Scenes of Everyday Life in Meyerton, Georgia, circa 1942
The only two things that Jill knew about Mrs. Beatrice Everton were that she was the mother of her husband, Sam, and that her own husband, Arthur, had passed away one year ago to the date. From the letters that arrived on a monthly basis, Jill could tell that Mrs. Everton adored her son but that she disapproved of his choice to go all the way to Indiana for school, and to make a home there afterward. If she had ever approved of Jill, it was hard to tell, and she certainly had made it known that she did not agree with Jill and Sam’s choice to have Mattie just as trouble was brewing in Europe, threatening to make its way across the Atlantic once again.
That had been a nasty letter that arrived on their front porch one cold winter morning, only a week or so after Sam had excitedly sent his parents news of the expectation of their first grandchild. “How can you be so careless? Roosevelt certainly cannot keep the U.S. out of that war forever, and when it comes over here, you can sure as bet that there will be a draft and that the child might as well grow up fatherless.”
Even now Jill could picture those words written in neat, patient cursive straight across unlined, nondescript stationary paper, as if Mrs. Everton made such comments every day of the week. And of course she did not blame her son for the choice, but imagined that it had been a result of Jill’s relentless insistence on having a child.
“Just couldn’t wait to get busy, could you?” Mrs. Everton had written, in a smaller, even nastier note addressed directly to Jill, and the only one she had ever received from her mother-in-law until the telegram directing her where she could find Mrs. Everton once she and Mattie got to the train station in Buford, Georgia. Sam would be somewhere across the Atlantic, Jill hardly knew where in her own reluctant rush to move, fighting in the war Mrs. Everton had prophesied would reach American shores.
The Georgia heat beat down on Jill now as she led her three year old daughter across the platform in search of a porter who could help them take their luggage to the parking lot. The porter she found hastily located the two large suitcases and gray steamer trunk marked with her maiden name of Reams, loaded them onto a cart, and dumped them on the sidewalk outside of the station building where Jill and Mattie were waiting in the shade of the faded green and white striped canvas awning. And she silently argued against what Sam had asked her to do: move from the suburban Indiana town she had lived in all her life to this rural speck of a town to take care of and support his aging mother, because his father had passed away. Jill did not even know if Sam would ever come home to take care of all of them himself.
A red 1940 Chevrolet pulled up to the curb and a woman with grey hair pulled back in a tight bun, skin tan and calloused from a lifetime of Georgia sunshine, and bright blue eyes just like Sam’s, emerged from the driver’s seat. “Jill?” she inquired with a curt nod. Jill smiled in affirmation, but only briefly, for the woman’s posture remained stiff and distant.
Jill now knew a third thing about Mrs. Everton. There was no point at which the woman had ever approved of Jill.
* * *
Bea, as Mrs. Everton asked to be called in her clipped voice that was such a counter to the southern drawl Jill expected and heard from everyone else she had met so far in Georgia, had arranged for her daughter-in-law to get a job working in one of the Buford factories that had shifted from making women’s nylon pantyhose to soldiers’ parachutes. Jill was to work from eight until five on weekdays, and every other Saturday, while Mattie stayed home with Bea, who had firmly told Jill that she would teach the child to speak. Mattie had barely spoken five words since they had arrived in Georgia and Bea insisted that there must be something wrong with a child that does not speak. Jill knew that Mattie had stopped speaking after Sam left, but she did not want to tell Bea that, did not want to be reminded of the terrible words in that awful letter sent three years before.
The first Saturday that Jill had free, Bea expected her to do some work in the garden and help clean up around the house before summer ended. Jill left Mattie to sleep in the bed that they shared in the room that had once been and was still decorated as Sam’s childhood bedroom, and started sweeping and mopping the downstairs rooms of the old sprawling house that at one point in its history belonged to a wealthy plantation owner, and eventually to a wealthy lawyer by the name of Arthur Everton. Bea, who had risen even earlier with the sunrise, busied herself in the kitchen without a word of instruction or gratitude for Jill as she hauled brooms and mops and buckets of water from room to room.
