Dear reader: This is part one of a two-part series. These memories are from the point of view of the eldest of three children, (of my father’s second wife). Got that? When telling a truth, some are offended. No meanness is meant with these words, only the expression of my piece of the truth, and of hope. May not be copied without written permission from the author. If shared, this site must be credited.
Copyright Suzanne 2016
I seem to be on a road, standing still. ~ Annie Dillard (Holy The Firm, pg 68)
Juice flows in. We are infused, our waters receiving the flavor of our lives. We drift and collide with others, whose essences mingle with ours. Parents, brothers sisters aunts uncles cousins grandparents. Friends. Animals. Pets. Plants, trees. All combining with our essence. All one tide.
I started out dry. Fell from the womb early, landed in a glass bottle called an incubator, in which my arms flailed and my mother, weak and helpless, watched. I could have gone blind, for that often happened to incubator preemies in the 40’s. I lucked out. It took a long time for me to see it this way. I formed impressions.
Christmas eve. A phonograph playing Jingle Bells. The scratchy needle fitting into the round, turning record, on the small blue and white phonograph player. My beautiful dark-haired mother; my sturdily built, short-haired dad. Santa Clause is comin’. The next day: a glass half full of milk, a bitten cookie on a white ceramic saucer.
Thunder, lightning, power- out darkness, my mother’s voice: don’t be afraid. Smoke in the air; my father smoking.
Mother sitting in the bathroom, telling me not to move, calling for my father: Walt, come in here right now.
My father’s thumb cut and bleeding as he puts a coffee can lid over a rat-hole. We move.
Moving became our story. Away from relatives,on a road of isolation.
Life gives us new perceptions. If we are willing to see them. My recollections differ from those of a cousin, who lived near my father’s relatives, and whom I did not “meet” again until years later.
He knew them – my father’s people – personally, as we, owing to the long distance and lack of communication, did not. I will add his description later.
First, what I remember:
My paternal grandfather, my father’s father, passed when I was fourteen. When we were 2000 miles apart. I hardly knew him, just that he was from Germany, he was quiet, kind and rich. I remembered his image from the age of five:
He sat on the porch. I remember him this way: He wore a button-up sweater, even in spring. He loved to sit and look at the beautiful blue hydrangeas. They were huge! He died there, on the porch, I was told, as if napping.
Grandmother A-, my father’s mother, had white hair and a stern demeanor. She was a matriarch, whose 3 sons and one daughter did her bidding. I never saw her after age five, although I remember seeing her rolling dough on the kitchen counter, making pies .
Mother told me that we had been living with them in their big old H-Street mansion, since our father was between jobs. Our mother had just given birth to our sister. Grandmother A- ordered me to the home of an aunt and uncle, after telling our mother: You can’t stay here in the hospital, your husband can’t afford it. Being jobless, my father could not take a stand for his wife. Or for me. Mother returned from the hospital with my sister.
I was sent away, after seeing her. I wore a green plaid skirt that day. I was screaming as I was pulled out the door.
They had a little farm, my aunt and uncle,and I remember the sound of the tall corn leaves rustling in the breeze. I remember playing with cousins, who tricked me often, leaving me alone in the corn field, but always coming to retrieve me.
After spending a few weeks at the little farm, I grew to like it. Then, my father got a job. My mother came to retrieve me, and I felt sad about leaving, for there had been peace and order there; regular meals at table. Regular habits that make you feel safe. Brushing your teeth nightly, bathing with a cousin, J-saying prayers each night before bed, which I shared with her. Now I lay me down to sleep. It was a place where corn stalks grew ten feet high, and tomatoes spread out in the garden. I still love the earthy, somewhat acidic scent, the shiny red skin and thick stems of growing tomatoes. And the rustle of corn as it meets the blue sky.
The train: I rejoined the family, and we went West, away from paternal family, never to return. Our father went ahead of us. Our mother, carrying the baby in her arms, led me from compartment to compartment on the train, the El Capitain. I remember the rocking, clattering, swaying of that large metal womb. I remember the anxious look on my mother’s face as she carried the baby and urged me forward. Still, to this day, trains soothe me.
