THREE USEFUL LESSONS
WILL AND ELIZABETH PRICE
I'm Lying In Dry Sun, alone and happy. Under me is a white blanket. I'm fascinated by the pure blue sky, but Topsy the goat is chained to my right -- out of reach they think. The sound of her grazing comes steadily closer. I've sat on her back, she pulls my cart, I'm not afraid. Suddenly though she is here above me, a stiff rank smell. She licks my forehead in rough strokes of a short pink tongue. Then she begins to pull hard at what I'm wearing. I don't understand that she's eating my diaper. I push at her strong head and laugh for the first time yet in my life. I'm free to laugh since my parents are nearby, talking on the porch. They'll be here shortly, no need to cry out. I'm four or five months old and still happy, sunbathing my body that was sick all winter.
That scene is my earliest sure memory; and it poses all the first questions -- how does a newborn child learn the three indispensable human skills he is born without? How does he learn to live, love, and die? How do we learn to depend emotionally and spiritually on others and to trust them with our lives? How do we learn the few but vital ways to honor other creatures and delight in their presence? And how do we learn to bear, use and transmit that knowledge through the span of a life and then to relinquish it?
I've said that all but one of my student writers have located their earliest memory in the third or fourth year. My own first memory appears to be a rare one. The incident was often laughed about in my presence at later gatherings -- the day poor Topsy went for Reynolds's diaper, got a good whiff and bolted. So I might have built a false memory from other people's narratives. But I'm still convinced that the scene I've described is a fragment of actual recall, stored at the moment of action. If it wasn't I'd have embellished the scene further -- adding clouds to the sky, a smell to the grass, the pitch of my parents' voices. What I've written is what I have, an unadorned fragment that feels hard and genuine. And the only trace of emotion is my lack of fear, my pleasure, both of which produced my first awareness of dependency -- the goat won't eat me; help is near.
From the presence of Topsy, I know I'm in Macon, North Carolina. She was born, the same day as I, on my Uncle Marvin Drake's farm up near the Roanoke River. My father has had a small red goat-cart built, big enough for me and one child-passenger; and Topsy is already strong enough to pull us. Since we left Macon before I was a year old, then the memory comes from my first summer in 1933. That February 1st, I'd been born in the far west bedroom of my mother's family home in Macon.
Macon was then a village of under two hundred people, black and white. Because it was an active station on the Seaboard Railroad's Raleigh-to-Norfolk line, it had grown north and south from the depot in the shape of a Jerusalem cross-a north-south dirt street, an east-west paved road parallel to the train tracks and a few dirt streets parallel still to both axes.
There was a minuscule but thriving business district -- three grocery and dry-goods stores, a gas station and a post office. There were two brick white churches, Methodist and Baptist, and two frame black churches, one on the west edge and one in the country. There were fewer than forty white households, mostly roomy but unpretentious frame houses, no pillared mansions. A few smaller black houses were set in the midst of town with no hint of threat or resentment; but most black families lived on the fringes of town -- some in solid small houses, some in surprisingly immortal-seeming hovels. And on all sides, the sandy fields of tobacco and cotton lay flat and compliant, backed by deep woods of pine and cedar and big-waisted hardwoods.
Almost every white family employed one or more black women, men and children as farm hands, house servants, yardmen, gardeners and drivers. With all the deep numb evil of the system (numb for whites)-slavery and servitude did at least as much enduring damage to whites as to blacks -- those domestic relations were astonishingly good-natured and trusting, so decorous that neither side began to explore or understand the other's hidden needs. When they'd granted one another the hunger for food, shelter and affection, their explorations apparently ceased; and the ancient but working standoff continued.
Yet a major strand of the harmony of all their lives consisted of the easy flow of dialogue expressive of mutual dependency, jointly sparked fun and the frequent occasions of mutual exasperation. There were even glints of rage from each side; but in our family homes at least, there was never a word about the tragic tie that bound the two peoples. And if a cook or yardman mysteriously failed to appear on Monday morning, even the kindest white employer was sure to foment angrily on the blatant no-count ingratitude -- no trace of acknowledgement that a bonedeep hostile reluctance might be fuming.
Since the family trees of strangers are high on anyone's boredom scale, I'll limit the following to what seems bare necessity if I'm to track these mysteries. My mother Elizabeth Martin Rodwell was born in 1905 and reared in Macon in the oak-shaded rambling white seven-room house built by her father in the mid-1888os. He was John Egerton Rodwell, station master of the Macon depot. He'd grown up in a big nest of brothers on a farm, some four miles north, between Macon and Churchill. His mother Mary Egerton, whether she knew it or not, could have claimed descent from the English family that commissioned John Milton to write his masque Comus in 1634 to celebrate the elevation of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, to the Lord Presidency of Wales (the leading player in Comus was his daughter Alice Egerton, age fifteen). While the memory of such a standing was retained by a few of the deep-country farmers my Egertons had become, after two centuries in slaveholding Virginia and North Carolina, they seldom bragged on their blood.
