“ . . . the Hebrew word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open . . . ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice.”
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden
I am in cut-offs and t-shirt reading comic books. She is in her underpants and bra with an unbuttoned shift draped loosely around her, reading The Ladies’ Home Journal.
We are sitting beside her fishpool where clusters of waterlilies hide oversized goldfish and tiny ones flash like gold omens when our shadows dance across the water. The locusts whine, the magnolia rustles in the breeze, and the swish-swish of my grandfather’s plane on mahogany soothes us from his shop nearby.
We share this spot for hours, satisfied with the scent of roses, gardenias, camellias, and fragrances for which I have searched for years and can only find in this memory. She turns to me suddenly and says, “You can do anything in this world you want to. You know that?”
I put down my Archie comic book to look at her and she holds me there; I nod tentatively at her puckered brow, demanding eyes, lips taut with tension. I am an eight-year-old imposter, small and ridiculous before such total affirmation.
She is emphatic: “You’ll write a book some day. And illustrate it too. You’ve got too much of your mother and Katy in you not to.”
My mother has written no book. And her sister Katy has not illustrated one. My grandmother is being outlandish again, fantastical, presumptuous, as she often is when it comes to her family, their abilities, their success, their influence. But I am moved, feel tender towards her, get up and hug her from behind, offer to answer the phone which is clamoring in the back hall of her house.
“For you!” I cry. She grunts, hoists herself out of the folding chair, curses, “Who is it?”
She is a chameleon, crossing the lawn in her enormous underwear and sagging bra, glancing furtively at the lane nearby as she clasps her shift to her front, plods into the house to become the gracious Lady, feigning delight when she picks up the phone (“Oh Yah-uh, Hal-loo Flawwrence”), speaking loudly into the receiver to convey sincerity, talking in a rush of volume and warmth and hanging up with a bang, never giving Florence a chance to respond, oblivious to the transparency of her mask.
She routinely does this, refuses conversation unless it is on her own terms, at her own convenience, and most preferably with herself or her family center stage.
“Whew!” she cries when she returns to her chair, as if she’s been clever, kept the wolf away from the door, defied the same social obligations she revels in when she directs, plays hostess, is the star.
She is the classic Leo, a preoccupied extrovert in defiant colors, her cup running over with uncontainable pride and goodwill. She is the irreverent fairy godmother come to disrupt my grade school class, knocking on the door as she opens it, wearing a once stylish, now tattered hat, wordlessly scrutinizing the class for her suspect, jabbing her finger at me when she finds me, and accusingly, triumphantly announcing, “There she is!” Her glee is contagious, the other children giggling and hypnotized by her presumptuousness, my face red with embarrassment and pride in her dramatic presence. She is the hearty lioness in need of an audience to receive her grandiose generosity, to share in her hilarity, to laugh with her, not at her. And that is who I am for her, receptive to her foolish glamour because I see a child in her eyes, looking mostly for love.
When did her charm become a burden? When I began to talk back, ask pointed questions about what she felt, what she thought. Her answers were too quick, too proud, too thoughtless, and my reaction was to recede into myself and mock, pity, or ignore her.
But she could not tell me what she did not know, what she’d never asked herself. Her depths were uncharted; she had never learned to listen, to sit faceless and still, to love the spirit satiated in silence.
I began to feel increasingly like her shadow, a time bomb that would go off in her lifetime, blowing to bits her world of blueblood and breeding and small-minded Southern snobbery that thrived on fear. I was becoming foreign, even to myself, as I let go of sleep and the status quo. I was repelled by the short-sighted visions, the calcified values, stiff and ingrown, and was attracted by all that I’d been taught to ignore: the inner worlds, the metaphorical meanings, the “coincidences,” dreams that came true.
I hid this from her, and was shocked when I realized I was imitating her when I hid. Had I inherited only the worst, not the best in her?
To accept the best and the worst, the full inheritance, I would have to forgive her again and again for the closed doors, superficialities, the absent humility. And if I did not, I would never know the best in her, her grace, her struggle, her emancipation. Or my own.
