A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Missed opportunities and love of cake.

In rural Tennessee, in 1929, a little girl was born. Her father inexplicably named her Erskine, after himself. Her mother took pity on the infant and renamed her Cora Louise. By all accounts, this mother, name of Mary Naomi, was a sweet, beautiful woman who handcrafted gorgeously delicate lace, baked pies for fun, and was doted on by her farmer husband. They had three other children before Cora came along, and they were very happy. Shortly after the birth, she became ill, and quickly succumbed to tuberculosis. She was buried on Cora's first birthday. Erskine was crushed, and never recovered. He became a stern, bitter man with a failing farm and four small children he couldn't stand to look at for fear of seeing his wife's face in theirs. He remarried as quickly as possible, to a widow named Mamie who already had several children and no intention of finding love again. It was a perfect marriage of convenience. Sort of a Depression-era Brady Bunch, only not happy. He would travel, looking for work, and let Mamie deal with a combined eight children. He had a keeper for his offspring and Mamie had the security of a man who would break his back to provide for them, if not love them. There was no affection for the step-children. Cora was raised with words like "orphan" and "unwanted" in her ears. Mamie took care of her step-children the way one takes care of a neighbor's dog. They were fed and given a place to sleep, but they were not loved. Cora grew up not knowing the touch of other people. Her sweet little hands were never kissed, and if she cried, her tears were not brushed away. Her older siblings had an easier time, as they could remember their mother's love, already had friends and were indeed friends with their new step-brothers and sisters. But little Cora, the youngest, was on her own. She toddled about in the dusty yard and didn't answer when her step-sisters told her she came from a vulture egg and that no one wanted her around, not even her father.
One would think that this turns into a Cinderella story and that Cora was rescued by a Prince Charming, but that wasn't the case. The reality is that she dropped out of high school at 16 because she only had one dress and no shoes and was too embarassed to keep going. She moved to Indiana to stay with some extended family and got a job at a factory, and there things started looking up for awhile. The war was over, and people were excited. She came out of her shell and began to understand that she was a beautiful, funny woman with high cheekbones and a sweet laugh. She had deep-rooted issues with sex and love simmering below the surface, but overall she was a normal girl. She liked her job at the factory and made lots of friends. After she made a little money, she moved out and roomed with one of her girlfriends. It was the first time she had ever really been happy. Away from the tiny overfull house and the heat and dust of Savannah, finally in an air-conditioned apartment in a city. She had money to buy pretty dresses and get her hair set, and there was no shortage of handsome men to buy her a beer at the bowling alley she and her friends went to every weekend. She stayed out late and sang with her girlfriends and didn't allow any men to touch her. One caught her eye, though. He was actually from her hometown and she knew his name, but didn't remember him well. He had joined the Army and lost a finger at the Battle of Attu. His name was George, and he had a reputation for being honest and reliable. Quiet, happy to be back in the states and ready to get married and settle down. They re-met and it was instant attraction. They soon married, and it wasn't long before George wanted to go home to Tennessee. He didn't remember it as dusty and miserable, but as a lush, fragrant green haven where he could be still and find his inner peace. He didn't care for the noise of the city that Cora loved. And since in those days (and these days too, really) a woman didn't argue with her husband on big matters, they packed up and headed back to where they had grown up. Cora gave up her air conditioned city living, her beer at the bowling alley and movies on Satruday nights to move back to a place that felt like Hell to her. She wept bitterly in private and maintained smiles in front of her husband...for awhile. The babies started coming, four of them, and it became clearer and clearer that George and Cora had made a bad match. For all their attraction and even some form of love, they were intensely different. George liked the quiet of 4 a.m. rising, and didn't believe in overthinking anything. He liked the feel of a good horse, and wanted to make things grow and sell his vegetables on Highway 69. Cora desperately loved her children and tried to do well by them. She turned the rough, built-by-hand house into a home as well as she could, scrubbing and wallpapering, sanding and refinishing the floors herself, keeping her own garden and constantly canning and cooking, all with a baby on one hip and a husband who didn't care much for talking. At night, the fights started. They didn't have touchstone phrases like "passive-aggressive" and "bi-polar" then; the words were harsher and flung harshly. Cora was starved for stimulation and conversation. George, so uncomplicated and simple, could not have chosen a worse mate for his temperment than complicated, intense, affection-hungry Cora. When he couldn't give her the conversation she wanted or even understand why she needed it so badly, he felt threatened somehow and became angry. What could have been communication turned into night-long shouting matches that frightened the children. Bearing the brunt of this was Nita, the only girl. She was her father's shining pride, and the only one of his children that could coax any real discussion or affection out of him. She would sit with him on the porch swing at twilight, gazing up at him adoringly, listening to him talk about whipporwhils and snowy places like Alaska. Cora saw all this and slowly became resentful of her own daughter. She became increasingly naggy and paranoid. She began to suspect that George and Nita were plotting against her. The fights escalated. Several times, their shouting became so intense that little Nita would sneak out and run into the woods, climbing up into the tall pines to stare at the stars and pretend she never had to go back. On a few mornings, Nita and her brothers would come into the kitchen for breakfast, to find their father sitting at the table with his head in his hands and their mother silently moving, wraithlike, around the table, stirring pots and buttering biscuits and keeping her head low to try to hide her black and swollen eyes. Cora, her mind already fragile from her upbringing, continued to slip deeper into her own world