Honestly, I’m not sure this is true, that my mother taught me to read. I recall lying belly-down on a thick-piled prickly rug (an Oriental, as Mom used to call them in the days before we knew better), sounding out words in The Little Engine That Could. But the rug in question covers the floor of my father’s library, and it is my father, crunching numbers at the desk above me, who comes to my aid when phonetics fail and I stumble over a word.
The thing is, “learning to read” involves much more than figuring out a diphthong (“bl” plus “UE” equals blue?!?), or understanding that “th” ends up sounding like whatever it is (“I think I can, I think I can,” said the little blue engine). Learning to read means coming to love the musty smell of an old paperback, the grainy touch of its spine, the voices both lyrical and rational that speak from the pages of any book, even an e-book. Learning to read means finding your proper posture. For my mother, this meant perched with straight back, ankles crossed and feet up, whether tucked, tickly, behind me on the couch or buried under her bedcovers. Learning to read means losing yourself to the story, soaking it in through your pores so deeply that the satisfaction of reaching the conclusion to a well-crafted tale feels not unlike the sensation of discovering someone you’ve long loved from afar loves you back. And when the tale ends, when you must surrender your book’s characters and plot twists and precise lovely language back to its well-thumbed pages, it’s as sweet a sorrow as love lost.
But my father. It’s not that he didn’t read. Daily reading was part of the routine that sustained him. His day at the office complete, the dinner dishes rinsed and racked, he carried his Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta papers to his armchair in our family room and settled in. He read his papers pretty much cover to cover, but he wasn’t much into fiction. At one point in late middle age he became enamored with Ferrol Sams, a Georgia novelist whose most successful book, Run with the Horsemen, told a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up during the Depression, much as my father did. Other than that, I don’t remember a single fictional title in Dad’s lifetime bibliography. He may have shored me up with the fundamentals, provided the scaffolding for the life in words I would build, but it was my mother who proved true the adage, Children Do What You Do, Not What You Say. Mom read everything, everywhere: den, kitchen, bedroom; trains, planes, automobiles; mountain cabins, hotel rooms, beach.
Yesterday was her birthday, number 101 were she still with us, and with COVID19 running roughshod over our world and everyone in it, I have more time to read. It’s one of the things that helps me stop obsessing (did I wash my hands after touching that banister? Wipe down that counter where my son just scarfed down a sandwich? Did I, did I, did I?) I’m glad, in a way, that my parents aren’t around during these troubled times. My mother, as my sister reminded me this morning, couldn’t abide talking about one’s health, or illness in general (what else is there to talk about now?). And my father lost his mother to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the only other health crisis in modern history to grip the entire planet as ruthlessly as COVID19. Dad always claimed he couldn’t remember his mother’s illness or death. He was only four at the time, but I fear some long-repressed and terrifying images might have resurfaced for him, were he around to try and survive this scourge.
My grandmother Mattingly was a lovely woman, as you can see here. She died, pregnant with her fourth child, at age thirty. Unlike COVID19, the 1918 pandemic killed mostly strong young adults. Though I never knew her, I miss my grandmother somehow, and always have. With all this idle time on my hands, I miss my father, and especially my mother, during this, her birth week. The less we’re occupied, the more strong emotions rise to the surface I suppose. And though it seems wrong, selfish to speak it, I miss getting together with friends. I miss eating out and going to movies and plays and damn it, it’s spring. Of all entertainments, I miss baseball the most.
We–that is those fortunate enough to have so far avoided the virus–have lost something we desperately need: camaraderie, breaks to the routine. But I have what Mom left me, a love of books to help pass the shut-in hours. And I’m most grateful.
I was seventeen the first time I read “A Rose For Emily,” William Faulkner’s eerie tale of tribute to a spinster with attitude. I loved it. The story had just the right blend of macabre romance and Southern sensibility to appeal to my teenaged self, at once idealistic and sentimental. What’s more, I felt a whisper of warm recognition, even affection (despite the arsenic), for Emily Grierson and the “big squarish frame house” where she lived alone in early 20th century Mississippi. I knew that close musty air, the heavy walnut bed beneath rose-shaded lights, the Victorian trinkets and the lace doilies on coffee tables and upholstered chairs. In fact, I knew Emily. I once had a spinster of my own, my Aunt Louise, who walked with a cane and wore frumpy dresses, cameo brooches, pearls, and hats. Always a hat, and for Sunday Mass, a netted veil to cover her impish face. Above, see Louise as a young woman holding a pipe–surely just a play thing, a photographer’s harmless prop.
