Jesse, Charles, and I went to be with Mom as soon as she notified us of Dad's death. Mom's voice was tiny and weak when she called me to tell me that he had been killed, and I left for her house as soon as I could take a shower and get the dog settled in with Bodie and Andersol, who hugged me until the worst of my shaking stopped and fed me fried-egg sandwiches and tea to prepare me for the drive to Sacramento. I didn't know when I would be back to my haven; I was simply thankful it would be there when I returned. Mom insisted on being the one to call Charles, though I would have done that for her if she would have allowed it. Charles called Jesse and made her travel arrangements to come home.
This victory of Death was an ordeal for Mom. She had never believed in bad health, in sadness, in depression, in moods. Everything was a state of mind, she preached, and our states of mind were under our direct control. While I was growing up, I thought that I was weak because I seemed subject to my moods, struggling against them. The 'positive thinking' that Mom preached seemed far beyond my grasp. I never saw her cry, not once, in all the time that I lived with her and Dad. She was always the sensible one, the director, the manager, the tyrant of the family. We grew up looking to her mandate to see how we were supposed to react in any given situation, and the reaction was never permitted to include tears or loud voices.
Fate was too strong even for her, and snatched Dad away from her faster than the speed of light, leaving her reeling in shock. From the time I arrived at her house, awaiting Charles and Jesse's arrival the next day, then through the funeral and days afterward, I didn't want Mom left alone, awake anyway, for a second. She was dazed, breathing through an open mouth like a traumatized bird. Panting, almost. Eyes unfocused unless called to account. She stuttered and stammered when she tried to talk, mouthing platitudes about "Going to a Better Place" and "Good That He Didn't Suffer."
I listened, trying not to hear, as she recounted her visit to the hospital morgue to positively identify his body. Once called to see him that night, she refused to leave his body until the sun rose and the funeral home had come to collect his remains. She said that it was customary to 'keep watch.' Imagining her sitting there in the lonely night, praying her rosary over and over, tearless and alone, refusing to admit to grief, sickened me. I needed Jesse here, to give me a break, so that I could sneak off somewhere and weep for my father's death, for my mother's shackled heart.
Penn's Vale was a Small Town, with the little historical placard at the edge of town claiming that the settlement was named in 1735. There were two roads that connected the Vale to the outer world; the main one that led along the banks of the Susquehanna River, and another that led out across the valley between ridges from the river more or less north. And really nothing in any direction but more hills and ridges and farmed valleys for about 50 miles. Well, there was Minglesford, but that wasn't much larger than Penn's Vale and existed mostly because there was a bridge there, with a railroad station, and a small steelworks, where Dad worked. The population of Penn's Vale was about a thousand; farms were handed down through families; houses were built pretty much only when others fell down. What I am trying to say is that the gene pool didn't change much in two hundred-odd years.
An astonishing percentage of my classmates were cousins. Hendersons related to Zooks and Pennybakers, Shellenbergers (three different families with the same name in a class of thirty kids?) to Hoffmans and Goshorns, Shellebargers allegedly not related to Peacheys, but looking like twins -- and let's not forget the single-syllable families, who seemed to often be the loose horses in the sleepy neighborhoods and farms, the Fryes and the Boones (cousins), the Losches (once again related to the prolific Hendersons), Leaches, Weises, Fikes. And whether poly- or monosyllabic, the residents of Penn's Vale all knew all those names from birth and found them untroubling.
What I am really trying to say is that dark Mark Ambris and his red-haired bride stood out like a couple of zebras at the county Cow Judging. Was he from -- the Islands, with that dark hair and olive skin, or a Greek? Or were the rumors that he was actually a French Canadian and not even a citizen at all true? And her, with that bright red, sunny hair, why you just don't see that except with peroxide and henna, and my God, how that woman dresses! High heeled sandals and a sun dress to go to the store! What are they doing here, are they on the run from the law, or from her father for her marrying such a dark man, now, they had just better not go bringing any of their dirty city ways to our town. Oh, my God, they're Catholics!
These things and more I heard with monotonous regularity from the time I was in kindergarten until we moved to California. Jesse and I were 'uppity', we were 'freaks', we were foreigners and cityfolk. From this long distance of years, I am just beginning to understand that it wasn't merely kids teasing new kids in town. This was a tragedy of naivete, two young, idealistic parents-to-be becoming mired in an inbred, unwelcoming miasma of bigotry and fear.
