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 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.

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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.