Today, October 9th, 2016, would have been my father’s 102nd birthday. I’ve written about him and his tumultuous life here before, a few times over, so I won’t wax on. I’ll post a few photos, though, sort of a “Souvenir Sunday” in his memory, or his honor, or both. Thirteen years since we lost him, and I still miss his wry humor, his balanced and intelligent guidance, the devilish grin he liked to flash early mornings, when he was the only one in the house in a good mood.
Well of course I miss him. He was my father, and yet, for the first time since his death I forgot to think about him, or the fact of his birthday, until I’d been up and out of bed for a solid two hours. Around 9:30, I opened my phone and my eye registered the date. Wow, I thought, and felt a flush of shock and shame. Time’s funny that way, isn’t it. You lose someone, a parent, a sibling, a lifelong friend, someone so fundamental to your being you can’t imagine living on after he or she is gone. Still, you have no choice but to do the laundry or write the article or move the child who is no longer a child to college and the years slip by and you wake up one day to realize hmmm, you’ve done it. You’ve survived, and wonder of wonders, it’s happened almost without your knowing it. You’ve simply lived, rearranged your day-to-day in ways that have eased the sting, plugged the holes and filled up the spaces that once felt so gaping and raw. It’s not so much that the spaces are gone, or even that time heals. It’s just that time is time. Like it or not, it chugs past and most of us, the lucky ones I guess, can’t help but jump on the running boards and hold on for dear life.
Besides … I have the Attic! Or more precisely, the Attic’s scattered remains that have found new life here in my house. Thanks to Mom and her inability to clean out when cleaning out was called for, I can time travel, nostalgically speaking, and have a little visit with Dad. So I made myself a hot cup of Lipton tea–his signature drink–and began shuffling through stacks of photos and letters. Just seeing my father’s face, and especially his handwriting (Miss Martha A. Mattingly, he scrawled across an envelope meant for me during my sophomore year in college) lifted my spirits. His script is hurried but generous, with little white space on the page, and it strikes me now that this was just like him. My father always was a man on the move, a Puritan work ethic-in-motion who wasted not and always kept his tee’s crossed and his i’s dotted. But he braked for family and friends, my father, and that made all the difference.
Letter from home …
October 5, 1979
Here’s the letter Dad enclosed in that envelope from my sophomore year. He wrote it October 5th, just before his 65th birthday. Apparently, I was headed off for a weekend with friends rather than coming home for the family bash. (What was I thinking? Sixty-five is a big deal!) Note to my whiney mother-self: Dad took this news with good humor and wished me a happy time wherever I was going. There’s nothing special about the letter otherwise–he and Mom were off to the Symphony that night, he was enclosing a check to help with my “tight finances” (which they weren’t, thanks to him), and he sure appreciated my phone calls whenever they came, said they brightened his spirits, “put life back” in their big, quiet house.
I imagine that house felt plenty big and quiet, much quieter than I knew. Our youngest is now in his senior year of high school, and I feel his leaving already, his Pottery Barn Teen bed shrinking around his broadened shoulders, his keen mind yearning for space and freedom to question and grow. The unoccupied corners of our house now loom larger, blow a little draftier each day. But there’s good news. In one way, I take after my mother. Between the kindergarten artwork and piles of yellowed report cards, the baseball lineups and class photos and Playbills I’ve collected from our family’s younger days, I have plenty of sorting and tossing, and yes, safekeeping to do, more than enough to keep my mind off of all these empty rooms as Time does its thing, and chugs on.
Friday was my birthday. Mid-summer, any way you slice it, prone to the lingering 4th hangover and hot and gluey the hemisphere around. In Atlanta, my home town, July 8th often dawns drowsy and nondescript, a day when traffic is strangely light and folks wind up sipping icy beverages by the pool or streaming baseball in front of an AC vent. I mean, think about it … has anything of true significance ever happened on July 8th? I looked it up, and not much. In 1835, the Liberty Bell cracked, though reports vary. It might have been the 12th. In 1907, whoop-dee-doo, Ziegfield opened his first follies in New York City. 1918: Hemingway was wounded on the Austro-Italian front but macho-man that he was, survived to pen his oeuvre. 1947: a UFO crashed down in New Mexico (or not), and in 1949, Wolfgang Puck was born, followed by Kevin Bacon in ’58. Hmmm.
To be honest, I used to feel a little sorry for myself for having my special day during this time of scatter, a summer limbo void of classroom cupcakes and pinatas. When I was a wee thing, my birthday parties tended to be poorly attended at best, fleshed out with persons (see photo) my mother rounded up to stand in for my wider circle of friends, who were off at camp or beach-combing with their families. Nowadays, I often vamoose on July 8th myself, and really, as the calendar turns, what could be better than to flit out of town and have one’s birthday forgotten altogether?
But this July, 2016, I’m home in the city. My birth-week went haywire from the start. On Tuesday the 5th, Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge, another possible case of color-coded fear having led to the panicked and deadly misuse of power. Ditto on the 6th, when a routine traffic stop in suburban St. Paul ended with Philando Castile, an African American man, dead. Yet sadly, if not for what happened next, on my birthday eve, these events might have become little more than tragic footnotes in the on-line version of “On This Day in History.”
