Mama said I was born by a stream named Sweetwater. She called me Sassy the moment she realized I was a girl. Mama said girls should be sassy, gives them sex appeal. So I was named Sassy, after an attitude, and Sweetwater, after a stream. The year was 1949, and the place was a dirty, back-road shack in a dusty, little town in South Carolina. Mama never could remember the name of the town, but she told me that it might have been Cottageville or maybe even Ridgeville. Didn’t matter much what it was called, though. I never saw it again, and as far as I knew, Mama didn’t either.
Some people think a gray, tumultuous sky is an omen of discontent, especially if one’s entry into this world is shadowed by blustery clouds and thunder’s emphatic roar. But my mama said that heaven welcomed my birth with great horns blowing and mighty cymbals clashing and omens sent by mighty seers bring the blessings of miracles, not the doom of devils.
“Gave you its gray,” she said. “Passed it right on to you.”
I always knew she meant my eyes, gray as the weather on the day I was born, and sometimes showing up hazel when the sun confronts the gloom and demands I show some color.
“Gave you its temperament, too, and its mystery, girl. Women need a little mystery. That’s what turns a man’s head. Beauty has nothing to do with anything more than that.”
It always sounded like the great god Poseidon was my father the way my mama tells it. Where else could I have come from? No man had ever come forth and claimed me as his own. Not that I didn’t wonder who my father was, but when I asked I always got the same reply.
“You came from the sky, Sassy Sweetwater; clear as the stream I bathed you in, fierce as the wind that blew away the storm, the one that welcomed you here with great aplomb, and tender as the aftermath of nature’s roar.”
In other words, I was born an ambiguous bastard by a stream in South Carolina, and my seventeen-year-old mama was not about to tell me whose handsome smile had won her over. He was obviously too young or too old to pay for his mistake. I would find out one day, of course. When you ask as many questions as I did, the answers come at you, eventually. My birth was a riddle and I wanted my mama to connect me to some kind of heritage I could claim as my own, but she only gave me new conundrums to chase down. It should have been enough; there’s nothing wrong with chasing around after answers you don’t have, it’s how hard you’re hit with them when they fly back and knock you down.
Mama had traveled at least twenty miles east in Elvira’s old Chevy to give birth to me, screaming the whole way, or so I’ve been told. Elvira was Mama’s nineteen-year-old sister and I guess they’d planned the great cover-up, and the great escape, together. Out of a family of five girls, Elvira was the sanest, according to Mama.
Of course, I never knew how they covered up Mama’s pregnancy, but Mama said her family only had eyes for what they wanted to see and ears for nothing more than what they wanted to hear. In those days, abortions weren’t anything you could go to the doctor for and I’m sure, with Mama’s Catholic background, she would never have entertained that option, even if she could have.
I can’t imagine what she went through when she found out there was a baby in her belly before she even finished high school. And I sure don’t know what she would have done without her sister helping her through it. Elvira promised Mama she’d read every book on birthing babies she could get her hands on and she assured Mama that she had nothing to fear. Well, Elvira must have been pretty well versed in birthing ’cause there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with me that my mama’s milk wouldn’t cure. There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with Mama, either, except all the things you couldn’t see on the outside, all the hurt she must have been feeling; and I don’t mean just about having me bursting open her uterus, but the hurts inside her heart that she never spoke about. But if you knew my mama, you’d know the hurts were there. Mama had the saddest eyes, like a wounded dog on the side of the road that you really want so badly to help, but you can’t offer your services without the risk of being bitten.
Elvira went back home a few days after I was born. Mama and me didn’t go home for another thirteen years. Home for Elvira was fifteen miles outside of Charleston, while where me and Mama went was hundreds of miles southwest. I don’t know how we got there. Mama said we hitched all the way to Louisiana. She said wasn’t a person on the road that wouldn’t stop for a woman with a baby in her arms. I never knew why she’d decided to settle in Louisiana until I found out from Elvira, years later, that Mama had gotten an offer to wait tables in Baton Rouge from some man who’d passed through Carter’s Crossing and had taken a fancy to her. I always wondered if he was my father, but my Aunt Elvira said I’d be more likely kin to King Kong.
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