Blinders

Cheril Thomas

Oral History


�You want to know about my people?� Reggie MacBride asked as he shifted around in his wheelchair. He was a banty rooster of a man, small and sinewy, bald except for a fringe of white feathery hair. His blue eyes were hawk-like, piercing despite the rapid blinking and broken veins. Far from appearing diminished by his immobility, Reggie looked like a hard working fellow who was resting a bit on a chair meant for one far less able.
  Penny Sevier tried to ease into the explanation of her visit by offering oatmeal cookies and apple juice, but she was soundly rebuffed. Reggie declared the juice to be for babies and the cookies a device of the Devil � otherwise known as the nursing home�s dietician.
  �I can bring something better tomorrow if you could just give me a few minutes today,� Penny said as she pretended not to notice the cookies slipping from the bakery box into the pockets of his cotton robe.
  �Choc�late�d be good,� he said.
  �OK, sure. But since I�m here, could I ask you a few questions? See, I need to interview someone and write a paper about his or her life for a college project. It�s called an oral history.�
  �Ain�t you a bit old to be in school?�
  �Better late than never, right?� Penny tried for a chipper tone, but her voice was shrill with tension.
  �Sevier. That�s an old name. Lotsa Seviers �round here. Who�re your people?�
  Penny hesitated. It was a risk, using her mother�s maiden name, but Audrey had insisted it would jog his memory. Penny didn�t like her sister�s plan, especially the part that required Penny to be in a nursing home �interviewing� Reggie MacBride. Damn Audrey, anyway. Always ordering her about as if they were still kids.
  �Carolina or Tennessee?� Reggie asked, impatient that she hadn�t immediately produced her lineage.
  �Carolina.� Since they were sitting in Angel City, Tennessee, she hoped he wouldn�t be familiar with the younger Seviers in a neighboring state.
  �You �bout 35 or so.� A statement, one that was complimentary by more than a decade. She smiled and nodded. A mistake. �Must be one a� Blakely Sevier�s chil�ren. Or one a� Bryson�s. Which un?�
  Penny cursed her sister in a silent running monologue. She wanted to tell the truth � to say she had no idea who her ancestors were. Until a few weeks ago, she hadn�t cared about genealogy or relatives she�d never met.
  �Blakely�s� she blurted.
  �Huh.�
  Her answer must have been sufficient because the questioning stopped while Reggie drew one of the previously disparaged cookies out of his pocket, took a bite, then looked appraisingly at the remainder. �Bettern� the Devil�s,� sprayed out of his thin, white lips with a shower of crumbs. �Why �er you here, agin?� The rest of the cookie disappeared in a single bite.
  While Reggie chewed, Penny repeated her cover story about the oral history assignment, telling how she picked him at random from the member directory at St. John�s Methodist Church.
  �They say you are the oldest member there.�
  �I know it,� he snapped.
  A silence stretched as he ate and Penny frantically cast about for a way to engage him. When she had been searching through the membership records at St. John�s, the Reverend Oscar Whelty had told her Reggie was sound of mind and should have the information she wanted. He�d also told her she would need patience.
  �I looked through all the church records about your family.� This got his attention. �You know, doing research for my paper.�
  Reggie�s eyes narrowed. �So now you come to me to hear �bout Daddy �n them.�
  �Yes.� She tried not to sound too eager. �And your mother and brothers and sisters. You know, tell me about life on the mountain back when you were a child. Maybe in the years during the Depression? Really, just anything you�d like to tell me.�
  He stopped chewing and his eyes narrowed as he studied her. She tried not to squirm. He finally said, �You want to know �bout my family, �bout Daddy �n Ma, you gonna have to tell me which �un you mean.�
  �Which?�
  �Which Ma, girl? I had me two.�
  Before she could form a response, a stocky aide with an overly cheery voice breezed in and announced that lunch was being served and Reggie was needed in the dining room. Penny wanted to scream; she had been so close.

