Searching For Sarah Grace
by Marielena Zuniga
My mother is apprehensive. Her blonde-red hair shimmers in the morning sun as she and my father drive the ribboned roads of the Tennessee hills. I am not born yet. I am in spirit, hovering above her rounded belly, waiting to be incarnated and encased in flesh. I am able to do this – observe and sometimes feel others – while I am still energy. My spirit guide, Joseph, tells me as the time grows closer to birth, I will have less ability to know and see as much as I do.
I ask him why and he smiles with patience as he often does.
“There is a closing of the veil, temporarily, so you might learn lessons and accomplish your life purpose.”
But he’s wrong. At least in part. I do remember some of what is to come. As I grow in my earthly journey Joseph also tells me I will forget about the people I’ve chosen to come into my life so I may grow and evolve. Then he adds, “You have chosen your parents well to help you learn.”
They seem ordinary people to me because, in truth, I don’t know them yet. I have a sense of them, though, and they seem good enough as they drive through thick woods and sweet mountain air. My mother is humming a tune as a distraction and dad, smiling. He has finished his tour of duty with the Navy in Philadelphia as a midshipman. He feels lucky to have served and survived World War II and feels even luckier to have met my mother. Now the two will begin their new life, with me, in Red Boiling Springs, in the Year of Our Lord, 1949.
Dad turns to mom who is looking at her reflection in a compact mirror.
“They’ll love you.”
She applies ruby red lipstick and blots her lips with a tissue from her purse.
“But they don’t know me. They only know you met some girl from Philadelphia who waitressed at a diner, that you married her, without inviting them, and then …”
She stops, pointing at her belly, at me. She is worried, about giving birth, about her new life in these hills, about leaving behind her Irish family. Those concerns course through her body like ocean waves and I feel them running through me. She snaps the compact shut with a sigh.
My father pulls the car onto the shoulder. My mother looks into his face. It is a handsome one, with gentleness and honesty.
“They’ll love you because I do. And they understand about not coming to the wedding. How could they? We married quickly and they didn’t have the money to get to Philly. So now we’ll start our new life in Red Springs. We’ll be living upstairs with them for awhile, but that’s only until I can get my carpentry work set up with Nathan. It’ll be OK. You’ll see.”
I wonder if he’s trying to convince my mother or himself. She struggles to offer him a smile.
“I do love you, Travis,” she says, fiddling with a gold locket around her neck.
“I love you, too.”
They are in rockers on the front porch, waiting, when we pull into the graveled driveway. The house is small, white and sits atop a hill that slopes down to a stream. The front lawn is dotted with trees of all kinds, the sun forming lacy patterns on the grass.
My father honks the horn a few times and escorts my mother up the steps to her new in-laws. I notice my grandmother first, rather, I sense her. She is strong, tough, with a wall around her that seems to be made of ice. Nothing comes in, nothing gets out. My grandfather is gentler, like a willow, able to bend in a summer breeze.
He takes the suitcases from my father and sets them on the porch steps as introductions are made. My grandfather embraces my father, steps back, grins, and runs a calloused hand through his hair.
By God, you look well, son.”
Then his gaze falls on my mother.
“And you must be Margaret.”
He bends over and kisses my mother on the cheek.
My grandmother gives my father a quick hug, coughs, and extends a hand to my mother, who takes it and smiles.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Johnson,” my mother says.
My grandmother stares and I can feel her scan my mother, as if searching for a flaw, something to dig into, like a cat staring down its prey. She says two words, “Best sit,” and disappears into the house.
My father and grandfather find two rocking chairs and laugh and joke, about the ride, the beautiful day, the town and my mother feels left out, alone. She steps to the edge of the cement porch and looks out to the nearby woods. She is thinking: What have I done? I’m not like these people. Do I belong here?
Joseph tells me to remember her questions. When I ask why he tells me they will impact my life as well.
My grandmother calls everyone into the parlor. She sets a tray of iced tea on the coffee table. The vinyl blinds are pulled down, blocking out the sun, and the furniture looks tired and depressed. My mother and father are on the couch, my grandfather in his rocker and my grandmother in the winged-back chair. They have been frugal in their conversation and now, they have run out of words spending only what was necessary for reconnection. The atmosphere must be what it always is, always has been. Tense. Like a funeral. The only sound is the ticking of the Seth Thomas clock on the mantel.
My mother sips her glass of iced tea that sweats and drips onto her white cotton slacks.
“I suppose we’ll call Dora when the time comes,” my grandmother says, breaking the silence, each word like a shard of glass.
My mother raises her eyebrows in question at my father.
“The local midwife. She’s good, the best. She delivered me,” my father says.
I can feel my mother fidget and her heart flip-flop. She wants a doctor, a real one, and a hospital. I can hear her making a mental note to talk to my father later about this.
My grandfather coughs and spits an oyster-sized wad of tobacco juice into a nearby coffee can.
“When do you meet up with Nathan to start work?”
“Sometime tomorrow, once we get settled, which we probably better start getting to right now.”
