In retrospect, I realize that something Mamaw Rennie said to me once–apropos of nothing, of course–was never far from my mind for all the long months I sat with Matu when she was sick and then when she was dying: “woe to the mother who dies before her children have reached the age of appreciation.” Having obsessive and superstitious tendencies of thought, I often wished that Mamaw had not said it and I had not heard it, for it would often just plop onto the racetrack of my mind and zip round and round. How can woe come to a dead person, I would wonder–were we not supposed by our religious teachers to enter into a state free of the sufferings of life? Then I would wonder with the kind of delicious horror with which one wonders such things whether instead we entered a bad-joke afterlife when we died, an afterlife in which all the things we try so hard to evade or recover from in life would settle in permanently, an eternity of woe or loss or psychic injury, the kind of injury, say, that betrayal inflicts when it not only destroys whatever present happiness you have but also eats backwards eradicating a past which has become a lie anyway, but I digress. Continue reading
The year and a half between Molly and me in age had already started to matter when she started school ahead of me, but when she started her period, which I considered an affront to good sense, that age difference became an outright gap. Molly and I had never felt it necessary to know everything about each other, and our difference in age would matter less and less the older we got. But I didn’t know that then—then it seemed as if Molly not only had secrets but was some kind of secret herself. When she talked with me, I felt as if I were receiving hastily written and merely dutiful postcards from a very, very far-off land, and not one that I cared to visit myself either. I felt this as a great loss, and I suffered because of it, although its importance receded like a sharp shift in camera focus a few months before school ended for summer.
One day, Wolf wasn’t waiting for me when I got home from school. Continue reading
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.
A Smooth Intoxicating Man
Deena was married once to a man named Rusty Balecoeur in an extravagant wedding at the church. I cannot recall the wedding because I was totally focused on my get-up, more specifically, I was totally focused on my petticoat, which had a welt-raising elastic waistband and was made of layers of stiffly undulating netting that had a gravity all its own and thus did not immediately move with me when I moved. Not that I could have moved easily anyway– my white patent leather shoes were stiff and slick as sheathes. The neck of my dress was high and tight and became more so with each passing minute as if I were wearing an unfriendly and very large snake. At least it felt that way: I had always been told I did not have an accurate perception of what my clothing was doing to me. I recently ran across an old photograph of Molly and me wearing our Deena’s wedding outfits—I guess we must have been in the wedding because our dresses were identical, although Molly apparently got the friendly one. I’m sure a chorus of “they look like twins!” attended this public showing of us as it always did. The dresses actually look quite fetching—like creamy decorated cakes. Molly is smiling, and I am grimacing. Have I mentioned that I abhor confinement of any sort, even that of clothing?
Rusty was a smooth, “intoxicating man” (we got that phrase from a magazine). He smelled like vanilla, was slender, and had clean, crisp rather fox-like features. I have always associated him with cream puffs and eclairs and rich icing—I’m not sure why, perhaps because of the wedding cake, which appears in another photograph as an extravagant edifice of white-on-white roses and lilies of the valley, its layers separated by small Corinthian columns. Whoever took the photograph really focused on that cake—the top of the photograph is cut off where the little bride and groom surely stood in their happy doll-like way ready to lead their secret lives. I’m sure that it was a joyous occasion; I’m not sure altogether why it struck me as barbaric on the whole.
Being near Rusty was like being under some kind of spell in which he was the only other person in the world whenever he turned his eyes on you. When he looked at you, it was as if he made you over into the smartest, most beautiful self you had in you. He charmed Deena, charmed the whole family, and apparently he was generous with his charm and eager to spread it around. It seemed impossible that he had a brittle temperament or that he could be mean. But he was. I never knew, of course, what exactly transpired between him and Deena, but I gathered that he had rigid, unyielding notions about Deena’s wifely role and treated her as if she were some kind of subsidiary factory requiring close supervision and an iron hand.
Where did he come from? It still amazes me that in a culture that measures people first by where and what people they come from, no one really knew where Rusty came from—that seemed to be part of his spell. I recall that shortly before the spell broke, Rusty’s background suddenly became a repeated topic of discussion. One time, Matu and Mamaw, who liked to drink martinis when they cooked together, spent a good half hour while preparing dinner speculating on Rusty’s place of origin. I remember looking up from the kitchen table where Molly and I were shelling English peas and seeing Matu turn from the stove brandishing a wooden spoon in the air and loudly saying, “Arcady?” “Oh, no, no, no,” Mamaw said. “Maybe Sand Hill?” “Red Cloud?” “Dublin?” “Florence?” And then they went on about their preparations periodically announcing from the refrigerator or the stove or the pantry the names of farfetched towns and cities and even small communities as if we were on a train passing through some nightmare version of geography. I can look across that table right now and see Molly looking at me and crossing her eyes, a talent that I myself lacked.
