Sadie Bean walked on to Mulberry and turned to cross the street half a block to the narrow two-story frame house Ron had fixed just the way she’d wanted. Smiling at his continuing thoughtfulness, Sadie opened the freshly painted white picket fence gate and let herself into their front yard. There was a tiny squeal from the upper hinge as the gate closed. Sadie made a quiet bet with herself that her husband would notice it when he came home and that the squeak would not be there tomorrow.
Still smiling, Sadie climbed the four stairs to their front porch. She eyed the granny rocker Ron had made for her, but it was too late in the afternoon for a comfort time rocking and dreaming. Too close to supper time and her man getting home for his lovingly-made meal. Pork loin this night. And the first tender carrots from his vast vegetable garden in the back. She hurried into her kitchen at the back of the house. Setting the burlap bag at the near corner of the counter, she tied on her apron and began preparations. She was setting the last of the peeled potatoes on to simmer when she heard Ronda enter the house and, instead of coming to the kitchen to greet her mother and see what was for dinner, hurrying up the stairs and all but slamming the door to her bedroom.
“What, Child?” Sadie frowned and wiped her hands on her apron. “Something ain’t right,” she told herself and, grabbing up the burlap bag, went to the bottom of the stairs. “Ronda?” she called up. “Ronnie?”
When the girl did not answer, Sadie climbed the stairs and stood a moment at her daughter’s door. She knocked and entered without waiting.
The big-busted girl sat with her back to the door, her textbook open on the desk in front of her. She did not turn at her mother’s entrance.
“Glad to see you studying, Ronnie.”
Ronda did turn then. Her eyes were red from crying and her cheeks were bright pink with frustration and the anger it engenders. Sadie moved into the room to seat herself on the edge of her daughter’s bed nearest the girl.
“Would it have been easier with all the other subjects to distract you during the regular school year?” she asked reasonably, but within herself she questioned their decision to set up this special summer lesson. Ronda had always dreaded any math. But at least if she were taking the class with other students, she could take heart that they were having as hard a time as she was mastering the rules and concepts. “Would it?” Sadie pressed.
Ronda had always been a pleasant child, fun-loving and as eager to help as was her father. She was a fine combination of the best of each of her parents, and Sadie was proud of her, though modesty demanded that she not tell her daughter that aloud.
Realizing from long experience that her mother would not coddle her over this, Ronda glanced at the half-hidden burlap bag and changed the subject.
“Whatcha got there, Mama?”
Sadie grinned as she brought the bag up from beside her and held it out. “They ain’t new, but they’re just your size and Doc didn’t have no use for ‘em.”
“Is Doc taking stuff instead of money?”
As Ronda reached for the bag, Sadie playfully drew it back.
“Hey!” Ronda chirped, and lunged. Sadie drew it away again. Laughing, they tussled a moment on the bed until Ronda grabbed it and twisted away to open it.
“Oh,” she cried, disappointed.
Straightening, Sadie sat up and smoothed her apron. “They ain’t real purdy.”
Ronda stood up, holding out the rugged pair of brown shoes accusingly. “They’re ugly! Clunky. I ain’t gonna wear these. Somebody might see me in ‘em.”
Sadie’s shoulders rolled back and she stood upright. Though the volume of her voice did not change, the tenor did, and Ronda cowered ever so slightly.
“Them are good, sturdy shoes. Your feet will thank you after a hard day standing and running.”
Nearly in a whisper, Ronda ventured a defiant response that could express her anger without provoking her mother’s well-known adamancy. “You should know,” she said, her chin lowered.
“I do know.”
“Workin’ all day with Doc Ricartsen,” Ronda continued, raising her face an inch or two.
Sadie rocked back and peered at her daughter, cocking her head so one graying wisp fell loose at her temple.
“Where are you goin’ here, Missy?”
For the first time, Ronda glanced up to be able to read her mother’s expression, but it was blank. Swallowing, she whispered, “Just wondering where I come from.”
A rebellious spirit took the girl farther than she’d ever dared venture before.
“Did you ever stop standing and running and lie down for…?”
Sadie rose to standing. The blow from her right arm and open hand Ronda never saw coming. The buxom girl was both surprised and not surprised to find herself on the floor beside her chair. The sting in her cheek rose along with the red hot feeling of shame. It was several minutes before she got to her feet, weeping.
“I – I’m sorry, Mama.”