The attic has been converted into a small apartment, with two rooms and a small bath. My grandfather must have remodeled it, while my grandmother decorated it. It is sparse and unwelcoming, a bed, a bed stand, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, no curtains. In the other room, a couch with sagging cushions and a rocking chair with paint peeling from the wood.
The must, mildew and heat hit my mother hard and she flops on the bed and starts sobbing. I am caught in a riptide of emotion and movement and I find it strange I can feel this, even though I’m not physically in that body yet.
My father is by her side and holds her.
He lets her sob on his shoulder, dampening his clean white shirt.
“It’ll get better, Maggie. I promise. It will.”
I want to warn them, tell them it doesn’t get better, how it will be, because from this side, I can see it all. But I can’t tell them anything, even if I could. Joseph tells me we make Divine contracts before we enter the human body. We must keep them, no matter what.
Momentarily, I enter the womb and kick.
My mother stops crying and grasps her stomach, and grins.
“Did you feel that?”
“Yes,” my father says. “Good. A fighter.”
I’ll need to be. More than they know.
For now, I want them to laugh, to enjoy this moment together, to know that’s all we have on the earthly plane is the present, the joys and sorrows and humdrum – the fullness and emptiness of the human experience that awaits me.
My grandmother calls from downstairs.
“Dinner at five. No latecomers. Travis, I need you to fetch me some eggs.”
With these words, my mother starts to realize her place and how it will be. My father sheepishly looks at my mother, kisses her on the cheek and leaves the room. She sits on the side of the bed and begins sobbing again. She wants to go home. She wants to see her mother. She wants me to be born. The odd thing is, we will soon meet, in that space where our souls will cross, me going there, and she, here. I won’t know her. And anything I do learn will be told in stories, from my grandfather, the little he shares, and my grandmother, who never has a good thing to tell me about her.
A rooster crows, piercing the early-morning silence. My mother stirs and wipes a strand of saliva from the corner of her mouth. She has had a fitful night’s sleep, thanks to me. She rolls over to find my father gone. Through the window, the sky is stained pink and purple with a smattering of stars. The windows now have curtains that my mother has sewn after going into town and buying gingham-checked material. My grandmother clucked her disapproval at the waste of money, stinging my mother yet again.
She reaches over to touch the sheets. Still warm. My father has risen to help his father with the chickens and hogs, which he has been doing most days since they arrived here. He is uncomfortable with my mother, not only her size at seven months, but they seem to fight more than usual these days.
My mother looks up at the sloped ceiling, reviewing her day, a heaviness smothering her chest. She wants to catch her breath, take in air deeply so she can feel herself alive, but these days she feels emotionally winded and empty. Except for me. Her belly is growing rounder and she caresses it, whispers she loves me and tells me to be strong. I am all that keeps her going these days.
Today my father is driving my mother to Nashville so she can see her doctor, and after, they are going out for lunch. It is cause for yet another argument that seems to stem from my grandmother. She can’t see why the midwife isn’t good enough for what she calls “her uppity daughter-in-law” and why they must waste their time driving into the city and having lunch there no less.
When her angry words start barbing the air, my grandfather sneaks out to look at the tobacco plants, my father tries to placate his mother by asking her to be more understanding, and my mother runs upstairs, weeping, as she usually does most of the time.
Now, she dreads another day here. She wants to be back in her Philadelphia neighborhood, smell and taste a pizza or cheesesteak sandwich again instead of cornbread and dumplings, listen to a Phillies game on the radio, go dancing at a nightclub. Her swollen feet couldn’t dance now anyway, she thinks, as she waddles to the window and peeks out at both men standing in the tobacco field. The clatter of pans drifts up from the kitchen, with the smell of biscuits and strong coffee.
My mother has been helping as best she can, but her stomach is as round and ripe as a melon and her back aches. She feels sluggish and weepy and every time she offers to do something, my grandmother scolds, “That’s not how I do it in my house.” It’s never our house or this house, but my house.
In the car on the way to Nashville, she tells my father, yet again, they need to move. My father has been trying to find them a place, but his childhood friend, Nathan, hasn’t sent much carpentry work his way. He has gotten some piecemeal jobs at the sawmill, but not enough for them to rent a house or apartment. And when my mother asks about his money from his time in the service, he tells her that he wants to save it for the future. My mother suspects it is something else. He doesn’t want to leave home and risk his mother’s disapproval. My grandmother seems to have control over my father, a strange thing my mother can’t seem to understand.
“I’m doing the best I can.”
My father says each word with measured staccato, his knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel. He is thinking maybe he made a mistake in marrying so young, even though he is 25 and my mother is 24. The burden of fatherhood weighs on him like stones, and he, like my mother, has visions of running away, only his escapes consist of joining the Navy again, even having sex with another woman.
I am observing all this when Joseph interrupts.
“It’s important to take note of choices on the earth plane, and here as well. Ultimately, they impact your life course and destiny. You have chosen this path, with them, and with others you will meet.”
I nod, grateful that I will forget the pain, misery and heartache ahead. Somehow, it will make the earthly journey a bit easier not knowing the future when I’m in the flesh. But Joseph has promised me that I can always ask for help.
“People forget how easy it is, to ask for and receive help. It is like the air you breathe, always available.”
