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Remington

It was September 8, and I had to close up shop and hang the out to lunch sign before I could go to the hospital and see what was happening with April and her primagravida labor.  Days that make themselves special by initiating the life of a precious grandbaby are like none other.  I was eager to get there and see how it was all going.  The hospital Lane and April had chosen provided each couple a private labor suite where whoever passed as family was accommodated and could offer any kind of beneficence to the work at hand.

This smart young couple had chosen to birth in a modern hospital but under the cozy supervision of a certified midwife.  That winning combination of expertise was proceeding apace, and by the time I arrived, things were ready to happen.  But nothing was—happening that is.  The birthing had reached an impasse.  April’s mom Diane was enjoined with the midwife in a partnership of gloomy concern. 

I had found the right room, entered, shucked my jacket, and asked what was wrong.  The midwife explained, “April is fully effaced.  The baby is ready, but she is having a hard time pushing down.”

“So, nothing is wrong that would keep baby from being born?”  I verified.

“No.  She just needs to push.”

I turned to April and gave her a little hug.  “Come on.  Let’s see that baby,” I enthused.  “We’ll help.  Look!  Diane and I will work on each side.” 

I held her right hand.  Diane grabbed the left.  We all three held our breaths while April, brave girl that she was, pushed like crazy.

But she stopped and cried, “I can’t do it.  It’ll never come out. 

“Oh yes it can! “ I rejoindered.  “We can do this.  Now push!”

Suddenly the midwife too got energized.  “She’s crowning!” 

Diane and I went to see for ourselves.  “Wow!  Look at all that hair!”

“Sure enough, it’s a baby!  Push now April! You can do this!

Diane and I resumed our bilateral stations, our efforts surely more psychological than physical.  We squeezed April’s hands, held our breaths then grunted in trio, and baby Taylor soon slid agreeably into the midwife’s gloved hand basket. She expertly performed her hygienic ritual to mark one more beautiful life among us.  April perked up right away, grabbed her phone and allowed herself to be perched on a bedpan whilst baby Taylor took off for his first rub-a-dub-dub.  So perky was she that the several ob nurses decided to take off for lunch—together.  After having reported the good news to several friends, she began working on a diary entry.  Suddenly April turned to me and asked, “Mom is it ok for little stars to be swimming all around?”

I gasped, peeked into the bedpan and choked.  Diane and I looked at each other and paled in tandem.  The tendency was to wring hands and moan, but that was not what was needed.  I pivoted, dashed out and ran down the hall screaming, “Nurse!  Help!  Help!”  It took a while since there were no nurses.  An orderly located a doctor, and soon April, out cold, was being wheeled into an operating room.  Diane and I were left to hope and to pray.

My husband Ken, the next day at work met one of the doctors and was told, “We almost lost your daughter yesterday.”  Maybe her strong performance gave the staff way too much confidence in the situation.  Whatever the cause, the result was blessed, and baby Taylor, now a great grownup guy is still enjoying his mother April, who will soon be learning how to be a grandmother in her own right.  It will be her turn to be a cheerleader—no pushing required.

The next day Lane asked Ken, and me, “What if we call him Remington?  Would that be a good thing?”  The Taylors share an appreciation of firearms, their excellent design and craftsmanship, and a strong second amendment value, but Lane wondered if so naming a son might be too much of a good thing.

“It’s a good strong name,” I replied, “and if you and April like it, why not?”  Ken very much agreed.

So baby Taylor became Remington Phillip Taylor, and another strong branch of the Taylor legacy began weaving its story, the Phillip being a nod to Rem’s maternal grandfather.  Emily and Rem are spreading rumors of an upcoming event that is likely to be titled Maddox—another good strong name and a bold stake into the solid ground of a hopeful future.

Alone

The best thing of all is to be alone.  Just add up the fantasies: 

Farley Mowat hied himself to the arctic, there to subsist by eating only mice, all to prove that wolves were good creatures not begging genocide. 

What’s better than a tree house where a person is free to think and be whatever?  Ask any squirrel. 

When there is no other to circumscribe reality, a being can be all that it truly wants to be.  My poet’s year in the Appalachian woodlands said it all for me.  As long as I could remain cabin-secure, steering clear of other humanity, the local fauna and I celebrated a gentle peace.  Whenever human society overstepped its bounds, and intruded on the safety of my soul, I ran.  Far— and far away—I went to where there were no others so close to me as to assume I should be like them, think like them, define beauty like them—that was the place to be.

My side of the mountain is elegantly described in the book of that title: A young naturalist runs away from home and goes to live in a hollow tree with his raccoon.  He finds and trains a peregrine falcon so they can hunt for food.  It’s the best of fantasies until it isn’t.  Like COVID19 which makes of every person an insular recluse, anything that drives a person to hide wrapped only in the solace of his own company is a problem: 

When my Uncle Wesson, chewing on his unlit cigar, undertook to find me, where was I?  Hiding under a bush of course—a good place where adult and frightful discussions couldn’t be heard. 

When Sister Rose Marie recoiled from my aggressive cuddling, where did I go to hide and heal?  The attic of the convent was the perfect place, wrapped only in quiet cobwebs that cushioned consternation.

When my husband, Larry, and I wanted a respite from stupid corporate politics, it was waiting in a winter campground, where there were no insects and no tourists.  There we found only silence and a place to remember why we had found each other in the first place.

Now Larry waits to die a continent away in Washington State.  The surgery that would place a stent and might save him is held hostage by the virus.  It falls under the definition of elective surgery, and as such, cannot compete with others dying this very day of COVID assault. 

I hide in my Oakley apartment, picking up comestibles once a week from masked grocers and visiting a library that is oh-so-hesitantly re-awakening and lending books.  Without the food and the books I too would be a-dying.  As it is, I am like the near-sighted bibliophile in the Twilight Zone, who wakes to a world where all of humanity save he has succumbed.  He is left alone—triumphant—mounting the grand front steps to his town library, and he drops his glasses.  They shatter.

Larry and I, matched introverts, adored our solitude, even with respect to each other.  It is a cruel and petty irony that we suffer a continent apart, in our separate sterile spaces, waiting for the virus to give up its singular and collective tiny ghosts.  Perhaps it is we too—separate and alone—who will die. 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder is a wise old saying.  It knows all about Larry and me.  The same truth holds for all three of my long-suffering husbands.  I loved them better having left them, all the more perfectly now that they are dead or dying.  Memories of shared happy times gather to remind me to value their sweet friendship and affection.

The best lesson of COVID19 is specially designed for those of us who idealize solitude.  It is better wished for and ideated.  Experienced it leaves much to be desired.  My favorite wall art features a ceramic oval that says simply, “PEACE.”  In this dead quiet place, un-jarred by any voice but the empty nattering of TV and Alexa, I haven’t been inspired to hang that lovely plaque advertising the romance of silence.  Best it should stay behind the couch on the floor where it cowers in the dark and leave me to my fantasies of rambunctious family gatherings, wishing for at least a furry coated cat to warm cold feet and purr away the bittersweet silence of alone.

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 bus-then-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-shimmer.  It was all 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 great 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 date 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 me 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 for a person 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 singing.  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 fire.  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.

I can remember my mother, even as a creaky old lady, 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, matching 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 peoples 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 produced 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.