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 lastbatch 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!"