My mother Elizabeth's mother was Elizabeth White -- called Lizzie, even on her gravestone -- from the oldest continuously settled part of the state, Perquimans County in the northeast corner, eighty miles east of Macon. Lizzie's mother had died in Lizzie's infancy, and she had been reared by her storekeeper father and an agreeable stepmother. On a visit to friends in Macon, she met blackhaired, brown-eyed funny Jack Rodwell; and she married him soon after. She was all of sixteen, mirthful and pleasantly buxom (a later problem), not pretty but widely loved for her good talk, her endless self-teasing and much ready laughter.
She was fated to bear eight children in twenty years, seven of whom survived her. One boy died in his first year; the other three left home early, in the common Dickensian fashion. They packed their small belongings, kissed their parents (all my kin flung themselves on kisses with the recklessness of Russian premiers), flagged the train and headed up the line for railroad jobs in Norfolk, already a teeming port of the U.S. Navy. Of the four daughters, my mother Elizabeth was the youngest. Lizzie used to claim that Elizabeth was conceived because, well after Lizzie thought she was done, the Seaboard added a four a.m. express. Its window-rattling plunge through the heart of Macon would wake Jack nightly and leave him with nothing better to do in the dark than turn to his mate.
My father William Solomon Price was born in 1900 in Warrenton, the small county-seat five miles from Macon. Before the Civil War, the town was a social and political center of the state (a local statesman Nathaniel Macon was Speaker of the House of Representatives in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson). As such it was the home of wealthy slaveholding planters, many of whose elegant houses have lately been refurbished, though Warrenton now shares the sad lot of all bypassed farm towns -- its children leave.
Will's father -- Edward Price, a famed dry wit -- was a son of the town carriage-maker, of Welsh and Scottish stock; Edward's mother was a Reynolds from Perth, Scotland. Barely out of boyhood and balked by Reconstruction poverty from his hope to study medicine, Edward avoided the family business and clerked for the remainder of his life in the county's Registry of Deeds. Will's mother was Lula McCraw, also of Warrenton and the descendant of Scottish, English and French Huguenot immigrants. One of her third-great-grandfathers was James Agee, a Huguenot whom we share with our Tennessee cousin, the writer James Agee. Lula Price was small, with a bright voracious mind, watchful as a sparrow and capable of winging a startlingly ribald comment from behind her lace and cameo with such swift wit as to leave the beauty of her face unmarred. Her short narrow body bore six strong children, all of whom survived her; yet she found the energy to run a ten-room house generously, almost lavishly, on her husband's modest income with a strength of mind and hand that, again, her white-petal beauty belied.
My parents met six years before their marriage. The meeting was in 1921 when Will was twenty-one and Elizabeth sixteen. They'd each gone to a dance at Fleming's Mill Pond, with other dates -- Will with Sally Davis, Elizabeth with Alfred Ellington. Elizabeth's date introduced her to Will; and despite Sally Davis's beauty and wit, an alternate circuit at once lit up. First, both Will and Elizabeth looked fine and knew it, within reason. Second, they were both storage batteries of emotional hunger and high-voltage eros. And third, their short pasts -- which felt like eons -- had left each one of them craving the other's specific brand of nourishment.
Will had graduated from high school four years earlier and had since held easy jobs, none of which required him to go more than a few hundred yards from his family home, while continuing to sleep and board with his parents. His two elder brothers had gone as far as was imaginable then, to Tennessee; but all three of his witty and unassuaged sisters were still in place -- the eldest having left her husband and returned unannounced at the age of twenty with a young son to live for good in the shadow of her father, whom she loved above all and whose deathbed pillows were found in her cedar chest at her own death, more than fifty years later. Both Will's parents were in hale, testy, often hilarious control; so the house contained eight Prices in five bedrooms, plus at least one cook and a handyman.
I can hardly think how a healthy young man, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven, can have stood to inhabit such a crowd of watchers and feeders -- and stood them, day and night, for ten years after finishing high school -- but stand them he did. As the youngest son, Will was his mother's "eyeballs." And later evidence suggests that she unconsciously mastered his growing dependence on alcohol to keep him close to an all-forgiving bosom (Elizabeth told me, late in her life, that "Will's mother would ride with him to the bootlegger when no one else would go").
