A lullaby, sweetly veiled behind fluttering sheets, waked the afternoon air, its rhythm as gentle and soft as the water lapping the nearby bank of the Mississippi River.
Words merged without effort into lyrical hums as Irene pinched wooden clothes pins between her lips to hang her family’s laundry on the line.”
A voice calls out just beyond the drying clothes. “That’s pretty, Mama.”
Turning, Irene sees her daughter, Sophie dressed in a faded, blue-checked pinafore with her hair twisted into pigtails and tied with red yarn. She removes one remaining pin from mouth. “Thank-you, baby. What you up to?”
“Grandma wants that I go down to the creek and pick blackberries for a pie she’s makin’.” She holds up a dented and rusted pail. “You want to come along?”
“I don’t know. Its fierce hot today; and I can just hear a piece of shade on the porch callin’ my name.”
“There’ll be shade ‘neath the trees. Please, Mama.”
“Course heat’s gonna make those berries extra juicy. Maybe we best take two buckets. One for Grandma and one for us to sweeten the afternoon.” She looks at her daughter’s beaming face. “You gonna go down to the creek barefoot?”
“I ain’t afraid of no chiggers and spiders; ‘sides Toby taught me to throw rocks into the bushes to chase out copperheads. I’ll go fetch another pail right now.”
Moments later, Sophie joined her mother waiting on a dirt road that defined the front of their property and runs along a bayou of the Mississippi river and to the coveted blackberry bushes siding its bank.
Taking her mother’s hand, Sophie swings the two nested pails in the other. “Mama, you think Aunt Hattie uses butter on her hands?”
“Butter? What ever brought a notion like that to your head?”
“I don’t know. But when we went to visit her in the city and I touched her hands, they was soft as a rabbit’s foot. Toby says it’s on account she uses butter to make them that way.”
“Seems a powerful waste of butter to me.”
“Me, too. But Toby says soft hands are a sure sign of a rich lady on account they don’t do no work and keep lots of butter in the icebox.”
Irene squeezes her daughter’s hand. “Your brother do talk, don’t he. But no your Aunt Hattie don’t keep lot’s of butter in her icebox, she just lives different than us, that’s all.”
“I think I’d like to live like her someday. Like if she was wantin’ berries, all she’d have to do is drive down to the market and get some. Not havin’ to work hard like we do.”
“I thought you liked pickin’ berries.”
“I do, Mama, but not all the time. She’s even got machines that do the washin’ and dryin’ of her clothes.” She sneaks a peek up her mother while gripping her hand a bit tighter. “Maybe that’s why her hands are soft and not so scarred up and hard.”
Irene breathes in the sweet summer air, moist with the scent of wild grasses flourishing beside the bayou. “You know I wouldn’t give up washin’ my family’s clothes by hand, hangin’ them in God’s dryin’ air or pickin’ berries by the creek for nothin’.”
“Not even if Preacher Jake came over and asked me himself. Scars and calluses on a bein’s hands are like words written down on paper tellin’ ‘bout their life, baby.” She looks down at her own, still holding her daughter’s. “And I wouldn’t change a letter of it for nobody.”
“Even when they’re hard and not soft like Aunt Hattie’s?”
“I used to think the same ‘bout your Grandma’s hands, ‘till one day I caught a fever and she put her hands to my face.” She closed her eyes as if remembering. “It was like the touch of an angel, so soft I couldn’t even imagine anything softer. Mama’s been the richest lady in the world to me from that day to this.”
A moment of quietness passes between them. “Well look here,” Irene finally says. “We’ve been jabbering away like two Jays and nearly passed the berry patch.”
They left the road, hand in hand stopping only a moment to pick up stones to toss in the bushes to scare copperheads and to sit in the shade of a tree before reaching into the berry brambles to add yet another telling page to the chapter of their lives this one hot Mississippi day.
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