seeing her come slowly down the stairs. She’d stop and stare at me; then she’d walk over, take my hand, pull me gently to my feet and hold me close. She’d whisper words over the top of my head as if they were meant just for me, but I knew they were meant for her, too. “There are some mysteries we can never know the answers to.”
Copyright © 2015 by James Shaffer