For further reading . . .

 

Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with our Mothers Joan Potter, Susan Hodara, Vicki Addesso, Lori Toppel 0984956778 9780984956777 Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with our Mothers

 

Addesso, Vicki, et al., Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers. The Big Table Publishers, Boston. 2013

Cistaro, Melissa, Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir. Sourcebooks, Inc., Naperville, Illinois. 2015

Cori, Jasmin Lee, The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed. The Experiment Publishing, New York. 2010

Dame, Harriette Nedley, Collected Letters to Jo Dame Shafer. Unpublished. 1980s-1990s.

Fiset, Joan, Namesake. Blue Begonia Press, Selah, Washington. 2015

Forward, Ph.D., Susan, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Bantam Books, New York. 1989.

Golomb, Ph.D., Elan, Trapped in the Mirror. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York. 1992

Hegi Ursula, The Vision of Emma Blau. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, New York. 2001

McBride, Karyl, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Simon & Schuster, New York. 2008

Sarton, May, The House by the Sea: A Journal. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 1977.

Woolf, Virginia, Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing, “A Sketch             of the Past” (essay). Harcourt, Inc., San Diego. 1985 ed.

Woolf, Virginia, To the Lighthouse. Harcourt, Inc., Orlando. 1955 (c. renewed)

 

 

 

 

Roses in the Rain

Epilogue

My Mother’s Legacy

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it until you take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a re-witnessing.  ~ Michal Ondaatje: Warlight (2019)

At night, I searched for her in restless dreams. I visited the back door garden of my childhood home where old purple petunias tangled with the overgrown grass and stickweed. I turned the rusted spigot handle, but it emitted only a dry hissing. I crawled up broken steps and pressed against the rusty screen. From somewhere deep inside, I heard voices from the past. I saw piles of dirty laundry cluttering once varnished pine floors. Unwashed plates and cups littered the kitchen counters.

Right away in those dreams, I rolled up my sleeves, organized dishes into orderly stacks the way she had taught me–glasses first, then silver, cups, plates–and scrubbed down chipped linoleum. Outside the tall kitchen window, a rising moon blinked through pines standing sentinel, whispering, “You’re too late.”

Now, in my late seventies, I return to the complexity of my mother’s personality and the influence she still holds over me two decades after her demise. As I look back, I recall a pervading sense of sadness hidden between the layers of our ordinary lives, an undercurrent running beneath Mama and Papa Nedley’s laughter, as though a lingering grief had never been dealt with but left to color life. Was it because Mother’s brother Fenton had died so young? Was it because of the Great Depression? the War? Or what Mother once termed the “Maddox melancholy syndrome” ?

“It’s so purple,” little Harriette replied, as a child, when people questioned her why she burst into tears while Papa played his harmonica, or Gilbert his violin. The pain of beauty? Mother used to snap off the radio if she caught me weeping silently during a particular piece of music, a Puccini aria, for example. I learned to smother my emotions under a blanket of supposed laissez faire. I still do.

Yet Mother was a woman of pathos, too. Pathos is a quality, as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings of sympathy, tenderness, sorrow, perhaps anguish, or a sense of hopelessness. She turned off any music that made her cry instead of immersing herself in beauty of the moment. Her moments then could find nowhere to go but bury themselves in the depths of her heart.

To say that my mother still baffles me is to make an understatement. It’s impossible for me to pinpoint any one triggering event that set off her “bad times.” In a gradual process, she became more and more argumentative, prejudiced, and judgmental. Of course, she no longer tried switching me with plum tree suckers. What a sight that would have been, two grown women chasing each other around the yard, one with a bunch of switches, the other screeching like a scalded cat. Instead, she slapped my face. If once didn’t satisfy her, she slapped again. Or slam my bedroom door at me, over and over. To this day, the sudden BAM of a door slamming in a breeze makes me jump and sends my heart pounding.

Yet, during her tirades, she never frowned, only glared with those piercing blue irises and tightened her lips. I felt utterly defenseless as I stood before her tenacity. As a coping mechanism, I dissolved into a mental/emotional detachment. I defended myself by mentally removing myself from the situation too traumatic to assimilate into my conscious self.

One day, in the middle of a tirade, I looked into her face and saw the inner beauty in those lovely blue eyes of the Maddox family line. I admired her upswept coif, whitening early. I smiled, and momentarily confused her. She thought me impertinent and marched me off to my room.

Usually, I found it best to keep away from her and wait for her storms to blow out, like the frequent summer squall lines erupting out over Pensacola Bay. While still young, I began to spend hours on my own, traipsing about the woods behind our place. I became a voracious reader. I still am. I learned to channel my passions into an intense response to the visual beauty around me–the woods in summer, the gardens, classical music and the arts, ballet, fine riding horses. I lived in a dream world just as I had as a young child, but now with adult thoughts and emotions I hid from her.

Years of research reveals that emotional abuse or neglect during the critical developmental years of childhood may interfere with personality development, especially when one or both parents are frightening and un-predictive (cf. Jasmin Lee Cori: The Emotionally Absent Mother, 2010).

May Sarton write in The House by the Sea (1977) that she had heard that daughters of a strong-willed mother had been “swallowed up or molded into the person their mothers demanded, or prevented from their own authentic being by unconscious pressures from their mothers . . .” That statement alone expresses my own frustration and why I had to escape from under her imperial thumb before it was too late for me to develop into an autonomous authentic person. Mother may have enjoyed her early motherhood years to the extent she could wield control over a “little person.” She was a wonderful mother in many ways. Yet she encouraged very little social development in either my sister or me. Eventually, her control extended to psychological repression as well.

My mother was a beautiful woman so tied up in her own emotional entanglements that she could not really show love, although she professed to love. Instead, she demonstrated her love through household duties of cooking and scrubbing, washing and polishing, gardening and feeding the chickens. She was married to Duty. She used to tell me that duty is more virtuous than love. She often thought of herself as a martyr. “After all I’ve done for you, and what thanks do I get?” But I craved physical affection from her, a spontaneous hug or a smile of pleasure over nothing in particular. Just a smile. Was that too much to ask? 

Ursula Hegi’s The Vision of Emma Blau (2001) strikes a chord as it describes baby Emma’s greedy, hungry pull on her mother. “Emma was not the serene child Yvonne had envisioned [but instead] a red-faced infant who’d fight sleep until she was exhausted from crying. She would clutch her mother’s hair or breast, trying to force her into merging with her once again, making her journey back to fusion of blood and flesh . . . The more Emma clutched at her mother, the more Yvonne drew away from this fleeting and mismatched courtship. She’d find excuses not to have Emma follow her around, send off to play . . . to visit her grandmother.”

Was I like Emma? Was my mother disappointed in me? Was she simply afraid of me, not knowing what to do with this raging, squalling, colicky baby? She once told me that tiny babies frightened her and that she much preferred an older child with whom she could interact: play with, tell stories to, take on carriage outings and car trips to the beach, shopping downtown–all of which we did enjoy together.

Through later benign neglect, Mother avoided my unrestrained devotion. I began to withdraw emotionally from Mother while still admiring her gentle beauty, between us a book or a flower bed, the dining table laid with yellow Franciscan dinnerware on a blue-flowered cloth. Today, blue and white with yellow are my favorite colors as they evoke the good memories of my mother.

Later came agoraphobia. She developed a fear of driving the three-mile bay bridge to the beaches, so she stopped taking us. She stopped going downtown, too. She refused to answer the front door if the knock caught her off-guard. She receded into the deeper reaches of the house and hid behind the closet door. She began locking both the front and back doors in broad daylight, something country people did not do but only for the night or when leaving the house. Many times I’d come home from school and find myself locked out; I’d have to call and call through the screen door, finally sit down on the steps and wait for her to realize that it was I.

Fear forces one to take time-consuming detours around that which frightens one. In an old psychology textbook, I once read that fear associated with agoraphobia results in behavioral changes in order to avoid frightening situations. An individual with agoraphobia may check out escape routes, leading him to avoidance behaviors that may include driving only on certain roads, not driving at night, not driving at all, always sitting near a rear door in public places, or avoiding any place where it may be difficult to get to an exit, avoiding crowds in the first place. In extreme cases, the fear may become so consuming that the individual will not leave the house alone or becomes housebound altogether.

Is this part of her legacy to me, in my later years, as I relish staying home? Nevertheless, Mother did bequeath an abiding love of fine music, especially Bach and organ, part of her own inner world, along with a love of gardens, woods, beaches of squeaky white sands along the Gulf Coast, picnics on the side of the highway.  Sometimes on those outings, white caps ruffed the surface of the bay far below the bluff. Occasionally we could spy a ship on the horizon, as Benson’s daughters do in one of his famous paintings (Portrait of My Daughters, 1907). 

From Mother, I gained an appreciation of good books that become lasting friends to be savored over and over; great literature like Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters, the English Romantics; gardens and interior decorating–hers, American country; mine, Colonial Williamsburg. She implanted in me a deep love and reverence for our Southern heritage, respect for the Confederate war dead, the old Episcopal Church before its tragic transmogrifications. She used to quote, “Save your money, boys! The South will rise again!” And so it did, the “new South” of cosmopolitan cities and beaches crowded with condominiums and tourist traps. Nonetheless, much of the “Old South” still remains, if you know where to look for it.

Now, on this lazy summer afternoon, I gather my thoughts like rose petals scattered on the ground by a rain shower of remorse, unbidden, without warning. The past never remains in the past. When one thinks of the dead, one thinks of that person in all guises of life: babyhood, various childhood stages of learning to talk, to dissemble, meeting life head-on or retreating from it. They all equally are present because they are all gone. Those of us who are left can accept that–or give a great howl.

Related image

 

I have a haunting

I pause to greet the one

Who speaks my name.

 

Somewhere?

Nowhere.

 

“Mother,” she calls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 20

The Final Hour

Image result for Roses in the rain

 

Eventually, her storms blew out. She mellowed. She grew gentler, less compulsive about “what has to be done.” But she never “lost her marbles,” thank goodness. She began a lovely custom of turning down the lamps as evening progressed after supper, or never turning them on in the first place. Dusk left her sitting in a room lit only by sunset’s golden afterglow, as a gentle way of finishing her day—or a gentle way of dying.

After Daddy died and we girls left home to live our own lives, Mother’s life simply stopped. We thought she would finish with grieving, pick up the pieces, and get on with it, but she never did. She simply stayed home, rarely straying beyond the back door to gather roses in the rain. Her front door was the only window to the world outside, the postman and the occasional UPS delivery van, rare visits from passing neighbors.

When I brought my fiancé to meet her the first time, while she still lived on the old home place, we sat in a darkening living room on a late summer afternoon. The setting sun cast a honeyed glow through the west windows and kissed us as we sat in chairs arranged on a large braided rug before the unlit fireplace. The walls, ceiling, and floors—made of pines cut down on the place and cured at the lumber mill, then varnished to a rich sheen—had darkened with age.

I offered to turn on at least one lamp, but Mother declined. Said it wasn’t time. She told us that day’s ending was more peaceful that way. Now, in my own elder years, I enjoy soft endings of my days, especially in the fall when I light candles and pour the tea.

After George and I were married, Mother wrote long letters, filling pages and pages with family history and wonderful stories of Mama and Papa, of her childhood years in Apalachicola. Those letters served as my primary source material for the first four chapters of this memoir.

The year my son was born, Mother sold the Pensacola place and relocated to Panama City where she could walk down the lane to the little Episcopal Church for Evensong on Sundays. Two years later, she moved over to Mobile, Alabama, to be near Sis and Frank in their ailing years, especially Sis, but she couldn’t deal with their situation.

“It was a gradual deterioration along with high blood pressure,” as Mother described in one of her letters to me. “[Sis] became stone deaf. I’d try to write what I wanted to say but she seemed to hate that. It was a sad, miserable time. I couldn’t do a thing for her.” Sis died in January 1978, four months before my daughter was born.

“She was a fine person,” Mother continued in her letter, “self-sacrificing, much spirit always. Began to play the church organ at age 15. With great feeling. All the folks loved her. Generous, refined, a great cook. All of my fond memories revolve around her. Sentimental! I remember her at [brother] Bud and Madeline’s wedding. Her eyes were a brilliant blue. And she was smiling with tears in those big eyes. We were standing on the Catholic Rectory porch in the gentle late afternoon. I was eleven.”

By 1981, Mother had moved again, this time to a wooded neighborhood east of downtown Tallahassee, part of the old Miccosukee Indian trail. Smooth asphalt roads easy for walking wound around curves up and down hills. Lovely homes, some old, some newer like hers, stood under moss-draped oak trees.   Mother stayed there for over a decade.

Her brother Gilbert died that October. Mother wrote after the fact that he “acted much as Papa had in 1950. Both knew when they would die, both kept asking the time, both were disbelieved by those surrounding them as death neared.” Surprisingly, Mother did attend that funeral, held in Apalachicola.

“It was a beautiful, serene late autumn day and so gracious for the final return of an elder native son,” she wrote. “The [Magnolia] cemetery is not kept up as it should be but it is in a lovely spot close to the river and fine forests. [After the funeral] Pearl Porter Marshall and Bessie Marshall Porter had a charming and hospitable affair at Pearl’s home. They served homemade wine and pound cake. Pearl and Bessie were close friends of Sis, both staunch Episcopalians. The younger ones walked to our old home place and peeked in the windows, then to the park and out on the new pier.”

In a later letter in which she reminisces about her Apalachicola years, she said that “those were the days . . . If their value to me could be weighed and sold I’d be rich . . . I have a regret that you and Alice were not there at the same time to share in all I have told of.”

So do I.

While Mother was still relatively healthy while living in Tallahassee, Cousin Carmen invited her for Sunday dinner with her in Wewahitchka, about sixty miles down the highway in the Apalachicola National Forest. It’s a beautiful old place with moss-draped oaks and tall Florida pines surrounded by house-sized azaleas where mockingbirds twerped and warbled. Mother admitted that it would have been a real treat to be with her cousins there. Yet, she declined!

I have passed by there. It is a lovely place reminiscent of my home place in Pensacola. Maybe Mother was afraid it would remind her of too many painful memories. I, on the other hand, would have wallowed in the sweet sorrow.

My daughter recalls only two incidences with her grandmother. One was during April 1980 when George and I, with both young children, visited her in Tallahassee. Mother had made a lovely cake with pink frosting, ringed with pansies, for a little tea party to celebrate Elizabeth’s second birthday. Sadly, Elizabeth had become a bit travel sick and could only nibble Saltines and sip Ginger Ale. But the cake was lovely, like many of my own birthday cakes Mother baked and decorated with flowers.

The second memory is when she and I traveled together the summer after her seventh grade, while her brother and their daddy were camping in the woods with their Boy Scout troop. Mother wanted Elizabeth and me to see her little rose garden framed by a copse of pines and scrub palmettos. She watched from inside her back screen door while my daughter and I did a little tour on our own. I seem to remember a fine drizzle that afternoon.

One year, for Elizabeth’s tenth birthday, Mother sent two beautiful little dolls, one blonde and one brunette. Elizabeth named the dark dolly “Harriette” and the other “Josephine” because she wanted to name them after Grammy and Mommy, respectively. Mother also made a bedding set with little pillows attached at the top and a folded up blanket stitched down the middle to form a pair of pockets in which to put the dolls to bed. Shortly before her wedding, Elizabeth gave away the set while clearing out most of her childhood things.

Long before she left the old home place in Pensacola, Mother gave away my little brown wicker rocking chair and doll buggy, my Madame Alexander dolls, even my purple-and-lavender baby blanket of stitched squares that Cousin Jerry had crocheted for me before I was born. So many precious things holding fond memories for me she simply buried in overgrown flowerbeds.

She cut up the brown crocodile leather photo album and sent me many of the individual pictures. My sister salvaged the rest and made up two scrapbooks, one for her and one for me. Nonetheless, I do have Mother’s two Victorian-era china doll heads, a few of her books, the pair of brass candlesticks. I gave the tall flat V-shaped vase with a creamy yellow Columbine bar relief on its front and back to my daughter who also has her Grammy’s silver pieces in her dining room cabinet.

From time to time, Mother and I enjoyed an occasional telephone visit that I initiated. I’d let the ’phone ring and ring and ring—no answering machine in those days. Eventually, she’d pick up, hesitate, and then speak in an almost girlish voice.

“Hello?”

“Mother? It’s me, Jo.”

“Oh, well, my my.” It was as though she couldn’t make out what this call was all about. Once she warmed up to the idea, she became a delightful conversationalist for a good hour or so. As her health declined, she not only wrote less and less but her telephone voice grew weaker. One day she croaked at me.

“Leave me alone! Don’t call here anymore! Hang up now!”

Before I could utter a word, she hung up on me—BANG! I was hurt, of course, but now I understand. If she lost her train of thought in a conversation, well, she simply lost it. Reading a letter could afford her the leisure to allow her mind to wander and refocus later. Not until a short note from my sister did I have any real inkling that something was amiss.

Two weeks prior, Mother’s back “went out.” She required medication and household help, neither of which she wanted. Next came mental confusion regarding money matters, yet she insisted upon maintaining tight control over the “bank account mess.”

That fall, Mother had to be taken to the hospital because of mental delusions and hallucinations during the previous twenty-four hours. The doctor on call said it was a sudden onset of Alzheimer’s. My sister thought Mother may have mixed up her medications or had taken too much of something, and I’m inclined to agree with her, not that doctor. Alzheimer’s simply doesn’t happen overnight.

Even after medical intervention alleviated that spell, Mother’s mental confusion remained. She couldn’t keep up with her finances yet refused to allow anyone else to do it for her, whether my sister or the bank. She had stated many times before that she was tired of living.

“I’m worn to a frazzle. I’m tired of being brave. If only someone else would bear the burden of what to do the way Herschel used to take care of me. I’m just so tired.”

I never heard from her again. Her days piled up, one upon another spelling, out the years. She withdrew into herself. Newspapers piled up, then bills, covered in dust, settling like fine flour.

Early one September morning in 1998, the telephone call I dreaded came. It was my sister. Mother had just died.

How did I feel? Panic. Sheer panic. Suddenly, the calls, the arrangements to make, cross-country flights to schedule. As it turned out, Mother had already made final arrangements: Don’t come. No pomp. No wake. No funeral. “Just dig a hole and put me in it. Say a prayer, if you want to. Cover me up. Good-bye.”

No flowers? She, who loved gardens so deeply? Not even an evergreen wreath with purple and white ribbons for the front door. Well, I hung one up on my front door. I wanted everyone to respect my grief time. No one did. Salesmen banged on the door anyway. I refused to answer.

My own gardens, usually at their best with late roses in September, sparkled after a day of showers. Wispy white clouds rode high. I sat on a garden bench with a tea tray and Mama’s old 1879 Book of Common Prayer and my writing journal for company. Mother would have liked that.

 

NEXT WEEK: Postlude

 

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 19

Escaping the Storms

 

Related image

 

As a young working girl downtown, I began to taste a bit of freedom again. My first “grown-up thing” to do was to open my own checking account. I chose the venerable old Citizens and Peoples National Bank where Daddy had done his banking since the 1930s. Mother was horrified. She pulled out all her own money and transferred her accounts to another bank.

Those were the days when banking was conducted in quiet dignity under high vaulted ceilings, handling transactions across marble counters and through wrought iron cages. People behaved as circumspectly as though under the dome of a cathedral, speaking in hushed tones, just as they once did in the historic “churchy” public library which had been the original Christ Episcopal Church dating from the 1700s.

The second “grown-up thing” was shopping by myself. I loved shopping! I chose stylish but cheap clothing at Sears, Roebuck. These didn’t last through repeated washings, so I simply bought more. I discovered white lacy lingerie I didn’t know existed, so I bought a few pieces of those, as well. I loved the luxurious way the silky fabric slid next to my skin.

Mother discovered them, neatly folded, in my dresser drawers.

“You getting married?” she queried. She tried to make me take them back and get plain cotton things. She confiscated them herself while I was at work. Relentlessly, she found fault with my appearance, no matter what I wore or what I did with my hair, or even my  posture, a trained model’s stance which I’d learned in a class at college.

“Stop putting on airs,” she’d retort, “you don’t fool me.”

Airs or no, I began to develop my own social life centered around church events, a great place to make good friends. Miss Marian Latz, the director of religious education, became my mentor and role model, the first of many surrogate mothers in whom I could confide. She encouraged me to teach Sunday School. Because city buses didn’t run at night, a distant neighbor picked me up for the monthly teachers’ meeting nights. Since she and her husband sang in the choir, they persuaded me to audition and, when I was accepted, they drove me to choir practice, too.

At the coffee hour after church services, I met several delightful young men who were Annapolis cadets or young Marine officers in flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station. They were members of the parish as long as they were stationed in Pensacola, which could be quite a few years. Occasionally, they’d take us “young ladies” out to Sunday lunches. One Marine captain, a handsome young man, invited me to be his date for the annual Marine Christmas Ball, one of the heights of Pensacola social life. He was blessed with all the “proper pedigrees” of Southern aristocracy, Virginian, I think.

Surely Mother could not object to him. I should have known better.

By now, I had matured enough at 22 to stand up to her. In spite of all my arguments, however, she prevailed. She forced me to break this date, mere days before the event, by looking up his name in the directory and dialing the number. She stood over me and listened as I spoke into the receiver.

I have no idea who said what during that brief conversation. Or what I made up as an excuse. I couldn’t just say Mother wouldn’t let me, could I? Even now, all these decades later, I cringe in abject shame. My friends simply were horrified.

“How could you do that to him? Now it’s too late for him to ask another date. You’ve ruined his evening. Why didn’t you just stand up for yourself?” Or words to that effect. They warned me that I had blackened my name, my reputation, in Pensacola. They argued that it was high time I packed up and left home for good and learn to take responsibility for myself, and stop allowing my mother to violate my boundaries of autonomy. One girl even offered to share her apartment with me–in East Pensacola Heights, no less, where Mother and Daddy had begun their marriage.

Mother blocked all my attempts. “Nice girls don’t leave home to live somewhere else in the same town,” she told me. “You’re not moving out of this house. It would  ruin your reputation. It would ruin my reputation. I won’t let you do this to me.”

“It’s my life,” I argued. “I’m 22, not 12. You can no longer control me.” If only I’d had the nerve to include the arguments my friends suggested, such as the bit about her “violating my boundaries of autonomy,” but all I managed was to stutter something unintelligible.

“That’ll do.” She stalked off, the more easily to get in the last word. She simply refused to relinquish any of her control over me. Or the status quo at home.

One January day at my lunch hour, Mr. Villar happened by my office building. He took me aside and gave me solid advice about getting out from under my mother’s thumb. He told me, rather emphatically, I recall, that I’d never be able to become an adult woman until I left home. After all, he had two grown daughters, himself, both independent, one a friend of mine. He promised to help me any way he could.

“All you have to do is ask.”

At the time, I was too embarrassed to think that he had known all along that “things were not right” between Mother and me, just as Aunt Rita and the other family had. Years later, I still appreciate his concern.

Since Tallahassee was my city of choice if I couldn’t remain in Pensacola, I traveled by Greyhound Bus and interviewed for jobs, got a few offers, and accepted one.

“You’re NOT leaving this house!”

I was flummoxed. I confided in Miss Latz at church. She drove out to “pay a call” one day while I was at work. Mother was livid and flew at me just as I returned home.

“How dare you! How DARE you!”

Eventually, I did manage to leave. With Mr. Villar’s encouragement, I made all my own arrangements, bought my own American Tourister luggage (it had the best deal), and collected large boxes for my books and other personal belongings. Mother, by now somewhat resigned, said suitcases were a ridiculous expense when I could pack just as well in brown paper bags.

She kept taunting me to the day I left. “How can you do this to me?” Just then the taxi I had arranged arrived and pulled up to the side door by the driveway. The Negro cabbie opened the back passenger door for me and I sat on the seat. Would Mother haul me right out again? Would she yell at me in front of the driver? What would he have thought if she were to lose control of herself?

She didn’t.

Discreet and respectful as he was under the circumstances, he silently drove me to the L & N train station downtown, unloaded my boxes for the shipping clerk, and drove me to the Greyhound Bus terminal. I am eternally grateful to him for his gentle manners. At the time, all I could do was to put on a brave font and just pretend everything was as it should be.

Yet–leaving the only home I had ever known and loved, the place where I’d grown up with Daddy, with Mama and Papa, on this once beautiful estate with all the romantic charm of mockingbirds singing among the azaleas under pines, bees humming in the honeysuckle, the sweet scent of bay trees down by the creek where I used to escape as a child, watching summer rains sweep across pines–it broke my heart.

I still have the set of grey American Tourister luggage, its rounded corners a bit frayed from numerous cross-country travels, even to British Columbia, Canada. Right now, it’s in storage in my attic, waiting for the next trip.

 

NEXT WEEK: “The Final Hour”

 

 

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 18

The Ball Tightens

 

A practicing attorney who lived down the road from us helped Mother with probate and other legal matters from time to time. One day when he stopped at our front gate to deliver some papers, four adorable blonde cocker spaniels spilled out the back seat of his Volkswagen. They scampered under the spirea bushes outside the fence and nosed about for whatever might be hiding here. Immediately, I fell in love with cocker spaniels.

But Mother didn’t. She yelled, “Get those things out of here!”

The neighbor apologized to Mother but laughed at my delight in them before commanding the dogs back into his car.

That September I entered my freshman year of junior college. The previous spring, I had followed Daddy’s counsel to register for the Liberal Arts curriculum. He advised me to “get a well-rounded education first, then consider a major course of study.” I still agree with his concept. Along with a couple of small scholarships that I had accepted furtively, Uncle George arranged for the tuition coverage for the first two years of my college education. Before Daddy died, Uncle George—who was my godfather, after all—had promised to look after me. I believe he it was who convinced Mother not to pack me off to join the Air Force but to allow me to continue my education.

Just before classes began, however, she forced me to change my program to Secretarial Science. Again, her iron discipline held me in the grip of near terror. There was no naysaying her. I had to do it. She stood over me as I called the college dean’s office to make an appointment. She drove me, stopped at the entrance, and pushed me out the passenger door despite my equally persistent protestations.

“If you don’t march in there and make these changes, I’ll do it myself!”

What would have happened had I not kept that dreadful appointment with the dean? If I had waited inside a decent amount of time, then returned to the car? If I had lied about the whole thing? She would, indeed, have marched right in, accomplished her mission, then marched right out.

As it was, the dean was kind. “Is really what you want to do?” he asked me. Of course, it wasn’t, and I believe he sensed that, but what could I say and maintain any shred of self-respect? So I lied to him, instead.

Thanksgiving that year was no Thanksgiving at all. Mother buried herself in bed with a sick headache that developed into a full-fledged migraine lasting for days. My sister and I decided we’d make a Thanksgiving picnic and carry it out to our pine copse beyond the main house. It was a gorgeous Indian summer afternoon. Of course, we dared not make a sound beyond a bare whisper, let alone try to cook. Instead, we made up a variety of sandwiches, added a couple of oranges and hot chocolate in a thermos. Outside, we spread an old quilt over brown pine needles warmed by afternoon sun, a tablecloth on top of that, and our picnic feast. I also carried out my Book of Common Prayer and a hymn book so that we could hold a “proper” prayer service. We enjoyed ourselves and concluded with Advent and Christmas hymns.

Suddenly, the kitchen window flew up and slammed the top of the sash with a loud bang. Mother leaned her head against the screen.

“Shut UP! How can you DO this to me?!” she wailed, then banged the window back down.

Were we that loud that she could hear voices in her room on the west side of the house? We were on the east side, a good half acre away from the house. Chagrined, we sat there. We packed up, crept back into the house, and did our weekend homework. In those days, no Black Fridays of frantic pre-Christmas shopping followed Thanksgiving Day, but a long weekend of old-fashioned country pleasures such as walking down a road carpeted with leaves fluttering down in an orange ballet. But we were not allowed outside the gate.

After Daddy died, Mother really clamped down on me, tightening her control over my life. Frequently, she yelled in my face, “You ungrateful wretch, you!” or “After all that I’ve done for you!” followed by unmitigated days of a blank stare as though I were not standing in her presence, waiting to be dismissed.

Sometimes I tried to fight back, to no avail. Sometimes I was able to dissociate myself during abusive episodes. Mentally I wandered out to the woods, the real woods, down to the creek where sun dappled the leaves of sweet bay and wild magnolia and dropped sparkles of light dark waters. Mockingbirds napped instead of warbling at midday. Summer clouds drifted above.

Dissociation is mental or emotional detachment used as a coping mechanism, defining oneself by mentally removing from the body, a wordless “I am not here . . .” The person literally dissociates herself from an experience that is too violent, traumatic, or painful to assimilate into her conscious self.

On the other hand, dissociative identities are two or more distinct personality or mental states, also highly distinct memory variations fluctuating with the person’s split personality. Blessedly, this mental state does not present in my case, although I could switch from one way of behaving with my mother to an entirely different set of behaviors among my peers. It did, however, affect my behavior among other adults outside my family, especially female authority figures.

The following summer, Aunt Rita—Uncle George’s wife to whom he referred as “my sweetie pie”—told the other Dame aunts and uncles, “We’ve got to get Jo out from under Harriette’s thumb.” I felt defensive toward Mother yet secretly relieved that somebody else had recognized the situation for what it was. The result? Mother objected with loud shouts and ripped up their letters. Nonetheless, Uncle George prevailed, and I was sent by Greyhound, with all my clothing in an army surplus trunk, to South Florida to live with relatives—first, Uncle Pat the county judge for half the term, then Aunt Linnie during the second half. There I would attend my second year of junior college in a small enough town where I could walk everywhere. I was granted free range of the neighborhood, the town, the lovely waterfront. Night curfews were quite reasonable during the week. On weekends, I was told to “just be sure to lock the front door when you come in.” And I changed my major back to Liberal Arts.

At last, I began to grow up and take on a few of the adult responsibilities to help my aunts. One of my cousins taught me how to plan a meal and to cook it—oh, joy!—and to make a pound cake for Sunday afternoon tea.

The family invited me to stay on much of that second summer, over Mother’s vehement disapproval. (In retrospect, it’s a wonder she didn’t go down and drag me back!) Always I’ll treasure those weeks of play at the beach with my cousins and my newfound friends, visiting with Aunt Linnie while she worked in her garden, listening to Aunt Lillie’s stories of Sweetwater, Georgia, walking through downtown to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church facing the waterway. If only I had known of Zora Neale Hurston, a pre-eminent African-American folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, now living out her last days in Fort Pierce! How I would have loved “settin’ a spell” with her on her porch and listening to her stories.

The year I was away, the chicken houses had been torn down and dismantled, leaving large concrete slabs washed clean, a private retreat on the foundation of the original chicken house. My sister and I spread the old picnic quilt and sunbathed. Mother kept a wood chaise longue and a pair of old metal lawn chairs popular during the 1930s-1950s—called “tulip chairs” after the shape of the backs. Today, this style is making a renaissance of sorts, lacquered in bright tropical colors, and called “retro.”

In the fall, I fully expected to continue at Florida State University in Tallahassee. No sooner was I home than Mother started in on me.

“Well, of course, that’s not going to happen. You’re going to take the civil service examination and get a job. Tomorrow.”

She literally forced me, as she had so many times, to do her bidding. She marched me out to her car, drove me downtown, parked in front of the Florida State Employment Office, or whatever it was called then, and turned off the ignition. “Well, go on, then.”

How could I heed so meekly? Why didn’t I refuse? Perhaps, like Daddy in his final years, I had become so demoralized by Mother’s unyielding demands that I had lost all my newly gained gumption. It was simply useless to keep fighting. I gave in. Again.

Image result for cocker spaniel puppies

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 17

The Ball Begins to Unravel

 

What kind of marriage relationship did Mother and Daddy enjoy—or endure? Did she really and truly love him for himself? She certainly admired Daddy’s fine mind, his intellectual acuity. Daddy was well informed on economic, political, and social issues of the day. People listened to him and respected his opinions. He held an almost god-like, yet childlike, standing in the family, an extraordinary privilege in the community, like all his brothers—doctors and lawyers.

Although my parents maintained separate bedrooms, to all outward appearances they got along well. They were companionable, working together as partners and caretakers of the place, as well as parents to us girls. Daddy was the demonstrative one with hugs and sweet talk, nearly endless patience and good humor. When he came home from work, she waited “in the wings” as we girls ran to him with loud cries of joy. “Daddy home!” Once Mother settled us down and sent us off to play, they relaxed in the living room—he seated in his Morris rocker with a whiskey glass of Old Granddad, she in her slender rocking chair and her tall glass of iced tea—as they reviewed the day’s events.

Often, they tossed ideas and opinions through the kitchen pass-through window into the dining room, she working at the sink under the window, he at his place at the table on the other side. And they argued, seemingly civilly, until she’d remark, “My stars, Herschel! Have you lost your marbles?”

Virginia Woolf once wrote, in To the Lighthouse: “He turned and saw her. Ah! She was lovely, lovelier now than ever he thought. But he could not speak to her. He would not interrupt her . . . She was aloof from him now in her beauty, in her sadness . . . it hurt him that she should be so distant, and he could not reach her, he could do nothing to help her.” Somehow I sensed Daddy longed to be loved by his beautiful, temperamental wife. Instead, she criticized him and cuckolded him.

I’ve often wondered if she may have had a “lover” or at least a platonic relationship. Sometimes she’d catch the city bus to meet a “friend” downtown to see a Lana Turner matinee. I never was invited because “you’re too young.” Of course; I was only ten, my little sister, three.

One of their friends, a breeder of white German Shepherds, often called on Mother while Daddy was at work downtown. One time this man brought Mother a box of Whitman’s chocolates. That seemed innocent enough to me, yet—as all children do—I could sense something not quite right.

Another time, he delivered one of his puppies Daddy had bought. Daddy named the pup “Jim Dandy” after the brand for chicken feed. “Jim” turned out to be a “jimdandy of a dog,” as he not only developed into a wonderful watch dog for the place, a guard dog for us young girls, but our constant companion who followed us everywhere we went.

I recall a terrible row one bright summer day. Daddy yelled. Mother shrieked. Back and forth they went at it, through the dividing window. My sister, Alice, and I knew something dreadful was up, we didn’t know what. We slipped outside and stood under the scuppernong arbor and plucked grapes still green. We wondered and questioned, aloud, not even whimpering, just stunned.

Finally Alice asked me, “Are they getting a divorce?”

“I don’t know.”

“What will happen to us?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“If they do, and we have to choose, which one would you choose to stay with?” I don’t recall whom Alice chose, but I didn’t hesitate making a decision. I wonder now if she remembers the incident. Nothing ever came of it. Perhaps she was having some sort of nervous breakdown. At any rate, I seem to recall that one of her migraine headaches flared up from the emotional pressure brought on by her rage, sending her to bed in her darkened room for days.

Eventually, our lives settled down. They never divorced.

Years later, as an adult, I talked to Uncle George (Daddy’s older brother and my godfather) who intimated something vague, telling me only that there “are things you don’t know, and you’ll never know because I won’t tell you.”

Yet, after Daddy died, Mother told me that he was her Everyman—husband, best friend, lover, brother, father. She asked me if he really loved her. I hastened to reassure her that, of course, he did. Daddy had once told me that, when I asked him who was head of our house, he was the head but Mother was the neck that turned the head—rather an apt metaphor for their marriage, I suppose.

Daddy was an affectionate, loving and demonstrative man. He lavished his attention on all of us. Hugs came easily for him. Compliments for one thing or another rolled off his lips effortlessly, as well as twinkling blue eyes sending silent messages of admiration, approval, and encouragement. Mother’s usual response was, “Are you sure?” She acquiesced to his loving with a closed-fisted arm wrap.

In 1959, certain events catapulted America onto television sets around the world. On the second day of January, the space craft “Luna I”—a/k/a Mechta E-1 No.4 and First Lunar Rover—shot off toward the vicinity of the moon, the first ever to do so. The word “astronaut” was added to the lexicon. Flash Gordon was no longer mere fiction. Alaska and Hawaii were accepted into the Union as the forty-ninth and fiftieth states, respectively while at Florida’s back door, Fidel Castro marched his guerrilla army into Havana, overthrew President Baptista, announced himself premier of Cuba, and declared his Cuban Revolution a success. All Cuban trade through the Port of Pensacola abruptly ceased. It was the first incursion of Communism in the Western Hemisphere.

That same year, Pensacola launched a year-long celebration of the city’s founding in 1559 to commemorate its quadra-centennial of Don Tristan de Luna’s landing on Santa Rosa Island. The hit movie at Saenger’s on Palafox Street that summer was The Fly. At Walgreens’ lunch counter, a quarter paid for a king-sized lemonade with a scoop of orange sherbet. And a young naval pilot named John Sidney McCain III faced the biggest challenge of his twenty-two years. Nobody had ever heard of him back then, but he was a man with a mission: to land his aircraft on the Pensacola-based USS Antietam as it steamed and heaved in the swells of the Gulf of Mexico. He succeeded.

In May, my sweet grandmother, Mama Nedley, died peacefully in her bed after a long period of decline and semi-coma consciousness. How I would have loved to brush out her long white hair still tinged with pale blonde strands at age eighty-two. I would have braided it for her or pulled it up into her usual topknot secured with old-fashioned hair pins. I would have patted lavender water on her still smooth cheeks, massaged Jergen’s lotion on her hands and feet.

I wanted to fetch the silk bouquet of pink “Sweetheart” rose buds that Papa had given her years before and pin it onto her dressing gown, draped across the foot of her bed. She used to wear it pinned onto a navy polka dot dress from an Easter long ago, perhaps the same dress she wore to Mother and Daddy’s wedding. I wanted to open her old Book of Common Prayer and read aloud the Morning and Evening prayer services to her. As it was, Sis performed those little ministrations when she came over from Mobile for a lengthy stay.

Mother assigned all the drudgery chores to me—changing bed linens, scrubbing down the plastic mattress cover and the Porta-Potty beside the bed, mopping the linoleum floors. Then she sent me right back over to our house and my regular dishwashing and homework, denying me any meaningful time alone with my soul-mate grandmother in her final hours.

Mama’s body was transported to Apalachicola for the funeral at Trinity Episcopal Church, followed by burial beside Papa in Magnolia Cemetery in the woods near the river. Jerry and Max drove all the way over from Texas, stopping by our place only briefly. Daddy drove Sis and Frank over, while Mother stayed home. She didn’t do funerals. Of course, she didn’t allow either of us girls to go, either, but forced us go on to school, anyway. “No excuses,” she insisted.

That June I graduated with my classmates. Neither Mother nor Daddy attended. My best friend Pat’s family squeezed me into their car for the drive to the Municipal Auditorium for the ceremony. Instead of participating in the graduation dance afterwards, I attended a private supper party another friend had invited me to in a banquet room overlooking Pensacola Bay. It was a lovely evening with an arranged date—my friend’s older brother.

Much of that summer of 1959, Daddy was not well. He could eat only soft bland foods because of an esophageal stricture. He complained that his legs hurt and he had to sit down a lot more. Many sunny afternoons he rested in one of the old Adirondack chairs on the southwest corner of Mama’s now empty house, overlooking the huge fig tree. I often sat at his feet, resting my head on his knees, conversing with him, listening to him, asking him questions as he tried to impart what were to become his final words of wisdom. I think he knew his time was coming. He often quoted John 14 to me:

In my Father’s house are many mansions.

I asked, “How do you know?”

If it were not so, I would have told you.

He talked about the millions of galaxies and zillions of planets in them. Could they not be those mansions? The word “mansion” connotes a large living space, not just a house, certainly not a cottage. That was his concept, and I ask myself now, “Why, not?”

He continued with, I go to prepare a place for you . . . Little did I realize what he meant by that statement, or that he was desperate to prepare me for what was to come soon. I have recalled that particular conversation many times. And he urged me, “Try to get along with your mother. Every girl needs a mother.”

But he was my soul mate.

On July 19th, my birthday, he became so sick he couldn’t get up. Mother telephoned Dr. White, our old faithful physician and friend. In those days, physicians still made house calls, even out to the country, especially when patients were too sick or frail to be brought in to town. He came right out, examined Daddy, and immediately called an ambulance. He asked Mother which hospital, and she replied, “I guess our old reliable Sacred Heart.”

The third night there, Daddy suffered a myocardial infarction—a cardiac event in the heart muscle itself—the classic heart attack. That was Wednesday. He lingered long enough for many of the Dame family to gather around, driving or taking the Greyhound bus from Jacksonville, Fort Pierce, Bradenton, Winter Park. I visited as often during the days as I could “escape” on the city bus. We talked very little. His breaths were short and shallow.

On Sunday morning, August 2nd, he asked me to fetch a newspaper for him, but he was too weak to hold it up. He asked me to read all the headlines on the front page, then to read the sports page, so I struggled over a language I had heard only over radio broadcasts of baseball games. “Read the stats,” he whispered, indicating the statistics of batting averages, wins, losses, comparing the American League with the Nationals. I tried. “That’s enough,” he gasped.

I stood by his side all that day, murmuring to him, stroking his forehead, spooning a vanilla pudding to his mouth, moistening his dried lips with a special salve a nurse brought me, as his voice trembled, “Oh me,” then inhaled.

