Fragments from Home
I came to you in the night-
or so Linda told me-
Daddy brought me
Limping in his grief
Bent over in his shame at giving me up.
"Can you take him?
At least until I get settled."
I can imagine Papa
Standing, arms crossed
In the dark corner by the dying fire.
Silent (for he was a silent man).
Unable to comprehend the grief or the shame.
Weighing what a baby would mean
In a household of a wife, three children, a granny woman, and a hired hand,
The youngest girl nearly a baby herself.
"Just til I get settled.
I have a job on a rig in Young county, Texas.
When I get settled,
I'll come back for him."
Limping and bent he left,
The little girls watching his red tail-lights disappear
Up the sandy road.
So you brought me to your bed
And to your bosom-
A warm sweet place-
While Papa pretended to sleep
With his face to the wall.
In the glow of the remaining embers
You cooed me to sleep.
At breakfast I sat above everyone
On a tall metal stool made by
My great-uncle Ray.
Biscuits and gravy,
Sausage and eggs,
Jelly and molasses,
Between Papa on my right and Mama on my left.
I would sing (I was always singing)
Until Papa would say,
"Don't sing at the table!"
Then Granny Eller would smile
And begin to hum under her breath.
Catching her old, wizened face,
I would laugh.
Partners in crime.
On the floor
In front of the devouring fireplace
I devoured magazines and books.
Reading the pictures-
an Andrew Wyeth, an Edward Hopper-
Surrounded by the Rosetta Stone of text.
I am still reading pictures
And the Rosetta Stone has been deciphered.
The grassless yard
Swept regularly with a broom
(Grassless and swept for fear of snakes and fire)
This was my first world-my kingdom.
Sometimes I would hunker
Under the castor bean plant
Watching my world,
Like Jonah of old,
Watching what God would do.
My world was inhabited by
Chickens, geese, guinea fowl,
Cats and dogs,
For a time, a pet fox squirrel.
Insects would skitter across the dusty floor of the yard
Leaving their tracks in the sand.
Flowers every where
Planted by my Mama's loving, strong hands.
A cedar and chinaberry tree
Among the old oaks.
Granny would stroll in the cool of the day
Singing "Barbary Allen."
In the fastness of my umbrella-ed plant
And I understood more than
The big people would allow.
I became a collector
Of bugs and bones
Of stones (rare on that sandy hill)
And discarded pieces of metal.
I learned to catch bumble bees
By trapping them inside hollyhock blooms
With trembling fingers.
Once I caught a horned toad that
I hypnotized by rubbing his yellow-white belly.
But, in my world dangers lurked-
Copperheads and coon-tailed rattlesnakes,
Cowkillers, and, in the dark places, black widows
With red hourglasses on their shiny bellies,
Goat heads and sticker burs as big as my childish thumb,
Wasps and yellow-jackets,
Cactus spines and rusty nails.
I learned to be careful-
And to be intrepid.
Once I went with Linda and Mary Lou
To Papa's spring-fed creek
Under the oaks and sycamores.
We dammed the lazy flow,
Dribbled sand castles from our fingers,
And chased water bugs that skimmed
Over the water's surface
With magic feet.
Provoked by some real or imagined slight,
I threw my aunt's birthstone ring into the sandy current.
It could not be retrieved
So we trudged home
In silence and sobs.
A keen peach tree switch
Awaited my naked legs.
As an old man
I still regret the childish, malicious act.
The ring is still there
Under three-score years of sediment.
I rode in grand-daddy Black John"s old wagon
Atop a pile of freshly cut
Post and Blackjack oak
(the memory of the tannic smell remains)
Singing and shouting
Almost above the roar of the tractor.
A little prince
Happy and carefree
Insulated by the love that surrounded me,
That formed me,
That would keep me
In the dark and ugly days
That were coming,
On cold nights
I would sleep with Papa
In the middle room.
"Don't fan the covers."
"Get in my crook."
He smelled of sweat, and tobacco smoke,
And once a week,
Of Old Spice.
Or I would sleep with mama,
Smelling sweet from her talcum and cold cream,
Pulled close to her big warm breasts.
"Don't twiddle my hair," she would say.
I would be watched by Granny.
We would go to the winged-elm thicket
Where she would gather green twigs for her snuff habit.
She would chew their ends into brushes.
Or, on hell-hot days
We would descend into the storm cellar, cool and musty.
The back wall was a tapestry
Of color and reflected light.
Row upon row
Of canned tomatoes, okra,
Corn and peaches.
She would sing with her reedy voice,
And, I, with her.
"Old Suzanna" was our favorite
With "Shall We Gather at the River" a close second.
She would delve into her old trunk,
Her treasure chest
And retrieve from its musty depths
An ancient album in faux tortoise shell.
Turning its thick gold-edged pages
She taught me my history,
"That's your great grand-daddy, my husband, Mister Smith."
"That's your uncle Pat in his uniform in France."
"What is France?"
"A place across the ocean."
"What's the ocean?"
"Hush, Shitpot!" ended the interrogation-
For a while.
The dominating presence,
The omnipresence in all this world was Mama,
The meekest of dominant women.
("Mama," or "Big Mama" to distinguish her from my
"Little Mama"-now deceased.)
A lilting voice.
Calmly planting a flower,
Or weeding a garden,
Or gutting a chicken.
A queen baker and cook.
A seamstress and quilter.
A gardener of flowers and vegetables.
Making a wealth of beauty
With a dearth of resources.
Bearing and raising seven children
And then me, an eighth.
