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.

Generation Sandwich

“How’s your mum?” asks the sunny checkout woman.

My heart does a loop-de-loop. Hanging in there, I almost say, a grapefruit in one hand and a pack of sponges in the other. For so long, this was my stock response to this stock question from this kind-eyed Pakistani woman with the sprawling memory. This isn’t my usual grocery. Close enough to my house, it’s closer to my mother’s, or to the house that was my mother’s, and my father’s, mine, for half a century. In the years after we took away Mom’s keys and before her get-up-and-go got-up-and-went, we did her shopping here.

“Oh, she passed away,” I manage, cheeks flushing with heat as I do a quick calculation in my head. “Um, a year—no fifteen months now.” Can she have been gone that long? And why this need to pin it down, to date her death for a stranger?

“So sweet,” the woman says, her soft features sagging. “Your mum … such a sweet lady.”

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In my mother’s sandwich days, she sometimes included my grandmother on family trips to Fernandina Beach, Florida. Here, with my sister, she glows.

With this, she gives a wan smile and we all grin and nod like eager Labradors, even my daughter. Yes, my daughter is there at the far end of the cart, home from college for the holidays. Leaning in for the dish detergent, she smiles broadly for the checkout woman then glances at me. They were close, Emma and my mother. They shared a love of fashion, things that sparkle, a petite stature. She misses her grandmother, her “Joe,” but there’s more. Already, at twenty-one, Emma’s smooth pearly skin gives off a curious vibe, a blend of sorrow and unease I’m all too familiar with. She’s as concerned about me in this awkward moment as she is mourning our shared loss.

I finger the sugar snaps in their crackly bag, straighten the box of microwave bacon on the belt because, well, who knows why. When on the spot, I am an aligner, cutlery on a spread table, the floor mat at the door, bacon on the belt.

“She shopped here?” asks the bag boy. “Your mother?”

Our rescuer! He’s young, Emma’s age, maybe younger, and a pleaser. I can see this in the easy way he puffs out my recyclable bags and hands in the heavy items first, the eggs on top, the meat in its own plastic.

“She did,” I say. “All her life! She was ninety-five …”

“Oh yes!” The checkout woman, keying in the zucchini. “She shopped here each week …”

She sweeps a hand in the direction of the produce, the condiments aisle, the canned goods. A knot has risen at the base of my neck. Enough, I think, but still I track the woman’s wave and who is that, just there? A small bent white-haired figure struggles to read the label on a jar of jam. She fumbles for her glasses, shakes her head, purses her lips. Something is not right and she reaches, a tremor in her hand, to reshelve the jar. It doesn’t fit. Where is that patch of free space she pulled it from? With a sigh, she drops it in her buggy anyway then scans the shelves again, squints at the creased scrap of a list between her gnarled fingers.

Marmalade. Maybe if I think it hard enough, she will remember … It’s the orange marmalade you want, the one with the red gingham cinched over the lid.

“Oh, how I remember her …” The checkout woman again, on a roll. “She walked like this …”

The bag boy pauses, his chin tilted up with interest, a pound of sugar balanced in one hand. We watch as the woman drops her arms to her sides and shuffles her feet—my mother’s signature walk in her last fretful years. Like a penguin, my young grandnephew once said, nailing it. The woman flicks her eyes at me and quickly away—has she gone too far? Yes, and no. Emma smiles again, not so broadly. I follow her lead. After all, how often have I mimicked the penguin walk myself, in Mom’s presence and otherwise? We only tease the ones we love …

“I used to help her outside, to wait.” The woman can’t be stopped. She meets my gaze, her eyes less kind. In her household no doubt, the elderly are revered.

“To wait for you,” she continues, gesturing again, through the plate glass window . “On the bench.”

