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I am the world’s best at enumerating my mother’s failings—who better than I to know them?  As her one and only offspring I have had a front row seat for the entire drama, but foibles are only one side of her story.  For every cringe worthy account there is another juxtaposed as a delight.

She was determined to do her best as a mom and started off right hiring a registered nurse to come home with us and make sure nobody dropped me on my head.  The photos of the nurse in full white cap and uniform are a fine memento of a brave beginning.

Mother bought a new Brownie Box camera that she exercised ad nauseum, cranking out hundreds of baby shots.  She did the hard work of keeping up with them for a lifetime, and it was I who managed to lose them in a problematic state to state move.  I’m glad that she had the fun of snapping that shutter with such obsessive joy.

Her favorite staging of reality was my doll house as background for every doll she had gifted me since birth.  They sat in an eerie silence, row on row, attesting to how much she appreciated her only offspring.  Each doll was dressed for the occasion, known and named by one of us.  If I was silent on the subject, it was she who came up with the perfect moniker.  On the back of the photo image she would list each doll ekphrastically by name.  The march of the seasons could be marked and appreciated as the hoard swelled in number.

As soon as I could command a vehicle, a tricycle appeared.  Unlike the congregation of dolls, which I pretty much ignored except to undress and disassemble them, the better to find out how they worked, the three-wheeled velocipede was a friend.  Mother memorialized it in an iconic photo of our family lined up along the street: I on my trike, Mother on her blue Schwinn, and Daddy on his motorcycle.  She treasured that shot, and I didn’t disagree.

As soon as I could hold on, she sat me on the back fender of her bike and we took off at speed.  We went everywhere wheels could roll.  When I got a new puppy for my birthday, she added a basket to the front and we were a threesome.  We sang as we rolled, a brave example for The Sound of Music, yet to hit the air-waves.  When she got tired of peddling, we stopped and conversed while we rested.  I remember a stop where we enacted a lizard story: “There came a lizard to a wall, all on a summer’s day.  He zipped it once.  He zipped it twice.  And then he ran away.  The wall wasn’t sunny; the boy wasn’t funny; and the maid had no money.  Isn’t it funny?  But it’s true.”  Memory may not reconstruct it just right, but it’s well remembered as a sweet and pleasant time of rest.

Even when there was no more bike or spaniel, we filled the time with bus trips around the 40’s Boston Metroplex.  The one I most remember was a walking tour of the Wellesley campus which mother explained I was to someday attend.  She pointed out the ivy covered brick buildings and insisted that the learning inside was just as beautiful as the lovely facades.  That was the key to a learning that mattered.

Like most every upscale mother of a six-year-old girl child, she signed me up for tap, ballet, and acrobat lessons at the Stella Stevenson School of Dance, and she delivered me to the bar at scheduled intervals, tutu a-swirl and satin slippers a-twinkle.  It was for naught, due to lack of talent, but her devotion was noted and appreciated.  She explained that I had inherited my father’s awkwardness as it relates to feet and their dis-artful mobility.

Mother was ever the crafter of art, and it was a great day when she offered to build a box to house my second grade class Valentine collection.  At a time when women’s hats came in fanciful boxes of whimsical shapes, she chose a heart of a box.  With crepe paper cut in endless strips and glued to the outside, then finger stretched into a tangled swirl of pink, the construct exploded with Valentine adoration of love and all its implications.  A slot in the lid accepted every child’s trove of greetings to be delivered to other students on the very day.  That day arrived.  It was a day to make my mother proud, and I proud of her.  She was my Valentine sweetheart.

Mother fancied herself a poet and loved to mark special times with special words.  When I graduated from first grade and was disconsolate over losing that first wonderful teacher, she wrote:

“I have a dear, dear teacher,
Who means so much to me,
And what I’ll do without her
Is more than I can see.
I want to go to second grade,
For it’s the proper thing to do,
But teachers like Miss. Chater,
I know there are but few.
And so, My dear Miss. Chater,
I know that we must part,
But please be sure to know,
You’ll be always in my heart.”

Mother taught to sing before an audience, and to earn my place at the center of any and all attention.  On Halloween, stalking the neighborhood for treats, she taught me to recite,

                        Hello! Hello!
                        I’m out to have some fun,
                        But never fear,
                        I’m here to cheer.
                        There’ll be no destruction.

When our church decided to produce a play, Mother was chosen as the lead actor.  It was called “Mushrooms Coming Up” and featured a comedic confusion of toadstools being perceived as mushrooms.  It was a hit, and I got to attend every rehearsal as well as the grand performance.  When it came time for me to mount the stage and perform, it felt like a normal, acceptable thing to do.

Mother was obviously multi-talented and reveled in a cacophony of artistic expression.  You name it; she could do it.  But of all her many responses to her muse, it was music she loved best.  I can thank her for teaching me to love music.  She demonstrated at my life’s very inception the possibility of spirit as a vehicle of expression.  I saw her as a living goddess of music, of beauty, of art, of everything filled with light and lust for life.  When I was still a toddler, she began directing a community chorus called the Glad Girls Glee Club. 

It was a gaggle of neighborhood urchins who agreed to come to our house, learn to sing as a harmonious group, and perform at public venues throughout the Ft. Worth, Texas area.  The girls experienced the excitement of performing art, doing the hard work of learning, practicing, and disciplining their little-girl selves into a veritable choir. 

They learned the fun of authentic formal dress-up, wearing “little ladies” white gloves and pearls to set off their long gowns.  The whole endeavor was a celebration of spirit, and Mary’s personality breathed it into life.  It was an authentic example of 1940’s post-depression glee.  At that time, I had passed birthday number two and was full of myself as I headed for number three.  Mother installed me as official mascot for the group.  I was handed from lap to lap, soaking up more than my fair share of the happiness.  Every group photo shows me in matching dress and hair-ribbons, situated in one of the many singers’ arms.  I never forgot how it felt to be treasured by all those lovely singers.  It was a time to remember and never, ever forget.

Even as a creaky old lady, I can remember my mother sliding onto any available piano bench and belting out Melody in F.  At her assisted living facility, the old folks refused to participate in a hymn-sing unless Mary was there to lead the singing.  Whenever I picked her up for a day away from the institution, we would sing as I drove.  It matched my high tenor to her soprano, or if I sang melody she slipped into an alto harmony.  As we sang I remembered all the other days, the other songs, the other adventures, and I determined to never forget how it feels to be important to someone as wonderful as Mary, Old Pal of Mine.  Even the memories ring with the chords of that sweet treble harmony.

Like most 40’s women Mother was always cooking up something to challenge her oven.  When we were still constituted as a family, she made pies from scratch that even today haunt my memories.  No one makes coconut cream or lemon meringue like she did.  I stopped trying out others pies long ago, hoping against hope that they might be as good as hers.  It’s not going to happen.  The most successful reconstruction of that taste sensation has been in my own kitchen using the freshest of ingredients and applying every care, but even that is not quite as wonderful as a pie constructed by Mary Opal’s own hands.  I have determined that what is missing is the love—her love.  That was what she added to the mix that made it the best, the very best.  She added that too, to the making of me.  I have no doubt that what she gave to me that made everything else something that could be lived through with courage, was the certainty of her mother love.

Silly Me!

There’s something magic about advanced degrees.  They do confer a credibility of sorts, depending on the status of the outfit doing the conferring.  I was sitting, ruminating at my writer’s group, surrounded by the excessively educated, when it occurred to me that I was lacking.  My BS is a meager substitute.  What kind of crazy am I to think I could speak my meager truth in the presence of such august company?  At one point I collected a barrage of verbal assault by calling them ostentatiously educated.  I made the stupid assumption that a mutual love of writing would seamlessly bridge the chasm, but silly me, it was just a garden variety delusion of grandeur.

One mark of sanity is knowing your place.  People with dark skin in America know all about that.  Race oppression, gender oppression, and age oppression share more commonality than is generally understood.   I have a place at my Monday Morning Writer’s Group.  It is a place given to a crazy old lady who keeps nattering on about how she was once an engineer and inventor, but in spite of that strange preoccupation had no trouble attracting men.  Women aren’t inventors.  Everybody knows that.  Grandmas aren’t sexy.  Old women are sweet, harmless, and taken up with grand-babies, recipes, and stitchery.  They bring covered dishes to church suppers.  They have forgotten what sex is about, but remember, with clear fidelity, the result.  They tend toward the inappropriate in their commentary.  Don’t be surprised if “Don’t forget to wear a condom!” follows you out the door as you make a break for a dignified exit.

To know your place you must understand, not only your place but yourself.  There’s the rub.  We do all this writing to get a grip on who each of us really is; at least that’s why I do it.  The thing I have most feared has always been going crazy like my mother Mary Opal did when her world went off the rails.  But, silly me, that wasn’t to happen.  That isn’t my kind of crazy.  Mine is the kind that spells odd.  My son Lane calls me eccentric.  That works. 

An eccentric mass is fixed at a point some distance from the center of gravity of a rotating system.  When things go round, everything wobbles.  Is it the fault of the system?  Hardly.  It’s the poorly located addition to what was a nicely balanced agreement of coordinated masses that ruined everything.  How out of kilter is the wobble?  That depends on the mass of the object as well as its location.  The more the mass, the more the problem; the farther from center, the worse the effect.  It’s all neatly mathematic.  But going on like this is eccentric, so I’ll shut up.

When at Salem College, sniffing the bouquet of a liberal curriculum, I found out about normal human psychology as in Psych 101.  That was helpful, but even more interesting was Abnormal Psych, where I was sure to explore the tortured mentality of a daughter spawned by a paranoid schizophrenic mother and a bipolar genius father.  Just the thought of the match made me shudder in my sneakers.  As each chapter elucidated a new area of mental aberration, I was newly terrified.  This was surely the information that would give me a diagnosis and the hope of a cure.

I explained the quandary to my professor who suggested I just settle down and enjoy earning what was sure to be my A.  He said that in medical school would-be doctors typically try on each of the described anomalies before they just shrug and go on with their course-work.  I did learn that my tendency to analyze everything to death was called being obsessive.  That’s an accusation that could be leveled at Freud as he convinced the world of the universal need for psychoanalysis.  He too, liked to analyze everything.

