Reaching the age when you are looking through old photos and realizing that you are the only one in the picture still alive.
It truly comes for us all.
Because I’ve maintained my ancestry account for so long, I’ve had at least 20 instances where I realized that I needed to update someone’s life by posting their death. For several, I’ve not only been the first to do so, but the only one. In time, others often see a death marked with a ‘hint’ on their trees and borrow my initiative. I try to gather the enthusiasm as soon as possible to post all the pictures I have of the person who has died. I find it increasingly hard to imagine hoarding pictures from posterity; while I might possess a picture, I’m merely its custodian.
I can imagine what Paul Edgecombe from “The Green Mile” felt when he was cursed with long life. Part of the arrangement was that he had no choice but to witness the passing of everyone who shared his life. While I’m in my early 50s, I can feel the pain of someone who reaches 80.
Getting older presents us with more opportunities to hold the disparate ideas of bittersweet and melancholy simultaneously.
Because I love pictures and genealogy, the two hobbies often coalesce and focus my attention to the passing of people – as well as the infrequent but inescapable realization that the deaths accumulate behind me.
A wise woman once told me anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.
She spoke from experience having been raised from the age of three by a man who wasn’t her biological father but who loved her as if she were his own.
He was a man of the land; a farmer who sweated in the cotton fields of Monroe county and hunted in the area’s woods. He took his family to live for a time in California during the Depression where he worked as a carpenter and where one of his children was born before the family returned to its roots in the soil of the Arkansas Delta.
Before that, he had a wife and children he loved. When the youngest of them was still a baby, his wife became ill, and the family needed help. A young woman needing work came to the house each day to care for the younger children, cook, clean, and tend chickens while the man worked the fields and cared for his wife. Tuberculosis was common in those days, and it robbed many families of their loved ones. With her passing, the man was left a widower with children. He and the family still needed the young woman’s help, and, to keep things “proper,” they wed so she and her small daughter could move into the house full time. What surely began as a marriage of necessity turned to a marriage where love lived and grew, and they added four more children to the family. The number of grandchildren grew, too, over the years.
For many of them, memories of him included how he rolled his own cigarettes—carefully pulling a thin cigarette paper from its packet and holding it between several fingers of one hand while tapping tobacco from a Prince Albert can with the other. He then rolled the paper, licked to seal it, and twisted the ends. If asked, he allowed whichever grandchild had climbed into his lap to watch the fascinating process lick the paper for him. It was a thrill beyond thrills, and only a granddaddy wouldn’t mind a child’s spit on his cigarette. He loved his grandchildren, and the honest summary of their high energy visits was a simple “I love to see them come, and I love to see them go,” as he smiled.
He was a quiet man, but his eyes and facial expressions spoke volumes. You can take my word for it, or you can look at his expression in this photo—the first photo taken by my sister on her first camera. Its value can’t be determined by a number for it is priceless to me as it is the only known photo to exist of this elderly man and young child, and he only lived a few years longer after it was taken.
Most folks called him Lawrence; his wife called him Lun. Turns out the wise woman mentioned at the beginning of this memory was right. Anyone can be a father or grandfather, but it took someone special to be the man I call Granddaddy.
I know most of you know that a lot of people reach out to me and share personal stories. Most of them who do so respond to my fling-it-to-the-wall method of personal sharing, I’ve yet to find a single person who doesn’t have a couple of jaw-dropping stories.
In the last year, I would say the strangest and most incredible story someone shared with me was the one shared by a woman about her sister, thought to have died during birth – but was actually stolen by a doctor here in Northwest Arkansas and given to a well-to-do family.
A while back, I wrote a post about not using a clothes iron. (I also don’t own anything that requires dry cleaning, either.) It was a little piece of fun writing. Shortly after, I received a note from someone who told me an interesting story. As with the baby-stealing doctor, I was fascinated but was held to secrecy regarding the people involved. She told me she couldn’t think about irons of any kind without thinking about her grandmother.
Here it is, with some redaction:
My grandmother was born dirt-poor. She didn’t really know what her birthday was because she was born between fields. Her great-aunt told her she was born in 1912. She remembered it was the year that Wilson won the presidency and that it was a leap year. The leap year fact stuck in her head because her uncles kept joking that they had been given an extra day to work. Everyone in her family worked the fields and farms, no matter how old they were. Until WWI, they barely survived. My grandmother Edna remembered her father going to serve along with his two brothers. Only one brother returned alive. His name was Henry, and he was an alcoholic and a violent man. Even though Edna was only 8 or 9, she knew she had to hide from Henry when he was drunk. Her mom Ethel married Henry to survive. Four children were too many to care for.
When she was 12, Edna was working as an adult woman. She spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and working in the fields. Her other sister worked with her and neither went to school past the 4th grade. After a late-night of drinking, Henry came home and grabbed Edna. He later claimed he didn’t know it was Edna rather than Ethel. Edna fought and clawed until Henry collapsed on the floor. He broke several of her fingers during the fight. Her mom fixed her fingers on the back porch but offered no consolation or words of compassion for her daughter. Years later, she found out that her mom had been abused by someone for several years. The fact melted her heart and turned most of her anger to bittersweet understanding.
