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Summer/Fall 2018

(Dear) DeeDee

 

by Kat Meads

 

West Coast

Wednesday, Feb. 14

 

DeeDee,

The attic of your grandparents’ farmhouse. How well do you remember it? Wasps, canning jars, camping canteens, broken rockers, steamer trunks, heaps of woolen blankets, your grandmothers out-of-fashion “church” hats. Choking heat, March through October. To reach it, one had to scale ladder-steps nailed to the closet wall; then, at the top, cling with one hand while the other knocked aside the plywood hatch. When I was five, part of the attic’s attractions was its away away-ness, a quiet spot for me, myself and I. The other was a pile of discarded schoolbooks under the western eave, among them Luck and Pluck, illustrated. Never underestimate the power of association. Never imagine you escape what impresses you as a child.

Love and hugs,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Saturday, March 9

 

DeeDee,

When feelings “ran hot” at a family get-together, one of the less excitable adults typically drew breath and preambled: “I don’t think…,” while in fact thinking furiously about how best to avoid a full-scale squabble. As a tactic, the dodge worked reasonably well as long as no one elaborated. “I don’t think I understand what you’re saying” of course meant that the previous statement had not only been thoroughly understood but had given vivid offense. Thereafter, the offender had one chance and one chance only for a do-over. By and large, our clan seems to be/have been a think-better-of-it clan, which is far from saying that every squabble is, was or could be sidestepped. The family’s grudge-holding champ thus far: your paternal great-grandmother. If a grandchild fell in her flowerbed, she held a grudge. If a visitor interrupted her supper, she held a grudge. If her sister, Inez, took too long making a Scrabble move, she held a grudge. Did your great-grandmother exist, moment to moment, spoiling for a fight? Let’s just say she tapped into a reservoir of resentments with exceptional speed. No shortage of reasons for any 1890-born female to resent the fortresses of power and a woman’s backstairs pantry space within. But your great-grandmother’s active expectation of disrespect frequently guaranteed that the assumption bore fruit. Rock and hard place.

Love,

Aunt K

 

 

West Coast

Sunday, March 10

 

DeeDee,

You’ve heard the story of the cousin who’d “carry a boulder for you for 20 years” if you asked nicely, but if you told him to do it… Recalcitrance. Pretty standard Southern hiccup.  As a teenager, digging in my heels over nothing earth-shatteringly important, I was advised by someone I didn’t otherwise despise to “just mouth agreement” and save myself “gobs of time and bother.” Digging in one’s heels, affably appearing to agree. Both regional staples. What I reiterate here you no doubt figured out rolling around in your crib. A Southern “uh-huh” doesn’t necessarily (or even frequently) indicate accord. Uttered one Southerner to another, its equivocal nature is taken for granted and otherwise known as oiling the wheels of polite discourse. Why this harping? To prevent you from being too terribly thrown by the deficit of surface courtesies once you venture beyond the Southern Wild. You’ll be thrown to some extent, regardless. There’s no remedying that.

Love,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Tuesday, March 26

 

DeeDee,

The phrase may have worn itself out by the time you came along, but, put to a vote, I’m pretty sure your dad and I would agree that during our brat years your grandmother’s go-to counter was: Can’t help that. “Go to sleep.”/ “Not tired.”/“Can’t help that.” “Do your homework.”/ “Too hard.”/ “Can’t help that.” “Go visit your aunt.”/ “She smells funny.”/ “Can’t help that.” Advantages on her side? Autopilot resistance to our resistance, no additional time or energy wasted on tailored-to-the-occasion comebacks. Was your grandmother parroting her own mother’s solution to shutting up children or did the phrase, newly minted, first pop out of your grandmother’s mouth in a standoff with your dad and me? And what did your grandmother, self-to-self, take that expression to mean? That she personally lacked the power to alter the situation or that, in a fait accompli universe, no human agent wielded such power? Questions unasked.

Love,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Thursday, April 11

 

DeeDee,

Early on, poison ivy was your dad’s implacable nemesis. We’d go crashing through the same patch of it at the edge of the swamp or on the ditch bank and I’d come out utterly unscathed, your father head-to-toe infected. (As is typical, he got the last laugh. He grew out of his allergies; I grew in. Just gazing at poison oak, I break out in hives.) For a week your dad would live pink-spotted in calamine lotion, in bed during the worst of the siege, eyelids swollen nearly shut. Seeing him in that state upset me profoundly. The puffy disfigurement, the smeary pink, his misery and incapacitation. As the younger sister—or just as a kid?—alterations to the status quo jangled. To prevent his scratching what itched, deepening sores and spreading the inflammation, your grandmother stayed at his bedside, held his hand, distracted him. Throughout our childhoods, when either of us was “laid up, feeling puny,” your grandfather interrupted his chores to check on us, tiptoeing into the house so as not to disturb if we were snoozing, careful not to let the screen door slam. And yet I always heard his footsteps, no matter how circumspect the approach—listened for it, actually, his concern almost worth getting sick for.

