Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Lizzie, on the other hand, was a strong woman who faced the world unflinchingly. Kind was not a word used to describe her. I never saw the mean side, but I have heard that others did. She was less than soft spoken when it came to her children’s spouses. But her opinions also changed. If she didn’t like you on one visit, she may love you on the next. She didn’t care about your opinions of what she did. I only knew that she loved me. She had patience that was in direct contradiction to her reputation. She allowed me to have so many experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I had spent all my time in the suburbs. Instead, I know what it is like to walk out to the chicken coop with an apron on to hold the eggs that you were going to steal from the hens. I thought she was magic because she could walk through the chicken yard without looking at her footsteps, unworried about all the chicken poop she was trudging through. It was a long while before I realized that she changed her shoes before going inside! I was too busy delicately holding eggs in the cradle of a cotton apron, dodging poop, and eyeing hens wanting to attack those responsible for making off with their eggs. After harvesting the eggs, it was time for breakfast. I was the assistant cook, which meant that I stood on a stool at the stove and assisted. I learned how to flip an egg so that it was over easy. I learned how to make toast when there is no toaster. And as the day progressed, I learned how to drop the dumplings into the chicken broth, how to fry a chicken, and how to make biscuits from scratch. I would doubt that many of today's foodies would be able to define a biscuit board, much less be able to point one out. I’m proud to say that Lizzie’s biscuit board has stayed in our family, finding a home with her great great granddaughter.
The story of Lizzie and Ben is another story, and would have been better told by one of their children, but that opportunity has passed. They had seven children. Three sons were born first, and I am sure they were despairing of having a daughter. Audrey came first around 1912. Then
Pat in 1914, and Harold Benjamin in 1916.
Finally in 1918, the daughter was born who would one day become my
grandmother, my beloved Me-Maw. They named
her Janie Orean Watters and she was born on September 1, 1918. Four years later, Frank Benjamin was born,
and then there was a long spell without the birth of a baby. Finally Mary Winona came along when Frank was
eight, and Margie Faye followed two years later. That mean that Janie’s two sisters were 12
and 14 years younger than she, but they were close. In their adult years, Margie and Janie were
as inseparable as two women could be. I
doubt that three days went without a long distance phone call. As the years passed, the closeness of the
siblings waxed and waned. But I grew up
close to all my great aunts and uncles, and as it was with great grandparents,
my great aunts and uncles were truly more like aunts and uncles. Three of the siblings – Janie, Frank, and
Harold, lived in one block in the suburbs as I grew up. So for many of my formative years, those
uncles were very real masculine role models when my grandfather was working
offshore for a good part of my
childhood. These uncles exhibited the
macho stuff – the camping, the boating, the horse riding, the hard
drinking. My grandfather was almost the
personal opposite. Never hunted, never drove a boat, and for sure never
drank. More about his horse riding to
come, as it plays a very real part in the beginning of my family.
to be continued...
Sunday, January 12, 2014
On Christmas Day, mom said "I wrote for you."
To say that I craved sleeping with someone sounds so calm. Maybe I need all caps in this case. I CRAVED SLEEPING WITH SOMEONE. As a reminder, my grandfather was gone most nights, as he worked out in the
of Mexico on an oil rig. So
for most of my childhood, I lived in a
house of females. My grandmother, my
aunt, my mother, and me. When my mother
wasn’t available, I would sleep with someone else. No one turned me down – except for
Pa-Paw. When he would come home, he
wanted to sleep with his wife without a child between them. Took me years to understand that!
The people in my life were not dreamers, or artists, or poets. They were workers.
Nope.. I didn’t wake up my mother for my school preparations. That was Me-Maw’s job. I am quite sure that many princesses didn’t have it as good as I did growing up. By the time my eyes saw the sunlight of the morning, everything that could be ready, was ready. My dress was laid out, my breakfast on the table, my satchel by the front door. Bookbags weren’t invented yet. I had a little childlike briefcase with cheap plastic straps secured by cheap metal buckles. I went through several each school year because I tended to be rather rough on them. Breakfast was the breakfast most kids are unaware of today, unless they go out to I-Hop for breakfast on special occasions. There was meat (bacon or ham, but most definitely pork), eggs, toast, jelly. Sometimes it would be grits. But none of that instant stuff – grits cooked on the stove where I would stand transfixed watching them. I had a great imagination and I saw them as lava, pulling up into big bubbles until they would pop, sending little pieces of corn meal up inches into the air. I wouldn’t really see lava in real life until I was in my late thirties on a trip to
Hawaii. And my thought was how much its thickness
resembled the grits of my childhood. I
didn’t share that with anyone, however.
