[Jim’s reached back to 2002 to share one of his favorite columns.]
My father was born as the last century began into a river village in tidewater Maryland.
He told me once of a man there in his boyhood who, like so many, made a thin living tonging for oysters in the cold months and, in the hot and humid ones, crabbing and raising vegetables.
The man and his wife had three daughters; the oldest, a strong young woman in her twenties, was what, in those times and that place, was called “feeble-minded,” or “teched.” Her name was Vera; and she had to be watched because, unless she was occupied, she became restless and could easily get into bad trouble, perhaps knocking down the stovepipe and burning herself up or the farmhouse down.
Watching her was less a problem in the wintertime, when her two sisters and her mother spent the day in the house with her. In the hot months, though, when the father was out working the trot lines in his skiff, netting each big crab and flipping it in among its slashing, bubbling kin already in the bushel baskets, the mother and her two sound-minded daughters had to be outside, too.
They worked all day in heat and dust of the truck garden acres---hoeing, weeding, pulling slugs off the tomatoes, beetles off the string beans, cutworms off the corn.
As vegetables ripened, the women also filled bushel baskets; and they lugged each one, braced against a hip, to the flatbed wagon. Twice a week the mule was made to haul the loaded wagon down an oyster shell road to the West River dock.
There the produce and crates of live crabs were loaded onto the sidewheeler Emma Giles. She’d whistle, churn the brown water as she backed, and then haul her cargo up the Chesapeake to the markets of Baltimore.
No way for the women to tend Vera while they worked through the long days---so hot and humid and glaring gold that, as folks said, walking outside was like swimming through apple jelly. They couldn’t leave her in the house alone, and they couldn’t bring her to the fields where she’d blunder among the plants, knocking down corn and making juice squirt when she trod on ripe tomatoes.
So they hit on a scheme that had Vera neither inside nor out, not endangering the house and not laying waste the crops. It involved the broad back porch, which one or another of them could always see from the fields, and where there was a rocking chair.
Vera loved to rock violently, throwing her weight forward and back in the chair until her head sometimes banged back against the weathered clapboards. She’d rock herself into a kind of ecstasy; and one wonders what visions passed her unfocused eyes as she threw herself forward and back, forward and back.
But her mothers and sisters knew that rocking would not be enough to hold Vera for a whole hot day. Sooner or later she would tire and come back to her clouded, restless self; and then trouble could begin. There had to be more to occupyVera, and they found it.
When the women sat her in the rocking chair each morning, looping a light rope around her waist and the chair’s back, they also laid a burlap bag across her knees, this to protect her flour-sack dress. Then, while Vera smiled quietly, her mother coated her left hand with blackstrap molasses, thick and viscous. Asister stood by, holding open a sack of chicken feathers, and the mother plastered the sticky hand with the feathers. Then the three would leave Vera there and trudge under the sun to their work.
At once Vera, absorbed, would begin picking off the feathers; and soon as much molasses and feathers would be on her right hand as on her left. Between rounds of violent rocking, she would work to clear one hand, then the other. And though wildly antic when she rocked, she leaned over her handwork smiling, serene, totally absorbed by something that couldn’t be done.
They’d sit together in the porch shade at midday and feed Vera lunch, but even then she wouldn’t be distracted from the fascination of her hands. The women would put cornbread and smoked fatback in her open mouth; but while she chewed she leaned forward and picked at her work, as delicately as if it were embroidery that engaged her.
At suppertime they walked Vera to the pump and cleansed her hands, and sometimes she would wail at all her work undone. But with the next morning would come new molasses, new feathers, and a chance to begin the puzzle again.
When I first heard that story from my father as a boy, I was wide-eyed, shocked. How could they do that to a woman? But I thought about it and realized my question was a different one: What else could they do?
There was never a thought, among those country folk, of sending Vera to live in the state asylum. She had to be with her own kind---and that didn’t mean other teched people, but her own family.
The farm was her place, as it was theirs; and Vera was a burden given them to deal with, no less than the heavy heat, the cutworms, the cracked, dusty soil. She was theirs to tend, as were the sharpleaved corn plants and the rheumy, ill-tempered mule. Vera, they believed, had been teched by God, and for God’s own reasons unknowable.
And they had been teched through her---given an added burden for reasons unknowable. It was not for them to understand the burden, but to deal with it.
And they did. Through steaming summer days, the three women toiled, heads bowed, backs bent, straightening painfully to shade their eyes and peer across the rows to the porch. There Vera rocked in ecstasy, so hard theycould hear the porch boards groan. She’d pause a while, smiling, to pick at the feathers, then rock again, chanting wordless songs, seeing visions no one could share.
It went on for many summers, my father said. For many years