Miss Becky cleared away breakfast and remarked, “Well, setting here drinking coffee ain’t gittin my permanent put in. If you’re still a’mind to do it, we better git started.” Pouring a kettle of hot water over the dishes, she set another big pot on the stove to heat. They got their water from a well, not a faucet, so I followed her out to refill the water bucket. The well fascinated me, enclosed in a covered timber structure. A bucket hung on a rope suspended from a pulley. Miss Bessie turned the cover back and allowed the bucket to drop. After a few minutes, a heard a splash.
“Can I look?” I asked.
“No, it’s too dangerous. There’s a boogerman in the well!” She warned.
At five, of course I knew there wasn’t a boogerman in the well, but also had learned long ago not to sass. Mother had foolishly assured me earlier there was no boogerman, a serious error on her part. I’d have probably been a lot better kid had she invoked him periodically. Maybe Daddy would hold me up and let me look down the well when he got back. That wasn’t the kind of thing I’d even bother to ask Mother. She was always trying to prevent any kind of fun. I gave some thought to trying to look on my own, but feared falling in and somehow being rescued. Daddy would warm my britches, good. What I really wanted to do was get in the bucket and let myself down by working the rope hand over hand. I’d seen a well dug and that’s how the men had gotten up and down, of course, that was before the water seeped in. I’d have to think some about how this could be managed without discovery.
I thought about this as I followed Miss Bessie back to the kitchen with her bucket of water sloshing out on either side as she walked. Mother had the home permanent ready to go by the time we got back in. Home permanents were the hairstyle of choice for budget-conscious women of the fifties who were brave and not too fussy. Women frequently cut and permed each other’s hair. Mother was not a talented amateur. She hated fooling with hair, but Daddy had volunteered her for the job. He was good at that. Her time and energy belonged to him and made him look good. Miss Bessie wrapped a towel around her shoulders and settled in a straight back chair on the porch.
Mother got straight to work, cutting and perming as she went. Dividing Miss Bessie’s hair into sections, she measured it, wet it with a comb dipped in water, wrapped it in a little folded-up square of white paper, measured it against a mark, and snipped off every thing sticking out past the end of the curling paper. Afterward, she twisted the paper-wrapped hair around a hard plastic spiky permanent curler, and twisted it tightly to the scalp. I’d been subjected to this misery a few times, so was glad to escape outdoors. I wanted no part of the home permanent process. It was painful, smelled horrible, and made me look like a Brillo Pad.
Billy and I played in the cool, white sand under the high porch. The dogs had thoughtfully dug large holes to make the landscape more interesting where we marked out roads with chips of wood. We stood up small branches to serve as trees. Rocks made fine pretend houses. From time to time a lazy hound pushed its way into one of the holes as we played around him. Billy stretched out and took a nap across one of the hounds. Bored with Billy sleeping, the conversation from the porch above caught my attention.
“Miss Bessie, how many kids do you have?” Mother asked. I couldn’t make sense of that. In my mind, once people got grown, they had no parents. Miss Bessie was as old as my Grandma. Mother claimed Grandma was her mother, but it didn’t make sense to me. If Grandma was her mother, how come I’d never seen her spank Mother? Besides, if Grandma was her mama, why didn’t she live with her? Why didn’t she sit on her lap? I just let it go.
“I had them five big ol’ boys right off.” Miss Bessie said. “Seems like every time Grady hung his britches on the bedpost another one come along. It plumb wore me out. If his mama had’na been staying with us I don’t know how I’d made it. I had to help Grady in the field. She couldn’t see well enough to do much, but she could rock young’uns and string beans. All three of my oldest squalled till the next’un was born. I thought I was done, then ten years later two little gals come along ten months apart. Ruth Ann done fine, but I lost Susie early on. She nursed good but never keep nothing down. Grady got a goat but she never did put on no weight. It ‘bout killed Grady to lose her. I thought I might lose him.
I pricked up my ears at this. Miss Bessie lost her little girl! She must have been mighty careless. I wondered if I might be able to find her. Maybe she hadn’t gotten too far. Old people ought not to be having babies. Miss Bessie looked like she moved way too slow to keep up with a little kid. I thought I’d just look around a little. I crawled out from under the porch and dusted off my knees.
”Don’t you run off and get lost,”. Mother bossed. “I’m fixing to put the stuff on Miss Bessie’s hair and I don’t want to have to go looking for you and burn her hair up. Where’s Billy”
”He’s sleeping on the dog.” I informed her.
At that, she had to go check. “Well, you stay right here where I can see you. Don’t go messing around that well.”
”Yes, Ma’am. I’m just going to look for Miss Bessie’s baby.”
”What?” Mother said. She seemed to have totally forgotten about that lost baby. Miss Bessie didn’t look too worried either.