As every proper Southern girl was expected, I joined the war effort and would spend a great part of my day knitting socks and sewing sheets and pillowcases. The war effort was a big part of everyone around me, however, the first year of the war I was not as actively involved as the rest of my peers. This was because by the end of the year our household was filled up with an even greater care than the war. Aunt Helen took ill.
Aunt Helen not feeling well was nothing new, she would often be very sickly and in the winter times she could spend as much as a week in bed without getting out. Her health had been frail from her birth, and as most of the slaves whispered, she would never have survived if Lulu had not nursed her and pulled her through. She was not expected to live long, and the fact that she had outlived her father, mother and sister was a mystery to everyone. Aunt Helen’s health had been failing for the past two years, but I never expected the day to come when she could no longer rise from her bed.
A hush fell over the household. It was as if we all understood Aunt Helen would not live much longer, and this cast a shadow over us all. Lulu nursed Aunt Helen night and day and Uncle Andrew was often in her room, holding her hand and softly conversing to her. Sometimes, when I would tip-toe past the room and peek inside, I would see him reading to her from a large black book I knew to be the family Bible.
As for myself, I was never called to her, though I did all in my power to help in caring for her. I would help prepare her food and carry it up the stairs myself before passing it on to Lulu. I wanted to help my Aunt in any way possible. I had long given up the hope that she would ever love me, but I didn’t want to seem like an ungrateful child. I wanted her to know that I appreciated the fact that she and Uncle Andrew had taken me in and raised me. As the weeks slowly dragged on and Aunt Helen only got worse. It became painfully obvious that her days were numbered. All around us, things didn’t get better. The Union had imposed a blockade on the Confederacy, supplies could not be brought in, and what was worse, the cotton could not be sold. I saw new lines appear on my Uncles brow, and though he never spoke about anything I knew he was concerned, and stressed.
News began pouring in of the casualties. Every time the mail came in I would hold my breath, almost expecting to see a telegram informing us of Jeff’s death. My Aunt often spoke of Jeff, and I had written him, wondering if he could somehow get leave to come and say his final farewell to her. He had written that for now it was impossible.
One day, as I sat in the drawing room, busily knitting a pair of grey, woolen socks, Lulu walked in and told me that my aunt wished to speak to me.
I lay down my work and went up the stairs. I paused right outside the door to her room. Why was I so afraid? This was not the first time I was going to see my aunt, and as of late, we had been on relatively smooth terms. Still, there was that fear that gripped my heart every time I went to her. How many times had her pale blue eyes looked at me in coldness, telling me without words what a disgrace I was, telling me I was life’s greatest mistake. Taking a deep breath I pushed the door open. Uncle Andrew was sitting by her bed; he stood up when I entered.
“Sarah’s here.” He softly told my aunt. Walking over, he put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and left the room, closing the door behind him. I stood, rooted to my spot, not knowing what to do.
“Come here, child.” Aunt Helen called me.
I slowly walked over to where she lay. Her face had gotten very pale of the week that she had been sick. She looked so frail, so helpless as she lay there on her bed.
“You wished to see me, Aunt Helen?”
“Have a seat, Sarah; there is something I want to tell you.”
Her voice was quiet, and there wasn’t a trace of that bitterness which had always been present when she would address me. I sat down in the chair beside her bed and curiously gave her my full attention, wondering what it was that she wanted to speak to me about.
Aunt Helen looked at me for some time, studying every feature on my face. I grew rather uncomfortable with the silence, but waited for her to start speaking.
“You and I never really got along, did we?” She said at last. I looked at my hands, not knowing how to respond.
“I can’t say it was ever your fault, you always tried so hard to be good,” She continued. I couldn’t believe me ears, was Aunt Helen really saying all this? How out of character for her.
“I suppose you should know some of the things I have tried so hard to hide from you, Sarah. I hoped that in hiding the past I could justify my dislike towards you. I didn’t want to like you, but you know; you are a hard person not to like. Not only are you pretty to look at, you are kind and selfless and always willing to help. How often I would sit in my chair and demand of God why. Why was He so unfair? I had always been a good and model daughter. I had obeyed my parents, I had honored their every wish and I had done everything the way they told me. Never once had I disobeyed them, never once had I spoken against them, never once had I disgraced them. While Evelyn had been a rebel from the start; all she ever did was to defy our parents and disobey their orders. And yet, of the two of us, it was Evelyn who was blessed with good health and beauty. And what was worsel, it was Evelyn, wicked, sinful, ungrateful Evelyn who had been blessed with children. I had always wanted children, but I could not have them; my health never allowed. I told the Almighty that it was unfair of Him to grant to Evy what he had denied me. I thought that of the two of us, I deserved to have a child.” Aunt Helen gave a sad sigh. “I begged him for a child, begged him for a little hand to lead and a little heart to love. Oh Sarah, I have been so blind all these years. God had answered my prayer by sending me my sister’s child; to love and to raise. But I was blind to all this. All I could see was the unfairness of it all.” My Aunt paused for a moment, gathering her strength then went on. “Ours was a broken family. Our father and mother had an arranged marriage, and though it was a good match, there was no love in it. Your grandfather was a cruel and greedy man, who hid all his evil and sinful works behind a good name. His policy in life was keep the family name clean and then you can do whatever you want. We were all brought up that it was up to us to cover and hide any disgrace on his part. This was one of my father’s unbreakable rules. He gambled, he speculated, he spend money beyond his means, he got involved in shady and illegal business; he kept mistress after mistress and fathered more than one illegitimate child. And it was up to us, the women of his house, to pretend everything was fine, to put on a show of how we were the perfect and respectable family the rest of the world thought us to be.
