The lyrics were appalling. Three little children lying in bed,
two were sick an’ the other most dead
and how the song, written by James Whitcomb Riley
in racist dialect, became a minstrel song.
Yet the bread itself was wonderful: cornmeal,
flour, hot water, eggs, baking powder, milk,
a good deal of shortening. My mother used to sing
Momma’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’
Momma’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread
all morning while she whipped up some,
wearing her white apron with the red stitching,
and I never tired of hearing about how
when those children, sick in bed
heard the talk about shortnin’ bread
they popped up well to dance and sing
for I believed, then, like other children from our small church village,
in miraculous cures. I believed in the luck brought by four-leaf clovers,
that men actually beat their swords into ploughshares,
and in the resurrection and the life.
Didn’t seasons change, weren’t prayers always answered?
One day it was snowing like the devil, the next,
robins came to our upstairs bedroom windows,
sheep gamboled, the lilac bush blossomed.
Behind us, trailing back through our lives like drunkards’ footsteps
there are thousands upon thousands of small escapes
from horrible outcomes. Be thankful for each reprieve
with which you’ve been blessed.
My brother who’d stepped on glass and got himself infected
didn’t die in his trundle bed beneath the stairs.
The nurse who’d stayed all night awake by his bedside
had left quickly in the morning, smiling, reassuring us,
while downstairs my mother had started singing,
That ain’t all she’s gonna do
Momma’s goin’ to make a little coffee, too,
the house on Janes Avenue filling with the smells
of coffee and lilacs and delicious shortnin’ bread.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.