The drizzle hitting the glass pain left the room feeling morbid. Many would call it rain but the tears that poured openly down my cheeks felt more overwhelming than the sudden cold rain that overcame the Carolinas. The rain came sudden and belied the fact that there was something more coming, I would never have believed them weeks ago if they had told me my mother would leave as suddenly as the rain had come. “Fever.” was what Dr. Martin had told us, before he packed his bags and we heard the door click behind him. It was just my brother, father, and myself left now. Mother had always managed the plantation and now staring down at her body covered in it’s black shroud on the small settee in the main room, I felt overwhelmed beyond belief. It was true we had plenty of servants to help me. My mother never believed in having slaves and my father had lived to indulge her every whim. We didn’t live like the finest of plantation owners but simply and comfortably. I was dotted on in the family – being the only girl for several generations. Without mother the house would be cold and lonely, only she knew how to make it a home. But as she loved to say “Always rise to the occasion, Evalyn. Never give up without trying your best and then some”. I suppose that now it was time for me to rise. Father would need someone to take over the plantation duties and planning. James though 7 years older than me would need someone to take care of him. There would be things to be managed, parties to be planned, in several days time my own mothers wake would need to be planned. My father sat beside my mother’s body, tears pouring down his cheeks in shaking silence. James stood stoic beside me, his arm wrapped around my shoulder. Who will I tell about the men who come calling? Who will give me sage advice even when I don’t want it? I thought.
Father turned looking at James and I “Go back to bed you two – the morning will come soon enough and it will be unforgiving”. As we turned and shuffled to the stairs. My body overcome with wracking sobs would not lift it’s foot anymore. I crumpled to the floor, losing any ability to hide my grief anymore. James, who had always been my gracious caretaker scooped me into his arms and carried me to the top of the stairs. “We must be strong for father, Ivy. We cannot let him see us crumble like a pie crust.” James said. Carefully he lowered me onto my feet and helped me to my door. Marila was standing by my door to help me back into bed. She was the servant who had brought me into the world 17 years ago. Marila had been like a second mother to me but we had never talked about things like mother and I had. I turned to thank James as he gently wiped the tear from my cheek “Sleep well, sister”. “Thank you, perhaps things will seem less bleak in the morning.” I replied. Within the confines of my own room Marila turned to look at me. “Ya need anytin’ more ma’am?” She said, her own grief written on her face. “No Marila, thank you. I’ll see you in the morning.” I replied. Before crawling into bed I kneeled at my bedside. The longing to pray was consumed by wracking sobs. I don’t know how long I knelt and sobbed, moaning long into the night in a form of pleas to the Lord for help, comfort, and peace to overcome my body.
“Ma’am!! Watcha doin’ way down there!?” I vaguely heard Marila say. Forcing my eyes to open and see the brief rays of sunlight peak through the clouds, I took in the room around me and found myself on the floor. Marila helped me to my feet, my back more sore than I could express. “Gather my clothes, Marila. Make sure you get out my mourning dress and head covering.” Even as I said it a brief few tears trickled down my cheeks. Marila handed me the handkerchief mother had embroidered for my last birthday. It was adorned with a bluebird and bluebells my favorites in the corners and my initials, EAK, in another corner. Dabbing at my cheeks, I composed myself. Marila helped me into my undergarments, tightening my corset to a pleasant if not semi-tight fit. “Ya wanna have ya big ‘oop or da day ‘oop, ma’am?” Marila asked. “The day hoop will do fine today Marila. We are not expecting any visitors and there is much to be done around here.” I replied. “What time is it, Marila? Are Father and James up yet?” “6:30am and no Ma’am.” she replied. “From now on I will be taking on the duties mother saw to. Please wake me at least 1 hour earlier than normal from now on. I will need the extra time to prepare the household.” “Yes ‘am.” After dressing in my mourning gown and taking my black shawl around my shoulders, I looked in the mirror and composed myself to face the day. The prayer on my lips and mind was one of “Please Lord give us peace and prosperity in these trying times.” The Hymn Abba, Father, Hear Thy Child played through my head. My favorite verse had always been
“Lord, I will not let thee go
Till the blessing thou bestow:
Hear my Advocate divine;
Lo! To his my suit I join;
Joined to his, it cannot fail;
Bless me; for I will prevail.”
