Boys to Men

Fun at the Lake, the Mattingly Brothers, late 1950s
Fun at the Lake, the Mattingly Brothers, late 1950s. George, Ed, John, and Tom.

Growing up, my sister and I were bookends to a guy bookshelf, the girly bread on a sandwich four-boys thick. It made for a rowdy childhood, a household full of mischief, especially for my sister as the oldest. At right, my brothers are boys again, enjoying a warm summer day in the north Georgia mountains. Originally a slide, (one of thousands my oldest nephew has tirelessly digitized), this photo is straight out of Mom’s attic. Of all the grainy, dog-eared images I’ve sifted through lately, this is one of a few that nag at me, keep me clicking back, again and again.

Westminster Men's A Capella, 2015-16, at Tate Mountain, Georgia.
Westminster Men’s A Capella Retreat, 2015-16, at Tate Mountain, Georgia.

When a week or so ago the photo at left popped up on my Facebook feed, I pulled the old brothers’ pic up yet again. The dock and dive tower, the distance to the far shore, the reckless joy of a summer’s day on the water struck a familiar cord. I’m pretty sure the setting is the same. Now and then, our family tagged along when my uncle visited a friend’s summer home at Tate Mountain, Georgia. The dive tower has been rebuilt (though whether with safety or increased risk in mind is hard to say) without sacrificing the earthy primitive feel of this remote mountaintop retreat (It’s private, by the way, so don’t get any ideas).

This coincidence of place, though it got me thinking, isn’t really the point. It’s the fresh faces, the body language, the endlessly varied expressions of these young men–even the ones I hardly know–that grip me. In part, it’s something shared, some deep boyishness in their bearing that plucks my heartstrings. I think of my own sons, young men now but still boys to me. I think of my father, who loved lake and ocean and waterfall alike, and most of all, I think of my brothers, those four guys I idolized as I grew up (even when they were needling me, calling me disparaging names, and later, ordering me to the kitchen for beer and snacks to enrich their football afternoons).

I didn’t know them when they were as young as the first photo depicts, but I swear I get a glimpse of the men my brothers were to become. In Ed, the oldest, there’s a certain vulnerability, an eagerness to please. I see the hesitant but dutiful Marine he would one day become. Next, George the renegade, slouching, planning his next move as he sizes up the photographer with a skeptic’s eye. Then John, his hands crossed so sweetly, a little aloof, always thinking. Finally, Tom with his wily grin, the youngest but always his own man, witty and confident.

ROTC Ed with brothers, Marist School, Atlanta.
The brothers a little older. ROTC Ed at left. All students at the Marist School, Atlanta, the others would follow his lead.

Why do we cling so tightly to images, both recent and long past? Maybe because a moment caught in time can be just this full of possibility, studded with character clues, even hidden meaning, long after the subjects pictured have moved on or passed away. Maybe this lies behind our current compulsion to click and edit, post and share, zoom and enlarge. We have this need to document, leave something behind, even if we aren’t sure what will prove meaningful, even epic, and what will be trash. (Consider the tattered photos my one-eyed father snapped on his old Kodak. Mom kept those too. Family members are split down the middle or cut off at the neck; grand cathedrals bleed off the page while front and center is a nameless fire plug, an unidentified stretch of highway, or as shown below, a blank wall and tasteless curtain. Très post-modernist my father, and he never knew it.)

White Wall, with Son and Daughter, circa 1969.
White Wall, with Son and Daughter, circa 1969. Note Tom’s steely grip and the terror in my eyes.

Maybe I’m full of baloney! Maybe we just like to see ourselves, capture our requisite fifteen minutes (isn’t it more these days?) of limited fame so we can broadcast it to the cyber world. But I will say this. I’ve know some of the guys in the more recent Tate Mountain photo for years now, a few of them since they were kindergartners, and I get the same dizzying sense of deja vu when I see them here. There’s the kid who always made the moms laugh on the playground, just as playful now. And another, still gentle and wise and shy of his movie-star good looks, a third always cool, a little wary of what’s being asked of him. As for my youngest son–far left, second tier, blue trunks–I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about his stance, that hand at rest on the railing, the muted smile, has been part of him since the day he was born.

I’ll close with a PS snapshot of my brothers with my sister and me. They don’t look that different, do they? I mean their expressions, their essence, shine through. And what a comfort it is to see that Ed, whom we lost eight years ago, kept that boyish smile, the warm heart it heralded, right down through the years.

Mattingly Siblings, 2005, Smithgall Woods.
Mattingly Siblings, 2005, Smithgall Woods.

Family Guy

My dad as clown, with my mother and my niece, Laura Lee, circa 1980.
My father as photo-bomber, with my mother and my niece “Labba Lee,” circa 1980.

Of the thousands of photographs and slides to survive the years of heat and dust in My Mother’s Attic, my favorites are those that feature my father as a young man. I wish there were more. I’ve never seen a likeness of Dad as a baby or a young child—inconceivable in this age of photo op overload. The shots I do have reveal a confidence and affability those who knew my father later might expect, but they also hint at a deep silliness that Ed Mattingly, successful man of business, reserved mostly for his family.

Consider his favorite means of waking me on high school mornings: As I lay curled in the last luscious moments of teenaged dreamland, he would poke me between the ribs and say the word, “asamunigots!” which really is not a word at all. Having rustled many a teenager out of bed in the years since, I do not recommend this method. It’s a wonder I didn’t haul off and slug him.

But “asamunigots”? What does that even mean? We never knew. I don’t think it occurred to my siblings and me that it meant anything at all. It was just one of those things Dad said, and did. The word never came without the poke, and the poke never without a funny flick of his wrist. We saw the flick and the long fingers and knew what was next, but there was no squirming out of his reach. My father was quick as greased lightning.

