A Rose for Miss Louise

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A few of the more colorful selections from my Aunt Louise’s hat collection

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).

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.

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The Beck and Gregg catalog, 1941, priced for collectors now at $200. I like to think Weezer, a clever writer, had a hand in editing it.

You were expecting Tollhouse cookies? A slice of peach pie or at the very least, homemade fruitcake? Nope, Weezer wasn’t much of a cook. I’m not sure she even owned a mixing bowl. Born the third of four daughters in 1886 in Greensboro, Georgia, Louise Bourne Bickers was a working girl. I’m not sure how she ended up in Atlanta, but I know she and at least two of her three sisters did. For fifty plus years, Weezer worked at the headquarters of Beck and Gregg Hardware downtown. She was good at it. Her obituary mentions that for a time she served as “Mr. Beck’s private secretary.” Early on, Weezer needed the money, the stability to weather the Depression with her adopted sons, but as I sift through some of the letters and memorabilia that migrated from her attic to my mother’s and now, figuratively speaking, to mine, I have to wonder. Did something more keep her on board at Beck and Gregg? Could it be my great aunt kept taking dictation and typing up work orders even as her septuagenarian joints protested, because she, like Faulkner’s Emily, had a dangerous liaison?

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A holiday greeting from the man I knew only as “Mr. Strickland.”

“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.

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!”

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Letter (misdated 1951 but sent in ’41) Weezer wrote to my father a few weeks before his wedding.

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.”

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“Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”

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.

Time, and Time Again

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My dapper dad, in his late twenties.
Today, October 9th, 2016, would have been my father’s 102nd birthday. I’ve written about him and his tumultuous life here before, a few times over, so I won’t wax on. I’ll post a few photos, though, sort of a “Souvenir Sunday” in his memory, or his honor, or both. Thirteen years since we lost him, and I still miss his wry humor, his balanced and intelligent guidance, the devilish grin he liked to flash early mornings, when he was the only one in the house in a good mood.

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Officer Mattingly in his Army greens, circa 1945, admiring my older sister.
Well of course I miss him. He was my father, and yet, for the first time since his death I forgot to think about him, or the fact of his birthday, until I’d been up and out of bed for a solid two hours. Around 9:30, I opened my phone and my eye registered the date. Wow, I thought, and felt a flush of shock and shame. Time’s funny that way, isn’t it. You lose someone, a parent, a sibling, a lifelong friend, someone so fundamental to your being  you can’t imagine living on after he or she is gone. Still, you have no choice but to do the laundry or write the article or move the child who is no longer a child to college and the years slip by and you wake up one day to realize hmmm, you’ve done it. You’ve survived, and wonder of wonders, it’s happened almost without your knowing it. You’ve simply lived, rearranged your day-to-day in ways that have eased the sting, plugged the holes and filled up the spaces that once felt so gaping and raw. It’s not so much that the spaces are gone, or even that time heals. It’s just that time is time. Like it or not, it chugs past and most of us, the lucky ones I guess, can’t help but jump on the running boards and hold on for dear life.

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A favorite of Dad from his golden years, with my daughter, whom he called “Emma Liz.” It reminds me of the shot of him with my sister. Twenty years later, Emma still keeps it in on her dresser.
Besides … I have the Attic! Or more precisely, the Attic’s scattered remains that have found new life here in my house. Thanks to Mom and her inability to clean out when cleaning out was called for, I can time travel, nostalgically speaking, and have a little visit with Dad. So I made myself a hot cup of Lipton tea–his signature drink–and began shuffling through stacks of photos and letters. Just seeing my father’s face, and especially his handwriting (Miss Martha A. Mattingly, he scrawled across an envelope meant for me during my sophomore year in college) lifted my spirits. His script is hurried but generous, with little white space on the page, and it strikes me now that this was just like him. My father always was a man on the move, a Puritan work ethic-in-motion who wasted not and always kept his tee’s crossed and his i’s dotted. But he braked for family and friends, my father, and that made all the difference.

