I had a dream about my wife the other night. There was a gentle breeze, the scent of Gardenias and she was there. She was not dressed in a flowing white gown. She wore a red and black jersey knit shirt and black slacks. It was the outfit she wore the night she died.
She smiled and said, “Old man, it’s time to come home.” .
I did not argue with her. She was right. Two days later I died in my sleep.
I was surprised Etta came for me. I’d suffered through the deaths of our oldest son, our oldest daughter and my mama. None of those deaths had been more devastating than Etta’s. Now after thirty two years she’d finally forgiven me for sending her to her grave.
Forty-four years before Etta’s death, my mother was a mid-wife. It was my mother who delivered Etta and her twin sister Ella into the world. I did not know it then, but this would be the greatest gift my mother would ever give me. I was nine and the only thing I noticed was that one of those twins was really loud.Her mama named her Etta Mae. Once out of my earshot, she was out of my mind.
It was twelve years before I saw that child again. I was home on a furlough from the Army before starting a tour in Germany during WWII. I rode into Montgomery, Alabama by way of a rail car. I sprang from that train feeling handsome and amplified. A guitar swung from my shoulder with a strap that resembled a Diamondback rattler. My uniform was pressed and my medals were reflected in the eyes of a group of girls who watched me strut past their game of hopscotch. The prettiest girl I’d ever seen was the first to look away. She stared at the ground like she was searching for secrets. I caught a glimpse of almond shaped eyes the color of roasted chestnuts. Her skin was a shade lighter than her eyes and her hair shone like crow’s feathers. She had a widow’s peak and braids that hung past her shoulders. She looked young, but the soft curves of womanhood had already claimed her body. I watched her as I passed the group, she never looked up.
I walked a quarter mile up the red clay dirt road to my house. The smell of homemade lye soap crawled up my nostrils before I saw mama hanging sheets in the yard. I crept up behind her and grabbed her spreading waistline. She squealed and chased me with a wet towel before I entered her opened arms.
That night as I talked with my mama over hot cornbread and pinto beans, I found out that the pretty girl I’d seen had developed from that loud baby. She was thirteen.
Etta was a twin but as I began courting her I only saw the face of my future bride. The twins were the youngest of ten children and as things went back then their mama was looking to marry the girls off before trouble came to claim them.
A few nights later with a sky full of stars I sat on my porch and thought about my Etta. My fingers played along my guitar strings and to the accompaniment of crickets I crooned out a ballad about love at second sight.
The sun shone brighter than I’d ever seen it the day I asked Etta’s mom for her daughter’s hand in marriage. That woman scrutinized me like she’d never seen me before. Now that I wanted to make myself a permanent fixture in her daughter’s life, she needed to take a better look at me. I guess I measured up because suddenly those twins aged three years. Thanks to sorely kept birth and death records, Etta and me were married. I packed up her entire family and we moved to St. Clair, West Virginia.
After a year of relative happiness Etta and I had a son. The night Sanford Jr. was born I crowed like a rooster on Easter morning. The next child was a girl, then four more girls after that. I bought us a piece of land with a two-story house and stumbled into royalty. They titled me “the king of moonshine.” Notoriety soon followed that title and my family encouraged me to get out of town. I packed up my family and we moved up north.
After five years in Buffalo, New York I had another son. When I got the news I crowed and drank throughout the night. I woke up in some strange filly’s bed wondering what I’d crowed about the night before. I remembered I had a wife and a new son and crawled out of bed.
I stood in the April sunshine and stared up at the windows of Columbus Hospital. This was just Etta’s second time in a hospital and she’d endured the trip alone. After gulping down an air load of courage I walked inside. Etta was nursing our son when I entered the room. Her eyes were red and puffy but she smiled at me as I sidled up to the bed. My son glanced sidelong at me like he knew what I’d been up to but he continued to suckle. I sat next to my wife smelling of dead liquor and accusing perfume and Etta handed me our son.
“I named him Otis,” was all she said. Then she walked with her natural grace from the room.
After Otis came Andrew, then Sally. My wife and I had been fighting for years and the arguments had escalated into violence. Between drinking and staying out nights, I started hitting Etta and chasing her with a pocket knife. Cops were being called to escort me on short ‘cooling off’ walks so often they were calling me by my first name.
December 1965, fourteen days before Christmas, I killed my wife. We’d been arguing because I was too stubborn to move an empty freezer away from the window where Etta wanted to put the Christmas tree. As habit allowed I was chasing her with a knife. This time she fell over a stool and I fell on top of her. With our five youngest children watching I stood up with their mother’s blood on my hands. Then it was like turning off a television.
There was nothing there.
I stumbled around that blank screen for about two months. I saw daylight and stars through the bars of a cell and wondered how I’d tossed my freedom away. I was in Attica when the horror of what I’d done resurfaced. That memory sent me for a stint in Dannemora State, a prison for the criminally insane. That’s where, after 13 months, I got back what was left of my senses.
I came home in 1973 to face my children. They were all grown or close to it, and I met grand children that weren’t born before I went to jail. I never could figure out what encouraged my kids to allow me back into their lives but I was glad they did.
I found comfort in my freedom and decided to search out a life. I invested in a small business, bought a car and corralled a lady friend. My business never boomed but between that and my Army pension it did keep a roof over my head and Copenhagen snuff dipped in my lower lip. I knew the past wasn’t behind me, but I figured it wasn’t dogging my future either.
My son Otis stopped living from sibling to sibling and moved in with me. We lived the bachelor life for awhile until I had another breakdown. This was brought on by circumstances surrounding my business.
People were stealing from my little store and I grabbed a shotgun I’d bought off some street hustler. I threatened to shoot everything walking including the neighborhood dogs. Then the cops showed up. Who knows, they could have been sons’ of my former police escorts.
In court the judge gave my family an ultimatum. He could send me back to prison or place me in a mental hospital for a psychological work-up. My family chose the hospital. In there I endured the snooping and scrutinizing, took my medication, and resolved to really keep my head together as soon as I was free. Back on the outside I’d lost my business, my car and my woman. I was too exhausted to start again.
Otis finally got married and he and his wife moved to Niagara Falls. Two months later he moved me up there with him. His wife had two sons from a former marriage, then she and Otis had a girl. By then the word grandpa on a daily basis sounded pretty good to me. I got a car and a paper route and felt useful again. Then I had a stroke.
I thought my time had finally come but I recovered. My family took away my car and my paper route became a walking job. I didn’t care anymore. By now I was just going through the motions of life.
I was ready to let go but it was eight more months before I had that dream. It was June 13th. 1990. I’d had dinner with my son, his wife, the kids and the cats. I felt so tired. I watched a little t.v. and went to bed. That’s where I was when Etta came to take me home. I didn’t resist. I was glad to go. I don’t know how I’d lived so long without her.