In our family no one ever separated and God forbid they even think of divorcing.
Granny Love always said, “Course they’s some orta-had nevah got hitched in the first place.”
My Aunt Bertha Mae was scared to divorce.
“God may strike me dead ifen I divorce. I jest wants to be rid of ‘im,” she would say.
This is her story.
Bertha Mae was the oldest daughter in her family of three children. They lived in the family’s hundred-year-old, bulky two-story house on the edge of a township called McCleary Station, 20 miles outside the city of Talladega, Alabama. Her father was the only doctor within 30 miles. Times were hard in the 1950s and often patients could not pay their bills in cash, so they brought dried beans, peas, and home-canned vegetables, lard and freshly ground cornmeal. The family cellar was always full.
Homer Ghee was from the township of Wetumpka. His father, a District Attorney, had ambitions to become a state representative. Those ambitions included plans for his son to build a career as an architect.
In 1952, Bertha Mae was the first female in her family to enter college when she attended the University of Alabama Nursing School. Homer Ghee was working toward a degree in engineering. They met at a homecoming football celebration, fell madly in love and moved in together. Within the year she was pregnant and they dropped out of college, married and moved into the large house with her parents. Homer was nothing special, as far as her family could see. He was handsome, with sharp, blue eyes, was a good dresser and excellent dancing partner, but he was vague about his future. He and Bertha Mae went dancing at the Armory most Saturday nights.
After the birth of their son, Homer enlisted, departed for boot camp and was sent to Korea. His company was ambushed while on an early morning patrol in the mountains near the 38th Parallel. He took shrapnel in his neck and face, some loss of sight in his left eye and was medically discharged. Homer returned changed — restless and bothered by nightmares. The fun loving boy was replaced with a sullen, angry young man. Bertha Mae gave birth to their second child, a daughter, eleven months after his return home.
The first crack in their marriage was when Homer, newly medically discharged, removed Bertha Mae’s name from the checking account.
“We have little money and I can manage it better-n you,” Homer said.
This forced Bertha Mae to ask for money for household expenses, which Homer often forgot, and when he did remember it was never enough. Within a month of Homer’s taking over the finances, they realized they could not live on his military retirement income. They decided Homer would look for a job allowing Bertha Mae to be a stay-at-home mom. Homer found temporary work as a mechanic and gas-pumper at his Uncle Ben’s gas station but seemed unable to stay on the job. Soon, Homer began coming home in the early afternoon with liquor on his breath and demanding sex as his right. When rejected, Homer would storm out of the house and disappear for weeks without leaving money for Bertha Mae. He always returned from these trips as though nothing had happened.
Realizing Homer was not taking responsibility for his family and falling deeper into depression and running away, Bertha Mae insisted he go to his father for help. His father offered Homer a salesman’s job at his life insurance company.
The sales job entailed long hours, looming quotas and travel far from home. Homer moved his family to his home town of Wetumpka, 165 miles away from her parent’s home, into a small house that his father gave them. After spending months there, often alone, Bertha Mae high-tailed it back to her parents. She and Homer lived between the two homes for many years.
Bertha Mae’s parents died within six months of each other from the 1959 influenza epidemic. The house and two acres of land had been deeded to Bertha Mae, free and clear of any debt and she announced to Homer she would be living there permanently.
With a secure job, Homer finally got his self confidence back and won awards for his sales ability. Yet he repeatedly refused to take a District Manager’s position that would mean a desk job and more time at home. Soon, though, Homer’s bad eye was giving him problems. He tried to hide his vision problem from everyone. Slowly the blindness in his left eye prevented him from safely driving a vehicle. Now he took the desk job.
With more time at home, he and Bertha Mae argued more. Their twelve-year-old son refused to go fishing with his father; stating it was no fun, boring and they never caught any fish. Also, he was adamant he would not play football, nor any other ‘ball’ sport for that matter. The boy loved to read, draw and put together airplanes and cars and paint them up in loud colors. Homer accused Bertha Mae of coddling their son and making a sissy of him.
Meanwhile Homer grew bored and restless at his job, losing many workdays. Once his father became aware of his son’s absence from work he retired Homer. He gave his son a generous retirement monthly income package and encouraged him to go home and seek help for his anger and inability to adjust to adult life.
Homer now spent lots of time on the creek banks fishing, though he never brought home any fish. He once spent his full-month military retirement check for a deep-sea fishing rod and reel that could only be used in the ocean, which was 350 miles away.
One night there was a particularly brutal argument between Homer and their son. The boy insisted he would not play football.
“You are no son of mine,” Homer said as he departed the room.
Homer rose early the next morning, made the coffee and was on his second cup when Bertha Mae arrived in the kitchen. She took her mug of dark, steaming coffee, inhaled the aroma of chicory, and opened the door to go out onto the screened-in back porch.
“I think, today, I’m gonna leave you for good. You heah me, Bertha Mae?”
Bertha Mae called to her cat, “Come on Suga”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“No, I done quit talkin’ bout it. Suga, come on.”
“That’s our problem, you and that cat. She gets more attention than I do.”
Bertha Mae heard the front door open and click shut. Good riddance.
She stood looking out the open canopy-window over the kitchen sink. The early morning sky was slowly opening up to a soft orange light that seemed to color the air and gave the green bushes and shrubs a dusty orange glow. Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud grunt and then she heard a chair scoot across the floor. She saw Homer sitting at the dining room table pressing his thumbs to his temples. She just stood there looking at him, thinking that his strength always seemed so big to her; now, she realized how small and slight he was. In all the times he left, Homer had never announced he was leaving. She had never felt afraid until now. Can I do this alone? Should I beg him to stay? Will the children and I be safe?
