Mama said I was born by a stream named Sweetwater. She called me Sassy the moment she realized I was a girl. Mama said girls should be sassy, gives them sex appeal. So I was named Sassy, after an attitude, and Sweetwater, after a stream. The year was 1949, and the place was a dirty, back-road shack in a dusty, little town in South Carolina. Mama never could remember the name of the town, but she told me that it might have been Cottageville or maybe even Ridgeville. Didn’t matter much what it was called, though. I never saw it again, and as far as I knew, Mama didn’t either.
Some people think a gray, tumultuous sky is an omen of discontent, especially if one’s entry into this world is shadowed by blustery clouds and thunder’s emphatic roar. But my mama said that heaven welcomed my birth with great horns blowing and mighty cymbals clashing and omens sent by mighty seers bring the blessings of miracles, not the doom of devils.
“Gave you its gray,” she said. “Passed it right on to you.”
I always knew she meant my eyes, gray as the weather on the day I was born, and sometimes showing up hazel when the sun confronts the gloom and demands I show some color.
“Gave you its temperament, too, and its mystery, girl. Women need a little mystery. That’s what turns a man’s head. Beauty has nothing to do with anything more than that.”
It always sounded like the great god Poseidon was my father the way my mama tells it. Where else could I have come from? No man had ever come forth and claimed me as his own. Not that I didn’t wonder who my father was, but when I asked I always got the same reply.
“You came from the sky, Sassy Sweetwater; clear as the stream I bathed you in, fierce as the wind that blew away the storm, the one that welcomed you here with great aplomb, and tender as the aftermath of nature’s roar.”
In other words, I was born an ambiguous bastard by a stream in South Carolina, and my seventeen-year-old mama was not about to tell me whose handsome smile had won her over. He was obviously too young or too old to pay for his mistake. I would find out one day, of course. When you ask as many questions as I did, the answers come at you, eventually. My birth was a riddle and I wanted my mama to connect me to some kind of heritage I could claim as my own, but she only gave me new conundrums to chase down. It should have been enough; there’s nothing wrong with chasing around after answers you don’t have, it’s how hard you’re hit with them when they fly back and knock you down.
Mama had traveled at least twenty miles east in Elvira’s old Chevy to give birth to me, screaming the whole way, or so I’ve been told. Elvira was Mama’s nineteen-year-old sister and I guess they’d planned the great cover-up, and the great escape, together. Out of a family of five girls, Elvira was the sanest, according to Mama.
Of course, I never knew how they covered up Mama’s pregnancy, but Mama said her family only had eyes for what they wanted to see and ears for nothing more than what they wanted to hear. In those days, abortions weren’t anything you could go to the doctor for and I’m sure, with Mama’s Catholic background, she would never have entertained that option, even if she could have.
I can’t imagine what she went through when she found out there was a baby in her belly before she even finished high school. And I sure don’t know what she would have done without her sister helping her through it. Elvira promised Mama she’d read every book on birthing babies she could get her hands on and she assured Mama that she had nothing to fear. Well, Elvira must have been pretty well versed in birthing ’cause there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with me that my mama’s milk wouldn’t cure. There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with Mama, either, except all the things you couldn’t see on the outside, all the hurt she must have been feeling; and I don’t mean just about having me bursting open her uterus, but the hurts inside her heart that she never spoke about. But if you knew my mama, you’d know the hurts were there. Mama had the saddest eyes, like a wounded dog on the side of the road that you really want so badly to help, but you can’t offer your services without the risk of being bitten.
Elvira went back home a few days after I was born. Mama and me didn’t go home for another thirteen years. Home for Elvira was fifteen miles outside of Charleston, while where me and Mama went was hundreds of miles southwest. I don’t know how we got there. Mama said we hitched all the way to Louisiana. She said wasn’t a person on the road that wouldn’t stop for a woman with a baby in her arms. I never knew why she’d decided to settle in Louisiana until I found out from Elvira, years later, that Mama had gotten an offer to wait tables in Baton Rouge from some man who’d passed through Carter’s Crossing and had taken a fancy to her. I always wondered if he was my father, but my Aunt Elvira said I’d be more likely kin to King Kong.
