By Alyson Pou
As the plane descends, I feel as though my ability to think is leaving me just as rapidly. Why does a sudden constriction grip my chest as I’m leaving the airport? The wet warm southern air winds around me like an invisible vine. I can already smell the bayou. Then we ride through the dark to an open-air pavilion, a party, candlelight and the soft sounds of jazz. Shadows of palm trees and oaks line the quiet black lake; stone lions guard the steps and Grecian columns. As we approach, I see this structure like the ruins of a river road plantation and the white swans floating together in the moonlight.
A woman is standing next to me laughing, talking too loud, moving fast, clenching my arms, looking into my eyes, briefly searching. She recognizes me as one newly returned. I’m scared; I know we are both deeply of this place, possessed by it and completely uncomfortable with the possession of it. “Over there are the dueling oaks,” she says. “In the early days of New Orleans as many as ten men a day died there,” she says. I refuse to leave the pool of light to walk through the low hanging branches and I try to concentrate on the rhythms of the music.
Escape to return to escape again or maybe not, never really leaving behind the south, its sensual presence, yet never being able to fully express or understand it…
And so, always the fear of being completely consumed, always she moves as in quicksand; angry with the comfortable sweet smells and decay around her…And I have to seek the safety of Northern climates and temperament to slow down and look over my shoulder.
You don’t trust people who aren’t your own kind. If their dead aren’t buried next to yours you don’t do business with them, you don’t invite them home to dinner with the womenfolk and you sure don’t sell them family property. Your family is a proud duty and precious gift. Don’t ever forget where you came from. I spent a lot of time in graveyards.
On Sunday afternoon my grandmother Mama Frances and my mother Cary would pile us girls into the car and head out for the family plots in Oakland and Summerville. On the way we would stop to buy pots of live flowers. Poinsettias for Christmas, lilies for Easter. My grandmother was usually pretty attentive to us girls but she would become solemn and distant on these occasions. (Song) Singing softly, she would clear each grave of weeds and debris, straighten the grave markers and gravestones. Sometimes I would help, wanting to be part of the ritual, party to her tenderness. But usually I would just sit under a tree or walk along the top edge of the stone wall and watch her.
She would stand in front of each grave in silent concentration, remembering, pulling forth the presence of the dead, and the deeper she moved into the past, the more frantically my mother would move through to the present, examining the trees, checking her watch, calling to us girls. “You know mama it’s awful hot out here! I believe I’ll just sit in the car and wait.” Then my grandmother’s arm would reach out and pull her in. My mother would flash one desperate look over her shoulder in my direction and then be gone, but where did she go? What could she see?
Other times when my grandfather went, he would gather us around, read each name on each gravestone out loud, mention who was related to who, where they lived, when they died.
Dr. James Sprague Washington and his wife Ella V. Jackson. He was the son of Henry Washington, descended of George and Sadie A. Washington, first generation English descent. He was a surgeon and a Major in the Confederate Army. Miss Ellas, now she lived to be 90 years old and these are her five children James, Gus, Clarence, Emma and Lulu.
Timothy McPherson Cartwright, your great-great Grandfather on my father’s side of the family. He was just a Corporal in the Confederate Army, but after the war he went into the cotton business, had an office down there on Mainstreet. District Agent, Greer Wichita Pedigreed Cotton Seed…
And there were the Laughlins, the McCauleys, the McPhersons, the Gathers, the Wilsons, Eugene Allen, Erma V. Atkins, Frances Loyd, Ada, Grace, Louise, Norrine. Names, Names, Names… it was like a litany, a list, a puzzle. “James, you just hush now, these girls don’t need to know anything about their dead relatives.” But she knew, my grandmother knew, she had the secrets; the real stories and so did my mother. They didn’t want them, but they wouldn’t tell them either. It was like they made some deal that whatever it was, was gonna stop with them.
