Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ed Whitehead’s Last Stand - 1969

I remember how much my black Hush Puppy penny loafers were rubbing my heel raw on my first day of Kindergarten.  I just wanted to wear my jeans and a t-shirt with my old sneakers, but my mother insisted that I wear a dress with ruffles with the new shoes. I was scared because this was the first time I would be around other little kids who were not my cousins.  I also had developed the ability to see dead people during the summer.  Couple that with the fact that my father had separated from my mother at the same time and you had a perfect storm for my first day of school.  
My mother had tried to limit my exposure to outsiders in the last few weeks of summer because she was afraid that another ghost would spill more family secrets.  Besides my mother, I got to spend time with Etta who I loved and the feeling was mutual.  Her sons were in their teens so having a little girl who idolized her probably felt pretty good.  She was not freaked out about the fact that I could see ghosts.  She was originally from New Orleans where tales of ghosts and voodoo were quite common.   On the days when mother was losing patience with me, Etta would say “Miss Laura, I’ll keep an eye on Sophia while you lie down.” 
 Mother would smile gratefully and go to her room for a few hours while Etta and I made cookies and talked before I went to bed.  I looked forward to those times with her because it felt like this is what a mother should be.  She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, her dark skin, eyes and hair seemed to exude an exotic beauty I would never have.  
“Child,” she said while brushing my long blond hair one night before bed, “You have the gift - there is no mistake about that, but you have to be careful.  There are people around here that don’t like others being different.  When you are with the other folks out there, you have to fit in.  You can talk to me about ghosts all you want, but don’t be troubling your mother or other people because they won’t understand it.  Folks just hate what they don’t understand,” she said with the sad resignation of a black woman who had lived in the south all her life.  Even if it was 1969 and TV was becoming integrated, the real South was not going quietly into that good night and I just couldn't understand that. 
“Yes, ma’am, but how come being different is so bad?” I asked with such childlike innocence it almost made Etta cry. 
“People like what they know Sophia and they want to destroy what they fear.  Now let’s say our prayers.”   Etta had taught me Psalms to keep the bad spirits away and how to keep the good ones nearby. When we finished praying I would hug her with all my might.  She would tuck me in, kiss my forehead and wave as she closed the door.  
“That woman is a God send, and I should know,” said Grandpappy- the ghost of my great grandfather.  He would visit me every night carrying the ghost of my baby cat Sassy who had been hit by a car three months before. 
“She’s right about folks thinking you’re different.  Hell it’s been over a 100 years and you got folks still fighting the Civil War - you think they are going to embrace civil rights?   You need to be careful Sophia.  When you start school, try to fit in and if you see ghosts, try to ignore them.” 
“Yes sir, Grandpappy - I will,” I said with all the steely determination a Kindergarten child could muster.  
That summer, I asked my mother if I could have a TV in my room and
she relented because it meant that I would stay upstairs and out of her way when she had company. Etta and I would watch Diane Carroll in Julia.  I would see the world through this TV lens of integrated possibilities and it seemed so much more interesting and exciting then the people I saw day to day except for my Etta.  She was the one person in the world who loved me for me and not for the person that my mother wanted me to be.  
So here we were on the first day of school - my mother and I standing at the gates of Blue Lakes Elementary.  My mother wanted an exclusive private school but my father bulked at the price and thought that a newly desegregated public school would do me good. 
“Now Sophia, play nice with the other children and don’t do anything strange, I’m begging you – please don’t,” mother said in an uncharacteristically pleading tone.
“I know, Etta and Grandpappy told me not to,” I replied. My mother winced when I said Grandpappy since she knew he was one of the ghosts I talked to. 
“Hello, I’m Chrissie Bentley, I’ll be your child’s Kindergarten teacher.   Now who do we have here?”   Miss Bentley had just graduated with a Master’s in Early Childhood education from Georgia State.  She was young, pretty and wore a flowery blouse with a short skirt and white boots - professional and mod at the same time. 
“This is Sophia, and she’s a little shy,” mother replied.  
“Well, everyone is shy on the first day, but there are lots of children to play with,” said Miss Bentley.  
“Look those girls might want to be your friend,” mother replied hopefully.  One of the little girls from a group near the playground ran up and introduced herself.
“Hello, my name is Betty - wanna play?”  I squeezed my mother’s hand tighter not wanting her to leave but she made a point of letting go anyway. 
“Now go on Sophia - this is a new start for you- take it.”   Mother said hopefully and left quickly scarcely looking back. 

Betty took my hand and smiled.  She brought me over to a group of girls playing with dolls.  They had blond hair, frilly dresses and new shoes like mine.  They told me I was pretty and handed me a doll to play with.  I saw two other girls with dark skin sitting in the corner talking but they didn’t have dolls.  They had big brown eyes with long eyelashes and braids with brightly colored hair ties with large florescent beads on the end. They looked sad so I did what any right thinking six-year-old would have done, I asked the other girls if they could join us. 
“No Sophia, those Negro girls can’t - we don’t have enough dolls,” said Betty with an irritating air of authority. 
“They can have my doll,” I said trying to easily solve the problem.  “That ain’t it,” said Sherry - one of the other white girls, “we just don’t want to play with them.”  
“Why not?” I asked still not comprehending their narrow way of thinking. 
“Because, they are colored!”  Betty said and shot an exasperated look at me that showed that I lacked the basic ability to grasp the obvious. I sat quietly and I tried to stay with those white girls.  I tried to blend in.  But I felt sick to my stomach.  It just felt wrong.   
I knew those other girls felt excluded and I knew how that felt.  I saw the ghost of a young black man in uniform sitting next to them, trying to get their attention to let them know he was there.  He looked over at me and we made eye contact.  I looked away, not because I was scared, but because I was not supposed to talk to ghosts.  I had promised mother, Grandpappy and more importantly, I had promised Etta.  I understood now why the girls were so sad.  This man was their father who was killed in Vietnam.   I just sat there with my eyes closed hoping he would go away, but when I opened them he was next to me speaking to me softly, trying to comfort me.  
“Hey there little miss,” he said with a kind voice, “I know you can see me - don’t be scared.  I won’t hurt you.” 
