1. “Lilith’s Child”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mama has no time for religion.  She never did acquire a firm idea of what a creed is, and she doesn’t want me to bother enlightening her, but she’s stuck just like the rest of us.  Raised a southern Baptist, the stamp of born-again was washed off in the Prairie Dog Fork of a Red River baptism.  If I pester her long enough, she pushes me away, grimacing.

“They were damned mean,” she says of the preachers.

“But, Mama, what did they believe?  They must have believed something. You ran away, didn’t you?”  It is useless to try to get her to elaborate.  She was a lost child.  Illegitimate, my daddy intimated all those years ago.

“No one wanted her, pet.  It was a sad life.”   He always added, sotto voce, “Your mother is half Cherokee.  Her grandfather was a Cherokee chief.”

Mama won’t talk about that either, or much else for that matter.  This was the blueprint for a secretive lot. T oday’s unstoppable urge for self-revelation is as muffled as a child’s giggles in grandmama’s quilts.   Wary of inquiry, we repel probing questions, avoid indiscreet companions.  There is a lot of clearing of the table when discussions of family arise.

Outwardly, we’re the usual American mix, a little of this, a little of that. We drift along carrying our bloodlines to who knows where walking sedately along narrow sidewalks a stone’s throw from where we were born or rambling coolly down avenues whose names we can’t pronounce.  For the most part, we’re pretty independent.  There’s little family resemblance amongst us except for skin coloring.  I’m told most likely that will change in the next generation.

Religion for some us, and the lack of it for the rest, is what glues us together.  You’d think it would tear us apart.  That’s not the way it works.  It’s like popcorn ball syrup.  No matter how diligently you butter your hands, there’s a brittle thread clinging to your hair or a whorl on the hem of your skirt.  You can’t get rid of it.

Daddy, an only child, loved, spoiled, cosseted, crescendoed, voluble and imaginative, eulogized the exploits of his past.  Trailing in the wake of the U.S. Cavalry’s push into the plains, his family left Scotland and heeled West in the 1880’s. Daddy, populist poet, wedged his life into the iconic saga of the downtrodden, betrayed coal miners, work-worn settlers, the vanquished Indian chief.  That’s why he wants Mama to be Cherokee, tribal heroism shining, a graceful ornament, abreast a humdrum tapestry.  As a matter of fact, Mama may be Cherokee for all I know.

Though mildly reticent on the subject of an annulment in his youth, Daddy veered toward the extravagant speaking of a second marriage, to a beauty if photographs are to be believed, followed by a divorce after the fathering of a child or, maybe, two, here the account becomes a little vague, and his presumed, though certainly not, marriage to Mama somewhere between Joplin, Missouri and Gallup, New Mexico.  Daddy had no trouble shucking off austere Presbyterianism, leaving South Dakota, the church and sobriety all on the same day.  He never, to my knowledge, regretted the move.

My sister, Belle, is the offspring of two uninhibited Texans, one being Mama, the other not being Daddy.  My guess is the unknown sperm limned old German stock.  Her thin lips and piercing eyes are straight out of a Durer print, Belle spoke in the fanatical voice of Luther before she made the acquaintance of God.  Behind the fierceness, you detect the sound of idols being smashed.  An impoverished dirt farmer substantiated out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly but not before doing us all the disservice of handing his prey over to the clergy.  A stubborn, taciturn girl who had never been inside a church, the theological horrors mesmerized Belle.  She never regained her balance.

Belle and I each have a daughter.  Their beliefs are as predictable as weeds in a garden.  Hers, the daughter of that phantasmagorical tiller of the soil, is devout; mine is contemptuous.  Still, neither can shake the family’s determined muteness on the rampant illegitimacy which infests us like a plague.  None of us can, or will, admit to the strain of illicit conduct which refuses to behave discreetly but insists upon making itself visible, time after time, in the unplanned, unexpected births of girl children.

The refusal to acknowledge the bastardy in our family does not mean we forget.  We women never forget.  We regard ourselves in the mirror each morning. Before we have turned away we have wondered if it shows in our faces.  How could we have allowed them to happen, we ask ourselves, these heretical female births?

I ponder the question.  What of Lilith, her name expunged from the holy lists?  Wild, disobedient Lilith.  And Lilith begat Sara who begat Mary who begat Ruth. Is that our lineage?  The quixotic notion sticks.  I revolve it over in my mind, why only girl children, my mother, perhaps her mother, my sister, her daughter, myself – my daughter?  Is there a gene, not yet discovered by an irreverent scientist, lying in wait, catching us off-guard?  The Lilith gene?

