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Already by her twentieth birthday, my grandmother was an excellent midwife, in great demand. Her black bag bulged with mysteries in vials. This occupation led her to my grandfather, whose job was operating a rope-and-barge ferry that traveled across the Pasquotank River. A heavy cable ran from shore to shore, and he pulled the cable and thus the barge carrying people, animals, everything in the world, across the river. My grandmother was a frequent passenger, going back and forth over the river to catch babies, nurse the sick, and care for the dead as well. I hear him singing as he puffs her barge. At first it may have annoyed her, but soon it was a sound she couldn't five without, She may have made up reasons to cross the river so she could hear him and see him. Think of a man content enough with quiet nights to work a river alone. Think of a man content to bathe- in a river and drink from it, too. As for what he saw when he looked at my grandmother, if she looked anything like my mother's highschool graduation photograph, she was dazzling, her greeneyes glancing from his to the water to the shore. Between mygrandmother, her green eyes and mound of black hair, and the big-cookie moon low over the Pasquotank, it must have been all my grandfather could do to deposit her on the otherside of the river. Imagine what he felt when she told him her name was Clarissa Kate but she insisted on being called Charlie Kate. She probably told him that Clarissa was a spineless name.
Now, some facts of her life I have not had to half invent by dream. She and my grandfather were married by a circuit rider in 1902 and lived in a tiny cabin on the Pasquotank, completely cut off from everybody but each other. My grandmother continued to nurse people who lived across the river, and soon Indian women in the vicinity came to prefer her root cures to their own. My mother was born here in 1904. She was delivered by an old Indian woman named Sophia Snow, thus her name, Sophia Snow Birch. My grandmother became hung in one of those long, deadly labors common to women of the last century. After thirty-six hours of work with little result, my grandmother decided she would labor standing, holding on to the bedpost for support, letting gravity do what it would. Sophia, however, persuaded her to be quilled, and so a measure of red pepper was blown up my grandmother's nose through the end of a feather freshly plucked from one of her many peacocks. My grandmother fell into a sneezing frenzy, and when she recovered enough to slap Sophia, she did. Sophia slapped her back, earning both my grandmother's respect and an extra dollar. Within the hour, my mother was born.
She told me she had a wild-animal sort of babyhood. She remembered the infant bliss of sunning on a pallet while her mother tended her herbs. Her parents kept sheep on free range in the yard, and my mother told me how she had stood by a caldron and soaked the wool down into indigo with a boat paddle twice as tall as she was. She said to me, "We were like Pilgrim settlers. Everything had to be done, and we did everything."
They left Pasquotank County in 1910. The suicide of Camelia, my grandmother's twin sister, made it impossible for her to stay there. They were so bound together that as small children, when they slept in the same crib, they awakened every morning each sucking the other's thumb. Grief for Camelia hounded my grandmother from the place where her family had lived for five generations. Within days after Camelia's hydrocephalic son died, his wildly sorrowful father wandered out and lay like one already dead across the railroad tracks, to be run over by the afternoon train. Camelia lost her mind immediately. My grandmother implored her sister to come stay with her, but she would not. She stayed alone in her house and handled baby clothes and wrung her hands in the clothes of her husband and baby until these clothes and she herself were shredded and unrecognizable. My grandmother would go each day and change Camelia's soiled dresses and linenswhile she walked all through the house naked, moaning, "Oh, my big-headed baby! Oh, the man I adored!"
Just when my grandmother was wondering how much worse things would become, Camelia developed a fixation on Teddy Roosevelt, writing love letters to the White House which were opened at the local post office and made available to anyone who wanted a good snicker. The Roosevelt fixation continued a long time, too long, as told by the fact that when Camelia's body was found, with great razor gashes at her neck, wrists, and elbows, there was a note from her idea of Mr. Roosevelt on her kitchen table. It said:
go an git yor belovet husbendzs razer and take it to bed wit yu.
it wuz a mistak the babi bean born. go be wit him and yor belovet in paridiz.
Among her other personal effects, my grandmother found more than a hundred notes Camelia had written to herself from Mr. Roosevelt.
My grandfather did not want to leave Pasquotank County, but the government's decision to scrap the ferry for a modern steel bridge satisfied my grandmother's urgent need to leave. She was so relieved that her sighs all but created wind. The only decision they needed to make was where to go. They chose Wake County because my grandfather was convinced that this was a place overflowing with gorgeous opportunities even for an illiterate barge operator.Charms for the Easy Life. Copyright © by Kaye Gibbons. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
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