I didn’t want to be seen as different.
The people in my life were not dreamers, or artists, or poets. They were workers. This is not to say that everyday workers are
not artists, it simply means that the mediums they work in are the consumables
of our lives. A farmer grows what he
considers to be a perfect squash, but he doesn’t indulge himself with idolizing
it or attributing praise to it. He
simply looks at it, thinks to himself how grand it is, then drops it into the
bushel with other squash to one day be fried up with butter and onions by
another artist whose work is admired by those who eat that perfect squash. Each artist in that cycle is anonymous to the
next, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful
My grandmother came from a long line of farmers. She was the first daughter in a family of four boys and two girls. For the majority of her life, she was the only daughter. My great grandparents were Ben and Lizzie Watters. In talking about my life, I always think of it as a clock that is consistently one hour – in my case, one generation – off. My grandmother was my mother, my great grandmother was my grandmother, and that leaves my mother as….. well, I really don’t have a good answer for that one. The closest thing would be to say that my mother was like a sister to me. I said that to her once and she didn’t speak to me for a year. But that drama came many years later than the point we are in this story.
Neither of us imbued any deep philosophical meaning into those conversations. We were just friends.
Ben and Lizzie were definitely farmers. One step above indentured servants to be exact. They were share croppers. While they did own some land in “the bottom” as it was known, and made memories there, they generally made money farming land belonging to someone else – someone richer. I never heard the words poor, or poverty, or needy, or any other synonym we call it now. They were just “plain folks” who got up each morning, gathered eggs, tended fields, and raised children. By the time I was old enough to start building my memories, their working farm days were over. They had moved to “the city.” And to call
the city was to acknowledge how small was the universe of Ben and Lizzie. It would be difficult to find two people more
diverse than this couple. While he was a
small man, standing only about 5’6’’, she was a tall woman, probably 5”
9”. My grandmother claimed an English
ancestry for her father, but he always looked to me like those described as
“black Irish” in that he had dark hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion. He was an oddity, that his hair never fully
turned gray, but kept its dark appearance even at his death in his mid
80s. Lizzie on the other hand, turned
gray very early in life, then when most others are turning gray her hair became
white. WHITE. Not grayish white, or silver, but white. It was beautiful, and she was known as a
beautiful woman. As expected, few
pictures remain of her, but those that do show a strikingly beautiful young
woman, and it is easy for me to romanticize her relationship with Ben. When they married, he was 32 and she was a
mere 16. At that early age, she was an
orphan. Her mother, my great great
grandmother was often called a “black widow”.
She died in her early 30s and left her fourth husband with a young
child. Lizzie’s father was a Newberry
and she had many cousins in the southern Arkansas/north Springhill, Louisiana Louisiana area. Ben was known as an honest man and his
daughter, my grandmother described him in almost angelic terms, saying that he
was the kindest person she had ever known.
I can only say that he was kind and loving to me. He was the rare adult who treated me almost
as an equal. I spent much of my summers
as a young child with my great grandparents in Springhill where I was allowed
to do the things that short stories are made of. Paw-Paw Watters and I planted a field of
summer squash. We would walk every
afternoon to feed and walk Buck, his horse around. We fished.
And we talked. Long long walks
and long long talks. I wish I could say
that I remember those talks, but I think the beauty of them is that I
don’t. They were simply mundane
conversations that two friends may share.
Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the crops. Neither of us imbued any deep philosophical meaning into those conversations. We were just friends. When I was eight-ish, he had a stroke. It was a terrifying time for me. I didn’t understand what a stroke meant. Didn’t know what it was. When I tried to ask, I was shushed and when I
wasn’t shushed, my Me-Maw would cry. I
learned not to ask, but went back to my tried and true routine of simply
listening for those snippets of information which I could piece together into
some fabric of understanding. What I
didn’t know at the time was that my life with my Paw Paw was forever
No more walks. No more Buck. No more talks. Just PawPaw in a hospital bed in the middle bedroom. As the days went into weeks, the weeks turned into months, then years. He laid in that bed for close to four years until he died the summer of my twelfth year. So now my memories are mostly of rubbing his feet with lotion, and combing his hair, and singing to him at the request of Me-Maw. On one of our visits, she got him up and put a robe over his pajamas. She walked him out to the porch where he enjoyed his last visit outside. A dear neighbor, Lee Martin, came over to visit with the family on the porch. Pictures were taken. Many in the family probably still have an enlargement of that picture in their home. I used to look at it and wonder if he knew it was the last time he would smell fresh air, see the sky, or visit with friends while sitting face to face with them. The rest of his days everything he saw, felt, or sensed was from a prone position. That makes me sad.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Whatever job my mother happened to have at any given time, her days followed the same pattern. She worked during the daylight hours, and came home in the afternoon, sometimes dusk. That was when I got to see her transform. Most people transform into a homebody when they return from their jobs. But not my mother! It was a different kind of transformation. It was taking off the face that she had worn to work, and putting on a more glamorous nighttime face. The blush was brighter, the lipstick redder, and the eyes smokier. Well, maybe I’m confusing the eyes with the smokiness of the small bathroom while I sat on the toilet and watched her put on makeup. I was transfixed. My mom was quite an attractive woman. A natural redhead , she had a curvaceous body that would have rivaled Marilyn Monroe’s. Maybe having a baby at 17 had helped her mature earlier than most adolescents. I didn’t understand, nor think those thoughts. I was just torn in half watching her get dressed and loving that time I could spend with her, but knowing that the result of her preparations would be her leaving for the evening, and she certainly wouldn’t be home before I was put to bed. The corollary to that was that she was never the one to put me to bed. But I slept with her. In a three bedroom house, there was no room for two adult daughters and a young grandchild. By necessity I shared a room with my mom. It created in me a need to sleep with someone. I had to fight my urge to have my own children sleep with me. I didn’t wake up when my mother finally came home. But when my grandmother would come to wake me up, she would put her finger to her lips, a silent signal for me to BE silent. And I obeyed. Because I knew what it would be like if I were to unintentionally wake my mother.
Monday, December 30, 2013
“Are you okay? Do you love me? Are you mad at me?”
It was much later in my life before I realized that my mom was a weapon. She did quite a bit of damage. Some was by her words, some by her actions, and some by simple selfishness. Mama was a paradox. While she often gave lavish gifts, she was just as likely to push others aside to get her own way. It was years before I realized that she used things as anesthesia. She could believe she was good – and she could make you believe she was good – if she gave you a nice gift, or took you somewhere you wanted to go, or did something you wanted to do. As long as it cost her something. And that something was always cash. Sacrifice wasn’t her currency. It’s hard for me to look back and try to understand why I didn’t see things accurately back then. I imagine it was my childish heart. A child always wants to believe in love. Maybe we are even programmed genetically, or instinctively, to believe that our mother is good, that our mother loves us, and that our mother always has our best interest in the forefront. I am not the only child to grow up and learn in hindsight that that wasn’t true. But not knowing protected my heart and it needed protecting in those days. I had been given the heavy obligation of making too many people happy. If people were angry, if people were sad, it had to be my fault. Why did no one try to take that from me? Surely they noticed. Surely to God they noticed. The refrain that I repeated way too often was, “Are you okay? Do you love me? Are you mad at me?” Of course, there was usually a response to that refrain. But it wasn’t from my mother, the one I most wanted it to be from. Her answer was too practical, too annoyed. “I’m not mad. Quit asking me that. You know I love you. I’m okay.” Answers, but not the answers I wanted. I wanted sweetness and caresses, and kisses that said I was the most important thing in her life. But that probably wouldn’t have worked. It is a law of life that for words to be seen as sincere, they have to match the actions of the speaker. And my mother’s actions were far from saying, “You are the most important thing in my life.”
(Evelyn on the left)
I have to remember that my mother had me as the result of an accident. I wasn’t born the lovingly wished for offspring of a fresh young couple. I wasn’t the infant of an older couple who had prayed for a baby for over a decade, perhaps. I was the result of two young kids fumbling around in some furtive encounter when neither of them had any thought that a life would start. Instead of joy at the realization that a baby was coming, I am sure there was anger. If messages cross that placental membrane as easily as nutrients do, then I am sure I was bombarded with hate, rage, but mostly, fear. When I realize that, it is easier to understand how quickly my mother was able to slide her parental responsibilities off to my grandmother. Later in life, she tried to blame my grandmother for “stealing” me. I presume she meant stealing my affection. But anyone with any sense knows that it would be very hard to kidnap a child’s affection from a mother whose love was the most integral part of the child’s life. I couldn’t have been very old before even I realized that I was an afterthought. My mother was a working mother from my earliest memory. She worked as a waitress, then for a caterer, and finally for most of my childhood she was a cashier for Winn-Dixie in our neighborhood.
fire burns everything in its path, both good and bad
I am sure that she was a good worker. If my grandfather imparted anything to the three women he raised it was to be a good employee. One of the worse things that could be said of someone was that they were a lazy worker, or that they did not give an honest day’s work for their honest day’s pay. That lesson led each of us to work far beyond what was expected. We would arrive early and we would stay late, as needed. We were a friend to all our co-workers. However, in my mom’s case, she was perhaps too friendly to some of her co-workers. The male ones, that is. I can’t remember a time in my life after memories begin to stick, that my mother did not have a man in her life. And at least one memory remains from a time when most children don’t have memories. We had gone to her boss’s house for a holiday. I loved going there. He lived out near the
River levee, just as we did.
