Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Birth of Rosa Parks ( historical fiction )

The Birth of Rosa Parks
February 4, 1913
Tuskegee, Alabama

A painting of a young Rosa Parks with her parents.
Here mother was a school teacher and her father was a carpenter.

Leona came from her sleep with a dreamy uncertainty common in the last days of pregnancy. The kind of dream that causes a mother to wonder about her basic instincts and abilities and to stir doubt while knowing all along it is way past time for doubting.

She had dreamt about a girl who must have been her baby grown some and out in the rain with all these people trying to get them all in out of the cold and rain. It didn’t make any sense. All those colored people walking like that and her baby girl all wet and laughing.

A drop of rain landed on her face right above her right eyebrow. She opened the left eye.

“James, The roof is leaking again.”  Leona shook her young husband’s strong, stubborn shoulders. She felt like pulling the covers off him and kicking him out of bed.  It was February and their small plywood house let in the cold Alabama morning as well as the rain. But instead she tenderly wrapped her arms around him and moved her round belly up against his back whispering,  “Okay, little one. Wake up your Daddy so he can fix that roof before you come out in this Tuskegee rain.”  She had learned early in her young marriage that sugar worked better than vinegar when she needed something done.

She rubbed James strong neck and shoulders as the baby moved against his back.  He was the best carpenter in the area but his own family had to wait. He had promised her the finest house in all Alabama when they courted.  She missed her old unmarried life more than she dared admit. She missed her family and her students and right now she missed her parent’s house that never leaked. Her lonely longings quickly turned to determination. She had not been raised to rest too long in a place of regrets.

“James, I’m heading out to church and when I get back please let there be a roof for me and this baby.” With a gentle kiss and a pull of the covers she was up.  The rain beat against the tiny house filling up bucket after bucket of water from the leaking roof.

Still, Sunday was her favorite day and no rain was going to spoil it. Some didn’t think a lady in her condition should go to church but the minister at the African Methodist was modern. When she had started to show and the other ladies had expected her to stay home he had said, “Why this baby will come out singing and doing God’s work. Your never too young to hear God’s word.”  And so Leona at nine months pregnant wrapped herself in James long coat, did her hair up pretty and walked the mile to church singing as she went the words to a favorite gospel “Woke up this morning with my mind set on Jesus.”

She had a beautiful voice and didn’t mind singing to all of God’s creation including the cows that needed milking and the chickens laying eggs.  The rain had stopped and the morning felt like spring instead of winter.

At home, James determined not to disappoint Leona pulled on his overalls and examined the leaking roof.  He had meant to build her a new house. The best there was. Not just patch this sorry one. He told her she’d have a porch to rock that baby on and visit with neighbors. A picket fence with roses and dogwoods that bloomed at Easter.  He rinsed his mouth with the rainwater. Water made sweet by its journey from heaven, his Daddy had always told him.

He pulled the pieces of plywood from the barn. They weren’t new. He had saved them from a job he had done but it was still good cedar and would cover. The only problem was that it said “Smith’s Lumber Yard” on it and he couldn’t have a house with another man’s name written on it. This was the real reason he hadn’t fixed the house. He couldn’t figure what to do with that man Smith’s name. They couldn’t afford shingles or paint. Besides this was temporary till the new house could be built.  He ought to ride over and get some help but he wanted it done before church let out.  He used some ropes and pulleys to get the boards up. The morning had turned warm and the sun was coming out. He found himself whistling Leona’s hymns.

When the sun was high and the roof was about patched, a peddler came by. “Might I share a meal with you?” he called up to James. “I’ve come a long way without anything warm and it being the Lord’ Day I wanted to share it with a fellow Christian.”  James, always enjoying company and a good story, jumped off the roof and shook the strangers hand.  He washed up and looked for something to heat. There was some stew and biscuits, which they ate on the front porch under the now bare branches of the Tupelo.

“Why ain’t you at church,” the stranger inquired.

“Fixin the roof to keep out the rain. My wife’s expecting a new one anytime and the roof was leakin.’  James was uncomfortable with all the questions and wanted to get back to work.

“ I wish it was something better for them. Shingles or paint. Something to make Leona proud.”

The stranger thought for a moment and then said, “ I know I’ll carve a star right above your door; That’s what I saw the Amish do in Pennsylvania. It’ll be like the Star of Bethlehem.”

He took a stick and drew the star in the dirt.

“That ain’t like any star I ever saw in the heavens.”  James said with skeptic scorn but still the idea was taking hold in him. The only house in all of Tuskegee with a star over the door. It would show the world his son was special.

