I was living in Minneapolis when my aunt called to say that my grandmother was ill. If I wanted to say goodbye, I should come down at once.
A couple years earlier, I had left Mississippi on my own volition—before I was forcibly ejected. As a budding gay, liberal, late-night-carousing, backsliding Baptist, I clearly wasn’t fitting in. Don’t get me wrong: Mississippi is the finest place on earth if you belong. But it’s hell if you don’t. Minnesotans, on the other hand, don’t seem to care if you belong or not. They leave you alone. But if you need help, just ask. They probably have a 12-step group for it. In the two years I had lived in Minneapolis, I had come out, sobered up, begun a business, and become reasonably successful. For the most part, I had turned my back on my native South.
Actually, there was one place in Mississippi where I do recall belonging, and that was in the company of my grandmother. She never looked at me like I was a disgrace-in-training, a family embarrassment. I think her unqualified acceptance stemmed from the kind of durable love that came from raising a dozen kids on a dirt-poor, Depression-era farm. Her unflinching gaze said that she always knew who I was, and that nothing I could do would permanently alter that. A person could breathe around Granny.
The hospital waiting room in Jasper County, Mississippi, was filled with family members hoping to be allowed a final goodbye. I was waiting among my aunts and uncles, their spouses, and a passel of cousins, when my mother rushed out from Granny’s room and put her arm around me. “It’s Johnny she wants to see,” she said, her tone tinged with pride. “And after him, nobody else. She says she too tired.”
I stood at my grandmother’s bedside and looked down upon her wasted body and gaunt face. One eye had been taken years ago by the cancer, and the other was straining against an approaching darkness. I took her hand. She feebly attempted to grip.
“She’s been fretting to talk to you,” my mother said. “She said she has to tell you something. Nobody knows what.”
Granny never made any bones about saying that out of 50 grandchildren, I was her special one. I’m sure the slight smile she gave me cost precious energy. But when her lips moved, there was no sound.
I bent down and put my ear to her mouth. I heard something, but it was only the rush of breath against my ear, broken by the parting and closing of dry lips. I could make out no words.
“What, Granny?” I whispered. “Tell me.”
“What did she tell you?” my mother finally asked.
“I didn’t understand. I don’t know.”
That was it.
Or maybe not. When I returned to Minnesota, I began hearing voices that woke me at night. They were distinctly Southern and mostly women. No faces, no plot, no point, really. They chatted about cooking and raising children in one breath, raising gardens in the next; about husbands, neighbors, the preacher, and laying hens. It was the talk of the kitchen, the general store, late afternoons under the chinaberry tree, and evenings on the front porch—the comforting background chatter I had heard growing up. And even though I could not name the voices, I recognized the sound as the music of my childhood. Perhaps my grandmother had not been silent after all.
I filled a journal with the scenes, trying to catch the rhythms and expressions that evoked Southern life. There was “hog-killing weather”—that first cool spell in fall when it was safe to butcher a pig, a festive occasion that would bring in all the neighbors. There were “porch babies”—children not allowed off the porch, older than lap babies yet younger than yard babies. And “cathead biscuits”—lard biscuits, rounded not flat, big as a cat’s head and feather-light. And “lay-by time,” that longed-for midsummer break after the weeding was done and before the picking began, when the cotton crop was laid by.
Looking back, it should have been obvious what was happening. Tom Wolfe once said you can’t go home again. What he didn’t say was you can’t totally leave either. It seemed I had escaped Mississippi in body, but not in soul. I made the decision to quit my business, sell my home, and write; to follow the voices and gather up their stories.
I began to take forays into the South, with no other aim than to listen. I spent time with my mother and my aunts, asking them to tell me their stories. I interviewed women who had worked as maids and sharecroppers during Jim Crow; women who had dared to march with Martin Luther King Jr.; mothers, many illiterate, who put their lives on the line so their children could get an equal education.
These voices, black and white, filled my first novel.
But the story didn’t end there. After completing the book, there remained a thread I had not followed. When I thought back over my interviews, I recalled an individual that had surfaced repeatedly, especially in conversations with African Americans: the midwife. When they spoke of her, their voices would warm, their faces soften. They spoke with reverence, a nearly spiritual regard.
This stumped me. I had always viewed midwives as old granny women, reputed to be ignorant, unsanitary, and superstitious. I had heard how they placed a sharp knife under the bed of a woman in delivery to “cut the pain.” They ritually buried the placenta in the backyard. They had the mother hold her husband’s hat during delivery. I also heard they were frequently sought out to perform abortions.