As yet unaware, I woke on the 8th to the joy of family texts and emails sent at the crack of dawn and a birthday poster lovingly drawn by my youngest son (see left, an old Payne tradition). But before I could pour my first cup of Joe, I found myself longing for the dull birthday anonymity I used to lament. On the kitchen television, an endless loop of chaos and gunfire on the streets of Dallas during an otherwise peaceful protest, a dozen policemen sniper-shot, five dead.
Mass shooting number 150 or so on the year, and we’re hardly halfway home. I don’t know how many of these were racially motivated, but I’d bet a silver dollar they were all rooted in hate, the kind of hate that when kindled by emotional instability is likely to fester in the heart of the dispossessed, the kind of hate that so often meets with an ironic end, where one desperate individual lashes out against others equally marginalized, but for different reasons, the kind of hate I believe is at its core self-hate, and in the end bound to turn on itself, but only after havoc has been wreaked. Consider the deeply troubled and alienated white drug addict who guns down African Americans in a place of worship historically vital to the Civil Rights movement; the pathologically angry Muslim American, isolated within the country of his birth, who opens fire on his gay neighbors; the mentally disturbed black war vet who ambushes white police officers as they monitor citizens of varied races seeking to prevent future incidents of policing gone sour.
I’m over-simplifying, and even so, my head spins. The line between villain and victim grows more muddied every day as hot-button issues like gun legislation, immigration, mental health care, police brutality become so multi-layered and complicated it’s impossible to discuss them without simplifying. But enough. I don’t write today to enter a particular dialogue (though I have opinions! I sign petitions!). I write because as a white woman born and raised and still living in the American South, my bones ache with a helpless sorrow I can’t well reckon with. I write in the hope that putting words to paper will help me lasso emotions I can’t otherwise make sense of. And already I’ve erred. Sorrow isn’t the right word. What I feel is closer to despair. That we as Americans, no matter the shade of our skin, continue to wrestle with the violent manifestations of the same brand of hate, the same demons that have threatened our nation since its inception, is unthinkable.
During the last long hours of a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I flipped through Air France’s film library and settled on The Help. I’d seen it before, and found it on both occasions more moving, more true-to-life than I expected (I boycotted the book, perhaps unfairly, having heard it was sappy and overdone). What I’d forgotten was the uncomfortable blend of warm recognition and biting shame the film dredged up in me. In some ways, I am Mae Mobley Leefolt, the little white girl loved and cared for by the family’s black maid, Aibileen Clark. Mae Mobley was born, fictionally speaking, in August, 1960, in Jackson, Mississippi. I was born in July, 1960, in Atlanta. Mae Mobley had Aibileen. I had Mary Darian, the young woman who worked at our house not every day but often enough I thought of her as family. When in the final scene Mae Mobley calls out to Aibileen, “You’re my real mother!” (yep, pretty sappy), my heart leaps in spite of itself. Though my mother wasn’t negligent like Mae Mobley’s, Mary was sort of her co-mother, an energetic, funny, hands-on, more hip role model than Mom, forty-one when I came along, was capable of being.
And Mary was black. And far too smart, too gifted, for her position. She had small children of her own someone else cared for while she raised us, no doubt earning less than she deserved. Yet she changed my diapers and sang me to sleep. She picked me up from school and brought my dog along to greet me. She fried a chicken for us on Friday afternoons. Later, she wrote me at camp when I was homesick, sharing details about what my brothers were up to (“Tommy and I cleaned out his closet. He hates making decisions”), complimenting my mother’s sewing projects or cracking a little joke, usually at her own expense. Sometimes she signed off, tongue-in-cheek, “The Maid.” My favorite letter (from Mom’s Attic, of course) is written on two sheets of construction paper torn crookedly across the top and quadri-folded to fit the envelope. After dating the letter, Mary wrote “cheap paper” in parentheses and a few lines later elaborated: “This paper is slightly uneven–like the writer.”
Like Mae Mobley, I was Mary’s “last white baby.” She left us when I began junior high, taking a job at the hospital where I was born. Mary made a career there, earned a few promotions and stayed until she reached retirement age. We kept in touch, a phone call now and then, quick visits during family weddings, funerals. Then, a long gap of time passed with little contact until the day of my mother’s funeral. As I walked out on my brother’s arm, I caught sight of Mary at the end of a pew. White-haired, a little stooped, she somehow wept and smiled at once. I stopped, and we hugged each other’s necks and cried together. She told me how much she’d loved my mother, her friend, how she misses me, and all the Mattinglys.
Since, and especially during weeks filled with race-inspired violence like this last, I think about Mary, now eighty, and feel that same warmth tempered by shame movies like The Help can rustle up. I like to think our bond was unusual, deeper than most of its type. Mary was my friend and yet, history says what we and thousands of other black-white, maid-child duos of the fifties and sixties shared was tainted. History says that if not for the evils of slavery, these bonds wouldn’t exist, that perhaps they shouldn’t have existed. I can’t deny the truth in this, but then, what do we do with the warmth, the love, that remain?
It occurs to me that other than what I share here, I don’t know Mary Darian’s story. I don’t know how she, eighteen when my parents hired her, managed to break the cycle of domestic service. I knew nothing, as her white baby of the 1960s, about the sit-ins and marches, the tear-gas and beatings, that were happening across town, maybe in her neighborhood. I don’t know who or what she might have lost to the long slog of the Civil Rights struggle. My parents, like Mary herself, were careful to shield me from these seminal, sometimes violent events that would shape our lives. In this, my ignorance of Mary’s story, lies a valid basis for guilt and shame. I can’t change history. I can’t make amends for actions taken by my forebears, though I regret and renounce them. I can’t go back and rearrange the circumstances of my relationship with Mary, but I can at least do what another one of Kathryn Stockett’s characters, Skeeter, does. I can learn Mary’s story. I owe her, and myself, that much.
My letter on “cheap paper,” including four numbered afterthoughts.
Mary and I, May, 1984.
On Friday, after I switched off the reports coming in from Dallas, I gave Mary a call. She knew my voice immediately and as she spoke, I pictured through the line the tall, confident, young woman who used to drive me to McDonald’s for a Big Mac after school. She told me she’d had a fall, but that her daughter, Lou, had taken such good care of her she was back on her feet. With held breath, I asked after her three sons. They’re well, she reported, all working and living in the metro area. I smiled. Mary’s sons, middle-aged black males in a Southern city, are thriving. They’ve beat the odds, so far. I caught Mary up on my own family and asked if I could come by to see her. “Why sure, anytime!” she said, then paused. “Well, anytime other than Wednesday. I still get out for my Bible study on Wednesdays.”
So we’ll have a visit on Tuesday morning. A late birthday present. I can hardly wait to hear what she has to say.
This week, Tuesday, marks nine years since we lost my oldest brother to cancer. I was surprised to find no photos of him in my laptop library. It’s an old laptop, a very s-l-o-w laptop, jammed with years of documents and images and videos. Every day–nay every hour–I curse the darn thing and the infernal color wheel I once found so cute. Still, no photos of Ed. And if not for those my nephew, “Little Ed,” tags me in as he loyally uploads old Attic prints and slides (see Vietnam photo above), there wouldn’t be any in my Facebook library either.
Nine years ago I didn’t have a Facebook library. Nine years was two laptops, three high school commencements, two college grads, my mother’s passing and four smart phones ago. For Ed, nine years was dozens of family birthday cakes, his youngest daughter’s wedding, a sixth grandchild, hundreds of youth sports matches and innumerable missed opportunities to coin a pun or crack a joke. Wait, hasn’t he been there all along? My memory plays tricks. I can’t picture my mother’s Saturday breakfast table without him smirking at me as he sneaks a few dollops of whole wheat batter onto the back of the griddle (sacrilege this was, to alter our mother’s famous pancake recipe). And have we, our extended family, really had seven reunions in the north Georgia mountains, where Ed loved to hike or rock on the porch with the latest Stephen King novel, without him?
Yes. And no. He’s been physically absent these nine years, yet my mind subs him in. Maybe that’s what we mean when we say someone is “with us in spirit.” Some would say that Ed, like my father and mother, really is with us in some mystical way. I want that to be true. And sometimes, when the wind blows a certain way or the surf crashes just so at the beach where Ed used to beat us all at whiffle ball, I believe it. Other times, I’m not so sure. It seems more the strength of our memories that conjures him. I drive along a desolate stretch of highway in south Georgia and he’s beside me, already laughing at his own joke, the one we both know is coming–“Marth, it’s Vuja Dé all over again! I’m absolutely sure I’ve never been here before … ” Or, I play back messages on the land line and know his voice will be next, the voice of his last months, a little mournful yet tinged with his trademark silliness: “Hey guys, Uncle Cancer here …”
Ed’s going was not easy. Stage Four colon cancer at 58, a lot of pain, a course of chemo, weight lost but hope gained, more pain, finally the message that the doctors had done everything they could, and well, you can imagine the rest. His going was tough in other ways, too. Middle age for him was marked by ups and downs, job uncertainty, secrets kept, promises broken. In short, these were troubled times, as much for his wife and kids as for Ed, and as he slipped away from us, we struggled both to understand his mistakes and to deal with the conflicting emotions they rustled up. To his credit, Ed faced his illness with quiet courage, even a sort of resignation. He came to see his illness and impending death as a sort of atonement for past transgressions. I hated that, refused (refuse!) to believe it, but I let it go. It brought Ed strength somehow, and a certain peace.
My mother, 87 when he was diagnosed, took in his issues with a kind of sad detachment that seemed to help her survive the loss of her oldest son. “His life wasn’t fair, he was so sensitive as a child, he had no luck …” I have my own theory (we are cursed with theorizing, our family, and thus insomniacs, most of us). Ed was 18 when the USA entered the conflict in Vietnam. He graduated from college, joined the Marines, married, and at 22 was shipped off for active combat. He quickly became a Lieutenant, forward observer for his platoon. He served his country well but in a way, Mom was right. Ed was sensitive, the smiling clown with a weeping heart, and maybe not cut out, emotionally, to be a Marine. He came home to his wife and newborn son more reserved, a little twitchy, less motivated, if still the punster he’d always been. No one talked much back then about PTSD, but I have to wonder.
I was eight when Ed left for Vietnam. We exchanged letters. Though the Attic has produced none that I sent him, I have a few Ed penned home to me. They are brief (what do you say to your baby sister when you spend your days sniffing out a wily enemy in a strange hot land?) Still, the tone is telling. Here, from July, 1969 (the Helen mentioned was my childhood friend)–
… And test page for my coloring projects
“Happy Birthday! Sorry, but I won’t be able to send you a present since there are no 10 cent stores out here in the Jungle. How are you? I’m sure you and Helen are pretty busy this summer so you don’t have to write often. Just let me know once in a while what is going on. Have you been selling a lot of lemonade lately? Sometimes in this hot jungle I would pay a dollar for a glass. But it never comes around. None of the little Vietnamese girls can make it like you and Helen. Well, I have to write some more letters. Once again, happy birthday and write me soon. Love, Edward.”
A lemonade in the jungle. Ed would need one often in the years to come. I wish I’d made him a few more. I wish I could stir one up for him now.
I’ve been rummaging again, though not in that drafty mildewed Attic that had me pushing Kleenex up my nose while I worked. Funny the way I miss it now it’s no longer mine to sneeze in. And yet, I avoid the drive-by. My husband chuckles at this. He likes peering down at my parents’ old house to see what changes the new owners have made. Sacrilege! All of it! Stone gargoyles now flank the front door … gargoyles? To accent its Early American design? Worse, the Attic has sprouted dormer windows. Yep, right across the once-so-elegant roofline (see photo exhibit A), three holes have been gouged out of the wood shingles my father paid so dearly for. One quick glance and it’s like I’m looking into Mom’s sad blue eyes on a rainy afternoon. My mother is a house, you could say, not to get too Faulknerian about it. She is gone but her beloved home, a little baffled by the sawing and hammering of late, remains. I understand now why houses are sometimes handed down like a Bible or a gold locket. If you could hug a house, I would. I’d drive by every day and press that brave Deerfield facade right up against my heart.
Let me start again. I’ve been in the virtual Attic, sorting letters and photos and pondering the family legends they bring to mind. Surely every family has them, those tall tales that get batted about the generations. Remember how Mama, a flower in her hair, met Daddy hitchhiking to Woodstock? Then there’s sweet sister Sue, who broke the school bully’s nose, and how could we forget the night the police picked up Uncle Pete for swiping a television from the Ramada Inn? These stories are not my own, but they ring true (okay, the stolen TV bit might be from the Mattingly archives. Only the names have been changed …) .
The youngest, I was all ears. Our legends helped me knit myself into a family tapestry that was all but sewn up before I was born. In Mom’s Attic I find the finishing stitches. See this yellowed newspaper clipping, and that tattered telegram? Proof! The stories are true! Or mostly true. Odd discrepancies have arisen. My mother, neé SARA Elizabeth Lee, loved that her parents dropped the “h” in her name. Is this reason to brag? To her, yes. A late convert to Catholicism, Mom disliked being associated with the Biblical SaraH. Never mind this SaraH was known for her beauty, strength, nobility–heck, she was a princess! Did Mom OD on the Bible stories of her Southern Baptist upbringing? Was it because SaraH was oft celebrated as the long-barren wife who gave birth at age ninety? (Yes, 9-0!) How distasteful, my mother would have thought. She didn’t believe in getting old. And she took great pride in being fertile as a salmon. Delivered Baby #1 at twenty-four and barely came up for air until I came along at forty-one.
So SaRA my mother was, H-less and thoroughly modern. A bratty little spelling whiz, I used to playground boast about the special spelling, and oh, how I protested when mail arrived addressed to “Sarah Mattingly.” Mommy, they messed up again! Her bizarre H snobbery lived on. But then … my mother’s birth certificate, a document I now own, reads “SARAH Elizabeth Lee.” Hmmm. A transcriptionist’s error? Or was Mom pulling our leg? Did she, reluctant Sunday School attendee she was, dislike ol’ Abraham’s Sarah enough to drop the H? Apparently. Now where is that marriage license …
Ironically, my father’s father, Benjamin Spalding Mattingly, was a name-tinkerer too. He christened his first-born Benjamin Lee, and my older brother is John Benjamin. No surprises there. But after Grandfather Ben died, my father unearthed his birth certificate. Ix-nay on the enjamin-Bay! Officially, he was BENEDICT. A Pope’s name! Why the cover-up? Did it smack of that traitorous American, Mr. Arnold? Another conundrum taken to the grave.
My Grandfather Ben(edict) died when I was not quite four. I know him only second-hand, through the handful of grainy sepia-toned photographs my mother squirreled away in plastic shirt bags. There are other stories, too, sad, even haunting stories. I’ve alluded in these pages (at least twice, begging your pardon) to my father’s difficult childhood. Chapter One: December, 1918. My grandmother, Frances, catches Spanish flu. Her entire family–my father, his siblings, my grandfather–are also ill. Days later, Frances, four months pregnant, dies in the hospital. A few doors down, Grandfather Ben is so bad off that my great aunts decide to keep secret the news of his wife’s death. As Ben gradually regains strength, my grandmother is anointed, mourned, buried. Before anyone works up the gumption to tell him, Ben begins working his way through the stack of newspapers some unwitting orderly has been dropping off in hopes of his recovery. Death is on everyone’s mind. The first World War just over, this flu is on its way to taking 675,000 American lives, far more than the war claimed and the majority of the victims in their prime. My grandfather turns to the obituaries and there, in the December 8th edition of The Atlanta Constitution, is my grandmother’s tribute. Ben’s wife, the child she carried, have vanished.
A chilling story, one not to be believed, yet it must be true. The papers say so. “Husband So Sick He Is Not Told of Wife’s Death.” I suppose Grandfather Ben read that one, too. Like my father and uncle and aunt, he beat the flu … or did he? A traveling shoe salesman, he went on to fail spectacularly. He drank, a lot. He disappointed, as my great aunts might say. Some stories paint him as a Dr. Jekyll–sweet when sober, when drunk, prone to rage. In hushed tones, my mother used to tell us how he chased my father and uncle around the house with a butcher’s knife. No wonder the boys were shipped off to a south Georgia orphanage.
And yet, consider this letter my father sent home: “Dear Daddy … I hope you are well. I love you very much. I am having lots of fun with my bean bag and the games you sent me. I pray for you every day and often think of you … Daddy, will you please send me a couple of tops with plenty of string? Then of course Ben Lee will want a couple, too … Your darling boy, E.H.”
My one memory: I hold Grandaddy Ben’s hand. He is tall, with big leather shoes, crinkly skin, a firm grip. It’s a warm Atlanta day and we walk up the street toward the friendly white house with the fancy doorway where I have my own room and a pink gingham bedspread. I have no trouble keeping up because he’s old, tired. He coughs a lot. He smells of sweet vinegar. I skip and chatter and now and then, Grandaddy Ben smiles and nods and squeezes my hand.
My heart does a loop-de-loop. Hanging in there, I almost say, a grapefruit in one hand and a pack of sponges in the other. For so long, this was my stock response to this stock question from this kind-eyed Pakistani woman with the sprawling memory. This isn’t my usual grocery. Close enough to my house, it’s closer to my mother’s, or to the house that was my mother’s, and my father’s, mine, for half a century. In the years after we took away Mom’s keys and before her get-up-and-go got-up-and-went, we did her shopping here.
“Oh, she passed away,” I manage, cheeks flushing with heat as I do a quick calculation in my head. “Um, a year—no fifteen months now.” Can she have been gone that long? And why this need to pin it down, to date her death for a stranger?
“So sweet,” the woman says, her soft features sagging. “Your mum … such a sweet lady.”
With this, she gives a wan smile and we all grin and nod like eager Labradors, even my daughter. Yes, my daughter is there at the far end of the cart, home from college for the holidays. Leaning in for the dish detergent, she smiles broadly for the checkout woman then glances at me. They were close, Emma and my mother. They shared a love of fashion, things that sparkle, a petite stature. She misses her grandmother, her “Joe,” but there’s more. Already, at twenty-one, Emma’s smooth pearly skin gives off a curious vibe, a blend of sorrow and unease I’m all too familiar with. She’s as concerned about me in this awkward moment as she is mourning our shared loss.
I finger the sugar snaps in their crackly bag, straighten the box of microwave bacon on the belt because, well, who knows why. When on the spot, I am an aligner, cutlery on a spread table, the floor mat at the door, bacon on the belt.
“She shopped here?” asks the bag boy. “Your mother?”
Our rescuer! He’s young, Emma’s age, maybe younger, and a pleaser. I can see this in the easy way he puffs out my recyclable bags and hands in the heavy items first, the eggs on top, the meat in its own plastic.
“She did,” I say. “All her life! She was ninety-five …”
“Oh yes!” The checkout woman, keying in the zucchini. “She shopped here each week …”
She sweeps a hand in the direction of the produce, the condiments aisle, the canned goods. A knot has risen at the base of my neck. Enough, I think, but still I track the woman’s wave and who is that, just there? A small bent white-haired figure struggles to read the label on a jar of jam. She fumbles for her glasses, shakes her head, purses her lips. Something is not right and she reaches, a tremor in her hand, to reshelve the jar. It doesn’t fit. Where is that patch of free space she pulled it from? With a sigh, she drops it in her buggy anyway then scans the shelves again, squints at the creased scrap of a list between her gnarled fingers.
Marmalade. Maybe if I think it hard enough, she will remember … It’s the orange marmalade you want, the one with the red gingham cinched over the lid.