But his house was upriver from us, closer toward LaPlace and
Destrehan. And he had kids – lots of
kids. There is nothing an only child
likes more than visiting families who have lots of children. It’s like going to another country, or maybe
even another planet. Someplace so alien
that it was unimaginable that people lived like that. I wanted to go back, and maybe that is why
I was so excited when I figured out by
my grandmother’s phone conversation that she was talking to Mr. Bud’s
wife. But that same understanding of who was on the phone couldn’t fathom what was happening on the phone. But I knew enough to know my grandmother was
upset and my inner demons kicked in and I began to ask if she was mad at me and
whether she loved me. After her
reassurances, my little girl’s mind kicked back to that phone conversation and
I peppered her with questions, “Are we going to Mr. Bud’s house again? Can some
of his daughters come over to our house?”
The answer was no to all questions.
Had I been a little older, or perhaps a little more sophisticated, I
could have put together the understanding that Mr. Bud’s wife had gotten to the
bottom of my mom’s “friendship” with her boss.
I would have also known that the friendship, and my mom’s employment,
was over. And as surely as fire burns
everything in its path, both good and bad, my friendship with all those
children of one household was over as well.
I was way too little to understand everything about that whole debacle,
but I knew it caused a scream fest in our house when my grandfather got home but
that imaginary fire wasn’t done with its damage yet. My mom took off in the car without permission
and just like what would happen in the plot of a movie, she wrecked the car,
destroying it. When I got old enough to
realize what had really happened, I wondered if that fire of passion had
destroyed Mr. Bud’s marriage as well.
And I prayed it had not. I did
not want to feel that my mother was
responsible for all those little kids having to live apart from their
father. It was too sad for me to contemplate.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Me-Maw and her daughters: Evelyn and Beth
While there were only two girls in the family, they were not close. They were rivals for affection, rivals for compliments, and rivals for any good words which were to be spoken of them. From childhood, my aunt had been given a name by her older sister. She was called Bay Sister. Probably it was actually “Ba” Sister, meaning Baby Sister. But that was the name she carried until death. And I think she grew tired of being the baby sister who had to carry the older sister’s reputation on her back. When they left the house, it was the baby sister who was reminded to watch out for the older one. Because the older one, my mother, was a daredevil. She would do anything on a dare, from crossing a canal that runs through the urban areas of New Orleans, to jumping off a second story roof. She had a quick temper that matched the old wives tale of redheads being hotheads.
She made a decision to get out
Mae Beth aka Bay Sister
Ba Sister got tired of it all. She got tired of neighbors complaining. She got tired of family hysteria. She got tired of her mother making excuses for what Big Sister had done. She made a decision to get out, and to get out as quickly as she could. So she enrolled at Soule College, which was a business college and she excelled at everything young women are supposed to do well. She took Gregg Shorthand. She did bookkeeping (accounting was for the men). She typed close to 90 words per minute and her spelling was exceptional. She almost finished the complete program at Soule, but she was offered a job at Humble Oil, probably as a result of her father’s good reputation with the same company. So she made the calculated decision that what she had left to learn in her program was not worth the delay in the start of her career. At her age, she couldn’t yet realize how much she would grow to regret that decision. It was one of the few things in her life which she didn’t see to the end. But what she did do was take those first baby steps that would lead her to the rest of her life. She had no idea at the time what would come from the decision to take that job. It would truly be the yellow brick road taking her to her own wonderland, her own Oz.
She was the New Woman. She would support herself, travel alone or with girlfriends, and rebel against every southern rule for women she had been taught.
A new Beth.
