Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 1
By Lisa Lahey
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 2
I remember the week before I was to be married like it was yesterday and that‟s a fact. I was all
of thirteen years old and it seemed that everyone but me knew what I should want and how to go
about getting it. Fate and family conspired together to tell me who I was going to be without
giving me a say but isn‟t that life for any thirteen-year-old girl? It was Father who said it was
time for me to get wed seeing as I was finished my schooling. I tried to feel excited about my
nuptials when they were announced but there was doubt in my heart. As far as I could tell I
loved my intended husband Louis Saggs. At least I guess I did. I‟d never been in love before
and didn‟t know the difference. I did know that Louis didn‟t repulse me much and I figured that
was as good a start to a marriage as any.
Mama got married just one year older than me and Father said there wasn‟t any reason for me to
stay at home like a kid under Mama‟s feet. Father was right. It was time to grow up and get my
own family. I sure couldn‟t do it alone and single. I needed a man to get me that. It wasn‟t like I
was going off to some fancy high school somewhere in the city. I finished sixth grade that year
and I couldn‟t see any point in going further. I wasn‟t real smart or anything. My grades were
pretty awful to tell the truth and I was trying my hardest. The one thing I ever did learn from
school and church and home was that all folk no matter how great or small sinned and that ours
was not to throw stones when they did. Only the Lord God Himself had the right to do that. I
tried to remember that when folk were cruel with me but it was hard to forgive folk who didn‟t
want forgiving. Sticks and stones broke a lot more than bones to my way of thinking and I tried
hard not to be like that.
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We lived in the Arkansas Ozarks, a huge and truly beautiful mountain range that stretched across
Arkansas through Missouri and away out to the farthest tip of Kansas. Folk said it‟s not that the
mountains in the Ozarks are so high so much as our valleys are deep and that‟s the truth. We
lived in a small, tidy valley at the foot of a mountain that had no name. That didn‟t matter to us
folk. We knew where we were. Miles away were cattle and dairy farms and far reaching fields
thick with white cotton and golden stalks of wheat. Our valley boasted emerald green grass,
breath-taking forest, and the twisting White River that snaked away from Norfork Lake. The
river was a place I found it hard to stay away from. I splashed around in it nearly every day,
bathing and fishing with or without friends it made no difference to me. Father kidded me I was
more fish than girl.
It was Father who picked Louis Saggs for my beau. He liked Louis for a lot of reasons. Louis
came from good stock. He had a fine reputation and was known to be a good, hard worker. In
fact he had a good job down at the river in Mr. Buckley‟s sawmill and Father said that jobs like
that weren‟t too easy to come by in the Hills. Louis wasn‟t a drinker either. He was a fine boy
Father insisted and he was ready to settle down. It was a pretty summer evening with a purple
and pink sky when Father sat beside me on our porch swing. The swing moved in a slow, small
arc back and forth. I dragged a lazy foot along with it and drank my usual lemonade. Father
sipped a cup of hot ginger tea to clean out his insides. He wasn‟t much of a drinker. Mostly he
drank for special occasions. He was good that way.
“Millie dear you‟ve grown into a fine young woman,” he began, without looking at me.
“Thank you Pa,” I muttered. I dropped my head hiding a blush behind my mousy brown hair. I
had plain features with a smattering of light brown freckles across my nose and cheeks. I studied
my flat bosoms and thin thighs and that made me more embarrassed. I wasn‟t in a training bra
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anymore because Mama got me a new bra when I finished school, but I barely had anymore
titties now than I did a year
“Are you happy to be done with yer schoolin‟ Millie?” Father interrupted my thoughts.
“Yes Pa. I don‟t say I really enjoyed it all that much. I liked Mrs. Windmere this year and most
of the kids were nice enough but I really hate maths and reading. It‟s not the easiest thing I ever
done,” I glanced at Pa happy to have something else to talk about besides me and my
“Millie do you know Louis Saggs?” Father asked.
I stared back down at my feet. “Yes I do Pa. He only lives a few roads away,” I mumbled. I
knew what was coming next because I overheard him and Ma talking about me getting married
after they thought we were all asleep, me and my brother and sister. I felt myself blushing all
over again and I was glad I had that thin curtain of hair to hide behind.
“What do you think of him?”
“I guess I don‟t think about him much Pa.”
“I see,” Pa sipped his tea. “Millie, would you be inclined to give some thought about marriage to
I shrugged. I felt awkward talking about these things with Papa. I would rather it came from
Mama but I understood it had to be Father. That was the way it was in the Hills.
“I suppose so,” I replied and gulped down my lemonade without tasting it anymore. I hoped
Father had said his piece. I just wanted to be done with this nonsense. It wasn‟t that necessary
anyway where I was concerned. I squirmed about a bit on the swing and picked at my shorts as
if I found lint there when there really wasn‟t any. Father didn‟t miss much.
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“Well then we won‟t discuss it further, Millie. That‟s just fine. He‟ll be a good husband to you
and if I know my Millie you will make a fine prideful wife,” Father smiled at me and gave me a
soft slap on my knee as he got up off the swing. “I‟ll let you and yer Ma tend to the fussin‟ and
the weddin‟ details. That‟s for you womenfolk. We men ain‟t any good with that sort of thing.”
