To the Funny Farm

Me Karen MilledgevilleAnd then we were three.

At the ripe old age of 35, my mother became pregnant again, to the consternation of her doctor, who told her that she was much too old to have a baby. Nine months later, however, the black telephone rang on the hall table, and when Grandma Kelly handed me the phone, I heard my mother’s soft voice say, “You have a baby sister.” Karen has been woven into my life from the day when I was four years old and saw the top of her fuzzy little head in my mother’s arms, coming down the driveway in Milledgeville in Daddy’s powder blue 1956 Chevy Bel Aire.

We couldn’t have been more opposite. I was Miss Priss, and she was an athlete from the start. When I was about seven, we were playing in our carport with Ronnie and Pat, our constant companions. Ronnie was known to eat his morning bowl of grits wherever he happened to be, and Pat spent years of his life with a towel fastened around his neck with a safety pin, singing, “Na na na na na na na na—Batman!” Ronnie boasted to me, “Watch me climb this pole!” He worked his way manfully to the top, and I dutifully expressed my admiration. We knew nothing of Lean In at that time; we only knew Southern Belle. Three-year-old Karen declared, “I can do that!” And she shimmied right up in half the time. Ronnie was crestfallen, and my mom had to quickly turn away and walk into the house to hide her laughter.

When we went shopping at Belk, my mother lost sight of her for a moment and found Karen entertaining passers-by in the front display window. Another time, she found her fast asleep in one of Belk’s display cribs. The professional portraits that we had done at Belk when Karen was a toddler show her with curly dark hair, bruised legs, the typical disastrously crooked bangs that display the good intentions of 1960s moms, and a big smile. I once tried to curl her ringlets in our mother’s combination hair dryer/ manicure kit and practically ripped them out of her head. I swear it was an accident.

Me Allan Milledgeville golf
You can tell he’s so happy to have little sisters to interrupt his golf practice. Allan once sent a golf ball right through that wall of windows in the background.

Mom and Dad had an active social life in Milledgeville, and they had provided themselves with a built-in babysitter. Poor Allan, who probably wanted to go to teenaged parties of his own, often got stuck taking care of us, and as with every other female who has smiled at him for his entire life, he did whatever we asked. Our dog, Spot (we were creative), was never allowed in the house, probably because he was an outside dog in south Georgia and covered with ticks and fleas. Mom and Dad would barely get out of the driveway when we would beg, “Oh, please, let Spot in the house! We won’t tell! Promise!” Of course, we told. First thing the next morning. He never learned. The next time he babysat, it would happen all over again.

But revenge is sweet.  Some days, after dark, Allan would call us into his room on some pretext, and of course we would go, because he had a room to himself and was the cool, older brother. Once we were in, he would turn off the lights and play a scary record called, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Haha,” by Napoleon XIV. This was a really creepy song, especially to two gently raised little belles like ourselves. It’s about a guy who loses his mind because his beloved leaves him. It gets echoey and weird, with ambulance sirens in the background. On the flip side of the 45— which, for you young folk, is a small vinyl record— was the same song played backward. We screamed and cried, and Mom came to rescue us, pretending to scold Allan and laughing all the while. The next time Allan let us come into his room, we went. Certainly a gene study of our family would show an issue with short-term memory loss.

All these decades later, Allan is still the cool older brother, and Karen is still a great athlete. I hope that I am a little less prissy. Mom and Dad are gone, but the three of us grow closer every day. Allan spins records for a living, and Karen keeps her Great Dane in the house.

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Flannery & Me

Flannery O
Flannery O’Connor

Of course, I was at Flannery O’Connor’s funeral—or so my mother assured me. Not that I remember, since I was just turning six at the time, but in a small town like Milledgeville with only one Catholic church, we all knew each other. She is the only truly famous author with whom I have had a familiar and long-term relationship, and I have absolutely no memory of her.

I do remember Andalusia, though, probably because of the peacocks. My mother and the other ladies of the church had an outing at Andalusia, and the little ones were allowed to come along. Children remember fantastical animals like peacocks, and sheer terror cemented them into my brain. I was afraid of most animals when I was young.

My brother recalls Ms. O’Connor very well. He is ten years my senior and was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He clearly remembers watching her from the front of the church as she made her difficult way up the aisle on her crutches. As she became aware of his attention, she turned and fixed him with a piercing gaze. He blushed and looked down. Allan knew who she was because they studied her work in his high school.

Andalusia Flannery
Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia

My parents, however, were vaguely aware of her fame, but since they were not literary people, it did not faze them. My mother was more acquainted with Flannery’s mother, Regina O’Connor, who was a formidable woman held in high esteem—and perhaps a bit of awe—by the other women. At an Altar Society (women’s auxiliary) meeting one fall, the ladies were planning the church’s Thanksgiving celebration, and they asked for volunteers to bring roasted turkeys. My New England mom was an accomplished cook, so she volunteered to bring one, and Regina huffed, “What does a Yankee know about cooking a turkey?”

