Life changes fast.
Life Changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life
As you know it ends.
– Joan Didion
The cabin we lived in wasn’t much different from the cabin Aunt Irene lived in on Pungo Creek. We lived close to her. Just across the branch. Aunt Irene was a doll maker. She made each doll in the image of her daughter Joann and called them her Jo dolls. Jo had the kicking disease. That’s what my sister Addie and I called it after being warned our whole life to stay out of range of our cousin’s flailing limbs. Jo had the eyes of a wild stallion and a mane of dark brown hair that Aunt Irene brushed and brushed before tying it back with a blue ribbon. When Aunt Irene brushed her hair Jo was calm. She stopped kicking and her eyes looked almost normal.
No one knew. No one knew I was going to have a baby.
When I was a child there was nothing I wanted more than a Jo doll. Sometimes, after making sure my hands were scrubbed clean, Aunt Irene let me sit on her bed and hold one of the dolls. I’d sit there and watch her as she sewed doll after doll after doll. Turning them out like the cupcakes lines up on the trays at the Belhaven Bakery. All of them almost alike – but not quite.
How could I not remember Aunt Irene and her Jo dolls as I sat in that cabin on the Rio Grande – a cabin so like the one that she lived in on Pungo Creek? One room with a bed shoved against the wall and a table in the corner and a wood burning stove. Aunt Irene burned hard wood – usually oak. I burned pinion wood. She could see Pungo Creek from her window. The Rio Grande was not visible from our cabin. Looking out our window I saw cactus and rocky hills that grew into mounts much bigger than the pine and myrtle forests of North Carolina.
I was baptized in Pungo Creek. The baptizing took place right behind out house. It always struck me as odd that on Saturdays the creek was a spot for swimming and crabbing but on those Sundays it was transformed. A line of somber faced men and women would hold hands and walk out as far as the stake where granddaddy tied up his bigger boat.
They would stand there in a line. The men wore white dress shirts and dark trousers. The women wore light colored dresses.
In the days before I was to be baptized I made Addie rehearse with me. We walked solemnly out to the stake. “Now, Addie, you put your left arm behind my back like this and I hold my nose with my right hand. You put your right hand on my forehead.” Addie did like I told her.
“Now you say this: ‘Sister Brenda, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen’ On the Ah you dunk me under and you bring me up again on the men.”
We did it over and over until I had it down pat. And I dunked her a few times just so she would be satisfied.
On the day of the baptism I was wearing a gold colored dress that Aunt Irene had made for me. Gold was her favorite color. Some of the Jo dolls had dresses made out of the same gold fabric.
As I joined the line of people walking out to the stake it dawned on me that I hadn’t counted on my dress floating up. I couldn’t hold it down because Nelma Linton was holding my right hand and Lorraine Voliva was holding my left hand. My gold dress floated up around my waist. I hardly heard Reverend Gaskin call me over to him. “Are you ready to have your sins washed away my child?”
Was I the same person who had their sins washed away in Pungo Creek?
I’d stand on the rocks next to the Rio Grande and wonder to myself how I’d managed to run so far away from home – from people who loved me – from Jo dolls and cupcakes and gold colored dresses. Did Jesus know where I was now?
No one knew that at that moment I was standing barefooted in the cold water with the river rushing over my feet.
No one heard me when I sang childhood hymns. “There’s a land beyond the river that the call the sweet forever…”