PEARLS – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
PEARLS – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
Judy stared down the row of oaks that led to the old barn. She could hear her dad yelling, a mix of curse words and short, sharp yelps. She figured it could be just about anything at this point. Maybe the tractor, maybe the holes in the barn ceiling or pig sty, or maybe he just fell down on something hard. It was after 3:00, which meant he’d been drinking. She thought it might be a good idea to stay away from the barn right now. She’d get her horse when her dad went back to the garden shed to get another drink.
It was hot and dry again this year. Judy sat on the porch and stared at the hills that surrounded their farm. The grass was dry and yellow already even though it was only May. She thought it was beautiful, the golden hills overgrown with sage and chaparral. The only green patches of grass left were in the shade beneath the oaks. Judy liked the way the sage smelled when it got hot, sharp and soft at the same time. Her parents weren’t as happy with this dry weather as Judy was. As far as they were concerned it was just another problem to deal with on their struggling farm.
“Judy,” she heard her mom call from inside the house. “Judy, where are you? I need your help”
She briefly contemplated running away where here mom couldn’t find her, but decided against it. It was too hot, and she didn’t want to deal with both an angry mom and a drunk dad. Maybe her mom wanted something simple, like a couple of lemons from the tree or some eggs from the chicken coop. But based on the tone in her mom’s voice, Judy doubted this was the case.
Judy reluctantly brushed the dust off the black patent leather Mary Janes she got for Christmas two years ago. They were just like the ones Shirley Temple wore when she danced up and down the stairs in “The Little Colonel,” except they didn’t make that clicking noise as she ran up the porch steps into her house. They were much too tight, but Judy wore them anyway. It might be a while before she got another pair of shoes this fancy.
Her mom was waiting for her, hands on her hips. “How many times do I have to tell you not the slam the screen door when you come in,” she asked. “It’s wakes up Granny.” Her mom wiped off her wet hands on her greasy apron and pointed to the closed door at the end of the small hallway. “She’s in pain again,” she whispered. “I need you to sit with her while I finish up hanging out the clothes and making dinner.”
Judy sighed. Her mom’s face slipped into her habitual frown. “It’s not like you have to be with her all day,” her mom hissed, grabbing Judy by the elbow and pushing her towards the closed door. “At least you get to go to school. I’m stuck here all day with the both of them.” Her mom pushed a loose piece of her graying hair off her sweaty forehead. “I can’t wait till you turn thirteen,” she said. “Then you’re finished with school and can finally help us with the farm.” She handed Judy a glass of water and a little packet of powder. “Take this and go sit with Granny.”
Judy looked down at her shoes, and thought about Shirley Temple’s mean grandpa in “The Little Colonel.” He acted crabby all the time, but he turned out to be really nice by the end of the movie. Judy knew this was not going to happen with Granny.
Judy slowly walked down the hall and knocked on the door. “Granny,” she whispered, hesitating. “Granny, are you awake?” She pushed the door open and stared at her granny, asleep in her narrow bed. She looked exactly like her dad did when he fell asleep on the old sofa in the living room; eyes screwed shut, mouth slightly open, gently snoring. Judy crept slowly into the room, trying to get to the chair in the corner without making a floorboard squeak. But like her dad, Granny was a light sleeper. She jerked awake as Judy sat down.
“Where’s your mother,” she asked, staring at Judy. “I asked her for my medicine an hour ago. I’ve been laying here waiting. How long does she expect me to wait?” She gestured impatiently at the pitcher of water on her nightstand. “Don’t just sit there. Mix me my medicine. It’s way past time.”
Judy carefully opened the packet and shook the white powder into the glass of water like her mom showed her after Granny got too sick to do it for herself. The powder made the water cloudy. Judy stirred it with the spoon from Granny’s bedside table until the water was clear. “Give it here,” her Granny snapped. “Are you going to play around with it all day?” Judy silently handed her the glass and watched as Granny tilted her head and drink it all without spilling a drop.
“Take this,” she said, handing Judy the empty glass. “Help me with my pillows.” Judy tried to shift Granny and grab the pillows out from behind her shoulders and head. Granny felt spindly and brittle, the way chicken bones felt after Judy left them out in the sun to dry. “Be careful,” Granny barked. “You’re as clumsy as your mother. All you Dowds are clumsy. Always were.”
She lay flat on her back, gasping and helpless. She reminded Judy of a beetle that flipped over and couldn’t right itself. Judy herself had stomped on countless beetles in this very position. She looked at her shoes. These really weren’t the right ones to use to kill bugs. She’d just as soon use her dad’s old farm boots when she had something messy to do.
Judy silently plumped Granny’s feather pillows. She opened the bureau and chose two fresh pillowcases that her mom had embroidered. One had a fat little red hen with a flock of yellow chicks. The other had a pair of bluebirds sitting on a branch with “Love” embroidered in cursive above their heads. The bird ones were her favorites. She hoped Granny either liked birds or wouldn’t notice which ones she chose.
