June 1935 – Flora, Mississippi
“I didn’t raise you to be nobody’s maid or mammy! Wit’ that Carter boy thas’ all yu’a eva’ be!”
“Girl, tha’s the end of it! That boy’s got no schoolin’. His people got no land. Nothin!”
Fifteen-year-old Mary Johnson stamped her foot. “I won’t marry that old man! I’ll run away—”
She wasn’t surprised by the slap. It was the second one in as many days. Rev. Charles Johnson’s rough palm scraped her cheek and it stung, but she didn’t move and she wasn’t about to cry.
“Girl, bible say honor yo’ mama and papa. You’a pay the price’a Job if you shame this family.”
Mary matched her father’s glare until he turned away.
“Gussie, talk to yo’ daughter,” he said as he walked out of the kitchen.
“Girl, why you need to have this fight every day?” a tired voice asked Mary. “Yo’ papa’s mind is set and you could do a lot worse than Rev. Bevers.”
“Cuz I don’t wanna be married to no old man, Mama!” Mary huffed. “I don’t want him to look at me, I don’t want him to talk to me, and I shole don’t want him to touch me!”
“Watch yo’ tone, girl.” Augusta Johnson rose from her seat at the kitchen table. Her back bent to balance her great belly, her fifth baby due any day now. “Quiet down. Ain’t like you ain’t been touched already. One man’s touch just like any other.”
“Mama, no I haven’t—”
“Ruthie go cut me a switch fo’ yo’ lyin’ sister.” Augusta patted her second daughter’s head. “Hurry now, take Martha with you.”
The nine and five-year-old girls jumped up from their seats and took off out of the back door without a word.
“Mama, would you at least listen —”
“To you lie some more? Why should I? Start gettin’ them dishes to the sink.”
Mary let out a long sigh and started stacking the dirty dinner plates while her mother waddled over to the sink.
“You a lie and the truth ain’t in you.” Augusta chided. “Ruthie told me all about you and Mason layin’ in the hay wit’ yo’ dress up an’ yo’ leg on his back.”
The silverware Mary carried went crashing to the floor.
“Mmmm hmmm.” Augusta continued. “Surprised you ain’t big as me.” She turned and looked at Mary. “When yo’ monthly?”
“It just passed,” Mary mumbled, stooping to pick up the silverware. She stayed near the floor until she heard her mother’s shuffling feet turn back to the sink.
“Good. Least you won’t need cotton root today.”
Mary left the silver on the table and threw her arms around her mother. “Please, mama,” she begged, pressing her cheek to her mother’s back. “I don’t wanna get married. I swear I’a quit Mason and neva’ touch another boy. Mama, please. I promise I won’t get big. Just don’t make me marry that old man.”
“Baby,” her mother said with a heavy sigh. “I seen how you light up when that boy come down the road. You couldn’t quit him if you wanted to. Yo’ papa was gon’ get the shotgun to him a couple of times. Preacher’s daughter got no business with folks like them Carters. We wanna give you the best life you can have, and tha’s wit’ Rev. Bevers in Jackson, not some dirt farmer here in Flora.”
“Can I at least stay to help you with the baby? Til’ next spring? Please?”
“I’ll talk to Papa about puttin’ it off a few weeks ‘til after the baby, but you hafta stay away from that boy. Promise me!”
“Yes, ma’am! I promise.”
As her little sisters ran in through the back door, sword fighting with braided willow switches, Mary lay against her mother’s back and smiled. Her mother was right…about everything. She couldn’t quit Mason if she wanted to, and her monthly might be a little bit late.
Mary always knew Pappa wanted her to marry up when she turned eighteen, but now, at fifteen, after she took up with Mason Carter, Papa said she was too fast and might get big and shame the family; so one warm March afternoon, he introduced her to Rev. William Bevers and said he had come to court her. That man had to be at least sixty if he was a day, and that Old Preacher came courting every Sunday. At first, he just brought Mary flowers and candy. Then, sometimes he brought tobacco and flour or sugar for Papa and Mama, or candy for Ruthie and Martha; and soon he started bringing Mary perfume, gloves, scarves, or books. Then one day in April, he came with a bolt of white lace to make a dress! He told her about his big church and that her sisters could go to Jackson College where he taught; and that his house was much better than the shack she lived in – Shack? – and that she would have a maid. Why would she want a maid?
Rev. Johnson immediately agreed to the marriage, and a date was set for the third Sunday in June. Where her parents saw a bright future for all of their daughters, Mary saw only an old man with beady eyes, wrinkled skin, and gnarled hands with thick knuckles. His mostly white hair stuck out from his hat, and he shaved his mustache into a thin little line. The thought of those old hands touching her or those old lips kissing her turned her stomach, and Mary smiled politely and prayed he would die before June.
But it was Mason’s idea that if she got big, they could get married, so they went out behind the barn and Mary laid down and lifted her dress. She told herself it was ok because he was gonna be her husband; and when Ruthie caught ‘em, Mary told her little sister that Papa would skin her alive and sell her to white folks if she told. Ruthie cried and accepted candy and some jacks and marbles for her silence.
When they weren’t working on a baby, Mary and Mason sat under the willow tree and flipped through The Chicagoan and New Yorker magazines and dreamed of life outside of Mississippi. Mason would play his horn in a club in the big city and Mary would stay home with the baby, maybe finish high school and be a nurse or something. On the days he couldn’t stay long, Mary would find letters under the loose boards in the hen house, and she would go to sleep dreaming of high life with Mason.
