Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Mammy: A Story

This poignant story from 1917 was written by Adeline F. Ries. It originally appeared in Volume 13, Number 3 of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, and now appears in Great Short Stories by African-American Writers, published this week by Dover Publications. Reprinted with permission  by Dover Publications, Inc.

MAMMY’S HEART felt heavy indeed when (the time was now two years past) marriage ShortStories2webhad borne Shiela, her “white baby,” away from the Governor’s plantation to the coast. But as the months passed, the old colored nurse became accustomed to the change, until the great joy brought by the news that Shiela had a son, made her reconciliation complete. Besides, had there not always been Lucy, Mammy’s own “black baby,” to comfort her?

Yes, up to that day there had always been Lucy; but on that very day the young Negress had been sold—sold like common house hold ware!—and (the irony of it chilled poor Mammy’s leaden heart)—she had been sold to Shiela as nurse to the baby whose birth, but four days earlier had caused Mammy so much rejoicing. The poor slave could not believe that it was true, and as she buried her head deeper into the pillows, she prayed that she might wake to find it all a dream.

But a reality it proved and a reality which she dared not attempt to change. For despite the Governor’s customary kindness, she knew from experience, that any interference on her part would but result in serious floggings. One morning each week she would go to his study and he would tell her the news from the coast and then with a kindly smile dismiss her.

So for about a year, Mammy feasted her hungering soul with these meagre scraps of news, until one morning, contrary to his wont, the Governor rose as she entered the room, and he bade her sit in a chair close to his own. Placing one of his white hands over her knotted brown ones, he read aloud the letter he held in his other hand:

“Dear Father:—

“I can hardly write the sad news and can, therefore, fully appreciate how difficult it will be for you to deliver it verbally. Lucy was found lying on the nursery floor yesterday, dead. The physician whom I immediately summoned pronounced her death a case of heart-failure. Break it gently to my dear old mammy, father, and tell her too, that the coach, should she wish to come here before the burial, is at her disposal. “

Your daughter, “S.”

While he read, the Governor unconsciously nerved himself to a violent outburst of grief, but none came. Instead, as he finished, Mammy rose, curtsied, and made as if to withdraw. At the door she turned back and requested the coach, “if it weren’t asking too much,” and then left the room. She did not return to her cabin; simply stood at the edge of the road until the coach with its horses and driver drew up and then she entered. From that time and until nightfall she did not once change the upright position she had assumed, nor did her eyelids once droop over her staring eyes. “They took her from me an’ she died”—“They took her from me an’ she died”—over and over she repeated the same sentence.

When early the next morning Mammy reached Shiela’s home, Shiela herself came down the road to meet her, ready with words of comfort and love. But as in years gone by, it was Mammy who took the golden head on her breast, and patted it, and bade the girl to dry her tears. As of old, too, it was Mammy who first spoke of other things; she asked to be shown the baby, and Shiela only too willingly led the way to the nursery where in his crib the child lay cooing to itself. Mammy took up the little body and again and again tossed it up into the air with the old cry, “Up she goes, Shiela,” till he laughed aloud.

Suddenly she stopped, and clasping the child close she took a hurried step towards the open window. At a short distance from the house rolled the sea and Mammy gazed upon it as if fascinated. And as she stared, over and over the words formed themselves:

“They took her from me an’ she died,”—“They took her from me an’ she died.”

From below came the sound of voices, “They’re waiting for you, Mammy,”—it was Shiela’s soft voice that spoke—“to take Lucy—you understand, dear.”

Mammy’s eyes remained fixed upon the waves,—“I can’t go—go foh me, chile, won’t you?” And Shiela thought that she understood the poor woman’s feelings and without even pausing to kiss her child she left the room and joined the waiting slaves.

Mammy heard the scraping as of a heavy box upon the gravel below; heard the tramp of departing footsteps as they grew fainter and fainter until they died away. Then and only then, did she turn her eyes from the wild waters and looking down at the child in her arms, she laughed a low, peculiar laugh. She smoothed back the golden ringlets from his forehead, straightened out the little white dress, and then, choosing a light covering for his head, she descended the stairs and passed quietly out of the house.

A short walk brought Mammy and her burden to the lonely beach; at the water’s edge she stood still. Then she shifted the child’s position until she supported his weight in her hands and with a shrill cry of “Up she goes, Shiela,” she lifted him above her head. Suddenly she flung her arms forward, at the same time releasing her hold of his little body. A large breaker caught him in its foam, swept him a few feet towards the shore and retreating, carried him out into the sea—

A few hours later, two slaves in frantic search for the missing child found Mammy on the beach tossing handfuls of sand into the air and uttering loud, incoherent cries. And as they came close, she pointed towards the sea and with the laugh of a mad-woman shouted: “They took her from me an’ she died!”

–Adeline F. Ries

Reprinted with permission  by Dover Publications, Inc.

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