Motherless Child

I was standing on the front lawn in a starched Sunday taffeta, clutching a small purse, rubbing a stiff white patent leather shoe against a mosquito bite. As the afternoon sun drifted behind a maroon cloud, my mother took a photograph.

Easter, 1959, an unnaturally bright day in Vermont. A cloister of aunts and uncles meandered around the petunia boxes as my mother tried to contain the proceedings in a snapshot, swaying this way and that, the camera bobbing in front of her face like a Greek mask. My brothers, wrestling on the grass. My father, deadpan, in an ill-fitting suit, hands deep in his pockets stood beside me like a statue, his eyes dead set against the camera, the day, the celebration.

“A little closer to your father, Laurie.” My mother ordered. “ Phil, bend down a little. Boys, stop it! Laura, stand behind, please, in the middle? Ernest, could you please-yes, that’s good-next to Laura. Howard? Over–fine, good.”

I was seven years old, wrapped in pink and white finery, full of Easter candy, readying myself for silencing at church.

But first, the photograph, which meant a few moments of looking normal. This was almost as difficult for me as for my father, who was suffering immeasurably, craving a beer, desperate to yank off his tie, duck in his pick up and head for the VFW; rid himself of the warped family dynamic that occurred when my mother married beneath her station.

“My mother told me” my mother said, during what must have been a strange conversation with her first grade daughter, “that I could do better. But now of course, he’s won everyone over.”

Married beneath her station? How was that possible? My maternal grandfather, a second marriage, had been a life long chauffeur for the Boutewells, the richest family in Montpelier, and although the job guaranteed that the family did not go hungry during the Depression, ( Mrs. Boutewell wouldn’t hear of it) his salary barely covered expenses. My grandmother’s first husband had been a very well to do farmer in Calais, an early settler, a real catch apparently, much older, but he died early, leaving her with four young children. She sold the farm, which later became a museum and years later married the chauffeur. She was forty-eight, married less than a year when my mother was born.

My mother was surrounded with the obsessive attention and paranoia of four older half brothers and sisters who either lived in the same house or next door. She was their miracle child, a surprise angel from heaven, sent to bond the family together and she lived up to their expectations.

“My brother, Ernest, told me that the family thought I wouldn’t grow up,” My mother often said after a few drinks, “Because I was just too good.”

Also, too good to marry my father, who had grown up in a poverty so severe he’d lived on green apples when it was apple season and half boiled cod stolen from the fish market, when it wasn’t. His father, an Irish Penman, abandoned the family early on. He took to riding boxcars and came back just long enough to impregnate my half Blackfoot grandmother. There was the dirt floor, the violent incidents, the leaking roof in winter, her prostitution to feed the family; yes, in a one room shack; my father in the corner watching, comforting the younger siblings. I heard it all, over and over, as though it were a standard Grimm’s fairy tale, more frightening than Hansel and Gretel.

Dad was supposedly “saved” when he married my mother. He automatically acquired a loving, supportive family, a down payment on a house, and a wife who adored him. He worked hard for New England Bell Telephone, climbing the poles in Vermont blizzards at early dawn or midnight, his salary, even with time and a half, merely pocket change compared to the underlying, consistent support of my mother’s family. A stoic Yankee family that expressed their love with money and hovered, eagle-eyed, during visits, pursing their lips in dismay at a faded overstuffed chair or torn scatter rug. Soon, there would be a new chair, a new rug. In summer, a week or two at a ocean front beach house, later, our own summer cottage on Lake Champlain.

These people were not rich. Barely middle class. They lived together for the most part. Single or suddenly widowed, they worked simple, honest jobs and led simple quiet lives. Evening card games with lots of popped corn, bed early.

I spend nice times in Montpelier. My aunt Laura took over her husbands dairy when he died at 39, after three years of marriage. She put all his pictures away and focused on the living. If I asked for an orange, she would peel it for me with such precision that there wasn’t a single threat of white rind on it. She would take me to work. I remember the clinking glass bottles on a conveyor belt being filled with rich white milk, the cement floor covered with milk, the smell of ice, the milk trucks being loaded, the friendly milkmen letting me ride along, offering me an ice-cream. Aunt Laura’s musty office upstairs, smelling of sour milk and leather, where I was allowed to play with the adding machine and pretend with receipt books and yellowing business stationary.