“Could be a girl.” Leona would always say.  “ A smart, sassy girl born to keep her Daddy movin”

In the end James agreed to let the man stay in the barn with room and board in exchange for the star. After lunch he climbed up and started right in carving away the Smiths name forever. The sun was warm so James brought the wet things out to dry and opened up the windows.  Everywhere the people were saying what a warm day it was for February.

A bird was fussing in the trees when he heard the wagon come up with people all excited and calling for him to help. He stood there staring and unable to move at all. Then he saw his wife pulling her self up and moaning.

“Oh James. The baby is coming. My waters came and now there are the pains.”

The women wanted to get her into bed but she insisted on walking around the yard holding onto James’s arm and looking at all the trees and bushes as if they could somehow help her to make sense of the pain she was in.

“This is where the roses will be.” She whispered between contractions. “ We’ll sit out here and read lessons right here amongst the roses. And put a swing in the tupelo. This baby is going to learn everything about God’s world and it’s going to start right here in our very own yard.”

Inside the women were cleaning up after the rain, boiling water and getting the baby things ready. No one noticed the stranger on the roof who was now carving with a renewed sense of purpose.  James looked up at him and waved as if a woman having a baby under the roof he was working on was the most natural thing of all.

It began hurting Leona in her back so the midwife told James to walk up and down the porch steps and to thank God for something each time they got to the porch. So up and down they went.

“Thank you for the blue sky.”
“Thank you for the birds in the tree.”
“Thank you for friends and family.”

James thought to himself. This woman is going to run out of things to be thankful for but she never did. Up and down. Leaning on James or on the midwife. Her hair wet with perspiration. Her eyes mostly shut. Moaning. The prayers and thank you’s quieter and quieter. The midwife showed him how to press on her lower back as she leaned on the porch railing. Up and down.

James had heard of other men going out to the barn or even  for a drink during the birthings. They came in and there was a baby but Leona just wouldn’t let go of him and the midwife wasn’t going to either. She soaked his handkerchief in wild ginger water and put the cool cloth on the back of her neck.

Only when the sun began to set and the air got cool did she agree to go in. One foot in the door and she fell to the floor with a scream that made the stranger on the roof smile knowingly and work harder. James carried Leona to the bed while the women scattered like chickens to bring the birthing things from the kitchen. James landed right beneath her and there he was when not a son but a little baby girl danced into the world and was held up for everyone to see.

The midwives worked quickly to tie and cut the cord with catgut. Fussing and oohing and ahhing as if this was the first baby they’d ever seen born. and the most special. They sent James out to get water while Leona passed the afterbirth. He’d seen many an animal do just the same thing but this was his wife and he felt a wave of sickness pass over him. The midwife told him to go get some air and eat.

It was then, out by the pump, that he remembered the stranger on the roof only now he was sitting proud as he could be on his porch!

“Can I see the baby? Can you bring her on out?

“I can’t bring the baby out here. Are you more of a fool than I thought?”

“Lets show her the stars. That’s what my Mama always did. She always showed the new babies the stars.”

So James went in and brought out a baby girl named Rosa Louise and showed her the stars. The night was clear and the stranger knew the names and stories of them all.

“Reach for those stars, Rosa, You can be anything and everything you set your dreams on.”

“James, what are you doing outside with my baby?” James heard Leona call from the house.  She was so small and the night so vast. Her eyes wide open in wonder holding his finger.

The midwives put the baby back in bed with Leona who was clean and ready to nurse. Rosa. Some more women came over with food and gifts. Too many women, thought James and then he remembered the stranger and the roof. He brought him a plate piled with all kinds of good food.

“Tell me some more of your star stories,” James asked but the stranger was already asleep under the trees where they’d been eating. James went in the house and got a blanket. It was late and everyone but one woman was leaving. She ordered him to bed where he slept to the sounds of Rosa’s quiet little sucking noises.

He was woken by her morning cry and the sound of a neighbor woman with breakfast knocking on the door.

“James, Leona. What’s that over your door?”

Leona looked at James suspiciously. What had he done?

James remembering the stranger  and wondered what he had agreed to. Barely pulling on his overalls he ran out and stood back. There above the door was a star just like the one he had drawn in the dirt. A big, beautiful star. There was no sign of the stranger anywhere so James just shrugged and smiled and went back in the house to take a good look at his new daughter. The one born under a star.

On my trip to through the south, I visited the area where Rosa Parks was born but there is nothing to see.  There were some brief accounts of her life and that the house had a star carved into the roof.  I built this fictional story around the star.  I have found, the world over, that birth was a way that neighbors helped one another.  They were not always skilled ad they did not have all the medicines they might have needed but they care for one another. This legacy of a rural United States, in which people walked, struggled and shared their joys with each other, is our collective story.   Rosa parks might never have been able to help organize her famous boycott of segregated buses without this culture of cooperation and love.