Sunday, November 14, 2010

THE JOURNEY HOMEWARDS


In a small town in Alabama, my four small children and I returned from Sunday Services to find a collections man nailing a notice to the front door of the house where we were living: my former husband's house. I stood with my children, awkwardly, out on the sun-bright lawn, the children still in their plaid shirts and hand-me-down pants and Sunday-best shoes. The oldest two boys weren’t quarreling or shoving each other as they usually did; the girl wasn’t fussing with her barrette. And the baby was smiling up at me when I looked down at him, a new tooth shining from his pink gums.

Where, you might be asking yourselves, was the husband, the children’s father, who owned the house and was supposed to be making the payments on it until it sold? The terms of the divorce settlement had been clear, after all. Were the sins of the father to be visited so irrevocably upon the sons?

Well, perhaps the particulars of back-story are not so important to this tale and anyway hadn’t I always believed that some stories are better left untold? Let it suffice, for the sake of this story, to say that I woke suddenly that morning into the stern fact of that moment and its implications and there’d no refuting it; no act of imagination I might call to bear on it would change the indisputable fact of it: home was no longer this house where we’d lived together as a family for four years and where I’d brought the infant home following his almost-Christmas birth ten months before, swaddled like the Christ-child, and as adored by beasts and wise men alike, even with his egg-shaped head and his chronic colic.

There I stood in the bright fall afternoon, while the maple and sycamore trees offered up their autumn gold, and the twisted rows of thistle bent their ravaged heads along the falling-down fence in a yard that used to be mine, while two officious-looking men pitched the things I’d thought of as "mine" out the door and from small high windows of the house: my grandmother’s tatted pillowcases, baby books and photographs, the boy’s second-hand crib and bedding. My books. My books. Save for one still tucked in the diaper bag that was still slung over my right shoulder.

At the far edge of the property, the gnarled apple tree – sundered nearly in two by lightning in a summer’s thunderstorm – stood bare, emptied of all its autumn fruits except for the last windfall apples that lay rotting underneath where the silent deer came, hungry, each night to eat them. Inside the house, twenty-three neatly-labeled jars of homemade applesauce were still cooling in the pantry. Neighbors looked on curiously from doorways and porches, then turned back, without a word to us, into their own homes, thinking their own thoughts which were not my thoughts. Of that I was certain.

In the crook of my left arm, I held the baby who was, by then, a pleasant baby, ten months past his three-month-long post-partum colic and fretting. He still seemed frail to me, this final child, this fragile boy who’d barely survived his birth, but I was encouraged by the way he smiled up at me from his blanket, blue-eyed and calm as the Pacific, whenever I ironed or mended clothes or cooked lunches and dinners in the cramped kitchen all day.

My right hand held, that afternoon, to my oldest son’s hand, and his other hand held to his younger brother’s hand, whose hand held fast to his older sister’s hand. We stood there like that, holding hands, linked together by whatever the ties are that bind one to another in families, and the thought crossed my mind that, if someone watching had squinted, we would resemble the cut-out paper-dolls my grandmother had taught me to fold and cut from brown grocery sacks when I’d been a girl in Shreveport. When you opened the folds, a string of ragged, faceless paper dolls held hands in a long line. How delighted I’d been as a girl to learn the trick of it. How easily my grandmother had been, tatting nearby, letting me do the thing myself, letting me make the world new again with scraps of paper and scissors, with thread and needles and pieces of cast-off clothing. But my grandmother was dead now – a fact potent and irreversible as the moment we were caught in just then, there in the sun-bright yard.

On my right shoulder, the diaper bag sagged, an oversized plastic bag with big pockets and pouches that I’d taken to church that morning, filled with the useful necessities for going to church with small children. In it was a bottle of whole milk, six folded cotton diapers, two pairs of rubber pants, a pacifier, my coin-bag of spare change, half a roll of cherry Lifesavers, a fistful of broken crayons, several ballpoint pens which were missing their lids, a pencil, and a worn black Bible, the one with only my first name, "Anne," engraved in gold letters on the front cover – and I recall being grateful in that moment that I hadn’t added my last name – my married name – grateful that I’d not had his last name engraved on it too (though that had only been a matter of cost back then, not prescience), the Bible with the page titled “Marriages” missing: the page on which had been recorded the time and place and date of my marriage to the children's father, February 17, 1972. The page which I’d torn out the afternoon the man had announced to me he was leaving. No sense, I’d thought that afternoon, in torturing myself with that memory every time I open the book in church. The page that had followed it was torn out too – the page titled “Deaths” – because, in a fit of pique and spite, I’d written the man’s full name in there on the day the divorce had been finalized and, alongside it, in my loopy cursive hand, the words, He’s dead now, to me. As the shock of the man's leaving had settled, I'd grown ashamed of myself for that and decided to tear it away so my children would not have to be reminded of it by stumbling across it in the years to come.

