The three brothers sit against the picture window in high back dining chairs wearing starched white shirts and black slacks. They are emotionless and pale. Dry eyed and papery. One makes rich people richer, one designs bombs, and one is an evangelical preacher and pedophile. They are my cousins, my father’s sister’s sons. Our grandmother has died and we’re all assembled in her house after the funeral, blundering in our awkward silence and clumsy efforts to make connection. Talking about the old organ. The good ole’ days that never happened.
I haven’t seen these cousins since we were children and my family traveled out west to visit. I still have the little tea set from Santa’s Workshop and remember the drive down the mountain; I laid my head on cousin Chris’ lap as he stroked my forehead and ran his fingers through my hair. It is a tender young memory made creepy by the knowledge that he would later be imprisoned for making and distributing child pornography.
Chris delivers the pseudo-eulogy; a callous mixed-up public shaming tirade about sin and sinners. As most sick people do in their projective refusal to look within, cousin Chris is in actuality talking about himself. My young niece sits on my lap flummoxed as he sputters on about the devil and depravity, clamoring on about this town that reeks of evil. He doesn’t give mention to the reason we’re all here; the grandmother displayed behind him in the mother-of-pearl inlaid casket dressed in a classic orchid suit, her diamonds and precious gemstone jewelry flashing for all to see. Instead, he takes the opportunity to make a complete ass of himself.
Oh no, now he’s taken out his guitar and is roaming around the funeral home chapel serenading the stupefied flock as if he’s on the set of Jimmy Swaggert.
Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head for Love is passing by
Come to Jesus ye sinners
Come to Jesus ye sinners
Come to Jesus and live
Now your sin lifted
And carried far away
And precious blood has washed away the stain
Scorching anger builds inside of me as our Sky Pilot trumpets further on about evil and salvation. I all but stand up and bellow something out like; You are a sick sociopath and no one wants to hear your rotting bilious psychologically vulgar babble or your Gomer Pyle crooning. I reorientate myself and find it all rather amusing, reminding my enraged self that this rarified acting-out will make for a resplendent story so I stay seated and give close attention to this priceless opportunity to witness a criminally delusional person offering up a blazing and painstakingly vivid performance of real-time pathology. I shift from rage to awe at his fantastical capacity for complete saturation of the psyche and I settle in to the histrionics.
My brother, sister, and I were thought of as the white-trash children of aunt Bobbi’s drug addicted, alcoholic brother (my father who is also dead.) After my mother divorced my father, that side of the family faded out of contact, an occasional Christmas gift delivered by Beno’s department store. Mimi could never understand why my mother decided as she did, and even my father’s violence was not considered a valid pretext to end the marriage. She apprised my mother of a warning after it was announced she had filed for the divorce; “You don’t know what you’re missing out on.” My mother, however, was absolutely certain of what she would be missing out on; the possibility of her or one of her children being hurt or killed by a terribly wounded, violent man.
The tone of my father’s funeral and grandma Mimi’s was similar; a macabre jumble of the tragicomedic, a modern day commedia dell arte. Taciturn affairs carried out with no grief, tenderness, or love present. That was the way it was in that family; everything cold, even the toast and oatmeal. Though Mimi, as we called her, took joy in her flower garden and welcomed me the few times I did visit her with cheery inquiries about my life, affections given and received were highly regulated. It was in her garden though where I became curious about the healing properties of flowers and in the western shop which she and my grandfather owned, where I polished turquoise and coral jewelry and first felt the energy of precious stones.
I visited Mimi in her home after my father’s funeral. She told me she just couldn’t understand why God would take someone so young. In my one final attempt, I said something like, well, Mimi, you know he died of a disease related to his alcoholism. She quickly changed the subject. “You are a good writer, though I don’t agree with what you have to say.” I appreciated that she could be that honest. Moreover, that she had taken time to read my essay which had been published in the local paper about the lies of Oliver North and the torture training school known then as the School of the Americas. I nodded my head, took a long slow sip of iced tea as I stared at a large framed signed photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan which hung above the fireplace. (She and my grandfather were devout republicans and mid-ranking party donors.) Because no one ever said what they truly felt in this house, I could only hold the thought and emotion inside; how was it that you could give money to rich people while all those years knowing my mother was struggling to put food on the table for your grandchildren and never offered her any assistance? An even worse thought occurred to me; maybe she never thought about us at all. Wiped us clean out of her mind and heart.