As a child I knew nothing of our wondrous family predilection.  When I turned thirteen a proposed trip to Europe ended my ignorance.  I got it into my head our family should take a grand tour before Belle and I reached womanhood and started families of our own.  The idea, I suppose, sprang from an unhealthy immersion in Henry James.

“But, Mama, everyone goes to Europe.  It’s called a Grand Tour.  Isn’t it, Daddy?  Isabel Archer went to Europe and was terribly unhappy, probably, unhappier than you were with the Baptists, Mama, but, you see, she had to go or she would have lived in ignorance all her life.  You don’t want me and Belle to be ignorant, do you?”

Mama, naturally, sidestepped my question.  “Stop being a pest. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“Do as your Mother says, pet, and stop pestering her. Where is that book you were reading last night?”

As you can see Mama and Daddy didn’t exhibit any enthusiasm at the prospect of travel abroad, but they didn’t out and out say no.  I judged their reaction to be simple lethargy, a commodity of which there was, in my opinion, way too great an abundance in our house.  Acting on the firm assumption that well-made plans swamp apathy, I began the paper work.  Maps, ship schedules, hotel rates, inoculation records straggled over the edge of a roll-top desk irritating Mama greatly when she busied herself tidying up.

The long and short of it is that it was the passport applications that did me in.  The U.S. State Department, always eager to pry into people’s lives, demanded birth certificates.  Daddy didn’t have a birth certificate, but as he was duly registered in a well-formed hand on the McPherson county ledger, an affidavit to that effect served the purpose.  My own birth certificate, an aggregate of information as much imagined as real, was filed with other family papers in an oversized leather portemonnaie, a relic of Daddy’s palmier days.  Mama’s and Belle’s birth certificates weren’t to be found.  I wrote increasingly outraged letters to county seats in Texas and Oklahoma and threw in Arkansas for good measure in case Mama’s notoriously poor memory was telling lies.

“Dear Sir or Madam, This is my fifth letter asking for the birth certificates of my mother and my sister Belle.  Why haven’t you mailed them to me?  What do you do with your time?”

At last Daddy took pity on me.  The birth certificates didn’t, he patiently, if warily, explained, exist.  “It was a long time ago, pet.   Oklahoma didn’t even become a state until 1910 or somewhere around then.  No one knew where one state stopped and another started.  A cattle rustler couldn’t even tell which sheriff was after him.”  Daddy loved sidebars; he called it humanizing the story.  “You’re spoiled, pet.  You think everything is written down nice and neat.  It’s not always that way.  Record keeping in the old days wasn’t as good as it is now.”

“What about you?  You’re older than anybody, and we got your records.”

“We were lucky there.  South Dakota was a more advanced state than those down on the border.  We had a great reputation for tolerance.  Texas wasn’t like that.  If someone wasn’t married, for instance, Texas kept them off the books.  It wasn’t very nice.”  Too engrossed in extricating himself as quickly as possible from a messy business, he omitted the neglected legalities of my own arrival and stuck to the matter at hand.

This first disclosure of possible illegitimacy, however obliquely offered, sluiced off me like water down a parched arroyo.  I wasn’t interested in arcane history, I was interested in birth certificates, and I wasn’t going to get them.  Hell and damnation. It was a defeat, but not an unexpected one.  I knew all along family travel plans were ambitious and probably doomed at the outset.  My thralldom to the missing documents went up in a puff of smoke as the snarl of papers blazed away in the backyard incinerator.

One mighty positive came out of the trouble I’d put myself through.  Being in possession of the probable facts surrounding Mama’s and Belle’s births helped explain my family’s singularity.  Our lives were filled with eccentricities I had been curious about since the time it first dawned on me classmates saw us as a strange bunch.  Those from across the tracks who weren’t taught good manners at home sneered openly calling us loners.  In a significant way they were right.  Phantoms from the past made do for family members.  We counted just the four of us. No cousins, uncles, aunts, old friends.  We sort of took it a day at a time.  It was a relief to get the whole thing sorted out.

Loitering around the revelation that Belle and Mama had a life with someone else before Daddy and me, ramifications initially unnoticed sashayed forth in a most bold manner.  Something was going on here worthy of investigation.  What traits, I asked myself, attracted what sort of people, and for how long.  Who left who, and why.  How was it that one person was abandoned, another not?  I honed my senses to detect in a first surge of friendship subtle nuances of character which betrayed an unsteady devotion.