He went inside the house and I could breathe again. The worst was over. There was nothing else
that needed to be said. My parent‟s marriage was arranged for them by my grandparents on both
sides. It was something families did in the Hills, so nobody found it strange that at thirteen years
old I was arranged to be wedded to Mr. Louis Saggs who was all of seventeen. It wasn‟t long
before tongues started wagging. I wasn‟t expecting the attention I got and I hated it. Children
pointed and blew kisses at me when they saw me coming home from the river then ran off before
I could chase after them.
“Hey Millie!” a rugged, reddish boy my age named Bart called at me from a distance. “You
know what the difference will be between yer weddin‟ and yer funeral? One less drunk at yer
“Oh hardy-har,” I rolled my eyes. I wanted to slug that Bart.
“Millie you know how folk can tell you‟re the bride at yer weddin‟?” his stupid ugly friend
Ralph yelled taking his turn at me. “You‟ll be wearin‟ the cleanest shirt!”
“Listen here you two, my cow died last night so I don‟t need any of your bull!” I just threw up
my head and carried along as if I didn‟t have a care toward them when really I did.
“Well done Millicent! Best of luck!” Mrs. Wright from a few houses down called after me, as if
I had made some great triumph or something.
I nodded back to be polite although I wished she‟d shut up. I wished they all would but I didn‟t
say so out loud. I wasn‟t the rude sort. Mama was waiting for me in the kitchen when I got home.
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“Millicent I need yer help getting‟ dinner ready tonight,” she informed me. “I invited Louis over
for dinner at our table for the first time. We want everythin‟ to be perfect don‟t we?”
I couldn‟t have cared less but of course I didn‟t say so. I set about helping Mama in the kitchen.
“Millicent, be careful when yer washin‟ those dishes whatever you do.”
“I know! I‟ll stay dry, Mama!” I actually laughed. I knew what Mama meant. It was a silly
wives‟ tale in the Hills but folk said that wetting your shirt while washing the dishes meant you‟d
end up marrying a drunk. No one gave serious heed to the folktale but marrying a drunk was
terrible serious. Our branch of Southern Baptist didn‟t believe in divorce. Usually when we wed
we were stuck with each other for life. Some folk separated if their marriage was truly bad but
they weren‟t allowed to remarry.
I still remembered when I was a child and one night I overheard Father speaking in a low tone to
“Harriet, I‟d rather my daughters were dead than married to a no good drunk.”
That shocked me at the time but now that I was a grownup it made perfect sense. Drunks could
be ugly. I knew about a woman in Candlewick named Susan whose husband beat the living
daylights out of her after he was into his cups. She‟d go to her neighbours and get fixed up and
then she had to go right back home to his fists again. Folk referred to her meanly as Black-Eyed
Susan like the flower. I didn‟t see it as funny. Once I passed her on the street in Candlewick. She
walked along lost and dazed, her head lowered and her shoulders slumped like a helpless hound
dog. I reckon in some ways she was.
“Millicent go and get ready for yer beau,” Mama brought me back from my thoughts.
That made no sense to me. “What do you mean Ma? I‟m perfectly fine the way I am!”
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“You most certainly are not Millicent Carlisle! Yer not greetin‟ yer beau in those torn up jeans.
Go get into yer dress and I‟ll be in to fix yer hair in a minute,” Mama was horrified but not
nearly as much as me.
I never wore a dress! In fact I only owned one. I was a tomboy from the moment I could walk
and talk. I never dressed up like a real girl and I don‟t remember ever owning a doll. If I ever
had a daughter I knew I‟d bring her up like me. It wouldn‟t occur to me to do any different. It
was the way I was and I liked me just fine. Mama came into my room and looked me over. She
shook her head.
“Didn‟t know yer dress was so tight across yer chest. Style‟s too young for you anyway makes
you look about ten. Well too late to do anythin‟ about it now. Sit down and let me fix up yer
Mama attacked my head with a brush and clips. I “ouched” whenever she hit a snarl.
“Millicent stop actin‟ like a kid!”
“You said I look like one.”
“Don‟t sass me girl.”
“Why do I have to get dolled up for Louis Saggs anyway? That‟s just misleadin‟ him,” I pouted.
“It‟s polite that‟s why.”
“It‟s polite to mislead folk?”
“Millicent stop yer foolin‟ or I‟ll knock yer head in!” Mama snapped but I knew she didn‟t mean
Finally she was done with her torture. She held up a chipped hand mirror for me to inspect my
hair. I must admit it was kind of nice all fancied up like that even if it didn‟t feel like me. When
she was finished dolling me up it was time for the family to say our evening prayers. All of us
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except Clancy since he was only two knelt down together in the living room and we said our
prayers. Emma didn‟t know the words too well yet so Mama helped her but we went around the
circle with each of us having a turn. That was what we did every night. We didn‟t even go out to
visit friends or celebrate at a town social until all our prayers were said and done. So far as I
knew every family in the Hills did the same. In fact if Louis showed up during our praying he
would have to wait outside on the porch until we were done. Secretly I prayed Louis didn‟t
bother to show up but the Lord God must have been listening to someone else that night. Not
long after we finished praying the door knocked.
When the door knocked an hour later Mama pushed me toward it. “Go on and let your beau
I was terrible shy. I opened the door and stepped back right away not meeting Louis‟ eyes. Louis
wasn‟t very tall but he was broad and solid. His hair was dark and his eyebrows were bushy and
black. I could hardly look at him.
“Hello Millicent you look fine,” Louis said and he passed me a bouquet of posies he probably
picked on the way over.
