All week, I’ve been noodling over a proper way to honor my mother on this March 21, 2019, the day she would have turned 100. I hate to repeat myself, or post photos I’ve likely used before, just because for my family this is a noteworthy day. But it does seem significant, the centennial. When early this morning, before my second cup, my daughter launched a group family text from New York, I thought, hmmm, she nailed it, and with little more than a string of emojis. Who needs words?Emma gives a crisp and warm tribute to “Joe,” the grandmother she respected and adored.
Then again … for those who still love words the way Joe did, perhaps a brief concordance is in order: Not exactly an angel in life, my mother, a devout Roman Catholic, certainly wears the loveliest of halos now, in one form or another. A woman worthy of swirling hearts? Absolutely. A charmer who loved to dance to the likes of Glenn Miller, she had her share of romances and enjoyed them every one, but once she settled down (at 22 no less), she was a loyal and caring partner to my father for 63 years. A superstar? Yes, Joe was, if a quiet one, as the characters that follow the star aptly suggest. Flowers … give her an old cut glass vase and she could bring out the best in simple back yard blooms. And, ah the little blue dress. Had she lived in another time or birthed fewer children (i.e. me), my mother had a shot at being the next Dior. Her sewing machine was her creative outlet and her family’s delight, as my sister and I and Emma herself can attest. At 81, Mom created for her a flower girl dress to wear in my nephew’s wedding that was elegant and sweet, just the thing for a six-year-old .
Next a crown … Was Mom the Princess to my father’s Prince? Indeed she was, bejeweled and beloved. And of course she became an old woman, a grandmother. If not doting, she was affectionate, full of pride and love for her twenty-five grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Still, my mother did not go gentle into that good night. I honestly don’t think she ever thought of herself as elderly, and though her stubborn resistance to things like wheelchairs and retirement homes brought her unnecessary heartache and her family endless frustration, maybe her stolid resistance to accepting the concessions of age was what kept her young-ish for so long.
A wearer of Easter hats, and yes, addicted to black coffee. A better piano player than she gave herself credit for, she was an admirable consumer of wine if not a connoisseur and a great fan of gifts, both received and given (accompanied by makeshift cards, always signed with love). Shopping! Boy did she love a good bargain, but the coup de gras of my daughter’s emoji-esque tribute? It has to be the stack of pancakes. A half-hearted cook otherwise, my mother made a damn good pancake, so light and fluffy we generally ate a few more than was advisable. Well into her nineties, she continued to host her in-town family for Saturday morning breakfast. Even on days she burned the bacon and stirred cornmeal into the batter when she meant to use flour, we wolfed it all down.
A couple of emojis I might add to my daughter’s thread … the jet plane, and the stack of books. A wannabe travel agent and a devotee of museums, ancient cathedrals, lush English gardens and French chateaux alike, my mother taught me that travel is the best learning tool we have, with reading a close second. She devoured books, and collected everything from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs to Virginia Woolf’s novels. For that legacy, with apologies to Marie Kondo, I am most grateful.
My Stats page tells me this is my thirtieth post in the Attic, thirty in about four years, though apparently I’ve shared nothing since last March. Maybe that’s a sign. Maybe it’s time to wrap it up. Lord knows (and as this post surely proves) I have repeated myself, circled around the same themes often enough. I won’t archive the site just yet, but I’m at work on a few other projects now. With luck, I’ll be able to share these one way or another before too long.
Those handy Stats also tell me upwards to six thousand folks have been kind enough to visit the Attic over its lifetime. They–you–have given my posts over ten thousand views. Thank you. Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for sharing the strangeness and laughter and joy and sorrow that come in the wake of losing a parent, no matter how old or young.
Happy 100th, Mom, our one and only.
My grandmother, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old.