“I know you won’t,” I said back. 
“I won’t what?” asked Betty thinking I was talking to her. 
Thinking fast, I said, “I won’t bother you, I’m going to get another toy,” I walked over to side of the playground where the sports equipment was.  The young soldier followed me.  
“I’m not supposed to talk to ghosts,” I whispered hoping no one could hear me. 
“I know - I tell my daughters to never talk to strangers, but those two are my baby twin girls and I wanted them to have a good first day of school.  It breaks my heart that I can’t be with them in person, but if you could tell them I’m here and I love them, it would mean the world to me,” he said quietly.  
 “I can try.  I’m sorry you died in Vierrname,” I said.   He tried to smile briefly at my inability to say the right name.
“My name is Lieutenant Bobby Wilson and I fought for my country in Laos in Operation Dewey Canyon side by side with white soldiers.  Now my girls, Joy and Grace can go to a public school side by side with white children in Georgia.  This is truly a blessed day.  I can tell you are not like those other girls.  I mean besides being able to see ghosts, you have a gentle heart.  Please be nice to my daughters,” he said.  
 “I will,” I said my eyes filling with tears because I would tear my heart out if my daddy died.   The soldier bowed his head and faded off. 
“Hey, little girl -don’t you go playing with those tar babies,” I heard an angry booming voice behind me say.   I jumped and saw another ghost, an older white man in overalls and a cap.  He had deep set black eyes and what looked like a permanent scowl on his face and tobacco juice dribbling down his chin.  He was skinny and about six feet tall.  I could tell he was not a nice man. 
“I’m Betty’s great grandfather, Ed Whitehead and you best let her be your friend or else,” he said filling me with terror. 
“She’s a mean girl,” I said trying to run away.   The ghost flew over my head and got into my face, his dark eyes looking into mine. 
“Look girlie, this used to be my farm land and I was fine when it was a school for whites only but now with all these - these -“ he was so mad his mouth started to foam and he spat out more ghostly tobacco juice - “You ain’t never been taught right - now stay with your own kind!!!” he bellowed and faded away. 
My heart was beating - I had never encountered a horrible ghost like that before.  I was running as fast as I could - my feet blistering in those ill-fitting Hushpuppies.  I was looking back when I ran into my teacher, Miss Bentley. 
“Sophia, I’ve been all over looking for you.  Please stay with the group,” she said sounding annoyed.  

Great, my first 20 minutes of school and I had encountered the mean girls, a gentle soldier ghost and an old racist apparition who threatened harm if I befriended the only two people at school that I could relate to.  I wanted to reach out to those girls but that old man scared the crap out of me.  Maybe once I got home, I could ask Etta and she would know what to do.  

I kept to myself the rest of the day.  The mean girls had decided that I was not of their ilk so they let me be.   Joy and Grace sat together at lunch but were completely alone.  I tried to remain invisible but Miss Bentley wanted all of us to be included in everything.  At the end of the day, it was time for Share and Tell and we were all required to participate.   Most of the children seemed to have an excited look on their face except for me and the Wilson girls.   One by one, each child got up with a wonderful tale of what they did for summer vacation - trips to Savannah, St. Simons, Stone Mountain or a day at Six Flags.  Each time another child sat down and it got closer to me, my heart beat harder.  What was I going to say?  My baby kitty Sassy got killed and I began to see ghosts. My mother’s family reunion was fun up until the part where I told the family secrets.  My father left my mother – so yeah - it had been an awesome summer.   

I looked over at the Wilson girls and knew that even with all the everything that I had endured it was nothing compared to losing a father in a war.  I had to think of something that happened during the summer - something fun.  Finally, it was my turn and I thought of the most fun thing I could think of.  I got up and smiled.
“This summer my Etta and me made chocolate chip cookies and we watched I Spy and Julia together,” I said beaming. 
“Is Etta your aunt?” asked Teddy, the red headed kid with glasses.  
“Etta sounds like a colored name, is she colored?” asked Betty who was getting on my last nerve. 
 “Etta is my bestest friend,” I said confidently, “and for Christmas I would like a Julia Doll.”  Joy and Grace looked up smiled for the first time that day. 
“We do too,” they said together.  The room fell silent and for the first time that day the other six-year-olds were for at a loss for words.  
“Well,” said Miss Bentley uncomfortably, “that’s very nice Sophia -let’s see if anyone else wants to -“ 
 “Why would you want a Barbie with dark skin? That’s just stupid!” exclaimed Betty throwing back her long blond hair.  Her remark made me mad and those girls needed to be taken down a few notches. 
“No you’re stupid, I can play with whatever doll I want to -“ the other kids except for the mean girls started to laugh.  

Then the lights started to flicker and I looked to see if Miss Bentley was flashing the lights  to get everyone’s attention, but she was sitting with us and nowhere near the light switch.  I felt a sudden cold shock of air and there was old man Whitehead just looking at me with an image of a flaming cross behind him.  There was a flash of light and then the windowless room went dark.  The kids started to scream and Miss Bentley tried to reassure us.
“Children, it’s fine, just a little problem with the lights.”  She stumbled to her desk and hit the button to the intercom to the office, “Hello, this is Miss Bentley in Kindergarten room A, our lights are out-“
The bell for the end of school rang and the lights went back on.  The kids cheered and the Whitehead ghost was gone.  We gathered up our things walked in single file to the car pick-up lane.  
I knew I had to keep my promise to Lt. Wilson.  When I saw Joy and Grace’s mother, I walked up to her. 
“Hello, my name is Sophia and I gotta to tell you and your girls something.”  Mrs. Wilson looked at me quizzically. I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect what I was about to say. 
“Joy and Grace’s daddy was here today and he loves you all very much.  He misses you because he got killed in Vieername in Lousy.  But he was proud to fight with the white soldiers.” 
There I had delivered the message and I didn’t care what that awful old Whitehead ghost thought.  
Mrs. Wilson just looked at me - her face going from confusion, to happiness to sadness in just a few seconds. 
“How did you know that?” she stammered. 
“You saw our daddy today?  He was here?” asked Joy looking hopeful. 