Eventually I decided that the medical establishment was obsessive compulsive given their anal-retentive organization of such behavioral imperfections as the Mental Health International Classification of Diseases, otherwise known as ICD10 codes.  That leads me to a very healthy position vis-à-vis my place as a patient in a world of medics who are supposed to know.  If I am no more obsessive than they, why should I worry?

Well, at least I can worry about being anxiety ridden.  The most important thing I do is worry.  When analyzing any situation, the paramount concern is “what can go wrong.”  If anything can go wrong, it will.  That’s Murphy’s Law.  I assume it will, or at least must be anticipated and bulwarked against toward some marvelous, or at least acceptable, future disposition.  As a designer of systems, anxiety seems to be part of my self-definition.  I can’t defend against the accusation.  But anxiety is the least of maladies.  I don’t see things that aren’t there, or plot to attack enemies skulking in the fictive flights of fancy that lurk in my dream-time.  When the sun comes up, it’s time to get real.

Given all that, maybe my therapist is correct.  Maybe I’m not nuts, or not likely to so become.  Maybe I am just getting old and odd.  I can live with that and have a good time doing it.  I can quit worrying about going crazy and accept the fact that I have been a little bit off all along and just thought I was perfectly sane.  Silly me!

Apotheosis

(A proposal for a Sci-Fi novel based on an actual family quandary.)

Dorothy Jeanette Martin’s youngest son, Kurt, and his wife, Preston, have produced two offspring, Jackson and Daisy, the youngest of her cherished passel of grandbabies.  In 2043 they are all grown up and living in a strange new world where cloning and DNA manipulation is legal and culturally embraced.  They are both accomplished scientists, and psychologically healthy since they had exemplary parenting by Kurt and Preston.  Kurt, a talented artist/craftsman, a true autodidact, has somehow managed to keep his inner child alive and well, which accounts for both the survival of his creative genius as well as his ability to play and to be a happiness instilling father.  On the distaff side, he put Preston, the family scholar, through graduate school for her PhD.  Preston’s natural maternal ability is enhanced by her studies in psychology and sociology.   Their marriage has balanced each other’s strengths and negated the other’s weaknesses.  They are a power couple who have engendered their offspring the way families should be raised.  If every match had been so successful, marriage would not have been abolished. 

*********

In 2043, marriage is no longer part of the human social contract.  Reproduction is state sanctioned and stringently controlled.  Sperm typically do not swim well due to estrogen poisoning up and down the food chain.  Women may bear children but only subject to genetic testing, scientific, and even political approval.  Children are now raised by certified parenting professionals and relate to biological parents as if they were Aunties and Uncles.  Bruno Bettelheim and his Israeli commune experiments have seized the day, and oedipal neuroticism is passé.

Both young adults have attracted global attention with their excellence in their chosen fields, Daisy as an evolutionary  geneticist, and Jackson as a research neurologist with a specialty emphasis on cloning.  The two siblings put their educated heads together and hatch a wild bird of an idea.  They decide to grant their beloved Grandmother, Dorothy, her fondest wish.  Daisy is licensed to bear two offspring, assuming she can identify a sperm donor who is an appropriate genetic complement and can obtain a license to so breed.

They are both aware of their father Kurt’s curious heredity.  His maternal Grandfather carried an odd mutation that the family has affectionately dubbed the “Kelsey Martin Gene.”  As Kelsey’s first and eldest child, Dorothy was believed to have carried it intact, expressing it bravely but imperfectly due to the cultural poisoning its expression attracted to her being a woman innovator.  Her life was a crazy-quilt of disastrous decisions made and suffered, along with surprising triumphs achieved as one of the first women to stage a frontal assault on the male bastion of military/industrial aerospace.  Daisy and Jackson were familiar with the memoir she wrote before she died, her way of reaching out to her family with the love she cherished for them one and all.  She wanted them to understand that they must not fear the KM gene but must learn to use it wisely.  Her greatest dread was that her progeny might feel cursed, rather than blessed, by their genetic inheritance.

Her small cedar chest is still secreted in her Diplomat safe that Kurt has safeguarded since she died.  Several times during her generous life-span Dorothy grew her hair long and lovely but occasionally wacked it off, storing the twisted hanks in case she might someday need a wig or extension.  The cedar chest protected it from environmental degradation and hungry insects.

Daisy and Jackson created a plan that might advance their careers and enhance family legacy.  They loved their eccentric Grandmother and saw a way to give her a second chance.  Daisy determined to clone Grandma from her cedar protected DNA and to have the resulting live embryo implanted into her own uterus.  The resulting child would be raised by twenty-first century professionals rather than well-meaning, intelligent but uneducated, ambitious but tragically flawed rural Texans.  Jackson and Daisy would follow the cloned child’s growth, analyze, and compare her gene expression with that of her biological progenitor.  The comparison would be sure to open up new vistas to the understanding of nature vs nurture.  An incidental benefit would be continuation of Dorothy’s mitochondrial DNA which is now extinct since her daughter Melanie died carrying the only copy.  Best of all, it could fulfill their Grandmother’s wish that her family line might at long last see itself as whole and beautiful.

That uses up one of Daisy’s allocation of offspring.  Daisy and her state sanctioned sperm donor would also bear a natural daughter complements of an egg from her own ovary, a child who will with CRISPR intervention be verified to also carry the KM gene.  Daisy’s natural girl-child would be raised on an equally professional footing as a sister to Dorothy’s clone.  The healthy socialization of sisterhood would eliminate the isolation that Dorothy had suffered, being raised as an only child and spared the sort of trauma detailed in horrific clips lifted from her memoir.  In this improved iteration Dorothy and her genome would choose and enjoy all the education desired in this reincarnation and be allowed to fulfill that promise in any career she could ever dream of.

The book will alternate between segments from the memoir, author voice-overs that weave the story, and chapters voiced by Daisy and Jackson that would flesh out the technical aspects of the endeavor and paint a picture of a future world of bio-innovation and benevolent cyborgs.  The final result will be for Dorothy, long after death, to earn the forgiveness and appreciation she craved, and for her heirs to finally be at peace with their heredity.  Even while she is still very much alive, reading and writing with her Monday Morning Writer’s Group, she will be savoring the possibilities of this wild hare of an idea even as she types and types and types…

Returning from town to my cabin in the woods, I surprised Espresso, my trusty black pussycat, holding court on a tree stump by the cabin door.  I killed the engine and watched.  He appeared to be communing with a fox lounging in the grass, just two or three fox leaps away.

I had slowed the car, stopped, set the brake, and slipped out, determined to reconnoiter the duo.  They waited and watched, sharing a quiet interest in my arrival.  Espresso typically would have come running, tail aloft, meowing a plaintive hello, but today he just drew himself up like some Egyptian cat god and watched, first me, then the fox.  Back and forth his round-eyed gaze panned with only an intermittent whisker twitch.

Mr. Fox appeared robust, sleek and healthy.  He had a full brush, tipped with white cream, and a thick, rich, coppery coat.  He displayed no fear, only a regal curiosity, but seemed to appreciate that I, in some strange two-footed way, belonged to the cat. 

When Espresso finally jumped down and meandered toward me, the fox rose, yawned, stretched, and began his own measured approach.  That did it!  Composure be damned!  Aplomb sacrificed to the suspense of these slow speed machinations, I snatched up the cat and tossed him into the car.  The door’s slam broke the spell.  Mr. Fox glared at me, disappointed that I had questioned his intentions or had deprived him of lunch—I’m not sure which.  I apologized and assured him that I knew him to be a fine fox but was nevertheless committed to my pussycat.  He paused to taste the air in several directions and finally moved on, slowly picking his way through the low brush and weeds, several over-the-shoulder appraisals punctuating a dignified retreat into a pine thicket.  I was sad to see him leave.  He was beautiful, and his trust rare—a benediction.

       One of the many wonders of my sojourn in the Appalachian woodlands had been the willingness of the wildlife to accept me.  The deer, rabbits, snakes, birds and squirrels seem to understand that I had no interest in them excepting the wonder of our sharing this natural aesthetic.  One afternoon, my mind otherwise occupied, I stepped out the cabin door straight into the muscled black loops of a snake sunning himself on the deck.  A quick apperception assessed no danger since his coloring and head shape contraindicated the local poisonous varieties.  So I waited, one foot still in the cabin, one planted on the deck, while the snake, warm and equable, uncoiled his smooth scaly length from about my ankle and glided peaceably across the warm boards.  He chose a likely gap between the planks and slid headfirst into the abyss.  It would have been a simple exodus, excepting a small bulge, probably a recent rodent snack, which brought his progress to an embarrassing halt.

Back out and find another route?  No way!  He demonstrated his confidence in choice of exit strategies by elevating the entire following half of his person and doing an upside down hula dance until the rest of him finally slipped through.  There was no hurry.  We had agreed that he was an appreciated reptile and would be given all the time and space necessary to do his thing, however curious.  For many months Mr. Snake and I shared our quiet forest clearing as the best of friends.  Later as snowflakes fell and wood-smoke rising curled away, we kept the silent peace.

The cabin I had rented for a year of writing belonged to a Feminist Land Trust called Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home.  I had thought to enjoy a time away from the ever-puzzling testosterone dilemma—can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.  It turned out, however, to be annoying to abide with the strict no-man enforcement.  Moving into the cabin took more than the one evening of portage, so it seemed reasonable to let the two careful, quick, and kind Beacon-men-equivalents curl up in the loft until morning.  They were hot and sweaty, but not wanting to offer them the run of my private ladies room, I sent them to the pond, which I found out later was for nude woman bathing only.  It’s a good thing the feme Nazis never found out about that indiscretion since they would have termed it a desecration. 

So ardent was SuBAMUH enforcement that I began to take glee in inviting my manly sons to drop by with loads of split firewood and stay awhile for a meal at Mom’s table.  Imagine the delight I took in stopping for a Silver Fox neighbor in tight jeans and tank top, overloaded with fresh picked and packed blackberries and headed into town hoping for a neighborly ride in to peddle his wares.  It was a good decision to offer him vehicular hospitality.  For the remainder of my time in Ohio’s eastern woodlands, I enjoyed his company as yet another of the indigenous friendly fauna.  The resident man-haters were fauna as well, but not nearly such Good Neighbors.

