Merri’s story continues:
I felt a cold sweat in the small of my back as I walked onto Mrs. Smithfield’s wide-planked front porch. But that was nothing compared to what shocked me after Mrs. Smithfield opened the door.
“Merri,” she said. “I wondered if we’d see you. Come in, honey.” I stepped through the doorway without wondering why she’d said we. Perhaps if I had noticed, I would have been prepared for the sight of Mathilda sitting poised on the velvet sofa, a sleeping baby in her arms.
She was still slender and blonde, but with a lovely fullness to her face and form that added to her beauty. “Hello, Merri,” she said.
I couldn’t speak. I felt transported back in time, and reflexively put my hands to my stomach, feeling more than remembering the loss of Mondo.
We stared at each other for a long moment before I came to my senses. “Oh, Mathilda,” I said, moving toward her. “We’re so sorry about Sterling. We adored him, we loved him so much.” I sat next to her on the sofa and put my hands on her arm. “He was…..he meant so much to us.”
Mathilda closed her eyes, then looked at me. “I know. He told me.”
We let the silence try to soothe us. Mrs. Smithfield brought out some tea.
“Thanks, Aunt Dora,” said Mathilda.
I looked at the sleeping child, who looked to be about six months old and was nestled in a pink blanket. Her head had a reddish fringe of hair on top. “She’s beautiful,” I said.
Mathilda smiled weakly at me. “I guess we have some catching up to do.”
Asher Vanderwart had always been known for his temper. One time in high school, he got so mad during a pick-up football game that he broke his best friend’s jaw. But he also possessed a charm that proved useful in begging for forgiveness. When Mathilda agreed to marry him, she had been on the receiving end of only two or three verbal assaults from her handsome boyfriend – one occurred after she danced with her best friend’s brother at a school dance. Asher called her a whore, and left her to find a ride home.
But the next day, there he was, with a bouquet of roses and on bended knee, apologizing for being so jealous. He just loved her so much, he said.
He didn’t touch her in anger until after Manning was born. With a baby in the house, though, everything changed – Mathilda no longer doted on her needy husband, and often refused to accompany him on long, drunken dinner dates at the club.
One night he stayed out until dawn, and when he arrived home, Mathilda was in the kitchen feeding the baby. They lived in the house with Asher’s parents – it was an enormous house, and the young couple had the entire upstairs to themselves. Mathilda, who had been up half the night with a fussy Manning, looked up at him with her red-rimmed eyes, took in his disheveled appearance, and said, “Go to hell, Asher.” Then she stood up and walked out of the room.
She didn’t hear him follow her. She carried her son up to the nursery, put him in his crib and went to her room to lay down. Asher was waiting for her. “I’m sorry, honey,” he said. “Just, you know, drank too much, fell asleep on a couch at the club.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “Go away. Just go away, and leave me alone. I want to sleep.” As she brushed past him, he grabbed her arm. “Let go!” she snapped. And he pushed her hard enough that she fell to the floor. Then he reached down and yanked her to her feet, and pushed her down onto the bed. “Let me tell you something, honey,” he hissed. “You are my wife. And you are nothing without me. And from now on, when I want you to go out with me, you will go out with me. Is that understood?”
He fell on top of her and moved his pelvis on top of hers. Before long he was moaning and kissing her neck. His voice softened. “I just love you so much, honey,” he said hoarsely. “I just can’t live without you.”
Mathilda was terrified. She willed herself to submit to her husband just to keep from being hit, and she did, lying motionless as he hoisted up her nightgown, unzipped his pants and quickly came inside of her.
After he fell asleep, she quietly slipped into the baby’s room and watched her tiny son. She had spent years thinking she could never love another human being the way she loved Asher. Tears fell down her face. Now, of course, she knew better.
Asher began to drink more, and his physical assaults became more frequent. Mathilda thought about leaving, but she didn’t know where to go. Her parents were older, and had moved south into a retirement community. It would kill them to think of what her marriage had become. She loved her Aunt Dora, but she didn’t want anyone in town to know. So she stayed. And before long, she found herself pregnant again.
