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Past Imperfect

Written by mayborn


By Julia Love

 

Sticky Summers in Toledo

Ignore the subjects of the photograph, the forced smiles and stiff poses, and take in the lush landscape my mother traded for a desert 1,000 miles away. We spent the last day of our stay in Toledo at the Botanical Gardens. My family flew halfway across the country to visit my grandmother annually, but the trips grew shorter each year—this visit would last just five days, down from two weeks. Next year we would forego my grandmother’s cramped accommodations for the Best Western. This is not how people who enjoy spending time with each other pose for a picture, I remember saying to myself.   

That’s me front and center, six years old and keenly aware of my own mortality. It was a time when nine seemed like an elegant age and 12 struck me as downright ancient. I can remember lying in the same bed where my mother once slept, bundled in a quilt my great-grandmother pieced together with scraps of clothing once worn by babies now grown and dead, and chastising myself for letting the years slip by so quickly—it felt like nine was already fast approaching. I considered the prospect of life in double digits with a sense of dread, particularly on days like this.

I felt as if the natural order of things had collapsed so I could see the future chapters of my life—the first blush of parenthood and the ghost of old age—standing beside me sketched in lined skin and smudged lipstick, real as the day. Before my father snapped the shutter, my mother arranged us in age order from left to right, the way one reads a book.

My mother and grandmother both say I look just like they did when they were young, though they don’t think they look anything like each other. Throughout the visits, I bore witness to impromptu confessions.

“I think that dress makes her look a little bit fat,” my grandmother, who crossed the 100-pound threshold only when she was with child, had whispered in my ear as my mother retreated into a fitting room on a trip to the Toledo Mall hours before we gathered for the photo. “You’re so much thinner than she was at your age.”

“Your grandmother thought I looked fat, didn’t she,” my mother fumed as she tucked me in that night. “Did I ever tell you what happened when I came home from Oberlin for the first time? She forgot to ask me how my classes were but noted that I had gained 10 pounds.”

I think the photo shows a resemblance in our bone structure—full cheeks, high foreheads, straight-bridged noses—if not the tenor of our expressions. My grandmother’s smile is so weak it is almost a grimace, and she stands with her shoulders hunched forward, her arms thrust back and her thumbs resting on the seams of her trousers, like a soldier at attention. My mother meets the camera’s gaze with tired eyes, her hands on either side of my brother’s face. Rather than putting an arm around my grandmother’s shoulder, she is firmly grasping the life she has created for herself.

My mother stands to the left, my grandmother to the right, and I am caught somewhere in the middle, striving to be like neither. Considering the photo some 15 years later, I can’t say what compelled me to fold my arms across my heart and smile this closed-lipped smile. Some children cross their arms and purse their lips to get what they want. This is also the way mummies are positioned, my father offered when I asked him what I could have possibly been doing. A friend noted that this is the gesture visitors who are not Catholic use when the bread and wine are distributed at mass. Though the religious implications couldn’t possibly have entered my mind, I do think I was trying to signal that I was somehow different, that I had defied the blood coursing through my veins to be happy in this moment.

My mother was surprised to learn that this photo sits framed on my desk. My grandmother was the last tie binding her to Toledo, the site of a childhood of poverty and emotional neglect. My mother told me this much later, but I think I’d always known. She was introduced to me simply as “Grandma in Ohio,” a name that confined her and our relationship to a place my mother clearly didn’t want to be.

I can’t help but think of the man who isn’t in the picture. By the time I was born my grandfather had lost the ability to speak, debilitated by a stroke that confined him to a Tennessee nursing home. But I could see that he was the one who had bequeathed us our wide eyes. All that kept my mother and me from passing as middle-aged and pint-sized versions of my grandmother were the eyes: my mother’s, large and green, and mine, wider still. The stark stare makes plain that I am hers and we are his. Several years later my grandmother remarked that she didn’t have a photograph of her ex-husband displayed anywhere in her home, that she really should take care of that. My mother was more delicate with her afterwards—she thought my grandmother was losing her mind.

