Estella was for milk the taste of lilies sucked while lying upon a heartbeat the tempo of canary wings. She came into Almeta’s world when it was time to nurse before withdrawing like the ever-widening boundaries of a ripple. It was Daddy who had the strong thighs to sit on, arms like tree branches to wrap tightly around her. His smile was one half of her heart, and his voice the other, but a nightmarish day would drag him, bound to a running mule, to his death.
Almeta Brown, my grandmother Mamo, pulled her hands around the mound, then slid two fingers along the surface, leveling the top. The rich black dirt looked like Belgian chocolate, and her imagination deftly turned the cotton fields beyond her into a marble banquet hall. Safe in the land of dreams, she was satisfied with the sweet pungent smell of her well-baked mud pie. Soon, into the silence her guest would come to pick her up in his arms, whirl her around, and never let her go.
As soon as she heard his footsteps a smile erased her look of firm concentration.
“Daddy!” She gripped his ankles tightly and listened to his effervescent laugh.
“Hi, Daddy! Want some cake?” She smiled delightedly as he took a big bite.
“It’s wonderful, Honey,” he said.
Her five older brothers and older sister watched as Mamo talked animatedly with an oak tree draped with moss. Her brother, Sam, quietly walked from the cotton fields to where my grandmother played. He knew there was no time for breaks. The older children and their mom, Estella, had to add to the amount of cotton they already picked the sum their father would have harvested, but the Brown family was close-knit and, to Sam, looking out for his baby sister was more important than money.
Money. Their dad had almost saved enough to have paid the family’s debt before he… Sam pushed the thought away, not wanting to cry about the loss of the man he loved most. The demon who owned the land they worked had refused to give Estella the money her family had earned so far, forcing them to begin their hopelessness anew. And now the two year old sister who had ignored their mother and wanted to spend all her time with their father—to everyone’s amusement—could not grasp that he was dead.
“Come on, Almeta,” he said, raising his sister onto one of his hips, “pretend you’re playing with a baby doll.” He handed her a used can. There was no money for toys. Perhaps all of that pretending was what had made it so easy for her to pretend their father was alive. After checking on Lily, the youngest of the eight, he headed back into the fields wishing night wasn’t so slow in coming.
* * *
“Where are we moving to, Almeta?” Lily asked her sister. Her brothers were too old to play with, and besides, they were boys, so she spent most of her time shadowing my grandmother.
“To Fred Smith’s farm.”
“What’s it going to be like?”
“The same as Helen Peel’s farm.”
“Well, why couldn’t we stay where we were?”
“For the same reason we had to leave the farm where I was born in Mylam. Sometimes sharecroppers have to switch farms.”
“I don’t like being a sharecropper, Almeta.”
She laughed. “Nobody does, Lily. But think on the bright side—Christmas will be coming soon.”
“I know what you won’t be getting.”
“Oh hush, Lily,” said Almeta, but she couldn’t help cracking a smile. Two years ago, when she was much less mature than now at age eight, Estella had given Almeta a doll for Christmas – a real one. But by that time Almeta had seen plenty of dolls and plenty of kids, and aside from the kids in her family, she didn’t like either. She took the doll to the woodpile and chopped off her head, declaring that from then on she wanted no more babies, neither real nor plastic.
“I know I’m not getting a doll, Lily. But I’m not six anymore. I wouldn’t chop her head off.”
“No,” sighed Lily unhappily. “You’re eight. You have to leave me and go to Port Sullivan School.”
“That’s better than going into the fields like our brothers.”
“Come on, girls,” said Estella. “Everything’s packed up.” She squeezed them close, comfortingly. Estella was as thin as a sapling and as musical as a lark. Her children speak of her today in beatific terms, remembering how much she loved them. They were so close to her that they called her by her first name, Estella, instead of Mother, which was how her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have addressed her. She loved all eight of her children, but she gave special care to her two youngest daughters for whom she tried to secure all the advantages that she had been unable to offer their brothers.
Somehow, by the time my grandmother was thirteen, Estella had managed to save enough money to end her days as a sharecropper and buy a house for her children, where she lived until her death. The house was on New Street in Hearne, Texas, and it was here my grandmother developed a new love – a love of silk and velvet, locks and words. Like a craftsman, anything she put her hands on seemed to become more beautiful. She could turn a yard of celadon silk into a dress fit for a marquis and hot comb the hair of her neighbors into the latest styles. More importantly and despite being only a teenager, she began to develop a reputation for the advice she gave to her clients, many of whom were decades older than she. My grandmother says that in a strange way she always felt like an adult, perhaps even before she should have. God seemed to have placed in her the wisdom that most others come by only with years of experience. Almeta knew not to dwell on what you can’t fix and to find a solution to what you can. Clients who wanted only a new skirt or beehive hairdo would return to her weeks later to thank her for solving their problems.
Almeta dreamed of being a seamstress when she grew up and made her own school clothes. She already worked as a hair stylist, thanks to a neighbor who ran an in-home salon and referred excess customers to her. At school, Almeta was a popular cheerleader, at home, a self-proclaimed psychologist, offering as much wisdom as beauty. No longer surrounded by fields of cotton, her world was full of football games and outings to the ice cream shop, and, in her high school years, crushes on handsome soldiers.
She had invited one dashing man to the prom, but, unable to get leave from the Army, he promised to send a friend of his in his place. The man he sent was a few years older than my grandmother, a man with aspirations to be a tailor who wore beautiful, hand-fitted clothes. He was handsome, debonair, and even more alluring than Almeta’s original date. He was my grandfather, Charles Prince – Big Daddy. After high school they married and moved to Houston to start their new lives.
Big Daddy attended Texas State University so he could be a tailor, while Be-Bop, as he called my grandmother after the sock hop jazz music that was popular when they met, eagerly pursued her dream of working as a seamstress. Big Daddy had to work two jobs while he was in school, so Mamo was always there to help him study. From his books she learned how to run a business, a set of skills she continues to use as a self-employed seamstress.
Despite Mamo’s incident with her baby doll, she has told me with tears in her eyes that if she had to live her life over again she would still have all six of her children. She didn’t like kids while she was one herself, but she loves each of her three boys and three girls in a different way because they are individuals, and she wouldn’t want to live without any of them because they are what make her life beautiful. Her parenting years were filled with special moments, whether sewing alongside her youngest daughter, Cheryl, or having one-on-one talks with my father, Charles, at night. She enjoyed raising each unique child. Her nine grandchildren also give her joy, because she is happy to see us being raised with the same values she and Big Daddy imparted to their children. To her, we are like nine more members of her immediate family. Every Friday her children and grandchildren gather at her house to catch up on the week and enjoy each other’s company, perhaps interrupted once or twice by a late bride-to-be, picking up a miracle of intricately beaded ecru silk and thanking my grandmother for relieving her jitters.
The ancient stories are full of enchanters who are weavers and seamstresses. Rumpelstiltskin and Maleficent understood that thread and silk had the power to shape lives and worlds. They knew that life is not about the fabric you weave but the dreams you create, not about the change that occurs when straw is spun into gold but the metamorphosis of the human spirit. Mamo has just turned sixty-nine years old and is full of vitality and light. In the letters I write to her on her birthday and each Mother’s Day, I liken her to splendid objects such as Mexican ceramics or a flock of butterflies. She wields a brilliant magic – one that allowed a heartbroken sharecropper’s daughter to take silk and tresses, joy and love, and form the life she wanted and the family she treasures. And as much as any child she has raised or any dress she has sewn, she herself is truly a masterpiece.