I knew he was being polite to tell me that. I looked a right fool. I didn‟t talk all through dinner
and that ain‟t at all like me. Louis did all the conversing with Father and Mama. He asked me a
few questions but I only answered “yes” or “no” so he finally gave up. I was glad when
everyone was finished eating so I could jump up and clear away the plates. It gave me a reason
to get away from my fiancee. Mama followed me into the kitchen with a frown.
“Millicent Carlisle!” she whispered. “What‟s gotten into your head tonight? If you don‟t start
talkin‟ to Louis he‟ll think you ain‟t sweet on him.”
I blushed. It seemed that was all I did nowadays. “Maybe I‟m not Ma!”
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“Oh Millicent! Don‟t say that!” Mama glanced towards the table as if Louis could hear us.
“Never mind those dishes. Go sit down at that table and talk to your beau right now!”
I was like a dog with its tail hung down when I walked back to the table but it was only a few
minutes later that Mama sent me and Louis out onto the porch to talk alone without the family
gawking at us. Louis held my hand without asking.
“You sure ain‟t one for talkin‟ Millicent Carlisle,” Louis grinned at me.
I knew that was only because he didn‟t know me yet but I didn‟t say so.
“Well nothin‟ wrong with havin‟ a quiet wife. My Pa says my Ma talks a blue streak and I
reckon he‟s right. I‟d rather have me a quiet wife any day makes it easier for a man to be wed. I
mean the Reverend says a man is put on this earth to guide his wife and family and tell them
their place. You can be my quiet helpin‟ servant Millie.”
He was right about the Reverend. That was a true belief in our church but I felt my blood boil.
My head snapped up. “Well you‟re in for a nasty surprise Louis Saggs! We‟ll see who‟s helpin‟
Louis looked at me with wide eyes and then he laughed. “Why yer a feisty one at that Millie!
Well that‟s just fine in my book. Mind, if you get too much outta line I‟ll have to sharpen up a
hickory stick.” He gave my hand a little squeeze.
“You better plan on usin‟ that stick on yerself! I‟m no push-around. I don‟t care what the
Reverend says about wives,” I pulled my hand away from his and folded my arms across my
chest but he only laughed.
“Alright girl don‟t blow all the steam in yer engine,” he shook his head smiling. “I didn‟t mean
nothin‟ by it. You sure are cranky Millicent Carlisle. I hope you soften up like a proper wife
should do when we‟re wed.”
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I knew Louis was only baiting my hook but I got up and slammed my way into the house leaving
him alone on the porch swing. Louis was right about his views on marriage in our church. As
Baptists we believed in what was called the complementary marriage. Father explained to me
that meant a husband and wife complete each other with the husband being the head of the
household and his wife his willing servant. There wasn‟t much room for the wife to have her say.
She completed her husband but she didn‟t hold the reins. That was for the man to do.
Father fixed it so I had no choice except to meet with my new beau nearly every day for the next
few weeks. After Louis‟ teasing I was surprised to find out he was actually a good sort. We
were both pranksters and we both liked kicking a ball around and fishing in White River. I
usually caught more fish than he did.
“It‟s gonna be great havin‟ a wife who can catch a fish and clean and cook it! I never knew I
was that lucky Millie,” he grinned.
“Thank Pete you don‟t mind my doing so,” I said in all sincerity. I was too old to change my
“Why would I mind?”
“Some men want a real refined lady for a wife,” I repeated my mother in a very grave tone
hoping I sounded like I knew what that meant. What did I know about what some men wanted
for a wife?
“Well I don‟t want to have me a lady. I mean you are a lady Millie but as yer rightful husband I
believe you are allowed to do boy things too,” Louis replied.
I liked the sound of that. I decided then and there that Louis Saggs was the perfect beau for me
and with just that bit of understanding about my fiancée I was willing to marry him. I didn‟t need
to put the wedding off. There were no other boys around who would do better by me anyway.
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I couldn‟t afford a fancy wedding dress so I had to wear Mama‟s old one from when she wed
Father. That was fine by me. I didn‟t want a frilly princess gown I‟d wear once then stick away
in a closet to make a moth‟s feast. Mama‟s wedding dress used to belong to my grandma. It was
in rough shape by now, all stained near the bottom from Pete only knew what and the lace was
torn up at the hem. It was real tiny in the waist and I was a few inches bigger not that I was a big
girls by any means. I was pretty small myself.
“Smoke my meat Millie! Look at how tiny yer poor mother used to be!” Mama sighed as she
held up the dress for inspection.
“That dress would fit Emma,” I nodded. Emma was five.
“We better let it out or you‟ll never fit it in time for the weddin‟,” Mama spoke more to herself
than to me. “I guess you girls are just a little bigger nowadays. Must be the water.” She looked
at the bodice. “It‟s wantin‟ a few beads sewn onto it too. There‟s some that‟s gone missin‟. You
better try it on Millicent so we can see where to fasten the pins.”
I never used to be shy about stripping down in front of Mama but now that I was growing my
figure I didn‟t want her seeing me in my underwear. I turned my back and pulled the dress up to
my armpits. It gaped open in the back and Mama couldn‟t fasten the buttons. Still I‟d never
worn a long fancy dress in my life. It stayed up just enough for me to twirl around in front of the
mirror like a princess. I‟m not a vain girl but I couldn‟t take my eyes off me. My cheeks flushed
and even I noticed that the rush of colour to my face made my blue eyes sing. I finally caught a
glimpse of the fine woman Father said I‟d grown into.
“Yer the sweetest bride ever Millicent!” Mama praised.
“It‟s a nice enough dress Mama. It still looks okay,” I said. I didn‟t want her making a fuss.
