My mother was a child in Lockport, Louisiana, where there were six “good” houses distinguishable from the small row houses, each with a two-seated outhouse in the back yard, in which the unskilled workers, most of whom were Cajun, lived. To the east of the mill were houses for the sawyer and two mill officials; to the west, houses for the mill’s bookkeeper, the commissary manager, and the filer, her father. Papa, she called him.
A wide veranda extended across the front of the house. Here my mother spent long hours in the lazy bench swing, saved from the fierce afternoon sun by a Confederate jessamine vine starred with small white fragrant flowers that relentlessly seduced big hairy black-and-yellow bumblebees and long-billed hummingbirds whose rapidly vibrating wings seemed an excessive labor on such days. Beneath the house, which was set high on pillars, was a cool, dark place hidden from view behind a skirt of green lattices, where her papa built shelves to store her mother’s Mason jars of mayhaw jelly and mustard pickle and brown paper bags of sugar beets.
Inside the house, in the living room, were the phonograph and the piano, the morris chair that was “Papa’s chair,” and several tall glass-enclosed bookcases containing, my mother remembered, illustrated editions of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, A Child’s Garden of Verse, the family Bible, Evangeline, Girl of the Limberlost, complete sets of Scott, Hugo, and Dickens, and ThePrincess and Curdie, on the front of which was a picture of the princess in a gown of pale green silk that seemed to glow when she looked at it, like a will o’ the wisp.
She was a shy child, my mother, easily embarrassed, a perfectionist at five, but she was also inventive, able to entertain herself happily, and able to abandon herself to her imagination. On rainy days she read the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues or the French book her sister, studying library science at Carnegie Tech, sent her, with the nouns depicted in garments that suited their genders (“la fenêtre” wore a ruffled frock). She played her autoharp or copied music onto homemade manuscript paper, though she could not yet read the notes. She played with Isaac, the little black boy who helped her mother with her gardening, or Charlie Mattiza, whom she summoned to his window by calling “Charlie Mattiza, Pigtail Squeezer!” from his yard.
The early evenings, the blue-to-lavender time between supper and bedtime, she spent on her papa’s lap in the morris chair, listening to phonograph records. His phonograph was his prize possession. It was the first one in Lockport. He had records of Scheherazade, Night on Bald Mountain, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and overture to Oberon. (Later, he was to get Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, which he listened to over and over, until he felt he understood it.) She was her father’s favorite, the two of them drawn powerfully to a world that did not even exist for the people around them, in Lockport, Louisiana, in the century’s teens.
By the time my mother was in her seventies, living in England, she had come to believe that human beings were like cancer cells, destroying everything worthwhile—though she had her quarrels with nature too (eating, for example, was an essentially ugly act, whether performed by people or animals) and there were a few human achievements that conceivably validated our presence on earth (Bach’s music). I think she felt that the life-processes had been devised purposely to humiliate her. She considered that sex was an invasion of privacy, sleeping was a waste of time, and having children was like signing a death-sentence for your dreams, whatever they might be. She told me these things while we were sitting in front of the television—the telly—flipping through the cable “videopaper” by remote control, to check out the temperature in Wisconsin, the exchange rate for dollars, the headlines. Emphysema and strokes had whittled her life down to the size of the screen. Despite my best intentions, I sometimes became irritated by her. I was at a point in my own life where what I wanted more than anything was to feel connected to other people, and I found it difficult not to feel bitter about a point of view that, I now saw, had to a great extent ghostwritten, as it were, my autobiography. For I was my mother’s daughter, as she was her father’s, and I had tried to be the reflection of her dreams that she wanted me to be—as she had tried to be her father’s.
Sometimes her papa brought scraps of wood home from the sawmill for his youngest daughter to play with. As the saw-filer, it was his important job to keep razor-sharp the teeth of the whirling, circular saw that the sawyer, riding his carriage back and forth, thrust the logs into. Out came boards, and the curls and scraps and shavings he took home to my mother. She laid them out on the front lawn like the floor plan for a schoolhouse, assigning a subject to each “room,” and wrote a textbook for each subject, using Calumet Baking Powder memo books, which were distributed free at the commissary, and elderberry ink. Requiring a pupil, she invited Elise Cheney to her schoolhouse—having decided that Elise, of all her acquaintances, was most in need of an education. After a few sessions of trying to teach Elise how to spell “chrysanthemum,” she renounced her teaching career in disgust—my mother was impatient with dullards—and turned her attention to the seven Henderson children, whose names, for some reason, she felt compelled to remember in chronological order. Pumping her tree swing to the top of the great oak in the front yard, she sang loudly and mnemonically, for hours on end,
Oh the buzzards they fly high down in Mobile
(Lalla, Lillie, Georgia, Billy, Flossie, Edna, Beth).