Ba Sister’s first job for Humble Oil was in Grand Isle Louisiana. What a tiny dot on the map of Louisiana! It was barely even in Louisiana, but instead it was a collection of houses and offices built on pilings hanging on to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. From a distance, it looked like a circus scene, with all the houses on stilts, and one would expect to see clowns emerge from them, also walking tall balancing on ten feet poles of wood. If you are not from Louisiana, or another town that lives on the edge of water that routinely rises without mercy, you wouldn’t be used to the stair climb you would make every morning as you reported to work. The “girls” in the steno pool would live together in what would appear to be a summer cottage to the uninitiated eye. They had a chance to see many men in Grand Isle. But what you really saw was the men arriving to work and then leaving work seven days later. Grand Isle was the hub of men who climbed aboard helicopters which flew them out to platforms which consisted of oil wells, a heliport, and living quarters. It was quite an unnatural situation. Instead of men climbing on the city bus after slogging through a hard day’s work, these workers would walk across a metal catwalk, looking down at water that may be 100 feet or more deep until they reached their living quarters, which was also the living quarters of 50 or more other men. While that job was an excellent training ground for a future executive assistant, it was far from excellent as a hunting ground for a husband. Of course, Ba Sister would have never been guilty of hunting for a husband. She was the New Woman. She would support herself, travel alone or with girlfriends, and rebel against every southern rule for women she had been taught.
She didn’t feel the sand of Grand Isle, Louisiana between her toes for long. Her skills did not go unnoticed, and she was soon working in the Central Business District of New Orleans in the Humble Oil Building. Even there, everyone knew her father, Red Honeycutt. His was a hard reputation to ignore. From his first job of driving a truck, he soon became a roustabout, then a drill pusher on one of those dots in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the job of those men to pull oil from under the earth’s surface to sate the thirst of a growing America. His fellow employees respected and trusted him. Within a very few years he was an important member of the Employees Federation, the pre-union organization which worked with the management of the future Exxon. The election to President of the Federation was not a surprise to any who knew him. His honesty and integrity was known and respected by the rank and file, and even more amazingly, by management – even the highest level of management in the company. All this was to say that Red’s daughter didn’t go unnoticed by that same management. She spent enough time in the pool of young workers to make good friends. Earning good money for the first time in her life, she treated herself well. The first big purchase was a 1953 Chevy. It took her for weekend trips to places she had only heard about. She went away to visit the families of friends she met at work. But she also went to places her car could not take her. She was the first one in the extended families of her mother and her father who had ever left the country – on purpose. She had had uncles who had seen Europe, but that was on a trip paid for by everyone’s uncle – Sam.
The whole time Ba Sister was taking the world by storm (a little storm, but a storm nonetheless) the Big Sister, my mother , was attacking the world with her hammer.
My mom's life story goes on, Part Five here. It all began here.
My aunt lived in the house with my grandparents, my mom and me until I was nearly eight years old. And even when she moved, she was a large part of my rearing. She was the family member who was committed to seeing that I grew up with class. Mae Beth, “good” Sister made it her job to take me to places where the last thing in the world they would serve was anything with a gravy or a black eyed pea. With her, I dined on things like tomato aspic and caviar. We went to Commander’s Palace and dined in the courtyard. We traveled away for the weekend to Gulf Hills Dude Ranch on the
. Every interaction she had with me was
designed to teach me that there was something beyond my southern upbringing. She was the first to talk to me of
colleges. Not just encouraging me to go
to college, but talking about which
college. She positively beamed when I
spoke of going to Sophie Newcomb, which was the women’s college associated with
Coast . I, of course, was too young to know anything
about Newcomb, or admission requirements.
I just knew that it had a nice entry and it was in the Garden
District. My mind couldn’t grasp the
idea of actually going away to any college and living in a dorm. Didn’t know what a dorm was.
she was very much past ready to move out and start her life.