Emma and her Joe
My parents and I, Fernandina Beach, Florida, circa 1966
Exhibit A: Me—twelve, Mom—fifty-four, family pooch—we’ll call it six. Her name, the dog, was Butchie, largely because the Mattingly dogs who preceded her, all male, were called Butch—Butch the first, Butch the second … George Foreman style, and if the tradition can be feminized, why not? The car (or perhaps victim?)—a convertible Cutlass, circa 1970. It belonged to my brother George (imagine that, Mr. Foreman), mid-twenties at the time and two years married to his lovely wife, Connie. Wait, it’s possible Connie brought the Cutlass in question to the marriage, a sort of dowry-like perk. Memory fails, but let’s go with that. It makes a better story, and for sure, I’ll never forget the happy couple’s gnashing of teeth after the incident that left their racy little Olds bashed at the hip …
Late spring or early summer, from the looks of my outfit, sunset of my seventh grade year, and apparently I’d set my sights on the Twiggy award (all arms, legs, and stringy hair). Late afternoon, as I recall, and I’m hanging out in our family den, a bag of potato chips and onion dip close at hand, maybe huddled over a pre-Algebra problem, maybe watching a “Brady Bunch” re-run, most likely fresh off the (rotary) phone from lamenting to a similarly pre-pubescent friend that my crush-of-the-month only had eyes for Laura or Cynthia or one of three other classmates more Bridgette Bardot-like, even at twelve, than Twiggy.
Suddenly, a high-pitched scream outside, at first faint then gaining volume like an oncoming train. I drop pencil and Lays and bolt out the back door, Butchie at my heels, to driveway’s edge. Our driveway (see Exhibit B below), ran about forty yards straight down at a precipitous angle from the street to our house in a hole, as I used to call it, a hole created in some long ago millennium by the babbling creek that flowed five to ten yards, give or take, to the right of said driveway. Just below driveway’s crest, a pile of mail in her arms and pocketbook swinging at her elbow, my mother chases as if to rein in with magical maternal powers her lemon yellow Electra, a popular boat-like Buick of the day. The Buick rolls merrily along, self-driven, ten feet ahead of her. I grab Butchie’s collar and freeze. The car seems more runaway cartoon buggy than dangerous projectile, and I sense in my mother’s screams more panicked embarrassment than fear. Sure enough, the hulking Buick all but eases over the wide drain at driveway’s base, where rainwater sluices away on a stormy day. Rather than careen toward the pup and me, she veers right, groaning, and comes to a cacophonous yet somehow graceful stop, her fall, so to speak, broken by the unlucky Cutlass situated in the handy parking slot my father cleared years before above the picturesque creek.
“Two cars! Two cars!” my mother hollers, spectator pumps slapping gravel and knees knocking beneath the hem of her skirt. Two car crash, she means, and the fact that she, whose exercise regimen features climbing steps and roaming the mall, has survived this descent without serious injury is perhaps most astounding of all. Her arms are empty now, spilled purse and mail littered across the drive, and she flails those arms overhead like a mad wing walker flashing his orange baton on a tarmac. I think I smile a little even then, because honestly, though this will be an expensive mistake, one that might have been tragic, it really is funny.
Moments before, the Electra’s trunk stuffed with grocery bags, Mom pulled over the raised lip that joined driveway to street and stopped, as she’d done countless times before, to fetch the mail. She mashed the emergency brake with her quad A, size 6, foot, opened the door, stepped out to the mailbox, and, ooh la la, there she went, Old Electra, smelling the barn and waiting for neither man nor dreamy woman. The gear shift, my mother surely thought. Did I put it in Park? She did not, and thus did the yellow workhorse begin her joyride home, happily slowed by that emergency brake. How was she to know my brother’s muscle car had claimed her favorite stall?
I wish whoever snapped this Kodak moment had included old Electra, whose escapade left her with quite a shiner (think of the Instagram likes Mom might have earned!), but otherwise, I love the old crash photo, grainy and blued as it is. I love the dense foliage in the background that was the leafy oak that used to shade my friends and me in the creek below as we hopped from rock to boulder, building dams and creating imaginary villages. I love the tall tree trunk to the right, one of so, so many towering pines in our Georgia yard. I love having a pic of Butchie, RIP ole girl, with her graying beard, and mostly, I love the amused look on my mother’s face, the hint of guilty delight that says she owns this crazy humiliating moment, much the way she owned others during her long wacky years of rearing six children.