Even if we acted as if Matu and Mamaw were ancient and frazzle-minded, we too were concerned with where Rusty came from. Lying encased in blankets and quilts in our twin beds—it was winter when Rusty came into our lives and summer when he departed—Molly and I speculated that Rusty came from some island or prairie-like reserve of men, for we knew that men did things in groups. We argued about whether these men lived in houses, or tents, or caves, or just perpetually rode around on horses in all kinds of weather. We firmly agreed, though, that only men lived there, for part of Rusty’s charm was that he was unlike anyone we knew. For one thing, he always acted as if he were an honored guest who was pretending to be humble. He went just a bit too far in his displays of humanness—for example, insisting on helping wash the dishes and then lingeringly and extravagantly rolling up his starched sleeves and smiling at us all with his precise white teeth.
There was something predatory about him, as if he might smile at us all and then eat us all up. That was the thing about him that was just thrilling. Molly and I always eagerly anticipated his visits, for we loved danger as only protected children can. We loved all moments in life in which something wild and untoward was going on but no adult would or could comment on it. And it’s hard for me to explain, but such moments always had a particular kind of smell, faint but definite, like milk when it’s just on the verge of going sour. When Rusty was at our house, it felt as if some excessively well-mannered wild animal had suddenly been allowed to sit at the table with us, although I suppose he seemed exotic just because he was a man who, no matter how much time we spent with him, was a strange man (but clearly not The Strange Man).
Ice Cream Murder Man
When Baby Robert came along and our Little Mama duties began to include him, we had ready access to a male specimen, and our attention in the man department turned to the issue of physical equipment. “It looks like a little Vienna sausage!” Molly shouted the first time we changed his diaper, but her shout scared him and he began to wail, so he became our baby and not an example of a little man. Still, we had some wild speculations about male anatomy and how it might be related to procreation, and we loved to be outraged by our own imagination. We felt sorry for what would happen to Bobby as he grew up.
Long before puberty, we began to cast about for sources of information. At the drugstore, while Matu was occupied with the pharmacist or the perusal of beauty products, Molly and I would cruise the magazines, delighted that we could read and thus learn things that Matu didn’t want us to know. Once we flipped through a magazine to find an article titled “What Men Really Want” and we had just run across the phrase “hand job” when Matu snatched the magazine from us, crammed it back into the rack, and gave us that raised eyebrow look before shepherding us out the door. “What do you think it means?” I whispered to Molly in the car. “Maybe it means manicure?” she said. “Well, that’s stupid,” I said. Molly said, “Well, why do you think it’s called a man-icure?”
Given the things we associated with men and the cockamamie information that we possessed, we spun out between us a cartoon universe of sex. But we knew, too—although grownups tried to shield us from it—that Strange Men could be dangerous agents of death. Just before school let out for summer one year, a ten year-old girl was kidnapped, driven to a secluded spot near the lake, and raped and murdered—the paper said “violated.” The man who did this was the Ice Cream Man who had been in every neighborhood and knew every child. He ran over her with his car before he left the scene. I would not have known any of this had it not been for a girl in my class named La Rue Jones. At recess, she related, with great relish, many details of this inconceivable and frightening occurrence. She said that her mother had forbidden her to look at the reports in the newspaper but she had sneakily clipped them out (probably with the blunt scissors we were still using in school) and kept them hidden in a shoebox in her closet. We weren’t exactly sure what “violated” meant, or rather, I wasn’t sure—I think La Rue knew everything there was to know, some of it firsthand. Even if the paper had said “rape,” however, I wouldn’t have known what it meant. All I knew of rape was the rape of the Sabine women, which I took to be a massive raid in which women were carried off to be made into slaves. La Rue said that “violated” meant that having sex killed you.
The Ice Cream Man, The Murder Man, had a family—a wife and two young daughters of his own. He had raped and beat the girl and then run over her with his car—back and forth, back and forth, over and over before driving away to get home in time to have dinner with his family.