Mama tugged at the dress here and there thinking her thoughts.
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“Turn around Millicent. Now that way. Hm. I‟ll have to sew some stuffin‟ inside the bodice.
We want you lookin‟ grownup on yer big day.”
I could have died.
“Still you do look fetchin‟ in it Millicent. We‟ll have to put yer hair up and pin some posies in
I tried not to roll my eyes. I was about to argue against putting up my hair but I bit my tongue.
That would start a war.
“I‟ll work on that stain near the bottom Millicent. Don‟t you worry yer dress will look brand
new when I‟m done with it dear,” Mama said and I didn‟t doubt her.
Mama was wonderful. When I had my babies I swore I‟d be like her as much as I could. A girl
never had a better mother than mine even if she did keep sticking flowers in my hair and forcing
me into a dress.
Mama smiled at me.
“The somethin‟ old for yer weddin‟ is yer gown. And I have a small blue pendant you can wear.”
“But what‟s gonna be new?” I asked.
Mama frowned, stumped for the moment.
“I guess that would be Louis Saggs,” I snickered.
“Don‟t be smart girl. We‟ll figure it out on yer weddin‟ day,” Mama offered cheerfully.
She sure looked happy. She looked like a girl when she got that way, her eyes sparkly and her
cheeks dimpled. It made me happy to see her cheerful for a change. Mama had a lot on her
mind all the time. It wasn‟t an easy life taking care of a family in the Hills. We didn‟t have fancy
washing machines and Mama used an old tub and washboard to scrub our clothes clean. I hung
them on the clothes line to get them dry and that took all day. Mama‟s hands were red and rough
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from housework and tending to the vegetable patch with its poke and persimmons. It didn‟t yield
much but it was better than nothing on our plates. Mama and me spent weeks coring apples and
cutting up berries to grind and can for the winter. Clothes cost a pretty penny so Mama was
always mending and hemming my hand-me-downs for Emma. I helped wherever I could but
usually I minded Emma and Clancy. Someone had to watch after them and it was either let them
toddle off and get into mischief or work on chores. It wasn‟t possible to do both with those two
little hellions running about.
There were years when Father went without work for weeks at a time but there were still mouths
to be fed. Every family struggled to get by that way. It was nothing new here in the poorer parts
of the Ozarks but it was terrible hard all the same. Still Mama seldom complained much. She
didn‟t regret her life or raising any of us kids and I was glad of that. Sometimes Mama told me
about certain families in the Hills and how they were always saying the nastiest things to their
children, about how life would have been better and easier without them. That made no sense to
me. What was life in the Hills without family?
“I guess I better change outta this dress before I mess it all up,” I offered when really I didn‟t
care about it one bit. I didn‟t want to think about my wedding anymore. “Its bad luck or
somethin‟ isn‟t that what they say Mama?”
“No, Millicent. Its bad luck for Louis to see you in the dress before you get married,” Mama
corrected me as she helped me out of the gown. “I know the real reason you want to take off that
Mama read my mind all the time. That was no surprise. She‟d had thirteen years to get used to
me. Mama took the gown from me to hang it up and care for it and I nearly jumped back into my
denim short pants and t-shirt. I could only thank Pete I wasn‟t born in high cotton to a fancy
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family where I had to dress up whether I liked it or not. I watched as Mama hung the gown back
onto its wooden hanger with great care.
“Well now I don‟t have to worry about havin‟ grandchildren that got no daddy,” Mama
“Mama you know that ain‟t so!” I snapped.
“Calm down Millicent, you know I‟m teasin‟.” It was true that Mama never had to worry about
me sullying the family‟s reputation. We never even had a talk about me being careful not to get
with a baby before I was wed. Mama knew better. After I was safely married to Louis there was
no telling when I‟d become a mother. Whatever happened with marriage and babies was in
God‟s hands. Folk in the Hills didn‟t do anything to keep babies from coming. Once the seed
was planted it stayed put with one exception I ever knew about.
A girl named Annette once lived in Candlewick. She got herself with a baby when a boy in town
courted her. When he heard Annette was with child he denied his own wrongdoing flat out.
Annette was stuck with a bad name and a child without a daddy. I guess she couldn‟t figure any
way out of her dilemma except to sneak off to the city. Weeks later folk noticed that Annette
wasn‟t getting any rounder. She might as well have had „whore‟ written on her forehead. Folk
snubbed her to her face and whispered behind her back. No one wanted her around and it wasn‟t
long before poor Annette picked up and moved away from the Hills. Where she went I don‟t
know but I hoped she was happy. It didn‟t seem fair to me that Annette became an outcast when
her beau turned cold on her.
It didn‟t surprise me in the least that Annette was a pariah after her sin. Our branch of Southern
Baptist followed Calvinism. It was way stricter than the Arminian Baptists. From what I heard
our God wasn‟t as forgiving as theirs. We believed after the fall from the Garden of Eden all men
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and women were completely depraved. That was why we sinned all the time and God wouldn‟t
save anyone who wasn‟t preordained to be saved from their sins before they were born. If you
weren‟t lucky enough to be pegged for forgiveness then you were going to hell no matter how
sorry you were or what you did to make it up to Him. Arminians on the other hand were a lot
softer than us. They believed God took all the guilt out of folks‟ sins and that meant they could
still be saved if they were truly sorry. I couldn‟t rightly say who was right and who was wrong
since I wasn‟t any authority in the Church which was usual since no woman in the Baptist
Church had any kind of real authority. Even though it seemed to me that our two groups believed
in a lot of the same things, we just looked at them different I figured I‟d better play it safe and go
along with us strict Calvinists so I didn‟t step outside of any spiritual bounds and wind up in hell.
