The Sassafras Tree
"Alan, you were almost born in the back seat of the car. It's on the birth certificate that I was in the hospital fifteen minutes before you were born. You were premature, weighed four-and-a-half-pounds, and when the nurse held you up, you were tiny and wrinkled with black hair this thick." With her thumb, Alan's mother, Kate Smith, measured an inch on her forefinger.
"I burst into tears. You were the ugliest baby I'd ever seen. Renee and Dwayne were bald and grew lovely blond hair, and Violet too had blond hair, but your hair was jet black and stayed black. Some folks at church called you the 'Milkman's son,' but they didn't keep it up." She laughed.
"They took you away and put you in an incubator because you couldn't breathe on your own. When the doctor told me you might not make it, I was so upset. I just wanted you to live, even though you were the ugliest baby I'd ever seen."
Looking at Renee, our nine-year old eldest sister, and Mama in the front seat of the car was like staring at a short and tall version of the same person. Renee was the short one on the right.
It was a warm Sunday morning in June, 1954. The Nashville traffic was light, and the only excitement would be going past the airport, Berry Field where, if our luck was good, a plane would fly low over us, coming in for a landing. So I wasn't surprised to see only blue sky.
"Why isn't Daddy going to church?" Violet slumped in the back seat between me and Dwayne, our older brother.
Everyone leaned to the left as Mama turned and floored it onto the highway. She glanced into the rearview mirror at her youngest child, five-year-old Violet. "Violet, sit up. I didn't iron that outfit just for you to wrinkle it to pieces."
Renee twisted around to face Violet. "Daddy's preaching today; it's Layman's Sunday, the day when men who aren't preachers give the sermon."
"I told you that already, Violet," I fussed. "He's preaching at a hospital church."
"Is he coming back?"
"Don't be stupid," Dwayne grumbled.
Mama squinted in the rearview but didn't say anything.
It was a short drive to church. We trooped in, sat in our usual place, and listened--more or less--to the preacher blabber on and on. Finally, after belting out the last hymn, Bringing in the Sheaves--one of my favorites--we filed out of the building and headed home. None of us remembered one word of the preacher's sermon.
"Daddy's home," Violet cheered.
Mama pulled into our roofless extended garage. Two brick walls stretched out from the main house and were held in place by four parallel steel I-beams. We were used to the fact that we could look up and see clouds and blue sky, sort of like goldfish in a little bowl. Mama had told us that it was Daddy's next project to put a flat roof over the garage, which would also serve as a deck upon which we could relax in the evenings and watch the sunset. None of us siblings really understood what all the fuss was about when the view was just as good without a rooftop.
Access from the house to our future rooftop deck was via a bedroom door. Twelve feet above us, the heavy wooden door to nowhere was easily seen from the car. Mama always had a proud look in her eyes whenever she saw it, saying, "And one day that door will open to a deck with wrought-iron railing all around. It's Daddy's next big project."
Violet complained to me later that she didn't like the idea of rotten-iron railing.
Violet and I raced into the house. She said she wanted to show me something she had drawn in her coloring book, but she couldn't find the book anywhere. She looked at me with accusing eyes, "Where'd you put it, Alan?"
"You had it last," I shot back.
Mama stepped inside the house and unpinned her hat. "Alan, get out of your Sunday clothes and hang them up. I don't want to see your suit on the floor."
Just as I made it out of the kitchen and into the living room, I found a plastic soldier that I had lost the day before. I heard Mama in the bedroom, waking up Daddy with a soft, "Stan, Time to get up, Stan?" She repeated it a little louder, "Stan?" There was a pause after that--a moment of deathly quiet.
I was trying to balance my plastic soldier on the back of the couch when Mama's scream made me jump. The soldier fell. At first I thought she was mad at me for playing around, so I yelled back that I was going to my room to change.
But Mama screamed again and again, the scream becoming a frightening wail. My hands were shaking, and I couldn't find the soldier anywhere,
Renee ran into the kitchen, and then returned to fetch me from the living room and Violet from her room. Slumped in a chair with one hand on her forehead, Mama stuttered something about Daddy into the telephone. Renee herded Violet and me downstairs to the den, Dwayne following close behind us.
The moment we reached the bottom of the stairs, Violet started bawling. I was too scared to cry.
"I want my Daddy," Violet repeated through her wails. Dwayne whispered for her to be quiet, but Violet only cried even harder.
Soon after, the house brimmed with people. I sat with one of our neighbors, Mrs. Gardner, a gentle old woman who was a lot stronger than she looked. She had her arms around me, and I leaned back against her. I knew something had to be wrong with Daddy, but nobody was saying anything.
"When will I see Daddy again? I whispered.
"You'll see him again in heaven," Mrs. Gardner said as she brushed back the hair on my forehead. "How old are you now, Alan?"
"Seven," I said. "I'm in the second grade."
"That means you're grown. A young man. You're going to have to be extra good for your Mama from now on. You can do that, can't you?"
"Yessum." I saw Dwayne and Violet near the back yard swing set. "Can I go outside?"
Mrs. Gardner opened her arms. "Go on, but stay close to the house."
Dwayne sat on a swing with his feet flat on the ground. Violet knelt on one knee nearby. She was combing the grass for small sticks. She looked up at me with wide eyes. "Daddy's not coming back, is he?"
"Mrs. Gardner told me that he's in heaven," I said.
"Brother Dixon said that Jesus takes everybody to heaven when they die," Dwayne added.
Violet started building little stick houses. "I wish I had my coloring book."
Dwayne tossed a couple of pebbles at Violet's houses, knocking some down. He always carried a handful of small rocks in his pockets--even when we went to church. Mama had no idea.
"Stop, Dwayne." Violet held her hand out, but Dwayne still threw another rock. "Stop, or I'll tell Daddy!"
Mrs. Lane, another one of our neighbors, stood outside the back door and hollered, "Y'all want something to eat?"
"Where's Renee?" Mrs. Lane glanced over the yard.
"She's with Uncle Fred."
"You kids stay together now."
Violet knocked her last couple of stick houses down. "When Jesus comes to get Daddy, we can see him."
Dwayne and I exchanged glances. Seeing Jesus with Daddy would be something.
"But they won't let us in the room," I argued.
"No way," Dwayne agreed.
"We can look in through the side window." Violet pointed to the shady end of the house. "From that tree."
Dwayne whispered my thought. "The sassafras tree." He jumped from the swing and started for the house.
I started to follow, but then stopped. "C'mon Violet."
"What are you going to do?"
"We're going to see Jesus just like you said. Come on...and be quiet."
Violet ran up behind me. Her barrette was loose and hung in a mass of tangled hair.