“Oh my . . . Oh me . . .” Sometimes, he added, “Oh mo,” in a weak attempt to cheer me up. I could see that he was failing quickly, naïve and unschooled in medicine as I was at only eighteen. When Uncle George brought Mother for the evening hours, with Alice in tow, Mother sent me home, presumably to answer the telephone if it rang. I forget who drove me home, as the city buses stopped running at night. I think Uncle George sent me in a taxi cab. At the time, I didn’t realize that was the last time I would see my Daddy alive. I never said good-bye, just as I hadn’t to my grandmother.

Home alone, I needed to mark this occasion as though I already knew, while not knowing consciously, that Daddy was dying. His Morris platform rocker in the front corner of the living room glowed with light, almost as though he had come to bid me farewell. I stood next to his upright Philco radio, twisting dials, looking for music, something grand and tragic, like one of the Verdi operas that he loved so much. All I could find was Leroy Anderson performing jolly Broadway hits.

I didn’t want jolly.

I telephoned the hospital and asked for Daddy’s room number. Uncle George picked up.

“How is he?”

“Not good,” Uncle George responded after a brief pause. “Not good.”

Late that night, Mother returned home, wearing dark glasses. She began fetching Daddy’s things from the green Oldsmobile and handing them to me.

“Take these inside,” she ordered me.

“Why?”

“Just do it!

My older half-sister, Dorothy, getting out from the other side of the car, told her, “You may as well tell her, Harriette.”

Mother snapped, “He doesn’t need them anymore.”

I was puzzled at first, then it hit me: he didn’t need them because he was dead. He had breathed his last just as I had called the hospital.

I screamed at her. I berated her for sending me away without allowing me to say some sort of “good-bye.” I accused her of hiding him away from me instead of bringing him home to die here with me kneeling at his feet, my head on his knees.

To say I was devastated is to put it banally. To lose the one parent who truly loved me, emotionally and intellectually and psychologically, and whom I loved more than I can express in words, was beyond what I could bear. But to have been kept home alone that final evening after spending all day with him, to be told absolutely nothing, to have to figure things out for myself was simply unconscionable.

Where was my young sister all this time? I really can’t remember. She told me, years later, that she recalls wearing shorts and flimsy flip flops, and sitting alone on cold stone steps of the staircase leading down from Daddy’s floor, and that eventually a Sister of Mercy found her and sat down beside her. She was only eleven years old. Neither of us knew how to grieve. And neither of us was allowed to attend the funeral in Homerville, Georgia, the Dame Family seat since colonial era ancestors left Virginia in the early 1800s.

Mother simply didn’t do funerals. Uncle George, blessed autocrat that he was, put his foot down and insisted over Mother’s loud protestations that I, at least, be taken to Homerville. And so Dorothy, my much older half-sister from Daddy’s first marriage, helped me pack. I had no idea what would be appropriate, just nice things in my closet. She drove me herself. The next day she took me shopping, partly to distract me, mostly to buy me a simple black dress for the funeral. She told me a black dress always comes in handy for a young woman. She lent me a pair of pearl earrings. My black flats would be all right, she decided, with sheer stockings, not socks.

The rest of that summer and into the fall, what there was left of family life all but disintegrated. The ball of purple yarn had unraveled.

“In its place,” as Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her essays, “a dark cloud settled over us; we seemed to sit all together cooped up, sad, solemn, unreal, under a haze of heavy emotion. It seemed impossible to break through. It was not merely dull; it was unreal. A finger seemed laid on one’s lips. . . . [Moreover, no one ever] mentioned its unbecoming side; its legacy of bitterness, bad temper, ill adjustment; and what is to me the worst of all—boredom” (Moments of Being, “A Sketch of the Past”).

Mother pretty much locked herself in her bedroom. My sister and I formed our own private nucleus into which we could shelter ourselves and nurse our emotional wounds.

I don’t remember any formal “reading of the will” in those months following Daddy’s death. When I asked Mother about it, she said that Daddy had left everything to her, outright. Were my sister and I to come into any inheritance when we reached the age of majority—twenty-one? I’ll never know.

Roses in the Rain: A Daughter’s Story

Chapter 16

A Ball of Purple Yarn

Image result for ball of purple Yarn

Both my parents remained staunch Democrats all their lives. Although they were a mixed-denominational couple—he, Baptist; she, Episcopalian—heaven forbid either should have married a Republican against their respective families’ standards and expectations. Most Southerners were traditional Democrats, not Republicans. Was that because of deep-seated resentment over the cruelty of Reconstruction after the War Between the States and Lincoln’s assassination? Or was it because of Hooverism that led the nation into the Great Depression? More likely, it was the agrarian states’ rights system of the South. At any rate, neither Mother nor Daddy missed their solemn duty to vote at our local precinct a few miles up the highway. Besides, the occasion was a bit of a social event, too.

The year I was about ten or eleven, Daddy took me with him to vote early on election morning, before dropping me off at school on his way to work. We side-stepped mud puddles to the brick Methodist Church’s side door and tromped down to the basement. Various precinct workers greeted Daddy, and neighbors “hallo’ed” in mock solemnity. A few yawned behind their hands and looked bored. Not I. I was too excited.

I watched a rather large woman huff downstairs with her grey hair still done up in pink plastic curlers and a clear plastic rain cap—in public! I was aghast. Once she snapped the black curtain and locked herself inside the cage, however, she looked like anyone else from the hem down along the row of shoes. A little boy about my sister’s age peeked underneath one of the curtains. “Mama?”

Daddy, a former precinct worker himself, always drew up charts and listened to all-night radio reports of ballot returns from all over the country. Thus, the next morning’s headlines were “old news” to him, but not to Mother. I’ll never forget the look of horror registered on her face when she saw photographs of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon on the front page of The Pensacola News-Journal.

“My stars, Herschel! Do you know what this means? Heaven help us all if Nixon becomes president!” Eventually, Nixon was elected. And Watergate happened. “Herschel would turn over in his grave if he still lived.”

Nevertheless, Americans enjoyed a living standard almost unheard of in the country during the Eisenhower decade. New York skyscrapers—what an odd word, people exclaimed, as though tall buildings actually scraped the sky—began to replace rows of brownstone and small ground floor shops. One of the most successful painters of realistic scenes of urban life was Edward Hopper, already a well-known artist. As radio in the 1920s, so now television in the 1950s, just in time for the first televised national presidential convention and election. An engaging twenty-five-year-old English princess named Elizabeth of Windsor was crowned Queen of England and the British Commonwealth. Soviet Russia formed a bloc against the so-called Free World, thus instigating what became known as the Cold War with the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and orbiting satellites.

In 1956, the  year I turned 15, Hurricane Flossie drowned our genteel country neighborhood. The floodwaters swelled from rain-soaked creeks, drainage ditches overflowed their boundaries, and murky water seeped up through the floor boards instead of creeping over the door sills as we had expected. Mother panicked. She shouted for me to help her pull all the extra blankets out of the cupboards and off the beds to staunch the seepage—to no avail. The waters continued to rise to a foot or more inside the house.

My then eight-year-old sister thought the flooding was “fun.” She pretended our house was a boat, and she packed the little blue dolly suitcase for a make-believe trip on this make-believe boat—her bed. Mother forbade her outside in the floodwaters to accompany me on my own “adventure,” as I considered it, to try to help Daddy save the chickens. Poor things squawked, their necks outstretched, flapped their wings, and piled on top of each other to stay out of the water, thus smothering and drowning the ones beneath them. I don’t know who was the more hysterical, Daddy’s chickens or my mother. I simply was in shock.

By this time, Daddy had retired and begun a business raising broilers for wholesale. We had two brooder houses. The older house was hopeless in the flood, but the newer one, built on higher ground, could have had a chance with every available sawhorse set up with loose boards laid across to form some sort of roost. Daddy even had me gather up and drive as many chickens as I could up the steps to the feed loft, but they didn’t like that and kept flapping up to the feed hopper railing. Finally, at dark, he sent me back to our house. On the way, I discovered that rushing waters had all but washed out the little wood bridge separating the main property from the west side. Only one narrow board remained, attached as it was to the handrail affixed to sunken posts. I made my way back to yell my warning to Daddy about the missing boards, then waded back home.

My sister tells me she remembers “the dark and the rain and the water and the sound of your black rubber-clad feet, sloshing through the water inside the house.” The horror hit the next morning when we went out to survey those drowned chickens almost ready for market. Mother could only exclaim, “My stars, Herschel!” I think that’s all. No one else muttered a thing. We couldn’t.

The flood kept everyone home from school, especially the high schoolers, because all the creek and bayou bridges had washed out. School buses couldn’t navigate the flood waters. The day after the flood, a neighborhood boy rode his big black stallion over and offered to take me to school on horseback. What an adventure that would have been. I would have accepted had Mother not retorted, “Oh, no you don’t!” Yet we were marked unexcused from our absences, in spite of telephone calls and handwritten notes from our parents. As “punishment,” we were remanded to after-school detention when we did return.

Congressman Bob Sikes, Daddy’s colleague and personal friend, came out to see the debacle, console us, and advise us on legal procedures. Gracious hostess as she was, Mother served glasses of iced tea as we all stood outside on muddy ground. Daddy followed Mr. Sikes’s counsel and applied for Red Cross and U.S. Government “flood victim aid” to rebuild the chicken business back up, almost from scratch. Three years later, he was dead.

By the time I was fifteen, I had become terribly repressed, restrained by Mother’s control tight as ball of purple yarn. She never allowed me to date or to go to school parties or to have parties at home. I could invite a girl friend or two over for “tea” and visit together outside in the garden or summerhouse, but visits or telephone calls from boys, if they dared call at all. Nor was I allowed to go out for team sports or join a high school sorority—“We’re not that kind”— or to babysit or get a summer job, although Daddy had encouraged me and coached me in how to go about it while we worked together in the chicken houses. Mother not only adamantly refused; she berated poor Daddy for “going behind her back.” However, she had no control over my participating in clubs that met during the school day, such as Junior Red Cross or Christian Youth Groups.

In my junior year at Pensacola High, I had a “boyfriend” named Stephen, a year ahead of me. Mother forbade me to date him at night, riding in his beetle bug car, so we worked on school projects together after school. I wore his class ring on a chain around my neck. We shared his letterman’s sweater at school; every afternoon I handed it back to him, before I boarded my yellow bus, and dropped his ring down inside my blouse. One morning she noticed the little lump hiding between my breasts, fished in for it, and yanked it out.

“What’s this?” I stood in shock, her tenacious eyes boring into me. She forced me to promise I’d give it back that very day, but I sneaked it home again in a pocket. I locked it away in my box of secret things and shoved it underneath my bed, behind a stack of old movie magazines my grandmother used to buy for me on her trips downtown on the city bus.

