One of Them
I hope that I do not seem to be too hard on Matu, for she cherished and loved me and brought me up as her own, and I did love her dearly, adored her, in fact. Matu and Uncle Robert were married in a double wedding with my mother (Matu and Deena’s sister) and my father (Uncle Robert’s brother)—two Rennie sisters, two Ridley brothers. When I was three years old, my parents were killed in a terrible and mysterious car accident. One clear night in spring, their car crashed through a bridge railing and flew into the river. In what was referred to as a “miracle” and “God’s blessing” throughout my childhood–and thus put an undue burden on me to live a good life, a life worth saving–I was thrown out of the car and thus did not accompany my parents to their watery grave. When a random passerby finally happened upon me, I was being jealously guarded by a stray dog who refused to leave my side and was to become my beloved companion, Wolf. I do not remember my parents, nor do I remember the accident.
My first memories, which always strike me as my first moment of consciousness, are of lying unable to move, gripped by pain and lost in pain’s vast solitude. I seemed to bob up into consciousness from time to time, at which times I could see but could not call out to blurry nimbus-headed figures that appeared over me and seemed to speak some alien language among themselves. I am not sure how long I was in the hospital. The next thing I remember is a blazing white room and Matu—my “mama two,” my “mama too”—bathing me, the warmth of her hands and the blankety reassuring softness of her voice as she gently turned me this way and that and rinsed me with water that she scooped up in her hands. And after that, I remember Matu transferring me from her arms to Deena’s, and Molly peeking around a corner and then standing with Wolf nearby—Wolf was as tall as she was. What I remember more than the sight of them is their smells, although, of course, I had no words for them at the time. Matu smelled of vetiver and flowers, and Deena smelled like rain on clean hot pavement. Molly and Wolf smelled alike to me—an infinitely comforting smell like freshly-spaded rich soil in a springtime garden.
From the beginning of my second life, Matu held me close, and I was her second daughter. Perhaps I was a helpful distraction for her from her miscarriages and the loss of one of her sisters, a loss that apparently hastened the deaths of my maternal grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw Rennie, who went to the grave within six months of each other not long after Matu and Uncle Robert officially adopted me. It wasn’t until many, many years later after Matu died and I found—and, of course, immediately read—her diaries that I could even entertain the notion that Matu had not loved me wholeheartedly from the start: it felt like love, it must have been love. Whatever my addition to her immediate family meant to her, she would have felt bound by blood to take me in and nurture me, and she was a natural mother. But there were other bindings and entwinings involved, not just the doubled sibling relationships but the fact that my Rennie and my Ridley grandparents had been best friends for many, many years and for all practical purposes brought their children up together. And all these people were connected by shared sentiments and character and ways of doing, as well as things done, and not done, and undone.
From what I later learned, my mother and father were a bit too bohemian for the tastes of the family, and my mother tended to be a bit neurotic, “high strung” Mamaw Ridley would say. So although the family I grew up in was closer than close, it was probably somewhat different from and certainly more sheltered than the family I might have grown up in had my parents not met such an early, crashing demise. Whether my character would have been different is hard to say. As it was, I grew up in a family of people who were never uncomfortable with who they were, never questioned their right to be where they were or to do or say as they did. They seldom wasted time trying to see things from other people’s points of view—although they repeatedly and sternly told us that doing so was a prime condition of being “civilized.” Aside from Matu’s emphasis on appearances, they didn’t really give a fig about people who did not, by their reckoning, have “integrity” or who did not, by accident, have their love and loyalty. They highly prized honesty and fair dealing and modesty and respect for the privacy and private thoughts of others. For them, a chief sign that you were mature was knowing the difference between when to ask questions and when not to because you really didn’t want to know or shouldn’t know (of course, I thought that those were the only circumstances that made questions interesting and worthwhile). It was a warm and generous family, clannish, passionate in their devotion to one another, easy to amuse and quick to enjoy. And from the moment Molly, who couldn’t pronounce “Stella,” renamed me “Tella,” I was one of them.