The bag boy glances over his shoulder, past the Lotto machine and the ice cooler to the empty bench on the far side of the glass. It’s true, on very busy days I sometimes dropped Mom to do her shopping alone while I scooted off on some other errand, to pick up a child from baseball or gym practice, maybe to grab a cappuccino. There were times Mom had to wait on me. She didn’t mind, usually. In fact, she liked it! I expect I can do my own shopping … she would say with a toss of her head. She needed it, my mother, this small dose of independence.

Andshe was not ninety-five then! I want to cry it out. She was late eighties, maybe ninety-one at the most! Boy, does my head hurt.

“Ninety-five!” the bagboy exclaims. He too meets my gaze, yet with nothing but good cheer. “What a life. I’d take that any day.”

I grin fiercely, more Pit Bull now than Lab.

“Yes,” Emma says. “Ninety-five!” She settles a bag, then another, into our cart. I swipe my card, say my thank you’s, and we turn to go.

“She was nice,” Emma says on our way to the car. “That lady. She must have really liked Joe.”

“Yes, she’s worked there a long time. I used to …”

“I know, Mom. You did everything for Joe.”

She doesn’t mention the bench, or the penguin shuffle, or the fact that in those feverish wonderful days when she and her brothers lived at home and their widowed grandmother lived half a mile away, I may have let things slide a bit, that on those last visits to this grocery Joe might have been too rickety on her feet, too forgetful, to be left to her own devices. Emma doesn’t say that maybe Joe needed her daughter there to pull down the marmalade and help her out to the bench.

She doesn’t mention it, but like she says, she already knows.

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Our happy sandwich, May 2010.

Peace, on Earth

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Two front teeth, please, and don’t even think about grabbing my purse. Circa 1965.

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 …

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.

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Peculiar as it now sounds, we waited ’til Christmas Eve to hang the stockings. The youngest, I was charged with fetching them from the Attic and updating the guest list, so to speak. With my handy Magic Marker I reminded Santa which of my adult siblings were currently in residence. Were we so destitute? Why not purchase fresh stockings as the family grew? It boggles the mind, yet this particular Christmas my sister-in-law had to share her loot with her daughter, Michelle, as well as with my sister.

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.

 

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–

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Peace, on Earth. Literally.

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.

 

 

 

Color Me Burnt Sienna

October gold
October gold

Yesterday, October 19th, marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I’m a day late and a dollar short, as my father, who was never late for anything, was fond of  saying. We lost him in October, too, twelve years ago on the 25th, just about a year to the day after my closest aunt left us in 2002. Then there was my maternal grandfather. Let’s see, he went in October, 1979, on the kind of warm bright autumn day in his north Florida town that makes surviving the area’s blistering summers worthwhile.

Is it in the blood? All these beloved folks died of natural causes, three of the four “of old age,” to put it rather unscientifically. It does make you wonder–is there something about the month itself that draws my kin to their final rest? Something anesthetizing about the cool rains, the majestic leaf fall, the smell of woodsmoke? Or is it the irresistible allure of all those zombies and skeletons knocking on doors on the 31st? Maybe thoughts of the great saints preparing for their feast day November 1st? I can’t say, but here’s another funny thing. My father, and that paternal grandfather, were BORN in October, too. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t recall the day my grandfather was born but I know it was in October. He used to wear a pin in his tie, a thin strip of gold topped with an opal. I remember the opal’s glossy shine, its smooth oval surface, one he let me rub whenever I drew near. His birthstone, my mother told me the first time I asked about it. The notion that a man would wear a birthstone pin both surprised me and filled me with awe.

The Payne children, when they were children, begging candy at my mother's house.
The Payne children, when they were children, begging candy on my mother’s back stoop.

And hold on a sec, that grandfather’s wife, the only grandmother I ever knew, she was born in October, too. As were many of my dear friends (thanks to those handy Facebook reminders, far more than I realized). What can it all mean? Probably nothing more than that for me, October is as fickle a month emotionally as she is meteorologically (the mercury here dipped into the 30s last night, while weekend highs are predicted near 80). If nothing else, this might explain why when a good friend exclaimed in an email the other day that October was her favorite month, my heart sank.

