10.9: “Moriah’s Mourning” by Ruth McEnery Stuart
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Moriah was a widow of a month, and when she announced her intention of marrying again, the plantation held its breath. Then it roared with laughter.
Not because of the short period of her mourning was the news so incredible. But by a most exceptional mourning Moriah had put herself upon record as the most inconsolable of widows.
So prompt a readjustment of life under similar conditions was by no means unprecedented in colored circles.
The rules governing the wearing of the mourning garb are by no means stringent in plantation communities, and the widow who for reasons of economy or convenience sees fit to wear out her colored garments during her working hours is not held to account for so doing if she appear at all public functions clad in such weeds as she may find available. It is not even needful, indeed, that her supreme effort should attain any definite standard. Anybody can collect a few black things, and there is often an added pathos in the very incongruity of some of the mourning toilettes that pass up the aisles of the colored churches.
Was not the soul of artlessness expressed in the first mourning of a certain young widow, for instance, who sewed upon her blue gown all the black trimming she could collect, declaring that she “would ‘a’ dyed de frock th’oo an’ th’oo ‘cep’n’ it would ‘a’ swunked it up too much”? And perhaps her sympathetic companions were quite as naïve as she, for, as they aided her in these first hasty stitches, they poured upon her wounded spirit the healing oil of full and sympathetic approval, as the following remarks will testify.
“Dat frock mo’ns all right, now de black bows is on it.”
“You kin put any colored frock in mo’nin’ ‘cep’n’ a red one. Sew black on red, an’ it laughs in yo’ face.”
“I’m a-sewin’ de black fringe on de josey, Sis Jones, ‘case fringe hit mo’ns a heap mo’nfuler ‘n ribbon do.”
Needless to say, a license so full and free as this found fine expression in a field of flowering weeds quite rare and beautiful to see.
Moriah had proven herself in many ways an exceptional person even before the occasion of her bereavement, and in this, contrary to all precedent, she had rashly cast her every garment into the dye-pot, sparing not even so much as her underwear.
Moriah was herself as black as a total eclipse, tall, angular, and imposing, and as she strode down the road, clad in the sombre vestments of sorrow, she was so noble an expression of her own idea that as a simple embodiment of dignified surrender to grief she commanded respect.
The plantation folk were profoundly impressed, for it had soon become known that her black garb was not merely a thing of the surface.
“Moriah sho’ does mo’n for Numa. She mo’ns f’om de skin out.” Such was popular comment, although it is said that one practical sister, to whom this “inward mo’nin'” had little meaning, ventured so far as to protest against it.
“Sis Moriah,” she said, timidly, as she sat waiting while Moriah dressed for church—”Sis Moriah, look ter me like you’d be ‘feerd dem black shimmies ‘d draw out some sort o’ tetter on yo’ skin,” to which bit of friendly warning Moriah had responded, with a groan, and in a voice that was almost sepulchral in its awful solemnity, “When I mo’n I mo’n!”
Perhaps an idea of the unusual presence of this great black woman may be conveyed by the fact that when she said, as she was wont to do in speaking of her own name, “I’m named Moriah—after a Bible mountain,” there seemed a sort of fitness in the name and in the juxtaposition neither the sacred eminence or the woman suffered a loss of dignity.
And this woman it was who, after eight years of respectable wifehood and but four weeks of mourning her lost mate, calmly announced that she was to be married again.
The man of her choice—I use the expression advisedly—was a neighbor whom she had always known, a widower whose bereavement was of three months’ longer standing than her own.
The courtship must have been brief and to the point, for it was positively known that he and his fiancée had met but three times in the interval when the banns were published.
He had been engaged to whitewash the kitchen in which she had pursued her vocation as cook for the writer’s family.
The whitewashing was done in a single morning, but a second coating was found necessary, and it is said by one of her fellow-servants, who professes to have overheard the remark, that while Pete was putting the finishing-touches to the bit of chimney back of her stove, Moriah, who stooped at the oven door beside him, basting a roast turkey, lifted up her stately head and said, archly, breaking her mourning record for the first time by a gleaming display of ivory and coral as she spoke,
“Who’d ‘a’ thought you’d come into my kitchen to do yo’ secon’ co’tin’, Pete?”
At which, so says our informant, the whitewash brush fell from the delighted artisan’s hands, and in a shorter time than is consumed in the telling, a surprised and smiling man was sitting at her polished kitchen table chatting cosily with his mourning hostess, while she served him with giblets and gravy and rice and potatoes “an’ coffee b’iled expressly.”
It was discovered that the kitchen walls needed a third coating. This took an entire day, “because,” so said Pete, “de third coat, hit takes mo’ time to soak in.”
And then came the announcement. Moriah herself, apparently in nowise embarrassed by its burden, bore the news to us on the following morning. There was no visible change of front in her bearing as she presented herself—no abatement of her mourning.