*

  Her next visit was better planned. She made an appointment for ten the next morning, reasoning he would be between meals and could talk for an hour or so. She could make it back to Chattanooga in time to feed Mother her dinner if Reggie MacBride cooperated. Double chocolate chip cookies were in her tote bag. She found him in the nursing home�s sunroom. The casement windows were open, letting a warm breeze wash the medicinal smell from the room.
  �Remember me?� Penny asked, regretting her chirpy tone when the old man raised his head and glared at her.
  �You a hard one to disrememeber. That voice of yourn hurts the ears.�
  Penny felt her face warm; she�d heard that comment before. �Sorry, I�m just so happy to see you again. I was hoping you could tell me more about your family.�
  �Been a while since anyone was happy to see me.�
  �Oh, now I�m sure��
  �Look here, girl. If you�re here as part of a visitin� mission of some kind, go on down tha� hall and find Asa Collins. He�ll talk to a pig�s hind end and be glad to do it. Me, I ain�t got that much longer and I sure don�t mean to spend it spillin� family talk with strangers. I got no more energy for hidin� things and it hurts to talk.�
  �But��
  �You caught me at a good time t�other day. Ain�t a good time now.�
  �I brought chocolate cookies, we could just eat them and you don�t have to talk.� Penny pleaded, trying to keep her voice soft and her panic down.
  �Get me some coffee.�
  �What?�
  �Coffee.� Reggie said irritably. �Real coffee. None a� that powdered dee-caf crap.� He coughed into a white handkerchief. �Get me a cuppa real coffee to go with them cookies and I might feel like talkin�.�
  Ten minutes later, Penny watched Reggie sip the coffee she had begged from the staff lounge. The brew was sludgy and smelled burnt, but Reggie smiled as he sipped. �Been years since I had me some,� he said softly.
  Oh, God, Penny thought, please don�t let him keel over. Fried at ninety-five on a burned cup of coffee, and it would be her fault. Maybe he would talk fast, first.
  The coffee did its job. Reggie perked up and started on a cookie. Penny tried not to look at her watch or stare at him as he ate and slurped. She walked over to the windows and willed herself to project patience instead of desperation. As she looked at the view of the mountains, she let her mind wander back to last night�s conversation with her sister. Audrey was angry with her for returning to Chattanooga empty handed.
  �There isn�t much time, Penny! Why did you leave before you got something out of him?�
  �Because I wanted to see Mom and I thought maybe knowing that I�d found her brother would be enough.�
  �Would it be enough for you, if you were Mom?� Audrey had asked.
  �Chestnut Mountain. The big �un there to tha� right.�
  �What?� Penny said, startled.
  �You�re waitin� for me to pay for this,� Reggie�s head dipped toward the cookie bag, �with some family talk, right? Well, I�m tellin� you, you lookin� at Chestnut Mountain where the MacBrides were for more�n two hunnert years. Now they�s no more chestnut trees and no more MacBrides.�
  �Oh, okay.�
  �Ain�t you gonna write any of this down? Or you just gonna remember what I say for your oral hist�ry?� He snorted at his own wit as she scrabbled in her bag for a pad of paper and a pen.
  �That coffee�s good. Git me some more.�
  �Sorry, that was the last of it.�
  �Okay, for now,� he agreed. Perhaps in acknowledgement of her favors, he lightened his attitude. �What you want to know first?�
  �How about your parents? Tell me about them.� Please, please.
  �So you read up some on my family? Then you�ll know my ma most likely was one of Daddy�s wives.�
  �Most likely? You don�t know who your mother was?�
  �Hell, girl. Ain�t like I was writin� down details at the time and the family didn�t talk �bout things like that. Didn�t do to ask much. It�d just upset the women. And I always believed I was borned to Alice. I look more like her people �n any of the others but the families on that mountain all come from the same part of Ireland, so it don�t necessarily mean nothin�. It worried at me when I was young. Hadn�t thought about it for a while, though, and can�t do nuthin� about it, not from this end of life.�
  �You�d be surprised,� Penny said before she caught herself. �I mean, talking about things like this can help, no matter when you do it. Tell me, I�d like to hear about your family.�
  The suspicion was back before she finished speaking. �You from tha� TV? You gonna be tellin� about the MacBrides next time I turn on one a� them shows where everone �s jumpin� about and shoutin� at each other?� Reggie�s irritation didn�t stop him from rooting around in the bag for another cookie.
  �No, no. Really, I am doing an oral history assignment.�
  �Don�t matter, now I s�pose.� He went on as if she hadn�t spoken. �I was raised up first by Alice. Then mostly by Serry. Alice was Ma. Then Serry was Ma Serry. I was number twelve of nineteen, did you know it?�
  �Number twelve of�of course! You were the twelfth child born to Edmund and Alice MacBride.� Penny said, recalling the genealogy charts Audrey insisted she study. Her pleasure at finding a link between Reggie�s story and the information her sister had gathered faded as she saw the old man�s face harden again. �Ah, I mean, that�s what the church records say.�
  �Is that right?� Reggie said sarcastically.
  �Yes,� She wasn�t sure if she was headed for a blow up or a break-through but she plunged on. �Their documents indicate that Alice died and then Edmund married Seraphina Benton and they had seven more children.� She didn�t mention the other records on the internet showing both Alice and Seraphina were alive when all the children were born.
  �Well ain�t that nice. They was nineteen babies, yes indeed. Some lived and some died. But whether Alice had twelve and Serry had seven, who�s to say? Was you there?�
  �Well, no,� Penny faltered. �But the church records��
  �You met the pastor over to St. John�s?� Reggie asked before coughing hard into his handkerchief. He wiped his eyes and then looked to her for an answer.
  �Yes, sir, I did.�
  �Sir?� Reggie snorted a harsh laugh, which started up another coughing fit. When he�d recovered, he looked as if he had more to say but instead just shook his head and gave her a sly smile. �Got any cigarettes for this old man?�
  �No, sir. I don�t smoke.� And I�m not going to take you down any more illicit paths, she thought.
  �Huh. Well, if you met the good pastor and if you�re any brighter than you look, you�ll be knowin� he�s dumber than a donkey and twice as ugly. He�s also lazy an�ll lie to you soon as praise the Lord.� Penny was still trying to sort the insults between herself and Reverend Whelty when Reggie added, �That church�s had some good pastors, but more of �em was like ol� Oscar�n not. Which means, girl, you�d best not be putting much store in what they got writ down in them records over to the church. Church papers lie, just like church people lie, just like ever�one lies when it�s to the good of their ownselves to do it.�
  Penny tried to stay calm, but her voice squeaked when she wailed, �Then how am I going to find out the truth?�
  �Pack a� Marlboroughs oughtta do it. And bring some decent coffee to go with it.�
  �What? You know I can�t do that!�
  Reggie clapped his hands over his ears, but he was smiling. They both knew she would.

