Frank and I collect the remaining cups, napkins, and the cookie platter off the table and walk toward the back door to my sister’s house. It’s a charming little brick house. And to think, my sister holds the title to this home in her name. Eddie pays rent to her each month to help with the mortgage, but the home belongs to her. Florence Blackwell Fuller is the first woman in my family to own her home.
I stop at the edge of the shade for a moment. My grandmother’s face appears in my mind. Florence and I are sitting on the lower step of her front porch. We’re making baskets together. We can’t be more than eight or nine. There’s a round pile of honeysuckle vines sitting on the steps between us. Grandma already boiled the vines to soften them. She dyed them brown by putting black walnut husks in the water. Grandma tells us stories while we work. Stories about the old ways. Stories about our ancestors before contact, that’s how Grandma refers to the arrival of the European colonists.
“My grandmother taught me Talutsa and now I’m teaching you,” she says. “Talutsa means basketry in Cherokee. Someday I hope you will teach your children and grandchildren how to make baskets the same way.”
“Daddy doesn’t speak Cherokee at home anymore,” Florence says. “He says lotment was the final straw for him. He said he’s fed up with trying to hang on to the old ways.”
“It’s allotment, Flossie, not lotment.” I correct my little sister and she scowls at me.
“Your father is fed up with a lot of things right now,” she says with a sigh. “I’ll be sure to teach you some Cherokee when you spend time with me,” Grandma replies, her fingers weaving the slender pieces effortlessly while she speaks. “To know a language is to know its culture, its people, and how everything in nature relates to each other. As young Tsalagi, Cherokee, women, you need to understand that in the time before contact, men and women were considered equals. Homes belonged to women and were passed down from mother to daughter. Your clan was passed down to you from your mother’s side of the family. The fields and crops were a women’s responsibility.” With this statement, she laughs. Grandma had the strangest laugh—light, high and giddy, almost like the call of a downy woodpecker. “Ha, when the Europeans first came to our land and they saw women working the fields, they decided farming must not be important to our culture. In their minds, if women were doing the work, it couldn’t have any value to our people.” She laughs again, continuing to weave in her steady rhythm.
Florence and I stop and start in our work, trying to remember which pairs of the vine to work under and which to work over.
“We adopted their ways, their language, their god. Men started farming, and women cooked and cleaned. What good did it do us? They took our land from us anyway.”
Grandma weaves without speaking for a few minutes. The only sound is the swishing of the softened honeysuckle vines rubbing against each other as she deftly slides them into place. Grandma’s hands stop working, she looks up at me and my sister, and her eyes narrow. “Girls, I want you to remember something,” she says. “You are no less important than any man. Your voice and your work count the same.” She returns to the rhythm of her weaving and keeps speaking. “Never forget that. Someday women will regain their natural rights. Someday we will own our homes again and we will pass them down to our daughters, as it should be.”
The memory fades and the sound of my grandmother’s voice spirals up into the leaves of the tree above me until it is gone. This tree shades the yard of my sister’s home. Grandma was right, someday we will own our homes again.
Does Florence remember that conversation all those years ago on Grandma’s front porch? Has she thought about it since she signed the papers and took ownership of this little house? Florence must be smiling from ear to ear knowing this is her home. Frank holds the screen door open for me and I walk into the kitchen excited to congratulate Florence again, this time with a deeper meaning behind my good wishes. My sister stands near the sink, only she’s not smiling. She’s sobbing into a dishtowel.
“Oh, sweetheart, what’s the matter?” I ask as I put my load of cups down on the counter and rush to her side. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“He, he,” she gulps between tears, “he’s going to tell Daddy.” Her shoulders shudder with another round of sobbing. “On the walk—Johnny’s going to tell him about Rachel on the walk.”
I pull my sister into my arms. “It’s probably time for Daddy to know, honey.”
“Maybe you’re right. Did you know Wahya promised to help Johnny find his father? Oh, Bessie, I’m so afraid. I’m terrified I’m going to lose, him. Johnny’s my life, Bessie. He’s my everything,” she wails.
