December 22, 1900
The Dr. F.C. Wilson House, 6th Street, Chipley
When I reached the house, I was out of breath. The air was sharp and cold; I could see my breath as I exhaled.
I stopped on the top porch step, and took in a few slow, deep breaths. I turned to look out onto the street as one or two horses and wagons went by at a slow, steady pace; the horses snorting and the hardware making a clinking-jingling sound with the animal’s movements. The sun was sinking in the late afternoon sky, a sapphire blue, but with orange, pink, and purple clouds streaking the sky. The beauty of the sunset combined calmed me somewhat, though I was still agitated by Father’s words.
As I stood in the sunset on my Father’s porch, I reasoned with myself: I’d long wanted his approval. I didn’t even think I had his attention for years.
But hearing Father proclaim my role in the family business in front of Walter was a revelation: Father’s approval meant I could join the inner circle of my family. I would be included with my older brothers and their discussions.
I would accepted. Unconditionally.
I felt pressure inside my chest and reflexively, I put my hand there. God.
I didn’t want to work for Father. I didn’t want to live in Chipley. I’d realized this past semester while at West Florida Seminary, that I didn’t belong there, and I didn’t belong here, in Chipley anymore. What I really wanted to do was study law. So, I had to get to law school, somehow. I had no idea how to do that; I didn’t have money, and I for sure wasn’t old enough yet.
My family had already chipped in a lot for me to go to West Florida Seminary; even my younger brothers brothers had to contribute, so the idea of me trying again somewhere else on the family’s budget was out of the question.
I had to become independent; someone important. Without obligation to anyone, including Father. And I didn’t know what to do about it.
I shook my head, frustrated.
I turned and opened the front door.
“Hello?” I called into the house. “Mother Kate?”
There was no answer in the house; but the light was on in the entryway, the coal fireplace was glowing.
From the back of the house, in the kitchen, I heard pots and pans rattling about and the clatter of metal spoons on porcelain dishes. I walked through the foyer, down the hall and pushed open the kitchen door.
“Hello?” I said, sticking my head around the door as I opened it.
A large Negro woman wrapped in a white apron and red and white checked dress turned around, quickly; startled, but her expression changed to a warm, welcoming smile and outstretched hands.
“Why, hello Mistah Emmett,” she said, coming over to me, gently taking my chilled hand in both of her large, warm hands. “We’ve been expecting you! Welcome home.”
“Hello Esther. Is Mother Kate around?”
“Naw suh, no one’s home right now; they’re all in town getting things for the big dinner this week, and finishing up a little shopping.” Esther looked at the clock on the wall over the icebox. “She should be home soon, though. Why don’t you put your things in the boy’s room, settle in?”
“Hongry?” She asked.
I nodded. The kitchen was full of good smells and was warm, welcoming. As I turned to walk out of kitchen, I asked, “Is that chocolate cake I smell?”
Esther grinned back at me broadly over he shoulder. “Sho is. Still your favorite?”
“Sho is,” I said, smiling back at her. She nodded at me, satisfied, and turned back to her stove, managing the chaos of dinner for our large family over the steaming pots and pans, and clattering about with spoons and serving platters.
My brother Walker’s room — where all the boys slept when they visited Father — was next to the kitchen; I put my bags on the bottom bunk bed. I’d be sharing the room with Walker, my youngest brother, who attended Chipley High School; still living at home.
I stood still to listen for a moment — I could only hear Esther singing hymns as she cooked. No one else was here.
I took the flask out of my coat pocket and drank the little bit that was left. I didn’t care if my breath smelled slightly like whiskey at that point. The little bit warmed my mouth, but that was it. Nothing. I didn’t feel the lightening of spirit that usually accompanied a drink — probably because it was only a mouthful. That wouldn’t do while I was here. I would need more. But for now, I needed to hide my flask. I examined the bookshelf on the wall behind the door to the room, but thought that was an obvious place. I opened the closet, and felt the ledge over the door frame — it was dusty. Perfect. I placed my flask safely on the shelf and closed the closet door.