Weeks later, Edna hatched a plan to get rid of Henry. She stoked the stove in the living room with more firewood late in the evening instead of letting it burn down to ashes. She put one of the fire-irons into the red coals and closed the stove door as much as possible. After all the lanterns were extinguished in the two rooms used for sleeping, she lay awake, waiting. Before too long, she could hear Henry’s raucous snoring from the room next to hers and her siblings. She climbed from the sunken bed and walked across the freezing-cold floorboards of the cheaply-constructed shotgun house. She searched in the dark for the clothes she’d arranged under the dresser, tucked out of sight. All the doors creaked like the floor as she passed through.
As she entered the living room, she listened to the crack of the stove and the wind-up clock behind her.
Before losing her nerve, she used three rags to pull the red-hot fire-iron from the stove. Walking quickly, she went into the room where Henry and her mom Ethel slept. Henry’s snoring told her he was asleep. Before she could talk herself out of it, Edna pulled back the thick covers from Henry. She put the fire-iron, tip down, across his stomach and legs, as best as she could manage in the dark. She threw the covers back on top of her stepfather. In a few seconds, the snoring stopped, and then a loud scream erupted from Henry. She couldn’t see him grab the iron, but he screamed again, probably as he grabbed the brutally hot iron with a bare hand. A loud thud hit the wood floor. Her mom Ethel began to shout, asking what was wrong. Back in those days, the bedrooms didn’t have light bulbs, or if they did, they were a single hanging bulb awkwardly danging in the middle of the room in shotgun houses. You had to get up and relight the lantern. Her mom, still hollering, shuffled around and struggled to light one of the long matches next to the oil lantern on the table across from the bed. She managed to light the lantern and turn the wick up. As she turned to see what had happened, she saw her daughter Edna standing by the door with her hand over her mouth. Henry was gasping and clawing at his stomach and lower half. The iron had burned away his underclothes from just below his belly button to his upper right leg. Edna had misjudged the iron a little bit; otherwise, Henry would have been reminded of her each time he went to the bathroom. He looked as if he’d been burned by an absurd branding iron.
As Edna looked at Henry writhing in pain, she knew he’d never abuse anyone again. She also knew she couldn’t stay. She ran out of the house into the cold night. She didn’t go back. A second cousin offered to let her stay with her if she agreed to work with her at the store she and her husband owned a town over.
The sheriff visited Edna a few days after she moved. “Henry isn’t pressing charges. What did he do to you to make you do that to him?” The sheriff seemed as if he suspected. “What did he tell you?” Edna asked.
“He didn’t say much, other than he didn’t ever want to see you again.” The sheriff shook his head and left. “I expect you won’t be causing any more trouble, will you?” Edna shook her head “no.”
Edna’s new family immediately started referring to the incident as “the incident.” Before long, they jokingly referred to her by the nickname “Incident.” A few months later, Edna’s sister moved to live with her. Both sisters were adopted in the family and started attending school again. Though they didn’t go to court, as people often didn’t do in those days, they changed their names to honor their new family.
Both sisters became teachers and lived their lives without further felonious undertakings.
The woman who wrote me told me she discovered the story after doing a DNA test. Luckily for her, some of the surviving family shared all their stories with her, several of which she’s written for everyone to share.
As with the stolen baby story that happened here in Arkansas, the fascinating details aren’t mine to share. If it were my story, I would proudly tell it as a story of a woman who figured out that sometimes fire is a better solution than words or hope.
“Hurry up and close the screen door! You’re letting flies in!” If I heard that phrase yelled at one of us kids once, I heard it, by conservative count, at least 32,760 times in my life. If the phrase had to be said more than once, the lollygagger was likely to be threatened with being locked out for a while; a punishment my brother figured out could be short-circuited by popping the door right where the hook went through the eye sending the hook flying up and over to dangle uselessly.
Keeping the screen door closed was important. We lived behind a grocery store in a small town. Its dumpster was straight across the street from our driveway and the screen door. My mother hated having the back of that store as the view from her kitchen window. In fact, she hated everything about that store.
Store employees and management dumped all kinds of expired food, including meat, in that dumpster. In the winter, it wasn’t so bad. But in the hot summertime, it became unbearable. The stench from rotting meat, produce, and milk could almost gag the maggots that formed on it. It was a common sight to see my mother marching across the street and pouring a jug of bleach all over the bin’s contents. She had talked to management time and again simply asking that they not throw away raw food items until the night before or the morning of the sanitation truck’s arrival. Sometimes, they would do as she asked. More often, they didn’t. As a result, they lost all of our business, as my mother began driving across town to the Kroger store near the interstate. The amount spent by my mother on groceries each week was substantial as she fed our family of five (including a male teenager who could pack away a lot of food easily).
