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I wonder if my mother had any clue that she was marrying a man who had little or no interest in her substance, a man whose desire for her was fully satisfied in the superficial gloss of her Seven Arts skills. The Seven Arts, claiming that “To be poised, lovely, and well-groomed is the inherent right of every woman,” was a local finishing school that offered a social navigation compass in manners and feminine wiles. My mother taught classes with such titles as “Gracious Physical Comportment,” “Personality Development,” “Basic Rules for a Pleasant Speaking Voice,” “Hair,” “Make-up,” and “Wardrobe and Figure Control” to newly minted young society women at Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville, Tennessee—the city where I was born.
My mother is not a classic beauty. She complains of small eyes, skimpy lashes, and too much fullness in her face. These days she says that when she smiles, her eyes disappear and she looks like a boiled egg. She has thick wavy hair, a full mouth, a fine figure, and great legs. But her secret weapon, developed over a long history in fashion and modeling, is an enviable understanding of how to put herself together so that her liabilities retreat into the shadow of her assets. My husband, Kenny, likes to say that when he met my mother for the first time, he realized he’d hit the jackpot by marrying into a family where the women continue to bloom well into their twilight. Now approaching eighty, she was and is quite a package.
I wonder if my father ever considered the utter futility of a dual, duplicitous lifestyle. He was a brilliant, complicated man, the product of a Southern matriarchal family with a domineering mother and a silent specter of a father. He escaped the small town confines of Sweetwater, Tennessee, and earned a degree in Architecture at Yale and then a second degree in Interior Design at the University of Tennessee. He served as a second lieutenant in World War II, an event that he spoke little about except to say that he was in Patton’s army. He was handsome, accomplished, charming—and gay. He met my mother in church, found her to be his equal in style and form, and married her, dreaming, I’m sure, of all the gracious living and fabulous parties that awaited them. He was not looking for intimacy with my mother; he was a man who viewed women as accessories or lapel pins: connected at the surface but meant only for display. When he fell for my mother, it was her presentation skills that won his heart. But he reserved the most honest, accessible part of himself for a secret male world fueled by good gin, where sex, glamour, gossip, and luxury fabrics were what mattered most.
Fortunately for my sister Windsor and me, my father’s view of the perfect marriage included children, and we unwittingly came tumbling, two years apart, into a well-designed household that had already begun to reek of alcohol and silence. My parents were highly visual and reverentially partial to physical and material beauty, which resulted in two pairs of fiercely critical eyes shining brightly in equal parts devotion and expectation on us. We were dressed to match, and I’m sure that plans for our debuts into society were hatching while we were still toddlers. We felt the weight of their attentions and also a darker calling, because though we knew nothing of the psychology of family systems, those dynamics were firmly in place, and we stepped neatly into our roles. Windsor was as good as gold in pursuit of their approval and became the family hero. I took the low road reserved for the scapegoat and provided plenty of ongoing distraction from the issues at hand by acting out our collective pain and dysfunction.
I have a friend who describes her family as “… all alcoholics except my brother, who’s a Baptist.” Mine was a similar drinking dynasty with legendary stories, such as the Halloween when one relative came to the door drunk and naked to greet the trick-or-treaters. She eventually left the candy bowl to her husband and retired to the bedroom where she would call for him repeatedly to come and attend to her. When he failed to answer, she set the house on fire.
My parents were both alcoholics; both were extraordinarily functional for the better part of their drinking careers. I understood the importance of the cocktail hour at an early age, and I have a snapshot memory of tasting my mother’s Budweiser as she sat at her dressing table, preparing—in more ways than one—to go out for the evening.
I know that faith and the Presbyterian Church were a central part of our lives, but I have only the dimmest recollection of these things in my early childhood. In the South, nearly everyone attends church because it is an indication of good breeding and social standing. A genuine encounter and subsequent relationship with Jesus is not only unnecessary, but it is often considered overwrought and even a bit common. My mother had experienced
that very genuine encounter as a child, though, and carried her faith into adulthood, passing it on to us in such a way that it never occurred to me to doubt the gospel, and I was particularly drawn to the Baby Jesus cradled in the crèche. But I viewed God
the Father as a slightly larger and more impersonal version of my parents, carrying a measuring stick that quickly turned into a rod of reproof. The idea of an Abba who loved me and had plans of a future and a hope for me was utterly alien, and I assumed that if He knew my name at all, it was because He had heard that my behavior was so bad my mother had resorted to having me cut my own switches. Inevitably, my parents’ marriage collapsed. My mother made a valiant effort to keep it alive by insisting on marriage counseling, but she was urging my father to places he had no intention of going, and although he was physically present for the sessions, he refused to participate or even to speak. This pattern continued nearly to the end of his life; he had still waters running deep, but he wasn’t able to access them and confined himself to the shallows that swirled around him like party chatter and never rose above his ankles.
