EVERYONE in Keiser thinks there's something wrong with her, but no one can say just what the problem is. According to La herself (her name is Laura Lee), her blood has "gone bad." According to the postmistress, someone is hexing her through the mail, and according to one of my more philosophical cousins she has a terminal case of life.
La doesn't do much any more. She lies in bed watching soap operas. She writes letters to her daughter in Cleveland. She combs her wig, reads Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and works the crossword puzzles in The Blytheville Courier. During the day friends come by to gossip or just to sit; on Wednesday and Sunday evenings her husband carries her to the car and drives her down past the experiment farm to the Primitive Baptist Church.
My grandmother claims that La simply refuses to "do" any more-a diagnosis which is probably on the mark, since my grandmother has known La longer than anyone.
What happened is this: Four years ago, after more than half a century of waiting on our family, La came down with a mysterious ailment doctors all over eastern Arkansas. She sent her to internist at the Methodist Hospital in Memphis. She even flew La to Cleveland, where her daughter works as a nurse, but nothing, not even a change of scenery, seemed to do any good. When I talked to my grandmother on the phone last month I received the following report: La still stays in bed all day. And for Christmas her husband bought her a remote control for the TV set.
La went to work for my grandmother in the days when cotton was still king and Delta weatlh was reckoned in bales. She was 10 then; my grandmother wasn't much more than 17. As years passed and the difference in age counted for less, La and Miss Ruth grew more and more alike. The little girl with the headful of spikes became a dark copy of my grandmother: stout, soft-spoken, unfailingly ladylike. If it weren't for their complexions you might have mistaken them for sisters, even twins. See WOMEN, Page C4>
My grandmother has never been sickly. Neither has La - at least not until four years ago. She nursed the three children-Babe (my mother), Frances and Billy-through mumps, measles, scarlet fever and chicken pox, doing double duty with Billy, who was allergic to Delta dust and to every variety of Delta flora. She helped care for Mr. Minor, my grandmother's asthmatic husband; she looked after Great-Aunt Lucille when that lady was dying of spinal meningitis. And, beginning with my Aunt Frances' sons, she cooked for and cleaned up after eight towheaded grandchildren and their animals; her own children were raised, more or less, by their great-grandmother.
One of the delights of life in the Delta was waking up to the smell of bacon - La brought thick slabs with her each morning from Langston's (where her husband worked as a counterboy), and you had to get up early to claim the prized rindy slices
Later in the day - after an expedition to the muddy backwash known as Ditch 31-we'd hang around the electric mixer. By then La would have a German chocolate cake in the works, or if it wasn't German chocolate it was coconut. The idea was to dip into the batter without losing your finger, or, if La caught you, to put dibbs on the bowl. And finally there was dinner, they day's ultimate hour, and the glories of fried chicken, string beans, corn muffins . . .
In the afternoon my grandmother would sit at the kitchen table, going over her bridge club list or the next day's grocery order. La would stand at the sink with a Coke bottle, sprinkling the clothes and wadding them into balls. Then she would set up the ironing board and go to work on my grandfather's shirts or the full-skirted, round-collared dresses forced on my sister and me. All the while the two of them would be laughing, talking, making those small decisions that were the backbone of family life, speculating on the weather or trying to decide whose dog had trampled the irises. In winter they would dring coffee; in summer they would drink iced tea. If there was any cake left they would take turns picking at it, chiding themselves for cheating on the identical diets their doctor had prescribed for them.
What I remember most about La was that she was everywhere-all the rooms in my grandmother's house testified to her touch. I remember, too, her checked dresses and prim shoes, and the way her hair was pulled back, tucked and knotted and secured with bobby pins. And I remember the gold stars on her upper bicuspids. Those stars caused my grandmother a good deal of anguish; according to my uncle, the only time she ever let out a cuss word was the morning La came in with her newly barbarized teeth. That was 40 years ago. My grandmother had said, "Oh, damn."
Yet, despite their intimacy, La and my grandmother observed the old, unspoken laws. My grandmother was always "Miss" Ruth, while La wasn't even "Laura." Some household tasks my grandmother would tend to, and others were always left to La. My grandmother would call for the groceries, lay out the silver, wipe the cut glass and water the ferns. Occasionally she would plump the sofa cushions or straighten a dust ruffle or put up a batch of crabapples. At Christmas she could be counted on for fruitcake, and in late summer she made pear preserves - but she didn't wash the dishes or do the laundry or drag the sweeper through the house. And she didn't sort the scrapings (vegetables for the chickens, meat and breadstuffs for the dogs) or burn the trash or fool with strips of flypaper. It was just that, amid the certainties of her world, there was no "call" for her to do them: La was always there.
I once asked my grandmother why it was La would sit down with her for iced tea or coffee but never eat with her - why she would stand at thecounter or wait until my grandmother had gotten up from the table. "It's just the way things are done, honey," my grandmother told me, shaking her head a little. Of course, her mother was a well-to-do German lady, wife of the man whose father owned the only cotton yard in Macon, Miss. La was born out of wedlock to a 13-year-old girl called Nig and raised by her grandmother, whose parents had been born slaves. Yet I think what my grandmother had to say was more than a home truth. The Delta still demands obediene to the racial code - even in the 1970s, "it's just the way things are done."
On a November morning La called to say she was sick. For several days it seemed she had nothing worse than a bad cold; my grandmother sat by her bed, feeding her soup and aspirin, but when those restoratives accomplished nothing she put La in the Methodist Hospital. There was talk of pneumonia, of an intestinal block. Then her cough disappeared and she began to eat again. Eventually she was sent home. After a few days she went off penicillin and appeared to be recovering.
But just when everyone thought La would be going back to work she announced that her blood had "gone bad." Her blood was keeping her from walking, from getting out of bed. Her blood had made an invalid of her.
My grandmother has been in a state ever since.
Each morning she gets in her push-button Chrysler and drives across the tracks. She takes La the paper and her mail, puts a pot of coffee on, and makes sure she has enough Cokes to get her through the morning TV lineup. Around I she comes back with dinner. In the evening she stops by to see if there's any sign of progress. If for some reason my grandmother can't make it, my aunt takes over. And on the days when my aunt is having her hair done and my grandmother is playing bridge, the responsibility falls on one of my cousins; waiting on La has become a sort of tradition in the family.
My grandmother has always been a believer in happy endings and poetic justice. There's reason in the Delta because there's Reason in the cosmos - not that she'd ever put it that way. When I talked to her the other day she said she thought the whole affair was "peculiar." But before she hung up she told me she's been crocheting La an afghan. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Gary Viskupic for The Washington Post