Sunday, May 02, 2004

April 24, 1964

I was pulled into this world ass backwards, which should have been a sign to everyone present about what the rest of my life might be like.

My father squatted just outside the double doors of the room where my mother lie flat on her back drifting in and out of what was known as twilight sleep. When I was older, my Maw-Maw was fond of telling me about how Daddy squatted there so long, that his britches split and he had to run to my great-grandmothers and have her sew them up.

I should probably mention at this point that I was born in the south. North Carolina to be more specific. We used words like squatted and britches and Maw-Maw in even the most polite conversation and though I haven't lived there for many, many years, I find that I still express myself in much the same way. Pretty much a "you can take the girl out of the south" kind of thing.

My parents, Sybil and Ralph, were only nineteen at the time of my birth. Not really that extraordinary, except when you discover they had already been married three years by the time I made my less than graceful entrance into their lives. Daddy had dropped out of school at a very early age after his own father had suffered a heart attack, so that he could help provide for his family by earning a full time living. Mother dropped out after having met Daddy and deciding that playing house would be loads more fun than going to high school every day.

When I was about sixteen years old, Daddy told me exactly how his marriage to Mother came to be. Apparently they were caught in the throws of some sort of ecstasy by Mother's grandmother Cora and in order to save face they told her they were already secretly married. I say "some sort of" because thankfully Daddy was never completely specific about exactly what it was they were doing and at sixteen I certainly did not want the gruesome details of what went on between my parents in that area of their lives.

After telling my grandmother their brilliant lie, they decided it best that they actually did get married. My mother began sneaking out one item of her wedding attire at a time over a few days until she had a complete outfit. She and Daddy and two of their friends slipped away to South Carolina, where apparently pretty much anyone that was old enough to shop in any department other than toddlers and infants could get married, just so long as you brought with you someone of age that could sign for you. The two friends that my parents took with them were really no older than they were, but I guess the fact that they were warm bodies, it was late and the judge was sleepy was enough to get the deed done.

After their wedding, my parents dropped off their chaperones and then for whatever reason, Daddy dropped Mother off at her house and he went home to his. Mother was seemingly content to be a part of this very romantic secret marriage, but Daddy was another story. He went home that night, crawled in bed and his sixteen-year-old hormones went a little wild. The thought that he had a girl just a few miles away that he could legally have sex with tormented him so much that he very quickly decided a secret marriage was not for him. He insisted he and Mother tell their families they were in fact husband and wife. If they had at any point imagined their families were going to be filled with joy, they were soon disappointed.

My father, Ralph Ronald was born to Thelma and Ambrose (correctly pronounced in N.C. as Thelmer and Amburse) in a sleepy little North Carolina town called Ellenboro. He had an older brother and sister and a twin brother that my grandparents very cleverly named Roy Donald. Grandpa was a farmer at some point and then after several heart attacks his main occupation was small engine repair. He had a little shop just across the yard from the house that was always filled with men needing things fixed and an excuse to get away from their own homes for a little while.

I was at my Grandma and Grandpa's house a lot as a little girl because my grandmother baby-sat me from time to time. She didn't work outside the home and so she was always available. Thelma never wore anything but a dress, even when she was working like a mule in the garden. She'd be out there sweating like a man with her stockings rolled down her legs just under her knees hoeing away. I never asked why she always wore dresses, but I always assumed it had to do with my Granddaddy.

Ambrose was a tough cookie to say the least. He was a tall, intimidating man with a voice as big as all outdoors and a laugh that always reminded me of Ricky Riccardo. Whenever myself or my brothers and sisters would disappoint Daddy in some way, it wasn't uncommon for him to tell us stories of how Ambrose practiced the Southern Baptist credo of spare the rod, spoil the child. Daddy said that Grandpa would call their name once in the morning and if he didn't hear their feet hit the floor immediately, a razor strap was on it's way up the stairs with my giant grandfather attached to the other end.

My own memories of Grandpa were a lot softer. Although he was never a snuggly kind of grandparent, he always had the time for his granddaughter to crawl up on his lap and look in his shirt pocket for that half a piece of Juicy Fruit gum he kept there for me. And, if I was very good, and of course I always was, Grandpa would let me into his private stash of Fresca. I hated the taste of that bitter diet soda, but it was something special to get one and I always drank the whole thing. I was never, ever afraid of him despite Daddy's stories but I always had the feeling that my grandmother was. What Ambrose said went, without question and without exception.

