They call her Sudie.
“No, Momma! I’m tired of this old petticoat. It’s stringy and coming apart in the middle. I’m so sick of always having to wear Mary’s throw-aways. When am I gonna get new clothes? It’s not fair!” Anna Sue yelled.
Anna Sue’s mother was ironing her daughter’s dress for church the next morning, but she didn’t want to have to wear the same thing again. The smocked apron that lay over her white cotton petticoat was too nice for the thread-bare hand-me-down that slipped underneath.
Sudie, as they called her, hated wearing hand-me-downs. She was feisty and didn’t mince words when it came to what she wanted. She was used to getting her way after all. With so many older brothers to dote on her, she ruled the roost and pranced around the house like she owned the place.
I can imagine her now, stomping her feet and kicking up a fuss when her mother took it to the tenant house across the field for their daughter, Mabie. She was a few years older but with a tiny frame and got all the leftovers from Anna Sue’s closet.
Sudie had a lot of nicknames as a young child. Her brothers loved to tease her for eating so many bananas all the time. She once ate a whole dozen by herself! That’s how Anna Sue became Anna Banana, and eventually, she became Sudie, which finally stuck for life.
The piano was Sudie’s escape from the chaos in her daily routine. With 8 siblings, it was hard to get noticed. She was a natural on the keys with a flair for the embellished arpeggio, a dramatic crescendo, or a tippy-toe staccato that skipped from bass to treble and back in perfect time. Everyone loved her way with the black-and-white notes, and she knew her performances brought the love and attention she so desired.
She played every day, reluctantly did her theory lessons, and eventually was accepted into the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music where she went to college as a beautiful, young lady.
Eyes of blue
Back on the farm, she wasn’t expected to contribute to daily chores. They had people for that. Black women came to the house nearly every day to make the beds, wash the clothes, cook the food, and bathe the children. On Fridays and Sundays they had the day off, but that meant that Mary, Sudie’s older sister, ended up doing most of the housework with her mother. Over time Mary started to resent Sudie for not having to do much but tend to herself, her music lessons, and her daydreaming.
But the boys loved to hear Sudie play. She was overly dramatic as she showed off her perfectly poised fingers adding more to the piece than was called for on the sheet music in front of her. She only needed to see the key it was in and to know the melody to be able to dance all around the tune, giving everyone within earshot a handsome treat.
Sudie often told me stories about her beloved brothers. She didn’t mention Mary too often. We once visited Mary in the nursing home in Crockett County. I didn’t even know Mary existed before that. Sudie took her something to eat, but I never got any childhood stories about her. It made me wonder if they didn’t share too many happy memories together because of Sudie’s younger age and Mary’s apparent jealousy.
George was 11 years older than Sudie. He would often take her into town to the crossing to get something sweet from the bakery, or he’d drive her around with the windows down to escape the heat of a West Tennessee summer. One Saturday morning, Sudie overheard her mother and father talking about the negro man hanging at the crossing. He’d been put up overnight, likely by a rowdy group of boys. They didn’t know little Anna Sue was in the next room hanging onto their every word. Her eyes grew big, and her curiosity was in overdrive. She wanted to go see for herself.
Pretty soon George came in from hunting with his prize dog, Scout. He loved to take Scout to find squirrels or rabbits. He’d bring home a few, skin them, and hang them up on a hook to drip dry and give them to his momma to make him a feast to snack on later. Now was Sudie’s chance. She ran up to George to beg him to take her to town that day to get the new danishes that had been promised the week before. They were a European delight and supposed to be delicious!
He thought that sounded like a great idea, a fine outing for the afternoon. He just needed to wash up and they’d be on their way. Sudie didn’t really know if the danishes were going to be at Mr. D’s Bakery. She just wanted to get herself to the crossing to witness the man hanging. George knew no better what had happened, but when he started out of the driveway with Sudie propped up in the front passenger seat, their mother ran outside to ask where they were going.
“Why, we are headed to town for some tasty delights, Momma. Want us to bring back something for you?” he claimed.
“Oh no, you won’t be going to town today,” as she looked sternly at them. George knew she meant business and pulled the car back under the carport without another word. She pulled him to the side to tell him something, and Sudie watched as he hung his head low while she relayed the goings-on from the night before.
Sudie knew the jig was up. She wouldn’t be going anywhere near the crossing today. Her mother just hoped that everything would be cleared away and cleaned up before church on Sunday.
But Momma wasn’t so sure about that.
My name is Mabie.
It is just a simple, white cotton dress, but I love it. It’s not crisp-white like the white girls wear with the fancy collar, grosgrain ribbon pleats, and a smocking design on the front of cute, bunny rabbits or kittens. It’s more muted in color, natural-looking like cotton from the field picked straight off the pod. The frock almost looks blue next to my dark skin, and the threads on it are bare and coming apart at the waist. The white lady gave it to my momma this morning because they were done with it, being the petticoat underneath a pretty Sunday-go-to-meetin’ dress for their little girl. They wouldn’t dare be seen having her wear it out and about looking like this.