Oh the buzzards they fly high down in Mobile
(Lalla, Lillie, Georgia, Billy, Flossie, Edna, Beth).
Oh the buzzards they fly high
And they puke right out the sky
(Lalla, Lillie, Georgia, Billy, Flossie, Edna, Beth).
My mother was going to be a beautiful woman, a finer version of the young Katharine Hepburn, but she didn’t know it yet. She was the baby—a tall, skinny baby, she thought, while her mother and two sisters were visions of stylishness. This was the summer her middle sister, about to join the flapper generation, launched a campaign to persuade her parents to let her have her hair cut short. When tears and tantrums failed, she began to pin it up in large puffs that stuck out over her ears. These puffs were popular with her classmates and were called “cootie garages.” Each day, the cootie garages grew a little larger—and finally, when her head began to look as though it had been screwed on with a giant wing nut, her parents said to her, “Please, go get your hair cut!”
My mother was still in her Edenic chrysalis, fishing in doodlebug holes with balls of sand and spit stuck to the ends of broomstraws. She went fishing with her papa on his boat, The Flick, helping him to disentangle the propeller when it got caught in water hyacinths. The dreamy, wavy roots were like cilia or arms, holding up traffic. They passed the pirogues in which Cajun trappers push-poled their way through the bayous. Drying on the banks was the Spanish moss from which the Cajuns made their mattresses. Crawfish crept along the sandy bottom of the bayou, and water bugs skated on the surface. Cottonmouth moccasins slithered away in disdain. Hickory and hackberry, willow and cypress shut out the sun. Her papa pointed out birds that were like lost moments in the landscape, helping her to see what was almost hidden: white egrets, majestic as Doric columns, red-winged blackbirds, pelicans, and pink flamingos. This was my mother’s world.
Siebert was two years older than she was. He frequently handed her a five-cent bag of jawbreakers when she got on the bus. To cement their unspoken bond, my mother “published” a weekly newspaper, printed on wrapping paper from the butcher at the commissary. There was only one copy of each edition, which appeared at irregular intervals, and she delivered it surreptitiously to Siebert’s front yard. After her family moved to Gulfport—the timber had been used up and oil had been discovered in the swamp and the mill closed down, scattering its employees—she received a letter from Siebert, whose family had moved to California, which began, “My dear little girl.” She never got beyond the salutation. She burst into tears and handed the letter to her mother, who carried it off with her and never mentioned it again. So Siebert had loved her—but why had he waited until he was two thousand miles away to tell her? When she was in her seventies, living in England, she told me that she thought she really had loved Siebert. She never forgot him. He had been a part of the world that closed off after she left Lockport.
At first she loved Gulfport. They lived two blocks from the beach. She was growing up, and the freighters in the harbor, the sun flashing on the wide water that rolled across to Mexico, the white sand and palm trees and merchant seamen, all seemed like landmarks in her expanding horizon. But this new world was busy with other minds that had their own ideas about how things were to be done. She could no longer escape into private dreams, a secret music. A clamor began, and so did an unacknowledged rage at it—this infringement, this stupidity, this noise.
She did not let herself know how distressed she was. There was a glassed-in sleeping porch that became her bedroom; her middle sister was away at college, and her library-science sister had gotten a job in Tampa. It was a tiny, cramped porch, overlooking the back garden, and on the side, the alley that separated the lawn from the Everetts’. On the wall above her bed she pasted a picture she’d torn out of a magazine—white daisies, with yellow-button centers like butter in biscuits, on a field of green, a dark gray sky overhead like a monastery.
She was facing a whole new set of problems, worries she had not realized came with growing up: how to make her stockings stay up (garters were not yet available; stockings were rolled at the top, and then the rolls were twisted and turned under; the other girls’ stayed up, but hers slid down her thin legs and finished up around her ankles, so that she had to keep ducking behind oleander bushes on her way home to pull them back up); what to do if she met a boy on the way, God forbid; and most of all, how to avoid being laughed at.
Despite the book of French nouns, she had gotten off to a bad start in French class in Gulfport. When she joined the class, skipping two grades, the students had already learned to answer the roll call by saying “Ici.” She thought they were saying “Easy,” and so when her name was called, she said “Easy.” Everyone laughed. When she prepared her first assignment for English class, she thought her paper would look nice if she lined up the margins on the right side as well as on the left, which necessitated large gaps in the middle. The teacher held her paper up to the class as an example of how not to do homework.