I wanted to speak of it, make her know I was there, but she had no ear for the telepathic night where neither of us needed words, glory or opinions. So I cultivated unorthodox styles of waiting for her, for her revelation, her truth, everything unseen that might come up unchecked, unveiled from behind her masks. I waited almost twenty-five years before I understood it is a mistake to wait. This patience is of no service to her or me. And when I give it up, I may know who she is.
I hold her with my voice, the way she once held me, tell her that her life is worth living, that she can’t escape it, not even through death.
So profoundly does the ocean affect those that live by it that it follows them, forever, and so it was that my first memory of the ocean’s influence was given to me in the inland Piedmont of North Carolina where my grandparents had settled, three hundred miles north of the South Carolina coast they grew up on. They talked around the ocean, never describing it directly, but instead handed me a conch shell to put to my ear, which whispered why: the ocean is space, no walls, the singing source, the Great Mother. You cannot describe what comes out of the sea, a womb so sensitive, so graced with possibilities that it could engender millions of life forms. But you can hear it in two persuasive syllables: ooooosssshhhhnnnn.
It ran in my grandparents’ veins, that ocean presence, life that must withstand hurricanes, the flooding, high winds.
It is a near-tropical Eden, this section of the South Carolina coast, with singing insects and alligators and ancient oaks covered in Spanish moss, myrtle bushes, marsh, and the Waccamaw River winding its way to the sea, which splashes and foams against what the commercialists call “the grand strand,” from Charleston to Myrtle Beach, purportedly the widest beach on the east coast.
I have many dead here: great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents. People I never knew, who lived here for a reason, shaped their children by this ocean, died here.
One of them was a Reverend called Isaiah, who according to his obituary, “with little advantage in the way of education yet became a plain, instructive, and somewhat interesting preacher; and occasionally his efforts were attended with considerable manifestation of divine power.” He died in 1878, leaving behind eighteen children (he had two wives), three hives of bees, one loom, two nut trays, a grape grinder, cider press frame, six quilts, seventy-eight sheep, six dry cows, two cows, two calves, two family Bibles, two dictionaries, and an assortment of tools.
My grandmother is one of his many granddaughters, and it is her first cousin Lenora, another granddaughter, who has been the center of the wheel of extended family. It is she who has stayed closest to the ocean, converses with small children, puts no stock in social sophistications, but in her sciences: plant life, animal life, sea life, the rhythms of the earth.
Lenora is my mother Skate’s bosom buddy, confidante. They are the same age, but Lenora most closely resembles my grandmother — Punkin, as Lenora calls her — in exuberance, acting ability, humor and sheer life force.
Lenora is Punkin’s potential filled out, the generosity put to use, the large gestures followed through with purpose and sunny courage. Lenora knows who she is and what she wants, is seasoned at sixty, ageless, with an instinct for strong character in others, a keen compassion for those less alive.
I am about to see them, Lenora, Punkin, Skate and other kin, making the five-hour drive across the flat and sandy land between Chapel Hill and South Carolina, pine forests monotonously flanking the highway. I strain for a glimpse of the ocean when I am still a half mile away from it, before I’ve hit the beach road. Even from a distance, I can see the water’s movements, the indisputable logic of emotion, with no up or down or east or west, churning waters of insatiable creative impulses, foaming, dissolving, regenerating. I think about Punkin — will I be shocked at her deterioration, will she cry when she tells me about the nursing home she lives in now except for family vacations? Will I?
It takes a day for me to settle down, accept the sand in my bed, the hum of family conversations, the zigzagging of lives. I watch Punkin carefully, touch her every chance I get, hold her restless hands, try to get her to talk about herself. She is overweight, seems bloated, her hip bothers her and she can’t take long walks on the beach anymore.
She sits in a folding chair under an umbrella in sunglasses and sunhat, rubbing sunscreen on her large nose. Skate insists Punkin is “better, herself again,” with the family around her, not “confused,” as she becomes when she is alone or ignored.