*

  While Reggie was occupied with lunch and afternoon bingo, Penny checked into a nearby Holiday Inn and called Audrey, who was not pleased with the morning�s results. �At this rate, we�ll all be dead by the time he tells you something we don�t already know,� she complained.
  �Look,� Penny snapped, �If you think you can do better, you are welcome to try. He keeps demanding bribes. By the time I get him the sweets or coffee he isn�t supposed to have and he is finally in the mood to talk, that warden of a nurse comes in and grabs him or its time for lunch. And, he�s hateful! He says the meanest things and I��
  �Poor you. Why don�t you come on home and explain this all to Mother while I take a break from hospital duty and stay in that nice hotel room?� Audrey�s tone was deceptively mild, but her words had the desired effect. Penny�s momentary rebellion crumpled.
  �I�ll go back in a little while. He wants cigarettes, though and I��
  �Give him whatever he wants. Do whatever he wants, Penny! Just get busy and find out who our grandmother is!�
  �I still don�t understand why we can�t all accept that Seraphina Benton was most likely��
  �You mean why our mother can�t accept that she was given away? Why she was the only one of nineteen children who was tossed out as a baby?�
  �Okay! Okay, I�m sorry. This would be easier and faster if I could just tell him what I need to know and why. He was ten when she was born, he�ll understand he�s our only hope for learning the truth.�
  Audrey didn�t bend. �Mom�s had so much to absorb in the past month, she can�t take any more. You know what the drugs are doing to her. She�s always been so proud of being a Sevier. What if some MacBride relatives show up here and upset her?�
  �I don�t think there is anyone but Reggie. The receptionist seemed surprised that I wanted to visit him.�
  �There could be dozens of them and we just haven�t found them yet,� Audrey countered. �All Mom wants to know is why her birth family gave her away to the Seviers. We can�t tell her we found them, but we don�t know which of the women in the family was her mother. Can�t you understand that? Do I have to come and talk to this Reggie MacBride? We don�t have much time before she��
  �It�s been more than eighty years,� Penny said, knowing she had lost the argument but not wanting her sister to finish the sentence.
  �Yes, it has. Mom�s waited long enough, don�t you think?�

*

  �So, we was always lookin� for ways to make money, get food. Especially in the fall if the crops was no good. We ate ever�thing you can imagine, girl.� Reggie stopped to take a short pull on his Marlboro and blow out the smoke. The blissful look on his face dissolved in a coughing fit, but he didn�t seem to mind, pulling at the cigarette again as soon as he could breathe. Oddly, the longer he smoked, the less he coughed, but Penny didn�t waste time thinking about the incongruity. She knew they would be found out sooner or later and when they were, her excursions with Reggie would end along with any hope of getting the information her mother so desperately wanted. Audrey was still working the internet, but so far, Reggie MacBride was all they had.
  She felt like a criminal as she peeked around the corner of the maintenance shed at the rear of the nursing home�s property. The staff was thrilled Reggie had a new friend willing to visit and get him out into the fresh air. Penny couldn�t count all the lies she�d told in the last two days.
  �I�m sure that was hard, feeding so many people in one household.�
  �Who said it were one household?� Reggie tried to make a smoke ring. �Two mamas, one daddy n� too many chil�ren. No fool�d put that mess in one house.�
  Penny was getting used to Reggie�s storytelling style. She said, �Huh,� and waited for him to continue.
  �No, we had us two cabins, one little, one big, and we had a barn. The older boys slept in the barn. Turned twelve or got taller than Ma Serry, you moved out to the hayloft in the barn. They was kids in that barn until 1948, when the last of the boys, Harry, I think it was, went for the Army. I was still there a�course. Married to Dancy by then and had two a� our girls. We was in the little cabin that we�d fixed up good.
  �Yes, when Harry climbed outta that hayloft and got hisself a uniform, the old folks was alone for the first time. Ma Serry died not long after. Always said she couldn�t stand the quiet.�
  Penny considered the dates. �She wasn�t very old, was she? Early forties or so?�
  �Hard life up on that mountain. Reckon she was wore out even before she gave up.�
  He watched her expectantly, but she didn�t know what he wanted. Today�s cookies were gone. �So,� she said, �what happened then? Did you and your family move up to the big cabin?�
  Reggie glared through the stream of smoke jetting from his nostrils. �I�da like t� seen the man could take that cabin out from under Daddy. Anyways, where would he and Ma have gone? They�d been up there they whole lives.�
  �But you said Serry died,�
  �She did, girl.�
  She�d been listening to one story after another about the MacBride�s hardscrabble life on the mountains. Had she built up enough rapport to venture into the questions she�d come to ask? Whether she had or not, she was running out of time. �You mean Alice was still alive?�
  �How long we gonna keep this up? Sooner or later they gonna find us back here and I ain�t gonna tell it all inside where them others can hear and talk �bout me.�
  Finally. Penny took a deep breath, praying what he had to tell was what she wanted to hear.
  �Tomorrow,� he said. �Bring a pint of whiskey and we�ll finish.�

*

  When her cell phone rang at 5 a.m., Penny didn't answer. She didn't want to hear Audrey say the words. Too late, too late. When it rang again, five minutes later, she gave in and looked at the screen. Not Audrey; a local number.
  "Ms. Sevier?" She didn't recognize the voice. "Penny? The lady that's been coming to visit Mr. Reggie?"
  "Yes."
  "Good. I think I got a wrong number a minute ago and I probably woke somebody up. This is Nancy Mitchell, the night nurse at Blowing Pines Home. I found your number in the pocket of Mr. Reggie's robe and I hope you don't mind, I mean I know how early it is."
  "Is he all right?"
  "Well, no. That's why I'm calling. He is asking for you and he says it can't wait. I�m sure you�ve noticed he isn�t well and, I shouldn�t tell you this, but if you want to see him, you'd better come."
  A half hour later, Penny stood at the foot of Reggie�s bed, watching his chest struggle to rise and then collapse. Without his flannel shirt and baggy overalls, his body looked as thin as a boy�s in the narrow hospital bed. For the first time Penny realized he had been someone�s boy, once. Alice or Serry�s - did it matter? One gave birth to him and both loved him, hadn�t they? Could you raise a child and not love it at least a little? And why had they loved that little boy enough but not the baby girl that came ten years later?
  Her mother�s face came to her. Not the face of the woman who lay in another hospital bed a hundred miles away, but of the child in the photographs taken by her adoptive parents - good people who gave little Joan everything except the truth. Even that wouldn�t matter if Audrey hadn�t started to research their family tree, or if she had kept what she found to herself. No, Audrey had to run to their mother and start a search to find their �real� family, a search that kept turning up empty until last week, when Audrey found documentation on the MacBrides of Angel City.
  �Did you bring that whiskey, girl?�
  Penny pulled a chair to his bedside and, after a moment�s hesitation, reached over and took his hand. He let her hold it. She decided to take another chance. �I bought it, Uncle Reggie, but I rushed off when the nurse called and I forgot to bring it.�
  He didn�t react to her use of �uncle�, but said, �You lyin� to me agin.�
  Penny sighed. �Yes, sir, I am. Probably time we stopped that. I�ve got it with me, but it looks to me like you�re already loaded up with medicine. Whiskey could kill you and I just found you.�
  �Tomorrow, then. You come back tomorrow. Bring the whiskey and we�ll have us some with a smoke out behind the shed.�
  �Sounds good. It�s a date, but for now, I need to ask you a couple of questions, okay?�
  �For a niece, you ain�t been much bother, all told.� He tried to laugh, but his hand tightened around hers when he produced a phlegmy rattle instead. �You Joan�s girl?� he finally whispered.
  �Yes, sir. Mom needs some answers and she doesn�t have much time. She�s�� the words were too big, but she pushed them out. �She�s dying. Soon.�
  He was quiet so long, Penny started to panic even though the hand in hers was still warm and she could feel his pulse against her fingertips.
  Finally, he said, �Me �n Joan going outta this life together. Ain�t that something, now? She wants some answers, does she? I�d like me some of those, too.�
  �Do you know who her mother was?�
  �Yes.�
  �Will you tell me, please?�
  �I can tell you what I know. Not right to tell you more�n that and I won�t do it.� She nodded and after a time, he went on. �The older ones, they was all Alice�s, then she took the grippe and went down and didn�t get back up for a long time. Pa went to town and came back with Serry to help with the kids and the farm. She was a cousin of Alice�s or some such. A relation anyway.�
  He closed his eyes before starting again, as if he only had the strength to look at her or talk to her, but not both. �Ma was never right agin. She didn�t die for a long time, years, like I told you, but she was always weak and sickly. Serry never went home. Pa promised he�d marry her when Ma died. He needed help and Serry needed a home. It was done like that sometimes. Only Ma didn�t die. And Serry loved us. She and Ma set things right between them and it was peaceable for a long time.�
  Penny held a cup of water for him and waited while he sipped.
  �Joan was born in �29. The black rot got the t�baccy crop that year and the bank in town went bust. We still had some food, but it was thin.
  �The morning your ma was borned, Daddy brought her out of the bedroom and put her in the old cradle. Both Ma and Ma Serry was cryin� so much, I couldn�t make no sense of them and it scared me, so I ran and hid in the barn. After a while, a car came and I saw it was the doctor from down the mountain. I thought maybe Ma was finally dyin� but when he came out of the house he had the baby and he drove away with her. Ma and Ma Serry cried for so long it don�t seem like they ever stopped. Later I heard down in the town that some Seviers took the baby in and named her Joan. I thought it was a real nice name.�
  �Did your Daddy ever tell you why they gave her away?� Penny asked.
  �She was number nineteen of nineteen, did you know it?�
  �Yes, sir.�
  �Did your Ma, did little Joan, have a happy life?� he asked.
  �Very,� Penny answered. �She�s only been sick this past year. Right after she was diagnosed with cancer, she found out she was adopted. It was a big shock, too much on top of everything else. She keeps asking about her family and why she was given away.�
  �Was she happy?� he asked again. �Them Seviers, was they good to her and give her enough to eat? Warm clothes?�
  Penny�s eyes filled with tears and she patted the bony hand that rested in hers. �Yes,� she whispered.
  �Then you know why, don�t you, girl?�
  Penny wanted to let everything go and just sit in the quiet with Reggie, but there was no more time. The third call she�d received that morning had been from Audrey.
  �Did you ever learn who her mother was?� she asked.
  �Yes. Same as mine. And we had us two good �uns.�

*

  The background noise of the oncology unit was covered by the sush-sush of the respirator. Audrey stood across from her on the other side of their mother�s bed. Penny thought her sister�s sad smile was harder to bear than any of her lectures.
  �Mom?� Penny leaned in close to kiss her mother�s forehead. �I found your brother. He told me that your parents loved you very much and wanted you to be safe and well cared for. They gave you to the Seviers so you would have the best of everything. Your brother remembered you, Mom. He remembered everything.� Reaching over to take her sister�s hand, Penny finished Reggie�s story.
  �Mom, your mother�s name was Alice Seraphina, and she was a good woman.�






CHERIL THOMAS lives and writes on Maryland�s Eastern Shore. Her non-fiction work has appeared in Municipal Maryland. Her short fiction has been published by Wordpool Press in Digital Papercut Literary Journal and Wild Violet Literary Magazine. She is the co-author of the serialized murder mystery WHISPERS, A Maggie Maitland Mystery, which is published weekly by Attraction Magazine (www.attractionmag.com). Ms. Thomas�s mystery novel, Adverse Possession will be published in 2016.





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