Living with an irascible and hateful mother-in-law
With kindness and equability.
Plagued with bad health ("Woman Trouble" from too many big babies),
Up first in the morning and to bed last at night.
Cooking two big meals for eight every day.
Laundering on a wood fire in the kitchen yard
With a big black cast iron pot.
Canning produce in the hell-hot summer
Over a wood stove.
Carrying water in the winter whose
Frozen surface had to be broken.
Weeping over her wayward sons.
Worrying over her girls
Holding faith in the face of so much
That beggars belief.
And loving a motherless boy
In her late middle age.
Taking care of me
When she could barely take care of herself.
And, all the while,
Praying for what I would face,
What I would become.
Building a wall about me
That the shocks and assails
Of the near future
Papa and I in the woods.
The hickories are cadmium yellow,
The oaks taking on their russet hues.
The Winchester '90
Is in his hand,
The barrel points like a finger to the tree tops.
"How long, Papa?"
"Just sit tight, Toss."
In the loft of a giant cottonwood
Ablaze with fall
The little thing pokes its head out from behind a branch.
The rifle cracks
And "the hairy-tailed rat" (his description)
Lands in the leaves with a thud.
He takes his long-bladed Case knife
And pierces its hind foot,
Cuts a green twig and passes it through the wound.
I was the Carrier.
The bushy tail bobbed all the way home.
I am surrounded by brothers and sisters
Who are my uncles and aunts.
And surrounded by their loves and hates,
Their knowledge and ignorance.
My own ignorance is lessened
By what they teach me.
My prejudices strengthened by their ignorance.
Johnny Roy would push me on the tire swing
Under the big oak,
Twisting the tire
Until I was drunk with joy.
The world swirled giddily and mixed with our laughter and shouts.
He would amaze me
With his prowess as a marksman,
Breaking pop bottles with the old
That shattered into shards
Of glorious light.
Sometimes he would let me shoot.
Linda, the older sister,
Shared Granny's role a s
Keeper of the child.
Next to Mama
She was mother to me.
Her strong maternal self found purchase in me.
(She would not have children of her own for years.)
So she doted,
In the Child.
"Tom Cat" was her nickname for me...and still is.
In her love and care
I learned to trust love and care-
And to take it for granted.
In my near future
Such love and care would dry up and blow away.
And trust would wither in that desert.
But the memory survived
And in its survival,
Mary Lou- five years older-
Was my near sister.
We were grubby colleagues
Keeping boredom at bay by our
Explorations and experiments.
Going for the mail
We ran in our bare feet from shade to shade
Across the tracks of boiling sand.
We watched dung beetles- "tumble bugs"-
Roll their fragrant balls.
We dug up doodle bugs-
"Doodle bug, doodle but, won't you come home..."
We laughed at Granny
As she circled her lilac bush over and over
In her dementia.
Once, tiring of my company,
She sent me off to the army.
I returned, after a very brief deployment,
From time to time
Daddy would come-
Once with a car trunk full of catfish,
Some still heaving with life.
And then, just as quickly, he would go,
Holding back tears
As I released mine with abandon.
Once, he said,
"I'll come and see you next Saturday, We may go fishing."
Breakfast finished, I sat in
My little read rocker on the front porch
And watched the road
For his black Ford...
At dinner time (the noon meal)
I wolfed down my food
And returned to my post
A little sentry.
Watching and waiting.
Waiting and watching.
The hot afternoon crawled past,
The setting sun painted the road gold.
I sat and watched,
Buoyed by his promise.
A big yellow moon
Kissed the horizon.
The twilight faded into blue tones.
In the early dark,
Mama came and with a thick voice said:
"He's not coming honey; he must've got held up. Bed time. I made you a milkshake before bed."
The promise melted in my heart-
The first of melted promises.
(Sixty-plus years later...
It is Daddy's seventieth birthday.
I am hundreds of miles away to the North-
Engaged in business.
I call late in the day to wish him
"I watched the road all day long. thinking you might come," he said.)
And he settled
After another marriage.
("One too many," Papa said, "And to that human being if she is a human being.")
And, he came for me.
He kept that dark promise.
He came in the night
And Mama put my few things
In a brown paper bag.
Papa stood in the corner by the fireplace,
Red eyed and swallowing hard.
Daddy took me in one arm
And the brown paper bag under the other.
I clung screaming to the door facing.
We drove up the same watched road,
The road home,
And, now the road away from home.
At the hard road, exasperated at my crying, he exploded,
"Well, go back then!" and put me out in the dark-
The dark that had been my terror before,
But, was now my ally-
My way back to Mama and Papa.
To John and Linda and Mary Lou,
Through the shadows of the big trees
At the old well I ran.
I could just glimpse
The yellow lights from the windows
Of the old house.
I was almost free.
But, he had followed me in the black Ford
With the lights off
On that familiar road in the moonlight.
I was captured-again.
Home was lost,
Where I was taken in my captivity
Was a world away from what I had known on that hill.
It was a dark place,
And its darkness dyed my soul.
It was a place imbued
With sadness and violence
That has left a chasm of sadness
That remains in my old age.
But, surrounding that pit,
Like fall trees and Mama's flowers,
Were the memories of when
I was a little prince,
Loved and adored,
Taught and corrected,
Made moral by the purity and decency
Of the people
In that beloved place.
The darkness and sadness
Could not and would not have
The Final, Destructive Word
For I had known life,
In the life and love of
And that woman,
And all the others.
...and I would come to know these things...