Mary Louise and Santy
Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.
Three fir trees on the edge of the forest were chatting one morning in early December.
A huge fellow, about twenty feet tall and wide at the base, ruffled his limbs. “I don’t know what you two guys are planning for Christmas but I expect to be center of attention downtown this year. Oh yeah, on the square overseeing the Christmas parade. Anybody who is anybody will be there with their kids watching the parade pass in front of me. I’ll be lit to the max with lights and a star on top.”
“That’s nothing,” a ten footer with lush green boughs replied. “I mean, if you go for that common man scene where they let absolutely everyone near you, I suppose that’s okay. As for myself, I’m selective about my company. Not saying I’m better than anyone else, but let’s just say I have discerning taste. I’m winding up in the grand foyer of a millionaire’s mansion, decorated with only the most expensive ornaments and lights. I’m talking Waterford crystal here, and I’ve got the branches to hold them.”
The third tree, not more than three feet tall and with scrawny limbs, just stood there without much to say.
“What about you, junior? What do you expect to be doing on Christmas morning? Brunching with the chipmunks?” The middle-sized tree blurted forth a forced ha-ha-ha. A nice baritone but shallow as could be.
“Now, now,” the largest tree chided. “We shouldn’t make fun of our inferiors. We all can’t be the best, most important Christmas trees in town. Not even second best, like you who will be charming to a small group but not as the official town tree.”
The littlest tree felt like he was about to ooze sap out of sadness but knew it wouldn’t do any good. The other trees were right. Who would want him except for kindling for the fire? He wasn’t big enough to make a decent Yule log.
Just at that time a caravan of cars leading a large tractor-trailer truck pulled up in front of the three trees. A group of important-looking dignitaries crawled from their cars and circled the largest tree as the crew pulled its equipment from the truck.
“Oh, yes, I think this one will do fine,” a large bald man announced as though he was thoroughly practiced at making important decisions.
“Oh yes, Mr. Mayor, this one will be more than fine.” The others standing next to him quickly agreed with him.
The crew started its chain saw, chopped the fir down and laid it on the flatbed truck.
“See you never, suckers!” the biggest tree called as the municipal procession disappeared.
“Commoner!” the middle-sized tree replied.
A couple of hours passed before a long limousine with shaded windows rolled up to the two remaining firs. A chauffeur jumped from the driver’s seat and opened the door for a couple elegantly dressed in fur and leather. The woman, with her artificially colored blonde hair piled on her head, sipped from a champagne glass, while the man fixated on his cell phone.
“Oh, Maxim,” the woman cooed. “You did a wonderful job scouting out the most beautiful tree in the forest.” She ran her fingers across the chauffeur’s broad shoulders. “Of course, you do everything well.” She turned to the man on the phone. “So, what do you think Joey? Is it big enough for our grand staircase?”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” The man didn’t look up from his phone. “Max, cut it down.”
The chauffeur cut down the middle-sized tree, carefully tied it to the top of the limousine and they got into the car to drive away.
“Good luck, shrimp! You’ll need it!” the tree called out as the car disappeared around the bend.
At the end of the day, the sky darkened, and a small old car rambled up to the small tree and stopped. Three small children poured out of the back seat and ran to the little tree.
“Oh, daddy, this one will be perfect!” they sang as a chorus.
“That’s good,” a young man in ragged overalls said. “Anything bigger wouldn’t have fit in the car.”
A wispy haired young woman came around the car. “Stand back, children. I don’t want you close when your daddy starts using that axe.”
“Oh, Mommy, you worry too much,” one of the children said with a laugh.
On Christmas Eve, everyone in town gathered on the square to watch the Christmas parade and ooh and ah over the beautiful lit giant tree. Floats rolled by, and the people on them pointed and shouted at the town’s big Christmas tree. Bands with drummers, tubas and more marched past. Each one made the tree feel prouder and prouder.
On Christmas Eve night, elegantly dressed couples gathered in the millionaire’s mansion and oohed and awed over the beautifully decorated tree by the grand staircase. They all drank champagne and nibbled on appetizers served on a silver tray by Maxim who also turned out to be the butler. The ladies in their lovely gowns asked the millionaire’s wife when they were leaving for their estate in the Bahamas.
“Midnight,” she replied. “We always spend Christmas day in the Bahamas. It’s our family tradition.”