For whatever reasons, Will's extrication from the grip of such a rewarding and demanding mother -- and from his fondness for Sally Davis -- took him six long years of fervent courting. And once he and Elizabeth had steeled themselves, they married as far from Warren County as they could go and still be sheltered by kin. Elizabeth's nextoldest, and favorite, brother Boots gave her away in Portsmouth, Virginia; and in Warrenton, Will's sisters rose at dawn to set all the clocks in the Price house an hour ahead. Then at "noon" -- as the distant vows seemed imminent and their mother announced her imminent heartspell -- they could say "Just calm yourself, Muddy; it's too late now. Will and Elizabeth are a whole hour married and on the train." And so they were -- the Orange Blossom Special, in a "drawing room" suite (courtesy of Elizabeth's Seaboard brothers) and bound for Florida, one of the gorgeous ends of the Earth in those grand days.
Elizabeth's parents had died young. When my mother was eleven, Lizzie's kidneys failed; and Elizabeth was led to her mother's deathbed-surrounded by galvanized tubs of ice to cool the fierce heat -- for a final goodbye. Three years later, sitting on her own porch, Elizabeth looked up the dirt road to see a mail cart from the depot roll toward her. It bore her last anchor -- Jack Rodwell her father, dead of his second stroke at fifty-eight.
From the age of eleven, Elizabeth and her sister Alice, called Britsy and five years older, were mothered by their kind sister Ida. Ida was eighteen years older than Elizabeth; and with her came her then-volatile husband Marvin Drake and their three boys. Though they were Elizabeth's near-contemporary nephews, they quickly became her surrogate brothers, foster sons and chief playmates.
The Drakes had moved in at Lizzie's death to keep house for Jack and the girls; and once Jack died, they stayed for good. Ever after, Elizabeth's feelings about the years of at-home orphanhood were understandably mixed. She was grateful for the chance to remain in her birthplace with mostly well-intentioned kinfolk. But on rare occasions in my own childhood, I'd see her ambushed by sudden resentment. In those short forays, she'd glimpse the worst -- she'd been dispossessed in her rightful place by an interloper with a cold eye for gain, a brother-in-law (who would ultimately purchase the Rodwell children's shares in the home and will it and all its Rodwell contents to his Drake heirs). In a few days though, I'd hear her say "Let's drive up home and see Ida and Marvin." In her best mind, my mother knew they'd kept her alive.
Will and Elizabeth were reared then in classic, though healthily honest, family situations where blood-love, or at least loyalty, was the binding principle of a majority of the by-no-means happy populace. As an inevitable and paradoxical result, my young parents were primed for another love, private but transcendent, that would lead them out of the blighting shadows of their homes into the glare of their own graceful bodies in one another's hands, worked as they were by aching need.
The repeatable public stories of their courtship were among my own favorites from their long repertoire. There was the night when, returning from a performance of The Merry Widow in Henderson, Will left his Model A Ford for a moment to buy cigarettes; and Elizabeth, still too well-mannered to mention a body-need, was forced to lift the floorboard and pee quickly on the hot gear box. It reeked mysteriously through the rest of Will's evening. Or the time the same car got bogged in quicksand and almost sank them. Or the hard days of Will's terror when Elizabeth suffered a ruptured appendix, twenty years before the discovery of antibiotics, and was rushed in agony from Macon to Norfolk on a stretcher in the baggage car of a train -- the only place she could ride flat -- for six weeks of desperate but successful remedies. Or Elizabeth's happiest memory of her strongly ambivalent mother-in-law -- the time they were driving alone together, struck a turkey, killed it neatly and brought it home to eat. Or the lovers' own mutual fits of jealousy and their laughing reconciliations, alone in the woods by the sandy creek in Macon or at big late dances in the open pavilion at Fleming's Mill Pond or a place in the woods called Largo.
Well before I was in school, I came to realize that they'd been together twelve years before my birth -- six years of courtship and six of marriage. And with that realization came a kernel of bitterness that I'd missed so much of them, that they'd had so much without me. Knowing nothing of the mechanics of reproduction, I lamented my absence from so much fun and from all the magical snapshots in their albums. Why hadn't they wanted to bring me in sooner?
The kind of merciless consolation available only to children and madmen came in my realizing simultaneously that those twelve years broke into two pieces, good and bad. The courtship was happy, though subject to the clouds I've mentioned (Sally Davis took a long time resigning her hold on Will, and Elizabeth ran an unpredictable sideline in other beaux). But the six years of marriage before my birth were all but tragic. Will's boyish taste for bootleg liquor -- the fuel of so much of his early fun -- became a nightmarish and paralyzing thirst.