I was however completely terrified of a boy that lived in Granddaddy's shop called Weldon. I had never seen Weldon myself, because Grandma had always told me if I looked at him I'd go blind. "When we go to the shop, don't look at Weldon," she'd caution. "I knew a man that looked directly at Weldon and he went blind." It was only after I got a little older that I finally figured out that in fact Weldon was not an amazingly ugly little boy that had no home of his own. She had been warning me not to look at the "welding" my Granddaddy and Daddy did everyday. Imagine my relief.

My Mother and her family were the complete opposites of my Father's family in just about every way. Both families had the same sort of farmer background, but Rosie and C.J., my Mother's parents, were very openly demonstrative. They were snuggly and warm and couldn't wait to hug and/or feed anyone that was within arm's length. I absolutely adored them.

Because of Sybil, my young mother, I was the envy of all my classmates in grammar school. She was younger than most of the other mothers and very, very pretty. She wore blue eye-shadow and fantastically long fake eye-lashes and she always wore her hair in the biggest bee-hive you've ever seen. (Her lifelong credo has always been, "your hair can never be too big or too blonde".)All my little friends would tell me how pretty my Mom was. I used to hope I'd grow up and be as beautiful as my Mother. I still do.

My mother's family looked for any excuse to get together with all our relatives and eat. All the women in the family were excellent cooks and all the men were excellent eaters. They were happy people who loved to laugh and it was evident to anyone that they truly liked each other. A family get together was never a chore, but rather something you looked forward to.

I had so many wonderful, funny relatives on my Mom's side that it would be nearly impossible to pick a favorite aunt, uncle or cousin. But, there was one relative that I was absolutely terrified to be around. His name was Everett.

Everett was a twenty-something year-old man that had Down Syndrome. At that time, no one used that phrase. Everett was known as a Mongoloid. The name alone was enough to strike fear in the heart's of children everywhere.

Whenever we would have a family get together at my Uncle Charlie's house, my little girl tummy would get in knots. He was the sweetest, most loving man but when I was small I most definately could not see that. No sooner would my Grandparent's gigantic Plymouth pull up in their front yard than Everett would come busting out the front door. He loved to shake hands and pat backs and the only thing I ever heard him say was, "You my kin folk?".

My Mom and my Grandparent's would try to talk to me before each family event. They'd tell me how sweet Everett was and that he would never dream of hurting me. "He just wants to love on you," they'd say.

I'm sure they were hopeful that this time would be different. This time I wouldn't run away screaming at the top of my lungs. This time I would behave like a normal child.

Didn't happen. Each and every time Everett would head my way wanting to know if I was his kin-folk, I'd run like the wind waving my hands and screaming like a nut. I don't know why my Mother didn't whack me on the head with something. I'm sure she must have felt like it from time to time.

My Mom's family was amazing, but they did have one little quirk that made us just the tiniest bit different than any other family I knew.

They brought their dead people home and put them in the living room.

When one of our relatives died, they were taken to a funeral home just long enough to make them look natural (which is how everyone said they looked) and then they were hauled right back home again.

I remember being a little girl about five when my Uncle Ed passed away. We were all at my Maw-Maw's and my cousin Chrissie and I were out playing. I was the first one to see the hearse coming down the road and I ran into the house, screen door slamming behind me yelling, "Uncle Ed's here! Uncle Ed's here!" The way I was hollering, you would have thought he was driving the hearse rather than riding in the back.

They brought his coffin in and rested it between two tall, dark funeral lamps in Maw-Maw's front room and then filled the room with all the flower arrangements people had sent. It didn't seem the least bit strange to me or anyone else in the house. Uncle Ed had once offered to buy me my very own monkey and I loved him. It was good to see my Uncle Ed. Even if he was a little pastey.

When someone died, two men would volunteer to "sit up". That meant that they would stay awake and in the same room with the body while the family members slept. I didn't ask why, but I'm guessing they didn't want the dearly departed doing anything hinkey before they could get them properly planted in the ground.

My Maw-Maw, like most women of her generation, felt that it was of extreme importance to make sure the children in the family touched the person inhabiting the coffin to insure they didn't have bad dreams. So, whenever a dead relative came to visit, Maw-Maw would lovingly scoop me up and take me to the casket.

"You want to kiss Uncle Ed good-bye, don't you?"

The weird thing is, it seemed perfectly normal to me. I was scared to death of an imaginary boy named Weldon that lived in the lawnmower shop. I would scream like I was being tortured at the very sight of my cousin Everett. But, ask me to kiss a dead person and I'd pucker up without flinching. That can't be normal.

Over the years, Mother and I have often laughed at the idea that we did such things. She always says that someday one of us is going to wind up on top of a water tower dressed in a clown suit toting a high-powered rifle.

I've got the wig, Mother. You get the shoes.

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