Stella Ridley Fifteen

15

The Strange Man

One night after a particularly spectacular thunderstorm had subsided into a steady rain tapping its million fingers on the tin roof of the house, we heard an odd noise as we were on our way to bed. We both paused at the bottom of the stairs. It sounded briefly as if some very large creature was thrashing and lashing about in the mud, then we heard a tiny thud, and then the front door flew open and he was suddenly there five feet in front of us, the deranged tufts of his hair oddly backlit by the lights of the car he had driven through the flowerbeds right up to the front of the house. (Stealth was not, apparently, part of his plan.)

He wasn’t a tall man, probably only slightly taller than Aunt Deena, and he was dripping wet, standing at the terminus of the muddy, wet tracks he had made into the house. I looked at him as if I had all the time in the world, Continue reading

Stella Ridley Fourteen

Mississippi sky summer 2010

14

Summer

Summer came. Molly was going to cheerleader camp, of all things, and then spending the rest of the summer with a friend on a working ranch. Matu wanted to take me to the coast where she, Adela, Bobby, and Sara would spend a month and a half before Uncle Robber joined them for a few more weeks and a trip to some extravagant and hyperhappy theme park. If I didn’t want to do that, why, she told me more than once, I could go to a wonderful camp in the mountains where I would meet bright, charming children from all over the world now wouldn’t that be nice?

One day, Deena was visiting and overheard one of the conversations about all this that Matu was having with herself in my presence and said, “Darling, why don’t you just let Tella come spend the summer with me at Mama’s place? She won’t have to do anything except what she wants to do there. She won’t even have to see anyone, except Miss Monkey, and well, me.” Deena turned to ask me how I would like that, but Matu cut her off. Later, when they thought they were out of earshot of me, they had a heated discussion, almost an argument.

Like all—well, many– people who are incapable of imagining a null emotional state, Matu thought that depression was an imaginary affliction usually born of idleness, which she strongly disapproved of. Matu, God bless her, was one of those “you’d-feel- so-much-better-if you’d-just” people and was always ready to tell you what would make her feel better if she were you. She would not let go of her opinion that what she thought of as cheerful distractions would “get me out of myself,” and Deena, who was just as stubborn, would not let go of her opinion that what Matu considered cheerful distractions were in themselves depressing and that my “problem” wasn’t boredom or self-involvement but “naked grief” (those words conjured up quite a sight in my beleaguered brain) that I had every reason to feel.

I couldn’t understand much of what they said, and, in fact, I was eavesdropping only out of habit, for I didn’t really care what they said or did. Well, that’s not exactly true. I did have some whiffy kind of feelings that helping Matu take care of Adela, Bobby, and Sara for a few months might be impossibly burdensome, even if it was in the most beautiful place on earth. Moreover, I have always found theme parks perverse and grotesque and even frightening—particularly the people who dress up as animated characters and just won’t leave you alone.

Anyhow, Matu finally gave in, and I went to spend the summer with Deena out at Mamaw and Papaw Rennie’s farm, a place where I had not spent much time that I remembered and which hadn’t really been a working farm since long before I was even born. However, although the cows, horses, mules, pigs, and chickens were long gone, the place had many of the requisites of farm-ness and out-there-ness that I needed: a pond, a garden, fields and woods, at two-story tin-roofed farmhouse with verandahs and a sleeping porch upstairs on the back. The nearest neighbors were three miles away, and though a main road ran past its long, graveled driveway, you couldn’t really hear the sounds of any world except the country world—birds, wind in the huge old oaks and hickories and sweetgums, the lowing of cattle or cocks crowing on the neighboring farm, cicadas, the faint rustle of graveyard grasshoppers, walking sticks, my very first praying mantis, fireflies, snakes. Occasionally, we could hear a train from far away, and sometimes crop dusters flew over, though the poison they spread in great hanging clouds did not smell nearly as wonderful as that of the mosquito truck.

Summer was and is still my favorite season. I love wilting heat and violent thunderstorms, and we had plenty of both that year. Deena’s cantankerous cat, Miss Monkey, became my close friend and often slept at the foot of my bed. The only drawback to this sleeping arrangement was that Monkey became a fierce, pouncing tiger whenever anything in the bed—one’s feet, for example—moved.