With this verse playing in my heart I stepped down the stairs, ready to face the day and whatever it may hold ahead. Mother would not have wanted us to stop for her and to mourn for a long period. She always said “The world turned ‘round the sun before me and will continue to do so long after I’m gone.” She was right of course. Mother always loved to quote the book of Ecclesiastes. Her favorite chapter was chapter 3. “A time to mourn and a time to dance.” That’s what it said. Today wasn’t the time to mourn, there was planning to do and things to be done. As I came to the stairs, my burden feeling lighter than it had last night, I came face to face with my Father. “Oh Papa, Marila said you were not up yet. I’m sorry if I woke you.” “No dear, I will retire for bed now. Good night.” He replied, his eyes puffy and swollen from the tears shed. Kissing him on the cheek, I bid him good night and continued down the stairs towards the kitchen. As I entered I found most of the kitchen staff shuffling about – tears in their eyes as well as most of the other servants who had worked in our home through the years. The formen sat at a table, somber and awaiting orders. They rose when they saw me enter the room, everyone falling silent, awaiting my lead. The tension was palpable.
Gathering all the strength and peace I could muster I began “I understand that everyone is hurting and we will all miss mama. She would not want us to wander around in mourning while there is work to be done though. If you knew her, then you know this is true. We all have our duties to be done and life must continue on. Formen I still expect you to run the fields and gather the cotton like you do. My father is grieving and will be unavailable for questions for a bit, please direct all questions to James or myself until further notice. For the household Servants you will direct all questions and concerns to me from this moment forward. I know that I am in no way able to fill my mother’s shoes but maybe after a short period of adjustment we will learn how to best help each other toward the success of the place we call home. Please prepare a breakfast for James and Myself – we will eat in the small parlor. Prepare and have a tray taken up to Father at Noon. He will be having a late start this morning. I would like mothers room aired out and cleaned and her body moved from the parlor, cleaned, and dressed in her best gown for the time being and placed in her room. Thank you all for the love and support.” Having said my peace I turned to find James standing behind me “Well said Little one.” He joined me as we walked into the parlour. “I can’t bare to go into the sitting room until they take mother away.” I said. “I understand. Care to go out on the front porch?” James replied. “You look refreshed this morning, surprising because I heard a rumor of you sleeping on the floor last night.” “I would never dream of doing something so unlady like. But the truth is, I was praying and fell asleep in the process.” James turned to me “Did it help?” “Yes, I feel refreshed and ready to face what lies ahead”. “Indeed. I feel the same Little One” James said brushing a wisp of my auburn hair behind my ear. Playfully I swatted his hand “I’m hardly a ‘Little One’ James.” A brief smile crossed his face, quickly it reverted back to it’s stoic nature when one of the Formen entered “Sir we need your advice in the field.” “I’ll be there shortly. See you after Ivy.” Ivy was another of his pet names for me. It happened when he was young and couldn’t pronounce “Evy” my mothers nickname for me. “But breakfast is…..” I protested. “It will have to wait.” he said. “Do you want me to wait to go over the plans for mothers funeral?” I asked. “Yes, I’ll help you with that.” James replied. “Would you like to come to the fields with me? I’ll have them saddle your horse.” “I would enjoy that.”
Mounted on Zapphira, my black mare, I kept pace with James. “I will never understand why it’s been insisted that women ride side-saddle, it’s so impractical.” I stated. “We don’t want to see any harm come to you.” James replied. “I’m more likely to come to harm when I’m riding like this, more likely to fall.” I replied. “Ivy, that wasn’t what I meant.” He replied. I let the conversation die, it wasn’t one that I wanted to have with my brother; at least not with all the other things going on in my life. When we reached the area where there was an issue, it became clear what the issue was. One of our mares, which was pregnant, was laying on her side, breathing hard. “Mast’r sumtins wrong wit her.” Abe, one of our field hands, said. James turned to look at me “Ivy, maybe you better go back to the house, She’s going to give birth here – it’s no place for a lady.” “James, I have seen dozens of women give birth multiple times and I have helped everyone of them. I am in no way incapable of helping.” I said. James came over to help me dismount but one of my greatest rebellions had always been learning how to dismount without help. As my feet met the ground I turned around and saw James displeasure with my display. I knew there would be words about it later. While my father indulged my childish behavior and slight obstinate shows of freedom and independence, James never tolerated it.
