Lela Morrison went to sit in the dark parlor in her rocking chair. She could still see Walter and the children surrounding the kitchen table, though. Their voices were loud and demanding and unceasing. Lela closed her eyes and laid her head back against the chair. Oh, to be silent. To have time. To have peace.
Her life spun completely out of control the day she married Walter. She believed him to be the love of her life and she would have done anything to be with him. If only she could have seen what was down that road. Would she have still done it? She honestly didn’t know.
She was so tired. Nothing ever ended. She had done her part to keep her girls chaste little ladies. But Walter had dropped the discipline of his boys. He kept telling her they were good boys at heart. They would grow up, come back to the church. Nothing he said about those boys made her believe him. She had a bad feeling about all of them.
Lela knew that things could be much worse. She was reminded often about this whenever she complained about her life.
“Look at Mrs. Jacobs,” Mother would say, never looking up from her cooking or sewing. “Would you rather have Mr. Jacobs be your husband and never get sober? Would you be happier with no children?”
“Well, of course not,” Lela said in return. Still, it didn’t help her much. Just made her feel lonely. Whenever she had these conversations with her mother, she the walk back home seemed farther and what was waiting for her there felt heavier. But she always went back and put the bridle back on, and she tried to be thankful for a life that was wearing her down a little more each day.
Opal was the oldest of Lela’s and Walter’s kids. In the darkness of the parlor Lela heard Opal’s voice above all the others. Lela smiled weakly remembering how happy she had been when she learned her first child was coming. She wanted that baby. She could not wait to hold her in her arms and know that she and Walter, with God’s help, had made another human. And Opal had been such a treasure, such a pretty little girl. She had bouncing blonde curls and such a sweet personality. She was perfect.
Before Opal was weaned, though, Lela was in a family way again. This second baby was just the first of a long line of moments that felt overwhelming for Lela. At the news of this second child, she felt she might never get to just enjoy anything at all. Opal had been enough—at least for a little while—but now a new baby to care for was on the way and soon another and then another. Her life rolled out before her in an unending road of children needing something from her always.
Lela was praised far and wide for her needlepoint. It was one of the few things in her life that she enjoyed. Still, no matter how many hours she spent surrounded by women her own age at her sewing circle, she felt utterly alone. There wasn’t a soul there who would understand her exhaustion, her loneliness. Her world was bordered by the church, by Walter, by other women’s criticism, and the never-ending needs of her children.
Lela sighed in her rocking chair. She knew she couldn’t sit there for long. Life would not wait on her. She must run to keep up but it made her so tired.
She heard Opal trying to get her father’s attention. Walter never immediately acknowledged his daughter. That was the way he was. So Opal escalated the conversation until he did.
“Daddy this boy at school said he loves me!”
At this, the clamor around the table stopped. Lela pictured Walter looking at Opal in a new light. She has always been a little girl to him but now she was 15 and had just announced a boy loved her. Walter hated confrontation, but surely he would not be completely spineless
Walter cleared his throat. “Well, missy. Do you like this boy?”
“Not particularly,” Opal replied. Lela could hear the triumph in her daughter’s voice. “But it’s nice to have someone in love with me”
Lela sighed realizing that Walter was finished with his part of parenting Opal around this. He would ask her to handle it. She knew that when they were in bed he would turn toward her and ask if she had told Opal about men? He might even say that not all men were nice like him. If he said that, Lela thought she might have to hit him.
How on earth did Walter think it was nice to make her feel the way she felt? She so wished Walter, and all men, could walk through that dark valley of child labor. Lela was devoutly religious but in the worst of her labor pains, she would have gladly sold her soul to make it stop.
She wondered how it was that Walter managed to have the low tension inside himself to the point of almost being boring, and yet people always liked him. People, even the children, responded in a much different way to her. She was always on the edge of panic wondering when the next shoe would drop.
Walter had a good job as an accountant at the cotton gin. He went to college and did whatever college boys did. She was sure that he and his brothers had done things that she could never imagine Walter doing. Walter’s family had been wealthy. His brothers were still wealthy, but they were far out in West Texas in the oil fields, which suited her just fine.