When I first entered high school, Mother forbade me to take any foreign language classes or advanced math, in spite of her own high achievements in two years of French and four years of Latin. Instead, she forced me to register for business English—not all that bad—and business math—which was that bad. I failed abysmally to solve the word problems, but I refused to retake it for a passing grade. I hated the subject. I hated the teacher. I hated my Mother. Moreover, I failed to decipher illegible shorthand symbols. I clunked away on those antiquated black upright Underwood typewriters and tried to learn how to operate a messy mimeograph machine. That summer, I taught myself to type on her old machine at home, quietly, without the pressure of keeping up with the tick-tock of the wall clock.

With Daddy’s encouragement in my junior and senior years, I registered for the standard college prep classes—behind her back, of course—and earned all A’s and B’s. Daddy was retired by then, so he became my mentor and tutor. I was a slow learner, but a thorough learner. Often we talked hours into the evenings until Mother sent me off to bed, lights out, promptly at nine o’clock. She demanded I stick to a regimented schedule, homework or no homework. That’s how her life worked, so she tried to control mine, as well. I learned to go quietly into my night, lie awake listening to the house settling down, and then creep ever so carefully to keep the bedsprings from plinking. I’d pull on the light chain and finish reading my American history assignment. More likely than not, the click of the light mechanism, not the bed springs, would wake her up three rooms away and rouse her wrath. She’d storm to my room, fling open the door, hiss at me, and put me into the dark again. I’d have to feel my way back to bed without stubbing my bare toes on the furniture.

During my senior year of high school, I persuaded Miss Kathryn Monroe, the Latin teacher, to lend me a textbook so I could study on my own. “Gladly,” she told me. She was an elderly spinster, a real battleax whom we all loved and respected anyway because she hid a heart of golden kindness behind all that gruffness. She proceeded to tutor me herself after school, bless her heart. She taught me pronunciation and grammatical rudiments. She explained that studying Latin would help me as a student of English language usage and its various sentence structures, a budding interest that led to a lifelong love affair with the written language. Not to mention that Latin introduced me to ancient Roman history. And Cicero!

During that year, Daddy taught me about Cicero and ancient Roman and Greek philosophy. We sat up in the feed loft of the larger of the two chicken houses and held Aristotelian conversations on history, philosophy, literature, the Bible, sometimes discussed political articles in Time magazine, while listening to the rain beat on the tin roof. I didn’t realize then that he was training me in critical thinking analysis, a skill that still serves me well.

Daddy’s philosophy of education embodied a broad liberal arts grounding, only later choosing on a particular specialty. His objective with my education was to see that I developed into a well-rounded individual before entering the professional world. Beyond that, he expected me to become “a fine Southern woman” who was able to take her rightful place in society. Daddy’s own upbringing had been in a communicative, articulate, literate, letter writing family of well-to-do “cultured and refined” people. Refinement, from good breeding, good stock, however, necessitated education in arts and sciences and belles lettres. Moreover, Daddy propounded the theory of lifelong continuing education through reading good books, attending public lectures, and cultivating friendships among cultivated people. That theory remains my practice today.

Although Mother was not adverse to higher learning, she insisted that I “must be practical.” I must learn a marketable trade in the business world—bookkeeping, for example. I would have to work for my living, she insisted. For a woman of her own fine intellectual tastes, it is baffling to me that she would dismiss the fine arts in public school education as mere frills, mere frippery.

If that’s the case, I argued, why is Shakespeare necessary for Western civilization to progress beyond the common worker? Or Cicero? Monet and Bach? The various Eastern religions and fine arts from ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations? What, then, of the inner world of mind and spirit? Must it be subsumed by grubbing for a living? Can it not lighten the load of work-a-day drudgery? Does art exist only as an amusing little hobby, or cannot art be an end unto itself? She had exposed me to both, as a child, but by the time I entered high school, she expected me to “settle down now and be practical” because I had to “justify my existence.”

Hence, business math, not geometry; business English, not Shakespeare or Blake or Coleridge. Fortunately for me, Florida state standards for high school graduation required these so-called “fripperies.” After all, human beings exist for the purpose of glorifying God in the work necessary to keep the world going, to oil its machinery.

Finally, Mother enlisted Cousin Mary Dame, visiting us at the time, to talk me out of the arts as a profession. Writers don’t make money. So? Who said anything about money? I certainly made money decades later as a published journalist and writer. I just didn’t “get rich.” The important thing for me was to contribute something important and to make a difference in society. And so I did, with or without her approval, whether I justified my existence or not.

In my senior year of high school, there was talk of my going into the military—the Air Force, in fact, since Mother seemed to disapprove of the Navy because of “all those drunk sailors.” She tried to persuade me with how good I’d look in a uniform, blah blah blah, but I balked.

“You don’t have to fly, if that’s what you’re afraid of,” she cajoled. “You can work at a desk job. They have desk jobs in the Air Force.”

Still I balked. “You can’t make me! I’m going to college! I’m going to leave here and go to Florida State [University in Tallahassee]!”

“With what money?”

I applied to scholarships and stood several xaminations, then won a full-ride Florida State Teachers’ Association scholarship, the most prestigious college scholarship at that time. When I came home after school one afternoon, both Mother and Daddy were sitting quietly in the dining room, waiting for me. Without a word, Mother handed over the already opened letter.

“What’s the meaning of this?” she demanded.

I was absolutely thrilled to read that letter of acceptance, as well as another already opened letter, still lying on the table, of my acceptance into Florida State University.  Daddy told me how proud he was of my accomplishment and praised my studiousness, but then Mother dashed it all.

“Of course, you’re not going to accept it.”

I was stunned. “Why not?”

“What if you failed to complete the four years? You’d have to pay it all back,” she shouted. “Or, what if you failed to complete the commitment to teach for four years after you graduated, if you graduated? You’d have to pay it all back. And think of the shame! What would people think of you?”

On and on she hurled her arguments and accusations at me. She insisted I must stop dreaming and be practical, like her—the whole “business” thing, again. She didn’t get to go to college in Tallahassee, or anywhere else, for that matter, although she had graduated as valedictorian of her high school. And she turned out all right.

Well. Didn’t anyone ever stop to ask what I wanted? I hurled back arguments and accusations, then fled into my tiny bedroom, the only place I felt safe. I slammed the door over and over and over, just as she had slammed it at me many times when I was a child. On my dresser top lay a few minor scholarship offers I had received earlier, now forgotten.

Why didn’t Daddy stand up for me? Why didn’t he, as head of the house, put his foot down and insist on what was what? When I first entered the dining room from the back door that fateful day, I had noticed how quiet they were, waiting for me. It’s obvious to me now, looking back, that they’d already argued the matter over and over. Mother had won.

I wonder now whether he had become so demoralized by this long history of Mother’s rigidity that he knew it was rather pointless to persist in going against her. I’ll never know. Moreover, it was her nature to “fly off the handle.” He, on the other hand, tended to wait instead for a more judicious moment; he rarely yelled but calmly discussed matters, and tried to defuse the anger and hysterics.

Daddy’s presence usually was a mitigating presence that helped prevent the worst violence (I prefer the word “mistreatment”) where I was concerned. But there followed days of Mother’s silent treatment as if I were not there, the blank stare, the cold hard face without any expression, the palpable tension.

In the spring of my senior year, she grudgingly allowed me to purchase a school annual for that year only, but no class ring or sweater. The era of the late 1950s still retained the tradition of engraved calling cards and invitations. Mother’s world was not part of that ritual, thus not meant for me, until my high school graduation with its ubiquitous announcements and invitations and, yes, calling cards. I ordered my own—elegant simplicity, with my full name in black embossed ink.

Daddy was pleased with my “innate good taste,” as he called my choice. Mother muttered, “Hmph. What in the world do you need those things for?” I tried to explain the etiquette of social cards.

“That’s only for the country club set,” she sneered, and walked away with another “Hmph.”

No debutante balls and coming-out parties for me. No round of eligible suitors vying for my hand. No joining many of my Pensacola friends after graduating from their various colleges and introduced formally into society. I was little more than a country bumpkin.

 

 

 

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 15

A Churchly Life of My Own

Related image

The summer I turned twelve, Mother’s cousin Eva Maddox nee McLean was “eager for Harriette to have Jo christened” — the old-fashioned word for baptized and made a member of the mystical Body of Christ — but Mother dragged her feet, for a vague reason that she never fully explained beyond “having to get up the clothes.” Nevertheless, on Sunday afternoons I began Confirmation and First Communion classes with my Sunday school class at Christ Church. Baptism is mandatory; otherwise, what would one be “confirming”? I had to beg Mother to let me be baptized so that I could be confirmed with my class.

One day Miss Marian Latz, our Director of Religious Education, drove out to pay a call on Mother. Finally, Mother agreed to my baptism, and it was arranged for Easter Eve in 1954. Only Daddy came, and only then did Mother inform Cousin Eva that she had been named as godmother and Uncle George Dame as godfather.

For my Confirmation, Eva sent me a 1928 Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal, a beautiful book of delicate onion-skin pages bound in deep blue Moroccan leather, and a catechism book called The Prayer Book Reason Why, an excellent study guide for me. One of Mother’s close friends, Mrs. Alta Skinner, gave me a beautiful white eyelet dress tied with a soft blue velvet sash ribbon, its streamers reaching almost to the hem.

Neither Cousin Eva nor Uncle George attended my Confirmation or First Communion. Had Mother not invited them, or at least informed them of the date? No one else came, either. A neighbor whose daughter was a close friend picked me up and brought me home afterwards. I carried my new Moroccan leather prayer book in one gloved hand and a new white pocketbook with the other, feeling rather abashed.

I’ll never forget old Bishop Juhan’s deep intonation over my head as I knelt at the altar rail in this holy sacrament:

Defend, O Lord, this Thy child with Thy heavenly grace, that she may continue Thine forever, and daily increase in Thy Holy Spirit more and more, until she come unto Thy everlasting kingdom. Amen.”

I felt the weight of something stupendous, something strangely holy, happening to me. Was I being made holy? I thought only the Bishop and the clergy were holy. Fervently, I prayed that I could “just be a good girl” from now on.

Those words still give me goosebumps all these decades later. Bishop Juhan was the same bishop who had confirmed Mother at Trinity Episcopal in Apalachicola years before, the same bishop who was a Nedley family friend, the same bishop who had sent Mother to Camp Weed as summer counselor, which she bragged about. She, on the other hand, never allowed me to go.

