Stella Ridley 1-6
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.”
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.
I know now that she was trying to save us from the world of grief that comes from not looking and acting just like everybody else, for in our world, not “fitting in” would, at the very least, call attention to one and lead to negative speculation about one’s character, and would, at worst, bring shame to the whole family, leaving them open to the criticism that they couldn’t keep their offspring in line, that some “bad breeding” had gone on somewhere. To have a hole in your stockings in a public place or not to wear makeup or to wear too much makeup was to violate the social contract and start down that slippery slope that led willy-nilly to jail or to ignominious death after passing through boozing, ingesting illegal substances, driving entirely too fast, dancing the dirty dog, and getting pregnant outside wedlock.
Molly and I were the first children to be the object of Matu’s policing of puberty—a demanding and thankless task–so she was much more energetic and fierce about it than she would be later with the younger children (perhaps to her dismay as things turned out). As soon as puberty appeared on the horizon for Molly and me, Matu tried to make us feel as if social scrutiny extended even to our most private clothing and thoughts and acts.
But we were clever little girls. We soon figured out that the makeup, the hair and all the rest of it actually served the function of deflecting the gaze of others, that outward conformity was not intended to make other people think well of one but to keep other people from thinking of or talking about one at all.
This meant that as long as we appeared to be who we were supposed to be or assumed to be, we could actually do as we pleased in many ways not open to public scrutiny and in some cases not open even to the scrutiny of Matu (I do have to say that Molly was far bolder in her transgressions in this regard than I was). Of course, our cool self-absorption kept us from seeing that Matu knew everything we thought we were the first people in the world to figure out, and she knew it very, very well.
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.
Although I was clearly a Ridley, Papaw always said I was a “Rennie kind of Ridley,” meaning that I was given to reveries and was sometimes withdrawn just as my mother and her mother had been; I was what he called a “spooky child.” There were many times when I felt as if I were a foundling (which, I suppose, in a way I was), and many times too when I felt like a ghost that no one could see. Often I was apparently so liminal that I went unnoticed. Although I was the same size as other children my age, my teachers and even Matu would sometimes look around for me when I was standing right in front of them. In fact, I could sometimes be in the room with someone—Matu, say, or sometimes even Molly—with every intention of being present and joining in and still not even be noticed. One of my most vivid memories is of Matu at the kitchen sink wheeling about suddenly and shouting “Jesus! Don’t sneak up on me like that!” I seemed always to be startling someone and sometimes made people jump with fright when I “suddenly appeared” in a room. Mamaw often said, “How did you get here?” as if I were some sprite or apparition, and Papaw took to calling me “Cat Foot” and sometimes just “Cat.” This flaw of mine, which I began to view as a talent and eventually managed to put to good use, was mentioned more than once at dinnertime in that joking way the family had of turning even the most transitory of foibles into permanent characteristics. Of course, that was just one of the ways the family made me theirs and made themselves mine.
We were not well to do, but we were very comfortable, well loved, well provided for. Matu ran the household with great vigilance and vigor, and our lives were steady and, for the most part, calm. I recall my childhood as one long stretch of the pleasure of just being and seeing and doing. There were the usual slights and injuries and illnesses of childhood, but Matu saw us through them, and there was absolutely no way in which our childhoods were unhappy or traumatic. Matu saw to it that we never had to do penance for our happiness.
There was a very old grandfather clock in the entryway of our house. It was a big, dark, imposing thing and such a part of our lives and the life of the house, that we seldom even noticed it. But when I think of Matu’s house, the house of my childhood, I think of that clock. It marked each hour with one solemn tone and marked the quarter hours with a chiming series of notes that always sounded unfinished and that I always thought of as the sound of startled sprites or fairies, creatures who really know nothing of the toll of ordinary time.
Do You Think Your Parents
Molly and Wolf were my dearest companions for all of my childhood. Even now when I think of them, I feel not only the love in my heart for them but the love that still comes to me from them in that distant time and gives me the only place in the world that I care about, a place in the hearts of those I love. Molly and I were so close in age and looked so much alike, that people who did not know the family often assumed that we were twins, an assumption that always puzzled us and confirmed our belief that many people—many, many people, an astonishing number of people, too many people to count–were stupid.
Of course, we knew each other so well that we could not see ourselves as others saw us, and we knew our differences so well that going out of our way to distinguish ourselves from each other was never a compelling necessity for us as it often is for siblings close in age. Moreover, despite how close we were in many, many ways, there was for each of us something about the other that was closed, not something secret exactly, not something deliberately kept from others, but something by its very nature inaccessible to others, that place where one is alone with oneself and keeps one’s own counsel.