Dad, with paddle board, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Dad on a bad swimsuit day, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row, left of center.
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row up, left of center.

Come to think of it, our young lives were peppered with Dad’s whimsical  wordplay. We vacationed each summer in the Smoky Mountains and sometimes, as we  walked together down a rutted back road, he’d stop short, a devilish grin on his face, and cry out, “Dahn-ge-ru Skip-awah!” I’d laugh and look up and there it would be–written in red across a chain link fence: “Dangerous. Keep Away.” Dad’s favorite summer drink had three syllables: “Ice-ed Tea,” Our fiftieth state was  “Ha-wa-yah,” a good seafood dinner “Shrimp-us,” and the topping he preferred on every dessert? “Whupp-ed cream.” My father favored nicknames, too. Whether you had one or not made no difference. He was glad to oblige. My nieces and nephews, my children, took on fresh personas for him–Laura Lee became Labba Lee, Liz, inexplicably, was Hootie, Sam, Sambo. Matthew was Mattu and the six-foot, four-inch tall grandson remained always Little Ed. Dad didn’t stop at family either. Fellow insurance agents became Buzz and Podner, and perhaps my personal favorite, he dubbed his old pal George, The Egghead Flash from Newnan, Flash for short.

As a young man, Dad had his nicknames, too--Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain
As a young man, Dad (at right) had his nicknames, too–Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain “H,” for his middle name, Hagen.

It’s funny, the things we remember about our childhoods, and the things we don’t. My father never said much about his upbringing. We knew only that unlike ours, his was motherless and unstable, filled with challenges, even tragedy. What details we did glean came mostly from cousins or aunts and uncles who stood helplessly by as Dad and his brother and sister were shuffled away from their troubled father and in and out of orphanages until they landed in the capable arms of my Great Aunt Louise. I’ve only just begun to read through some of the letters The Attic has coughed up from this period in my father’s life, but already I sense this much–The Twenties failed to roar for his family, and though its clear that loving people had an eye on him, there was little levity in his life.

Father of five, 1956
Father of five, 1956
My father lets his grandson Ben take the wheel, circa 1988.
Grandson Ben takes the wheel, circa 1988.

And yet, he ended up with this playful sense of humor, a knack for putting others at ease. My father had his faults. He liked things done a certain way–his way–and my brothers remember a quick disciplinary hand, but he was not a bitter man. His humor never became biting or sarcastic, and though he could be Mister Gloom when it came to foul weather or the failings of his sports’ teams, he believed deeply in humankind’s basic goodness and strength of will. We, meaning the inhabitants of God’s Green Earth, he believed, would persevere.

It mystifies me, why some folks emerge from dark backgrounds angry and resentful while others come out determined to leave the darkness behind. My father simply refused to look back. He loved his Swing music and his Broadway musicals and had no patience for stories with sad endings. Denial? Maybe, but as the patriarch of a sprawling and spirited family, it worked. Dad made us smile. He bucked us up. One of his most constant refrains, especially as he aged and had trouble coming up with the right turn of phrase, much less a clever one, was “Prouda you!”

Like any family, we have our issues, our rivalries and jealousies, our failures and broken places, but in the end, we offspring of Ed tend not to take ourselves too seriously. And this has had everything to do with keeping us close, even through the grief and cleaning out and divvying up we had to do after our mother’s death, stuff that can strain the bonds of even the most tight-knit families. Somehow my father managed to keep things light for eighty-nine strong years, and that made all the difference.

Father of the Bride!
Father of the Bride
Dad and his brood, June, 1993. Two grandchildren, my daughter and youngest son, were yet to come!
Dad’s brood, ’roundabout Fathers’ Day, 1993. Two grandchildren–my daughter and youngest son–and fourteen great-grandchildren (so far) were yet to come.

Mamma Mia

Mom avec my brother Tom et moi, Fernandina Beach, circa 1964
Mom avec my brother Tom et moi, Fernandina Beach, circa 1964.
Big splashy holidays like today sometimes still my fingers on the keyboard. Hard to come up with a single original thought at a time when the entire planet is striving to do the same. Besides, to adapt a bit of Lucy Van Pelt, we all know Mother’s Day is just another commercial racket, run by a big Eastern syndicate … In this happy vein, I happened upon a Facebook post yesterday that called for a moratorium on all things Mother’s Day. Think of the millions, it asserted, for whom this day brings heartache–those who have lost mothers, and grandmothers, those who have toxic mother-child relationships, those mothers who have lost children and those women who want to be mothers and were never given the chance, for whatever reason.

The post gave me pause. Who am I to share photos and tell stories that might bring pain to so many? Then I thought, hang on a minute, I’m one of them! I’m motherless on this day for the first time, I’ve been grandmother-less for thirty years, and ironically, today is the last day our family calls the house my parents designed and built, the house where I grew up–my mother-home, so to speak–our own. Yes, My Mother’s Attic has disgorged her last mournful scraps. She’s been emptied out and swept clean. Tomorrow, a new family will sign on the dotted line and before long, some other mother, a box of dusty souvenirs in her arms, will bash her shin as she climbs the old girl’s steep wooden stairs. I can hear her cursing under her breath now.

Mother's Day morning, 9 AM delivery from my girl.
Mother’s Day morning, 9 AM delivery from my girl.
I admit I’ve felt pretty wistful the past few days, though really, I can’t complain. I have four healthy children who like me well enough (most days) and all of them called. The youngest even joined us for lunch and my daughter ordered up a vase of roses and lilies from her room at the sorority house. It was delivered at nine am by, who else? A mother! We wished each other well and she didn’t seem the least bit upset to be doing a good turn for another mother lucky enough to be lounging in her pajamas while she made her rounds.

I saw a lot of women my age out today, their living mothers bedecked with corsages and leaning on their arms for support. Funny thing is, they made me feel better. Sure,  when I scroll through the hundreds of tributes posted from sons to mothers and mothers to daughters, every dog, cat and fish to its surrogate mom, I get a little twinge, but I keep at it. Mostly, I smile. Turns out we’re a social species, one that thrives on emotion. Being alive often hurts but maybe in the long run, we do well to open ourselves up to the whole messy shebang–the happy thoughts, the teary memories, the moments of deep gratitude and the ones we can’t help but resent, whether that resentment involves those who have what we don’t, or our very mothers themselves. Maybe it boils down to the obvious: If you’re on this Earth, whether old or young, you have or had a mother, and God knows it doesn’t take long to develop some mixed feelings towards that woman who made you eat Brussels sprouts and called you Sweetie in the school hallway. But even if she did it poorly sometimes, she did what no one else could. She gave you your one particular life.

My grandmother, a cheerful and briskly efficient woman, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old.
My grandmother Bernice Agnew Lee, a cheerful and briskly efficient woman whom I adored, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old, circa 1920.

Hope you enjoy these photos of my mother and my two grandmothers, all wearing their Mamma hats (or in Mom’s case, scarf and curlers, like any good mother would, on the beach, in the ’60s.) Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and cheers to you, Mom. I owe you the world.

Generational pic, with handbag :) More importantly, with a true smile from Mom. May 2010.
Generational pic, with handbag 🙂 More importantly, with a true smile from Mom. May 2010.

Wooly Bully

Skeins from Mom's knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See below for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
Skeins from Mom’s knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See right for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
The sweater that wasn't
The sweater that wasn’t

I have a natural aversion to wool. It’s itchy, it smells when wet (or old—boy does it), and worst of all, you wear it in winter. Ah winter … long cold nights, mold and dust, dry coughs, cracked skin … (Is my Seasonal Affective Disorder showing?) It’s not all bad, you’re thinking, and sure, I love a good crackling fire, a little hot cocoa, silver bells and the occasional boule de niege, but with sincere apologies to all the knitters, Pendleton execs, and fat furry Merinos out there, wool gives me the willies.

My mother, on the other hand, was a great fan of Cotswold and English Leicester alike, a lover of gabardine, houndstooth, tweed in all its many manifestations, a veritable wool-monger, she was. I clued in early on, during a jaunt through the British Isles when I was all of ten, to my mother’s respect for—nay love affair with—wool. In every village north of Liverpool, she scoped out the corner shop with the fisherman’s sweater in the window and the rafters draped with tartan plaids. “Turn in here!” she would cry, and my father, every joule of energy dedicated to keeping the rental car left of the centerline, would pull over with a sigh. Inside, I found I stood just about bolt-height, which is to say, no air. I breathed in wool, left and right. My eyes watered and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I scratched and wiped my nose while my mother the seamstress swooned over a length of wool crepe, imagining it as a pleated skirt, or coveted a bit of McKenzie green, dreaming the smart blazer she might wear to a ladies’ lunch back home.

Wool dreams
Wool dreams
Making do with remnants
Making do with remnants

She simply couldn’t resist. She bought meter after yard, reams of the stuff, not only from the Scottish and Irish shopkeepers she quickly befriended but back home, from Atlanta stores like Hancock’s, Davison’s fabric department, later Sew Magnifique, and a place called Penney’s (or was it Penny’s?) that once sat deep in the heart of Buckhead. I liked our Saturday morning visits to Penny’s. It was open and well-lit and I was able to hide happily among the silks, to breathe in the cleaner scent of the cottons while Mom sorted through her jersey knits and herringbones.

Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don't you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.
Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don’t you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.

When my parents added on a family room in the mid-seventies, I guess it was only natural for my mother to have a cedar closet built into the attic space above it. Now, after having spent the last week sorting through the closet’s contents, I wonder if the family room wasn’t an excuse for that cedar closet, which is a shrine really, a temple consecrated to mom’s wooly obsession. (And I’m here to tell you the cedar is a miracle tree. Fifty plus years of fabric and moth-holes only in the single-digits.)

The closet
The closet

Sample Contents: (values approximate; wool, unless otherwise indicated) 79 skirts, mostly tea-length, some to-the-knee or maxi, 2/3 home-sewn. 37 suits (skirt and jacket, the occasional wool shell), a few Jaeger, some Chanel, more St. John’s Knits, and again, the better part home-sewn. 29 overcoats, a couple men’s styles included. 16 pair of slacks (though a closet-ahem-feminist, Mom fought the ’60s fashion overhaul to the end). 41 silk blouses (mais oui, moths eat silk for dessert), and countless–seriously, to count them would exhaust even Ebenezer Scrooge–wool remnants zipped or tied into plastic bags. These include strips and squares leftover from finished outfits, swatches brought home to be mulled over, and stacks of uncut wool, some of them color coordinated, others with notes attached that indicate Mom’s master plan. Good black flannel, she might write. Pants for Marth?–that sort of thing.

Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
The blue collection.
The blue collection.
Some of Mom's finery …
Some of Mom’s finery …

As we sorted through all this (Save for Family Distribution? Give to Goodwill? Toss in Trash?), we made sure to check pockets for forgotten treasures. Hoping for jewelry or hundred dollar bills, we found instead (see below) dozens of balled up tissues, emery boards, chalk (?), a toothbrush (??), and several notes-to-self. But we also discovered a startling number of unfinished projects, skirts and suits Mom began and stored away, thinking she’d get back to them. She was also a fan of the Re-Do. The closet thus coughed up many store-bought items with rent seams or dismantled collars, designer outfits my mother with her tailor’s eye just knew she could improve upon, if only she had world enough and time.

Pocket treasures?
Pocket treasures?

These unfinished pieces sadden me. I think of Mom’s last years, years filled with the stasis of the very elderly. She sat mostly, in her favorite chair in that added-on family room she came to love. She read, until her eyes went. She watched television, until her short term memory went, and along with it, her ability to logically follow a storyline, while just above her head in their cedar shrine these half-baked dresses, these cut-outs with their filmy patterns attached, awaited her expert hand. Too, I can’t help but think of my file cabinets, their drawers stuffed with poems I began then abandoned, stories, even a novel, compulsively revised but never published. I guess I’m not so different from my mother after all. And maybe it’s the process that sustains us, the joy of creating. Though we can never finish all that we start, we can sure go down trying.

Unfinished business.
Unfinished business.
And another.
And another.

My youngest son, 16, is lucky enough to be part of his high school theatre department and this year, I’ve served (sometimes kicking and screaming) as the Props Mom. As such, I work alongside the Costume Mom, whose job is gargantuan. It hit me mid-week that I should start her a stack from the Cedar Closet, and I’m happy to report she accepted every skirt and overcoat and dress I brought in. In fact, one of the leading ladies in the next production (set in the 1930s) has decided to wear one of Mom’s old ball gowns in the final scene. It’s a china blue taffeta with a tastefully plunging neck line, and a perfect fit. I think Mom would love the way she wears it.

Odds and Ends Revisited, en papier

My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest, wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o'lantern, presumably)
“My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest,” wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o’lantern, presumably)
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926

Today, a hodgepodge from the Attic because for one thing, I like the way the word rolls off the tongue. Hodge-Podge. It’s perfectly acceptable to hyphenate it by the way, and even its synonyms bring a viva voce sort of pleasure: mishmash, muddle, pastiche. Pastiche! A phonological wonder, that one, and wow, phonological! How’s that for a phun stream of sound? (A thousand thanks to my Word thesaurus on this phine Sunday.)

My mother loved words, as the contents of her attic fully reveal. (And I’m not talking about books. Yet.) Here under the eaves, boxes of travelogues and perhaps every brochure she ever picked up in a museum, cathedral, or botanical garden. There on a sagging plywood shelf, a tupperware bin exploding with preschool drawings and early elementary worksheets (some of them my mother herself completed, in the mid-1920s). Beneath a basket of crumbling dried flowers, a muddle within a mishmash–pages and pages of newspaper and magazine clippings stuffed into grocery bags, zip locks, manila envelopes, and in bits and pieces scattered about, all manner of perfectly useless print: stacks of old bank statements, acceptance cards from wedding guests–my sister’s and mine–and calendars dating back to the ’70s, some with reminders scribbled in the boxes (slightly interesting!), but far too many blank (decidedly not interesting). And of course letters–decades, almost a century’s worth of letters.

Keeping track of time
Keeping track of time
Saved from the AJC's book section
Saved from the AJC’s book section
And another …
And another …

One day, I’ll organize it, right? Catalogue it all, create a paper trail that will lead us back to Mom whenever we miss her most. Perhaps, I will. I hope I will, though at the moment, my sisters-in-law and I can only chuckle and curse under our breaths as we debate whether the city recycling folks will take the calendars with those little metal spirals attached, and the bank statements with those pesky plastic view windows. (Hey, we can’t save everything.)

So what’s it all about? Why was it my mother couldn’t bear to throw any of it away? Had it been up to my father (alias Mr. Clean) we’d have nothing but the signed photo of Georgia Tech’s Coach Bobby Dodd and the ticket stub from a Glen Miller Dance concert. It’s hard to say why. In part, surely the Depression’s to blame. They lost so much, those Depression kids, not only during the economic doldrums but just after, during World War II. Maybe my mother could never shake the feeling that if you had something you liked, for whatever wacky reason, you’d better hang on to it lest you lose that, too. Did she live too much in the past? Probably. I mean what forward-thinking soul would save a Christmas card her milkman in 1962 tucked into her tin milk box one frosty December morn?

Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962
Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962

Still, I believe my mother’s tendency to hoard, to cling to these papery keepsakes that may seem meaningless to us, is more a sign of hope than anything else. I’ve alluded to this before, and maybe I repeat it because I’m more than a little like Mom this way. Sometimes, to toss small treasures away–maybe that program from my daughter’s last gymnastics’ meet, or this boarding pass from the trip we took to see a few shows on Broadway with our youngest son–takes every ounce of willpower I can muster. It is about hope, about embracing the past, yes, but also looking to the future, anticipating the day I’ll pull out that boarding pass and think, that was a good trip, a good time, let’s plan another right away. For tomorrow will be good, too.

The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
And the sweet conclusion …

And if I’m not here to revisit the pleasure this slip of paper or that postcard brought, maybe one of my sons will be, or my daughter. Yes, maybe my daughter will pick up something that was mine and feel the warm rush of shared emotion I get when I read the letter, pictured here, that my mother penned to my grandfather (how did it make its way back to her? Via my Grandmother’s Attic, of course).

“We are having our fifth baby in October,” Mom wrote, just after she discovered she was pregnant with her youngest son, my brother Tom. “Bum (her sister, also pregnant) told me this was her year, but I had to have one, too … Love, Sary.”

There’s always tomorrow, these words, and the whole darn pastiche of them, seem to say, and I like to think it’s true.

Air It Out


Greetings Attic Fans! Pardon the pun but hey, who remembers the Attic Fan? There’s one in My Mother’s Attic, a big clanking contraption whose business end was sheet-rocked over years ago. In better days, on the odd spring or autumn Saturday morning, my father liked to crank it up and let ‘er rip. To clarify—this was no portable window mount, not a fan meant to cool the attic itself but rather a six by six leviathan that lay prone (see diagram) on the attic floor, ready to suck the heat and dust up and out of the rooms below. It’s still around, this sort of fan, though it goes by a different name—the Whole House Fan, billed as a green homeowner option.

Well, ours was just the attic fan. When it fired up with its Blitzkrieg racket, my mother would flash me a wry smile. My father’s airing-out ritual was a tradition she didn’t see much sense in. Having grown up in Florida pre-air conditioning, she had her fill of oscillated air and dust cyclones long before she met Dad. But she went along. I can see her now, hair tucked beneath a scarf as she marched around opening windows in cotton blouse and khaki slacks and tiny white Keds (an outfit never-to-be worn outside the home). My father did the heavy work, which included reaching through cobwebs to right screens that had bent or slipped from their hinges during the long shut-in season.

The window screen was an essential in our house, a barrier both literal and figurative between the out of doors and the more orderly—and in my father’s mind, superior—indoor sanctuary. Much angst arose if on Attic Fan Day a screen was found to be broken beyond repair—think of the pests that might enter! Bringing the outdoors in was an alien concept for my parents. Their goal, a common one for their generation, was to celebrate all the many ways humankind had managed to conquer the natural world. Plus, outside was menace, or the gritty memory of it—a nation ravaged by the Depression, bled by war, threatened anew by the growth of frightening movements like Marxism, Feminism, Free Love, philosophies that baffled my parents–hadn’t they just fought a gruesome war to prove the virtues of democracy and the American Way?

Attic window-on-the-world
Attic window-on-the-world

Thus did they join the flight to the suburbs, where inside the home, all was fresh and safe. And we stayed there. We had no front porch, nor back for that matter. No deck, certainly no outdoor kitchen, not even a grill, unless you count the rusted-out Weber on wheels my father rolled out of the garage once a year under pressure from my brothers to barbeque steaks. Don’t get me wrong, we had land, rather a lot for a property within Atlanta’s city limits—big shady hardwoods, tall pines, azaleas and dogwoods and even a gurgling creek, and my father maintained it all himself. Yardwork was his hobby, his exercise. It was all well and good to enjoy the outdoors, but when it was time to eat, or socialize, indoors was the thing, and we wouldn’t want a fly in our soup.

Still, we had our Attic Fan. Once the window screens were secured, Dad moved on to other Saturday projects—weed whacking, mowing the lawn, cleaning gutters. Meanwhile, mom and I floated about the breezy house, shouting above the din, pockets of air buoying us up the stairs and down the hall. The fan brought the house to life, curtains aflutter, sheets rippling as I made the bed, somewhere the tinkle of a wind chime. I remember feeling I could breathe more deeply, my lungs expanding, filling with the promise of the fresh new season ahead. When later my father came in to throw the off-switch, a sort of melancholy set in. I used to stand in the hall and gaze up as the big blades of the fan creaked to a halt. Then the blinds that hid it would snap shut and I had to wonder why. Why couldn’t we have this happy commotion always, this rush of air from somewhere beyond, somewhere exotic and pulsing with energy?

It’s funny, I planned to write today about travel, my mother’s way of seeking the exotic. I meant to apologize for having been away so long, and away I have been, to Thailand to visit an adventurous son. This, I thought, would make a nice segue to sifting through the boxes full of travel memorabilia my mother saved over the years. But somehow, the Attic Fan swept me into a different kind of journey, a journey inward. Thanks for joining me.

This Saturday, March 21st, would have been Mom’s 96th birthday. So I’ll leave you with a snapshot of her as a baby, the pride and joy of her dapper parents, another from her 95th birthday party. We worried such a celebration would be too much for her, but it was a great success. We fancied Mom up a little … pinned on a flower, dabbed on the rouge and lipstick she once wouldn’t leave the house without, and somebody came up with a birthday girl sash. Mom liked it, all of it, and she stuck around—indoors, mind you—much longer than we expected.

Happy Birthday, Mom. We sure miss you.

My mother, with her parents, at about a year old.
My mother, with my grandparents, circa 1920.
Birthday Girl
Birthday Girl, feted by grandchildren and great grands alike.

Whistling Warden

Rosie the Riveter ain't got nothing on this chick.
Rosie the Riveter got nothing on this chick.

For days I’ve been stuck in my parents’ post-Pearl Harbor correspondence, adrift in an age shrouded in confusion and fear. Maybe this is what it means to be a time traveler—not whisking back and forth in a souped-up DeLorian (though that would be more fun, and cleaner), but suspended outside of time, one foot in this world and the other elsewhere. It’s a little like visiting a live Nativity, or a battle reenactment, only more heart-stopping. Just when you begin to lose yourself, to be swept into the dream, someone steps onto the stage cloaked in a persona you half-recognize, and Mon Dieu, it’s the person who raised you.

My father’s WWII ID card, December, 1944. He’d jumped from Private to 2nd Lieutenant by then. Pretty sure mom was a career Air Warden, and glad of it.

Here, a photo of a young man who looks familiar (if you dressed him in tee shirt and ball cap, he could be one of my sons), and wow, it’s my father. There, a crumpled ID card. I examine the signature and discover that within half a year of her breezy, flower-strewn nuptials, my mother traded out her veil of ivory tulle for an Air Raid Warden’s helmet.