“Mis’ Gladys,” she said, simply, “I come ter give you notice dat I gwine take fo’ days off, startin’ nex’ Sunday.”
“I hope you are not in any new trouble, Moriah?” I said, sympathetically.
“Well, I don’ know ef I is or not. Me an’ Pete Pointdexter, we done talked it over, an’ we come ter de conclusion ter marry.”
I turned and looked at the woman—at her black garments, her still serious expression. Surely my hearing was playing me false. But catching my unspoken protest, she had already begun to explain.
“Dey ain’t no onrespec’ ter de dead, Mis’ Gladys, in marryin’,” she began. “De onrespec’ is in de carryin’s on folks does when dey marry. Pete an’ me, we ‘low ter have eve’ything quiet an’ solemncholy—an’ pay all due respects—right an’ left. Of co’se Pete’s chillen stands up fur dey mammy, an’ dey don’t take no stock in him ma’yin’ ag’in. But Ca’line she been dead long enough—mos’ six mont’s—countin’ fo’ weeks ter de mont’. An’ as fur me, I done ‘ranged ter have eve’ything did ter show respec’s ter Numa.” (Numa was her deceased husband.) “De organ-player he gwine march us in chu’ch by de same march he played fur Numa’s fun’al, an’ look like dat in itse’f is enough ter show de world dat I ain’t forgot Numa. An’, tell de trufe, Mis’ Gladys, ef Numa was ter rise up f’om his grave, I’d sen’ Pete a-flyin’ so fast you could sen’ eggs to market on his coat tail.
“You see, de trouble is I done had my eye on Pete’s chillen ever sence dey mammy died, an’ ef dey ever was a set o’ onery, low-down, sassy, no-‘count little niggers dat need takin’ in hand by a able-bodied step-mammy, dey a-waitin’ fur me right yonder in Pete’s cabin. My hand has des nachelly itched to take aholt o’ dat crowd many a day—an’ ever sence I buried Numa of co’se I see de way was open. An’ des as soon as I felt like I could bring myse’f to it, I—well—Dey warn’t no use losin’ time, an’ so I tol’ you, missy, dat de kitchen need’ white-washin’.”
“And so you sent for him—and proposed to him, did you?”
“P’opose to who, Mis’ Gladys? I’d see Pete in de sinkin’ swamp ‘fo’ I’d p’opose to him!”
“Then how did you manage it, pray?”
“G’way, Mis’ Gladys! Any wide-awake widder ‘oman dat kin get a widder man whar he can’t he’p but see her move round at her work for two days hand-runnin’, an’ can’t mesmerize him so’s he’ll ax her to marry him—Um—hm! I’d ondertake ter do dat, even ef I warn’t no cook; but wid seasonin’s an’ flavors to he’p me—Law, chile! dey warn’t no yearthly ‘scape fur dem chillen!
“I would ‘a’ waited,” she added, presently—”I would ‘a’ waited a reas’nable time, ‘cep’n dat Pete started gwine ter chu’ch, an’ you know yo’se’f, missy, when a well-favored widder man go ter seek consolation f’om de pulpit, he’s might’ ap’ ter find it in de congergation.”
As I sat listening to her quiet exposition of her scheme, it seemed monstrous.
“And so, Moriah,” I spoke now with a ring of real severity in my voice—”and so you are going to marry a man that you confess you don’t care for, just for the sake of getting control of his children? I wouldn’t have believed it of you.”
“Well—partly, missy.” She smiled a little now for the first time. “Partly on dat account, an’ partly on his’n. Pete’s wife Ca’line, she was a good ‘oman, but she was mighty puny an’ peevish; an’ besides dat, she was one o’ deze heah naggers, an’ Pete is allus had a purty hard pull, an’ I lay out ter give him a better chance. Eve’y bit o’ whitewashin’ he’d git ter do ‘roun’ town, Ca’line she’d swaller it in medicine. But she was a good ‘oman, Ca’line was. Heap o’ deze heah naggers is good ‘omans! Co’se I don’t say I loves Pete, but I looks ter come roun’ ter ‘im in time. Ef I didn’t, I wouldn’t have him.”
“And how about his loving you?”
“Oh, Mis’ Gladys, you is so searching!” She chuckled. “Co’se he say he loves me already better’n he love Ca’line, but of co’se a widder man he feels obleeged ter talk dat-a-way. An’ ef he didn’t have the manners ter say it, I wouldn’t have him, to save his life; but ef he meant it, I’d despise him. After Ca’line lovin’ de groun’ he tread fur nine long yeahs, he ain’t got no right ter love no ‘oman better’n he love her des ‘caze he’s a-projec’in’ ter git married to ‘er. But of co’se, Mis’ Gladys, I ca’culates ter outstrip Ca’line in co’se o’ time. Ef I couldn’t do dat—an’ she in ‘er grave—an’ me a cook—I wouldn’t count myse’f much. An’ den, time I outstrips her an’ git him over, heart an’ soul, I’ll know it by de signs.”