Hoping you’re not feeling puny,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Sunday, April 14

 

DeeDee,

Whether or not you noticed, from the time you were a tot, greeting you was, for me, an exercise in conflict. Much as I wanted to grab and “hug on you” a little or a lot, I’d noticed you were a squirmer in such situations. I, too, had been a squirmer. Your father, on the other hand, stoically and stiffly endured affectionate seizure by the relatives, wearing a look of pained grievance. Although expressions of grievance were acceptable in a boy child, in a girl child (squirmy or no) frowns were decidedly frowned upon. In the privacy of her home, your grandmother was a reasonably tolerant parent, but in the public domain, her notion of what passed muster was exceeding strict. I once made the mistake of frowningly complaining to the coffee shop waitress about “fingerprints” in my Wonder Bread sandwich. Bratty behavior to be sure, but—in my defense—I gagged easily. When the waitress offered to bring another sandwich, your grandmother declined before I could accept, finished her own chicken salad, paid for both meals (eaten and un-), ushered me out the door and only after we were beyond coffee shop view gave my elbow a very sharp pinch. Needless to say, that trip to town didn’t end with coconut squares from the candy counter at Grants.

Off to get a sweet,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Thursday, April 18

 

DeeDee,

Did you ever see your grandmother’s swagger coat? Thirties’ vintage, flattering lines, mothballed in the attic. Far too warm for Southern winters, but perfect for my winter in New York. Your mother also offered to lend her faux-fur jacket, but even the faux version looked a little too upscale for where I’d be living/could afford to live, so I declined to pack it. I did rifle your mother’s closet for glad rags for my final prom, choosing from a batch of worn-once bridesmaid gowns. The one I settled on—ivory satin, square neckline, tapestry accents—was quite stunning and totally unlike my previous prom duds, which tended toward frill and float. Although your prom boycotts hardly raised an eyebrow, in my era the extended family still celebrated dress-up night, stopping by before the “boy” showed up to ooh and ah and snap photos. Reporting it now, the communal look-see seems more touching than irksome. At the time, though, I was “beside myself,” fretting that my date would arrive before they left and we’d be subjected to lame jokes and silliness. Familial outbreaks of silliness. Let me think more on this.

Love,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Saturday, April 20

 

DeeDee,

Here’s what’s happening here: bookshelves raided for a half-remembered description of female silliness, that search extended because I got distracted by other descriptions, paragraphs, and plots. I’d have saved myself considerable effort if I’d gone straight to the Mitford shelf, which is where I eventually found what I was looking for in Highland Fling. Jane Dacre, though “a very ordinary sort of girl,” “thought by some to be exceptionally stupid,” possessed “the sort of feminine astuteness that prevented her from saying silly things.” What probably made the description adhere on first reading: real-life acquaintance with Aunt Madeline, an indiscriminate giggler deemed silly by the collective. Before writing to you tonight, I vowed to (also) come up with the name of a silly male family member and have: the seldom seen Uncle Milton. Absolutely true (at least in company), Aunt Madeline did divine when enough giggling was enough and cut it short. On the rare occasions we observed Uncle Milton in action, the same could not be said of him.

Love,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Thursday, May 2

 

DeeDee,

Your dad had just turned sixteen the summer he nabbed the coveted job of driving the county’s mosquito truck. The familial benefit of that prized contract (or so we thought at the time): our house got triple-fogged with DDT twice a month. Like your dad, I learned to drive a tractor first, truck second, car third. In the latter two categories, I was considered “heavy footed.” I liked to see how fast I could take the curves. When I was thirteen and he sixteen, a boy named Earl let me drive his parents’ car up and down our dirt road, which I did with enthusiasm, your grandmother watching to make sure I made the driveway turn during each circuit but otherwise letting me have at it. (“If the boy’s dumb enough to let her drive…”) High on my priority list: make Earl and all the boys on the backseat slide about and squeal. (Did that happen? I chose to remember yes.) When I was fifteen, new state regulations required that every fifteen-year-old pass a Driver’s Training course prior to applying for a license. The basketball coach who taught Driver’s Training offered tips on exactly when and where to accelerate in a curve if fleeing the car behind—or just for the zoom. I passed the road test, no problem, but flunked the eye exam. Where’d it originate, your father’s and my myopia? Neither of your grandparents needed specs.

Love,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Thursday, May 9

 

DeeDee,

Did your dad and I grow up in a “car culture”? I suppose. There was a time when both of us could rattle off the currently driven as well as the previously owned auto in each household of the extended family as well as the community entire, that roll call as easy as listing the names of our dogs. To rachet up the challenge, we’d sometimes match car with dog(s), as in which pets were around when this or that vehicle served as the main ride. Your grandparents’ ’51 Ford Crestliner: Towser and Tiny. ’60 Ford Falcon: Arrowhead and Lady. I could go on, but without substantiation of some sort those pair-up claims come off less impressive. For the record: we didn’t name cars. Oh, I think I heard a cousin once refer to his junker as “the old jalopy,” but that’s hardly the equivalent of a “Sue” or a “Travis.” Naming a car struck us as precious, the kind of thing families lacking in children and pets would do.

