“I don’t know why you insist on wearing your good clothes to go fishing in. You’re just going to mess that dress up and I’m going to have to wash and iron it. Always the little princess.” I looked at her anxiously, but saw that she was smiling.
I looked over my shoulder toward our house. I could just make out Grandmama sitting in the porch swing. I knew she was shelling peas or looking collards or peeling quince. She wouldn’t be just sitting in the swing. She couldn’t abide idleness.
The little wooden skiff moved swiftly and smoothly across Pungo Creek. The oars dipped evenly into the creek – no splashing – no wasted energy. They created little whirlpools the size of the silver dollar that Mama kept in her jewelry box.
“Get ready to drop the anchor, honey. We’re coming up on our spot.” We were just off the point between Scott Toppins place and the bridge to Sidney Cross Road where we had caught 12 good-sized croakers the week before. I scrambled up to the front of the skiff, picked up the anchor and got ready to drop it when she told me to.
I lowered the anchor slowly into the water – careful not to let it make a splash that would scare the fish away. The rough anchor rope ran through my fingers until it slackened when the anchor got to the bottom.
Mama reached into her shirt pocket, took out her tobacco and rolled herself a cigarette. “You get our hooks baited while I smoke my cigarette.”
The cane poles were lying in the bottom of the skiff. I picked up her pole, dipped the end in the water and pushed it down until it touched bottom.
“We’re about 5 feet deep here – maybe a little more.”
“That should be good.”
I unwrapped the line from around the pole and pushed the cork down to about four feet above the sinker. Then I took a worm out of a tin can and threaded it onto the hook. I spit on the baited hook for good luck and handed the pole to her. Then I got my own pole ready. I put my cork a little lower.
“Poor little fishy in the brook…” Mama started the rhyme and paused for me to say my line.
“Climb upon my little hook” I responded, but my heart just wasn’t in it.
“You be the captain..”
“I’ll be the cook.”
We said the last line together: “Poor little fishy in the brook.”
At eleven years old, I thought I was getting a little bit too old for rhyming games, but just on cue my cork bobbed under. I jerked my pole to set the hook and up came the first fish of the day – a croaker.
“That’s a nice one, baby girl.” I swung the line over so she could take off my fish. She let it drop into the bottom of the skiff where it flopped around making its croaking sound. “It didn’t even have a chance to eat your worm. She added some mama spit and let go of the line. “Catch another one.”
We settled into a familiar rhythm of fishing and talking. The sun was at about 2:00 when Mama got a serious look on her face. “Brenda, honey. Is something the matter? You just have not seemed like yourself lately
“Nothing is the matter.” I kept my eyes on the cork, avoiding her eyes.
“Is something the matter at school?”
I took a breath and let it out slowly. I would have liked nothing more than to tell her what was bothering me, but I didn’t know where to start.
Mama put down her pole. She looked like she wanted to say something important. Instead she said,” Ready for lunch?” She opened the brown paper bag that held our lunch. Two banana sandwiches and a mason jar of sweetened ice tea.
I nodded. “Guess so.” I was hungry. Misery always gave me an appetite. I rested my fishing pole on the seat next to me but I let my line stay in the water.
I unwrapped my sandwich and placed it carefully on my lap.
“Better watch your pole, honey. A big croaker might just steal it from you.” I looked down at my cork just in time to see it go under. When I reached over to grab the pole my sandwich fell from my lap and landed in the muck in the bottom of the skiff.
The sight of my sandwich floating in creek scum was more than I could stand. I started crying. Not tiny silent tears, but loud choking sobs.
Mama just handed me half of her sandwich. “A lot can happen between May and September, Brenda Gail.
I had no idea what she meant but I took the sandwich. “You’re wrong. Nothing ever happens in Pungo Creek.”
I hadn’t always lived in Pungo Creek. For the first five years of my life, I’d lived in Norfolk, Virginia enjoying all the delights that a burgeoning navy town had to offer in the early fifties. When I was five years old my world changed. I was in the living room of our house at 3437 South Woodlawn Avenue in Broad Creek Village. It was time for bed. I was washed and ready to be tucked in. Then I heard the end of my childhood. There was a crash. The glass that had been the window of our front door was on the floor. Daddy’s drinking buddy Harold Ray Sheppard was on the front porch. He was bleeding from a long gash in his right arm. He was drunk and he wanted to fight. As he stood there – wobbling – his injured arm hanging at his side, blood dripped onto the porch.
