I remember the first time I read the stories of the Greek gods, particularly Zeus and the birth of Athena. To most people, the idea of a full-grown daughter emerging from someone’s forehead sounds incredible, the stuff of dreams and mythology; however, it didn’t seem strange to me. Zeus reminded me of my mother who could open her mouth and speak fully grown siblings into existence.
In the galaxy of our neighborhood, my family was one of the smaller solar systems. Daddy blazed like the sun in the center, circled by mother, his reflecting moon, and his two small planets, my sister and me. Friends and relatives, like distant stars, were out there somewhere, but we lived primarily in a world of four.
Mother had been someone’s moon before; this was her third attempt at marriage. She had escaped the drunken rages, violent beatings, and evictions of her earlier life, and found a man who loved and provided for her. As this new man drew her forward and away from those events, her memory looked back and wrote them into a story she told, but no longer lived. Daddy treated her with kindness and love, but he wanted nothing to do with her past. That included her other children, the five she had before she met him.
When my daddy was alive, I moved between two parallel worlds. In one, I was the second daughter of a loving father and his faithful wife, living a typical middle-class life. We lived in a three-bedroom, one-bath brick house with elm trees in the front and a swing set in the back. In the parallel world, I was the fifth daughter of a father who was my oldest sister’s abusive stepfather. He married a woman, twice divorced, whose last known address in Alabama had been on White Trash Avenue. The point of intersection of these two worlds was my oldest sister, Connie.
Clyde and Connie: mother's first two children
Connie was mother’s firstborn, dragged into mother’s three marriages and written into mother’s story of abusive men, poverty, and abandonment. She learned early to take care of herself. Funny, independent, and defiant, she left home at 17 to get married. I was two years old, too young to remember. My father, the love of mother’s life and the man ever kind to mother and his two children, once beat Connie with an electrical cord, a story I learned years and years after he died.
By age 23, Connie had three children. From as early as I can remember, we visited her and her children. I was their youngest aunt, just two years older than Connie’s first child. Mother forbade us to tell our daddy of our clandestine visits. Since Connie had been in my life from the beginning, she was a secret, but not a surprise.
Daddy wanted mother to himself. To please him, she locked her secrets up and never spoke of the past in front of him. But when he was not around, she shared those secrets with my sister and me. Her words carried us back into the past with her, and I began to understand that the story of my life didn’t begin with me. I had arrived in the middle of her story, the story she must tell. So, secret after secret, she told us her life. I doubt she had any idea how heavy those secrets were to the two little girls listening and wondering. But how can I blame her? Stories demand to be told and give us no rest until we give them voice.
Clyde as a young boy
I don’t remember how old I was when a brother, Clyde, sprung full-grown from mother’s mouth into my consciousness. Born two years after Connie, he was mother’s firstborn son from her first marriage. She never spoke much about him, but when she did, she prefaced the story by mentioning the car accident. When Clyde was around ten years old, a car hit him and threw him several yards, causing a head injury. “He was never the same after that,” she said, as if that explained everything that followed.
What followed was a life of petty theft and then more serious crimes, which led to at least one felony and internment in La Tuna prison in New Mexico.
Even before my daddy died, mother kept in touch with Clyde, sending him small gifts of money, trying to right some of the wrong he suffered by being left behind so many times. Daddy must have known that mother contacted Clyde. If he could have stopped her, I’m sure he would have. On the other hand, my grandmother could have been her go-between, passing the occasional letter back and forth, because she had been the one to raise Clyde most of his life.
Out of focus: how I remember Clyde
Clyde visited us a few times after my daddy’s death and during the time mother’s fourth husband was stationed in Korea on a remote tour. Out of nowhere, my oldest brother would knock on the door, looking as handsome and charming as his father, with the same dark, curly hair and green eyes. When Clyde left, things left with him: money, jewelry, silver dollars, and even a small revolver mother kept because there was no man in the house at the time.
In my senior year in high school, two men from the FBI came to our house looking for Clyde. Mother denied knowing his whereabouts, and I think she was telling the truth. Clyde drifted in and out of her life, much like she had done to him when he was small. He usually contacted mother when he was in need of money. To support himself, he took various jobs, often driving a truck.
Although I visited Clyde with my mom when he was in La Tuna prison, I don’t know or remember what his crime was, but I’m pretty sure it involved theft. After he left prison, mother lost touch with him. A few years before she died, she asked my younger brother to try to find Clyde. He searched online and discovered Clyde’s death certificate, and in the space marked “next of kin,” the word, unknown.
I can’t believe how little I knew or asked my mother about Clyde. When I was a child, part of my reluctance may have been fear. Mother had children from both of her previous husbands, and the children from those marriages were left behind as she moved on to new husbands. If it happened twice before, maybe it would happen again. She could leave me, find a new husband, and I would become just a secret she whispered in another little girl’s ear. “That’s her,” she would say, pointing at me standing in front of the brick house, “she had green eyes too.” The new girl would smile, snuggle closer, and soon forget about me, just as I forgot about Clyde and the others mother told me about. I would be left behind with the scenery, entrusted to my grandmother or some other relative willing to take me.
Or maybe I didn’t ask more questions because I chose to hide her secrets, my complicity an act of seeking her favor. Perhaps it was my way of saying: Keep me! Keep me! Abandonment was my greatest fear and after my daddy abruptly left through death’s door, mother was all I had.
Fear may explain my childhood disinterest, but I can’t explain why I didn’t try to find out more about Clyde when I was older. I felt mother’s reluctance to talk much about him. She only told the stories she could; the others stayed inside, breaking her heart. My demands to hear more may have awakened words that would have shattered her world or her sanity. Sometimes silence is the only way we can survive. I don’t really know why I never asked more questions.
We make choices in life. We walk down a road, afraid to turn back, driven forward until it’s impossible to find our way back even if we want to. Now, no one is left to answer my questions. Clyde became the book I never read, buried years ago.
Some stories never find a voice in this lifetime.
I wonder if those buried stories come back as ghosts to haunt us. Do they roam the earth seeking to be embodied in someone’s words, willing to take on new names, live in strange locations, just as long as their story can be told? Maybe Clyde’s story waits for me in a book: he has changed his name, moved to Montana, and now wears his blond hair short. Maybe he is sitting at a table in a small café, looking for me in the crowds and waiting to tell me what I seek to know.
I cried when my younger brother told me about Clyde’s death certificate. Next of kin: unknown. It breaks my heart that he died alone, like a motherless child. I want to tell his story but I don’t know how.