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A Song for Leila
This piece is based on a portion of "River Songs" in my hybrid memoir, 'I Must Have Wandered'.
It must have been clairvoyance. I sensed the shift: my birth mother’s entreaty to my half-sister. Karen was preparing to make the trip to Texas to bring our mother home to Greenville after thirty-seven years of isolation and misery. At the same moment, I was embarking on the journey of a lifetime: to find my unknown biological family.
Our fate was sealed when she gave me the name, Ruth Ann Lee, and signed my certificate of live birth. Under South Carolina’s promise, she must not hope to see me again. Social workers assured mothers there were married couples with homes where their infants would be welcome. To protect adoptive parents from bereaved birth mothers, and to protect school children from labels like illegitimate, bastard, and foundling, the birth records would be sealed. So it was decided. So many poor, so many unwed mothers, so many young servicemen — The State — everyone — will benefit.
Leila and I were alike in our brown hair and eyes, a smidge of Cherokee cheekbones, our sturdy height and weight, the lilt and wit that hid our quieter, darker sadness, and the longing in our hearts. From within her womb, I felt her riled emotions, the clutch of her heavy sobs, the grip of her fear, anger, dread, and resentment — her fateful, fatal flaw of wayward restlessness.
From under her heart, I listened to the strong alto I’d one day take on. I heard the old-timey gospel she sang in the wooden pew, and the country love songs that sprang from the radio. I reeled in the rhythm of the honky-tonk juke box, and rolled with the hearty laughter that rocked her.
Leila’s song joined the women workers in the bars and textiles mills; daughters who were carders and bobbin winders in Conestee on the Reedy River, who lived in shabby saltbox shanties in the village with their millworker daddies and their plain, frugal mothers. They lived along the railroad tracks near the waterwheel. Their heritage was Scots-Irish and German voyagers, pioneers, farmers, soldiers, musicians, and weavers. Leila, twenty-six, mother of one — soon to have another — had no one to love her.
Catholic Charities maintained the foster file, and reached out to the couples who applied. Although they knew nothing about me or my mother, a military service couple from New York City, stationed in Sumter wanted one like me.
One October Sunday in my forty-third year, in the tiny, brick Antioch church where my great-grandmother and her family had prayed, beside the cemetary where many of our ancestors rest, I sat between my first mother and Karen, and we celebrated in song: Mary Ellen was once Ruth Ann.
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