Your mother, Sarah, was your grandmother’s favorite and I hated her for it. She was beautiful and popular and had all the talents and charms a young woman could wish for, and yet, she seemed unhappy with it all. She hated the life we led, hated the rules she was made to follow and she would put up an endless fight. And when father forced her into marriage with Henry Earl, she showed him just how much of a rebel she was and took off. She disgraced our family and father told us we were to have nothing to do with her. Mother went into shock and never recovered. She died two years later. She died begging for Evy to return home. This stung me greatly, because those two years I did nothing but care for her and she never even acknowledge all my work.
When you came to live with us, Sarah, I was angry and upset that I should have to care for you when you were my sister’s mistake. Yes, Sarah, I saw you as a mistake, something that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t realize you were the child I had been praying for.” Tears appeared in Aunt Helen’s eyes. “I disliked you Sarah, not because you were you, but because I wanted to get back at your mother. I thought I could at last get even with Evy for all those years of her being the favorite. I had the chance make her feel what I had felt my whole life. It was wrong of me, Sarah, and I am sorry. You are not your mother and I had no right to treat you the way I did. I justified all my actions using that book,” here she pointed to the large Bible that lay on the table. “When all the time, it was that very book was begging me to forgive and forget. Love covers a multitude of sin, if we forgive not men their trespasses our heavenly father will not forgive us, how many verses are like that. Once you fired at me that if Christ could love the outcasts, why couldn't I? I could, Sarah, I could, but I didn’t want to.
It is funny how one can twist the truth and make it to fit our actions. All this time I behaved as I knew my father would have behaved, when I should have patterned my actions not after a man who destroyed our family and ruined lives, but after the One who died to save lives. I wanted to prove to my father that I was worthy to be called his daughter, that I was the one person in his family who could live up to the name of Beverly, when I should have been living up to an even Greater Name. A name that never judged me for being weak and frail, never looked down on me for being the ‘lesser daughter’; a name that taught me not to judge, but to love.” She took my hand. Her eyes were filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Sarah, for all the pain I’ve caused you. It’s not that I didn’t like you, it’s not that I didn’t love you. Deep down inside, I loved you, no less than your Uncle, but I didn’t want the love, so I killed it with hateful thoughts of anger and revenge. Oh Sarah, always remember this, revenge is most harmful to the one who commits it. Revenge is a dangerous weapon, a weapon that will always backfire. It’s only in books that revenge gives satisfaction, in reality; revenge only reopens the wound and makes it bleed all the more. I know my time is limited and I have tried to make peace with God, but I understand that until I have made peace with you, I don’t have the courage to come before God and ask his forgiveness.”
“Oh, Aunt Helen, dearest Aunt Helen,” I caught her hand and pressed it to my lips. “Poor, wretched Aunt Helen. How my grandfather has hurt everyone in this family. How wicked of him to have treated you in such a manner. You never were the lesser daughter, you never were something to be ashamed of. Of course I forgive you, Aunt Helen.”
“Hush, hush, do not speak ill of the dead.” She chided me in a soft, gentle tone. “And there is much to forgive. For so many years I have made you feel unwanted and undeserved. I pray God will forgive me for letting you down all these years. You are His creation, Sarah, and it should not have mattered to about your parentage. Evelyn was my sister; no matter how prodigal, sinful, and ungrateful, she was still my sister and you are her child and I should have taken you in as my very own. Just like your Uncle did. He always wanted a daughter, and you were as much an answer to his prayers as you were to mine.” She let out a laugh here. “You captured his heart forever, Sarah. He is a good man, I never deserved to have such a husband!”
“Oh Aunt Helen, you must not say that.” Now it was my turn to chide her. “Of course you deserve him. Please, don’t berate yourself any longer. Let the dead bury the dead. I am not angry with you and will grant you as much forgiveness as I can give.”
She smiled. “You are a good girl, Sarah. A forgiving heart is a wonderful thing, treasure it and don’t let it die, you will need it in the future.”
She was over tired from all this talking and I left to allow her to get some much needed sleep.