Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cry Babies

No Cry Babies  - August

Until April of 1955, we were a family of six. There were Mama and Daddy, of course, and in order from oldest to youngest, Harry, Me, Paul and John. Harry was 18 months older than I, and Paul was 14 months younger. And John came along six years later. In the the five years between 1955 and 1960, both my father and Harry died in accidents. Coming home from work late on April 10, 1955, Daddy died instantly when his car hit a pulpwood truck half parked on the road with no lights on. Harry died after sliding off the fender of a pickup truck loaded with green tobacco on my aunt's farm. The truck rolled over him and he lived 10 hours. My mother was incapable of grieving or. She never gave herself the chance - nor did she encourage us to own our loss, talk about it, work through it. John was 2 months old when Daddy died, and she had three other children to care for. I have a clear memory of her sitting down on her bed with Harry and John and me and explaining how Daddy was better off. He had a back injury from falling during a storm while he was assigned to a mine sweeper in the South Pacific during The War. He was in chronic pain - during an era before anyone had even dreamed up the term "pain management." He suffered in silence, but I can remember him bracing his back with his hands when we went to the beach at Fernandina. It wasn't hard to tell that he was uncomfortable. I don't remember him ever complaining about it. Mama told us that Daddy was no longer in pain and that should make us feel better. She rationalized away the death of the most important man in our lives. She told us to be brave and try not to cry and to help her with John - who was two months old at the time. That's what she said, but what really happened was that she turned John over to me, for the most part. I treasured him, my real-life baby doll. Before I had to return to school after Daddy died, and then in the afternoons when I got home, I changed him and bathed him and put him down for his nap by gently rubbing his little back. I nearly always put him to bed the same way. He was mine.

Five years later on June 8, the day that Parrish would be born in 1969, Harry died as a result of that horrible accident on the farm. Again, Mama said we should be strong, and be helpful and grownup and not cry about it. She rationalized his death to us by repeating reminding us that if he had lived, Harry's life would be hard. (He probably had ADHD, long before there would be a name for it). He didn't do well in school had many visit to the principal's office. He had trouble with relationships and and constantly caused one crisis after another at home. He must have been nice to me sometimes, but don't remember it. He made up names for me that made me cry and Paul followed right along. I was called Kinker because of my hair, Hickey when Mama pulled up my hair like Pebbles, and there were more. Mama said he was in a better place. Years later, I learned that she felt guilty about Harry's problems because she dropped him when he was an infant, and he hit his head. She took him to the doctor, who said he was fine but to watch for an symptoms of head injury.

At six, almost seven, I didn't know what I had lost. The same was true when I as twelve and Harry died. There was no grief in our house, though, once in a great while, I caught Mama crying in her room. She told me to leave and close the door. She never cried, not even in front of us children. She was the Strong One after all, and she was the taught me to me to be the Strong One, too. I took on my more responsibly, but I never thought that my family was any different from others. We just didn't have a daddy. Mama made sure I did things - play half court basketball, compete for our local swimming team, but after Harry's death, that was over. I took on more responsibility at home. I have a vivid memory of her handing me a box of those thank you notes the funeral home sent to us. She gave me the guest book, and told me to stop everything I was doing and address and stuff the notes. She also gave me roll of stamps.

In 2000, kidney cancer killed John, my baby brother. The first time I saw Ann Carol, over a year ago. she told me I had serious unresolved grief issues that I was unaware of. They started bubbling to the surface when, in 2005, when we nearly lost Clint. This hell I am enduring is just part of the problem; it's more than the loss of Clint. The idea of going back and reliving the others is daunting. Do I have to drag all that up now, when sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe? I don't want to be the Strong One again and go back and and reopen wounds I didn't even know I have.

In the eighties I started writing short fiction. Here's one of my stories, "Six. Going On Seven," that is loosely based on the day of my father's funeral. It's a work of fiction, but there are bits of pieces of truth. I would never have been defiant to my mother or my grandmother. Yes, I did look in the casket and now when I think of my daddy, that is the first image that comes to mind.