An Air Raid Warden? This is nigh on impossible. My mother, the belle of the ball, outfitted in khaki, with a whistle around her neck and a gas mask cinched to her belt? Glory be! I’ll have to ask her about this, I think, forgetting for a moment that she’s no longer in a position to answer. This happens often here in the attic. We find something that piques our interest (the egg carton stored in plastic, the vodka in a mayonnaise jar, my father’s silk “honeymoon pajamas”?!?), and my heart tilts down the stairs to the den, where Mom ought to be perched in her favorite chair, enjoying her meatloaf and Chardonnay.

Vodka and Harvey's Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
Vodka, and Harvey’s Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
"Ed's White Honeymoon PJ's," presumably never to be worn again
“Ed’s White Honeymoon PJ’s,” presumably never to be worn again

If only we’d started this cleaning out business while she was still with us, you might say. If only, but alas, my mother wouldn’t have it. The very suggestion could bring her to tears. It was all my sister could do to toss the soured milk from the fridge during visits home.

You must know the people in your Sector well … reads the Handbook for Air Raid Wardens. To them, you are the embodiment of all Civilian Defense. You must seek to gain their confidence so that in any time of stress you may more easily reassure them and avert panic 

Uh, oh. Mom was a worry-wart, and somewhat prone to panic.

On patrol, your first duty is to clear the streets. People should be told to go to their homes. You must see that drivers park their automobiles at curbs and in such a manner as to leave a passage for fire engines and ambulances. Horses should be taken out of the shafts and tied to a lamp post 

Horses in shafts? In the streets of Atlanta, in 1942?

When the warning sounds after dark, the blackout will be enforced. You will warn householders of any light showing and if it is not at once turned out or covered, report the fact to the nearest policeman. 

This is so not my mother! She was well-liked, yes, charmer of bus driver and boss man alike, but she could order a dog to steal a bone and it would run the other way. And at five foot two and 104 pounds, could she be expected to direct traffic, and corral large animals? In disbelief, I dig around some more and there, in a stack of envelopes held together with a limp rubber band, is a pertinent letter penned by my father in Atlanta, who had yet to receive his orders, to my mother, in Florida at a friend’s wedding.

Dear Sweetie, I’ve just come from my warden’s meeting. My work as a warden is just beginning to interest me. Possibly it’s because I’m at last seeing the light–up until now I’ve had a very poor understanding of this war and our role in it. Perhaps in a few weeks I’ll begin to know what I’m supposed to do, but for now I’m sure of one thing–I’ve got to have an alternate warden, and there is only one person in this world I want as that alternate! 

Dad went on to point out my mother’s sweetness, reliability and strength of character. He was a persuasive guy, and sly like a fox, to coin one of his favorite clichés. I’ve found no evidence of my mother’s response, but the ID card is authentic, and dated June 1942, the same month as Dad’s letter. In fact, it’s dated before the postmark on the letter. I believe my father presumed, as he was wont to do. I imagine Mom didn’t much like that. I feel for her. The ink on their marriage license was hardly dry, their first apartment still lacking curtains–who knew what would be asked of them next? Many of her friends’ husbands had been shipped off. My uncle was about to be deployed to France.

I’m sure Mom bucked up. I bet she kept those khakis starched stiff, and her whistle polished to a sheen.


Stardust Memories, Part II

From Mom, a week pre-wedding–“I begin to wonder if I am going to disappoint you. But then all at once I think about our love …”.

4:20 PM, November 8th, 1941. As my father predicted, it’s a mild, breezy afternoon. In my grandmother’s verdant back yard, there’s a hint of sulfur on the air, wafting in from the deep black waters of the Suwannee River a few miles away. The camellia bushes my grandfather tends with daily care bloom pink and red all around, and over there, near a trellised archway woven with ivy and white ribbon, a small pond swims with goldfish. Just back of the archway, a family friend taps out a tune soothing but playful on her piano as her violinist follows her lead. Behind them, the wedding cake lies whole and gleaming on a folding table covered in white linen.

A handful of friends down from Atlanta gather beneath a dogwood tree, where a clutch of Live Oak-ians greet them. With his best man, my grandfather Mattingly, at his elbow, my father moves confidently among his guests, laughing, charming them so that the Baptists have to wonder what gave rise to their misgivings about him and his faith. Inside, in the kitchen, my mother’s maternal aunts arrange deviled eggs on a platter, finger sandwiches on a tray. They stay busy, keeping their eyes off the clock, while in the front bedroom, my Aunt Bum, the maid of honor, fusses with my mother’s veil. My grandmother paces. My mother, standing to keep from wrinkling her ivory moire dress, holds back tears.

“Where can that man be …” says my efficient grandmother, her small heavy shoes creating a racket on the wood floor. “I’ve half a mind to send George (my grandfather) out after him.”

My aunt peers out the window, then at her watch—4:25 now, but no sign of Father McLoughlin …

Strangely, the attic has yet to give up photos of my parents’ wedding, only a portrait or two of my mother in her gown. I can picture it, though. I spent many summer days playing on that green lawn, poking at the goldfish, somersaulting in the grass, hiding and seeking my cousins from next door. And the Good Father did show up, of course, in a station wagon according to family lore, and for some reason, my mother always rolled her eyes at this detail. A priest in a station wagon? Driving a family car? But drive up he did, gunning along the unpaved driveway in a puff of dust. The radio blared through his open windows—Notre Dame football, and whether this endeared him to my father or not is hard to say. Dad and his friends were rabid Tech Yellow Jacket fans, so the football was good. Notre Dame, not so much. But he had made it. Stepping out grinning and rumpled, I imagine Father McLoughlin calming the wedding party with a light Irish brogue. From there, the ceremony proceeded without a hitch.

