Many years ago I found a poem on aol. com written by someone whose user name was Loewen. I downloaded this poem and printed it on my daisy wheel printer. The poem went everywhere with me â€“ on the wall of my bedroom after I quit my miserable dead-end job, on my desktop as I attempted to build an early web empire, on my journals as I began in earnest the search for my creative self, and finally on the wall of my tiny six by twelve foot bedroom in the dismal forty-year-old trailer I lived in for three years. I searched for Loewen online but never found out who he was. The poem, a submission to an early online poetry group, had been titled A Real Poem, and it perfectly described the personal journey and artistic struggle I have been engaged in for most of my adult life. All of the stories and poems Iâ€™ve written contain some nugget of truth that has helped me to see my own life more clearly, helped me navigate the circuitous journey, my odyssey from a happy childhood, through difficult times when I felt alone, abandoned, and lost, until I finally returned home both physically to a place and metaphorically to myself. The stories helped me to sort out the contradictions and complexities of almost thirty years of self-denial and misdirection, and by fits and starts, to pick up the journey and move farther down the road the next time.
This thesis begins with a legend called The Legend of Happily Ever After. It provides the overall structure of my journey using a fictional device – the legend. The following stories and poems take a portion of that experience and explore it through writing styles I have found successful. A story written a long time ago called Castaways was one of the first stories in which I began to see how imagery could help me by using an extended metaphor to describe my father’s life. Imagery itself has been the means by which I have found my way back home. Creative nonfiction has allowed me to expand these explorations into my past both playfully and seriously, in some cases with stories whose purpose is to illustrate a complex event, as in American Dream and A Seminal Event, and in others, such as Crab Attack, to explore the vagaries of memory. Even the poetry is nonfiction, sometimes taken directly from letters my father wrote to his mother, as in Letters from Ed, or from an actual experience such as the poem New York Dreams. The themes of loss and pain, nostalgia and memory are constant in these pieces. These stories overlap, repeat, revisit, and revise parts of my life in ways that mimic the way we see our lives viewed through the lens of the present. My painting and my writing are interlocked in mysterious ways and I can never quite tell what comes first, an image or the words that describe that image. Dreams like the one that inspired the poem New York Dreams are possibly rooted in my journal writing, but if they are I couldn’t pinpoint a single moment from which an inspiration sprang. It is all woven together in an incredibly circular process that reminds me of a favorite song called The Windmills of Your Mind. That song, introduced in 1967 as the theme song from a hit movie, became so popular that it was recorded by at least fourteen artists between 1967 and 1969. My favorite recording of it may be the one I heard Jose Feliciano perform in Atlanta when I was about twenty. The lyrics seem to describe the way my mind is constantly wrestling with the images and events of my past and the constant turmoil of the untreated attention disorder I experienced for most of my life. So much of my self-discovery had to be excavated from deep within the scabbed- over wounds of many tragic events beginning with my mother’s death. My habit of writing in a journal began soon after I became an airline stewardess and continued through my marriage and divorce, and on through the past twenty odd years of being “married to my muse.” The difference is that now I write everywhere: in journals, notebooks, sketchbooks, and online on my blog, Doublygifted. com, excerpts of which I include in one of the present work’s final segments.
Joseph Campbell speaks of the hero’s journey and how all cultures have used myth to help us make sense of our lives. He explains the purpose of this journey: One does not know toward what one moves. The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two…the modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul. (Campbell 391) Campbell seems to believe that art can bring the conscious and the unconscious back into communication with each other, using the symbolic elements found in all myth and legend. It is left up to the creative hero, claims Campbell, to guide society in that journey by “sharing the supreme ordeal,” which he equates with carrying “the cross of the redeemer - not in the bright moments of his tribe’s greatest victories but in the silence of his personal despair (Campbell).” This suggests that I see myself as some sort of creative hero, who has battled the “shapeshifter,” (more than one in my own case), who has gone into exile, traveled a journey, and ultimately experienced a metamorphosis. Within my stories there are many examples of Campbell’s symbolic elements, beginning with my father’s exile, and ending with the difficult but necessary transformation of my “becoming” an artist. Possibly because my father’s and my mother’s journeys ended too soon, my own odyssey has taken a much more complicated route, and yet each story and painting has propelled me further toward self-awareness and finally self-actualization. I don’t consider myself any sort of hero but rather an example one ought not to follow. No doubt without these stories, these myths, these poems and these images I’d still be trying to find my way home.
The Legend of Happily Ever After In the Land of Happily Ever After, there lived a girl named Allis Good, who had everything she could ever want. She didn’t want, of course, a brother, so it didn’t matter a bit that her parents had never given her one, and the sister she had was the perfect combination of congenial companion and unwitting victim when the always innocent Allis wished to play Queen. Her dream was to be the best at everything she tried to do, and in truth she was successful at this, although no one realized that she never tried anything she might not be great at in the first place. Allis’s father, who was by all accounts the perfect father, thought Allis might become a painter or a musician, so he signed her up with the best painting and music teachers in Happily Every After. Both of these teachers said Allis was talented and gave her father glowing reports of her promise, but while the music teacher set about teaching her scales and chords, plus easy pieces to play on the piano, the painting teacher just gave her a book and a bust to draw from, and told her to draw and draw and draw every day. He was convinced of her talent, but he didn’t show her a way to find success. He told her it was almost impossible to become a true artist and that the most she could hope for was to work hard and maybe be an illustrator or a painter. The true “artist” was someone, he implied, who was gifted from the beginning, and Allis could see that she had already been designated a lesser talent by this great teacher. After a time the clouds began to form over Happily Ever After and Allis’s life began to take a turn for the worse. She left the piano and the paintbrush behind and followed the welltraveled path to the land of Marriage and Children. While she was happy at first in her new home, the environment in Marriage and Children was not at all what she’d been used to in Happily Ever After, and she began to suspect things were not as she’d been promised. Her worst fears proved true, and the land of Marriage and Children turned out to be a mirage. Abandoned and sad, she wondered how she would ever get back to Happily Ever After. She didn’t even know where she was anymore, but she began to look for clues to find her way home. One day she received a letter from her old music teacher who invited her to return to Happily Ever After where she was needed. Things had changed a lot in Happily Ever After, so much so that many people wouldn’t even know Allis Good, but she found enough old friends who had known her in her happier days that she decided to return for good.
She sold all of her possessions except the ones her parents had left her and returned to Happily Ever After, although her children had already gone to live with Daddy Big Bucks and wouldn’t consider coming with her. The painting teacher had died years before, but one day Allis ran into another student of his, and puzzled, she asked him how he’d managed to become a successful artist with such a formidable teacher. She learned for the first time that her painting teacher had not fully shared the secrets of success with her and that it was possible to be a successful painter without all the years of hopeless agony and work. Stunned, she thought about this for a long time and decided to take the first painting class she could find, even if the teacher wasn’t the greatest teacher in town. What a surprise it was to find out that success in painting comes in little steps, and that each day she should try to put something down on paper. She learned that each step builds on itself, something she had overlooked in the earlier lessons of the master. The elusive genius was there inside her all along. Once Allis began to paint she found that all the other things in her life began to improve and now that she was back in Happily Ever After she didn’t miss her life in Marriage and Children any longer. But don’t go looking for Allis in Happily Ever After, because Allis doesn’t live there anymore. The town changed its name to Ends Well. And Allis has a new name also, as she changed her last name from Good to Wealth. So her new address will be: Allis Wealth at Ends Well.
WHAT SHALL I BE? My hometown is on the Alabama coast, with a lively arts culture near two moderately large cities, and most of my classmates from high school returned to live in the area after college. After my mother’s death in my senior year in high school, my father had decided that I should go on to art school as planned. It would be thirty years before I finally found my way back home. My art school dreams fizzled in the purple haze of the late 60s, and even though I never experienced the drugs that made those years so infamous, I was experimenting with another drug that was just as dangerous for me. The sexual revolution hadn’t made it to southern Alabama yet, and I had no idea what to do with myself in college. In the first semester away from home I ended up pregnant, and that, plus my father’s subsequent bankruptcy, is the real reason I left art school. I can recall the psychologists in California who had to approve this medical procedure I was about to have – now fraught with such huge political baggage – telling me that in California they gave birth control pills to students in high schools. My high school home economics teacher was still telling her students that it was best to kiss your husband with a Kleenex over your mouth.
A 1966 Milton Bradley game called What Shall I Be? offered girls of the 60s the exciting career choices of Nurse, Model, Secretary, Stewardess, Teacher and Ballerina. Women were still expected to become wives and mothers, and career choices in the arts were unheard of in my small town. My imaginary dream included marriage, motherhood, and a nanny to watch the darlings while I dabbled in art. I don’t really remember getting any encouragement or direction on career choices from my high school, although I made the honor society and always had excellent grades. The Alabama school system did not even require teachers to have a degree in education until I was in high school, yet I had fairly good exposure to
the literary arts. Fortunately the town I grew up in had an exceptional library in which I lived on Saturdays and all summer long. I read voraciously all the fiction and science fiction I could lay hands on, and at age thirteen I had already read War and Peace. We didn’t have full time art teachers until my senior year, and I remember that even in elementary school the art teacher and music teacher would only come once a month or so to each class. Still, my artistic talent showed up early and I was always one of the lucky few who got to draw or paint the decorations for the school plays or the other activities. To say I was a gifted child, however, would be misleading. I had what is now known as ADD or ADHD, and the only thing that motivated me to study things I was not interested in was either my father’s threats or my mother’s disappointment. Since no one understood or recognized ADD in those years, I was just labeled precocious, then scatter-brained, later outgoing or flirtatious, and sometimes multitalented. Mostly I was told I was just like my father, which I learned was not a compliment when it was said by his side of the family. I was further confused by all the possible choices in an art education: fine art, visual art, environmental design or illustration? What is now referred to as graphic design was called commercial art, and the fine art world was focused on the abstract, the psychedelic, or the edgy rather than the realistic or representational art I preferred, which made it hard to see how I might succeed in this field. I identified completely as a visual artist but rejected out of hand any thought that I could be a writer as well. Even after two and one half decades of keeping a journal I didn’t dare call myself a writer until I enrolled in a creative writing class in 1996 at the Atlanta College of Art. I wrote a short piece in that class that really surprised me. I’d never tried to write this sort of thing before, but the professor had directed us to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and it was this class, Goldberg’s book and this piece of writing, reproduced here exactly as I wrote it, that inspired me to begin sorting out my life through writing. In this piece of nonfiction, inspired by a painting I’d been given by my former husband and a real incident related to that painting, I explored the use of fictional devices such as metaphor and analogy to “paint a picture” of my life so that I could begin to understand it. To my surprise I found that it not only helped me to uncover truths about myself but the story helped me explain some of the complexities of my story to others as well. It is this short nonfiction story from which all my later writing emerged. It’s called Castaways.