It’s funny, I don’t remember much anger associated with the Cutlass caper—check that, George was pretty stoked, but who could blame him? I associate with it instead one of my father’s exasperated shrugs and the eye roll that often followed. Needless to say, our family weathered troubles much more serious over the years than a two-car crash (though how it must have stumped our insurance agent–who/what was at fault?). We weathered times that in the moment weren’t funny at all, but somehow, most of our dysfunctional moments did, in the retelling at least, dissolve into laughter.
It was all about sense of humor, and the fact that my mother and father managed to keep theirs, through better and much worse and even as they aged and life grew close and dark. That legacy is something I thank them for, every day.
Somehow, we’ve been slung around the sun yet again and here it is, May 3rd. Earlier this week, I decided NOT to write about my big brother Ed, who died on an Atlanta May 3rd very like this one–bright, breezy, warm but still spring fresh, the air just a touch heavier, loamier than a week ago, way back in April. I mean, enough already! I’ve written about Ed before. The Attic faithful know all about his misadventures as a Marine in Vietnam, his “punny” way with words, his painful yet contemplative death (see Brother, Brother in the side bar!). What’s more, my MacBook is in hospital (wine spill and the drunken slash symbol now dances mercilessly across the screen), and writing (never mind, creating) on this effing PC borrowed from my husband’s office is proving the adage that you can’t teach an old hack new tricks. (How the heck do I UNDO an action? Moments ago, I hit something in the vicinity of the “numlk” key and deleted this entire post and had to start over. And don’t get me started on the backwards scroll bar …)
So I reckoned I’d bow out of this one, skip the ten-year mark in this age when no one with a shred of social media self-respect would miss the chance to celebrate an anniversary so post-worthy. I stayed strong through my second cup, especially after my initial efforts to navigate Google Chrome on this blasted machine left me in knots. I took a good Ujjayi breath and headed off to Wednesday yoga in search of some balance. A few Warriors, a couple twisting Chair poses, way too many Vinyasas, and it happened. As the class contorted with a collective grunt into pigeon (pidgen?), the music (which I’d hardly noticed before, as any good yogi wouldn’t) transitioned to a breathy version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” I jerked up my head, made awkward eye contact with my neighbor, snuggled back over my Gumby hip. A chart-topper for years in the UK and Europe, the 1967 Procul Harum original made it only to number five in the States. You don’t hear it much these days, but it was Ed’s Numero Uno. He played it as vinyl, eight track, cassette and CD. He sang it A Capella (and out of tune) ALL THE TIME.
Maybe it was magical thinking, maybe a fleeting moment of Nirvana, but of a sudden, Ed was right there on the mat beside me, slinking his long limbs into their own Twister trick (a game he excelled at, as he did most games). I closed my eyes and smiled, relaxed into the lyrics as they came in his deep playful voice–We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels cross the floor …
How could I take this as anything less than a cosmic nudge? Just like that, I determined to come home to do what I’d vowed not to, write about Ed (though for me, in brief, wouldn’t you say?). I don’t know, maybe big brother wants (certainly deserves) at least a nod on this day when so many across the country are thinking of him, missing him, laughing to themselves to remember his jokes and his ironic grin. There’s his widow and daughter and grandchildren in Oregon, our brother in San Francisco and sister in Pennsylvania, his many loving in-laws in New Orleans, his nieces and nephews and friends all over, and of course, those of us still in the city he loved–two more brothers, a son, the youngest daughter and their families and of course, moi, the kid sister (whose children adored their Crazy Uncle Ed).
This morning, many of us shared the usual email thread, a few photos, to reminisce. And just now, my niece reminded me that ten years ago, as we let fly Ed’s ashes over the chilly mountain waterfall where as children we used to swim and dive and scare our mother’s hair straight, Procul Harem played on a boom box balanced on a strong and solid Carolina rock.
