Intro: The Shape of a Southern Woman

Introduction

 

My voice comes out gruff and strained as I address my niece, Lynn, and my nephew, Danny, “Well, I guess it’s time we have this conversation, isn’t it?  Your mother is gone and your father is about as coherent as a potato these days so it’s up to me now.”  My mother had always warned me not to pick up smoking but I made it my business to do the exact opposite of everything she told me.  I wouldn’t allow myself to become what she had.  A nonperson.

“Mrs. Romero! That’s a bit harsh!”  My nurse, Maggie froze with horror at my words and a satisfaction bloomed in my chest because of it. Let’s face it, my days are numbered and I have to get my kicks in whenever and wherever I can. That’s the thing about being old. You get excused for saying rude or shocking things. It’s a consolation prize for dying.

“What? It’s not like he’s here!” I shrug off her judgment.  She’s a pleasant little thing, not a day over twenty-five.  She’s been caring for me since I fell last year.  Lynn and Danny thought that I needed help but I refused to go to a retirement home.  I’m not retired and I won’t tolerate living in a place where I’m instructed when to eat and where I have to battle with the other bitties for TV time.  This is my home and I fought too long and hard for it to give it up now all because a bad hip and linoleum don’t agree with one other.  Besides, “the home” as they like to call it, is on the non-smoking bandwagon and you are made to smoke outside and away. As if my second-hand smoke is somehow worse for their lungs than the car exhaust from their expensive automobiles. I will smoke right here, in my home, and watch The Wheel anytime I damn well please.

“You think that’s the worst she’s got?”  Danny said as he raised an eyebrow.  He is my favorite nephew.  Anyone that says they don’t have a favorite is full of shit.  My nieces and nephews all moved away and I don’t blame them but, Danny visits me often.  He reminds me so much of my sister, Anna.

I loved Anna.  It took a long time for me to realize that but I did and maybe that’s the problem. As a child I wanted to beher and truly, it can be argued that I was her. We were twins but it wasn’t enough; I wasn’t enough.  I was only a half to a whole, twins to any outsider were one.  We were not Annabelle and Clementine; We did not exist as individuals.  It was always, “How are the twins?  What are you doing for the twins’ birthday?  When are the twins starting school?”.  As a teenager I tried to hate Anna, shamefully, but I did. However, in all that wretched unhatred, there wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for her and certainly that feeling was mutual.  For much of our lives, we only had one another.  It may not seem that a person can feel alone in a family as large as ours living in a house as small as the one that we had, but we were often fending for ourselves.  Anna always had my back whether I acknowledged it or not and I tried to do the same when it counted.  I owed it to her for shouldering the burden of being the stronger of us.

“Lynn can you pour me some tea?  Put a little of my stuff in there and we can get started.”  I smile, which probably looks more like a grimace now and settle myself into my favorite chair.

I have lived in this town for my whole life. This is only the second house I’ve laid my head in as an adult and I have no desire to change that. I don’t have any particular sentimental attachment to it rather I just like the fact that it’s the only blue house in town. I like the fig tree that sits in my backyard that has allowed me to bake countless cakes over the years despite that son of a bitch Roger’s sheep nibbling away at the branches. I have a small flowerbed that wins the Garden Club’s best yard every year. I’m only one of five applicants, but still take pride in the award. I also have a modest vegetable garden and a few laying hens, and one rooster out back that serves as my alarm clock. Danny has tried to take over my outdoor duties when he’s in town since my arthritis twisted and deformed my fingers long ago, but I like feeling useful. My garden and my art are the only connection I have to a pure happiness. When I’m creating or planting, even in pain, I feel what most would consider pleasure.

“Aunt Clem, it’s nine in the morning, isn’t it a little early for spirits?” Danny smiles wryly at me. He loves how contrary I am, nowhere near the picture of what a southern grandma would be. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have children of my own to smooth my edges. Maybe it’s because the wool was pulled from my eyes a few years too soon, before that part of my brain properly developed. Whatever the reason, I’ve grown into my solitude and I have no desire for acceptance or approval. This is especially true now that Anna is gone and I can get this off my chest.

“You think she hasn’t gone at it earlier than this before?”  Now it’s Maggie’s turn to raise an eyebrow at my expense.

“If I’m telling this story, I’m damn well not doing it sober.”  I wriggle my fingers impatiently at Lynn to tell her to hurry it up with my drink.