A few truisms were readily apparent.  Boys betrayed girls.  Boys did not betray boys.  Playing second-string tackle produced an astonishing attachment to one’s teammates.  On the other hand, girls betrayed girls willy-nilly.  Girls rarely got the chance to betray boys.  It was like sprinting; the girls were never fast enough off the mark.  This venture into empirical philosophy brought me to my knees and left the remainder of the academic year in shambles.  This was supposed to be a democracy. Where was the justice in all this?

I sought much needed solace from my best friend, Lola, whose family was even weirder than mine.  Lola was Armenian, and to hear Lola’s mama tell it, they had been massacred by just about everyone in the world sometime or other.

“Lola,” I said, “girls are stupid.  Why weren’t we born boys?”

“Why would you want to be a boy?  Boys are awful.  All they want to do is kill people.  I’m going to have a baby and dress it in pink and feed it mashed bananas, and all the ladies will pat it on the head and say, what a pretty baby.”

Well, that does it, I thought.  I should have known.  Lola was a girl and just as stupid as the rest.

I passed the porous summer days lurking in hot shadows spying on clumps of boys and girls, verifying earlier findings.  At night I went over the day’s events searching for a new bit of evidence which might reveal a flaw in last spring’s conclusions.  I was maddened by the desire to disprove the results of previous research. It was no use.  The original corollaries held.  If you were a girl, there was little constancy to be found in this world.  Girls stood around whimpering while boys jumped into a jalopy and went skinny- dipping.

The maple leaves reddened; the schoolhouse doors were thrown open.  I stopped pussyfooting around and accepted the results of my scientific study.  I shared the outcome with Daddy on the pretext it was a way to get through the boring summer days though I kept my fingers crossed that he would scoff the whole tangled enterprise out of existence.  My timing was bad.

Pouring himself a second whiskey, he turned philosophical.  “’Frailty,’” he intoned, “’thy name is woman.’ That’s Shakespeare, pet. You can never go wrong with the Bard.”

It was a bitter blow.  I longed to have Mama tell me I was wrong, and Daddy, too, that she and Belle had dumped whoever it was, and not the other way around.  I couldn’t get up the courage to ask.

Removing myself from society I moped about the house refusing to go to Friday night football games and belligerently rejected my first ever invitation to a school dance.  One golden morning I sat on the front step listlessly watching my former best friend kick her way through piles of leaves on the way to Sunday service.  The air was as crisp and tangy as a bite into a freshly plucked apple.  Church bells broke through the stillness without a hint of solemnity.

“Wanna come to mass with me?”  Lola gave me  a demonic stare.

“Maybe.”

My town was evenly divided between Catholics and Mormons.  There may have been other faiths hidden away in low, drafty buildings on the edge of town, but their hallelujahs never reached my ears.  The mild disdain the two dominant sects held for each other exhibited itself in the form of ribald comments on Brigham Young’s sexual prowess or the Father’s priestly celibacy, sly murmurs in the wake of one neighbor or another’s progress along Main Street.  But mostly you couldn’t tell who was what.

Although the official stance of my family was atheist, I was intrigued by believers.  I envied Catholics their mysterious rituals and sometimes slipped into early mass for the pleasure of dipping my hand into holy water and crossing myself, checking Daddy’s metaphysical questions at the door.  The sensuous Latin scripture echoing along the walls of the cold cut-stone chapel thrilled me.  On alternate Sundays, to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I yawned to the sensible sermons of the Mormons in their sturdy clapboard church.  The congregation’s starchiness was attractive to my sense of order, but earnest homilies didn’t stand a chance against Roman liturgy.

After weeks of toing and froing, I suffered an epiphany.

Catholics and Mormons married young and stayed married forever. Mothers and grandmothers and even great- grandmothers all had husbands.  Hard as it was to believe, these men were the same men the women had started out with.  Why hadn’t somebody told me.  To avoid abandonment, join a church.  Simple.  As both faiths instilled lasting loyalty into their flocks, I felt free to follow my natural inclinations and become a Catholic.