That same English teacher terrified my mother by requiring every student, during senior year, to make a speech at morning assembly. My mother began to worry about her “Senior Speech” when she was still a sophomore. When senior Dwight Matthews walked out on the stage with his fiddle and said, “I shall let my violin speak for me,” and then played “Souvenir,” she fell in love with a forerunner of my father, and so my future began to be a possibility, an etiological ruck in the shimmery fabric of the universe.
My mother had inadvertently learned to read music back in Lockport when she’d entertained herself by copying the notes from her sister’s piano etude books. The first time she attempted the violin, her fingers found their way by instinct to the right spots. Soon she was studying with Miss Morris at the Beulah Miles Conservatory of Music on East Beach. Miss Morris often carried her violin out to the end of the municipal pier in the evening to let the Gulf breezes play tunes on it. (She also recited poetry to the rising sun.)
My mother’s violin was an old box that had belonged to her papa’s father. Eventually, by winning the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s weekly essay contest, she saved up fifty dollars (though this took some time, as the prize for her essay on the Pascagoula Indians, for example, was fifty pounds of ice) and sent off to Montgomery Ward for a new violin, complete with case, bow, and a cake of genuine rosin (progress over her former sap-scraped-from-pine-bark).
Even with the new violin, there was time for boys, She and her best girlfriend, Olive Shaw, used to go cruising, though this activity was not much more sexual than crabbing, which they also did a lot of. Olive had an old Dodge that Mr. Shaw had named Pheidippides, after the Greek athlete who’d run himself to death. Olive was only thirteen, but no one needed a license to drive in Mississippi. They liked to drive out to the Gulf Coast Military Academy to watch the cadets’ parade and hear the band play “Oh, the Monkey Wrapped Its Tail Around the Flagpole.” She cannot have been as backward as she thought she was—when the marching was over, the boys gathered around the car, flirting like crazy.
But she knew nothing of sex, the mystery she and Olive were dying to solve. All the Zane Grey books ended with the hero kissing the heroine on the blue veins of her lily-white neck. My mother’s neck was as brown as her cake of rosin, from her hours swimming in salt water and lying on the pier. She was not in danger of having her blue veins kissed—she examined her neck in the bathroom mirror, and not one blue vein showed under the light. Finally one of the cadets kissed her, after a movie date—on the mouth, not her neck. She worried that she might be going to have a baby, but her stomach stayed flat, and after a while she forgot to think about it.
Much social life revolved around church, which my mother nevertheless avoided as much as possible. When she did go—Sunday services were obligatory—she tried to act as if she were not related to her family. Her mother’s mother’s hymn-singing sounded rather like Miss Morris’s violin-playing (off-key), and her own mama, perky in a new bonnet, seemed to become a stranger to her, as if she belonged to other people instead of to her own daughter—busying herself with the flowers at the altar, saying “Good morning!” and “Isn’t it just a lovely day!” to all and sundry. My teenaged mother cringed when her grandmother called across the street to her mama: “Hat-tee, when you come to lunch, bring the bowl of mayonnaise and the Book of Exodus!”
She survived these humiliations, and even her “Senior Speech” since she’d been lucky enough to be assigned a role in the school play. She had one line to speak: “I’m your little immortality,” and after weeks of practice, she learned to say it loud enough to be heard by the audience. It came out “I’m your little immorality,” but it satisfied the English teacher’s requirement.
Her mama took her shopping in New Orleans for her graduation clothes: a green silk dress for Class Day, a white chiffon for graduation, and a pink organdy for the Senior Prom. But when the morning of the prom arrived, she still did not have a date. Her mama disappeared into the hallway to whisper into the telephone, and soon Alfred Purple, whose mother was, like my mother’s mother, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, called to ask my mother to go to the prom with him.
Alas, that night when Alfred called for my mother he had one foot done up in a wad of bandage, as if he had the gout. At the dance, they sat briefly on the sidelines; then my mother asked him to take her home. She hung the pink organdy prom dress on a satin-covered hanger. In two years, she would be one of the popular girls at LSU, dancing to all the latest tunes—but she had no way of knowing that that night. She was convinced Alfred had returned to the prom afterward, with both feet in working order. Anyway, she was done with high school. She was fifteen. This is a portrait of the girl who became my father’s wife.
The gulls were diving off shore. My mother was aware of her heart beating like a metronome—she wished she could stop it, that determined, tactless beat. As soon as the question was out, she realized she had gone where you should never go—into your parents’ bedroom. She blushed, thinking about the time she’d surprised her papa in the bathroom.