CASTAWAYS It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the painting. The reason I cried uncontrollably when he brought that painting home had nothing to do with my lack of gratitude. It was the sweetest thing my husband had ever done, in fact. He had never appreciated the artist in me before, and a painting for an anniversary gift was a big change from his more materialistic gifts of the past, like gold watches and necklaces, or the more practical gifts that hinted that I ought to improve myself somehow, like the running shoes for Mother’s day or the pressure cooker for Christmas. What moved me to tears was the painting itself. Even before I noticed the name of the painting, the meaning was clear. Suddenly all the pain of so many years came crashing in on me. Cool gray, green and amber set the mood, but it was the subject itself, an old wooden hulled boat, lain on its side, long ago abandoned, its boards rotting as the dock behind it also, stains of rust seeming to bleed from the nails in the planks, beached on an also abandoned waterway. What I saw in that painting was the sad decay of my father’s life. In happier times my father was a man loved by all who knew him, a community leader entrusted with the care of a loving wife and two happy little girls. He was a generous, hard working believer in the American Dream. The cruelty of my mother’s death within weeks of her fortieth birthday and the financial ruin that followed left him a hollowed-out version of himself. He felt no longer needed or loved, abandoned and alone, without purpose and beyond his prime. There were other loves, but each time they grew to need him less, he drifted on. Yet he could never seem to be content, as if there was always that reminder of the way things once were, the happiness that once had been. It’s true that life always seemed to hit an unexpected snag with him somehow, but I remember that it was always that way, as though he never prepared for where he was going but simply set sail, off on a new adventure, without thought or planning. For his daughter, as I’m sure it must have been for his wife, this part of his personality was at once exciting and frightening. My mother must have been the navigator, for without her he knew neither where he was headed, nor why. That he frequently ran aground on an unseen sandbar seemed to him to be evidence that he was receiving more than his share of punishment from his heavenly father. These unexpected snags, which could have been avoided, delayed further voyages while the repairs were made. Once he had a boat very similar to the one in the painting. He had accepted it in lieu of payment on a debt, and he proudly named it the “As Is,” an appropriate name given the boat’s un-seaworthy condition when he
received it. After years of working on it in our back yard, he finally put the “As Is” in the water, and as the oldest, I was in charge of bailing it out, while he struggled with the old rebuilt engine given to him by someone else. Somewhere on the bottom of Mobile Bay, crabs clamber in and out of the “As Is” and her sister, the “Is Too,” one lost in a hurricane and the other, simply lost. We seemed always to be the recipients of someone else’s castaways, such as old cars needing repair or hand-me-down clothes. If mother could get her talented hands on anything, a castaway could become a thing of beauty, for she was the resourceful one who stripped the paint off an ugly old cane-backed sofa and reupholstered it with red linen, restoring its former beauty. She once made a dress for me out of one she had worn in college, which I wore for my third grade school picture. I never minded my mother’s creative side, for she always planned, measured and carefully executed everything she did. Daddy, by contrast, just did. I finally came to terms with that painting, for the most part. After my divorce, I saw myself as that abandoned boat, useful to no one and too old to start a new life. After following the course my husband had charted for us for so many years, how was I to learn to navigate for myself? Fortunately, I have kept a pilot’s log, and refer back to it often when it seems I am lost in stormy seas. Recorded there are all the successful voyages I have embarked on before and the ones cancelled for lack of wind or shipmates, as well as the times my ship had to be dry-docked for major repairs. Although I haven’t sailed around the world yet, I have ventured out farther than most, and come back richer for the experience.
CRAB ATTACK There is suffocating heat. And stickers—sand spurs I think they’re called. There is some sort of green waxy round stuff growing up here and there in the sand instead of grass. I am running around in my cotton underwear with the ruffles around the leg holes, and I am content. Beside me is my still young father, shirtless and sound asleep in the summer shade of the scrub oaks that hold up his hammock. He’s sleeping so soundly that he’d not notice if I wandered off, but there’s no chance I’ll do that. Mother is on the porch with the friends who’ve come down here to stay in the Corte family cottage on Perdido Bay, and she’s probably got a firm eye on me as I meander in the sand. I am two, and my sister is not yet born. But wait. This can’t be correct. We didn’t even live near the water when I was two. Not
till I was eight when we lived on Mobile Bay. This image is real though, as both my younger sister and I remember this beach trip. We were with the Smiths, or the Joneses, I can’t remember which. I’ve seen photographs of some of these summer vacations, and probably my memories are actually parts of several different occasions, but whether or not the memories are accurate as to time and place doesn’t really matter. The memory is all that’s important. I can still see the rusty pump on the old well in the back and recall the feel of the rough rusty screens on the porches that surrounded this house. Those old metal screens would crumble at the slightest touch. I can see us entering the house for the first time, opening up all the windows and rolling up
the blinds to let in the sun and fresh air. I can smell the musty cots we slept on and hear them squeak as surely as I can see the kitchen water, brown and smelly as it came out of the tap after months of disuse. Did we drink that stuff? Out front the shallow water licks at the beach and makes a soft rhythmic sound, backdrop to the squeals of children eager to get in the warm salty water. The sound of an outboard motor in the distance distracts us from my father barking the “rules,” but he manages to instill sufficient fear in us as he explains the dangers of disobeying his instructions. The hardest rule to follow is the one about not swimming for an hour after eating. Somehow parents always managed to sneak in an afternoon nap along with this rule. Lots of laughter from both parents and children all mixed in together, the women unloading groceries such as soda crackers, condiments for hot dogs, peanut butter and Bama grape jelly, Kool-aid for the children and beer for the adults. The kitchen is off to one side in a big room, and the beds are on the other side of the same room. There is a dining table, if you can call it that. It was more like an indoor picnic table. There are images of wet bathing suits, rubber flip flops, sand-filled sneakers, and hot sandy wet dogs, all mixed in with the images of black rubber inner tubes, the size that could only have been inside a tractor tire, and an old wooden flatboat, pulled up to the beach and emptied of its treasure for the night. Other images surface, of parents playing bridge and singing songs like My Little Lindy Lou or K-K-K-Katie, Beautiful Katie, you’re the only GG-G-Girl that I Adore— and other songs from my parents’ era during the second World War. Popcorn is a favorite treat along with boiled peanuts. There’s no television or radio in this house. In the car we listen to the radio, but once we arrive at the beach house, there is just conversation and the sounds of nature to fill the silence. The parents in these images are vibrant and whole, strong and comforting. They can be trusted to set limits for us, and often do just that—to our dismay. Then those children who are sent to bed too early, too excited to sleep, have to be scolded and shushed countless times before finally drifting off to sleep in this strange old house. Knowing my father, tomorrow morning will begin by his too energetic wakeup: “Come on, get up and get your clothes on –we’re going floundering”—or fishing, or sailing, or some other thing, always wanting to make sure that no one misses an “experience” of life as he had known it growing up in Mobile and “over the bay.” He’ll have us gigging flounder before sunup, and don’t bother wailing over having to step on the slimy seaweed or whatever is under the bottom of your foot. “And for heaven’s sakes be quiet and be still. You don’t want to scare all the fish away, do you?” * * * * I love you in the morning and I love you late
at night. I love you in the evening when the moon is shining bright, OH, skinnamarinkidinkidink, skinnamarinkido… * * * * “Be quiet and be still. And pay attention!” I never liked fishing because of that rule. “Be still! Don’t move. That fish is going to bite any minute now.” My father very soon gave up making a fisherwoman of me, just as he later gave up making a hunter of either one of us, after my sister cried all the way back to the farm that Thanksgiving when Daddy took both of us out to hunt squirrels. Carrying that dead squirrel back to the house in her arms, she wailed so loudly that neither of us got invited to go hunting with him again. This trip, though, wasn’t about hunting, or even fishing. It was about crabbing. Daddy had bartered a few days in this family house on Perdido Bay, and we were allowed to check the crab traps as part of the bargain. Anything in them was ours to enjoy. That’s how I ended up with a dream, or maybe a real experience, of being chased by live crabs when I was two or four or six. Young enough to be barefoot and bare breasted in the sunshine and just old enough to be terrified of these snapping, seething, foaming and slimy creatures that Daddy brought in the house for mother to cook. Mother must have been terrified of those crabs also. She’d never cooked much of anything before marrying my father. Boiling water was about the extent of her culinary expertise. She boiled water for these crabs in great big kettles that sat on the wood-fired stove, a great black thing as I recall. There may have been a gas stove as well, and I seem to remember a big propane tank outside, but I don’t have an image of that stove in my mind. Probably because it was way too tall for me to see the top of, and I’d have been shooed away from anything so dangerous as a stove when it was at its most interesting, cooking something. I remember those crabs, though – mainly the ones that somehow wriggled out of the pot and landed on the floor, with the express purpose, it seemed to my childhood mind, of coming after me. In my highly imaginative child’s mind, those crabs chased me through many nightmares. It soon developed into a fear of walking on the bare floor at all – and might have been intentionally enhanced by my father‘s tales of people he knew who had lost fingers and toes to these terrifying crabs. He was good for that – telling me things that now sound way over the top—but which we believed at the time as though they were gospel. The image of crabs with giant blue claws chasing me surfaces again each time I see that photograph of Daddy in the hammock. Many years later on a summer trip to Perdido Bay, I thought I had found that very house. Of course, I looked out back for the pump. Not there. No hammock or trees that might have held one. And then I realized that even if it had been the same house, it was more than forty years later, and the house I remember was
over 50 years old when we visited it that first time. The wooden floorboards and clapboard siding, beaded board walls inside and the rusted metal screens on the porch – all would have been long gone in some hurricane or just from neglect or old age. The crabs aren’t as big now, either. The ones I remember were big enough to devour a small child. Later, I remember them being at least big enough to get a good chunk of crabmeat out of without having to pick for hours between the paper thin shell sections, which is what you have to do nowadays to get any crabmeat at all. Back then a claw was a meal. These claws could reach right over the top of the pot, even when there weren’t many crabs in them at all. Sometimes, though, there was a bonanza of seafood. Like the time they were dredging the channel to put the bridge over to Florida from Gulf Shores, and the crabs were so stirred up that we just put a fishing pole out and brought up crabs by the bucketfuls. And I remember one jubilee when Daddy filled up seven washtubs of flounder in one morning. Was that my imagination or one of Daddy’s tall tales? Tall tales or not, our summers were always spent on the water, in and around Fairhope and Gulf
Shores, and crabbing was our favorite activity. Sometimes we lay on our stomachs on the old pier, slowly pulling a string on which a crab clung to a piece of fish head while someone else leaned over to scoop him up in the crab net. Other times we just pulled up the traps and dumped them out onto the pier. We were always delighted and frightened at the same time by those fascinating creatures. The best part – or the worst, depending on your point of view – was the quick transformation from writhing, seething, foamy mouthed monsters to pretty, pink, sweet-smelling, delicious tasting delights. That part of the ritual didn’t change any at all over the years, and even now, when I do have the opportunity to catch and enjoy fresh blue crabs, there is that moment when I go from feeling just a tiny bit sorry for them, to feeling anxious for them to cool so I can dig out their sweet white meat. And in the span of that few seconds of transformation, I never fail to envision a few other images: me in my white laced underwear running like all get out from those child-eating monsters, and Daddy in his hammock, sleeping through it all.
THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS Okay, it’s 1969, and my mother has been dead for less than a year. I am trying to figure out how to explain to my newly remarried father that I’m pregnant and can’t return to the girls school that they’d sent me off to, hoping I’d at least manage to get what was then known as an MRS. Degree, if not the art education that MSCW promised. After a tearful few days and a call to the family advisor (my Episcopal Priest uncle), we decide I’m to be sent to California where legal abortions are available. A week or two after that, and I’m ready to take a new direction, but while I am out in California investigating schools such as the California College of Arts and Crafts, my father decides—without asking me what my wishes are—to enroll me in Auburn University so suddenly that I have to rush back to start winter quarter. After the girls school experience this seems great at first, but I am quickly overwhelmed at the size and complexity, not to mention the temptations, of life at the university. A large co-educational university is no place for someone who has just lost her mother. Each Friday afternoon my dorm would be brimming with mothers bringing their daughters a new dress to wear to the KA ball or another big event. My wardrobe consisted of a couple of dresses I’d made myself and some “shifts” that my grandmother had bought from Bill’s Dollar Store, plus the standard cut-off blue jeans and football jerseys. My calendar from those days had a different guy written in each space until I met a Theta Chi fraternity pledge who invited me to go with him to “House Party” at Panama City, and from then on his name was the only one on that calendar. My art classes were full of stoned hippy types that found “deep meaning” in a simple drawing. While my father was struggling to keep a new family together my irresponsibility was helping him slide further into debt, and by winter he was broke. Against his wishes I decided to quit school to find a job. Wearing the uniform of a Delta Airline Stewardess began an educational experience of a different sort. I spent many hours in conversation with many interesting people and many more hours writing in my journal and reading all sorts of books. I read Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, and Anais Nin. I subscribed to magazines like Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle, and read many more that passengers had left behind, such as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Harpers Magazine. One passenger left The Joy of Sex on the plane, apparently reading not wishing to take it home with him (or her). I traveled frequently to Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, as well as Detroit, Chicago, New York, Boston and Miami as well as painfully
long layovers in places like Shreveport, Louisiana and Evansville, Indiana. It was an education in every sense of the word. After two years of an on and off again relationship with my college boyfriend, I accepted his offer, which was more like a challenge, really, of marriage. We had to convince skeptical friends that we could turn a turbulent relationship into a good marriage. I would commute by air or car to whatever city we moved to, but I would continue to fly for another five years. My husband’s idea of marriage turned out to be very different from my dreams, but once I had made this commitment, I was too busy to worry about how to get out of it. I am quite sure that my husband’s idea of a wife wasn’t exactly what I turned out to be either, but with my schedule there wasn’t much time to discuss our problems. We had many good times together with friends, traveled to ski resorts and family events, and moved once a year as he went up the “corporate ladder.” Someone once recommended a book to me called Corporate Wives, Corporate Casualties after learning of our many relocations. I remember reading in that book that a move even a block away can be traumatic. By the time my first child was born in South Carolina, I had lived in seven homes in eight years. It had become clear to me through my writing that I wanted to return to my art, and when I learned I was pregnant with our first child, I had hopes that my dream of an artistic career could finally become a reality. When he was six weeks old, I took him to a mother’s morning out program and enrolled in the degree program at the Greenville County Museum of Art. I studied painting and photography and loved all of it even though my son crawled into my studio one day and spread red oil paint all over the white carpets. I studied watercolor with a well-known local artist and joined a cooperative gallery. I even entered an outdoor show. My friends bought many of my smaller
paintings, and I was very happy in Greenville during those years. Although there were some difficult times, I had hoped that we could stay where I had become so comfortable. One day a next-door neighbor and I went to a new movie called An Unmarried Woman. The friend who took me to see that movie must have known things weren’t as good as I pretended they were, as the movie was about a woman whose husband cheats on her, and after he leaves her, she becomes an artist in New York. Maybe that’s where the New York dream about my mother began. I thought a good bit about that movie, especially after we were told that we were soon to be moving to Miami, Florida. This was the first and only time I ever considered ending my marriage. I remember going to the public library and checking out twelve books on divorce. I put them in the trunk of my car but never had the courage to even look at them. I returned them a few days later and flew to Miami to look for a new house. After his company moved us to Miami, I was happy to be transferred to North Carolina the year after that. Living in Miami where the bars closed at six in the morning was too much of a temptation for my husband, and he had plenty of encouraging accomplices. One day I received a phone call from my old music teacher, who was traveling around the country with her husband. When she came to our house for a visit, she could see how unhappy I was even though I’d tried to hide it, and she encouraged me to come back to Fairhope. I still couldn’t imagine doing so, but she had planted the seed in my mind. By the time we got settled in North Carolina, our marriage was a charade. Hard as it is to admit, I was probably not easy to live with all that time. Managing a household has never been an easy task for me, and I seemed to move from crisis to crisis. I wish I had known then what we know now about ADHD. I began seeing a therapist, concerned that I was losing my temper with my adorable child. Going to a therapist was an admission that something was wrong, which was hard to do. My husband gave me hell just for seeing the therapist, even though I’d had to be hospitalized for mental health problems brought on by an ovarian cyst several years before. Friends encouraged me to apply the decorating skills I’d developed through the many moves, and I eventually opened a shop called Design Workshop. Running my own design business was a learn-as-yougo experience for me, and I loved it. I learned to use a computer to help me run my business, and that was the beginning of an odd combination of skills – creativity combined with computer savvy – but the computer made many of the things I struggled with easier to manage, even though I didn’t know at the time that these problems were part of a condition that could be treated. By the time my oldest son was in fifth grade he had been having difficulty in school, and even though his
father blamed me for his poor performance, I wouldn’t accept that and arranged for him to be tested. He was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities, which wasn’t surprising given his low birth weight and birth trauma as a premature baby (he’d been strangled briefly by the umbilical chord at birth). My husband refused to allow my son to be treated with any sort of medication, and fought all my attempts to get him any assistance through the school system. I prevailed on the school assistance but my sons, who both have one or another form of ADD, have never had the benefit of medication for this condition. I vividly remember the doctor who diagnosed him explaining the condition to me. “What are the symptoms in adults?” I asked this chain-smoking psychologist. “Well, adults are easily addicted, can’t tolerate alcohol well, and can’t manage money.” Those words described not only myself but most of my family as well. I later learned that most of the early specialists in the field were also ADHD. When my husband and I divorced things went from bad to worse. Raising two sons as a single mother without a degree and with a volatile ex-husband meant I was secure in only one area – motherhood. Therapists and friends and a wonderful variety of loves and jobs kept the next ten years from being mundane, but my children never had a normal childhood. Although I had custody, I allowed my husband to have on-demand access to the boys, and although I don’t regret that
decision, it was very hard for me to have any sort of life or relationship. Essentially he was still in control of my life. In 1984 after we had separated I was hospitalized for five days, critically ill with toxic shock syndrome. In 1985 my two sons and I moved to Winston-Salem where I began selling Honda automobiles. In 1987 we moved to Atlanta where my sister and her husband were living, partly because my ex-husband had also moved to Georgia. Atlanta wasn’t as forgiving of my quirky personality, however. Between 1988 and 1991, I had a total of six jobs, from assistant manager of a custom sofa store to a sales clerk in a computer retail warehouse. In 1990 my finances were so bad that despite my protests my husband arranged for my children to live with his brother, three hours away. That year was hell for all of us. In 1991 I began working at a nuclear utility association as a data entry clerk, and because this company was so rigidly structured, I had finally found a job I could stick with. Even though I feared my boss’s temper, I was good at the constant crisis management that the job seemed to require. I was able to get my children back, find an apartment, and re-enter college that year. The following year my father died in Tampa, Florida after being flown back there from Costa Rica to be treated at the VA hospital. He brought with him a wife who was three years younger than I, and two adopted sons. His wife and sons were from Costa Rica and spoke very little English. Although I had self-diagnosed my ADHD, it wasn’t until the following year when I had already returned to school that I was officially diagnosed and began a treatment regimen that included medication and therapy. Finding that Ritalin improved my concentration was akin to a miracle. Suddenly I could finish a task, a thought, a sentence at will. I went from making D’s and C’s to A’s and B’s. My children noticed a change as well. I remember one of them saying “you’re like a real mom now.” I was able to quit smoking, and I began to write and keep a sketchbook. Gradually the stresses of life diminished and things I’d never been able to accomplish became possible. My health improved considerably after I finally agreed to a hysterectomy that in retrospect I should have agreed to nearly nine years earlier. In 1994 I wrote and had published my first article. Emboldened, I submitted a book proposal and within days got a contract to publish a book. Both the article and the book were on the topic of my growing collection of antique writing instruments. I had much encouragement for my writing and considered a writing career. I wrote a non-fiction piece on coping with ADD and submitted it to a magazine called Lears, but that magazine had gone out of business the same month I submitted it. By that time I had completed a Batchelor of Science in Business Administration by going to school at night and working during the day.