And so it was that, while all our earthly belongings were thrown out onto the yard, in a heap, breaking or broken, I took my frightened children by the hand, and set off walking. I walked in a straight line away from the debris and I did not look back. And while I led them away, I told them stories and recited all the poems I knew by heart. The children made up songs of their own along the way and they all played in the city park together until sunset, the boys running after squirrels and my daughter sucking slowly on one left-over cherry Lifesavers, seeing how long she could hold it on her tongue before it dissolved to just a sweet aftertaste. But when the sun dropped, the children grew tired and fussy. The twilight chill was setting in and the boys were shivering in their thin shirtsleeves. Their good brown shoes were scuffed and dusty from playing in the dirt. I noticed then that my daughter’s arms were covered with chilblains though the girl had not uttered even one word of complaint. Nor had she even asked a question about what was happening to us. At six-and-a-half years old, she probably had an idea that things had, somehow, gone wrong. Or, as my people were wont to say, that things had "gone South."

The children were no longer pacified by then with the left-over candy pieces. They wanted their sandwiches and half-cups of milk, their beds, their footed sleepers, and their blankets. The baby slept on my lap, still wrapped in the blue blanket that could have covered all of them should the occasion arise. And it occurred to me, just then, that the occasion might have, in fact, arrived.

I took the children in hand then and led them down under the basement steps of the schoolhouse nearby, settling them to sleep against me, tucking the covers tightly around them as they tangled together in sleep just the way they slept most nights at home, the two youngest boys sucking their thumbs, the girl pulling her ponytail free of the green rubber-band and barrette.

Like a litter of puppies, I’d thought, those mornings when I’d risen to set the oatmeal cooking in the steel pot and had gone in to waken them, finding them all piled together in one bed or another.

I watched over them all that night in that way a mother watches her children when the world shifts, darkly, around them. Sometimes, when they fretted in half-sleep or uneasy dreams, I hummed to them. But I never, ever wept. To every thing there is a season. And, while a hard season had certainly come upon us, this was not yet a season for weeping. This was a season for practical matters like finding food and shelter until I could think my way clear, until I could find some means by which to set the gone-crooked things of our lives straight again.

Next morning, I woke the children early, all of them rising before the slumbering townspeople rose, before the garbage trucks lumbered through the starless, early-morning streets, before the stray dogs overturned the over-full silver trash cans in the alleyways between the downtown storefronts. We set out walking again, the four of us holding hands, me shifting the baby back and forth from one stiff hip to the other. I whispered to them, We’re going on an adventure today.

What, Mama, they wanted to know, what adventure? Where are we walking to today?

So I told them stories about a place called "The End Of The World," a long walk from Alabama, a kind of start-over place, and a very long walk from the front yard where all the remnants of their former life lay splintered and damp in the dew-wet morning. And that’s when my middle boy, the odd one, remembered something he had wanted to tell her before the officers had arrived.

Mama, he said, his dark eyes widening, did you know Jiminy Cricket can play the violin?

I smiled then and told him that, yes, I did know that and wasn’t it an amazing thing that a cricket could play a violin? He nodded excitedly and his older brother and sister had to admit it was pretty amazing.

He went quiet then and we all went on walking together, on our way to Somewhere Else. Then the boy said, I would like to walk somewhere with that cricket, just him and me. We would walk a long way and I would make up songs and he would play his violin. We would walk and walk until we got to the end of the world. Then we would sit down and take off our shoes and hang our tired feet out into space.

I was surprised by that and asked him if he wouldn’t miss everyone who loved him.

He thought hard about that for a minute and then he said, Oh good idea, Mama. We will take Bear with us. But as for the fleas, they are going to have to stay home with you.

The other children laughed at him then, the funny, odd, middle brother. I laughed too. And then we all grew quiet again remembering, maybe, what the boy had forgotten: that Bear had died last winter. We’d found him in the shed, stiff, his fur matted with feces where his bowels had given way in the night. I'd had to dig a hole in the hard December ground, had had to lift him by myself and wrap him in the old blanket he’d slept on for two years, had had to carry him awkwardly and roll him into that hole all by myself, nine months pregnant, because the man refused to be party to the dog’s burial since he’d never wanted a dog in the first place and had told her so time and again. So I’d called the children out to stand around the hole in the yard, to say goodbye to Bear, then I’d sent them back inside again while I’d shoveled the dirt and clods of winter-brown grass over the hole in which the dead beast lay. Only when I'd finally finished and straightened up again, holding to the shovel’s rough handle, one hand in the small of my aching back, had I seen the children clustered at the back window, watching it all.