“You’re going to have to sit up Granny,” Judy said. “I’m going to just slip these under your head as quick as I can. Then you can go back to sleep.” She put her arm under Granny’s shoulders and put the pillows behind her. She was shocked at how thin Granny was now, how her collarbone jutted out so sharp that it pushed her whitish-blue skin almost to breaking point. She felt sorry for her, for how helpless she was. Maybe she wasn’t always so mean. Maybe it was just because she was so sick now.
“What are you staring at?” Granny said. “Just be glad it isn’t you. I’m wasting away out here in the middle of nowhere.” She glared at Judy. “This isn’t where my people are from, and I shouldn’t be here.” She gasped for breath and motioned for her water glass. Judy silently filled her glass and handed it to her. She watched as Granny took a few sips of water and coughed most of it back up through her thin lips onto her chin. Judy dabbed at her face with one of the discarded pillow cases.
“Get that dirty thing away from my face,” Granny said, feebly pushing the pillowcase away. “Just like your mom. She never knew how to do anything right either.”
Judy backed away from the bed and sat down in the chair. She looked around the room. It was full of things from Granny’s house in town, where her dad and his two brothers grew up. There wasn’t enough space in the small room to artfully arrange much. Old photos in ornate gold frames were stacked on the bureau and end tables, along with porcelain animals, empty delicate vases, and leather-bound books with colorful illustrations on special shiny pages.
Granny’s jewelry box sat on the center of the bureau, a testament of order amongst the surrounding chaos. It’s gleaming dark wood was inlaid with mother-of-pearl flowers. The drawers, a special one for each different type of jewelry, slid smoothly in and out with a light tug of each dangling silver pull. With the exception of a light stain on the top—from champagne according to Granny—it was smooth, polished, and perfect.
Judy had only seen the inside of this magic box once, when Granny still lived in her old house. Judy and her mom and dad would go to Granny’s house for dinner on Christmas Eve every year. Her dad’s brothers and their wives would go to Granny’s on Christmas Day. Judy wished they could all go together on the same day so she could play with her cousins instead of playing silently by herself while the adults talked
On Christmas Eve last year, she decided to explore Granny’s big house while her mom and dad sat in tense silence in Granny’s formal sitting room. She wandered through the dark house. All the curtains were closed and the furniture in most of the rooms was covered with sheets. Judy thought all those sheets made the house look haunted. She tiptoed back down the hall to check on her parents, still perched stiffly on the stiff chairs listening to Granny lecture them about all the money they still owed her. She quickly ran back down the hall and opened the door to her Granny’s room.
Her room was beautiful, with a big four-poster bed and matching armoire. It smelled like orange blossoms and old roses. Granny’s bedspread was pink and silky, and her pillowcases had gold tassels on the corners. Judy looked at Granny’s books, all with matching leather spines in a bookcase that extended from the floor to the ceiling. She pulled one out and opened it. The front page was protected by a piece of tissue. Judy pulled back the tissue and stared at the picture of a white horse with big wings flying through the blue sky.
She tiptoed to the table beside Granny’s bed. It was the first time Judy had ever seen a jewelry box. She pulled open the small drawers and looked inside. Each drawer had a special treasure; a big stone with a face carved on it dangling from a soft velvet ribbon, a silver clock hanging on a slim, strong chain, gold earrings with sparking stones. Best of all was the long string of silvery, pinky white beads, each one just a little bit bigger than the one next to it, leading up to the one biggest one of all. The big one was right in the middle of the necklace, dangling from a golden bow.
Judy pulled the necklace out its special drawer and draped it around her neck. It felt heavy and warm at the same time. The beads were soft. Judy rubbed the biggest bead above her lip, on the place right below her nose. She stroked the beads at the back of her neck. It was intoxicating.
Suddenly the door burst open. Granny marched in and grabbed Judy’s arm hard. “Come with me,” she said, yanking Judy down the hall to the sitting room. Judy saw the stricken look on her mom’s face. “I found her,” Granny said. “She was rummaging through my jewelry box. Look.” She pointed to the necklace still hanging from Judy’s neck. “None of my boys were raised this way. None of my boys were allowed to rummage through my jewelry box.” She looked at Judy’s dad. “It’s what I’d expect from one of the Dowds, so I’m really not that surprised.” Her dad kept his head down and stared at the floor.
Granny held out her hand to Judy. “Give it back,” she demanded. “And don’t ever get into my jewelry box again.” Judy silently gave Granny the necklace, watching it slip from her fingers into Granny’s wrinkly hand. She looked at her parents. Neither one said a word. Granny shook Judy hard. “Your cousins don’t get into anything when they come over,” she hissed. “That’s why they’re invited back.”
It was a quiet Christmas that year. Both her mom and dad were silent as they drove home from Granny’s house in their old pickup. But Judy hardly noticed. That year, the only thing she wanted for Christmas was that necklace from that jewelry box.
Judy noticed that when Granny got too sick to live alone, neither of her other sons offered to take care of her. The oldest son lived in Los Angeles now; he said it would be too hard to get Granny there easily in her condition. The youngest son pleaded lack of extra space due to his four children.
