Mama was about a week overdue when she finally went into labor in late May.
Springtime in Southeast Texas is a mean season. There are some pretty sights, the dazzling fields of bluebonnets, the flowering of Mexican buckeyes and redbuds, the greening of dry meadows. But spring is also a time when fire ants begin to mound after lying idle all winter, and the gulf whips up storms that spit out hail and lightning and twisters. Our region was scored by tornadoes that would double back in surprise attacks, jigsawing across rivers and down main streets, and other places tornadoes weren’t supposed to go. We got white tornadoes too, a deadly rotating froth that occurred in sunlight well after people thought the storm was over.
Tornadoes were always a threat to Bluebonnet Ranch because of a law of nature that says tornadoes are irresistibly attracted to trailer parks. Scientists say it’s a myth, tornadoes are no more drawn to trailer parks than anywhere else. But you couldn’t fool the residents of Welcome. Whenever a twister appeared in or around town, it headed either to Bluebonnet Ranch or another Welcome subdivision called Happy Hills. How Happy Hills got its name was a mystery, because the landscape was as flat as a tortilla and barely two feet over sea level.
Anyway, Happy Hills was a neighborhood of new two-story residences referred to as “big hair houses” by everyone else in Welcome who had to make do with one-level ranch dwellings. The subdivision had undergone just as many tornado strikes as Bluebonnet Ranch, which some people cited as an example of how tornadoes would just as likely strike a wealthy neighborhood as a trailer park.
But one Happy Hills resident, Mr. Clem Cottle, was so alarmed by a white tornado that cut right across his front yard that he did some research on the property and discovered a dirty secret: Happy Hills had been built on the remains of an old trailer park. It was a rotten trick in Clem’s opinion, because he would never have knowingly bought a house in a place where a trailer park once stood. It was an invitation to disaster. It was just as bad as building on an Indian graveyard.
Stuck with residences that had been exposed as tornado magnets, the homeowners of Happy Hills made the best of the situation by pooling their resources to build a communal storm shelter. It was a concrete room that had been half-sunk in the ground and banked with soil on all sides, with the result that there was finally a hill in Happy Hills.
Bluebonnet Ranch, however, didn’t have anything remotely resembling a storm shelter. If a tornado cut through the trailer park, we were all goners. The knowledge gave us a more or less fatalistic attitude about natural disasters. As with so many other aspects of our lives, we were never prepared for trouble.
We just tried like hell to get out of the way when it came.
Mama’s pains had started in the middle of the night. At about three in the morning, I realized she was up and moving around, and I got up with her. I’d found it nearly impossible to sleep anyway, because it was raining. Until we’d moved to Bluebonnet Ranch, I’d always thought rain was a soothing sound, but when it rains on the tin roof of a single-wide, the noise rivals the decibel level of an airplane hangar.
I used the oven timer to measure Mama’s contractions, and when they were eight minutes apart, we called the ob-gyn. Then I called Miss Marva to come take us to the family clinic, a local outreach of a Houston hospital.
I had just gotten my license, and although I thought I was a pretty good driver, Mama had said she would feel more comfortable if Miss Marva drove us. Privately I thought we would have been a lot safer with me behind the wheel, since Miss Marva’s driving technique was at best creative, and at worst she was an accident waiting to happen. Miss Marva drifted, turned from the wrong lanes, sped up and slowed down according to the pace of her conversation, and pushed the gas pedal flush to the floor whenever she saw a yellow light. I would have preferred Bobby Ray to drive, but he and Miss Marva had broken up a month earlier on suspicion of infidelity. She said he could come back when he figured out which shed to put his tools in. Since their separation, Miss Marva and I had gone to church by ourselves, her driving with me praying all the way there and back.
Mama was calm but chatty, wanting to reminisce about the day I was born. “Your daddy was such a nervous wreck when I was having you, he tripped over the suitcase and nearly broke his leg. And then he drove the car so fast, I yelled at him to slow down or I’d drive myself to the hospital. He didn’t stay in the delivery room with me—I think he was nervous he’d get in the way. And when he saw you, Liberty, he cried and said you were the love of his life. I’d never seen him cry before….”
“That’s real sweet, Mama,” I said, pulling out my checklist to make certain we had everything we needed in the duffel bag. I had packed it a month earlier, and I’d checked it a hundred times, but I was still worried I might have forgotten something.
The storm had worsened, thunder vibrating the entire trailer. Although it was seven in the morning, it was black as midnight. “Shit,” I said, thinking that getting into a car with Miss Marva in this kind of weather was risking our lives. There would be flash-flooding, and her low-slung Pinto wagon wasn’t going to make it to the family clinic.
