By Gloria Naylor
Vintage Books 1993 312 pages
Naylor was born in New York City in 1950. She is the author of The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Cafe among other works. Pay special attention to the ever-changing narrator; people take turns telling this story. A tip: once you figure out who is speaking, jot their name at the top of the section.
Sapphira Wade, a true conjure woman, who in 1823, “smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story…”. Had seven sons. “…ain’t Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that seventh boy” (3).
[Legends of the original matriarch: a slave.]
“…18 & 23 at all–was really 81 & 32, which just so happened to be the lines of longitude and latitude marking off where Willow Springs sits on the map. And we were just so damned dumb that we turned the whole thing around” (8).
“Cocoa is like her very own, Mama Day tells him, since she never had no children” (9).
[Section one opens with a chapter about Cocoa.] She is in New York City. [The narrator is the office man, George, telling about his childhood.]
“It only takes time for a man to grow older, but how many of them grow up” (27)?
[George Andrews and Ophelia (Cocoa) meet at a job interview.] Cocoa tells George that after her cousin and family were lost that she is the only grandchild left. The Linden Hills Christmas fire had claimed cousin Willa, her husband and her son.
[In this chapter we are joined by a third narrator: Great Aunt Miranda, or Mama Day. She describes when Peace died.] “She will see Peace breathing too, at the bottom of the open well, long after her daddy carves the box and they wrap her in white flannel” (36).
“But coming on down to them, it was just her, Abigail, and Peace. And out of them just another three girls, and out of them, two. Three generations of nothing but girls, and only one left alive in this last generation to keep the Days going–the child of Grace” (39).
[A theme emerges of things falling apart.]
“Dr. Buzzard’s pickup truck is missing both fenders and the wheels wobble inward on loose axles; there are so many dents along its side, it’s hard to tell that it was blue at one time. He’s sitting alone behind the wheel, but he’s wearing his beyond-the-bridge clothes…” (46).
“‘Buzzard, I oughta kill you.’ Abigail hugs her granddaughter. ‘My heart almost stopped’” (47).
“Home. It’s being new and old all rolled into one. Measuring your new against old friends, old ways, old places. Knowing that as long as the old survives, you can keep changing as much as you want without the nightmare of waking up to a total stranger” (49).
“‘No, you didn’t have to, but it speaks right well of you that you did. You the only one Abigail’s got left now, with Hope’s child gone’” (50).
[Cocoa loves coming home. She catches up on gossip and Momma Day mixes her up some herbal remedies. For this next scene we have to wonder if George is just a dick:]
“I worked especially late that night, never allowing myself to think about the rationale for any of this. There wasn’t any. I hadn’t done you a favor. I hadn’t felt sorry for a black woman out there up against it looking for a job. I hadn’t thought you the best person for the position. I hadn’t thought at all, not even two weeks later when I sent the roses” (56).
“Well, so much for you, buddy, and your call-me-George. Now, I’m managing the accounts of the man you’re working for. Life goes ‘round, doesn’t it” (57)?
[Mama Day hates to be wrong and doesn’t believe in cuddling. Between grandma and aunt, Cocoa describes the perfect mother.]
“I couldn’t imagine how an evening alone with you and that twelfth rose could be anything but a total downer. I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me” (58).
“It was like when a kid labors over a package–the wrapping paper is poorly glued, the ribbon is half tied–and all of his attention is directed toward that space between the hands that offer and the hands poised to receive. It’s the gesture that holds the heart of the child” (59).
[Wow. That one brings a tear.]
[George and Cocoa’s first date goes horribly, but he asks her out again anyway.]
[The following reminds me of me:]
“‘More than one way to skin a cat. We wouldn’t have to be trying to figure all this out if you’d let her call more often.’
“‘Daddy always said no news is good news. My heart would be pounding every time that phone rang, so I’d rather have her write, if nothing important’s happening.’ Abigail continues her letter” (67).
“‘I guess you qualify as a widow, even though you murdered your first husband.’
“‘Ruby did no such thing.’
“The man drowned, Miranda.’
“‘You would, too, if someone hit you in the head with a two-by-four and pushed you off your boat. She told him she was gonna kill him if he kept messing with that little loose gal of Reema’s” (69).