The drunkenness, and all the missed work-days, led to aimless dangerous roving with his bachelor best-friend and fellow-soak, whom I'll call Alec, while Elizabeth waited -- sober and wretched in whatever room they'd rented that month. And all round, the troubles of an always-poor state grew as the Great Depression plummeted. Even Will's sisters, two of whom by then had suffered disastrous marriages, told Elizabeth that they couldn't fault her if she left for the sake of her own self-respect and sanity. She later admitted that, in their courtship, she drank her own share of bathtub gin, especially at Boob's nonstop party in Norfolk. But now, avid as she was for her own chance at life but devoted to Will in his pitiful baffling thirst, she was sober in earnest. And she stayed. Long after his death, she said to me "The thing was, he always came back late to me, so sick and helpless, saying I was all he had. I wanted to doubt him, but I knew it was true."
With all their other troubles, living near their families in a fruitful farming county, they never went cold or hungry, though I've heard Mother say "With one dollar bill you could pack the car with groceries; the only trick was finding that dollar." More than once she was forced to down her pride, approach her solvent brother-in-law, who owned the local feed-and-seed store; beg for a dollar and endure his asking "Why in the world? -- to buy Will's liquor?"
Will's constant worry, beyond a drunkard's guilt, was jobs and income. Like his father and two older brothers, he'd never really thought of college; and he was skilled in nothing more saleable than wit, charm and a generous heart. As a boy and a youth, he'd sold newspapers, clerked in the freight office of the Warrenton Railroad's depot. He even rode as conductor on that lightly traveled, remarkably short line -- less than five miles out to Warren Plains and back. The only job I recall his mentioning from those first married years was door-to-door life-insurance sales. At least it wasn't office work. With his own Ford, and without the cold-eyed scrutiny of a boss, Will could roam the backroads of Warren and Vance counties, canvassing hard-up farmers. I never heard tales of his drinking at work but he must have. For whatever reason, the jobs were short and unambitious; and he and Elizabeth moved restlessly from rented room to rented room, all within a fifteen-mile radius of their family homes.
Pictures of Will Price in youth show a strong upturned face with a radiance almost better than beauty, a heat centered in the gray eyes that burn with what seems fervor -- where does it come from; what fuel does it take? A few years later, the courtship pictures still show him as a trim dapper man with splendidly live eyes, an upright carriage of his medium frame and with always the threat of a smile on his mouth. But I've found no pictures of him from those hard first six years of marriage; and surely that gap in the record can't be accidental (thirty years later when I got a home-movie camera, he was openly fascinated with his own walking likeness; and he often said he was going to buy a whole reel and get me to use it all on him, though sadly he never did).
It's only with my birth that he appears in the albums again, holding me with the winning edginess of a fledgling member of the bomb-disposal squad. But by then, in his early thirties, he's taken on weight. It looks like bloat and, worse, there's a blurring glaze on the once-hot eyes. Half-smiling still, thoughtful and protective as he is, by now there's a presence in his life even more demanding than his wife and first son.
I also have no pictures of Elizabeth from those six years. But her long absence from the record of an eagerly snapshooting family is also eloquent, though I recall only two occasions when she mentioned the slow pain. In 1961, seven years after Will's death, I was living in England and working on an autobiographical story called "Uncle Grant." It was about a black man who worked for us in those early years; and I wrote to ask Mother if Grant, in his devotion to Will, had ever drunk with him. She answered quickly; no, Grant "never took a drink with Will that I know of." And then, for the only time in all her relations with my writing, she hinted at a possible suppression -- "I don't know, but maybe 'twould be better not to bring in the drinking days, they were so horrible" (that instinctive slide into the poetic 'twould still sounds its desolation). When she reappears in my baby pictures, it's clear that she's fared much better than Will. In her late twenties now, she's lost her baby fat but is still a good-looking woman ("a well set-up girl, I can tell you," as Will might have said). Whatever pain those dark eyes have eaten has left no trace, not yet.
In the face of their own problems, and the economic world-maelstrom in which they were helpless floaters, it's hard to guess why in early May of 1932 they conceived a first child. Once I was grown, Will told me of the pains he took in those years to preserve a single washed condom in a box of powder for numerous uses, but he didn't connect the fact with my conception. I may have been an accident, and few of us want that; but it feels at least possible from here that Elizabeth, justifiably leery of childbearing, arranged to conceive as a last hope of braking Will's rush to drown. She'd tried every other way she knew. Maybe a child would get his attention where all else had failed; he had seemed to enjoy his nearest nephew and niece.