Judy’s family lived just outside of town and she didn’t have any brothers or sisters. They were close and they had one extra room. Granny moved in with them in the spring, along with the few items she took with her from the old house. Since then, Judy’s dad spent most of his time in the barn or the garden shed. Judy and her mom were tasked with taking care of Granny.
“Do you need more water Granny,” Judy asked from the safety of her corner chair. She wasn’t as afraid of her after she took her medicine. Granny eventually would go back to sleep, unless the pain was particularly bad. Today her lips were white and thin, and she breathed quick, shallow breaths. Judy could tell she wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. She just hoped Granny wouldn’t want to talk.
“I don’t need any more water,” Granny said, licking her lips. She stared at Judy. “Where’s your mom?”
“She’s doing the laundry now and then she’s making dinner,” Judy responded nervously. “Dad’s in the barn fixing something. I think he’s fixing something anyway, that’s what I think.” She stared at her shoes, hoping Granny would stop asking her questions and fall asleep.
“Your dad can’t fix anything,” Granny said, her bony hands picking at the blanket. “I didn’t raise him to work on a farm. He doesn’t know anything about plowing, raising pigs, or whatever else you’re supposed to do on a farm. The only thing he knows about farm life is your mother.” She hooked a piece of thread between her yellow fingernails and began pulling at the stitching. Judy stared at her as she began unraveling the blanket.
“Do you think your dad’s happy here,” Granny asked. Her eyes, pinpricks now, watched Judy’s face. “Did you think he moved out of his family home to the Dowd pig farm voluntarily?” She continued plucking at the old blanket, pulling out bits of thread with her gnarled hands.
“This isn’t just a pig farm Granny,” Judy said earnestly. “We grow cabbage, apricots, Brussel sprouts…”
“I couldn’t care less what kind of farm this is,” Granny said. “The fact is that I didn’t raise my son to live here, out in the middle of nowhere. He was supposed to go to college in San Francisco, then go into business. He should be wearing a suit, not dirty overalls.” Her voice was sharp and mean, and Judy wanted it to stop. “I thank your mom for that.”
Judy thought about her mom for a minute, about her red hands from doing everyone’s laundry, about her worn face at the end of the day when she was able to sit down after finishing up the dinner dishes. How she put Judy’s dad to bed when he was too drunk to take off his clothes and shoes.
“What did Mom ever do to you to make you hate her,” Judy asked. She was shocked at her own question. It was like another person was talking out of her mouth. She remembered that Shirley Temple asked adults a lot of impertinent questions in the movies and usually got away with it. Judy knew she wasn’t as young and cute as Shirley, but she was willing to give it a try.
Granny struggled to lift her head from her pillow. She glared at Judy. “What was that, young lady?” she snapped. “What did you just ask me?” She grabbed at the blanket in an effort to pull herself up, but was too weak to get a good grip. She sank back into the pillow gasping. She motioned for her water glass. Judy remained in her chair, watching Granny as she tried to catch her breath.
“Your mom,” she croaked. “Your mom. It was her fault. She wanted to get away from this dump, away from this farm. She thought my son was her ticket out.” Judy watched as Granny pulled herself up. “My son couldn’t help it,” she said. “Your mom was a white trash country girl, and all the sudden there you were. What else could my son do? He had to marry her. Her dad and brothers would have killed him.” She looked at Judy with disgust.
“I tried with her,” she said. “I tried to like her but I couldn’t. She made a mess of your dad’s life. What were we supposed to do? Be happy about it? We all hated it. When your dad moved to this farm, it was like someone drove a stake into my heart.” She slipped back into the pillow. “Now get me that water,” she said. “I’ll die soon enough. Out here at the Dowd family farm. I just don’t want to die of thirst.”
Judy walked over to the bed, filled up the glass from the pitcher, and held it to Granny’s lips. She watched her as she tried to swallow, the water running down her chin. Judy went to the bureau and got one of Granny’s silk handkerchiefs. She dabbed at her face gently, carefully blotting the water off her cheeks and chin. She folded up the handkerchief and placed it near Granny’s hand, now laying still on the blanket. She quietly went back to her chair, sat down, and folded her hands on her lap like her mom had taught her.
She snuck a look over at the bed. Granny’s chin was dropping toward her chest. Judy sat as quietly as she could. Maybe if she was really still and didn’t move, not even to breathe, Granny would fall asleep. She held her breath and watched as Granny’s dry lips stretched further away from her teeth and her rib cage jerked with the effort of her breath. Eventually Granny began fitfully snoring, her breathing irregular and labored. Judy walked to her bedside. “Granny,” she whispered. There was no response.
Judy went to cluttered bureau and began pulling open all the drawers in Granny’s jewelry box until she found what she wanted. It was still there, in the middle drawer, the long silvery white necklace with the little beads that gave way to the bigger beads. Judy picked the necklace up. The biggest, softest bead hung from the middle, the one that was shaped like an egg and hung from golden bow. Judy put the necklace around her neck and smiled.
“Mom,” she yelled. “Mom, come here. I think Granny needs help.” She slipped the necklace into her pocket. She rubbed a spot off the toe of her left Mary Jane, and ran down the hall looking for her mom.