Two weeks before her wedding date, Mary actually cried tears of joy as her father relented and agreed that his wife needed their oldest daughter’s help with baby Elizabeth. The next day, however, Mary cried different tears as he raised welts on her bare backside with a willow switch after he caught her kissing Mason behind the barn…and the wedding was back on schedule. A week before her wedding date, Mary told her mother she was late and her mother whipped her for probably lying, but promised to bring her cotton root after the wedding just to make sure.
The night before her wedding, Mary kissed her sleeping sisters and whispered blessings to them; then she took the bag Ruthie helped her pack – along with the sack of sweet potato pie and wedding cake and climbed out of her bedroom window. By the light of the full moon, she walked a mile to the crossroads where Mason waited for her. They walked in silence until Mary reminded him that he should be carrying her bags.
The gray sharecropper’s cabin, where Mason lived with his mother and younger siblings, leaned slightly to the left and stood in a dirt yard littered with sleeping dogs. The carcass of a tractor lay beside a shiny automobile and a beat up truck, In the distance, Mary could make out other such shacks dotting the poorly tended field; shacks where Mason said his brothers lived with their families. Mary’s papa said these were all slave cabins, but she kept that to herself.
Music and celebration could be heard coming from inside the cabin. Mary thought it sounded like the juke joints that always seemed to get louder on Sunday mornings, and when Mason opened the door, it looked exactly like she imagined a juke joint would look, except kinda dingy. Lots of men who looked vaguely like Mason dancing with women who were probably their wives. A table piled high with food and jugs of something Mary knew she wouldn’t touch. An old phonograph in the corner cranking out worldly music that made her wanna dance too.
“So, this her?” A heavyset woman pulled Mary into a hug without waiting for an answer.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Mason placed a hand on Mary’s back. “Mama, this is Mary. Finest girl in Mississippi. Mary, this is my mama, Miss Margaret.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Margaret.” Mary tried not to mumble as she struggled to breathe against the woman’s giant bosom.
“I don’t like that ‘Miss Margaret’ stuff unless you paying me, baby” the woman released Mary but quickly pulled her into another hug. “I’m a Georgia girl and folks call me Sweet. But in a few minutes, you gon’ call me Mama Sweet just like all my boy’s wives, ain’t that right y’all?”
“Yes, Mama Sweet” a couple of women pulled at Mary’s arm. “ Now let her go so us can get her fixed up.”
“Wait–!” Mary reached for Mason as the women pulled her toward the cabin’s other room.
Mason took Mary’s hand and looked into her eyes. “I told you, we hafta get married. Yo’ pappy be here by sun-up with his shotgun.” He placed his hand against her belly. “I be damn if somebody else gon’ raise my kin. Once you my wife, ain’t nothin’ yo’ pappy can do about it, and we headin’ north in the mornin’.”
Mary nodded once and let herself be led off by her soon to be sisters-in-law.
The ceremony was so short, Mary wasn’t sure it was a real wedding…no preaching or singing or anything, and the preacher from the next county had a drink in his hand the whole time! But in less than 5 minutes, fifteen-year-old Mary and eighteen-year-old Mason were Mr. and Mrs. Carter. Mary knew she wasn’t far enough gone to feel her baby yet, so the pain in her stomach had to be guilt, and she prayed for forgiveness for shaming her family, even as she celebrated her new freedom.
And then her papa walked in.
With his shotgun.
And the music stopped.
And all of Mason’s brothers and uncles had pistols…
And so did the preacher…
And Mama Sweet.
But Reverend Charles Johnson only pointed his shotgun at Mary. “C’mon girl. Time to go home.”
“Beggin’ yo’ pardon, suh,” one of Mason’s uncles spoke up. “Y’all cain’t come up in here pointin’ no shotgun at our womens. How ‘bout you put it down and join the celebration?”
“Papa.” Mary held up her left hand. “Mason and me is married now.” Even in the dim light of the cabin, she watched the vein throbbing on her father’s forehead and the rage boil in his eyes.
“Take off the ring and tear up the paper. I said it’s time to go home.”
Mason moved to stand behind Mary. “My wife ain’t goin’ nowhere, sir.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “She in the family way and ain’t nobody but me raisin’ my kin.”
Mary watched the rage in her father’s eyes boil over and come out as a single tear when he lowered his gun with trembling hands. “Bible say honor yo’ mama and papa. You gon’ pay the price’a Job for shamin’ yo’ family, girl…the price – of – Job! ”
“Tell me Reverend,” Mama Sweet stepped up, pressing her body against Rev. Johnson. “What kind of pappy cusses his girlchild like that? If you cain’t celebrate these younguns and they new family, I’m’a need you to git outta my house.”
“Mary.” Rev. Johnson addressed his daughter over Mama Sweet’s wide shoulder. “ You can always come home.” Then he turned and opened the door and left.
Surrounded by her new family hooping and hollerin’, celebrating their victory and her father’s shame, Mary stood rooted to the spot, feeling like a mule had just kicked her in the stomach. It wasn’t until she found herself engulfed in Mama Sweet’s arms that she felt herself break and let tears come.
“Hush now baby” the older woman sang. “Yo pappy still loves you. He’a come around soon enough. He just don’t know we good people yet.”