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 when I first 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.
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 or 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).
A card from Weezer …
… for my 6th birthday.
As I’ve mentioned all too often, my father’s mother died when he was four. In the chaotic aftermath it was Weezer, thirty-something and single, who stepped in to raise him and his brother. A staunch Catholic, by the time I came along she lived three blocks from the cathedral and the parochial elementary school I attended. On afternoons when my mother was off at her book group or shopping, 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 the door with a smile (not much of a hug on account of germs), ask me about my day, and dodder off to dish up the snack I was allowed only at her house: Underwood Deviled Ham on Sunbeam bread.
“Dear Louise …” writes one Paul B. Strickland, also late of Beck and Gregg, in a 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 only 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 three I’ve found. A 1962 letter concludes “with a heart full of love to you.”
Family letters as early as the 1930s mention him. In a note from September 1953, my uncle writes from Ohio to make plans for a visit home. “Reckon Paul would let you off Monday afternoon?” he asks. Aha! Paul was the boss. Attagirl, Weez. My father used to joke about catching Weezer and “Mr. Strickland,” as we knew him, together on the living room couch when they were younger. If Mr. Strickland’s arm happened to have found its way around Weezer’s shoulders, he did the quick head-scratch retraction upon my father’s approach, as if they were naughty teenagers. My brothers and sister remember his Sunday afternoon visits in later years. Dressed in coat and tie, he would sit a proper distance from Weez on the dusty glider on her front porch, smile, and say little. By this time, Paul lived alone in the Hotel Georgian Terrace in midtown while Weezer had retired and moved six miles north to that big squarish house. After seeing each other over their second cup every day for decades, they must have felt oceans apart.
Miss Louise, right (smoking a pipe?!?), enjoying a moment of fun with her sister and an old beau. Undated but likely pre-1920.
At left, my Uncle Ben. At right, the Weez, properly gloved and hatted, shakes a finger at the photographer somewhere along the eastern seaboard.
Still they kept up their visits, and after Weezer lost another sister and a niece in the 1962 Air France crash at Orly, Mr. Strickland was right there by her side. Why did they never marry? Wherein lay the danger in this liaison? Simply in workplace etiquette? Perhaps early on Weezer hesitated to introduce a new father figure into what was already a dysfunctional situation for my father and uncle. Or maybe Mr Strickland was reticent about engaging in that dysfunction, though there’s no evidence of it. 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 TB she contracted as a girl, 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 use the TB rationale to soften the blow while avoiding a “sinful” entanglement?
The Attic, though teeming with rosaries and relics of the saints, has yet to provide 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’ 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. Heck, 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 for herself?
I googled Paul B. Strickland/Beck and Gregg the other day, and came up empty. I did a search on Ancestry.com and found a possible match in a man born June of 1883, died August 15, 1970. Makes sense. My clearest memories are of visiting Mr. S in a nursing home. Beyond that, no updates, no ancestry leaf-hints. Who was this man my surrogate grandmother loved? I couldn’t let it go. So I went to the downtown library, wrestled long minutes with the microfiche machine, and found his obituary: “Services for Paul B. Strickland, 87, … will be held at Concord Baptist Church at 3 pm.” Baptist. It was also noted Mr. Strickland had resided in Atlanta and that he’d retired as vice president from Beck and Gregg Hardware seven years prior. Retired, at 80. He was survived, as Weezer would be two years later, only by nieces and nephews.
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, perhaps 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 bound together a splintered young family, supported her sisters, cared for her 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 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 a Christmas card and a photo of my older siblings. “There is a Santa Claus!” she begins, and goes on to describe the scene in her office when she opened the card: “First Man: ‘Who are those children?’ Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.’ First Lady: ‘Whose children, All three so pretty?’ Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.'” This goes on through another Lady and three Men with like responses before Weezer signs off, with love. Then a PS, as if she just can’t hold it in: “Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”
A tip of the hat to your beau, Miss Louise, and a dozen roses to you.
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 vinegar. I skip and chatter and now and then, Grandaddy Ben smiles and nods and squeezes my hand. He leads me home. I am not disappointed.
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.
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 of the past few months, stuff that can strain the bonds of even the most tight-knit families. I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks for keeping it light, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day, with love, from your youngest, “Mart-wah!”
Big splashy holidays like today sometimes still my fingers on the keyboard. Hard to come up with a single original thought at a time when the entire planet is striving to do the same. Besides, to adapt a bit of Lucy Van Pelt, we all know Mother’s Day is just another commercial racket, run by a big Eastern syndicate … In this happy vein, I happened upon a Facebook post yesterday that called for a moratorium on all things Mother’s Day. Think of the millions, it asserted, for whom this day brings heartache–those who have lost mothers, and grandmothers, those who have toxic mother-child relationships, those mothers who have lost children and those women who want to be mothers and were never given the chance, for whatever reason.
The post gave me pause. Who am I to share photos and tell stories that might bring pain to so many? Then I thought, hang on a minute, I’m one of them! I’m motherless on this day for the first time, I’ve been grandmother-less for thirty years, and ironically, today is the last day our family calls the house my parents designed and built, the house where I grew up–my mother-home, so to speak–our own. Yes, My Mother’s Attic has disgorged her last mournful scraps. She’s been emptied out and swept clean. Tomorrow, a new family will sign on the dotted line and before long, some other mother, a box of dusty souvenirs in her arms, will bash her shin as she climbs the old girl’s steep wooden stairs. I can hear her cursing under her breath now.
I admit I’ve felt pretty wistful the past few days, though really, I can’t complain. I have four healthy children who like me well enough (most days) and all of them called. The youngest even joined us for lunch and my daughter ordered up a vase of roses and lilies from her room at the sorority house. It was delivered at nine am by, who else? A mother! We wished each other well and she didn’t seem the least bit upset to be doing a good turn for another mother lucky enough to be lounging in her pajamas while she made her rounds.
I saw a lot of women my age out today, their living mothers bedecked with corsages and leaning on their arms for support. Funny thing is, they made me feel better. Sure, when I scroll through the hundreds of tributes posted from sons to mothers and mothers to daughters, every dog, cat and fish to its surrogate mom, I get a little twinge, but I keep at it. Mostly, I smile. Turns out we’re a social species, one that thrives on emotion. Being alive often hurts but maybe in the long run, we do well to open ourselves up to the whole messy shebang–the happy thoughts, the teary memories, the moments of deep gratitude and the ones we can’t help but resent, whether that resentment involves those who have what we don’t, or our very mothers themselves. Maybe it boils down to the obvious: If you’re on this Earth, whether old or young, you have or had a mother, and God knows it doesn’t take long to develop some mixed feelings towards that woman who made you eat Brussels sprouts and called you Sweetie in the school hallway. But even if she did it poorly sometimes, she did what no one else could. She gave you your one particular life.
Hope you enjoy these photos of my mother and my two grandmothers, all wearing their Mamma hats (or in Mom’s case, scarf and curlers, like any good mother would, on the beach, in the ’60s.) Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and cheers to you, Mom. I owe you the world.