Also on Christmas Eve night, across town in a small wooden house, the family decorated the little tree which they placed on a table in the corner of the living room. The room smelled delicious from the freshly popped corn which they strung and hung on the tree. The children kept busy coloring, cutting and hanging the new ornaments on the little tree. The room was alive with the constant giggling of the children, and the little tree decided this wasn’t a bad place to be.
The next morning, everyone in town was home, opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner with family and friends. The large tree downtown had already been forgotten. It kept hoping to hear another oom pa pa coming down the street but it didn’t. The enormous fir shivered first from the cold wind and then from the loneliness. It couldn’t decide which was worse.
In the millionaire’s mansion, everything was dark and still. All the elegantly dressed people were gone. Numbing silence replaced the insincere wishes for a happy holiday season. The middle-sized tree decided all that Waterford crystal was making its branches droop. Not even Maxim was there.
Meanwhile, in the small house across town, the family gathered around the tree to open presents. The children tore away wrapping paper to see new socks and underwear and hugged their parents gratefully for it. Then they cooked their modest Christmas feast and settled back around the tree with their plates in their laps and ate every bite of it.
Now you tell me. Which was the grandest Christmas tree of all?
Clarice had serious moral reservations about having fun based on her genetic inability to smile or laugh. The best she could muster were slightly upturned corners of her mouth which her church friends interpreted as sweet and gentle. Those relatives who were required to observe the traditional Sunday dinner and afternoon gossip session knew that expression was neither sweet nor gentle.
On one particular Sunday, an attendee squirmed in the silence which had lasted five minutes or more had the audacity to speak up.
“Did anyone see the story on television last night about the little boy who sneaked into a balloon which his father launched over Los Angeles? It seemed the whole thing was a hoax. He hid under the bed while his father pretended to be horrified that his son would be killed in the accident. The plan was to land the family its own reality television show based on the adventures of the real-life Dennis the Menace son.”
Clarice arched an eyebrow. “I watch the Christian station from Pensacola. It has such nice music, and the pastor is a Bible scholar.”
Properly chastised, the relative lowered her head and remained silent the rest of the afternoon along with the other monastics seated around the room, one daughter, her husband, two children, an aunt, uncle and a couple of cousins.
“I don’t understand why my grandchildren don’t want to sit next to me. After all, they don’t know how long they will have their grandmother with them.”
The mother elbowed her son and daughter and nodded toward the dining room where the most elegant and uncomfortable chairs waited to be carried into the living room and placed around Clarice’s lounger. When the children finally managed to squeeze the chairs around the oversized recliner and sit, Clarice sighed.
“You didn’t have to go to all that trouble. The children could have just sat on the floor.”
Another hour of silence passed before Clarice announced it was time for her nap. The cousins were the first to escape through the front door. Aunt and uncle were next. Before her daughter’s family could make it out, Clarice sighed again.
“You could nap in the spare bedrooms and then we could have leftovers for supper.”
“The children have homework, Dan is expecting a call from his parents, I have laundry to do, you really need your rest.”
“If you really don’t want to stay I won’t force you. But I did buy those games I keep in the spare closet for the children to play, and they’ve never played with them.”
The following Sunday, upon instruction from their mother, the son and daughter pulled out the games and tried to engage their grandmother in a rousing afternoon of Monopoly.
“Do we really need to use all these pieces?”
A couple of years later, when the relatives arrived for Sunday dinner, they found Clarice dead in her bed from an apparent heart attack. The aunt and uncle cried, the cousins comforted them and the mother was the one who sighed. All of the relatives and church friends attended the lovely funeral and spoke incessantly of Clarice’s sweet smile and how they would miss it. By the time the last car pulled away from the cemetery, Clarice’s ghost returned to her home where she was appalled to see that her daughter had already begun packing up her heirlooms and marking each one, “Salvation Army”.
This was not the last indignity Clarice was to suffer. After a year of rambling through her empty house, Clarice observed her daughter finally selling it to a nice couple with children. The very first act of impudence by the family was painting each room a different bright color. Clarice was astonished that they didn’t realize that white made a house look more spacious. As the family members talked among themselves Clarice was further confounded that this was the very same family that had pretended that its son was on the balloon floating over Los Angeles. They had moved to Florida and now resided in her house which had always been a monument to silence and grace.
