Rass Island lies as low as the back of a turtle on the dark green water of the Chesapeake Bay. We Bradshaws have lived here for more than two hundred years. I love Rass Island although for much of my life I did not think I did. During the summer of nineteen forty-one, every morning McCall Purnell and I would get my small boat and go out to catch shellfish called crabs. Watermen on our island sell crabs and eat crabs. Call and I were right smart crabbers and we could always come home with a little money as well as crabs for dinner. My mother was pleased with the money I made. "My!" she said, "That was a good morning. By the time you wash, we'll be ready to eat!" I like the way she did that. She never said I was dirty or that I smelled bad. Just by the time you wash up.
She was a real lady my mother, she had come to teach in the island school and fell in love with my father. What my father needed more than a wife was sons. What my mother gave him was girls. Twin girls! I was older than my sister by a few minutes. I always treasure the thought of those minutes. They were the only time in my life when I was the center of everyone's attention. From the moment Caroline was born, she took all the attention for herself. When my mother and grandmother told the story of our births, it was mostly of how Caroline had refused to breathe. "But where was I?" I asked my mother. "In the basket," she said, "Grandma dressed you and put you in the basket." Caroline's true gift was her voice. Our teacher, Mr. Rice, said she should have singing lessons. I was proud of my sister, but something began to hurt me under the pride. One day, Mama and Caroline came back to the island on a boat after Caroline's singing lesson. There was an old man on the boat whom I'd never seen before. Our island held few secrets or surprises beyond the weather. But all the old people agreed that he was Hiram Wallace. My friend Call and I started visiting Hiram Wallace. We decided simply to call him the Captain.
The Captain stayed at our house when the big storm hit in nineteen forty-two. Afterward, we took my little boat heading straight for the Captain's house. But nothing was left at the spot where the Captain's house had stood the night before. Even with his white beard the Captain looked like a little boy trying not to cry. Not long after that, the Captain married Trudy Braxton who lived on the island. She was not well and did not live long. Soon the Captain came up the path to our house, his face red with excitement. He told my mother and me that Trudy left a little money. "There is enough for Caroline to go to boarding school in Baltimore, Maryland and continue her music." said the Captain. I sat there as surprised as if he had thrown a rock in my face! "Caroline!" My grandmother came up close behind me. I stiffened at the sound of her hoarse whisper. "Romans 9-13," she said. She repeated the saying from the Christian Bible about the competition between two brothers for their father's love. "Jacob Have I Loved, but Esau have I hated". I had always believed the Captain was different. But he, like everyone else, had chosen Caroline over me.
In the autumn I left school, I spent the winter catching oysters, another kind of shellfish, with my father. That strange winter with my father on his boat was the happiest of my life. I was, for the first time, deeply satisfied with what life was giving me. Part of it was the things I discovered. Who would have believed that my father sang while catching oysters! My quiet father whose voice could hardly be heard in church sang to the oysters! It was a wonderful sound! I did not want to go back to school, so my mother taught me at home. I passed the test for graduation with the highest grades recorded from Rass Island. The war in Europe ended in 1945. At the end of crab season Call came home from the war. The body of a large man in uniform was filling the door. "Call," I cried, "O my blessed Call, you have grown up!" "That's what the navy promised," he said. Call told the Captain he had stopped to see Caroline. His face burned with happiness when he told the Captain "She said YES to me!" He said softly, "I guess it is hard for you to think someone like Caroline might like me."
I went back to the crab house. Soon after Call and Caroline were married, the Captain said to me, "This is hard for you, isn't it? What is it you really want to do?" I was totally empty. What was it I really wanted to do? "Your sister knew what she wanted," said the Captain. "So when the chance came she could take it. Do not tell me no one ever gave you a chance, Sara Louise. You can make your own chances. But first you have to know what you are after, my dear." "I would like to see the mountains," I said, and then my dream began to form along with the sentence, "I might, I want to be a doctor." "So what is stopping you?" the Captain asked. I realized that under all my dreams of leaving home, I was afraid to go. My mother had told me that she had chosen to leave her people and build the life for herself somewhere else. "I certainly would not stop you from making the same choice," my mother said to me now, "but all we will miss you, your father and I." I wanted so to believe her, "As much as you miss Caroline?" "More," she said. I was so grateful for that one word. It allowed me to leave the island and build myself separate from the long-long shadow of my twin.
I started out that spring, shiny as a new crab pot all set to capture the world. I became a nurse-midwife, the person who helps deliver babies. Small towns in the Appalachian Mountains needed nurse-midwives and I went to a town called Truitt, my father's first name. People there are usually slow to accept outsiders, but they needed my skills for all their medical problems. A farmer named Joseph Wojtkiewicz asked me to treat his son for a high fever. Joseph had three children. Their mother had been dead for several years. He asked me where I came from. No one had ever invited me to talk about home before, and the longer I talked the more I wanted to talk. At last I stopped, I even apologized. "No, no," Joseph said, "I asked because I wanted to know. I've kept wondering ever since you came. Why would a woman like you who could have anything she wanted come to a place like this? Now I understand. God in Heaven has been raising you for this place from the day you were born. " And then he smiled. I guess from that moment I knew I was going to marry Joseph Wojtkiewicz. For when he smiled he looked like the kind of man he would sing to the oysters.
My work didn't end with my marriage to Joseph or even with the birth of our son Chuit. One night, I was helping with the birth and I suspected twins. The first baby -- a boy came easily. But the second baby -- a girl came head first and blue as death. The kitchen was slightly warmer than the bedroom, so I laid the second baby on some cloth on the door of the oven. Then I suddenly asked, "Where is the other twin?" In my concern for his sister, I had completely forgotten him. "He's sleeping in the basket," said the grandmother. "You should hold him," I said, "and let his mother nurse him." Hours later I walked home in the snow. I bent my head backward to drink in the stars, and clearly I heard a song so sweet and pure I had to hold myself to keep from breaking.