In addition to writing fiction, Kristy Woodson Harvey blogs at Design Chic about how creating a beautiful home can be the catalyst for creating a beautiful life, and loves connecting with readers on her website. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of journalism and holds a Master’s in English from East Carolina University. She is a regular contributor for The Salisbury Post, Domino magazine and Houzz. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and three-year-old son.
Excerpted from Dear Carolina
Berkley Books, The Penguin Group, LLC
© Kristy Woodson Harvey 2015
I designed a special scrapbook for each of my children. A custom-made blue or pink album with white polka dots and a fat bow tied down the side, the front center proudly displaying a monogram that was given to each of you. I take those books out every now and then. Sometimes I add a new photo or memento. Other times I gaze at the pictures and marvel at how quickly the eyes-closed-to-the-world phase of infancy morphs into the headfirst-plunging alacrity of toddlerhood.
Other times, like tonight, with your book in particular, my sweet Carolina, I sit on the floor of our family room overlooking my favorite field of corn and simply stare at the cover, running my finger across the scrolling monogram. It’s only a name, we have been reminded since middle school in what has now become perhaps the most cliché of Shakespeare’s musings. But, in what is certainly not the first exception to a Shakespearean rule, that name means more than the house your daddy built in this field where we spent so much time falling in love or the sterling silver service that has been in our family for generations.
It means more because that name wasn’t always yours. And you weren’t always ours.
I was, just like a mother should be, the first person to hold you when you were born. Your birth mother, after thirty hours of labor, fainted when she saw you, perfect and round and red as a fresh-picked apple. I felt like holding you first would be like stealing money from the offering plate. But as soon as the misty-eyed nurse placed you in the nest of my arms, you quit crying, opened your eyes, and locked your gaze with mine. That instant of serendipity was fleeting because it wasn’t more than a few seconds that your birth mother was out.
When she came to, and I was there, cuddling this lighter-than-air you that she had grown inside herself for nine long months, I begged for forgiveness. But she said, “I’m glad you got to hold her first. You’ve been here this whole dern time too.”
I had given birth myself before, and that teary first introduction to a new life after a forty-week hormone roller coaster was fresh in my mind, still damp like the coat of paint on the wall in your nursery. But I’d never been on my feet, outside the bed, when four were breathing the air and then, with one tiny cry, there were five. To experience that kind of wonder is like being born again.
Even in that resurrection moment, I couldn’t have known that one day, I would get to hold you, swaddled and warm, all the time. But I did swear that I would do everything in my power to protect you, love you, and make sure you grew up good and slow as salad greens.
And so, my love, if you ever look at your book and think maybe it’s a little thicker than your sister’s and your brother’s, it’s only because instead of having one mother to save snapshots and write letters and remind you how much she loves you, you have two: the one who brought you into the world and the one who brought you up in it. And if you ever start feeling like maybe you got dealt a bad hand, that having a mother who raised you and a mother who birthed you is too tough, just remember this: You can never have too many people who love you.
Jam Left on Too Long
Some things in life, they don’t even seem right. Like how you can preserve something grown right there in your own backyard and have it sitting on your pantry shelf ’til your kids have kids. And how them women down at the flea mall can write a whole Bible verse on one of them little grains of rice. And then there’s the thing I know right good: how ripping-your-finger-off-in-the-combine awful it is for a momma to have to give up her baby.
I think you already got to realizing, looking at me right now, messin’ in your momma and daddy’s white, shiny kitchen, that I ain’t just your daddy’s cousin. ’Course, you’re still so little now, you cain’t know how I grew you in me, how I birthed you, how I loved you and still do. But you give me that same crooked smile my daddy had and squeeze my finger real tight—and it’s like you know it all. Whenever I say that to your momma, she says back, “Of course she knows. Babies know everything.”
It’s a right simple thing to say. And simple is who I am and what I’ve been knowing my whole life. I cain’t say a lot of fancy things, and I don’t believe in making excuses as to why I’m not doing your raisin’. So here’s the boiled-down-lower-than-jam-left-on-too-long truth: I gave you up ’cause I loved you more than me. I gave you up ’cause I wanted you to have more. I gave you up ’cause, in some, murky way, like that river that runs right through town, my heart knew that it’d take giving you up for us to really be family. I used to tell your momma I was scared that being in your life was gonna hurt you. But then she’d tell me, right simple: You can never have too many people who love you.