When I growing up, Mother seemed not to observe Holy Week as such, only Palm Sunday and Easter, but she did respect the solemnity of Good Friday—quietly, at home. Other than taking me to Sunday School, or seeing that I got there, she no longer attended Church at all. I’ve never understood why. As I grew older, Mother began to care nothing for Church or Pensacola society, and lived outside it, while yet maintaining cordiality and graciousness to Daddy’s colleagues and friends who occasionally drove out from town to visit on a summer afternoon.

She did, however, contribute monetary sums to Christ Church downtown and Trinity in Apalachicola, as well as to the American Red Cross. She particularly favored sending care packages to war-torn Europe. Thus began a long correspondence with a young widow in Denmark whose husband had died at the hands of the Nazis. Well I remember those years of “par avion” letters flying back and forth, written on very thin blue paper, and stamped with colorful postage.

By the time I was in high school, she began to denounce the Church and ridicule my faith, calling it a fetish. She confiscated my own Book of Common Prayer that Cousin Eva had sent me, insisting that it was meant for Sundays only, not for daily prayer. While Mother shopped at A & P or Piggly-Wiggly downtown, I ransacked her hiding places. When I found it, I hid it away in my own hiding places—usually under my bed. She found it and re-hid it. Again I ransacked until I found it and stashed it away somewhere else in my room.

One day I found it in the trash barrel outside on the day the garbage pickup truck was due. This time I copied out the Order of Morning Prayer, bound the hand printed pages into a little booklet — a precursor to my poetry chapbooks I made — and decorated the cover in the style of illuminated lettering from the Middle Ages. Of course, I hid that, but still she found and confiscated it, too. I found it in the garbage can, this time under a dumping of cold wet coffee grounds. I fetched it out and tried to clean it off as best I could. However, by then I had memorized the Order of Morning Prayer and had no need of the contentious little booklet. Why hadn’t I just taken these prayer books over to Mama’s house and asked her to keep them? She would have, gladly.

Sis, on the other hand, was completely opposite from Harriette. Sis loved the Church. She and Frank never missed a Sunday at the ante-bellum Christ Episcopal Church in the old part of downtown Mobile, near the river. She was a devoted Daughter of the King — a non-cloistered religious order for Episcopal laywomen — and helped take care of altar linens. She’d stay the whole three hours of the Good Friday services, then head home for tea with Hot Cross Buns she had baked very early that morning, perpetuating that lovely old English custom. She encouraged me in my own faith, never ridiculed me, and nurtured me in a deep love for the Lord, and later inspired me to become a Daughter of the King when I was on my own. She was more a godmother to me than Eva was able to be, whom I never knew at all.

Mother never observed Advent or Lent in the home. “Too churchy,” she’d say, even when I wanted to fashion an Advent wreath for the dining table, a project I had learned in Sunday School. Daddy thought it a charming European custom, Baptist that he was, so he took me out to one of the shorter pine trees and taught me how to choose small cuttings in such a way as not to damage the integrity of the tree. I’ve never forgotten that early lesson in conservation of our natural resources.

One Christmas when Mother was down with the “flu,” I was old enough to cut fresh pine boughs myself and arrange them on the fireplace mantel, with oranges and a pair of hurricane lanterns with glass chimneys. Next I made a dining table centerpiece of pine and holly branches and tucked in more oranges. Mother was so pleased with the effect that she suggested I might like to do it again next year. I did, year after year; I still prefer to decorate my own house in this Colonial Williamsburg style. I thought I had designed that style myself, only to find it featured years later in a Woman’s Day magazine. So, I said to myself, somebody had the same idea!

Now I think of those Christmases and, especially, the preparations, the decorating too early in the month, the baking, the gift making — and the temper tantrums, the blame games, the rigidity of having to down a bowl of oatmeal before we were allowed to gather at the kitchen door to wait for Mother to fling open into the living room. As Daddy waited with Mama and Papa behind us, we girls would rush to the tree with its fully lit branches spread wide. I remember lovely things, too — ambrosia and oatmeal cookies, Sis and Frank over from Mobile and staying next door with Mama and Papa, the family stories repeated around the table laden with a country feast of ham and duck or goose.

However, Mother insisted that all things having to do with Christmas must be taken down and put away by New Year’s Eve for fear of bad luck, notwithstanding the Church’s liturgical calendar to the contrary. Christmas lasts until Epiphany, the sixth of January.

The year of a winter “heat spell” she took it down the second day of Christmas; the tree had dried out and shed itself down to bare branches and hanging ornaments. As she vacuumed up the mess on the floor, all my sister and I could do was stand in the doorway and stare.

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 14

Beauty Parlors and Childhood Illnesses

Image result for Hair salon of 1940s

When I was around five, Mother cut off my long Goldilocks curls, and my hair became “straight as a board.” When I was about eight, she took me on occasional trips to her hairdresser for a permanent wave. In those days, a salon was called “the beauty parlor.” I loved “getting my hair done” but hated the smell of perm solutions. Still do! In time, Mother learned to do home perms herself. She set up shop in the dining room where she could open all the windows for fresh air, and then begin the laborious process. She sent me outside for the allotted time before calling me in for the curl test and rinsing at the kitchen sink. Then back out I went for natural drying in the sunshine on the south side of the house.

Chicken pox made the rounds when I was in second grade, followed by measles in third grade with boring days of lying in a dark room to “protect my eyes” and warm baking soda tub baths to soothe terrible itching. Mumps didn’t come around until I was in junior high.

The virus pneumonia episode in sixth grade began with one of those home perms. Already I had developed a tell-tale scratchy throat but spoke not a word about it because I was afraid Mother would halt the whole procedure. Finally, I became so sick and shivery with fever that I had to go to bed. Everything was done except for the final drying time, without the curlers. Going to bed with a wet head certainly didn’t help matters. Of course, Mother asked why I hadn’t said anything.

“I was afraid you’d stop.”

“Well,” she retorted, “I would have.” That was the first time I ever developed a strep throat, followed by the viral pneumonia.

I was home from school for over a month. Mother and Daddy took turns making daily trips up to the school, turning in my work and picking up new material. For once, I was allowed—alone, out of the whole reading class!—to read ahead in my reader. Oh, my! Such heaven!

The only times Mother ever really pampered me were when I was sick, after the messy stuff of throwing up was over and done. I whiled away days in bed, recovering from the flu, and she brought me small plates of mashed bananas, or a little bowl of vanilla pudding. Sometimes she popped in just to smile at me, her head to one side, smooth my hair, adjust tangled covers.

On days I failed to show up at Mama Nedley’s house to play, Mama came to our back door, looking for me.

“Jo sick?” she asked, then tottered back to her house. In due course, she returned with a love offering: cornstarch pudding, sometimes with a half peach from a freshly opened can.

“This is for Jo.” From my bedroom I always heard her voice at the back door. The tone of sweetness was balm to me. Mother resented it.

One time Mama brought over her little brown radio so I could listen to some music popular in those days—Benny Goodman, Glynn Miller, Cole Porter, Jo Stafford (I liked her because we shared the same name, but she did have a lovely voice), Eddie Fisher, and other singers whose names I no longer recall. Well, Mama started something: thereafter, when I had to stay home from school, I asked to borrow her radio and played it for hours.

Image result for small radios of 1940s

I have memories of soaking in a lovely bath of Mama Nedley’s lavender salts to lower my fevers. Mother carried a dining room chair into the bathroom and read aloud portions of Middlemarch, at least the bits describing English country life, or Merrylips again and Secret Garden.

As I got older, Mother saw my teachers at Ferry Pass Elementary to ask for my books and any homework assignments I could do while sitting up in bed. The longest such spell was the year I had viral pneumonia, but before that spell was over, Mother grew rather exasperated and impatient with me. She left me, stuck in my room. I learned to entertain myself by drawing picture after picture of ballet dancers, especially leg and toe study sketches, and even worked such a design into the wood of my desk top where it probably remains to this day.

But, there were times she would make me sick by plying me with doses of mineral oil or, much worse, castor oil, as punishment for something or other. After every spoonful, I’d throw up, over and over. Often she gave me painful enemas. I screamed, over and over, “Turn it off!” After all the mess, I was so weak I could only crawl off to my bed until the next day, or longer. Only then did my mother’s tender side reveal any empathy not discernable, otherwise. Did she possess a maternal instinct after all, or merely a strong sense of duty?

One day when I was in sixth grade, the teachers sent all the boys out to recess and kept all the girls inside, gathered into one classroom. The boys sniggered to themselves as though they “had it all figured out” although I had no idea what “it” was. One of the teachers began to explain menstruation and showed us charts and diagrams, answered all our curious questions. They sent us home with little booklets that we were meant to show our mothers as mother-daughter conversation starters.

All exited with this new knowledge, I hopped off the school bus in front of my gate, ran around to the back door and tore into the house. Mother was in the bathroom. I stood outside the door and called.

“Guess what! We got told all about menstruation and how it happens and to tell our mothers all about it. I’m so excited, I can hardly wait to start. I’ll be a woman, then!”

Only dead silence answered from behind the locked door. I waited. Finally, she spoke.

“But I wasn’t ready for you to know, yet.”

“Oh. When will that be?”

More dead silence followed from the other side of the door. “When I’m good and ready.”

As it so happened, those teachers should have sent along a sample packet of sanitary supplies with the booklets. Mother had nothing. She was caught completely unprepared when, on a warm October afternoon, my first period occurred, unannounced. I discovered the blood as I got ready for my bath. I called out to Mother. She was shocked when she saw what had “happened.” Quickly, she spread a thick towel on the toilet seat lid.

“Go on and take your bath,” she told me, “then sit here until I come back.”

She was a long, long time coming back. Daddy was the one to drive all the way downtown to find a drugstore still open and buy a box of Kotex, then drive all the way back home again, six miles each way.

She padded herself with Victorian suppression and evasion where matters of sexuality were concerned. Thus, she disapproved of my budding womanhood and made me feel ashamed of my body hair and the obvious need for a brassiere. She shaved under my arms instead of teaching me how to do it. She cut my finger nails . She held down my arms on the kitchen counter so that she could forcibly cut the nails, leaving a pair of points that I had to bite off to even up the edges.

She disapproved of my budding interest in boys, especially a little fella in eighth grade who called me on the telephone nearly every afternoon after school. He and I both were so tongue tied that we never got beyond a “hello” and, after an interminable silence, a “well, good-bye, I guess. See ya tomorrow.” Mother was disgusted. Daddy was amused. Yet, at school we could talk a blue streak without Mother hovering in the background, listening.