Color change in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina
Color change in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina

I prefer April. She and October are sort of sister months aren’t they, cosmic mirror images, the earth tilted to the same degree in relation to the sun? (Can you tell most of my astronomical smarts come from lessons learned while building styrofoam solar systems?) But April. Ah April. For me, far from the cruelest month, she’s the month when moisture returns to my skin, the sun grows warmer each day, doors and windows open and the sneezy mold and dust of winter rise up and out. The trees burst into showy flower and perhaps best of all, baseball season gears up!

An October victory over the rival. My second son, #78, dumps the Gatorade in celebration.
An October victory over the rival. My second son, #78, dumps the Gatorade in celebration.
Traditional carving night!
My daughter, designer and assistant carver. Tradition!

October? It heralds the end of things I most enjoy–more hours of sunlight than not, long walks in shirtsleeves, the comfort of 160 Atlanta Braves’ games to come. And yet … October has football, and pumpkin-carving, and the holidays aren’t far off and of course winters here in Atlanta are blessedly short. My mother preferred fall and disliked summer. She hated to sweat, had spring allergies, loved nothing more than wearing a crisp blouse under a wool suit. Maybe that’s it. Maybe, during her last weeks, difficult weeks during which I realize now I was doing everything I could to keep her alive when she was ready to go, she finally decided enough was enough. It might well be that October felt like home to her. Perhaps she felt those spirits who went before her–her father and my father and her sister–beckoning so strongly she could no longer resist. I can’t say. We can never say.

The tree that shades my parents' resting place.
The tree that shades my parents’ resting place.

I imagine October with all its golds and greens and browns will always be a month when melancholy will have its way with me. I’ll remember my parents’ passing, and my grandparents, and those of friends I’ve begun to lose along the way, some of them in autumn, too. October is a soft month after all, a sleepy one, restful. And you know what? I guess there’s nothing else to do but let the sadness wash in and through, to look the painful memories square in the eye. Then, when I look back I can better see the beauty of October. Its short golden days, the chilly football nights, the amber sunsets on an emptying beach–wistful, yes, but lovely. I can never say you’re my favorite October, but you get my attention, and my respect. You hold in your cool velvet hands the souls of so many I’ve loved.

Warmest October, Seagrove Beach
Warm October: my youngest with his cousin, Seagrove Beach, late 2000’s
Day is done.
Day is done.

Boys to Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Mom. We sure miss you.

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

All Buttoned Up

Button drawer There’s something pleasing about the button–simple yet functional, often bright, sometimes shiny, and usually a circle–sun, moon, wheel, life. So primal, and yet, somehow divine, and my mother had ‘em by the dozens! Before I wax on, a disclaimer—two entries in and already I’ve moseyed out of my mother’s attic (it’s cold up there!). Down the splintered stairs and up the drafty hallway I go to the sewing room, which began its life as my bedroom. Question—does it count as a bedroom if there’s no bathroom within ten yards? The baby of the family, I was two when my parents built their dream home, so naturally I got the bedroom that wasn’t. I figured it was normal to scuttle through a closet and hopscotch between highboy and hope chest to get to the potty. The house that has fallen silent now was crowded and chaotic then, four brothers, two of them teenagers, sharing a pair of bedrooms and a Jack ‘n Jill bath, plus my sister, who at eighteen wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing much of anything. Who could blame her? She’d survived childhood (including semi-annual, seven-hour station-wagon rides to Florida) while sharing her space with four rowdy boys. She deserved a bed and bath of her own and what did I care? I loved that only that narrow closet jammed with shoes and worn bathrobes and musty boxes marked, For the Scrapbook! separated me from my parents.