The son was now a teen-ager with shoulder length hair. The father converted the garage into a rock and roll studio and coached his son on how to twist his head around so his hair would fly in all directions.
“My dear Lord,” Clarice whispered, “why did you allow this family to move into my home?”
Immediately she heard a voice.
“Because, unlike you, I have a sense of humor.”
Many things didn’t measure up to Maude’s standards. If she didn’t like the way her daughter Janet made her bed Maude would remake it herself before Janet came home from school. When Maude retired to Florida and had a heart attack, Janet and I moved to live close to her. We spent the first weekend after Thanksgiving decorating her house for Christmas. The next time we came over we saw that all the decorations had been changed by her housekeeper. Maude explained it had to look just right in case her church friends came to visit.
When things didn’t go exactly the way she wanted, Maude’s feelings were hurt, although she always insisted nothing hurt her feelings. I pressed that I could tell something had gone wrong. She snapped, “Of course my feelings were hurt.” I should have had the good sense to know her feelings were hurt without forcing her to say so.
But she was haunted only one time, and the haunting lasted for years.
She and her husband Jim flew down to Texas for Christmas when our son Josh was about two years old. Janet and I found Tonka trucks on sale and bought two for him. They were almost big enough for him to ride. When Maude and Jim saw them, they had to buy three more.
Call me old-fashioned, but I felt like I was spoiling Josh by getting him two. Now he had five, and I don’t think he exactly knew what to do with them all. Janet, better acquainted with her parents better than I, gave me strict instructions to smile and thank them for buying him enough trucks to start his own landfill company.
Finally that blessed day came when we drove them to the airport. At the gate I handed Josh over to say good-bye to Grandpa and Grandma. I think he misunderstood my intentions because when he was ensconced in Maude’s arms he turned to look at me and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Good-bye.”
“Oh no, dear, you’re not saying good-bye to your mommy and daddy,” Maude explained. “You’re saying good-bye to us.”
When the situation was made clear, Josh leapt from her arms back into mine. He started stroking the back of my head. With a sweet smile he looked back at his grandparents and said, “Good-bye.”
Okay, I have to admit I liked having him pat and stroke the back of my head as we returned to our car. This was going to be one of those memories tucked away in the recesses of my brain and brought out when I needed a nice smile.
Of course, with Maude, that was not to be. For the next several years when we gathered together she would talk of the time when Josh was handed to her and he thought he was going home with them instead.
“Oh, the look in his sad little eyes,” Maude emoted, “and then the look of joy as he jumped out of my arms to his father. It just haunts me.”
A couple of years later when we visited them in Virginia, Maude purposely told Janet and me to stay at their home while she took Josh to her husband’s office. When they returned, Maude was elated. She told us that as they walked in, my son squealed, “Granddaddy!” and ran into his arms.
“The look on Jim’s face was pure joy. The women in the office ‘oohed” and ‘ahed’ about how much Josh adored his grandfather.” Maude inserted a dramatic pause worthy of any tragic actress. “That’s why I was glad Jerry wasn’t there. Otherwise, Josh would have stuck to his father and not gone to Jim.”
She repeated the stories of the haunting throughout the years until, against my better judgement, I asked her why it bothered her so much that Josh clung to me as a child.
“Oh, it didn’t bother me.”
“But the word you chose to describe it was ‘haunted’.”
“Well, I just meant it stayed with me.”
“That’s not what the word haunted means. Haunted means it covered you with gloom.”
As she often did when a conversation turned in a direction she didn’t like, Maude looked off into space as though she were talking to someone who didn’t exist.
“I just can’t say anything around him without him becoming upset.”
Since I was only five years old, my memory of that day is dim and rather muddled.
Happiness, I suppose, crowds out the bad feelings. Mom and Dad both worked. She sold dresses at a big store downtown. She always looked pretty when she left me at the nursery school each morning where I sat on the floor playing with trucks and building blocks. Mom wore bright red lipstick and rouge on her cheeks. When she hugged me good-bye she smelled of roses. I didn’t know what Daddy did at work, mostly sat in an office and talked on the telephone. Later I figured out he sold insurance.
Anyway, on this cloudless, briskly cool day in late November—it was a Friday, I remember now—I didn’t go to the nursery school. Mommy dressed me in clothes I usually wore to Sunday School. Instead, all three of us climbed into the car and drove downtown, left the car in a big lot and walked several blocks to a park where all these streets came together.