Mom was much younger than Ms. O’Connor, so she said nothing, but I’m sure she was thinking, “Plymouth? Pilgrims?”

When the celebration day arrived, Mom walked into the parish hall to the sound of Regina O’Connor fussing over her pale bird, “I don’t know what happened. It just wouldn’t brown.” Mom tried not to flourish triumphantly as she placed her own perfectly golden turkey right next to it. She told that story gleefully for decades.

With all of this backstory, one would think that I would have become quite the expert on Flannery O’Connor’s literary works, but I demur. I have read and admired many of her stories, and, along with most scholars, I wonder at the marked “otherness” of her protagonists. Their deep flaws reveal her acquaintance with the darkness of the human soul and our helpless need for redemption. Her setting recalls a Southern landscape that has almost disappeared, which is perhaps a redemption of its own.

Flannery O’Connor. She is a part of my history.

Beeswax & Dust

Sacred Heart MilledgevilleScientists tell us that the most powerful trigger of memory is the sense of smell. When I catch a hint of a certain aroma, it transports me back to my childhood at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville. It’s a warm combination of beeswax, old wood polished many times, dust in the carpet, and a lingering vapor of incense. To me, it is the smell of holiness.

Our church was tiny, the only Catholic church in this small, southern town. The congregation was filled with Yankee transplants and Cuban immigrants. We were the former. The church was hushed and quiet, and so crowded that we were often in the parish hall, which joined to the side of the sanctuary. Mass was still in Latin in those years, so there was plenty of time to look around and let a child’s mind wander. I dearly wanted to wear a beautiful mantilla like the “Spanish ladies,” but my mother said no. I had to wear a hat.

There were candles on the altar, of course, but also votive candles in a bank of red holders off to the side. A person had to put some money in the box to light a candle, and then their prayer was supposed to go up to God for as long as the candle lasted. I thought they cast a lovely glow, but when I later became a Protestant, and my family visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, I eschewed them as pagan, since there’s nothing in the Bible about prayers in candle flames, and because they were often lit to pray for someone’s soul to be released from Purgatory, another unbiblical notion. Besides, they were often in a little alcove in front of a saint’s statue.

My mom was not a spiritual person. She was glamorous, gregarious, and efficient. She was a Protestant before she married my father, so she went to Mass and said her prayers privately, avoiding the more mystical aspects of the faith. She didn’t deny them; she just didn’t care for showiness in religious matters. Mom spent decades of her life caring for sick and dying relatives, pouring out her precious days in service to those she loved, while never going a minute without eyeliner and lipstick. I mistook her practical faith for shallow belief. Two days before her death, her Birkenstock-wearing parish priest came to her hospital bed to give her the last rites. He said, “Margaret, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died on the cross for your sins?” She looked full in his face, eyes wide and childlike, and said, “I do.” This is one of those moments in my life that is forever fresh and crystal clear. I visit it occasionally to consider what it says about my mom and about myself.

Votive candles redA year or so ago, my brother and I had a day together in Manhattan, and we trekked down to the 9-11 Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel, and then we went further down the island to the oldest church in New York, Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. Whereas St. Paul’s Chapel is more tourist site than church these days, Trinity was quiet and filled with worshipers. We strolled the historic graveyard and quietly admired the beautiful architecture and pipe organ in the sanctuary. Off to the side, there is a little chapel room with a sign asking for complete silence. I sat down and spent a little time with others in prayer and meditation. Coming out, I saw a bank of glowing red votives. I lit a candle.

In Jewish tradition, it is usually the woman who lights the candles at the beginning of religious ceremonies, symbolizing the fact that women bring life into the world. Messianic Jews further interpret this ritual as a symbol that a woman brought forth the Light of the world. In any case, it is, as they say, a mitzvah.

Most evenings after dinner, around seven o’clock, I head out to my back porch to read my Bible and spend some time with the Lord. My porch has become a holy place. David will usually join me a half hour or so later. But before the Bible is opened or any prayers are said, I light a candle.

Born to Read

Sherman's marker Milledgeville
So, not Sacred Heart Catholic?

I grew up hating General Sherman, incensed that he had quartered his troops’ horses in our church in Milledgeville while burning his way to the sea. I had vivid memories of the bronze historic marker outside the church and remembered it as one of my earliest reading experiences. It was an embarrassing number of years later—decades, really—when my brother, upon hearing my story, informed me that Sherman quartered his horses in St. Stephen’s Episcopal, not our church, Sacred Heart Catholic, and that he likely did so in order to preserve the building, unlike the other structures in town. He also said that Sherman marched to the sea, burning as he went, in order to bring the war to a precipitous close while we still had a country left. I harrumphed something to the effect of, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” but in matters historical Allan always reigns supreme. It seems that Google agrees with him.