Say it and watch the smiles and knowing nods.  There’s also “Boys will be boys.”  Everybody agrees.  Such reminiscences always bring to mind a whole string of supporting examples for me, and I’m sure for other women as well.  That’s what drives my testosterone obsession.  Read my essay, “Testosterone Effect,” which elucidates a whole string of indiscretions committed by my own beloved father.  Of course I love him anyway.  That’s what women do.

But Daddy wasn’t the only male to mal-represent his gender.  He was the first, but far from the only.  Soon after I went to live with my mother’s sister Judy and her husband Wesson, I became privy to his most intimate paraphernalia dangling from his shorts while making breakfast coffee.  He did it every morning: the dangling and the coffee making.  So alarming was the association that I decried drinking coffee until 1988 when I opened a coffeehouse.  I kind of had to learn to like the roasted bean at that point.

But Wesson wasn’t alone.  He had predecessors.  As a little girl left alone before the age of latchkey kids, I had to amuse myself while Mommy was at work.  I was fine with that.  When you’re by yourself you can do just about whatever you want.  I was supposed to play close to the boarding house where she rented a room with bathroom privileges.  But I knew better.  I walked all the way to the swan-boat pond and spent my days there just pottering around and enjoying the shade around the shoreline.  I did fine until one day a grown man started talking to me just like he was a kid too.  I didn’t want to hurt his feelings ‘cause he was awfully nice, but I was feeling just a little scared of him.  He asked me to promise to meet him again there the next day.  I agreed and took off for home.  I never went to the pond again.  How did I know that I shouldn’t play again at the pond?  It’s a mystery.

There were plenty of things I could do in Mommy’s room.  When I got hungry, there was food to eat.  If there was bread, I could spread Neufchatel cheese on it and have some lunch.  That kind of cheese didn’t need a refrigerator.  It came in a little glass that could be washed and saved for drinking.  I liked my bread toasted and made a toasting device by suspending our hot plate upside down under Mommy’s desk chair with some wire coat hangers.  It worked great.  I had to watch it while it cooked so I didn’t start a fire.  Then we would really have had no place to live.  Staying inside and playing with fire was less dangerous than chatting with strange men in the park, but not much.

I must not have learned my lesson, because singing on the levee at Norwalk reservoir I met a fisherman.  He was nice and friendly.  He fished while I sang.  At sixteen I was almost as tall as he and figured he was safe enough.  I had to practice my voice lessons at the reservoir because my step-mother Betty couldn’t stand hearing me doing operatic vocalises inside the house.  Don’t let the step title put you off.  Betty was a dear, but I was crazy loud.  I didn’t blame her.  The fisher guy didn’t bother me any, so I didn’t worry about him. But one day while out riding on my bike along a quiet stretch of Kingdom Ridge Road, there he was.  He was in the middle of the asphalt holding a big long pink balloon.  “I’m gonna rape you!” he yelled.  I went into strong silent rational mode and calculated how best to navigate these waters.  If I stopped to turn around, he could grab me, so I belted on past at top speed, giving him a wide berth.  Once safely past I turned around and returned, passing him again even faster.  In five minutes I was home.  The police had been called.  All was well.  But I wasn’t so sure about assuming men were to be trusted.

Men such as Mr. O’Hanion, my choir director in high school, during my oboe lessons conducted in the instrument closet, liked to direct the conversation to the maturity of my physique, explaining that my breasts and hips were more womanly than most girls my age.  When I asked what that had to do with the oboe, he explained that it surely suggested I was capable of the discipline required to master an instrument.  I decided not to play the oboe or any other instrument needing discipline.

It was around that time that the husband of my voice teacher grabbed me in their dining room while his wife was playing a piano prelude on the music room Steinway.  He planted a gooey smack right on my mouth, and I fled to the music room where I demanded an explanation about why he would do such a thing.  She was speechless.  Why indeed?

When I went to stay with the countrified relatives of my step-mother, and work for food in their creamery, everything was idyllic until one day the husband of the couple grabbed me, rolled me to the floor of the dining room, and while Aunt Winnie was frying potatoes in the kitchen, he began smooching me on the rug.  I demurred, rearranging my overalls and joining my aunt in the kitchen.  At least I had learned by then not to confuse her with the facts of her philandering husband.  I kept his sorry secret.

Maybe I was lured into a trusting complacency by boys my own age who showed absolutely no interest in Dorothy Martin as sex object.  I had no dates during high school, but agreed to be fixed up with a geek in my physics class, a one-time arrangement— thanks to the girls in my graduating class— all so I could attend my senior prom.  Given all that, it seemed reasonable to assume I had nothing to fear.  How could I be so right?  The boy, probably as self-conscious as I, didn’t even try to kiss me good-night.  Maybe it had something to do with the prom dress, picked out with my dad, that though sparkly was as black and blue as the worst possible bruise.  Those mean girls turned out to be pretty nice after all. 

Even after announcement of my marital engagement with his kinsman, Clyde only a few years my senior made a pretense of a tickle session on the living-room floor that moved into a full lips-on-lips assault.  I withdrew, never to be enticed again into innocent roughhousing, and full-on suspicious even of family gatherings.

I was totally disgusted when the husband of my best friend, in his own living room, still attired in his grisly butcher’s apron, grabbed me and smeared a smooch across my cheek.  That indiscretion I reported forthwith.  But telling wasn’t an option when my pastor, who was helping me as a grief counselor, pulled me into the stationery room of his office and explained that what I needed was to be held with true love by someone who really understood.  That may have been true, but try telling that to his wife and three kids.  I decided to give up on grief and go home to Texas where I could get a job and circumvent that funny-business. 

If I had big boobs and slim stately legs it might have all made sense, but I reminded me of my grandmother, and not when she was young and pretty and Grandpa called her “The best.” I had always thought I was defended by being ugly.  When that second set of pearly whites came in, too big for the mouth that held them, they spoiled any hope I ever had for being beautiful.  But that didn’t seem to bother testosterone stoked males of the species.  It was with trepidation as well as glee that I finally underwent the dental work that arranged my teeth into something worth seeing.  At least I could bear to look in the mirror, but how could I deal with the confusion of looking different than I felt?

There must be some reason why men usually disappoint me.  Somebody must be doing something wrong.  When I was little and cute, everything was OK.  How I looked, and how I felt, and how people saw me, were all in agreement.  Then I got ugly.  I knew I was ugly.  Everybody else lied, but secretly they agreed.  But suddenly, without my permission or consonance, I morphed into a sex goddess.  That must be how it is for every pubescent girl.  Still flashing horrific dentition, I proceeded to behave as if I was butt-ugly—which I was.  Why be charming, when boys will hate me anyway?  But old men suddenly tried to jump me at every corner, as if they knew something about me that I didn’t—which they did.  Later with resplendent teeth, I suddenly smiled at the world.  People saw me as a reasonably good looking young woman but who acted as if she expected to be responded to as a female Quasimodo—which she did.  Why be charming?  Better to alienate those handsome guys before they see the real me and go away.  So even now, given all this confusion, how can I blame the men in my life for behaving badly?  Like most things I complain about—it’s possibly, to some extent, just a wee tiny bit my fault. 

Every time Mommy got mad at me she made a case for my being evil.  According to her lights, that was the root cause for all my shenanigans.  Hardly a day went by without the hairbrush.  Of course it was her tool for pulling the rats out of my yellow frazzle prior to braiding it, but before the day was over it would, more often than not, become her instrument of torture.  After returning from church and my failure to sit still enough throughout the service, I was in for some punishment. I soon learned, thanks be to God, that there might be an out: If I hid in my room and began reading my bible, there was a chance she would forget about her intent to discipline.

Mary Opal Martin, nee Tyson, had good reason to weave religion into her brand of parenting.  The daughter of a hell-fire Baptist preacher, she had learned to walk the talk.  Mary Opal, was fifth of eight children born to Mary Frances Walker and George Washington Tyson, she a bearer of children, he a preacher, seller of Watkins Products and occasional farmer of a few played-out acres near Decatur, Texas.  George believed in a God of retribution about whom he preached on a Sunday and whose vengeance he administered as the occasion arose.  He applied the strop liberally, especially to his daughter’s supple flanks, most vehemently when they were visited with the curse, a promise of harlotry to come.  There had to be an escape. 

Mary Opal gazed out the kitchen door, past the well house, and watched a lazy chicken hawk circle the air rising in waves of heat over the calf pasture.  She was supposed to be drying the dishes.  She was always supposed to be doing something.  Never was there a time to think, to dream, to wonder.  As she wiped a plate she sang in a clear soprano,

“Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere a songbird dwells.
Hush now my sad repining,
God lives and all is well. 
Somewhere, somewhere,
Beautiful isle of somewhere…”

“Opa-a-al!” Mary Frances interrupted, her voice drawing the name out and up, her eyes squinting at the newest row of stitches crisscrossing the taut patchwork.  She straightened her shoulders, adjusting the angle of the quilting frame, and reached for a new length of cotton.  “Go and turn on the water for that new horse Dad brought home.  He could die of this heat.  Go, Opal!  Now!  Do it right now! You hear?”

“Yes, Mama,” Mary Opal sighed and started outside, chucking the damp towel at the dish pan.  She walked out onto the low covered porch where the morning’s milking cooled under wet cloths.  Flies buzzed urgently, excited by the sweet, creamy odor.  Out in the side yard she spied little J.W. digging for doodle bugs, stirring the concave cone of sand with a twig until the bug, goaded to exasperation, gave away his position by kicking up a tiny pouf of sand.  The boy was five now, his birthday only last week, and it occurred to her that he was old enough to do some work.  “Jimmy,” she whispered, squatting down beside him to peek into the doodle-bug hole.  “I want you to go water that horse.  Just turn on the spigot.  Wait ’til the trough is full up, and then turn it back off—all the way off.”