From the Atlanta Constitution: "…her finger-tip length veil of antique ivory illusion tulle was caught to her dark tresses by a coronet of pleated tulle."
From the Atlanta Constitution: “…her finger-tip length veil of antique ivory illusion tulle was caught to her dark tresses by a coronet of pleated tulle.”

Later, my parents were off on their honeymoon, to Pensacola and Mobile and New Orleans. The first evening, after my father hung his clothes in the hotel closet, he came out dressed for dinner, eyes brimming. He touched my mother’s arm and said, “Your clothes are lined up right next to mine!” She must have kissed him then. I’m sure she did.

A month and a day later, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor and my parents world turned upside down, the way the world will. Before long, my father would be back on the road, for basic training and that sort of thing. They wrote more letters, lots more, back and forth from Live Oak and Atlanta to army bases around the South. They were lucky. My father, blind in one eye since childhood, couldn’t very well shoot a gun, so he served his time stateside while his cronies were sent off to France and Italy and beyond.

My parents had a good marriage, certainly a resilient one (62 years!).  They had their rough patches, their losses and heartaches. Mom could be stubborn, a little spoiled, but then Dad was the one who indulged her. And he could be controlling to a fault. Late in their lives together, as my father began to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s, I saw cracks and fissures between my parents I’d never suspected before. This upset my siblings and me. They were our parents. Their devotion should have been strong enough to weather anything, even the dissolution of my father’s very personality. Maybe because of this, for a time after my father died I found myself feeling a little angry at my mother. Now, eleven years later with both of them gone, I’m grateful for the years we had with Mom alone, grateful, too, that she saved everything, all these letters and photos and yes, even the toothpicks. (She threw a great party, after all!) By leaving behind these mementoes, these ordinary objects that now seem magical, Mom has given us a glimpse into their past, their shining youth, where my parents will dance forever to the sounds of Glenn Miller and Bennie Goodman, my father’s heart swelling as he holds close this woman he knows will make his dreams come true.

And when the band eases into their mutual favorite, Stardust–well, they both knew nothing could stop them.

Mom and Dad in the early 1990s. Their children and grandchildren were gathered just behind the rocks.
Mom and Dad in the mid 1990s. Their six children and upwards to fifteen grandchildren–the family my father dreamed of–were gathered just behind the rocks.
Perhaps their last dance, at my nephew's wedding in 2001.
Perhaps their last dance, at my nephew’s wedding in 2001.

… Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody,
The memory of love’s refrain.

Stardust Memories

My father in his Army Dress, circa 1943

Meet my father–orphan, teetotaler, puller-up of bootstraps. WWII Veteran, Laundromat owner, Roman Catholic, one-eyed tennis ace. Successful man of business, devotee of Big Band music, swing dancer, and apparently, a closet romantic.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, it seemed high time I opened a few of the hundreds of letters we’ve found stashed willy-nilly in rotting cardboard under the attic eaves. There’s quite an array–notes from my grandparents to my mother, my mother to my aunt, my father to his aunt, my sister to my mother and my brothers and me and vice versa, my best friends to me and my cousin to my mother and back to their father. Then, take all these fine folks and shuffle them in whatever permutation you like, and I’d bet a crisp dollar my mother’s attic houses some sort of missive between them. It’s overwhelming, the reams of yellowed paper and the lines and lines of grimy print, overwhelming and dear and on some other day, I’ll fret over how sad it is to think our grandchildren won’t even know what they’re missing. Or will they? Maybe they’ll get a hankering to jet through cyberspace in search of our late children’s texts and Instagrams. At least their hands will stay dust-free, carpal-tunnel notwithstanding.

My Parents' Wartime Correspondence
My Parents’ Wartime Correspondence
May 15, 1940, from the Hotel General Forrest in Rome, GA, to Agnes Scott College
May 15, 1940, from the Hotel General Forrest in Rome, GA, to my mother at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta

Where was I? Looking for love, actually, and for better or worse, I found it. It’s a little strange, in a mostly good way, to discover the people our parents were before we existed. For me as the youngest of six, born when my father was 46 and my mother 41, reading letters they exchanged in their twenties is a little dizzying. By the time I grew old enough to consider them a couple, my parents seemed like genial companions, loving with us and caring with each other but never showy. No PDA in our house! My sister, their first-born, confirms that though devoted to each other, they were reserved even in their youth. So imagine my surprise to read this letter my father penned six weeks before his wedding day, from The Eagle Hotel in Concord, New Hampshire, where he was on business with the Coca Cola Company–

In case you didn’t know–I’m in love with you, Young Lady! There’s something in my heart that keeps saying, Sara, Sara! I want to have you as my own, to make you happy, to love you the rest of my days! That voice rules me. I’m helpless under its spell–and terribly happy in being so!

Dad had a rough childhood. He lost his mother at four to the 1918 flu epidemic. His father, a sweet man when sober but mean when not (which was all too often) wasn’t up to raising three kids. Dad’s baby sister was sent to a convent, my father and his older brother to an orphanage, until the day his spinster aunt stepped in to adopt them, making do on her secretarial salary even through the Depression years, which hit, and hard, when Dad was a teenager. Yet somehow, my father emerged level-headed, steady as she goes, bound and determined to build his American dream, along with the stable family he never had.

But gushing with love?!? No, not him! And yet …

October 4th, 1941, five weeks shy of the wedding, from the Stratfield Hotel in Bridgeport, Connecticut–

I can see myself racing to catch the train. Everyone will wonder why I appear so excited. They would be, too, if they were going home to make final arrangements for marrying the loveliest, the sweetest, the grandest, the most wonderful girl in the world! (Pardon my exuberance–you see, I’m in love!). My mind will be glued on one thing–you–on the vision of your face, the sound of your voice, as you whisper in my ear that you love me! When I drive in at 207 Helvenston Street, you had better watch me! I’ll be so happy at seeing you I might sweep you in my arms and kiss you right there in broad daylight!