About halfway there, I tugged on Daddy’s sleeve and told him I was getting tired walking all that way. He smiled and lifted me to his shoulders, and the rest of the way I was taller than anyone else on the street, and there were a lot of people on the street that day. Daddy always carried me on his shoulders the very first time I would say I was tired. To the day he died many years later I never admitted to him that I wasn’t really that tired. I just liked being so high above everyone around me. Like I said, happiness.
When we arrived at the park, we saw it was filled with all kinds of people—young, old, white, black, some were dressed nice like us and others had some pretty raggedy shirts and pants. I don’t remember ever going there before. Daddy told me we had driven through the park to get on the big highway many times but I was usually busy playing in the back seat. Looking around I saw one tall brick building with people leaning out of all the windows. There was a big sign on the roof.
“What does that sign say, Daddy?”
“That’s a funny name.”
“It’s the name of a car rental company,” Mommy said.
“I don’t know what rental means,” I replied.
Before Daddy or Mommy could explain what rental meant, the crowd started yelling and jumping up and down. I saw a lot of people with cameras. By the time the police on motorcycles began riding by, the noise was so loud I couldn’t hear anything Mommy and Daddy were saying. Even Daddy jumped a little when this one big car with no top slowly turned the corner and to drive towards us.
Shots rang out. They sounded like firecrackers. Before I knew it, we were on the ground, and Daddy was on top of me. My first thought was that Mommy was going to be mad because my Sunday School clothes got dirty. Then I started crying. I didn’t know why; maybe because everyone else was crying. I even saw tears on Daddy’s cheeks.
I am now an old man. People always ask me what I remember about being in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on the day President Kennedy was shot. The only thing I really remember is the happiness I felt being on Daddy’s shoulders. I know they wouldn’t be interested in that. Instead, I tell them, “I saw the nice lady in the car with the pink hat.”
“Why are you late?
My mother said that almost every time I walked in the door. Sometimes I was down the street at a friend’s house. His family had the first television on the block. Mickey Mouse Club came on at 4 p.m., and was an hour long. The first half was singing, dancing and acting silly. It was all right. I was too young to appreciate fully Annette Funicello at that time. When I was older she became Annette Full of Jello and much more fascinating. The second half was a serial. My favorite was Spin and Marty, two boys at a summer camp. Spin was a city street kid, and Marty was a naïve rich kid. At first they didn’t like each other, but by the third season they were buddies. As soon as the final song–“MIC, see you real soon, KEY, Why? Because we love you”—finished I was supposed to be out the door and headed home. In the winter the sky was getting dark at that time of time. Everyone knew if you were caught outside after dark, something terrible was going to happen.
The only situation worse was to be out of the house in the dark and dark clouds rumbled with thunder and lightning. My brother was bringing me home from the movies. He always resented having to pick me up places. It cut into his cruising time up and down the main drag of down. On the average I’d have to wait about thirty minutes on the street outside the theater. When I decided to start walking home, he became even madder I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
“Why are you late? Didn’t you see the clouds in the sky? Didn’t you realize it was about to rain?” my mother said with a particularly angry exasperation.
Yes, I knew it was about to rain. I knew she was going to be hysterical, but there wasn’t much I could do about it since my brother continued to scour Main Street for a girl desperate enough to go out with him. Of course, I would never get away with saying that so I instead went into my sniveling little coward role and whined, “I’m sorry.” I suspected she gave up her tirade because she didn’t want to listen to me whimper. On the other hand, my brother jutted his chin up and out as he walked right past Mother without acknowledging her.
As a child I seriously debated myself whether I wished to bother to try to date when I was a teen-ager. The appeal of the young ladies hardly seemed worth the inquisition. If my brother came in after ten o’clock, she would greet him at the front door with her hands on her hips. She knew the movie downtown never let out after nine o’clock. You could drive a young lady home anywhere in town and still be home by ten.
“Why are you late?”
He tried to ignore as was his custom, but she blocked his path. Squinting she pushed her nose into his face.
“Let me smell your breath.”
“Aww, Mom.” He took a quick step to the left and escaped into the next room.
“Are you having sex with that girl? You better not get her pregnant!”
That imperative statement contained two major ironies. One, my brother did start coming in staggering from a few too many beers, and when he did Mother just stood there giggling, finding the way he lost his balance and fell on the sofa to be quaintly enchanting.
