The phone jarred the interior of the cabin early afternoon that Spring day in 2018. Sara Lou was unprepared for the news. The woman spoke in a voice that was unknown, yet vaguely familiar. Sara Lou had to sit down.
The call took Sara Lou back in time to sweltering childhood days in brambly green pastures surrounded by swamp. Time stopped and lightening bugs danced around immense Cypress trees in the balmy dusk. A mysterious journey, whisperings, and the deepest of family secrets. It all started swirling back to her as if in a dream. But she was wide awake.
Sylvia was only 15 when she stood in the dry Arkansas dirt in 1950, taking a picture of her first cousin Hazel. She was a stunning beauty at 29, and the two had grown up closer than any sisters. Hazel sat at the edge of the worn timbered porch in her baggy bib overalls with her face turned to one side. Even with her medical issues...she was headed to California to have a tumor removed from her uterus...she was blithe and brilliant, with thick raven hair and full red lips the color of pomegranate.
Life had been unkind to Hazel.
Earlton, her brooding and darkly handsome husband had been killed in an oil derrick accident near Galveston when she was 25 and pregnant with Sara Lou. Five months later she curled up around her new daughter in a hospital bed, kissing the infants face, wet with her own tears; and made promises for their successful survival which she only prayed she could keep.
She returned to the tiny town of Waldo and took a job at the little market. Her days were spent walking across creaky old boards; bare wood polished to a permanent shine by foot traffic. She re-stocked shelves and gazed out the enormous front windows to the townspeople bustling about; each turning pages in the chapters of their own lives. She waited on customers. Polly Barnes the notorious unwed mother, Fred Conner who reeked of filth and petroleum, and Suzanne Martin, the mousy wife of Tony who owned the market and never passed up an opportunity to compliment Hazel.
Hazel found a friend in Tony and he was soon sharing tales of his miserable marriage, impudent children, business headaches, and his plans to divorce his wife and move into the loft above the store. Every day while Hazel worked downstairs, Tony worked upstairs completing the cozy living space. One day he invited her up to see it.
He smiled brightly, showing off dimples in his darkly tanned cheeks. Sweat glistened on his brow. “It needs a woman’s touch I think.”
She hadn’t laughed in a long while. “You could start with curtains for heavens sake.”
The loft became a joint venture after that and friendship blossomed into forbidden love. She dreamed of the day he would divorce his wife, and they would be married. She happily added the finishing touches to the two-bedroom loft and felt the joyous thought of Sara Lou growing up here, above the family business. “Hazel Martin” she said out loud and her heart soared.
Soon, she would be able to leave the confines of her parents homestead shack. Not that she wasn’t grateful. They kept Sara Lou for her while she worked and gave them both a place to live. But it was crowded there, with Hazel and Sara Lou sharing a cot in the main room next to the table. They would roll up each morning before dawn so that breakfast could be served. It was a cramped and dreary life that Tony would save her and Sara Lou from.
She knew, even before she put the key in the door of the market that morning. She hurriedly turned to vomit into the gutter. It had been two years since she had felt this way. She was torn between panic and excitement at sharing the news with Tony and she tentatively allowed herself the daydream of him being exultant and insisting they marry as soon as possible.
Tony was late that day, not showing up until well after lunchtime. He was quieter than usual, or maybe she just thought he was. Overcome with her intense state of vulnerability, she wiped sweaty palms across her blue gingham apron and approached him as he bent, tightening a screw on the bright red Coca-Cola cooler by the window. She placed her hand gently on his shoulder and said his name. After a moment he stood to tower above her, then reached down tenderly to brush her ebony hair back from her face.
Hazel started to speak then the bell on the door jangled loudly. Polly Barnes froze in her tracks for a long moment, eying them knowingly and with contempt. After gathering her supplies: a box of cornmeal, a tin of saltine crackers, and a can of peaches, she approached the front register and gazed into the meat cooler as if trying to make a selection. Tony stood ready at the cash register and Hazel stood nearby.