Which leads me to believe maybe a few other folks heard Ed today, too, … as the ceiling fell away … and hewandered through his playing cards, calling out for more …
I was seventeen the first time I read “A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner’s eerie tale of tribute to a spinster with attitude. I loved it. The story had just the right blend of macabre romance and Southern sensibility to appeal to my teenaged self, at once idealistic and sentimental. What’s more, I felt a whisper of warm recognition, even affection (despite the arsenic), for Emily Grierson and the “big squarish frame house” where she lived alone in early 20th century Mississippi. I knew that close musty air, the heavy walnut bed beneath rose-shaded lights, the Victorian trinkets and the lace doilies on coffee tables and upholstered chairs. In fact, I knew Emily. I once had a spinster of my own, my Aunt Louise, who walked with a cane and wore frumpy dresses, cameo brooches, pearls, and hats. Always a hat, and for Sunday Mass, a netted veil to cover her impish face. Above, see Louise as a young woman holding a pipe–surely just a play thing, a photographer’s harmless prop.
Louise was my father’s aunt, my great aunt, though when I was very young that relationship failed to compute. She was just Weezer (pronounced Wee-za), sometimes “the Weez,” and I loved her the way my friends did the grandmothers they visited on Sundays, shared jello with at Morrison’s Cafeteria, or listened to on the phone with half an ear (Yes, Weez, I’ve done my homework and passed a healthy, ahem, stool today). Great Aunt maybe, but in effect, Weezer was my grandmother. My father’s mother died in 1918 of what’s sometimes called the “Spanish Flu” (though its origins have since been traced to Kansas), a victim of our nation’s first pandemic. My father was four years old. Weezer, thirty-something and single, stepped in to raise him and his brother.
A staunch Catholic, by the time I came along Weez lived three blocks from the cathedral and parochial elementary school I attended. On afternoons my mother was otherwise occupied, I would sling my book bag over my shoulder and walk those three blocks in my plaid dress and saddle oxfords. Weezer would greet me at her doorstep with a smile (not much of a hug on account of germs–pandemics will do that), ask me about my day, and dodder off to dish up a special Weezer-snack: Underwood Deviled Ham on Sunbeam bread.
“Dear Louise …” writes one Paul B. Strickland in shaky blue script. “Being a poor hand at selecting presents, it is hoped the enclosed will be acceptable as it carries my wish for you the merriest of Christmas greetings … It would be best if you would use it for something you desire for yourself. Very pleasing to me but use it as you wish and I will be happy. Sincerely, with love, Paul. December 25th, 1961.”
This is the one missive in which Paul addresses Weezer as Louise. Otherwise, it’s “Miss Bickers,” though tellingly, he signs off “Paul,” and “with love,” in each of the letters I’ve found. In 1962 he concludes “with a heart full of love to you.” Family letters as early as the 1930s mention Mr. Strickland. My uncle, planning a visit home from Ohio in September, 1953,writes: “Weez–Reckon Paul would let you off Monday afternoon?”
Paul, it seems, was the boss man.
My father used to joke about catching Weezer and Mr. Strickland unawares when they were younger. Now and then, he came upon them sharing the living room couch. If Mr. Strickland had his arm around Weezer’s shoulders, he would do the quick head-scratch retraction, as if they were naughty teenagers. My older sister and brothers remember his Sunday visits in later years. Dressed in coat and tie, Mr. Strickland would sit and smile, always at a proper (social) distance from Weez, on a dusty glider on her front porch. But he said little. By this time, both had retired. Paul lived alone in the Georgian Terrace in midtown. Weezer had moved six miles north to her big squarish house. After seeing each other over their second cup every day for decades, they must have felt oceans apart.