of paranoia and depression. She was never institutionalized, but it was accepted throughout the family that she was the one who was...delicate. She was at turns nurturing and vicious to her only daughter, sometimes cornering her in her bedroom and ranting for hours about things that just didn't make any sense. She mellowed somewhat in later years as her sons moved away, Nita married, and George's health began to fail. He went suffered a stroke and went blind, and his care fell to her. By then the fight had gone out of her and she just cared for her partner as well as she could until it became too much for her aging body. George was placed in a nursing home. She visited him every day that she was able, talking to him, and by this point he was grateful to hear her talk. She spoke softly to him, telling him what the children were doing. "Danny and Gail are well, Megan is playing the flute. Nita and Tom are living in New York, and Sarah's hair isn't blond at all anymore, it's brown and shines red in the sun like Nita's. Mark and Amy are still living on the hill. Jessica is playing basketball." She would talk to him softly for hours, just teliing him how everyone was and what she had done that day. One day as she patted his hand, he reached over with his other hand to clasp hers. He told her, "Cora, I've always loved you. You knew that, didn't you?" She was silent for a moment. "No," she said. "It would have been nice to hear it." You see, reader, he had never once told his wife and the mother of his children that he loved her. He just assumed she knew from the fact that he went to work for the TVA before dawn and didn't come home until dark every day. That even when he was exhausted he still took their kids to ball games. He assumed that since he talked to her at all, she knew he cared for her. But she didn't. She never knew.
This is the greatest tragedy I have ever encountered in my little life. How very much in love they could have been and should have been, had they only been able to tell each other their hearts. If she had stopped nagging him for a minute long enough to tell him, as she told me years after his death, that she loved to sit next to him because he smelled good and that she loved his arms and his crooked smile and the way he said "Cora, you're about the prettiest girl I've ever seen" when he felt especially tender toward her. If he had been able to filter the rambling and hear the message underneath, that frightened little unwanted girl screaming, "I will do anything for you, only love me". But it never happened. They wasted decades of love.
So many years later, Cora is almost completely deaf and has a hard time walking. After her husband's death, she became a recluse. She sat in her house and helped raise her grandchildren and ate herself into diabetes. With all of her grandchildren, she had wonderful relationships until their adolescence. Then she never could reclaim that connection with any of them again. She could not relate. Maybe because that's when intense feelings start, and all intense feelings had ever gotten her was heartbreak and black eyes.
Except with one granddaughter.
It's funny; everyone thinks Granny and I hate each other. They wince at the way I talk to her. They think I'm awful for speaking my mind to such a sweet old woman. Thats because while she never had a good relationship with any of them after they started maturing, she was never unkind to any of them. No one else ever saw the inner hyena. I don't know why she chose me. Maybe because I was the first grandchild. Maybe because she still, to this day, fiercely loves and hates my mother, who is the only one of her children who comes to see her weekly to take her shopping and out to eat and to the doctor. Maybe she's so resentful that the one child she hated so much so often is the one who she relies on and who shows her more love than she gave, that she now unleashes her rage upon that daughter's daughter. I don't know. But she has never hid herself from me and so I speak to her plainly, and I believe she loves me more for it. We love each other tremendously, and ironically, no one knows. I love her for the sad little girl she was and for the woman who took care of a sick husband she never understood. I respect her pain and understand her anger. I am the only one she lashes out at now, but thats a small price to pay, because I'm also the only one she tells her stories to. She would never tell Megan or Jessica or Julie the things she tells me. She would never tell them how she came to enjoy sex or how she briefly thought about giving in to the advances of an old friend after Grandpa had died. She tells everyone the stories of her childrens' births, but she tells me the fear she felt, the worry for each one, the knowledge that each would take more of her youth and steal more of what little attention she received herself. She cries when she tells me how much she wanted to love my grandfather. She cries when she tells me how it breaks her heart again every day that she can't show him how much she regrets not loving him better and not letting him love her the only way he knew how.
In the top shelf of my closet, there is an old purse, made in the 1950's. It holds my mother's baby cap and a few pieces of fading, exquisitely detailed handmade lace. The lace belonged to my real great-grandmother, Mary Naomi, who was buried on Cora's birthday. Someone thought to keep it, and it's worked its way into my hands and I'm not letting it go. My mother has her bonnet and her dress. I have the lace. I have Cora's favorite cake pan, and I use it extensively even though its lost its handle and I get funny looks when I take it to gatherings. My grandfather's favorite cake was plain yellow, warm from the oven and topped with butter instead of frosting. She rarely made it for him. But every time I bake a cake and use that pan to keep it, I feel like I'm giving a little more to their relationship, recognizing it in a way it never got when it was in the present. I know that's a silly thought. George has been dead for 16 years. He died without being able to fix his marriage, and nothing I can do, especially something as silly as baking and using an ancient pan, can fix it for them. But someone needs to remember that they could have loved, because my cousins have no idea. They just took it for granted that Granny and Grandpa seemed to be alright. Someone needs to remember the vivacious young woman who drank beer at the bowling alley and wore high heels to dance with soldiers and gave it up to follow a man to a place she hated and have his babies and take his slaps when he didn't know how to just fucking talk to her. Someone needs to remember Mary Naomi and her lace and her love of baking and that she died not knowing who was going to raise her baby girl or how. Someone has to appreciate all of it and honor it somehow.

I can't wait to see my Granny again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ambivalently back.

I would write a lot more here if I could get SiteMeter to work longer than three consecutive minutes. I've just spent more time (about 15 minutes) on this blog than I have in the past two years, trying to work out a couple bugs and I'm already sick of it. This is what happens between 2007 and 2016, I guess. I've been through several moves, a major job change, a divorce, a heartbreak (not the divorce), ALL the bad pedicure colors. Perhaps the most frustrating sitch I've encountered is my own apathy toward keeping up with new technology, or even keeping a handle on what I used to use regularly. I've been living without narration since 2013. Somewhere along the line, SiteMeter and I grew apart and I'm wondering if it's worth it to try to revive the (always) fragile relationship.

Over the past couple years, I've written a few short stories and done a lot of editing to previous fiction pieces, but I've had no urge whatsoever to hunker down with my laptop and talk about anything going on in my day-to-day. I'm really not sure if that's a from a lack of introspection or a very healthy refusal to swim in it, but I'm leaning toward the latter. In a nutshell:

Brett and I aren't married yet. We are increasinly happy, we talk about our future wedding and kids daily, and I get excited every time he kneels down for whatever reason, but we are not married.

I no longer work for the bank.

Now I work at a water company, which offers less stress and way more hilarity than the bank ever did.

I broke my foot this past June. It suuuuucked, required two surgeries, and took me about four months before I could hobble around with a boot.

I still have my cat. She's a good cat.

I'm already bored with this. I'ma bounce. Be back when I think of...something.