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Claim the Disappearing: Chapter 8

(I invite you to enjoy this free New Orleans novel, courtesy of the wonder that is the internet, unrolled a teensy bit at a time. If you are just joining us, feel free to return to THE BEGINNING and work your way through.)

My Elfy was plump as a pin cushion. She spoke in spurts and nibbled her fingers in between her words. She was my great-grandmother and lived with my Bigmama, her daughter-in-law. Elfy tended the house, always fussing and polishing and dusting. She rose late in the day, after Bigmama had finished writing her libelous letters at the kitchen table (I think Elfy wanted deniability) and made the same breakfast every day: two pecan pancakes topped with sliced bananas which she nimbly cut while sausage patties spit in an iron skillet. She then designated a room for cleaning. I followed her while she worked, and she told me of the first Elfy.

The first Elfy married a man vouched for by her sister. The man was her sister’s husband’s best friend. Well, the best friend he had made since he dragged Elfy’s sister from refined Richmond to the untamed state of Mississippi. So, in 1853, Elfy consented to let Gerald visit her in Richmond. Gerald was a jeweler who’d been elected to the Jackson City Council (yes, they had politics in the early 19th century). Gerald was going places in that new land and, unlike most who escaped to Mississippi to start over, he came from a good family up north. So Elfy accepted his proposal of marriage and followed him back to the state her sister had adopted as her own three years earlier. 

Best-friend sisters marrying best-friend men. Elfy shouldn’t have done it. Never, ever try to mirror anything. The universe will break your jaw every time for trying that cutesy crap. 

Though doctors warned Elfy, who stood less than five feet tall, that she was too diminutive to bear children, within the year  of marriage, her first child arrived. The children came regularly after that. Elfy adored them, every one, as she did Gerald. Under his tutelage, she learned to inscribe the delicate initials his more wealthy clients preferred for their lockets and forks. Enamored with the elegant, she taught herself the sweeping letters of calligraphy and wrote them into the ledgers when she began to keep the business’s books. “There is no reason the utilitarian can’t be fanciful,” she told a bemused Gerald.

Five years into the marriage, the winds of Civil War brought unrest to Mississippi. Elfy didn’t care. She was busy at the lovely home wherein Gerald had ensconced her. White columns fronted the most prestigious street in town, the latest Empire furniture graced the rooms, prisms danced light from beveled glass across the Persian rug. The number of Elfy’s offspring had bloomed to four with a fifth one knocking on the door when Gerald chose to leave his pregnant wife in Mississippi and return to his native North for a visit and thereupon die.

Nothing shocking there. Sudden death happened then same as it does now. Unfortunately, though, the news of Gerald’s death arrived as Elfy’s labor pains crescendoed (you see why the women in my family view babies more of a crapshoot than gifts from God), but Elfy finished the birthing and named the baby Dolores, because Elfy was truly a sad lady widow. She dragged that sorrow behind her as she prepared the house for the wake, expecting her husband’s body to return to his (new) home any day. Instead, her brother-in-law bustled in waving a sheet of paper. Letters. Not the kind you write; the kind a court issues. 

Gerald’s father had filed a will that purported to disinherit Gerald’s Mississippi family in favor of his “God-ordained” family. Elfy scanned the fancy language. Rage boiled when she understood she’d been betrayed by the forces of darkness, to wit, her scheming father-in-law. Seems the “good family,” like many, had fallen on hard times. Gerald’s rapacious father coveted the jewelry business, claimed his son had bequeathed him not only the inventory of the shop but Elfy’s monogramed forks, even her last demitasse spoon. Oh, she could see the evil father-in-law whispering in the ear of dying Gerald, his breath rancid from the sassafras root he chewed like a fiend, insisting those down in Mississippi didn’t count as real family, badgering Gerald until he executed a new will. 

“New,” thank you blessed baby Jesus, for that meant during his sanity Gerald had executed a prior will.

When Elfy called her lawyer brother-in-law to the house the following day and pressed the true will into his hands, tears welling in her eyes, her delicate white hands trembling, her face betraying utter helplessness but her shoulders set in proud determination—the theatrics were mere icing on the cake. Her brother-in-law would challenge the father’s upstart will in court. He would see to it that Elfy’s babies reaped the benefit of their father’s hard work. He would defeat the Devil dropping brimstone onto their heads from the conniving, greedy North. 

The brother-in-law never looked at the will closely enough to see the ink so newly smudged on the last page. Nor did he compare the sweeping calligraphy of Gerald’s declaration with the fancy entries in the ledgers. He refused to admit the silver-polish scent of the linen paper—why would a man’s paper carry the scent of women’s work? He bought it—hook, line, and sinker. 

As we cleaned and polished, Elfy and I explored all the aspects of this story—why did the weak Gerald give into his father? Why had he left home when a baby was so close to arriving? Did the brother-in-law maybe like Elfy better than his own wife? On Sundays, we rested from the cleaning and tale-telling. On Sundays, we moved to implements. 

Elfy would jiggle open the drawer of the marble-topped dresser and show me the old engraving tools with the mushroom-shaped cap to give a good grip. She brandished the sterling calligraphy pen with its slick mother-of-pearl handle and urged me to finger the sharp tip. She led me upstairs and knelt before the long drawer in the bottom of the hall wardrobe where a stash of paper with curled-brown corners expired their silver polish scent. My puddingy Elfy wanted me to understand the tools of a woman’s trade.

A level head. 

A willingness to fight. 

An appreciation of deceit when necessary to ensure the good guys won. 

Never once in the line of Elfys did “the good guys” mean anything other than what each Elfy wanted. What they desired was—despite any evidence to the contrary—never evil. 

Yes, I am poor white trash. I am also wealthy from the machinations of my first Elfy. In Mississippi, if you weren’t poor white trash at some point in your life, you’re lying.

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