Her Birth Story
Ruth Herndon did not know where she had been born or who her biological mother or father were. The Herndons repeatedly explained that they had found her in their barn on an exceptionally warm evening with a brilliant full moon in July when she was just a few days old, so she knew she did not really belong to them. That night, when Mr. and Mrs. Herndon entered the dark barn to check on the mare because she was ready to foal, they saw a blurry form run and then dash past them and out the door into the murky, surrounding woods. Then they heard a kitten-like cry and, turning, saw a bright-haired infant lying on a pile of straw. Written in drippy ink on the shabby pink towel in which she was wrapped was a note that read, “This is Annemarie, born July 1, 1965. I love her more than my life, but I am alone and cannot care for her. Please do not change her name.” Believing that she was a gift from God, the Herndons kept the beautiful infant, but they ignored the mother’s plea, and named her Ruth.
Mrs. Herndon, who Ruth called “Ma,” was considerate, but weak and beaten down by life and perpetually forlorn. Mr. Herndon was a dark, grim, foreboding figure who looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet. From the time Ruth was old enough to talk and understand, he repeatedly warned her that she had dangerous flaws—her bright, vivid imagination and her irrepressibly high-spirited personality—which would result in her being condemned to the eternal anguish of the fires of Hell.
On Ruth’s eighth birthday, Mr. Herndon, who she and everyone else in the family was required to call “Father,” informed her that cleaning out the stalls during the time the cow and horses were grazing in the pasture was now one of her daily chores. After Ruth had raked out the dirty straw and replaced it with a fresh batch, she looked for a brush to use to wash down the slat walls. On a high shelf in the barn, which she had to climb on a barrel to reach, she found an old bucket filled with brushes, sponges, and pieces of cloth, one of which was the towel in which she had been wrapped. As she read the faded but still legible note, her stomach lurched, her face darkened, and her fingers grew cold. From the time she had been old enough to understand, she had known that she was not a part of this cold, hard family. Learning about the lie—the fraud regarding her name—provided the child with one more reason to feel apart from the Herndons and their ramshackle Missouri farm, and wish for a new life.
Now that the child knew her birth name she refused to respond when people called her Ruth, insisting that her “real Ma” had named her Annemarie. Father warned her that Annemarie was a sinful name, one that sounded like a Mediterranean, a “popish” name, and he warned her to drop her “evil, wicked, modern ways,” which he was sure were like those of the people who attended the local Catholic church. She held firm because she understood that her birth name was her tie, her only connection, to her real mother and her true home.
Since Father was a good Christian, he strove to save the child from what he knew would be her ghastly fate. He did this by making sure to spend “sacred time” alone with her every night, beginning when she learned of her origins, in that same barn where she had been found. Even though Abigail, Mary, Sarah, and Naomi treated her like their baby sister, neither they nor Ma ever asked Annemarie about her time in the barn with the patriarch of the family.
Annemarie gritted her teeth and learned to accept her bleak, mistaken life in that old farmhouse with the family that was not hers. She stared at the others sitting at the stark dinner table and during nightly prayer services and felt foreign, trapped, and worthless and hungry for her real home. After being repeatedly punished for not answering to Ruth, she thought, I will let them call me Ruth, but I am Annemarie and I will find my real home someday.
Annemarie believed she would never be whole until she knew the story of her birth, so she created it and revised it and rethought it and recreated it and then she played it over and over again in her head as she lay in bed at night, awake for hours, listening to the inharmonious snoring of her sisters and the squealing cries of the old house as it swayed and creaked, victim of the relentless winds that swept down from the mountains.
By the time Annemarie was 14 she had decided on the definitive version of her birth story. She believed that her handsome father, who she named Curtis, and her delicately lovely teenage girl of a mother, whose name was Delilah, were from feuding Ozark families, and so, the two young people, who had repeatedly looked at each other from a distance, had to conceal their feelings. Annemarie decided that Sundays were, by local tradition, the one day of the week when feuds and all other animosities were put aside, enabling the members of both clans, who composed the majority of the inhabitants of the valley, to attend the lengthy, ponderous service in the dimly-lit, drafty wooden church. Afterwards, the warring families walked to opposite ends of the dusty parking lot to their beat-up vehicles and broken-down horses and wagons. Delilah’s mother chided her for exchanging quick, furtive looks, as she had on other Sundays, with a boy from the other family while the rest of the congregation had been singing and praying and listening to the fiery old preacher. Delilah responded to her mother’s scolding and dire warnings with angry denials, after which she ran from her family and headed to the surrounding woods. Her mother called after her, but her father said, “Best to give the girl a chance to cool off. Let her be.”