“Naw,” he argued.  “I’m too little.  ‘Sides, Ma said for you to water ‘im.

“Aw come on, Jimmy, I’ll save you a whole spoonful when I make my cake for supper, an’ you git the bowl too.  It’s gonna be lemon, your favorite.  Go on now!  You know you’re gettin’ to be a big boy!” 

She smiled, satisfied at evading a piece of work, watching as the boy hiked up his knickers and headed for the barn lot, kicking anthills along the way.  But her smile changed to a rictus of terror as screams woke the sleepy farmstead.  As Jimmie leaned through the fence reaching for the water valve, the horse sank his incisors deep into the boy’s chin, screaming and head-rattling back and forth.  Blood mixed with foamy spittle flew in all directions.

Mary Frances came running, her raised skirts flying behind, outraged at the horse, at God for allowing bad things to happen to His people, and most of all at Mary Opal, for her disobedience.  She scooped up the shrieking child, blood pouring from his mangled chin, white bone visible through the torn flesh.  She clutched him to her breast, choking as she spat out her words like a curse.  “Opal, you are evil!  Do you hear?  Evil!  The devil will punish you for this.  It’s your fault!  All of it!”

Mary Opal stopped breathing.  Time stopped flat in its tracks.  They must have resumed, for later she watched her father shoot the big horse square between the eyes as it stood breathing hard, legs splayed out like a spindly colt, cords of foamy spittle streaming from its mouth.  The monster head jerked from the bullet, its’ impact bowing the thick neck.  The horse gave one massive shudder and fell, all four legs buckling as one.  The beast groaned and lay on its side twitching.  Mary Opal blanched as the wave of sound slammed her chest, the noise bruising ear drums. 

“Go get my saw,” George snapped at C.J., his eldest, who had come running when he heard the commotion.  Working together in a grim cooperation, the two men sawed off the head and wrapped it in burlap for the trip to Decatur, the grisly trophy necessary to determine if the horse was rabid.

Mary Opal prayed that God would take her to Heaven, knowing with dismal certainty that she could not live beyond this day.  But God chose not to hear her prayer, no doubt because of her evil ways, and she lived to witness little J.W.’s pain as he was taken again and again to the city for rabies shots, his belly swollen, red, angry with the repeated sticks from the fat needles, the life-saving serum heavy and thick.  She listened as her father described her disobedience from the place of his power, high in the pulpit.  After the church service, she read the condemnation of family and neighbors in their quickly averted eyes.  She imagined her soul rising like strands of morning mist into the loving arms of a forgiving Jesus who might put her evil ways to rest.

How could such an evil woman not produce an evil child?  Doing what you’re told is good; doing what you think is a better idea is sure to be trouble.  Little Dorothy Jeanette, Texas high priestess of invention, learned that tricky behavior from her father, but also from her mother.  A good girl would have turned the water off herself, like she was told; Mary Opal thought she knew a better way.  Sitting still in church is good; zoning out on the rhythm of the preacher’s voice is sin; and wiggling about to stay awake and upright in the pew is more than sin; It is evil.  Mary Opal knew what to do about that.  Time for the hairbrush.  Mary Opal well understood the ways of the evil one.  With such an upbringing she was uniquely-suited to ferreting out the ol’ devil in others. 

One of my earliest memories is of being lifted to the cook stove in Mommy’s kitchen, placed there to be denied access to a floor where I was free to run amok.  The problem was chaos.  I was a distraction as a toddler moving with equanimity, laughing, squealing, asking no end of questions, wanting to be everywhere at the same time, ubiquity in Buster Browns.  Mommy would lift me up and sit me on the stove between the two front burners.  There in terror, I communed with silence.  The burners, aflame with blue or yellow, and heating pots or skillets, would get hot and hotter, inspiring a surety that all was surely lost.  Skirts had to be tucked carefully under legs and butt so that they wouldn’t catch fire.  I sat, suddenly silent, not wanting to tempt fate that might make me into a pyre.  When I complained that it was getting too hot to bear, Mommy would twist my arm toward the flame, threatening to burn it, and me as well, into a silent good-girl submission.

Was that a memory or a dream?  I have no way of knowing.  Once I asked her if that did indeed happen, or must it have surely been a child’s overheated imagining.  She insisted that she would have never done such a thing.  Do I believe her? Not overmuch.

I remember walking with her down miles of city sidewalks.  Other mothers held their child’s hand; mine slipped her right grip beneath my plaited braids and cradled the smooth skin she found there, bare and vulnerable to her grasp.  That hand rode me like a yoke, directing my every step, governing all I might attempt to learn.  With her thumb and index finger she would orient the angle of my skull.  If she wanted to veer left, those fingers twisted my cranium in anticipation of her left intent; a wish to go right netted a corresponding right heading.  I could only move in the direction of her resolve.  If I remember that so well—and I do—is it so unbelievable that such a mother might place a child on a hot stove to silence her?

Believable but not incontrovertible.  I can only cringe and wonder what kind of a person must I be, squeezed from the loins of such a monster.  It would be easier if she had been a person filled with hate who despised me.  The problem is that she loved me.  I was her precious daughter.  I was everything she had dreamed, yet never achieved, everything she hoped yet to attain through my ascendancy as her glorious child.  How can I trust her as an artifact of my past if I can’t accept the curse she gifts to my present?  How can I trust myself if I cannot believe in the one who formed my being?  Is it a chicken and egg quandary or simply another bit of nightmare fodder?

Mommy of memory made use of an assortment of tools when purging evil.  Burning worked.  Controlling was a favorite, a useful standby.  It was subtle and usually neat.  Cutting popped up as efficient antidote to wrath, though not as convenient since it required an implement of severance, but it remained a treasured tool of her armamentarium.

Ten year old Dotty of memory stood in the drab single rented room she shared with Mommy now that Aunt Judy had sent her back.  Mary, her eyes tight, drew the comb through the long hair, preparing to plait it into the two symmetrical braids the day required.  Dotty winced.  “It hurts!” she whimpered.  “Not so hard!”

Mary Opal glared, and reached for her shears, always close at hand.  She spoke huskily, a whisper.  “Be quiet, or I’ll cut it off.  Then it won’t hurt.”  Dotty held her breath.

It reminded her of a long ago time when a three year old Dotty screamed and struggled, arms and legs resisting with all her strength.  “Mommy, No!” she shrieked, “It hurts!  Please!  Let me go!”  She gagged and sobbed. 

Mary Opal, exasperated, demanded that Kelsey help with what was turning out to be a nasty job.  “Get in here!  I need some help.”

He tiptoed in protesting. “For Heaven’s sake, Opal, what do you want me to do?”

“Just hold her legs!  I’ll use the spoon”

Dotty shrieked and bucked on the table.  “No, no!  It hurts!”  She gasped and sobbed.  “No, Mommy!”

“Oh yuck!” Kelsey looked down at the mess.  He grimaced, taking in the smeared feces, his child’s red tear-stained face, Opal’s rage.  He quailed in the face of so much emotion, instinctively aware that he was out of his depth.  “Do you really have to do that?” he begged, his gorge rising in his throat along with a taste of panic.

“Kelsey, she’s so stopped up that Syrup of Pepsin didn’t work.  Dr. Schuller says we have to get her unplugged some way.  Hold her legs open!”

Kelsey did his best, trying to balance strong with gentle.  He looked more frightened than his daughter did.  Mary Opal, encouraged by his acquiescence to her will, resumed her verbal barrage.  “Shut up, and be still, or I’ll cut it out of you.  If you don’t believe me I’ll show you!”  She stomped out into the kitchen, acting out her frenzy.  She returned with her biggest black handled butcher knife, the one with metal rivets holding it together.  She brandished the silver edge over the child’s face, her own visage a grotesquerie of rage.  “Shut up!  You hear?  Now!”  She twisted the blade slowly and smiled.  As it turned, it played with the reflection of daylight twinkling along the edge of its length.  “Be quiet this minute or I’ll cut it out of you!  Do you hear me?” 

The child that was me stopped crying, stopped breathing, emitting only a series of dry gasps.

There is a time when memoir becomes awkward.  Truth is great until it’s not.  Legacy must be something that enhances the future, or perhaps it should die quietly with its past.  Perhaps a not-story is the kindest tale of all.  It would be very helpful to know what is real and good.  I am either sane or insane; I am either crazy smart or dumb deluded.  I need to move somehow into gracious ageing or decide it’s better and gentler to step away.  I would move toward the one or the other with a defined purpose, if only I could decide which is the kinder choice.  A happy memory lurks, asking to be retrieved: No burning nor cutting was ever transmuted into fact.  They were only well-intentioned threats, there to encourage good behavior and hopefully turn me into being a good girl, whom even a Wesson could love.  Maybe it’s ok to be a Mommy’s girl after all—or not.

No matter where Kelsey Martin found himself in his adventure, he was in thrall to some woman.  I would like to understand that but can read it only in the manifestation of the same effect in the males of my own experience.  That serves more to confuse than to clarify.  Consider the son who brings me a page from a found Playboy magazine and asks with all the trust of innocence, “Why is it that when I look at this lady I get a bone in my wee-wee?”

At that time we had no TV, and living in a single mother household this four-year-old had no reference to any prurience.  He summoned it, in all purity, from his own small body.  This drive to impregnate is central to the definition of maleness.  When this blue-eyed angel fixes me with his inquisitive gaze, I need to understand the puzzling happenstance, no less than he does.  I do my motherly duty explaining, “Your wee-wee is just doing its job.  It’s supposed to do that so that someday you can help make a baby and be a daddy.  It’s a good thing and a sign you are growing up just right.”  A quick hug and it’s on to other things.  He’s off to play; I’m off to work.  Life goes on.  But the question, looking for some wise insight, remains.  The young Kelsey no doubt had a similar discovery, right there between his little legs—something going on that he didn’t understand but sensed that he very much needed to.

Surrounded by the workings of a rural existence, he was privy to the antics of barnyard courtship, where not much was left to a small boy’s imagination.  He too was an animal, albeit human, but the comparisons seemed to hold true.  Small town rural society was conservative in its policing of mores, and in the 1920’s a nice boy knew pretty much what he could and could not do when it came to nice girls.  He complied.

