By Grace Washington
Reverend Samuels let me out of his car at the edge of the road by my house. I leaned against the catalpa tree and watched him drive off.
I listened to the magical sound of the rain dripping off the leaves. The big rainstorm was over, but there were still clouds scudding across the moon.
I stood there for a long time trying to absorb what I had been told by my pastor. In a way, I wished he hadn’t told me anything. A part of me wished I would’ve never known that Ernest Washington, Jr. was not my father. If I had never known, I wouldn’t have to think about it. I wouldn’t have to look at myself and know that I was different.
But Ernest Washington, Jr. had been good to me. I had called him “Daddy” and now I felt like the biggest fool in the county.
I ran a list through my head of friends and acquaintances at church and in the community. They probably all knew.
The sound of the screen door squeaking and slamming against the wood frame broke my thoughts. Momma came running out of the house.
“Grace, why are you standing out here? Why didn’t you come inside first thing and tell me about Pearl?”
I couldn’t speak. Not yet. I watched Mother come down the steps and walk toward me with a purpose I hadn’t seen in her in years.
“Don’t you know I’ve been worried sick about all of you?”
I smiled, but it was more out of the sad realization that my mother worried so much about some things and cared so little about so many other things—like telling me the truth about my father.
“Why are you smiling? Is Pearl gonna be okay?”
Mother fussed with a handkerchief tucked into her sleeve. She started to pull it out and then shoved it back in again. She didn’t seem to know whether to blow her nose or wind her watch.
Finally, she stopped in front of me and sighed.
“Why didn’t you tell me Pearl was pregnant? You know how I hate secrets.”
I leaned my head against the tree and closed my eyes.
“Secrets,” I said, my voice cracking. “You talk to me about secrets, Mother?”
I opened my eyes and saw Mother’s looking right at me like I was crazy. In a flash, though, I saw her see my meaning. Fear brushed across her face and she bit her lip.
Just as quickly, though, she dismissed the thought with a shake of her head and a wave of her hand.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Grace Washington.” Her voice was weaker, less full of anger and purpose. Less confident.
“I…I’ve been worried sick,” she repeated, wringing the handkerchief she finally pulled from her sleeve. “I…Is Pearl okay?”
I nodded. “She’s okay. She’ll be okay. She’s got some healing to do. She lost the baby.”
Mother shook her head again and looked over at me like a shy child.
“Why didn’t you all tell me about her condition, Grace? I feel like such a fool not knowing.” She paused to blow her nose and then in a whisper, “I bet everyone in Milledgeville knows.”
“Like they knew about you?” I asked. The words left my mouth with a bitter taste.
Mother looked at the ground and all around her, but not at me.
“You talk about secrets,” I said, the anger and sadness churning up into my chest. “You never told me that you and Ernest had been married for only two months when I came along. I called him ‘Daddy’! I never knew that you were pregnant with me before you even met him. Talk about looking like a fool!”
Tears poured from my eyes at these last words. Now it was my turn to not know what to do. I felt like running screaming down the street but years of always being the responsible one rooted me to the ground. I bent over and sobbed.
Momma reached out a hand and placed it on my shoulder. I could feel her shaking through my coat.
“Oh Gracie, honey.” She was crying too. “I just wanted you to be happy. I never wanted to hurt you.”
I looked up at her and she dropped her hand to mine.
“Come along now,” she said, her voice quiet and trembling. She wiped her eyes and pulled me gently down the walkway to our porch. When she got there, she patted the top step for me to sit down and then she sat. We must have looked a picture of sorrow sitting there slumped together.
After some minutes, she said, “I thought it was best to do what I did, to not tell you. Life is complicated enough without all of this kind of thing.” She reached a hand to dab at my tears and then she lifted my chin. “You have been such a good girl, a fine girl. I’m so proud of you.”
“Momma,” I said, “Tell me about my father.”
Mother looked off and squinted, as if the past lived somewhere on the horizon.