Grace just started to cry and said, “I miss my daddy.” 
“Now Sophia, you need to come along baby girl” I heard Etta say just as I turned to see that she was picking me up from school instead of mother.  
 “I’m sorry if she upset you,” said Etta calmly. 
“It’s like you said momma, Daddy is an angel looking after us and Sophia saw him!” said Joy excitedly.  I smiled at Etta who was concerned as she and Mrs. Wilson looked around to see if anyone else could hear our conversation. 
“It is not natural for that child to know such things,” Mrs. Wilson whispered as she tried to comfort Grace. 
“I know, but she has a gift and a good heart that’s probably why your husband reached out to her.  God gives us all gifts in different ways,” said Etta gently. 
Mrs. Wilson seemed to feel comforted that Etta felt my skill was God-given and not devil made. 
“I know — I know he’s around and I feel better that he’s looking after the girls and me.  It’s just shock to hear -“ her voice trailed off as tears run down her face.  Etta looked around once more and while the other parents were not paying attention to our group- but in another minute or two, that might change. 
“We need to go- but it was nice meeting you and your girls, God bless you all.”  Etta and I walked away from the Wilsons as they tried comprehend what had just happened.  
We got into our white station wagon and Etta buckled me into the back seat. 
“Sophia,  you were not supposed to talk to ghosts,” said Etta sounding a little irritated. 
“I know ma’am, I tried but they kept talking to me.  Especially that old man Whitehead.  He is a very bad man.” 
Etta gasped when I said the name Whitehead.  “You saw that man today?  What did he say?” 
“Well, he didn’t want my playing with Joy and Grace and only wanted me to play with Betty - like I got to stick with my own kind.  This was his farm land and he wants whites only.  When I was talking during Show and Tell, he started to make the lights go on and off and I saw him standing next to a burning cross.  What does that mean?” 
Etta looked visibly shaken.  “It means you are right, he’s a very bad man.  Let’s not tell your mother okay?” 
“Okay.  Can I tell Grandpappy?” I asked. 
Etta smiled, “Actually I think Grandpappy might be the perfect person to tell.”  
When I got home, mother was there and told me she got caught up in her charity bazaar meeting.  She asked how the first day of school went and how sweet little Betty was.  I did not want to tell her that little girl was a mean girl who I wanted nothing to do with. 
“It was fun, we had Share and Tell - “
“What did you tell about?” my mother asked apprehensively.  
“I told them how much fun I have with Etta,” I replied because it was the truth. 
My mother seemed relived and a little hurt at the same time.   Etta made me dinner and we went upstairs afterward.  Mother decided to give me a bath and to talk to me. 
“Sophia, it sounds like you had quite a good first day.  I’m glad you feel like you are fitting in.” 
“Yessum, momma, I’m trying as hard as I can,” I said sweetly hoping that would keep her from asking me any more questions.   I started to play with my mermaid doll and looked down so our conversation would end.  My mother seemed satisfied with that.  She dried me off and helped me put on my night gown.  
“Here you go young lady, now you can watch a little TV before bedtime, okay?” 
“Okay, mommy,” I said noticing she was more attentive than usual.  She kissed me and let Etta take over.  
“Mommy was extra nice tonight,” I said. 
“That’s right Sophia, your mother loves you very much – that’s why we can’t trouble her with everything that happened today.” 
We sat down to watch Julia in my room. I thought the little boy on the show was cute.  I wished he was in my class too.
 “You know, me, Joy and Grace all want a Julia doll for Christmas,” I said happily thinking that Santa would hear me even if Christmas was still over three months away. 
“I’ll let Santa know,” Etta said with a smile. 
 “Now, when you talk to Grandpappy tonight tell him about Mr. Whitehead - I have a feeling he might have known him.  Please ask him to come to school with you tomorrow.  If you need extra help you can say the Lord’s Prayer like I taught you.  That prayer and Grandpappy should keep you safe,” Etta explained as she hugged me good night.   The door closed and just like clockwork, Grandpappy appeared.  
“Hey there, little darling, how was the first day of school?” he asked as he put Sassy down on my bed. 
“Well, Etta thinks you can help me with an old mean ghost named Mr. Whitehead –“
 “Sweet suffering Christ, not Ed Whitehead. I never liked that old bastard!”  Grandpappy exclaimed.
“Well, his great granddaughter is a mean girl and he wants me to be her friend and not be friends with the two black girls in my class.  He told me I had to like Betty or else and then he appeared in the classroom with a burning cross behind him,”   I was shivering because the image and that man scared me. 
“That Goddamned old piece of white trash has the balls to threaten my great granddaughter?!!” he shouted.  Sassy jumped and got under the covers with me. 
“When folks found out that he was a member of the Klan, they stopped getting their produce from him.  Not everyone around here at the time was a racist and we wanted to put the past behind.  Eventually, he couldn’t buy his way out of trouble and the bank took his farm,” Grandpappy recounted angrily. 
“Etta thought that you could come to school with me and protect me,” I said hoping he would. 
“You are Goddamned right I will- living or dead, some people need to learn their place,” said Grandpappy with a determined tone.  “You sleep tight sugar bear, I’ve got this.”  
The next day, I was ready for school and so was Grandpappy.  He sat next to me in the back seat while Mommy drove us to school.  When she let me off, I tried to leave the car fast but she insisted on waving to Betty who just ignored us. 
“Why isn’t Betty saying hello?” she asked. 
“I don’t know, maybe she’s in a bad mood, it happens,” I said quickly. 
“Sophia, why would she be in a bad mood?” mother asked.  I took a breath because I knew I needed to talk fast.  
“Okay, she was mean to the two Wilson sisters and I stood up for them and now she doesn’t like me but the Wilson sisters do so I have friends, bye-“
“Wait, who are the Wilson sisters?” she asked just as Joy and Grace walked up. 
“Hey Sophia, it’s okay if you see our daddy today.  Grace is not scared anymore,” said Joy smiling.  Grace also smiled and waved.  They walked into school and my mother gave me a very long serious look. 
“Those are the Wilson girls?  I read in the paper their father died in the war.  His ghost talked to you?” 