My mother doesn’t like to talk about Ohio or our family there, and she doesn’t recall posing for this snapshot. But I can still remember the moment vividly, and I think about it often. It was my father, looming behind the lens, who saw the situation most clearly. “Come on,” he said, gesturing for us to lean in closer. My mother shot him a look that he has rarely challenged in their 21 years of marriage, but he pressed on. I tried to dart away from the camera’s watchful eye, but he intercepted my flight and positioned me squarely in view. “Let’s take a picture,” he began again. “You’ll want to remember this moment someday.”

 

The Threat of Regret

In his grip there is a clue: the left hand clenched, the right hand knotted with nerves made useless. My mother explained to me several years after this photo was taken, when I was still a little girl, that the left side of my grandfather’s brain died— the part of him that could speak and feel. No, my mother corrects herself today, now that I am old enough to hear her truth: he killed it with daily doses of alcohol.                 

We were poised to leave my grandfather’s Florida condominium, stopping only for the time it took to pose, depress the shutter, smile more broadly and snap again. My father wielded the camera while slouched against our rental car, the engine running.

In the last decades of his life, Grandpa Genie could not speak more than a word or two at a time. But he drove from Tennessee to Florida by himself, his fingers unflinching as they guided the wheel, and I do think he could have held a baby upright in his lap.

The presence in the frame of my mother’s arm—strong and smooth, cropped before the shoulder—says what remains to be said. She does not trust him with the life she has created. At six months, I am smothered and smiling: perplexed, perhaps, by the multiplicity of hands but secure in their warmth.

»»»

Genie’s mother, Mammy, was a mistress of make-believe. She never saw any harm in deconstructing the truth and refashioning it, threaded with little lies to better suit the people she loved. Guarding the truth was not a burden but a calling. She was content to be the only one who knew the whole story.

She served as the storyteller after making the mistake of leaving my mother Joanne, just five, alone in her bedroom. In the short time Mammy was gone, my mother found a one-armed doll lying underneath the bed. By the time her grandmother returned, her eyes were full of fear. Mammy scooped her up and explained that the doll had been hit by a car but there was no need to worry—she was being well cared for in the toy hospital. No one was ever wounded beyond repair under Mammy’s watch.

That evening, my mother’s 10-year-old brother, Phil, returned triumphant from an afternoon of fishing in the lake out back with a fistful of minnows. Mammy whooped and hollered, threw the paltry catch onto the frying pan with a flourish, and shooed Phil into the bathroom. In the time it took him to wash up for dinner, Mammy fed the minnows to the cats and replaced them with a fish that Genie had caught, fit for a feast. Phil was none the wiser. Mammy saw no reason why pride should fall victim to the truth.

Mammy never gave a second thought to rearing her grandchildren with loving lies: why would she treat them any differently than she had their father? It was Genie, after all, for whom she lied the most, as much to herself as to anyone else.

By the numbers, Genie’s life was charmed: from a brood of nine children, he was one of five to survive to adulthood. With a mess of black curls and the wide green eyes that were the marker of the family, he was handsome even before he became a man, a bent arm his only imperfection. A fall from a horse left him that way. Try as he might, the country doctor on the job could not set it straight. Genie was always slow to mend—a stubborn streak was written in his bones.

Crowded with his older brothers in the darkroom of the family newspaper office, he took his first sips of whiskey before he was a teen, jumping out the window when he sensed his mother’s approach. Mammy must have heard him, but she didn’t want to see.

Genie may drink, but he is not a drunk, Mammy and anyone else rocking in a chair on the porch would have told you. From the age of 14, Genie started drinking most mornings and continued through the night, progressing from sips to swigs, alcohol coursing through his veins and cresting in bursts of rage. But when Genie drank, according to those closest to him, it was always because somebody else—his dead Daddy or the women who had left him or his long-legged daughter or his smart-mouthed son—opened the bottle and poured him the glass.

»»»

When this bent, broken man strode into her life, Margery Hanning could not believe her good fortune.

