Dixie opened her eyes, realizing with a flush that the music had stopped. The hum of voices brought her back into the moment. Her mother was collecting her purse. Dixie took a moment to collect her own things and then turned to follow her mother out of the pew. Sharon made her way down the aisle, her back ramrod straight, her hair perfect, her face southern graciousness itself. When Sharon turned to speak with a friend Dixie passed behind her, making her way toward Kenny and Joe. She might not have been allowed to sit with them, but she would walk them to the car. As she joined the two she caught Sadie’s eye. She smiled at her friend. It took all the self-control she could summon to contain the ire she felt as Sadie looked away. Joe was holding the crook of Kenny’s right arm, Dixie took his left arm. Together they walked toward the back of the church. She passed Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan. They were conversing with friends.
Through the clusters of people Bo appeared at Dixie’s side. He stopped the little band. Reaching out his hand to Kenny he looked him in the eye. “Hey Kenny, I’m glad you felt up to coming today.” Kenny looked at Bo surprised. A tentative smile lightly creased his face.
“Thanks,” was all he could manage. Dixie beamed at Bo. So few words. But they mattered.
Bo nodded to Joe, “Mr. McAllister, good to see you, sir.” He turned to Dixie. “Dix, I’ll call you tonight. I’m going driving with some guys this afternoon. Should be home before dark.” With a squeeze of her hand he was off.
The threesome continued on. Perhaps with a lighter step. Dixie’s dad was standing by the door greeting his congregation. The mood felt somber in the foyer, but it registered only slightly in Dixie’s consciousness.
Richard shook Mrs. Westmoreland’s hand as she left then turned to Dixie, Kenny, and Joe. He grinned warmly at the crew. “Kenny, I can’t tell you how glad I am you felt up to coming, son.” He shook the young man’s hand enthusiastically. “How’s your head?”
“Thank you. It’s not too bad, sir,” Kenny responded. “I really liked your message today Pastor Lee.”
Richard squeezed the young man’s hand once more before letting go. “So glad to hear it, Kenny.” Next he took Joe’s hand. “Joe, good to see you friend. Thank you for opening your home.”
Joe smiled back. “Glad to do it, pastor. More than pleased.”
Richard gently touched his daughter’s cheek. “See you at home sweetheart.” Green eyes mirrored each other’s depths, reflecting, understanding.
A small line had formed behind them. Dixie and her friends stepped out into the brilliant atmosphere of fall. She walked the two across the parking lot to Joe’s silver Buick. Hugging Joe and opting to squeeze Kenny’s hand, so as not to hurt his sore ribs, she said goodbye promising to be over tomorrow after school. Dixie crossed the parking lot to her truck without looking around. There was no need of catching someone’s disapproving eye now. Hopping into her truck she paused briefly before turning the ignition. She wanted to see Angela. If she headed over to her friend’s house now she would likely catch her before the family sat down to dinner. She would just take a minute to tell her friend how the morning had gone.
Half an hour later Dixie stepped quietly into her family’s hushed house. Her brother’s car wasn’t in the driveway. A pot of soup steamed on the stove top. She could hear her parents’ voices floating towards her from the den. Laying down her purse and scarf she slowly made her way to the hallway between the kitchen and den. She sensed that the thin layer of safety was being pulled back to reveal the deeper truth at work in her family. She hovered in between.
“Sharon, it’s time to face the past and be honest. You cannot hold yourself and others to this unattainable standard of perfection anymore.” Her dad’s gentle voice coaxed her mother. “No one expects it of you, but even if they did, Jesus doesn’t.”
“Seriously, Richard, isn’t that what the church has always taught - that we should obey, be holy, perfect as God is?” Her voice took on a hard edge. “It certainly was what mine taught.” She choked out the words. “It’s what my parents expected.”
“Honey, I know that’s how you were raised. I suppose I was too. I suppose that’s how a lot of the churches in the south have been for the last few decades. But we’ve missed grace. I’m not saying God doesn’t want us to be obedient to him. I’m just saying we missed the heart of why. We missed how much he loves us. We missed the part about how he understands our human weakness and need. That he’s for us. Not standing there with a cosmic ruler, but with his arms open. If we didn’t need him what would be the point? He knows we need him.” He paused and his voice lowered. “You don’t have to make things up to him, Sharon. It’s done. Forgiven.”
Dixie wondered what thing was forgiven. She didn’t want to eavesdrop but she hated to interrupt them. She moved closer to the door and into her father’s line of vision. He looked up and saw her.
Standing he moved toward her. “Hey, honey. Your Mother and I were just talking. You can come in and join us.” She could tell her mother would prefer she didn’t, but Dixie did anyway. She sat in her dad’s favorite armchair and he joined her mother back on the loveseat across from her. He looked between the two of them. “It’s been a busy couple of days. We told Daniel we needed to put off our usual Sunday meal today and see him later in the week.”
He looked questioningly at his wife. “I think your Mother has something she would like to talk to you about.”
Dixie looked at her mother. Sharon shifted uncomfortably, smoothing her navy skirt. “Well, I can’t say I want to, but I do see the importance in having this conversation.”
Richard stood to leave. Sharon grabbed his hand. “You can stay, there’s no need for you to go.” He cupped her face with his free hand. “This is best shared between the two of you.” Her eyes followed him as he left the room.