Our father’s only sister, E. died at her mother’s home. She had never married, the story told that her mother never approved of any of her suitors. Our mother said that she loved E. who used to babysit us. She had been a writer, and her letters were in blue ink, I loved getting those letters, seeing the blue, wide, rounded cursive and seeing the word love at the bottom. Love has always been round and blue to me.
Hearing about grandmother A’s death years later when I was fourteen, meant nothing to me. I heard my father say “she was a great old gal,” and I couldn’t believe it. I just said I was sorry for his loss.
And yet, a different experience reported by distant cousins, told 60 years later. As I heard this, I felt a new compassion for the grandmother I never knew:
The other side:
My maternal great- grandmother. She and my grandmother lived half a state away. (I wrote about Georgia and Maurice in another post:2/26/16).
I remember great grandma J- as large, in loose dresses and sturdy shoes below thick ankles. Her face was round, her hair thick, her mouth a wide slash. Dark-spirited, but then she had suffered in that convent, or so the story went. She was mean, she made and drank moonshine, with which she acquired several husbands, including a mayor of the small town in which she lived, and later, a Swede,my great-grandfather, who worked as a boilermaker, who dressed in dapper clothes and inspected his daughters’ clothing for straight seams.
And yet, she sang with an angel voice, my great grandmother. And grew medicinal herbs. She “caught” babies, as a midwife . She slathered goose-grease on my mother’s chest when the cough came. She gave my mother castor oil, for daily habit.
She was Indian, in the days when you kept that quiet. Or be punished. She had been punished, in that convent, into which she had been thrown when her mother died. Her siblings, whom we never knew, scattered. She suffered, but never discussed those early days.
In her sweet moments, she sang lullabies to my mother in Cherokee (Tsalagi). She died saying she had been poisoned. They found thousands of dollars beneath her mattress. Spent quickly by those who found her. None of it trickled down to those of us who were 500 miles away.
I felt bad for her, and now wish that I had gotten to know her better, learned about the medicinal herbs, told her I loved her.
1955-56, A year in which we had no nearby relatives, and few friends, for this was the era of the Mad- Man. Madison Avenue advertising, emphasis on appearances, era of one car, and the wife stays home. Of partying after the paycheck, spending it before finally returning home, broke. Of bill collectors putting a foot in the door, threatening. Yes, they did that. I remember seeing Mother distraught, as she asked him politely to leave.
My true intimates were a beloved white shaggy mongrel dog and lithe, slinky black cat. The dog always settled down beside us and guarded us. The cat curled warmly at the foot of my bed, there in the mornings. We were far from those cornfields, from that safe rustling, from that blue sky.
In that year, both of my intimates were lost within a week’s time. The dog got caught under someone’s house and injured himself trying to get out. He had to be put down. The cat was hit by a car. My solace was gone.
Isolation. We were so far from family; grandparents on either coast, no uncles or aunts or cousins nearby, that ours was a pitiful time. An isolated time, compounded by the disease of alcoholism. There were no neighbors or church families to turn to. We fended for ourselves.
And then, on a gray cold day, in a few moment’s time, my childhood passed away. My mother attempted suicide, and I rescued her. Unable to swim, she plunged into deep water. That event colored everything in the mother-child dyad, for years to come. (See the post: Underwater – published February 9, 2014.)
From isolation, I always wanted to belong. From a dry beginning, my journey became saturated with desperation. But this is only part of the story. Because with help, and new tools, we can experience renewal.
I am standing. Still. 60 years later. With gratitude, for what has been given, what has been taken, for all has been given. (From: Babette’s Feast, by Isaak Dinesen).
Each of us has passings, stories of loss, and of redemption. Of anger and forgiveness and compassion. Of round, blue love. In Part Two I will show what happened, and what beauty was to come.
Peace be with you.
Suzanne copyright 2016