Barbara J. Taylor: Inspired by Family History
To celebrate the release of her debut novel Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night — the latest release in Akashic’s Kaylie Jones Books imprint, and one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Summer Books of 2014 — we’re pleased to feature a guest post from author Barbara J. Taylor, who shares a bit of her family history and describes the incident that inspired the events of her novel.
I have no idea how someone convinced my grandmother to sit on a donkey long enough to have her picture taken. Animals terrified her. On walks, we spent half our time crossing streets in order to avoid neighborhood dogs. Yet, there she is in my favorite photograph, holding the reins with seeming confidence, persuaded perhaps by youth or the novelty of photography.
Her sister Janet stands in front, one arm forward, one back. It’s the same with the feet, giving her a sense of motion, as if she agreed to pause just long enough for the image to be captured before running off again.
The photo is undated, but given the girls’ approximated ages, I’d guess circa 1920. Janet would have been the oldest child in the family by then, with my grandmother next in line. Two years earlier, their sister Pearl had passed away.
The accident happened on July 4, 1918, the day of Pearl’s baptism. According to a piece in The Republican, one of three newspaper articles tucked inside the family Bible, Pearl and “several companions,” her six-year-old sister Janet among them, were playing with sparklers in the yard that evening. Pearl’s dress caught on fire, and as the reporter explains, “With her clothes a mass of flames, the child ran toward her home, screaming loudly for help.” He goes on to write, “Her parents succeeded in extinguishing the blaze but not before her body was badly burned . . .” I’d always heard that her mother, my Grandma Morgan, raced out of the house in her slip, an immodest detail included to illustrate her sense of urgency. She rolled Pearl in a rag rug she’d grabbed from the porch.
My grandmother, who was four years old at the time, had only one memory of the day. Somehow she ended up with the neighbors across the street. She stood at their front door, flanked by two women who fed her milk and peanuts as she watched the ambulance, “a big black thing,” take her sister away.
And that’s when Pearl started singing.
As the story goes, she sang for three days without a word of complaint. The Republican noted her “remarkable exhibition of fortitude” in an article entitled, “Child Sings Gospel Hymns With Death Lurking Near.”
Pearl died in the hospital on July 6th. As custom required, she was “laid out” in the parlor at home for viewing. Given the nature of her injuries, the undertaker placed netting over the casket so no one would touch the body. Mourners came from all over Scranton, PA, even people the family had never met, to see the little girl who sang hymns.
My grandmother used to say that she was too young to understand what had happened to Pearl, so she “pined for her” and stopped walking for a year. Maybe that’s why she’s sitting on the donkey in the photograph while Janet stands in front.
Whenever I think about Pearl’s accident, I wonder about Janet, who was in the yard that Fourth of July. Unlike Violet, the protagonist in my novel, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, no one blamed Janet for her sister’s death, but I imagine it had to have affected her just the same. Proximity has a way of attracting guilt.
By the time I knew Janet, she was a grandmother. She had many joys in life, but she’d also suffered tragedies of her own—the death of her only daughter when she was a toddler, the death of her only son as an adult, and the death of a grandchild. I remember her as being funny, generous, bawdy, and nervous. Especially nervous. Darting from one chore to the next. Scurrying from room to room, chattering the whole time.
Always in motion.
BARBARA J. TAYLOR was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University. She still resides in the “Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is her first novel.
Posted: Jul 15, 2014
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