Deena had told me that there wasn’t anything much to do, but there was plenty to do, and all of it by its very nature was particularly attractive to me at that moment of my life. I helped Deena mount new specimens for her personal collection of insects and moths, and helped her go through whatever was caught in the insect trap she had set in the garden (“just to see what’s passing through,” she said). I learned how to tap a hard-boiled egg all over with the back of a spoon and then roll it twice between my palms till the shell loosened and could be pulled off in one large mosaiced piece that we later crushed and scattered around the flower beds to kill snails in a rather gruesome way. I read whatever I wanted to read in Deena’s library—Dickens, Sterne, Austen, Poe, poetry anthologies, fascinating and incomprehensible entomological tracts with enticing drawings that sometimes gave me nightmares.

And the garden required daily attention—sometimes I just walked through it to smell its dirty greenness, but I also helped Deena tend the corn and tomatoes and peppers there. I learned how to hoe, how to let the hoe do its work and to work in a steady rhythm instead of hacking away with it in that bulldog way that I had. I learned to focus that summer, and what it meant, to wait, to watch, to be still, to do even small things right. And for the first time, I felt something better than happiness, something that we don’t even recognize until we are pained by its absence: peace. And for a while, it was a lasting peace, and my soul was a smooth, shining lake.

Stella Ridley Eleven

11

Deena Draws the Line

One day Matu, ferrying us about in the station wagon—took advantage of a momentary lull in our various to’s and fro’s to drive to Deena’s house to get the sewing machine she had lent Deena. We had already heard Matu’s impassioned mutterings about Deena’s thoughtlessness and so forth. Matu rehashed all this aloud as we drove along. When Matu talked to herself like that, we settled down. Actually, it frightened us, made whatever might happen next seem uncertain—there was more than one occasion on which I felt great relief when I was finally dropped off for a piano lesson or swimming school. At any rate, Matu was so involved in enumerating Deena’s vices when she pulled up to Deena’s house that she didn’t immediately see what we saw: Deena standing at her gate looking back toward her house, toward a screaming white line that ran all the way up the walkway and up the front stairs and into the house. She had a paintbrush in one hand and a bucket of paint in the other.

Right there at the gate, Matu and Deena began one of those intense buzzing grown up conversations, so intense that they didn’t notice us getting out of the car and following the line up the walkway and into the house. Well, Deena did look up once– when Adela was tapping at the line with her toe–and sharply said “Don’t step on the paint.” It was a very hot day—now that I think of it, we had our bathing suits on, must have been on our way to swimming lessons—but it was cool in the breezeway that ran down the center of the house. “What is it?’ Adela said. Molly snorted with irritation and said, “Silly! You can see it’s a line.” “But what is it for?” I said. “Maybe it’s art,” Adela said. We walked the length of it toward the back of the house, and then it seemed as normal as anything else in our world. We went out in the backyard to find Rusty’s dog, Pete, who was tethered to a clothesline and very happy to see us.

Despite the many times I tried to send my ears into rooms where adult discussions—many discussions—were going on, I couldn’t find out exactly what was going on with that line. Matu complained, as Rusty apparently did, that the line was “scandalous,” that it could be seen from the street and that anyone who “dropped by” could see that it ran the length of the house: “What will people think!” Of course, I wasn’t very interested in what “people” thought—I wanted to know what Deena was thinking. That line clearly took some time, required some deliberation and planning. It was perfectly straight and had clean edges. She must have been thinking all that time. Or maybe she had already done all her thinking and the line was the end of thinking, a kind of attenuated punctuation mark. Deena was not the kind of person to nurse resentments or allow wounds to fester. She would say or do, and then it was done. She didn’t have to paint it all the way out to the street, of course, to say something with it to Rusty, who apparently didn’t like whatever it said and disappeared from our lives rather abruptly.

Later in life, I was to think often of that white line Deena painted down the middle of her house. I appreciated then, as I had not as a child, the eloquence and restraint of it, the way it probably wasn’t really open to a whole lot of interpretation. I thought regretfully and sadly of my own marriage. Aunt Deena would never have let things with a man get to that point.

Stella Ridley One

3 my skies mississippi poss head pix (3)

For links to all chapters of Stella Ridley: https://accidentalantenna.wordpress.com/stella-ridley/

1

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.”