Lottie Gather Wilson, born to Martha Amonetee, April 9, 1884. “If God had meant for womankind to have short hair, he’d have made it stop growing.” Her hair was so long it reached almost to the floor, and every night she would sit brushing it down and across her lap…96, 97, 98, 99, 100…one hundred strokes a night every night of her life. By the time my mother was born everybody called Miss Lottie, “Big Mama”. At 40 days after bearing her eighth child, she broke her hip, took to her bed to recover and never again emerged from her bedroom, where she ruled her family with an iron fist, lace bed jacket and bitter tears. She never again wore street clothes until her 80th birthday, the same day as her sister’s funeral. That evening she returned home declared she wished to live no longer, folded gardenias into her long hair and died the very next day. “It’s the Gather blood that’s ruined all the women in this family,” said Uncle Lewis.
Great Aunt Jeane, my grandmother’s youngest sister, who my grandmother raised as her own after Big Mama’s death. Story had it that Jeane was not of this world in the first place. She had the complexion and demeanor of an angel, a walk so light she seemed to float across the room, and a smile that made tears come to the eye. Sweet Jeane, bonnie Jeane with the light brown hair. My grandmother called her Sis and she lived with Mama Frances until her untimely death of appendicitis at age 24. After the funeral, my grandmother locked herself in Jeane’s room for days and the pet collie died of a broken heart. Later, when I was born, they called me Sis.
Emma Washington Cartwright, my great grandmother. She never learned to cook; she single-handedly painted the house a different color every year. She had a little woodworking shop out back where she made geegaws and wooden objects that moved in the wind. She often declared that these objects fell from the sky and she talked to the air. She also painted large rocks and made piles of them all over her land to keep it from blowing away. Everyone thought she was crazy. Not because of her outdoor décor but because she had absolutely no interest in housekeeping. I was born on the same day that she died and I know we passed as my eyes opened and hers closed.
My first cousin Becki, we were the same age. She would sit for hours picking at the skin of her wrist and forearm with a straight pin. She would carefully slide the pint underneath the first layer of skin and then twist it down until the blood slowly surfaced or sometimes she would make quick repetitive jabs. She was always absorbed in the minutest details of this procedure, and though the results were obvious, we never spoke of them, nor did anyone else. My observations were covert. We were both nine.
By the swimming pool I would watch her move along the bottom, her arms seemed to waver and spread like wings. Years later, I dream of a bird who clings to my window, eyeball to eyeball, we communicate in clicks and chirps. The bird pushes his way, feet first, through the glass and as he does, the pieces of his body come apart and fall to the floor.
Mimosa blooms looked the best on the top of my mud pies and they smelled good too. I usually made tow pies but I found three more pie tins under the porch, so I finished all the pies and lined them up on the bottom step. It was hot, the pies were drying fast, I wanted to get a better look, so I flew up to the telephone wire. The blossoms around the edges of the pies down below looked like giant, fuzzy pink rings. I could see mils and miles of chain link fences making grids around the houses – no trees, no hills. Wearing her sunglasses, my mother came out the back door with a basket and began hanging the laundry to dry. I hovered above the clothesline, watching as the beads of sweat began to appear on her face. Hanging the clothes out was my job.
“Mama, you always step on my mimosa pies when you come out the back door.”
“Well, honey, you always leave them on the bottom step.”
“But Mama, that’s the best place for them to dry.”
“Why don’t you come on down here and help me with some of this laundry. Your Mama Frances and Aunt Nancy think I don’t worry about your future enough. Aunt Nancy says you’re so good a taking care of everybody and cleaning the house. She decided you ought to be a nurse when you grow up.”
But they don’t know what it’s like being dizzy all the time, I can’t even walk straight, right now my hands are so numb I can hardly pick up this sheet. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Maybe I’ll fly all the way over to the cotton field tomorrow.
At 15, my mother could fly a plane and shoot a gun. Her toy designs had been manufactured. At 16, she hitchhiked to California, lived in San Francisco, then moved to Mexico as an expatriate and became a road crew surveyor. At 19, she abruptly returned home to marry my father and live the rest of her life within a mile of her parents and cousins.
The first thing I heard when she came to from the anesthesia was Big Daddy telling her Emma Washington was dead and you have a little girl. We would like you to name her Emma. But she said no, I deserved my own name that didn’t belong to anybody else but me. She said, “I want her to have her own place in the world.”