So when the mid-thirties found him heading for college at Weatherford, just a few miles north, his world was taking shape, and doing so beautifully.  Mary Opal Tyson, a preacher’s daughter from Decatur, seemed to be everything he had imagined a perfect mate to be.  She too was a singer, soprano to his baritone, and a church organist, at the Methodist church house where he was trying out his own oratorical skills.  They found each other, married, and made a daughter.

Both parties to the marriage had farm upbringing, so the mechanics of the copulation must have been no surprise.  The timing, however, supposes an interesting twist. When asked years later why no additional children graced the marriage, Kelsey replied, “Mary had a terribly hard time in the delivery room.  I didn’t want her to have to go through that again.”  Baby Dorothy Jeanette’s delivery had occurred in a for-the-time modern hospital, Fort Worth Methodist, but even in that esteemed institution no sedation or pain relief was part of the experience.  They just strapped her down and let her scream.  Kelsey must have loved Mary a great deal to have been willing to forego any possibility of the son he so much wanted.  In those days the only reliable contraception was abstinence.  Surely that must have been what sealed the alienation.

That was 1938.  Hitler was stirring his evil broth in Europe, and soon war took over the menu.  Kelsey took his electronics genius to Raytheon and was assigned to work the Manhattan Project.  He was shipped to Ireland to be on that side of the world while the mess got sorted out.  When it all reverted to peace and sanity, he came home, but he wasn’t the same.  He complained about insufficient libido, not differentiating between passion for work and passion for sex.  It’s reasonable to assume neither.  Knowing him later as an adult, showed him falling prey to bouts of depression, when it was impossible to find energy to finish projects after the fury of invention was done.

One sure-fire way to deal with such sloughs of despond is to make a new project, or move to a new place, or bed a new woman.  When Kelsey came home from the war, he no longer wanted to be a Methodist minister.  He didn’t even believe in God.  He rattled around the Boston/Cambridge area for a while, and then faded off into hazily identified projects and businesses that took him away, far away.  The world accommodated itself to his misadventures, and every time he surfaced in the lives of progeny, he was loosely allied with yet another woman.

~ ~ ~

When in 1953, as a high school sophomore, I went to live with him in his Long Island home, he had married Betty.  I was happy for him.  He and I both knew it had been excruciating to live with Mommy.  But before making it to Northport, there was a stop-off.  We stayed the night in a hotel close to the airport where he had some business to sort out with an assistant.  I had my own hotel room and was feeling pretty swanky about the whole arrangement until, on taking a late stroll on the grounds, I came upon Daddy and his assistant in passionate embrace.  I turned around and ran back to my room where I hid and cried myself to sleep.

The next morning the lady assistant took me shopping and bought me a powder blue fluffy jacket and a periwinkle dress too pretty to wear.  It was the most beautiful outfit I had ever owned, and I hated it.  When we finally made it to Long Island and met Betty and her son Jonothan, my new one-year-old brother, I soon found a time to tell Betty what I had seen.  That wasn’t loyal, I suppose, but even then I valued truth over all else.  Without it, how can we make sense of anything at all?

Betty was a great mother and seemed to enjoy having babies.  When I joined the family, she was very pregnant and soon delivered to Daddy another girl, Leslie Ann Amanda.  I was pleased for him, that this time since he had Jono,  he could enjoy another pretty little girl as more than a consolation for the boy he had really wanted.  By the time he and Betty got around to divorce, they had four, counting me as live-in babysitter and Matthew who followed Leslie.  In September of 1956, I took off for Carnegie Tech, and the rest is history.  By the time I again visited Daddy, it was 1960.  He was cuddling yet a different woman in a lovely seaside cottage in Florida.  I was visiting as a benefit to my new baby girl, Melanie, who seemed to have a hard time digesting milk.  This was before the time of soy isolates, and the only suggestion the doctor had was to take her to where the sun was shining and then pray.  Dale, my first, was along for the adventure.  We made it all the way from West Virginia to Florida on the Greyhound bus. 

It was a reasonable thing to look again to the big dogs, when Grandpa Martin died, and I needed to make it to the funeral at a time when airfare was a problem.  Grandma was sure to be feeling deserted, and somebody needed to help her know that even though the world was a big place, she still mattered.  Melanie was a lot better for the sunshine, and after finding out that Daddy was too busy to go to Texas right then to bury his father, I packed my two babies and hopped a greyhound.  That was the longest bus ride ever.  I had two in diapers—on my lap.  No further description is necessary.

When I gave up on the charms of West Virginia and returned to Texas, it was to a father who had in good conscience returned to be there for his mother, Grandma Martin.  With no Grandpa, she could live in her home, where she had spent her entire life, only if he came and made that possible.  The same prince that was part of him, when he took on an ungainly, marginally-socialized daughter, when all else failed, was there for Grandma as well.  He came home to Azle, built a magnificent home on the premier building spot of the entire farmstead, and arranged to work from there instead of trying to be everywhere at once.  Just as he was convincing everybody that he was the best of heroes, he met up with a waitress at the Green Oaks Inn and brought her home to warm his bed.

Her name was Marcie.  She had the bleached blonde hair that Daddy seemed always to prefer and a great figure.  She and Daddy steered clear of human babies but raised a German Shepherd pup that was turning out to be a great watchdog.  When I went to work in Dallas and began visiting occasionally with Dale and Lane, we were a disconcerting presence.  One day, the boys and I went blackberry picking and brought a boxful to share.  Marcie met us at the front door, opening it and freeing the dog that was having a barking conniption.  King burst out and ripped Lanes shoulder open, scattering the berries all over the front porch.  I took him to the emergency room for stitches.  Marcie was livid that I had admitted to the doctors that it was caused by a dog bite.  That forced her to quarantine King for rabies.  She was enraged that I should have been so inconsiderate.  I, of course, wanted to know if the dog was rabid.  Sometimes truth is just plain necessary.

It wasn’t long, after that, that Marcie took up with a waiter at the Green Oaks Inn and ran off with him to North Carolina, stopping along the way to max out Daddies credit cards.  The Parker County Sherriff, longtime friend of the family, came to the rescue, arranging to have Marcie caught in the act of fraudulent charging.  The cards were destroyed, and Marcie faded into being a historical footnote.

But she was soon replaced.  Marie came to live with Daddy, bringing her two teen-aged children.  Marie had at least a chance of being wife material.  No bleached blonde, she wore her hair as the natural brunette that she was.  She made at least a try at cooking.  As a contrast to Daddy’s atheism, Marie was an ardent Pentecostal.  She hadn’t warned him about that.  As soon as she was moved in and settled, she announced her intention to convert him to her brand of fundamentalist Christianity.  When he refused to accompany her to meetings, she pouted.  She prayed for him and asked the neighbors to do so as well.  This went on for several years until she finally gave up and moved out, taking her then grown children with her.  It was good riddance—not new, but good.  This was becoming an old, old story, but with an interesting twist.  Marie made a case for a common law marriage and sued Daddy for a sizeable tract of his inherited property.  He didn’t fight and simply lost it without a whimper.

Soon another ex-waitress made a try.  She moved in and settled down.  She didn’t stay long though.  One day Daddy returned from a business trip to an empty house.  The woman, who didn’t stay long enough for me to learn her name, had left and filled a moving van with all of Daddy’s furniture, that included many pricey antiques.  It was enough to make a person miss Marcie or even Marie. She didn’t know much about art, and left more money on the walls that she carted off in her truck.  Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss. The Sheriff again made an appearance, but offered not much more than sympathy.  He had hardly anything to go on.  He cautioned Daddy to be more careful. 

Daddy took the caution to heart and tried to go it alone for a while, just looking after Grandma and Aunt Margaret, and being a Granddad to Dale and Lane.  He was lonely, and called a lot, spending time on the phone talking about philosophy and casting about for answers concerning how to deal with his ageing prostate.  I wasn’t much good for answers to such conundrums, but at least didn’t pretend that I knew more than I did.  It was good to have a Dad that needed me, as I so often had needed him.  Then things changed.  Someone in the Ft. Worth area introduced him to a fine lady.  He asked her out and she agreed.  Her name was June.  She didn’t move in, but enjoyed the arts and culture that Daddy had always appreciated, but never worked seriously to enjoy with a woman.  June didn’t need to con him for money; she was a serious heiress and lived in a mansion in one of Ft. Worth’s classiest neighborhoods.  She appreciated his mind and shared his affection for the arts.  He probably was a good lover.  I hope so.  They got married, not a courthouse caper, but a real society wedding.  The pictures were beautiful.  I had never seen Daddy look so handsome nor seem so happy.  It was the irony of my life that I was to be the spoiler.

Years before I had rescued my mother and helped her get situated in a job and an apartment home of her own.  She was doing beautifully, but was finding it difficult to live on her meagre Social Security and pitiful earnings as a nurse’s aide.  I learned that it was possible for her to draw Social Security based not on her own earnings, but on my father’s, profoundly improving her situation.  I had only to help her prove that Daddy had never divorced her and was still married to Mary Opal Martin, his first and only wife.  I helped her investigate that old mess and fill out the necessary forms.   Sure enough Daddy, playing true to form, had not bothered to actually file his divorce.  After talking it over with a divorce attorney, he had just moved on to other interesting things.  He had married Betty, fathered three children, suffered through two divorce settlements where he gave up inherited land but didn’t bother to dispute such losses, all without ever recalling that he was still legally married to my mother.  The Social Security Administration was sympathetic to Mommy.  They agreed to redefine the basis of her claim.  Life was good.  I was so proud and happy about my legal maneuverings, that when I first visited with Daddy and June in her fine mansion, I regaled them over breakfast with the whole exciting story.  Just like my father, I was so caught up in my own doings that I failed to realize how my actions affected others.

I wish I had stopped to think about how a high society bride would react to having married an inadvertent bigamist.  I had for so long been mucking about in the detritus of my own family mosh, that I didn’t appreciate how a woman with a dignified upbringing would feel about such machinations.  Of course June had the marriage annulled.  She parted as a friend, but dumped my Dad only several days beyond the altar.  She was a real lady.  I crossed paths with her several weeks later.  We were both visiting Daddy, she to tie up some dangling loose-ends, I to commiserate with him about being far from perfect.  June gave us both a hug and walked out of our lives.  She deserved better.