A short while later, Delilah was dipping the toes of one bare foot into a quick-moving stream that blocked her path so as to test the temperature of the water in preparation to crossing it; she had thrown her Sunday shoes over her shoulder and was holding them by their long laces. Startled by a rustling sound behind her, she turned her head and saw the boy from the other family emerge from the woods and enter the clearing that led to the stream. She froze and then she pushed a few strands of her silky blonde hair from her face and turned back to the stream. Frightened, excited, confused, she resumed her testing of the chilly water, knowing that the boy was looking at her, admiring her. She attempted to control her racing heart and trembling legs. She feared … and hoped that he would approach.
The boy, glued to his spot at the entrance to the clearing, sighed at the sight of the girl: fragile, willowy, astonishingly beautiful, looking so much like an elegant sunflower in her yellow Sunday dress and matching hat. Delilah shyly turned her head to look at the boy again. Then, as he stared at her, she became bold and held his gaze. They had never been this close to each other; no one from his family had spoken to anyone from hers for decades, since the time the runaway horse from her family had trampled and killed a child from his family. They did not even know each other’s names.
If anyone else had been around, the two young people would have turned away from each other. They had both been taught from the time that they were old enough to understand, not they ever did understand, to hate every living soul from each other’s families, but here, in the fragrant innocence of the shadowy forest, they stared long and hard and examined and assessed each other. Then the boy walked over to the girl. She stood still as he closely sniffed strands of her rich, shimmering hair that hung below her hat and the smooth skin of her sweet-scented neck. Then he backed away and scrutinized her eyes, her mouth, the swell of her bosom beneath her dress, and her delicate feet.
Shivering in the shadow cast by the boy’s large frame, she timidly smiled at him. He gently brushed a few stray filaments of her golden hair from her forehead. Then, with a cat-like motion, he bent down, lifted her up, and stepped into the cold dark water, carrying her as if he were a groom bearing his bride across the threshold of their new home. She was startled, but only for a second. As she absorbed the animal heat radiating from his chest and breathed in his not unpleasant musky odor, she relaxed in his arms. Halfway across the rivulet she nestled her head against his large chest. By the time they reached the other side she felt as if she had been reborn and re-baptized. He knew that he had reached a new, wondrous place in his life and that everything would be different.
They walked hand in hand in a direction that would not lead them to the home site of either family. Neither one had said a word, nor had they looked at each other since he had gently put her down on dry ground on the far side of the stream. He was 17; she had just turned 15.
A few minutes later, when they reached a clearing where there was a bed of soft, compressed leaves that deer had used as a birthing place they stopped. They looked down at the cushiony spot and then around them; then they listened. Not even a cricket chirp disturbed the silence. Still holding one of her hands, the boy knelt on the dry, aromatic leaves and looked up at the girl; she knelt in front of him. Their first kiss, with their hands locked together at their sides—the first kiss for each of them—was sweet as honey and gentle as summer rain. Then, as he embraced her and she moved against him, they kissed deeply and desperately and held each other close. When he broke the embrace and smiled at her and then brushed his lips against her silky neck, she giggled. It was the first sound either of them had made since his initial sigh when he first saw the girl dipping her toes in the stream. He looked at her smiling face, and then he laughed. They both had the same thought: So, this is it ... this warm, happy feeling like nothing I have ever known. It is all I will ever want.
She did not resist when he reclined on the soft bed of leaves and pulled her down to him. After a few seconds of warm caresses she shivered again, this time with delight, as he sat up and quickly wriggled out of his flannel shirt and then slowly and carefully unbuttoned the front of her Sunday dress. She sat up and threw off her hat, lifted her dress over her head, and quickly removed her under things. Then she allowed him a long, unhurried look at her slim, naked body, ivory-white and beautiful beyond belief. After they had touched and caressed and kissed each other with increasing excitement and with intense tremors of joy, she lay back, awaiting him. At first, she cried out and tried to hold him off; then, once she relaxed and became used to the feel of him, the warmth of him, she wrapped her arms and legs around him and held tightly as he more fully covered her and filled her and became part of her and brought her to heights of ecstasy about which she had only dreamed. At the same time, he exulted in the intoxicating feeling that he was being joyfully and completely absorbed by this warm, lovely girl whose touch was soothing and magical. They moved in rhythm, holding each other tightly and moaning every so often.
After while, she looked up at him with wonder, thinking, Not yet ... soon ... soon ... yes, yes … he thought, Yes, yes, yes.
They lay quietly on their leafy forest bed, wrapped in each other’s arms for most of the rest of the day, stroking each other’s faces and shoulders, occasionally dozing off and dreaming—she of strong, towering oaks, he of dazzling, fragrant sunflowers.