Still they kept visiting, and after Weezer lost a second sister to the 1962 Air France crash at Orly, Mr. Strickland was right by her side, comforting her. Why did they never marry? Wherein lay the danger in this liaison? Was it simply against workplace etiquette? Maybe early on Weezer hesitated to inject a new father figure into what was already a dysfunctional situation for my father and uncle. Could be Mr Strickland was reticent about engaging in that dysfunction, though there’s no evidence of that. But later, ten, twenty, thirty years later? My mother’s theory, which no doubt trickled down from my father’s clan, was that Weezer was afraid of passing along the tuberculosis she contracted as a girl (germs, at it again),that even after being cured she vowed never to kiss a man. Hmm. My brother Tom posits that perhaps Mr. Strickland was, God forbid, a Protestant. Might Weezer’s fierce faith have led her to resist his advances, maybe even to lean on a certain germophobia to soften the blow while avoiding a “sinful” entanglement?
My mother’s attic, though teeming with rosaries and relics of the saints, has not provided a clear answer. Weezer was a prolific letter writer, or letter-typer, I should say. She tapped away with dry wit on Beck and Gregg letterhead, often annotating and always signing by hand. Two weeks before my parents’ 1941 wedding, she needles my father about expensive gifts and potential guests and updates him on a family controversy concerning their write-up for the paper. “When I get ready to announce my engagement …” she writes. “I’m going to write it myself, or get St. Peter to do it.” And handwritten on the reverse is this: “Will there be any question about the priest marrying you in Sara’s back yard? Better see!”
My mother was a Baptist. The logistics of getting them hitched by a proper priest in her small Florida town created many a sleepless night for my father’s kin. The idea of their marrying at all gave them apoplexy. In this day of destination weddings and bachelorette weekends and TV rose ceremonies, it’s easy to look back and laugh at their anxiety, but to Weezer and her family, marriage was more sacrament, less party. The traditions of the Church mattered to them. A lot.
And yet, in the end Weezer gave my parents her blessing. She bent the rules for the man she’d raised and loved like a son. Why not do as much for herself? And who even was this man my surrogate grandmother loved in secret? I ran a Google search. Nothing. On Ancestry.com I found a possible match for a Paul Strickland, born June of 1883, died August 15, 1970. Made sense. My clearest memories are of visiting “Mr. PBS” in a nursing home. Beyond that, no updates, no ancestry leaf-hints. Far from satisfied, I went to the downtown library and found (on microfiche) this Mr. Strickland’s obituary. It revealed that he’d resided in Atlanta, that seven years prior he’d retired as vice president from Beck and Gregg Hardware (bingo), and that he was survived, as Weezer would be two years later, only by nieces and nephews.
Then this: “Services for Paul B. Strickland, 87 … will be held at Concord Baptist Church at 3 pm.” Baptist. And retired at age 80–who works until 80? A man who prefers the company of a co-worker to his empty apartment.
Late in her spinsterhood, Faulkner’s Emily Grierson finds a sweetheart in Homer Barron, a Yankee foreman on a scalawag-inspired construction project. Some in town are hopeful Emily will marry at last. Others, namely her out-of-town kin, are scandalized by the idea of Emily taking up with a Yankee. Their outrage, stoked by Emily’s pride, leads to a haunting conclusion some see as a twisted sort of triumph for Emily. Faulkner later said this about his story: “I pitied [Emily], and this was my salute … to a woman you would hand a rose.”
I don’t pity my Aunt Louise. I admire her. She stood down a pandemic, bound together a splintered young family, supported her sisters and cared for aging parents. In a time when women didn’t much, she built a career for herself and found fulfillment in it. She lost two sisters far too young and outlived a third. And somewhere across town–who knows, maybe just where she wanted him–she had a partner through it all.
December, 1949: Weezer writes my father to thank him for sending along a Christmas card and a photo of my three oldest siblings. “There is a Santa Claus!” she begins, and goes on to describe the dialogue that transpired among her and her co-workers as she passed around the card:
“First Man: ‘Who are those children?’
Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.’
First Lady: ‘Whose children, All three so pretty?’
Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.'”
This routine continues with another “Lady” and three Men giving like responses before Weezer signs off, with love. Then, as if she just can’t hold it in, she types a P.S. for my dad: “Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”
I feel I know my great aunt Louise a little better now, Louise the woman, the survivor–feisty, hard-working, proud, and passionate in ways her faith and her scarred past caused her to hide.