Mom was quite the looker in her youth. My favorite outfit to see her wear was a short-sleeved white dress that was covered in spots of black like well-placed paint spatters. Little spots and speckles, some others as big as a dime. She wore a black belt with it, and shiny black high heels with straps. Her bright hair would be tied up on the top of her head in a scarf, with the curls cascading over the gauzy black and white billows. And she would wear a necklace of white beads. She walked as though she were dancing, and smiled flashily at Dad and made him sweat.
Now, let's contrast her with the more typical Vale wife and mother. Clothing was of muted color, only dresses for women, don't want to see them in men's clothes, oh, no, and make those shoes with low heels and sensible laces, they have to last for years. No makeup, don't want any hussies around here. Teeth are optional, except for formal occasions. Every mother of every friend I had looked tired, dispirited, heavy, and uncared-for.
And then there were the few women who had married big Vale money. They wore their teeth all the time, and dyed their hair dark (until the time arrived for them to tint it blue), and lived in the big brick houses set in a couple landscaped acres in the midst of their fields. They dressed in red suits in the winter, white in the summer, and black and gray suits in fall and spring. Hair done once each week at the same beauty parlor, all the same style in puffs of little curls; lipstick, dark reddish on thin lips, and fingernail polish to match, and shiny purses with gold clasps. These were the women who Ran things, speaking through closed teeth and pursed mouths and avoiding the eyes of the heavy gray women around them.
Who were probably all their own cousins.
Enter my mother, whom I thought the most beautiful woman in the world, full of sass and mischief, and penniless with her move from fabled Pittsburgh; buying the run-down house on the skirts of town because that was all they could afford, and having the affrontery to dig around it and plant flowers and shrubs instead of rhubarb patches and potato beds.
From watching people interact over the years, I now understand that she was really incomprehensible to the Heavy Gray women, most of whom had not gone to school past eighth grade; how could a poor woman be so vivacious? To the closed-teeth Big Money women, she was an impostor, threatening to move above her station.
A few months after a fall visit to the County Fair, and Mom spending a long time looking at the exhibits of oil paintings with their blue and red and white ribbons, Dad surprised her with a Christmas gift of oil paints and five canvases, and some books on art instruction. He built her an easel, too. After I was supposed to be in bed, I would sneak down the hallway in the dark and watch her painting, mixing colors, absorbed. She sanded off old boards she found under the back porch, and practiced painting on them. She used Dad's drawing board and T-square to learn perspective. And when I was seven, she entered three of her own paintings at the County Fair.
She didn't receive so much as an Honorable Mention, even though her colors were vivid and true, and the composition balanced and well-executed. (This I know because I have all three in my house, where they elicit admiration from guests.) The ribbons of merit went, that year, as they did every year, to members of the County Art League. Ah, and though she filled out a little flyer of interest in the League and sent it to them, she never received a call or a visit or any acknowlegement from them whatsoever.
Many of my dreams have purple and green elements in them, and I have come to believe that my childhood delight in the fields of violets among the trees in the woods has insinuated those colors into the deepest crevices of my mind. Heart-shaped rich, bright, green leaves arch in cascades around the deepest purple of their blossoms. Violets are the true welcome mat of spring in Pennsylvania; they thrive and multiply and rejoice when the winter is nearly done. I would pick so thick a bouquet of them that my hand could hardly hold them all, and still leave thousands to spill a royal carpet across the woodland floor. Their scent was faint, but evocative of life, life springing from cold and decay.
My mother and I were walking side by side down Arch Street, towards the house. I was telling her of a commercial poster I had seen recently which depicted a woman pondering a computer in the window of a store. The woman, dressed in a purple suit with a green hat, had a thought-baloon puffing from her head, saying, "I wonder if I could learn to use one of those."
"The ad reminded me of you, Mom," I told her. "I'd be glad to pay for one for you, and I know you could learn to use a computer in no time. We could keep in touch every day. We wouldn't have to wait so long to talk."
For a moment, she looked thoughtful, and my heart leaped. Then she shook her head. "I don't want to bother with those things, Solange. I don't know why you waste your time on them. I'm far too busy. If you write, I'll write back. If you call, we can talk. But I don't want to be a slave to a machine."
An ad with colors that make me hope. A dream with a realization that you just can't travel back through time and make someone believe what they would never believe: that you really did want to hear what was truly in their heart, no matter how sad or beaten or disillusioned those thoughts were.
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.