For my middle boy though, the only world that mattered was the world as he made it up. And Bear was still somewhere in that world, as far as he could tell. The burial hole didn’t wholly exist for him and neither did the rough cross I'd made of two garden stakes wired together to mark the dog's place in the yard.

A handy thing, that kind of gift, I thought. A gift I’d like to have had in times like these. A gift for making the world over again. In your own image. To your own liking.

By noon, the children were starting to whine for food, tugging at my skirt and sleeves, stumbling against each other. I kept saying, as much for myself as for them, Soon, babies. Real soon. Just let me think a minute. But the bitter pill of truth was that I didn’t know where I was going to find them a next meal. I stopped and leaned against the lamppost as the weight of that fact hit me. And while I leaned there, head down, trying to think, holding the half-full bottle of lukewarm milk in my hand, I fell asleep on my feet. For just a second. Maybe two. It was the shattering glass that woke me. A real-world echo of something starting to shatter inside of me. I felt my stunned face crumpling when I saw the only bottle I had left on the sidewalk. In pieces. Something like our lives, I thought.

To everything there is a season…a season…a season….

The meaningless loop of that line from the old Proverb kept playing in my head, like a badly-scratched record, not moving on, endlessly replaying itself. The children started crying then, because I was, and the baby squalled loudly on my hip, hungry, wanting his bottle. And, in that moment, it was as if I could almost hear them. From far away. In a country outside of myself. Strangers to me. My own children.

What story could I tell just then that would make any sense to them?

And that is when the man who owned the drugstore walked outside and touched my arm and, because I was stunned and lost, I let him lead me and the children inside, speaking quietly to me though it seemed I could only take in parts of what he was trying to say to me. Something about him having another bottle inside. Something about sitting down in one of the booths to rest while he brought the children something to eat.

I mumbled back at him, told him I only had nickels left in my coin-purse. Not enough to pay him for it, any of it. He went to the kitchen and brought back a bottle filled with cold milk for my baby boy who took hold of it, sucking loudly at the nipple. Then the man brought hamburgers and French fries to the rest of us, and on each plate was a slice of a kosher dill pickle, the garlicky kind like my grandmother used to give me when I was a girl. The children ate, greedy, and did not thank the man. So I thanked him for them and began to relax though I could not make my mind step one minute past this kindness and back out onto the street. When he placed a plate before me, I thanked him again, but I did not eat the sandwich. I wrapped it in a paper napkin when he wasn’t looking and tucked it inside the diaper bag – “just in case,” I told the children who watched me, wide-eyed, not knowing what to make of it, though even I did not really know “just in case” what.

When the man sat down in the booth seat across from where I sat, with his cooking apron still tied on, he spoke to me in that tone of voice people use to tell each other a secret. He told me about an abandoned mill at the edge of town, near the old graveyard and the farmers’ fields, a mill where other women were living: some with children and some who were widowed or immigrants.

People who have no one else, he said.

I looked up at him then, as if I were waking from a long stupor. I noticed that he wore a plaid flannel shirt under his starched white apron and that the apron was very clean. How, I wondered, does he cook and not muss his apron? I had always been a clumsy cook. Even my best aprons were always smudged or smeared, stained with blueberries or gravy or some other ingredient I’d been cooking with. And I’d have smudges of flour or cornmeal on my face where I’d pushed back my stringy bangs with my cooking hand while I read the recipe. The man I had been married to complained about that when he was leaving, about coming home every evening and finding me there, looking “bedraggled,” looking like something the cat had dragged back in, half-dead, from a muddy field.

A man likes a woman to be the woman he married, he’d said, Sexy, and smart. He'd said I had begun, with each new baby, to look more and more like an old dish-rag instead of a twenty-six year-old woman.

And that’s what I thought about while I listened to the neat man sitting in front of me: that he was neat and clean and efficient. Things I had wanted, once upon a time, to be. Things I had aspired to.

People who have no one else, the neat man had said. And that surely was me, though it was the first time I had thought of it exactly in that way. He'd said, My friend, Darlene, is coming to drive you out there.

His "friend" he’d called that woman who was coming to get us. Of course someone like this man had friends. I hadn’t had a friend in years. Not one. Not a neighbor who dropped over for coffee and gossip. Not someone I’d gone to high school with. Not the women at the Baptist church. And certainly not the man I’d been married to for eight years. No friends. Not a single one.