In the small upstairs bedroom of their parents’ house where Margery still lived at 27, her sister Marian helped her get ready for a spaghetti dinner to which she had been invited. From the time she was a girl, sadness had disfigured Margery. But that night, Marian took the time to help Marge dust rouge above the hollows of her cheeks, paint over the dark circles that shadowed her eyes, both giggling like girls as they went. Though there were other guests, the party had been planned to introduce Genie to Marge and Marge to Genie. Marge saw him from across the room and hoped he was the one: handsome, lean and well-dressed, he made more money as a newspaperman than most people did in those days. His opening line was a question that might have been rhetorical: how are you doing?

“I’m doing good,” she replied, her knees shaking.

Well,” he said in a playful reprimand. “You’re doing well.”

There was no poetry in his words, but there was music in his voice. Marge was struck that his lined blue eyes were, if not kind, at least honest. When he looked at her straight on, her cheeks turned a shade so red she could have been mistaken for the 16-year-old girl she never had the chance to be: madly in love, or at least infatuated, unburdened by concerns of where it would lead her.

The way he looked at her, she could tell that he did not know. New in town, having just accepted a position as city editor of The Toledo Blade, he may have been the only one who didn’t. Several years before, she had been confined to the hospital’s mental ward for a month, crippled by depression. She had few friends to notice her absence, but word spread throughout the town nonetheless. In our time, they might have forgiven her for what she was: bipolar. But then, before it was a diagnosis commonly pronounced, the sadness that shadowed her was incomprehensible and disturbing. After she was discharged, the woman who had been invisible became an unwilling celebrity, stalked by pitying stares wherever she went. 

That night, before she knew him to be hers, Marge saw Genie tending the bar by himself, and when he leaned in close to talk to her in a hushed tone, she could not deny the sour scent of whiskey on his breath. The problem was plain, and Marge may almost have been pleased to have found it. Maybe she thought she didn’t deserve a man who was whole, maybe it was right: maybe they could heal each other.

When they married three months later, over the objections of her parents, she wore a green suit—a virgin bride too old for white.

»»»

Marge gave birth to four children and raised the three who survived: Phil, Joanne, and Steve. Whenever she was with child, Genie vowed reform, pouring the contents of his liquor cabinet down the drain. It never lasted.

One night he shouted at the top of his lungs that he would kill her—and he might have, if the cops had not arrived. Still craving retaliation, he staggered with a chainsaw over to the house of the couple who made the call. He found a tree and left a stump.

Marge finally found the strength to ask him to leave when my mother was nine, but out of the house he was no less present. Each night he would call, drunk, wounded and bent on speaking with each of the children. His speech was slurred, but the words were always decipherable, cutting like knives.

When my mother started the seventh grade, several nights passed with eerie tranquility—no phone calls, no fights. A TV newscaster explained to them what had happened. Stories printed on the front page of the next day’s newspaper offered more details.

Five hours away at his new house in Illinois, Genie had awakened to find his girlfriend lying on the floor, beaten to death. He remembered nothing of what had happened the night before, but common sense reminded him of a certain protocol. Baseball bat in hand, he checked all the windows and doors for signs of a break-in, then saw the blood on his clothes and realized that there had been no intruder, that the man who had killed her was still in the house.

Even this realization could not sober him up. He ran from the house as if he were a victim, seeking refuge in the diner down the street. From a booth in the back, he cocked his head at the waitress, ordered a piece of pie and handed her a note scrawled on a napkin: “A woman is injured in the house on 14 Elm St.”

He was arrested and charged, but, represented by the best lawyer that what would have been child support payments could buy, he served no time.                      

»»»

To sustain the stream of child support checks, Marge sent my mother and her brother Steve, five years younger, to Mammy’s house for a two-week visit with Genie every summer—a tradition that was upheld even after he pled guilty to manslaughter. Phil refused to go. My mother did as she was told, but she felt as if she had been sold out.

The summer my mother was 15, she took to wearing white lipstick and choking on cigarette smoke. Mammy refused to let anyone smoke indoors for fear that the wallpaper would turn yellow. So my mother would spend her evenings perched on the windowsill, a plume of smoke curling from the cigarette she twirled between thumb and forefinger as she considered the ancestral farm with one eye and watched her grandmother prepare dinner with the other.