     Carleen stood on the grate of the floor furnace, feeling the warm airflow up under the skirt of her Easter dress.  She held her hands over her head, and the skirt ruffled up around her face and mussed her hair.
    She was six, going on seven, and she was not supposed to stand on the floor furnace--especially in her good shoes.  She was most assuredly not supposed to let her underpants show, but she figured with so much company in the house, she might get away with it.          She pushed the dress down; and from her vantage point in the hall, she could see into the living room, which was overrun with relatives and friends of the family--all come to bury her daddy.
     It was the day before Easter:  one day after Mama had called Carleen and her brothers into the big bedroom and told them that Daddy was gone,that he would never be home again.  Mama had been sitting on the side of the bed, holding the baby and crying,     pausing occasionally to wipe her eyes and blow her nose hard into one of the diapers that she had been using for a handkerchief.  She had not uttered the word dead.  

    Instead, Mama had explained that Daddy "had been taken" the night before when his two-tone blue Pontiac had hit the back end of a poorly lit pulpwood truck that was stopped in the roadway.  She had explained about God's plan and how everything happened for a reason.  She had repeated all the things the children had learned in Sunday School about Heaven:  how peaceful and beautiful it was and how Daddy would never have the backache again now that he was there.
     "If Heaven's such a wonderful place," Carleen wondered, "then why is the entire family and half the town of Woodville milling around in our house, either crying or looking like they might start any minute?"  And if God had any plans for her, she hoped they didn't include taking her off to Heaven or any other place before her birthday party on Tuesday.  She hadn't said anything, though.  Instead, she tried in vain to squeeze out a few tears of her own.
     When she saw Grandma, ribbon in hand, marching in her direction, Carleen jumped off the grate and tried to slip past the old woman into the living room.  Grandma was quick, though; and she pinned Carleen up against the wall and hastily tied back her unruly hair, trying unsuccessfully to corral all the tendrils that curled up and framed the struggling child's face.  She smoothed down Carleen's skirt and leaned over to straighten the little cotton socks with lace cuffs, taking a handkerchief out of her sleeve and vigorously polishing a smudge off a patent leather shoe. Carleen was amazed that Grandma could lean over at all, given the fact that she was always so tightly laced into her corset.
     The starched and uncompromising matriarch took the little girl by the shoulders and looked her straight in the eye:  "Stay off that grate, Carleen."  She spoke in a low voice, almost a whisper, and her lips formed a straight line that barely moved.  Carleen was not fooled by the quiet.  The cool look in Grandma's eye said she meant business.
     "Do your best to keep yourself neat and clean, young lady, and don't eat anything.  You know how you can get carsick.  If you get thirsty, just drink some water, nothing else."  Grandma was never one to surrender anything to chance.  

    "We'll be leaving for the church in a little while," she continued,
"so stay out of trouble while I help your mama get ready."
     Carleen tried to push past the stiff black dress and go into the
kitchen.  She had peeked in there earlier and seen Mamie organizing casseroles and baskets of fried chicken and platters of sandwiches that had been brought over by some ladies from the church.  Mamie came every day except Sunday to help Mama with the cooking and washing, and she was in charge of the kitchen--even with all those white ladies in there.

