Before Darla’s birth, mother had been unable to contribute any money to Aunt Peg’s household, so after the birth, mother joined grandmother cleaning offices at night. Both women handed over their paychecks to help with expenses and pitched in to cook and to care for the now seven children. But neither the house nor Aunt Peg’s marriage was built to handle that many people. Aunt Peg’s husband endured it as long as he could. Then he asked them to leave.
Grandmother wrote her sister, Vern, who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan to ask if she had room for six more people. Vern and her husband, Ray, had never had children of their own, but they welcomed the four children and two women into their home. Vern helped mother and grandmother get jobs serving tables in a supper club.
Mother never lacked for tips. She knew how to smile at a man and wear clothes that showed off her curves, while being friendly and attentive to any women who happened to be at the table. Eventually she was making enough in tips that grandmother didn’t have to work and could stay home to care for the children. Mother rented a small house from the owner of the supper club so the six of them could move into their own place.
It wasn’t easy, but it could have worked. It didn’t though, because Grady had mother’s number.
Grady, the new man, the changed man, the man of promises, the man who was now going to be a good husband and father, called her up and sweet-talked mother into letting him come up to Michigan to live with them.
This part of the story is full of maybes. Maybe she believed him. Maybe she forgot he had denied fathering Jimmy, had drunk what little money they had when they lived in Alabama, and had beat her up. Maybe she was tired of trying to make it on her own. Maybe she needed a man, and any man was better than no man.
So when the past knocked on her door, mother mistook it for the future and welcomed it in.
Grady found work right away, and mother thought her financial struggles were over. They weren’t. Payday after payday, less and less of Grady’s money made it home. He never contributed much in the way of cash, but he did contribute in another way. He got mother pregnant again.
Michigan never suited Grady. From the beginning, he wanted to move back to Alabama to be near his family. As bad as the previous time there had been, mother considered it. But when she found out she was pregnant, she knew she couldn’t, especially if they had five children to take care of. Someone need to work, and not just work, but bring home a paycheck. On her next day off, after Grady left for work, she asked her mother to take the children to a movie.
Mother never considered trying to find a doctor to help her with this “female problem.” She knew about birth and its dangers; had watched her mother, acting as a midwife, deliver babies; and had given birth to Darla by herself. And she had learned what other desperate women did when they carried a fourth or fifth or sixth child that they couldn’t feed or provide for. She used a coat hanger dipped in alcohol and prayed she would survive.
After the movie, her mother found her, covered in blood and lying unconscious on the bathroom floor. Grandmother sent the children outside and called the doctor. He performed a D&C and told mother that if she ever did that again he would report her for breaking the law. Had she had serious complications or faced death, he would have had to report her in order to exonerate himself and make it clear that he did not perform the abortion.
Grady resented mother and grandmother for acting behind his back. Since he took to drink, his successes in life were few, and getting mother pregnant was one of them. He couldn’t believe she would do that to him. After the abortion, he pressed mother even harder to move to Mobile and insisted until she relented. Mother wanted her mother to come as well, but grandmother had heard and seen enough; she wanted nothing more to do with Grady. Vern and her husband had moved to New Mexico to open a restaurant, and when they offered grandmother a job, she packed her things and headed west.
Mother turned her face toward the South. Although she believed that going to Alabama the first time had been a mistake, she felt that things would be different this time. She was right. Before she left, she couldn’t imagine that anything could be worse than sleeping on someone’s dirty floor with four children and a drunk, abusive husband. Within a year, she couldn’t imagine anything better.
Next: Part 3