To understand my ignorance, you would have to understand that of all my extended family on either side, only one individual I knew had gone to college. He was a much older cousin and he came to our house one Christmas with three of his rowdy college friends. My grandmother did what every aunt does for college boys – she cooked for them. And what did they do for me? Broke one of my brand new toys. I had been given a pogo stick and a miniature pinball game made out of plastic. Well, one of the guys jumped up on the pogo stick and immediately jumped onto the pinball machine. Which reacted by breaking into a million pieces. At least it felt like a million. To match the million pieces my heart had broken into at the same time. I wanted to scream out in a rage, but I didn’t. He was a GUEST. And even at my young age, I had learned that one never ever made a GUEST feel anything but welcome.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
I would assume that we settled into a few years of normalcy, or what we knew as normalcy. I was eager to learn. I knew which adult to go to when I wanted something. Me-Maw was my source of all things good to eat. Now, to most people that sentence would end there. But like most things in my existence, it didn’t end there. Let’s repeat the sentence above : Me-Maw was my source of all things good to eat. Now, the corollary to that was that I was the receptacle of all good things Me-Maw prepared to eat. Well, of course, the remainder of the family ate her good food. The trick was that SHE didn’t eat her good food. You see, she had what was described as an “irritable colon”. That meant she didn’t eat anything. Well, most people would describe her diet as not eating anything, but she did eat some things – just not very many things. Let’s describe her diet, shall we? For breakfast, my Me-Maw had a delicious breakfast of a soft boiled egg, two pieces of dry toast, milk and water. That was it. For lunch, she branched out to enjoy a jar of strained carrot baby food, two pieces of that same dry toast, and milk. And for dinner, she had to limit those eggs. Heaven forbid if she ate too many egg yolks. Dinner would consist of egg whites, dry toast, and milk. Oh, and water. That was it. From the time I was old enough to notice someone’s food and how it was different from my own, it was all I saw my grandmother eat. I wish I could say that it was for a limited time, but the reality is that that same diet was in effect for over 50 years. Over the years she added a teaspoon of apple jelly for breakfast, and strained peas baby food for lunch, but basically the menu items didn’t change. Oh, she continued to feed her family every southern delicacy known to man. But she didn’t let any of it touch her lips. As I grew, I begged. I cajoled. I threatened. All because I wanted to see her eat something. But she never wavered. People admired her for her will power. People felt sorry for her because of what she had to endure. People whispered about how serious her pain must have been to cause her to stick to such limited offerings. The words I never heard said were “eating disorder.” Yet those were the two words that I diagnosed once I was an adult and realized what an eating disorder was. She used her battle with food to control her family, and even more importantly, to control her husband. She couldn’t go out to eat with that diet. We couldn’t go on a long vacation because of her diet. Of course, some arrangements ended up being made, but those arrangements never included her eating something that wasn’t on THE LIST.
I think her food was the ribbon that tied the family together.
As much as food was my grandmother’s enemy, she did everything she could to make it my friend. Are you sad? Let’s see what we have to eat. Do you feel bad? You need some grits. You can’t sleep? I think you need a piece of pie cause you are probably hungry. She was the world’s biggest pusher of southern comfort foods. Given the fact that she never tasted what she was cooking, she was certainly known as a great cook. I grew up with specialties that my mouth still can taste – fried apple pies, pound cake, Swiss steak, meatloaf, stewed potatoes, black eyed peas and corn bread. You haven’t had chicken and dumplings till you have had her chicken and dumplings. I think her food was the ribbon that tied the family together. At least our version of the family. It was certainly an odd assortment of people. All related, but all so profoundly different, even in the way they approached life.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
My mom's life story continues, Part three here
There was an ugly side to my birth as well. I have to believe that my mother wanted to grow up and be the mature wife and mother that she was on paper. So there was some form of reconciliation with my father. It seemed obvious that he was as anxious to be a father has he had been to be a husband. But again, there is something about a beautiful baby that makes everyone want to take some credit. I was told that he took me to his family to be shown around. I, of course, remember none of that. To this day, I know none of my paternal history, with the exception of some disjoined facts. My father was a merchant marine, something I learned as I read it on my birth certificate. And my mother told me that his parents were named Hazel and John. He had a sister named Barbara and brothers name Sam and “Donkey”. I would assume that would be some good beginnings if I were to choose to do some detecting or ancestry tracking. But I haven’t chosen to do that. I felt that I had enough unresolved situations in my life to open another door that wouldn’t close again.
"She went home to her family, who willingly welcomed her and her baby back with open arms. "
But as I said, my mother did attempt a reconciliation. The couple who really didn’t even know each other aside from carnally, rented a small efficiency apartment and made a modest attempt at housekeeping. My father was a stranger to normalcy, or so my mother felt. By that time, and he was barely 18, he was a serious drinker. And he moved in social circles who had nothing social about them. At one point, my mother told me that he was carried home by two men because he was drunk and his hands had been cut up with a razor. She had never experienced anything that violent. While her family had its share of disagreements, physical violence was not something familiar. Sadly, that was the only experience she shared with me about their attempt at co-habiting. She went home to her family, who willingly welcomed her and her baby back with open arms.
"a plan so devious"
Months after the failed attempt at a marriage, the young alcoholic man showed up at my mother’s job in what seemed like an attempt to woo her back to the marriage. He even had a gift – a very nice dress watch which was far nicer than anything my mother had ever possessed. She accepted the gift and told the giver that she would have to think about it and they would have to work at it slowly if there was ever to be any true relationship. That may have shot his plans in the foot. Before she had made any decision, a bill came to her from a local department store. It appeared that she had purchased a lovely dress watch for herself. It’s always amazing when someone is able to work through an alcohol haze to formulate a plan so devious. But what he really did was end any attempt at any type of relationship with either my mother or me. I understand from a relative who says her husband related a visit that my grandfather made to my father’s favorite hang out. My grandfather was crystal clear in his direction that my father was to never under any circumstances contact my mother or me. Especially me. I think a death threat was involved. Was it true? I do not know. But I do know that I never heard from my father again. Unless you count a phantom phone call I received when I was in third grade. But we’ll talk about that in due time.
to be continued.