Kelsey Martin loved his children.  He was a good man.  He was a genius in his field and would have achieved the success he so ardently deserved, if only he had thought with the great head on his shoulders instead of with the little one between his legs.  That’s the one that got him into so much trouble.  He, too, deserved better.

The original sin of our species is and always has been gender bifurcation.  The subtleties of Darwinian selection fashioned two disparate living entities, male and female, each specialized in support of biological imperatives that ultimately defined their genders.  All that evolution required was to perpetuate an extant species through facilitation of ribonucleic acid reproduction.  It ought to be a simple story, but it is unspeakably complex.

The natural urge of intelligent creatures is to relate to and love others, especially prominent for mammalia who on second thought return to their mothers for sustenance beyond once hospitable wombs.  We are hard-wired to reach to others for comfort.  That makes us a lovely, as well as lively, species.  The ways we reach for each other are different, often disparate, creating conflict within and without.  Addressing these mechanisms of thought, speech, titillation, and exchange of fluids has filled many a book. 

Like incipiently fertile bird species, human females yearn to build nests.  The hormones that dictate gathering twigs and grass are similar to the ones that suggest a search of www.rent.com.  While the elegant crest of the male Cardinal can be seen feathering a hopeful nest, and it is presumed the human groom will be picking up the U-Haul, while the human mother-to-be pines over lists of infant-haberdashery  and day-dreams cuddling baby-at-breast.  For her a nest is where she settles in to make her dreams become her future; for him a nest is what he creates and protects with everything that he is and can become.  Both are equally noble, testament to homo-sapiens survival to this very day.  While the joined goal is the same, there are subtle differences that can lead to strangeness of execution.  Given the inherent complexities of both genders, it’s no wonder that the whole concept of sex is fraught. 

People are definitely weird about sex.  I need to look no further than my own puberty to illustrate.  When I was twelve, my guardian Aunt Judy arranged at considerable inconvenience to have my cousin Jeanne, eight years my senior, come and officially talk to me about something called birds and bees while my Aunt and Uncle made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was awkward. 

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at the ready.  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Then nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their silly game, acting dumb but in actuality shaping only my own discomfiture.  When she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered, “I guess she can pull it up.” 

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she queried, “How’s it going, y’all?  Ready for some fresh lemonade?”

“Gotta do my homework” I mumbled, mostly at my feet, sidestepping and shillyshallying toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me—just knew—from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know any of the girls well enough to compare assumptions.

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old book depository, where Kennedy was shot, then on to Highland Park.  I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what was going on.

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did had some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy pictured me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been a one-dimensional affair, selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions.  She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on weekends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do. 

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child” being me.  Didn’t she know it was me, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as me inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  That’s what she must have been feeling.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.” 

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have put on that swishy outfit.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked.

***

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school by writing term papers as payment for my singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien, Connecticut.  She was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips on mine.

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his own.  Hesitant, my tongue traced the slit.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm. 

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, imagined, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, locked up the car, and headed for the front door.

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship.  We enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure, completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, to my mother-in-law, for instance, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so it still isn’t clear why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing, absolutely nothing

Why are people so conflicted about sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something, and for the rest of us to catch on?  The biology and mechanics are easy; it’s the psychology that’s hard—and hopefully the member.  All this would be much simpler if we were a parthenogenic species, but not nearly so much fun.

Wesson

The first time I saw Wesson, he was peering at me through a bunch of shrubbery.  I was hiding.  He wanted me to come out, but I wanted to stay put, safe under my bush.  His entreaty found me, even through the leaves: “Your Aunt Judy and I came to get you and take you back to Texas with us.  Don’t you want to come?”  That wheedling voice didn’t fit his bulk.  I didn’t want to believe him.  ”Come on.  I won’t hurt you.  We have a nice house with lots to eat.” he elaborated.  That sounded interesting.  He stuck his fat fingers through the leaves and wiggled them at me.  I didn’t grab his hand but decided to crawl out and see what might be what.

He turned around and headed back toward the house, where Mommy and Aunt Judy were talking about scary things I didn’t want to even think about. He looked back to see if I was coming.  I was.  We were staying with a woman and her children whom we had met at church.  That was because we had been evicted from our pretty Waltham, Mass bungalow at 55 Candace Avenue. With a wagon wheel on each side of the front door, it looked like a safe place for a Texas family to live where everything else was Boston baked beans, clam chowder, and pilgrims.  It had a white picket fence, with yellow roses climbing up and over and everywhere around.  It was home.  They took it away, or made us go away, or do something that was called being evicted.  Evicted is a dirty word, mean and nasty, an uncaring word.

If that hadn’t happened I would never have agreed to give up on Mommy and to hope for another home where something to eat might be counted on.  Too many times I remember splitting only a can of spinach with her for supper.  Sometimes there was a slice of bread; sometimes there wasn’t.  Once a visiting neighbor girl and I ate up the whole plate of fried squash, and Mommy scolded me for not saving any for her.  I wondered why she didn’t say that one little squash was all we had.  She admitted she didn’t want the neighbors to know we were having a hard time.  I remember feeling guilty that night.  It was my fault she went to bed hungry, while I digested more than my share of delicious squash, so tasty because of the way she flavored and cooked it.

So with no food and now no house, Aunt Judy was sent for.  She rescued me, and I was saved.  Driving cross country with her and Wesson, I was overwhelmed by an intense optimism.  When Judy lamented the death of a still-glowing lightning bug that had splatted our speeding windshield, I quipped, “Well, at least he died with his light on!”  It seemed an appropriate metaphor.

Living with Aunt Judy and Uncle Wesson was a sojourn, not a home.  It was a confusion that taught me the tolerance Judy spoke of whenever I came to her complaining about what heinous thing he had done this time.  “Wesson can’t help himself,” she explained.  “He is what he is.”  Like gentling a pet, if I could be nice to him, maybe he would decide to like me.  I tried; he continued to be trying.

He battled my sensitivity at every turn and did his best to convince me that whatever I felt was wrong.  Mommy had fried eggs as an art form.  They sat on the plate and looked at me like two smiling eyes, the bacon strips curving into a happy hello morning.  The edges of her eggs were smooth and lovely—Wessons’ crusty, crunchy and crass.  Even the words grated on my tongue.  I trimmed those rims of nastiness and pushed them to the side of my plate.  That made Wesson rip-roaring mad. 

“Angry, not mad,” Judy corrected.

“Mad,” I insisted.

“Eat those eggs,” he seethed through clenched teeth.  They were cooked just for you.  How dare you say you are too good to eat crispy eggs?  Remember when you didn’t have any eggs?  Huh?  Look at me, girl.”

I looked.  I ate.  Sometimes I gagged and heaved, but eventually I swallowed.  He was right.  It was good to have food.  He was disgusted by what he called my namby-pambyness.  Being prissy, girlie and hesitant was not a good thing.   I was to be forthright and sure of myself, ready to rumble, no matter what might be coming down any pike. 

I listened—and learned—and succumbed to what turned out to be Wesson’s obsessive personality traits.  There was only one way to open the cereal box—the right way.  Everything must be carefully unfolded and separated so as to be re-closeable, keeping the contents crisp and ready to eat.  Even the tiniest tear would incite his wrath.  It was puzzling how dainty he could be, opening the Cheerios container and how ruthless when frying eggs and killing bugs.

Probably the first best thing he taught me was the proper way to kill.  Elementary school science classes had required that I catch butterflies and stick them with a pin to a substrate, where I watched them slowly die, cringing for each and every one of them.  There had to be a better way to do science.  Wesson claimed it.  He caught the bug, held its wings, and squeezed the life out of its body.  He assured me it was kinder to kill it fast between his broad fat thumbs than to let the creature slowly die, watching me and hating me for what I was doing to it.  Maybe he was right.  Kill fast, if you must kill.  He even presented me with a special cigar box, the pride of his collection, that had been made to house the very best of cigars, and now could conserve my excellent collection of Lepidoptera.  He was being a good uncle, and was trying hard to be kind. He was also fat and bald, sweaty, coarse, stunk of cigar smoke, and loved to use me as the subject of his drive to control the world. 

On a road trip through Virginia one spring, he spied a woodchuck standing by the highway.  It was young—very young.  He screeched to a stop and ran back, grabbed the pup by its scruff, and swaggered back to the car declaring triumph.  That happened right outside the town of Salem, Virginia.  He called the unfortunate rodent Salem in honor of its home in the Appalachian woodlands.  Years later when I came to live in the Roanoke/Salem area, every time I had to drive to the Salem side of the metroplex, I dreaded remembering Wesson and his glee over separating a baby groundhog from its family.

In his defense, he cared for that petted prisoner with obsessive determination, for many years locating food stores that were willing to donate wilting produce to his “wildlife refuge.”  He pronounced the little woodchuck mine, and preened his fatherhood skills as he presented me with my very own pet, already caught, named, and gentled at his own hand.  It was my job to calm and settle the creature, letting it know that life could be good even in a cage where there was all the food you could chuck.  Maybe there was a bit of truth to that.

Determined to please, I caught my own roadrunner one summer, visiting on Grandpa Martin’s farm out west of Ft. Worth, where the ground was sandy and the wildlife plentiful and trusting.  I found the bird tangled in a roadside snarl of weeds; wings, tail, feet and feathers a-scramble; caught and trying to free itself.  But Dotty-to-the-rescue, snatched him free, extracted him from his desperation, and brought him home to a life in a wire box.  Wesson was proud.

The first time I found a kitty, Wesson let me keep it for my own.  It was yellow and pretty and Wesson didn’t notice how cute and silly it was.  It liked to play, and I with it.  I fed and cared for it just as I had promised to do.  When I came home from school it was there waiting for Puss ‘n Boots and a romp.  It helped me to feel big like a growing-up kind of girl.  One day I came home and found it in bed, still and lethargic.  It didn’t want to play.  It sneezed and coughed, a strange thing for a kitty to do.  Wesson said it would be ok and to just let it be.  But the next day as I watched it just got very still.  It’s pee ran out and pooled in the soft depression of its bed where it lay curled, despoiled by its own fluid.  I went to another room and prayed that it wake up.  Then I returned to the basket, and it was still dead.