“Miranda kinda blooms when the evening air hits her skin. She stands for a moment watching what the last of the sunlight does to the sky down by The Sound. They say every blessing hides a curse, and every curse a blessing. And with all of the aggravation belonging to a slow fall, it’ll give you a sunset to stop your breath, no matter how long you been on the island. It seems like God reached way down into his box of paints, found the purest reds, the deepest purples, and a dab of midnight blue, then just kinda trailed His fingers along the curve of the horizon and let ‘em all bleed down. And when them streaks of color hit the hush-a-by green of the marsh grass with the blue of The Sound behind ‘em, you ain’t never had to set foot in a church to know you looking at a living prayer” (78).
[This next quote reminds me of my father]
“A bramble scratches her on the face, and a few feet on she trips over a creeper from a sweet bay. No point in cussing, she hears her daddy’s voice. Little Mama, these woods been here before you and me, so why should they get out your way–learn to move around ‘em” (78). [Yes, this is why I keep Kleenex on my desk. Shut up.]
“Daddy, you said live on, didn’t you? Just live on” (88).
[Mama Day never had children, but she has delivered everyone else’s. Frances and Ruby fight over Junior Lee.]
“‘A man don’t leave you unless he wants to go, Frances. And if he’s made up his mind to go, there ain’t nothing you, me, or anybody else can do about that’” (90).
“‘I raised me some decent, Christian children.’
“‘Miracles do happen,’ Miranda says, turning her back. She walks off before Pearl has the chance to take another deep breath; she can keep talking half an hour on just three lungfuls” (94).
Abigail and Miranda are talking when in Miranda’s mind she thinks “She’s thinking of the child she gave to Mother. But I begged her not to do it. She couldn’t put her own guilt to rest by naming her first baby Peace. Peace was gone, I told her. And now Peace is gone again. She only lost one of her babies to Mother, I lost them all. She’s got much less to forgive than me” (95).
Cocoa thinks “I had seen Mama Day do a lot of things out at the other place, and when I told the kids at school they called me a liar” (97).
[Cocoa seems confused by platonic friendship. She learns that George has a girlfriend. George tells Cocoa they are going to renew their commitment (at the same time George and Cocoa are falling in love).]
[The fake world of dating is discussed from a man’s point of view on pages 104-5]
[George and Cocoa seal the deal.]
[The “other place” is mentioned again when Mama Day tells Abigail she should start storing her gifts there.]
[Remembrances of Dad, below:]
“And Miranda says that her daddy, John-Paul, said that in his time Candle Walk was different still. Said people kinda worshipped his grandmother, a slave woman who took her freedom in 1823. Left behind seven sons and a dead master as she walked down the main road, candle held high to light her way to the east bluff over the ocean. Folks in John-Paul’s time would line the main road with candles, food, and slivers of ginger to help her spirit along…And even the youngsters who’ve begun complaining about having no Christmas instead of this ‘old 18 & 23 night’ don’t upset Miranda. It’ll take generations, she says, for Willow Springs to stop doing it at all” (111).
[A friend brings Mama Day a rocking chair that she says is destined for the “other place.” Maranda’s dad and his six brothers are buried on their own land. Her grandfather and his six brothers are there. Peace, Grace, Hope and Peace again. They never found Maranda’s mother’s body.]
[Speaking of the “other place”:]
“Where do folks get things in their head? It’s an old house with a big garden, that’s all. Me and Abigail and Peace was born there. My daddy and his brothers as well. And it’s where my mama sat, rocking herself to death. Folks can get the craziest things in their head. But then again there was the other place, where she was gonna bring Bernice in the spring. Will she see just an old house with a big garden” (118)?
[A bit about ghosts:]
“She tries to listen under the wind. The sound of a long wool skirt passing. Then the tread of heavy leather boots, heading straight for the main road, heading on toward the east bluff over the ocean. It couldn’t be Mother, she died in The Sound. Miranda’s head feels like it’s gonna burst. The candles, food, and slivers of ginger, lining the main road. A long wool skirt passing. Heavy leather boots. And the humming–humming of some lost and ancient song. Quiet tears start rolling down Miranda’s face. Oh, precious Jesus, the light wasn’t for her–it was for him. The tombstone out by Chevy’s Pass. How long did he search for her? Up and down this path. What had daddy said his daddy said about Candle Walk? She was trying too hard, she couldn’t remember. But she’d bring out the rocking chair. Maybe move back here herself after spring. Lord knows, she’d be back in that garden enough come then. And summer, it’d be real pleasant. Listen to the wind from The Sound. Maybe it would come to her. Yes–it just might come to her. Up and down this path, somehow, a man dies from a broken heart” (118).