“I don’t know why it matters now anyway, Aunt Clem.”  Lynn reluctantly pours the whiskey into my tea and walks it over then lowers herself into the rocker opposite me. His rocker. She would shudder if I told her outright that it all took place in that very spot, but I need to get it all out. Start to finish to be sure they understand.

“Because you two are about to lose your last parent and I won’t be too far behind him, and I can’t go to my grave with you two thinking of me the way that you do.” I grunt and resituate waiting for the whiskey to work its magic.

“We don’t think poorly of you Aunt Clem. We love you.”  Danny places his wide, rough hand on top of mine. He’s always been a sweet boy, just like his father. His dark brown hair has given way to a peppering that makes him even more handsome than I thought possible. Sometimes when he is thinking hard about something, he reminds me of Les. It’s funny how people can come from one set of parents yet take on characteristics of other people in their gene pool.

Lynn, on the other hand, is a complex woman. It’s a wonder her children turned into such successes. She’s on her third husband which can only be attributed to her beauty that she clearly inherited from Anna. But that personality… let’s just say, she got the short end of the stick. It skipped a generation unfortunately. She’s the editor-in-chief of some hot shot newspaper in Chicago and she is a force to be reckoned with, even in a male dominated career.

“You speak only for yourself in that regard.”  I move my eyes from him to Lynn. I don’t blame her for her callousness towards me. I can count on one hand the number of times she’s embraced me over the years once word got to her what I did. Her children are in college now and haven’t visited me once on their own accord. With none of my own, I have worked my own penance over the years in a way that’s most deserving. “I know what you think and you probably aren’t wrong in it. But, you know now, as an adult, how many grey areas exist in the world and in the decisions that we make when it comes to our family. I don’t know why I feel like now is the right time and not last year, or when Anna died… maybe it’s out of protection for your father but now I have to release it and you need to listen.”  I sigh and take another sip of my tea. Maggie pretends to busy herself with laundry. “Mag, you can park your bony little ass down too. I know you want to hear what I’m about to say and folding the same towel four hundred times isn’t helping anyone.”  Lynn and Danny exchange glances while Maggie sheepishly drops the folded towel down and pulls a chair over from the table. They sit around me like children during story time.

And my story begins.

 

***

 

“Children see the world through a different set of eyes than adults. Magic not only exists but is the driving force in all they do. They think they can fly with a strong gust of wind and an umbrella. You watch your own children shoot lasers from their wrists and fight off pirates with the inner tubing from wrapping paper. They believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and goodness. They have the patience to see goodness, at least. It’s not in their realm of understanding that not everyone can become an astronaut or a ballerina. I certainly didn’t see our town breed any nobel prizewinners. Children are also incredibly trusting. In their eyes, adults are these larger mirrors of themselves. Mom and dad have all of the answers and their power and knowledge are limitless. They also, here in the South at least, believe in God. Children are fools. At least in my day they were kept in their place and didn’t whine so damn much. Nowadays, they need a “safe space” and all but get away with murder, which, I guess so did I, but I have my reasons. Most people hear a story of a woman who kills her husband and immediately think she must be a lunatic, but not me. No, sir. I was very much lucid, in fact it had been a long time coming. However, before I tell you why I killed your uncle Curly, you should know a bit about me.”

 

 

 

 

1

July 2, 1964

Love Thy Neighbor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you ever skipped rocks?  The smooth stone skips like a delicate ballerina, leaping so quickly across the water that before you even count two ripples, it’s off to the next spot, then the next. The rings spread out, slowly stretching wider and wider but they don’t break. The circles just blend and bounce off the bank or softly collide into the next set of rings as they spread out and into one other. It’s not a devastating disturbance but a mesmerizing one. The water settles relatively soon once the rock sinks down and finds a place to nestle on the riverbed. What if instead of that tiny rock, it was a huge boulder, splashing down, sending much bigger waves, upsetting the little ecosystem below?  Sloshing life around violently and without the ability to prepare for the damage. That’s what life is like. A series of skipping rocks, some causing gentle ripples, others causing mass destruction. An unknowing child, unprepared, unknowing, forever shifted.