A dozen roses to you, Weez. I bet you smoked that pipe with abandon.
My mother spent her twenties and thirties (and thanks to me, her forties) changing diapers by day and going to PTA meetings by night. While my father went from WWII vet to laundromat owner and on to the life insurance business, she prettied up basement apartments and matchbox houses ’til they felt like home. But Dad thrived at Guardian Life, and by the time I reached double digits, Mom figured it was her turn, time to shake out her wings and fly, literally. Travel became her passion. I don’t mean quick jaunts to the Georgia coast or the Smoky Mountains, places my father, known to gaze upon a crashing waterfall for hours, loved. My mother didn’t mind an ocean breeze or the smell of woodsmoke now and then, but the older she got, the more she craved something a little higher brow–the French Quarter, Williamsburg, Gothic Cathedrals and castles on the Rhine, the Tuileries, and of course, Harrod’s and Le Bon Marché.
Who knew? The small town Florida girl, the markedly fertile eldest daughter of a Baptist dentist and his civic-minded wife (neither of whom ventured beyond the rolling hills of Virginia) pined for the Old World. In her fifties, my mother joined study groups led by Atlanta professors of history and literature and philosophy. She bought oversized maps and guidebooks (saved in the Attic, by the boxful). She thumbed through classics like A Moveable Feast and Dubliners at the public library. She concocted elaborate itineraries that she oft edited and revised, adding notes in red about what neighborhoods were frequented by which authors and which shoes to wear with what skirt to which restaurant. My father, hesitant but game, found the local Delta office and gathered birth certificates and with Passports and Travelers Checks in hand, my parents were off.
The only child still at home, I was invited along on some of these Grand Tours. Above, c’est moi at twelve, enjoying a baguette while cruising the Seine. It didn’t occur to me to be bored by the idea of spending a few weeks tagging along with my older parents. Well, not until I hit fifteen. My young heart swelled at the sight of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament shining in a chilly London fog, or the endless sumptuous rooms of Versailles rising above checkerboard gardens. My spine tingled to see the bones of the saints lying in dank crypts and the passion of Christ splashed out in the bright incongruous colors of stained glass and Italian triptychs. Believe me, I saw no shortage of stained glass and triptychs, also piétas and Virgins with Child and saintly frescoes on stone church walls. My parents, devout Roman Catholics, were a little biased toward the house of worship. We visited Romanesque and Byzantine and Renaissance, everything from the most ornate nave to the simplest country chapel. In fact, the first thing we did after unpacking our bags was to locate the nearest Catholic church, check the times for Sunday Mass, and plan the rest of our activities around them.
This went for domestic travel, too. Mom saved hundreds of dusty church bulletins from their Sunday visits over the years. I admit this was my least favorite part of our journeys. Attending Mass weekly (and forget not holy days!) at home was trying enough. None of my friends (Protestant, most of them) had to go to church on vacation, especially if it meant sitting on a wooden pew sans cushion while a priest wafted myrrh and offered the Communion Prayer in German, or French, or God forbid, Latin. Honestly, what’s a vacation if not a means of escape from life’s ordinary duties? But go along I did and here’s the thing. It hath marked me. All these years later and fallen away Catholic that I am, I can’t resist a good musky cathedral when I see one.
In a few weeks, I have reason to drive from Seattle to Atlanta. It’s a trip I both dread and look forward to. Forty-something hours in the car across country I’ve only heard tell of–Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. My daughter will join me a couple days in and we’ve decided to take the southern route. Emma is good with a camera and I’d like to try my hand at travel writing so we plan to document our journey, here, in My Mother’s Attic. My father loved the sort of dramatic scenery we’ll encounter, canyons and long vistas and rushing waters. My mother? Less so. Long drives and roadside motels weren’t exactly her thing. Since these are her pages, I keep thinking we need a theme for our trip, something to make our journey Attic-worthy, some pursuit that would have made Mom sit up and say, “Sure, strap me in and hit the gas!”