Apparently, my mother’s example taught me as a child that not being able to beat them didn’t mean you had to join them. To this day, I will boycott a business in a heartbeat based on principle alone.
Aside from the smell in the summer, having a grocery store as a neighbor wasn’t so bad for us kids in the neighborhood. Really, it couldn’t get much better if you could scrape together enough change to buy a fudgsicle or a tiny container of ice cream with its own wooden spoon attached. If that much money couldn’t be found or begged from an adult, sometimes we had enough for a pack of candy cigarettes or a package of wax paper wrapped Now and Later candy (as if any of it was ever left for later).
Sometimes when money was scarce but supplies were available, we got our parents’ permission to make lemonade and sell it in the parking lot to earn candy money. Yep, for a kid, the positives of the store outweighed the negatives by far.
My mother rejoiced the day the grocery store’s owner closed the store. It stayed vacant for a while but eventually was converted into a maintenance shop and parking area for the school district’s buses. Life became a lot more peaceful – especially on the weekends when the shop sat empty waiting for school again on Monday.
Several decades have passed since then. The shop remains though the school district is shrinking as the town’s population shrinks. The house, however, now sits empty, its latest occupant having deserted it for reasons unknown to me. The kitchen windows stare blankly – one window partially broken.
It’s not much to look at, that house, but on the rare occasion I do, I can still hear “Hurry up and close the screen door! You’re letting flies in!” And I smile.
It’s 1:19 in the morning; another sleepless night as Lonely drops in for an unwelcome visit. Lonely doesn’t care if you’re by yourself or with others. It simply shows up when it pleases. As I attempt to put Lonely and the other things bothering me out of mind, I take a deep breath and release it slowly. Then, like a small gift from above, a train whistle sounds in the distance. As it draws closer, it transports me to a place in the past — a place where I can feel the subtle rumble and shake of the train’s cars as they rock to the wheels on the rails.
My sister and I shared a room until I was 10, when she moved out. She was 19 and had never had a room to herself. Nor would she in the foreseeable future. She was getting married. For me, a lot of excitement surrounded her wedding-especially since I was to be the only attendant. She would be a beautiful bride, and I would get to wear a pretty dress and hold a bouquet of lovely flowers.
Excitement surrounded her move too because she would be moving into a house she could decorate and set up completely as she chose. This was going to be fun to watch! Then, it hit me – I was going to have my own room for the first time ever! Wow! Things became more exciting each day!
The wedding day passed in a blur, but the bride was indeed beautiful, and I did wear a pretty dress while standing next to this young woman who was part big sister, part mother to me.
Later that evening, I went to my bedroom excited at the thought of having it to myself. As life often shows us, things aren’t usually what we think they will be. The room felt empty and sad. I had rarely spent a night without my sister, and now I was facing endless days and nights without her. She was the one who held and rocked me when I had a bad dream, she participated in my sleep talking to soothe me back to sleep; she even allowed me to warm my cold feet on her legs when winter nights were icy.
Facing that first night without her was lonely and more than a little scary. As I lay in what suddenly felt like a huge, empty bed, my fear of what might lurk in the dark grew until I wanted to scream for my mother. Knowing she was asleep and would not appreciate a screaming kid disrupting her rest kept me silent.
Just as the fear became completely paralyzing, I heard it. It was faint in the distance, but it was there, and it was coming closer. The evening train was rolling through town. We lived close to the tracks, and, as it approached, the sound of the wheels hugging the rails and the sound of swaying rail cars grew louder until the train was right there – practically outside the window. I could feel the vibrations from the floor up, and it was comforting. For a few minutes, I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t the only one awake in the world, and relief washed over me. I relaxed and focused on the train’s every sound and movement and drifted off to sleep as the train finished passing the house.
The nightly train became a trusted and reliable friend. I counted on it each night to lull me to sleep and, later, when fears and worries woke me in the early hours, I found that another train would come through and provide that distinctive rhythm that told me everything was on schedule and okay.
P.S. This is a guest post written by a reluctant writer, counted among my favorite people.
As I neared the last corner on the way home, I saw my Marshallese neighbor in the lateral sideyard playing ball with his son. They were using a tennis ball and running across the yard, laughing. Unlike some of the neighbors, they were careful. It was a great late morning for such games, with a temperature in the upper 70s, a light breeze washing over them, and a sun uncharacteristically cool.
Seeing them frolic made me realize that I found a home for another of my keepsakes.
I drove past the few remaining houses to mine and parked in the driveway. I backed my wife’s car out of the garage and then used the drop-down attic staircase to go up. I shifted the bins around until I found the one with my two baseball gloves and a special baseball. A few years ago, I reconditioned both gloves and sealed them. It surprised me that I had not found a good home for the gloves before today.
When I was younger, I learned to catch using whatever glove was available. For most lefties like me, especially poor ones, I either used my bare hands or learned to rapidly remove my glove and throw the ball. The positive result of this was that I could catch perfectly well with either hand and bat right-handed.