Here’s the letter Dad enclosed in that envelope from my sophomore year. He wrote it October 5th, just before his 65th birthday. Apparently, I was headed off for a weekend with friends rather than coming home for the family bash. (What was I thinking? Sixty-five is a big deal!) Note to my whiney mother-self: Dad took this news with good humor and wished me a happy time wherever I was going. There’s nothing special about the letter otherwise–he and Mom were off to the Symphony that night, he was enclosing a check to help with my “tight finances” (which they weren’t, thanks to him), and he sure appreciated my phone calls whenever they came, said they brightened his spirits, “put life back” in their big, quiet house.

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Dad and I, circa 1976, in a garden somewhere in England, on one of the many trips abroad that as the “baby,” I was lucky enough to be part of.
I imagine that house felt plenty big and quiet, much quieter than I knew. Our youngest is now in his senior year of high school, and I feel his leaving already, his Pottery Barn Teen bed shrinking around his broadened shoulders, his keen mind yearning for space and freedom to question and grow. The unoccupied corners of our house now loom larger, blow a little draftier each day. But there’s good news. In one way, I take after my mother. Between the kindergarten artwork and piles of yellowed report cards, the baseball lineups and class photos and Playbills I’ve collected from our family’s younger days, I have plenty of sorting and tossing, and yes, safekeeping to do, more than enough to keep my mind off of all these empty rooms as Time does its thing, and chugs on.

 

 

 

I Am Mae Mobley

Friday was my birthday. Mid-summer, any way you slice it, prone to the lingering 4th hangover and hot and gluey the hemisphere around. In Atlanta, my home town, July 8th often dawns drowsy and nondescript, a day when traffic is strangely light and folks wind up sipping icy beverages by the pool or streaming baseball in front of an AC vent. I mean, think about it … has anything of true significance ever happened on July 8th? I looked it up, and not much. In 1835, the Liberty Bell cracked, though reports vary. It might have been the 12th. In 1907, whoop-dee-doo, Ziegfield opened his first follies in New York City. 1918: Hemingway was wounded on the Austro-Italian front but macho-man that he was, survived to pen his oeuvre. 1947: a UFO crashed down in New Mexico (or not), and in 1949, Wolfgang Puck was born, followed by Kevin Bacon in ’58. Hmmm.

To be honest, I used to feel a little sorry for myself for having my special day during this time of scatter, a summer limbo void of classroom cupcakes and pinatas. When I was a wee thing, my birthday parties tended to be poorly attended at best, fleshed out with persons (see photo) my mother rounded up to stand in for my wider circle of friends, who were off at camp or beach-combing with their families. Nowadays, I often vamoose on July 8th myself, and really, as the calendar turns, what could be better than to flit out of town and have one’s birthday forgotten altogether?

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Looks like my besties, Helen, Diana, Eleanor, made this party, my 8th on the 8th, but the friend parade stopped there. Mom filled the empty seats with Helen’s kid sister and a few younger cousins.
But this July, 2016, I’m home in the city. My birth-week went haywire from the start. On Tuesday the 5th, Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge, another possible case of color-coded fear having led to the panicked and deadly misuse of power. Ditto on the 6th, when a routine traffic stop in suburban St. Paul ended with Philando Castile, an African American man, dead. Yet sadly, if not for what happened next, on my birthday eve, these events might have become little more than tragic footnotes in the on-line version of “On This Day in History.”

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Birthday Cheers
As yet unaware, I woke on the 8th to the joy of family texts and emails sent at the crack of dawn and a birthday poster lovingly drawn by my youngest son (see left, an old Payne tradition). But before I could pour my first cup of Joe, I found myself longing for the dull birthday anonymity I used to lament. On the kitchen television, an endless loop of chaos and gunfire on the streets of Dallas during an otherwise peaceful protest, a dozen policemen sniper-shot, five dead.

