I never met my great-grandmother, but from what I hear, she was a decent, hard-working woman. In photos of her she’s small and stooped from a lifetime of hard farm labor. They say she was a loving woman and had a beautiful voice, the kind made for singing and laughing. Everyone who speaks about her does so with love.
She was a patient woman, from what I hear, and in the few instances she let herself become annoyed she usually let it pass with a quiet “shit” of derision, and then she was right as rain. She was of a generation where people farmed because that was the only way they would have food. She raised nine children between two husbands. Large families were the best way to staff a farm in those days, but none of my great-aunts and great-uncles doubted her love for them. My grandmother would get tears in her eyes whenever she got nostalgic for her mother.
For extra money, she would watch children from across the county, and she was considered to be a woman who naturally commanded the respect of the youth. Kids adored her, and often cried when they had to go home.
There was one boy, though, who could not endear himself to anyone. He enjoyed throwing himself on the ground and bawling when he didn’t get his way. Great-Grandma wasn’t opposed to a switch, but it was only ever a method of last resort, and even then she didn’t believe in switching the children of others. The child was not predisposed to any real form of reasoning, and would break things unless he immediately got exactly what he wanted.
My great-grandmother needed the extra money watching the boy would bring her, but could not afford to have him break things she couldn’t replace. So one cool day in November, while the other children helped out in the fields, Great-Grandma put on her apron, slipped something inside the pocket, and told the little boy to walk with her. Unusually agreeable, the little boy took her hand and began to walk.
About a mile from the farmhouse she and her late husband built themselves, there was a wooden bridge crossing a rocky stream. It’s long gone, the bridge made into an overpass, the stream diverted through a metal pipe, but the willows that hung across it still stand. The way I heard the story, on the morning when my great-grandmother arrived at the bridge, the little boy in tow, it was foggy and threatening to rain. This could be dramatic flair on the part of my relatives, but I choose to trust them anyway.
She and the little boy were halfway across the bridge when my great-grandmother stopped. Holding his hand to keep him close, she asked him if he knew where they were.
“Yeah,” the little boy said, in a time when most children didn’t dare to forget the “ma’am” at the end, “we’re at the bridge that goes to my house.”
“This bridge goes to a lot of people’s houses,” my great-grandmother told him. “Do you know what’s special about this bridge?”
The little boy said “This bridge ain’t special.”
At that my great-grandmother reached into her apron, and pulled out the biggest carving knife she owned. Holding it tight, she pointed it at the boards beneath their feet and told the little boy:
“Every man I ever killed, I killed on this bridge.”
The little boy froze up, and Great-Grandma let him stand there a minute before asking him:
“Will you be good for Missus L now?”
The boy gave a little nod, the whites of his eyes flashing, and Great-Grandma tucked the knife back into her apron.
“Saints be praised,” she said. “Let’s us get on home now.”
She took the little boy back, fed him milk and cornbread, and from what I was told, she never had a problem with him again.