Until today, I’ve waited to find a new home for my gloves. I didn’t want to give them to someone who wouldn’t appreciate them. Having them unused in the attic bothered me a bit, though. I’m violently opposed to owning such things without using them. Gloves are meant to be used. As terrible as a sports fan that I am, the simplicity of playing catch, hotbox, or hitting balls in the summer sun is something that I loved doing when I was young. Like most boys, I participated in versions of baseball anywhere that we could manage, from dormant municipal baseball fields to cow patches where large apartments now tower above the land.
I walked down to the corner. Rosen, the younger Marshallese owner of the house, walked up to meet me. His young son stood on the lawn, wondering what I was up to. Another smaller boy sat on the chair under the small covered porch on the front of the house.
“Hey, do you remember me? I’m the one who gave you the weedeater and spoke Spanish to you?”
Rosen nodded yes, and then said, “I know you have a strange name, but I can’t remember what it is.”
I showed him my work badge and told him, “X.” Seeing it written out sometimes gives people the right context to understand what I’m saying.
“Rosen, I want you to have my gloves. One if for lefties, and the other is for those who use the wrong hand to catch. And the baseball is a special one I’ve kept for many years. I want you to keep them and enjoy them.” The look on Rosen’s face told me that I had once again surprised him. When I moved to the new house a few years ago, I walked down and gave him a new weedeater. He was shocked then and surprised now.
“Wow, thanks X. We’ll definitely go to a ball field and play. We’ll use the tennis ball right now.”
I laughed. “Okay, but if you really want to repay me, you’ll break out a couple of windows of that neighbor’s house.” I turned and pointed to a house across the street, a house that is well on its way to becoming a version of Boo Radley’s house.
The residents of that infamous house are using every page of the ‘Asshole Neighbor’s Playbook.’ If the human underarm could become a house, it would be that one.
Rosen laughed, too.
He might not know the significance of that ball or what it meant to me, but if he uses it even for a single shared afternoon with his son, the honor will have been paid in equal measure.
I walked away and heard one of the boys say, “Dad, who was that nice man?”
I smiled, wondering what ripple effects I had unknowingly set in motion by my gift.
When the story is good, nothing else exists outside of those pages. I love to read. Always have. Someone standing in the same room asking me a question might as well be a mile down the road asking it because I won’t hear the question. I can’thear the question.
A recent conversation with my cousin, who is a writer and avid reader, made me ask where or how he gained his love for the written word. It also prompted me to think where I gained mine. The answer in a word is Mama. Thoughts of her and reading bring memories from my childhood flooding in.
When I was very small, reading was a huge part of my day. Mama read to me as a way of both entertaining me and lulling me to sleep for a nap. Her tone was soothing. Its sound was like a soft blanket wrapping around me.
As I grew, Mama returned to work, and I stayed with a sitter while my brother and sister were in school. It reduced my reading time, but it didn’t eliminate it. Even when she was surely exhausted and hated the thought of it, my mother read an evening story to me.
Each night, supper was cooked and eaten, the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, and then it was storytime. It was my favorite time of the day. Storytime was like my own special dessert. The anticipation of it through supper and cleanup tasted sweeter than any cake or cookies possibly could.
The routine was the same each evening. I picked a book, and we settled onto the couch. She always sat near the end where the light from the floor lamp made it easier to see the print regardless of which book I chose. I sat to her right as close as possible. That proximity varied based on the time of year and the temperature inside our small house. Winter temps meant I could get as close as possible; summer temps meant there had to be space so we wouldn’t sweat and cause our skin to stick together. On the cooler evenings, when I smushed myself into her tightly, I could feel the vibration from her voice cause a soft rumble from her body to mine.
I tended to choose longer books because, no matter the length, one story was usually the limit. Laundry still had to be folded and put away, and everyone had to have baths before bedtime. With five people and one bathroom, that was quite a process to complete.
No matter how long it took her to read the story, it was never long enough for me. Occasionally, if I had picked the same book too many nights in a row, Mama would suggest a different book. I knew that meant she was tired of that story, so I would exchange the book grudgingly. The disappointment always fell away quickly though—as soon as the first word was read.
Immediately, I was “in” the story. Everyone and everything else around me disappeared, and I was walking with the characters in the book; feeling what they were feeling, seeing what they were seeing, smelling what they were smelling. All of their experiences became my own and were as real to me as the room I was sitting in.
That wasn’t the end of reading for the night though. One more treat was to come. After I was ready for bed, Mama or my sister would tuck me in, pick up the book Little Visits With God, and read a Bible story to me. After that, a quick prayer, and I was off to dreamland feeling safe and secure.
As I grew and learned to read on my own, Mama took me to the local library to pick out my own books. What a wonderful place! My first favorite moment was taking the first step inside the library door. It was like stepping into an entirely new world! The smell of books greeted me like the embrace of a favorite family member, and the spark of excitement that jolted and ran through me was like the joy of seeing your best friend at school after a long weekend.
Our library was, to me, one of the stateliest structures in town with its brick facade and three-story, white columns. You couldn’t tell from the outside, but from the front door, the library was down a flight of steps. Standing on the landing was like overlooking a magic land from a lush hill while fairies spun webs of glowing books.
As a teenager, I had a book in progress at all times. Books opened up worlds I didn’t know existed: places, people, ideas, facts, and so much more. They showed me a vast range of possibilities existed for my future outside the boundaries of the small town I was lucky enough to call home. Books even taught me simple lessons about myself. I feel you asking “like what?” One book, in particular, taught me that scary books really should be avoided altogether. An all-night-by-flashlight binge read of The Amityville Horror and a weeklong inability to sleep drove home the lesson books of that sort were, for me, best left on the library shelf. As a teenager, one book was even a source of tension between my mom and me. Mom, after noticing a Judy Blume book in my room and flipping through it, decided the story wasn’t “suitable” and threw it away without telling me. She then allowed me to search the house for several days and, only after I asked if she had seen it, did she inform me it was in the trash because it was unsuitable for me. I was furious but knew better than to argue, so I only told her with teenage sarcasm, “Thanks for letting me waste so much time looking for it.”
Not only was my mother the source of my love of books, she too was a voracious reader. Having a book in progress, for her, was like having the next breath of air ready to breathe. One time after she came to my bedroom telling me to help with supper, I asked why she didn’t call me from the kitchen. She replied she had done that three times already. Yet, she wasn’t irritated. I presumed she would think I had ignored her calls and questioned her. “Not at all,” she said and then told me a story of her own. When she was my age and engrossed in a book, she didn’t hear her own mother repeatedly calling for help from the kitchen. Suddenly, Mom was brought to reality by a handful of homemade biscuit dough whacking her in the head. From that point on, she chose different times—ones that didn’t interfere with chores—to read. From that experience, she knew I couldn’t hear her when I was reading, and I’m thankful for that realization. Premade biscuit dough in a can would have hurt a lot worse than that handmade dough did.
That love of books and the magic of libraries remain with me to this day. It is both a simple gift and a deep legacy handed to me by the person who loved me more than any person ever has or ever will.
Before starting this story, I’d like to mention that a friend wrote to me two days ago to tell me about her memories of the area over by old Highway 68 and where the interstate now crosses 412. Because I didn’t get to see pictures of the area as I’d hoped, I had to rely mostly on my memory. I know that photo collections exist, but they aren’t publicly shared, which is a terrible fact to me. I’m the first to admit that I sometimes get a detail spectacularly wrong. My friend remembered the duplexes across the street, mainly because one of her best friend’s father owned them. I don’t remember the Afghan Hound breeder who lived nearby either, even though it sounds very familiar, like a half-forgotten dream. I enjoy the idea of my interconnectedness with people. We shared memories and places without realizing it. For her, the place I write about was full of interest and friendship. Truthfully, were I with other adults who cared for me, I would have discovered the same carefree love of the place. It was a beautiful area and one perfect for children with a bit of freedom and adventure on their minds.
This story isn’t exactly how I wanted it. Instead of worrying about the tone, mixed messages, or errors, I’m sharing it, just as I’ve shared anything else.
In one of my recent stories, I wrote about living where the interstate crosses Highway 412 now. We moved to Springdale after my 5th birthday; I don’t recall exactly when. I skipped kindergarten, though. Grandma made a cake for me for that birthday and my cousin Michael Wayne helped me demolish it. Had I known it would mark the end of my childhood, I would have escaped through the empty fields around us. We had lived in several places in Brinkley after Dad reunited with Mom. We lived in Wheatley because I remember being very sick on Xmas day. We lived past S. Grand until the house caught on fire. We also lived somewhere near the intersection of Pine and the main drag through Brinkley, as well off Highway 39 near the intersection of Highway 49. I’ve written before that we lived in more than a couple of dozen places as a family. I don’t count the other places or otherwise, the count would be up to forty.
After a couple of intervening places in Johnson and Springdale, we moved to a very small house owned by my cousin. As my Dad got a job at his shop, we lived close to where he would work.
48th street was a narrow pasture road to nowhere. Along the street were a couple of huge oak trees. Having spent a bit of time considering the details, the tallest one was definitely 70-80 feet tall. I could use the edge of a protruding gas pipe to lift myself up to the first horizontal branch. I loved that tree. Its branches were spaced almost perfectly for a reckless boy to climb them. Around 50 feet up, it took a bit of actual deathwish to get past a couple of the branches. I often used the tree as a refuge. The apple and pear trees were much thicker and harder to climb. The oak tree near the road also provided me with a bird’s eye view of a great deal of land. I was a better climber than my siblings, despite being more rotund at times and certainly less agile.
