The New Preacher’s wife dropped in on Miss Dovie Caldwell and her married daughter one afternoon---one of several visits she made around the town a day or two a week. Miss Dovie was in her accustomed place on the corner of the couch, with her crochet hook in hand and her feet up on the footstool. A glass of tea was offered and accepted, arriving in a pretty frosted glass with one of Grammaw’s long silver tea-spoons and a little plate with a slice of Devil’s Food cake.
Preacher’s Wife sampled, admired and completed her required manners by asking for the recipe. On hearing that there were THREE kinds of chocolate betwixt the cake and the icing, she gasped at the luxury.
Miss Dovie smiled as she cast on eight stitches, and looked up as she began:
In my whole life, I don't think I’ve known but two people who didn’t like chocolate. One was a bit strange in her ways, anyhow, and the other came by it honestly as anybody ever could.
That one was my Mama---Miss Birdie Mae Pritchett, she was, and my Daddy was Vonn Pardee, from over at Expedia. She was fifteen and Daddy was nineteen when they ran away and got hitched---Ole Granpaw just forbid them to see each other until she was sixteen, and it finally got the best of them. So, when all the younguns got all dressed up in sheets and charcoal-smudge whiskers and Granpaw’s oldest clothes on that warm Halloween night, they dressed up, too.
She’d been a-wearin’ clothes under her clothes for several days, sneaking them out into the barn and hiding a couple of outfits and her best dress and shoes in a pillowcase under some old stuff stored out there.
On Halloween, she put on a long checkedy skirt and one of her Daddy’s shirts over a dress, crammed her stockin’s and her Bible in her purse, and then “went walking” with the rest of the young people of the community. This was back in that time when the kids ‘ud soap your windows or tip over your outhouse, and one time two of those Williams boys got mad at Sonny Pollan for making eyes at one of ‘em’s girl, and they opened up the front door of the Pollan house and turned two shoats and a turkey in on his Mama’s good Sears Roebuck rug.
Mama met Daddy waiting down the road and they set out on his horse to Expedia, where they had been going to church, and knew the preacher. So they were married the next day, staying with his kinfolks for a while, then coming home to a very cold reception from her family, though the Pardees were really well thought of hereabouts.
One of his married brothers had just finished building a new little house for himself and his own bride, and they asked the newlyweds if they’d like to stay with them for a bit until things cooled off some. And they did, with nothing but his steady job at the sawmill and the clothes she had carried from home. Apparently they lived on there for quite some little time, for the main part of the story occurred on over in the hot Summer out there a good little ways out in the country.
Mama and Aint Nettie Frances got along fairly well, as long as the chores around the house and yard and milking-barn were divided about 70/30, Mama said, in favor of Aint Nettie Frances, and she was gettin’ more and more pleased with the arrangement. Aint Nettie Frances allowed it was HER house, and she since was giving them “house room,” they could just do their share. Mama had to bite her tongue many a day, for fear she’d say something that would cause her sister-in-law to toss them right out into the road.
Mama did most of the cooking, all of the kitchen work, a lot of the animal-tending and the milking, whilst her sister-in-law quilted and tatted and made herself clothes all the Winter through.
Then, in the Spring, the menfolks plowed up a garden plot, and Mama planted and hoed it, then canned everything that wasn’t needed for the three-meals-a-day for the four of them. It got hotter and hotter, and the canning seemed to stretch on farther than that distant Delta tree-line.
She’d start the day way before daylight, getting the men’s breakfast on table and their lunch pails packed, then made her way out to the bean rows or pea-patch or cornfield as soon as she got that morning’s milk into jugs in the springhouse. That Delta sun beat down on her back as she squatted in the middles, and sweated her scalp fierce under the big-brim bonnet that kept the sun off her face. She’d pick as much as she could calculate she could shell or shuck and can in that day’s time, and take it up to the porch, getting it into dishpans and setting out the old bushel for the hulls or the shucks as the chickens came running over to wait for something to fall through a crack.
Aint Nettie Frances “slept as late as she could,” ja know, to avoid as much of the morning heat as possible in the shady bedroom. She didn’t like hot food on a Summer morning, so she usually had some berries or peaches on clabber with the coffee left in the pot, or she’d open a big jar of Mama’s just-canned sweet pickled peaches, and eat them right off a fork with the sticky juice drippin’ on the table.
She also had a “morning bath,” though there was but the one in a day. And in Summer, she pumped the water straight out of the red pump on the kitchen counter, sluicing it off into the big old #3 tub from the back porch. She did love a cool bath, and great fluffs of body-powder, with more settling onto counter and table and the pine floor than onto herself. You could mark the time of day by the big shining ring of unpowdered floor, until somebody swept it out the back door in a cloud across the yard.
Unca Jrome and Aint Nettie Frances went into town almost every Saturday, getting the week’s staples such as coffee and sugar and tea, and some sody crackers and vi-eenies and all, and Aint Nettie Frances would look through the Butterick book and feel the quality of fabric for a new dress and maybe price some of those pearly buttons. They’d spend the time visiting up and down the streets with friends and storekeepers, always stopping at the drugstore, where they’d have a cold Cherry Phospate, sitting on those high fountain-stools and crunching that real cracked ice til the last sliver was gone.