Steve offered to help one night, and the two worked in tandem, the little boy splashing water on lettuce for salad and Mammy washing the leaves more earnestly when he was through. Mammy believed there was no excuse for silence when she had company. Steve, not yet 10 and eager to please, filled a gap in conversation with a statement of fact that only a child would dare to make.

“Some of the kids pick on me at school,” Steve said. “They say my Daddy killed a woman.”

Mammy dropped to her knees and looked him straight in the eye.

“That woman had a heart attack,” she corrected him. My mother is convinced it is what Mammy really believed.

Several summers later, my mother nervously brought her first boyfriend to Mammy’s house for dinner. Bill was a cartoon character sketched in skin and bones, with wire-rimmed glasses that enlarged his eyes to a permanently surprised stare, eyebrows so thick they may as well have been scribbled by a black crayon held in a fist. His presence worked Genie into a frenzy. He took offense from every word the boy stammered and drank himself into a stupor after he succeeded in driving him away.

My mother, humiliated, turned to Mammy for comfort and found none.

“You know he wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t brought that boy over,” Mammy said matter-of-factly.

My mother sent letters from Oberlin and scarves from India, but she never saw Mammy again. As a little girl she had loved visiting Mammy—she was the only one who told her she was pretty, the only one who thought she was smart. But as my mother grew older and her father grew meaner, that which she had loved most about Mammy—an insistence on seeing the best in people, a blind spot for flaw—became something she could not stand.

»»»

At 26 my mother learned that her father had suffered a massive stroke, the first news of him that she had received in years. He could walk, but only by dragging one leg, and he could speak, but never in complete sentences. My mother wept, but she could not help but feel relieved. She was certain that he would never be able to hurt her again.

At 27 she moved to Florida to work as a reporter at The Bradenton Herald. She did not know that several months before, her father had purchased a house and driven from Texas to Tampa by himself, still determined to live out his dream of retiring in the Sunshine State. 

When she returned from the beach one afternoon, her blood ran cold: her roommate informed her that a frail elderly man, walking with a limp and barely able to speak, had shown up at the house looking for her. My mother wracked her brain for another explanation, but when the same mysterious man knocked on the door to find her roommate the next weekend and the one after that, she could no longer deny him.

Those he had touched preserved ties to him on their terms. Grandma Margery and Uncle Phil had seized the chance to disappear; without ever calling or writing, they escaped his memory entirely. My mother managed an uneasy truce. The thought of him still frightened her, but something—regret, perhaps—compelled her to take a risk. Finally, she wrote him a letter informing him that she would visit him the following Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

When she arrived at his doorstep, she found that he could only speak one sentence, which he uttered to say hello, goodbye, and fill awkward gaps in conversation: “My mind don’t work.”

She did not immediately realize the extent to which it was broken. Sitting at his kitchen table, stacked high with copies of the various newspapers for which she had written, she attempted to converse with him. The conversation devolved into an interview of the most mysterious kind: he would stammer a word and she would ask a barrage of follow-up questions, zeroing in on what he was so desperate to say. Every exchange had a sense of urgency.

“Name,” he said.

“My name? Your name?”

A long pause, a flurry of hand gestures. He cradled his head in his hands. Eventually, she got it.

“Elkin, Daddy. Your middle name is Elkin.”

“My mind don’t work,” he said in thanks.

In this blind mind’s eye, his life was rewritten, with gracious gaps in memory absolving him of his sins. So much was better left forgotten. But he recognized the child before him as his own.

»»»

Semi-Precious Stones

Once or maybe twice, my grandfather told his daughter that she reminded him of his mother. It was the best compliment he ever gave her—the greatest one that could be given, the way he saw it.

My great-grandmother Mammy was not a wealthy woman, but she had jewelry enough for a queen. She kept her stash in a hefty box with a domed top, a simple shell containing great riches. Throw back the lid and there was a breathtaking sight: the top lined with hooks, the bottom filled with drawers, all dripping with crisply cut stones. 

“Costume jewelry,” my mother calls the gems now. “Fakes,” they would say in less polite circles. It is no matter—when my mother was young, before she acquired the secondary sight to spot real from imitation, those stones were everything. 