Carleen was hoping to talk Mamie into sneaking her one of the little pimiento cheese sandwiches with no crust on the bread.  But Grandma caught her by the elbow, turned her around sharply, and pointed her back in the direction of the living room.
     Uncle Wilson was sitting in the chair where Carleen's Daddy always sat, and she went over and climbed up in his lap.  Uncle Wilson was Grandma's brother, and he always had a pack of clove chewing gum in his pocket. Carleen laid her head on his chest.  The scratchy wool of his suit felt good against her face, and he smelled of Old Spice and cigar smoke.  He slipped her a stick of gum.
     "Don't let your grandma see you with this."  He lifted her chin with a curved index finger and grinned down into her face.  His eyes twinkled conspiratorially.  "She'll have my hide if you make a mess with it."
     Carleen peeled the wrapper off the gum, rolled it up into a tight
little cylinder, and popped it into her mouth.  Chewing happily, she
snuggled down into Uncle Wilson's lap and stayed there until it was time to go, alternately fiddling with his tie and showing off by reciting her spelling words.
     After a while, Mama came out of her room wearing her navy blue suit and a hat with a veil that covered most of her face.  She looked--at the same time--both sad and beautiful.  Grandma was with her, carrying the baby, and the boys dawdled along behind.  

    Carleen jumped down off Uncle Wilson's lap and asked to carry the diaper bag.  Grandma reluctantly handed it over.  Then they all went out into the brilliant April sunlight and climbed into the limousine from the funeral home.  Carleen stood on her knees on the back seat and pretended to look out the rear window while she parked her gum at the base of the glass.
     Woodville was a small town--still is--and it only took a few minutes to drive to the Methodist church.  The pews were all filled, except the ones that had been ribboned off for the family. There was even a crowd standing two or three deep against the back wall.  Every eye in the church was on the family as they walked up the aisle toward the front.  Mama was carrying the baby, and Junior marched along at her side trying to look grown-up.  Two years older than the twins, he already thought he could boss them around.  And now that the preacher had told him he would
have to be the man of the house, there was just no dealing with him.
Carleen made a face at the back of his head.  Grandma's gloved hands were firmly closed around Carleen's and Carl's as they brought up the rear.
     When they reached the first pew, Carleen turned to sit down, thinking she had never sat on the front row in church before.  Grandma deftly pulled her back into line, and to Carleen's horror, kept walking straight toward the open casket.  The little girl locked her knees, realizing that Mama and Junior were already up there peering down into it.  Grandma let go of Carl's hand and turned her attention to Carleen, who continued to try to pull away.  Carl just stood there like a stump.  

    "He's too stupid to try to make a break for it," Carleen thought, and she wondered how they ever got to be twins.
     Grandma leaned down and hissed into Carleen's ear through clenched teeth.  "Carleen Calloway, you listen to me, and you listen good.  I am going up to view the body, and you and Carl are going   with me.  Your mother will never be able to hold her head up in this town again if you pitch a fit right here in front of your daddy's casket.  He was a pillar of this church, and I will not allow you to embarass his memory or me.  You know how to behave in church, so do it, and for once in your life, think about somebody other then yourself."
     Grandma had "that look" on her face, and Carleen knew she had no choice.  "Yes, Ma'am," she answered.  Her lips trembled, and she
hesitated:  "But I won't look."  With that, Grandma tightened her grip on Carleen's aching fingers and straightened up.  Without another word, she took Carl's hand and marched both children up to the open casket.  Carleen kept her eyes trained on Grandma's face, trying not to follow the old woman's gaze down into the satin-lined box.  Desperate for solace, she looked over at Carl, but he was standing on his toes, staring down into the casket, too.  His eyes were wide and his face was ashen and pasty.  He looked like he might throw up or pass out any minute, so Carleen fixed her eyes on him in case he did.  Grandma turned to her and nodded in the direction of the casket as though to say she should look, but Carleen just squeezed her eyes shut as hard as she could and shook her head no.
     Relaxing her grip on the children's hands only slightly, Grandma
followed Mama over to the pew, and they all finally sat down.  It was only then that Carleen noticed that the casket was surrounded by a jungle of flowers and green plants.  She had never seen so many flowers in one place in her life, and she started to count them.  Silently mouthing the words, she had gotten up to eight before Grandma noticed and snatched the child's pointed finger out of the air and planted it squarely in her lap.
     The preachers--there were two of them--took turns saying what a fine man Daddy was and how Woodville's loss was Heaven's gain.   Carleen wondered what kind of god took a good man away from a family who needed him and put him in a place where everything was supposed to be perfect and nobody needed anything.
     When the service was over and the casket had been carried out of the church and loaded into the hearse, they all got back into the limousine for the long ride to the cemetery.  Grandma sat in the back seat, Carlon one side and Carleen on the other.  Mama and the baby sat in the middle seat with Junior.  Grandma took up the first ten minutes of the ride preaching at Carleen that she could learn a thing or two from Carl about how to behave at a funeral.  Carleen remembered the gum and climbed up on her knees to retrieve it.  She had it in her hand and was aiming it toward her mouth when Grandma grabbed her by the shoulder, turned her around and ordered her to straighten up and sit still.  As the old woman finished her lecture, the child reached up and pretended
to scratch the back of her neck while she parked the gum under her hair.

    Carleen dreaded the drive to the cemetery in St. Marks.  Visits to the doctor were the only reason the Calloway children had ever traveled to that neighboring town, and on nearly every one of those trips, Carleen had gotten carsick from having to ride in the back seat.  Midway through today's journey, she felt a familiar queasiness and asked if she could ride up front with the man from the funeral home.  Mama nodded okay.
    Grandma looked annoyed and gave Mama a sidelong look. "Junior, honey, push that button in your arm rest," the old woman
crooned.  The window separating the front seat from the rest of the car slid down, and Grandma grudgingly asked the driver to stop and let Carleen join him in the front seat.
     As the glass eased back to it's original position, Carleen heaved a huge sigh.  Having escaped Grandma's scrutiny for at the least the remainder of the ride to the cemetery, she began to feel better.  She laid her head back against the plush upholstery and even dared to close her eyes for a few minutes.  She could hear Grandma's muffled voice from the back seat, probably making over Junior and Carl like they were the only perfect children in the universe.  Carleen thought if she had been sitting back there with them, she would have thrown up for sure.
     The little girl was half asleep when the limousine passed through the gates of the cemetery and began to roll along under the arching branches of ancient live oaks.  Even in a limousine, the passengers were rocked to-and-fro as it rolled over potholes in the unpaved alleys that pass for streets in one of the oldest cemeteries in the country.  Jostled awake, but drowsy, Carleen tried to sit up straight and realized that the gum--along with a hank of her hair--was stuck to the seat back.
    Fear radiated through her body as she attempted to disengage the wad of gum and hair from the upholstery.  Glancing back to where Grandma sat, she reached behind her head and gave the wad a yank, which unstuck most of it.  But it pulled apart and some of the the mess adhered to her fingers and then to more strands of her hair.  She jerked her hand away, and a chunk of hair came with it.  Hastily, she reached down and wiped the gooey mess under the seat.
     "What on earth is the matter with you, Carleen?  Quick, Junior, push that button for me again."  Grandma was practically shouting from behind the glass.  Naturally, she had noticed the child's struggle, but thankfully she was too far back in the long car know for sure what was going on.
     "Nothing's wrong, Grandma," Carleen lied. "I've just got a crick in my neck from falling aslseep."  Then she pretended to massage the nape of her neck, which seemed to satisfy Grandma for the moment.
     They arrived at the graveside, and all the car doors were opened for everybody to get out and go sit in the chairs that had been set up on either side of the grave.  Grandma's were the first feet to hit the
ground, and she immediately reached in and took the baby.  She stood cooing at him while Junior held the door for Mama.
     Just as Mama was smoothing down her suit, Aunt Belle rushed over, eyes glistening with unshed tears.  As usual, she was out of breath.  She hugged Mama's neck, then stepped back and looked anxiously into her face.  Mama started smoothing her suit again, then nervously patted at her hat and veil and looked down at the ground.  Grandma had the disapproving look on her face that she always wore when Aunt Belle came home.
     "Such a terrible, terrible thing for all of us, Sarah--but especially for you."  Aunt Belle put her hands on Mama's shoulders.  "I'm so sorry I missed the service, but I got here as fast as I could, and I can stay for as long as you need me."
     Belle was Daddy's only sister.  She was a dancer and lived in New York City with a man whom--in Grandma's words--"she had never bothered to marry."  Carleen loved Aunt Belle madly, but she was alone in her adoration.  Everybody else in the family tried to pretend their black-sheep relative didn't exist; and when forced to deal with her, they did so with the tight-lipped courtesy that Southerners reserve for those they consider to be traitors--either to the family or to the South.  To their way of thinking, Belle fit into both categories.
     Under Grandma's formidable eye, Belle disengaged herself from her sister-in-law, who looked relieved.  She then turned her attention to Carleen, dropping to her knees and folding the child into her arms. Belle was wearing trousers with a matching jacket, certainly not the sort of attire that would win Grandma's approval, funeral or not.  The large brim of her too-fashionable black hat formed a canopy over the outcast and the child, and Carleen was enveloped in the scent of roses as her aunt nuzzled her neck.  