Can’t ever figure out why Mama left Baton Rouge and wound up settling in a place as remote as Glenmora. We didn’t stay in Baton Rouge ’cause Mama’s boyfriend turned out to be a shithead and it wasn’t long before some other guy caught her eye just long enough to talk her into following him to Glenmora, where he was assistant principal at the local high school. Of course, I don’t remember much about those years, but I can recall an apartment in the back of a small rooming house where we lived. I can just about capture the features of the woman who took care of me while Mama was working. Connie was her name and I guess she owned the place. Her bosom was large, always showing white freckled skin where the crease was. The memory is good when I think back on Connie, like the talcum powder she put in my underwear and the funny little children’s books she read me, taking on a different voice for each character and scaring me half to death when she spoke like the big bad wolf and kind of lurched forward like she was going to swallow me whole.
Connie was old in the ways that make being old a good thing, with a round, kind face and a voice as soft as silk lining. She made me hot cocoa before I went to sleep every night and tossed a little marshmallow right up on top that melted so nice in the back of my mouth. She picked me up after school every day too, ’cause Mama worked long hours at the Lobster Pot. Connie drove me over to the Lobster Pot for my dinner and Mama would try, as best she could, to help me figure out decimals and multiply fractions in between taking orders. I’d sit at the counter eating crawfish, not really giving a damn what one third times one eighth of anything could ever equal, and doubting if I ever would give a rat’s ass about anything I’d ever have to add, subtract, or multiply.
Mama and the assistant principal wound up breaking up shortly after we settled in Glenmora and not long after, Mama starting dating Guy Grissom, her boss at the Lobster Pot. Mama made me call him Uncle Guy for years, but I never liked him. He smelled feminine, like the cologne Mama wore, and he was always breathing heavy, like he was about to pass out. You might think he should have been real heavyset ’cause he was so short of breath all the time, but he wasn’t at all heavyset. He was tall, though, and big, like those football players with the phony shoulders. But Uncle Guy’s shoulders were naturally broad and then he narrowed so much at his waist, he could have worn Mama’s belts. I always thought he looked funny, sort of like a cartoon character, ’cause his face was square, but Mama thought he was so handsome he could have been up there on the big screen kissing blondes.
When Uncle Guy Grissom was around Mama didn’t act the same. She giggled too much and pretty much said yes to anything I asked her. I knew she barely heard what I’d said ’cause he was there, making himself at home in Mama’s bed. I was pretty much ignored, except of course, when Mama remembered that I was her precious little baby girl; then, all of a sudden, I became this fascinating child with the cutest dimples Guy Grissom had seen this side of Lafayette. “Wish I could adopt this child and make her my own,” he’d say. Of course I knew, even back then, that he was bullshitting me as much as he was bullshitting Mama. Said he was going to make Mama part owner of the Lobster Pot and divorce his wife soon as his youngest child was out of diapers, but of course that never happened.
Guy Grissom paid Connie to take care of me ’cause I saw him give her a white envelope every Friday. She’d hide all the bills in her top dresser drawer, all but a dollar that she’d stick inside her brassiere, right down the middle where the crease was. She’d take me to the park in good weather and buy us ice cream with that dollar or sometimes she’d keep me down at her apartment listening to The Jack Benny Show or sometimes we’d watch Dragnet ’cause Connie liked crime a whole lot. I’d come home late evening only to find Uncle Guy in his underwear eating Mama’s fried catfish, which might have smelled inviting were it not for his sweet cologne stinking up our room.
Uncle Guy got sick when I was about ten years old and he died three years later. We didn’t really see much of him after he was diagnosed with something Mama couldn’t pronounce. Mama had to stop working at the Lobster Pot, of course, and it was eventually sold. Mama couldn’t pay her bills anymore, so I guess Uncle Guy had been paying most of them. Guess he didn’t leave her anything in his will, though, ’cause if he did, I doubt we’d ever have seen the dusty back road of Carter’s Crossing or been desperate enough to claim the McLaughlins as blood relatives.