Sterling’s mismatched legs were evident at his birth; still, he was an adorable little thing, with chubby cheeks and a shock of red hair. But with a toddler and an infant at home, Mathilda felt more trapped than ever, and she began to drink.
At first it was just a glass of wine or two at night; by the time Sterling was two, she often started pouring soon after lunch.
Asher didn’t notice – he was at work during the day, and usually went straight to the club at 5 pm – but his mother did. One summer afternoon, she found her youngest grandson in the kitchen using strawberry jelly to paint the white tiles. She found Mathilda passed out on the bedroom floor, and Manning outside alone digging up impatiens.
She called her son, who came home from work in a fury. Asher dragged his wife to the bathroom, stuck her in the shower and turned on the cold water. When she started screaming, he slapped her hard. She raked her fingernails on his bare arm; he slapped her again, and she slid down against the shower wall and sobbed.
The next morning, she stared at her bruised face in the mirror, and listened closely to the pounding in her head. It seemed to be chanting, Go. Go. Go. Go.
I’m a drunk, she thought. A drunk, and pathetic, and a terrible excuse for a mother. And so she packed a bag. Manning was 6 years old; she held him tightly, kissed his hair a hundred times and told him she was sick and had to go get better. “Take care of your brother,” she said.
She told her mother-in-law she was leaving, then walked to her Aunt Dora’s house.
“Aunt Dora,” she said. “I need to stop drinking. I need to get strong so I can get away from Asher and raise my boys.”
Paradora Smithfield was no dummy. She took one look at her beautiful niece’s swollen face and puffy eyes, and pulled her into her arms. “I know just the place,” she said.
Here Mathilda paused in recounting the story, her voice hoarse and catchy. “Aunt Dora sent me to her cousin’s house in North Carolina,” she said. “It took me a long time to get sober, and even longer to start thinking straight.”
When she finally quit drinking, and realized she had abandoned her children, she fell into such a deep depression that she sometimes stayed in bed for days.
The cousin, Elizabeth, lived alone in the mountains, and on occasion, in the winters, the cabin would be nearly snowed in. One wintry day, Elizabeth fell ill with the flu, and when the doorbell rang, Mathilda dragged herself to answer it.
A short stocky man wearing a lumberjack coat took off his hat when she opened the door. “Oh, hey there, ma’am. Ms. LizBeth around? I usually dig her out from all this nonsense.”
The man’s name was Hardy Leftwich, and before long, he was coming to visit regardless of whether it had snowed. Gradually, he coaxed Mathilda from beneath her veil of despair, and convinced her that she could be strong again. He hired her to help shovel snow, and she grew strong. When summer came, she helped him with his landscaping business.
Eventually, they fell in love. And little baby Minnie came along.
It was Hardy who convinced her to start writing her sons. So she did – dozens and dozens of letters that she mailed. Asher and his mother confiscated them all, and apparently kept them hidden.
But Sterling had found them. He took some of them and put the rest back in their hiding spot, and then he wrote his mother back.
He showed the letters to Manning, but Manning wanted nothing to do with his mother.
“Sterling told me that Manning said he hates me,” Mathilda said, crying.
“How did you talk to Sterling?” I asked.
Mrs. Smithfield spoke up. “Mathilda called me,” she said. “She told me that Sterling had been writing to her, and that Asher had stolen all of the letters she wrote. We figured he wouldn’t be too keen on a phone call.”
Mrs. Smithfield said she waited to see Sterling wandering around the neighborhood, and she called him over. “I told him his mother wanted to talk to him,” she explained. “Oh, his eyes, they teared right up. ‘Really? Really? When?’ he asked. So we called her right then.”
Little Minnie woke up and yawned, her pretty cupid mouth opening up like a flower. “I was ready to come get my boys,” said Mathilda, now in tears. “I was going to fight for them. I know they need me. I know it. Even Manning. I love that boy so much….I just-” Her voice broke. “I just can’t believe it’s come to this. One boy gone, and the other lost to me. How could I let this happen?”
I had nothing to say. My heart ached for this woman, this mother forced to choose between raising her children and dying inside. And here she was, back, trying to make up for years that had evaporated like smoke into the air, leaving nothing but the memory of how that fire had started.