Physically, the pregnancy was uncomplicated. They were living in Henderson as the day approached, again in a rented room with a cranky widow who monopolized the bathroom. The intention was, though, that I should be born in Elizabeth's home in Macon. I've said that it was her birthplace and that of her brothers and sisters; it had also seen the deaths of one of her brothers and both her parents. No Rodwell or Price of their generations had yet been born or died elsewhere. Will's boyhood friend Dr. Pat Hunter supervised the pregnancy; and when Elizabeth felt contractions in the late afternoon of January 31st, she and Will lit out for Macon. (Earlier in the day Adolf Hitler had assumed dictatorial powers in Germany, but they wouldn't have known or cared.) Elizabeth's water broke before they arrived; but she walked from the car into the house, to find Ida and Marvin playing rummy with friends. There was no telephone; a cousin drove to Warrenton to fetch Pat Hunter; someone else went for Betty Lyons the black midwife. And soon after they arrived, labor set in.
In the living room Marvin, Will and the friends tried to wait it out. They scrambled eggs and played more cards by the hot woodstove, though Will was far too scared to concentrate. By midnight nothing had come from the bedroom but cries from Elizabeth. The friends left; Marvin tried to sleep. But Will lurked helpless at the edge of the hardest birth ever suffered on the place.
It was remembered as that, even by the other women present -- black Betty Lyons with Ida and Cousin Joyce Russell, who administered ether on a clean cotton pad till she herself was nearly unconscious. By the time I began to listen, that night was one of the epic family tales, a ghastly double-death turned back as cold morning broke. In the far west room on a white iron bed six feet from a woodstove, Elizabeth worked for twelve hours.
I was breeched -- turned backward, stalled defiant -- in the womb; and since antibiotics were twelve years off and a caesarean was all but unthinkable, Pat Hunter struggled to turn me. No luck. Near day when Will peered in again, Pat looked up and said "I'm losing them both." It was all Will needed. More than once in later years, I watched him hear the story of his next act from others; but I never heard him tell it. Even for a narrator as driven and dazzling as he, it was far too weighty for public performance.
He fled the house in the freezing dawn, went out to the woodshed; and there he sealed a bargain with God, as stark and unbreakable as any blood pact in Genesis -- if Elizabeth lived, and the child, he'd never drink again.
By the time he was back in the house, Pat had finally turned me, damped forceps to my pliant skull, braced his feet on the rail of the bed and pulled me out by main force. My rubbery skull was dented, and one ear was torn; but once I'd wailed and been handed to a revived Joyce for bathing, Pat went to tell Will. Elizabeth was alive, exhausted but safe. And plainly I was there too, the first of their sons.
No one recalled, in my presence, what either Will or Elizabeth said to Pat or to one another, nor did anyone say when Will told her of his solemn deal. Likely the first words, after endearments, were my name -- Edward for Will's dead father, Reynolds for his Scottish grandmother. Will's elder brothers had so far produced three girls and a boy, none of whom bore their grandfather's name. My guess is that it meant much to Will to go to his mother with the news of a boy named Edward Price -- again. There seems to have been no question of a name from the Rodwell side, though Elizabeth often told me "Will put his foot down -- you couldn't be a junior." That was saved for another boy years later, when Will may have loathed his own name less.
He must have told Elizabeth his hopeful news soon because, obedient to medical wisdom at the time, she spent the next three weeks in bed (or near it) and would have needed cheering. For the remainder of his life, he teased her about the long rest -- "I thought we'd have to hire a damned steam shovel to get you up. You were that scared of touching your foot to the floor." She had been badly torn and would need surgical repair years later.
God had kept his half of the bargain. The family myth had it that Will Price kept his half. The fact is, in time he did but not at once -- and no wonder. In the upper South in the 1930s, the help available to a drunk who hoped to quit was no more unusual than prayer and no more imaginative than the standard injunction to buck up, be a man and do the manly thing. Professional help was limited to small private clinics for the discreet sobering up of drunks who could pay for weaning, "vitamin" shots and a dollop of scoutmasterly advice; but one and all, the clinics were notoriously unsuccessful in long-range help. It's now conceded that the majority of enduring recoveries in America are achieved through membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, but A.A. had not been organized in 1933. It was one year off and nearly twenty years before its groups appeared in the smalltown South.
So Will was all but on his own. His mother and sisters were slim help; the middle sister was involved in her own sad marriage to a charming drunk who would soon kill himself, leaving her and a young daughter to return to the Warrenton home. Both Will's brothers, by then in Tennessee, were also drinkers -- as were all three of Elizabeth's and ultimately all her nephews. Whether or not Will's mother unconsciously fostered his thirst, there's no doubt that in his cups he often resorted to the tiny glistening face of his mother, so ready to forgive and provide what an interloping wife was baffled to find.