My doctor eventually switched my medication to Zoloft, a new antidepressant that was beginning to be used for ADD in adults. The medication was expensive, but I knew by then that I would never be able to function without something to correct the chemical imbalance that is at the root of ADD. By this time a few books were appearing on the self-help shelves that focused on ADD and ADHD in adults. One I remember in particular was called You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy? Even though books on ADD in adults are plentiful today, that one is still popular. In 1995 I began a website called Antique Connexions, a sort of e-bay forerunner. I taught myself HTML and created web pages for local antique shops, charging them far less than I should have charged for web design. The whole idea of the internet was new, but it seemed to fit perfectly with my combination of talents and skills, and I was convinced this venture would eventually provide me with an income. I quit the nuclear utility association job partly for health reasons and partly to try doing something for myself. My children had by then gone off to school, and when the website and several other ventures failed, I began to think once again about moving back to Alabama. Almost penniless at that point, and working three part time jobs, I took a creative writing class at the Art Institute of Atlanta, and then a class called The Artist’s Way. I found my creative direction through the exercises from that class. One of the first things I did was remodel a closet to make a space where I could write, and before long I had decorated the walls of my little writing space with my sketches. It seemed to me that my writing dredged up the memory first and then I could sketch the image of that memory. Soon I had joined the Georgia Writers group and was working through the exercises in the twelve-week Artist’s Way class. Another exercise had me assembling a collage of my life. I covered a large board with images divided into three distinct sections: my mostly idyllic childhood, the years after my mother’s death and my marriage, and then the years of single motherhood. It was clear by
looking at this collage how much I needed to return to a place where I belonged, to a community that nurtured and supported me, and it was equally clear that Atlanta was not that community. When my best friend’s husband committed suicide that lack of community really became apparent. After living in Atlanta for ten years, I didn’t seem to know ten people well enough to share my loss with them. After my friend began to heal from her husband’s (and my son’s godfather’s) death, I tried one more time to find a place in Atlanta where I could thrive. A temporary job answering the phones at a graphic design company was actually a window for me into creative careers I’d never thought about before, but I wasn’t making enough money to cover the cost of my fifteen mile commute. I supplemented my job there with two other part time jobs, but it was still too little, too late. I vividly recall an incident that happened about then that put it all into perspective for me. I was at a fast food restaurant and noticed a woman about my age sitting alone with only a Styrofoam cup of water and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. She was staring out the window, and something about her appearance made me realize that she was homeless. Her image struck me so strongly that I went home and sketched the scene. I knew that if things didn’t change, I could become this woman very easily. Once again, my music teacher called to encourage me to come back home. “Fairhope needs you” she said. One of the obstacles to returning was the question of what I could do to earn a living there. Finally I realized that I just had to get there and a job would materialize, and that’s exactly what happened. Once people found out I had returned I was offered jobs doing all sorts of work. Adults with ADD tend to be “jacks of all trades,” and I was no different. I had experience in a variety of jobs from computer training and bookkeeping to sales and secretarial work. At first it seemed strange to be home after so many years. Even though I’d been away for thirty years, a surprising number of people recognized me and remembered my father or my mother and sister. Each one shared with me another piece of that broken image of myself that I was trying to restore. Much of my focus was on my father in the first years. I had spent so much time with him before his death transcribing his poetry and talking with him about his life that I knew many of the obstacles that had prevented him from coming home himself. Yet most people remembered my father with fondness and told me stories I’d never heard about his early life. Most people were puzzled as to why he left and never returned. Between jobs I sold antiques, took painting classes, and hung out at the city pier. It seems ironic that the pier was also the place I had gone to as a young teenager after my mother’s death, and I can remember looking out over that bay and wishing I could be some place far away. Finding myself back on that pier so many years later, I recalled all those old memories, both the good ones and the sad ones, and eventually healed many of my wounds.
THE PIER It’s my pier now. You brought me here so long ago, my tiny feet would barely fit across the cracks between the boards. Holding my hand firmly as you took me to the edge, encouraged me to lean over, showed me the needlefish in the water below us. You knew everyone on your pier then, and all the years I lived here as your daughter I knew that any false step would reflect on you as much as me. I remember the year this pier became my own, when you were no longer my safety net, when the heavens had abandoned us both. I’d stand there and look out at the horizon, as if I could see possibility – and long to be anywhere but here. It’s my pier now. The soft winds comfort me. They enveloped me when I returned and whispered truths to me until I stopped believing the lies. Whenever I need to hear your voice I walk the pier and listen.
THE BLACK HOLE IN MY MIRROR
The opening paragraph of the mystery I was just reading dealt with familiar images of Walter Cronkite and the war in Vietnam, mention of napalm and fire. Immediately an old memory floated to the surface, and I heard my own voice asking an operator at the front desk if there was something I should know. “No,” she said, “It’s just the beauty shop on the first floor. They’ll have it out in a minute.” The memory of that night came back clearly: mid-summer of 1971 probably, when I awoke from a dead-tired sleep and looked out my seventeenthstory hotel window to see five fire trucks pouring water into the very building we were sleeping in. The old Ambassador West in Chicago was not known for speedy elevators or much else except a good restaurant and a cozy, elegant sort of feeling. That’s the trouble with me, I found myself thinking. I always wait for someone else to tell me it’s all right to do something. Even when it’s obvious as hell I should be taking some sort of action for my own protection, I wait for permission, or for ap-
proval. I put the paperback down and another image surfaced. I had long since quit my stewardess job and was at home late one night waiting as usual for my husband to come home. He had finally stumbled in and as usual he was not going to explain where he’d been. I’d pretty much quit asking anyway, but this time there was something I just couldn’t ignore, a smear of something pink or red on his white shirt collar. He acted like I was an idiot for even suggesting that he might be doing anything other than hanging out with the guys. Then he went into the bathroom, thinking he had shut the door behind him. Unfortunately, the door was open just enough for me to see him leaning into the mirror in the bathroom inspecting that telltale smudge on his white golf shirt. I rolled over in disbelief and pretended to be asleep, knowing that if I said anything we’d just have a huge fight and wake the baby. He had a habit of getting his newborn son up at some weird hour of the night and “playing” with him. Drinking made him fearless and kept me terrified of what he would do when he was drunk. This sudden memory surfaced out of nowhere, it seemed. He and I have been divorced now for more years than we were married. I haven’t even heard his voice (unless you count our two grown sons who sometimes sound just like him) for over three years. Yet recently my oldest son told me that his dad had been in my area checking out a boat he might buy, and according to my son his father had proudly pointed out my father’s portrait, which was hanging on the wall inside the Yacht Club along with all the other past commodores of that yacht club. When I heard this account of my ex-husband’s new-found fondness for my daddy, long since dead and buried, I had a really strange sensation—like a past life had penetrated to the present one—and for a moment I couldn’t really tell if both lives were real or one of them was only a dream. I met my husband at Auburn, where I was an art student. It might have been my mini-skirt that attracted his attention, or my long blonde hair. I don’t really know, but I do know that he’d been dropped at the last minute by another date for the spring house party weekend, and though I’d only met him once before, he called me out of the clear blue and asked me to go. I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into since I had not ever been to a house party weekend before, and this was my first
date with the guy. When I had to climb over cases of beer to get in the Pontiac LeMans, I should have known this relationship was going to be all-out crazy, but it was too late to change my mind, so off to Panama City I went. That weekend I learned a few new words, like Yucca Flats, a drink they made in the bathtub of our motel with grain alcohol and all sorts of fruit. I knew what a house party was after that - one huge fucking drunk. I learned soon enough that drinking was the most important social activity of the college world. My need for permission meant that I was in good hands with this guy. He was all about giving orders, telling me what I would and wouldn’t wear, think or do. I was so in need of control that I took to it, and the fighting seemed to be some kind of catharsis. Maybe I needed to do battle with someone. It didn’t take him long to explain to me that an art degree was about as useless as “tits on a boar hog.” Suggesting I change my major to education, he was not interested in anything that wasn’t going to help me get a “real job.” Giving up art school wasn’t hard once I realized that Daddy wasn’t going to be able to pay for school anyway as his financial situation was worsening. I needed an income, but Daddy didn’t want his darling little girl to work. He had some strange Southern definition of work that didn’t include daughters or wives. My mother had never worked except in his real estate office--unless you count the nightmarishly impossible job of keeping his household going while he tried to live his own version of the American Dream. For so many years I thought that the reason Mother died of cancer was because she always kept her feelings bottled up inside. After his bankruptcy became known and I learned just how little money they had to live on, I figured it was the stress and worry that had killed her. My boyfriend suggested I get a job at a new store coming to Auburn. Howard Brothers was a discount store, which was an unheard-of thing back in the 60s. He practically ordered me to fill out an application and we both were hired to work in the store before it opened. When I told Daddy I’d quit school and gone to work as a clerk in a retail store, he was mad as hell, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He was in the midst of his own financial disaster, and mad or not, he’d have to live with it. By then I had my own apartment, and I needed to work. The wages back then were around $1.70 an hour,
