I’d always thought Sarah was Mattie’s sister until I learned that she was indeed Mattie’s daughter. I guess I assumed Sarah was Mattie’s sister because they looked so much alike. I can’t say for certain that I knew Sarah lived at the state hospital nor what the state hospital was. What I knew for certain was that I’d never heard of Sarah until her first visit to see Mattie and that Sarah was strange because she never spoke. When she visited, she and Mattie would just sit quietly together under a tree that was on the side of Mattie’s house. I’d known Mattie, my mother’s best friend, all my life and knew all of her children. Or so I thought. I found myself curious about Sarah and began to ask questions. Most of the elders were reluctant to speak, which made me even more curious. Over time, one of Sarah’s sisters agreed to tell me the tale of Sarah’s madness if I agreed to never mention who told me the family secret. I agreed.
It seems that Sarah fell deeply in love with Freddy. I’m assuming the same was true of him because they were married in the 30’s, a time when men were still doing the asking. They married and had their first son. Rumor was that they were doing just fine for a while. And then Freddy’s family got involved in the marriage. Apparently, they had never thought Sarah was good enough for him. Tried as they might, they could not pry him from her, so they decided to do something drastic.
The scheme was concocted, and all the actors were in place. One of those actors was Deacon Warren from Antioch Baptist Church. His job was to pretend that he was having an affair with Sarah. Word was that he’d been paid generously by Freddy’s people to lie. It all came to a head when Sarah was pregnant with her second son, Joshua. All the while she was pregnant, gossip filled the air that Joshua could not be Freddy’s. Once he was born, people pointed to every feature of his, from head to toe, declaring that Joshua must be Deacon Warren’s boy.
Freddy’s family continued to persecute Sarah, coming to her home, squatting there, and criticizing her for everything, from the food she prepared to the way she kept the home. Freddy stood by, helpless to his family’s shenanigans to ruin his marriage. Not knowing who to believe and not wanting to alienate his family, he’d sometimes join in taunting and accusing Sarah of having an affair and claiming that Joshua was not his. Sarah would run home and tell her father and mother. Her mother, being a woman of her times, would send her back home to her husband where she belonged till death did them part. Sarah obeyed Mattie and returned and returned and returned. And then they took her child.
I once saw a leopard howl all into the night like a wolf because she couldn’t find her cubs. She didnt’ know that it was too late. The hyenas had already slaughtered and eaten them. She cried and cried and cried until she made me realize that animals are more than instinctual. I shall never forget witnessing her broken heart.
Well, Sarah hung in there for as long as she could, even had two more babies, even as Freddy’s family continued to assault her. But she never forgot the first baby. And even though she knew where Joshua was and could visit him, she never got over his being stolen from her. With no one to turn to, she felt utterly helpless. She was just a poor colored girl way down in the country where people made their own laws. No one was going to rescue her. It was easier for her to lose her mind. And she did. This led to Freddy’s people coming and taking the last two children, a boy and a girl. Once they did that, what was left of Sarah’s sanity fled the scene of the crime. She stayed with Freddy without the children for as long as she could. Sometimes when you feel so helpless, you don’t see any way out except through insanity.
Sarah paced the floor and talked to herself till people decided that demons had possessed her. She was throw away to Freddy and his family now. They didn’t give a damn. She couldn’t function on any level for them. Her mother took her for long rides down isolated country roads to try to get root doctors to cure her, but solace was nowhere to be found in her tormented spirit. Finally, her mother decided that the safest place for Sarah was the state hospital. Before seeing Sarah off, Mattie promised her child that she would take care of Joshua and check in on the other children who now lived with Freddy’s family. Mattie could not be certain that Sarah understood a damn thing she said, and her sorrow for her child was no less than Sarah’s for her own. Sarah remained with the state the rest of her life, visiting Mattie from time to time. It was on one of those visits that I first caught sight of her sitting quietly next to her mother. A mother’s love.
Sarah’s children grew up to be fine people. Mattie was Joshua’s surrogate mother, and he adored her for it. He had been denied the opportunity to grow up with his own mother and father and brother and sister, but he was fortunate enough to grow up with Sarah’s ten nieces and nephews who embraced him as a brother.
Once he became an adult and until she died, Joshua visited Sarah in the hospital, the only place he’d ever known to be her home. He even attended to the elderly Freddy who had denied him but who everyone finally admitted was surely his father. He visited him in the old folks’ home faithfully for years before Freddy died. Joshua himself was blessed with a beautiful committed wife and two lovely daughters.
Some will sigh and say things ended happily ever after, but then they would be leaving Sarah’s madness out of their fairytale.
Image: Thomas Sailot