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“The Heart Shaped Locket,” from the series Sparrow Lane by Holly Andres. Courtesy of Robert Mann Gallery

Issue 92, Spring 2016

You Dumb Bell

The greeting on the face of the valentine, You Dumb Bell, says more about my mother than about the recipient—my father, the putative “dumb bell.” The valentine is in the shape of a dumbbell, the weight used for exercise and made popular during the time my mother gave the valentine to my father, the early 1930s. When opened, the little dumbbell carries the jussive Get Onto The Fact That I’d Like To Be Your Valentine. Above that directive are two hearts, a single arrow piercing them both.

My father, though, needed little assurance that Lucie Belle Page was his valentine. Already during their closely supervised courtship he had lifted his cigarette—remember, no romantic movie of that era lacked a cigarette—and spelled out “I love you” in the air of the Page living room. They were not allowed to sit together on the settee during his visits. My mother’s older brother, Damon, a Puritan of the first water, was in the adjacent room, alert to any threat to his notion of purity. You will recall the Puritans who interrupted the nuptial party in Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” They shot the dancing bear and cropped the locks of the bridegroom who had danced with and then wed the Lady of the May. Breaks your heart. Puritans bent on killing any merriment. Damon would have been in their front ranks.

When I say that the valentine reveals more about my mother’s sensibility than my father’s, I do not mean that he was without a sense of levity, as evidenced in his amorous smoke signal sent across the room in secret. But my mother had an impulsiveness and whimsy that he lacked. I have a photograph of her around age seventeen in a neighbor’s lily pond. She has on a one-piece bathing suit of black wool jersey, and she is standing among the lily pads with one hand on the concrete lip of the small pond. The waterline is at her breasts, and there are white lily blossoms around her. She is smiling, as if to say, “Look at me now. I’ve snuck out and jumped into Vashti Lewis’s lily pond. And Damon can’t do anything about it.”

My father, on the other hand, while capable of the “I love you” sent in wisps of smoke, would sit and talk of Caterpillar bulldozers or recite to her the mnemonic “Washington And Jefferson Made Many A Joke.” W-A-J-M-M-A-J: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson. “Van Buren Had To Pay, Taylor’s Frying Pan Broke. Lincoln Just Gasped, ‘Heaven Guard America!’” He could take it all the way to FDR, who was president at the time.

The Depression did not need a Wall Street crash to enter the Deep South. Hard times had been a way of life for most people in the South forever, and FDR’s New Deal, while a grand effort and a success, by and large, had a limited effect in some areas. My mother’s family in Mississippi played the economic hand they were dealt with remarkable skill and decidedness. They tended a large vegetable garden in season, cultivated pecan and fruit trees, raised chickens, and had cows for milk, cream, and butter.

Butter was on the table every day. My mother did the churning. She was instructed by her mother, though, not ever to straddle the churn. That would be vulgar. The churning was to be done sidesaddle, so to speak. But when her mother left the room, my mother straddled the churn, pumping the dasher like a wanton, intent on getting the butter to the top as soon as possible. To churn to the side, her body twisted, was much more physically demanding. And slower. There were lily ponds out there waiting to be jumped into.

And there was sweet sorghum cane to be had for peeling and chewing. My mother’s father had a sorghum field and a small mill for making sorghum syrup—imagine an earthy, mild caramel flavor—which was put up in jars for the winter cupboard. His mule Thunder, named for unceasing flatulence, was harnessed to a long pole attached to the sorghum mill. Thunder plodded in a circle to put in motion the gears that governed the crushing mechanism. Sorghum cane was fed into the mill, and the juice that flowed from it was soon in the settling tank and then into copper pans for stirring and evaporation over the wood fire until it arrived at proper consistency.

My mother went one day to the field to fetch canes of sorghum for her and her siblings. Thunder was given a rest, and my mother’s father collected choice stalks for her to deliver to the house. There Damon would cut the cane into sections and apportion them to his siblings.

As she made her way up the dirt road through the field, my mother stopped and put one of the canes beneath her heel. She didn’t have a knife, but she was determined to get into the sweetness of the sorghum before her brother had a chance to use it as demand for payment on indulgences from his papacy. As she pulled up on one end of the cane, the section beneath her heel split, forming a razor-sharp edge along both sides of the separation. When she released the end of the cane, it sought its natural bind and caught a portion of flesh in its vise, cutting deeply into her heel. My mother began hopping around and kicking to free herself. When liberated from the cane, her heel was bleeding profusely into the dust of the road.