She, like most in her generation, in her family line, in her country believed the big lie, the fictive American history which, by-proxy, contributed to the early death of her son. “You know your father fought for our freedom,” she would say about her son who was a Korean war army veteran active on the front lines. By this time I had become a radical thinker, an independent journalist and researcher, a woman working her way out of the crater of lies. I had begun piecing together the sordid puzzle of contrived history and was seeking to know the painful truths about war and the spiral of generational trauma that accompany it. It was not in her, as I so wished, to plumb the depths of that psychological mineshaft. To go to that murky place within the psyche would have shattered her construction of a reality that held up her life and that which she steadfastly valued and valued her in return. This was her security above all else and she needed to believe the story. To begin to unpack it, I imagine, would have unleashed a cascade of tightly held forbidden secrets and terrifying emotions buried so deep as to be inaccessible. We got quiet. We knew there was nothing more to say.
The last time I saw Mimi she was in a nursing home. Her skin was opaque like a pearl in sunlight and I thought how beautiful and elegant she always was. Her silvery long hair normally tied up in a fancy twist by lovely combs and glittery barrettes was down around her shoulders. She was in a wheelchair, the lights were dim and shadows hung like sentinels on the walls. She said something important that day, but I can’t recall exactly what it was. She may have made a confession. She may have apologized for her detatched approach to love. She may have realized her son was not a freedom fighter but a boy who was used and torn apart in every way by a cruel male addiction to conquest and ownership. She was surveying her life. I could see it in her eyes. They were clear as icy fluorite. We had a sacred moment there at the end in the small room at Indian Hills Nursing Home where it didn’t matter what we believed politically or philosophically or historically. She was an old woman having one of the last full days of her life. I was her granddaughter, the child of her deceased beloved son, and we had not known each other, truly deeply in this lifetime, as the heart so desires. I sat in her gaze and we met in a higher place where there we exchanged the knowingness that she would die with this regret and I would live always with the hunger of this unrealized love.
In a male dominant culture where possessions, immovable ideas, status, and conformity are esteemed as the highest accomplishments and valued above relationships we are all tussling to some degree or other with loneliness, isolation; our longing to linger in the deep sustaining reservoir of life-giving connection. Whether we speak it or not, we are all, through the generations, swimming in the grief of the devastation of our childhood yearning for what family was supposed to be. Mimi and I did not allow ourselves to learn, to grow from and through our distinctive generations. We didn’t know how. She isolated and contracted. I shut her out, held tight to the betrayal. I was too young to understand her fears as a woman, though economically privileged, still seized by the clutches of patriarchy or the maze of conflicts inside of the class difference, to get beneath the obsequious veneer of her thwarted identity. There was no entrance into the original, vulnerable self, as she was too far assimilated and I was carrying the scars of my mother’s wounds and the bitterness she and I felt as the recipients of their abandonment.
Thank heavens for the organ. Aunt Bobbi diverts the spiky silence and atonal discomfort by playing the organ and singing a little tune.
In your easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the easter parade.
I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the easter parade.
My sister’s daughter twirls around the living room as my sister and I sing the Easter Bonnet song. Two cousins remain stone faced, stationed on the high back chairs, and cousin Chris prances out of Mimi’s bedroom wearing a red silk smoking jacket romping about like a tarred and feathered chicken. The song brings back sweet memories of that fleeting era of my childhood, my mother still under the influence of the American Dream; we hunted for Easter eggs in Mimi and Forrest’s backyard flower garden, my sister and I in our frilly dresses and straw hats festooned with silk flowers, my brother in a little plaid sports coat, bow tie, and pork pie hat. Mimi played the organ as we stood behind her singing holiday tunes.