He awakened. With his eyes only partially open, he kissed her shoulder. Then, startled and chilled, he saw that they were in semi-darkness; the early-fall sun had begun to set. He shook her awake and spoke his first words to her: “It’s dark. They sure to be lookin’ for you.” She looked around, realizing how late it was. She felt sick and cold.
As they hurriedly dressed they strained to concoct a story for her to tell her parents. They decided that since their families had no contact with each other it was unlikely they would find out that both young people had been away from their homes all day. Curtis was not concerned about what his parents would think because, at 17, he was a man; when he was not working at the farm or the local lumber yard he often spent days and evenings alone in the woods, hunting. But he was worried about ... What is her name?
“Delilah Blossom Ross,” she said as she tied her shoelaces.
“That name suits you,” he said. “I’m Curtis Lee Stafford.”
They decided they would have to rip and dirty her beautiful Sunday dress and she would have to scratch her arms and legs with brambles. When they had finished doing that, Curtis said, “Tomorrow, when no one’s about, take your belongings and hide them in the woods near your house. We’ll meet here tomorrow at nightfall and then we’ll go off to be married.” They kissed and then they went their separate ways.
A half hour later, as Delilah walked into the family compound, one of her older brothers, who had just returned home after hours spent scouring the woods in search of her, called out, “She’s here!” All of the members of her family who were at home ran to greet the girl with kisses and tearful hugs. Only her mother kept her distance and carefully scrutinized her only daughter. As she did so, her blood ran cold. Then she backed away from Delilah and hung her head.
“It was awful, mama ... a bear, a hungry one. He chased me up a tree. I hit him with a big old branch each time he reached up to get me.”
“Are you hurt, child?” her father asked.
“No, papa; just these scratches from running through the brambles and climbing the tree, but, oh, my dress is ruined!”
Her father assured her that a dress could be fixed or replaced. He thanked the good Lord that she had been saved.
“And it was the good Lord who I love more than my life who provided me with that sturdy old branch to fight off the bear.”
As the girl said that, her mother knew that her daughter was lying, but she remained silent, the weight of a heavy stone on her chest replacing the sour stomach and pounding headache that had afflicted her all day. She sobbed once and then she walked back into the house. She had not touched her daughter.
The next morning the men set out to find the bear that had menaced Delilah. With wide eyes and an occasional grimace, the girl had described a completely different section of the deep woods from where she and Curtis had sealed their union.
Since her father had told her to stay home from school she busied herself washing the breakfast dishes and cleaning the house. When she saw that her mother had gone outside to tend to her vegetable patch, Delilah quickly placed her meager belongings—some clothing, her teddy bear, a few books, her favorite pink towel, a couple of photographs—into the knapsack she used for school. When she had finished packing she pushed the bag under her bed, hoping she would have a chance to hide it in the woods without being seen.
Delilah had not expected her mother to make a fuss over the bear attack—that was not her way—but she had expected to be asked about it. She thought her mother’s silence odd because they usually chattered away when they were together. However, she did not spend much time thinking about it. Her mind was occupied with warm, stirring images of Curtis and her new life in a distant place; she did not know where, but she believed that anyplace in the world would be wonderful if they were together because it would be their home.
The men returned late for the noon meal, complaining that they had not seen any signs of bears anywhere they searched; neither had they been able to find the giant oak tree with scratch marks on its trunk that Delilah had described. Perhaps, her father suggested, Delilah had been confused about where she had been when the bear chased her up a tree. He said that they would search other parts of the deep surrounding woods the next day.
After the men had finished their late meal they went out to do the chores they had neglected during their morning hunt for the bear. Delilah’s mother said that she and the girl would help so that all of the work could be completed before nightfall. Delilah’s father asked his wife to help him gather apples; he told his daughter to load into the back of his pickup truck the two dozen posts that he had cut on Saturday, saying that he had to repair a section of fence in a distant pasture. After Delilah had lugged the heavy posts and placed them into the back of the truck, she realized, with relief, that she was alone. She ran into the house and pulled her knapsack out from under the bed. Then, although she knew it was a sin and would cause harm to her family, she took the few dollars from the jar that her mother kept hidden in the pantry. After all, she thought, if it weren’t for this silly old feud, Curtis and I could keep company and get married with the approval of both families, and we sure will need the cash when we’re on our own. Since it was only a short while before dark, rather than hiding the knapsack in the woods, she stood in the doorway of the house for a moment and looked in all directions; then she bolted for the forest, quickly running from the only home she had ever known.
When Delilah reached the soft, leafy woodland bed she was upset to see that Curtis was not there, but then she reminded herself that it was early; surely, he would come along soon, and then their wondrous new life would begin.
