CARRIE'S HOUSE is a dilapidated affair; the roof leaks in bad weather, the gallery needs patching in a dozen places, and the rickety front steps give under the slightest weight, but her yard is aglow with flowers. She has made the place cheerful with zinnias, marigolds, perennial sunflowers and verbena; and their bright pattern somehow reflects her attitude toward life.
Carrie was a child when she first went to work, and from childhood work is all she has ever known. Now at sixty-eight, she finds herself with a “house full uv motherless chillun,” and an old Negro woman, a former midwife (no relative of hers, but simply a helpless old woman she has taken in) to provide for.
“I was born in Belmont,” said Carrie, “’bout ten miles from Coatopa, and I growed up in de white folks yard, an’ I ain't never got very far from ’em. When I warn't more than knee high I come to stay wid Miss Helen Mitchell an’ her sister Miss Minnie Gillespie, but Miss Minnie was sick all de time an’ couldn't take a step by herself, an’ I slept right ‘side her on de cot an’ nussed her day an’ night. My Mammy was a slave an’ b'longed to Mr. John Morley, an’ Aunt Creasy, my grandmammy, b'longed to him too, an’ they lived so close us didn't never git lonesome fer one another. The Mitchells, Miss Helen's folks, was good to me, an’ give me a heap of things jes’ lack the white chillun had an’ that's how come I always had plenty of dolls to play with.
“Speakin’ ’bout Miss Minnie, she couldn't walk nowhere an’ us had to ride her in de wheel barrow, an’ pull her through de garden an’ down de road a piece to git her air. One time she was settin’ on de gallery, an’ I was on de floor ‘side her playin’ with us dolls. I ‘members hit jes’ as good! Miss Agnes an’ Miss Jennie come callin’. They lived ‘jining us place. Miss Agnes was kinda po'ly herse'f. She had spells. An’ dat day she had a sho’ ’nough spell right on de gallery. She scream an’ scream so loud dat her hair (she had pretty, long hair) switch on her head, jes’ lack dis,” and Carrie shook her woolly mop. “When Miss Agnes scream everybody run off an’ lef’ po’ Miss Minnie, but dey didn't leave her long ‘cause Miss Minnie was so skeered herse'f she jes’ nacherly jump up an’ run in de house an’ lock de do’! An’ she hadn't never walked a step ‘fo’ dat, long as I'd knowed her, but when Miss Agnes scream I tell ‘em hit jes’ skeered dat sumpin’ outer her, an’ Miss Minnie could walk same as anybody from den on. Nome, I ain't sayin’ she was conjured, but somehow hit jes’ seemed unnatu'l.
“See, after dat Miss Minnie didn't need me no mo’ but I jes’ stayed on an’ dey let me go to school some. Dat's how come I kin read an’ write a little. Den I growed up an’ married an’ move over here, me an’ Jim, not fur from de Mitchells’. Now Jim done ceasted, but he lingered on me a long time, then my daughter ceasted an’ I took de chillun, an’ in dem days Aunt Sue was de midwife fer all de women whut dey call ‘keepin’ house’ an’ I used to go de rounds with her an’ dats how come I got so much ‘sperience midwifin’. Then when Aunt Sue got so ole she wanted me to continue on.
“I is brought some fifty or sixty babies into de worl’ an’ I used to have mo’ white than black. One white lady relied on me ‘most ev'ry Spring an’ she say she gonna send atter me, don't keer whar she go. Heap of times I used to git dere ‘fore de doctor an’ bring de baby myse'f. I is seen some swift boys, but not many girls is fast. ’Tain't lack hit was though in dem days, ’cause de white nurse comes now once a month to hold meetin's an’ explain de new rules ‘cause dey tell me chillun ain't born the way they used to be. I hear ’em say de doctor kin tell whether hits gonna be a boy or a girl. I couldn't never do dat with folks, but I kin with beasties. If you gonna breed a mare an’ you turns her head to de East, de colt'll be lack the mare. If you turns her head to de West de colt'll be a horse. My pappy tole me dat, an’ tole me always breed a mare nine days after de last colt come, an’ I ain't know'd hit to fail. Dere's a colt in de pastur now what'll prove what I say. De fust baby I brought in de full by myse'f was Lithenia Spence's an’ she call him “Fo-day” cause he come zackly fo’ day break. Us was livin’ down at Double Creek den an’ somehow Lithenia lost her notchin’ stick, dat's what dey call keepin’ up wid de months, but she know'd hit was on de change of de moon, an’ so wan't no doctor dere nor nobody an’ Aunt Sue wasn't ‘spectin’ nothin’ to happen so she was over in Jefferson near Linden but not as fur as Linden, but den Lithenia had done notified Aunt Ruthie Hester, but Aunt Ruthie bein’ ole, hit had slipped her ‘membrance. Aunt Ruthie's dead now. Well, dey sent after me an’ I said, ’Well, ev'y thing ready, let's go ahead’ (all dese chillun here, Miss, I oughten be tellin’ all dis) but Lithenia had a good time. I didn't use no ginger tea nor nothin’ to steamerlate her. You see on de change of de moon water come mo’ freely, an’ dat's what make hit easy.