My favorite interior design clients have always been those who approach me with file folders with magazine clippings seeping over the edges like overfilled cream puffs. They like the feel of this room, the light of this one. They can’t live another day without a chaise precisely like that.
I’d always been like one of those clients, totally in touch with what I wanted. So when your daddy Graham and I got married, I knew we’d have lots of babies. I already had your brother, Alex, of course. But when he was born it was different. I was a very young widow living in Manhattan full time, my design business and antique store taking off. In short, I was busier than a Waffle House waitress when third shift let out.
But once I moved back home to North Carolina and married your daddy Graham, his calming demeanor and being so close to nature soothed my soul like a raw potato on a cooking burn. I wanted to breathe deeply, feel the sun on my face, and watch my children grow.
I was dreaming about Graham and me rocking on the porch watching Alex and his two little sisters—little sisters that he didn’t have—play, when I woke up that Sunday morning, my arm tingling numb from being up over my head. I looked down to see Alex nestled in the crook of my body, his arms splayed wide in that unencumbered, worriless sleep of children. He was snoring on one side, Graham snoring on the other, the three of us snuggling like a litter of puppies in the barn hay. I smiled at how the morning sliver of sun peeking through the small opening in the curtains glistened off of my three-year-old’s blond strands.
Graham yawned, opened his eyes, and leaned to kiss me. His muscular grip wrapped around me as I shook my practically dead arm, the pins-and-needles feeling burning through me. “Mornin’, Khaki,” he said.
My name was really Frances, but Graham had changed it nearly two decades earlier when I used to dress in head-to-toe khaki work clothes and ride around the farm with my daddy. It was one of those nicknames that had grown like creeping ivy and been impossible to escape.
I looked back down at Alex’s closed eyes, smiled at his legs propped on mine, and whispered to Graham, “Do you have any idea how many times we’ve had sex in the past two and a half years?”
“Mmmm,” he hummed, nuzzling his face into my hair, his unshaven chin pricking my cheek. “I like where this conversation is going.”
“No, I’m serious,” I said. “Four hundred sixty-two times.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to know that someone is keeping track. Are you saying that’s too much or not enough?” He grinned that boyish grin at me, his blue eyes flashing, and said, “Because I’d err on the side of not enough, personally.”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on, Graham. Why the hell am I not pregnant? I mean, how hard can it be? I wasn’t even trying for Alex, and ‘bam!’ just like that.” I snapped my fingers, ignoring the fact that I had been only twenty-six then. I tried to push away the thought of that declining fertility chart the OB-GYN had shown me at my last appointment. He had said, “Well, at your age it just takes a little longer.” He’d made Graham and me feel like a couple of forty-eight-year-olds asking for some sort of miracle, not thirty-one-year-olds on a very reasonable quest for their second child.
Graham shrugged and yawned. “Maybe my guys don’t want to swim in the winter. Maybe it’s too cold. Maybe we should wait until summer.”
I crossed my arms, my nostrils flaring. He pulled me in closer and kissed my cheek.
“Oh, come on, pretty girl, you know I’m just teasing you. We’re going to have lots more babies and fill this house up.”
I looked up at him, my lower lip protruding the slightest bit. He kissed it back in place, leaned his forehead on mine, and whispered, “I promise. I’d never let my girl go ’round not getting something she wanted.”
I smiled, my heart feeling that familiar, practically lifelong surge of love for my childhood sweetheart, when Alex rolled over, looked around sleepily, and laid his head on my lap. “Hey, Mommy?” he asked.
“Can we have bacon for breakfast?”
I laughed and ran my hand through his shaggy hair. “You can take the boy out of the hog farm, but you can’t take the hog farm out of the boy.” I pulled him up and gave him a firm kiss on the cheek that was still plump and juicy as a ripe tomato.
“I think we might be out of bacon, but I know some grandparents who never run out of pork.” I pinched his side and said, “You go brush your teeth, and we’ll go over there.”
Graham perked up, and, rubbing his tight stomach, said, “I need a big ole Pauline country breakfast.”
Pauline had worked for Mother and Daddy my whole life on the farm, and she made the best homemade biscuits and gravy in the world. I shook my head. “I will take Alex to Mother and Daddy’s. Then, when I get home, if you impregnate me, you may have a Pauline breakfast as a reward.”
He whistled and rubbed his hand down the back of my silk gown. “Oh, baby, I love it when you get so romantic with me.”
I slapped his thigh and pointed my finger at him. “I’m not teasing you. I’m getting Alex ready, and you better concentrate on producing some of that fine Jacobs baby-making sperm.”
