The Stepmother

The Stepmother


By Elton Camp

            Following the sudden death of her mother, Bertha, as the oldest daughter, saw her duty and accepted it.  She’d forego marriage to run the household for her widowed father and his children.  She didn’t discuss her decision with Milas, but moved into the role the next day after Miranda’s funeral.  Meals must be cooked, clothes must be washed, ironing was required, the house had to be kept clean.  Life had to go on. 

            Milas made no comment.  If he mourned his departed wife, it remained private.  As in the past he was often absent from home for hours.  He wasn’t the one dead.  Life had to go on. 

            “How’s yore tradin’ comin’ ’long, paw?” Bertha asked.  She’d functioned as housekeeper, cook, and caretaker of her siblings for slightly over a year and felt she had a right to be informed. 

            “Bout ez usual.”

            Milas was a man of few words.  He had never discussed his business with Miranda.  It was certain that Bertha would learn nothing of his personal matters. 

            The family didn’t get even the slightest hint of what was to come so that they could prepare themselves for a radical change in their lives.  Thirteen months after his wife’s death, Milas pulled into the yard in his wagon.  With him on the seat was a poorly dressed young woman.  A lean girl of six years sat between them.

            “This here’s Belle. We got hitched down at th’ courthouse in Guntersville today” he announced to his astonished children.  

            He’d waited the year that decency and rural custom demanded before remarrying.  Milas was 44 years old; she estimated her age at the mid twenties.  Belle didn’t know, and never learned, her exact age although she knew the month and day of her birth.

            “Yore older then y’u air good,” was the only reply her mother made when Belle questioned her on the subject.  In a time of home births, no certificates were issued and no records were kept.

            The woman was only four years older than Bertha, though she appeared considerably older.  Her dress, cut from feed sack material, was shabby and faded.  She wore no shoes because she didn’t own a pair.  A white bonnet covered her head.  Its strings were tied in a loose bow under her chin.  Her hands were tanned from long exposure to the sun. 

            “This here’s her young un, Birdie Swearengin,” Milas continued.  “Y’all make yore new maw welcome.  Show her ’round th’ place.” 

            Bertha and Mamie were rendered speechless.  The older boys pretended indifference.  The younger didn’t care and ran over to become acquainted with Birdie.  It would be fun to have a new playmate about their age, even if she was a girl.

            “Com’on, Birdie.  We’ll show y’u th’ hid’ out,” Howard invited.  Leon jabbered with excitement as they dashed to the secret spot in the barn loft. 

            Belle Swearengin was a widow of a few months.  After her husband’s death from tuberculosis, she was left in dire poverty along with her daughter.  The extended illness and death of her mate forced Belle to eke out a living as best she could.  An ox was all she had to pull the plow, but she strove mightily to fulfill her husband’s sharecropper agreement.  Winter was approaching and the little she’d earned wasn’t sufficient to carry her through until spring.  She didn’t know what she was going to do. 

            Milas had learned of her circumstances.  About three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, he pulled into her yard.  Belle sat on the edge of the front porch of her run-down dwelling.  She watched his approach with interest, but said nothing until he spoke. 

            “Afternoon, Miz Belle,” he said with only a trace of a smile.  “Would y’u ker t’ speak a bit?” 

            He didn’t introduce himself and they’d never met, but Belle knew who he was. She had an idea what had brought him. 

            “Why shore, Mr. Mile.  Have a seat heer on th’ porch,” she invited.  She gestured toward a cane-bottom chair.  Since it was the only chair, she turned to face in his direction as he sat down. 

            “No doubt y’u heered o’ th’ passin’ o’ my wife,” he commenced.  “Hit’s left me in a consid’able bind, what wif som’ o’ th’ young’uns bein’ small.”

            “I heered ’bout hit an’ I’m powerful sorry.  All sez yore wife wuz a fine woman,” she replied. 

            Milas turned the conversation to the weather.  The two then chatted idly about the approaching winter for several minutes.  Not one to continue to waste words, Milas got to the point of his visit.

            “I’m in need of a wife an’ hit’s plain thet y’u air ’n want of a husband.  If y’u think well of hit, I kin pick up a license this afternoon an’ we kin git hitched at Guntersville tomorrey,” he suggested. 

            “I reckon thet will be fine, Mr. Mile,” she answered without hesitation, questions, or discussion. 