Although it appears that I was not reading bronze historical markers at a precocious age, I was a solid member of the Cat in the Hat Book Club. I eagerly awaited the delivery of the two books that came every month in a cardboard box, ripping the box open as I walked back to the house from the mailbox across our sleepy street. Mom and I would sit on the living room sofa and make our way through the likes of Green Eggs and Ham and Go, Dog, Go! Looking back at these brilliant beginning readers, I now realize that, despite my preference for phonics instruction, I probably learned to read by sight, just catching on to the fact that most letters have the same sounds all the time. My mom was never a teacher, but like most mothers of her day, she sat patiently and read aloud, running her finger along the words as she went. We got it. By the time we arrived in school—first grade, as there was no compulsory kindergarten—we were tracking along with Dick and Jane, those sight readers extraordinaire that raised a whole generation of kids.

Milledgeville LibraryNot long afterward, my friend Dee’s mom took us to the library downtown. Dee Hammond and I had met because our mothers found out that we had both had benign tumors that had been removed when we were toddlers. Had Dee been a child today, she would have proudly displayed the Potteresque scar on her forehead, but as it was, she daintily covered it with a fringe of bangs. The public library was located in an imposing Greek Revival building on the campus of the Georgia Women’s College, and as we walked into the children’s section, Dee went to the picture books and I went to the chapter books.

“Don’t read those! Those books are for babies. Look at these!” Evidently, I didn’t understand the library value of not criticizing other people’s reading choices in those days.

“Those books are too hard for me!”

“No, they’re not. Look!” I opened up a copy of Eddie the Dog Holder, or some other Carolyn Haywood favorite, and she peered in.

“I can read that!” she exclaimed, and we happily picked out one book apiece to take back to her house and read on her parents’ big bed while her mother ironed. I distinctly recall that her mother said not one word, only looked on, smiling, during my very first reader’s advisory transaction. It took me forty years to figure out that I could get paid for this.

First Girl I Saw in Pants
The first girl I ever saw wearing pants.

I actually lived in Dick and Jane’s world. Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy and Eddie were the kids that I saw around me. Boys wore dungarees and loved their dogs. Girls were blond, with pigtails or ponytails, and wore cotton dresses that poofed out right from the armpits. I did not see a girl in pants until I was school-aged and my parents had some friends visit from Massachusetts. I asked my mom, “Is she a boy?” She was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that her own daughters wore dresses every single day of the year, and so did all of their friends.

Most glaringly of all, every single child in all of the popular children’s books of that time was white. No exceptions. How in the world did the adults of the 1960s expect children of all races and ethnicities to enjoy reading when they never saw anyone who looked like them or their families in books? As a children’s book selector today, I can rejoice that so many writers have answered the call to create literature for every child. You can peruse some of the titles on my book review blog, EatReadSleep, to see that some of the best writing for children is coming from diverse authors.

We were not wealthy, but we did have the advantage of our Greatest Generation parents, who were determined that their children would have a better life and a better education than they did. Thanks to them, I learned to read early and never stopped. Read to your little ones. Run your fingers under the words in beginning readers. Let them see you reading. Read together as a family. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Alone on the Mean Streets

Me ballerinaI was four years old when I first wandered alone on the streets of downtown Milledgeville, Georgia, in the early sixties. My sister, Karen, was newborn and probably lying on a blanket on the front seat of my mother’s car, while I was standing up in the middle of the back seat, decked out in a black leotard and tights, with maybe an armrest between me and the windshield, because that was just the edgy sort of life we lived in those days. When we arrived at the ballet studio, my mother could not leave Karen in the car, so she dropped me off on the sidewalk in front of the staircase that led to the second-floor business. I climbed up to the landing at the top, only to read a note on the door that announced that the teacher had had a family emergency, and that class was canceled. I fled back down the stairs, but my mother was gone. Since cell phones only existed in science fiction novels at the time, I sat down on the bottom step and started to cry.

In my dim memory, it didn’t take long for a policeman to wander by, and he seemed surprised and somewhat amused to find a distressed preschooler in ballet slippers along his regular beat. He asked me a few questions, then smiled, took my hand, and led me to the nearby police station.