But I don’t care. I just love it!
Going into town is a treat. We’ll hitch a ride in the back of a cotton trailer to visit the crossing where the city-folk gather to eat out on Saturday night, after church on Sunday, or to shop the stores where we aren’t allowed to be. Sometimes, we can get leftovers if we wait for all the white folks to finish their meals first. We’ll wait for our cue as Bessie or Lula Mae step out back of the cafe and let the screen door slam hard. That’s how we know there is a biscuit or a corn cob, and, if we’re lucky, a slice of chocolate fudge pie wrapped up in some cloth tied around a stick to hold it all together.
Last time we got to go to town, it was my birthday, so Bessie made sure to get us a slice of pie. It was apple, not my favorite. She said she tried so hard to get chocolate for me, but apparently Mista’ Jones from the farm 2 plots over from where we live got the last slice, and they didn’t have enough cocoa to make another one. But that was okay. I took the first bite, then Daddy had a big bite cause his mouth is bigger, but Momma barely had a lick. She said she wasn’t feeling like having any sugar, which was a lie, so she gave me the rest because it was my special day. I didn’t mind one bit.
I am wearing my white dress tonight, so I gotta be careful not to get any stains on it. I dropped it on the dirt floor inside the house earlier, but it came off pretty easy with a few pats. I forget sometimes to be careful with things, but I’m getting better. Momma said for me to take good care of it since it won’t fit before long.
At least I don’t have to pick cotton yet, so I can wear the dress any ‘ole time I want to. Being only nine years old, I get to help inside the house, but next year when I’m ten, Daddy says we need an extra set of hands in the field. I’m not sure what he means by that. I already have two hands. Where we gonna get another set from? I’m not looking forward to picking no cotton, with its prickly bracts waiting to cut my hands. Man, it stings like a hornet!
To escape the suffocating, southern air, we dip ourselves in the bubbling crick nearby that feeds the crops, but we can only do it late at night or on Sundays when the little white girl’s family from the big house near the road is at church worshiping Jesus Christ with tiny soda crackers and grape juice. Wading in the water is the only way I can sleep, to cool myself off after a long, hot day in the sun. It feels glorious for the cold water to swallow me up. I can’t swim, but with it being a crick, it isn’t any deeper than my calves at the water’s edge. My favorite thing is to lie down on the smooth rocks, avoiding the slick, mossy waterfall that flows off the fallen oak tree into the deeper part where it’s slippery. The water flows over me making me feel so cold that I can feel it in my bones. I climb back up the bank, careful not to slip, then run to the house before I get hot again, so I can sleep soundly ‘til sunrise.
When I was little, I thought the clouds pooped on the fields and it turned into cotton. I wanted to pick some to take to the lady in the big house for her new baby girl. Momma never would let me near the field though. She said I’d get there soon enough, but that made me all the more curious about it.
So one night when I went to the crick to cool down, I made sure Momma wasn’t looking my way. I got to the edge of the field where it near ‘bout ended. The bank of the crick sloped down. That’s when I pretended to get in the water, but really I squatted down low and crawled into the next-to-last cotton row to pick a piece for baby Anna.
Ouch! There must be a hornet’s nest in here! It sure looks like a nest to me.
Blood rose up under my thumbnail. It hurt so bad. I put my thumb in my mouth and felt the tears sting my face as I let myself into the cold water to stop the cryin’ and the bleedin’ at the same time. That’s when I learnt why Momma hated picking cotton. When Daddy’s not working the railroad, he hates it, too. Not that railroad work is any better. But cotton is our saving grace. The man gives us food and this house for it and a little pocket change, but most of all, it protects us from the sun and keeps us cool from the blistering heat, Momma says.
Speaking of blistering heat, I sure could use a dip, but I don’t get to go to the crick tonight ‘cause we’re goin’ to town to meet up with friends and feast on chicken-n-dumplings. Boy, they make your mouth water. Lula Mae picks up the white folks’ plates from the tables and scrapes the picked-over legs, thighs, breasts, wings, and necks into a pot of boiling water to let the meat fall off the bones. Then she rolls the flesh in a bowl of flour and drops it back into the boiling pot. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
I saw Aubrey leave the house just now. He always stops by to double-check that we’re going into town with him later. He better be going to get the cotton trailer to come back and pick us up soon! The sun is sitting at the edge of the treetops already, and the first serving starts any minute. But something seems strange about him today. He’s got this weird look on his face, like he’s sad or something.
“Momma, please…I’m so hungry. Can I please get somethin’ to eat?”
“No, chile. Git your hands outta that bin. We’re having a good supper tonight, and meantime, you better mind me, young’un.”
“Oh Momma,” I cried.
“Stop them tears, Mabie, or I’ll give you something to cry about. And when we git to town, you stay in the back of the restaurant. No running out front tonight.”
“Don’t you ‘but’ me! I mean it, Mabie! Not tonight, baby girl. Not tonight.”
I knew she meant it, too.
