The Women Rewrite Themselves, Part 2

“I didn’t mean to leave you,” Carmen repeats. “I was coming back the next day. I wanted to turn around the same night, but I got sick. I got sick and–
“I know.” Lorraine covers her mother’s hand with her own. “I read the letter.”

“I was sick for a long time,” whispers Carmen.

A silence follows in which no one names this sickness. No one wants to name it because it brings back the memory of other ills—bad behavior, broken promises, things that never should have been said.

“Twenty years?” scoffs Lizzie. I’m appalled to see she now has a glaring eyeball. “That’s some recovery you had.”

“Grandma, don’t start. Not now,” Lorraine’s voice wobbles. Before, she looked overwhelmed by a happy dream. Now, she looks like she wants to be scooped up with a shovel. “We don’t need to bring up anything again.”

“Oh, yes, we do, because I didn’t get to read the letter.” Jenna sits up, flipping her hair over one shoulder then the other. She’s noticed the closeness between her mother and her undead grandmother and doesn’t like it one bit. She crosses her legs Indian style, prepared for a long sit. “You’re not leaving me out.”

Lorraine draws slightly away from her mother, hesitating.

Mom.”

Lizzie claps her hands. Her flesh finger pivots, like a turnkey.

Excerpt from This will Never Stop

I receive a letter from Mills Elementary. I’m surprised when I see the school’s name and address printed on the envelope. After all the confrontations I’ve had concerning my two girls, I’m surprised any teacher has the nerve to confront me. Right now, Jenna’s in the middle of a fashion war, and I’m right there with her. Why can’t she wear skinny jeans? They sell them. As for Carlee, well, she likes to draw, and she likes to draw right. I pay for that paper with my tax dollars, and I haven’t been shy about telling the principal. But this concerns Nathan. What I can pull out of the loopy handwriting of Ms. Lewis, first year teacher is this: my son isn’t doing well. Id like to schedule a conference at your earliest convenience. Then, it concludes with a flourish, An extremely bright but nervous child. I put the letter back in the envelope and fold the envelope in half, sliding it into the side pocket of my purse. I’ll tell Royce after the conference. I want to find out what’s really going on first.

After that conversation with Grandma Lizzie, Mother entered another world. She was already too quiet, but now it was impossible to get the slightest response. I finally gave up after I repeated myself inches from her face and realized her eyes were focused not on me but at something on the wall. Her breath smelled funny, too. She went through gum like Catherine Valentine smoked cigarettes. I started directing my questions to Grandma, and she told me what to do — how to watch the boys and what went where.

Grandma and I were keeping house because Mother was always in her room with the door locked. She came out when she knew Grandma was gone, but then it was mostly to lie on the couch and watch TV with the sound turned down. She had quit getting dressed and always wore a nightgown. I tried to brush her hair once, but that made her cry because she said I was hurting her head. I was picking up on more things now. I knew the trouble between my mother and grandmother wasn’t just about college. I slunk around. The boys didn’t. After school, they stayed in the backyard and tried to put up a pup tent, which kept falling down. Mother had the telephone man put an extension in her bedroom because the phone rang a lot, and she didn’t want us disturbed at night. We were disturbed anyhow. The calls stopped eventually, but when the phone rang at night after night, I’d think, I never knew my mother had so many friends. I was losing the friends I had. I didn’t know why, but the girls, especially Jane Lee Veach, were laughing behind my back. They didn’t bother to stop when I turned around.

I was glad when the last bell rang, though the arguments had worsened at home. Bad words, some I’d never heard, were being used. I might not have known all the meanings, but I knew exactly what was going on. Mother and Grandma were in a full-scale war, although neither had told me the cause. The arguments stopped for a time though, after Harshbarger Mills was rocked with news. Another death and more money. Harold Brickman, long-standing member of of Glorious Life Pentecostal and the town’s leading insurance man, had died of natural causes and willed everything he owned to the church to be used for “the glory of God.” I don’t know how God felt about all the renovation and decoration, but the congregants, tired of housing their piety in the plainest building in town, decided to throw out their feet. New bathrooms, stained glass windows, and an educational unit were begun. The decoration was left to the Etta Campbell Circle, a choice that infuriated Grandma because Pearl Ellis was the president and overrode any objection to her taste, which, according to Grandma, resided only in her mouth.

Pearl chose a carpet pattern called “Busy Autumn.’ It was brown with ecru diamonds, and inside the diamonds were more brown flowerpots with yellow balls of color that slightly resembled blooms.I thought the pots looks like lumps of chocolate and the balls like half-hearted suns. Grandma said it was nothing but a field of stubble dotted with cow pies and dandelions waiting to be blown.

The fern stands on either side of the pulpit came from the window of a florist’s shop. They were huge columns, sprayed bright gold, which conflicted with the wood in the sanctuary. The women’s bathroom was finished first, and for that part, Pearl had chosen pink tiling and wallpaper in a seashell design, complemented with ceramic towel racks and soap dishes with raised conch shells. I’d already seen my grandmother lose her temper with Mother in the kitchen, but this time she went berserk.