But the adoration the women I interviewed had for midwives contradicted my views. So I began to revisit my assumptions, searching out facts and reading histories. I learned that during and after slavery, African
American women, out of necessity, relied on midwives. I also discovered that the midwife did not limit her ministrations to delivering babies. She also tended to the soul and heart of the community: her practices kept alive important and spiritual communal traditions, some of which could be traced back to tribal healers in Africa. I learned that putting a sharp object under the bed to cut the pain, for instance, was more than silly superstition. It was a symbol to the mother that the community understood her pain, and enfolded her in its embrace. Holding the husband’s hat could bring emotional comfort and strength to the mother, the sense that her man was in the room with her. And burying the placenta? For 400 years, the message of slavery was that a black man belonged wherever a white man told him. He could be sold the next day—or his children. As sharecroppers during Jim Crow, black families couldn’t be sure they would be in the same place year after year. So by taking the placenta and burying it, the midwife was sending the message—to the newborn, to the mother, to the community—“You are rooted in this world. You have a place to stand.”
By the 1930s, the white medical community saw these midwives as an impediment to their control, and thus began an orchestrated campaign to discredit them. Medical journals and state legislatures portrayed them as dangerous. When the medical establishment required that they be licensed, many were forced to “turn in their bags” because they were illiterate. A category of “nurse midwives” was created to work under the supervision of a doctor.
I was shocked when I read in the American Journal of Public Health that the infant mortality rate for midwives was half that of the white doctors who first replaced them. I shouldn’t have been surprised. These women knew intimately the generational birthing history of the patient’s family. They understood the mother’s heredity: her home life, her diet, her worries, her hopes, her fears. They were also versed in the ingenuity that poverty engenders. Today, we are rediscovering many of their “quaint” remedies and herbal potions. Their birthing techniques are finding their way into modern delivery rooms.
Two years after I completed my first novel, my head swimming with facts, I went back to Mississippi in search of a story to contain them. More specifically, I went in search of a character who could bring the soul of the midwife alive on the page. And I needed to talk to these women before it was too late. The midwives from the era before the triumph of public health care, if they were still living, would be in their 80s and 90s.
I was fortunate. The midwives I spoke with were gracious, proud, and spiritual, saddened to have been barred from their calling and eager to have someone listen to their stories.
Among these wonderful women, one midwife stood out: Mrs. Willie Turner from Midnight, Mississippi. She was about to turn 91 the day in 2002 that I spoke with her. She appeared at the door radiant in a sun-bright yellow dress, her silver hair professionally done-up for the occasion. It was summer in Mississippi and I came into her apartment beaten down by the heat. She took my hand, placed it between both of hers, and beamed. One moment in her presence, and I was invigorated—I knew this was a special woman.
Mrs. Turner was nearly deaf, so to conduct the interview I either wrote my words or shouted. Luckily, her 70-year-old daughter was present to assist and could shout louder than I. We spent a lively afternoon shouting at each other, sharing stories, and laughing. Mrs. Turner had a wicked sense of humor. Even at her advanced age, she was such a commanding personality that her presence stayed with me throughout the time it took me to write my second novel.
She told me how she “caught” 2,063 babies in her home county of Humphries alone, sometimes delivering three babies in one day, and still going to the fields to chop cotton. There were weeks when she slept only two or three nights in her own bed. She was ready whenever the menfolk came for her, which was often: “They come at me with a wagon, they come at me on a mule, they come at me on foot,” she said. She checked with her husband before she committed to the life. “Men are going to be coming for me at all hours,” she told him. “Colored men, white men, Mexicans—all nations of men. Can you live with that?” He said he could, and he even took charge of caring for the house and raising their children.
It was true: Mrs. Turner went with whoever needed help. The poverty she saw was crushing. Many houses had holes in the floor, no running water, no screens or glass in the windows—sometimes not even food to eat the next day. Mrs. Turner did what she could, often spending her own money to feed the family and clothe the baby.
She delivered most babies without a hitch. But when there were problems, she improvised. She invented incubators by setting a baby in an apple crate, balanced on a syrup bucket of stove-heated water or in the warmed oven of a wood stove. She did anything necessary to get the baby warmed to the point where she could blow her breath into its tiny mouth. “There are folks walking around today with my breath in them,” she claimed, and then laughed with delight.
“I still dream about catching babies,” she said, more wistful now. “I dream about it so much, I figure I stopped before my time. I’m always dreaming about delivering a baby. It don’t never get away from me.”
When we parted ways that summer afternoon in 2002, she told me, “Jonathan, don’t forget God, ’cause He is the Head of Heaven. In your work with that book, put God in front and you’ll make it. That’s what I did and I done made it to 90 years old.”
Over the next few years, I listened to the tape of our interview often. In writing my second novel, The Healing, I drew from Mrs. Turner’s spirit, her compassion, her humor, and the fierce love and pride she had for her calling. She adored her babies, all of them, and they adored her, too, until her death at age 99.
I had begun my journey with the aim of finding a home, of discovering where I belonged. Mrs. Turner showed me that home is where someone holds a place for you, even if you are not present, even after you have left infancy and innocence, even after you have fallen from grace. Like my grandmother, Mrs. Turner held a place for her children no matter what.
“There are 2,063 people in this country who call me Mother,” she told me at one point. “And you know, they every one still my child.”
Jonathan Odell is the author of two novels, The View from Delphi and The Healing, published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday this month. He lives in Minneapolis.