Mother seemed angry and I couldn’t tell if it was because he was a stranger ghost or because the girls were black or because the ghost was black - I have a hard time reading her sometimes. 
“Mommy, he talked to me and I tried not to but-“ just then the bell rang and the school day was starting. 
“Bye mommy!”  I said as I ran to my classroom happy to have the conversation end. 

I got the room just as the Jeb who was the janitor was checking the lights.  They were flickering and there was old man Whitehead in the corner just looking at me.  This time I had back-up and I saw my Grandpappy go over to him. 
“Goddammit, Ed, you stay away from Sophia and those Wilson girls,” he said with authority. 
“Screw you, Chuck,” he retorted, “You ain’t one to be putting on righteous aires, you ain’t always been so open to the coons around here - I remember back in 1917 before we was shipped off to World War I when we burned down the barn of that nig-“
“Watch it!” shouted Grandpappy. 
“He looked over a white woman and we burned down his barn - you ain’t so innocent,” said Mr. Whitehead with an air of superiority. 
“I regretted that the minute we set the fire- and I never did anything like that again.  Can you say the same thing?!!” yelled Grandpappy. “The worse thing was you brought your 12-year old son to witness it.  You just spread hate your entire life, it’s what sustained you when you were alive and it’s all you got now that you’re dead.”  
Mr. Whitehead glared at Grandpappy.  He went over the Wilson girls and started to knock books and pencils off their desks.  Grandpappy tried to stop him but the struggle caused a chair to be knocked over.  Joy, Grace and the rest of the children started to scream.  
“Now children – I’m sure it was just a blast from the air conditioner –“ said Miss Bentley as she tried to get the children to calm down but the fear in her voice betrayed her intentions.   The lights began in flicker wildly. 
“Everybody get under the tables,” I yelled with a clarity that surprised me. 
My classmates looked around and surprisingly did what I told them to do. Miss Bentley was in a panic and tried to get to the intercom to work to ask for more help.  The lights went off just as Mr. Whitehead grabbed Grace’s arm and started to pull her out from under the desk.  She started to scream when I saw the soldier’s fist punch him hard in the face.  For a few seconds, Lt. Wilson was visible to both his two girls.
 “Get with Sophia where you will be safe,” he commended them.   The girls got under the table with me and we all put our arms around each other.  
“How dare you punch me boy - “ spewed that old nasty cracker. “Don’t you know you could get hanged for that?”
“I’m not a boy, I’m a man and you have no right to be here - this is not your land anymore,” said Lt. Wilson, his voice trembling with anger.  “I fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice in war so my girls could have a good education and a chance at a decent life.  You are not going to take that from them.” 
“Give it up Ed, you’re time here is gone -” said Grandpappy as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Lt. Wilson as a protective shield between the children and the evil entity. 
“I didn’t fight for my country in WWI just to have the likes of him run me off my land!!“ shouted Mr. Whitehead whose face was turning blood red while his eyes became nothing but black disks of despair. 
“You fought for the wrong cause Ed, you never saw how lost it was,” said Grandpappy sadly. 
“How can you say that?  Our fathers were in the confederacy - they fought like brothers-“ he responded. 
“The Civil War was a sham, it was all about keeping the lifestyle for the rich.  Our fathers were pawns for the wealthy landowners who didn’t give a shit who got killed as long as they could keep their slaves.  It wasn’t about honor or states’ rights it was just about pure fucking greed,” exclaimed Grandpappy.  
“I’ll show you!!” he bellowed. 
The classroom door slammed shut and the room started to shake.   Ed Whitehead expanded to the size of the ceiling - his face filling with more blood.  His eyes started to roll back and then made a sick pulsing sound.  The smell of foul decay was in the air.  Slimy droplets of blood started to splat on little desks.  Suddenly two red dragons with Klan hoods came out of his eyes.  Miss Bentley was screaming into the intercom.
“Please, we need help- we’re locked in, the lights are out and there is a horrible smell in the room-please hurry!” she begged as the sounds of little children crying were heard in the background.  Jeb tried to open the door but it would not budge. 
The bloody dragons started to lunge at Lt. Wilson and Grandpappy.  The reptiles’ mouths opened wide ready to devour anything it their way.   Their fangs got closer and closer but Grandpappy and Lt. Wilson would not move because they were the only barrier standing between the dragons and us.  The snakes started to dip around the ghostly men so that they could get to the living children who were sobbing out of sheer terror.  There was a sound from the other side of the door of adults trying to get in. My heart was beating so loudly I was sure that Joy and Grace cold hear it.  I closed my eyes and remembered the prayer Etta told me to say.
“Our father who art in Heaven - Hallowed be thy name,” I started to say aloud.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” continued Joy and Grace.  The rest of the children joined in and continued with the prayer.
 “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our tree passes as we forgive those who tree pass against us,” the sound of the children’s voices kept going on even if we didn’t understand what trespassing was – the intention was there.  
All the kids started to hold hands during the prayer.  Betty who was next the Wilson girls reached over and held their hands as we all huddled under the desks as the sound of foul smelling blood rain continued to fall.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
When Old Man Whitehead saw his granddaughter holding the hands of the black girls, he looked like he had been shot in the heart.  
“NOOO!!” he shrieked.  The dragon snakes started to tremble.  They tangled with each other and made a sick hissing sound.  They started to recoil back into back into Ed Whitehead’s face.   The sticky sound of blood rain started to get lighter and he started to shrink back into the little man he was – bitter and alone.   Then there was the sound of a portal opening like a rock that was rolling away from a cave. 
“You got one chance at redemption, you gonna take it Ed?” asked
Grandpappy as the ceiling started to swirl looking like turquoise clouds against a blue and purple sky – it was pretty and I hoped it would stay that way.   
“Renounce what you’ve done and ask for forgiveness,” commended Lt. Wilson.
 “Hell no, my pappy was right, my Granddaddy was right – his father before him – we were right.  God made us the superior race.  I ain’t going against them, we were right - Goddammit, we were always right!”
