Momma pressed something cold into the palm of my hand. When I looked, it was two old wheat pennies and two smooth, flat white stones.
She took my other hand and led me away from the car, through the stillness of the headstones. I was afraid to ask why we were there, in the middle of Calvary Cemetery; all of our departed kin were in crypts outside of New Orleans.
“I bet ya’ wonderin’ why we’re here, huh, child?”
“Why must you still call me ‘child’? I am almost a grown woman.”
Momma seared my flesh with her eyes, but just as quickly they softened, and she looked away. “No matter. You’ll always be my child…
“Alright, here we are, Eliza. You see the name on that stone? Does it mean anything to you?”
The tombstone was almost four feet high, with hundreds of old pennies stacked on top. It read:
BORN ABOUT 1799
DIED SEPT. 17, 1858
Freed from slavery by
his friend Taylor Blow
“I’m guessin’ he was a slave, Momma?”
Momma sighed, “Please dial down the tone, Liza, else I’ll do it for ya.”
I turned my face from her to roll my eyes, “What’s with the pennies?”
“It’s a local custom. Those are also called Lincoln pennies, and folks put them here because this man was one of the reasons for the Civil War. Put one of em’ up there, and the other in your pocket to hold on to.” So I did.
“Ya see, Dred Scott sued his master for his freedom. His first trial was at the Old Courthouse downtown. Shoot, they used to buy and sell slaves on those court steps. It went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. He lost, and ya know why?” Momma didn’t wait for an answer, “Because they decided he was nothin more than a white man’s property. Not a citizen with protected rights, but somehow subhuman. Ya see, child, sometimes just because our government and our courts say something is fine and dandy, don’t make it so. Men fought and died, so that you—Eliza Jayne—a black girl, could be born free; as an American. ”
I could feel her eyes on me, like fifty pound sandbags, pulling me down. She knew. My heart plummeted beyond my bowels; it quaked through my sternum. And then suddenly, it shattered. My voice wavered, “How did you find out?”
“I found your note in the washing machine this morning while doin’ your laundry. The boy in question doesn’t seem too pleased about this, but what are you thinkin’, Liza child? How far along are you?”
I couldn’t believe how calm she was. I thought she’d hate me…kill me. But there she was, looking disappointed of course, but mostly concerned. And a tinge of something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The words were caught in my throat…as if saying them aloud would make it real. I wouldn’t be able to keep telling myself that it never happened. But the look on Momma’s face revealed that she suspected the truth before I confessed it, “It’s too late. I..I...I went…it’s too late.”
“Oh, Baby,” the tears bleed deeply into the crevices at the corners of her eyes, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to hide my mistake…I figured that once it was over, I could just go on and pretend it never happened. But, oh, Momma, I think about it all the time. I wonder if it was a girl, and what she looked like, and what I would’ve named her. It hurts so much, Momma. I don’t think I can ever forgive myself for this.” I sobbed a large wet patch on the bosom of Momma’s shirt, and she rocked me gently while stroking my hair.
“In due time, child. But if you ask the Lord’s forgiveness, you’ll get it.” I could feel the splashes of her tears on the top of my head, “And, baby girl, Jesus named that child for you. Jesus said that whoever has ears to hear Him will have their new name written on a white stone, a secret name that only the Lord and the receiver knows. You can give her an earthly name, and that might even help you grieve her, but hold on to those stones to remember…he knows her…he knows you…and loves you still.”
Momma lifted my chin, and I recognized her expression; more than sympathy, it was empathy.
“I think I’ll call her Penny…”
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