"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Homework Revision

This week's homework was to choose a previous piece and revise or expand it. We were also challenged to include the color red, a description of the weather, and a specific kind of bird. I've worked the story that begins my first meeting with Aunt Bea and Cousin Sal.

After more than a decade of unexplained silence, Mommy recently renewed her relationship with her aunt, Bea. As part of my twenty-first birthday present, we are driving from my home in Spokane to the home Bea shares with her daughter, Sal, just south of Seattle. Although my brothers drove to Portland last spring to meet Bea and the cousins for the first time, this visit to their new home is my chance to get to know these female relatives who until now have only been quirky characters in reluctantly-told stories. Catching Mommy in a talking mood is as hard as pleasing her.

Tension rides in the car between us like a bomb that could go off if the car hit a bump too hard. It’s always been there, as long as I can remember. Mommy says it’s because I’m so intense and refuse to just accept certain things. I think accepting things that hurt you is wrong. Mommy’s favorite saying, “If God intended for things to be different, they would be,” just makes me mad. But I want us to be friends now that I’m an adult, so I start asking questions.

“So, you grew up in the same house with Bea?” Even though I already know the answer, I can’t get enough of this story, and sometimes Mommy seems to really like telling it.

“Yes. Granny and Granddaddy took my brother and me in. They had three kids: Mahlon, my father, who dropped us off on his way to Texas with his new wife; your Uncle Joe who was in high school then; and your Aunt Bea who was twelve. Because I was only eighteen months old, Bea took care of me like a little mother. She used to tell me that she and Granny would fight over who got to feed and dress me.

Because her voice is friendly and sort of wistful, I allow my curiosity to override caution. “If you and Bea were so close, how come you didn’t talk all those years?"

Mommy doesn’t say anything for a minute, lights a Pall Mall, inhales deeply and exhales a sigh of smoke through pursed lips. As she picks a bit of tobacco off the tip of her tongue, I worry I’ve gone too far. Before I can divert her with a different question, she starts to talk. “I’m surprised you don’t remember when the whole Mayo family came to visit us in Sandpoint. Bea and her husband wanted Sal’s brother Bobby to come live with us so he wouldn’t have to go to juvie. Daddy said no. They were really embarrassed and mad because they believed he would get to stay. We just sort of drifted apart after that.”

“Really, I was there? I don’t remember it at all.” I actually remember very little of my childhood, but for some reason not remembering this bothers me a lot. Coldness grips my chest, making it hard for me to breathe, like it does when Mommy lets me know God is not happy with me. I frantically poke around in my brain searching for the memory, but it’s nowhere to be found.

“They were only there for a couple of hours. Didn’t even stay the night. Sal read to the four of you, though. I’m surprised you don’t remember that.” Mommy’s voice is mild, not accusing, so I swallow my feelings and laugh, hoping to extend this time of truce.

I can’t believe we’re actually having a real conversation. I wonder what information I might get from Mommy before her mood shifts and decide to ask about Sal. She fills miles of our trip with stories about my cousin, told in a voice full of love and humor and admiration. I find myself wondering if my mom sounded like that when she told Bea about me.

“Darling, look at you! You look so much like Velma. You’re so beautiful. Joycie, you didn’t tell me how gorgeous she is.”

Bea’s hug engulfs me with so much affection, energy, and fragrance I can hardly breathe. The fact that her perfume is the exact same Tabu that Mommy wears makes my head spin a bit. I hug her back hard, inhaling the scent – amber, nicotine and scotch - that will forever after put me right back in the center of Bea’s generous love.

She pushes me away, keeping a firm grip on my shoulders. “Let me really look at you. The last time I saw you you were a freckled little girl in braids and bangs and dirty clothes. Now you’re a stunning grown up young woman. You have your grandmother’s Cherokee looks. Don’t you think she looks just like the pictures of your mom, Joycie?”

I look uneasily at my mom. Bea calls her Joycie? And she talks about my dead Grandma Velma as though it were no big deal? Mommy hates that nickname and refuses to talk about her mother: the beautiful, mysterious Cherokee princess who died when Mommy was just a baby. I become very still, waiting for the inevitable flash of icy anger, curious to see Bea’s response when it comes. Mommy shocks me by laughing at Bea and agreeing with her.

Really ? I want to say and don’t. You always told me I look more like you, which is so not true. I’m not prune-skinned with poor fitting dentures, too dark drawn-on eyebrows and over-dyed, shellacked beauty shop curls. I don’t have ugly whiskers sprouting from my witch chin, and I never will.

Tall, chesty, thin-hipped – Bea is the most elegant and sophisticated woman I’ve ever met. It’s love at first sight. Her hair is a soft wavy silver, styled in a chic cap that frames a beaming carefully made-up face. Her eyebrows are perfectly arched and just a couple of shades darker than her hair. Dressed in black pencil-thin slacks and a bright fuchsia silk top that matches her lipstick, her feet bare, she exudes sensuality that matches perfectly the elegant Siamese cat twining around her ankles.

I am related to this woman. Finally I meet someone whose blood I’m thrilled to share. For the first time ever I have a relative I want to be like. I feel disloyal as this thought takes up residence in my brain, but exhilarated with the relief of it as well.