However, Father was not amused at all. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re scaring the hell out of your little brother!”
The other irony was that by the time he finally got a woman pregnant I was married and had impregnated my wife, and I was six years younger than he was.
The fear of being on the receiving end of the withering question “Why are you late?” tended to make any situation worse. One year for Halloween my mother took me downtown to a five and dime so I could buy a mask for the school festival. She sat out in the car while I was supposed to rush in to pick out the mask. I stood in front of the table and froze. Not only did it infuriate Mother for me to be late, she also blew up if I spent too much money on foolish things such as Halloween masks. I saw ones I liked but they were too expensive. Dithering for too long a moment, I finally decided on the cheapest thing I could find. By the time I paid for it and ran out to the car, it was too late—Mother’s face was crimson.
“Why are you late? How hard was it to pick out a simple mask? Now I have a splitting headache!”
Well, that took the thrill out of Halloween, and it was the last one before entering junior high school. Once you’re in junior high you’re too big to wear silly Halloween masks.
I soon found out the reason Mother had such a short fuse. She had cancer and died before I entered high school. All dread of the scoldings went out the window. After a while I kind of missed them. It wasn’t any fun staying out after midnight on a date because Father went to bed at 9 o’clock every night and didn’t know when I came in or even that I had gone out in the first place. In fact, I was usually home by ten o’clock anyway. After all, the movie was over by 9:30. We could make the drag a couple of times to see who else was out that night, drop by the local drive-in for a quick soda and still be home in time to make Mother happy, if Mother had been there.
I am now older than my mother was when she died. I’m still home by ten o’clock. I never had to stand by the front door demanding why my children were late coming home. My son hardly ever went to movies unless it was Star Wars, and my daughter always dated guys who had earlier curfews than she did.
With luck I have a few more years. Boring people like me usually live a long time. It’s too strenuous to do anything exciting. But I do know that when my life is up and I finally am reunited with my loved ones in heaven, my mother will be standing at the Pearly Gates with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her lips.
“Why are you late?”
I laughed (on the inside) the first time Janet and I visited her mother after we returned from our honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains. As is true of many newlyweds, Janet was kidding around about one of my human flaws. I have a sleep disorder so I am loud and twist and turn at night. I had warned Janet about it before the wedding, but it was worse than she anticipated.
Maude raised an eyebrow, an all-knowing smile perched on her pouty lips, and she lifted her coffee cup to take a sip.
“Well, you should have slept with him first, and then you would have known.”
Janet, who had lived with her mother for more than twenty years, knew better and said not a word.
I didn’t say anything either. But I did think I wish I had known about her cavalier views on premarital sex because we could have had a whole lot more fun on our dates. Not really. Janet and I always adhered to our own personal rules of behavior.
Janet clued me in that her mother often gave advice before considering all the ramifications of what she was saying.
It was a long time before I fully comprehended the extent of Maude’s penchant for quick judgements.
By the time our son was born, we were living in Texas so we drove to their little mountain town for a two-week visit. Each evening we would drive through every holler to visit Maude’s friends and relatives. By the weekend we had heard a litany of family problems and unfiltered gossip about the neighbors. We decided we needed a couple of days at Gatlinburg for fun time for our young family before starting week two of smiling and nodding as the rest of Maude’s family told us things we didn’t want to know.
After a couple of years like this, I foolishly asked if there were a way to have them all over at Maude’s house one evening so we could say hello to them at one time. She fluttered her big blue eyes.
“Oh, they work during the week, and you insisted on going to the Smokies on the weekend, so this is their only chance to see the baby.”
I wasn’t asking the kinfolk to take a day off from work, and I thought that Virginia mountain people were rugged enough to endure a drive to Maude’s house for an hour or two reception on a week night.
By this time I knew it was futile to discuss such issues so we decided to drop off at Gatlinburg for one day on our way to Maude’s house. But I could tell from the holy judgement in her eyes that she was not pleased.
Over the years I learned what Janet knew all along. It was easier to go ahead and do what Maude wanted in the first place.
Eventually Maude moved to Spring Hill, Florida, and immediately telephoned us to say she was terribly lonely living in her lovely, big new home. She begged us to move near her. We should have known better, but we did exactly what she wished. I still tried to defer to her better judgement. Our daughter Heather was about six or seven and wanted to go down the street to play with some friends, which Maude had selected for her.