Dixie sat on the edge of her chair, back straight, eyes fixed on her mother. Her heart flip-flopped as her mother’s tortured eyes turned toward her. The urge to bolt surged through her brain, triggering a flood of adrenaline. She was positive she did not want to hear what her mother had to say. But she was desperate to understand. She sat rooted to her spot.
Sharon clasped her hands tightly in her lap, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. When she opened them her emerald eyes were swimming in grief, but her jaw was set with determination. “Your dad thinks you need to know my story.” She emphasized the last word with disdain. “I suppose he’s right, though I’ve tried for years to forget it, to protect you from it.” Her mother paused, collecting her thoughts. “You know the type of people your grandparents are. Model citizens, looked up to, active in their church. Expectations were strong in our family. My sisters enjoyed the circle we were a part of, kept the rules, at least they never got caught, they embraced the life we had. As a teenager in the late seventies early eighties the walls of my world felt restrictive.” Her eyes softened. “Actually I was a bit like you.” She smiled, not so much with resentment, but an aching wistfulness.
She continued, her words clipped and tight. “I went off to school at Ole Miss, relishing the freedom I had. Of course I kept the pretense of the good girl; I played the part for your grandparents. And I enjoyed the privilege their position afforded me. I was pragmatic at least. But I was away from home and believed what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.” She smoothed her skirt again. Dixie noticed her hand shook.
Her eyes found Dixie’s with an intensity that made the hair on the back of Dixie’s neck stand up. “To get to the point, I was pregnant by my sophomore year.” Dixie worked to control the surprise on her face.
“What are you saying? Pregnant with Daniel?”
“No, Dixie.” Dixie could tell it was painful for her mother to admit. “The baby wasn’t your father’s, we didn’t even know each other at that point. It’s of no consequence who the father was. I barely knew him. He,” she paused and tried again. “He, took advantage of me.” Her voice was flat, almost lifeless. It worried Dixie. “Of course telling your grandparents was unpleasant. Abortion was legal at that point, but for people like my parents it was a distasteful option. I was sent away, of course.”
“What about the baby? What happened to it?” Dixie’s heart beat fast. Did she have a sister, another brother? How did she feel about that? It was hard to see her mother as a wild teenager, she had always seemed so buttoned up.
“I gave birth to a little boy, February 12, 1986,” she whispered.
They sat silently, twisting over their own thoughts for a moment. Dixie was in a daze. She didn’t know how to make sense of it. Taken advantage of. Did her mother mean she had been raped? She couldn’t see her mother as a party girl. Where was her brother now? How should she respond? All of a sudden a flame of indignation rose up in her. How dare her mother be so hard on others when she herself had been imperfect, when she knew what it was like to struggle!
There was an edge in Dixie’s voice when she asked her mother, “Where is he now? What happened to my brother?”
Sharon looked up, surprised by the tone of her daughter’s voice. Worry knit her brow together. “I was 19. My parents weren’t keen to help me raise a baby. At first I thought I would just stay away and try to raise him on my own. That stubborn streak I suppose.” Her eyes spilled the memory down her flushed cheeks. “I really did care about him. I knew it wasn’t his fault. In the end I just didn’t feel I could manage on my own. When he was born the doctors realized something was wrong.” Her voice broke. “He had cerebral palsy.”
Dixie caught her breath. “Mother!” she croaked out.
“I know.” The phrase acknowledge everything Dixie was thinking. “I was heartbroken.” Her nose was running now. Dixie’s heart hurt to see her usually composed, perfect mother a mess. “I thought maybe God was punishing me for disobeying him, and my parents. I never told them that Kyle had cerebral palsy, because I was afraid that’s what I would hear, and I couldn’t bear it. I had put myself in situations that were unwise. I drank far too much. I don’t even remember all the details that led to me getting pregnant. It was a party, and I was intoxicated.”
Dixie flinched at the thought of her mother in such a situation. Her mind spun dizzyingly, trying to keep up.
“Your dad says that God wasn’t punishing me. But even so, I’ve wondered. I saw Kyle, I heard that’s what his adoptive parents named him, before I left the hospital. After I met your dad I wished I’d kept him. With your dad’s support I know we could have raised him. But at the time I felt utterly alone. And I was so afraid of his needs. What if I couldn’t meet them?”
“Was it hard to see Gabriel when I brought him to church?” Dixie asked the question before it had even fully registered in her own mind.
Sharon nodded, wiping her eyes. “It took me off guard. Of course I’ve seen other children with the condition over the years. But it hurts every time. And to see you so happily interacting with that little boy...” She choked on a sob. “I could just imagine you with a brother like that. I asked myself what it would have been like to have him in our family. I’ve always felt I let him down.” She couldn’t talk through the tears and sobs catching in her throat anymore.
A flood of compassion for her mother swept over Dixie. Joe had been so right. She had had no idea. What she thought was callousness on her mother’s part was deep pain. Her mother wasn’t mean, she was afraid. Compassion was Dixie’s dominate emotion, but not the only one. She still felt the sting of anger. Not so much at her mother’s past mistakes and how much pain they’d caused, but at the way she’d held people to a standard she herself hadn’t been able to keep. She wanted to sit by her mother and comfort her, but the years of distance weren’t easily scaled in a moment.