My mom's life story continues, it started here, and continued here. Follow along, its far from over.
"hyperbole from women who were born with southern story telling in their genes..."
Evelyn (my grandmother)
So my grandmother collapsed, grieving for an infant that she hadn’t even known about four months earlier. While accepting the imminent death of a baby she didn’t know, she prayed for the life of the baby she DID know – her firstborn who yes, had made a mistake, but still deserved to live. Great aunts who were there at the hospital to support their sister-in-law told me snippets of the story as I grew up. They marveled at the size of my grandmother’s swollen feet. Swollen from hours and hours of standing by her daughter’s bed, surely praying silently that she would live. Other’s talked about the head of the bed being put on blocks so that the whatever blood had not been lost would have be sent to the areas of the body which most needed it. The parts of the story I most enjoyed were the ones where each aunt told her version of the joy that was expressed when the news was first reported that the baby who was thought to be dead was actually living. Not just barely living, but living and breathing and kicking, and doing everything that newborn babies are expected to do. The nuns called it a miracle for sure. But those who lacked that same religious connection also called it a miracle. And suddenly, all the prayers which had been divided between a dying baby and a dying mother became directed to the mother, just a 17 year old girl, who still was in that comatose state between life and death. She remained there for two days. Many many stories grew out of those two days. There was no lack of hyperbole from women who were born with southern story telling in their genes. Oddly enough, there appeared to be no males in this story, with the exception of the obstetrician. The girl’s father, the grandfather, who was there, of course, was the epitome of the stoic. Silently smoking Lucky Strike after Lucky Strike, keeping all his prayers, worries, and thoughts to himself. Not once in my life did he ever talk about those dark days. But many many times he broke through his upbringing to tell me how much he loved me and how happy he was that I was his.
"Those same fates must have seen the challenges that were to come..."
I believe that the fates knew how difficult it was going to be to fit me into a family with very mixed emotions about my arrival. So the easiest way to ensure my acceptance would be to make my head the right size, make my eyes expressive, and make my cooing sound as though it was directed to whoever happened to be holding me at the time. Those same fates must have seen the challenges that were to come so they went overboard in one area – they made me a beautiful baby. Beautiful to the point where strangers would stop and remark on my loveliness. And I was sweet natured. To hear the memories, I rarely cried. The Good Sister, who became the Good Aunt at my birth, was only 15 when I entered the family. In a real sense, she then gave up her position of being the baby. Her reality was that she became one of my mothers. Each “mother” took a role in my development. Sadly, the biggest role of my actual genetic mother, was just that. She went through the difficult pregnancy and horrific birth to get me to this realm. Then her job became receiving compliments I generated. That went on for the largest part of my life. The Good Aunt became just that – a good aunt. She was the one I waited on each day to come through the door. My first words were her name. It was her back that nearly broke from bending over to hold my hands while I practiced the act of walking. She hovered when I was with my mother as she was always fearful that something bad would happen to me. She projected the events of her life onto my life. And she never, ever stopped doing that.
(Aunt Beth on the left, Evelyn on the right and the overexposed baby Cathy.)
But the biggest role was the mother who did the mothering things. And that fell to my grandmother. She was only 34 when I was born, and that was certainly more the age to be a mother than a grandmother. But she didn’t fight to make her daughter assume the role of mother. I think that it worked out just as she wanted it to in her heart. She became my mother. She prepared my food and she fed me. She washed my clothes and she dressed me. She bought my books and she read to me. She filled every need I had, and in some cases, she created a need for the only reason of filling it for me. She would have denied that, of course, but all those who were close enough knew it. The greatest thing she did was to tell me every day – most often several times a day – that I was loved.
My Mom's three mothers:
Me-Maw, Aunt Beth, Evelyn
My mother is writing her story, for part one, start here
(found this in the memory book my Grandmother made for me... the lack of finer detail makes sense now that my mom is writing her story.)