“I’m sure your friends’ mother will have them wear a jacket,” she informed my daughter.
“What do you think, Daddy?” my little girl asked.
I lowered my head. My initial instinct was that the current cool in the air would dissipate in less than an hour (remember, this was Florida). I deferred to Maude. “Whatever Grandma thinks best, dear.”
“Oh no,” Maude said magnanimously. “Whatever your father decides will be best.”
Foolishly I believed her. “”It’ll be warm before you know it. Don’t bother with a jacket.”
“Of course, the neighbor’s children will be wearing their jackets, and we don’t want their mother to think we don’t care about Heather’s health.”
I put a jacket on her and send her on her way. I looked out the window to see that, indeed, the other children had jackets off. Within ten minutes all three jackets were on the ground, and none of the children suffered even a slight sniffle.
But Maude was right. Maude was always right.
Unbeknownst to each other at the time, Janet and I were very practical. We both knew the most important task after high school was to learn a skill that would make us money the rest of our lives. After that was accomplished we looked for jobs. Once we had regular paychecks coming in, we started looking for someone to love and marry. We met at a conference dinner and started dating. She lived an hour’s drive away, so I proposed quickly. If she wasn’t interested in me, I wanted to know fast so I wouldn’t continue waste gas money on her. (Okay, we didn’t live like we were in a romance novel.) Once we were married we agreed we wanted to have two years to have fun together and learn to live together with as little conflict as possible. When we accomplished all that and the doctor confirmed that Janet had conceived, we announced it to her parents, Maude and Jim.
And we were not ready for the response.
After staring at us for a long awkward moment, Maude said, “Your cousin Patty Belle and her husband just bought a new car and their old one wasn’t that old—“
Jim interrupted. “Oh, Maude, you don’t know what you’re talking about. They bought that car five years ago….”
Not another word was spoken about our announcement. A couple of months went by before Janet couldn’t stand it any longer and she phoned her mother.
“Why did you ignore us when we told you I was going to have a baby?”
“Well, I assumed you just thought you were pregnant. After all, we waited eleven years to have you.”
Janet assumed she was pregnant because her doctor showed her conclusive scientific evidence that there was a bun in the oven. And the reason her mother waited eleven years was that she had an inverted uterus and could conceive only after a sledding accident flipped it. In actuality. Janet and Maude were both 27 years old when they conceived.
I can’t remember what finally convinced Maude that Janet was—as they used to say—in a family way. Maybe Janet got a signed note from her doctor: “To whom it may concern: the holder of this memo is indeed preggers. Yours cordially, Dr. certified obstetrician.” Or maybe Janet showed her the sonogram. But Maude would have thought Janet had accidentally swallowed a watermelon seed and it was sprouting.
Anyway, even though she had to admit the obvious, Maude still kept up a steady conversation on what other family members were up to, which was generally no good.
By the last month no one could deny Janet was on her way to mommyhood by the size of the baby bump. I didn’t know how she could maintain her balance. To keep herself occupied, Janet decided to decorate the small bedroom as a nursery. We put up zoo animal wallpaper on one wall and painted the other three yellow. She didn’t want the traditional pink or blue.
Maude didn’t want us to do anything with the bedroom until after the baby had been born and had survived at least three or four months of life.
I should have known better but I asked her why.
“If the baby were stillborn or died after a week or two, then the decorated room would make Janet sad.”
No, losing the baby would make her sad, not the color of the bedroom walls. Also, the room was already painted and papered. It was a little late to take it all out now, and expensive to put it back when the baby was okay. Finally, yes, we knew bad things can happen, but we always wanted to anticipate the best. We thought life worked out better that way.
The first time I met my future mother-in-law was about 7 p.m. on the night I picked Janet up for our first date. We went to a double feature. One movie had Mick Jagger playing Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. The other movie starred Joseph Cotton and a woman in a gold lame jumpsuit. There was a flying lion in it too, I think.
None of them matched what I saw when Janet’s mother walked out of her bedroom to say hello. Maude—by the way that was her name–was already in her nightgown and was applying gobs of cleansing cream to her face. Thank God she didn’t offer to shake hands. Janet’s father was already in bed so I didn’t meet him which is just as well as I later learned he slept in his underwear.