but the real buying power of that was more like six dollars in today’s terms. And the work felt good, too. Opening a store can be exciting, and I remember learning how to match a shipment with its purchase order, how to set up displays and greet customers. It was real work and a steady paycheck, and that was a good feeling. Once the store opened though, I needed something more interesting than standing behind the peanut counter day after day. Two girls who also worked at Howard Brothers had once been airline stewardesses, a fact that came out when they got caught lifting watches from the display case and hiding them in their panty girdles. These girls had figured out that I’d be a natural at the stewardess job (not the stealing part), and they started trying to convince me. I didn’t have a clue what a stewardess’s job was like, but I listened to their suggestion. One day one of them showed me a help wanted ad for Delta Air Lines in the local paper, and I decided to apply. When I told my boyfriend, he hit the ceiling. We broke up and I took a bus to Atlanta to become a “flying barmaid,” as stewardesses were derisively termed. I think his exact words were “You’ll never see my sweet ass again.” That didn’t last long, of course. By the time I’d been in training two weeks and had many more interesting things on my mind than him, the pay phone in the training dorm started ringing and he was begging me to take him back. This was to be a pattern for about the next two years. We’d have huge fights, break up, and then after everyone else had calmed down we’d make up, usually with him crying and me feeling needed again. Once several years later I had gone out with a pilot (we were in the brokenup stage, I suppose) and when we got home there stood my ex-boyfriend at my apartment door. My date said, “Well, if it isn’t High School Harry!” Rather than argue, I tried to understand him. As I saw it, he had a really strange way of showing his affection. I guess I thought I could change him. No one had ever treated me the way he did, and I can only attribute it to my need for order that when he said, “we’re going to do” this or that, I followed along. Another thing that was strange about this guy was his habit of never calling people by their real names. I don’t remember that he ever called me Susan, but he liked to call me “dumb bitch” or “squirrel” or “air-head.” Our son’s nicknames were “sport mod-
el,” “burr-head” or “hot-rod.” He only used real names when he was angry. Yet he loved babies and animals of all sorts. He was a different person when he was playing with a child, his own or someone else’s. Even when drunk he’d be tender, though not always careful, with a child or a puppy. Many times his drinking would
end up with him crying like a baby. I never really understood where these emotional outbursts came from, although I tried many times to figure out what made him so volatile. Once, after his second wife had left him, he called me in tears, and right after he called, I got a call from his equally distraught wife. My job as a stewardess was what kept our marriage together – three days a week I was out of town. Aside from the obvious freedom it gave him, it was a good experience for me. Having been raised in southern Alabama, I really didn’t know there were trees in Texas or grass in New York City. I developed a curiosity about both the people and the places I came across. The Vietnam War was still going on and occasionally I’d have a mother on the plane whose son would be in a casket in the cargo hold below, and it was not unusual for a movie star or a prominent politician to be on my flights. I remember one night having dinner with Rosie Greer and his co-star, and another time the whole flight crew got backstage passes for the Grass Roots concert in Shreveport, Louisiana. I met Michael Jackson and his entire entourage when he was ten, Clint Eastwood, Lena Horne, Eddie Albert and Henny Youngman, among many others.
Needing approval, I was in the perfect job. Making people happy and comfortable was a stewardess’s job in those days. I think those two years before I was married were some of most exciting of my life, as well as the most dizzying, frightening, and confusing. I could do or be anything I wanted to be when I was alone in a city for a layover. I found myself in some pretty strange situations, in some very unlikely places. It was surreal. Maybe the worst part was the easy credit. I had a charge card for every major retail store in every big city, and I was having a ball. I remember one Christmas I bought gifts for nearly everyone I knew and hauled the beautifully wrapped packages home from San Francisco, my favorite shopping paradise. One part of me loved the wild freedom and the other part wanted desperately to be reined in. I had one more spending spree right before we were married and then my new husband went straight to the bank and consolidated all my credit cards, after which he tore every one of them up. For the first six months I strained at the bridle with all my might. I didn’t like changing my name or having to move to a dumpy little town in Florida or being called his “wife” anymore than I liked the damn love bugs that swarmed around me when I tried to get a suntan. Often I would come home from a trip and ask him what he had done and he’d just joke about some fictitious friend named Big Tits. I didn’t learn for another decade that there really was at least one Big Tits. I loved his family, especially his mother. She was a really loving, inclusive person who adored her oldest son and she was rewarded with a loyalty that always surprised me. He always put his mother first and I gave up years ago having any priority with my children on holidays, since he would make sure they were with their only grandmother every chance they got. Early in our marriage I learned that the way things would be was the way she’d always done them regardless of how I might do something. “Call Mother and see how she makes that casserole.” She was kind to me though, and I still miss her. When my first child was born, she was wonderful. I couldn’t have expected my own mother, had she been alive, to be any more loving. That day was the best day of my life. From the moment I became a mother, I didn’t have a problem with being needed anymore. That was
a given. I’d graduated to motherhood. There’s no sweeter joy than that, even though it had become bittersweet as well. I wish I could say it was blissful from there on out, but far from it. We moved once a year. Every year. He was always moving up with the company. He was good at what he did, and people either respected or feared him. For a long time we were a team, and each time we moved to a new place things were great for a while. I’d be important in the early search for a house and my creative talents were very much in demand until the house was decorated. We’d always sell the house the next year in record time. I finally started a business helping others decorate their own houses. I didn’t make much money at it but I was respected and my business grew. Our marriage was a shambles, though. I just didn’t know it. Or if I did, I chose not to accept it. There wasn’t time to worry about what he was doing anyway as I had a business, a four-year old and a new baby. The focus on my children and some pretty supportive friends helped to soften the blacker side of those years. Few knew how many nights I sat up wondering when the car would finally turn into the driveway, and fewer knew how many of those nights it would be a drunken father and abusive husband that would walk in the door.
It’s hard to reconcile the person I was then with the person I am now. They seem to be two separate people. I have returned home and started over from where I left off after mother died. I have healed many of those wounds and jettisoned many of those old negative self-images, but it’s like an old mirror with no reflection in certain spots. I have a hole in my past – a huge hole – and consequently, I still seek approval and permission, even though the person I now need to please is myself.
GARDEN OF MEMORIES Several times this morning I asked myself why. I was kneeling in the moist black soil smoothing out two long rows of dirt and patting them flat on the top. The biggest part of putting in this garden has been the chore of pulling out the roots of St. Augustine grass, so thick the tiller would hardly go through it – the man I paid to come till it up probably lost money on that job. And I’m still pulling up grass. Every few days I do one more row, tossing out the pieces of metal and tree roots, the occasional trinket from a long-ago Mardi Gras, pieces of an action figure toy, headless and one-legged. Today I dug up a metal matchbox car, a Gremlin. I smiled as I rinsed it off. It was yellow, unlike the one I used to own, the one I paid full sticker price for, even though my friends told me not to buy it. My Gremlin was Wild Plum, a couldn’t-miss-it-purple color that my new husband hated so much he sold the car while I was out of town flying a trip. Forged my name and sold my car because he didn’t like the color. We’d only been married a few months. That was more than thirty years ago and it still makes me angry. I was an airline stewardess when I bought
that car. Back then being a “stew” was considered by some to be a “glamour” job, especially after a book called Coffee, Tea, or Me came out. My grandmother shoved a copy at me a few months after I had been hired and said she’d just read it. I think there was a “Hmmppffhhh” sound after that, but I could have been imagining it. I wonder if she read the part about the “Mile High Club.” They made that up, near as I can tell. The book was ghostwritten by a man, and not the “memoirs” of any airline stewardess. Anyway, I knew a couple of girls who were ex-stews. They told me I’d be good at it. I asked them what a stew did, besides fly around. Turns out I was good at it, mainly because, like my Daddy, I’d “never met a stranger.” I loved to sit in a restaurant in some strange city for hours writing in my journal, observing the people, or sketching the scenery from my hotel window. On longer “layovers” I’d check out the art galleries, or find a great bookstore to browse. I’d watch what books people read and sit in the aisles and talk to passengers on longer flights about politics or the recession and the ending of the Vietnam War. I learned much more from that job than any school could teach me.