Mass shooting number 150 or so on the year, and we’re hardly halfway home. I don’t know how many of these were racially motivated, but I’d bet a silver dollar they were all rooted in hate, the kind of hate that when kindled by emotional instability is likely to fester in the heart of the dispossessed, the kind of hate that so often meets with an ironic end, where one desperate individual lashes out against others equally marginalized, but for different reasons, the kind of hate I believe is at its core self-hate, and in the end bound to turn on itself, but only after havoc has been wreaked. Consider the deeply troubled and alienated white drug addict who guns down African Americans in a place of worship historically vital to the Civil Rights movement; the pathologically angry Muslim American, isolated within the country of his birth, who opens fire on his gay neighbors; the mentally disturbed black war vet who ambushes white police officers as they monitor citizens of varied races seeking to prevent future incidents of policing gone sour.

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September, 1966, a race riot rocks the streets of Atlanta’s Summerville neighborhood. Here, a young mother clutches her young son, rescued by a white police officer from her tear-gassed home. Layer upon complex layer of anguished love.

I’m over-simplifying, and even so, my head spins. The line between villain and victim grows more muddied every day as hot-button issues like gun legislation, immigration, mental health care, police brutality become so multi-layered and complicated it’s impossible to discuss them without simplifying. But enough. I don’t write today to enter a particular dialogue (though I have opinions! I sign petitions!). I write because as a white woman born and raised and still living in the American South, my bones ache with a helpless sorrow I can’t well reckon with. I write in the hope that putting words to paper will help me lasso emotions I can’t otherwise make sense of. And already I’ve erred. Sorrow isn’t the right word. What I feel is closer to despair. That we as Americans, no matter the shade of our skin, continue to wrestle with the violent manifestations of the same brand of hate, the same demons that have threatened our nation since its inception, is unthinkable.

During the last long hours of a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I flipped through Air France’s film library and settled on The Help. I’d seen it before, and found it on both occasions more moving, more true-to-life than I expected (I boycotted the book, perhaps unfairly, having heard it was sappy and overdone). What I’d forgotten was the uncomfortable blend of warm recognition and biting shame the film dredged up in me. In some ways, I am Mae Mobley Leefolt, the little white girl loved and cared for by the family’s black maid, Aibileen Clark. Mae Mobley was born, fictionally speaking, in August, 1960, in Jackson, Mississippi. I was born in July, 1960, in Atlanta. Mae Mobley had Aibileen. I had Mary Darian, the young woman who worked at our house not every day but often enough I thought of her as family. When in the final scene Mae Mobley calls out to Aibileen, “You’re my real mother!” (yep, pretty sappy), my heart leaps in spite of itself. Though my mother wasn’t negligent like Mae Mobley’s, Mary was sort of her co-mother, an energetic, funny, hands-on, more hip role model than Mom, forty-one when I came along, was capable of being.

And Mary was black.  And far too smart, too gifted, for her position. She had small children of her own someone else cared for while she raised us, no doubt earning less than she deserved. Yet she changed my diapers and sang me to sleep. She picked me up from school and brought my dog along to greet me. She fried a chicken for us on Friday afternoons. Later, she wrote me at camp when I was homesick, sharing details about what my brothers were up to (“Tommy and I cleaned out his closet. He hates making decisions”), complimenting my mother’s sewing projects or cracking a little joke, usually at her own expense. Sometimes she signed off, tongue-in-cheek, “The Maid.” My favorite letter (from Mom’s Attic, of course) is written on two sheets of construction paper torn crookedly across the top and quadri-folded to fit the envelope. After dating the letter, Mary wrote “cheap paper” in parentheses and a few lines later elaborated: “This paper is slightly uneven–like the writer.”

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My Crazy Maid Mary, so dubbed in an essay of the same title, one in which I sang Mary’s praises to my fourth grade teacher. I’ve searched and searched, but the Attic has yet to produce that particular heirloom. Here, she meets one of my nephews.
Like Mae Mobley, I was Mary’s “last white baby.” She left us when I began junior high, taking a job at the hospital where I was born. Mary made a career there, earned a few promotions and stayed until she reached retirement age. We kept in touch, a phone call now and then, quick visits during family weddings, funerals. Then, a long gap of time passed with little contact until the day of my mother’s funeral. As I walked out on my brother’s arm, I caught sight of Mary at the end of a pew. White-haired, a little stooped, she somehow wept and smiled at once. I stopped, and we hugged each other’s necks and cried together. She told me how much she’d loved my mother, her friend, how she misses me, and all the Mattinglys.