It seemed her father liked to wake up at 4:30 a.m. so he could leisurely take his shower, shave, dress and eat breakfast before arriving at work an hour earlier than everyone else. That way when they walked in the door coffee was brewing and he was halfway through his day’s work. I presumed he thought it was a nice gesture to intimidate his fellow employees that he was more on the ball than they were. Maude slept in until 6 but she still liked to go to bed at the same time her husband did.
Through the years I realized this was the first clue that life with her family was not going to be normal. This is not to say my family was normal. We were all Looney Tunes but I was born into that den of dodo birds. I didn’t have any choice. But there were plenty of warning signs about entering this new circus.
Wouldn’t you think Maude, at least, could have postponed her nightly beauty regimen until after her daughter’s date picked her up and left the house? Was she being totally clueless or was she being a master of passive aggressive behavior? Perhaps she wanted me to know that while her daughter was excited to go out with the new guy in town, she was not impressed at all.
I must say that when I continued showing up at the house, Maude did go out of her way to make a nice meal, although the meat course tended to be burnt on one side. She liked to talk on the phone while she cooked and if the gossip got extra juicy she’d forget to flip the meat in the frying pan.
And after I proposed to Janet only three months later Maude didn’t protest. She couldn’t really. She was sixteen when she eloped. The next morning she informed her mother by handing her the marriage certificate as she walked back out the door.
Maude made up for the good behavior during the courtship by her antics on the wedding day. First thing she did was to load me up with all the presents that had been brought to the wedding ceremony. So when we walked out of the church you saw the radiant bride and a groom with boxes piled up over his face. Then some lovely child thought it would be fun to stick her foot out to trip me and cause all the boxes to fall down and go boom, including some old lady’s porcelain pickle plate which smashed into a million pieces. For years Maude lamented how I broke that cherished bric-a-brac. She forgot the part about how I was tripped.
I thought I had photographic evidence of what happened but recently I examined the wedding pictures to find them lacking. In the picture with the girl’s leg stuck out I had only one box in my hand, obviously taken after the fall. And another picture showed the presents only went up to my chin and not over my face. The fact remained I still had to carry them out the church door. Maude defended herself.
“Well, they had to get back to the house some way.”
After we drove the one block from the church to their home, I waited for Janet to change into her smart white traveling suit. Maude walked up and smiled sweetly.
“You know her doctor said Janet was very small ‘down there’ so you might not want to have sex.”
That’s always the first thing you want to hear after saying I do.
Finally, before we walked out the door, she looked into Janet’s eyes and said, “You know that if it doesn’t work out you can always come back home.”
Wow, wasn’t that a great set-up. Insert an important doubt in my head and give Janet clearance to land back in mama’s arms. She must have been upset when the marriage plane didn’t crash and burn.
The flags were huge and waving red, but I didn’t care. I chose this circus, these monkeys and these clowns, but only because I adored Janet so much.
The entire family gathered for its evening meal around a circle deep in the forest, its heart interminably tangled in underbrush and vines.
“Hey, Ma,” Junior piped up with his mouth full of berries and nuts, “Buggums and me want to go out human hunting tonight. That’s okay, ain’t it?”
Ma almost spit out her food. “What did you say?”
All the boys my age go out human hunting at night. It’s fun. I ain’t never seen one. All my buddies say they’re real funny lookin’.”
“Gruff, did you just hear what your son said? He wants to go human hunting!” Ma lifted her chin and crinkled her nose in disgust.
“What the hell is going on here?” Gruff looked up as he wiped his paw across his mouth.
“All the boys have seen one, except for Buggums and me. We kinda feel left out,” Junior whined.
“Well, you’ll feel left out forever if one of those hairless bastards points his magic stick at you and blows your brains out!” Ma’s eyes fluttered.
“Oh, Ma, I hear the humans are so dumb they hardly ever shoot no one,” Junior replied.
“You ain’t never seen one of our kind, spread out on the ground, his face staring up at the night skies with this blank look in his eyes, have you?”
Junior hung his head. “No, Pa.”
“I’ve seen way too many dead folks. And they’re not all just youngin’s. I’ve had a couple of close buddies killed. And some nice ladies too. How would you like to come across your ma’s body with blood oozing out of it?”
“Nobody’s told me about that.” Junior paused. “In fact, none of the boys have seen dead bodies. I think you’re trying to scare us like when you told us about the boogeymen.”
