She Who Taught Me to Read

Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 1.38.15 PMHonestly, 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.

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My grandmother, Frances Bickers Mattingly, circa 1908.

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.

 

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My current bookshelf

Not Your Mother’s Oldsmobile

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Eyewitnesses to the crime

Exhibit A: Me—twelve, Mom—fifty-four, family pooch—we’ll call it six. Her name, the dog, was Butchie, largely because the Mattingly dogs who preceded her, all male, were called Butch—Butch the first, Butch the second … George Foreman style, and if the tradition can be feminized, why not? The car (or perhaps victim?)—a convertible Cutlass, circa 1970. It belonged to my brother George (imagine that, Mr. Foreman), mid-twenties at the time and two years married to his lovely wife, Connie. Wait, it’s possible Connie brought the Cutlass in question to the marriage, a sort of dowry-like perk. Memory fails, but let’s go with that. It makes a better story, and for sure, I’ll never forget the happy couple’s gnashing of teeth after the incident that left their racy little Olds bashed at the hip …

Late spring or early summer, from the looks of my outfit, sunset of my seventh grade year, and apparently I’d set my sights on the Twiggy award (all arms, legs, and stringy hair). Late afternoon, as I recall, and I’m hanging out in our family den, a bag of potato chips and onion dip close at hand, maybe huddled over a pre-Algebra problem, maybe watching a “Brady Bunch” re-run, most likely fresh off the (rotary) phone from lamenting to a similarly pre-pubescent friend that my crush-of-the-month only had eyes for Laura or Cynthia or one of three other classmates more Bridgette Bardot-like, even at twelve, than Twiggy.

Suddenly, a high-pitched scream outside, at first faint then gaining volume like an oncoming train. I drop pencil and Lays and bolt out the back door, Butchie at my heels, to driveway’s edge. Our driveway (see Exhibit B below), ran about forty yards straight down at a precipitous angle from the street to our house in a hole, as I used to call it, a hole created in some long ago millennium by the babbling creek that flowed five to ten yards, give or take, to the right of said driveway. Just below driveway’s crest, a pile of mail in her arms and pocketbook swinging at her elbow, my mother chases as if to rein in with magical maternal powers her lemon yellow Electra, a popular boat-like Buick of the day. The Buick rolls merrily along, self-driven, ten feet ahead of her. I grab Butchie’s collar and freeze. The car seems more runaway cartoon buggy than dangerous projectile, and I sense in my mother’s screams more panicked embarrassment than fear. Sure enough, the hulking Buick all but eases over the wide drain at driveway’s base, where rainwater sluices away on a stormy day. Rather than careen toward the pup and me, she veers right, groaning, and comes to a cacophonous yet somehow graceful stop, her fall, so to speak, broken by the unlucky Cutlass situated in the handy parking slot my father cleared years before above the picturesque creek.

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The Electra’s treacherous path (note double parking slot to the right)

“Two cars! Two cars!” my mother hollers, spectator pumps slapping gravel and knees knocking beneath the hem of her skirt. Two car crash, she means, and the fact that she, whose exercise regimen features climbing steps and roaming the mall, has survived this descent without serious injury is perhaps most astounding of all. Her arms are empty now, spilled purse and mail littered across the drive, and she flails those arms overhead like a mad wing walker flashing his orange baton on a tarmac. I think I smile a little even then, because honestly, though this will be an expensive mistake, one that might have been tragic, it really is funny.

Moments before, the Electra’s trunk stuffed with grocery bags, Mom pulled over the raised lip that joined driveway to street and stopped, as she’d done countless times before, to fetch the mail. She mashed the emergency brake with her quad A, size 6, foot, opened the door, stepped out to the mailbox, and, ooh la la, there she went, Old Electra, smelling the barn and waiting for neither man nor dreamy woman. The gear shift, my mother surely thought. Did I put it in Park? She did not, and thus did the yellow workhorse begin her joyride home, happily slowed by that emergency brake. How was she to know my brother’s muscle car had claimed her favorite stall?

I wish whoever snapped this Kodak moment had included old Electra, whose escapade left her with quite a shiner (think of the Instagram likes Mom might have earned!), but otherwise, I love the old crash photo, grainy and blued as it is. I love the dense foliage in the background that was the leafy oak that used to shade my friends and me in the creek below as we hopped from rock to boulder, building dams and creating imaginary villages. I love the tall tree trunk to the right, one of so, so many towering pines in our Georgia yard. I love having a pic of Butchie, RIP ole girl, with her graying beard, and mostly, I love the amused look on my mother’s face, the hint of guilty delight that says she owns this crazy humiliating moment, much the way she owned others during her long wacky years of rearing six children.

It’s funny, I don’t remember much anger associated with the Cutlass caper—check that, George was pretty stoked, but who could blame him? I associate with it instead one of my father’s exasperated shrugs and the eye roll that often followed. Needless to say, our family weathered troubles much more serious over the years than a two-car crash (though how it must have stumped our insurance agent–who/what was at fault?). We weathered times that in the moment weren’t funny at all, but somehow, most of our dysfunctional moments did, in the retelling at least, dissolve into laughter.

It was all about sense of humor, and the fact that my mother and father managed to keep theirs, through better and much worse and even as they aged and life grew close and dark. That legacy is something I thank them for, every day.

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 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.

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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 two of her three sisters did. For fifty plus years, Weezer worked downtown at the headquarters of Beck and Gregg Hardware. She was good at her job. 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 on to mine, I have to wonder. Did something more keep Weez 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 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!”

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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. 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.”

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“Mr. PBS says they are Fine Children.”

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.

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.