“Oh, how I remember her …” The checkout woman again, on a roll. “She walked like this …”
The bag boy pauses, his chin tilted up with interest, a pound of sugar balanced in one hand. We watch as the woman drops her arms to her sides and shuffles her feet—my mother’s signature walk in her last fretful years. Like a penguin, my young grandnephew once said, nailing it. The woman flicks her eyes at me and quickly away—has she gone too far? Yes, and no. Emma smiles again, not so broadly. I follow her lead. After all, how often have I mimicked the penguin walk myself, in Mom’s presence and otherwise? We only tease the ones we love …
“I used to help her outside, to wait.” The woman can’t be stopped. She meets my gaze, her eyes less kind. In her household no doubt, the elderly are revered.
“To wait for you,” she continues, gesturing again, through the plate glass window . “On the bench.”
The bag boy glances over his shoulder, past the Lotto machine and the ice cooler to the empty bench on the far side of the glass. It’s true, on very busy days I sometimes dropped Mom to do her shopping alone while I scooted off on some other errand, to pick up a child from baseball or gym practice, maybe to grab a cappuccino. There were times Mom had to wait on me. She didn’t mind, usually. In fact, she liked it! I expect I can do my own shopping … she would say with a toss of her head. She needed it, my mother, this small dose of independence.
And … she was not ninety-five then! I want to cry it out. She was late eighties, maybe ninety-one at the most! Boy, does my head hurt.
“Ninety-five!” the bagboy exclaims. He too meets my gaze, yet with nothing but good cheer. “What a life. I’d take that any day.”
I grin fiercely, more Pit Bull now than Lab.
“Yes,” Emma says. “Ninety-five!” She settles a bag, then another, into our cart. I swipe my card, say my thank you’s, and we turn to go.
“She was nice,” Emma says on our way to the car. “That lady. She must have really liked Joe.”
“Yes, she’s worked there a long time. I used to …”
“I know, Mom. You did everything for Joe.”
She doesn’t mention the bench, or the penguin shuffle, or the fact that in those feverish wonderful days when she and her brothers lived at home and their widowed grandmother lived half a mile away, I may have let things slide a bit, that on those last visits to this grocery Joe might have been too rickety on her feet, too forgetful, to be left to her own devices. Emma doesn’t say that maybe Joe needed her daughter there to pull down the marmalade and help her out to the bench.
She doesn’t mention it, but like she says, she already knows.
It’s happened again. Another big flashy holiday, the biggest, flashiest of all, and my pen, errrr, keyboard, fails me. What to write, how to say something fresh and worthwhile that’s not been said before? I noodled over a Thanksgiving post, The Holiday Table perhaps, and in it, creased snapshots from the Attic featuring me at ten, seventeen, thirty-two, gathered with my siblings, nieces and nephews, later my own children, around my mother’s Queen Anne dropleaf. In each photo, my father smiles, his specs aglint with the murky autumn light. In his hands, a sharpened knife, a serving fork, and before him on the linen tablecloth, a plump glistening turkey, a cornucopia of gourds or harvest fruit, an array of flatware and crystal …
1974. Funny, and my favorite.
Me at ten-ish.
Hark! Is that Norman Rockwell tap, tap, tapping at the door? Sub in a poinsettia or a bowl of holly (as my mother often did), tattered stockings by the fire, and soon we’ll have Tiny Tim hobbling in on his crutch.
So I skipped the Thanksgiving post. No matter where I went with it, cliché ensnared me like an unwieldy octopus. But in the weeks since, I keep coming back to these instant replay table pics, to those uneven smiles and sometimes weary faces. I think of the hundreds of old Christmas cards my mother saved, the bag after bag I tossed during last spring’s Attic purge, of the rescue bows and recycled paper, the rusted tree stands and broken ornaments.
My mother even saved used gift tags, a few of them from gifts my grandparents gave her when she was a child. These rustled up such happy thoughts. Oh how I loved to unload the box that arrived each year from our Florida grandmother. I took great care to arrange the gifts just so under the tree for my older brothers and sister to see. Who cared that Grandmom never bought us anything we wanted or needed? I looked forward to the yearly cotton handkerchief from my grandfather, always embroidered at the corner with something magical, a fairy tale cottage, a bouquet of flowers, a single daisy. I used to marvel, too, at my grandmother’s knack for wrapping gifts without using a single snip of scotch tape. Just paper and ribbon. I still don’t know how she did it.
A sampling of my mother’s gift tag collection
Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962
One of the last times our brood was all together, sans my youngest. The ’90s, complete with tacky Xmas sweaters.
What’s that? It wasn’t about the gift, you say, not the present but the presence, the tradition? Bingo! The clichéd tentacle squeezes … Yet, how can I deny it? Christmas was big at our house, a day my father adored. He and my mother left us a wealth of moments to remember. Like all memories, some bring us joy now, some leave us sad. They’re stubborn little buggers, too, setting up shop in our hearts, our minds, our psyches if not our souls. So we laugh, we cry, we treasure, we curse, but by golly, as we gear up to take another spin ’round this beautiful scarred old planet, these moments will have their say.