“What a joke,” she said, “when no one in the congregation has seen the ocean. Of course, Catherine has, but she said it was just a lot of water.”

Grandma gathered a group of disgruntled women behind her and was ready to face down the head deacon when a bone was thrown her way. The bone was an organ; the Board of Elders had decided to buy one. Evidently, they’d gotten a whiff of Grandma’s ire and had even allowed money for chimes. An employee from Kinzey Music came to the church and surveyed the sanctuary for acoustics, and then one of the elders, Grandma, and the employee had long talks about which organ to buy. Finally, they decided on a Wurlitzer, which was to be shipped in from Columbus, Ohio. At some point, Mother, who’d been like a piece of flotsam all those months, got involved. She agreed to play the organ. I think a deacon called. Anyway, after the organ was installed, Mother was to receive a series of free organ lessons. She was a wiz at the piano, but she’d never played an organ and would need help with the pedals, stops, and chimes.

Mother didn’t come back to church until the organ was installed. She tried once but had to leave after the announcements because she was feeling lightheaded. Pearl couldn’t say anything about her “weakness,” because the same Sunday Mother slipped out, Jane Lee had an accident in the pew. She had a bladder infection, Pearl told everyone, caused by too many bubble baths and some blue toilet paper that Andrea had bought to match her bathroom. Until it cleared up, Jane Lee had to take big red pills. Her granddaughter would be fine, Pearl told everyone, but she didn’t know when she’d be able to sit through an entire service.

For months, there was disruption and excitement at Glorious Life Pentecostal. The carpet was installed and clashed horribly with the seashell bathroom, but Grandma held her tongue because she was put in charge of the hymnbook committee as well. This time, Mother worked with her, afternoons only, and at our kitchen table. Grandma lugged sample hymnbooks to the house, and I was told to keep a list of the best ones. I asked Mother why she wouldn’t work at the church; she said she didn’t want to be around Pastor Burgess. That’s all she said, and I knew not to pry.

The construction began, and I thought it would never end. It lasted until the end of April, and the organ came in the middle of May. Jane Lee Veach had been nice, but now she was snotty again. I think it was because she’d peed in the pew and her mother was going back to the Presbyterians. My mother still hadn’t come out of her shell, but word was out that once the organ came, she’d be back on the bench. Yes, building and more building, torn-out windows with huge sheets of plastic covering them, paint spatters, Sunday services in the church basement, where it was cold, even though it was spring, and where we sat on aluminum chairs whose seats were even colder. Finally, it was over. A hideous combination of solemnity and bad taste, but there it was. Now what to do? New pews had been purchased, but no one was filling them. The exterior had been changed, but the church hadn’t grown.

The pastor and deacons decided to host a revival. Not just an ordinary revival, where Pastor Burgess stood up every night and preached in his second-best suit, but one full of fire. An evangelist should be hired, the best that money could buy. The Reverend Stephen Fisher was contacted, a celebrated Pentecostal who’d written three books, two on tongues and one on victory in prayer, and who had a huge congregation in Athens, Ohio. He also had airtime and a popular series on seed faith.

No one thought he’d agree to come to Harshbarger Mills, but he did. Once the deal was struck, Pastor Burgess asked and was granted the whole summer off; his only pay came from his two week vacation time. In the interim, various deacons would preach. With the Reverend Stephen Fisher coming in August, more flurry began.

Mother had agreed to be the organist, but she was far from being an expert. The man from Kinzey Music had given her the twelve easy lessons and left, assuring her that though she was still a little heavy on the pedals, she’d catch on. It would be better if she played barefoot, with not even nylons on. She’d have more control of the pedals because her feet wouldn’t slip. Mother was out of the house, but it was only to practice.

Every day after school, I’d traipse behind Mother as she went to Glorious Life Pentecostal. At first, it was a trial. Then the organ became a fascination. I sat in the choir loft and watched her face. Sometimes I imagined she went at it with the same intensity that Grandma Lizzie had when she learned to drive a car. Grandma watched the boys, and there was a tacit agreement between us that I’d watch Mother.

Then it was June, and I was out of school. Grandma Lizzie took the boys earlier, and Mother and I were normally at the church right after breakfast. I know this because I remember eating two bowls of Fruit Loops while Grandma fussed about Mother’s lack of appetite. Yes, Mother was still home, back at the bench, raising her kids, but though the arguments had stopped between them (or at least stopped when I was in the house), Mother had developed a sullen, independent streak. Little rebellions. When Grandma Lizzie fussed at her to eat, she’d dump her food into the scrap dish we saved for Chum. The only thing I saw her “eat” that summer was black coffee.

Once Mother was at the organ, she forgot about everything, and that freed me. I grew bored with sitting in the choir loft, so I moved down to the pews, taking along an Etch A Sketch to keep myself amused. I grew bored with it, too. I made up games of my own. Usually, I slid up and down the pews. One of my favorite games was to see how far I could go with just one shove.