“Liberty,” Mama said in surprised disapproval, “I’ve never heard you swear before. I hope your friends at school aren’t influencing you.”
“Sorry,” I said, trying to peer through the streaming window.
We both jumped at the sudden roar of hail on the roof, a battering shower of hard white ice. It sounded like someone was dumping coins onto our house. I ran to the door and opened it, surveying the bouncing balls on the ground. “Marble-sized,” I said. “And a few golf balls.”
“Shit,” Mama said, wrapping her arms around her tightening stomach.
The phone rang, and Mama picked it up. “Yes? Hey, Marva, I—You what? Just now?” She listened for a moment. “All right. Yes, you’re probably right. Okay, we’ll see you there.”
“What?” I asked wildly as she hung up. “What did she say?”
“She says the main road is probably flooded by now, and the Pinto won’t make it. So she called Hardy, and he’s coming to get us in the pickup. Since there’s only room for three of us, he’ll drop us off and come back to get Marva.”
“Thank God,” I said, instantly relieved. Hardy’s pickup would plow through anything.
I waited at the door and watched through the crack. The hail had stopped falling but the rain held steady, sometimes coming in cold sideways sheets through the narrow opening of the door. Every now and then I glanced back at Mama, who had subsided in the corner of the sofa. I could tell the pains were getting worse—her chatter had died away and she had drawn inward to focus on the inexorable process that had overtaken her body.
I heard her breathe my father’s name softly. A needle of pain went through the back of my throat. My father’s name, when she was giving birth to another man’s child.
It’s a shock the first time you see your parent in a helpless condition, to feel the reverse of your situations. Mama was my responsibility now. Daddy wasn’t here to take care of her, but I knew he would have wanted me to. I wouldn’t fail either of them.
The Cateses’ blue truck stopped in front, and Hardy strode to the door. He was wearing a fleece-lined windbreaker with the school panther logo on the back. Looking large and capable, he entered the trailer and closed the door firmly. His assessing glance swept over my face. I blinked in surprise as he kissed my cheek. He went to my mother, sank to his haunches before her and asked gently, “How does a ride in a pickup sound, Mrs. Jones?”
She mustered a faint laugh. “I think I might take you up on that, Hardy.”
Standing, he looked back at me. “Anything I should bring out to the truck? I’ve got the cover on the back, so it should stay pretty dry.”
I ran to get the duffel, and handed it to him. He headed for the door. “No, wait,” I said, continuing to load objects into his arms. “We need this tape player. And this—” I gave him a large cylinder with an attachment that looked like a screwdriver.
Hardy looked at it with genuine alarm. “What is it?”
“A hand pump.”
“For what? No, never mind, don’t tell me.”
“It’s for the birth ball.” I went to my bedroom and brought back a huge half-inflated rubber ball. “Take this out too.” Seeing his bewilderment, I said, “We’re going to inflate it all the way when we get to the clinic. It uses gravity to help the labor along, and when you sit on it, it puts pressure on the—”
“I get it,” Hardy interrupted hastily. “No need to explain.” He went out to stow the objects in the truck, and returned at once. “The storm’s at a lull,” he said. “We need to get going before another band hits us. Mrs. Jones, do you have a raincoat?”
Mama shook her head. As pregnant as she was, there was no way her old raincoat was going to fit. Wordlessly Hardy removed his panther jacket and guided her arms through the sleeves as if she were a child. It didn’t quite zip over her stomach, but it covered most of her.
While Hardy guided Mama out to the truck, I followed with an armload of towels. Since the water hadn’t broken yet, I thought it was best to be prepared. “What are those for?” Hardy asked after loading my mother into the front seat. We had to raise our voices to be heard above the din of the storm.
“You never know when you might need some towels,” I replied, figuring it would cause him unnecessary distress if I explained further.
“When my mother had Hannah and the boys, she never took more than a paper sack, a toothbrush, and a nightgown.”
“What was the paper sack for?” I asked in instant worry. “Should I run in and get one?”
He laughed and lifted me up to the front seat beside Mama. “It was to put the toothbrush and nightgown in. Let’s go, honey.”
The flooding had already turned Welcome into a chain of little islands. The trick of going from one place to another was to know the roads well enough that you could judge which flowing streams were passable. All it takes is two feet of water to float virtually any car. Hardy was a master at negotiating Welcome, taking a circuitous route to avoid low ground. He followed farm roads, cut through parking lots, and guided the pickup through currents until fountains of water spewed from the trenching tires.