Mama was good at reminding me. “You‟d best watch yer step Millicent Carlisle. There‟s no
White River waitin‟ for you in hell.”
“Speakin‟ of babies Millicent yer first time with yer husband ain‟t goin‟ to be too pleasant so be
warned,” Mama offered. “It‟s hurtful but then it‟s over and done with and you and Louis can get
down to the business of makin‟ me a grandmother.”
I blushed to my roots. I figured Mama would have a long wait for grandkids since I didn‟t have
my monthlies yet. I didn‟t know what was wrong with me and I never could bring myself to ask
Mama. I was too embarrassed. I knew some girls at school already had theirs. Mama never said
anything to me about it so I thought she must have been a late starter too. I wished I made the
same changes at the same time as everyone else. I didn‟t like being different. I felt like an
inbred. I wondered if being so skinny might have something to do with it but I had no one to ask.
I wasn‟t the only one in my family with a secret. Mama quit school when she was in grade six.
Father never told me how long he‟d been in school but once Mama told me in privacy that when
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she met Father he couldn‟t read. She taught him herself and soon he could read as good as a ten-
year-old. That was probably as far as he‟d get but I was real proud of him. He could read most
of the newspaper when he chose to get it and he could read the few signs that were posted
throughout the Hills and in Candlewick. He used to read them all out loud to me as we drove
along in his truck even after I learned how to read myself. I figured he thought he was helping
me in case I forgot how but after Mama explained to me that Father couldn‟t read for a long time
I realized he was just too proud of himself to stay quiet. I was proud of him too but of course I
never could say so. Mama insisted I never tell Father what I knew. Father was a proud man. I
would never take that away from him especially since he looked after me so well.
Father managed to get me and Louis an ugly silver trailer that was only a single wide. It had a
small toilet but no shower. Me and Louis would still use the river or splash well water over
ourselves to get clean but Louis said he wanted to put in a shower as soon as he could. It was the
best Father could do and I was darned grateful otherwise we‟d have to dig a ditch and call it
“That‟s more than me and Father had given to us when we were first married,” Mama admitted.
“We lived with his mother until we figured somethin‟ out and Millicent it was the worst thing I
ever did in my life. Your granny is an old lady who can‟t stay out of a wagon. Don‟t tell yer
Father I said as much.”
“I won‟t Mama,” I tried not to smile.
Father and Mama were always telling me to keep secrets from each other and I was as good as
my word. Father didn‟t think any better of Mama‟s mother than Mama thought of his.
“Yer Ma‟s mother looks like she fell face down in a sticker-patch and a herd of cows ran over
her,” he snickered to me once. “Don‟t tell yer Ma I said as much.”
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“I won‟t Father.”
“We gotta go into town today to pick out some weddin‟ tokens for yer guests Millicent,” Mama
said after she hung up the wedding gown.
“What for? Folk here don‟t expect anythin‟ fancy like that.”
“It‟s the polite thing to do Millicent. Now get yerself cleaned up.”
I made up my mind to join her. There was no sense in objecting since we were going anyway. I
figured we‟d be done in two shakes of a lamb‟s tail if I didn‟t fuss and squall. Mama sat down in
front of her mirror to get herself dolled up for the trip. It was only a dusty little downtown
venture but Harriet Carlisle refused to be seen stepping out unless she looked flawless. I liked
watching her beauty routine. It made me smile. Mama was so girly. She had umpteen little
bottles and jars on her vanity table. Some were white with little polka dots others were coloured
glass and there was a large round container filled with face powder that she used very sparingly.
Mama always took good care of her skin.
“Millicent the secret to youthful beauty is never to get yer face sunburned and try not to frown at
all if you can help it,” she advised me as she wiped her face with Pond‟s cold cream. She patted
some face powder on her forehead, nose and cheeks. Then she sucked in her mouth and patted a
bit of red powder she called „rouge‟ on each side of her pretty face. On her mouth Mama dabbed
a red lipstick covered with Vaseline for shine and then expertly applied thin black eyelashes at
the outer corners of her eyelids. She sat back and brushed out her shiny brown hair and inspected
herself with a critical eye.
“Hm. Gotta watch the skin around my eyes. I‟m gettin‟ a crows‟ feet Millicent,” she muttered.
I didn‟t see any crows‟ feet. I thought she looked just beautiful.
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“Millicent would you like me to dab a little rouge on your cheeks? It‟ll perk you right up,”
Mama always asked me the same question when I watched her at her vanity and I always gave
the same answer.
“Not for all the tea in Texas Mama.”
“No thank you Mama,” she corrected me.
“Not for all the in Texas Mama, no thank you.”
After perfecting her makeup Mama got up from her vanity table and got dressed to go into
Candlewick. I watched her shimmy into a girdle that held in her small tummy. She still had the
fine shapely figure of a girl.
“Millicent, fasten my brassiere for me would you?”
I did as she asked then stood back and watched while she ran her hands along her slender front
and sides turning about to inspect herself in the mirror with a critical eye. „Hourglass‟ was
Father‟s word for her.
“This here is what they call a bullet bra Millicent,” she told me in a serious tone. She turned
sideways so I could see the two pointy cones that stuck straight out from her chest.
“Bullet bra Mama? You goin‟ out shootin‟ deer in it?” I snickered.