These shifts send shockwaves that linger and influence every decision you make for the rest of your life. Moments that force you out of innocence and open your eyes to the unsympathetic realities that exist. The lucky ones get to experience this in a natural way. A way that happens organically like when a young girl suddenly stops wanting to play with dolls and make-believe, trading them for makeup and boys. Some of these moments are more jolting, like when they catch mom and dad slipping Santa presents under the tree or placing a couple of crisp dollar bills under their pillow instead of the magical fairy heaving a sizeable bag of baby teeth. I still don’t understand that whole thing, but I digress.

I did not have the luxury of a smooth transition into a woman. Given I had four brothers and an alcoholic for a father, I don’t imagine innocence stood a chance in my household. It was quite easy to get buried under them and fall to the bottom of the totem pole where I was expected to stay quiet. Seen and not heard like all good children. The Church promises a lot if you’re good. But what is good?  I tried to follow every commandment to avoid disappointing God and my parents but somehow, I was never quite good enough. I don’t recall a time in which I ever truly pleased my parents but I do remember vividly the point in which I stopped being a child and it happened to be on the day I’m about to tell you. Looking back, there were warning signs but I was young and naïve. There would be more that continued to chip away at me but this was the first.

And I was five.

***

“I’d like to reference Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…”. Father Bob spoke, sweat running down his pocked face, his glasses fogging with the humidity. The church was old and the heat was unbearable. All the women flapped their Sunday pamphlets with their white gloved hands.

Daddy scoffed. Momma blushed. My oldest brother, Les stifled a giggle. Father Bob was trying to use the Bible to tell us to be tolerant and kind. Momma had no patience for either of those things. Maybe in another life she could have embodied those virtues. One that wasn’t riddled with stress and children she didn’t want from a husband whose only reliable quality was his relationship with the bottle and a good pot of gumbo.

My daddy went through brief spurts where he was not a raging drunk. In fact, when sober, he was just like every other dad. His devout Catholicism was much less intense during those sober times as well. Still strict, very strict, but he seemed to love us then. Momma, was an enigma. But with five kids I doubt she had the time to maintain a Godly home, rather one that didn’t have a frog in the sink on any given day. Her vision of a “good Christian home” certainly did not involve half of the things that ours had. This year had the potential to be a good one for our family. Daddy had gone his longest stretch yet without taking a single sip. Father Bob made some major strides with him as far as that was concerned. It seemed the longer he went without drinking, the less he resented us. During the darker times, the mere scent of it reminded him of all the things he wished we weren’t.

Nowadays, even Momma had a pep in her step and didn’t seem to be walking on egg shells like she had been for as long as I can remember. She sang while she cooked, she bought us a puppy from a couple that was breeding their Labrador two streets over and even started a beautiful garden in front of the house that she let Anna and I help her with. Her fuse remained impossibly short and her Catholic guilt poured from her like a waterfall of prudence. When she was in a good mood, we fought to soak it up while it lasted. She wouldn’t really invite us to help, rather sigh heavily and wave her hand at us as if to say, “Hurry up before I change my mind.”  Our fingers would be raw and our nails bent back and split but all we cared about was this special time in which we had Momma all to ourselves. We didn’t even mind that we were still technically sharing it because it was better than having to do it with four other people who were usually much louder and needier than we were. Being the youngest in the family was hard enough but being girls, it was as if where the boys were expected too much of physically, we were emotionally. Crying along with any other form of emotion wasn’t tolerated in our house. There simply wasn’t time for that.

Father Bob, or Robert McNally as he was known in his days as a layperson, mentored Daddy as much as he could. They had been best friends growing up before Robert went off to become a man of the cloth and Daddy went off to become a man of his country. Everyone said Robert pledged himself to God to avoid the war but Daddy vehemently denied it. They had a special bond ever since Maw Maw Louisa died when Daddy was a teenager. That’s when Daddy’s struggle to maintain sobriety began. People love to say a boy needs his father, but I would argue that the loss of a mother changes a person in a deep way, a chemical way. His father was cold and closed off, much like he is now, so when Robert left for the seminary, his drinking only intensified at which point, Paw Paw Ryan kicked him out. So he joined the Army and went off to serve in the war, met Momma when he returned home, got married, then was sent off to the Korean War and the remainder of whatever softness existed in him, was siphoned out.  Mom found out she was pregnant while he was gone and hobbled around tending the crops, swollen and pregnant in the summer sun.  She delivered Les on a Tuesday in her bathtub and went back out to work only taking breaks to breastfeed her newborn child. When Daddy returned, her hair was almost completely grey.