I was amazed by Hardy’s presence of mind, the lack of visible tension, the way he made small talk with Mama to distract her. The only sign of effort was the notch between his brows. There is nothing a Texan loves more than to pit himself against the elements. Texans take a kind of ornery pride in the state’s raucous weather. Epic storms, killing heat, winds that threaten to strip a layer of skin off, the endless variety of twisters and hurricanes. No matter how bad the weather gets, or what level of hardship is imposed, Texans receive it with variations on a single question…“Hot enough for you?”…“Wet enough for you?”…“Dry enough for you?”…and so forth.
I watched Hardy’s hands on the wheel, the light capable grip, the water spots on his sleeves. I loved him so much, loved his fearlessness, his strength, even the ambition that would someday take him away from me.
“A few more minutes,” Hardy murmured, feeling my gaze on him. “I’ll get you both there, safe and sound.”
“I know you will,” I said, while the windshield wipers flailed helplessly at the flats of rain that pounded the glass.
As soon as we arrived at the family clinic, Mama was taken in a wheelchair to be prepped, while Hardy and I took our belongings to the labor room. It was filled with machines and monitors, and a neonatal open care warmer that looked like a baby spaceship. But the room’s appearance was softened by ruffled curtains, a wallpaper border featuring geese and baby ducks, and a gingham-cushioned rocking chair.
A stout gray-haired nurse moved around the room, checking the equipment and adjusting the level of the bed. As Hardy and I came in, she said sternly, “Only mothers-to-be and their husbands are allowed in the labor room. You’ll have to go to the waiting area down the hall.”
“There’s no husband,” I said, feeling a little defensive as I saw her brows inching up toward her hairline. “I’m staying to help my mother.”
“I see. But your boyfriend will have to leave.”
Hot color rushed over my face. “He’s not my—”
“No problem,” Hardy interrupted easily. “Believe me, ma’am, I don’t want to get in anyone’s way.”
The nurse’s stern face relaxed into a smile. Hardy had that effect on women.
Pulling a colored folder from the duffel bag, I gave it to the nurse. “Ma’am, I’d appreciate it if you’d read this.”
She looked suspiciously at the bright yellow folder. I had printed the words “BIRTH PLAN” on the front and decorated it with stickers of baby bottles and storks. “What is this?”
“I’ve written out our preferences for the labor experience,” I explained. “We want dim lighting and as much peace and quiet as possible, and we’re going to play nature sounds. And we want to maintain my mother’s mobility until it’s time for the epidural. About pain relief—she’s fine with Demorol but we wanted to ask the doctor about Nubain. And please don’t forget to read the notes about the episiotomy.”
Looking harassed, the nurse took the birth plan and disappeared.
I gave the hand pump to Hardy and plugged in the tape player. “Hardy, before you go, would you inflate the birth ball? Not all the way. Eighty percent would be best.”
“Sure,” he said. “Anything else?”
I nodded. “There’s a tube sock filled with rice in the duffel. I’d appreciate it if you’d find a microwave oven somewhere and heat it for two minutes.”
“Absolutely.” As Hardy bent to inflate the birth ball, I saw the line of his cheek tauten with a smile.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, but he shook his head and didn’t answer, only continued to smile as he obeyed my instructions.
By the time Mama was brought into the room, the lighting had been adjusted to my satisfaction, and the air was filled with the sounds of the Amazon rain forest. It was a soothing patter of rain punctuated with the chirping of tree frogs and the occasional cry of a macaw.
“What are those sounds?” Mama asked, glancing around the room in bemusement.
“A rain forest tape,” I replied. “Do you like it? Is it soothing?”
“I guess so,” she said. “Although if I start to hear elephants and howler monkeys, you’ll have to turn it off.”
I did a subdued version of a Tarzan cry, and it made her laugh.
The gray-haired nurse went to help Mama from the wheelchair. “Is your daughter going to stay in here the whole time?” she asked Mama. Something in her tone gave me the impression she was hoping the answer would be “no.”
“The whole time,” Mama said firmly. “I couldn’t do without her.”
At seven o’clock in the evening, Carrington was born. I had picked the name from one of the soaps Mama and I liked to watch. The nurse had washed and wrapped her like a miniature mummy, and placed her in my arms while the doctor took care of Mama and stitched the places the baby had torn. “Seven pounds, seven ounces,” the nurse said, smiling at my expression. We had gotten to like each other a little more during the birth process. Not only had I been less of an annoyance than she had anticipated, but it was difficult not to feel connected, if only temporarily, by the miracle of new life.
Lucky seven, I thought, staring at my little sister. I’d never had much to do with babies before, and I had never held a newborn. Carrington’s face was bright pink and crumpled-looking, her eyes grayish-blue and perfectly round. Hair covered her head like the pale feathers of a wet chick. The weight of her felt about the same as a large sack of sugar, but she was fragile and floppy. I tried to make her comfortable, shifting her awkwardly until she was on my shoulder. The round ball of her head fit perfectly against my neck. I felt her back heave with a kitten-sigh, and she went still.