I have always resented the idea of the prevailing opinion – the conventional wisdom – the “in” thing to do, the “cool” car to buy. I resist the cultural myths as well, like “you can’t make a living as an artist” or “you should major in education, and be a teacher – there’s always a job for teachers” or “you shouldn’t live alone.” Doing something just because it’s the thing to do never worked for me. Doing something because I would be good at it: now there’s a different subject. A teacher once stopped as I was sitting with a few other friends watching the cheerleaders practice, and she said, “Susan, you ought to try out for cheerleader.” Me? I’d never even thought of it, but I did try out and I was happy being a cheerleader for the last three years of high school. I wanted to be an artist because I was good at it, and I didn’t worry much in high school about making a living. That was not going to be necessary in my fantasy life, because I would get married and have children and paint while they were napping. Yeah, right. I started my interior design business at the urging of some friends – they said (you guessed it), “you’d be good at it.” After my divorce ended my design career, I took my Honda in for service one day and the sales manager hired me to sell cars. I was really good at that, probably because no one was expecting a female car salesman. (I learned that only idiots and stewardesses pay full sticker price for a car.) It seems like the things I do on my own I question so much that I sometimes talk myself out of doing them at all. Things like planting a garden. This is a spring ritual for me, and what happens more often than not is that I think about doing the garden, imagine what I’d plant, look at the seed catalogs, make trips to the garden center, and visualize how wonderful it would be to see the fruits of my labors. Then I’d find an excuse not to do it this year, ensuring that NOT having a garden AGAIN would go on my negative account—the things I haven’t done or have left undone. Many things can be left for another day, and it won’t be too late. Putting in a garden isn’t one of them. You have to do it when the time is right or wait till next year. So this morning I smoothed my two rows of mounded black dirt, adding two bucketfuls of manure—the non-smelling kind—and I thought of my grandfather. Both my grandfathers, the one I knew and the one who died before I was born, were second-generation farmers. The package of Kentucky
Wonder Pole Beans said “Since 1897,” so I’d guess this is the same variety they planted back then. I counted out twenty or so of the brown seeds and dropped them in a little water to soak while I made one last pass over the two rows. My grandfathers would not have imagined that you could buy rolls of black fabric to spread between the rows to keep the weeds down, just like they couldn’t have imagined buying odorless manure in yellow plastic bags! I thought of my mother’s father and knew he’d have been proud of this garden. I smiled. With my finger I poked a hole in the row and planted each seed about three inches apart. I thought about what I’d use for stakes and how I’d tie string crisscross fashion like I’d seen Granddaddy do. Maybe I’ll can these beans and put them up like my mother-in-law taught me. Probably I’ll give most of them away. When I had planted the last seed and straightened up, my aching back and flushed red face told me I’m too old for this, but that’s a lie. I told myself that this was a waste of time, as I’ll surely go to the farmers market every Saturday and buy fresh vegetables from the growers who set up there, so why should I be messing with this garden anyway? But then I decided that I’d still like to see what would happen. Maybe I’ll have a chance to talk to some of those farmers at the market about my pole beans and my tomatoes, herbs and such. Maybe I’ll find that farmer from St. Elmo that remembered my great-granddaddy’s farm, where they tell me all the cabbage was sent straight to New York by the boxcar. My great grandfather was once called the Cabbage King of America. I always imagine my grandfather coming in hot and tired from the fields, trying to give my grandmother a kiss, and she pulling off her apron and telling him to go on and wash up for dinner. She hated living on a farm, and never tired of saying so. One week later, and all but three or four of those beans have popped out of the ground. Some are five inches tall already. I am amazed at how vigorous they are, and all in such neat rows. I made a teepee-style trellis that stands about eight feet tall and has five sets of “teepees” supported by a framework of lattice strips at each end and across the top. There are pink sweet peas growing up the center support pole, and purple verbena at each end. This garden is so pretty already that I just look at it and smile. The marigolds all around the edge are on their second blooms and everything is thriving. I can already smell the pole beans cooking on the stove. Why aren’t those tomato plants doing anything? Does anyone know what you do with lemon balsam?
I have an old canvas painting of my Great-Grandfather Langley that I painted years ago and I stuck that painting on a post to guard my garden. Big Grandaddy used to sit in his overalls on his front porch and delight all the children by taking his false teeth out. I think he’d be proud of me, too. Week three. What a mess. The pecan trees have leafed out, stealing half my sunshine, and they have dropped golden tassels all over the garden. The snails are out too. My pole bean leaves have holes in them, and some are turning brown or yellow and curling up. I have spent hours upside down looking at insect damage and thumbing through the book looking up each disease symptom. I have been to the local Feed & Seed and they have sold me sprays and dust and snail bait—not good for the environment or the snails. Anyone can see that this is neither a money saving nor an earth friendly venture! The healthiest plants in the whole damn garden are the volunteer melon plants that came up after I threw one out the back door last summer. Those darn things are everywhere. Is it too late to put the grass back? Maybe talking myself out of doing things isn’t always a bad thing after all. No, even if my pole beans don’t make, or my tomatoes
aren’t as rich and meaty as I remember Granddaddy’s were, it is worth it for these memories I keep having just from digging up a little bit of back yard. I laugh when I remember some of the other garden attempts, like the year I planted corn. I planted the seed thick because I was sure that only a percentage of them would germinate. When they all germinated, I spent a month trying to thin the plants out to give them room to grow. They all died in one of the worst droughts we’d ever seen. That was the year my marriage died too, but it had never had a healthy start in the first place. That was one of those things I wish someone had talked me out of doing. As I remember it they did try, but once I had decided to marry I didn’t question it again until it was way too late to save it. We tried and he tried and I tried, but somehow the conditions weren’t right or the soil wasn’t right or who knows why but it never did really get off the ground. It just took twelve years to die, and when it did it was the first of many deaths. I almost died of toxic shock syndrome. Grandmother Susie died next, followed by Grandaddy, and then my other grandmother (I called her Granny) went into a nursing home. My father came back from Costa Rica to die. My cousin was stabbed to death by his girlfriend. My son’s godfather committed suicide. After ten years in a nursing home, Granny died. Ten years ago I moved back to Alabama. Nobody forges my name anymore, or tells me what kind of car is “cool,” or what job a woman “should” have. I went back to art school and moved into a house built a few years before my father was born. This house has big tall windows, ten-foot ceilings, an upstairs studio, and a front porch swing. Ever since my kids left home I have lived alone, surrounded by books and cats. I planted catnip for them and pole beans for memories.
LETTERS FROM ED Note: This “found” poem is taken from letters my father wrote to his mother over a period of eight years, between 1944 and 1952. Dear Mother, Tuesday morning we reported to the recruiting office and were the first ones to pass the physical. Wednesday we were sworn in by the officer in charge and given tickets for three meals. We slept till after nine this morning and then had orange juice, bacon, scrambled eggs, grits, toast and coffee. The boys that I’m leaving with today are all nice fellows and we have a hell of a good time together. I’m the youngest in the bunch. I’ll write you periodically or spasmodically on the way out there. Give my love and my red hat to Barbara and keep Puddles fed. Ed Well, Mother, it’s been quite some time since I’ve written to you but I hope you’ll understand. We are flying night and day now. This morning we had a dawn flight – maneuvers with the army – lotsa fun and we’re pretty tired out. We’ll be coming South one of these days and you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be home. Give my love to sis. Ed Dear Mom, I was supposed to remain on temporary duty for the rest of the month but the Army wants to send me to the states as a radioman aboard one of Air Transport Command’s planes, so all I can tell you at the present time is just stand by till you get a call from me. And get those tickets to the football game if you can ‘cause I do want to go! Your loving son, Ed
Dear Mom, I just got up from a nap and I’m still kinda groggy. I went to two dances, last night. I’m trying to pass this darn algebra. I’ve moved and you can send my mail to the A.T.O. house till further notice. Got a letter from Baby Lou saying she wants to call it quits, so now you’re not only my best girl, you’re my only girl. Your loving son, Ed.
Honestly, Mom, I don’t know how I have ever cared about anybody before I met Bev. She has told Wes she doesn’t love him and that she loves me. So now you know you’ve got competition and I do so terribly love her too. Mother, she is really crazy about you and thinks you are really swell. Well, Mom, honey, I gotta write to Buddy & Sis and tell them the great news. Nite! I love you heaps. Ed. Dear Mom, I haven’t decided whether to take a 90 day tour of duty with the army this summer but it might be the best way to save some money. I want you to see about having your ring reset for me as soon as you can. I want a plain platinum or white gold set with maybe some contour or form to the sides of the set but no figures or roses on the sides of the stone. With your permission, Bev and I want to get married the latter part of September. Since she is finishing her last quarter of art classes this quarter and will be able to get a job here in Auburn, we can make about $205 a month and whatever I make this summer will be sufficient to get us through my last school year. Your loving son, Ed. Dear Mom, I checked everywhere and they just can’t hire anybody as long as this strike lasts. I found out from the Officers’ Reserve Corps that I can get 15 to 90 days at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and my pay will be $265 a month. No matter how inconvenient it will be I’ve got to make some money this summer – that’s all there is to it. Love you, Ed.
Dearest Mom, I am a bachelor again as both of the girls have gone with their mother to Opelika. There is enough for me to do here as Communications officer to keep me busy 25 hours a day. You should have seen us when we made the trip down from Opelika with both young-uns. She had Lynda in her arms and I had Susan in mine, trying to drive and keep the kitchen sink from falling out of the back seat on our heads. Be real sweet and remember that we love you very much. Your loving son, Ed. Dearest Mother, Now that they have completed the Atomic Explosion in Nevada , I have finally been allowed to return to Camp Rucker and my girls. All my love from your granddaughters, Bev and Ed.