One evening, my family was at Goldie and Ellis’ house a bit further up the road toward the highway. By way of preface, my immediate family never played games together, unless you count hide-and-seek due to fear of actual death. We did not have “Family Nights.” Most of our social lives revolved around my Uncle Buck and his wife, Aunt Ardith. Uncle Buck was my Dad’s older brother. A few nights through the years, we went up to Goldie’s house and played board games at their table. I was completely out of my element. I didn’t know how to react. I certainly failed to understand how the two people playing the role of Mom and Dad could behave so shockingly different around other people. Because Goldie was the mother of my Dad’s boss and otherwise regarded as superior, expectations were different for her and her house. Given that these were never spelled out until after the fact, there were often misunderstandings. Misunderstandings involving children in my immediate family always resulted in physical violence while being shouted at incoherently; there was no discernible lesson nor clear tea leaves to read.
Though it might strike you an incongruous, Dad loved Goldie in a way he couldn’t express to his own family. Goldie had experience with alcoholism due to her husband Ellis. Dad, even when not drinking, could demonstrate affection for Goldie in a way that confused me. In the case of his immediate family, familiarity did indeed breed contempt.
One of my favorite memories was one Friday or Saturday night when we were at Goldie’s playing Sorry!. It’s hard to believe that actually happened – that members of my family engaged in playing a board game. Our supper had been cut short due to Mom and Dad needing a drink before they went to Goldie’s house next door. Mom made some kind of horrible meat that night and nothing to go with it except bread. Since mustard sandwiches were a favorite of mine, I ignored the meat and made myself a mustard sandwich. For a reason that will never be known, this enraged my Dad. He back-handed me across the face and I fell to the floor. Everyone pretended I hadn’t just been smacked in the face. I waited a minute to determine if Dad was finished with his tirade. It was impossible to know. I ran outside and sat under one of the trees near the front of the trailer.
While we sat around Goldie’s kitchen table, Goldie asked me if I would like a bite of something. Goldie, being older, loved feeding children. I smiled and said, “Yes ma’am. Thanks!” She pointed toward the fridge and said, “Get yourself all you want.” I stood up and walked over to the fridge to open it.
I heard my mom say “Bobby Dean! Look at him!”
I knew my life was about to end but couldn’t determine why. I recognized that horrible and vengeful tone of my Mom’s voice. That tone was as hateful as any Nazi in WWII.
Without understanding specifically, I was about to be punished for daring to open the fridge at someone’s house, even after being invited to do so. The truth is that my only real crime was having survived to that point and to be available for my parents to use me as a vessel on which to pour their enigmatic wrath.
Goldie said something I don’t remember. I’m sure it was similar to, “Bobby Dean, leave that boy alone. He’s just hungry and I invited him.” The tone of her voice as she spoke was filled with kindness and with the opposite of my Mom when she invoked Dad’s attention to me.
Behind me, I heard a chair scoot back and boots hit the floor. Just as I was about to wince, Dad grabbed me by the neck and pushed/dragged me outside. Since it was dark outside, I couldn’t imagine what I would be hit with. The answer was nothing. My dad grabbed me by the neck and top of my pants and picked me up and threw me off the end of the porch into the gravel of the driveway. It stunned me as I hit the gravel. I didn’t move. Dad threw me several feet into the air and across a decent distance. Even in pain, I knew that to play dead was my best option. Dad pulled a Camel from his shirt and lit it. He paced as he smoked. When he was done, he flicked the cigarette out into the dark without saying a word to me and went back inside. For all he knew, my neck had snapped when he threw me like a bag of trash.
I considered running and climbing the tree but knew the subsequent beating would only be worsened by my doing so.
I waited and sat on the bottom riser of the porch steps. A few minutes later, Goldie opened the door and said, “Come here, I have something for you.” I went to the door as she handed me a glass of tea and a piece of what turned out to be some kind of delicious cake. “Leave the glass out here when you’re done.” She smiled at me and went back inside.
I’m still at odds over how my parents handled our presence at other’s houses. Not that we had the opportunity very often, of course, but we were scared children who assumed that imaginary rules dictated our behavior. Regardless of how well-behaved we were, we still remained incredulous at some of the behavior of our parents. They could literally break the front door in anger on Friday night, while threatening to kill the host in a fit of anger, yet act as if wanting a soda was the same as defecating on the living room floor in front of all the guests. No matter what we did, punishment was likely. Growing older, it was a shock to realize that all of this resulted from a character flaw in both of my parents and actually had nothing to do with me as a child.
A few days later, I was in the machine shop where Dad worked, waiting to see if he would assign some random and horrible work for me to try to do. With his mumbling, instructions were scarce at best. I’d take a furtive look around and steal a couple of sugar cubes from the coffee area. My cousin exited the shop floor where Dad was restoring another Chevy Cheyenne pickup. “Hey, how are you doing? Get you some sugar cubes if you want them.” He laughed. He knew I’d been pilfering the sugar cubes. He wouldn’t mind if ate one hundred of them provided he had some for his next cup of coffee.
Dad came into the office and lit a cigarette. “You can sweep the chat off the floor.” Miraculously, I understand his mumble. I went into the machine shop and grabbed a floor broom and starting pushing it. My right arm was killing me. The broom was a bit long for someone my height and the fact that my arm hurt made it cumbersome.