“I’ll need to take her in a minute,” the nurse said, smiling at my expression. “They’ll have to check her out and clean her up.”
I didn’t want to let her go. A thrill of possessiveness went through me. She felt like my baby, part of my body, knotted to my soul. Impassioned to the verge of tears, I turned to the side and whispered to her. “You are the love of my life, Carrington. The love of my life.”
Miss Marva brought a bouquet of pink roses and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for Mama, and a baby blanket she had made for Carrington, soft yellow fleece with hand-crocheted edges. After admiring and cuddling the baby for a few minutes, Miss Marva handed her back to me. She focused all her attention on Mama, fetching her a cup of ice chips when the nurse was too slow, adjusting the controls on her bed, helping her walk to the bathroom and back.
To my relief, Hardy appeared to drive us home the next day in a big sedan he had borrowed from a neighbor. While Mama signed papers and took a folder of postpartum instructions from the nurse, I dressed the baby in her going-home outfit, a little blue dress with long sleeves. Hardy stood beside the hospital bed and watched as I struggled to capture the tiny starfish hands and push them gently through the sleeves. Her fingertips kept catching and gripping the fabric, making it difficult to inch the dress over her arms.
“It’s like trying to feed cooked spaghetti through a straw,” Hardy observed.
Carrington grunted and complained as I managed to tug her hand through the sleeve. I started on the other arm, and the first hand pulled right out of the dress again. I let out an exasperated puff. Hardy snickered.
“Maybe she doesn’t like the dress,” he said.
“Would you like to give it a try?” I asked.
“Hell, no. I’m good at getting girls out of their clothes, not putting them on.”
He had never made that kind of remark around me before, and I didn’t like it.
“Don’t swear in front of the baby,” I said sternly.
The touch of vexation made me less tentative with the baby, and I managed to finish dressing her. Gathering the curls at the top of her head, I fastened a Velcro bow around them. Tactfully Hardy turned his back while I changed her diapers, which were the size of a cocktail napkin.
“I’m ready,” came Mama’s voice behind me, and I picked Carrington up.
Mama was in a wheelchair, dressed in a new blue robe and matching slippers. She held the flowers from Marva in her lap.
“Do you want to take the baby and I’ll carry the flowers?” I asked reluctantly.
She shook her head. “You carry her, sweetheart.”
The baby car seat was webbed with enough buckled straps to restrain a fighter pilot in an F-15. Gingerly I settled the squirming baby into the seat. She began to squall as I tried to fasten the straps around her. “It’s a five-point safety system,” I told her. “Consumer Reports said it was the best one available.”
“I guess the baby didn’t read that issue,” Hardy said, climbing in on the other side of the car seat to help.
I was tempted to tell him not to be such a smart-ass, but remembering my rule about no swearing in front of Carrington, I kept silent. Hardy grinned at me.
“Here we go,” he said, deftly untwisting a strap. “Put this buckle over there and cross the other one over.”
Together we managed to fasten Carrington securely in the seat. She was revving up, shrieking in objection to the indignity of being strapped in. I put my hand on her, my fingers curving over her heaving chest. “It’s okay,” I murmured. “It’s okay, Carrington. Don’t cry.”
“Try singing to her,” Hardy suggested.
“I can’t sing,” I said, rubbing circles on her chest. “You do it.”
He shook his head. “Not a chance. My singing sounds like a cat being run over by a steamroller.”
I tried a rendition of the opening song from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I had watched every day as a child. By the time I reached the last “won’t you be my neighbor?” Carrington had stopped crying and was staring at me in myopic wonder.
Hardy laughed softly. His fingers slid over mine, and for a moment we stayed like that, our hands resting lightly on the baby. Staring at his hand, I reflected that you could never mistake it for someone else’s. His work-roughened fingers dotted with tiny star-shaped scars from encounters with hammers, nails, and barbed wire. There was enough strength in those fingers to bend a sixteen-penny nail with ease.
I raised my head and saw that Hardy’s lashes had lowered to conceal his thoughts. He seemed to be absorbing the feel of my fingers beneath his.
Suddenly he withdrew and pulled out of the car, going to help Mama into the passenger seat. Leaving me to grapple with the eternal fascination that seemed to have become a part of me as surely as a hand or foot. But if Hardy didn’t want me, or wouldn’t allow himself to, I now had someone else to lavish with all my affection. I kept my hand on the baby all the way home, learning the rhythm of her breathing.