“Always the smart one girl. It holds up your breasts and makes them look good and pointy
through your blouse. Pointy is the way to look nowadays,” she replied not at all bothered by my
foolery. Mama attached two brown nylon stockings to the garters at the bottom of her girdle then
she slipped into a simple slim fitting day dress, the only one she had. She put on pretty red
lipstick, short white gloves and snapped on a plastic pearl necklace she probably picked up at the
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 19
five and dime ages ago. Finally Mama perched a little pillbox hat on her head her mother used to
own, stepped into brown pumps and carried her little matching purse by its handle. She‟d had
most of her clothing forever but by the way she took care of it you couldn‟t tell. Mama was real
fashionable when she wanted to be. She always looked like a lady to go into town and Father
insisted she looked just as fine as the fancy city ladies who sashayed themselves around in Ash
Flat. When she was dolled up that way folk always turned their heads to get a second look. She
was much prettier than me but that didn‟t bother me a bit. I was proud of having a pretty mother.
She stepped into brown pumps and carried her little purse by its handle. Mama always looked
like a lady to go into town. She was prettier than me but that didn‟t bother me a bit. I was proud
of having a pretty mother.
Mama didn‟t know how to drive so we walked into town. It took Mama long enough to figure
out that driving wasn‟t for her. Years ago she tried to teach herself how to drive. She waited
until Father was asleep for the night then she‟d start up the truck and rear end it right into a tree.
When Father saw the damage the next day Mama swore Spike Pearce threw rocks at it. Spike
was a good-for-nothing boy who lived several houses away and was always causing folk trouble.
Father believed her flat out and he hated Spike ever since.
We took a long pleasant stroll through the trees towards Candlewick with Mama tottering about
in her heels and now and then grabbing my arm to stay upright. I gave up telling her to wear her
flats long ago. She was too vain to be seen in them outside the Hills. It was a gorgeous walk,
surrounded as we were by green trees with their white apple blossoms and sweet-faced yellow
groundsel peering shyly at us from dark green shrubbery. Now and then a patch of blue sky
peeped through the tree tops to warm our faces. Somewhere not too far off I could hear White
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 20
River as it bubbled its carefree song. The twigs we cracked beneath our feet made the birds stop
twittering as we passed by.
“Millicent we‟re in nature‟s heaven,” Mama said.
“That‟s no lie,” I agreed.
It wasn‟t long before nature‟s heaven was interrupted by the roar of eighteen-wheel trucks
careening along the highway beside Candlewick. Some of the highway truckers stopped by to
gas up and visit Bruna‟s little diner. The diner wasn‟t much to look at. It was so small and out of
the way it didn‟t even have a name. So far as I knew the truckers were alright and didn‟t seem to
cause any trouble. They came through for a meal or an overnight stay and then they were gone
again, back onto the highway and to who knew where. I hardly ever met them since I didn‟t
venture into Candlewick that often. When I did go into town the truckers were nice enough and
left me alone. Being only thirteen, flat-chested and on the plain side seemed to keep me out of
Candlewick had a pretty name but it was just a plain, dusty town that stood where it had been for
ages. There wasn‟t much to it. The busiest spot was an old tavern called „Blue‟s‟. The men
from the town and the Hills went there for a drink and to shoot pool when they had a few dollars
and felt like fighting. Sometimes they spilled out into the street, cursing and swinging at each
other but the next day they were berries in a pie. No one in the Hills held a grudge. Now and
then a small blues or jazz band passed through and asked to play for a night or two at the tavern
even though they hardly made a buck. The men liked any kind of entertainment they could get.
There wasn‟t much going on in Candlewick I can tell you that.
We walked through the narrow dusty strip folk called downtown. There was a food market, our
Baptist church, a post office and a retail store with a mishmash of everything you‟d need for your
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 21
house and family. Mrs. Mills owned a boutique with lots of ladies‟ specialty items and the kind
of frilly wedding tokens Mama had in mind. Mrs. Mills was a real nice lady. She was plump and
kind of grey to look at. She smiled when she saw us and gave me a little wink. I knew what was
“Well Miss Millicent Carlisle! Heard tell you‟re gonna be married one week Saturday!”
“You heard right Mrs. Mills.”
“That‟s wonderful. Congratulations to you dear. Yer marryin‟ yerself a fine young man there.”
“Thank you Mrs. Mills,” I replied politely. I liked talking to Mrs. Mills. She was one of the
warmest people in town.
“I was married to Mr. Mills when I was about yer age and you know I had a wonderful, long
marriage to him. He was the sugar in the punchbowl. Never did replace him when he passed,
God bless him,” Mrs. Mills turned her attention to Mama. “I can guess you ladies are here to
pick out weddin‟ favours for yer guests.”
Mama nodded. “That‟s right Mabel. We wanna honour tradition and do things proper. It‟s my
daughter‟s only weddin‟ day after all.”
“It sure is. Take your time and I‟ll be right here when you need me,” Mrs. Mills sat back down
on her rocker and took up her knitting.
Mrs. Mills was a wonderful knitter. She always made new mothers baby blankets when their
little ones were born without being asked. She was that kind of person.
We walked around the store with Mama eyeing everything she thought was right for a wedding.
“Here‟s somethin‟ Millicent.”
Mama held up a little white mesh bag with a sweet-smelling pink bar of soap inside. It was tied
at the top with a white silk ribbon.
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 22
“It‟s just fine Mama,” I nodded my head with approval.
