Check out Chapter Two of Slaves to Freedom by Kathy Tilghman . . .
Anna hated the antiseptic smell of this hospital. Their landlord had erected what the tenants referred to as a “fever shack,” thatched roof, dirt floors, one cot lined up after another, bodies too weak to move lying on them. The outside walls were painted sterile white, in stark contrast to the darkness within. The air smelled of death: a dark, mysterious smell that overpowered anything that resembled life. The only thing that diluted it were the small lanterns that lit the doctor and nurse’s paths as they assisted thin, starved bodies to their cots, only to cover them with a sheet and see that they were carried out and buried at the church cemetery days later. She pitied her mother having to smell this place, desperately wished to be out in the open air, away from here and
the chance that she, too, would one day lie on the same cot.
Anna stared hard into her beloved daughter’s eyes, finding there the desperation that mirrored her own. What she would give for Sarah not to witness another death so close on the heels of her father’s. The girl had heard him breathe his last breath, and now she’d hear her grandmother, Mary Browne’s, as well. Anna stroked her cheek, swallowed hard before gently acknowledging to herself as much as her daughter her next words. “Sarah, listen to me, girl. Grandmother will not live much longer. We must say our good-byes while there’s still time.”
As Sarah watched her ma, she felt tears at the corners of her eyes and shook her head. “No, not Grandma too. Ma, she’s got to go to America with us. She has to go too.”
Anna hugged her daughter, but twelve-year-old Sarah pushed her away. Sarah hated seeing her like this: shoulders slumped and clutching her worn brown scarf tight to her chest as if grasping it was what kept her going. Her black hair, which had at one time been full and flowing down her back, now hung in matted strands. Sarah was relieved she kept it covered with a dingy brown scarf. Her gray cotton dress hung from her bony frame and was two sizes too big and wrinkled and torn at the hem. Every time Sarah looked at her mother’s dress, she hated her own gray one even more.
Her mother had the worried look of defeat, eyes cast toward the floor. She had seen this look on her mother’s face only once, when her father had died, and it had terrified her. What if her mother wouldn’t be able to take care of her anymore? She had known other children who were separated from their families who were too poor to pay rent to the landlord—or else go to the workhouse, an unendurable fate. She felt her mother’s and the Laughlin family defeat, which had slowly enveloped them in a tide of sadness and despair the past two years since the ground had spewed forth blackened potatoes, seize her body.
“Can’t we pray for her? We can’t let her die too—isn’t there something we can do?” Sarah said desperately.
“It’s too late for prayers now.”
Sarah stared at the floor, wishing her mother could take back the words that hung heavy between them. Her mother’s hopelessness frightened her as much as Grandma’s famine fever, which, once contracted, meant barely more than a few weeks before burial in the churchyard. She had been able to push that thought to the furthest corner of her mind until her mother’s words startled that fact into recognition once more.
The thought of losing her grandma forever made every bone in her young body ache to be consoled one last time in her arms. She had confided things to her grandma that she had never told Ma, and Grandma had kept her confidence.
Sarah looked from her grandma to her ma, and panic overtook her as she thought of the possibility of losing her ma too. She could not imagine what her ma felt at the loss of her own mother. Sarah slipped her arm through her mother’s and said, “I love you, Ma.”
Anna patted Sarah’s arm and said, “I love you too, my girl. And Grandma has always loved you. Don’t ever forget that.”
The thought stabbed Anna as surely as if it had been a knife. As she glanced at her dying mother, whose ashen face and sunken eyes were almost unrecognizable to her now, she took her bony, grayish hand in her own. Memories of her early years with her mother washed over her, and she felt a lump in her throat as she remembered walking hand in hand through the emerald fields together, praying at bedtime, and listening to stories at her knee by the hearth. She had been there when Anna had married Patrick, when Sarah, her first granddaughter, was born, and when her husband had died. She shook her head at the tragedy of her mother not seeing Sarah grow up, at her life ending this way. It was inconceivable that the person who had always been there would momentarily never be there again. Anna despised the illness that was taking her mother—the pitiful body that lay before her that had barely subsisted day to agonizing day with no hope that potatoes or anything else would ever grow to feed them again.
Nauseated, Anna turned to run from the building, feeling she might need to retch. But before she had taken a first step, her mother’s eyes fluttered open and she whispered, “Anna, Sarah, come closer. Keep something for me.”