Yesterday, I spent an afternoon in the woods, at a spot my Mattingly family grew to love during the last years of my parents’ lives. Each Labor Day for fourteen years, as many of the four generations strong of us as were able would fly in or motor up to spend the weekend together. We hiked, golfed, ate, drank, laughed, rocked, ate, drank and laughed some more. This past September, the first since my mother’s death, we weren’t able to pull the trip off. This cooked up a nice cocktail of conflicting emotion for my siblings and me. The torch had been passed and already, we were failing to carry on a cherished, if expensive, family tradition. No surprise then, that when out of the blue my husband planned a quick getaway to one of the cabins where on those Labor Days of old cousins and nieces and nephews slept and played, I was a smidge hesitant. Their fly fishing gear happily stowed in the trunk, husband and older sons drove up at dawn and I followed later, with a sizable lump in my throat. Still, it was a lovely balmy December day and minutes after I pulled in, I set off to hike to Duke’s Creek Falls. I’d hiked there dozens of times before with the family group, the wise and slow of foot and the young and energetic alike. The woods were silent by comparison, my journey wistful but sort of okay. Alone, I could hear the scamper of small creatures through fallen leaves, bare branches clicking in the light breeze, Duke’s Creek gurgling along.
Then, I rounded a corner and there in the middle of the path was this–
Ah! Two feet in diameter, a tired symbol made new, a circle, a wreath! And one fashioned by hand (using the same holiday greenery I paid way too much for last week at Pike’s Nursery). What a generous soul, to pause and leave me, others, this, a moment to remember. I snapped a photo with my Iphone and hiked on. By the time I got back to our cabin, this post had nearly written itself in my mind. A good gift, and many thanks to my fellow hiker, wherever you are.
Peace, everybody, really. And good will. Hope your holidays are full of them.
About a month ago, our middle son returned after a year of work/travel abroad. He’s an easygoing sort, as comfortable nestled in a sleeping bag in the highlands of New Zealand as he is on a ratty basement couch. A good thing this. While he was off with the Kiwis, I was feathering his old nest in vintage Attic style. Out with the bunk beds and Pink Floyd posters, in with the Colonial end table, the Empire rocking chair, the spool-turned, “three quarters” bed. Matt, who stands at just under six foot two, must stretch out diagonally to comfortably sleep. Moreover, he wakes each morning to see his great grandfather’s Dental License hanging on one wall and opposite, a series of ancient family crests, all of which I’ve been meaning to re-frame but well, haven’t. A squirt of Windex and a firm swipe and they’re (almost) mildew-free.
Matt (full name Mattingly Payne … see how that noble crest makes the room his own?) is a good sport about his Attic-inspired digs. (Does he have a choice as he deliberates his future while working three part-time jobs?) He’s such a good sport that he’s agreed to help out with The Attic Project, Phase Two (part-time job number four!). At long last I’ve begun to sort through the mangy boxes and bins I dragged last spring from my mother’s house to mine, and somehow I’m now a little less enamored with, for example, the non-functional travel iron, the stained taffeta trousseau dress, the broken down high chair and my old Easy Bake Oven.
What in the heck do I do with all this stuff? The temptation to heft it straight up to my own attic is strong. This has become my husband’s greatest wish. Never has he been so eager … I can carry those boxes on up for you. There’s plenty of room up there! I refuse him. I know myself too well. As long as these treasures remain close at hand, stacked and gathering dust in plain view, I will eventually make myself organize and properly store them. Once it’s all out of sight? No dice.
We begin with the letters. Hundreds of letters. Include the sundry Christmas/Valentine’s/Anniversary cards, and it’s a clean thousand. Cross my heart. Matt reminds me he’s a bit of an expert at archiving, having worked just out of college for a company called “Dust to Digital,” where he scanned and preserved papers and albums left behind by forgotten folk artists. Parfait! So I’ll take the old fashioned tasks and he’ll digitize. Armed with new acid-free, archivally-safe sleeves, I open out yellowed missive number one, June 1938, penned by my mother, still single, a 19 year-old Agnes Scott student, to my father, a recent Georgia Tech grad who’d taken a sales job with National Theatre Supply Company in Albany, NY. I slide the pages and their matching envelope into the sleeve, tag it by date, and move on. Only I don’t move on. I stop to read the letter. And the next one, and one more, and soon I realize Matt is scanning and documenting at a rate of about five to my one.
Ah, to be young and efficient again. But look here … after a summer and autumn of bi- or tri-monthly letters sometimes mundane but often flirtatious, my mother one January day pauses, mid-letter, to announce: “Ed, I feel that I must tell you something right now …” Uh-oh. “… Above all, a person must always be true to himself …” Mother! “What I’m trying to say is this–I am in love with someone in Florida. You told me last fall that I must tell you whenever I fell. Well, on New Years’ Eve I suddenly realized that it had happened to me. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s the dentist.”
The dentist?!? A love interest kind of dentist? I’m so intrigued I read the letter aloud, even the part where Sara begs Ed to remain her friend (!). “It would hurt me terribly if I thought you didn’t understand … You are one of the finest people I know. Don’t ever change your big ideals!” And she signs off not “Love,” as previously, but “Always, Sara.”