The ceiling started to turn from white to black and had the terrible pattern of gray clouds right before a tornado touched earth.   There was a funnel of spirits in dark robes but their faces were nothing but a black mask with two red eyes in the center.  They started to circle around Mr. Whitehead.  His human features started to melt off his body.  His face exposing muscle and then a skull.  He arms and legs were pulled like long strings into the vortex - he was screaming taking one last gasp to hold on.  He was finally completely pulled into the vacuum and the roof closed. I looked up and I could see that it was back to the white ceiling tiles with a few pieces of gum and pencils stuck to them.  
“It looks like that old peck of wood is gone for good,” said Grandpappy gratefully.
“Thank you for standing with me,” replied Lt. Wilson. 
“I have been trying to redeem myself for - for what I did – that wasn’t me – I just got pulled in with the wrong people – I’m so sorry-“
“If you were not forgiven, you would have gone with him - but you got a good heart like Sophia,” explained Lt. Wilson.  “I realize now that maybe I needed to be here for my girls like this so I could protect them from evil spirits. Now I can be at peace with what happened.  Sophia tell Joy and Grace I’ll always be around to look after them and they can talk to me anytime.  I love them but that goes without saying.”
“I’ll still say it.  They’ll know how brave you were and how much you love them – that love never goes away,” I said as tears rolled down my cheeks. 
For the first time, I saw Lt. Robert Wilson smile.  He walked over to his girls, kissed their heads and faded out.  Grandpappy smiled at me, touched my face and faded out as well.  
The lights came back on and the bloody droplets looked like spilt corn syrup – it was sticky but did not appear to be dragon blood.
They finally got the door unlocked and when the other teachers arrived, they attributed the mess and noise to the black out.   The class got out from under their desks – shaken but since I was the only one who could see what was going on they were literally in the dark about what happened.   
“It’s okay children – I guess we had an energy surge of some kind, it’s all fine,” Miss Bentley said as she smoothed her hair and tried to regain her composure.  
Unfortunately, she got in a little bit of trouble because the people in the office heard us praying (which apparently you can’t do in public school even if you are under an attack from a demonic entity).  We were all allowed to go to recess while the Jeb and his crew inspected the lights and cleaned off the desks.
“I saw my daddy,” said Joy. 
“Me too,” said Grace.  “He’s around watching over us.” 
“I got my Grandpappy watching over me too,” I said smiling trying to focus on them and the sunlight instead of all things I had just seen and heard.   
I would tell Etta everything when she picked me up from school and I would properly thank Grandpappy at bedtime.  But for the rest of the day, I didn’t feel like an outsider.   For the first time in months, I was just a little girl trying to master the fine art of box ball.  Best of all, me and the Wilson girls got to have lunch together.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Bringing Sassy Back

I knelt next to my bed in my light blue nylon nightgown, tears streaming from my eyes, which were closed tight.  My six-year-old body was shaking and pleading for another chance.  My nanny Etta was kneeling next to me ready to help if I forgot part of my prayer.  My world had been shattered by the death of my beloved Sassy, my white baby cat who had been hit by a car the week before when the plumber accidentally let her out. 
            "Please God, please – I want to see my Sassy again, I'll be good – I promise.  I won't back-talk Mommy or Daddy, please just let me see her again. I'm sorry – I'm so sorry I'm not the best girl – but bring her back, and I will be - I swear it, please God!" I pleaded as I choked back more sobs.
Etta put her arms around me and held me for a long time.   Mommy and Daddy had tried to get me to bed without all the crying the last few nights, and it was wearing them out.   I think they were hoping after a week I would get over it, but I felt like I would never smile or have fun again.  Sassy was more than a pet; she loved me, slept with me and followed me around everywhere.  Now she was dead.  Everyone told me it wasn't my fault and that these things happen but maybe if I asked God real nice, Sassy would come back.  God could do anything – that's what they tell us in church.  God helps those that help themselves and I was helping myself to praying like I had never prayed before.
Being in Etta's arms helped – she understood me in a way my parents couldn't.  She was about my Mom's age but seemed younger with more energy. She looked like the lady on my favorite show Julia.  I wanted to be Etta's daughter, to have her dark eyes, her short smooth black hair and brown skin.
            "Baby girl, it's time for bed and maybe you'll see Sassy in your dreams.  Sometimes that's how God sends us back those we love – in our dreams" she said as she kissed the top of my head as she put me into bed. "You've got a big weekend coming up.  Your cousins will be here and you can play with them and that will make you feel better.  I know it's hard now, but each day it will get a little bit easier, I promise."
            I smiled and kissed her good night. Etta's promises were always the best because she meant them. I actually wanted to fall asleep so I could play with Sassy again.   Etta left the door slightly ajar as my parents looked on, grateful that she had been able to get me to sleep.
            "Hey, girly girl, wake-up, I need to talk to you," said an old man's voice after I had been asleep for a few hours. I thought I was dreaming but when I opened my eyes and saw an elderly man, thin with thick white hair, a white beard shaved close to his chin in a plaid shirt and old black trousers. His face was a pale gray and his eyes had light black circles around him.  I tried to focus and could see right through him –  he was not solid.  I closed my eyes again and tried to get a better look.  When I opened them again, he was smiling at me and holding Sassy!
            "Sassy!" I squealed and put my hands out.  The old man put Sassy in my arms but I could not feel her.  I could see her – she was pure white like she always was but had a gray mist around her.  She blinked at me and I could hear her purring but my hands felt empty.  It was like seeing a black and white movie being projected on to my hands.   
            "Girly girl, you need to keep it down, but before you go back to sleep there's a few things I need to tell you about the reunion," the old man said urgently as he sat at the foot of my bed.  I looked over at my closet door which was open.  A bright light started to flicker and I saw some other people who looked like him walk through the door and into my room.  They were also pale gray and misty like Sassy.   They looked like there were from the past – the men in overalls with straw hats or baseball caps, the women in dresses that were past their knees or to the floor with shawls and their hair up in buns or short like ladies from movies in the 1930's, 40's or 50's.
Most of them looked relieved that I could actually see them but there were a few that were not so sure about me which was fine - I was not so sure about them either.  The old man, however, turned out to be my mother's grandfather or Grandpappy and my great-grandfather so I listened when he told me what I had to tell the family.