I trotted to the corner drug store and bought a lace kerchief for my head.  I hid under my mattress, the one universally recognized safe place, a Bible borrowed from the town library laying out for myself a strenuous course of religious study.  Alas, it didn’t take long to rouse the snake in my earthly paradise.  Not a particularly bright child, I was bright enough to grasp the reality that God had not placed woman at the top of the heap.  It was sickening enough imagining the bloody butcher shop where Eve was cut out of Adam’s rib,  but it was truly unbearable to learn assorted male relatives gave away females as a sort of pacification program whenever the going got tough. And, all that stoning.  As the boys said, piss on it.  Religion was worse than sports.  Girls weren’t even allowed to be cheerleaders.

With that, my interest in, and observation of, male-female relationships ended.  I went through the motions of checking out the doctor and his wife, the town attorney with his female entourage, a few shopkeepers, but the urgency had disappeared.  None of the men were especially attractive, and for that matter, neither were the women; some were downright unappealing.  Why any of them were married at all was a mystery.  Maybe, abandonment wasn’t as bad as I at first made it out to be.

Lola and I reconciled, she having traded in the pink baby for a still-secret career of ballroom dancing.  I began to read again metamorphosing into a fey teenager who viewed sex with a curious disinterest and kept it at a good distance.  Reality barely touched my life.  Thomas Hardy gave me Tess.  Warner Brothers finished me off with Charlotte Vail.  Love.  Atonement.  Better than sainthood.

In November of my junior year our overworked school librarian unwittingly included a just-out biography of George Sand in her new books order.  Now, Sand was a different kind of woman.  She loved and won and moved on.  If there was any abandoning to be done, she did it.  I rethought my destiny.  Bold, scandalous behavior suited me down to the ground.  Catapulting into college I began, Sand-like, picking and choosing.  At graduation I headed for Las Vegas.

A desert town, wide open and manic, Vegas was more mirage than oasis. Every taxi driver and bus boy believed the big score was one card away, tomorrow he’d own the store.  You danced to Harry James at the Flamingo, snapped your fingers with Sinatra at the Sands and never bought a drink.  Cards and booze are cheap, was the pit boss mantra, use a lot of them.  A few miles out of town the Atomic Energy Commission kept busy blowing up sagebrush.  The fallout was a rain of easy money.  Hoods from Murder, Inc., expensive blonds and nuclear physicists rubbed elbows at the crap table.

I landed a job as a copy writer with a network affiliate.  Television was young and brash, no guards at the door, little authority and no discernible hierarchy.  In the outback, stations ran on con men and hucksters.  If a station was rich, it connected to the national network by a telephone line or an off-air pick.  My station was poor.  We relied on kinescopes of network shows mailed round- robin from one poor relative to another and scratched the nightly news.  Old movies paid the overhead.  Our film editor pioneered the system of preparing films for commercial inserts by chopping out one minute after each six.

“Nobody will notice,” Eric insisted.  “They’re too busy diddlin’.   We’re background noise.”

Eric was the pride of the station.

The New York suits weren’t amused.  Get a connection, they ordered, or lose your affiliation.  We were in a panic.  Without an affiliation all was lost.  No more sun-drenched lunches poolside at the Desert Inn.  Deprived of our baskets filled with perfumed soaps and soothing oils reaped from advertising trade-outs our tans would peel off like a rattlesnake skin in spring.  The worst blow of all would be the lose of our weekly private screenings of “Perry Mason.”

We were shielding our eyes from the blinding sun searching the horizon for the emergence of a White Knight. ––– Look! ––– There he rides.  A lovely man, tall, scrawny, West Virginia twang and a first rate engineer.  He built the translators to keep us on air.  Took a liking to Vegas and signed on as chief engineer.  We lived together for two years.  One day his wife reclaimed him.  I stayed in Vegas and bore the child we didn’t expect.

I raise her as my parents raised me.  My daughter and I separate ourselves from the life around us as Mama and Daddy separated themselves.  We move often.  It is the simplest way to avoid relationships which break down one’s reserve.  I keep imperfect contact with my family.  I cannot bear to watch Mama watching me.  I maintain the pretense of innocence.  It is the setting apart I summoned when a young girl.  But, it lacks something, a Greek chorus, maybe, chanting a dirge to the wondrous gene.  Perhaps, if I had kept the lace kerchief and thrown away the George Sand . . .?

I watch my daughter.  And Lilith begat Sara who begat Mary who begat Ruth.  Will my daughter become one of us?  And, her daughter?  And, her daughter’s daughter?  I hope, though wrinkled and dim, I’m around when that Palestinian goat herd, soft, dark eyes shining, tears off a linen wrapping from the parchment fragments of Lilith’s Book.  The shroud of secrecy removed.  What then?

 

 

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