“I saw your wife and children earlier, Mr. Martin” she said scornfully.
Her all knowing eyes pierced Hazel.
“Very nice. Can I get you something else?”
“No. I guess not.” She cattily toyed with her auburn ponytail “But those ribs sure look good. Are those the ones your wife brought to the 4th of July picnic?”
Hazel’s face was hot and she dismissed herself to stock the shelves.
Afterward, Tony was clearly agitated by the exchange. Being caught, if not in the act, but certainly in the intention.
“What did you want to tell me before...before she came in?”
Overwhelmed, Hazel began to cry.
“What is it darling?”
“I am....” She stammered “Going to have our baby.”
The blood ran from his face and time stood still. The bell jangled on the door again. Suddenly rigid and businesslike, he narrowed his steely eyes. “We will discuss this later.”
The next morning he fired her, with no more emotion than he would have had for a stranger.
She was trapped like a rodent in a rain barrel. Barely scraping by to support herself and Sara Lou. She could not tell her parents. She could not tell anyone. She lay awake nights thinking of the wretched life of Polly Barnes. But she would be far worse than Polly Barnes to the towns people. She would be both a whore and a home wrecker and Sara Lou would bear the brunt of it forever. People could be cruel. Remembering the promise she made to her daughter, she called her older cousin Mildred who had moved to California. Mildred was a nurse and she would know what to do.
She was to tell only those she must tell, that she was having “female troubles." A uterine tumor. She would be going to California to have it removed. Mildred knew a couple who were unable to have children and she contacted them.
On April 7, 1950, Hazel gave birth to a baby girl and with Pearl, the adoptive mother; they chose her name: Pamela Ruth. Pearl and J.F. had agreed to let Hazel keep the baby until she returned to Arkansas. It was a bittersweet three weeks, as Hazel watched Sara Lou hold her new sister and caress her soft cheeks. She would squeal with delight every time the baby made a face. Hazel held the tiny child beneath the ticking clock. No photos, no fanfare; she knew she must let go and put this all behind her.
Leaving Pam in California stole the light from Hazel’s eyes, but she never ceased being beautiful. In the late chill of Autumn when her father left for the the fields, Hazel played with Sara Lou in the sea of leaves that drifted softly around the shanty. Her daughters laughter would rise through the air and join the perfume of mossy earth and ancient Cypress. If Hazel choked up at the visage of her younger daughter, playing merrily beside Sara Lou, nobody was there to notice.
Hazel kept her secret all the way to the grave.
A second cousin, Jeannie was talking to another cousin, Mary in 2018 on the phone and commented about what a beauty Hazel always was. Hazel had died in 2003. Jeannie recalled a vivid Kodachrome photo of Hazel in the yard wearing a billowing white dress, her radiant young face to the sunny sky.
“She was such a dazzling beauty. And she lived on the edge!” Jeannie laughed.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there was a dark secret. She had a baby. I overheard grandma Mildred telling the story. Grandma caught me eavesdropping and told me she would tan my hide if I breathed a word, so I never did.”
A phone call to Sylvia was met with shock and surprise, then a memory. “Wait! I took a picture..”
“Here it is.” Sylvia sounded excited. “Yes! I remember this day. She was going to California because she said she had a tumor. I was too young to know any differently. But it all makes sense. She was gone for a long while. She stayed with Mildred.”
A private detective was employed at once and the child was found; now a grown woman with children and grandchildren. She never knew she had a sister. She trembled as she dialed the phone to hear Sara Lou’s voice for the first time. There were more questions than answers, and she hoped that together they could unfurl the mystery of two little girls, two thousand miles apart, opening presents every Christmas alone for well over half a century.
Sara Lou pondered the years of sisterhood lost and she lamented. “I thought I was an only child.”
Pam flew out to Arkansas and Sara Lou embraced her for the first time in 68 years. Raising her hand gently to her baby sisters face, through tears she said, “I remember you.”
Sylvia was 87 when she stood in the dry Arkansas dirt in 2018, taking a picture of Hazel’s daughters.