© 2005 Veronica McLaughlin
This is the story of Sadie and Duane, who lived and died within twenty miles of the Pennsylvania town where they were born. Never travelled. Never read a book. Never even tasted Chinese food. Gave their offspring names like Buford and Lula and went to services at the Beaver Centre Methodist Church every single Sunday.
They were related by marriage and I met them at a family reunion back in the 80’s. Duane was a codger given to off-colour jokes who played a mean 12-string guitar. He picked up that thing and had a hundred of us tapping our feet and singing along in no time flat. Sadie was bad-tempered with a mouth to shock a trucker. She had one adverb – f*ck*n, one adjective – f*ck*n, one preposition – f*ck, and one all purpose exclamation – f*ck! She was a woman given to heavy use of adjectives and adverbs and prepositions and full of exclamations that went something like, “F*ck! F*ck-where the f*ck you think you’re f*ck*n going with my f*ck*n lighter, you f*ck?”
You ever notice how family trees are as dead as the folks stuck on them? Names and dates – born, married, reproduced and died, saints and sinners all the same. Skeletons creeping out of the closet are the only interesting bits. You get a couple of old chooks around a game of whist with a bottle of sherry and soon those old bones are covered with plump, juicy meat. It took years to discover Sadie and Duane’s shocking true story.
Sadie was thirteen when her mother died. Her Daddy, a farmer and part time circus strongman, needed a mother for his brood of seven, and quickly remarried, to a widow named Bertrina. Her four kids were mostly grown, just the baby Duane left living at home. Bertrina was the no-nonsense sort; took Sadie out of school and put her to work taking care of the house and the younger children.
Sadie’s older brother Ben was dispatched to be a farmhand in the next county. Never made much of himself. His first wife ran off with another man, after claiming she was tenpin bowling three nights a week. Ever after he believed that bowling led to hellfire and damnation, and never quite cottoned on that his wife had never actually been to a bowling alley.
Auntie Rita, who was twelve, got three dollars and told to get the hell out. It was 1933, and three dollars was a handsome sum. The plucky lass boarded a Greyhound Bus to Philadelphia, found herself a job as a housemaid during the day and went to school at night. A few years later she found office work and then married an architect. She’s been around the world, to Paris and China, and is now one of those terribly pampered old ladies whose paper-fine skin is silky soft and smells vaguely of lavender.
When Auntie Rita first came back to the family, after she was widowed in the seventies, she stayed away from the sherry and told no stories. But over the years, she let little bits slip, and when Sadie died she came to stay with us for a few days. After all the men and kids had gone to bed, she was the one to bring out the sherry.
“Bertrina was out of a Grimm’s fairy tale,” she said, “a genuine wicked stepmother, your worst nightmare come true.” She pulled out a small photo album and opened it to a sepia-toned wedding photo. “You just look at her.” Gaunt, with fierce, dark eyes and more than a trace of a moustache, Bertrina stood a good two feet from her new husband, on the opposite side of a large Grecian urn. The strongman was massive, with a barrel sized chest and legs like tree trunks. He had a lost look on his face, smooth round cheeks, tiny pig eyes and a handlebar moustache, neatly waxed to pencil points. “Men in those days, they left child raising to the women, so he turned us over to the Witch without a thought.”
She flipped back a few pages, to a stiff family photo, of the strongman and Rita’s mother with their seven children. She was a large woman with round cheeks and shining berry eyes in a dark plain dress, seated with two chubby babies on her broad lap and the rest of her children standing around her. The strongman stood behind them, with one hand on his wife’s shoulder and the other around the eldest son. Hard to believe it was the same man.
“Her name was Ella, but Daddy always called her Dove, or Dovie. That’s what we called her, too. Dovie. She got sick and died. That’s how it was in those days. You got sick. Sometimes you got better. Sometimes you died. Dovie gave birth to seven children in eleven years, all the while working in the fields, seeding and hoeing and harvesting and then canning it all so we’d have something to eat in the winter. Then one day she came down with a cough and next we knew, she was gone.”
Auntie Rita told me quite a bit about Dovie and the strongman and how much she hated the Witch, but this is Sadie and Duane’s story. And once she got on that bus for Philadelphia, Rita’s version of what happened carries no more weight than anyone else that knew them.
One thing everyone agrees on, Sadie didn’t mind leaving school. And she didn’t mind taking care of the house and her little brothers and sisters. It was training for when she married and had a family of her own. What she may or may not have minded was the attention she received from her stepbrother, Duane.
