Ruth Elaine and the Exploding Baby (Part II of II 1930s memoir)

Repost of earlier post few readers saw:

Out of respect for the family, Mr. Kinnebrew dismissed school at noon. Ruth Elaine, normally socially invisible, wandered from the office with her lunch bucket, mystified to find herself Queen of the Playground. The big girls jostled for position around her, shoving lowly first graders to the side, demanding details of the catastrophe. “Did it set him on fire?” “Did guts splatter everywhere when he exploded?” “Did any get on you?”   A real crowd-pleaser, Ruth Elaine’s story got bigger, better, and more macabre.

She was just about to eat lunch with Bessie Sue Jones and Clara Pearson, the meanest fourth-graders in school, when she looked up to see her mother’s two older sisters, Myrtle and Mavis, coming toward her, crying their eyes out. “Oh, Ruth Elaine, why ain’t Maysie sent for us? What ‘n the world happened? This is going to kill pore Maysie!! She’s allus been nervous, takin’ it’s hard when Mama died and never gittn’ back to herself after the baby.” At this, Ruth Elaine forgot her new friends and got serious about crying. Her aunts put her in the wagon, vainly trying to console her, and headed up a parade including the minister and a benevolent delegation of church ladies bearing smoked ham, fried chicken, casseroles, cakes, and canned goods snaking toward the Lawson home. The bounty and variety of food bespoke the magnitude of the catastrophe.

The brilliant beauty of the blue sky fall day belied the terrible loss they would be confronting as they journeyed toward their painful destination. Myrtle and Mavis kept thinking of Aunt Sue who’d lost her mind after the mad dog bit her little Joe. She was no good to herself or anyone else after living through his terrible death…and Maysie had always been so much like poor Aunt Sue. Ruth Elaine wailed louder as they neared the house, begging them to turn around and take her back to school. The aunts pitied her and fussed over her, knowing what horrible things she had witnessed. Ruth Elaine cried ever louder at their concern. Dreading what they’d find when they pulled up in the sunny yard, Myrtle’s husband, Joe, called out, “Yoo Hoo! Anybody home?”

For a minute, the only answer was the barking of Will Lawson’s hound. It was impossible to see into the dark, unpainted house, but eventually Maysie Lawson, interrupted at bathing and nursing Baby Willie, wrapped him in a blanket, and came to stand in the dark doorway, frazzle-haired and unkempt, clutching what her sisters interpreted as a body in her arms. Thinking their younger sister was unhinged by grief, they wailed anew, “Oh Maysie.! Pore Maysie!”

Nearly blinded by the sun in the dark doorway, seeing only the outlines of her sisters and

the crowd behind them, poor Maysie knows they could only have come tell her Death has stolen Ruth Elaine from her, since Will, Baby Willie, and her sisters are there with her. Sweet little Ruth Elaine, her darling little girl! Had she even kissed her before shooing her off to school that morning? Broken by loss, she fell to her knees keening, “Oh my poor baby! My baby! I can’t stand it!” Clutching Baby Willie even tighter to her bosom, crying piteously, she buried her head in his blanket. As Maysie wailed her loss, Ruth Elaine peeked from her hiding place behind the wagon seat. Myrtle and Mavis moved toward poor Maysie, still huddled in the doorway, wanting to comfort her, yet dreading her disintegration when they had to take what inferred was the hideously, disemboweled body of Baby Willie from his distraught Mother. At this point, Will came whistling around the back of the house to see what had the dog all stirred up Myrtle enfolded the weeping Maysie tenderly in an embrace while Mavis took the blanket-wrapped child’s body from her. Chubby little Willie, squalled out in protest before rooting at his aunt, assuming one breast was as good as another. Shocked, Mavis shrieked and nearly dropped him. With Maysie sobbing for poor Ruth Elaine who was obviously alive and well, and Little Willie, chubby and hungry in his aunt’s arms, everyone but Ruth Elaine was confused. Knowing the whole mess was about to unravel now, Ruth Elaine dragged herself from the wagon to face her parents.

Mortified to find themselves the hosts of a wake for live child and parents of a phenomenal liar who’d duped the entire community, the Lawsons made the best of an embarrassing situation and invited the community to a Thanksgiving celebration for the child they might have lost. I’d had never been special friends with Ruth Elaine, but that night, I studied her admiringly. How in the world had Ruth Elaine ever come up with that wild story and carried it off so well?  She had cried so convincingly no one ever doubted her and certainly captured my interest.  I watched her closely afterwards, but sadly the flame of her imagination had burned but once and briefly, perhaps due to the interference of her parents or paucity of opportunities. Her elevated social status was fleeting.  Even though I initially felt shortchanged and resentful upon learning that there would be no fine funeral, to this day I am still grateful to Ruth Elaine for a wonderful tale that has been shared at many family gatherings.

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