In seventeen four-page letters over the course of six weeks, often two in one day, my father thus expounded, with great urgency, on the attributes of true love (the fruits of life-long cooperation, finding the path to true happiness in each other …) My mother, oldest daughter of a small-town dentist, was home with her parents in north Florida, busy planning their big day. He addressed her as her My Sweetie and My Dearest and Bright Eyes (that one stuck), and he signed off as Matty, or Your Own Devoted, Ed. My mother answered, in more practical and compact prose, by confirming her devotion then moving quickly to the details of the ceremony. In fact, there’s an anxiety between the lines in these letters, one that had to do mostly with religion.

My mother was raised Southern Baptist, my father, Catholic. They met at a fraternity dance in Atlanta, Mom a freshman at Agnes Scott when Dad was a junior at Georgia Tech (he worked for three “gap” years to pay his way). My mother loved the city and the social life. She dated lots of boys, and danced with even more, but my father was the smartest of them all. “I knew I’d never be bored with him,” she used to say.

One of Mom's Dance Cards, April 8, 1938
One of Mom’s Dance Cards, April 8, 1938
And the line-up … Frank seemed a bit smitten. She kept a few of his letters, too.
And the line-up … This Frank was a bit smitten. She kept a few of his letters, too.

Though my Baptist grandparents liked my father, they didn’t cotton to Protestant and Catholic commingling. They would eventually come around, but thornier problems arose. There was no Catholic Church for miles. This was the Bible Belt. An itinerant Catholic priest made his rounds through town maybe once a month, but he was less than dependable and say they could get him there–where was there? Would they marry in the high school auditorium? The courthouse? The local 4H? Or maybe outdoors? The wedding date was set for November 8th, the announcements ordered, but this was north Florida. You couldn’t trust the weather.

My father, who loved little better than a clear blue day, wasn’t worried.

November 1st, 1941, from his aunt’s apartment in Atlanta—It looks like I was a bit off in my prediction about the full moon. Tonight, old man moon is almost full. He will have grown to his full size by Wednesday night, but he will still be pretty Saturday night, even if he does get up later. More important than the moon is the weather in general! We can very well sacrifice the moon for two beautiful days Friday and Saturday!

Well, like my father and his moon, I’ve waxed on far too long today. I mean, you know the ending, right? So go take a spin around the dance floor this Valentine’s Day Eve, and feel free to tune in tomorrow to learn how ol’ Matty manages to win his best girl.

Sara Lee and her gaggle of guys
And with a gaggle of guys, all not my father
Mom on the right, beaming up at a chap named Billy Paxton
Dad with someone not my mother!
Dad holding his own

Odds and Ends, Mostly Odds

Egg carton top, saved in paper sack labelled “Nice picture.”

I’m headed back to the attic today. It’s a steep ascent, one it’s hard to imagine my parents having climbed at all as they aged, much less bearing the swollen boxes they toted up over the years. But tote they did, well into their 80s, sometimes making it only as far as the dusty bank of shelves that runs alongside the staircase. The stuff of these shelves represents a variety of eras, and is often laughable (see egg carton remains). In fact, I can hear mom now, kicking back with her fresh copy of To the Lighthouse (Woolf was a particular favorite) and chuckling at our labors. It is Our, by the way. We’re a small village up here. Otherwise, this project would be endless, so here’s a shout-out to my sister and sisters-in-law, my daughter and nieces. We get by with a little help from our friends, and along the way we laugh, a lot.

Swim cap
Swim cap
"Travel Cosmetics"
“Travel Cosmetics”

So put away the tissues and come on over to the lighter side, the pack-rattier side, where my mother reveals her true hoarding colors, and proud of ’em. At left, Exhibit One: A swim cap. My mother liked to swim, sort of. At low tide, she was wont to pull on such a cap to wade knee-deep into the sunny Atlantic as my father floated just beyond. Now and then, she took a few free-style passes through the gentle waves, but the last time I witnessed her taking her lady-like dip was in the early 1990s. Yet here we have a nearly new cap, tucked in its original Jantzen bag, along with the receipt (from Atlanta Beach?!?) because who knows when one might be inspired to fetch down such a treasure for return. It might have gained value!

Above right, Exhibit Two: A cardboard pear crate, its compartments jammed with miniature toiletries pilfered from any number of hotels and motels around the globe, their lotions and shampoos gone stiff and gummy with age. Taped on the lid is a note that reads “Travel Cosmetics” in my mother’s neat cursive. Oh how she loved to travel, and were she still doing so today, she’d have no trouble getting her carry-on through security.

The lady preferred Hanes
The lady preferred Hanes

Final Exhibit (for today) and perhaps my favorite: Stacks and stacks of old catalogues–Calico Curtains, Pierre Deux (ooo, la, la), and Hanes’ Underwear. Did my mother prefer Hanes? The jury is out. Certainly Maidenform bras, generic girdles and flannel PJs populated her lingerie drawers, but these were jumbled drawers. A Hanes’ cami could very well have been in there somewhere.

Well, I’ve developed a case of the sneezes and the recycle bin is full. The Christmas card collection will have to wait. I’ll leave you with one last gem–the program from one of my brother’s Pop Warner football tournaments (in 1954!). With four boys in the house, there were lots of sports being played. Mom wasn’t much of a fan, but it seems she was paying attention after all, and keeping up best she could.

Go Team!
Go Team!