Dad and my cousin exited the office area and entered the expansive shop area where I was sweeping. My cousin good-naturedly said, “What’s the matter, did a girl whip your butt?” Because he was speaking to me in humor and kindness, I must have dropped my guard and lost all sense. “Nah, I got thrown off a porch.” I said it as a joke without any intent to bring up the incident at Goldie’s house.
Dad said something in anger. I knew he was coming for me and despite the fact that another adult was witness, I wasn’t sure I would survive. Acknowledging Dad’s violence, even in front of people who’d witnessed it a dozen times, was a crime punishable by excessive violence. When I watch shows wherein the villain threatens to kill all the hostages if the person says anything to the police, I find instant credibility in the storyline; it echoes perfectly the atmosphere of my Dad’s outlook.
I ran through the painting area in the back and out the back access where cars could be driven in and out to be sand-blasted, sanded, and painted. I never ran from Dad. Running always accelerated Dad’s timeline for violence. I didn’t look back. I ran to the left, turning where the walnut or pecan tree stood. (I can’t remember which it was. I should remember: it’s where I almost died and had an injury so bad I had almost 200 stitches in my head. That’s a story for another day) I ran across the expanse of yard and field, past the long garden toward the add-on attached to the back of the trailer. I turned to see Dad angrily striding across the grass. I ran around the end of the trailer and bee-lined it to my favorite tree. I climbed as high as I could possibly go. As comical as it sounds, I probably could have jumped and the top of my head would have popped through the top of that 70-80 foot tall tree.
A few minutes later, Dad stood at the bottom of the tree, screaming angrily at me. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. I wasn’t worried about him climbing as high as I was. I should have been. But that part comes later. Dad walked over toward the gravel to find rocks. He picked up a few larger ones and began to throw them as hard and high as he could in an attempt to hit me. To be honest, I know he was hoping to hit me. If I had fallen, he would have justified it easily as a case of a disobedient son. None hit me but several crashed through the foliage near me and below me.
I waited for at least an hour after Dad left. I climbed down a few feet every so often until I was sitting on the bottom limb. Scarily, Dad did not say anything to me for the rest of the day. I had no choice except to go inside and face the wrath. It did not come. That day.
The next afternoon, Dad said, “Go outside.” Knowing he was going to beat me to death, I went outside the trailer and down the steps. I followed him to the road and stood near the tree. “I put one of your toys at the top of the tree. Climb up there and get it down.”
I couldn’t imagine saying “No.” If Dad said a beating would be worse if I cried or objected, he felt it was his manly duty to literally flay skin strips from me to prove he was not to be trifled with. Anger that was slowly boiled always was more dangerous. To be clear, I cried, ragged tears of fear. There was no right course of action. I knew Dad was going to throw rocks at me as soon as I climbed the first branch.
Barely able to see and shaking like a leaf in the tree above me, I grabbed the branch and tried to climb as quickly as possible. After the first limb, I moved partly around the trunk to make the angle of Dad’s aim more difficult. As predicted, Dad started throwing rocks when I reached about twenty feet from the ground. I kept climbing. At about thirty, one of the rocks hit my leg. It didn’t hurt much. It gave Dad more motivation to throw the rocks harder and begin to scream at me. From across the street, a man walked out on to his driveway. I have another story about him later.
“What the hell is going on here?” He shouted at Dad. I knew two things: he knew Dad was throwing rocks at me and he also knew Dad was violent. There’s no way he hadn’t witnessed many of the domestic violence episodes at our house and then two subsequent trailers there. I kept climbing.
Dad turned toward the man across the street: “Mind your f%%ing business if you know what’s good for you.” Dad turned back and ignored him. Somehow, he knew the man would go no further.
He kept throwing rocks. I looked up and could see that Dad had placed an empty whiskey bottle way up in the tree. I couldn’t imagine him climbing that high. Had I watched him while he did so, I would have caught myself praying that gravity would take him down to his death. No matter who is reading this, I can’t apologize for the certainty of the fact that our lives would have significantly improved by his absence. I would have mourned his inability to see another path in life, yet also simultaneously recognized the possibilities created by his absence. When he was in prison in Indiana when I was very young, I experienced life free from his volatility.
As I reached a point about ten feet from the highest point I’d ever climbed and grabbed the bottle. I threw it out of the tree. “I said to bring that f#$ing thing down!” Dad screamed. Without realizing it, I knew he was going to beat me regardless when I made my way down. For a second, I thought about throwing myself out of the tree the way I had thrown the bottle. It wasn’t a suicidal thought; it was the type of perverted self-preservation that abused children consider to be logical. It’s difficult to train oneself out of it as an adult.
However long it took me to get down from the tree, Dad’s anger built. Dad dragged me into the trailer, a sign he needed privacy to teach me a lesson. For his worse beatings, rarely did someone outside the immediate group of family hostages witness them.
It wasn’t the last time he tortured me with trees or even visits to abandoned houses and barns in the dead of night. Often, his whimsy was self-attributed to humor and prank. A few times, it was. Others, though, were dark indicators of the vast well of illness and unhappiness he suffered from.