As she looked into her knapsack to pull out a book she saw a torn-off sheet of brown paper. Delilah knew immediately that it was a note from her mother. She did not understand how she knew that, because she had never seen her mother write or read. All of the woman’s waking hours were spent cooking, cleaning, sewing, darning, tending to children (hers and, now that some of her offspring were grown, the children of other family members), and other arduous time-consuming chores. Delilah, who had always done well in school and, before she met Curtis, had thought she would like to graduate from high school if her parents would allow it, read, with a heavy heart and a leaden feeling in the pit of her belly, the almost indecipherable note written in thick, heavy pencil:
i no you done a bad thing you shoulda never done and i have a noton idee the boy that done you and that is why you have to run awy away may the Good Lord protec you and i hope we i can see you again befor i die
your mother Julia May statler ross
Delilah wept as she thought about how she might never see her family again. She asked herself why she was doing this. Then she thought of Curtis, and she could still feel him. She looked at the note again and remembered what her mother had said to her when she was 12, when she had reached womanhood: “Someday, you’re gonna have a husband and he’s gonna put his dirty thing in you, most likely night after night. You have to pray that he is a kind man because you must obey him. Console yourself with this: from his nasty grunting and tussling comes beautiful children who will love you and be a comfort to you as you grow old.” Her mother told her to seek solace in prayer during the conjugal act, saying, “It helps to think of Jesus when he was a baby. Focus on that while your husband’s doing that thing to you.” Delilah had laughed and said, “Mama, you’re so old fashioned. I’m not gonna be thinking of Jesus when I’m making love to my husband. I expect I’ll be tussling right along with him and enjoying it.” When Delilah said that, her mother had turned away, embarrassed and concerned.
Delilah stood up and looked around her in all directions. Then she closed her eyes and listened. The darkening forest was silent. She shivered and then she looked at the note again, just barely able to make out the words in the darkness. Then she looked around her again.
At this point in the story of her birth, Annemarie always began to cry for Delilah, her real mother, and Curtis, her real father, and her mother’s mother and for the extended families of both of her parents. Her sadness was so deep and so real that she knew her made-up birth scenario was true. She believed she had been conceived on that lovely fall afternoon on that bed of soft, fragrant leaves in the deep woods of the Ozark Plateau in Missouri. She was sure that Curtis and Delilah loved each other for the rest of their lives, but she wondered whether he had made it to his meeting with Delilah that evening. Perhaps someone had seen the two young lovers the day before, on Sunday, and Curtis’s family had locked him in his house or chained him to a tree or, when Delilah’s father and the other men in her family saw that she was missing again they searched for her and brought her home and killed Curtis or perhaps the two lovers did run off together, but Curtis died and Delilah could not take care of her baby alone or ... or. … She did not know.
What Annemarie did know was that she had been raised in a place that was not her real home and that she had done what she had to do. She had never looked back or felt guilty about it. A day after her fifteenth birthday, she had packed a bag, emptied Father’s wallet, taken all of the family’s cash savings, flattened all four tires of his pickup truck, and run from the farm in the middle of the night while the family slept.
She had done one more thing, but she did not like to think about it.
Now, after living in various parts of the Midwest for six years and four more years in New York, she was out of work and almost penniless and, once again, she had misjudged a man. She had been so sure about this one; he had been nice to her and had not had her arrested for stealing from him. She had sensed a warm, loving connection with him, but he had not felt anything and she had no power over him. In fact, she recalled with an aching combination of regret and embarrassment as she stumbled out of Howard’s bookstore that last time, he did not call me by name once during those times we spent together. He probably had not noticed it on that nice card I gave him. Then she reminded herself of a lesson she had painfully learned and then forgotten over and over again: you never really know people and you should not trust anyone. Sooner or later, everyone with whom you connect hurts you. Most of the time, it is not intentional but due to the complications of life. At other times, people use others and purposely hurt them or degrade them or worse.
Then she thought about the Herndons and the barn and the pink towel. She had kept it, had it with her now, knew she would never discard it, because it was her only tie to her mother and her origin. She smiled when she looked at it and called it “Mama.” She held it against her face now and sniffed it; although it was old and soiled and stiff in places and smelled moldy and had retained a bit of the odor of the barn, Annemarie never washed it because she understood that her mother, her real mother, had held it and wrapped her in it when she was a newborn. As she brought it to her lips she knew that her mother had kissed it. When Annemarie was alone, she brought the towel to bed with her and clutched it as she slept, sometimes dreaming of her beautiful girl of a mother and her handsome young father.
She thought, If only I knew where in the deep forests of the Ozarks of Missouri my real mama and papa had lived, I would go there, to my real home, and live with people who are of my blood. That is all I want out of life.