My Uncle Howard, a shy bachelor embarrassed by his club foot, drove an Esso Oil Truck. I’d accompany him on his rounds, sometimes on freezing winter days over unplowed back roads. I was very small, maybe five and somewhere he’d ordered a little Esso work suit with stripes that matched his own. When my nose ran from the cold he would offer his frozen, oily, snot-sticky hankerchief. I gladly buried my face in the cloth because I loved him so much. I watched him pull the heavy black hose up the long driveways through deep snow. He died pulling the hose, dropped with a heart attack at 48. I think I might have saved him if I had been there that day.

Aunt Josephine worked at the National Life Insurance Company of Vermont, a very good job for a woman at the time. All business, she was the only aunt who wasn’t forthcoming with gifts, affection, or, as I learned later, sex. She had married Ernest, a bachelor, a cerebral book dealer, when she was 36. Ernest had a beautiful library of old books, and he allowed me full reign of his collection. In the back room of the house there were tiers and tiers of musty old books, first editions for the most part, and I could spend hours there, alone, before I was barely able to read. Instead, I would move my hands over the leather bindings, and gently peek at the illustrations protected with tracing paper. Ernest tried to hang himself in that room when Josephine told him she didn’t want children.

This group made the seventy mile trip south from Montpelier to Middlebury every few weeks, trunk stuffed with food, clothes, toys, newly invented kitchen appliances, gadgets of one sort or another, all of the best quality. We were the first in our neighborhood with a color TV, just a month after they came on the market. There it sat, the shiny mahogany TV set, next to my father’s reading chair. When we gathered to gawk at the rainbow peacock feathers, Dad sat in his chair behind his newspaper, invisible, except for his pipe smoke, which drifted toward the ceiling like a smoke signal that said “fuck that TV set.”

Back to Easter, 1959, these Aunts and Uncles had brought every thing needed for a perfect Easter dinner. Homemade apple pies, swollen leg of lamb, a ham, a turkey, overflowing Easter baskets, floral centerpiece, chocolates, liquors, pipe tobacco for Dad, his favorite sharp Vermont cheddar. They presented me with a life-sized doll with movable arms and legs and a child sized kitchen stove and refrigerator that really worked. For my mother, the latest model Kodak Instamatic Camera.

My mother managed to arrange everyone perfectly within the small frame of the Kodak and snap a life long memory. Ernest standing sheepishly behind a stiff and professional Joesephine, Howard behind me, large hands on my shoulders, slouching into himself. Laura, beaming with joy, a pie in her hand, my two brothers and their two round heads pushing between and elbow and waist. It was the perfect Easter photo of a perfectly, wholesome, All-American Vermont family, right down to the old oak tree with swing, dog sleeping on the porch, Adirondeck chairs, petunia boxes.

My father gave away the secret. He was, when all was said and done, the only person in the frame that mattered and he knew it. His pain, his disinterest. He stood proud, dead center, larger than life, his breathtakingly handsome movie-star face exploding in front of my mother’s dull brown eyes like an atom bomb. She snapped the picture and it was all encompassing. The rest of us were, really, just a smoky afterthought.

“Don’t worry, darling” her body said, hip bone far leaning through her sheer summer dress, one tiny foot in a stylish pump turned childishly inward, her fingers, gentle and active and hungry on the camera.

She snapped the picture and lowered the camera. She smiled at my father. He smiled back through his misery.

I was young, so my memory might be tainted, and I have never been able to find the snap shot -but I imagine my mother thinking: “They can buy the front yard, buy this house and the color TV, buy my daughter’s clothes, my son’s education. But you are my dreamboat, my number one, and they cannot buy you. You are the only thing they could not buy for me, that they can’t take away from me. You are my one and only love, and everything else can float away, if only you will stay. Stay. Stay.”

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One thought on “Motherless Child

  1. You are sooo lucky to have had your dad sing to you. I wish for you that he could still be there to hear you weave your magic. Maybe you are singing to him or someone else who gave you the heart/love that is so essential in delivering songs of depth such as you do so well. I was very lucky to have a great grandmother who spent her time talking with me about family and love; cooking for me; playing cards with me; and, making me feel loved and valuable. Maybe your dad did that for you. Feeling and the capacity to call on it to deliver a song as your so skillfully do, is a learned gift that can only be imparted from one who cares.It’s not learned in any school. Sue and I are very happy to have gone to Twin Rivers. See you thursday, maybe,I hope. Courage will carry you through.Jerry

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