“George, I was frightened. Can you understand that? Things were going so well between us that I dreaded the day when it would be over. Grown women aren’t supposed to believe in Prince Charmings and happily-ever-afters. Real life isn’t about that–so bring on the clouds. And each day that it was exhilarating and wonderful; each time you’d call unexpectedly just to say, I was thinking about you; each little funny card in the mail or moment in a restaurant when you’d reach over for no reason and squeeze my hand–each of those times, George, I’d feel this underlying panic: when will it end? And it was worse when we were in bed. You’d take me in your arms with such a hunger and tenderness, demanding only that I be pleased, that I’d feel a melting away of places in my body I hadn’t realized were frozen voids. Your touch was slowly making new and alive openings within me and I would lie there warm and weak, listening to you sleep, thinking, What will I do when he’s not here? How will I handle all this space he’s creating without him to fill it?
“And you–you would be so cheerful the mornings after you slept over. Running down to the deli to get us fresh rolls and orange juice. Circling some announcement in the paper for a show we could catch that weekend. Never understanding that it was three whole days until the weekend and my seeing you again. Three days was time enough to settle into what my girlfriends were saying: ‘He sounds too good to be true.’ I’d look around that empty apartment and yes, it had to be that–untrue. You were only part of some vision, or at best a temporary visitor in my life. Too good to be true. Too good to last” (119).
George discusses how easy it is to make a woman think he cares for her. Come over when she calls. Send random Hallmark cards. Cocoa discusses real sharing; personal things she has shared that meant a lot. George gives Cocoa a speech on the difference between being a son of a whore and a son of a bitch. He was the son of a whore who abandoned him and was found washed near a pier near Bailey’s Cafe (131).
“Small places live on small talk, but sometimes the happenings can be too lean for everybody to get enough fat out of it to chew over” (132).
“Trunks and boxes from the other place gave up enough for twenty quilts: corduroy from her uncles, broadcloth from her great-uncles” (137).
Mama Day performs a hoodoo ritual on Bernice so she will become pregnant. “But she wasn’t changing the natural course of nothing, she couldn’t if she tried. Just using what’s there. And couldn’t be nothing wrong in helping Bernice to believe that there’s something more than there is. It’s an old house with a big garden, and it done seen its share of pain. And I’m just an old woman who’ll be waiting in a rocking chair…” [like her mother] (139).
“There’s a lesson in gratitude floating around here somewhere, but it looks like it’s gonna be a while before it settles” (149).
Mama Day refuses to let Cocoa go out and party with her male friends.
There is a wonderful soliloquy on the passing of time on page 158. Four years later, George and Cocoa are still married.
“When you raise a god instead of a child, you’re bound to be serving him for the rest of your days” (162).
“A sow takes better care of her young. And don’t be sitting there whining about a no-good daddy–if he ain’t never here, it means he ain’t stopped you from cleaning this house. And he ain’t the cause of you stuffing this child with white bread and sugar lard to keep him quiet while you’re watching them soap operas. That’s right, cry, you oughta cry. And while you at it, use them tears to water the truck garden you’re gonna start growing with a dollar’s worth of seeds and a little work. Chickens will eat anything you won’t eat–even their own mess–and give you eggs for breakfast to boot. God don’t like ugly” (193-4).
Mama Day and George make a fishing date.
“I know I ain’t giving her credit. Maranda laughs. She done mellowed plenty since this marriage. Soft around the edges without getting too soft at the center. You fear that sometimes for women, that they would just fold up and melt away. She’d seen it happen so much in her time, too much for her to head on into it without thinking. Yes, that one time when she was way, way young. But after that, looking at all the beating, the badgering, the shriveling away from a lack of true touching was enough to give her pause. Not that she mighta hooked up with one of those. And not that any man–even if he tried–coulda ever soaked up the best in her. But who needed to wake up each morning cussing the day just to be sure you still had your voice? A woman shouldn’t have to fight her man to be what she was; he should be fighting that battle for her. It weren’t so in her time, though, and from what these young women tell her, it’s rare to find it now. So a lot of ‘em is waking up like me, except they’re waking up young and alone” (203).
Here’s a bit of brilliance:
“But you wouldn’t have believed me because they never said a word as they sat at that kitchen table chatting away with you retching in the background. But I knew them: idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and you had come home reeking with his brew. There was a soul in that bathroom to be saved with hard work. They were going to demand practically every minute of your day while you would think you were volunteering your butt off. When she puts her mind to it, no one can beat a southern woman at manipulating a man. And these women had been around long enough to take it to the level of art.