Louise was my father’s aunt, my great aunt, though when I was very young that relationship failed to compute. She was just Weezer (pronounced Wee-za), sometimes “the Weez,” and I loved her the way my friends did the grandmothers they visited on Sundays, shared jello with at Morrison’s Cafeteria, or listened to on the phone with half an ear (Yes, Weez, I’ve done my homework and passed a healthy, ahem, stool today). Great Aunt maybe, but in effect, Weezer was my grandmother. My father’s mother died in 1918 of what’s sometimes called the “Spanish Flu” (though its origins have since been traced to Kansas), a victim of our nation’s first pandemic. My father was four years old. Weezer, thirty-something and single, stepped in to raise him and his brother.
A staunch Catholic, by the time I came along Weez lived three blocks from the cathedral and parochial elementary school I attended. On afternoons my mother was otherwise occupied, I would sling my book bag over my shoulder and walk those three blocks in my plaid dress and saddle oxfords. Weezer would greet me at her doorstep with a smile (not much of a hug on account of germs–pandemics will do that), ask me about my day, and dodder off to dish up a special Weezer-snack: Underwood Deviled Ham on Sunbeam bread.
“Dear Louise …” writes one Paul B. Strickland in shaky blue script. “Being a poor hand at selecting presents, it is hoped the enclosed will be acceptable as it carries my wish for you the merriest of Christmas greetings … It would be best if you would use it for something you desire for yourself. Very pleasing to me but use it as you wish and I will be happy. Sincerely, with love, Paul. December 25th, 1961.”
This is the one missive in which Paul addresses Weezer as Louise. Otherwise, it’s “Miss Bickers,” though tellingly, he signs off “Paul,” and “with love,” in each of the letters I’ve found. In 1962 he concludes “with a heart full of love to you.” Family letters as early as the 1930s mention Mr. Strickland. My uncle, planning a visit home from Ohio in September, 1953,writes: “Weez–Reckon Paul would let you off Monday afternoon?”
Paul, it seems, was the boss man.
My father used to joke about catching Weezer and Mr. Strickland unawares when they were younger. Now and then, he came upon them sharing the living room couch. If Mr. Strickland had his arm around Weezer’s shoulders, he would do the quick head-scratch retraction, as if they were naughty teenagers. My older sister and brothers remember his Sunday visits in later years. Dressed in coat and tie, Mr. Strickland would sit and smile, always at a proper (social) distance from Weez, on a dusty glider on her front porch. But he said little. By this time, both had retired. Paul lived alone in the Georgian Terrace in midtown. Weezer had moved six miles north to her big squarish house. After seeing each other over their second cup every day for decades, they must have felt oceans apart.
Still they kept visiting, and after Weezer lost a second sister to the 1962 Air France crash at Orly, Mr. Strickland was right by her side, comforting her. Why did they never marry? Wherein lay the danger in this liaison? Was it simply against workplace etiquette? Maybe early on Weezer hesitated to inject a new father figure into what was already a dysfunctional situation for my father and uncle. Could be Mr Strickland was reticent about engaging in that dysfunction, though there’s no evidence of that. But later, ten, twenty, thirty years later? My mother’s theory, which no doubt trickled down from my father’s clan, was that Weezer was afraid of passing along the tuberculosis she contracted as a girl (germs, at it again),that even after being cured she vowed never to kiss a man. Hmm. My brother Tom posits that perhaps Mr. Strickland was, God forbid, a Protestant. Might Weezer’s fierce faith have led her to resist his advances, maybe even to lean on a certain germophobia to soften the blow while avoiding a “sinful” entanglement?
My mother’s attic, though teeming with rosaries and relics of the saints, has not provided a clear answer. Weezer was a prolific letter writer, or letter-typer, I should say. She tapped away with dry wit on Beck and Gregg letterhead, often annotating and always signing by hand. Two weeks before my parents’ 1941 wedding, she needles my father about expensive gifts and potential guests and updates him on a family controversy concerning their write-up for the paper. “When I get ready to announce my engagement …” she writes. “I’m going to write it myself, or get St. Peter to do it.” And handwritten on the reverse is this: “Will there be any question about the priest marrying you in Sara’s back yard? Better see!”