The interloper though was the stronger prop, the wife he'd courted so hard for years. Elizabeth was no more a trained alcoholic counselor than anyone else in the South of those days; but she was passionately ready to help, to nurse him in his sickness and to wait in hope. Once she told me "The help was seldom more than waiting, then fixing him soft-boiled eggs with butter in a glass." Years later Will also acknowledged the spiritual guidance of Robert Brickhouse, his Baptist minister in Warrenton; and he had the bald enormous fact of a mortal deal with the God he never questioned. If Will Price couldn't keep his half of the bargain, then in his mind the unquestioned corollary was that God had every right to reclaim Elizabeth and Reynolds. And given the Old Testament tally of God's response to such defaults, the corollary surely stood cocked and ready to seize its double blood-due.
I stress that I never heard my father mention the deal and its terrors; he was no chattering fundamentalist but a silent wrestler in the scalding dark. In the first two years of my life, we continued to camp out -- first in Henderson, fifteen miles southwest; then around Warren County with relatives and in rented rooms; so I spent many hours in the close company, not only of my housewife-mother but with Will. I remember frequent bearhugs and the scrape of a beard that could never quite be shaved; I can see flashes of my first Christmas; I have a glimpse of his delight when I took a first step on my first birthday. But I have no memory of seeing him high or loud or abusive.
Will and Elizabeth were long dead and I was in my forties before I learned from Lulie, the sister nearest Will in age, that Will concluded the deal more gradually than legend records. Admitted, at once he began to quit or taper off, as drunks still say. There were no more long nights of aimless driving through the county, no more work-days missed as he slept comatose at home or hid beside the loyal Elizabeth in self-hating self-pity. There was nonetheless still a fair amount of beer. According to Lulie, the real end did come suddenly but not till I was three.
Those first three years were dogged by illness -- allergic rashes so severe that Mother pinned my arms to the sheets at night to prevent gouging, a winter-long bout of whooping cough and then a mysterious succession of frightening seizures. Without warning, my fever would soar; and in a matter of minutes, I'd rush into racking board-stiff convulsions. Only fast plunges in cold water and quickly administered enemas appeared to help. The doctors were helpless; maybe I was allergic to egg. (By age five however, I was eating egg with impunity. All my life I've been subject to sudden allergies that vanish as suddenly; but I now strongly suspect that in infancy I was showing first signs of the often congenital type of spinal tumor that would not fully manifest till I was fifty-one.)
Whatever the cause, everyone agreed that my seizures were dreadful to watch. Elizabeth would spring into purposeful action; Will would stand by, anguished and unmanned. At their height I appeared to be dead; when they passed I would sleep exhausted through whole days and nights. And all that I later knew of Will Price affirms that, early in the course of my afflictions, he'll have sighted the link between their threat and his continued cheating on a dead-earnest deal.
In 1935 he got the first good job of his life, as a salesman of electric appliances for Carolina Power and Light Company; and we moved forty miles to the small mill-town of Roxboro where finally we had a rented house to ourselves. An imperious surviving letter from Will's mother -- clubbing him, in a potent tall script, for negligence and ordering him to see that she got "toe pads" before the week was out -- suggests how short a hyphen fifty miles could be, even in slower days. But at least he wasn't in five-mile reach of that brand of vampire whim.
The year I was three, his oldest sister Mary Eleanor was visiting us. Late one afternoon she and Will walked up the slope behind our house to a neighborhood curb-market for a loaf of bread. While there, for whatever reason, Will chose to drink a bottle of beer. When they ambled down to the house twenty minutes later, I was in the grip of the hardest seizure yet. Elizabeth had failed to reach Dr. Gentry, so she'd called the black doctor, but he still hadn't come. And with all their efforts, I was borne further off -- eyes rolled back white, skin purple, hands clenched so tight my palms were cut. Lulie said "Will knew you were dying, he knew he had caused it, and he quit then and there."
Such a mortal dare would have come at Will as no shock at all, no ambush. He trusted, and his sons do, that even a life as low to the ground, as wasteful and destructive as his own, was of serious weight in the hand of God. In his own head then, he earnestly swore to redeem his pledge.
