Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 3

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When mother whispered her secrets to me as a child or spoke them aloud when I was grown, she told the stories plain. This is path I went down, she said, and after that, I went this way. She never flinched or offered excuses; I never heard her say it wasn’t her fault. And she never cried when she told the stories.

 

She recited her secrets like confessions. Her penance: the bitter truth on her tongue.Tears would have only diluted the bitterness, would have made it seem as if she had had no choice. She knew better.

 

Mother chose to return to Alabama: a one-way trip down a dead-end road.

 

Grady found work in Mobile and paid the rent on a three-room house for several months before he decided he would rather spend his money elsewhere. Mother worked as a waitress and brought some money in but not enough for rent and food. Then, she got pregnant again. Grady spent his evenings in bars, drinking and chasing women. Some nights he would bring one of his girlfriends home, shake mother awake, and demand she make them something to eat. If she didn’t move fast enough, he would hit her. While she could still work, Grady demanded she turn over her tips to him. The one time she held money back, he found out and knocked out several of her teeth.

 

The landlord kicked them out of the house after Grady refused to pay any more rent, so they moved into one of the old barracks on Blakely Island, built during World War II for the war workers who had flooded into Mobile. Mother had the baby in late October at a charity hospital, out in the hall because the delivery room was for patients who could pay. Women on charity had to earn food by folding clothes or carrying trays, but mother had lacked food and care during most of the pregnancy, so she was too weak to do the chores.

 

Grady never came to the hospital; he denied the child was his. Only Connie, the oldest child, came. At twelve, she was still young enough to go trick-or-treating, and she brought her bag of Halloween treats to give to mother.

 

Mother had no clothes for the baby, other than part of old sheet one of the hospital workers gave her. Mother swaddled the baby and with Connie walked back to the barracks. Grady was gone. He found work on a ship and sailed away, leaving the other children on their own. He left no money or forwarding address.

 

Homeless and penniless, mother and the children slept in a park. Mother didn’t have enough nourishment to make any milk for the baby, so she sought help from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. They offered to take the boys, Clyde and Jimmy, to a shelter. No facilities for women were available.

 

The baby cried constantly and when her cries became weaker, mother took the children and walked the streets asking passersby to take the baby so she wouldn’t die.

 

Most people looked the other way, averting their eyes from the disheveled woman, missing half her teeth and begging on the street with her five children. Finally, a man with paper-white skin, silvery hair and pale eyes stopped. He was nicely dressed and said his wife would be happy to feed and care for the child but only if they could adopt her.

 

None of us know what lies at the end of the paths we choose. When mother said yes to Grady and returned to the place she had once escaped, she couldn’t have known that this stranger would be waiting for her when her narrow path suddenly disappeared into a trackless wilderness. Mother was hopelessly lost, and the well-dressed man pointed in the only way forward.

 

He took mother to a stranger’s house where she and the children stayed until the papers could be signed. Once that child, the one she named Jeannine, was safe, mother called my grandmother in New Mexico and asked once more if she could come home.

 

Grandmother sent what she could, enough bus money to get Mother, Connie, and Clyde out of Mobile. But not Jimmy and Darla. Mother took them to Grady’s mother, their grandmother, and left them there until she could get settled and send for them.

 

She never did.

 

Mother chose other roads, each one leading her farther and farther away from Jimmy and Darla and from what might have been. (You can go here to read about what happened after she left Mobile that second time.) One of those roads led to my daddy and finally to me.

 

After my daddy died, my mother, sister Kathy, and I flew to Mobile to visit Jimmy and Darla. I was eight years old, and I remember the plane ride because I threw up. I don’t have a single memory of the time in Alabama, but I know I was there because my older sister said I was. I could try to fill in the blank spaces, but I won’t; I’ve learned to live with my gap-toothed memories.

 

Connie and her family drove to Mobile to meet us. We returned in her car – two adults and six children. All I remember from that 1200-mile trip is the policeman who pulled Connie over for going 100 mph. He looked at the children piled up in the back, told her she needed to slow down, and walked away without giving her a ticket.

 

Darla returned to Texas with us and stayed a few weeks. She traveled with mother, Kathy, and me to Disneyland, a trip financed by daddy’s insurance money. When Darla went back to Alabama, she never wrote, or if she did, I never knew of it.

 

When I was small, I kept mother’s secrets the best I could. I learned to listen at the telling, hold my tongue, and let the hard words fall without asking any questions. She bared her secrets, each one like a bruise that would not heal, and I could not touch them, for fear of causing her more pain.

 

I carried mother’s secrets in my heart for years, told them to myself at night, hearing her voice speaking the words, crying the tears she never could. The sharp edges have grown smooth; time and telling have worn away the layers of secrecy, revealing the veins and patterns of the stories. I carry them still, small stones of remembrance, gathered from the roads my mother walked once upon a time.

Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 1

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Whispers

 

Jimmy and Darla were one of the stories mother told when my father was not at home. I don’t remember when she first told me about them. Like fairy tales, mother’s secrets happened once upon a time, far, far away, in a world where someone was always lost. In mother’s stories, she was the one who got lost, always  in a place full of impossible loss and danger that she escaped by running away. Jimmy and Darla appeared together in the same tale, like Hansel and Gretel; but in their story, their mother, my mother, fled to the forest without any breadcrumbs and never found her way back.

 

Mother trained my sister, Kathy, and me to carry her secrets carefully. Don’t tell your father, she said, when we visited our oldest sister who lived a married life on the other side of town. Do not lie, but do not speak the truth. Just place one foot in front of the other, balance, shift your weight slowly, and do not look down. Whatever you do, do not look down: there isn’t any net.