            “Then I’ll com’ ’bout this time tomorrey,” he said as he rose to depart. 

            That was all there was to it.  Neither knew much about the other.  “Love” wasn’t a consideration.  It was an eminently practical arrangement for them both.  No time or money need be wasted in an extended courtship.  There’d be no honeymoon. 

            At the courthouse, Belle was forced to sign with an “X” since she could neither read nor write.  In later years, she learned to draw an approximation of her signature when it was necessary, but she had no idea of the individual letters making it up. 

            Milas was quite a catch for her even if he was older and had five children.  When she arrived at his house, all she brought with her were the clothes she wore and a small iron wash pot.  An old one from her mother, its legs were about burned off from decades of use. 

            “Pleas’d t’ meet cha,” Belle said into the air as she avoided eye contact with any of Milas’ children.  “We’ll git ’long fine, I’m shore.”

            Belle got down off the wagon and glanced at Milas’ offspring and then toward the small structure that was to be her home.  She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  It wouldn’t be easy, but she’d take one day at a time.  Suppertime was coming up, so she’d start with that.  Belle strode toward the front steps to exude an aura of confidence and to demonstrate that she was now in charge of the household.  Belle eyed Bertha standing in the doorway with a rag in her hand.  She quickened her pace and mounted the steps.  Bertha stepped back so that she could enter.  Belle clasped her hands in front of her to stop them from trembling.

            Despite the tension introduced into the home by the unexpected appearance of Belle, things went tolerably well for about two weeks.  Bertha reverted to the role of oldest daughter. 

She and Mamie often discussed their stepmother, but never in her hearing. 

            “I don’t know whut Paw seed ’n her,” Bertha confided to Mamie as they picked beans.  “She’s ugly ez a mud fence.” 

            The simile was untrue.  In fact, Belle was of moderate good looks.  With grooming and better clothes, she’d have been acknowledged as pretty in keeping with the meaning of her name.   

            “Me neither,” Mamie agreed.  “We shore don’t need her ’round heer.”

            Belle generally ignored the older boys and left their discipline and work assignments to her husband.  Albert and Leamon accepted her presence without apparent resentment.  Howard didn’t seem to know what to make of her. 

            “Who’s thet ol’ hag?” he asked Leamon.  His sisters had influenced him in his caustic view of Belle. 

            Leamon only grunted in reply.  He had no intention of trying to explain such delicate matters to his younger brother. 

            Leon, because he was so young, received maternal care from Belle, much as she supplied it to her own daughter.  She felt compassion for the motherless child.  In time, he’d forget Miranda, she decided.  Despite frequent urging, she couldn’t induce him to call her “maw.”  Bertha made sure of that.

            “She ain’t yore maw ’n’ don’t y’u fergit hit,” Bertha whispered insistently to Leon when their stepmother wasn’t in hearing distance.  “Call her Belle.” 

            In the rural way, Belle laced all vegetables with dollops of light brown bacon grease.  She, however, cooked them down to a slimy, tasteless mush.  The twang of too much salt only added to the misery.  Country-cured ham she sliced unusually thin and then overcooked in a cast iron skillet with a little lard until it was hard and dry.  Its aroma was enticing, but any attempt to cut it on a plate resulted in the meat either fragmenting or scooting off onto the tabletop. 

            “Pick hit up ’n’ bite off a piece,” Mamie whispered to Howard.  “Chew hit up reel good afore y’u swallow hit.”

            A confrontation between Bertha and Belle was inevitable.  It didn’t come about cooking, but cleanliness. 

            “Belle, I think hit’d b’ lots nicer if y’u’d warsh yore hands afore y’u make bread,” Bertha advised.  Her stepmother had come directly from the garden to mix up the sticky dough. 

            “Jest wait.  I’ll tell yore paw ’bout this when he gits ’n,” Belle stormed. 

            She couldn’t let such an affront to her authority go unchallenged.  She knew Bertha didn’t like her, but she’d gone too far. 

            That night, she heard Belle’s shrill voice as she made accusations, but Milas only listened.  He wouldn’t impose himself into a dispute between two women.  They could work it out for themselves. 

            The next week, Bertha withdrew herself from what she regarded as an intolerable situation. She had no intention of being submissive to Belle.  Two unrelated adult women in the same house would never work.