“Get him away from here, Virginius! Get him away from the children!”
I saw Daddy walk through the glass in his bare feet. He took Sheppard by his other arm and led him away from our front door.
When I turned Mama was standing beside me with a pan of soapy water and some old rags “Let’s get this cleaned up.” I knelt beside my mother on the front porch. Together we cleaned up Harold Ray’s blood.
Mrs. Evans stuck her head out of her front door. She didn’t seem surprised to see us on our hands and knees scrubbing the stoop.
“Everything okay, Frankie Mae?”
“Yes, Blair, just a little accident. Hope we didn’t wake you up.”
“No problem, Frankie. I was watching my show. If you don’t need any help, I’ll get back to it. That girl of your’s is sure getting big.”
I waited until Mrs. Evans had gone back into her house before asking “Mama, why did Harold Ray break our window?”
Mama shook her head and dropped her rag into the pan of water that was now pink. “He was just drunk, honey. People don’t need a reason to do things when they’re drunk.”
“Is he going to come back?”
“No, your daddy is making sure he won’t come back. You go on inside and make sure your baby sister is okay. I’ll finish up out here.”
I left mama on the front porch and went inside to find my baby sister in the middle of the living room floor crying. I wanted to sit down with her and cry too. Instead I put my arm around her. “It’s okay, Addie. He’s not coming back. He was just drunk. Daddy is making sure he won’t come back to hurt us. Come on. I’ll tuck you in. This will all be over in the morning.”
I laid awake listening for Daddy to come home. He came back alone. I heard him talking to Mama. “I told him in the only way he understands to stay away. If he comes around again, he’ll regret it.”
A few days later, Daddy got fired from his job at the Ford for fighting with Sheppard at work. Mama and Daddy had to leave Norfolk and there was nowhere else to go but to Pungo Creek. Mama was a Foreman. Her people had been living on Pungo Creek since Caleb Foreman and his two brothers sailed over from England before the Revolutionary War. The family was particularly proud of Caleb who was a Captain in the 8th North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army. For Mama, Pungo Creek represented security and family. For Daddy it was a last resort. With no work and no prospects, he had no choice but to admit he needed help so he uprooted his little family and move them 130 miles down the road to Pungo Creek.
One of the hardest things about moving to Pungo Creek was leaving Aunt Gladys behind. She had lived with us for as long as I could remember. On weekends she took me to Ocean View Amusement Park or City Park or to Krispy Kreme for donuts. Aunt Gladys packed hotdogs for Swift and Company until working in the freezer gave her asthma. Her hands were permanently stained with the dye from the hotdogs. When Daddy and I picked up her after work, she always had a couple of raw hotdogs hidden in the pocket of her uniform for me to eat on the way home.
My pain at leaving Aunt Gladys almost eclipsed the sadness I felt parting with my best friend Sheila. Our houses faced each other across South Woodlawn Avenue. Since neither of us was allowed to cross the street, we played together, separated by South Woodlawn Avenue, confined to our own front yards.
Mama had named me after a comic strip character. Brenda Starr was a newspaperwoman. When she wasn’t risking her life for a story, she was in the middle of a passionate love affair. While Mama’s life manifested none of the spectacular adventures and awesome romance that punctuated Brenda Starr’s comic strip life, I think she held out some hope that my life might be different.
That dream would never be fulfilled on Pungo Creek. All adventures on Pungo Creek were imaginary and there was no romance of any kind.
Aunt Gladys visited us when she could. She arrived in her pink Studebaker Commander. The backseat was usually filled with treats for Addie and me.
Her visits were short. She would arrive late on a Friday night and leave before dark on Sunday. I would try to stay awake for her arrival. Sometimes I could but I usually fell asleep on the sofa and awoke to the sound of Mama and Aunt Gladys laughing and talking together in the kitchen. Mama missed Aunt Gladys too. On Saturday morning we’d have big breakfast with cut-up eggs, ham, biscuits, red-eye gravy and quince preserves. I would sit in the kitchen and listen to Mama and Aunt Gladys talking and laughing. She would trim my bangs. I would breath in Aunt Gladys smells as she leaned over me. I inhaled Evening in Paris perfume. Max Factor pancake makeup. Hairspray. Coffee. Wrigley’s spearmint chewing gum.