Since, and especially during weeks filled with race-inspired violence like this last, I think about Mary, now eighty, and feel that same warmth tempered by shame movies like The Help can rustle up. I like to think our bond was unusual, deeper than most of its type. Mary was my friend and yet, history says what we and thousands of other black-white, maid-child duos of the fifties and sixties shared was tainted. History says that if not for the evils of slavery, these bonds wouldn’t exist, that perhaps they shouldn’t have existed. I can’t deny the truth in this, but then, what do we do with the warmth, the love, that remain?

It occurs to me that other than what I share here, I don’t know Mary Darian’s story. I don’t know how she, eighteen when my parents hired her, managed to break the cycle of domestic service. I knew nothing, as her white baby of the 1960s, about the sit-ins and marches, the tear-gas and beatings, that were happening across town, maybe in her neighborhood. I don’t know who or what she might have lost to the long slog of the Civil Rights struggle. My parents, like Mary herself, were careful to shield me from these seminal, sometimes violent events that would shape our lives. In this, my ignorance of Mary’s story, lies a valid basis for guilt and shame. I can’t change history. I can’t make amends for actions taken by my forebears, though I regret and renounce them. I can’t go back and rearrange the circumstances of my relationship with Mary, but I can at least do what another one of Kathryn Stockett’s characters, Skeeter, does. I can learn Mary’s story. I owe her, and myself, that much.

On Friday, after I switched off the reports coming in from Dallas, I gave Mary a call. She knew my voice immediately and as she spoke, I pictured through the line the tall, confident, young woman who used to drive me to McDonald’s for a Big Mac after school. She told me she’d had a fall, but that her daughter, Lou, had taken such good care of her she was back on her feet. With held breath, I asked after her three sons. They’re well, she reported, all working and living in the metro area. I smiled. Mary’s sons, middle-aged black males in a Southern city, are thriving. They’ve beat the odds, so far. I caught Mary up on my own family and asked if I could come by to see her. “Why sure, anytime!” she said, then paused. “Well, anytime other than Wednesday. I still get out for my Bible study on Wednesdays.”

So we’ll have a visit on Tuesday morning. A late birthday present. I can hardly wait to hear what she has to say.

 

Brother, Brother

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My brother Ed, 22, during his tour of duty in Vietnam, 1969.

This week, Tuesday, marks nine years since we lost my oldest brother to cancer. I was surprised to find no photos of him in my laptop library. It’s an old laptop, a very s-l-o-w laptop, jammed with years of documents and images and videos. Every day–nay every hour–I curse the darn thing and the infernal color wheel I once found so cute. Still, no photos of Ed. And if not for those my nephew, “Little Ed,” tags me in as he loyally uploads old Attic prints and slides (see Vietnam photo above), there wouldn’t be any in my Facebook library either.

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Ed, second from left, with his Mattingly siblings, ordered by age (sorry Sis! If I didn’t say it, no one would guess you were the oldest).

Nine years ago I didn’t have a Facebook library. Nine years was two laptops, three high school commencements, two college grads, my mother’s passing and four smart phones ago. For Ed, nine years was dozens of family birthday cakes, his youngest daughter’s wedding, a sixth grandchild, hundreds of youth sports matches and innumerable missed opportunities to coin a pun or crack a joke. Wait, hasn’t he been there all along? My memory plays tricks. I can’t picture my mother’s Saturday breakfast table without him smirking at me as he sneaks a few dollops of whole wheat batter onto the back of the griddle (sacrilege this was, to alter our mother’s famous pancake recipe). And have we, our extended family, really had seven reunions in the north Georgia mountains, where Ed loved to hike or rock on the porch with the latest Stephen King novel, without him?