“Thar ain’t no way I’m goin’ t’ let Belle mean-mouth me,” she said to Mamie.  “Even wif all I’ve done, paw didn’t defend me t’ her. 

What else ez thar thet y’u can do?” Mamie asked. 

It was a reasonable inquiry.  At that time, single women in an agriculture-based economy had few career options.  To obtain and operate a farm without a husband had virtually no chance of success.  Yet, farming was all Bertha knew. It might have been possible to move to a city and find employment, but to leave the area of her birth was totally out-of-character for Bertha. She had never in her life been more than ten miles from home. 

“I ’xpect Embry’ll still b’ willing t’ have me,” she replied.

Bertha dismissed her suitor over a year previously, at her mother’s death, but they parted on cordial terms.  He respected the sense of duty that she felt toward her younger brothers. He had found no serious prospects for marriage. After she sent him word, he quickly came calling. 

            Bertha followed her father into the yard as he prepared to make his daily rounds of his various properties.  What she had to say was for him only. 

            “Paw, I’ll not b’ hare when y’u git back t’day,” Bertha advised.  “Me ’n’ Embry’s gitting hitched.  “I jest wanted y’u t’ know so’s y’u don’t larn hit from Belle.”  

            Milas was casually acquainted with Embry and hadn’t got along with him from the start.  They disagreed on everything from farming practices to religion.  A small, feisty man, Embry declined to cowtow to Milas in the manner that he’d come to expect. 

            “White’s a wuthless varmit,” her father responded.  He frowned and looked directly at his eldest daughter.  “Don’t b’ comin’ t’ me fer help when he can’t make provision.” 

            “Thar ain’t no way I’d never do thet, paw,” she replied quietly, but in a determined voice.  “Me ’n’ Embry’ll make our own way.”

            Although she and her husband resided only a few miles away, it was over a decade before Bertha again set foot in her father’s home.  Milas had suffered a minor stroke. 

            “Y’all come ’n,” Belle invited when Bertha and Embry unexpectedly appeared at her door.  “Yore paw’s ’n th’ bedroom.  I allow he’ll be mighty glad to see you.”  Traditional southern hospitality and family connections allowed no other sort of reception whatever differences they had.  Such matters were set aside at times of sickness. 

            Milas, too, received his daughter and her husband in a civil manner, but was more reserved than Belle.  Beyond “Howdy, Embry,” he said nothing directly to him during the balance of the visit.  No emotional reconciliation took place between father and daughter then or ever.  Relations between the two couples continued strained throughout the remaining decades of their lives. 

            The following spring, Mamie followed suit.  Although she didn’t like her, she’d developed a tolerable relationship with Belle after Bertha was no longer around to goad her against her stepmother.  But when tall, handsome Ude Gibson came courting, she too was wed. 

            Years later, she confided to her daughter, Vada, “I married mainly t’ git away from Belle.”

            Little more than nine months after entering the Camp household, Belle presented Milas with the first of what would become, along with multiple miscarriages, four additional children: Ailene, Iduma, Jean, and Junior. 

            Bertha and Mamie only distantly came to know their half-siblings.  Within a short time, Albert married Mellie and began to cultivate a forty-acre farm.  It was financed with money lent by his father at six percent interest.

            Miranda’s three younger children weren’t of age to leave home.  A family of “his,” “hers,” and “theirs,” functioned as well as could be expected.  Little time existed for friction to develop.  Daily activities, school, and especially work filled their lives

Elton4562   Elton4562 wrote
on 5/24/2010 2:51:23 PM
Hello Henrietta, I have Belle's washpot in my side yard. It's filled with flowers now, but its burned off legs are still obvious. I knew Belle well and, as a child, used to walk to her house and visit with her. (I am a step grandchild is there is any such thing.) The "first set" of Milas's children never came to be any more than coldly civil to Belle, but I liked her a lot. She never learned to read or write, but had a lot of practical wisdom. She retained the old dialect her entire life. Over time, I hope to post more about her. Elton

Henrietta   Henrietta wrote
on 5/24/2010 12:54:17 AM
I'm enjoying reading this series. Thanks for sharing it. You have captured the voice of the time and place.

Short Story
writing Elton4562

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After a decent interval, Milas remarried to the horror of his older children.