“my” birth story
The rest of that chapter is very garbled. It is something I must have studied when I was tired. I almost remember it but maybe the details don’t gel, or facts are fuzzy. It could have been that the instructor, my aunt, was too cautious about how she taught me the truth of my beginnings. She didn’t want to hurt me, but wanted to be truthful and believable. Even though I was forty, it was the first time I had been told “my” birth story. And as much as she wanted to give me the feel good phrases that other babies are given, instead she was left with painful, ugly facts which she had to spin into a story that at best she could make humorous. She glossed over the supreme family explosion that occurred that night in September when a sixteen year old was confronted about her sexuality and thus, the state of her body – which by that time was “our” body. Her mother yelled, her father cried, and each one pulled and tugged and demanded until the name of the perpetrator (never called my father) was revealed. Then came the movie script version that was reality. A posse of fathers and uncles tracked down this donor and pulled him from under a bed, and under the threat of a gun carried by one uncle, a courthouse wedding quickly ensued. Too bad a marriage never followed. Well, nothing that could be called a marriage anyway. The teen egg carrier returned to her suburban existence of living with her parents and arguing with her sister about whose turn it was to do the dishes. The only change was that now there were other reasons for the younger sister to resent the older one. The pregnant one, despite doing something BAD, got treated royally. She was given steak to eat when everyone else had cheap cuts. She got fresh fish while the family got canned mackerel patties. Bad Girl didn’t have to cut the grass, carry full laundry baskets, or go to school. But the younger sister, who had done nothing wrong, had to go to school and walk down the hallways which by then were full or rumors about her family secret. It became so bad, the family moved. And younger sister – good sister – lost all her friends, teachers, routines, and security, to move to a new neighborhood where no one knew about the ugliness. The resentment that began during the teen years of the younger sister never left her – not even at her death. And in some perverse twist, Good Sister ended up caring for Bad Sister as she died from a disease directly related to another habit she started as an act of rebellion, smoking. And so, the end of their lives mirrored the beginning. Struggle, anger, and bitterness existing in a sad dance of two people who never learned to weather the storm.
It is said that babies come into the world in the exact form needed to insure bonding.
My troublesome trip into existence didn’t end with a calm, peaceful birth, a delicate moment of a baby being placed in the arms of a waiting, but labor-tired mother. No, I fought my way into this life, and very nearly took the life of the girl-woman giving birth. As the pregnancy reached its end, everyone waited, as people have done since time began, for the signals of an impending birth. But nothing happened. No twinges of contractions, no stabbing back pains, and no tiny show of blood that would herald what was to come. Even the doctor expressed his concern, and so a date was set when science would override nature, and labor was going to be started with medicine.. By the time that date arrived, the doctor had become ill with the flu. Yet he was so concerned about my mom and her birth, he came to the hospital to preside over the events himself. That fact was often repeated to me, the reasoning being that I would understand how wanted I was and how important even the doctor thought I was. He remained the doctor who took care of our family’s gynecological needs for many years until his retirement. Even he told me how my birth was one of his most memorable deliveries. To understand my delivery, you have to put your mind back to a past that had no ultrasounds, no heartbeat monitors, and no epidurals. Doctors had stethoscopes, their hands, and years of training and experience. Or at least, one would hope that the doctor standing between her legs had training and experience. There was no internet to check those facts out, to be sure.
It is said that babies come into the world in the exact form needed to insure bonding. Maybe that is why I was beautiful. For many years, older relatives would tell me that I was the most beautiful baby they had ever seen. Now, when I look back on my life, I think that from the point of my birth on, I had to do everything possible to make people fall in love with me. I disrupted a family, I uprooted the social and educational life of a popular teenager, and I very nearly killed the one who job it was to birth me. If you go back and read that sentence about the doctor deciding to kickstart the labor process, it has no predicting hints of what that one decision would cause. I think the doctor always remembered my birth because two lives were very nearly lost – mine and my mothers. No one knew, or suspected I guess, that my in utero food source – the very one that was the beneficiary of all those steaks and fish – was blocking my doorway to the world. Science calls it placenta previa, but in 1953 – and even today actually – it could be called death. When the staff realized what was happening, my mother, still in her laboring bed, was rolled into an operating room. She was hemorrhaging. It was awful, I was told. A nun/nurse came out to the waiting area and asked to speak to the mother’s parents. They were told that there would not be a baby – not a live one anyway. She explained what had happened, and that in those cases, the babies cannot live without a source of oxygen. Without a source of life is what she was really saying. I couldn’t breathe air yet, and I no longer had that lifeline umbilical cord attached to a placenta. I was in a dying limbo. But so was the teenager who had to have had conflicting emotions about the baby inside her. She wanted that life. But she was ashamed of that life and if it went away, maybe things would be easier.