Perhaps as a reaction to the trauma—or perhaps just coincidence, the cut and a natural onset—her menses began. Blood trickled down her thighs and joined that issuing from the cut in her heel. She did not know which was which in the confluence that soaked into the dust, nor did she know what was wound and what was not. But the dust helped stanch the flow from her heel, and she gathered herself for the delivery of the sweet cane to the house. There in a bedroom her mother explained to her what one realm of her life was now given over to.

I never knew of any of this until, in her late years, my mother showed me the scar on her heel and told me of its source. Though she did not provide all of the details in my narrative, I summon them to make her story more vivid and at the same time mysterious and elusive to me. I do not want her generic or sentimentalized. I want her to be somewhere between the girl surrounded by white blossoms in a lily pond and the young woman bleeding in the cane field with a lone scar in the making and her womb opened to the world. I want her also in fixed defiance of her brother Damon and what he stands for.

That is not to say that Damon was an evil person. In adulthood he was a hardworking man, decent enough. But he retained the rigidity and intense censoriousness of his earlier years. When my mother’s mother had her sixth and final child, Joe David Page, Damon left the house in a fury and moved into the barn. He told his parents that they could barely feed the children they had and now they were bringing another mouth to the table. I can find empathy for him, however, in the humiliation he suffered at the hands of a man who sold him a baby coffin when he was a young boy. Damon passed by the hardware store in town and saw in the window what he took to be a little boat. He wanted to float in the little boat past the bluffs on the river nearby. He saved his money and took it to the man, who assured him that he could float past the bluffs in it. When Damon brought his little boat home, his father told him it was a baby coffin.

It’s possible also that I can find feeling for him in his marriage. He married a woman, Jennie Ruth Hay, who had just been married for two days to a Mr. Sweat from Arkansas. (I am told that she was particularly insistent that her family pronounce his last name properly: “Sweet.”) After her one-night honeymoon, she returned to her parents’ home, and the next morning Mr. Sweat had left her trousseau luggage on the front porch. Soon after that, Jennie Ruth married Damon. She was the bane of our Sunday visits to their home, especially with her unrelenting reminders that she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Nothing we could do or say escaped her judgment. My mother despised her but instructed my sisters and me to mind our manners. At some point before Jennie Ruth died, she stipulated that there be no birth date on her gravestone, only the year of her death. Vain into eternity, she waited there to be joined by the finally hapless Damon. In the months before his death he claimed that the nurses at the assisted-care center were “having their way” with him. When my sisters were clearing out his house to settle his estate, they discovered Playboy magazines in his closet. I’m confident that he found more release there than any he found with the one-night honeymooner Jennie Ruth.

I was living in the south of France in 1990 when word came from my sisters in Mississippi that they had taken my mother to the hospital in Memphis. Given the cost of last-minute transatlantic airfares, they suggested that I remain in France until they could advise me further about her condition. After their call, I went to a restaurant near Place Masséna in Nice called Spaghetti or some such. I’ve Googled and Binged for current restaurants there but cannot find a Spaghetti. I wanted to verify its name so as to re-create in sum that fraught moment in my life. I recall distinctly the uncertainty, the dread of guilt should I not go to my mother in an hour of need, the vacancy that I would feel if she died while I was in France.

When I had finished my pasta, I walked to a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean. The sun was behind a bank of clouds. As I looked into the sky, the sun broke from the clouds and cast a soft brilliance across the surface of the sea and spilled onto the city. It was a gift of light from my mother. Lucie, lux, light. I am okay, she said, go back and have some espresso. Stay there until I need you. I’ve survived Damon, open bleeding in a sorghum cane field, and, who knows, possible drowning in a lily pond.

The last words my mother spoke to me were, “You feel warm.” It was 1992, two years after the sun broke from the clouds over the water and brought my mother across the ocean to me. She was in the hospital in Memphis again, and she would die there, but I did not know that. My sisters assured me that they would watch over her and get her home when she recovered. I had to get back to my work in North Carolina. I leaned over to hug and kiss my mother good-bye, and she commented on my warmth. “You feel warm.” What she meant was that I felt as though I had a fever and she needed to get up and tend to me. Put a flannel cloth with Vicks VapoRub on my chest. Read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer out loud. Fix me some cream of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Tell me Little Moron jokes and why the chicken crossed the road. To get to the other side. Ah, Lucie, you dumb bell. 

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James Seay

James Seay’s work has been published in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and others. He is the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.