“And it won‟t break the bank neither Millicent,” Mama replied and that was true. Mrs. Mills
made the soaps herself and charged two cents apiece for them.
Mama and I brought an armload of soaps up to the counter. Mrs. Mills hauled herself out of her
chair and helped us to count them out and place them into paper bags. She nodded at Mama.
“A very sensible choice Harriet, pretty and practical.”
Like Mama, I thought.
“I‟m always one for practical Mabel,” Mama agreed and looked at me. “Let‟s go to Bruna‟s
diner and have a cherry soda to celebrate. I still have a few coins left.”
Bruna didn‟t really own the diner. Her sister Clarice did. We just called it Bruna‟s since she ran
it. Clarice didn‟t work at the diner and with good reason. She was fat as a heifer. I doubt she
could have lifted all that blubber around serving people without someone holding her up. When a
man flirted with her the best he could come up with was that she didn‟t sweat much for a fat
woman. It was all bull of course. She puffed her way around town like a pot-bellied steam
When we walked into the diner there were a couple of fat truckers sitting up at the counter
drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.
“Howdy Miss Millicent, Harriet. Havin‟ a shoppin‟ spree today?” Bruna asked wiping the
counter with an old rag. Bruna was plain and very plump but she wasn‟t anywhere near the size
of her sister Clarice. Neither was Hannah their mother and she was a size too. How Clarice got
to be so frighteningly fat I will never know. Maybe she ate too much of her own fried food. Or it
could be that she was just naturally horizontal.
“We‟re gettin‟ Millicent ready for her weddin‟ next Saturday,” Mama nodded.
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 23
“Yes so I heard. Congratulations Millie. What‟ll you have ladies?”
We sat up at the counter and Mama proclaimed loudly, “cherry sodas all around please Bruna!”
Bruna smiled as she went to the soda fountain. She didn‟t get too many orders for soda from the
truckers. Mama fished inside her wallet but Bruna stopped her.
“Sodas are on the house today Harriet.”
“Thank you Bruna.”
It sure was a special day.
I nudged Mama. “I should get married more often.”
I turned my head in the direction of the fat trucker seated nearby. He looked like he‟d been
beaten by an ugly stick.
“Ain‟t you a little young to be gettin‟ hitched girlie?”
“She‟s old enough to know better!” Mama snapped as if that made any sense at all.
“Don‟t look like yer old enough to be tyin‟ the knot sweetie,” he ignored Mama straight out and
peered over at me. “Rednecks! Shee-it!”
“Who you callin‟ redneck, fatty? You got some kind of axe to grind?” Mama snarled.
“You hillbillies make no damned sense. I got a girl of my own and I‟ll be damned if she‟s
married off before she‟s twenty!”
“If yer girl looks like you she won‟t be married off before she‟s eighty! I‟m bettin‟ she‟s so ugly
a freight train would take a dirt road to get away from her!” Mama shot back.
The trucker smirked and waved us off with his hand having said his piece. He turned back to his
coffee. Bruna rolled her eyes at us but she didn‟t stand up to the fat trucker. She wasn‟t one to
lose a customer.
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 24
“Never you mind Harriet. You wanna go on home now. We don‟t want to spoil Millicent‟s
Mama looked at me as if she‟d forgotten I was there then she looked back at Bruna. Without
another word Mama got up off her stool and stalked out with her nose held primly in the air. I
followed her out of the diner.
“Millicent that old man is goin‟ off half-cocked is all. Don‟t let him get to you,” Mama rubbed
my back for a moment as if I was the angry one.
“I forgot him already Mama.”
“You know what occurred to me? This is yer last day in Candlewick as a single girl!” Mama
declared lightening the mood.
“I won‟t soon forget it,” I replied. “Thank you for everythin‟ Mama.” A lump came into my
throat. I worked hard to stop my eyes from getting wet. I wasn‟t that mushy type.
The week flew by and my wedding day rolled around. Louis came over to see me the night
before the ceremony. He sat with me on the porch swing after we ate dinner with Father and
Mama. He held my hand and we looked out at the beautiful summer night.
“Well Millie I reckon we‟ll be happy as two people ever were,” he promised.
“Yes I believe so. Ain‟t we the lucky ones to have that trailer?”
“We sure are. Yer Pa was very grand to give it to us,” Louis agreed with a little squeeze of my
hand. He knew how much I loved Father.
“We‟ll be married for a year or so first and then I guess we‟ll start havin‟ babies after that. What
do you think?”
“I suppose that‟s the best way. We want to have some time to ourselves first,” I said as if I knew
about such things. I wanted to sound like I did. I did know that I was very fond of babies and I
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 25
was quite sure I would be a good mother. Mama had Clancy only two years earlier and I was
right there with her when he was born. I helped the midwife Lucille bring little Clancy into the
world. I wasn‟t entirely naive. I‟d seen a cow birthing her calf before but Mama‟s yells and
bleeding just about caught me with my pants down. Clancy slid out of Mama like a naked baby
seal and straight into Lucille‟s waiting hands. It was the most incredible thing I ever saw. For
such a tiny thing
Clancy could squall with the best of them. I got to hold him before anybody else except Lucille
of course. I wrapped him up in a brand new baby blanket and marched outside to show him off
like he was mine. I didn‟t even let Father take Clancy from me. Father got all teary-eyed looking
“He‟s a fine boy,” was all he could say.
Lucille called me back inside to put Clancy on Mama‟s tit. “He‟s not hungry,” I frowned.
