i was 47 when sudie was born, long past the time i thought i could have children--long, long past the time anyone thought it decent to have a child. the red of my hair was fading into gray, my face held the wrinkles that spoke of my life lived on a farm. at my age, my siblings and i discussed our grandchildren and suddenly, my unborn child took precedence in all family conversations.
-rose, you know babies born to old mothers have problems.
-rose, do you and bobby realize you’ll be ancient when that baby graduates, if it does graduate. those kind of babies are always wrong in the head, bless their hearts.
rose this, rose that. i heard it all...concerns spoken and whispered among them, jokes made at my expense, the back thumping the men gave bobby, as if he was the one who would bear this child.
my own children looked upon their father and i as some aberration, surprised we still had sex. i could tell when i walked in on them holding one of those kinds of discussions. mouths quickly closed in faces shaded with distaste. often i wanted to say to them, if you think the idea of your momma and daddy being together is something that makes you shudder, just you wait until you know your own babies are doing what you had to do to get them. they’d attempt to meet my eyes, hoping i’d not see them glancing at my belly while they gave forced smiles and uttered words of false happiness.
-how you doin’, momma? why don’t you set down for a bit, rest. oh, this is such a good time for all of us! we’re so happy for you. i wanted to say, if you’re happy for me, then i'm a six foot tall blonde from georgia. instead, i took their pretend happiness and pretended i believed them, which kept the peace.
i was 47 when sudie was born. i’d had my first at 18, already married to bobby for a year. he was a grade ahead of me in school, we knew his family from church, often meeting them at auctions and county fairs. i saw his brown eyes, his friendly smile, his ease in dealing with people, and i knew he had potential. i knew one day, he’d stop being a bobby and become a robert. this was before i discovered that potential is a fantasy, and that it is never, ever an asset....he is bobby to this day. i gave up on robert long, long ago.
i’d had six other children before sudie. each of those labors took hours with me holding on to the bedpost by the end, squatting and bearing down, my body tearing as the child was forced out into the waiting hands of the woman attending me. i knew birth not only from what i’d been through, but also from aiding at the arrivals of the majority of sudie’s 39 cousins. i started as a young girl fetching cold cloths and hot water while murmuring nonsensical words to the mothers, eventually moving to where i had the waiting hands to catch their child. i’ve held women as they strained to push out this new life, as they struggled to live or die.
i learned that birth often walks hand in hand with death. hadn’t i held my own sister, ellen, as she lay there, her blood soaking the mattress and the rug next to the bed? hadn’t i held her as she looked over to her son, sighed and closed her eyes? her breath stopped before the blood did. it took us an hour to clean the room and lay her out before we let in my brother in law. his cries of grief mingled with the wails of her hungry baby, creating a song of sorrow that filled the house. months later, he signed the farm back over to my daddy, and moved away, taking my nephew with him. we heard they’d settled over in louisiana and that he’d remarried. i’ve always hoped he and the boy found happiness.
sudie though, sudie was different from the moment i figured out i was with child. i was never ill, hardly tired, my belly stayed small. my labor started as a nudge, quickly moving to the pains that told me birth was imminent. four hours later, she was there, a caul on her face. my cousin delicately cut it away and put it aside to be saved in my cedar chest. once it was removed, she started crying in a strong voice. i know people believe that babies cry with such anger at birth because of the cold on their once protected face. i always held that god gives babies in the womb all of the knowledge contained in the universe, and with their first breath, that knowledge is erased. their cries are not caused by the moving from the warmth they’ve known, but, in sorrow over the loss of the answers to everything.
sudie’s eyes moved around the room, as if she could already see details. my cousins and sisters gathered around me, toweling her off, chattering to me and each other--a cacophony of voices.
-oh, rose! she’s the prettiest little thing! wait until you see her. look! she has your and momma’s red hair. oh, she’s a stuart, alright. there ain’t none of her daddy in that face. lord, lord...this child is gonna turn heads.
they gave her to me then, bundled and bound, only her head showing. i didn’t unwrap her, i knew being swaddled would keep her content just as i knew everything was there; fingers, toes. i looked into the newborn blue of her eyes...she looked back, turned her head and nuzzled to find my nipple. for me, that was the bonding time with each of my children, feeling them latch on. from the moment they drew life from me, i wrapped them in my protection, knowing full well i’d kill for them. even as they grew, that protection remained.
a few years before i found myself pregnant with sudie, my newly married middle daughter came to my house one morning, a bruise on her cheek. she told me her husband had struck her the night before, and she’d punched him, refusing to back down. i walked across the plowed fields between our houses, never tripping on a single furrow, paying no heed to the scent of new earth and ignoring the worm seeking birds who lined the rows. i only called that boy’s name once when i reached their yard. he came out slowly, a smirk on his face, a cup of coffee in his hand, already dressed to head out and plant his fields. i could tell he’d not yet understood what was and wasn’t acceptable in our family. his tone was condescending as he asked me why i was there so early and if i’d like a cup of coffee. he looked me over, obviously believing i was nothing more than a tiny woman in his yard, one that could be easily controlled.
his error was in discounting my cold anger and the coiled whip in my hand.
i grew up using whips. my brothers had thought it fun to tease us girls, chasing us with any number of disgusting things boys find. i had discovered granddaddy’s whip in the barn, and learned to use it to defend myself, finding power in what i could make it do in my hands. i started helping daddy drive the herd out of the north pasture, popping my whip over their ears and backs...never touching the skin. momma said i could take a fly off a fence, and she was right.
we had a productive, albeit one sided, conversation that day, one i’ve never had to repeat. i started with his hat, taking it off without mussing his hair. next was the coffee cup. i moved down his body, snapping that whip at him, tearing the material of his clothing, while i explained calmly that if he ever (thaaawhack) even (thaaawhack) thought (thaaawhack) of touching my child (thaaawhack) again, I’d start my lesson at his crotch. bobby always said our children and their spouses are afraid of me, and i said, good--let that fear be their guide.
now, i lie in my bed, feeling that cloak of protectiveness rest on this baby, on my gingerhaired girl who is quiet and asleep in my arms. the door opened, my own momma came in and stood there, looking at me, at my child.
-well, rose, this one is special, you know that, don’t you?
-yes, momma, i do indeed.
-you named her yet?
-her name’s gonna be susan elizabeth macpearson. we’ll call her susie.
-no, momma, s u s i e.
-let me give my blessing to little miss sudie elizabeth.
i opened my mouth to correct momma again and felt the movement of my daughter as she shifted. susie? i whispered. nothing. sudie? she grunted approval and sudie she became.