When we pulled up to the end of Mother and Daddy’s driveway I took a moment to marvel at how the giant oaks, each of them having been there for centuries longer than the home itself, grew together into a green canopy, the ideal frame for the white plantation home that graced their ending. I had an entirely new feeling about this house now, its white columns of Pantheonic proportion that were so quintessentially Southern.
When I was younger, coming home equated to poorly chosen words and hurtful digs from my mother. Maybe it was becoming a grandmother or the general smoldering of temper fire that comes with aging, but my once impossible-to-please mother—though still a force to be reckoned with—had become much, much more pleasant.
Alex unsnapped his booster, jumped out of the car, and flew through the front door before I could even say, “Hey, wait up!” or wrangle him into his coat.
He always got as excited as a jewelry collector at a Christie’s auction to see his grandparents. It was the same way I felt when I saw Daddy, that mixture of love and pride that swirls together like a backroom science project. Mother stepped out onto the front porch, her sassy hair perfectly styled in keeping with the same Chanel suit she’d been wearing for decades. I felt myself unwittingly roll my eyes. She leaned over to hug my son. We still didn’t always see eye to eye, but Mother could have slapped some butter on Alex and eaten him right up like one of Pauline’s homemade biscuits.
Instead of following Alex through the front door, I walked around to the side, smiling at Pauline’s imposing figure turning bacon on the griddle at the opposite side of the blue-and-white tiled kitchen while she hummed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” When she heard the screen door slam, Pauline wiped her molasses-colored hands, almost the same size as the eye on the antique stove, on the apron puckering over her thick waist. She wrapped me in a hug and said, “What’s wrong with my baby?”
I had a smile on my face and hugged her back as hard as I could, and Pauline still knew something was wrong with me. “I was just wondering why you’re back here frying bacon when I tried my damnedest to bust you out.”
She laughed heartily and shrugged. “Had to come back. You was the one that introduced me and Benny, after all.”
Pauline had met her second husband and late-life love when she, Mother, and Daddy had come to New York to help after Alex was born. They had started their life together there, but, as I knew all too well, you simply can’t take the South out of the girl. Much as I would imagine one would want to escape the claws of my momma, not a year later, Pauline was back like a homing pigeon, Benny in tow. When I confronted her, jaw agape, about why she hadn’t run far, far away, she said simply, “You know, baby girl: You and Miz Mason and Daddy Mason’s my family.”
And so we were, which was even more evident when Pauline said, “Come on, baby. You can tell Pauline.”
I sat down on the stool beside the range, my lifelong Pauline-talking perch, and said, “I can’t get pregnant.”
She looked me up and down. “’Course you cain’t.”
I crossed my arms. “Why on earth not?”
“Girl like you cain’t get pregnant. You ain’t nothing but skin and bones.”
I looked down at myself. I was naturally thin. But maybe the stress of traveling back and forth to New York for work was getting to me. Or perhaps the vegan diet and yoga kick I’d been on was too much. The hormone-balancing book I read said it would help me conceive. But every month I was more disappointed than the last when that minus sign appeared on the EPT. “You think that’s all it is?”
“’Course,” she said. “You was lookin’ healthy when you got pregnant with little man.”
I nodded, thinking that, who knows, maybe I was just too thin. Pauline might not have been a doctor, but she was always right. Feeling sorry that I was kissing three months of sprouts, flaxseed, and leafy greens good-bye, I grabbed two crispy pieces of bacon off Pauline’s drip pan and crunched. I was a hog farmer’s daughter, after all. Bacon was my birthright.
“Good girl.” She nodded. “Now you get on outta here and come back for some breakfast when you’re good and pregnant.”
I laughed, and she added, “I’ll keep an eye on little man.”
Lying in bed an hour later with my legs propped on the headboard—I had read somewhere that elevating your legs helps the sperm find their target—Graham kissed me and said, “I just feel like it took that time, babydoll.”
I smiled weakly. “I sure hope so.”
He nodded. “I’m going to go get ready for church while you . . .” He paused, circled his finger around where I was lying, and said, “While you do whatever it is that you’re doing there.”
An hour later, sitting in church, light streaming through stained glass windows, Graham’s arm around me, Daddy beside me, and Alex playing down the dark wood pew, I felt the strongest message from heaven that I had before or since: I was going to be a mother again. Of course, I thought, naturally, that I was pregnant. Turns out, God had other plans.
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