“I was 16 years old.” She smiled weakly. “My Momma told me I had to quit school and help the family make a living. But I didn’t want to quit school. Still, I knew my Momma was tired and needed help. She was a domestic worker in one of the finest houses in Macon. She kept their silver polished to a gleam and nothing in their house was anything but the finest.”
Momma lowered her head and a fat tear splashed down onto the step below her.
“The people living there weren’t so fine.” She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes. “Even so, everyone envied me getting to work there because it was the home of the richest people in that town. I lived in their house Sunday through Thursday. They were that kind of rich. They denied themselves and their children nothing, but I couldn’t expect no favors. If I ever had any time that wasn’t taken up with polishing or washing or scrubbing, I was allowed to sit at the kitchen table for short periods of time and read the Bible.”
Mother sighed. “Mr. James Edward Peyton was the name of the man I worked for. He was not only a lawyer, but also a judge. He sat at the head of every table anywhere he went. People were always wanting him to come for supper, do favors for him. All the white folks in Macon thought it was good to have him for a friend. I didn’t pay no attention to him but I made sure his coffee was just the way he wanted it. He usually scanned the local newspaper as he drank his coffee and ate his eggs.
“I never thought he noticed me much either until the day he came up behind me while I was washing the dishes. He leaned against me and told me what a woman I had become. I tried to keep working, but he took the things out of my hands and dropped them back into the water. Then he turned me toward him and….”
Mother had a hard time going on. She sobbed into her handkerchief and I leaned over and hugged her.
“I never knew, Mother,” I said, rubbing her back. “I never knew.”
“I was so scared, Grace. In so many ways. He could have made my life miserable or even had me killed, so I did whatever he wanted.”
I pulled Momma to me and held her in my arms while we both cried. I was so heartbroken.
I didn’t need her to tell me more. I knew where things had gone.
But now that she was talking about it, it seemed she needed to purge it somehow. In a voice I barely recognized, she went on.
“It was every Monday night after that. He’d come to my closet of a room and do what men do to make themselves happy and then he would leave without a word.”
The shock of what my mother had endured sunk in and replaced any thought I had had about my real father. It wasn’t until we had both cried ourselves dry that I realized her story was over. She had told me about my father. My father was a monster. Hatred for the man who had caused my mother such pain burned deep within me.
“Now you know, Gracie,” my mother said. “I’m sorry.”
I wanted to scream. “Momma, how can you apologize to me? You did nothing wrong.”
Momma smiled and wiped her tears. “I’m sorry I never told you,” she said. “I wanted things to be simple. I wanted you to blend in and be like all the others.” She took my hand again and patted it. “But you’re not like all the others. You are sometimes so different. Sometimes so much like him.”
I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted nothing to do with him. But I knew she was right. I hadn’t been much like anyone in my family. I always thought it was because I was just different in general. I never knew that the difference I felt was because of a man who raped my mother.
Mother must have sensed the fear and sorrow boiling up inside me because she put her hands on my face, looked me straight in the eyes, and shook her head. “I don’t want you to ever doubt that you’re my daughter. You hear? You came from a different place than the other kids, but you belong to me. You got all the good things from your real father and none of the bad.”
Her earnest words calmed my soul. This was the first time in a while that I felt at home in my family. I took one of her hands and kissed it.
We sat in silence for a while, each of us sniffling old tears.
After a while I said, “Did Ernest know who my real father was?”
“Ernest was the best of men,” Momma said through more tears. “But I never told him where you came from.”
She flashed an anxious look up into my eyes. “Men can get crazy at times and I didn’t want to put any more burden on him.”
I nodded in understanding. If she had told Ernest, what could he have done about it that would have done any good? The man who hurt my mother was powerful and rich. Ernest was just a poor black man whose only recourse would have been violence—and that wouldn’t have done any of us any good.
I looked out toward the eastern sky and saw the beginnings of a new day dawning. I pulled Mother tightly to me. She leaned her head on my shoulder. After awhile, she went to sleep in my arms. It was what I wanted her to do. I would sit there with my arms wrapped around her until she woke. I loved my mother so much. I had always loved her, but I now I loved her more.
Grace Washington is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice.