Stella Ridley One

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Holy Moly

 One Sunday in church when I was ten or eleven years old, Molly elbowed me as we were singing “Holy, holy, holy” and cut her eyes down toward a yawning hole in Aunt Deena’s stockings.  I looked and then quickly stared straight ahead and sang louder, trying to sing over whatever nonsense Molly was singing instead of “merciful and mighty.”   I didn’t need to look to know that further down the row Matu was leaning over her hymnal and glaring at us with her mouth in that tense line that even then was getting to be a habit.  When we sat down for the sermon, Molly was quaking with repressed laughter, and I had to pinch myself hard as I did every Sunday, with or without Molly’s puns and antics.  I don’t know what was wrong with me.  During the most solemn moments, I was possessed by the impulse to leap up and shout.   In fact, when I heard the phrase “mortification of the flesh,” I thought it referred to the repressed and rather itchy urge to guffaw or shout in church, and I was secretly of the opinion that I might be more at home in one of those evangelical sects that elevate losing control to a form of worship.

Back in the station wagon, Matu and Mamaw Ridley sat in front, and Aunt Deena, Molly, Baby Robert, Adela (my pet sibling at the time), and I crammed into the backseat because no one liked to sit in the seat that was the whole point of having a station wagon, what we called the “way back seat,” which faced backwards and therefore seemed, well, unsociable.  Molly held the baby, and Adela, who was probably about four then, sat on my lap and reached over to fondle Deena’s locket. When Deena kissed Adela’s little chubby hand, a brief, inexplicable shock of envy ran through me as it always did when I saw moments of love or affection that did not include me, but then Molly started humming the hymn we had sung in church, and we started laughing and couldn’t stop.

“What are they on about?” Matu said, craning her head up and sideways to look in the rearview mirror, squinting back at Deena and nearly running over poor Miss Estelle from down the street.  Deena said, “I have no idea, but I’m sure that it’s irreverent,” in that voice she had that we children all loved, a voice that–no matter what it was saying–said that everything was wonderful and good.  “What?  What?” Mamaw said and looked around frantically as if she’d just heard a shotgun go off, but by then we were home and nobody paid her any mind.  As we were all piling out of the car, Matu said, “Deena!  Look at your stockings!” and Deena did look, and laughed.  “I didn’t have time to give Miss Monkey her cream, so she swatted me as I was going out the door,” she said.  And Matu glared at her and shook her head and started in with “Deena, I’ve never seen you without a hole or a ladder-run in your stockings.  And there is such a thing as hairspray you know.”

Deena patted at her frizzy hair and laughed, said, “I can’t help it if I have our mother’s hair. And there’s nothing I can do about the wind.”

“Really, Deena, people notice these things!  How can I raise these girls up right if you set such a . . . such a scruffy example?”

Molly handed the baby to Matu and turned back toward me, smirked, and made yackety-yack motions with her hands.  She mouthed the words “people notice”—one of Matu’s favorite phrases–and opened her eyes wide in mock alarm.  Matu could not have actually seen this, but Matu seemed to know everything, seen or not.  She snapped, “Molly!  Stop that disrespectful behavior!  Right now!”

At that time, Molly and I—Molly was only a year and a half older than me, and I was very precise about this “only”–were just on the verge of thinking about stockings and hairspray and such, but Matu had already started avidly monitoring our behavior, our grooming, our posture, even our facial expressions.  She was hoping, I suppose, that she could avoid the inevitable upheaval of our adolescence if she prepared everything in advance and had us well in line.  She knew that we were rather charmed by Deena’s blithe violations of propriety, and she had become increasingly exasperated with Deena, as if Deena were a naughty child.  And women in my family, whatever they were doing, were relentless.  We sometimes overheard Matu all ganged up with Mamaw on the subject of Deena’s appearance.  They said things like “Now Deena, you have such a pretty face.  If only you’d wear makeup.  Not that dab of lipstick.  A proper foundation.”  Deena would interrupt them with a laugh and say she didn’t have time for makeup, but they would then go on at length about how much easier life is if you make an effort to fit in (another of Matu’s and Mamaw’s favorite phrases).  But Deena would just laugh some more.  Not in a mean way, mind you—Aunt Deena didn’t have a mean bone in her body—but in a way that said to them that she found their criticism endearing or cute, which must have irritated them as no meanness or scoffing resistance ever could.

When they got onto Deena this way, the only thing that would bring them up short was Papaw, who would exercise his mouth for what seemed like forever until he had maneuvered his dentures into place and then grumble, “Girl’s fine just as she is.  Leave her alone.”

Stella Ridley: Too Much Electricity (Another Chapter with No Number)

Too Much Electricity

The day came when Papaw had a series of strokes that left him not quite himself, though we still thought of him as being there primarily to love us and entertain us. He could still communicate a bit with words and gestures, though that was a long way from the brio he had brought to every interaction with us—even the smallest interactions—in the past. And he was stuck with an utterance: “Too much electricity.” That’s what Papaw said about everything, in every situation, in the long decline that would take him to his grave several years later. I’ve heard of stroke victims left with only a word or phrase who manage somehow to deliver it with various pronunciations and emphases as if trying it out to see if it could somehow be made to mean various things.

But whatever had got at Papaw’s mind didn’t leave him with a repertoire of intonation and emphasis that might have allowed him to communicate more than he could, even if that would have been merely to communicate that he was trying to communicate, which we already knew, of course. No, he always said “too much electricity” in the same way—with a small, rueful, knowing smile and in a tone that said “there’s nothing to be done about it: there’s just too much electricity.” I suppose being left with “too much electricity” was better than being left with “cigarette, goddamn” like Maisie Darling’s old mother or “shit, shit” like the auntie of our sometime friend Connie Donner.