Mommy and Bea are giddy in each other’s presence. Chattering like magpies. Lighting each other’s cigarettes. Drinking more than I’ve ever seen old women drink before.

My mom, whom I’ve never seen drunk one time in all my twenty-one years, becomes red-faced giggly with Bea. Alcohol was never allowed in our home and I’ve only ever seen Mommy drink sherry with Grandma. I learned to escape into the magical comfort of beer and scotch at high school keggers. Since then I’ve come to prefer the smooth and gentle warmth of wine. More than anything, I love that moment when whatever I’m drinking takes me completely out of my self and my life. This time though, I’m more interested in watching the relationship between these two women reveal itself. I don’t want to miss a moment of it, and sip my wine with unusual restraint.

“Joycie, you’re so thin. Are you sure you’re taking care of yourself?” Bea and my mom have settled side by side on the couch. Bea takes Mommy’s hand and pats it tenderly.

“Oh, you know I never could keep any weight on. I only eat to live; I don’t live to eat.” I consider mentioning the diet we went on together when I was fourteen, but stay quiet.

“Well you know how much I love to eat, Darling. Food is one of those pleasures, like Scotch and sex, I see no reason to deprive myself of.” I can’t believe how matter-of-factly my aunt talks about things Mommy considers sins against God.

I especially can’t believe when Mommy giggles and says, “Well you know how Daddy is, so I guess one out of three for me is better than none.”

Their sisterhood excludes me, leaves me feeling confused, alone, and jealous. I was so sure Bea and I were kindred spirits, but how can that be if she feels the same way about this woman I hate at least as much as I love? I want to tell Bea some real truths about her niece Joycie (her weight issues would just be the beginning) but I’m not sure she would believe me.

I excuse myself to go for a walk in the biting gray mist of the late fall Puget Sound evening. Before the door clicks shut behind me I hear Bea ask Mommy if I’m okay, and my mom’s reply that I often go off by myself – that I’m a very private person and it might take me some time to warm up to her.

You don’t understand me at all. I’m not okay, and you should know that. Once I’m around the corner from Bea’s sweet little ranch house, I pull a pack of Salem Lights out of my jacket pocket, light one with shaking hands, and inhale the smoke as though it might save my life. I’ve only been smoking for a couple of weeks, so the first few drags make me so dizzy I have to stop walking until my body adjusts to the chemicals. Cool moisture from the saturated air collects on my hair and shoulders, providing an odd sort of comfort. I tip my face skyward, a few tears escaping to join the misty caress lying soft on my cheeks. I refuse the tears, chasing them back inside with Salem smoke.

No one in my family knows I smoke. I’m not ready yet to tell them, because they’d ask why I started. Telling them the truth, that I was trying to fit in with my heroin-shooting black boyfriend, will not help my standing in the family. I’ll also be compared one more time to Mommy. The fact that I will never be caught dead smoking unfiltered Pall Malls won’t matter to anyone (like my brothers) making the comparison. I briefly consider switching to the elegant Virginia Slims Bea smokes, but decide they fit her much better than they do me – at least for now.

I’m curious if or what my cousin Sal smokes. On the way over from Spokane my mom talked about Bea’s daughter as though she were the daughter Mommy was meant to have, so much more like her in personality than I am – tomboyish, serious, mechanically inclined, athletic, pragmatic. I hope Bea might return the favor and wish I were her daughter, the two of us sharing traits the exact opposite of Mommy’s list: feminine, happy, creative, sensual, romantic.

I wonder if, when we met for dinner later tonight, I will like my oldest girl cousin on my mom’s side of the family. Will Sal’s two-year age advantage, her famous refusal to follow social conventions like being polite if it doesn’t suit her, and our opposite personalities leave any room for us to like each other? Can I like someone so much like Mommy? Is it possible for her to like someone who has made such a mess of her life.

Photo by Stephen Mitchell from Flickr


Wanda said...

Love it again this time!

Tabitha Bird said...

Nice Deb! :)

Kathryn Magendie said...

As I've said before and will again - you are a beautiful writer.

My dad smoked Pall Malls; can't remember if I said that last time--that picking the tobacco off the lip is familiar to me - but even if it wasn't, I love little details like that - those are the things that bring a story alive.

I hope we can meet in person when I visit little Norah Kathryn! - I may be there 3 weeks, so it would seem we could!

kario said...

What tremendous work, my friend! I hate rewriting my own stuff but I'm inspired having seen the 'before' and 'after.'

Love this class!

Carrie Wilson Link said...


Midlife Roadtripper said...

"I briefly consider switching to the elegant Virginia Slims Bea smokes, but decide they fit her much better than they do me – at least for now."

Like the image of the character that comes to mind with that line. Interesting segment. I can easily picture everyone there. Right down to picking the piece of tobacco of the tip of her tongue.

Amber said...

Like it just as much. You are great!


Jerri said...

How long is this class? I find myself hoping it goes on for a long, long time.

Seeing this revision is like long distance learning for me. Plus, it's pure pleasure to watch your writing evolve.