On precious few occasions when her parents agreed that she had been good, Mammy invited my mother to pick a piece of jewelry—for keeps. I can picture my mother in this period of deliberation. Standing in a waking dream, she is wracked with indecision. It is the sort of moment that feels pivotal in the gravely serious mind of a child, for whom what happens today seems like all there is and ever will be. She knows the stone she wants—from the moment she laid eyes on it, she needed it to be hers. Yet it is too much, too beautiful, too valuable—surely Mammy did not mean to give her a gift this great. Mammy sees the piece my mother eyes, a ring so heavy it threatens to sink her tiny hand, and nods her approval—all the license my mother needs. Why not go for the emerald?

»»»

The morning my grandmother told my grandfather she wanted a divorce, he seemed to take the news well enough. Shortly after my mother had left home for what seemed like another unexceptional school day, he showered, dressed for work, and strapped four-year-old Steve, my mother’s younger brother, into the backseat of the sedan. It was their morning ritual: Steve would accompany his father for the first few blocks of his drive to work, simply for love of coasting along in the car. Once they reached the stop sign that signaled the end of the street, Steve would hop out and walk home to his mother.

Several hours after Steve should have returned, the receptionist of The Toledo Blade called my grandmother asking to speak with her husband—he had never come to work. My grandmother could scarcely find the words to say that he was not home, and she had no idea where her son was either.  

That night, the cocker spaniel, Sandy, heard my grandfather first, presaging his arrival with a sharp howl that rang out like an alarm bell. Then they all heard the slow crunch of the gravel on the driveway, the thud as the car door slammed.

My grandfather threw open the door of the house and staggered inside, huffing smoke, reeking of whiskey. The night before my grandfather had slept in the bed he shared with my grandmother in this small house, as he had almost every night of their 15-year marriage, but he entered now as an intruder. My grandmother was already in the kitchen, trembling finger poised over the telephone, ready to call the police. He yanked the telephone from the wall in one smooth stroke.

He explained that he had come to get Steve’s clothes, but the little boy was not with him. My grandmother began to pack her son a suitcase for his trip to Somewhere Else, weeping as she worked. Extra socks, pajamas with feet, the books he liked to have read to him before bed: she alone knew the things he would need.

While my grandmother was away, my grandfather told my mother to come with him to the car, just to look, just for a minute.

My mother, age nine, closed her eyes and saw herself following him out the door, watched him push her into the car—his word meant so little. She could only come up with the vaguest idea of what life would be like after he eased the car out of the driveway and sped off into the horizon. What she realized that he did not was that they scarcely knew each other. Their schedules were set in perfect opposition. He supervised the night shift in the newsroom, waking late, working until perhaps midnight, drinking with coworkers and returning home shortly before dawn. She kept the typical childhood hours, walking to school dutifully in the morning and riding her bike until twilight. From day to day, their paths rarely intersected—sometimes, she woke in the night to hear him staggering home drunk. 

Watching him with the frayed telephone wires in his fist, she could not imagine when they would next be together. She thought it would be easier if she never saw him again.

He beckoned her to come with him to the car once more and she ran in the opposite direction, across the plywood floor, up the stairs and into her bedroom, whose slanting walls she felt closing around her. There was no need to turn on a lamp—she followed the shimmer. Atop the windowsill, her favorite necklace dangled from its wire stand, catching the light of the low-hanging moon. In the months following Christmas, she had worn it almost every day, admiring the way its thin gold chain framed her collarbone and reading and re-reading its three charms: JMF. Joanne Marie Fiske—the simple pleasure a child takes in writing her name, staking a delicate claim in the world.

Before she could lose her nerve, she quickly grasped the necklace. As soon as she did, she registered a sense of loss—not for gold, not for diamonique. But wishing him gone, she wanted him to have something by which to remember her—something small, something lovely.

When she returned to the living room, her father remained at the doorway, eyeing the road, Steve’s suitcase at his feet. Approaching him slowly, my mother stretched her arm and unfurled her fingers to reveal the necklace, as if feeding a horse or some other gentle beast. He accepted the gift with his left hand and offered her his right. She stood perfectly still, unflinching. The charms did their job, dismissing him into the night.