Mama wasn’t hardly ever invited on these trips, and Daddy was usually up at Grammaw and Grampaw’s doing their little chores, so she’d stay home on the place, week after week. And every Saturday, she’d pray so hard for them to just get gone for a little while---just a breather from the work and the constant company, so she could wash her hair and dry it in the sunshine of the yard, and sit in the swing in the shade a bit without a pan of peas in her lap.
The noon dinner dishes were done, the floor swept, the shoes polished for church in the morning, and a bit of rest was in sight, she hoped.
Unca Jrome would pull the buggy up to the yard, while Aint Nettie Frances would check her hat in the mirror, then she’d walk out onto the porch. Mama would watch her go, relief almost overtaking the fervent prayer that she’d just GO, and then it would come:
EVERY BLESS-ED Saturday, Aint Nettie Frances would stop on the porch and turn, or she’d get all the way up the step into the buggy, settle onto the seat, turn to Mama, tuck her head and look up from under her eyebrows like a little kid you caught at something, and say, "Chock-littt CAAAAAAKE, Birrrrdie,” in the most irritatin’ voice in this world. She’d bat her eyelashes real fast like one a them vampy women in the pictures, with that smirky smile that knew Mama couldn’t say no, since they were so beholden to her and Unca Jrome for a place to live til they could get on their feet.
And so, Mama would stomp into the kitchen, get out the bowls and the spoons and the sugar and the Hershey’s can, throw some more wood into that already-sweltering woodstove, and start mixing batter and icing. Some days, she'd bang things around some---stove-lids and sifters, or yell out what she’d REALLY wanted to say to Aint Nettie Frances. And once in a while, she’d just fling the whole shootin’ match out into the back yard, and then have to go all the way out there and pick up those cake pans and spoons from where she’d flung ‘em.
But she made that cake, every blessed Saturday that they lived there. She worked in that stifling kitchen every week, baking the layers and cooling and frosting, heating the whole house past bearing in that Summer sun, doing her part to help with their upkeep.
One Sunday morning, everything came to a burnin’ bush, as they say, when Grammaw Pardee overheard Aint Nettie Frances say something real mean about Mama and Daddy to her two gossip-friends as they walked out of church. She was telling Maudie Grace and Mamie Pell how beholden they were to her for the roof over their heads, and if she didn’t just work her hands to the bone with four people in the house, she didn’t know what.
Grammaw didn’t let on, but just went on home and got Sunday dinner on table for her and Grampaw. She cleaned up the kitchen, took off her apron and put her hat back on and her purse on her arm. By then Grampaw was dozing in the porch shade, and didn’t hear her go down the porch steps and way across the yard with her big black umbrella she called her “parasol” shading her from the sun.
She walked down the lane to the road, turned in at the New House, and went over to where Aint Nettie Frances was sitting in the swing with a magazine and her tea glass from dinner. Grammaw could see Mama through the windows, straight through into the kitchen, where she was clearing off the table whilst the dishwater heated in the kittle.
Grammaw just real slow eased down her umbrella and snapped the little cord around it whilst Aint Nettie Frances just sat there, swingin' real lazy with one foot. Then her Mother-in-Law raised her voice for the first time either one of those two young women could remember.
“Nettie Frances Pardee, don’t you NEVER NEVER NEVER use the word “Beholden” to anybody again. Not EVER, you hear me?
“I’ve seen that girl out at the washpot, Winter and Summer, washin’ everbody’s clothes and all them overalls and your own underwear, and you a-sittin’ in a sunny winder sewin’ lace on your drawers. She’s out on the porch ironin’ ever Tuesdy of this world, and you out here in the swang in the shade, as big as you please, with your embrawdry hoop and a glass a tea!
“She ‘n’ Vonn put in a WHOLE lot more than they take, I’ll tell you THAT. With him puttin’ in more’n half of his earnin’s for groceries and lights, and her doin’ all the cookin’ and washin’ up too?
“All that for one spare room and the privilege of bein’ your housekeeper and cook? Hatten nobody seen you hit a lick at a snake since they moved in here.
“I’ll tell you WHAT, young lady---they not goan be here forever. They goan have therr own place, and she’ll keep it nice, and keep her family happy and be the good woman she is, and not look down on NOBODY, you hear?
“You just see how long YOU last in this new house you’re so proud of. You’ll be cryin’ to me again about your hands are rough and you just cain’t stand all that stoopin’ to pick the greens, and you’ll both be eatin’ burnt pone like when you were first married.
“If I ever hear the word ‘beholden’ come outa your mouth again, or even hear that you said it, I’ll snatch you bald-headed, grown and married or not.”
And then Grammaw Pardee undid the big ole black umbrella, and walked off down the road toward home.
But you know, I still don’t think I EVER saw my Mama take a bite of chocolate.