I work on my tan on a towel beside her and we watch Skate and Lenora swimming beyond the breakers. I leave Punkin to join them; the three of us hang onto a raft together in the warm ocean. Lenora declares she doesn’t feel a day over sixteen. Skate says she doesn’t either. Lenora teases me, “What do you think maturity is?” I hem and haw and tell them I think it’s knowing you don’t know everything. They both whoop and declare they are mature.
I get off the raft and swim nearby, watch Skate, feel my respect for her, resurrect an eight-year-old memory of a skirmish between Skate and her sister, of the moment when Skate suddenly blurted out, “Well there are a lot of things I used to know I don’t know anymore, about what’s right and wrong, what’s proper, and what’s not.”
She was fifty-two then. She was barely fifty when my father died three years after my grandfather’s death. She was forced then to decide, “Do I grow old with memories and Mother or do I start over?”
She started over, left a hometown that wanted to keep her, moved to Chapel Hill where she knew no one, and never regretted it. She does not understand Punkin, who cannot bear to be alone, wants to escape from herself, is always in search of some diamond, something to warm the body and the soul, imagines her children possess it, imagines that without them she has no validity, no meaning.
Skate feels guilty: “I am her oldest daughter, I want her to be happy, but even when she’s with me she can’t find what she wants; she looks for it everywhere — when I put down a book I’m reading, she picks it up. When I get a phone call she wants to know who it is. When I go into another room, she follows me. She looks for it in food, everywhere, but I don’t have it, I can’t give her what she wants!” Skate has bitter tears in her eyes and I know her sisters feel the same way.
I go sit on the beach with Punkin, beg her to come to the water’s edge with me. She won’t. I pick up a National Enquirer at her feet and read aloud to her.
The National Enquirer reports: eight years of aptitude tests show no difference between men and women on most tests, and women are better than men in fourteen areas. In only two areas did men excel over women: in structural visualization and grip! (Punkin: “I don’t believe that, do you?”)
The National Enquirer reports: the amazing ostrich boy! A fifteen-year-old Brazilian boy who swallows live pigeons, razor blades, ping pong balls, and brings it back up! “I’ve never seen anything like this!” Dr. Neto tells the Enquirer.
The National Enquirer reports: a baby in Austria was born prematurely on March 10, 1980, assumed to be a stillborn. It was carried to the morgue, and almost a day later was heard crying, was rescued, and reunited with the happy parents. Punkin sighs, says, “I like that one.”
The sun is setting but still warms us. We doze together, she in her chair, I on my towel with Steinbeck’s East of Eden for a pillow.
Punkin and I share a bedroom that night. I roll over and look at her facing me in her bed, smile, smack my lips in a kiss. The porch lights illuminate her face through the window. She smacks back at me. “Love you the mostest my darling,” she says, and closes her eyes tight.
The next evening, Skate, Punkin and I attend a family wedding at All Saint’s, a small church near Pawley’s Island. A grandniece of Punkin’s is getting married. Many of the people attending are locals who recognize her, step up to speak. She becomes flushed, pumping hands and introducing herself to strangers as if she were a visiting dignitary. We are seated on the front row; Punkin talks in a stage whisper to everyone that joins us there.
I am ready to go back to the cottage after the wedding but to miss the reception in Georgetown would be to deprive Punkin of too much. When we get there, Skate and I exchange smiles as Punkin coasts through the crowd, in her own territory now, a Southern Belle who can charm, entertain, dazzle like a seasoned gambler cutting cards.
It is said that she was very beautiful as a young girl, and I see her tonight talking with this man and that, not as an 82-year-old woman but as a girl of 18, deeply happy among attractive and well-bred young men.
Liza and I borrow a truck, hit the road to Wellman in response to Skate’s call: “Mother’s house has been sold. We have to get everything out of there this weekend.”
Liza drives — sunlight in her hair, fiery blue eyes, features that haunt. Our mothers are sisters; we share the same name — Elizabeth — and she wryly accuses me of having been angry with her for it when we were children.
The ride passes quickly; we drink wine, talk of men, sex, marriage, matriarchs — Punkin in particular. We talk about family festivals, the food, how the children ate in the kitchen, the thrill of graduating to the dining room, the grownups’ talk, our grandfather’s abbreviated prayers. “Thank you Lord. Amen,” he’d say, from the head of the table, his daughters and their children on each side, Punkin facing him in red wool, earrings and elegance.