AN AMERICAN DREAM I have a favorite photograph that must have been in my father’s wallet, judging by the way it is folded, and it must have been taken the day my father left for the atomic testing facility in Nevada in 1952. In that photograph, I am sitting on Daddy’s shoulders, my hands grasping his ears and his hands holding my ankles. Only two when he left for Nevada, I surely have no conscious memories of his absence, but if I think back to those times I can sense an overwhelming feeling of loss. My mother must have had terribly sad moments then also, being left with a precocious toddler and a second child on the way, in the temporary care of my father’s mother while daddy was gone. No one ever spoke about the reason why my father was away during that year, even when I was older and asked about the early days of their marriage. I would have reason to think about it in depth forty years later, as I prepared myself for a hearing in front of a Veterans Administration official in Tampa Florida, where I was attempting to have a decision reversed that denied my father’s widow the right to service connected disability benefits that I believed were due her. My father had died several years earlier after a fifteen-year struggle with bladder cancer. As I sat in that grimy office two years after my fa-
ther’s death, with my Costa Rican stepmother beside me and accompanied by the Spanish translator that the Veterans Administration had provided for her, I could not hold out much hope that they would change their decision. My father had begun trying to get his bladder cancer declared a service-connected disability for more than ten years. The VA had sent him a frustrating mound of paperwork to fill out, and form letter after form letter would come back stating that although they had records of his service in the Navy, they could find no record of my father’s Army discharge. These denials were no doubt maddening to a man who had left high school at age seventeen to enlist in the Navy, serving as a tail gunner in World War II. After the war, he met my mother while he was attending Auburn University on the GI bill. After they were married, he enlisted in the Army Reserve so that he would have some extra income to help support his future family. The wedding invitation has a hand painted image of a quaint cottage behind a pretty wrought iron fence gate, a stereotypical image representing the American Dream for my father’s generation. The government claimed that my father’s military records must have been lost in the St. Louis fire, which resulted in a long, frustrating process of trying to prove that he had even been in the Army, and like so many others, my father hadn’t needed this information until he became ill and needed medical treatment. By that time, my mother had been dead for many years from cancer, and what precious few belongings my father had were in storage somewhere or left behind in his many wanderings. After my mother’s illness and the resulting financial burden, he endured a string of bad luck including business failures, bankruptcy, and divorce from his second wife. He went from being a prominent and well-loved citizen to a struggling ne’er-do-well, in his own eyes if not in the eyes of his friends. He first sought solitude and escape as a delivery boat captain, and for years he lived on a boat, sailing from one Caribbean island to another. It was during this time that he learned he had bladder cancer, which necessitated his returning to the states every three months to have the tumors removed. Soon the boat companies didn’t want to hire him because of his illness. He eventually found his way to the small coastal town of Heredia, Costa Rica, where he met my second stepmother, a young Hispanic woman with two small boys. In addition to free medical treatment and pensionata status, Costa Rica gave him a new start, a place where he was
needed and where he would regain a sense of selfworth. His gregarious nature led him to many other expatriates, retired servicemen living in this Central American paradise. My father was the one who would often intervene on behalf of other vets who were having trouble with the Social Security or Veterans Administration. It was through these connections that he first heard about a class action lawsuit for men who had been exposed to atomic testing in Nevada. His first reaction was disbelief that his cancer could have anything to do with that experience. As the idea gradually took hold he began to ask me what I thought, and he pointed out that the very industry I worked for—the nuclear power industry—was essentially the same group that had overseen these atomic tests years before. How clearly I remember thinking that this was just another excuse, another way to blame someone else for his problems, but I agreed to read the letters and information he had received and asked questions of some of my associates at work. Most were unwilling to discuss this with me and some even discouraged me from inquiring at all, but one friend took me aside and privately gave me a book called Nuclear Witnesses,
which described little known incidences of people who had been exposed to radiation from nuclear explosions in various parts of the world and the resulting illness they experienced. This book was the first of many that I have discovered over the years that have testified to the horrors of this hidden killer. My father was too ill by that time to be aware of any of this, his cancer having spread throughout his body. On one of my frequent trips to Tampa to visit him, I asked him to describe the experience of the nuclear test. He told me that the test he had witnessed was called Tumbler Snapper, and that after several delays the test had actually been conducted on May 25, 1952. The men were told to get down in a ditch and cover their heads when the blast occurred. He said, “It was red, red, hell red. It looked like the earth just opened up and a red ball filled the sky. Then a wave of dust rolled toward us, over us, filled our eyes and faces and covered us, then turned and came over us again.” On command they got up out of the ditch and walked towards the blast to within 500 yards from “ground zero.” Today you can see actual photographs of this very test, and the men in the ditch he described, on an internet website. I keep looking at that photograph of men in the ditch and realizing that somewhere in that ditch is my father.
I wonder how many men in that picture are still alive. After he died, the letter quickly came denying his service-connected disability. Disillusioned and angry, I began pouring over the letters again and talking to people about my options. This was the early days of online services such as Prodigy and aol.com, and through CompuServe I found a Military group that connected me to an American Legion lawyer. He told me exactly what I should do. Angered into action by a letter that declared that my father’s exposure was no more harmful than a dental x-ray, I wrote demanding a hearing to contest the VA’s decision. The hearing was finally granted, and I flew to Tampa to the VA headquarters there. I remember my shock at the antiquated systems that this powerful organization had. The inefficiency of their staff—retired disabled vets pushing document carts up and down the floors, slowing information access to a crawl—infuriated me. Finally my stepmother and I were seated in a meager office with cheap paneling and a gray steel desk behind which the VA officer sat eyeing us warily. My stepmother, a good three years younger than I, looked anxiously at the translator, not understanding much of what was happening but knowing that the outcome was critical to the survival of her family. I sat clutching the letter my father had written to his mother in 1952, informing her that the nuclear test was over and that he would be home in a few days to see his beloved wife and daughters. The official from the VA asked me if I had anything that could
prove my father was in the army and had participated in these tests. I handed him the letter written on stationary from the 188th Field Artillery Battalion, 47th infantry division, and showed him the picture of my father in his Army jacket holding me on his shoulders. I told him that although my father was as patriotic as any man, he had already served his country once in the Navy and that he would not have left his wife and two daughters for any reason unless he had been forced to do so. I also told him that the letters comparing that 31-kiloton blast to a dental x-ray were insulting to me since I worked in the nuclear utility industry. The VA official wrote down the name of my company, asking me to repeat the spelling, and made a copy of my letter. Then he dismissed us, promising that we’d have a decision in a few weeks. My father’s case was reversed, and his disability granted, posthumously. At his funeral a representative of the Disabled Veterans played taps and handed his widow a flag folded in the shape of a triangle and placed in a plastic box. The funeral director told her she could take home a basket of flowers. I read some of his poems at the wake. One of them begins with these words: My sands of time are running out And with them all my plans and dreams Three years later his two adopted sons applied for and were awarded American citizenship. He is buried near them in Tampa, Florida. There is an American Legion Post in Costa Rica that now bears his name.
A SEMINAL EVENT I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my father’s sperm. Well, why not? That is after all what began life for me, right? The joining of my father’s sperm and an egg from my mother precisely five months after they were married in September 1948 was the seminal event of my life. February 1949, however, is not the month with which I am concerned. Nor am I concerned with the second union of my father’s sperm with an egg from my mother, which resulted in my beautiful younger sister. Actually, the time frame I am concerned with, which resulted not in a life but possibly a slow train to death, was their joyous homecoming reunion— and of course sexual union—in early June,1952. The reasons for my fascination with this act of copulation more than fifty years ago have evolved over time. There is no way I can know for sure whether my mother and father waited till we were safely asleep or left us with my grandmother while they ran off to a hotel for a rendezvous, but I am convinced that this reunion ultimately resulted in my mother’s early death from a rare form of
cancer. This day I think about so much is about ten days after my father witnessed an atomic bomb called Shot Charlie, which was part of Operation TumblerSnapper, and which was detonated in May 1952. By all accounts, my mother was one of the gentlest creatures who ever graced this earth. If she ever got riled up you’d never know it until a cabinet door was shut a trifle too forcefully, and then you’d know you had stepped over the line with her. She would cry if she had to scold or punish us, and once she even sat at a typewriter and wrote me a full-page note explaining why I could do better as a teenage daughter. Though she didn’t say it in so many words, I knew I had been steadily wounding her with my thoughtless and headstrong ways. A very private person, she could not talk about sex with her daughters, not even to discuss things growing girls need to know. She would have been horrified to think I would someday write a story about something as private as her sexual relations with my father. She didn’t live to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Of course, in the late 60’s cancer was not associated with
any toxins or food additives, or even with radiation exposure. While our government knew that radiation from various sources was deadly, we didn’t know it, and in fact we were reassured that just the opposite was true. So, why do I believe that radiation killed both my parents? It’s simple, really. When you consider that there are twelve known cancers that resulted from the exposure to the atmospheric tests that were conducted above ground from 1945 to 1962 (and below ground thereafter) and when you consider that the children of these same men and women who were exposed to some type of atomic blast had children born with birth defects and leukemia, you begin to get the sense that at least my father’s exposure might have been the cause of his eventual death of bladder cancer in 1991. After a protracted battle with the Veterans Administration after his death, my father’s cancer was eventually ruled a service-connected illness. My mother’s cancer was, I am told, not in any specific organ, but more or less “between her lungs and her spine” which meant that it was inoperable by the time they determined the source of her rapidly declining health. What makes this all the more tragic is the knowledge that she had a newfound passion and she was really thriving on it. She and some friends had founded a new day school. Her creative energy had gone into high gear. I remember clearly how I would come in from school to find her, instead of sewing my cheerleader uniform, cutting out felt shapes for an instructional project for the kindergarten or painting up an old VW beetle for children to scamper in and out of on the playground. And then just as suddenly she was complaining of a hip problem, which we thought might be bursitis, but in reality was the mass near her spine. X-rays didn’t show anything in September and by January of the next year she died of this cancerous mass, which had grown so large that it suffocated her to death. Suddenly, someone so young and so full of life had become someone wasting away to a certain, swift death. We hardly had time to absorb the reality of her dying before she was gone. Except for the death of JFK (on my fourteenth birthday in 1963) I hadn’t been exposed to the experience of death. While my sister and I dealt with it in our own personal way, my father’s devastation was instantaneous and complete. What had begun as an effort to supplement their income in the early years of their marriage had grown into a commitment to the US Army that required him
to go wherever they sent him, and in 1949, the Army needed to understand how men would react to nuclear war. Trusting their beloved government and believing the constant fear hyped by the escalating Cold War, these men considered it their duty to answer their government’s call. They went willingly to witness this astounding spectacle, proud of their country’s leap into the Atomic Age, and they understood why it was code-named and surrounded by secrecy. What they didn’t know was that the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense were having a mini-war of their own over how much radiation exposure these men could suffer without catastrophic health effects. When the TumblerSnapper series of tests was begun, the department of Defense won the argument by promising to absolve the AEC of any responsibility for the health of these men. That meant that they would be moved in closer to what they called ground zero, from seven miles to less than four. They were to be tested to see how soldiers managed maneuvers in these conditions, and were intentionally being used as test subjects. What they weren’t being told was how lethal all their activities were going to be. Recently a new book has been published, a coffee table sized volume full of beautiful photos of these tests. It’s called 100 Suns. The photos show magnificent billowing clouds of dust and debris, and in the case of the oceanic tests, water. Even for someone who knows what the photos represent, it’s an incredible sight to behold. Some of the photos are in black and white, and some are white and blue, with a tinge of pink. The most impressive are the ones that are in what my father described as “hell, hell red.” The photo of the actual shot he witnessed is in the book, and it is exactly like he described it. Hell on earth. Red and yellow as hell. Like most GIs, including some shown in these photos, my father was a very patriotic citizen. Youthful, eager, and energetic, he always lived his life like he had been taught by the World War I generation he admired so much. He had been only seventeen when he enlisted in the Navy for WWII and although he sat in the tail-gunner’s position of an airplane, he never saw combat. He always regretted that. When he became ill with bladder cancer, he became the most well liked patient in the VA hospital. His regular visits for surgery to remove the tumors spanned a fifteen-year period.