Clancy sucked on his tiny fingers but he wasn‟t crying anymore so I figured he was alright.
“It‟s good for bondin‟, dear,” Lucille replied.
I didn‟t have a clue what she meant but I didn‟t want to let on so I just nodded and said, “of
Clancy was a terror now. Fat and hearty not at all the helpless little thing I‟d held in my arms
two years ago. I don‟t know how that happens.
“We‟ll have a little girl for you and a little boy for me,” Louis decided.
“Maybe the boy should be for me Louis Saggs,” I frowned. I was having none of his man around
the house stuff.
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 26
“I‟m headin‟ home now Sugar,” Louis stood up and kissed me on my forehead. “I won‟t see you
until our weddin‟ tomorrow. I know you‟ll be beautiful. I‟m very happy to be marryin‟ you
Millicent Carlisle. Don‟t you change yer mind and run off with the milkman.”
“Mind yer smart mouth,” I smacked him on the arm. I looked down at my sneakers. “I hope I
make you proud of me.”
Louis tilted my chin up. “I know you will Millie. You‟ll be a fine wife.”
My seventeen-year-old fiancée kissed me on the cheek and walked on home whistling a happy
tune. I stayed on the porch swinging gently and not thinking much about anything when a
silhouette emerged from the woods and slowly moved toward me. At first I thought Louis must
have forgot something but as the figure ambled closer I saw it wasn‟t my intended.
“Billy Pates! Bless my soul! What are you doin‟ here this evenin‟?” I asked and stood up to
I liked Billy just fine. He was a good quiet person who never caused any trouble. He was the
only black boy in the Hills but that didn‟t matter to folk who knew him. His family was made
from good fibre.
“Hello Millicent,” Billy was the only other person besides Mama that I knew who called me that.
“You out walkin‟ on such a pretty night?”
“Walkin‟ yes but I wanted to visit with you too. Can I sit a spell?”
“I wish you would. Can I give you some lemonade?”
“Don‟t mind,” he said politely.
I went inside and got both of us a glass. Father was asleep snoring in front of the black and
white television set. Mama was beside him sewing the finishing touches on my gown.
“You gettin‟ Louis some lemonade Millicent?”
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 27
“No Mama. Billy Pates is here to see me.”
“Billy Pates?” She looked up in surprise as she bit off a piece of thread. “Well say hello to him
I went back outside and sat down with Billy on the swing. “Mama says hello.”
“Thank you Millicent. Tell her the same for me won‟t you? Yer mother is a fine woman.”
“Thank you Billy.”
That was generous of him.
We sipped our lemonade and I waited for him to speak. I figured he must have something to say
or he wouldn‟t be here. I wasn‟t the sort to push a man to talk when he wasn‟t ready. Finally
Billy cleared his throat.
“Millicent you‟ll be married tomorrow.”
“That‟s a fact Billy.”
“Are you happy?”
“I guess I am.”
“You never had a beau besides Louis Saggs.” It wasn‟t a question.
“No I ain‟t Billy.”
“Have you wanted to?”
“I haven‟t thought much on the matter to tell the truth.”
He fell silent again. Now and then he sipped his lemonade but not as much as me. I was half
finished my glass and he‟d barely had a sip of his.
“Millicent do you think you‟re doin‟ right to marry Louis Saggs?”
“Now why would you ask me a thing like that Billy?”
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 28
“I just wondered is all. Have you ever thought of waitin‟ a bit? I mean you got lots of time to tie
“No I don‟t Billy. I‟m thirteen and I‟m as good as ready now. There‟s no sense in waitin‟
around is there? Father is ready for grandchildren. He has the right to them.”
“He sure does. Yer Father is a fine man Millicent,” Billy agreed quickly.
“Thank you,” I waited. It was the oddest conversation I‟d ever had with any boy. I hardly knew
Billy Pates and I didn‟t know that he cared about me one way or the other.
“Do you think you‟ll have any regret that you married Louis Saggs without havin‟ another beau
“No Billy. I don‟t think I will. I haven‟t given it any thought as I said.”
Silence again then, “there‟s no other fella in the Hills or in Candlewick that‟s ever caught yer eye
I looked at him with a frown. “I suppose not Billy.”
“Might be some fellas that are sweet on you.”
I snorted. “Doubt it Billy. At least none that I know of.”
Billy looked straight at me for once.
“Would you change yer mind about marryin‟ Louis Saggs if there were?”
I shook my head. He had me turning in circles now. “Of course not Billy! Louis is my beau!”
“Oh well that‟s fine then Millicent.”
Billy sipped his lemonade again put the glass down on the ground and stood up to leave.
I stood up too. I looked up into his dark brown eyes as they searched my face. I‟d never been
this close to Billy Pates before. His dark skin smelled salty and his hair was soft and sweet like
primrose. He had gold flecks in his dark eyes. I never knew it.
Millicent Carlisle by Lisa Lahey 29
“I hope you‟ll be happy Millicent. You deserve all the happiness Louis Saggs can give you.”
“Thank you Billy and you. I‟m sure you‟ll be married off yerself soon enough. You‟ll find a
nice girl no doubt.”
Billy said nothing to that. He nodded and turned around. He sauntered on down the road into
the woods and didn‟t look back. Mama came to the door after he was gone.
“What did Billy Pates want with you Millicent?”
“Don‟t rightly know Mama. He talked about me havin‟ no other beaus before. He sure is a
“Hm. I wonder,” she said in a voice that told me she didn‟t find him strange.