“Dey say way dey go by de moon hit work with de person's blood. On a young woman dey say you'd have a better time on de change of the moon ‘stead of on a full moon. On de full moon, if de baby born den, wouldn't be as free. But I cut de navel string an’ all, by myse'f, an’ greased hit an’ when Aunt Sue got back she said ever'thing was all right. You see, I had done kilt my hogs an’ boiled de feet without no salt real done, den I pours dat water off. Now you gonna eat dem hogs feet, so you kin go put salt in ’em and fix ’em jes’ lack you wants ’em, but doan put no salt in no hogs feet oil for dat navel. Now you dreens dat water off of dat grease what's riz to de top, an’ skims hit an’ strains hit an’ pours hit in de bottle an’ hang hit up where can't nobody bother hit an’ you is all ready fer de navel. But you has to take a skillet an’ put hit on de fire an’ put a lightwood knot under hit an’ put some old linen cloth in hit, what de white folks gives us outer old table cloth, an’ let hit brown, an’ take some cotton from de gin house an’ take de cotton cards an’ card all the lint outer hit, an’ now I'm goin’ to put hit in de skillet jes’ er minute, an’ wheel hit right over ‘til git brown’ fore you knows hit, den put some of dat grease out de bottle on dat cotton an’ put hit on de baby's navel. Den put de belly ban’ on top dat an’ pin hit on ‘roun’ him, an’ ain't no baby I brung never had no trouble with no navel. Dat ban’ stay on dat baby three days an’ dat navel comin’ right off, dat is, if you keeps de baby warm, an’ hit won't never fail you. I takes dat back. Miss Monie Bates say hers had to stay on nine days but den I didn't nuss her so I doan know. Now when dat navel come off you got to take hit an’ put hit direct in the fire, an’ don't let hit touch de floor. Now jes’ lack you dressin’ de baby, an’ you take de ban’ off an’ you lay hit with de navel on de bed, den jes’ lack I tell you, dat baby goin’ to wet de bed, from den on. I is seed folks lay hit down an’ I say to myse'f ‘Unk-unk, don't you lay dat down nowhere, jes’ throw hit direct in de fire.’
“Now I didn't tell you ‘bout de afterbirth ‘cause dem chillun was listenin’ but you takes hit an’ sprinkle salt on hit but don't let no salt git roun’ de bed. An’ you puts hit in de fire-place den burn hit up an’ dats one reason don't want no ashes took up in de fire-place, ’cause dey's needed; den hits bad luck too, jes’ lack salt roun’ de bed when a baby born. I heered my mammy say two women was fretted with one ‘nother, an’ one of ‘em foun’ a baby an’ de tother one hung a sack of salt over her head in de cracks up under de rafters an’ a ole man come one day an’ say she was mighty sick. ’Somethin’ ’roun’ dis bed cast a spell on her,’ an’ he look an’ sho’ ’nough dere was de bag of salt ‘tween dem boards an he took hit down an’ she got well.
“I heared ‘em say’Your enemies can't harm you but watch your close friends.’ Now if you was my enemy I'd watch you, but if you was my close friend I'd go out an’ leave you an’ you could conjure me while I was gone, like with salt or anything. Dat's what I hear ’em say. But I don't b'lieve in no conjurin’ but I does b'lieve in dem old home-grown remedies like puttin’ a ole ax or a ole sweep under de center of de bed for after-pains when de baby comes—jes’ so hit's rusty. I do dat right now an’ hit sho’ works. I doan sweep under dat bed neither nor take no ashes outer dat room ’til dat baby is a month ole. Ef too many ashes in dat fire-place put ’em in a bucket or tub an’ sit ’em back, but doan take ’em outer dat room. Hit sho’ bad luck. Sweep de room all over, but don't bother under dat bed. Seems funny but dey didn't have no trouble dem days when I was nussin’ lack dey do now; folks wasn't so hard-headed.
