Kit Carlson

What Sadie Knew

Four Figures by Oscar Bernal

In a box of old postcards at a junk shop, I find one from Lake City, Florida, my husband’s hometown. In the picture, three men stand outside a coffee shop on Marion Street sometime in the early 1930s. It’s the same coffee shop where Sadie waited tables from the time she was fifteen until she was forty, when the coffee shop closed, and she moved over to work at Jimmy’s Buttermilk Chicken.

Sadie has always been unknown to me. She was my husband’s grandmother. When he called me one day in June 1979 to say she had died, we had been engaged for six months, and I never knew she existed. “You mean you had a grandmother, and I never met her?” “Well, she wasn’t really like my grandmother,” he said. “We all just called her Sadie. She lived with Big Ma, and I thought she was some kind of aunt or cousin. I didn’t figure out she was my grandma until I was twelve.”

Sadie lived with Big Ma–her mother, my husband’s great-grandmother–for her entire life. There are no photos of her, but my husband says she had a limp and a nice smile. The census record for 1945 says she finished seventh grade, and that her occupation was “disabled waitress.” Sadie’s three children, Jesse, Jimmy, and Clarice, my mother-in-law, also lived there in 1945–at Big Ma’s house on Alachua Street.

Sadie never married, never had a boyfriend, never had a fiancé. On the birth certificates of all three of her children, the father is listed as “unknown.” And everyone in Lake City knew that Jesse and Jimmy and Clarice didn’t have a father, had three different fathers, had three unknown fathers.

If Clarice knew her father, she did not say. She wouldn’t talk about it. She wouldn’t talk about Sadie much at all. It must have been hard growing up like that–with no father, living in her grandmother’s house with Sadie there, a mother-not-really-a-mother reminding her that life was out of sync.

Everyone in that generation is dead now. There is no way to learn what they knew or did not know. There’s nothing left to do but wonder–about Sadie, and what it was like to be a “disabled waitress” in Lake City in those days. Wonder what it meant to come home to her parents, pregnant at age fifteen, and again at seventeen, and again at twenty. Wonder what her encounters with the unknown men were like. Was she forced? Were they moments of joy and pleasure, or just random occasions to step outside herself for a time-
-outside the limp, the coffee shop, and the house on Alachua Street?

I look at the postcard again–three men in front of a coffee shop. Dark pants, white shirts, their faces are fuzzy. They seem to be talking together about something, or someone. I think of three other men who cannot speak, the fathers of Jesse and Jimmy and Clarice—unknown, unknown, unknown.


About the writer:
Kit Carlson is an Episcopal priest and a life-long writer with work appearing in publications as diverse as Seventeen Magazine and Anglican Theological Review. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, recently published in Ponder Review, Bending Genres, and DaCunha. She is author of Speaking Our Faith (Church Publishing, 2018). She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband Wendell, and Lola, a nervous rescue dog.

Image: Four Figures by Oscar Bernal (1945-2016). Oil on canvas. 48 x 36 inches. By 2016. Public domain.