In front of the pulpit was a huge communion table made of solid oak, and across the front in large letters were carved the words, THIS DOETH IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME. I’d position myself in front of the first M, hook back with my right foot, and give myself a shove (it was cheating to use my hands). The wood was so smoothly polished that Mother never suspected what I was engaged in. Now I realize she wouldn’t have cared. When I got tired of sliding, I’d search the hymnbooks for notes left by the older girls or faintly pencil in a mustache on the Sunbeam girl on one of the paper fans donated by the Sunbeam Bread Company and Veach Funeral Home.

My grandmother hated those fans. Even when the church was stifling and those cheeks were blooming roses, she wouldn’t fan herself, although the other women waved them back and forth as if they were racing for air. I asked her why, and all she would say was, “I think they’re tacky.”

It must have been the Veach name on the back because the Sunbeam girl was harmless. She was a child of perhaps five, blonde hair piled on top of her head, each tumbled ringlet meticulously etched. Her skin glowed pink with health and innocence; her head was bowed in prayer. The background was blue, a sky washed fresh by rain with a couple of fluffy clouds thrown in, which, if I squinted hard enough, reminded me of cows. Her eyelashes were long and curled upward, her mouth was pursed in a pink bow. The lettering on the back of the fan said, COMPLIMENTS OF THE SUNBEAM BREAD COMPANY AND VEACH FUNERAL HOME. ALWAYS READY TO SERVE YOU.

Sometimes I slept.

My naps came to an abrupt halt one day when I awoke to the sound of awful music. Not awful in the sense that Mother was playing badly but that she was singing in a voice I’d never heard. Her head was thrown back so far that I could see the tip of her nose. There was a wildness in her voice, a vibrato that overrode the rest. The words to the hymn went like this:

Lord Jesus, I want to be perfectly whole,

I want thee forever to live in my soul.

Cast out every idol, break down every foe.

Now wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

I’d heard that hymn before, had even sung it. Simple words, a repetitive chorus, nothing to be afraid of — except that Mother was making the familiar terrible and new. Coming out of sleep, I struggled to recognize the wild woman on the organ bench.

Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow.

Now wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

By the time she was ready to go to the second verse, I was screaming loud enough to wake the dead. I put my hands over my ears and screamed until I became aware that Mother was shaking me hard.

We stared at each other.

“What’s the matter with you? Are you sick?” She picked me up, felt me all over. “Do you hurt somewhere?”

“It’s the music.” Her kindness only made me want to cry more. “I’m afraid of the music.”

Mother was stunned. Her face assumed the same expression as Grandma’s when she had talked about Mother and Fred Valentine at the ABC store.

“Afraid of the music?” she was asking herself. “But it’s not bad music, Lorraine. That’s a hymn.”

“It’s not the music.” It was harder to explain than to hold back my tears. “You’re the one making it bad.”

Mother let go of me as if she’d been slapped. I watched her through eyes filled with tears, watched as tears gathered in her own, watched as she blinked them back and a closed look settled on her face. Was she thinking she’d birthed a nutcase like Lena Ellis? Was she thinking she’d better make a fast getaway? Finally, she took me in her arms and held me tightly, my flat chest flattening her breasts, waiting until the rhythm of her heart matched my own.

“Should we call Grandma?” I asked. Another thing Harold Brickman’s money had bought was the installation of a new hall phone.

“No.” Mother gave me one last squeeze before she let me go. “Your grandmother doesn’t need to know.”

I sniffed and nodded.

“You’ve been asleep,” she said, her voice gathering force. “You’ve been asleep and have had a bad dream. Now, do you need to go to the bathroom?”

I nodded, following her to the beach bathroom, which was beyond clean and seemed bigger than the first floor of our house. It was so clean that despite the fact that I had to go, I couldn’t. Mother waited outside the stall so long that she began to tap her foot. Soon, it took on the rhythm of the routine she was teaching the majorettes. Though it felt like my bladder would burst, nothing was happening.

She rapped on the door. “Lorraine, hurry up. I want to get back to the boys, and I don’t want you wetting yourself on the way home.”

Again, the anger I’d heard the morning I’d eavesdropped in the kitchen. She was angry, and my mother was not an angry woman. In fact, if one of the Sunbeam girls had come to life, they’d have grown up to look just like her. Finally, my bladder, cooperating with fear and nature, let forth a stream, staining the water.

End of Excerpt

“I remember that day,” says Carmen. “I was playing the organ and you began to scream.”

“What were you afraid of that song?” asked Jenna. “Sound pretty tame to me.”

“I don’t know,” says Lorraine, then “Well I do know. No offense, Mom, but while you were singing, you looked like a stranger.”

Carmen shuts her eyes in anticipation of her mother, who says, “No surprise to me.”

Part 3 : Tuesday, Nov. 19th

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