by Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson
It was a typical, sultry Mississippi Delta early summer night. I had managed to wheedle an invitation to spend the night with my grandmother. It didn't take much sweet-talk to get her to tell my parents that I would be spending the night. She just needed a little nudge in the right direction.
Mamaw lived on North Bayou Road directly across from the Cleveland Country Club in a tiny, non-descript house that oozed hospitality and love. Surrounded by roses, honeysuckle, cannas and nandinas, her house enticed visits from friends and family alike.
But at night the house was shrouded in darkness. The back of the property abutted a cotton field separated by a flimsy barbed wire fence. Between the fence and the back door were an orchard and a vegetable garden enclosed in another barbed wire fence with a lot gate that opened to the yard. Next to the back door was a rambling rose that climbed off its lattice frame to clamber over the tiny stoop and droop thorny tendrils over the steps. If one was tall, one could get caught in those treacherous thorns. But only my daddy had to worry about that.
There was a light in the neighboring yard to the south and a dim streetlight to the north. Neither cast much light onto Mamaw's little yard, so the back porch was quite dark.
The bedroom that Mamaw and I shared every time I spent the night had a window that overlooked the back steps. Since Mamaw didn't have an air conditioner, we slept in the bed next to the open window. An oscillating fan on the dresser across the room stirred the thick air. The slight Delta breeze carried the sweet smell of roses into the room as Mamaw hummed a hymn to help me go to sleep. Between Mamaw's humming and the warm night air, I almost always fell asleep easily.
One particular night was unusual. The incessant buzzing of the mosquitoes, the heat and the darkness seemed oppressive. I tossed and turned on the crisp, white sheets that had been dried in the sun that very day. I turned my pillow over several times trying to find a cool spot for my damp neck. Finally I drifted into sleep.
My grandmother was one of a kind. Tall and thin with thick, permed hair that had that hint of blue from the beauty parlor bottles, she smelled of lilacs and honeysuckle. She wore stylish shirtwaist dresses that she had made with her own hands and costume jewelry that she had bought wherever she found something she liked. She applied powder and rouge and lipstick carefully every morning whether she was going to work at Kamien's Department Store or not. She always looked the part of the gentle lady that she was. However, underneath all that powder and sweet lilac perfume, there was a tough side to her.
On the aforementioned night, this tough side appeared. After what seemed like hours of tossing and turning, I slept. At some point in the dead of the night, I awoke to see Mamaw on her knees peering out the window. I sat up, but she waved me down and put a finger to her lips to stop the questions that I wanted to ask. Then I heard it. The sound. At first I couldn't decide if it was an animal or the rustling of the rose canes against the roof. As I strained to hear, the sound moved closer to the house.
Mamaw was crouched low on the bed looking toward the garden. I heard what I thought was the lot gate barely scraping the grass and then stealthy footsteps coming closer in quick bursts. My grandmother's curler-covered head followed the sound straight to the back door.
There was a tentative squeak of the doorknob and then a slight rattle. I held my breath afraid I would give my grandmother's vantage point away. Then the squeak and rattle became more insistent, and my grandmother slowly raised something up to her shoulder. Quietly, almost in a whisper, she said, "You better go away now. I've got a shotgun pointed at your back, and I'll use it if I have to. Go away now."
She was quite calm and steady. Her voice gave no indication of fear or even anger. But the message was clear.
Immediately, retreating footsteps could be heard returning in the same direction from which they came. Mamaw stared out the window for a few moments, then slowly lowered the gun between the bed and the wall. She turned to me and smiled.
"It's alright now. Go back to sleep."
And believe it or not, I did. After all, Mamaw had everything under control. I doubt if she slept much more that night, but the incident was never discussed in my presence.
The next morning when my grandfather came home from his job as the night watchman at the Country Club, they whispered to each other for a few minutes in the garden and orchard. Papaw checked the lot gate and walked around to the cotton field.
And that was the end of it.
From that night on, I looked at my grandmother with a new kind of appreciation.
Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson is a Mississippi Delta native who now lives in North Carolina where she teaches English. Lonnye Sue is a regular contributor to USADEEPSOUTH.COM. Read more of her stories by clicking these links:
Hail to the Chief Drive In Movie
Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh my!
The Most Marvelous Southern Pageant Ever
Write Lonnye Sue at this address: lspearson
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