In one of her rages during that time, my mother shouted at me, “You ’hore!” At least that’s what I thought I heard. I didn’t know what a whore was. Why did she call me that when all I had done was kiss a picture of Eddie Fisher and my sister laughed at me, “I’m gonna tell!”

Then followed one of my mother’s many face-slapping episodes, with usually just the two of us in the kitchen. With her hand opened wide, she rendered sharp stings on my cheeks. I tried to shield myself with my arms. She pulled them down. I backed into the wall with no escape. If only I had had sense enough to sidle one step over, I could have rounded the kitchen door jam and dashed for my room and slam the door after me. Instead, I merely slid to the floor, sobbing.

Mother continued to buy my clothes for me, clothing unbecomingly girlish for an adolescent, such as little-girl cotton slips with wide straps, and sewed handmade dresses from cotton flour sacks dye-printed in colorful calico, as she and other country mothers had during the War. That was fine for little girls but looked rather silly on an adolescent. The rage of the 1950s was little round Peter Pan collars folded over the neckline of a matching sweater set, straight skirts, or full skirts with lots of crinolines underneath, a simple strand of pearls, and pumps for Sundays and saddle oxfords and bobby socks for school.

Related image

Mother didn’t allow straight skirts, so I began to wear layered full skirts because I had no crinolines to poof out just one skirt by itself. I unrolled and pulled up my bobby socks to hide my hairy legs. Stockings made the curly hair on my legs look like squished insects.

The summer before I entered high school, I was determined to shave my legs, so I “borrowed” Daddy’s brass razor and soaped up my legs. Slowly I drew the razor from ankle to knee—was I supposed to shave the knee, too? I didn’t know and didn’t ask—only I forgot about taking care up the center leg bone. I don’t recall exactly what Daddy said, if anything beyond a chuckle, when he discovered dried blood his razor, but he did show me how to change the blades.

I smuggled cheap lipstick in my pocketbook with “essentials” of a girl’s life—a spare Kotex, a quarter to call home in an emergency, a large safety pin in case a bra strap broke—and smeared on the lipstick after I got onto the school bus. By the end of the school day, my lips had turned bright orange and, of course, Mother flew into a rage when she discovered my secret.

Any attempt I made at autonomy, even typical teenage experimenting with make-up and hair styling, Mother vehemently opposed. Only after many battles and hissy fits, and conspiracies with my girlfriends, did Mother finally acquiesce—except for pumps, with heels. Plain brown oxfords were good enough for school, flats for Sundays, she insisted, her face stony. Would a basic school uniform in the public schools have made any difference? At least I would have “fit in” with all the other girls.

Image result for 1950s teenage girl

It was not until my second year in college when Aunt Linnie bought me my first pair of “high heels,” all of two inched. They were white, for Easter. She watched me practice walking up and down her front sidewalk until I became a natural. Of course, Mother resented what she considered Aunt Linnie’s “interference” and would not allow me to wear them. I was still a child—nineteen, that is.

 

 

 

 

 

Roses in the Rain

Chapter 13

Kitchen Memories

Related image

Southerners in those days still served dinner in mid-day and supper at night, the old custom stemming from farm and plantation life. Whenever we girls caught a whiff of sautéing onions and bacon through the open kitchen window while we played outside, we knew what was for dinner that day—a Creole dish. After the onions, Mother would add chopped bell peppers, then okra and stewed tomatoes. She served them over elbow noodles with shredded cheddar cheese. Sometimes in this recipe there’d be shrimp, sometimes pieces of red snapper right out of Pensacola Bay and fresh from that morning catch sold in the fish market down in Colored Town, as it was called then, politically incorrect though it is now. (I retain lovely memories of driving through Colored Town, women gossiping on front porches, children playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, or rolling on skates new from Christmas.)

Her secret ingredient to this Creole dish? She never said. It was a secret. When my sister and I were grownups ourselves, and cooking in our own kitchens, we deduced the secret was sugar, when we tried to replicate Mother’s recipe. Of course, there was always a bay leaf or two added. Mother didn’t cook with wine that I know of, but her secret could have been a dollop or two of port or even Daddy’s Old Granddad whiskey. Who knows? A bit of sweetening does take out the acidity of tomatoes.

In those days, the pressure cooker was the newest innovation, meant for faster cooking while still yielding tender beef pot roasts. I still remember the first time that the little “jibberer” piece on the pressure cooker lid jibbered itself right off and hit the ceiling, followed by rice blowing up through the steam vent and plastering the kitchen in white stuffs. After her initial shock, Mother exclaimed, “Whooo-eee!

Related image

Mother was a cake and cooker baker, rarely a pie baker. I often smelled spice cake for tea after I got off the school bus at the front gate, clicked it shut, and sauntered down the lane on the kitchen side of the house. Ummm! My saunter changed into a gallop through the back door.

“I smell something! I smell something!”

“Well, put away your books and go wash your hands.”

Sometimes it was oatmeal cookies with pecans, my favorite winter treat, or gingerbread cookies, or on rare occasions chocolate chip cookies. On winter afternoons, tea was toast and butter and orange marmalade with hot tea. In warm weather my favorite was Scottish Shortbread or pound cake. Mama Nedley often served me a snack of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. No matter how simple or elaborate, afternoon tea always was a treat.

On Good Friday we had Hot Cross Buns, an old tradition in some parts of the South, especially among those of English or Scots extraction. Every year Mama baked a dozen without the iced crosses on top but a knifed indentation pressed into the dough just before popping the trays into a hot oven. Later Mother would buy them, with the icing, from A & P downtown.

The whole purpose of Hot Cross Buns, of course, is to serve mid-afternoon on Good Friday to sustain one during the long fast day, until a light supper in early evening. We’d chant the old nursery rhyme from Mother Goose:

“One a pfennig, two a pfennig, Hot Cross Buns!”

Image result for Hot Cross Buns

Easter dinners were baked ham and sweet potato soufflé topped with marshmellows just barely browned. One time in fall hunting season, one of Daddy’s friends brought over a small flush of wild duck which Mother roasted for Sunday dinner. Now that is Southern country eating!

Thanksgiving was always the roast turkey with old-fashioned dressing made with day-old cornbread, sausage, turkey giblets, and sometimes oysters. Cranberry sauce was the jellied kind that slipped out of a can. Fresh cranberries simply were not shipped down South from the Massachusetts bogs. Christmas dessert was rich fruit cake and Southern ambrosia, following a dinner of baked country ham studded with cloves at one end of the table and a roast goose or turkey at the other. Mother enjoyed the scent of cloves so much that, on cold rainy winter days, she simmered them on the stove just for the fragrance.

Of course, old-fashioned Southern meals were famous for lots and lots of vegetables, fresh from the garden during summers and early fall: Crowder peas, brown and purple butterbeans—not little green limas except commercially canned ones in winter—corn on the cob slathered in plenty of butter now that war rationing was over, turnips and collards and mustard greens boiled with a ham hock, baked sweet potatoes, boiled and buttered onions. Since I was a rather finicky eater as a child, Mother would make a “nest” of mashed potatoes and add English peas. “Make believe these are bird eggs,” she’d tell me. “Aren’t they pretty?” To this day, I still mix my peas and mashed potatoes on my plate! I just like the texture.

Sunday dinners and holidays centered round the dining room table that Daddy had built. (My son inherited it, just in time for him and his bride to set up housekeeping.) Usually we were by ourselves on Sundays, but Mama and Papa always, always, always walked over for holiday meals. When Sis and Frank came over from Mobile to stay with Mama and Papa, they cooked for themselves. Oh, how I wanted to “invite myself” over for dinner but Mother wouldn’t let me. That little house was little more than a cottage, and no more than four could squeeze together at the table, two per side. That seating worked only if everyone kept elbows close while eating, even while cutting meat.

One particular summer Sunday was so hot and sticky that Mother simply didn’t bother to cook. Luncheon was made up of nothing but salads, salads, and more salads, completely balanced meal of:

chopped lettuce with lemon juice and a little salt

chicken salad with minced celery and onion, pickle relish, mayonnaise

potato salad with chopped eggs, onions, celery, green bell pepper, mayonnaise

sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with a touch of sweet vinegar

fruit cocktail salad with a dollop of mayonnaise on top.

Mother never taught me to cook. I learned all the basics simply from observing her food during preparation, all while she lectured and fussed at me about one thing or another as I stood silently in the corner. My job was to wash the dishes and mop the floor.

Mother was almost always cleaning house. Oh, how she loved to clean house! Perhaps she thought housecleaning justified her existence. It was her “duty” before all else, even love. Tidying up does tend to clear the mind—she had a powerful dislike of messiness and shoddiness—yet she insisted on kitchen utensils in shambles in drawers, disordered pantry cupboard with canned vegetables and boxes of cereals and oatmeal stacked in a jumble.

“I like to poke around and hunt for what I want,” she told me once when I complained that I couldn’t find anything in all the jumble.

Once, she tried teaching me how to do deep-down, detailed cleaning with old toothbrushes in hidden crevices behind the kitchen stove or the refrigerator, but I could only cringe and sneer, “ewe!”

“Don’t you love to see how dirty things get clean?” she asked. “You may not keep a clean house when you’re grown,” she retorted, “but you’ll certainly know how to!”

Perfectionism, however, can go only so far before it becomes a burdensome compulsion or even a fetish, like constant hand washing or counting steps. My one favorite job was washing dishes—that is, I enjoyed playing in hot soapy water. When the water cooled and bubbles settled down, I simply added more and more soap. Because I had trouble holding onto those heavy yellow Fiesta Ware dinner plates, I broke more than one.

“Oops,” I thought to myself, “I’d better get the dust pan before Mother finds out and gets mad at me. Whoo-eee!”

Of course, she always figured out what was going on when she noticed a shortage of plates. Later, my response to that after-supper job became, “I gotta do deeshes?”

There was a night she forced me to stay up well past my bedtime to finish the dishes; she locked the three doors into other rooms with a skeleton key. I was so tired and sleepy that I simply couldn’t stand up, so I crawled over to a wall and lay down on the floor. Daddy discovered me there and carried me off to bed. He finished up in the kitchen for me.

On another similar occasion Mother went into a hysterical tirade over unfinished dishes. She threw raw eggs at me, one after another. I cried STOP! over and over but she just laughed and laughed at me. I bent over against the wall and flung my arms over my head to protect myself but her aims sought all the exposed places.

What happened afterwards, I simply don’t know, although I retain a vague awareness of Daddy’s presence nearby. Why didn’t he intervene? I don’t know that, either. Maybe he did by trying to restrain her.

Perhaps he was the one to clean up the mess from raw eggs and broken shells.