When Wesson came home, I begged him for help.  I wanted to take Kitty to a doctor so he could make it be well again.  Wesson explained, with more than usual patience, that when something was dead, it was dead.  So I decided the thing to do was to give it a proper burial, like Mommy had given my turtle when its soul went to Heaven.  We buried the little box turtle under a weeping willow sapling where he could someday live again in the life of a great tree.  But Wesson had other ideas.  He went out to his shop and found a shallow square box, just big enough to hold a dead cat.  “Put it in,” he said. I did.  He took the box, folded the flaps together and said, “Come.”

We got in the car and drove down the road to where a bridge crossed over Kessler Creek.  “Watch,” he said. slowing only a bit as the car passed over.

I watched as he threw the box, spinning like a Frisbee, out, out, and into the current that carried it away, out of our presence, beyond our knowing, so we didn’t have to feel whatever we might otherwise feel.  It was one of his best lessons in the art of not feeling.  I worried for a long time, and still do, about whatever happened to that little cat as it rode its box downstream, downriver, and out to the sea.  Wesson said, “If you don’t know, toy don’t have to worry.” That didn’t make it necessarily true.

The confusion of that sojourn in the home of my Aunt Judy, whom I adored, and Wesson, her fat, cigar chewing, and aggressively unfriendly husband is cringe worthy.  Wesson dabbled at various sales and blue-collar jobs.  He immediately pegged me as dangerous, noting the seriousness with which Judy undertook her task as guardian ad litem.  Forgetting that children grow vigorously, that first season she bought thirty-two Bobbie Brooks blouses for me while attending a trade show.  She seemed to be delighted by this opportunity finally to have a child, even one not of her own blood and bones.  Wesson was a horse’s derrière of a different color.  He was clever to never accost me when Aunt Judy might hear.  “You think you’re something special, Little Miss Priss,” he would sneer.  “Mommy’s sweet little thing!  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”  Of course I hated him.  This was a new uncomplicated kind of hate.  It was sweet to taste its purity, unlike the bittersweet complexity of the love/hate I felt for my mother.

Wesson arose early, and disdaining the civility of robe or dressing gown, he swaggered fatly in his boxer shorts, his long, soft, pink thing flapping below.  I saw him, and he knew I saw him, so expose himself to my innocence, a repeated act at once lascivious and aggressive.  Whenever, at my request, Aunt Judy prompted him to adjust his pants, he feigned a shocked surprise, modesty affronted that I should have noticed.

Wesson enjoyed manipulating me to do things that inspired terror.  Once each year at the Texas State Fair I was required to ride the big roller coaster, always in the lead car, wedged in between Judy and the press of Wesson’s sweaty bulk.  “You have to ride it just one time,” he crowed.  “It’s good for you.  Keeps you from being a namby-pamby.  Come on.  Let’s get it over with.”  And afterward, “Now was that so bad?  You should listen to your old Uncle Wesson!”  Then he would buy me a candy cotton ball as big as my head.

He insisted that I climb the giant pecan tree, whose luxuriant limbs shaded our backyard.  He cut and installed wooden rungs to provide purchase for my slippery tennis shoes on the featureless lower trunk. Victory over the tree won for me a new confidence, and I climbed it often until I was permanently grounded due to the onset of my menses.  At the first sight of blood, Judy declared me a woman, bought me a training bra and instructed Wesson to stop trying to make me into a tomboy.  That was his cue to begin dropping suggestive references to my burgeoning bosom.  I cringed, slumped, hugged my books, and walked lighty, a parody of the invisible.

Succumbing to Wesson’s grousing, Judy several times put me on an airplane, destination pinned to my blouse, and sent me and my suitcase to live with my mother in her Boston rooming house.  The experiment always ended badly, local authorities indignant, and I was returned to the comfort and relative security of Judy’s Dallas home, not a bad arrangement if I could steer clear of Wesson.  It’s hard to tell a story about Wesson; every storyline leads up and around and away from him and his noisome, nattering, negativity, to a place filled with loving people who saw something good in me to engage and celebrate. 

Once when I was away at 7th grade boarding school, Wesson stopped by my classroom unannounced.  He said hello, gave me a sweet uncle hug, smiled at Sr. Rose Marie, and took off south for Dallas.  It was good to see him go.  The months I had been away had brought change.  I must have grown, and even my hair that I had always plaited and wound into a Scandinavian crown, now hung down my back, loose and wavy, the ends ringed into curls.  I hoped he approved of my new big-girl appearance.

That hope was wasted on him.  The first thing he did was find Judy, tell her that I looked like a Jezebel in pink lipstick, flaunting my golden tresses to whosoever would be pleased to look.  The next day, the call came from Judy, who demanded that I braid and control my hair every day no matter what.  “There is no undertaking appropriate to your age that would require you to appear as a loose woman,” she harrumphed.  At least Wesson was happy, having goaded Judy into a severe reprimand of his pesky peeve.  Nothing could better assuage his jealous intent.

One summer, in a time when air conditioning was something only for Saturday afternoons at the movies, I sat for my two required hours of piano practice on Aunt Judy’s piano bench—in my shorts—sweating.  The bench never recovered, and it was Wesson that milked it for all it would squirt.  He announced that since it was my fault, I would have to pay for it to be resurfaced, a debit that would take half of my weekly allowance for a year.  He explained that rather than just cutting my stipend in half, it would be a better punishment if I had to send the money every week from Sherman.  It was a pain having to remember, find correct change, address and stamp an envelope, and then get it into St. Joseph’s outgoing mail.  I was good for a while, but then I missed, a few weeks later missed again, and then I was just onto other things that demanded my attention.  I hoped Wesson had forgiven me.  Surely if it were all that important he would have reminded me.

My hope was ill-founded.  I learned that at Christmas, when the whole Tyson family met at Uncle C.J. and Aunt Ethel’s big house in Highland Park, and everybody opened presents.  When I opened mine, there was Wesson’s gotcha.  Instead of a Christmas present that year, I got a check for a piddling sum that represented all my payments, few though they were, made toward Judy’s piano bench restoration.  The custom greeting enclosed, that Wesson insisted I read aloud for all the hushed room to hear, pointed out that if I had been a good person and made all the agreed-upon payments, I would have received a handsome sum.  As it was, for me, Christmas was to be a disappointment.  If I didn’t already hate my dear Uncle Wesson, that would have been the last nail in the coffin of my affection.  Several months later, Aunt Judy undertook a needlepoint project to cover the defiled piano bench and let me forgive myself for being a thoughtless, neglectful, nere-do-well.  She seemed happy to find a way to make everything right with Wesson.  I’m glad somebody could do that.

Tolerance and forbearance had always been her way of dealing with Wesson, even from the very beginning.  I did try.  Once I knitted a pair of wool gloves for him as a Christmas gift.  They were customized in that on the left hand, the 3rd and 4th digits were missing from the design.  Wesson had lost those fingers long ago in an oilfield accident.  He was touched by my hard work, my attention to his unique physiology, and he wore the gloves for many winters.  I wondered what he must have thought as he drew them up across his gnarly knuckles and patted the ribbed cuffs snug about his wrists.  I hope they gave him some degree of comfort and happiness.

As the years went by and I came to know men as a variety of friends, relatives, and countrymen, the most telling question I ever asked myself was, “Is he anything like Wesson?”  If he was, I knew that I had to be tolerant, try to be kind, let my little light shine, and whatever happened, to die with my light on.  No creature is too insignificant to teach us a good lesson, be it a Wesson or an iridescent firefly.

Resurrection

Getting into a pastoral idyllic West Virginia existence was a metamorphosis that found much support since I was giving up an unpopular wild idea that called for me getting an engineering degree and doing great things with it.  Nobody but my dad had approved of that wild-ass idea, and the wider world was more than glad to congratulate me for going back to ordinary striving, which spelled getting married, getting pregnant, having babies, and settling down to do women’s work.  Even my women’s body said You Go Girl!

Seven years later, it had all unraveled.  Baby girl laid to rest, and persevering at Salem College in spite of tragedy, I was at the jumping-off place with my teacher’s college.  Only one semester remaining, the only thing left to do was Student Teaching.  I looked down that road, pictured my introverted self, standing in front of a classroom of flesh and blood students, and threw in the towel.  It was more than cringe worthy; I couldn’t do it.  It literally wasn’t in me.  It was the first time since I ran off the stage trailing tears during my 1950 piano recital, that I faced something which for me was just not possible.  Yet there I was, buried in the back of beyond, a beautiful place but not sustainable for a mother of three with no college degree.  I loved my babies.  How well I knew, having so recently lost one of them, and now I must fight to keep from losing them all.

I took Dale and Lane out to the Taylor farm, a familiar grandma and grandpa destination, but this time taking pillowcases filled with everything, not just the usual pajamas and toothbrush.  Garnet promised to care for my boys until I could reclaim them, and I left.  I had paid good cash for a new washer and dryer, and arranged to have them donated to an old spinster friend, Elizabeth Spiker, who had been there for me and the boys since I first left the hollow to return to school.  It felt good to give back, a thank-you for all those free meals at her kitchen table.  Everything else got passed on to the landlady with a quick letter.  “Put it to good use,” I instructed, and the things I simply had to have went into the old Dodge.  I left the key on the table and pulled out before dawn, springs squawking and engine backfiring.

That old Dodge and I somehow made it all the way to Texas.  The only thing bad that happened along the way was losing the pulley that sits on the front end of the main crankshaft.  In the natural order of things it runs a belt that turns the generator.  That was a show-stopper.  It had lost its screw, but I soon had it brute-force-welded onto the shaft were it ran for several years with only occasional replacement whenever the weld joint failed.  I parked my car, my assorted claptrap, and my body at my dad’s place in Azle while I looked for a job, any job.  Texas Instruments in Dallas was more than glad to hire me to assemble electronics, and I accepted.