They divorced when I was in kindergarten; their final argument was precipitated by some mischief I had gotten into early one morning. I had collected my mother’s liquid makeup and lotions and mixed them all together into a pinky-beige mess. My father got up and came into the spare bathroom where I was occupied to take a shower but didn’t notice the telltale bowl or empty containers, because I had hidden them behind a large box of laundry detergent. My mother discovered it all fairly quickly when she awoke and accused my father of avoidance—a path he regularly took throughout their marriage and a source of tension and resentment for my mother. They fought briefly and my father left, returning only once to pack his belongings. My mother punished me severely that morning, spanking me and shoving me under my bed to retrieve the caps to the smeared, empty bottles that littered the bathroom. Windsor retreated to the farthest corner of the conflict. She was silent, watchful, and good as gold. After the furor, my mother came to me with a tearful apology, but though I have understood for many years that her grief and rage had little or nothing to do with my part in the whole event, I continue to carry the weight of responsibility for their divorce in the earliest, most fragile images of my childhood. The head is no match for the heart in these formative experiences, and if there was a jumping-off place for me into shame and self-destruction, this was it.
My mother went to work as a traveling saleswoman in the fashion industry and brought in a succession of caregivers, most of them African-American. Some of these women were loving and nurturing to me, and in many ways, they became my other mothers. I particularly loved a handsome woman named Eva who worked for my grandparents, and once in a while, she would take Windsor and me home with her to spend the weekend. We would help her husband, George, in his garden, play with the neighborhood children until after dark, and then collapse in a giant four-poster in Eva’s front bedroom. It was a world away from the trouble and confusion in my own home, and I pestered her often to let us go with her when she left for the day.
My grandfather was a devoted fly fisherman and had, as a young man, won the money in a poker game to purchase a cabin in a little community called Elkmont, located in the Great Smoky Mountains about an hour from Knoxville. He and my stepgrandmother spent the better part of their summers in Elkmont, and I found another refuge there on the Little River, which roared beside our cabin. My sister and I, and our friends, rode the water like rainbow trout, shivering with the cold and thrill. Near the banks, away from the current, we would stack stones to create tranquil, glittering pools where we bathed and washed our hair. Then we would lie on a flat, warm rock in the middle of the river, breathing in the sulfur-soaked air, feeling the flick of the spray and dreaming.
In Knoxville, we were surrounded by the love and support of extended family and friends, and my mother provided as much stability as she could for us. But the upheaval of our lives and the inattention that often accompanies a focus on survival was reflected in the fates of our pets, all of which came to a bad end.
Our first dog, Richard, ran away, and our next dog, Grover, was hit and killed by a car. He was lying in the road at the bottom of our driveway when I came home from school one day while my mother was out of town. Then there were the baby chicks that we got for Easter one year that were promptly eaten by the one-eyed, three-legged dog, Spunky, who lived next door. I hated that dog.
My father continued building his career as a designer and simultaneously became a partner in a local furniture store that he referred to as his shop. He was faithful and constant in his own way to Windsor and me. He spent his Wednesdays and every other weekend with us, showered us with gifts, and never missed a child-support payment. He had an iron will bent toward propriety, seeking and finding his safe footing in doing the right thing, which is similar to modern political correctness—a polite framework but, by itself, disingenuous and ultimately meaningless. So although he was impeccably mannered and tended to the smallest social obligation with the confidence of a man who intrinsically understands the written and unwritten rules, the emotional truth that creates intimacy was nowhere to be found, making him distant and ultimately unknowable.
But then I was just a little girl, and he was my daddy, handsome and on time. He smelled good and took me to the Golden Arches anytime I wanted. He let me get black-licorice ice cream at Dipper Dan’s and played his show-tune records for me over and over again. And though my first few years of life were equal parts love and chaos, Knoxville was in many ways a safe haven for me. It was a small world where I could run away from home in my mother’s high heels and clatter down the street to my friend Leslie’s house, where I would be taken in and given lunch. It was a place where every landmark and every kid in my neighborhood was familiar to me, where there was an awareness of the ache within my family and an extended community that responded as they were able. Those days offered the closest thing to normal that I would experience for a very long time, but just as I was beginning to have a sense of place and belonging, the twig of stability I was clinging to snapped, and we moved.