“Now after dat baby is a month ole, take up dem ashes, sweep up de room, take ev'y thing offen dat bed an’ scrub up, clean ev'y thing she been usin’ an’ leave dat room jes’ lack hit was when she went in, but fust you takes meal bran’ an’ put hit on de hearth, an’ put hot embers over hit an’ make a smoke. Den after you done wash her clothes an’ dry ’em, press ’em, hang ’em on a chair over dat smoke, den get her up an’ wash ’er good an’ put her on dem clothes, an’ give her catnip tea or ’simmon bark tea. Bile de water in a clean coffee pot an’ brash hit with a little sugar, an’ dey calls hit sweatin’ de fever. Give hit ev'y mornin’ an’ evenin’. Den you takes her outer dere an’ she got to go ’round de house, an’ go to de spring an git her a drink of spring water. Carry a thimble with her; hits good fer de baby in teethin’ time. Take de gourd off de nail an’ fill up dat thimble wid dat water an’ drink dat fust. Den you kin drink all de water you want outer dat gourd, but you better drink outer dat thimble fust, or your baby sho’ have trouble teethin’, an’ dat's right ter this here day.
“Dere's a heap to midwifin’—’bout de baby die if de diaper tech de floor, an’ all dat. An’ cose you know while de woman is ‘keepin’ house’ she can't cross no stream. An’ she can't set in no room but hers ’til de baby's a month ole, but she kin git up on de nine-day period lack some of ’em does now. Some folks calls dem ole timey remedies foolish, an’ dat's how come I doan practice no mo’.
“Hits a lady comin’ from Montgomery, Dr. Hester say, to hold a meetin’ here in Belmont on de secon’ Monday, an’ I doan know whether I kin stan’ er not. You see I doan want to nuss if I ain't worthy an’ doan know de rules, but I know my way used ter work, but den times is changed. Used ter be sperits too, but I always say hits imagination. You hear folks talkin’ ’bout sperits an’ den you see sumpin’ what skeers you an’ you say dats sperits! But dat ain't lack midwifin’. I been skeered plenty times, but I always come ter find out hit's sumpin’ I know'd. Dat's why I say sperits is nothin’ but imagination.
“One night I seed sumpin’ switch de willow branches right in front er me, an’ I stop an’ say, ’Whut dat!’ Den hit switch de willow branches ag'in. I jes’ stopped still an’ commence ter holler. Needn't worry ’bout what I'm gonna do when I'm skeered, ’cause I jes’ stan’ still an’ holler ’til somebody come git me! Den my husban’ he come up to see what ails me, an’ tweren't nuthin’ but a little steer yearlin’ with horns switchin’ down branches.
“An’ one time when I was little I was out with my mother an’ hit was a moonlight night. We was goin’ home cross de lot, an’ there was a mule name Mary, jes’ standin’ dere with her years bucked lack she was lookin’ at sumpin’. An’ in a minute she snort ’Urrunh!’ An’ Mammy grabbed me an’ run. She say de mule seed sumpin’ ter make her snort lack dat, an’ dat mule was lookin’ right toward dat hill an’ dey says dey is sperits up dar. But I always do say ain't nothin’ ever skeered me but come ter find out hit was sumpin’ I know'd.
“My husban’ believed in sperits though, an’ I used to tease him an’ make him so mad! He say one night he was out huntin’ with some men an’ he had a ole dog name Boo-tee an’ he saw a sperit walkin’ longside er Boo-tee with a switch in its han’. Didn't none of de others see de sperit, but he swore hit was a sumpin’ tall an’ white. ’Bout time he was fixin’ ter call ole Boo-tee, de sperit hit him side de head, an’ you know dat dog carried his head ter one side till he died. My husban’ always said it was on account of de lick de sperits give him, but I use'ter laugh at him an’ say ’How come you think hit was a sperit? Dat ole dog jes’ got sumpin’ in his year ter make him cock his haid dataway!? An’ he get so mad! But whutever it was, dat dog sho’ carried his haid ter one side from den on!
“No Ma'm, I doan believe in conju’. I wouldn't give a nickel to have nobody workin’ on me! All I know about conju’ is whut Aunt Susan tole me. She use'ter tell me lots ’bout hit, but she so ole now she doan like to mention hit.