That required me to find lodging in Richardson, where TI operates its Apparatus Division.  Working felt good since there was money coming in, albeit only pennies per hour.  My dad was glad to see me once again engaged with the real world, but made a strong case for leaving the boys for the Taylor’s to raise. 

“How could I do such a thing?” I protested.

“Easy,” he replied.  “Just do it.”

That was long before Nike coined the same quip as a slogan, and it entered the stream of history.

With a paying job and an apartment, I was ready to petition the West Virginia Court for resumption of custody of my two sons.  More letters led to a hearing date when I was to fly to Harrisville, West Virginia, present evidence that supported my ability to care for and support Dale (8) and Lane (3) on my own and request out-of-state sole legal custody.  It was asking a lot.  I had fled the state in disarray, but at least had set up the paternal grandparents in loco parentis.  Since I wasn’t tasking my dad to support us, he backed off and was at least pleasant about having two grand-sons to contend with, a problem often called to his attention by his then resident squeeze, Marcie.  But that’s another story.

The several weeks of waiting were an eternity.  It felt like I had crashed and burned.  The TI job was a life saver, and with the help of a suicide help-line and my new TI Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance, I lived through some panic attacks and gastro-intestinal challenges to present myself as demanded by Judge Max DeBerry.  Having already conceded the enormity of my situation in prior hearings, he found in my favor.  We three took off for Texas on the next plane.

This began a head-of-household/single-mother-act of comedic proportions.  I learned about after-school daycare that was worlds removed from mountain-mamma-by-the-hour.  Just keeping a lease was a challenge.  Ask Dale who woke up from a night terror to find himself peeing into a 120 volt receptacle.   It was a real shock, and required some fast talk to keep the landlord from voiding my lease.  I agreed to pay for a new outlet, and the fiasco was forgiven if not forgotten.  With two kids to feed, I soon realized that my little paycheck wouldn’t be going very far.  In fact, the first time my car license came up for renewal, I didn’t have the money to pay the fee, so assessing my position, I bought a new Dart.  My old car was the down payment; my brand new TI Credit Union account offered a low interest loan; and the tax, title, and license were rolled into the deal.  All I had to do was make the payments—which I managed quite nicely given raises and promotions.  We made do.

As a child I had been moved from place to place, changing homes and schools at the drop of a caregiver’s hat.  What was difficult then, made me fearless now, as I assessed present and future housing options.  I wasn’t afraid of a move.  I even liked it.  No need to scrub the oven when a new apartment would present a pristine one.  As I made more money it was fun to find a better place where the boys would be even happier, with a bigger pool, a fishing pond, or a clubhouse for after school happy days adventure.  Every new job provided the necessary excuse to pry us from any onerous lease.

I enjoyed moving to better, more interesting places, which is what led to a memorable relocation to a cabin on Spring Creek. The place used to be remote but was suddenly on the edge of suburban development.  It was a sub-let from a friend of a friend named Bill Birnam.  I paid him $60 every month and enjoyed a snug wood-paneled cabin on a creek with Tarzan swing overlook.  The boys could yell as they swung across the creek gorge and cannon-splashed into it.  With such reasonable rent I had money for upgrades, matching towels, tablecloths and napkins, and even big plans for acquiring furniture.  We were in fat city for several months until one day a dozer operator knocked on my door and said he was scheduled to demolish the structure.  I was appalled, and refused to leave since I had paid that month’s rent in good faith.  Of course the next day brought the eviction notice.  As a member in good standing of Highland Park Methodist Church, I called Dr. Dickenson and asked him what to do.  It turns out the owner of the property was also a member of HPMC, and Bill Birnam had no right whatsoever to create a sub-lease and collect rent based on his cancelled primary one.  His name may have become famous in Dallas County years later, but then and there, he was just a two-bit wannabe operator.  The developer, a God-fearing man, agreed to move us the very next day into a pre-paid lease at Springbrook Apartments— nicer, and even closer to TI.  God is indeed great. 

Wherever we moved, the boys settled in nicely, made themselves at home and explored with exuberance.  Their favorite thing was to present me with treasure re-claimed from dumpsters at each new location.  No matter how much I forbade such dangerous adventurism, it was hard to hide my pleasure when presented with something needed and useful.  My favorite Revere-Ware skillet was the bounty of just such an exploration.  I still have in my jewelry chest a fine gold chain, resplendent with two tiny gold ballet slippers and a pearl.  I’m sure Dale knows that even though I admonished him never again to undertake such risk, I was deeply touched by his gift, retrieved from the bowels of beyond.

Not every escapade was dangerous; indeed most were wholesome, such as finding a well-stocked pond on the Springbrook grounds, secreted among shade trees, where Dale spent all his spare time bait fishing and tying flies.  He was establishing a life-long penchant for wetting his hook and befriending peace.  Lane made human friends with astonishing alacrity.  Every time we moved, he learned to create more buddies to replace those left behind.  I asked him one day, how he managed it so well.  “Easy,” he replied.  “I just start throwing rocks at the new guys.  They get mad and start chucking back.  Then, I go over to their side and suggest that we make friends instead.  It always works.”  No wonder Lane grew up to break every sales record he ever challenged.  Even now, I believe he should credit our excessive perambulation for his ability to engender good will and create money.

There were five long years between Dale and Lane, a difference that no doubt contributed to their Three-Stooges brand of comedy.  Lane was constantly baiting Dale, and Dale inevitably reciprocated to excess.  I then waded in with more than enough remonstration.  Our rowdy triumvirate outdid the Three Stooges at their own shtick.  I look back with amusement and more than a little chagrin.  I always wondered which of us played which stooge, but never was motivated to investigate.  Lest the fault be placed on the boys, I should confess to hedging a blow by iron skillet aimed at Dales head, which was mercifully accurate in its deceleration and didn’t even raise a knot.  It was the only appropriate response to his retort that washing dishes was women’s work.  I’m happy to report that he never, ever again spoke of dish hygiene as the rightful purview of women.

One Christmas when money was more than usually short, we conjured our holiday by monitoring the diminishing inventory of a neighboring Christmas tree lot.  As soon as the lights went off on Christmas Eve, and the Santa’s helpers drove away to make Christmas for other girls and boys, we pulled on our boots and went shopping.  This was the time when cut trees went from insanely expensive, to gratis.  On December 26th all those trees were to be carted away to become mulch, or even smog.  We picked out the prettiest white-flocked princess on the lot, and dragged it away to our empty apartment where it did its best to make our holiday glow.  I suppose it was a complicated lesson to model for two little boys, but I assured them that we saved that tree from a Joan-of-Arc martyrdom.  It’s amazing how an action can vary from scurrilous larceny to blessed mitzvah as only a matter of timing.

Sometimes timing became the catalyst.  During the early days when we only had money for food, rent, and electricity, we made-do for furniture with wooden milk cartons from behind the Kroger store in the next block.  We slept on the floor, folded our clothing neatly and stacked it in the crates.  Bedding served as bed-location-holders and defined the spots where beds would someday be.  In the autumn of the year, I had long enjoyed picking dried weeds and flowers, saving and arranging them into fantastic bouquets and whimsical dioramas, where flower carcasses stood in for trees, and mirrors became frozen skating ponds, while canned snow sprayed the whole scene with the snowfall of a quiet night under a starry sky.  With a whiff of imagination, amazing things can be accomplished, but with a stroke of bad luck doing eccentric things can be interpreted as scandalous.  A case in point is the time when we spent the week-end gathering weeds and grouping them throughout our rooms, where they could be utilized in one or another of that fall’s nature projects.  On Monday it was off-to-work and school, looking forward to a list of artistic endeavors yet to be accomplished.

That was the day when the Richardson Fire Department showed up and picked my apartment number from a lottery, that called for it as well as several others, to be inspected—something to do with insurance, fire codes, and safety.  I got the call on the job: “Come home immediately and vacate the premises—forthwith.”  Of course they were alarmed at what they found in Apartment 4C.  Where others had tables, beds, lamps and chests of drawers, we had milk cartons and boards balanced as shelves separated with stacked bricks.  The whole apartment was strewn with dry weeds just waiting for a match.  The fireman didn’t even want to know what we were up to; the property manager just wanted us out. 

I didn’t argue.  It must have looked terrible to anyone who had no vision of the holiday to come and how we planned to make it beautiful in spite of a stretch of penury.  I apologized and moved out.  We did our best that year, and it’s memorable that it was the expose of our odd-ball disarray that made for a lovely remembrance, while the hurtful repercussions following it are lost to time.  As years passed and we traded found items for real furniture, life began to take on a more traditional appearance; but never would I be considered normal.  I was always too willing to entertain unusual permutations and combinations when assessing possibilities.

As the boys got older, their situations became more complex.  It was at Sherman’s TI that I got a call to go home and let Lane into the house since Dale had locked him out—naked.  He had to make his way nude to the next door neighbor’s back door, coincidentally the NTSU Dean of Students, and use the phone.  My exasperation level was indescribable.  How was I to represent myself as a professional employee at a serious institution, with such goings-on defining my life?  Too angry to even remonstrate, I sank into gloom.  Things must have improved since we all lived to make another day.  I felt better when I learned that the Dean spent much of his quality time on the commode, reading his paper and conversing with his family through the open bathroom door.  I couldn’t match that, nor did I want to.  We all have to have something to feel superior about.

It took a lot to get me and my progeny from barefoot-and-pregnant-mountain-momma to serious contender in the military-industrial-aerospace-complex.  The way was far from straight.  I walked it, step by step, but I didn’t do it alone.  I had kids to keep me grounded in the things that matter most, and co-workers that kept me from falling in love with my own inventions and becoming insufferable.  Where would I be without the folks who kept me real—and together— and connected?  I would be even harder to put up with.  I can’t claim to have ever arrived; no matter the level of ascent, there would always have been one more hill to climb and one more river to cross, but the time spent on the road was well served, and the life well lived.  It’s always these little family skirmishes that most enrich my memories, not the see-me-run-Daddy moments that always fell short, usually flat on my face.