Button tinsSo I lived in the sewing room (even then it begged for a Singer and a good sharp pair of shears) and I shared my parents’ bath until I began to teeter at the brink of adolescence. Then, blessedly, someone declared it was high time I stopped barging in on dad when he was shaving so I could brush on a little rouge. Which brings us back to buttons. Or does it. I’ve moseyed again, this time way off the subject. But my mother did collect buttons, which made some sense because she was, one, a woman who disliked being caught off guard, and two, a seamstress. I suppose you’d call her an amateur seamstress. She didn’t sew for money, though she could have. She was good enough, but then, she was good enough at a lot of things to have gone pro but never had the courage. I wish she had. Late in her life, I think she wished she had, too.

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Still, Mom did beautiful work with her needle and thread, and the Chanel suits and St. Johns’ knits she stitched up came to life thanks to those rhinestone buttons up the front or the pop of that mandarin knot at the neck. So what if her eyes went before she could use up the tins full (all carefully ordered, as shown, and color-coded). Wasn’t that better than coming to the end of a long day’s work to find you were out of emerald green studs?

Button up tight everybody, and enjoy the weekend. I’ll be sorting spools of thread while the Seahawks “take the air out of” the Patriots’ sails.

Joe wearing one of her homespun dresses
Mom sporting one of her homespun outfits. Miss you, lovely lady.

Finding the woman within, one toothpick at a time

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My mother was born in 1919, the year the dial telephone was introduced and WWI drew to a close. J. D. Salinger was a 1919-er, too, along with Eva Gabor, whom mom found silly, Nat King Cole, whose music she loved, Jackie Robinson, whom she never gave the time of day, and Balto, the renowned sled dog. She outlived them all. Against all odds, she liked her chicken fried, her pound cake with a spoonful of heavy cream, her pancakes with a thick slice of real butter, and her nightly glass of Chardonnay full to the brim. She never took a vitamin or swallowed a drop of fish oil, and unless you count a few failed games of croquet, she spent not a single minute of her adult life engaged in organized exercise.

Ok, so she had good genes. Her parents lived into their nineties, too, but I can’t help but think there was more to it than that. What was it about this lady (she was above all, a lady) that made her so resilient? Small but sturdy—5’2” with a playing weight of 106—she survived breast cancer at 81, a serious car accident at 83, the loss of her husband, a bad bout of pneumonia, and perhaps hardest of all, the death of her oldest son when she was 88. Tough as nails, her Hospice nurse called her, and a fighter, though at first glance she seemed anything but. In spite of a failing memory and the accumulation of sorrows that living long brings, she simply loved life. Even in her last difficult years, she clung to the remaining pleasures of her daily routine—a mug of coffee and a plate of eggs in the morning, a raucous visit from her great-grandchildren, an outing to Mass on Saturday evenings. Maybe this was my mother’s greatest legacy: You get up and get out of your pajamas. You engage with whatever is left to you. You hope. It served her well. She hung on as long as a body could, only breathing her last when she couldn’t swallow enough, literally, to keep her little heart beating.

That was last October, and since she’s been gone, I’ve been sifting through what she left behind. And she left behind A LOT, ten closets and an attic filled with dust and mildew and a frightful number of rodent droppings. She hoarded, you might say, (see party toothpicks above) and it’s true that like other members of her generation, my mother spent too much time saving things from the past. Yet somehow, she was always looking to the future, too. This bothered me over the years, the way she and my father never quite got the hang of living in the moment, but maybe we in our endlessly progressive throwaway society would do well to pay attention. As I paw through hundreds of cardboard boxes gone grimy and soft with age, I’m beginning to see that these leftovers are the fruits of my mother’s particular brand of hope. After all, why save every single one of those spare buttons that come with a new blouse if you don’t imagine that one fine day, you’ll wake up and fancy wearing that blouse, and it certainly wouldn’t do to go out with your collar gaping open.

So join me. I’d love the company as I journey into the dingy corners of this moldy and mysterious place, my mother’s attic.

Generational pic, Mothers Day, 2012
Generational pic, Mothers Day, 2012