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Yes. And no. He’s been physically absent these nine years, yet my mind subs him in. Maybe that’s what we mean when we say someone is “with us in spirit.” Some would say that Ed, like my father and mother, really is with us in some mystical way. I want that to be true. And sometimes, when the wind blows a certain way or the surf crashes just so at the beach where Ed used to beat us all at whiffle ball, I believe it. Other times, I’m not so sure. It seems more the strength of our memories that conjures him. I drive along a desolate stretch of highway in south Georgia and he’s beside me, already laughing at his own joke, the one we both know is coming–“Marth, it’s Vuja Dé all over again! I’m absolutely sure I’ve never been here before … ” Or, I play back messages on the land line and know his voice will be next, the voice of his last months, a little mournful yet tinged with his trademark silliness: “Hey guys, Uncle Cancer here …”

Ed’s going was not easy. Stage Four colon cancer at 58, a lot of pain, a course of chemo, weight lost but hope gained, more pain, finally the message that the doctors had done everything they could, and well, you can imagine the rest. His going was tough in other ways, too. Middle age for him was marked by ups and downs, job uncertainty, secrets kept, promises broken. In short, these were troubled times, as much for his wife and kids as for Ed, and as he slipped away from us, we struggled both to understand his mistakes and to deal with the conflicting emotions they rustled up. To his credit, Ed faced his illness with quiet courage, even a sort of resignation. He came to see his illness and impending death as a sort of atonement for past transgressions. I hated that, refused (refuse!) to believe it, but I let it go. It brought Ed strength somehow, and a certain peace.

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Ed, with his youngest and my daughter. He loved kids and he and Elise took Emma out for McDonald’s lunch most Saturdays when she was young.

My mother, 87 when he was diagnosed, took in his issues with a kind of sad detachment that seemed to help her survive the loss of her oldest son. “His life wasn’t fair, he was so sensitive as a child, he had no luck …” I have my own theory (we are cursed with theorizing, our family, and thus insomniacs, most of us). Ed was 18 when the USA entered the conflict in Vietnam. He graduated from college, joined the Marines, married, and at 22 was shipped off for active combat. He quickly became a Lieutenant, forward observer for his platoon. He served his country well but in a way, Mom was right. Ed was sensitive, the smiling clown with a weeping heart, and maybe not cut out, emotionally, to be a Marine. He came home to his wife and newborn son more reserved, a little twitchy, less motivated, if still the punster he’d always been. No one talked much back then about PTSD, but I have to wonder.

I was eight when Ed left for Vietnam. We exchanged letters. Though the Attic has produced none that I sent him, I have a few Ed penned home to me. They are brief (what do you say to your baby sister when you spend your days sniffing out a wily enemy in a strange hot land?) Still, the tone is telling. Here, from July, 1969 (the Helen mentioned was my childhood friend)–

“Happy Birthday! Sorry, but I won’t be able to send you a present since there are no 10 cent stores out here in the Jungle. How are you? I’m sure you and Helen are pretty busy this summer so you don’t have to write often. Just let me know once in a while what is going on. Have you been selling a lot of lemonade lately? Sometimes in this hot jungle I would pay a dollar for a glass. But it never comes around. None of the little Vietnamese girls can make it like you and Helen. Well, I have to write some more letters. Once again, happy birthday and write me soon. Love, Edward.”

A lemonade in the jungle. Ed would need one often in the years to come. I wish I’d made him a few more. I wish I could stir one up for him now.

House of Spirits

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The House that Sara Built, two weeks before it was sold

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.

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The doorway, copied exactly from the historic Ashley House in Deerfield, Mass. My father loved to elaborate on its unique design to unsuspecting guests.

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 …

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A rare photo of my father’s family, early 1930s. Known then as “E.H.,” he stands at left beside his father BENEDICT, step-mother, Stella, and half-sister, Anne. Older brother Ben and sister Marie complete the group.

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.

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A dubious Attic treasure. From the Atlanta Constitution, December 8th, 1918.

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.

He leads me home. I am not disappointed.

Dust to Digital

The ancestors live on ...
The ancestors live on …

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.

My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again ...
My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again …
“Will not Heat.” Good to know, Mom!

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.

A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.
A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.

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 …”

Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds' Fair.
Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds’ Fair.

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!Fancy Joe and Pop

PS! You might notice I’ve tinkered with my blog’s layout. I may totally rework it soon … comments and suggestions welcome!