    Belle pulled her face back from Carleen's and wrinkled her nose and sniffed.  Without saying a word, she tugged at the fingertips of one of her gloves with her teeth and worked it off.  She slipped her hand behind the child's neck; and with a knowing wink, mouthed the words, "Don't worry."  Carleen knew that her aunt would fix it.  Belle stood up, her arm draped protectively around Carleen's
shoulders to shield the matted hair from view
     "Come, Carleen Darling, we'll sit together.  And when all this is over, you can ride back to the house with me."  Daddy was the only other person who ever called Carleen by that nickname, and she leaned closer to her rescuer when she heard it.
     Belle had spoken just loudly enough for Grandma and Mama to understand the full meaning of what she said.  Relieved of the burden of having to deal with Belle and having got rid of Carleen in the bargain, the widow and the old woman took the boys and went ahead.  

    The outcasts followed slowly, making sure the first row was filled up before they arrived so they wouldn't have to sit with the others.  Sheltered by Aunt Belle's enormous hat and bathed in her unconditional love, Carleen was almost insulated from the events at the graveside. She knew there was more preaching, but it sounded too far away to hear.  She looked up and saw huge silent tears sliding down her aunt's face.
    When the service was over, Belle ushered her quickly to the car.
 They drove to the river and parked by the public dock.  In silence,
they got out and walked over to the railing--where they stood
hand-in-hand for a few minutes, staring out over the river and marshes.  A fresh breeze blew into their faces.  Behind them, to the west, dark clouds gathered over the town.
     Belle sat down on the bench and turned the child around to inspect the chewing gum damage.  Then she took a small pair of scissors out of her bag and skillfully trimmed away the mess.
     "There you go, Carleen Darling."  Belle squeezed the little shoulders gently and turned the child again so that the two of them were facing.  "Your hair's as good as new now, and Grandma and Mama will never have to know."
     She dropped the wad of gum and hair into the river and they watched it float away on the brown water.  Carleen threw her arms around her aunt's neck and cried for the first time since they got the news about Daddy. Belle held her close, and they wept together--big, noisy, purifying ears.
     They were sitting quietly when the rain started falling ten minutes later, and lightening flashed as they scampered back to the car.  Belle drove as far as the drug store, where she parked near the door.  "How about a cherry smash, Carleen Darling?"  The little girl looked down at her damp Easter dress and then out at the rain.
     "Don't you worry, not for a minute," Belle reassured her.  "I promise I'll get that pretty little dress washed and ironed in plenty of time for church in the morning.  Come on, take off your shoes and socks.  I'll race you to the door!"
     As they splashed toward the entrance of the drug store, Belle noticed a sign in the window.  "Hey, Carleen.  Look!  They've got Brownie Cameras.  Don't you have a birthday on Tuesday?"

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments. Compliments are always wonderful, but please feel free to leave constructive criticism. How can I learn and grow without your input?