Sadie stood rigid, nodding curtly. “As well you should be.”
Overwhelmed with misery, Ronda, face lowered, stepped toward her mother. “It’s just that…”
Sadie cocked her head, an invitation to go on, that she was listening before passing to judgment.
“Th-the kids say…,” Ronda sobbed.
“Since when does a Bean listen to what some foul-mouthed fool says? Ain’t I taught you better’n that?”
Ronda broke into sobs, jabbing her fists at her well-developed breasts. “I’m so—big! Clunky.”
Sadie’s shoulders fell and the steel in her eyes softened. “Like those shoes. And your ma.”
Ronda shivered and, crouching, tried to run past her mother out the door to her room. But Sadie caught her in muscular arms and drew her close to her own more than ample bosom.
“Ronnie, Ronnie, loved child, you are Ronald Bean’s daughter, I’m proud to say. Your pa was born smallish, but only on the outside. He is one of the finest men I’ve ever been privileged to know. Big inside, and that’s what counts.”
Sadie slid a holey cloth from the pocket of her apron to wipe away the snot glistening on her daughter’s upper lip. How many times have I done that when she was a tot? Oh, my baby girl, how much you are loved, but that doesn’t make coming to your own in this world a whole lot easier, does it?
Hugging her close and swaying with her in her arms, Sadie hummed the off-key lullaby she’d introduced her to music with as an infant. Gradually Ronda’s sobs eased and finally the girl began to stir, to dance with her mother’s comforting movements.
“I kn-know, Mama. I love Papa, too.”
Sadie held her away for a moment, staring into her eyes.
“I will fight anybody who tries to hurt him.” Her expression included her daughter, and Ronda nodded in agreement.
“I know, Mama. And right you should,” she whispered, but her mother overrode her acknowledgment.
“Lord knows he’s taken enough crude, mean-spirited remarks in his life. He don’t need such-like from his own kin.”
“Oh?” Ronda questioned. She’d never considered that, although she’d heard jokes hurled at her dad more than once, often when men had been drinking, like at the KKK picnic. But he’d always taken them good-naturedly and she’d never thought about how much they must hurt. She shook her head and tilted her head toward her mother.
Sadie let her loose, but kept one hand lightly on her shoulder as though unwilling to sever the connection between them.
“What do the kids say, Ronnie-Girl?”
It was Ronda’s turn to hem and haw. It was one thing to hear such things, but another entirely to say them aloud – especially to her mama.
But at Sadie’s lifting of her eyebrow Ronda knew she was one step from a command. She hunkered her shoulders and looked down.
“That—that he must hafta climb you like—like a mountain…” she whispered to the floor.
“And prob’ly take a roll of string with him in case he gets lost inside.” Sadie’s hand dropped of itself to her side. “Yeah,” she sighed, “I’ve heard that one. Somebody even sent us a brandy keg once. Just after our honeymoon.” She turned away and sat wearily back down on the edge of the bed.
“A brandy keg?” Ronda moved to the end of the bed, holding the foot board in both hands.
“Said they couldn’t find no St. Bernard.”
“Oh, for mountain rescue. That’s – that’s almost funny.”
“That’s what your father said,” Sadie nearly spat.
“What else was there for the man to do? I hope never to hear a laugh like that again. Like his insides was rippin’.”
Ronda swung herself around the other corner of the foot board and flopped to sit with her back to her mother’s. They needed to twist to be able to see each other over their shoulders.
So you want your independence, little miss? her mother thought. Well, good for you, Gal. I’ll respect that if that’s what you want. She waited quietly so it was Ronda who spoke, and her words were a question which Sadie had not anticipated.
“How come people are so mean?”
Sadie sighed again, and turned to gaze out the second story window at an elm whose upper branches were bowing and scraping in the sundown wind.
“I guess most times they’re hurt or maybe scared inside their own selves.” She twisted back to nearly face this girl-becoming-woman. “But don’t you get used to bein’ mean. Pretendin’ that what you say and how you say it to a body don’t matter. Mebbe even work to get in the first licks at somebody.”
“Like I just done to you.”
“Well, I suppose you was just tryin’ it out. But you saw how a good smack can handle that theory.”
Ronda rubbed her cheek and giggled. As she looked over and up at her mother, she burst into laughter at Sadie’s expression. The huge-hearted nurse guffawed, and the two tangled awkwardly in each other’s arms, laughing.