By now, my youngest has joined us in the kitchen … “That’s so weird Mom,” he says. “I know!” I say. “A Dear John letter!” “No …” he says. “I mean, the way they wrote back then. So weee-ird.” Well, yes. They used pen and paper. And full sentences! Punctuation even!! But I know what he means. There’s a strange and somehow innocent formality to my parents’ correspondence. It’s still there later, after my father–who wasn’t about to give up the fight–invites my mother to come up and visit the 1939 Worlds’ Fair. After much fretting that my grandfather couldn’t afford the train fare, she tagged along on a friend’s road trip. By this time, sweet Sara was sending Ed her love again and flirting right along. Two weeks after the Worlds’ Fair weekend, she writes, “This afternoon I was putting a few things in my scrapbook and what memories they brought back. Ed, it all seems like a dream now! Will you ever forget the Waldorf Astoria? The other night I listened to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra and pretended we were dancing together again …”
A year and a half later, they were married (see Stardust Memories, Parts I and II, there in the sidebar, just a click away!). Today, November 8th, would have been their 74th anniversary. I look around at my house strewn with papers and odd souvenirs (and archival sleeves!) and decide, yeah, it’s worth it. Thanks to Matt, my brothers and sister, my nieces and nephews, my children and (yikes) grandchildren, will be able to enjoy this little slice of family history. Maybe they’ll think, “Hmmm. Weird.” But they might smile while they’re at it, the way I can’t stop doing myself.
Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, no thanks to the Florida dentist!
PS! You might notice I’ve tinkered with my blog’s layout. I may totally rework it soon … comments and suggestions welcome!
Yesterday, October 19th, marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I’m a day late and a dollar short, as my father, who was never late for anything, was fond of saying. We lost him in October, too, twelve years ago on the 25th, just about a year to the day after my closest aunt left us in 2002. Then there was my maternal grandfather. Let’s see, he went in October, 1979, on the kind of warm bright autumn day in his north Florida town that makes surviving the area’s blistering summers worthwhile.
Is it in the blood? All these beloved folks died of natural causes, three of the four “of old age,” to put it rather unscientifically. It does make you wonder–is there something about the month itself that draws my kin to their final rest? Something anesthetizing about the cool rains, the majestic leaf fall, the smell of woodsmoke? Or is it the irresistible allure of all those zombies and skeletons knocking on doors on the 31st? Maybe thoughts of the great saints preparing for their feast day November 1st? I can’t say, but here’s another funny thing. My father, and that paternal grandfather, were BORN in October, too. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t recall the day my grandfather was born but I know it was in October. He used to wear a pin in his tie, a thin strip of gold topped with an opal. I remember the opal’s glossy shine, its smooth oval surface, one he let me rub whenever I drew near. His birthstone, my mother told me the first time I asked about it. The notion that a man would wear a birthstone pin both surprised me and filled me with awe.
And hold on a sec, that grandfather’s wife, the only grandmother I ever knew, she was born in October, too. As were many of my dear friends (thanks to those handy Facebook reminders, far more than I realized). What can it all mean? Probably nothing more than that for me, October is as fickle a month emotionally as she is meteorologically (the mercury here dipped into the 30s last night, while weekend highs are predicted near 80). If nothing else, this might explain why when a good friend exclaimed in an email the other day that October was her favorite month, my heart sank.
I prefer April. She and October are sort of sister months aren’t they, cosmic mirror images, the earth tilted to the same degree in relation to the sun? (Can you tell most of my astronomical smarts come from lessons learned while building styrofoam solar systems?) But April. Ah April. For me, far from the cruelest month, she’s the month when moisture returns to my skin, the sun grows warmer each day, doors and windows open and the sneezy mold and dust of winter rise up and out. The trees burst into showy flower and perhaps best of all, baseball season gears up!
October? It heralds the end of things I most enjoy–more hours of sunlight than not, long walks in shirtsleeves, the comfort of 160 Atlanta Braves’ games to come. And yet … October has football, and pumpkin-carving, and the holidays aren’t far off and of course winters here in Atlanta are blessedly short. My mother preferred fall and disliked summer. She hated to sweat, had spring allergies, loved nothing more than wearing a crisp blouse under a wool suit. Maybe that’s it. Maybe, during her last weeks, difficult weeks during which I realize now I was doing everything I could to keep her alive when she was ready to go, she finally decided enough was enough. It might well be that October felt like home to her. Perhaps she felt those spirits who went before her–her father and my father and her sister–beckoning so strongly she could no longer resist. I can’t say. We can never say.
I imagine October with all its golds and greens and browns will always be a month when melancholy will have its way with me. I’ll remember my parents’ passing, and my grandparents, and those of friends I’ve begun to lose along the way, some of them in autumn, too. October is a soft month after all, a sleepy one, restful. And you know what? I guess there’s nothing else to do but let the sadness wash in and through, to look the painful memories square in the eye. Then, when I look back I can better see the beauty of October. Its short golden days, the chilly football nights, the amber sunsets on an emptying beach–wistful, yes, but lovely. I can never say you’re my favorite October, but you get my attention, and my respect. You hold in your cool velvet hands the souls of so many I’ve loved.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.