Auntie Rita said, “Duane was the sort who couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Even though there was nothing wrong with his back, he walked hunched over, like he was hiding something.” She hated him from the first, when she found him out behind the barn drowning a litter of newborn kittens. She tried to stop him, but he punched her in the face and gave her a blood nose. The next day she got her walking papers.
Auntie Rita said, “You know, Sadie wasn’t very pretty, but she had this way about her that just drew people to her. She made you laugh, made you forget your troubles. When Dovie died, she consoled the little ones by telling them how beautiful it was in heaven. We should all be praising the Lord that Dovie didn’t have to work hard any more and had angels to rub her feet at the end of the day.”
Lula says her Auntie Agnetha told her that, “Sadie was the prettiest girl in school and had all the boys carrying her books and walking her home. That’s why the Witch got rid of Rita and made Sadie into the housemaid, because they reminded her that she was ugly!” But Agnetha was only five when Dovie died and all five-year-olds think their older sisters are beautiful.
According to Rita, who swears this is what Sadie told her – one day, a few months after the wedding, when the babies were napping, the older children in school and the Witch off somewhere; Duane crept up behind her while she was mopping the kitchen floor and grabbed her. First he was kissing her and then he was ripping her dress, telling her that it didn’t matter if she screamed for help; no one would hear. Lula says, “that’s not true! Mama told me they were sweet on each other from the first moment they met and nature was just having her way with them, two teenagers doing what came naturally, what with living in the same house and seeing each other morning, noon and night.”
Things being the way they are when a couple of fertile teenagers engage in copulation, consensual or otherwise, Sadie ended up with a bun in the oven. Sadie herself said that, “f*ck*n six months later, when it became f*ck*n obvious, the Witch accused me of f*ck*n leading her boy to the Devil and f*ck*n bringing disgrace on the f*ck*n family. Beat me with a f*ck*n willow switch every f*ck*n day until I went into f*ck*n labour. And when I finally did, the f*ck*n Witch locked me in the f*ck*n bathroom and said I wouldn’t be f*ck*n coming out until the whole f*ck*n business was f*ck*n done with. And be f*ck*n quiet about it or she would f*ck*n come in and give me something to really f*ck*n scream about.” We all fell silent with horror, until she laughed and said, “it weren’t no f*ck*n big deal, Neecy f*ck*n popped out like a little rubber doll and started f*ck*n bawling her eyes out. So the Witch f*ck*n came in and helped me clean up.”
The strongman was dead by then. Word is, the Witch poisoned him. Everyone agrees about that, though the police were never called and no charges were ever made. They didn’t do autopsies on dead poor farmers back then. Six months after the marriage, he finished his supper one evening, went to lie down and never got up. It could have been a heart attack – a man that size doing hard physical labour, though he was only thirty-six. I think he died of a broken heart.
Sadie had Neecy, and Lula the following year. Then, being fifteen, of legal age, she wed her eighteen-year-old stepbrother. Auntie Rita claims, “she was forced to marry that rapist,” but Neecy and Lula insist, “it was the happiest day of Ma’s life,” and once produced a wedding photo with Sadie staring straight into the camera, her head tipped toward her groom in a gesture that certainly seemed affectionate, though neither of them were smiling. But no one smiled for photos in those days.
The Witch gave Sadie and Duane thirty wooded acres at the far end of the property and built them a two-room cabin. The following year, she remarried again and sent Sadie’s four younger brothers and sisters to live with them.
Duane was a real DIY kind of guy. First he added a large bedroom onto the cabin to accommodate the six children. But then, as he and Sadie had six more, he started building separate buildings, one-room shacks. By the time I met them, he’d erected no less than two dozen shacks, randomly scattered over the property. Several were outhouses no longer in use. Some were for sleeping or cooking, a few held a beyond-repair car; a couple held tools; lots were filled with rubbish. The oldest were made of logs, from the slender birch trees that once stood on the land. When the trees ran out, he used plywood, with black tarpaper stapled on for cladding. On winter days the wind would whistle under the tarpaper and bits would come loose and flap noisily, as if the whole homestead was moaning over its very existence.
Sadie and Duane lived there nearly fifty years, scraping by, birthing and occasionally burying babies. In the early years he ran his mother’s farm and she provided enough to keep food on their table. But when she died, her husband sold it to someone who didn’t need a farmhand.