            Later that night, I got scared with all the ghost people around just looking at me so I went to my parent's room.  My mother was in bed but Daddy was not there.  She opened her eyes and pulled the covers open so I could get into bed. 
            "Where's Daddy?" I asked shivering because I was afraid the ghosts had gotten him.
            "He's been snoring a lot so he sleeps in his study so we can both get some rest," she replied. "Now you need to go to sleep," she said dreamily and as I put my head on Daddy's pillow.
The next day was a flurry of activity and my mother barely looked my way.  I guess Sassy being hit and me being upset had been put her behind with her preparations.  Her honey blond hair was teased high on her head and there were little beads of sweat that were starting to form around her neck thanks to another hot and humid Georgia summer day. The reunion was the highlight of her year - more than Thanksgiving and Christmas because with the reunion, there was no competition like at the holidays.  She wanted to impress her family with how well she had married, the sweet little daughter who looked just like her - thin with platinum blond hair and the exotic named she had picked out - Sophia after her favorite Italian movie star Sophia Loren.   I think in the back of her mind, she'd hope that I'd grow up buxom with curves, and a tiny waist so I could also attract a successful business man like she did.   But I didn't want to look like her, I wanted to look like Etta.
My father was the handsomest man I had ever seen - he was tall with brown hair and blue eyes like mine.  He always wore a suit to work and would come back smelling of cigarettes.  On the weekends, he would golf with his friends at the club but when he had the time, he would come home and let me sit on his lap and give him hugs and kisses. He'd hold me and all my troubles would fade away. He'd bring me little presents and my mother always worried that I'd get spoiled.   He and Etta would play with me the most – my mother always was too busy with charity committee meetings and plans the annual Gala Supreme.  Being able to plan the reunion put all her skills to the test and she did not let anyone take her off her stride – not even the death of my baby kitty.
My Dad seemed irritated with her and made sure the both of us stayed out of her way.   When my cousins arrived, my Dad had to coax me to talk to them and eventually got us going in a game of t-ball in the front yard.  At first my mother was annoyed that he was not doing more to help but when Etta explained that the children were occupied and not under foot, she relaxed a little.  She was bouncing from one person to another saying hello and putting centerpieces on the table.  She dismissed the offers to help by politely saying, "No, thank you, Etta and I have it handled."
The first night of the reunion was always the fish fry which my Daddy helped with.  He could fry catfish and hushpuppies with the best of them.   I could do without the fish and just eat hushpuppies – those fried nuggets of corn fritters just dunked in ketchup were my favorite.  The seafood dinner was served with three different kinds of fish and all the crispy shrimp and hushpuppies you could eat.
My mother called everyone to the tables set under the huge tent with the hanging lights in the backyard.  The group descended on the fried morsels and enjoyed every bite – passing the heaping plates down the long tables which sat 8 people on each side.  The adults had small talk and the kids made s' mores on the camp fire my father had made.  I could see my mother relax a little but there was still the big feast tomorrow to contend with.  They all headed out around 8:30 that night.
As Etta, my Mom and Dad were cleaning up after everyone left, I overheard them talking as I stood on the stairs.  
"Sophia did pretty well today considering -" Daddy remarked.
"That she did – I was so proud of her – she was close to tears once but she managed to still have a good time," Etta replied back smiling at my Dad.
"Well, let's hope everything goes well tomorrow for the last meal.  My word - each year I forget how much work this is," said Mom who didn't even acknowledge how good I was. 
"Daddy bear, would you read me a story?" I asked trying to steer things back to me. 
"Of course Sugar Bear, I'll be right there," he replied.
I was sitting on my bed when he came up.  I could see the old man in the corner waiting.  He watched us while my Daddy read Are You My Mother?doing all kinds of silly voices which made me laugh.  I thought for a second and then went ahead and asked him my big question.
            "Daddy, do you think there are ghosts?" Grandpappy rolled his eyes and pointed to himself.
            "Why do you ask Sugar Bear?" he said looking surprised.
            "Oh, just wondering if you saw them too," I said carefully and watched his face.  He thought for a long time before he answered.
            "Sophia, I think that there are things – "he started when my Mom called up.
            "Cal, she needs to go to sleep now, we have another big day tomorrow and I don't need her cranky." Daddy looked relieved and changed the subject.
            "Sleep tight and I love you. You're my best girl - you know that right?"
            "Yes, I love you too Daddy Bear!" I said as I giggled and threw my arms around his neck.  He smiled and hugged me back.  He then walked into his study which was across from my room.  He looked back at my room, dropped his head and closed the door.
            "The best thing your mother did was marry him – I hope she don't go and mess it all up," Grandpappy said as he put Sassy on my bed. 
"Now you remember what I told you last night, you have to talk to the folks tomorrow before they leave – some of those spirits from last night won't know no peace unless you tell what they need to hear whether they like it or not. You're a good soul Sophia – don't let nobody crush your spirit or they will have to answer to me and that includes your Ma, you hear me?"
            "Yes sir," I replied feeling better that Grandpappy was there to protect me.  Sassy purred in my face and I could almost feel her fur brush my cheek as I closed my eyes.
            The next day, the family arrived around 1:00 pm for the last big send-off before they went their separate ways.   I could not wait until they all would be gone and things would get back to normal.  In the meantime, the extended family of about 30 people headed to our backyard.  Some the adults sat under the tent, talked and drank beer, wine or mint julips with platters of deviled eggs and pimento cheese with Ritz crackers.  The kids went in the lake with me and played on floats.  Etta worked tirelessly behind the scenes making my mother look good. She'd smile at me and tell me what a good hostess I was with my cousins.
 "The buffet is served!" exclaimed my mother excitedly as she brought out the last
batch of sweet potato biscuits at exactly 5:30 pm and put them on the long table with the light blue table cloth.   Her flowered sleeveless sheath dress rustled slightly when the brief breeze from the lake brushed the extended family as they descended on the final feast she and Etta had created.  
She would make sure that everyone had what they needed walking quickly in spike heels while the rest of the women opted for flats.  Most of the women at this reunion were in capri pants and short sleeved sweater sets for the weekend- but not my mother, she was the mostest hostess and needed to look the part.