Her mother looked straight ahead, through the windshield, and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Your father and I have always had a wonderful sexual relationship,” she said firmly. “I’m sorry if it’s not the same for you.”
That was all. It was like a nail being driven in, boarding up a dark, hidden place. On Class Day, my mother’s “gag” gift had been a hammer—because, as Bill Whittaker, the master of ceremonies, had explained, everyone knew my mother wanted something for her papa. She remembered how happy the little joke had made him as he sat in the school auditorium.
They fed the leftovers to the crying gulls. The sun was dropping in the west like an apple from a tree. On the way home, they talked about other things—her sisters, the apartment in Baton Rouge.
She was so pregnant—eight-and-a-half months, and it seemed to her that no one had ever been as pregnant as she. She felt like Alice after she’d bitten into the “Eat me” cake, grown too huge for the room. She thought she would never be pretty again—in less than a year, she’d become an old lady, almost a matron. Her dancing days were over. These were dull days. She had no friends, because any friendship one married woman had with another had to be shallow (you couldn’t talk about your husband or your sex life or how much you hated having to cook three meals a day, or how you felt about anything). There was no money for movies or dresses—it was 1933, and only by the grace of Huey Long, who, demagogue though he might be, saw to it that not a single LSU faculty member was laid off, the only university in the country that was true of, did they have any money at all (but often it was scrip). She couldn’t have gotten into a new dress anyway, not any dress she’d want to get into.
She couldn’t even practice—her stomach didn’t give her arms enough mobility. When she did the laundry in the bathtub, scrubbing shorts and socks on a grooved aluminum washboard, she felt so solidly planted on the tile floor that she envisioned getting up again as an uprooting.
In bed, she lay with her back to my father, facing the wall. Such long sticky nights, and then the barest increase in comfort with the coming of winter—but the emotional temperature in the room remained high. My mother did not understand what had happened to her, how just by loving music and my father she’d become enmeshed in misery, in a spartan orange-crate apartment, in a life that was devoid of the beautiful epiphanies of her childhood.
But she was too well trained to inflict her depression on my father. There were no tears—she was not one for self-pity. Even on Christmas morning, which felt as foreign to her as Europe, as exotic as Catholicism or snow, because this was the first Christmas she had not spent with her family, she made the bed and fixed my father’s breakfast, no lying in or moping around. The tree reached almost to the ceiling, and the lights, which she had tediously tested one by one, were all shining. On top of the tree stood a gold star that lasted through the years until I got married and my parents began to dispense, a little bit at a time, with the ceremonies and symbols Christmas had acquired for them.
She and my father were awkward with each other that morning, addressing each other with a formal politeness better suited to guests. It seemed to them that every small choice they made was setting a precedent for Christmases to come—and also represented a rupture from their pasts. They ate pain-du, day-old bread fried in egg yoke and sugar, a Cajun variant of French toast. My mother drank cocoa and my father drank coffee—choices that later became habits and eventually defining characteristics. In the early morning light, which temporarily softened the drab apartment, lending an impressionistic reticence to the sharp edges of the furniture, the scratchy upholstery, they sat self-consciously on the floor by the tree. My father kissed my mother and placed in her hands the present he had bought for her with a kind of desperate good will, searching all over New Orleans for something that would make her happy again, glad to be married to him. When he had bought it, leaning over the glass counter in Maison Blanche on a fall day that was hot even for Louisiana, conferring with the sales clerk while sweat ran down the inside of his shirt sleeves under his suit jacket, he had seen my mother gesturing gracefully with the little evening bag in her left hand like a corsage of sequins, her beautiful smiling face a sonata on a blessedly cool evening.
It was red. It seemed to slide under your fingers, the hundreds of tiny, shiny sequins as tremulous as water. It was as flirtatious as a handkerchief, as reserved as a private home. When my mother took it out of its box, the tears she’d been hiding from my father were released—they fell from her eyes like more sequins, silvery ones. She knew how she was hurting him, but there was nothing she could do about it. She tried to explain how ugly the evening bag made her feel, but the more she tried to explain herself, the more she seemed to be accusing him.
She ran to the bathroom, sobbing, where she could be alone. The red evening bag lay half in its box, half out, like a heart at the center of the burst of white tissue paper. My father’s present waited under the tree. He went into the kitchen and sat at the formica table, drinking another cup of coffee. There were tears in his eyes too, behind his glasses. He blew his nose. He was drinking his coffee from a pale green cup with a V-shape, a brand of kitchenware that was omnipresent at the time. He felt wounded and frustrated and angry, and sad, and confused, and disgusted.