Breakfast, which did not come until after Jill had completed her cleaning of the first floor, consisted only of coffee and scrambled eggs, and the meal took longer than Bea had scheduled because Mattie had woken by that point and asked for breakfast too. Mattie made of mess of the eggs and dumped half the salt container out on the table, having missed the plate. Jill simply smiled and rubbed her nose against Mattie’s nose, making the little girl giggle and bounce on her mother’s lap.
“She doesn’t seem to speak but does she ever sit still?” Bea harrumphed, wiping up the salt pile with a cloth and surveying the massacre of eggs upon the tabletop. “She gets as antsy as her father!”
Jill pictured the time that Sam had got it into his head to raise chickens and so began building a coop out of scraps of materials that very day when he came home from work, creating a ramshackle shelter that Jill had mistaken for a dog house and had assumed was Sam’s way of finally consenting to her request for a golden retriever like the one she had growing up. They never got the chickens. Sam soon forgot about the coop and the birds, and started planning for a baby instead.
* * *
The wooden steps leading up to the small white church were shaded by a spindly pair of almond trees that gave off a scent that Jill fell in love with the first Sunday she had accompanied her mother-in-law. The almond scent reminded her of the perfume she used to borrow from her old college roommate, before she left on dates with Sam. Most of the time she did not like thinking about Sam at all, for fear of what even thinking of him, and where he was, and what he was doing, would lead to, but she liked thinking of him when she passed the almond trees, with her daughter Mattie clasping her hand as she skipped along in the little white sundress that Bea had made for her granddaughter.
Today was an especially muggy. Jill watched Bea and all of the other older ladies genteelly fan themselves with their announcement papers that the greeters had handed out in the foyer, and pulled Mattie onto her lap, bouncing the blond haired three year old up and down on her knee. Mattie laughed in delight and Bea cast Jill a look of firm disapproval at the outburst. The pastor was approaching the pulpit.
Jill faded out instantly. She had never once listened to a sermon since she had started coming to Meyerton Baptist with Bea six weeks ago. It was a point of pride for her, this silent rebellion against the dusty and traditional Southern town, the aging, sprawling house and the woman who had not come to her wedding because the ceremony took place in her parents’ barn.
Mattie tugged on her hand and Jill turned to see the offering plate being held out to her. She handed Mattie a nickel to slip into the plate, as she always did, and passed it on down the pew. Jill rubbed her daughter’s back, making slow smooth circles, knowing that if she was too light Mattie would jump and start laughing because it tickled. The choir finished their hymn, Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow, before the pastor moved into Communion, the first Communion that Jill and Mattie had attended since they arrived in Meyerton.
The pastor read the passage from First Corinthians as ushers passed out plates with little individual cups of grape juice and various sized scraps of bread and Jill took some for both herself and Mattie, though Bea seemed to disapprove of her allowing Mattie to hold her cup and bread, her frown lines deepening as she straightened up in the pew to appear as prim and proper as possible by comparison.
The pastor came to the line about the taking of the bread “in remembrance of Christ” and the congregation followed suit as he ate his own piece, before continuing on to the cup. Jill closed her eyes as he finished speaking, tilted her head back and drained the little glass, grape flavor splashing about in her mouth, almost sickly sweet. A moment later she felt something wet and sticky fall on her right hand, which had been resting on Mattie’s lap as she hugged her daughter to her chest. Jill opened her eyes to see a growing purple stain splattered across the front of Mattie’s white dress and her own hand. The little girl squirmed impatiently as the juice began to soak in.
“Give me that!” Bea hissed, having turned to see the stain at just the same time as Jill, and grabbed the cup from Mattie’s sticky fingers, shoving it onto the stack of glasses that was being collected and passed down the pews. Immediately Mattie’s face started to crumple at the harshness of her grandmother’s voice and the loss of her “plaything.” Jill flashed Bea a withering look as she slipped out of her seat and carried Mattie out into the foyer, where the door stood open to let in the rare July breeze and the relentless buzz of cicadas.