My mother was a Baptist. The logistics of getting them hitched by a proper priest in her small Florida town created many a sleepless night for my father’s kin. The idea of their marrying at all gave them apoplexy. In this day of destination weddings and bachelorette weekends and TV rose ceremonies, it’s easy to look back and laugh at their anxiety, but to Weezer and her family, marriage was more sacrament, less party. The traditions of the Church mattered to them. A lot.
And yet, in the end Weezer gave my parents her blessing. She bent the rules for the man she’d raised and loved like a son. Why not do as much for herself? And who even was this man my surrogate grandmother loved in secret? I ran a Google search. Nothing. On Ancestry.com I found a possible match for a Paul Strickland, born June of 1883, died August 15, 1970. Made sense. My clearest memories are of visiting “Mr. PBS” in a nursing home. Beyond that, no updates, no ancestry leaf-hints. Far from satisfied, I went to the downtown library and found (on microfiche) this Mr. Strickland’s obituary. It revealed that he’d resided in Atlanta, that seven years prior he’d retired as vice president from Beck and Gregg Hardware (bingo), and that he was survived, as Weezer would be two years later, only by nieces and nephews.
Then this: “Services for Paul B. Strickland, 87 … will be held at Concord Baptist Church at 3 pm.” Baptist. And retired at age 80–who works until 80? A man who prefers the company of a co-worker to his empty apartment.
Late in her spinsterhood, Faulkner’s Emily Grierson finds a sweetheart in Homer Barron, a Yankee foreman on a scalawag-inspired construction project. Some in town are hopeful Emily will marry at last. Others, namely her out-of-town kin, are scandalized by the idea of Emily taking up with a Yankee. Their outrage, stoked by Emily’s pride, leads to a haunting conclusion some see as a twisted sort of triumph for Emily. Faulkner later said this about his story: “I pitied [Emily], and this was my salute … to a woman you would hand a rose.”
I don’t pity my Aunt Louise. I admire her. She stood down a pandemic, bound together a splintered young family, supported her sisters and cared for aging parents. In a time when women didn’t much, she built a career for herself and found fulfillment in it. She lost two sisters far too young and outlived a third. And somewhere across town–who knows, maybe just where she wanted him–she had a partner through it all.
December, 1949: Weezer writes my father to thank him for sending along a Christmas card and a photo of my three oldest siblings. “There is a Santa Claus!” she begins, and goes on to describe the dialogue that transpired among her and her co-workers as she passed around the card:
“First Man: ‘Who are those children?’
Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.’
First Lady: ‘Whose children, All three so pretty?’
Weezer: ‘My grandchildren.'”
This routine continues with another “Lady” and three Men giving like responses before Weezer signs off, with love. Then, as if she just can’t hold it in, she types a P.S. for my dad: “Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”
I feel I know my great aunt Louise a little better now, Louise the woman, the survivor–feisty, hard-working, proud, and passionate in ways her faith and her scarred past caused her to hide.
A dozen roses to you, Weez. I bet you smoked that pipe with abandon.
I’ve been rummaging again, though not in that drafty mildewed Attic that had me pushing Kleenex up my nose while I worked. Funny the way I miss it now it’s no longer mine to sneeze in. And yet, I avoid the drive-by. My husband chuckles at this. He likes peering down at my parents’ old house to see what changes the new owners have made. Sacrilege! All of it! Stone gargoyles now flank the front door … gargoyles? To accent its Early American design? Worse, the Attic has sprouted dormer windows. Yep, right across the once-so-elegant roofline (see photo exhibit A), three holes have been gouged out of the wood shingles my father paid so dearly for. One quick glance and it’s like I’m looking into Mom’s sad blue eyes on a rainy afternoon. My mother is a house, you could say, not to get too Faulknerian about it. She is gone but her beloved home, a little baffled by the sawing and hammering of late, remains. I understand now why houses are sometimes handed down like a Bible or a gold locket. If you could hug a house, I would. I’d drive by every day and press that brave Deerfield facade right up against my heart.
Let me start again. I’ve been in the virtual Attic, sorting letters and photos and pondering the family legends they bring to mind. Surely every family has them, those tall tales that get batted about the generations. Remember how Mama, a flower in her hair, met Daddy hitchhiking to Woodstock? Then there’s sweet sister Sue, who broke the school bully’s nose, and how could we forget the night the police picked up Uncle Pete for swiping a television from the Ramada Inn? These stories are not my own, but they ring true (okay, the stolen TV bit might be from the Mattingly archives. Only the names have been changed …) .