It’s been years since either of us has been back to this rambling old house that stabled so many — my great grandmother, my grandmother and grandfather, all of their children, and at times their children’s children. The yard has grown up, but the magic is still there — the white railed front porch dappled with sunlight, back porch covered in ivy, the high ceilings, wide windows, attic mysteries, basement subterranean terrors: a furnace, a fire. The hall stairs groan with my weight as I head for the bedroom that was mine the year I was eight. I am not looking for things but for views; I want to memorize what I can see from every upstairs window: the church steeple through treetops, the magnolia, the crepe myrtles, the house on the hill my parents built after their first was destroyed by fire.
We spend the afternoon emptying the house — find antique toys, peacock feathers, World War I cavalry leggings, my grandfather’s stiffnecked shirts. Memories beg to be cried over, but no one cries. We hide in the work to be done.
I dig blindly in the flower beds overgrown with weeds for everything I remember being there: spider lilies, tulips, and jonquils. I take cuttings from the fig bush, pomegranate tree, Sweet Betsy bush, the forsythia, wild cherry, the pecan, the camellias, gardenias.
There is a cry from the back porch: “My glasses, oh Lord, I’ve put them down and I don’t know where!” It is Punkin in a familiar crisis, putting down her eyes, sending us all off to scurry until they are found. We find them and get back to salvaging, sorting, loading, worrying about flat tires on the trip back.
I have a camera, call Punkin out to the front porch, squat on the sidewalk to focus, my back to the street. I snap the shutter and a gentle familiar voice calls to me from behind, sending chills up my spine. “Is that my Betsy Rose?” It is my second grade teacher who lives across the street, who does not believe in teaching without hugging. My eyes are damp when I kiss her because I remember how happy Betsy Rose felt when Mrs. Johnston called her that in 1959.
Punkin calls me back to her. “Look at the light coming through those dogwoods. Isn’t that gorgeous? Look at that red!”
It is getting late. We need to finish loading, carry Punkin back to the nursing home, drive back to Chapel Hill with Skate following us, unload at her house. I check the truck where Liza, Uncle Wilson and Aunt Katy are haggling over a problem — the rolled up porch screen is hanging off the back, unanchored; we must take everything out and repack, says Uncle Wilson. We all have different solutions, all talk at once, and Uncle Wilson erupts into a fit of temper, politician’s dignity set aside. He shakes his head like a badgered bulldog and curses “Gawwdamnsonofabitchtoomanycooksinthekitchen!” and scrambles out of the back of the truck in his three-piece suit. It is perfect. I am happy to be home, and heave with hysterical humor, hanging onto the side of the truck.
We finish, the truck is loaded, Skate and her sisters check windows and doors, lock it all up. I feel drained, weak-kneed, stand beside the back porch door and swing it back and forth and listen to the music it makes. It squeaks: home, home, home. I look for Punkin. She has already found me; she is standing alone by her empty fishpool, her face is caved in with grief, cheeks wet, she is shaking her head at the house and me. When I reach her I am crying too, take her in my arms. She whispers in my ear, “It is the end of the world.”
I hold her with my voice, the way she once held me, tell her that her life is worth living, that she can’t escape it, not even through death. It is the end of a world, not the world, and it’s only unbearable if we can’t find within ourselves what doesn’t die. Find that, I say, and you’ll know that everything that has ever been in this house is alive, in you, in us. We’re going to spread that kindness — the winter fires, the rain splashing in on your bedroom curtains in July, the kitchen’s warmth, the light of the chandelier in your eyes, your moonflowers, your roses, the red in the dogwoods. I’ll give it away again and again and you do the same, you hear?
We are laughing and crying at the same time, stroking each other. She takes my face in her hands. Her heart is full, untouched by the ship breaking up under her, the dark waters swallowing her past.
She whispers, “I leave everything to you. My estate. To you.”
The waiting is over. I let her go. I am not waiting for her awakening, will not again. She has her freedom, and I have mine, and that is enough.