I sat on the bed, closed my eyes. I felt anxious and stressed — if I could only find another way to get that lightening of spirit —
I opened my eyes. I remembered.
I walked to the hallway, and paused, listening. I didn’t hear anything except Esther, still singing in the kitchen. I walked down the hallway to the parlor, and turned right. I slid open the pocket doors that led to the parlor. No one here.
The parlor was chilly without a fire in the hearth; there was a tree in a stand in the far left corner of the room, near the window facing the street. It looked forlorn without ornaments, which were in boxes next to the tree, stacked on the floor. The scent of cedar filled the room. It was probably cut just and nailed onto its x-shaped stand this morning.
I quietly closed the parlor doors, and walked back to the center hallway. I glanced towards the bedrooms on the other side. The doors were closed. I turned left, and walked towards the end of the hallway. I didn’t think anyone was in the room, but I knocked softly anyway.
I carefully turned the opened the door. It was dark, quiet. I sighed with relief.
I pushed the light switch button and closed the door.
I was in Father’s office; rather, his old home office. He still maintained his home office in the event of emergencies, for patients that needed to see him late at night or who could not get to his office downtown. It was fully stocked, of course. That was Father’s way: Always prepared for any contingency. It felt odd being in here; Father’s office was clean, but had the feeling of disuse.
Father kept his medical supplies, including whiskey, which he was licensed to prescribe for medicinal purposes in a locked closet.
I went over to the desk, and opened the drawer. There it was, the key to the medicine closet, on a red ribbon. I took the key out, and went over to the closet door.
As I slipped the key into the lock, and turned it, the hinges creaked slightly as I opened the door. I reached up and pulled the string that turned on the closet light.
A full shelf of Irish whiskey. I breathed out in relief. Thank God. I reached up to take a bottle….
I froze. I turned.
Mother Kate. She stood looking around the door of Father’s office.
“Emmett, are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, Mother Kate, but I have a terrible headache. I’ve had one all day, and I can’t seem to get rid of it. I know Father has a supply of headache powders, and I was looking for them.”
“Oh, of course, Emmett. You poor dear. I’m sorry. Let me get that for you. It’s over here, in this other cabinet,” she said, motioning to me.
“Thank you,” I said, hoping I sounded grateful, and not scared out of my wits.
I turned the light off in the closet and closed the door, while Mother Kate opened a cabinet and took out a Bromo-Seltzer box. From it, she withdrew a paper wrapper with a headache powder dosage in it. I relocked the closet door and handed the key to Mother Kate, who slid it in her pocket.
“Let me mix this up for you, all right?”
She waited for me to precede her out of Father’s office, then she turned out the light, and closed Father’s office door behind us.
She bustled off to the kitchen, with me in her wake. I think I covered myself adequately, as Mother Kate had me sit down at the kitchen table. Mother Kate might mention it to Father, though. I don’t believe Father would think anything of it, especially as I had turned down the drink in his office. As she put the headache powder in a glass, added water, and stirred it briskly, I thought, how in the world am I going to get to Father’s whiskey? All I need is just a bit, just enough to give me relief from my constant anxiety — at that moment, I unconsciously rubbed my forehead.
“Here you are, Emmett,” Mother Kate said.
I took it gratefully, drank it quickly. She nodded, with a tight, efficient smile.
“Better?” She asked.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“Now. I know it isn’t quite suppertime, but I am going to fix you something to eat. You’re tired, you’ve been working hard, and the train ride in from Tallahassee means you haven’t had a decent meal yet.”
I nodded, not saying anything. Mother Kate was in charge here. She was the kind of person who swooped in on a problem to solve it, regardless of what it was, or if the person wanted help, and mostly by feeding it well.
Esther handed Mother Kate a dish upon which she spooned potatoes, roast chicken, and lima beans, in heaping amounts. The dinner rolls had just come out of the oven; Mother Kate took one off the cooling rack, and placed it on the plate alongside the vegetables. It all smelled delicious; I realized that I truly was hungry, and grateful for her solicitousness.