Love and kisses,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Thursday, May 16

 

DeeDee,

In a case of atrocious timing, my tenth-grade boyfriend and I broke up the week his parents bought him a baby blue Mustang. I won’t pretend my head couldn’t be turned by a fine set of wheels, but I wasn’t entirely a car snob. Despite his GTO, I passed on a dance invite from a guy duller than lint. One can’t converse with a car, after all. Also: my last two years of high school, my replacement boyfriend (Larry B.) drove his dad’s mail-delivery car, dented, gouged and scraped. Although we didn’t further wreck that wreck, we did get in an accident together. To retrieve me and my suitcase overload from Governor’s School, your grandparents lent Larry B. their Galaxie. On the way home, we crashed into another car, skidded into a ditch, got banged up but escaped serious injury—unlike the Galaxie, which was totaled. To replace it with the ’68 Fairlane, your grandparents had to take on debt. Because they hadn’t anticipated the need for a new car quite so soon, they’d put no car money aside. Phoning from the police station, Larry B. and I hadn’t anticipated how little relieved we’d feel reporting that we were okay, though not the car. For your grandparents, debt was monstrously scary. They’d known so many who’d gone under, carrying it.

Love,

Aunt K

 

 

West Coast

Friday, Dec. 6

 

DeeDee,

Should you be curious: no one ever inquires of a California transplant why she came. The operating assumption seems to be that anyone who can manage to get here will hasten to do so for one or more of the usual, unassailable motives. The climate. The gold. The re-start. Since I’d rather not try to explain what I haven’t yet completely figured out, I appreciate the policy of non-interrogation. But I’ve become less happy, a few seasons into the experiment, with the corollary assumption that because I’m here I ascribe to the doctrine that whatever needs improving will, here, inevitably improve/regenerate/reboot. Did your aunt once buy into the hype, convince herself she’d get another chance to carve out an alternate destiny if she made the 45-hour, 2,976.2-mile drive, home to here? Yeah. She did. Realities since revealed: any transplant remains a surface cruiser and (duh) endless opportunities for the asking is a false pitch. In the Golden State, as elsewhere, one needs her claws.

Love,

Aunt K

 

West Coast

Saturday, Dec. 7

 

DeeDee,

Actually, I’m not the first in the extended family to take on a California address. Somewhere outside of San Diego, a second or third or fourth cousin resides. Moved out in the Fifties with her Navy-enlisted husband and stayed put. According to your grandmother, I met that California-based relative when she visited one summer to catch up with cartloads of kin. (What I most remember about the get-together: a different distant cousin walking around with a fishhook in her cheek, the result of her brother’s bad cast.) Another of your grandmother’s relatives tested out his new motorcycle by driving it cross-country, East Coast to West. He only stayed in California long enough to gas up, then wheeled around and headed back. (Your dad derives no end of hilarity from that story.) My neighbor’s daughter doesn’t seem to have a motorcycle of her own but unquestionably prefers biker boyfriends. Parents elsewhere, she hosts biker parties that spill out onto the upper and lower decks and into the yard. Despite the overflow, neighborly courtesies have (thus far) been maintained. No raucous squalling, no plein air screwing (on my side of the hedge), empty beer cans flung at her parents’ loquat (not mine).

Love,

Aunt K

 

 

West Coast

Saturday, Dec. 14

 

DeeDee,

But really and truly: why am I in CA? Even if no one here cares, I’d rest easier having a plausible alibi at the ready. One I’ve flirted with: after a Southerner tries north, where else to venture but west? Another: it makes a certain logical sense to exchange a past-soaked place for a future-obsessed place to test how the reorientation rides. Not bad, either cover story. Except: “You have to take yourself wherever you go.”(Beryl Bainbridge) Except: “You try to live as if nothing had ever happened. But it’s useless.” (J.G. Farrell) What I’ve picked up in the California trenches, as opposed to California library stacks: plenty have stalled out here while vigorously pretending otherwise. I understand the stall; I also commiserate with the denial. We’re all clinging to the edge in more ways than three. But the failure to admit to failure is starting to feel more wearying than the weight of your aunt’s accumulated past. It takes a lot of effort, niece: continuously charging forward, staring squarely ahead. How about this defense? I came to California because I needed to get out of my own story for a while and didn’t think that could be accomplished staying where I started. Does that excuse pass muster? Sound more believable? Less? You pick.

Love,

Aunt K

 

[Check out Kat Meads’s back porch wisdom]