Sometimes Lela tell Walter her fears and worries. Walter always reminded her that they could be very well off if he had joined his brothers in West Texas. Lela believed there was so much more to life than money, like the moral fiber of her children, but there were times that she wished they had more money.
She recalled the time she had to stop by the cotton gin to get some money from Walter. She had been overcome by the sound of the machinery, but in the center of it all was Walter, closed up in his glassed-in office working on the books. She was jealous of his peace and silence. It made her hate him more.
Mainly she hated him because he was a man. Men did not have to have their bodies split open in childbirth. Her womb had been opened seven times because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She had done these things for him, for their marriage and yet come breakfast time, she wasn’t good enough to talk to. All he wanted then was to sip his coffee and read the newspaper. And he always got what he wanted.
Lela groaned low so no one would hear her. She decided as she rocked in her chair that there must be something terribly wrong with her. She had completely lost her desire for Walter. There was a time in their lives when he had been so exciting. He came to the door of her childhood home armed with a dozen roses behind his back. He had taken her for drives in his Model T on Sunday afternoons. Lela was so happy back then.
Lela’s mother was not pushy as a rule but once Walter Morrison came calling, even her mother had stars in her eyes. All of her girlfriends were eaten up with jealousy that he had not chosen one of them. And the thing was, Lela had not gone looking for Walter. Maybe it was her lack of being impressed with him that drove him to try to impress her more.
Lela’s mother had warned her that married life was never easy.
“After the new wears off,” she’d say. “Just wait and see.”
But when it came to Walter, Mother’s tune changed.
“You couldn’t find a better one than Walter.”
Her mother constantly listed off his attributes as if Lela needed reminders. He was clean and had no rude habits. He was a churchgoer, a tither, he prayed before meals, even in Lela’s house. Even before they were married the church elders were considering him to be made a deacon. The only thing holding him back was his marital status. They preferred that deacons were married.
Walter was no fool either. He brought little niceties to Lela’s mother; a box of chocolates, a new package of needles, perhaps a bowl of fruit from his mother’s house. It didn’t take long for Lela’s mother to make up her mind about Walter.
Lela wondered how other families were. She had no idea if anyone else felt the way she did. No one ever talked about their home life at the sewing circle at church. All of her friends went to church at the same place. They all smiled the same smile. Sometimes Lela would be recruited to help on a committee or to join another group to hem the infant’s blankets for new mothers.
Mrs. Henry was one of the few women Lela connected to at church. She showed Lela how to make an applique quilt. It was the only time Lela could recall having so much fun. Mrs. Henry was so talented and she was so easy to talk to. Lela started to think that maybe one day she could actually open up to her, so she undertook a huge quilting project.
Lela had not attempted to do any such undertaking in the past, but working on the appliqued squares gave her an excuse to sit with Mrs. Henry and work together. But before she finished them all, Mrs. Henry and her family moved away and she was left to work on it all on her own.
Lela heard chairs being pushed away from the table. She knew her “quiet time” was almost over. It was the only time of day she could call her own.
“Mother!” Opal called, “Did you iron my blue skirt?”
Lela stood up and brushed her apron back into place. She took a deep breath before answering.
“Yes, Opal. I ironed your skirt earlier today. It’s hanging in your closet.”
Lela walked toward the kitchen but Opal met her at the threshold of the parlor.
“Oh, thank you, Mother!” Opal wrapped Lela in a warm hug and squeezed tight.
Lela had to admit she loved that girl. She hugged her oldest daughter back. Then she felt a pang of guilt for not liking her other children like that. She and Walter should have stopped having children after Opal, but they didn’t.
As she and Opal parted, she wondered to herself why the others were so different from this daughter. How happy she and Walter had been when they saw her for the first time. From the first moment to this last one, Opal was so sweet. She watched her daughter hum down the hallway and she smiled. Opal was happy.