“She say one night she dream she walkin’ along de road an’ she thought she step on a needle an’ hit hurt her severe. She got hit out. She chewed hit up. Whut she represented was the needle was planted dere fer her. An’ she got hit. De next mornin’ after she dreamed dis, she went down de road, personally, an’ got hit, whutever hit was, an’ de day after dat, she couldn't walk!
“I had a conju’ woman workin’ me once. God knows I don't believe in hit, but I had sumpin’ in my ankle an’ I doan keer whur I walked when I come back home. I'd be lame fer two days. So I went to de conju’ woman's house. She warn't dere, so I waited in de yard an’ pretty soon she come a-skip-pin’ along. She had straight hair like a witch er de pictures in de funny books. She come through de gate an’ say, ’Hmmmm, somebody been here today, drawed my coffin!’ An’ sho’ nuff, dere was de marks on de side of de house! Cose, she could ’er fixed dat up fo’ I got dere, I doan know ’bout dat. Den she went in de house an’ fixed up sumpin’, I didn't see whut she got, but she rubbed off de marks.
“I tole her ’bout my ankle, how hit would hurt me when I walked any piece on hit, an’ she say ’Hmmm, somebody throwed at you. Grudge what you got.’ But she say she could uphand anything brought befo’ her, so I asked her to work on me. She went in de house an’ got three things, I doan know what they was, but dey was three things she put on my ankle an’ rubbed hit. An’ dat was jes’ as well as de other one, an’ hit ain't bothered me a bit since!
“Dis conju’ woman didn't charge me much ’cause hit was de fust time I'd had anything ter do wid her, an’ she wanted ter persuade me, but she sho’ charge other folks mighty high. A dress, or five, six, seven dollars right back on up. Ef you had a hoss stolen, hit was more, but she tell you right now whar to look fer hit!
“A woman I know what was ailin’ went to her, an’ she say, ’Dis here a little ole brown-skinned woman. Short hair. Small feet. Small hands. She had a girl. She come up wrong. She laughed at her! Den she said it was a sumpin’ in de water de woman was drinkin’ an’ tole jes’ where to find de spring. An’ I could witness dat, ’cause I was lookin’ fer ducks an’ saw hit. I didn't know what was happenin’ den, but it was jes’ lack de conju’ woman said hit was. I seen her at de spring, standin’ over de water lack dis, talkin’ to hit. An’ she put a sumpin’ in de water bucket, look lack a green pepper. So I could witness dat, ’cause I seen hit all, jes’ lack de conju’ woman said hit was. But how she knowed, I couldn't say. She went in de house a couple of times whilst we was talkin’, so of co'se she could er cut hit in de cards. But whether she cut hit in de cards or how she knowed hit I couldn't say.
“Wish Aunt Susan would talk to yawl about conju’. (Aunt Susan had replied to all insistence with a stubborn, “doan know nothin’ ’bout hit.” All I knows is jes’ what I'se heered from her an’ she could tell you plenty. She could sho’ tell you ’bout slav'y time, too, she's talked to me ’bout hit a lot. Make her tell you ‘bout when she was pullin’ corn an’ dey leave de quarter ter go down to de fiel’ in de mawnin’, dey take a thick plank an’ pile dirt on hit an’ put a fire on top an’ put de hoe cake on, an’ make ‘em carry hit on dey haids. An’ by de time dey be done get ter de fiel's whar dey ‘sposed to work, de bread ud be cooked an’ done, ready ter eat. Lawsy, you ain't never heered er dat? Lots er times we do dat an’ parch peanuts whilst us walking along wherever we's goin’. An’ reach up on de way an’ pull de peanuts outen de fire an’ eat ’em. No'm hit doan never burn our haids. De dirt on de plank is too thick fer dat.”
“But dat ain't lack hit used to be, neither. Dere ain't no sperits no mo’ er nuthin’. An’ now dey done got a County Nurse, an’ dey don't even find babies lack dey used ter. But dey has mo’ trouble, I doan know how come hit is, but dey does. Well, honey, tell dat County Nurse when you gits back, my health ain't no good an’ when kin I come in for treatment. She got plenty post cards, ain't she? Well ask her to write me one, please, Ma'am, and tell me ‘bout dat meetin’ ‘cause I'm gwiner try to stan’. An’ honey, if you ever tries dat scorched cotton on de baby's navel an’ hit doan work all you got to do is put a fo’ bit piece twix hit and de linen an’ directly on top de navel and dat doan never fail, an’ I doan care whut nobody say.”