During that time, he became aware of the class-action lawsuits that were being instituted in regard to these tests, but he was reluctant to believe the truth even then. Only when he had no alternative and the cancer had spread to his kidneys did he begin to accept the idea that his own government could have brought on his death in this way. He became bitter, and resentful of the constant run-around that he received from the Veterans Administration. It took years for them to even acknowledge that he was in the Army; as if it were impossible to believe that a man could enlist in more than one branch of service in his lifetime. The cocktail of elements that were unleashed on the world, and particularly the North American Continent, by these nuclear tests has only now begun to be understood. A series of books has been published that have maps with overlays of the downwind fallout from each of these tests, and they are able to extrapolate from some data what actually rained down on the continental US after each of these tests. These same books also have map overlays that show the cancer incidence, county by county, for these same areas. The results speak for themselves. The only people denying the causal relationship between the epidemic of cancer and the atmospheric testing are the same people clamoring to start a new atomic arms race. I worked for the nuclear utility industry, and I remember one particularly uncomfortable moment when my father looked at me and said, “You’re one of THEM.” What he meant was that the Atomic Energy Commission had become, in essence, the nuclear power industry. He was right, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I started asking questions and began to realize that there was and still is a huge amount of secrecy and denial in that industry. I did my research quietly, but I did learn quite a bit by asking the right questions. One of our employees actually was on the Manhattan Project and he was a dear friend of mine. One of my first assignments there was as a data entry clerk, whose job it was to enter what are called “incident reports” into a database on a mainframe computer. These incident reports were used to share information between all the nuclear power operators so that an incident such as Chernobyl or Three Mile Island couldn’t happen again. One of the most revealing reports was one in which some workers at a plant had had “hot particles” placed on them by some malicious person, as a sort of attempted “murder,” it was thought. The incident was downplayed; as well it should have been, as the public didn’t need to be-
come concerned about such things as “hot particles.” Thinking about the existence of “hot-particles” sent me into an imaginary land of “what-if.” If a hot particle can be planted on someone, but not easily detected without special equipment, then what is the possibility that men like my father, who had just returned from a 31 kiloton blast in the desert wearing the same clothes that he witnessed the blast in, could be carrying “hot particles?” Later I learned that the US Government did not—and still to this day does not—take into consideration the ingested, inhaled radioactive elements, of which there are many, that are a part of every nuclear test. The only exposure they acknowledge is external exposure. There is a long list of possible adverse health effects that have not been officially acknowledged but which many countries outside the US are looking at as possibly connected to the years of atomic testing. There are at least 348,000 men and women classified as Atomic Veterans. The government is quietly paying the claims of those who live long enough to fight their way through the maze-like system to apply for benefits. There is growing evidence that the epidemic of breast cancer is directly related to these tests. Even more frightening, there are reports of veterans from the first Gulf War whose wives are getting sick along with the servicemen themselves. There was a time when I would have kept these crazy ideas to myself, but there are too many unanswered questions. Too many have died and too many more will die before we stop this slow murder. Now there is talk of a new round of nuclear tests, and we are already using depleted uranium in those cluster bombs. The cancer incidence in Iraq from the first Gulf War has skyrocketed. There’s even been an apparent nuclear “murder” of a Russian spy. So until someone convinces me I’m wrong, I am going to believe that the government caused the deaths of both my parents by slipping toxic substances into my father’s body without his knowledge. I wish they both could have lived to be a ripe old age. One thing, however: I’m glad my father didn’t live long enough to figure out that his beloved wife may have died as a result of his own expression of love. That would have killed him for sure.
My friend Kelly is a hospice nurse and I found myself recently telling her the story of my mother’s last days. How differently we deal with death today than we did forty years ago. Even though her weight had dropped to 87 pounds and she was bedridden and unable to eat, no one mentioned the possibility that my mother might actually die until three weeks before her death on January 27, 1968. The Christmas before she died they brought her home from the hospital, placing an adjustable hospital bed in her room, and one evening we had all gathered around her bed to watch Carol Channing on TV singing some of the tunes from Hello Dolly. A feisty seventeen years old at the time, I was making valiant attempts to ignore the reality of her illness, but when Channing sang “Before the Parade Passes By” no one could ignore the huge tears running down my mother’s cheeks. No one spoke for a long while. The following week she was moved back to the hospital and the week after that she was under an oxygen tent, struggling for breath. Both my parents were well-loved and active participants in the town where I grew up and when she became ill there was a constant stream of friends and family there to help. My sister and I were both high school cheerleaders that year, and one Friday night my father put her in the back of our 1966 Fairlane station wagon and backed it up to the fence at the football stadium so she could watch
My friend Kelly is a hospice nurse and I found myself recently telling her the story of my mother’s last days. How differently we deal with death today than we did forty years ago. Even though her weight had dropped to 87 pounds and she was bedridden and unable to eat, no one mentioned the possibility that my mother might actually die until three weeks before her death on January 27, 1968. The Christmas before she died they brought her home from the hospital, placing an adjustable hospital bed in her room, and one evening we had all gathered around her bed to watch Carol Channing on TV singing some of the tunes from Hello Dolly. A feisty seventeen years old at the time, I was making valiant attempts to ignore the reality of her illness, but when Channing sang “Before the Parade Passes By” no one could ignore the huge tears running down my mother’s cheeks. No one spoke for a long while. The following week she was moved back to the hospital and the week after that she was under an oxygen tent, struggling for breath. Both my parents were well-loved and active participants in the town where I grew up and when she became ill there was a constant stream of friends and family there to help. My sister and I were both high school cheerleaders that year, and one Friday night my father put her in the back of our 1966 Fairlane station wagon and backed it up to the fence at the football stadium so she could watch our game. She had never missed one. Her death was a shock to the entire community. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone stopping to tell me how sorry they were, or how much I looked like her, which only served as a painful reminder of my loss. Seeing my father break down for the first time at the family dinner table with mother still in the back bedroom was especially hard for me. Later on I tried to be the “mother” to replace her, to cook the same foods she loved to cook. Her black-eyed peas were the best, and I still can’t make them the same way she did, but I got pretty good at frying chicken and making spaghetti. Of course, I was no replacement for her. Somehow I managed to get through the rest of my senior year in high school. I skipped the senior prom. I don’t have any recollection of much of the rest of 1968. What I do remember is that my father and I were both drinking from the same bottle of Jack Daniels.
For the next ten years I tried to side-step the grief process. My father remarried less than a year after mother’s death and my sister lived with them for two more years. This created one of those strange situations that occur with some frequency today, where children have different sibling relationships depending on whether they were older or younger when their parents remarried. My sister has a much stronger tie to the two daughters of my father’s second wife than I do. Neither of us has any lasting connection to the two sons of his third marriage, as we were both grown and he was living in Costa Rica by then. Even though my father sold insurance as part of his real estate and insurance business, our family had no health insurance. Friends and family helped enormously, but the financial blow to my self-employed father was severe and his emotional stability was starting to fracture. Once a man of vision and dreams, he began to seem desperate and bitter. His drinking increased and his second marriage and business ventures fell apart soon after. Running from a self-identity that in his mind came perilously close to the dreaded ne’er do well of his mother’s disdainful rhetoric, he seemed angry at God and began to withdraw from the social networks that had sustained him most of his life. By the time my first child was born, he had gone into self-imposed exile. Joseph Campbell talks about exile in terms of man’s odyssey and what it means: …anyone in exile from the community is a nothing… however, this exile is the first step of the quest. Each carries within himself the all; therefore it may be sought and discovered within. The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments. (Campbell, 385) I recently found a photograph that was taken the day I read his poetry for the first time. My father had been living in a falling-down shack the location of which was a wide spot in the road near Phoenix City, Alabama where he had been installing greenhouses in central Alabama. The shack was full of flowering mums and hanging baskets that some grower had tossed out. That day my hus-
band and I had driven down to see him on our way to or from a football game in nearby Auburn. I was pregnant with my first child, and I remember this day so vividly, as my father invited me inside this house he’d been living in, piled to the ceiling with all his personal belongings. He handed me a stack of handwritten poems and asked me to read some of them. He’d written them himself, he told me. I couldn’t begin to process the idea of my father as a poet that day, and yet these poems, more than thirty years later, are the greatest treasures I own. When my father lived in that abandoned house in Bleaker, Alabama, having lost his first wife, his second marriage, his community of friends, what fortune he possessed and the respect of his mother and children, he found within himself the core of his being, and from that came poems such as this one: I’d just as soon, with both hands, try to hold onto a butterfly as try to keep this supple thing that loves to dine, and dance and sing from seeking joy as best she could and blossoming into womanhood For if we try to hold to close we sometimes hurt those wings the most, that need to stretch and breathe and fly until they find their riches, high and show their colors, till they cease to flutter and their lives release. Another poem spoke of the obvious disparity between what he’d thought important earlier in life and what now seemed the only thing worth having: Yet another poem recalled his many experiences of life: Gradually his poetry lifted him out of that self-exile, and for a time he found peace and love, even community and friends in Costa Rica, his exile home. When he returned to Tampa to die, he retained some bitterness towards those who had rejected him, those who in his mind had failed to see him as a man worthy of respect, and he struggled to make his legacy that of the poetry he had written and the sons he had adopted. He asked three things of me, his firstborn, and I have tried to fulfill these requests since that time. The first and most urgent was to see his government finally acknowledge their role in his death and by
doing so insure that his adopted sons and wife have some chance for a future. This I was able to do in 1993 with the help of my sister and my godfather, who had been my fatherâ€™s best friend since boyhood. The second was to publish his poetry, which I have been working on over the years since his death. The third he never actually asked, but it has been his desire for me ever since I was born: to find myself, to know myself, to be myselfâ€”before the parade passes by.
Published on Mar 10, 2008