Imagining Cinderella Bettis Drew

salt-cellarThe story told here is only partly imagined.  Something very much like it actually happened, a century later.  The coffee drinker was Saidee’s daughter—my grandmother, Margaret Bennett Barringer— whose life paralleled Cinderella’s in a number of respects.

It is 1858. In the dining room of the rented house in Fort Smith, Cinderella and her daughter Saidee, age 16, are lingering over the remains of breakfast. Twenty-year-old Mollie sits on the sofa by the parlor window, mending a hoop skirt. Thomas has gone off to his law office. The younger children are already at school.

Mollie has hardly been coughing at all lately. Both she and Saidee can sew superbly; if need be, they can look as soignée as any of the girls in Little Rock. Mollie, the eldest, is sweet and tractable, the epitome of a well-bred young lady. Emma is demonstrating exceptional proficiency at her piano lessons. And Saidee – well, at least she has the Bettis spirit.

By now Cinderella is an old hand at moving. Even with only two servants to help her, she can manage her family and her possessions. They’ve managed to keep the piano, the good china, Thomas’ books, and the best of the furniture. No one suspects the little economies that they must practice in order to keep up appearances. This is not a genteel neighborhood, what with the teamsters and drivers shouting at each other day and night outside the windows. But there is nothing left for them in Pocahontas. The only cousin still there is that snippy little Cousin Amy, and now that her husband owns the whole town she thinks she’s above everyone.

It was not until she was 40 that Cinderella discovered her own strength. Before that she was merely a spoiled young girl, screaming at her husband, slapping the servants and twisting their ears, luxuriating in her own anger. And later—for oh, how brief a moment!—finding recompense in her wealth and her preeminence, as the Governor’s wife. But at the bottom of the dark valley,when they had lost everything, when little Bennett had died and she and Thomas and six children had all had to depend on the charity of his brother James, she found that her family’s survival depended upon her, and that only she could bring them through. Only she could surround them with affection, and give them the courage they needed to go on.

 Mollie will get better.

Thomas will once again be important and respected. She is sure she can persuade him to run for Congress in the new 2nd District.

 Hold your heads up, she tells her children. We are people who count.

The mulatto girl brings in the coffee. A year older than Mollie. The one Thomas insisted on keeping when they had to sell all the others. We spend our lives surrounded by them, and the men think we don’t know. In the end, what can one do with one’s life but bear it, with whatever dignity—and kindness, if at all possible—one can manage?

Saidee is complaining that her new dress will not have the lace collar she wants. Cinderella, distracted, reaches for the small silver salt dish instead of the sugar bowl, and pours a spoonful of salt into her coffee. Saidee falls silent. As Cinderella takes the first sip of coffee, she looks up and sees Saidee watching her, saying nothing. She looks Saidee straight in the eye and drinks the entire cup.

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