My brother, sitting frozen on the taffeta couch, is sad and vacant; smoked and coked himself numb this day of the funeral. Mimi favored my brother, took him on solo train trips to the mountains, bought him special gifts. He was her preferred grandchild after cousin Chris whom she talked of as a wonderchild; because he played the guitar, became an evangelistic preach-whore, loved Snoopy cartoons, and was the oldest Eagle Scout in a five state region. I don’t think my brother realized that Mimi, I feel, wished for him to be the replacement relationship for the son who went astray. Then, like my father, my brother gave himself fully over, for a time, to the pain and trauma that was passed on down through the male line.
The gloom and despondency hangs in the air like deflating balloons. My sister encourages her daughter to sing and bang on the organ while my mother, detached and dismal, sits on the embroidered fauteuil chair, seething and smoking. She has never forgiven this bunch for abandoning her children, and though she became a successful career woman, there were countless times of great struggle when she desperately needed their financial assistance. Right now she’d be happy with a chair.
The evangelical pedophile capers into the kitchen to serve up a cheap white cake. He’s asking my sister’s young son to help him. This was before we all knew his little secret, before he went to prison. I’m watching it all, gathering up the pieces of silence and slips, aware that we have all been dropped here into this slanted, upside-down Felliniesque event to bring closure to this generational malfunction. Aunt Bobbi and her daughter-in-law, the bomb maker’s wife, gather like two thieves in the back bedroom, whispering. I go to the bathroom to see if I can make out what they’re saying. They see me as I round the corner and giggle like school girls. Bobbi and the bomb maker’s wife emerge from their clandestine caucus and gleefully announce that the three white-trash children will each receive a chair.
None of us received our promised chair but the day before the funeral, cousin Chris and aunt Bobbi came to my mother’s house to make a delivery. They arrive in a new Jaguar with cousin Chris dressed in an Armani trim-fit blazer and Salvatore Ferragamo oxford shoes. Aunt Bobbi looks like a perky governess right out of a Blake Edwards film attired in a renaissance jacket-dress and sling back wedge pumps. My mother is cordial and offers them a beverage. They can only stay for a few minutes, but wanted to make sure we received these too-special-to-throw-away baubles and gewgaws. Bobbi hands me a discolored water stained box. “This is for you Becky. I know Mimi would want for you to have this,” she says as if giving me a paragon of priceless specialness. Inside the box is faded shabby stationary; five water stained pages and three envelopes with the letter B embossed in a gold swirly font at the top. I stare in disbelief at the dirty useless paper, too shocked to speak. “And there are some things in this box you can divide up. Mimi would want you girls to have this.”
After the fraudulent duo depart my mother, sister and I scatter the contents of the box on the floor. It is a tragic cluttered chaotic mix of junk: Broken mismatched earrings and tarnished Sarah Coventry jewelry, an Elvis Presley Christmas eight track tape, Slim Whitman in Las Vegas, hat pins, buttons, decaying lipstick, handkerchiefs, rubber stamps, spools of thread, a tape measure. The rubbish drawer emptied out and hand delivered by the messianic missionary workers in a Jaguar. Before they leave, aunt Bobbi did a thing that marked her in my mind as a truly scorched and impaired woman; she reached in her purse and pulled out four or five sewing thimbles, a few old coins, and in a hushed voice, as if no one was to know of her act of towering kindheartedness, these items too precious for the scrap box, she proudly declares, “There’s a thimble for each of you. If you ever sew you can think of Mimi. And the coins are from dad’s collection.” I became fearless in my indignation and I did something bold. I asked to have the organ. Bobette’s eyes shot out of their sockets. I, the low-brow defective, had just asked her to be an organ donor. Fumbling about in her purse she said, “You know Mimi would love for you to have that organ, but it’s being picked up on Friday by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was always important for her to give to charity you know.”
The day the moving van came to load up Mimi’s house, I parked up the street and watched as the organ, the antique chairs, the hand hooked rugs, and Mimi’s lifelong stockpile of stuff was loaded up to be taken away and the booty divvyed up amongst the haves. Oh, but I really wanted that damn organ. Not to play it, because I don’t know how to play the organ, but because I wanted to sell it and get the money and take a trip to San Francisco and maybe never return to this wasteland where I was born.