* * *
In the afternoon after Jill had put Mattie down for a nap, she changed into a simple blouse and an old pair of casual trousers of Sam’s, rolled up, and went to out to work in Bea’s prized garden. She dug her toes into the soil and sighed, wishing that her worries would dissipate as easily as her exhaled breath. She had only just begun picking pea pods and gathering them in the wicker basket that she balanced on her hip when Bea called to her from the wide porch that stretched around to the side of the yard where the garden plots lay.
“Don’t go picking those vegetables if they aren’t ripe!” Bea reprimanded as she brushed sweat and hair away from her forehead. “Now come help me with the laundry. At least this way I can keep an eye on you.”
Jill hid a bemused smile as she set the basket aside and went around the far side of the house to where a large tin wash basin had been set up, already brimming with hot water and soap suds, several piles of laundry and linens awaiting their fate. Bea had already returned to the basin and had her sleeves rolled up to her elbows as she plunged a small white and purple bundle beneath the surface of bubbles and water.
“Which shall I start with?” Jill asked hesitantly, watching as Bea violently scrubbed the cloth against a washboard.
“Any of it, you silly girl, it has all got to be washed and hung up before the sun goes down,” the older woman half-muttered, rolling her eyes. Whether at the question or Jill it was hard to tell.
Jill pretended not to notice her irritation and took a sheet from the top of the first pile to wash, positioning herself on the opposite side of the basin from her mother-in-law. She imitated the way in which Bea plunged the cloth down into the water and swirled it around, before dragging it back and forth across the washboard until satisfied that it had been thoroughly scrubbed and could then be rinsed in the second basin. Jill quickly completed the washing, scrubbing and rinsing of four sheets before she realized that Bea had never moved on from her first washing. She just kept swirling the cloth around and around in the suds, and the purple stain never got any smaller. Jill caught her eyes and in that moment Bea spoke as she had never spoken to Jill before, utterly vulnerable, voicing a shared fear.
“What if he never comes home?”
* * *
Bea never spoke in that way to Jill again but neither did she boss her around or speak to her with a tone of disapproval as she once had done. From then on Bea showed her appreciation of - and even love for - Jill in small acts of kindness: fresh hot coffee on her bedside dresser when she awoke in the early morning before getting ready for work, old stockings and socks darned without a word, an antique silver brush and mirror set that appeared one Sunday morning before church, joining in the shelling of the peas as Jill sat on the front steps watching Mattie run around the yard.
The greatest kindness that Bea did for Jill took place one late August evening during her first year in Meyerton. Mattie bustled about the yard as dusk descended, grasping after the fireflies that flitted above the long grass. A mason jar with holes punched in the lid dangled from a string over her shoulder. Both Jill and Bea sat in wooden chairs with woven straw seats on the porch, sipping glasses of sun tea that Jill had brewed on top of the railing that same afternoon.
“She never speaks,” Bea nodded toward Mattie as she tumbled in the dirt, laughing.
“No,” Jill answered softly, “but then, she is almost always smiling. She’s just waiting for her Daddy to come home.”
She had never told her mother-in-law that before and she could see the effect it had on Bea, her eyes glistening in the fading light as she followed her granddaughter’s meandering path.
“I’m glad you and Sam chose to have Mattie.”
Not “Why did you decide to have Mattie?”
“With her here,” Bea continued, taking Jill’s hand in her own, gently rubbing her thumb across the cracked and sunburned skin, “it’s almost as if Sam was with us again.”
Jill did not know what to say but slightly squeezed Bea’s calloused hand and knew that she would never know enough about Mrs. Beatrice Everton.
This was my first story to be accepted for publication, to a little online periodical that I'm pretty sure is now defunct. Aside from a few minor grammatical edits (boy, did I have a weakness for run-on sentences) this story remains the same as the original published version.