Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 31: Harriet Tubman

1866 – Auburn, New York

By the time the war was over, Margaret was a full-grown child. I watched her from the woods behind their house, her and her brother playin’. I thought of my own childhood, and the fact I was about their age when I was set to task the first time. Watchin’ them I realized how much the country had changed, but how much farther it had to go.

As I stalked my daughter’s play with her cousin, I could see they were all but siblings. It was a natural relationship between two that had been raised up together. I moved towards them but kept myself hidden until I was right upon them. I stepped out of the shadows and gave little Benjamin a fright.

“Auntie Harriet!” Margaret shouted and ran towards me. I scooped her up and twirled her around.

“How’s my favorite niece doin’?” She squealed with delight and her laughter nearly broke my heart. When I set her down, I noticed Calvin had appeared on the porch of their little house. “Hello, Cal,” I hollered.

“Auntie,” he nodded and tipped his hat, but I could feel the tension growin’ between us. “Run on inside you two,” he motioned for the children to go. “Your mother needs your help preparin’ supper.” Benjamin moved quickly into the house, but little Margaret turned at the top of the steps and blew me kisses with both her hands. I reached out my hands and plucked them out the air and held them to my heart.

“Love you, Auntie,” Margaret said as she waved and moved in the house behind her brother. I saw Shante peeking out the front door.

“What can I help you with?” Calvin asked me.

“Just wanted to stop in and see my favorite niece.” I moved towards him and added, “and nephew.” I gave him my brightest smile.

“You can’t take her,” he said in hushed tones.

“No, you can’t!” Shante cried from inside the house. I still don’t know how she heard what he said. I shook my head and shrugged.

“I could use the help with Old Rit and Ben,” I offered up.

“She’s no slave girl,” he answered. What choice did I have? I nodded and bid my farewells.

*****

The Civil War was won; I was ready to settle and see the last days of my parents under my roof. Plus, Nelson Davis had fallen in love with me when we were servin’ the war together. He had moved in the bottom bedroom of the big house I bought in Auburn. Since he had tuberculosis I knew it would be a challenging marriage. He loved me. I was fond of him. My heart was still John Tubman’s. I missed him and I always would. I knew I’d never love like that again. But Nelson needed me, he needed me to care for him and he needed a roof over his head.

I still watched Margaret every chance I got. Sometimes she was alone, and on those days, especially, I talked with her. That’s how I learned about their little family’s plan to move to California.

“Papa says there’s money to be made if we go west,” she said while braiding Shasta daisies into a crown.

“It’s a long ways, wouldn’t you just be more comfortable if you stayed here with your favorite auntie and great-grandpa and grandma?” Margaret nodded but didn’t answer. “How about you just come on back to the house with me and we’ll set you up your very own room upstairs with a window lookin’ over the meadow.”

“What about Mama?”

“Oh, she can come visit anytime when she’s here, and your pa too.” Margaret looked at their little shanty.

“They’ll be home soon, they just went down to the General Store.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “We should probably go before they come or I betcha your daddy will try and talk you out of it.”

“Yeah,” she answered without much emotion. There was a pang of guilt I felt as I led her away from the only home she’d ever known.

*****

As I supposed, Cal was poundin’ on the door at dawn the next day.

“You can’t keep her,” he shouted. “You’re breakin’ Shante’s heart. Aunt Harriet, please!”

By that time, Old Rit was up and Margaret came hoppin’ down the stairs from her new room. My mother opened the door for her grandson. “Good day to you, Calvin. Come on in, Minty can make you a cup of coffee.”

“Grandma, I don’t want coffee, I want Shante’s daughter back.” Shante’s daughter, I thought, he didn’t even claim her as his daughter.

“Maggie,” Ma hollered, calling her by her pet name, “you wanna go with your daddy or stay here and help your auntie take care of me and your grand-pop-pop?” The child shrugged keeping her eyes trained on Calvin.

“We’ll take good care of her,” I offered as I put a kettle on for coffee.

“She’s not yours to be carin’ for.” Our eyes met and I felt a maternal rage boil up in me but yet, I knew he was right. I made a choice and although she were mine, she were Shante’s too.

“Pa, I don’t want to go to California,” the little voice was timid but firm. All of us turned and looked at her. She was watchin’ the floor, twistin’ her night shift in one hand, the other still rested on the banister.

“California?” Old Rit clucked and moved to the kitchen. She sat down hard on one of the kitchen chairs and sighed. “California,” she repeated, this time softly to herself.

“Grandma Rit, there’s opportunity there for not just me, but Shante, too.” He sat across from her and took one of her hands, “There’s money to be made, I hear there’s even gold discovery in the San Francisco area. Gold, Grandma.”

Her eyes were rimmed with tears. She looked up to the stairs where, only a moment ago, Margaret had been standing. My child had moved silently across the floor and was half hid behind me. I had one arm draped over her and felt her warmth on my chilly hand, her unruly hair tickled my forearm. “So that’s the way it’s gonna be, huh?” Cal said to her when he had discovered where she had disappeared. He stood. Pa appeared in the doorway from the hall.

“Good mornin’, Cal,” he said and shuffled over to the chair Calvin had just vacated.

“Pop-pop,” they gave each other a little hug as they passed. Calvin approached Margaret and I could feel her press into me. He kneeled down to be eye level with the child. “Alright baby girl, I guess if you wanna stay. We can visit you when we come back.” I could see the sorrow wash over his face. “You take good care of Grandma Rit and Pop-pop.”

“And Auntie Harriet,” she said in a small voice.

“Of course,” he said standing. “And Auntie Harriet.” There was an awkward silence in the room. He reached down and touched her tight curls then turned and left. The door’s closin’ made a hard thunk noise that hung low in the room.

“That coffee ’bout ready?” Pa said, breaking the stillness.

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