As horribly as Dad beat me, he never beat the love of that tree out of me. In it, I could see above, beyond, and through the places around me, just as the cedar tree at Grandpa’s had done on a smaller scale.
Though it may be unfair, it is my turn to throw different rocks all these years later. My Dad is deceased and unable to defend himself. I’m older now by a few years than he ever was. The little boy I was held no grudges. Just fear, and confusion. Those have been replaced by an appreciation for the absurdity and frequency of what I lived through. My story is one of thousands of children, even today. I try to focus on the humor my Dad could sometimes display. If he sat beside me today as I write this, he would call me a co#$su#$ker and laugh. He ran out of road before he could make amends. I like to imagine that my Dad could have been able to climb the beautiful oak tree with me and share the view of the world above Springdale in 1974.
A friend (and writer, though she fights the label) sent me a picture from her childhood. She snapped a picture of the old orange photo with her phone. I removed the orange tint from it, knowing that greater revealed detail might cause surprising observations. The hand originally seen holding the picture as she quickly snapped it is almost 40 years older than the innocent face smiling at us in the picture.
As I looked at the picture, for a brief second, I felt disembodied and as if I’d traveled back in time to City View Trailer Park and glanced briefly through the cheap window of the trailer. My eyes crawled across the scene; my friend in the background was smiling because she was asked to by her mom, the photographer, while her stepfather wrestled with a sibling on the bed.
In that instant, the moment became frozen forever, also disembodied and ethereal. My friend’s smile could be authentic happiness or adopted camouflage. It’s easy to take pictures and memories out of context. Due to the convergence of so many aspects of my friend’s life and mine, I can look at such pictures and interpret them in the harsh shorthand we learned separately. Such preconceptions can be wrong.
Her life has arced away from the world contained in the picture. Such victories are unheralded. She is excavating her truth from all the stories inventoried in her head. Despite what we’re told, memories are fluid, often refusing to take solid form. Who we are at the moment drives our focus toward the conflicting elements in our memories and pictures.
Because I shared most elements of family in common with my friend, I too can hear the cacophony of anger and control, even as I feel my heart swell with some moments which escaped the discoloring of the lesser parts of my life.
She’s looking through a long series of windows, trying to balance the tapestry of fact against emotion and her loyalty to those who shared her path when she was younger. It’s a delicate tiptoe and seldom leads everyone to agree.
It’s possible to be momentarily happy and yet inexplicably ruined. We don’t understand our lives until they’ve made an aged trajectory. Even then, our glimpses into the window make us feel traitorous to our own lives. It is as if we owe ourselves an explanation, even though we know we’re blameless for choices we didn’t make.
So, in turn, I peer into my own childhood. I feel the cheap paneling against my back as I lean against the wall in the narrow closets. I hear the shouts from other rooms. And sometimes, I recall the joy of stolen moments, ones which do not fit comfortably with the mythology of my recalled violence.
In those same closets, I opened books and dreamed of other lives – and momentarily forgot that my life was diminished and small.
I look at this picture through my window and see the smile as a captured moment, fragmented away from those in the photograph.
Once again, I opened my email to discover a message telling me exactly what I needed to hear. A sister of one of my paternal aunts wrote me, telling me she’d noticed I added another 100+ pictures of her sister on Ancestry. These are archived in original resolution. My aunt’s sister told me she’d cried a bit, something she hadn’t expected. I wrote her back and told her I put every usable picture I owned of my aunt on there, in the hopes they might last forever, for anyone to see. I also told her I did the same for my uncle and my cousin Jimmy, both of whom now have hundreds of pictures on their respective pages. If you didn’t guess, putting so many pictures on accounts is a rarity.
It was a labor of love and honor. It’s the least I could do. These pictures are in my possession, but I don’t think I own them. They belong to us all – anyone who shared moments, laughter, or time with those in the pictures.
Yesterday, I wrote a post about high school pictures. I used a horrible picture of myself from many years ago. It was a bit satirical, but the message was one I’ve written about a few dozen times: vanity and hoarding regarding pictures is sinful. I’ve never owned a picture that I haven’t offered to everyone who might have an interest. I don’t get the urge to hoard pictures in a box, under a bed, or in a seldom-used closet.
More than one person got irritated at me for preaching the gospel of sharing. Some people righteously guard their past appearance, as if history isn’t going to kick that door open with time anyway. Others play the role of Gollum and greedily keep their pictures hidden in the crook of their unapproachable arms. The last tendency lessens everyone’s ability to remember and cherish people in our past who’ve passed on to the next life.
When my aunt’s sister reached out yesterday, she didn’t know that it was what I needed to hear. My actions months ago opened her heart again, even if for only for a while yesterday. In those moments, she could see that I had paid homage to her sister, to life, and to people we love.
All those pictures? Some of them have been downloaded dozens of times, each time by someone who discovered my treasure, one freely given. I am merely the guardian.