• Late Migrations

    Margaret Renkl

    Summer 2019

    In Which My Grandmother Tells the Story of My Mother's Birth

    Lower Alabama, 1931

    We didn’t expect her quite as early as she came. We were at Mother’s peeling peaches to can. Daddy had several peach trees, and they had already canned some, and so we were canning for me and Max. And all along as I would peel I was eating, so that night around twelve o’clock I woke up and said, “Max, my stomach is hurting so much I just can’t stand it hardly. I must have eaten too many of those peaches.”

    And so once in a while, you see, it would just get worse; then it would get better.

    We didn’t wake Mother, but as soon as Max heard her up, he went in to tell her. And she said, “Oh, Max, go get your daddy right now!” Max’s daddy was the doctor for all the folks around here.

    While he was gone she fixed the bed for me, put on clean sheets and fixed it for me. Mama Alice came back with him too—Mama Alice and Papa Doc. So they were both with me, my mother on one side and Max’s on the other, and they were holding my hands. And Olivia was born around twelve o’clock that day. I don’t know the time exactly.

    Max was in and out, but they said Daddy was walking around the house, around and around the house. He’d stop every now and then and find out what was going on. And when she was born, it was real quick. Papa Doc jerked up, and he said, “It’s a girl,” and Max said, “Olivia.”

    Let Us Pause to Consider What a Happy Ending Actually Looks Like

    Lower Alabama, 1936


    In the story my grandmother told, there was an old woman of uncertain race who lived among them but did not belong. With no land and no way to grow anything, the old woman was poorer and more desolate than the others, and they looked the other way when she slipped into their barns after dark with her candle and her rucksack, intent on taking corn. Did a barn owl startle her that night? Did a mule jostle her arm? They never knew: she never admitted to being there. The howling fire took the barn whole and then roared to the house. Neighbors saved some of the furniture in a kind of bucket line, but an actual bucket line was impossible: the water tank had stood on a wooden scaffold already lost to the blaze. There was no time to save the clothes and quilts, the food my grandmother had stored for winter, the grain my grandfather had put up for his mules. Worst of all, there was no time to save the wild-eyed mules stamping in their stalls.

    Margaret Renkl is the author of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, where her essays appear each Monday. She lives in Nashville. 

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