“Tobacco Road Revisited” by Rita Welty Bourke

What must my father have felt when he came into the house at the end of the day, and his five-year-old daughter held her arms up to him, and her breasts were nearly as large as those of a grown woman? I imagine he patted her on the head and murmured some endearment. Then he would have turned to my mother. There was no need for words. She would understand, and gather Annie Catherine up in her arms and set her at the kitchen table. Somehow, they had to move beyond that uneasy moment.

My father surely wondered, when he turned away from those outstretched arms, what lay in store for this child, and what other troubles might be visited upon him. In his mid-forties, he’d already spent years working a hardscrabble farm, and there were hard years yet to spool out in front of him. He’d watched his two daughters change from cooing babies into pencil-thin little girls, needy children at a time when all things were in short supply: shoes, food, clothing. When Annie Catherine’s breasts began to swell, he must have felt despair. This was his first-born child, and she was his favorite. How could he pick her up, hug her, stroke her hair as he’d done before this happened?

A year later Annie Catherine began elementary school. My mother wrapped strips of cloth around her breasts to hide what was happening. On the day of the first snowfall Annie came home with a stain on the back of her dress.

They took her to the family doctor.

“It’s her menses,” the doctor said. “She’s gone into early puberty. Precocious puberty, it’s called. Not much you can do about it. Keep an eye on her. Bring her back to see me in a year.”

“She’s entered womanhood?” my mother asked.

“It appears so,” the doctor said.

My father cupped his hands over his face, drew in a deep breath, and exhaled.

They left the doctor’s office and went home to a silent house. It would remain silent for a long time. Through no fault of her own, Annie Catherine had done something nearly unforgivable. In a way that no one could fully explain or even comprehend, she had brought shame on the family.

My parents watched to see if this malfunction of the endocrine system might be visited on their other daughter. It was not. Rosemary, who was two years younger than Annie Catherine, was normal in every way.

Then my brother was born, and my father was pleased. Finally, he had a son who would carry on the family name, a boy who would help him in the fields and one day inherit the farm.

Marta came next, a beautiful child with curly blonde hair, and she brought joy into the house. Here was a child my father could toss into the air, bounce on his knees, smother with kisses. Annie Catherine was older now, and there was no longer a need for the wraps. Her classmates had caught up with her. The silence had lifted.

You were a blue baby, my mother told me. She’d wanted to make sure the house was clean before her confinement. There was food to be prepared, dishes washed, beds made. When my mother was finished with these tasks she went outside, filled a bucket from the well, carried it to the house and washed the kitchen floor. All the while she kept her knees pressed tight together. The pain came in waves, and at times she had to stop until it let up. Then she would resume her chores.

The doctor scolded her for not calling him, for not taking to her bed and pushing against the pain. “You should know better,” he said. “You could have killed this child.”

My skin was blue from lack of oxygen, my limbs cold and stiff. Annie Catherine remembers seeing me lying next to my mother. She was horrified by the blood on my forehead, the color of my skin. Years later she shuddered when she recounted how still I lay on that stained sheet, how weak my cry when it finally came.

My father visited the room where my mother lay, but he wanted no part of this fragile, unhealthy child. Annie Catherine took care of me until my mother recovered.

Years later, when I was in my teens, Annie told me the story of how I came to be. In the district where we lived, the government was drafting married men who had four children. The younger ones had been called up early on. The Irvin boy had volunteered and been sent to the Pacific; his family had not heard from him for nearly a year. Uncle Cramer, who served in the infantry under General George S. Patton, died during the assault on Sicily.

The D-day invasion and the slog through France brought thousands of casualties, and there was no end in sight. When the countryside was stripped of its single men, the draft board called up married men, then married men with one child, then two, then three, now four. Every day brought news of someone else who had been ordered to report for duty. My father was nearly 50, and he was needed on the farm, but in Adams County, Pennsylvania, those things no longer mattered. There was a quota that had to be filled.

My parents sat in the car outside church one Sunday morning and talked about what was sure to happen. Annie Catherine, Rosemary, Robbie, and Marta were in the back seat, waiting for the conversation to end so they could go home. Annie Catherine may have been the only one who understood the significance of what they were discussing. She knew the Irvin boy, had seen him in his uniform before he’d shipped out, had thought him unbearably handsome.

“Cannon fodder,” my father said. “They’re wanting cannon fodder.”

Annie Catherine remembered that expression, though at the time she had only a vague idea of what it meant.

“Surely they won’t draft you,” my mother said. “Surely it won’t come to that.”

“They say we lost ten thousand men at Normandy. We’re losing hundreds more every single day.”

“I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to you,” my mother said. “I couldn’t go on without you.”

They dreaded going to the mailbox in the morning, afraid of what they might find.

“Another child will keep me safe,” my father said. “What do you say, Christine? Shall we try?”