Aunt Gladys slept in my bed and I slept on the sofa. Her smell lingered on my sheets long after I stood in the middle of the dirt road and watched the back of her Studebaker disappear in the dust.
On Pungo Creek I was encircled by cornfields, attacked by chickens, enveloped by kin and enclosed by loneliness. Without the insulating presence of Aunt Gladys, all the scarcity and meagerness of my life seeped in and I knew I was really alone.
I had no friends and nothing about rural life excited me. I didn’t like fishing, gardening or raising chickens. I was a city girl. Every Sunday, without fail, I put on my best clothes and waited for the Church Bus that would carry me to Sidney Freewill Baptist Church. I collected my one-month pin for perfect attendance – then three months – then six months – then a year. I collected the two-year wreath that encircled my one-year pin and then each year I added bars that hung from the wreath. These attendance pins show up clearly in my school pictures.
Not long after my four year bar was added to the wreath, I made my way up the aisle to the front of the church accompanied by the sweet, sad strains of “Just As I Am” and dedicated my life to Jesus. I remember thinking I looked particularly nice that day. I was wearing brand new back patent leather shoes – fresh from the Alden Catalogue Company – and a full-skirted dress of red dotted Swiss that Mama had just finished hemming. A grosgrain ribbon held back my unruly blond hair. I told Reverend Linton and the assembled congregation that I wanted to be saved. Moments later Addie, outfitted in a matching red dotted Swiss and patent leather, followed me up the aisle. I was annoyed at my sister’s intrusion into my moment of glory but no amount of glowering could persuade her to return to her pew.
“What are you doing up here” I hissed. “Get back to your seat.”
“I want to be saved too,” she whispered back to me.
“The Lord be praised.” Reverend Linton had sung out. “These dear children stand here before you today ready to dedicate themselves to the Lord. I’m going to have to throw the wee one back, but this one is ready to know Jesus as her Savior.” He laughed as he touched me on the head. Addie walked reluctantly back to her pew.
For the next few weeks we took turns baptizing each other in Pungo Creek. “I’ve got to do this right” I insisted. “There are going to be a lot of people watching.”
I put my left arm behind Addie’s back and took hold of her right hand. “Hold your nose, Addie. Okay. Get ready. I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Ahhhhh-men.” On the “ Ahhhh” I dipped her under the water and I brought her up the “men”. “Now you do me.” We traded places and Addie played the part of Reverend Linton. “When you’re old enough to get baptized, Addie, you are going to be perfect.”
When the day of the baptism finally came I was ready. I was wearing a dress of white eyelet that Mama had made especially for the occasion. I joined hands with the line of men and women waiting on the bank. I was the youngest. We waded into the creek. The sound of our old piano wafted out of the open windows of the front room. The choir was singing “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand…” Just as I reached the stake where we were to line up for the baptism the wind began to howl. Reverend Linton had to shout to be heard over the wind. Pinecones rained down on the congregation that watched from the creek bank.
The last time I said “I love you” to Mama she was in a coma. I don’t know if she heard me. The last time I’d seen her was seven years earlier. She was waving to the back of the Greyhound Bus that was taking me back to Washington DC where I was living in a group house with Norm, The Colonel, Nina and Michael and Motorcycle Steve. I slept in a closet with a mattress thrown on the floor.
On my brief visit home – only overnight and only because Daddy had driven up to Washington DC to find and rescue me – on that brief visit I slept in my own room for the last time. Mama had kept it real nice. It was just like I’d left it when I ran away the first time. There was a white duster around the vanity and a white bedspread. All white.
Mama took one look at my wild blonde hair, went into her bedroom and came out with a short, curly, red wig she had bought for herself with the money she made selling Avon door to door.
“Here. Take this. It will make you look more presentable.”
I stuck the wig in my bag and carried it back to DC, but it didn’t make me more presentable. You can’t hide fear and rebellion under a cheap wig.
Mama wrote me everyday in her mind. She told me so in the birthday card she sent me the April before she died. “You’re the only one of my children I never have to worry about. I know you’re going to be okay.”