“I picked this one up for loitering,” he cracked as we entered a room filled with more busy people than I had ever seen.  In reality, Milledgeville was a small, southern town, although it had the antebellum mansions to prove that it had once been the capital of the state. Be that as it may, the police station was a step up from Mayberry, but just a step. The secretaries had poufy, teased-up hairdos, and the police officers all seemed young and self-important. In their usual round of petty thefts and town drunks, I was the cutest thing that had ever happened to them. The women smiled at me, and one of the men offered me a stick of gum. They placed me in a wooden desk chair and encouraged me to twirl around and around. I was proud to be able to recite my parents’ whole names and my address and phone number. I was just getting bored when my fourteen-year-old brother, Allan, walked in. He explained that my mom was still in the car outside with an infant rolling around on the front seat. So we went home, and that was that.

Decades later, I look back on this experience and wonder how this scenario would have played out today, but I will not bore you with moralizations.  We can look to true stories from the recent past to encourage us to imagine a sweeter, saner future. It could have all turned out differently, but—as Jane Austen would say—it didn’t.

Family 10: Newborn Cheryl

Family house in NJ
Dad, Mom, Grandma Kelly, Allan, and Scamp in North Haledon, New Jersey. I’m in there somewhere, too.

Mom was living alone with two kids when she found the lump. Dad had left us in a rented house in North Haledon, New Jersey, while he fled the unions up north for the booming textile plants in the south. Mom was pregnant when she arrived in snowy February, and Allan was placed in a Catholic school with more than usually ornery nuns. After I was born in August, my dad moved to Milledgeville, Georgia. It was a lonely time.

Me babyAfter just a few weeks, my mother started to notice that I had difficulty feeding. She slid her finger under my upper lip and found a pea-sized thickening. By the time she got to the doctor, the lump had grown. The doctor in Prospect Park gave her the news: her baby had a tumor in her lip that appeared to be benign, but would continue to grow and needed treatment. Soon it was a struggle to get nourishment into me, and my mother’s life became a battle to keep an infant healthy while giving her ten-year-old son a normal and happy childhood in their isolated home among strangers.

Finally, the day came that the family could live together again, but only by moving further than ever from everyone they knew and loved. Before my mother moved to Georgia, her doctor had cautioned her not to allow anyone to treat my tumor with radiation, since that would cause a hare lip. In those days, radiation was the most exciting new development available, and even shoe stores advertised that they could give you a perfect fit by making x-rays of your feet. The vast majority of people were completely ignorant of the dangers of radiation, and no precautions were taken to shield anyone from excess exposure. When my mother brought me to the doctor in the little town of Milledgeville, the very first suggestion was radiation. When she refused, they referred her to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where we endured years of torture, but with the best possible outcome at the end.

Me Mom 1960
Here I am, an obviously happy toddler, with my beautiful mother, who is responsible for those 1960s bangs.

Every other week, my parents drove two hours to Atlanta, where I would start crying before they reached the parking lot of the hospital. They would carry their traumatized one- and then two-year-old daughter into the hospital, pull her clinging arms from around their necks, and hand me over to the hospital staff, who would wrap me tightly in sheets so that I could not move. I honestly have no memory of the treatments that continued until I was two and a half years old, but apparently, they were ineffective. I can only imagine the suffering my parents endured, knowing that we would all go through this again in two weeks, wishing that they could explain to me why they were delivering me over to be tortured, hoping that they were doing the right thing. My mother told me later that it affected my father so deeply that he spoke of it even decades later. In the end, the doctors decided that they would have to perform surgery.

Many people have negative opinions about plastic surgeons, thinking only of the high prices they charge to craft prettier noses or to make vain, rich women look younger than they are. I, however, thank the Lord for them, since the plastic surgeon at Emory University Hospital made it possible for me to live a normal life. By the time they operated, the tumor had disfigured the entire right side of my upper lip and extended into my nostrils. He decided to take as much as he could from underneath my lip, in order to cause as little scarring as possible. The oncologist warned my parents that I would probably need three more surgeries by the time I finished my teen years, two because of growth and one because of hormone changes in adolescence. I never needed another one.

When my son was a baby, he once threw his head back into my face while he was sitting on my lap, hitting hard enough to bring tears to my eyes. A few days later, my tongue found blisters right where my tumor scars were. I thought that perhaps pregnancy hormones had caused the tumor to grow back the way they had expected in my teen years. The oncologist read my medical record, examined me, and said no, there was nothing there but scar tissue. Then he said, “Hats off to your plastic surgeon. He did a spectacular job.”

Grace Womens photoSo thank you, dear Dr. Kanthak and Dr. Wilkins, for giving me the ability to live a normal, happy life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that my upper lip has started to fold when I smile, creating a dark area where there is nothing underneath the skin. A small price to pay for avoiding a hare lip, and probably no one notices except me. It’s just a little reminder of the suffering we endured, my parents and me, when I was too young to remember.