Right after Uncle Guy died, his wife barged into our apartment and called Mama wanton and loose, not one half hour after they put Uncle Guy in the ground. Mama cried and ordered her out, but the next thing I knew we were packing our bags and I was sitting on a bus and then I was sitting on a train and then there I was on another damn bus and Mama and I were getting off somewhere in the middle of nowhere with two suitcases and soon-to-be-sore feet after walking the two miles from the bus stop to Carter’s Crossing where Mama told me we had family.
Nothing about a bus is fun. Trains somehow have a romance to them that buses just can’t claim. I always felt like I could be going anywhere on earth sitting on a train, all the way across the world, listening to the whistle and catching speedy glimpses of old towns I’d never step foot in. But buses are too close to home. The towns all have a sameness to them and the roads are all too long, the destination too far. You can’t be anywhere on a bus but where you started from and I don’t care how many miles away you think you’ve gone. I’d grow up hating buses. Maybe ’cause they’d always remind me of our trip back home to South Carolina and that pathetic-looking, barren bus stop in the middle of nowhere. I’ll never forget stepping off that bus wondering how far was far when nothing stares back at you but road signs that signal you’re hundreds of miles from anywhere you’ve ever heard of.
Mama turned heads, sad eyes or not. She was tall and her hair was nearly black, but her eyes were the prettiest shade of blue I’d ever seen. It made me giggle to see how many men thought the same. I used to watch them eyeing her. Then I’d bat my eyes like Mama did, but they didn’t pay me any mind—just a smile or an acknowledgement and sometimes they’d pat my head. But it was Mama they were after and I knew it, even then. I was the convenient excuse to get to her. I saw more buttons disappear into white handkerchiefs and had my cheeks pinched by one too many hairy fingers and all the time they were showing me magic tricks and pretending to be so fond of children, they were ogling my mama. It made her smile, the way I’d copy her every move, bat my eyes and shake my crossed leg while these lovesick men vied for her attention and downright ignored my girlish flirtations. I always knew Mama wanted to laugh out loud, but she stopped herself.
“Time enough to turn men’s heads,” she’d say, holding me to her.
I guess she didn’t realize I wasn’t at all interested in turning men’s heads. I just wanted to be like her and to look like her and act like her. Hell, there wasn’t a little girl in the world that wouldn’t have wanted the same. But I wasn’t tall and blue-eyed and wispy-looking like Mama. I was skinny and Mama called me strawberry head, ’cause my hair was flaming red, like the hot part of the fire, something I never liked hearing ’cause strawberries gave me hives and fire made my eyes tear. I didn’t have Mama’s clear white skin either. I was a constant blush with pimples about as busy on my face as grass growing on the ground under my feet. Mama smeared me with this stuff called PhisoHex at night, but for every pimple down, three more had burst forth the next morning.
So be it. Mama said I was going to grow into my good looks; I held fast to that. Mama said when your eye lashes are light and thick like mine, shading my “overcast” color eyes, as Mama called them, then men were bound to fall at my feet. Mama said all men are fools for women, but for drop-dead gorgeous redheads, men are lame-brained idiots. Mama told me not to count all the wounded and brokenhearted men I was going to leave in my wake, but to just be prepared to have that effect on them.
Uncle Guy’s death changed things for us, that was for sure. For one, Mama insisted we had to go back home and make amends. I never could figure out what we were amending. For another, returning to South Carolina after Uncle Guy died, and walking up that road with my mama’s hand in mine, was the closet we were going to be for a long time. I always blamed the distances that came upon us due to circumstance or choice, didn’t matter, distance was the last thing I wanted from Mama. But we were coming back to too many bad memories, wanting to be enfolded by a family whose arms were too short to reach us. Walking up the road that day and heading toward Carter’s Crossing, I knew that everything was changing. I could feel Mama’s thoughts and the heaviness in her heart. She was passing it all onto me, the way she had given me the sky’s likeness. And I took it in like a great tide cleansing me and filling up my soul with my mama’s heart. I would cause the weariness she wore and I felt its weight. I carried everything that was inside of her inside of me and I always would. Everything that had hurt her, and everything that hadn’t, would always be a part of my every breath. In my mama, I would find my anchor, but as I held fast to the safety, so, too, I feared the drowning.
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