In half an hour both doctors were gone, I was cool and sleeping, and Elizabeth could finally start cooking supper. According to Lulie, it was my last seizure. In any case, Will Price lived another eighteen years and never again drank so much as a spoonful of alcohol. His quitting was as graceful as his jokes. He could watch kin and friends drink with no apparent temptation, and he always kept a pint of bourbon far back on the top pantry-shelf (and a four-ounce bottle in his suitcase) -- for emergencies with the heart he believed to be weak, though it beat like a perpetual piston through the worst of his end at fifty-four. Even more importantly, I suspect, the stored bottle was also an emblem -- the old demon, captive and harmless on a shelf.
I have no conscious memory of those dangerous times in my own beginning; but they too entered the family treasury, and some of my good memories are of listening to the tellings. As with so many of our perils, my seizures were soon recounted as comical -- the farcical actions of Will, Elizabeth and others in the critical moments when I went stiff as an iron bar. There were tales of how they blundered into one another with tubs of cold water and assorted collapsible rubber goods to wrest young me, one more time live, from another death; of how many new dresses and shoes were ruined in the drastic baths and enemas (not to mention the tale of that afternoon when they'd gone to Richmond for Ida's operation and left me with Aunt Britsy, who couldn't swim a stroke. She took me wading at the country-club pool; but as she was shepherding me toward the bathhouse, I broke away laughing, clambered to the diving board and flung myself to the bottom of the deep end. To the end of her mind, Britsy loved the climax -- "Your big old head just sank like a rock! I was dressed to the nines in a pink dress, with white brand-new summer pumps. I hollered for help and nobody came, so nothing to do but get to the bottom of twelve feet of chlorine and haul that head out the best I could. The simpleton lifeguard finally came; by then I'd learned to swim somehow, and we were both safe. The shoes were ruined").
What I prized from the tales of my near-brushes was better than any direct memory. I heard beneath their affectionate laughter a thing all children, and adults, hope to hear -- I mattered mightily to them. And when they feared for my life, they gladly let themselves be fools in the hope to save me. What I also heard, unconsciously at first, was the secret mate to the message of love -- I was not the only thing they loved. In saving me, they were saving the proudest license they owned: their own good names as load-bearing struts in family and town.
I began that early to sense how much they depended on me, as a thing outside them to tend and serve. I was both a serious toy and a temporary household god, stocked profusely as a pomegranate with all their seeds and absorbing their world with the parched senses of a desert monk. The degree to which I depended on them was hid from me. Maybe I was far more independent than they guessed; I hoarded secrets early. But full knowledge of my helplessness would have stove me in, like a baby plunged through ten thousand fathoms. Like most sane children I felt both free of all support and alone as a hawk in the winter sky. I needed that delusory space to grow in.
If I'd known so early for instance that I was, for my father, an actual hostage given to God -- an Isaac to his Abraham -- I might not have understood or borne the weight of the office. Luckily, that knowledge and my understanding of its clandestine but vital role in my growth, was not leaked to me till the age of five when, high himself, Elizabeth's oldest brother Skinny taunted Will to join him in just one little drink. When Will smiled and refused, Skinny broke the story in the room before me with a careless salting of fat-man laughter. I blamed him all the rest of his life.
But no, Will's bargain was sealed. And for all I know, I may yet be a piece in a larger game than I can see or begin to guess -- some continuing test of Will Price's deal or of my own worth to be his son, the life for which he sacrificed a stronger prop than I may ever have proved to be.
Despite my brain's refusal to store painful early memories, or its burial of them, my first sustained recall does come from the two years we lived in Roxboro. I remember waking one morning before my parents. Since they were sleeping late and had told me not to wake them, it must have been a Sunday. I lay and watched sunlight press on the window shade. Something in the meeting of yellow sun and the shade's white cloth made me think of a hula skirt I'd seen in a movie. (I'd already seen a good many movies, in the afternoons with Elizabeth or with her and Will at night. The first I recall was Ramona with Loretta Young in 1936.) I was in a crib with tall iron bars, but I managed to reach the top of the bureau and find my scissors. Armed, I stood up, slid the wood rail from the bottom of the shade and sliced the doth into my first version of a hula skirt. Then beside the window, on the cool tan plaster, I drew a huge head from the funny papers -- a chinless Andy Gump. Then too proud of my work to wait any longer, I called to wake my parents for a viewing.
I can also see our black terrier, dead under the tree on a Christmas morning (the only explanation I ever heard was that Will dropped a laxative pill the night before and was unable to find it; but the dog succeeded, ate it, lay down to rest in the tree's cotton snow and died in the midst of my Santa Claus). I remember tumbling on a neighbor's freshly paved drive and coming up with a speck of black gravel visibly embedded in my elbow for life. And I see, with a clarity that's still jolting, my mother on a stretcher, bumped down the high rock steps of our house and into an ambulance (ambulances then were identical with hearses except in color, white not black). There's a big red stain on the covering sheet. She's in the throes of miscarrying her second child, a girl. She's hemorrhaging fast and is bound, at top speed, the thirty miles south on a two-lane road for Watts Hospital in Durham. There they'll save her, only moments to spare, with direct blood fed arm-to-arm from Sheriff Pinnell, coincidentally of Warren County -- the only man on the hospital rolls with her rare type and in driving distance.