When she turned eighteen, Annie headed to the city and a job at The Baltimore Sun. On weekends she rode the bus home, and I learned that career girls shave their legs. “Why are you doing that?” I asked one Sunday afternoon. She was using my father’s electric razor.

She stood and lifted the hem of her skirt to her knees. “Which one looks better?”

“That one,” I said, pointing to the shaved leg. She nodded, brushed her hand across my cheek.

She cut her hair short, wore pretty clothes, and tweezed her eyebrows so her face had a look of perpetual surprise.

One day I’ll go out into the world like Annie, I told myself. I’ll buy clothes as pretty as hers. I’ll wear makeup. I’ll be my own person.

Annie had been in the city for six months when she met a sailor just back from the Mediterranean. They fell in love and married. He was a good husband, though he never gave up his wandering ways.

Rosemary was the next to leave. On a Saturday night when she was seventeen, her boyfriend got up from the sofa and took Rosie by the hand. “We’re getting married,” he said, pulling Rosie close to him.

“Whoopee,” my father said.

It was an exclamation he would regret for the rest of his life. He hadn’t meant it, not in the way they took it. What he wanted to say was that it was a big step. They had no idea how big. Rosie was so young and needy. She’d been crippled by polio when she was fourteen. She spent weeks in the hospital in Gettysburg, then at a special facility in York. Every night the family gathered in the kitchen to pray for her.

In the midst of all this, Rosie trying to recover, bills mounting, prayers offered up, a car stopped in front of our house. Three men got out and walked up the cement path. The townspeople had taken up a collection to help with Rosie’s expenses, the spokesman said. It amounted to $50.00.

My father shook his head. “I thank you all the same,” he said, “but we’ll get by. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but there are others who need it worse. Rosie is going to walk again.” It would take years to pay the hospitals, doctors, and physical therapists.

That single word my father had uttered, that callous exclamation, could not be recalled. Rosie and her boyfriend were out the door. More than a year would pass before Rosie came home again. When she did, she brought her husband and baby son. She’d dressed the little boy in a denim jumpsuit and he stared at my father, then lifted a hand and began to trace the wrinkles in my father’s face. Rosie looked on, and she seemed content.

Then Marta married, a hastily-arranged ceremony to a neighbor boy whose sexual prowess was legendary. She told my parents she was pregnant. It wasn’t true, but Marta was used to having things her way.

My father hung his head, disappointed by yet another daughter.

Five years later my father nearly killed this man who had married his daughter. They’d had an argument, Marta and her husband, and he’d pinned her against the wall, his hands around her neck. She brought her knee up into his groin. He let her go, and when he was able, he went to their bedroom, took his pistol from the top drawer of his nightstand, and came back. The shot he fired at Marta parted her hair but miraculously drew little blood. The bullet lodged in the wall.

At some point Marta called for help. I remember my father running a stop sign in his haste to get there, overturned kitchen chairs, Marta crying, her husband waving his pistol. He was a large man, red-faced in his fury.

My father tackled him. Somehow, he was able to back Marta’s husband up against the basement door. The door splintered, and the two men bounced down the basement stairs, my father managing to stay on top, riding Marta’s husband like a sled. They hit the floor and the gun skittered across the concrete. Marta’s husband was still conscious, but barely.

“Let’s kill him while we have the chance,” my father said to my brother, who was by then halfway down the stairs.

Later, he said he was glad he hadn’t done it. “I’d have regretted it all my life,” he said.

Marta came home with her two little boys and began divorce proceedings. We’d shared a bedroom all the years we were growing up. We did again, for a month. Then I went off to college.

My mother’s gift to my future in-laws on the occasion of their first meeting was a loaf of homemade bread. “I baked it this morning,” she said, smoothing the Saran Wrap around the loaf and holding it out to Mrs. Macklin. “It’s still warm.”

A moment passed, a beat too long. Then Mrs. Macklin reached out and took the loaf from my mother’s hand.

“It’s whole wheat,” my mother said. “I grind it myself. The wheat, I mean. We grow it here on the farm, so it’s as fresh as can be. I have a grinder in the basement. I hope you like it. The bread, I mean. I thought you might enjoy it, something homemade, different from what you get in the city.”

It was a long speech for my mother. I could hear the nervousness in her voice, the hesitation, the slight tremor.

Mrs. Macklin waited until my mother was finished. “I’m sure it’s wonderful,” she said. Her voice was deep, her words precise.

My father stood next to my mother, his arm around her waist.

Mr. Macklin stepped forward and grasped my father’s hand. “We’ll be heading back to St. Louis in the morning,” he said, “but it was nice to meet you. I’m glad we had this chance to get together.” He nodded to my mother.

“And your lovely daughter,” he said, glancing at me. Then they were gone.

My father did not let go of my mother until the Macklin car was out of sight. I could see he was troubled. The meeting had not gone well.

He hadn’t known what to say to this couple who came into his house, this man and woman so smartly dressed it put my father to shame. The Macklins had sat on the edge of their chairs as if afraid they might be contaminated.