I rub her back while she weeps. Frank looks at me and gestures to the door silently asking if he should leave us alone. I shake my head no. I want him here with me to help me calm her down and just in case something goes wrong. When her doctor diagnosed her with a high blood pressure condition after her episode at the end of May, he instructed her to eat healthier, walk more, and avoid stressful situations. There’s no doubt today is stressful for her. As if hosting our daddy at her home wouldn’t be enough to send her blood pressure skyrocketing, now she has the added pressure of Johnny telling Daddy the truth about Rachel. As much as I want everyone to know the truth, I don’t want my sister to collapse again.
“Take some deep breaths with me, Florence,” I encourage. “Breath deep into your belly and then blow it all out.” I take a deep breath and Florence tries to match me. Her first inhale is ragged and shaky. We breathe out together. Her second breath is smoother. And by the third, she’s stopped crying. “That’s better,” I say, looking around the kitchen. There’s no place to sit down. “Frank, would you mind grabbing a couple of chairs from the backyard?”
“My pleasure,” Frank says and hustles outside.
“Let me get you a glass of water,” I offer. Florence leans on the counter. She’s continuing to breathe more deeply. That’s probably a good sign she’s not going to pass out.
Dear Lord, please be with my sister, Florence, today. Surround her with your peace and love and help her stay calm during a difficult time. Like Christ sleeping in the boat during the storm, help her to not be afraid for you are with her. Amen.
I pull a glass from one of the kitchen cabinets and fill it at the sink.
“Here you go,” Frank says, returning with three chairs. He sets them up in the dining nook. Florence shuffles over to one and sits. I hand her the glass of water. Frank and I sit on either side of her.
“That’s better,” I say. “Now, let’s take a good look at this fear of yours.”
“What do you mean?” Florence asks after she takes a sip of water.
“I find that when I’m afraid of something it helps me to take a good hard look at exactly what I’m afraid of and imagine what the worst possible outcome might be.”
“You do?” she asks.
“Yes, I do.”
“But you always look on the bright side of everything. You’re almost sickeningly positive. I wouldn’t think you played out the worst possible outcomes.” She takes another sip of water.
“The only way to find the silver lining, Florence, is to acknowledge that there is indeed a dark cloud blocking the sun.”
“Okay,” she says, “I’ll play along.” She takes another sip of water. “The absolute worst thing that could happen is Johnny finds his father and wants to live with him instead of me.”
“That would be tough,” Frank joins in, “but you’re assuming Johnny will be able to find his father and that when he does, his father will be in a position to ask Johnny to live with him and even if both those things happen, you’re assuming Johnny would say yes.”
“Did you see Johnny hugging everyone when we arrived today?” I ask. “He was over the moon to have all of us in one place.”
“I suppose he was.” Florence rubs her eyes.
“Johnny loves this family,” Frank says. “He loves you. Even if he finds his father, even if his father asks him to live with him, I don’t think he’s going to leave you or this family.”
Frank’s voice is calm and reassuring. I watch my sister’s face relax as she considers Frank’s assessment.
“Johnny’s a young man now, Florence. It’s time for you to trust him and trust that you’ve done a wonderful job raising him,” I say.
“I know what you’re both saying makes sense. I hear your words, but I don’t feel them,” she places a hand over her heart.
“I can only imagine how hard this is, sweetie.” I reach over and put my hand over hers and give it a squeeze.
“I’m still frightened but thank you for talking through it with me.”
“Well, I’ve got the next frightening thing for us to talk about,” Frank says.
“What is it?” Florence asks.
“My mother called this morning. She and my sister Helen would like to drive down for a visit and stay at Henderson House. She thought they could be our first pretend guests,” Frank says.
“But we’re not ready for guests,” I croak. “We need to spruce up the rooms and I need to be ready to cook for them.” I cough at the thought of cooking for Frank’s sister Helen. I can imagine her demeaning my cooking in a million different ways. “How soon do they want to come?”
“As soon as Mrs. Henderson leaves and before we officially open.”
“That is frightening,” I say with a grimace.
“Guess it’s my turn to get you a glass of water and squeeze your hand,” Florence jokes. I giggle and she giggles. Then Frank starts chuckling and the next thing you know, my sister’s kitchen is filled with laughter.