Men were not much in our lives. Papaw was very much in our lives, and we knew that he had done manly things—had fought in a war, plowed fields, worn a suit and tie to an office somewhere, and so forth–but those things were in the past, and by virtue of his age and function as Matu’s helper, he was really a kind of honorary woman. Our little orbit had some men in it—male relatives, family friends, female friends’ husbands, sons, boyfriends—but we saw them only briefly and at a distance, usually just before we were banished to the banister or the bed when an adult party was getting into full swing. There was my second father, Uncle Robert, of course, but he was in some kind of business that required him to spend practically all of his time in what Aunt Deena called “exotic, mosquito-infested locales.” He was home three times a year—at Christmas and Easter for a few days, and then in the summer for a weeks’ vacation with the family, a week that he spent mostly on the telephone. He always brought us lovely jewelry or objets d’art, the latter made of materials that were later outlawed for such uses. He phoned at least once a month, and he clearly adored Matu—unless I misunderstood the way he looked at her when she didn’t know he was looking, kind of like the way Wolf looked at the bowl in which his meal was being prepared. And he loved his family, and when he was around, he lavished his robust love on all of us. Still, I never had a Daddy-type name for him—my childish pronunciation of his name as “Uncle Robber” stuck for me. Once when I called him Uncle Robber, Matu got down on my level and moving her mouth in an exaggerated way said, “Rob-urt. Urttttt, Tella.” I was very confused, thought she was telling me to say “Robber Urt,” but Uncle Robber immediately said, “Don’t correct the child, darling. I rather like it. It makes me feel like a swashbuckler. And perhaps she has had some insight into my character, eh?” He said this last smiling broadly, putting his arm around Matu’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze. Perhaps I have imagined since that she winced.
It always took me awhile to warm to Uncle Robber, perhaps because I was jealous of the way he took Matu away from us when he phoned or was at home, or because I was protective of Matu, or even because I was attracted to him in some creepy infantile way. But I think it was just that I saw him so seldom: he was only an occasional man. As I got older, I came to understand his devotion to his work and his charm, and I learned much about him, both good and bad, that made him a steadier figure in my life. But I had no such understanding at the time that I am speaking of. It doesn’t matter anyway–one’s daddy doesn’t count as a man-man any more than the boys one grows up with count as man-men except by special dispensation.
When Molly and I thought about or discussed Men, we had men we did not know in mind, and even the usually intrepid Molly was shy around such men. We were afraid of them, a bit awed by them, voraciously curious about them. They seemed so foreign to us that we often stared at them as if they were exhibits in some zoo. When we were quite young, we followed the Mail Man from house to house whenever we saw him, although “stalked” him would be a more accurate characterization of what we did. And we followed the pest control man—the Bug Man—all over the house and yard until Matu finally impressed upon us that was spraying poison for bugs. Actually, we quit following the Bug Man only because it made Matu so upset. The bit about the poison didn’t scare us at all because—and Matu didn’t know this—we routinely rode our tricycles behind the Mosquito Truck that drove slowly through the neighborhood filling the streets and yards with an enticing, delicious-smelling cloud of poison. We really loved the Mosquito Truck, though we never saw the Mosquito Man.
Despite our positive experience with deliverers of mail and dispensers of poisons, we were afraid of what we called The Strange Man, afraid in the same way we might have been afraid of ghosts or monsters: repulsed and intrigued at once. There was one candidate for The Strange Man that we watched carefully, the Butcher Man at the local market. He was very tall and lanky, and his head, forearms, and hands were too big for his body, and there was something scarily mechanical about the way he moved. (Years later, Uncle Robber brought the family some shadow puppets from Bali, and when he held the first one up for us to admire, Molly and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “The Butcher Man!”) When Matu went to the glass case to point and ask about this or that and place an order, we would hang back, wide-eyed, and just stare at him, even though Matu had given us several lectures about the rudeness of staring.
In some universe, to some female somewhere, I suppose the Butcher Man might have been an attractive man—someone had told him he was, or he imagined he was, or maybe he was just insane. When Matu was standing there waiting and using the time to review her shopping list, he would slyly look at us while he was cutting or slicing or hacking or grinding or pounding. He would cock his head to the side and repeatedly wink at us, and once he pursed his lips up and sent a slow, wet kiss our way. Everything about him and his work was made to seem sharply clean and efficient—the glass, the butcher paper, the knives and equipment, the white coat and hat he wore. But he seemed sloppy and somehow filthy to us, and the smell of the meat we associated with him became repulsive. We announced rather casually at dinner one night that we would no longer eat meat, and we refused to do so until Matu just gave up and let us be vegetarians, which we still are to this day.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.