Perhaps we learned early on to honor and respect that place because we were so close to Wolf, who, in fact, communicated with us in many ways and was as readable as weather, but was, after all, a dog, although I don’t think that he knew he was. We also may have learned this from the fact that we shared a room and thus passed, in our “twin” beds, those hours of sleep when one is most other from another and most unguarded in each other’s presence, alone together, as it were, although, of course, we did have Wolf as sentinel. Night after night, after Matu tucked us in and turned the light out and closed the door, Wolf would jump into bed with me, and in those moments before we went our separate ways in sleep, Molly and I talked, our words shaping thoughts between us as we wondered together about the world we lived in and other worlds that we would never know.
At some point in our childhood not noticed by us but apparently deemed remarkable by Matu, Matu, without consulting us, made plans to decorate our room in a ballerina theme—all pinks and whites, white ceramic lamps in the shapes of swans with frilly tutu shades, and so on. Matu had put a lot of thought into this, and unveiled her plan to us with photographs and swatches of fabric and samples of paint. However, it never occurred to us to try to spare Matu’s feelings because it struck us as a bizarre assault. We would rather have lived in a snake-infested stinky cave with oozing walls than in the room that she excitedly proposed. When she showed us a black and white photograph of Pavlova in Swan Lake, Molly blurted out, “She looks like an old deformed person!”
But Matu was undeterred and started going through her presentation again as if we perhaps had not understood it the first time. Words came slowly to me, but Molly was never impeded by problems with articulating what was on her mind. “Mommy,” she said with unmistakable alarm and dismay in her voice: “It’s all pink!” “It’s not all pink, darling,” Matu said. “Look, here’s white, or this lovely cream if you girls prefer. Tella, what do you think?” “Ballerinas?” I said. Matu must have had something of herself invested in this plan, for it took her longer than usual to compose herself, but then she pulled us close and hugged us and nuzzled our heads and said, “You two are a mystery to me sometimes. Why don’t you think about it and we’ll talk about it again later?”
Well, we thought about Matu’s proposal for about half a second, and then set about coming up with some alternative plan that would be so compelling she would forget about the ballerina thing. We approached Matu in her study one afternoon and Molly presented the beginning of an elaborate plan for an atomic bomb theme for our bedroom. However, Matu became so visibly alarmed when Molly started to argue for a mushroom cloud motif that we switched, rather facilely, I must say, to a backup plan.
“We want to be cowpokes,” I said.
Molly rolled her eyes toward me and then looked at Matu, said, “Cowgirls.”
“Cowgirls,” Matu said.
“In the desert,” we said.
“With camels,” I said.
“Tella,” Molly said, “we want to be cowgirls, not camelgirls. You’re in the wrong desert.”
“OK,” I said, “but with cactuses and special weird wildlife.”
“Lizards,” Molly said.
“Yes,” I said.
Matu bunked us in Adela’s room for two weeks while she redecorated our room, wherein she forbid us to set foot until she said we could. When she did, Molly and I both were speechless with wonder and pleasure. There were matching bedside lamps with bases shaped like saguaro cactuses and with crisp little shades that appeared to be distant relatives of moccasins. Matu had been unable to bring herself to comply with many parts of the plan we had proposed. Instead of the wagon wheel headboards we had requested (Molly wanted hers mounted by a real saddle), Matu had gotten rustic-looking pale wood headboards that were stenciled across the tops and sides with stylized, very well-behaved lizards. But the walls were the chief object of our admiration. We had requested walls painted sky high with every known and some unknown-except-to-us species of cactus with some snakes and spurs thrown in here and there to give the flavor of the place. But Matu had painted a turquoise sky above a vast expanse of sand. Distant dusky rock formations erupted at lonesome intervals on the horizon (one of these formations, much to our delight, resembled the photograph of Ship’s Rock on a postcard Aunt Deena had sent us). A lone tumbleweed appeared to be scooting along in the middle distance, and an occasional cactus cropped up here and there in the foreground. There was no sign of a human being anywhere in that place, and, on the whole, the effect was one of gorgeous desolation. Matu knew that our imaginations needed open space in which to roam. She had painted the ceiling as a darkening evening sky punctuated with two tiny pale planets and a star.
At night, Molly and I talked quietly in the dark before we fell asleep, as we always had, but now that we lay beneath frontier-looking quilts and rustic (Molly said “rusty”) blankets, whole new worlds of wonder and speculation seemed to open up before us in the dark, and we would try together to imagine what it would be like to be a lizard or a horse or we would discuss whether cowgirls had indoor bathrooms or outhouses or whether people absolutely had to live in a house with someone after marriage or whether the universe had an edge. And one night when my body was almost saturated with sleep and Molly’s voice was like the sound of a distant sea, she said, “Do you think your parents meant to take you with them?”