I was like a festering hot boil that day, sitting in my girlfriend’s sapphire blue mustang wearing one of my ash blonde costume wigs and double agent hat and glasses, spying the endgame. They were too stupid, to folded in and on themselves to think beyond their covetous materialism to suspect that I could or would be this clever, this wily, this impudent, this imaginative, this vexed to set up a surveillance command post. They frolicked about in the front yard, not lifting a finger to assist, as the Mexicans loaded the moving van. I thought about setting the house on fire and detailed the escapade in my mind. That exercise in the imaginal was enough to temporarily satiate my incredulity. I smoked the joint my friend sent along with me for intellectual companionship and cranked up Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell:
The sirens are screaming, and the fires are howling
Way down in the valley tonight.
There’s a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye
And a blade shining oh so bright.
There’s evil in the air and there’s thunder in the sky,
And a killer’s on the bloodshot streets.
And down in the tunnels where the deadly are rising
Oh, I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter
He was starting to foam in the heat.
Buzzing inside of my cerebral swaddle, I mull over the psychological milieu of the last few days; the unfairness, the emotional emptiness, the insulated ignorance, the sea of projections, the uproarious amusement, the incontrovertible class divide which breeds resentment and revulsion, my own silence, the brokenness, the barrenness of the finality.
A late afternoon rain pelts the windshield, thumping out a stream of sadness and I remember a photo of aunt Bobbi that had hung for years in Mimi’s living room. She’d been crowned queen of a high society ball. The photo is a full length sepia tone of Bobette in her Duchess Satin ball gown with a long scalloped train, opera gloves, and jeweled tiara. I was fixated on that photo when I was a little girl, and like all little girls are with beautiful older women, I was in love with aunt Bobbi; her beauty and sophistication, her relaxed, untroubled approach to life. She seemed perfect in my mind, with an uncomplicated life, ideal husband, and all her lovely things. Now, remembering her at the funeral, she was vacant and compliant, unavailable for sustained presence or genuine connection. She too existing in a kind of assigned bondage whereby her her own agency and self generative power has been drained and resourced in ways she was not prepared to grasp. There buried deep inside, piled under anger, bitterness, and grief I touch the childhood hunger to have been cared for and cherished by aunt Bobbi, my only blood line aunt. The awareness crashes into me like a tidal thrust; the submerged ache, the misunderstood rage of a little girl, the misplaced longing for the love of female kinship that has been with me for all these years.
A few days later, after aunt Bobbi and the entourage left town, I returned to the house, to the backyard, to the place where the flower garden once was. I hadn’t been in this yard since I was a child and now it seemed so very small, so very neglected. It’s fascinating how plants and gardens take on the look and feel of their keepers. My friend Dora’s mother couldn’t get her plants to grow; they lived in the house like undernourished children, spindly and bereft of leaves; that is how Dora felt to me, frail and absent of fire. They were poor and the plants felt the energetic gloom of poverty, the collapse of will that scarcity brings. Sitting on the back steps of Mimi’s house I feel hollow, drained of sentiment and spark like the liver colored yard. Death had come and gone, necessitating the coming together of our anomalous clan.
I lie in the rough-hewn grass reflecting on the absurdity of it all; the seemingly incongruent meaninglessness of families who shatter and scatter, shards of our splintered selves bouncing around, bumping into each other in the ethers of nihilistic disregard. I soften further into the ground and give thanks to this place, this patch of earth where Mimi turned soil each new season to put in her begonias, scarlet sage, impatience, snapdragons, marigolds. Where my sister and I trampled barefoot in the summer, digging for worms and bugs, pushing iris bulbs into cold black Iowa dirt; I embrace the knowing that I will never return here again. She will stay with me as a living story, a traveling companion etched on the pages of my soul. And when loneliness and loss and grief break through to the surface of the skin, I can return to these roots of sacred remembrance to the places where wholeness and love do exist as an endless stream of restoration.
As I leave I see a tin watering can next to the house, the one thing that was left behind. I think Mimi would like me to have it.