Right now, though, both my parents seem to have trouble breathing, that is, taking in life and joy. I feel sadness for them and what is about to happen. It surrounds them like a brooding, leaden cloak, something only I can see.
My father reaches over and touches my mother’s hand. She forces a smile and positions her body next to the car door away from my father. He feels my mother’s chill and removes his hand as if he’s burned.
“We’ll eat at The Maxwell House.”
He knows this is her favorite place and is doing his best to appease her, but it’s not helping.
“That’ll be nice,” she says, her voice flat.
At the doctor’s office, my father waits in the car for my mother, listening to Hank Williams on the radio. When she returns, she sidles into the front seat beside him and starts crying. She tells him the doctor is concerned, that I am not positioned correctly, and that the birth could be difficult.
“He wants me to have complete bed rest until the birth and have the local midwife come check me since we can’t be driving here all the time. Then he wants me to get to the hospital here in Nashville when my time comes.”
She says this between sniffles and blowing her nose. She knows this won’t sit well with my grandmother.
My father leans over and hugs her.
“So that’s what we’ll do,” he says. “That’s what we’ll do.”
The next few months my mother is bed-ridden, subject to my grandmother’s complaints and abuse. Never heard of such when I was with child. No strength or will power in today’s generation. Laziness is all this is. She mutters this as she carries soup or tea to my mother, begrudgingly, even though she still attends Church of Christ twice a week and last week’s sermon was about “loving thy neighbor.” My father is at work most of the day, or out trying to find work, so he’s not around to see what’s going on. But I do.
The midwife, Dora, comes to see my mother once a week, as per the doctor’s orders. It is the only time my mother can be herself, and she unburdens herself to Dora a lot. I like Dora. She is honest and simple, through and through, reminding me of the proverbial dumpling in physical body and a caring face that flushes with the heat.
Now, my mother’s legs are spread apart as Dora examines her. She grunts, making “hmmms” and other sounds as she inspects my mother’s insides. She prods at my mother’s stomach.
“The baby is still not in a good position. I’m going to massage your belly to see if we can get that youngun to turn round right.”
I smile at this analogy and Joseph gets it, too. My earthly incarnation will be about “turning `round right,” that is, going in the right direction but many times, I don’t. I can see now where it starts.
Dora’s hands are warm and reassuring as she feels for my head and gently pushes me.
“What am I going to do?” my mother blurts out. “Dear God, what?”
Dora stops and looks at my mother’s complexion, which is too white and pasty, like raw biscuit dough. She’s wondering if she shouldn’t get my mother to Nashville.
“What do you mean?” Dora asks, still massaging my mother’s belly.
“My mother-in-law hates me. She’ll hate the baby. She’s a mean, spiteful woman. How Travis ever turned out as he did is beyond me.”
Dora exhales a long sigh and stops rubbing my mother’s stomach. She sits on the bedside, her heavy body indenting the sheets.
“She’s not liked by many in the county, that’s the truth of it. But you’ve heard her story, haven’t you?”
My mother shakes her head.
“She was only six years old when she went into the barn and found her mother hanging from the rafters. Her daddy took to the drink and couldn’t care for her so she was shuttled off to an orphanage somewhere. Stayed there until she was 18. Met a man she loved. But the bastard up and took off with another woman. Finally met old man Johnson, who is good enough. Lord knows he’s had to be to put up with her all these years so I figure he’s a good Christian man or crazy, one or the other. I suppose such things can work on a person.”
Somewhere inside, my mother struggles to find compassion but it’s not there. I hear her thinking: We all have choices. She didn’t have to let those hard things make her so uncharitable.
My mother is reflecting on these things when a pain ripples and rips through her abdomen. Her scream is shrill and cuts through the room.
Dora jumps and gets between my mother’s legs again, sweat beading her face, one filled with worry.
“Are you ready?” Joseph asks.
He says this as if he’s asking me to do something simple, like float or manifest whatever I want, which is do-able on this side. What he is asking is difficult, the most important act any of us in spirit make, the hero or heroine’s journey, the pilgrimage into flesh. I am being asked to cross the threshold back into the third dimension, whereas here, I have all dimensions and am at peace. Hell, no, I’m not ready.
“I will always help you, be with you, as will the Divine. Many souls vie to return for the Earth School is the hardest one. You will progress quickly there or fail as quickly. The free will choice is yours.”
With that, I am trapped in a viscous matter, thick like mucous, and the sound of a heartbeat deafens my small ears. I am a mass of fluids and limbs and pliable flesh, squirming against walls of veins and muscles. Most of all, I feel small, insignificant. Before, I felt limitless.
“Remember. You are limitless,” Joseph tells me as he vanishes and dissolves. My mother’s labor begins.
Originally from Texas, Marielena Zuniga has been writing for more than 40 years. She has worked as a staff writer for newspapers and magazines and been awarded the Jane Cunningham Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism Covering Issues of Concern to Women. Most recently, she tied for second place in the John A. Hartford Foundation family caregiving writing contest, and her most recent book is Loreen on the Lam: A Tennessee Mystery. “Searching for Sarah Grace” is excerpted from Zuniga’s unpublished novel in search of an agent. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @marielenazuniga.