“Those damn hairless bastards done scared all the boogeymen away,” Gruff snapped. “You know why you’ve never seen any dead folks? ‘Cause me and all the other men roam the forest at night, find them and give them a proper burial, that’s why. I’ve been tellin’ ‘em we ought to send for you kids to help us buried the dead. That’d shut the whole bunch of you up. But, no, the women start cryin’ boo hoo hoo about how they don’t want their babies to see anything bad.”
“Well, I’ve never seen a dead body, and I don’t think I want to.” Ma sniffed. “That’s way our people have done things and I don’t see no reason to change it. After the old ones die, the men hurry up and bury them on the other side of the forest and then we don’t talk about them anymore.”
“You mean Grandma and Grandpa didn’t go live with their cousins in the Himalayas?” Junior’s eyes widened.
“Naw, they’re ten feet under right over that ridge” Gruff said.
“I don’t know,” Ma offered softly. “I like the idea of thinking Auntie Poopoo was vacationing in the Everglades. She always did like the water.”
“Maybe the humans just get scared and shoot to protect themselves.” Junior was running out of ideas to defend his trip through the woods.
“No, they’re mean bastards,” Gruff shouted. “Mean, ignorant bastards who like to shoot their magic sticks just to see one of us die. Now, if they dragged the body off and skinned it to get the good parts out for supper, well, I could understand that. Everybody’s got a right to eat, but they just leave it to rot. You know what those bastards call us?”
“Beautiful creatures of the forest?” Junior whispered with hope that he was right.
“Hell, no! They call us Big Foot! Now ain’t that smart? Big Foot!” Gruff lifted up his leg to point it at Junior. It must have been twenty-four inches long. “I don’t think this foot is so big!”
“I don’t know. It looks pretty big to me,” Junior replied meekly.
“Don’t worry, Baby.” Ma patted his leg. “You’re just a boy. You’ll have bigger feet than that by the time you grow up.”
“Oh hell no!’ Junior jerked away from his mother.
“And what’s wrong with big feet?” Gruff demanded. “You know what they say, big feet, big—“
“Gruff!” Ma interrupted. “Enough of that.” She turned to Junior. “You understand now why you can’t going looking for the humans, don’t you dear?”
“All the other boys—“
“All the other damn boys are lying!” Gruff bellowed again, half-masticated food flying from his mouth.
“I can take care of myself,” Junior replied, feeling defensive.
Gruff put his food down and walked to Junior, pointing his large hairy index finger at Junior’s temple. “What are you going to do when a hairless bastard rams his magic stick up to your head and it goes boom? Your brains will be all over the ground. The wolves will come up and chomp down on your brains, smacking their lips. But you won’t be see it because you’ll be dead! No more romps in the moonlight with your friends. No more splashing in the mountain streams. No more hugs from your Ma. Because I’ll have to sling your fat-assed body over my shoulder and carry you over the ridge and dig a hole so deep to bury so deep that no other creature will dig you up!”
“Gruff! That’s quite enough! You’re making the baby cry!”
Pa hugged Junior tight to his hairy chest. “Don’t cry, boy. Grow up. Trust me. You don’t ever want to meet one of those hairless bastards. I don’t know what I’d do if….” Gruff’s voice trailed off as he tried not to cry.
As he shuffled back to his dinner, Junior wiped the tears from his eyes with his paw. “If the humans are so bad, Pa, why don’t you and the others just kill ‘em all?”
Gruff laughed as he plopped on the ground. “You can’t even imagine how many of those hairless bastards are out there. Why, most of them don’t even believe we exist. It’s gotta stay that way. If I got mad and killed one of them, then all hell would break loose and every last one of us would be killed.”
“I wouldn’t be too scared to fight ‘em.” Junior tried to find his voice.
“I know you’re brave, Junior.” Gruff smiled and struck his big hairy chest. “I’m brave too. But what good will that do us when all the hairless bastards come after us with those magic sticks?”
“Don’t think your pa is a coward,” Ma interjected. “But he’s also very smart. Running and hiding don’t sit well with him, but he knows if he’s gonna protect us he’s got to do it.”
Junior smiled. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t understand. I promise never to go looking for humans again.” He laughed. “I never realized it. My pa is a real hero.”
“Aw.” Gruff waved his big paw in the cool night air. “Pass me one of those rabbits before it stops bleeding.”