»»»

My grandfather and Steve vanished in September. One evening shortly before Christmas that year, my mother heard a knock at the door. Steve was waiting on the doorstep. My grandfather drove away when he saw the front door swing open. My mother and her brother slept in my grandmother’s bed the first night of their reunion, squirming for covers. Today, she remembers it as one of the happiest nights of her childhood.  

There were other times when my grandfather brought my mother joy, in her earliest childhood years. Perhaps she was too young to see his flaws, or perhaps her memory can summon only the best parts of him. At any rate, her recollections of those first years with him are this: On the weekends, when he did not have to work so late, he would sometimes surprise her with a paper doll before they sat down to dinner. On those quiet evenings, she would show him her sketches. He acted as if he were in the presence of a baby Monet. 

Decades later, my grandfather still cherished the necklace, draping it over the snapshots of his children that adorned his nightstand. When it left my mother’s small hands that night, the piece of jewelry took on a second life, a second meaning. My grandfather displayed the necklace as a trophy, a show of his daughter’s love for him. To my mother, its tiny stones were fear crystallized.

My mother did not invite my grandfather to her wedding. But after she gave birth to me, her first child, she started to feel uneasy. It is inaccurate to say she wanted to see him—the idea sprang from a sense of obligation. Her older brother had two children of whom her father had never seen even a snapshot. For all he knew, he was not a grandfather. Even after a massive stroke that left him frail and mute, his presence was almost more than she could bear. But she did feel that he should see the full weight of what he had done in his life.

We visited him at his nursing home in Tennessee three times when I was a child. The summer when I was three, my great-aunt Jane rented a cabin tucked away in the woods of a Tennessee state park for us all to stay in. There was a mousetrap under every piece of furniture, but no phone or fan. This may have been the last time my grandfather left his nursing home—with each year, he grew weaker.

My mother was never at ease during those visits. The sight of her father’s face—the large green eyes unchanged, though the skin around them had sunk—still triggered in her a desire to flee, to outrun him. In his final years, it was not hard to do. By the time I was five, the greatest adventure my grandfather could sustain was a game of bingo. A long hallway separated his bedroom from the nursing home’s common room. My mother walked ahead alone, quickly covering the distance. At the corridor’s end, she turned around impatiently—my grandfather had traveled just a few steps. The stroke halved his command of his body, so he dragged his left leg behind him and lurched forward with his right, using a cane to gain traction as a mountain climber might use a stake in the snow. He looked like he could fall over at any time. He walked slowly, but not alone. I was by his side, watching him closely, matching his stride—it was hard to say who was leading whom. I could not imagine what he had done to end up this way, but I wanted to help him if I could.

Perhaps the sight of his bedroom taught me to feel compassion for him. My mother’s locket was finally gone, one lost memory among many, but his walls were papered with photographs of her and her family. The oldest snapshots, disclosing their age with crinkled edges and sepia tones, were full of faces: Phil, Joanne and Steve lined up in age order in front of Mammy’s chicken coop, on the banks of Lake Erie, on the porch of their childhood home. But in the full-color wing of the wall, the chronicle of the here and now, there was only my mother, my father, my little brother and me. Of three grown children, my mother was the only one who let her father back in, visiting on occasion and sending snapshots for day-to-day companionship. It was a gracious act. Deprived of speech, struggling to walk, he lived in stills. 

Before we left the state of Tennessee, we paid a visit to my great-aunt Marie, who said she had a surprise for me. When we entered her home, my mother was shocked to see the jewelry box sitting on the living room floor, as if it had been waiting for us there all along. Watching my jaw drop as my great-aunt threw back the lid, my mother remembered why she had brought me here in the first place: so I could have all of the luster and none of the pain. Thirty years and countless little-girl descendants later, the stash still had not been depleted—there were jewels to last us for generations. With my mother’s help, I selected a pair of earrings crafted with my birthstone—clip-ons, of course, because I would not feel the sting of womanhood for several years yet.

For all I knew, they were diamonds.

 

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