The young man I’d chosen to marry was not like us. His father was an advertising executive from St. Louis, Missouri. The family belonged to a country club. The Macklin children had grown up swimming in the club pool, lunching in the club restaurant, caddying for the club golfers, dancing at club balls. How would I fit into a world so different from anything I’d ever known?

My father had never traveled more than a hundred miles from the place where he was born. Now his youngest daughter was leaving home, heading halfway across the country. Would he ever see her again?

Inside the car that pulled away from our house that night, I learned later, things were far worse. “You can’t marry this girl,” my fiancé’s father told his son. “Her family is no better than a bunch of Georgia crackers. That place is like Tobacco Road.”

It was a book I’d never read. I had a degree in English. The book was an American classic, but it had escaped me. I’d read Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, but not Caldwell.

“Tobacco Road” meant poverty, I assumed, but my father had prospered in the last ten years. Our car was only a year or two older than the Macklin car.

Tobacco was something they grew down south. We grew corn, wheat, and alfalfa. We had a herd of registered Holstein cattle. My father took pride in the food he produced, often pointing out things in the grocery store that might have come from our farm: milk, ice cream, flour, breakfast cereal, bread, butter, cheese.

The next day I set out for the local library to check out Erskine Caldwell’s book. I drove through a flock of birds fighting over something in the weeds beside the road. The birds were pecking at it, fighting over it, the victors flying off with great hunks of it.

I was halfway to town before I realized they were eating my mother’s homemade bread.

The Lesters were poor sharecroppers, I learned that afternoon. When they came into money they went to town and bought a car. In a wild, exuberant ride, Dude circled round and round the dusty yard in front of their shack. Granny Lester ran out to join the festivities. She slipped and fell under the wheels.

Crushed and bleeding, she managed to roll onto her stomach. She began inching toward the house.

“Is she dead yet?” Ada asked her husband Jeeter. “I don’t reckon she could stay alive with her face all mashed like that.”

Jeeter touched her with the toe of his shoe. “She ain’t stiff yet,” he said, “but I don’t reckon she’ll live. You help me tote her out in the field and I’ll dig a ditch to put her in.”

They carried the body by the hands and feet, and they put it down in the broom-sedge.

I closed the book and sat for a long time, thinking of what my fiance’s father had said. I’d thought “Tobacco Road” referred to the dirt road leading from the highway to our farm. This was far worse. He’d seen my father as no better than Jeeter Lester who put his mother in the grave without knowing if she was dead.

We were married a month later in a private ceremony with only my parents, my siblings, and a few close friends present. When the service was over my husband held out his arms to me, and I went to him. This was where I belonged. The chasm with his family would heal or it would not. In the meantime, we would form a new family.

When our children were small we visited my parents in Gettysburg at least once a year. My father taught them to feed the newborn calves, pick vegetables from the garden, drive a tractor when they were old enough.

My husband’s parents moved to Florida. I think they came to regret the things they said, but I don’t know for certain. We never spoke of it.

They never met again, my husband’s parents and mine. They exchanged notes for a time. Then even that small bit of contact was allowed to wither.

Of our four parents, only my mother is left. My father has been gone for eight years, my husband’s parents ten.

My mother grieves for my father. “It’s awfully hard when you lose your mate,” she says. It’s been eight years, and still she grieves.

My parents visited Nashville the year before my father died. He drove the seven hundred miles from his farm in Pennsylvania to our house in Tennessee, navigating the super highways, learning about inner belts and outer belts, seeing a part of the country he never expected to see.

He wondered if he might learn to play the guitar and write love songs like my husband did. It seemed a good profession. We tried to teach him a “C” chord, but his fingers were too arthritic, too work-hardened, too calloused.

He loved magnolia trees, Jack Daniels whiskey, and the mince pie I baked for him.

I showed him the room where I work, my computer, printer, copier, my books and research materials. He marveled at the new technologies: internet, email, instant messaging.

He recalled a prayer his mother had taught him. Would I type it into my word processor and make a copy for him?

I remember a line: Assist us in this hour of our necessities. He said he’d prayed that prayer the day I left home. He’d asked God to watch over me. He was sorry he’d had so little time to be a father. His life had been full of necessities, he said. One necessity after another. But there was joy, too.

My husband keeps a picture of me in his wallet. It was taken when I was a teenager living on my parents’ farm. There’s a larger, framed copy on the pie crust table in our living room. It sits among photographs taken of our three children.

It’s hard to believe I once looked like that.

The girl in the picture is lovely. She wears a touch of lip color. Her brows are lifted, as if in expectation. Simple pearl earrings are her only adornment. There’s an adventuresome quality in the tilt of her head, a measure of self-confidence I didn’t know I had.

RitaRita Welty Bourke’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines, most recently in The Chattahoochee Review. You can find more information about her and her work at www.ritaweltybourke.com.