Molly and I found all utterances involving curse words thrilling as if they had the power to do something like bring the moon down and roll it around in the river. They were forbidden words, so for us hearing them or even thinking them had a kind of magic to it. Continue reading

Stella Ridley Seven


Miz Minnie’s Boy

If Molly and I were at home, Matu forced us to be in attendance during Miz Minnie’s visitation.  This was odd, for we were taught never to pry, never to talk about other people, never-ever-ever to speak ill of anyone, and never to repeat things about other people that people said to us.  I suspect that Matu wanted to make sure that Miz Minnie’s visits weren’t a total waste of time and intended them as some kind of lesson for us.  Indeed, “Don’t be a Miz Minnie!” was a powerful admonition in our house and cut short our speculating aloud about things we knew nothing about.  Perhaps Matu also viewed these occasions as opportunities for Molly and me to learn graciousness, patience, how to look convincingly attentive no matter where our minds were roaming, roaming, how to sit still without fidgeting.  I also suspect we were required to partake of Miz Minnie’s visitations to curtail the degree of gossipy detail she felt compelled to deliver and thus to curtail her visit.  It hardly mattered to us anyway since we viewed disease, deformity, death, the draft, and a host of other things as if they happened only in some other country, some country that was far, far away from that of our childhood.

Because we associated Miz Minnie’s wound-up and wiry appearance with advanced age and associated her with the Old People’s Room, we thought she was old as the hills, but she wasn’t.  People tolerated Miz Minnie because there was always the chance that some gossip that might be hurtful to others might be helpful to them, or because they found her amusing, or because they knew of her own hardships and privations in life and pitied her and felt that her tale-mongering fulfilled some obscure need in her.  There was no Mr. Minnie in sight, and in addition to what Molly called her “visitating,” Miz Minnie was working part-time in a bank and raising a son all by herself.

Everyone knew who “Miz Minnie’s boy” was, and nobody anywhere except the meanest of children would dare harass or try to hurt him even though there were several things about him that just screamed for attention from bullies, who, as hateful as they are as individuals often nonetheless police the boundaries of what communities consider acceptable. It was impossible for Miz Minnie’s boy to obey that first commandment of the playground: don’t stand out. First of all, his name was Rupert, which seemed both foreign and somehow ornate and therefore feminine.  He routinely made the best grades in his classes, and he was extravagantly talented, could play both the oboe and the bassoon (weird, suspect instruments).  And he was gorgeous, a regular pre-Raphaelite boy with flawless olive skin and deep-pooled eyes and long-long dark eyelashes to just break your heart.  (He was a year ahead of Molly in school. And of course we were always both a little in love with him.)

I guess you can see that if Miz Minnie’s boy’s name had been some familiar diminutive like Jocko or Butch and he had spent class time throwing sticky spitballs and loudly passing gas instead of paying attention or if he had played more familiar instruments, the tuba, perhaps, or even the clarinet and had mildly unruly hair or a discreet scar on his cheek or just some freckles, he would have fit right in with the other boys.  But he didn’t.

Looking back on it now, I think that probably the only thing that protected him from the harsh punishment difference elicits in restrictive environments was his mother’s widespread reputation as someone who knew or could appear to know everything about everybody.  We could write Miz Minnie off as an entertaining, harmless busybody, but one sure thing about gossip is that once it gains currency, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t true, and protests against its untruth just keep it circulating. Thus, being known as a gossip made Miz Minnie herself a potential bully and gave her, as ridiculous as it seems, a kind of power she wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Bless her heart. She was doing something that would have been unforgivable in someone with real power over unrelated others–a boss, for example–but she was a mother. It was probably the only way she could try to protect her boy. If Miz Minnie had not been a woman, she probably would not have been an endlessly-dropping-in-on-people gossip.  If she had been, for example, a stocky, brawly, easy-to-offend man, she could have been menacing with greater clarity and much, much less elaborate effort.

Stella Ridley Two


Deflecting the Gaze

Things always had to be just so in Matu’s world. For example, after puberty, females had to wear makeup and it had to be just so—not too much, not too little, just enough to establish and maintain the mask that you would present to the world as your face from the time you started wearing makeup until you died. Matu would drill it into us that how you wore your makeup, how you dressed, how you stood and walked and sat said things to other people about where you came from and who you were, marked you as being or not being a good person from a good family.

Continue reading

Stella Ridley: links to all chapters

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Links below to Stella Ridley chapters 01-06, 07-12, and 13-18 and wildcard chapters. You can also find these inthe STeLla RiDLeY page section up top.

Chapters 01-06   01: Holy Moly     02: Deflecting the Gaze     03: One of Them     04: Spooky     05: Do You Think Your Parents     06: Poor Miz Minnie

Chapters 07-12     07: Miz Minnie’s Boy     08: Men     09: Ice Cream Murder Man     10: A Smooth Intoxicating Man     11: Deena Draws the Line     12: My First Friend

Chapters 13-18   13: Wolf     14: Summer     15: The Strange Man     16: Move     17: Oh Really Now     18: Dreams

A Chapter with No Number

The Chapter That Can Never Have a Number or a Name

If you would prefer to read one chapter at a time, chapters have been re-posted so they appear in order, and you can simply scroll down from one to the next one starting with Stella Ridley One, which was posted 19 July 2013 and appears on page 5 of post pages: (as of 15 September 2013).

And, hey, thanks for stopping by!

Stella Ridley Three


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.