The number of dishes at this buffet would have rivaled a Southern Baptist potluck – there was macaroni and cheese, ham with peach preserves, fried chicken, collard greens, grits, biscuits both plain and sweet potato, potato salad, cole slaw, black eyed peas, jello molds, gallons of sweet tea and lemonade and of course peach cobbler and lemon meringue pie for dessert. 
Just as the last mint julep and peach cobbler was served, my mother thanked everyone for attending and she received a huge round of applause.   She looked happy and excited that all her planning had turned out perfectly once again.  
The ghosts were surrounding me and begging me to speak up. I had my hands over my ears but they still managed to talk to me and it was obvious they wouldn't leave me alone until I said something.   Grandpappy encouraged me to give the speech we had rehearsed and told the rest they best keep a civil tongue in their heads if they wanted me to help them.
"Hey, I got something to tell everyone Momma," I said with great urgency, tugging on her skirt.  The ghosts leaned forward with anticipation, but the rest of the family ignored me as did my mother who was steeped in conversation with her older brother Uncle Wyatt.  I tried to get the crowd's attention but it was no use.  Finally, I went up to Daddy.
 "Daddy Bear, I need to tell everyone something they need to hear," I said sweetly, my blue eyes sparkling at the only prince charming in the crowd who could help me.   He picked me up and kissed my cheek.
 "Of course Sugar Bear, I'll get their attention." He cleared his throat, "Hello, could you all give the floor to our other hostess - Miss Sophia.  Sophia, the floor is yours."
"Okay, family - Grandpappy Bailey is glad that you all have come because he needs me to tell you what you need to hear-" there was an audible gasp and a few chuckles from the group. My mother stopped talking and looked like a deer in headlights. 
"Uncle Bubba, you need to stop taking from the family business and writing down the wrong numbers cause it will get you in BIG trouble - "
"What the hell?!!" said Uncle Bubba who was the oldest of my mother's five siblings as he stopped mid-spit after taking a big piece of chaw and trying not to swallow it.  
"Hey shut that little brat up," he yelled.  
My mother shrieked  - "Sophia, stop it."  But I couldn't - they wouldn't leave me alone until I said everything.
"Aunt Mary Mae, you need to stop putting on airs in church like you is so high and mighty. You need to stop drinking before the kids get home and driving pickled to pick get from school.  If Bobby is cheating on you - you need to divorce the bestturd." At six, I had not yet mastered the fine art of calling people bastards.  
"How did she- "Aunt Mary Mae stammered as the color drained from her face and she dropped her fourth Sloe gin fizz.   My mother was getting close to me and ran past my father who held her back because he found this rather amusing and wanted to hear more. 
"Grandpappy wants you all to talk more on the phone and not snipe behind each other's backs.   And Auntie Jennie, Grandpappy wants you to know that your little baby girl - the one who died when she was one years old - she's with him and he watches after her. She's happy so please stop being so sad, you can have more babies in your belly - you have one in there now." 
Auntie Jennie started to cry and my Uncle Dave hugged her.  The family was silent now and Grandpappy whispered "That's my girl!  You done good little princess." 
He smiled and faded out with the rest of the ghosts.   I smiled because I knew I was good but as I looked around, the family looked angry, sad and confused.   My mother's face was flushed and she looked like she was ready to burst into tears.  
"Where does that little bitch get off saying all that?" asked Bubba visibly shaken. 
"Ah, hell Bubba, she's just saying what we all were thinking.   Stop running Grandpappy's business into the ground," said Wyatt who usually said nothing and just nodded most of the time but it looked like he was finally ready to take on his big brother.
"Don't call my Sophia a bitch, you asshole," my father shouted and lunged at Bubba who easily had four inches and 100 pounds on him.  
"Stop this, please stop," cried Aunt Jennie.  The two men paused and looked at Jennie who had been so devastated when she lost her baby just a month before I was born.  She walked over to me, her petite face looked happy and sad at the same time.  Her light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail – not like the fluffy hairdos of the other women.   She was wearing a long dress with daisies and was the prettiest relative there.  She picked me up - sobbing into the blond bun on the top of my head.   I hugged her back as tight as I could. 
"It's okay Aunt Jennie - Grandpappy has her - I saw her this morning- she's a beautiful baby with gold hair and she looks like you.  She loves to play with Grandpappy's beard." 
"I believe you because you're right - I do have a baby in my belly and there is no way you could have known that, only Uncle Dave and I knew about it."  
I could hear the crowd whisper "Jennie is having a baby?" "Jennie is pregnant again?" They made their way over to Jennie and hugged congratulated her as she passed me onto my mother who had finally made it to where I was.  Everyone seemed happy for Jennie but my parents looked at me strangely like they had no idea who I was.  Cousin Jackson who was an attorney and Wyatt who was an accountant started to talk to Bubba who looked very uncomfortable.  
After about an hour, the family filtered out, got into their cars and left.   The house was finally silent.
"Sophia, go to your room young lady," said my mother tersely - she didn't even look my way.  
"Daddy bear, would you give me a piggy back ride to my room?" I asked playfully.  
 "Not now, Sophia, your mother and I have to talk."  
He didn't look my way either.  I felt cold - it was the summer but I started to shiver.  
"I'll help you baby girl," said Etta who took my hand and walked me upstairs.  
"Now that your family reunion is over, I think it's better if I stay at the club," my father said with an exhausted resignation. 
"Wait, you're not going to leave after what Sophia did are you?  Grandpappy was dead long before she was born and I've never really talked about him.  And Jennie's dead baby and her knowing that Jennie was pregnant again?!  How the hell did she know all that? That child has been acting strangely ever since Sassy died - it's freakish!"

"Dammit Laura, our daughter is not a freak," responded my father. "She loved Sassy and the cat's death hit her hard.  Maybe it's making her see things.  I don't know how she knew all that.  I sure as hell didn't tell her Bubba was an asshole, but even she could see it.  Look, you and I both agreed I could leave after the family reunion, and I kept my side of the bargain: to everyone here today, we were the perfect family." 