Churches! We’ll pass through areas settled by Spanish missionaries, si? So between stops at river gorges and ghost towns and desert oases, Emma and I will keep an eye out for them, for churches and temples historic and plain, maybe a few that are a little strange. And when we find one, we’ll share it in this blog. When you think about it, writing is akin to hanging on to letters and photographs, boarding passes and admission tickets and pamphlets. Maybe Mom’s instincts were okay (is admirable a stretch?) Hoarding helped her to hold close, later to share, the joy she felt in real time as she sat on that plane to Munich, or strolled through the Louvre, or attended Mass at St. Mark’s in Venice. She and my father had landed themselves in places exotic and holy, places she’d only dreamed of during those long lean years of child rearing. Who could blame her for making each moment a keepsake?
If any of you reading today hail from the American West, shout out your favorite tourist attraction, especially if there’s a house of worship in the vicinity. And see ya in a couple of weeks, from parts unknown!
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.
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!
My mother wasn’t what you’d call hands-on. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend afternoons together making macaroni necklaces or finger painting. Messy crafts in particular weren’t Mom’s thing (though I do remember a Zoom Loom). Later, I don’t think she ever pulled up a chair to help with homework. And SAT prep? Um, no. As for shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around the yard? We-e-lll, let’s just say she didn’t have the proper shoes, her thin-soled white Keds notwithstanding.
This is not to say she didn’t care. My mother cared a LOT. In fact, as the last of her six children, I was expected to fulfill her fading parental dreams. She wanted me to be the best damn finger painting-macaroni-necklace-making-zoom-looming basketball star in the state of Georgia, as long as she didn’t have to dribble a ball or risk soiling her blouse. There were exceptions. In matters of fashion, Mom led by example, taking me along to mall, boutique, discount house and fabric store alike. More importantly, she was into books, way into books. Before I could read on my own, she read to me (though not that often by today’s standards). The Little Engine that Could and Grimms do come to mind.
But mom was a reader herself, a devourer of print, and I became one, too. A case of successful parenting-by-trickle-down, I suppose. Books were omnipresent as I grew up, and my parents’ house remained stuffed full of them right up until the day Mom died. During last spring’s house purge, I saved cleaning them out for last. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think as long as Mom’s books remained, I could feel her there with me too, her spirit tucked between the pages of everything from James Joyce to John LeCarré. We found books upstairs, downstairs, stacked on shelves, filling up secretaries, piled in tattered boxes under attic eaves, hidden under chairs and tables. There were hardcover and paperback; literary fiction and biographies, mysteries, and spy novels; first editions and worthless mass markets; cookbooks, travel guides, books on architecture and politics, Bibles (one dated 1827, from my Dad’s side of the family), and of course, Catholic How-to Manuals (wouldn’t Pope Francis be proud?). Among these were Birth Control for Catholics (rather brief, that one) and the Catholic’s Guide to Expectant Motherhood. There were so many books that finally, I ran out of time to decide if this one would go to the public library, or that one to Goodwill. Needless to say, lots came home with me. I suppose one day my sons and daughter will be forced to go through them all again, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
I thought of Mom and her books the other day when a post popped up on my Facebook feed noting a drop in ebook sales as compared with print. Too, it seems studies keep showing that folks (even millenials!) like the feel and smell of a physical book. Well, after sorting through thousands of pages, some of them mildew-stained or harboring crumbled insect remains, I have to say I can see why.
And hold on a minute, here comes a memory … I did have finger paints! That smell! Sure, there was a box of them in the back of my closet, right under the Tiddly Winks. Alas, I believe that by the time my friend Diana and I finally dug out the jars and donned our own smocks, the paint had evaporated, leaving behind a crusty, pocked rainbow. But hey, we had books to spare. For a while, we even got into copying them, word for word, into spiral notebooks, though we kept that strange little game to ourselves. Today, Diana and I are both writers. And my sister is a journalist, one brother is an ad man/copy writer, another writes PR and speeches for Coca Cola. Hmm.