Duane always had a problem with the bottle, but after getting turned down job after job, he sometimes spent days or weeks on a bender. Lula said, “When Daddy was drunk, he did one of two things. If he and Ma were on the outs, he’d start building. Didn’t care if it was day or night, he’d be out there hammering away or digging postholes; singing at the top of his lungs, about ships and mermaids and being a pirate, free on the seven seas.
“He wasn’t a mean, drunk though. Not unless Ma’d get going at him. Every so often, Ma’d get madder’n a wet hen and set on him, shrieking about how he was a no good bum and he’d ruined her life. Mostly Daddy let her hit him and just kept drinking and working, but every once in a while, he’d let go one of his arms and sideswipe her, knock her off her feet, just to get her away. But he never hurt her none.
“More often, if Ma was in a good mood, he’d pull out his guitar and the two of them would sit there singing together, old country songs about cowboys and being in love ‘til the end of their days. They sounded real good, too. Ma and Daddy really loved each other. It’s just that life was so hard, they forgot sometimes. Especially Ma. I think she forgot more often than Daddy did.”
Rita never mentioned anything about singing. Only that, “Duane flew into a rage when he was drunk and beat Sadie. She lost a baby at seven months because of him.”
The last time I saw them, they were in their mid-sixties and in terrible health; heavy smokers and drinkers and exercise wasn’t something that ever crossed their minds. With the kids gone and even the grandchildren too big to give them reason to behave, they’d taken to smacking and shoving and throwing things at each other. Part fun, part serious. Everyone clucked about how awful it was; but what could you do? Then, just like children getting out of hand, during one of their ‘play’ rows, Duane fell and ended up in hospital with a broken hip. Sadie sat by his bedside all day long, every single day.
The hospital social worker decided they shouldn’t be living out in those shacks anymore and found them a nice assisted-living apartment in Albion, the big smoke out in those parts, population eight thousand. They grumbled, but when the social worker threatened to put them in an old-folks home, off they went. Auntie Rita paid for it, since none of their children could afford to take care of them and several would have nothing to do with them at all. Auntie Rita made some deal with the state, buying their property to cover their expenses. Not really sure how it went, but she ended up with the title and Sadie and Duane got their rent paid.
The way Lula and Neecy told it then, “If Auntie Rita wants it, she’s welcome to it. None of us want the old place – what are we going to do with all those shacks and outhouses? Cost us more to tear ’em down than the land is worth – never mind paying the back taxes. ”
Rita said, “Not sure why, but for years I’ve had a hankering for a piece of land back home. Can’t explain it, but as far as I’ve come and as good as life has been to me, I just want a little piece of my roots to hand down to my grandchildren.”
It wasn’t long before the apartment manager and the police were on Sadie and Duane’s door step, what with the shouting and cursing and things flying out the windows all hours of the day and night. Then came the social workers and counsellors – as if those two could or would change their ways. The court ended up separating them, made them wards of the state, living in other people’s homes like foster children, with supervised visits twice a week for a couple of hours. How sad. I think they should have been allowed to stay together, even if they killed each other. I really do. He died a few months later and Sadie lived another year, packing it in at sixty-six.
Soon after Sadie died, Auntie Rita decided to clear and build on the property. One by one, Duane’s shacks were felled, until only the original cabin remained. Her eldest son, Richard, tried to talk her into converting it to a garage or stable but, “Mom didn’t want any memory of the rapist lingering about the place. You should have seen her – three cans of gasoline she poured and then personally set it alight. Mom was sixty nine years old then and the words coming from her mouth as that fired raged woulda made Sadie blush.”
When the demolition crew removed the concrete foundation, they found oil oozing out of the ground. Engineers were called and an enormous deposit of black gold was discovered, right in the middle of the property.
These days there’s an oilrig pumping night and day; and Auntie Rita bought something in Florida instead. All eight of her surviving nieces and nephews sued, claiming Auntie Rita knew there was oil on the property all along, every one of them with their own version of how and why they’re entitled to it. Auntie Rita was rather nice about the whole thing. Even though they lost, she sent them each a cheque for ten thousand dollars.
Me, I like taking a ride up to the old place, watching that oilrig pump. I think about Sadie and Duane and the old days and sometimes hear her in the rhythm of the rig, “Holy F*ck! Will you just f*ck*n look at that thing, pumping the f*ck away…”