Dressed in overalls over long johns, he came out, moved the cat from the doorway with his foot and closed the door. The cat screamed and dashed into the hallway and hid behind the chiffarobe.
Much too early, Bertha Mae needed her ritual “toddy of courage.” She reached for the Southern Comfort, poured a little into her coffee cup, and added a smidge of water. She coached Suga from her hiding place. The cat, stretching and rubbing against her leg, looked over at the empty food bowl. Bertha Mae filled the bowl with nibbles and walked out onto the screened-in back porch.
She sat in her double-seated rocker, just out of the sun’s reach. Suga sat beside her and began tongue-bathing. Bertha Mae rocked back and forth, singing her favorite gospel song, “There will be Peace in the Valley some day, Oh Lord. Yes! There will be peace…”
Later that day, Homer Ghee walked away from Bertha Mae and their two young children. He left with only the clothes on his back, his custom-made pipe and special-blended tobacco pouch.
She still had the checking account Homer set up for her years ago and the monthly deposits continued in his absence. She remained a stay-at-home mom, became President of the PTA and participated in the flower club.
Years passed. Their children married, moved out, and had children of their own. Bertha Mae and the children had discussed cashing out Homer’s life insurance policy so they could attend college; but the insurance company said he had not been gone long enough. Bertha Mae, meanwhile, adjusted to the hollow sounds in the big house she loved. She was born and raised in this house. The front of the house sat up high, on solid rock pillars. Her father dug out a root cellar under the porch, which provided a cool, dry place year round for food and children alike.
In time, with the children gone, she grew to enjoy her single life. The checking account supported her. She volunteered one day a week as a hospital greeter. She hated any unexpected interruptions, insisting friends and family phone before they come over—‘to be sure she was home.’ She woke every day, stretched, and rose from her bed, changed from her nightgown into her day dress, and tied the ruffle-trimmed apron around her waist. She then inspected for “grays” on each curler encased-bunch of hair. It was a daily chore. In the past when she found them “loitering about,” she would just jerk them out. With her hair getting thinner, this was now the biggest decision of the day before she went down stairs.
Every morning, Bertha Mae filled the coffee-percolator and placed it on the stove.
One day, as she stepped out onto the back porch, she felt the chill and saw the pre-dawn air was rich with musky dew. A white-orange light reflected upon the sky from somewhere barely over the horizon. Pale fog hugged the ground and glowed as it lay in smoky layers in the hollers and valleys behind her home.
Her last chore of the day was always to mix sugar water for her three hummingbird feeders. This morning, she saw that one was already drained. She was puzzled at the loss of a liter of nectar at a time when the hummers were resting. She was irritated. She wasn’t sure if the irritation she felt was because of the disappearing nectar or because of her friend nagging her to come to the Amory Dance every Saturday night.
“You need to find a man ’cause you’re talkin’ to yorself,” Eufaula said.
“I done had me one man and I don’t need no nutter-one!”
Or perhaps, her irritation was the result of learning, just the day before, that in fact she could have claimed Homer as dead and collected his life insurance years earlier.
Bertha Mae poured her second cup of coffee and went to the front porch swing. She never sat on this swing without remembering how she and Homer Ghee sanded, stained and put the beautiful walnut-boards together. The one project they accomplished without an argument. Swinging and combing the fur of her cat, she heard a scratching sound and then a grunt. Thinking it was the swing grunting and the scratching sound was Suga’s claws on the wooden swing-boards, she paid it no mind and continued brushing.
But there it was again. The sound was distant and too soft to be heard clearly. She began to swing and brush in earnest. Then she heard a dragging sound. Suga went on alert.
Bertha Mae stopped swinging. Silence. Then they resumed swinging. There was that sound again; loud and much closer now. Sliding and scraping and bumpety-bump, slurred mumbles and grumbles from a human; this noise was moving toward the end of the porch.
A faint mist of odor she couldn’t immediately recognize floated up through the wide-plank porch floor. Suga bounced onto the floor, arched her back, tail in the air, in a defensive stance and screamed. This sent chills up Bertha Mae’s back.
Suddenly there was smoke curling up between the cracks of the porch floor.
“Who goes there?” Bertha Mae shouted.
She crept toward the noise coming from underneath the planked porch floor and the smell she was sure she knew. Suga rubbed against her leg with arched back. The noise moved toward the end of the porch. The cellar door creaked open.
A gray-haired head popped up and turned to face them. Homer Ghee, with his hand-made pipe in his mouth, was puffing his special-blend tobacco, smoke twirling into the air above his head.
The first thing that came to her mind was that she had just mailed the forms claiming Homer as dead and collecting his life insurance. Should she be nasty and argue or play nice?
Bertha Mae reached up and placed a hand on each of Homer’s shoulders, as if to verify authenticity. His face furrowed with wise creases and his blue-eyes burned brightly. Satisfied that the person was indeed Homer, shaking him roughly, she said, “Homer, we have to make you disappear again.”
“Huh?” He muttered as he grinned with a display of tartar-coated teeth.
“You sick Bertha Mae? You lookin’ mighty funny.”
She gave him the stink-eye, cold and direct. Then she released her hold on his shoulders, walked over and flopped down in the swing next to Suga.
The swing seemed to move of its own accord as Bertha Mae began to brush the cat.