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Archive for May, 2020

Original Sin

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.

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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.

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