What I’d had was four children and a stillborn, premature child no one mentioned, ever, in my presence. What I'd had was a house to clean and a garden to tend and clothes to mend and beds to make and meals to cook and dishes to wash and floors to scrub. What I’d had was busy hands and a mind that churned on dreams, on the “one-day-soon” kind of dreams that get you through the endless minutiae of a life filled-to-bursting with diapers and potty-training, the kind of dreams that get you through the relentless, every-endless-day of it all, the times you find yourself elbow-deep in dishwater. I’d had faith too once. Faith like a mustard seed, I thought: a little, stingy faith, a mean one, truth be told, and kindness barely enough to fill a thimble.

You’ll be safe there, the man said then, and before he stood up again and went back behind the counter, he placed his hand over mine in a way that I thought was kindly for a stranger.

So in the twelve days and nights and days in that abandoned brick mill, in the days before I found my way into a borrowed house – a “subsidized” house, as they’d called it in the Welfare Office where I’d put my name on a list and had endured, in silence, the loud remarks and jeers of the other women there who were insulted that a white woman had “let herself come to this” – in those twelve days and nights, I had learned gratitude. First for that man, then for the Sisters of Mercy: nuns who brought over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Koolaid every midday, even Sundays, to the women and children who lived in that mill. The nuns who sometimes included Cheese Nips and Oreos. Nuns who had never borne or raised children of their own, never married, those Brides of Christ made widows at the altar of God, who seemed pleased with the mill children’s squeals of delight at seeing the extra treats. And once, apples. Apples that reminded me of the charred tree that had provided so many jars of homemade applesauce and windfalls for the deer. Apples. And memories that made me homesick.

Homesick. I was homesick. Heartsick, too, maybe.

I did my part, though, passing the days tending children – mine and others – or taking turns with the other younger women who sneaked off to wash diapers and clothes in the icy creek at the edge of the farm nearby. I hummed and taught the mill children how to make cat’s cradle with a knotted piece of yarn torn from a cast-off sweater. I told them bedtime stories. From me they learned songs like “B-I-N-G-O’ and “I wish I was a little bar of soap,” a song that made the children fall to fits of giggling every time they got to the word “hiney.” And when someone got sick, it was I who felt their foreheads, who sent my boys to dip the pieces torn from slips and discarded petticoats in the ice-rimed creek, I who placed the cool rags on their foreheads. I sat watch all night over the sick ones, just as I had in the years in which I had worked the hospital wards. And when the gastroenteritis took the youngest and the frailest off to wasting and early deaths, I helped carry their bodies to the far edge of the field where a farmer would bring a cart for their bodies and see to it that they were "properly buried" in pauper's graves.

I rocked the little ones who remained, who were orphans then, and shushed them calm again until they went off with the nuns to become wards of the state or be adopted. And I sat silently with the grieving mothers, feeling that little gnawing in my gut that I knew was fear. Surely, I thought, surely God has required enough of me. Surely, He will not ask this of me too. And I watched my children zealously for signs of fever or diarrhea, for malaise, for anything that might go suddenly, badly wrong.

At night, when the mill was quiet and the women had gone out who would be with men for money – money which they would exchange for groceries and medicine and bring back to those of us who did not go out to men – I would fill again that old ache in me for books. I would pull out the Bible from that diaper bag and read it by the window if there was a moon. And I argued with God. Took up again then my old quarrel with Him, with this God of my father, this omnipotent, all-seeing, merciful God who wanted something I was not willing to give just then: praise. I started with the Psalms, the first one right on through to the final one. Then I moved into Jeremiah because, of all the prophets – those old mouthpieces of doom and gloom – Jeremiah was the only one who’d gone beyond the retribution part and had mentioned the coming-home again. With weeping. Which in my estimation, would have to be part of any kind of coming home again. Sorrow and joy mingling. Jeremiah 31: With weeping they shall all come home again. With weeping.

And as the nights went by in that mill, I took to writing in the white spaces, into the neat, empty margins around the old Psalms and the Proverbs, writing my own dark little psalms, first to God, then to the departed ones, then to no one in particular except maybe some lost version of who I used to be. Once upon a time. Writing my way out of this – whatever "this" was turning into – and back, happily, into the ordinary, dailyever-after, though I hadn’t been able to see it as clearly as all that back then, elbow-deep in dishwater and detergent, toddlers perpetually underfoot, a baby wailing in his crib, the pantry more and more bare with every passing day.

That’s what I had, in those days and nights: my dark little hymns, my own raw gift-laid-on-the-bloody-altar-of-life kind of singing. I thought the endless walking past all this and on to Somewhere Else might just BE the thing that could save me, that and the double-edged blade of my own voice, my stunned singing. Walking and singing. Holding my children’s hands and singing my dark little psalms to nobody in particular. And walking. Walking past the all hard and gone-wrong things to the end of the world where I could sit down at last, me and my children, and hang our tired feet out into space where it would be cool and dark and filled with stars.

Photo collection of Anne Caston (courtesy of photos.com)