I clutched my full skirt in one hand as I pushed through the underbrush, relieved to finally catch sight of the blackberry bushes.
“Over here, chil’,” a voice called. I lifted my skirts and sprinted to Aunt Ida’s side.
“I’m sorry to be late, Aunt Ida,” I said, catching her calloused hand in a squeeze, “I was held up by that pesky Robert Trent. He thinks he’s old enough to come a courting me. I told him to wait ‘til his britches grew as big as his head.”
Aunt Ida clucked her tongue. “You says that now, Missy Samantha, but you just wait a coupla years. Massa Robert be a handsome young man by then.”
I frowned. “Let’s not talk about him. He’s made me late for our lesson and look, you have the basket half full. Let me take it.”
Retrieving my McGuffey Reader from my apron pocket, I traded it for the straw basket. “We stopped on page thirty-two.”
Aunt Ida opened the book and held it at arm’s length, then drew it close to her nose. I giggled. “Now, Aunt Ida, I know you have fine eyesight. Quit stalling and read the first word. Remember, sound it out, like mmm-mmma-“
“Malicious.” Aunt Ida plucked three blackberries from the bush with her free hand, dropping them into the basket.
I cast a sideways glance at her. “And the next word?”
Shaking my head, I pricked my finger as I reached for a berry and popped it into my mouth. “You’re smart, Aunt Ida. You’re about the smartest person I know.”
The older woman chuckled softly. “Oh chil’, I reckon there be a few folks you could put ahead o’ me.”
“You be pretty smart yourself.”
My cheeks reddened. “No, I’m not. The words just dance all over the page, especially when I try to read sheet music-“ I clamped my mouth shut.
Silence fell as we continued filling the basket. Aunt Ida broke it with her direct address.
“I kno’ you hurtin’ ‘bout somethin’, chil’. Last night, I leaves to get refreshments and when I’s come back, you done gone to your room. Why don’t you tell ol’ Ida about it?”
The basket weighed heavy on my trembling frame. “Papa asked me to play the piano for the Thompsons. But it’s hard for me with people expecting so much. I sounded awful, and Papa said I must not be feeling well and sent me to my room. I know I embarrassed him. He must just hate me.”
Aunt Ida’s arms held me as a deluge burst from my eyes.
“There, there, my chil’. You listen to me. Your papa don’t hate you. And he be mighty proud o’ you, I kno’.”
I shook my head, my auburn curls slapping my face as I pulled back. “Every since Mama died, Papa hasn’t wanted me. I’ll never be good enough.” I twisted the ragged cloth Aunt Ida handed me, willing the tears to stop.
Aunt Ida’s touch was gentle. “You listen here, Missy Samantha. I kno’ your papa be a hard man. But the good Lord says we is to love and respect our parents. ’Member readin’ me that from the good Book?”
I nodded. “But it isn’t the same. God is strong. I’m weak. And I-I’m scared of Papa. He does bad things sometimes.”
“You a strong girl, chil’, else you wouldn’t be teachin’ me to read. Takes some bravery to do that.”
I frowned. “It doesn’t take bravery, Aunt Ida, you’re my friend. Besides, with you is the only time I’m not afraid.”
Aunt Ida shook her head. “Chil’, when you have Jesus a livin’ in you, you don’t have to fear nothin’. Why don’t we pray and ask Him to he’p you?”
A lump rose in my throat. “It doesn’t help. I pray and go to church. I don’t feel anything. I’m still afraid and hurting as much as ever.”
“Going to church and prayin’ ain’t the same ‘less you got Jesus in your heart.” Aunt Ida’s voice softened. “You kno’ the difference, don’ you, chil’?”
My gaze lingered on Aunt Ida. Light illuminated her dark face, piercing my soul.
“I think I do, Aunt Ida.”
My eyes went to the overflowing basket of blackberries. “Oh dear, the chore is done and we haven’t finished the lesson!”
Aunt Ida slipped the worn McGuffey Reader into my apron pocket and lifted the basket. “Yeah, we have, chil’. We’s all done with this lesson fo’ now.”
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