Jade & Ellen Cotton

boston

No one knew why Miss Ellen Cotton planted corn in front of her living room window. She claimed it just made it easier for her to pick a couple of ears before dinner. The ears stood encased in their husks as the silk-like tassels spilled out and adorned the porch. Large sunflower stalks bent their heads under the adjacent window, nodding and smiling at me; they seemed to beckon callers with their vivid colors of golden wheat and buttery yellows.
Miss Ellen was a sturdy little woman, plump and ample-bosomed, with high cheekbones and pursed full lips. Her hair was charcoal streaked ashes, highlighted by silver strands done up on top of her head. She was a hard worker, keeping her house, yard and garden immaculately cared for with the energy of a woman half her age. There was almost always some cookies, a cake, a cobbler, something I could sink my teeth into real easy, and paired with that treat was good, cold milk, fresh from her cow named Bessie.
Miss Ellen also owned three Boston terriers, her “house dogs” as she called them. “The Girls” were named Bitty, Peggy, and Cookie. What a bunch of fun they were! They chased squirrels, birds, and the occasional cat that had the misfortune to slip into their space. They never caught much except rabbits, and between the three of them a rabbit didn’t stand a chance. Miss Ellen said there was something wrong with a dog that couldn’t catch a rabbit. After a morning of squirrel chasing and almost constant barking, they jumped onto the back porch tired out and ready to come inside. These little dogs were world class nappers. Sometimes, after I’d had my milk and snack, Miss Ellen would shoo me off to the couch with The Girls to sit awhile. They would huddle around me or on top of me, and soon enough we would all four be snoring away, rocked to sleep by the sound of Miss Ellen humming as she worked in the kitchen.
Miss Ellen surmised more of what went on at my house than she ever let on. She never pried or asked probing questions, but she was always there for me. I can’t remember what age I was the first time I wandered far enough to make it to the top of the hill where I discovered her little house and found her tending her garden. It seems to me now like we were always friends. Spending time with Miss Ellen was sometimes the most attention I got all day. Her kindnesses kept me from falling into a greater despair over all the things that were wrong in my home.
Miss Ellen was a bit peculiar and had a plethora of superstitions I never knew existed. She advised me to only cut my hair on a full moon and to place a lock beneath my pillow that same night for good measure. “Jade, this is something my mother taught me, never take a broom with you when you move! Throw it out and leave the dirt behind. Always start off with a clean sweep.” In an odd way, this made perfect sense to me, but when I shared it with Mama she said, “Leave it alone – all her beliefs and strange superstitions ain’t nothing but hogwash. Jade, honey, no black cats crossing your path can harm you and umbrellas opening indoors don’t stop the rain of blessing over a house.”
“Well, what does stop them?” I asked, looking at the jagged crack that ran from the ceiling down the wall and thinking about the dark tension that held the walls together in our own home.
“People do, they stop the blessings with their tongues,” Mama said, with her eyebrows raised and that sharp look in her eye. “They speak death. The good book says, ‘Life and death are in the power of the tongue!”
I wanted to stick my tongue out at her for some reason but instead spilled my true feelings out for her to see. “What about all the words Daddy speaks when he’s drunk, is that what’s stopping our blessings?” I said it abruptly and then caught Mama’s eye and lowered my head quickly. I was shocked that such bold words had sprung from my lips. We never mentioned the dark secret of my father’s alcoholism. My daddy’s words were soaked inside the plastered walls of our home. My eye’s peeped up under my copper-colored bangs to see Mama’s reaction to the taboo topic.

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