“Why will you know it more than you know it now? He can but swear it to you.”
“Oh no, missy. When de rock bottom of a man’s heart warms to a ‘oman, he eases off f’om swearin’ ’bout it. Deze heah men wha’ swear so much, dey swear des as much ter convince deyselves as dey does ter ketch a ‘oman’s ear. No, missy. Time I got him heart an’ soul, I looks for him to commence to th’ow up Ca’line’s ways ter me. Heap of ’em does dat des ter ease dey own consciences an’ pacify a dead ‘oman’s ghost. Dat’s de way a man nachelly do. But he won’t faze me, so long as I holds de fort! An’ fur de chillen, co’se quick as I gits ’em broke in I’ll see dat dey won’t miss Ca’line none. Dat little teether, I done tol’ Pete ter fetch her over ter me right away. Time I doctors her wid proper teas, an’ washes her in good warm pot-liquor, I’ll make a fus’-class baby out’n her.”
Moriah had always been a good woman, and as she stood before me, laying bare the scheme that, no matter what the conditions, had in it the smallest selfish consideration, I felt my heart warm to her again, and I could not but feel that the little whitewasher—a kindly, hard-pressed family man of slight account—would do well to lay his brood upon her ample bosom.
Of course she was marrying him, and her acquisition of family would inevitably become pensioners upon our bounty; but this is not a great matter in a land where the so-called “cultivation” of the soil is mainly a question of pruning and selection, and clothes grow upon the commonest bush.
As she turned to go, I even offered her my best wishes, and when I laughingly asked her if I might help her with her wedding-dress, she turned and looked at me.
“Bless yo’ heart, Mis’ Gladys,” she exclaimed, “I ain’t gwine out o’ mo’nin’! I gwine marry Pete in des what I got on my back. I’ll marry him, an’ I’ll take dem little no-‘counts o’ his’n, an’ I’ll make folks out’n ’em ‘fo’ I gits th’ough wid ’em, ef Gord spares me; but he nee’n’t ter lay out ter come in ‘twix’ me an’ my full year o’ mo’nin’ fur Numa. When I walks inter dat chu’ch, ‘cep’n’ fur de owange wreaf, which of co’se in a Christian ma’iage I’m boun’ ter wear, folks ‘ll be a heap mo’ ‘minded o’ Numa ‘n dey will o’ de bridegroom. An’ dem chillen o’ his’n, which ain’t nuver is had no proper mo’nin’ fur dey mammy—no mo’ ‘n what color Gord give ’em in dey skins—I gwine put ’em in special secon’ mo’nin’, ‘cordin’ to de time dey ought ter been wearin’ it; an’ when we walks up de island o’ de chu’ch, dey got ter foller, two by two, keepin’ time ter de fun’al march. You come ter de weddin’, Mis’ Gladys, an’ I lay you’ll ‘low dat I done fixed it so dat, while I’m a-lookin’ out fur de livin’, de dead ain’t gwine feel slighted, right nur left.”
She was starting away again, and once more, while I wished her joy, I bade her be careful to make no mistake. A note of sympathy in my voice must have touched the woman, for she turned, and coming quite up to me, laid her hand upon my lap.
“Missy,” she said, “I don’t believe I gwine make no mistake. You know I allus did love chillen, an’ I ain’t nuver is had none o’ my own, an’ dis heah seemed like my chance. An’ I been surveyin’ de lan’scape o’er tryin’ ter think about eve’ything I can do ter start right. I’m a-startin’ wid dem chillen, puttin’ ’em in mo’nin’ fur Ca’line. Den, fur Pete, I gwine ring de changes on Ca’line’s goodness tell he ax me, for Gord sake, ter stop, so, in years ter come, he won’t have nothin’ ter th’ow up ter me. An’ you know de reason I done tooken fo’ days off, missy? I gwine on a weddin’-trip down ter Pine Bluff, an’ I wants time ter pick out a few little weddin’-presents to fetch home ter Pete.”
“Pete!” I cried. “Pete is going with you, of course?”
“Pete gwine wid me? Who sesso? No, ma’am! Why, missy, how would it look fur me ter go a-skylarkin’ roun’ de country wid Pete—an’ me in mo’nin’?
“No, indeedy! I gwine leave Pete home ter take keer dem chillen, an’ I done set him a good job o’ whitewashin’ to do while I’m gone, too. De principles’ weddin’-present I gwine fetch Pete is a fiddle. Po’ Pete been wantin’ a good fiddle all his life, an’ he ‘ain’t nuver is had one. But, of co’se, I don’t ‘low ter let him play on it tell de full year of mo’nin’ is out.”