Read this entry first if you haven't already. Rebel Fan 1973's Practice Blog: I Read The Bed She Was Born In on March 23, 2007
When I read about the traumatic birth of McLean in The Bed She Was Born In, I knew what was going to happen to that little child. See, I had a palsied second cousin about four years younger than me. We lost him at the age of forty – pneumonia claimed his precious heart. With Board's story taking place about 100 years ago, I knew they would lose McLean early. I knew before I read it that pneumonia or the influenza outbreak during World War I would take him.
We have similar family stories about influenza. At the age of 19, my grandpa’s older brother, Roy, went to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg for basic training and contracted influenza within two weeks. His headstone in the Mud Creek Baptist Cemetery in Flat Rock, North Carolina is bigger than his parents’ and grandparents’ headstones.
My second cousin, Ray, who had cerebral palsy, was my grandpa’s baby sister’s first grandson. Her son-in-law’s family had a huge truck farm near Holly Hill, South Carolina. When I was about twelve or thirteen, they had another baby, Darrell. I started going down there in the summers when Darrell was a toddler to help my great-aunt, Helen, tend to the boys while all the packing was going on. Their mother, Momma’s double-first cousin, Lois, was needed in the packing house (guess that made Ray and Darrell my double-second cousins.) She had been a home-economics major at Winthrop and a Clemson Extension agent before marrying Raymond West in 1958, and he took her down to his family’s farm in the steamy, hot Low Country.
Boy, did I ever get a crash course in canning tomatoes and green beans that first summer. By that time, Ray was spending the weeks at the Coastal Center for the handicapped in Summerville and coming home on the weekends. During the height of packing season, there was no day off for the packing house, not even Sundays. I learned how to tend to a severely handicapped boy while I kept the canner boiling all day.
That scene in The Bed She Was Born In where McLean had his accident was like looking at a rerun of the summer Ray hit puberty. It took both Aunt Helen and me to clean him up from an accident that was completely my fault. In this case the culprit was fresh Georgia Belle peaches I had brought down from Robinson’s peach shed in Greer. His momma warned me not let him have too much. But he loved them so much. I mashed a thin sliver of peach with a fork and spooned them in. After a few bites, I said, “Okay, that’s enough.” But he went, “Mmm mmm,” meaning he wanted more. So I stuffed him.
His humiliation was evident by his teary eyes and that strangled “uhh” sound he made for no when we heaved him off his pallet. It just broke my heart. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry. But you can’t stay in this mess till your momma gets home,” was all I could think to say.
On better days, he was fond of Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour novels. His daddy had a bookshelf that sagged with western novels and short story collections. It was a great gig for me. I got to read westerns out loud as Mason jar lids sealed with pops and pings, cooling in the pantry and kitchen.
I guess the worst part of being down there was the fire ants. It was easy to spot a mound in that Bermuda grass. They rose overnight in the black, loamy soil, little grey mountains springing up. Lois poured boiling water on them when she cut the grass. Sometimes she would burn one out, but they popped back up somewhere else the next day. What worked best was a 50/50 mixture of Borax and powdered sugar. They stayed gone for a few weeks after that treatment .
After living down there a couple of weeks, I started to pick up their almost-Geechee sound. And it took me about two weeks to sound “right” after I got back home. ("Right" being western Spartangburg County mill village.) Some of their words were indistinguishable to me and I had to hear them in context to figure out what they were talking about. One example was paper and pepper. They both sounded like pehpah. I made up a story about a little boy going to the store for his mother and told it to Ray and Darrell all the time. It went something like this.
Once there was a little boy who lived on big truck farm. One day his mother asked him to ride his bike down the road to the country store and get a few things. So he rode his bike with a list in his hand and went up to the counter and read the list to the clerk. “My momma sent me after some boottermilk, some beking soda, and some pehpah.”
“Well, what kind of pehpah is it yo momma want?” asked the clerk. “Ret pehpah? Black pehpah? Green pehpah? Banana pehpah?”
The little boy thought and thought and finally said, “Toilet pehpah.”
That used to crack Ray up so, he’d almost strangle, laughing. When the natives weren’t around, I would imitate them, and Ray loved it.
Sometimes I’d drive their daddy’s Deville over to the uncle’s house in Providence, 5 miles away. Raymond’s brother ran the country store at the crossroads next to his house. You could find or order just about anything you could get in all of Greenville or Spartanburg in approximately 2000 square feet.
Those other cousins had an in-ground pool that Ray loved to get in. I tied him to me with an old robe sash and eased down into the water. I’d inch in the cool water and he’d gasp, inch and gasp, inch and gasp, until the water was to his armpits. At first, I swam with him facing me, but I got the feeling he was enjoying that too much and I turned him around. He was so stiff and dense, he’d slide down, and I’d have to hitch him up by his cocked elbows every now and then. “Boy, if I turned you loose, you’d sink like a cinder block,” I said.
“Uh huh," he agreed.
Once it got over 100 degrees for about a week while I was having to can tomatoes and beans. The blue, speckled canner jumped and bumped, and the pressure canner hissed and blew steam. There was only one window air conditioner in the whole house – in the master bedroom. The rest of use had to do with fans. I had them all going. Ray was on his pallet in the den watching an old cowboy movie. He glistened with sweat, so I stripped him down to his diaper and rubber pants, thinking he would be more comfortable. And you know what? He fussed at me, grunting and growling, until I put his cotton/poly blend, plaid, button-up shirt and elastic-waist, jersey-knit shorts back on.
I didn’t like the way his shirts got twisted around when he wallowed on his pallet, trying keep up with the goings-on in the rest of the house. Sometimes the buttons on his shirt dug into his tender, transparent skin. But it was too difficult to get his stiff arms into a pull-over t-shirt. I often gave his shirt collar a tug and a twist to straighten it so the buttons lined up down his front.
From the nose up, he looked normal, even handsome. If he had been born right, I’m convinced he would have been the tallest, prettiest, smartest one of us. Actually, I think he was the smartest one of us; he just couldn’t get it out. Ray’s eyes were the blue-grey of Carolina granite. His hair was the same color as the sable collar on Momma’s red coat. It would have been wavy if his daddy didn’t take him to the barber shop every two weeks.
I told him that he could stir up some gale force winds if he’d bat those long, thick lashes fast enough. Sometimes, I flopped in the rocking chair beside him in the den. “Whew. It’s like a sauna in that kitchen,” I said, tugging the soggy t-shirt from my chest. “Fan me, Ray.” He blinked his eyes at me and laughed when I went, “Ahhhh.” That was our private joke.