“They were much too skilled to honey, sweetheart, or sugar you into anything. On the contrary, you would be told to run off, to rest, to leave them alone with their work. But context would be their masterstroke and versatility their finishing touch. So Grandma starts out talking about her age. This will probably be the last year she’d fool with that garden. Her appetite is hardly what it used to be–why worry about growing beans? More there than she’ll ever use and even too many to give away. A long, long sigh. She’ll just go on up to the store and buy a few old frozen packages of something. She’s a lot better off than them other old people she reads about in the newspapers having to eat cat food. You see, then she totally drops that subject. Goes on to something else, and finally with another long, long sigh, she says that since these beans are already growing, she’ll go through the last hurrah and get out there and tie them up. To grab at her back when she stands up would be a bit too much, so she just shuffles slowly toward the rear porch. And, of course, you volunteer. That’s gentle pity.
“Mama Day jumps in by the afternoon and uses fierce pride. She waits until she spies you on the porch before dragging that heavy rag rug out to the clothesline. She lets it rail along the ground, stopping several times to hoist it up in her arms. That gives you the time to get across the road with an offer of help that’s flatly and emphatically refused as she struggles unsuccessfully–much too unsuccessfully–to swing it over the line. You get begrudging thanks for insisting that you do it and finally several pointers on the most effective way to beat out the dust. But she’ll keep you supplied with lemonade for your dry throat–at least she ain’t too old and decrepit to squeeze a few lemons. They exchange tactics on the second day and by the third, none are needed. You’ve been allowed to overhear the quiet whispers about how marvelous you are, to witness glimpses of melting awe at the strength of your back, your arms. Yeah, they could lie back now, your ego would take over.
“I guess if I’d really taken those lessons to heart, we could have gotten along better. They had you under their heels and you were purring. But I found treating a grown man like a five-year-old a little nauseating. If they had just come out and said, We want you to help around the house, you would have. As a matter of fact, you would have done it for the remainder of your vacation and not have resented it. That was more my style: Hey, look, keep your tail here and help me. But like I said, they were artists. And they wove the illusion that you were doing more than helping, you were in charge. You wanted to do all those chores. You even thought of things to be done that hadn’t crossed their minds. The fact that you weren’t in charge had absolutely nothing to do with the results: Grandma’s roof got painted, the garden got weeded, Mama Day’s rugs were spotless. And you were too tired to go anywhere. If you only knew, I thought, watching you laughing and talking with them on the porch at night. Grandma shelling boiled peanuts for you, Mama Day rubbing liniment into your sore shoulders. And maybe you did know, but it was what you believed that counted” (216-7).
In the woods Cocoa hears the whispers of ghosts that George can’t hear. They say she is going to break his heart. We learn some more history of the other place. 224-5
“Well, the Scriptures do say it: man was the last thing the Lord made.”
“He shoulda quit while He was ahead.”
“Just letting things crumble apart, ‘cause everybody wants to be right in a world where they ain’t no right or wrong to be found. My side. He don’t listen to my side. She don’t listen to my side. Just like that chicken coop, everything got four sides: his side, her side, an outside, and an inside. All of it is the truth. But that takes a lot of work and young folks ain’t about working heard no more. When getting at the truth starts to hurt, it’s easier to turn away” (230).
Junior Lee puts the moves on Cocoa and Ruby sees him.
“Miranda shakes her head and takes a final look around her garden before she turns her face to the sky. Gray. The color you’d get from blending a bridal dress and a funeral veil” (243).
Little Caesar dies. The poison Ruby plants in Cocoa has begun to take effect.
“There’ll be no redemption for that. She ain’t gotta worry about going on to hell. Hell was right now. Daddy always said that folks misread the Bible. Couldn’t be no punishment worse than having to live here on ear, he said” (261).
Lightning hits Ruby’s house twice and it explodes after Mama Day had turned some hoodoo on her.
“And if you’re worried about us, you can stop. We’re going to be fine because I believe in myself.”
“That’s where folks start, boy–not where they finish up. Yes, I said boy. ‘Cause a man would have grown enough to know that really believing in himself means that he ain’t gotta be afraid to admit there’s some things he just can’t do alone.”
Read the book to find out all the twists and turns!