She was standing in front of the chest of drawers in the hallway, watching herself in the mirror as she took off her bonnet. Partly because her name was Hattie, she always wore hats—and also because they kept the sun off her face. She showed me where I could put my suitcase.
She still lived in the old house just a couple of blocks from the beach. The house had thick stone walls to keep the heat in in winter and the coolness in in summer. She had made up a bed for me on the sleeping porch and when I woke up the next morning the first thing I saw was a blue jay in the pecan tree. The second thing was Grandma Little brushing her long white hair. It fell almost to her waist, even pulled over her head from the back as she brushed the underside, and made me think of a bridal veil. She had been a widow for eight years. After she put her hair up, we ate breakfast in the kitchen. I had never been alone with her before. The day in front of us seemed as long as a railroad track.
She drew a map for me and I walked down to the beach. The sun on the water was as bright and sharp as knife blades. By the time I got back to the house, in the midafternoon, clouds had rolled in—they arrived on time, I learned, like a train, every day at this time of year, and it rained for an hour, and then the sun came out again, as nonchalant as if it had never been supplanted.
Grandma Little had her feet propped on a footstool Grandpa had made for her for Christmas one year. She was sitting in a deep, wide armchair. I sat on the couch and she told me about my mother. The light in the room grew heavier and slowly sank out of sight. I turned on the floor lamp.
“When we moved to Lockport,” she said, “your mother was five. Up until then, we had been living in Lake Charles. Your mother had to leave her rabbits behind and she was very upset about that. She loved those rabbits. She always preferred animals to people. When she was very little, and we had company to dinner, she used to hide under the table, where no one could see her eat. She insisted that I hand her a bowl of oatmeal—that was all she would eat—under the tablecloth. Well, when we first moved to Lockport, she decided she was going to learn how to be sociable, and on her first day of school, she came home with all her classmates. She had told them it was her birthday. My goodness, I don’t know how many children there were! I didn’t want to embarrass her by telling them that it wasn’t her birthday, but of course there was no ice cream or cake in the house. Why would there be? And we made our own ice cream in those days, don’tcha know. So I gave each of them a banana and a glass of lemonade and they all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to your mother, and I think she felt very pleased with herself about what a grand occasion it was.”
I blinked back tears. I was seventeen and homesick.
“Oh yes,” she said, “your mother was a handful, strong-willed and skittish.”
Grandma Little had gotten quite stocky and she had to work to get out of the enveloping armchair, but she refused to let me help her, saying it was better for her to make the effort. Finally she was standing in front of me, her hands on her hips, head cocked to one side. “Dinner is ready,” she announced.
We ate chicken spaghetti off the Spode plates in the dining room. As we ate, it seemed to me that the room filled up with the ghosts of children. The air shimmered with their small shapes. Elise Cheney and Charlie Mattiza stood at the back of the room, and all seven Hendersons (Lalla, Lillie, Georgia, Billy, Flossie, Edna, Beth). Isaac was there with his trowel that was almost as big as he was. Siebert Gandy came with a bag of jawbreakers, his birthday present for my mother. Then things got mixed up and others crowded in—Olive Shaw, Dwight Matthews, the cadets. They were all so young that even I felt old. They were almost as young as the century had been. They seemed to be playing, or dancing in slow motion, and laughing—I could almost hear their laughter, as if it were an overtone, the music behind the music. Their faces were as translucent as wind.
I washed the dishes while Grandma Little went on ahead to bed. She got up at four every morning, to do the cleaning and most of the cooking while it was still cool. The hot, soapy water on my hands felt like a reprieve from a disembodied existence I was both tempted by and frightened of. I dried the dishes and returned them to their shelf on the china closet in the dining room. I remembered my mother’s saying how she had found a secluded glen on the high ground on the far side of the narrow footbridge that crossed the swamp at the west end of Lockport, near, it seemed to her, where the sun went down. It was a circular clearing completely enclosed by leafy shade trees. Here she could lie on the grass, surrounded by wild violets and forget-me-nots and dandelions, and watch the clouds of yellow butterflies that drifted across the sky above her. As she lay there, she heard a symphony she had never heard before. It was not on any of her papa’s records. It seemed to come from inside her head, and yet she didn’t know how it could, since she couldn’t write music. When she was in her seventies, living in England, she was to say, “I wished I could have written it down, because I wanted so much to remember it. It was the most beautiful symphony I have ever heard. After that first time, I spent many afternoons in the glen. No one ever disturbed me there. Nobody ever knew where I was.”