 

Mother whispered her stories to us one by one. Jimmy and Darla lived in one of the stories that happened years ago, never to be seen or heard of again.

 

That is, until my father died.

 

Before Jimmy

When mother married her first husband, Ketz, she was 16 and the mother of a six-month-old girl. Older by six years, Ketz was not only notoriously forgetful but also impossible to divorce. When he got her pregnant just a few months after she turned 15, he  forgot that the age of consent in Pennsylvania was 16. Then he forgot to divorce his first wife before he married mother, which explains why he took her across the state line to West Virginia for the ceremony. His memory lapses proved contagious: mother forgot she was 16 and listed her age on the marriage certificate as 21. After the birth of their second child, mother left him. What little money he made working in the coal mines, he spent on gambling and other women. Mother went back home, neither married nor divorced.

 

The United States economy had been slogging through the Great Depression since 1929, looking for higher ground, and in 1937, the year mother’s second child was born, it stumbled into another recession, leaving almost 20% of workers without jobs. Mother tried to find work in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania where her mother and father lived, but few jobs were available. Eventually she left the children, Connie and Clyde, in care of her mother and moved to New York to find work. She spent her days waiting tables and her nights waiting at tables in clubs with a drink in her hand, hoping a good-looking man would ask her to dance. For the first time since she was 15, she had the freedom to do whatever she pleased. So she did. Somewhere along the eastern seaboard, she met Grady, a dark-haired officer in the Merchant Marines.

 

Mother often told me she could get pregnant if a man just looked at her in a certain way. Well, Grady looked at her that way and she got pregnant with Jimmy.

 

Jimmy enters the story

 

When mother told Grady she was pregnant, he laughed, denied that it was his baby, and then told her he was shipping out. In Europe, the Allies were bombing Hitler’s dreams into rubble; in the Pacific, Generals MacArthur and Nimitiz were securing island after island, nearing Okinawa and moving the war closer to the Japanese mainland. American soldiers needed the troops and supplies the Merchant Marines carried; mother would have to fend for herself.

 

She worked until almost full-term, then for the second time, returned home, pregnant and almost penniless. Soon after Jimmy’s birth, her father died from black lung disease, leaving mother, grandmother, and the three children on their own.

Grandmother cared for the three children, Connie, Clyde, and Jimmy, while mother moved to Chester, Pennsylvania to find work. Once mother got an apartment, grandmother and the children joined her. Although Grady denied Jimmy as his, he kept in touch with mother and showed up at the beginning of 1945, a few months before World War II ended in Europe. The resemblance must have been undeniable because Grady accepted Jimmy as his own and convinced mother to marry him. And not just marry him but move to Mobile, Alabama.

 

Grady’s family may have forgiven mother for having children out of wedlock, but they never forgave her for being a Yankee. Mother, Grady, and the three children stayed at Grady’s sister’s house, sleeping on the floor, until she asked the five of them to leave. They moved in with Grady’s mother, Virgie, whose house, little more than a cabin, lacked indoor plumbing. The only floor covering was a carpet of Alabama dirt that seeped through the gaping floorboards. The garbage tossed out the back door provided the neighborhood rats plenty to eat, and even with the door closed, they squeezed through the floorboards to explore the house. Mother refused to let Jimmy play on the floor at all.

 

Grady looked for work and after failing to find any, employed himself by drinking, gambling, and slapping mother around. She couldn’t contribute much because Grady looked at her that way again and she got pregnant.

 

 

Darla enters the story

 

When mother grew tired of living like poor, white trash and getting beat up by Grady, she wrote her mother and asked for the third time to come home. By then her mother had no home of her own and was living  with one of her other daughters, Peg. Like mother, Peg married at 16 ; by 19 she had three children. Although Peg’s husband had allowed his mother-in-law to move in, he wanted nothing to do with a pregnant sister-in-law and her three children. Aunt Peg did, so mother and her brood moved in, filling up every room in the house.

Mother was alone in the house with Connie, her oldest child, when Darla struggled into the world. Connie called the doctor, hollered, “Momma’s having the baby,” and slammed down the receiver. The doctor figured out who it was but arrived too late. Mother delivered Darla by herself, breaking the bed in the process.

 

In this hopeful part of the story, mother escaped her life of abuse and rat-infested poverty and kept all four children together. Of course, it didn’t stay hopeful for long, mother’s stories rarely did. The past came in fast pursuit and hunted her down, rattling its chains.

 

 

Next: Part 2

 

 

 

 

Losing what you never had

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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.

 

 

 

 

Are You Carrying Secrets?

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As a child, when you first begin to carry secrets, you hold them externally, like a package of eggs, always conscious that you mustn’t drop them. Sometimes you forget that you have them, but if the conversation heads in a certain direction, you panic, check to see that none are cracked, and become once again painfully aware of your charge.

Later you internalize the secrets. If you brood over them too much, they may hatch and breed.

By adulthood, most of the eggs have cracked, been dropped, or lobbed at someone. It can take a lifetime to clean up the mess.

I remember a story on NPR’s “This American Life” about a choice of superpowers, either invisibility or the ability to fly. One woman said emphatically that everyone, if they were honest, would want to be invisible so they could spy on others. She obviously had never been privy to very many secrets. I have heard enough, carried enough, and still carry some that I wish I didn’t have to.

So now I blog. And what are most personal blogs but a whispering of secrets.