Poor Miz Minnie
We lived in a very comfortable and roomy two-story house just five houses away from our beloved Mamaw and Papaw Ridley, although when I say “five houses away,” you must understand that all the houses on our street and all the streets around had lawns, gardens with paths running through them, and stands of huge old sycamores, poplars, sweet gums, oaks: you had to go out of your way to see neighboring houses. Our house had two driveways—one that ran in a semicircle in front of the house and its formal entryway (where the grandfather clock was), and another that ran down the side of the house to the back door, which was the entrance used by family, close friends of the family, and gardeners and housekeepers. The real life of the house was upstairs in the dominion of children and guests (poor guests!) or there in the back on the first floor where the den and the kitchen were, and the master bedroom (Molly called it the “Master’s Bedroom”) and the nursery, and a very windowed room that Matu sometimes called her “office” and sometimes called her “studio,” a room adjacent to the nursery and near the kitchen, of course.
The front of the house had a study, a formal dining room, and a formal “living room” or parlor, a very public room. Almost every house I knew as a child had such a room, traditionally used for formal visiting, for sizing up the male escorts of young women, and for laying out the dead before burial. My parents were laid out side by side in such a room, which is perhaps why I associate parlors with water and weeping. Of course, as dying occurred more and more in hospitals, such laying out was transferred more and more to funeral homes, and even those who managed to die at home were, and are still, wheeled with inelegant promptitude out the nearest door by men in sheeny black suits and shiny black shoes. (Those men have not arrived here yet.)
As children, we were very strictly forbidden to enter this room unless we were invited to or required to. We wouldn’t have spent time there anyway because it was a fussy, uncomfortable room that did not accommodate children: we called it the Old People’s Room. In our house, it was used primarily for visits from the minister, or committee ladies’ teas, or presentations by cookware salesmen Matu didn’t have the heart to turn away because they were relatives of someone she knew. And this room was also used for what Matu and everyone we knew referred to as the “visitations” of Miz Minnie.
Although it seemed as if Miz Minnie was always showing up, she in fact visited our house only a few times a year, as she had a lot of territory to cover elsewhere. There was always something official about her arrival as if she came to report the tragic death of a loved one at sea or to represent the health department in some delicate or disastrous matter. As it was, under the transparent ruse of “dropping by” for a visit, she came to tell who was doing or not doing what when and where and with whom, and she often spoke of people we didn’t know and never would. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, her discourse about real people was often jumbled up with events and characters on soap operas. She specialized in misdeeds and misfortune and was always ready to bolt imaginatively ahead to catastrophes that had not yet happened and, except in the case of death, often probably wouldn’t.
During a slack period she was capable of stirring up fictitious trouble or getting her “wires crossed,” as she said, about things that might or might not be news that everyone needed to know to cultivate the appropriate measure of neighborly concern. People who did not know this about Miz Minnie did embarrassing things such as taking funeral casseroles and cakes to the Bennett home long before Mr. Bennett was actually dead (he in fact simply had a cold and lived for thirty more years), or taking casseroles and pink baby clothes to the Armiges when they were adopting a twelve-year-old boy.
If Papaw was at our house–as he usually was since he and Wolf were the closest thing we had to a nanny–he always muttered something under his breath and referred to Miz Minnie as “the local scold” or “that gossip-monger” or “that old funeral bird.” During one visit, apropos of nothing, Miz Minnie leaned forward in that earnest, handwringing way she had and said, “Yes, God never gives us more than we can bear,” and Papaw, who had been nodding off and on the verge of snoring, erupted like a shaken-up soda bottle and said “Bullshit!” in falsetto. He quickly covered his outburst by saying “Pardon me, Miz Minnie, I just inhaled a sip of tea.” His teacup had not even remotely been near his mouth, of course, for at least five minutes, but Miz Minnie seemed not even to have noticed what he said.
Now Papaw was a closet lover of television soap operas and thus, I suspect, secretly enjoyed Miz Minnie’s visits except for her professions of knowledge about what the Lord had on his mind, which was about where Papaw drew the line. And although Papaw occasionally nodded off, he clearly paid close enough attention to Miz Minnie to do ruthless imitations of her. I remember one afternoon in particular when he was entertaining Molly, Adela, and me with an accurate and frightening imitation of Miz Minnie’s drawn-out and breathless description of Owen Manfield’s open heart surgery. Deena, on her way to see Matu in her studio, passed by the room where we were gathered and stuck her head in and said, “Poor Miz Minnie.”