Finally, Aubrey pulls up next to the cotton field by the tree that looks like a rooster if you sit back far enough and look at it from the north in the dark. We climb up in the back and sit on some bales of hay fashioned into benches. They’re prickly on my legs. I shoulda’ wore some pants under this dress, but it’s so dang hot. I just can’t stand it.
We get to town, and Aubrey takes us as close to the crossing as he’s allowed to. Daddy helps me and Momma down, then he steers us a different way than we normally go.
“Why we goin’ this a’way, Daddy?”
“Oh, that’s because we’re on an adventure!”
Daddy is good at venturin’ around. He knows every nook and cranny from here to Memphis! Everybody wants his advice when they need to take a trip outta town, so if he can, he usually just goes with them to be safe. He doesn’t want anybody gettin’ into trouble when it can be avoided. I’m not sure exactly what he means by that, but I hear stories sometimes at night when he and Momma talk on the front porch, and they think I’m sleeping.
Pretty soon, we come up outta the woods to the back of the cafe. Just in time, too! There’s a big bowl of dumplin’s with steam rising up right where Bessie usually leaves it. I scoop the dumplings out with my hands before anybody else. It is hot to the touch, burning my fingers, so I blow on it until it is cool enough to pop into my mouth to savor.
This is the sweet reward after a long week in the burning sun.
After we eat, I’m ready to run around and find my buddies, but Momma said I can’t go running off tonight. I wonder if it has something to do with what she and Aubrey were talking about earlier today.
Our heads all jerk towards the cafe.
Lula Mae comes running towards us out the back door hysterically crying, and tells Momma that poor Elijah Jones is hanging out front, right in the middle of the crossing!
“Lula! Shhh. I don’t want Mabie to know this! Aubrey came by and told me earlier. I was trying to keep her from finding out,” Momma cried.
“Oh, I’s so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’s sorry. It upset me so. I hadda tell somebody!”
My heart falls. I know what hanging means. That’s what the front-porch talks are usually about. Even though I’m not supposed to, I want to sneak around the side and peek, but if Momma catches me, I’ll get a switch to the legs.
The eatin’ is good tonight. Cornbread. Butter. We don’t get butter much. Bessie keeps coming out with dish after dish. We try to pick at it, but even the chocolate fudge pie she set out for us hasn’t been touched yet. Seeing all those white folk carrying on like nothing is making Momma sick. She steps off into the bushes to throw up her dinner. Daddy runs over and starts rubbing her back.
It’s now or never.
They’re not looking my way. My heart is beating in my ears, getting louder and louder with each step I take. I can’t hear anything else but a hum of voices in the distance laughing and yelling. I pick up the pace, almost around the corner, and that’s when I see him. Elijah Jones is hanging from a rope, his body bloody and beaten, wearing his dirty-white cotton shirt, brown pants, and no shoes, unable to touch the ground beneath him with mere inches to go.
“We gather here today to praise the Lord,” says the preacher man with his eyes closed and right hand in the air.
“Amen!” we reply. Everybody's hands are up. I lift up mines, too, to reach for the sky or somethin'.
“We have watched men like Elijah in our community pretending to be happy all the time, Lord. But not all men can participate when we gather to sing songs in the cornfield to praise you. Lord, hear us as we ask you to watch over our men when they stray. And when they run into trouble, we beg you, Lord, to let them into the pearly gates of Heaven, oh Lord.”
“Yes, Jesus!” they say. I turned my eyes up to look at Momma to see if she heard me say amen instead.
“Hear us, Lord, as we take the beatin’s and the yellin’ from the foreman.”
“Praise Jesus!” we say. I got that one right.
“Help us to not drink the moonshine left in the still to escape the demons in our heads.”
“Hear our prayer, Lord!” at the same time. I chimed in by the time we got to Lord.
“Out with the devil, I pray!”
“Amen! Amen! Hear us pray!” all together, the big finale.
On our way back, I can hear Momma say that she could see it coming with Elijah. That he was such a funny, sensitive man. Entertaining us all. Yes, he would. That she’d never seen someone so strong yet so troubled at the same time. His mood would go from hilarious to down right depressed in a hot minute.
Later in the afternoon, the ladies from two other farms gather with me and Momma in the cornfield clearing again, avoiding the woods way back behind the still where those evil boys found Elijah drunk on their moonshine Friday night. We sing and pray some more for his soul to carry on, far away from this forsaken place.
Elijah rock. Shout shout!
Elijah rock, coming up, Lord.
Elijah rock. Shout shout!
Elijah rock, coming up, Lord.
They tell me I’m special, that they’ll do everything they can to protect me, tell me who to trust, who not to trust. They’re all my mommas. I trust each and every one of them with my life, even though some are more strict than others in the harshness of their voices. I know they mean well, to make sure I don’t get pulled into the storm shelter by the foreman and come out with blood running down my legs like I saw Nessa do.
They think I’m gonna do something someday, that I’ll show up all the others with my smarts and figurin’. I’ll make a difference, they say. I’m not so sure about that.
I’m not so sure about that.