"We were the perfect family until Sophia shot off her mouth!  I could have died, Cal, I swear to God, I could have died!   Something is wrong, please don't leave me alone to deal with it," my mother pleaded.  
"Etta, did I do something bad?" I asked sitting on the bed and starting to cry after hearing my parents argue.  Etta held my hand and looked me in the eyes. 
"No child, you have a gift and it's a blessing.  Those spirits told you things so that you could heal the hurt in Jennie and Dave's heart.  My mamma had the ability to talk to spirits too. It's nothing to be ashamed of.  You have been through a lot in the past few weeks.  God loves you so much. Don't ever forget that.  Just talk to me before you go telling other people okay?  People who are different- sometimes they have a hard time in this world but it just means that God has to bestow patience on them. You're a good girl Sophia and I love you."
"I love you too," I said quietly and hugged her neck.
"Sophia, come down here please!" my mother implored.  Etta and I went down the stairs.
My mother ran to the living room book shelf, got out an old photo album, frantically went through the pages and pointed to a photo.   "Okay, Sophia, who is that - have you ever seen him before?"  She pointed to a photo of an older man with a woman next to a snowed in 1950's Studebaker.  
"Yes, Mommy - that's Grandpappy – he's been talking to me – didn't you hear him too?" It was an innocent enough question but the color drained from my mother's face. 
"That is not natural Cal - she's seeing and hearing things that are not there -" my mother started to sob.  Her perfect world was imploding.
"Don't make her feel bad Laura - Jesus Christ woman- hold it together," my father admonished.  
"Miss Laura – she'll be fine – maybe I can – "
"Etta, please just help me clean up the kitchen – Sophia go back to your room."
"I'm sorry if I made you sad Momma," I said quietly as Daddy took me upstairs - my head resting on his shoulder and my tears saturating his white polo.  We reached my room and he put me down on my bed. 
"Sugar Bear, Daddy bear has to go away for a little while but I want you to know it's nothing that you did. It's not because of what you said -" 
"Grandpappy asked me to tell everyone that - and you told me I had to always obey the elders. I'm sorry, I'm sorry - Daddy - please don't go - please keep the bad things away Daddy - please!" I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him as tight as I could.  I felt a warm tear fall on my shoulder this time.   He didn't say much, he just hugged back and sniffed. 
"I love you sugar bear - but you've got to be my big girl now.  If you say that Grandpappy told you, then I believe you but please don't tell anyone else what you see - especially your mother."
"Okay, Daddy – I'll just tell you or Etta.  Does this mean you're staying?" I asked hopefully.  
 "I'll stay tonight," he said, "to keep the bad things away." 
Etta came back upstairs to say goodnight.
"Baby girl, I need to go home but I'll be back tomorrow and if you need to feel protected say the Angel of God prayer that I taught you, you hear?" I had never wanted Etta to be my mom more than I did at that moment.  I wished that she and my Daddy were married.  She kissed my forehead.
"Thank you Etta, you mean the world to me and Sophia," he said quietly.   She smiled awkwardly and went downstairs.
 "Sugar bear - go to sleep - I'll be here when you wake up." I hugged him and told him how much I loved him.   I prayed that when I woke up my parents would be sitting at the dining room table having breakfast and laughing.  
"Girly, girl – I know today was hard but you done good and I'm proud of you!" Grandpappy said as Sassy jumped on my bed.  I should have felt happy about him saying those nice things but I just felt sad.  I wanted to go back in time before Sassy died when I was happy.  At least my prayer was answered and I got to see her again.  Maybe if I prayed that hard again, my parents would still want to stay together.
The next morning, they were at the dining room table but not even smiling.  Daddy was getting his suitcases together.  My mother looked like she hadn't slept at all.   Etta was looking down, wiping the counter and not saying a word.   
"I prayed you'd be here Daddy.  You're staying forever, right?" I said cheerfully certain that was the case.  I had been praying all night after all.
My dad winced. "Sugar bear, I'll see you tomorrow, I love you but I need to go," he said as he leaned down, kissed me and then tried to quickly head out the door.  I tried to hug his legs to hold him back, but he just kept going - it was probably harder on him then it was on me.  He looked back with his eyes misting.  He walked out the rear kitchen door and with him went the last semblance of a normal childhood. 
"Etta can you get breakfast for Sophia?  I have a sick headache," my mother said warily and then stayed in bed for the rest of the day.  
I found out years later that Uncle Bubba was bought out of the family business and Wyatt took over - no longer the silent partner.  He increased the landscaping sales so much that my mother had plenty of her family's assets to withstand the divorce and have her own money apart from the alimony.  Aunt Mary May got into AA.  She stopped drinking and decided to get marriage counseling but still put on pious airs in church.  Aunt Jennie had a beautiful baby girl who I got to see the following summer when I stayed with her and Uncle Dave for a week. 
My nightly ritual became saying prayers with Etta and kissing my mother goodnight.  Then it would be very still until 10:00 p.m. when a familiar voice would break the silence.
 "Sophia, don't let those normals get you down. They think they know everything," explained Grandpappy.  There was a light knock on my door and my mother came in.
"We need to talk," she said. Even at six I knew no good conversation ever started out with those four words.  She turned on the ceramic star lamp next to my bed.
"Honey, I don't know what it is you think you see or what voices you are hearing. Being a child, I know you have a vivid imagination, but you need to act normal when other people are around.  We have a certain reputation to protect and you being- well - strange at times is not going to get us invited to parties or garden clubs and the like," my mother said with a sad certainty. 
"Holy Jumping Jesus, give me a break!" exclaimed Grandpappy as he nearly fell off the bean bag chair holding Sassy. 
"So just try to be the way you were before Sassy died - fun and likable.  Please honey, we don't want to be outcasts in this town," she looked at me pleading hoping that I would get what she was saying. 
"Okay, Mommy, I'll try," I said realizing that she'd never really love me for who I was but would love only who she wanted me to be. 
"That's my good girl," my mother said as she tucked me in and turned off the lamp.   She kept the door slightly ajar so a light beam from the hall kept me from being completely enveloped in darkness.   
Grandpappy also had some words of wisdom to impart that night- words that would become my mantra for the rest of my life: "Screw being normal!"