The youngest, I was all ears. Our legends helped me knit myself into a family tapestry that was all but sewn up before I was born. In Mom’s Attic I find the finishing stitches. See this yellowed newspaper clipping, and that tattered telegram? Proof! The stories are true! Or mostly true. Odd discrepancies have arisen. My mother, neé SARA Elizabeth Lee, loved that her parents dropped the “h” in her name. Is this reason to brag? To her, yes. A late convert to Catholicism, Mom disliked being associated with the Biblical SaraH. Never mind this SaraH was known for her beauty, strength, nobility–heck, she was a princess! Did Mom OD on the Bible stories of her Southern Baptist upbringing? Was it because SaraH was oft celebrated as the long-barren wife who gave birth at age ninety? (Yes, 9-0!) How distasteful, my mother would have thought. She didn’t believe in getting old. And she took great pride in being fertile as a salmon. Delivered Baby #1 at twenty-four and barely came up for air until I came along at forty-one.
So SaRA my mother was, H-less and thoroughly modern. A bratty little spelling whiz, I used to playground boast about the special spelling, and oh, how I protested when mail arrived addressed to “Sarah Mattingly.” Mommy, they messed up again! Her bizarre H snobbery lived on. But then … my mother’s birth certificate, a document I now own, reads “SARAH Elizabeth Lee.” Hmmm. A transcriptionist’s error? Or was Mom pulling our leg? Did she, reluctant Sunday School attendee she was, dislike ol’ Abraham’s Sarah enough to drop the H? Apparently. Now where is that marriage license …
Ironically, my father’s father, Benjamin Spalding Mattingly, was a name-tinkerer too. He christened his first-born Benjamin Lee, and my older brother is John Benjamin. No surprises there. But after Grandfather Ben died, my father unearthed his birth certificate. Ix-nay on the enjamin-Bay! Officially, he was BENEDICT. A Pope’s name! Why the cover-up? Did it smack of that traitorous American, Mr. Arnold? Another conundrum taken to the grave.
My Grandfather Ben(edict) died when I was not quite four. I know him only second-hand, through the handful of grainy sepia-toned photographs my mother squirreled away in plastic shirt bags. There are other stories, too, sad, even haunting stories. I’ve alluded in these pages (at least twice, begging your pardon) to my father’s difficult childhood. Chapter One: December, 1918. My grandmother, Frances, catches Spanish flu. Her entire family–my father, his siblings, my grandfather–are also ill. Days later, Frances, four months pregnant, dies in the hospital. A few doors down, Grandfather Ben is so bad off that my great aunts decide to keep secret the news of his wife’s death. As Ben gradually regains strength, my grandmother is anointed, mourned, buried. Before anyone works up the gumption to tell him, Ben begins working his way through the stack of newspapers some unwitting orderly has been dropping off in hopes of his recovery. Death is on everyone’s mind. The first World War just over, this flu is on its way to taking 675,000 American lives, far more than the war claimed and the majority of the victims in their prime. My grandfather turns to the obituaries and there, in the December 8th edition of The Atlanta Constitution, is my grandmother’s tribute. Ben’s wife, the child she carried, have vanished.
A chilling story, one not to be believed, yet it must be true. The papers say so. “Husband So Sick He Is Not Told of Wife’s Death.” I suppose Grandfather Ben read that one, too. Like my father and uncle and aunt, he beat the flu … or did he? A traveling shoe salesman, he went on to fail spectacularly. He drank, a lot. He disappointed, as my great aunts might say. Some stories paint him as a Dr. Jekyll–sweet when sober, when drunk, prone to rage. In hushed tones, my mother used to tell us how he chased my father and uncle around the house with a butcher’s knife. No wonder the boys were shipped off to a south Georgia orphanage.
And yet, consider this letter my father sent home: “Dear Daddy … I hope you are well. I love you very much. I am having lots of fun with my bean bag and the games you sent me. I pray for you every day and often think of you … Daddy, will you please send me a couple of tops with plenty of string? Then of course Ben Lee will want a couple, too … Your darling boy, E.H.”
My one memory: I hold Grandaddy Ben’s hand. He is tall, with big leather shoes, crinkly skin, a firm grip. It’s a warm Atlanta day and we walk up the street toward the friendly white house with the fancy doorway where I have my own room and a pink gingham bedspread. I have no trouble keeping up because he’s old, tired. He coughs a lot. He smells of sweet vinegar. I skip and chatter and now and then, Grandaddy Ben smiles and nods and squeezes my hand.