While in the field there were few women. And though a few of them had helped with foaling in the past, many looked out of place. James turned to me “We may not be able to save her, Ivy. You really should go back to the house.” Rolling my eyes I removed my gloves, bonnet, and shawl (despite it being a chilly day) handed them to James and gathering my skirts marched myself right up to the head of the horse. Some of the men chuckled. “Ma’am, da foal cumes from da oder end.” one of the hands said. Starting at the head I stroked and gently hummed in low tones until I was at the business end of the horse. Still using low tones I replied “How would you like having someone stick hands into you that hadn’t introduced himself first?” At this the field hands looked taken back and shocked. Though James remained stoic a slight twitch on his cheek told me that while he was slightly amused by my wit, he was not amused enough to let me off the hook for my behavior. The forman came and knelt down beside me “It’s all twisted ma’am and there ain’t nothing we can do.” I rolled up my sleeve, another unlady like behavior to add to James list, and moving the tail out of my way, inserted my hand into the horse until I could feel the head of the foal and the cord that was wrapped around its neck. “The umbilical cord is wrapped around its neck. I’m going to move it and then we have to pull it out front feet first. It’s called a breach.” I said. James looked shocked at me and my conduct but there was nothing for it. If I didn’t act quickly the foal would suffocate and the mare would die while trying to give birth. I quickly adjusted myself – my dress not quite covering my stockings and boots, So uncouth, I thought, Oh well! I have to do what I can to save this poor creature. Social manners be danged. After adjusting the umbilical cord, I located the front hooves and bracing myself pulled hard. Suddenly losing my grip on the hooves, I toppled over, hoop over head until I was sitting down with my feet in front of me, my hair a mess. I looked up to see that the forman had grabbed the hooves and all was going well. A few moments later we had a beautiful little filly. We named her Kat, short for Catherine after my mother. The mare was taken back to the barn along with her filly and a replacement brought out. Abe helped me up and dusting myself off I walked towards Zipphira and James. “We will talk back at the house.” James said. Nodding I mounted with the help of Abe. While I could have mounted without help, I would do best to put most lady-like behavior forward for now.
James rode beside me back to the house. When we arrived, Marila met me at the door, “Lord almighty Child!!!! What did you do?!” “I helped birth a filly.” Scowling she shuffled me into my room, stripping me of my dress and fetching a clean basin of water to wash in. After washing my hands and face in sponge bath, surrounded with many a “I do declare!” and “What would your mama make of this!” I redressed in a simple black dress and had my hair braided down my back. Turning to Marila I stated “What was I to do? I couldn’t let the poor creature die over something so simply solved, just because men don’t know what to do when birthing an animal.” She huffed and gathering the dirty clothing in her hands walked away. Exiting my room I found James standing at the base of the stairs. Taking a deep breath, I started down the stairs, it was time to face what would come. Turning to look into his hazel eyes when I reached the bottom “James, I’m sorry for offending..” I began. He held up a hand for silence “Evalyn, despite you embarrassing yourself with some unlady like behavior, you were immensely helpful today with the mare. I fear she would have died today if it hadn’t been for your quick actions. I know that it is hard for you to understand but as you are now lady of the house – you must conduct yourself as such.” “I understand, James.” “Then let us have breakfast.” he said.
As we dined, we talked about funeral arrangements for mother. She would be buried in the family plot behind the church. It would be later that day or early tomorrow. “The church knows of her passing, I sent them a message this morning. We will bury her this evening.” I nodded. “It’s somber thinking about her being placed somewhere so intangible. If it wasn’t for the arrangements I could have almost believed she was simply visiting friends and family in the north.” I said, tears filling my eyes. James moved chairs and sitting next to me, gently took my hand “I know.” he said. “It won’t be easy”.
Later that night, after the funeral for mother; father, James, and I sat eating dinner. While many would have had a somber, grief filled meal, ours was one of celebration. Celebration for the life my mother had and how she had lived. A meal celebrating her life and the joy of meeting her again in heaven. After the meal, we turned to the sitting room, it had been cleansed of all smells and traces of having housed my mothers ill body for several days. The discussion turned to more somber items. “Evalyn, Since your mother is gone you will handle all the household duties. This will only make you more well reputed in the community. James you will oversee all items pertaining to the fields. I have business to attend in the North for the next couple of months. I will leave on Tuesday next and will write of my return. James you need to keep a keen eye on your sister and any suitors that may come calling.” “Father I don’t think that is necessary and it seems a bit unfair…” I started when he held up his hand. “James do as I say and Evalyn, I expect you to follow your brothers lead.” “Yes, Father” we both responded.