She put the plate before me, then poured a glass of milk from the pitcher in the kitchen safe without asking me if I wanted it, and finally, handed me a fork from the cutlery drawer. I thanked her, and started eating.
She smiled at me. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go into the dining room and set the table for supper in there. You know you are welcome to join us at the regular hour if you are still hungry, or if you just want to sit with everyone if you are full. But I think you might ought to take a nap after you eat. You look worn out, Emmett.”
“Thank you,” I said, in between bites. Mother Kate nodded, turned, and left.
The room was warm, with good smells, and comforting; no talking was necessary. I could sit there and think, and just eat my supper. I preferred eating in the kitchen over the formal dining room anyway. The comfort of the kitchen was allaying my feelings of tension and anxiety, but I knew it would only be temporary — God, if I could only just relax, be at peace — I was so tired of being anxious and tense all the time. I felt my eyes stinging — this would not do. I wiped them as surreptitiously as I could with the napkin.
“Want some more chicken, Mistah Emmett?” I nodded. She put a chicken breast and a drumstick on my plate.
I nodded my thanks to her.
“Ah’s mighty proud of you, Mistah Emmett,” Esther said, gently, patting me on the shoulder. “Ah know your Momma is shore proud of you too, watchin’ down on you as she is from up in Heaven.”
I swallowed hard. My eyes filled again briefly, I quickly blinked the moisture away. I nodded, and didn’t look up at her; rather I continued to eat busily.
Esther headed out of the kitchen to help Mother Kate out in the dining room.
When she left, I wiped my face with my napkin. I took a deep breath. I drank the entire glass of milk in front of me. I was full, and felt better, thanks to Esther’s cooking. The wave of sadness that had come over me was fading. I wiped my mouth; got up and went to the cabinet and took down a small white plate. I took a knife and carved a medium slice of chocolate cake, and took it back to the table.
Maybe it was the combination of the good meal and the Bromo-Seltzer, but I noticed I felt better. I picked up my plates and put them in the sink.
I stepped out of the back door of the kitchen, down the steps, to the yard in the rear, to get a breath of fresh air. Mother Kate kept chickens and turkeys in a pen, like everyone else did in the neighborhood. Also, a small shed which provided shelter for a cow, which was grazing in the back yard.
Along the side of the house, near the back porch, were several rose bushes. I walked over to them, touched their leaves with my fingertips; felt their waxiness, their slightly jagged edges.
As I studied the bushes, all still healthy and green even in December, I noticed one of them had a small rosebud, the only bud on all five of the bushes; a late bloomer. It was dark red, and if the weather was warm enough tomorrow, it would probably open up. I went over to it, touched it. Maybe I’m a late bloomer too, I thought.
These were my Mother’s rosebushes.
I remember that after she died — almost 10 years ago — no one took care of them. No one seemed to want to, or had the heart to do it. So, the rosebushes became misshapen. Aphids took over, as did weeds, choking and destroying the garden my Mother tended and loved so much.
When Mother died, it was as if the life force had been sucked out of our family. And our family was dying, or so it seemed.
But Mother Kate had come along. Father married her after a decent interval, and began to set things even.
She’d said it was a shame to let these beautiful bushes go, that they needed love and attention, as we all did, and while she would never presume to take our Mother’s place, it wasn’t right that something my Mother loved should not be cared for —
So she took care of my Mother’s rose bushes. And they became beautiful again.
I like Mother Kate. She’s a good stepmother. She truly cares for our family, and even though ours is a large one, she goes out of her way to connect to all of us, on an individual level, now and then.
For instance, she sent me small packages while I was in Tallahassee, which usually included a few local newspapers, a novel or two, some cookies, a pair of socks, a few dollars, and a letter from one of my sisters. She’s doing things for me that my own mother would do if she were still alive.
But she isn’t my Mother.
I heard voices around the front of the house; family members were arriving. I don’t want anyone finding me out here, tears streaming down my face, as I held my breath, so that no one would hear me sob. No one else will ever know this.
I miss my Mother.