For my 30th birthday, I created a list of 30 things I wanted to do. One was to write a historical fiction short story. This is the story and as Ruby keeps calling to me here lately. I thought I'd share it here.
As Ruby placed the birthday cake in front of her one-year-old daughter, she had only one thought. Please, God, not another one.
Little Gertrude’s blue eyes widened with glee. Within seconds, her face was covered in frosting and the other children were growing impatient for their slice of the precious treat. Ruby’s father had sent the ingredients for the cake to the farm that morning. His general store was one of the most successful businesses in town, while her husband’s sharecropping barely fed the five mouths living under their roof.
She had decided to bake the cake while Dellon was busy in the fields. It was easier that way. No explaining. No shame. No watching the hurt and embarrassment wash over his face. Ruby knew the children could keep the cake a secret. They had many secrets between them.
“Momma, are you ill? Do you need to rest?” Mary Elizabeth asked her with worry streaked across her young face. Of all her girls, Mary Elizabeth looked the most like Ruby as a young girl. Her deep-set brown eyes and small delicate mouth were identical to her mother’s. But unlike Ruby, there was a hardness to Mary Elizabeth’s features. Ruby couldn’t help but feel responsible for that.
“No, sweet girl. I’ll be fine. Please take your sisters and Andrew outside and take the wash off the line.”
It was April. A beautiful spring day. One of the first warm ones they had had in weeks. Dellon had awoken before dawn to take advantage of the weather and kissed her softly before leaving the house. If it was true, this baby would arrive in January – in the middle of winter.
Please, God, not another one.
There had been a time when another baby was all she wanted. After Mary Elizabeth, she had given birth to a son. Ruby had been so happy to give her husband a son, although he swore a house full of girls would have pleased him. James with his tiny head full of dark hair had been difficult from the beginning. He cried and cried and cried until his screams followed her into sleep.
Then, he was gone. One morning she had noticed he felt warm. By the afternoon, he was on fire and as limp as a rag doll. The doctor came but told Ruby and Dellon that there was nothing he could do. It was pneumonia. He faded away right in front of her.
Ruby’s mother Mary had buried five children before Ruby was ever born. Mary Hocker was a fixed, firm woman. Her mother never spoke of the other children, nor offered Ruby any words of wisdom. When Mary Elizabeth was born, she had only looked at Ruby and said, “Know that many do not come to stay.”
Gladys had come two years after she lost James and Virgil Ruth a year later. It had been hard but they were such healthy, happy girls. Mary Elizabeth toted both around like baby dolls and the sadness that had seemed ever present in the house seemed to lift. But the little boy who hadn’t come to stay still haunted Ruby and she desperately wanted another one.
For four years, they tried. She had gotten pregnant three times and three times it ended in cramping and blood. She began to believe that her three girls were all there would be. If that had been the end of it, she could have managed, but the endless cycle of anticipation, fear, and grief took a heavy toll on her mind and body. Her happiness seemed to be intimately linked to the rise and fall of her belly.
Then, a reprieve. The excitement and fear came with the first symptoms but instead of grief she got Andrew – her precious boy. Like Gladys and Virgil Ruth before him, he was a happy baby that thrived with her attention or without. He had a head full of light brown hair and hazel eyes like his father. Ruby was ecstatic when she wasn’t terrified of him falling ill. But the older he got, the more her anxiety faded and now her tiny baby was a sturdy boy.
It was with Gertrude’s arrival two years later that it began to occur to her that her problem might not be too few children but too many.
“Dellon, I believe I’m with child.”
His face filled with joy and expectation, confirming for Ruby that she was filled with anything but.
The children were asleep and by candlelight her husband was resting after a hard day planting. She had been with Dellon for twelve years. Sometimes she had trouble remembering her life before him or believing it had ever really been hers.
When she met him at seventeen, her world was full of promise and she was full of confidence. Her father was successful and well respected and because of that Ruby had opportunities other girls did not. She was well educated and allowed to pursue things that interested her. She loved music and needlepoint and could spend hours at the piano. All of this was available to her because there was a house full of servants doing chores and tasks Ruby never even knew existed.
For so long, Ruby had believed the luxury in her life was composed of fine dresses, expensive dolls, and her beautiful home. It was only now that she realized that the true luxury in her life was time. Time to rest. Time to dream. Time to breathe. Watching her own girls’ days filled with work and chores, she ached to give them what she had had.
Unfortunately, these things did not occur to her when she fell in love with a handsome dirt farmer named Dellon Childress. He was warm and playful and looked at her with an energy she had never felt before. Her own parents loved her and she was sure they loved each other but what she felt for Dellon seemed to defy everything she believed about love. He became her everything because she gave up everything to be with him.
She still loved him. But their life was hard and his presence in it increasingly small. His nightly appearances – no matter how cheerful – were not enough for her or her children. She needed him. She needed help. She needed rest.
Another baby meant less of everything. Less Dellon as he worked to feed one more mouth. Less help. Less rest. It seemed like with every baby there was less of her.
“That’s wonderful, Ruby,” he said, his eyes shining.
“Is it?” Ruby usually tried not to worry her husband but the burden of her thoughts was becoming too heavy.
Dellon leaned forward in his chair looking her in the eyes. “Are you worried this one will end like the others?”
Ruby was worried. Worried he might see in her face that losing this pregnancy was a source of respite, not anxiety.
“No.” She turned back to the sink.
“Then James?” Dellon’s forehead creased, as it always did when he was trying to communicate more than he was saying. “Charlie Hill was telling me his grandson got real sick. They gave him that penicillin and now he’s back hanging from the rafters.”
“I know.” She replied. Ruby went for the easy way out. “How are we going to feed another little one?”
Money worried her but that really wasn’t what caused her stomach to drop every time she thought of another baby.
But how could she explain that to her husband?
“We’ll find a way. We always have before.” Dellon smiled.
“I suppose so.” She heard him get up out of his chair and move towards her, but she wiped her hands and was on her way up the stairs before he crossed the threshold of the kitchen.
Ruby Lovelace Childress was my great-great-grandmother and this story is based loosely on her life. She was pregnant in Spring 1914, when my great-grandmother Gertrude was one-year-old. Tragically, it was an ectopic pregnancy and she died on July 11, ten days shy of her 30th birthday. My great-great-grandfather Dellon Childress remarried shortly after her death and had two more children. He lived to be eighty-one years old.