Archive for June, 2020

Purging Evil

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 before she braided 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 headed 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 each 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 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, shrieking 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 wailing 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 halted flat in its tracks.  It must have resumed, for later she watched her father shoot the big horse square between the eyes as it stood gagging, hacking breaths, legs splayed out like a spindly colt, cords of foamy spittle streaming from its mouth.  The monster head jerked from the bullet, its’ impact seizing 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, noise bruising ear drums, eyes fixed in terror. 

“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 that 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 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, 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 and 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, 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.

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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 an 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.  I guess it was my fault.

That was 1938.  Hitler was stirring his evil broth in Europe, and soon war rewrote 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 was 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, anyway 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.  He met my plane, 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 about 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 fluffy powder blue jacket and a periwinkle dress too pretty to wear.  It was the most beautiful outfit I had ever seen in the mirror, and I hated it.  When we finally made it to Long Island and met Betty and Jonothan, my surprise 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 making babies.  When I joined the family, she was very pregnant and soon delivered to a delighted Daddy another girl they named 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 boarded the train for Pittsburg and Carnegie Tech.  The rest is history.  While I was away at school they divorced, and 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 after a few weeks of sun and sand Grandpa Harry Martin died back in Texas, and I needed to make it to the funeral at a time when airfare was a problem.  Grandma Minnie 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 called for.

When finally 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 Minnie Mae.  With no Grandpa, she could live in her birthright residence, where she had spent her entire life, only if Kelsey showed up and made that possible.  The same prince that was part of him, when he took on an ungainly, marginally-socialized daughter, was there for Grandma as well.  He returned to Azle, built a resplendent 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 men, 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 look that Daddy seemed always to prefer and a great figure.  She and Daddy steered clear of human babies but obsessively raised a German shepherd pup—purebred of course— that was turning out to be a great watchdog.  When I went to work in Dallas and began visiting occasionally, Dale, Lane and I were a disrupting presence.  One day, we three went blackberry picking and brought a boxful back to share.  Marcie met us at the front door, swinging it open and freeing the dog that was barking a conniption fit.  King burst out and ripped Lanes shoulder open, scattering berries all over the front porch.  I took him to the emergency room for stitches.  Marcie was livid that I had admitted to laceration by 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.

Soon after 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 Daddy’s credit cards.  The Parker County Sheriff, 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, importing 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 quiet 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 walked away 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. She didn’t know much about art, and left more money on the walls than she carted off in her truck.  Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss.  It was enough to make a person miss Marcie or even Marie.  The Sheriff again made an appearance, but offered not much more than sympathy.  He had hardly anything to go on.  He simply cautioned Daddy to take care. 

Daddy took the caution to heart and tried to go it alone for a while, simply looking after Grandma and Aunt Margaret, and being a Grampa 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 who 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 had never worked seriously to enjoy with an actual 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 harshest 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 stipend 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 instead, profoundly improving her situation.  I had only to help her prove to the Feds 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 forms.   Sure enough, Daddy, playing true to form had not bothered to actually file his divorce.  After talking it over with a divorce litigator, 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 real estate, 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 Mrs. Mary Opal Martin.  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 Westlake 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 hours 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 legal 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 uniquely talented in his field and would have achieved the success he so ardently wished for and deserved, if only he had thought with the dear great head on his shoulders instead of with the little one frisking about between his legs—the one that got him into so much trouble.  He, too, deserved better.

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