For over sixty-one years, the ghost of a two year-old boy stood between my mother and her mother.
In 1939, at the age of four my mother contracted diphtheria. So did her two year-old brother Gene. My grandparents lived in the middle of nowhere, far away from doctors and hospitals, far away from everything except cotton, corn, and poverty.
Hunting and fishing provided food, not sport.
The two children had no choice but to fight through the disease.
My mother managed. Her brother couldn't.
He died in my grandmother's arms.
My grandfather, a bear of a man, took care of my mother while my grandmother took care of her grief.
At last, my mother found the strength to walk, and sought out her Mama, to show her that she was oh, so much better.
"Get her out of here, Marvin," my grandmother cried. "Get her out of here, I can't bear to look at her."
For reasons that even now escape me, boys held a higher status in the Black Delta of Arkansas than girls. Perhaps for the physical strength needed in the cotton fields. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
My grandfather took her to his parents. "Sister," he said to his frightened, weeping daughter. "I'm coming over here every day after work to see you. And I promise that every Saturday I'll take you into town for a treat."
He was true to his word, but couldn't bring her home for five years. She was nine. Her sister Kaye, similarly ostracized, was four.
I grew up wondering why my mother's attitude to her father and mother were so different. To him she showed respect and genuine love. To her she always capitulated, never stood up for herself.
My grandmother and I were with my mother when she died.
I was with my grandmother when she died.
My love and empathy go out to the memory of a twenty-four year old young woman, way back when, who lost her baby boy and couldn't find the courage to face her daughter.
And to the memory of a woman who spent the rest of her life trying to make it up to her own mother for having lived.
And to the memory of baby Gene who innocently haunted them both.