For a boy who was thought of as affectionate I have few specific memories of my parents' love. In my mind there are lingering atmospheres of childhood safety and pleasure, but they don't bring special incidents with them. I was born at a time when breast feeding was considered half-savage, certainly low-class and unsanitary. Elizabeth was always a tactile parent, not sticky with hugs and kisses but always there if touch was needed -- as it was, many times a day. My infant mind stored up, as I said, a sense of the abiding halo of her tenderness but with no single narrative picture to prove it.
Even more strangely I have only dim memories of what, years later, Elizabeth would work at like an embedded splinter -- my eagerness to join them in bed on the rare mornings when Will could linger. It never crossed my mind that I was intruding on an intimacy that long preceded me, that had caused me and might well wish to cause me a brother or sister. But after Will was dead, Elizabeth said out of the apparent blue one day "Once you managed to climb in between us, Will would never make you leave."
I heard no complaint in her voice, but why did she confess in such telling words and so long after? It was almost surely because, in her endlessly communicative family, no evidence of love or any of its woes was ever concealed. Whatever, the confession was hardly news. Like a normally watchful child, I could detect deceit on their faces at a quarter-mile. Will Price welcomed me beside him; and it was mainly him I joined, him I needed to tame and know. And early, I focused on his magic scar -- the deep white dimple in the fat of his right hand where, in a childhood accident, he'd fired his father's revolver on himself.
The story that went with the scar was gripping. Will's father was at work, and Will hied two friends to follow him into his parents' bedroom. There the standard Southern household-pistol ticked like a bomb on the high mantleplace. On tiptoe Will managed to fetch it down and to sport it boldly at his much-impressed friends; then he heard his father's homecoming footsteps mount the porch. His short arms strained up to replace the pistol, and it fired through his hand. At the sound, everybody in the house ran toward him -- sisters, parents, cook and dog. More seared than pained, he clapped his right hand over his heart and howled. His ever-fearful mother stopped in the doorway, saw his hand pressed on what was plainly a bleeding heart and fainted where she stood. It was months, of pus and drainage tubes, before he was safe -- an undoubted hero to all his friends. But there in bed those lazy Sundays, as he told me the tale each time, he was grown and strong in my hands no doubt but somehow still a boy like me. Mother was with me all hours of the day; a safe resting father, a boy like me, was way too scarce a chance to lose.
Likewise I have no memories before age five of most other functions of our intimacy. Earlier there are none that involve food and family meals, though my parents were hearty eaters; and I gladly fell in line. There are no scenes from what must have been hundreds of hours of play with Mother, Father, the cook and with other children or alone; no pictures of favorite toys, except a garish and soon broken plaster elephant and a yard-high Easter rabbit. No tears or raised voices, not to speak of abuse; and before five, no trace of all our journeys back home.
Many times a year, with only brief stops at the Prices' in Warrenton, we headed for Macon and the deep-breasted, laughing open-hearted and manic-depressive Rodwell family and all its outriders. The Price family by then consisted entirely of women -- Will's three sisters (two of whose marriages had ended in tragedy), his mother and his maiden aunt Sis Belle. They were wittier, certainly smarter than most of the town and county; and they were great readers, when the Rodwells of Elizabeth's generation (though rich in horse-sense) read nothing but the newspaper and The Upper Room, a Methodist daily-devotional booklet. But except for occasional outbursts of regret -- that his sons were more Rodwell than Price -- Will too homed toward the Macon house and Ida's bountiful table. There he avoided his mother's demand, his sisters' envy and the drunken ghost of his recent past.
Macon remained firmly home till we at last bought our own house in Raleigh in 1947. Will said at the time that he intended to die there. He almost did, just up St. Mary's Street at old Rex Hospital. But he was buried from the house. And Elizabeth spent her last conscious moment there, after a stroke, on the floor of the den -- actual home.
Unlike some students of memory, I've never felt that narrative memory is random. On the evidence of many years' storage, I'd say that my mind keeps what it needs or ever hopes to use, plus acres of likable background decor -- radio commercials and dumb pop-songs of the late thirties and forties and the names and exact wardrobes of a few grade-school classmates, never seen again. A friend or relative seldom comes up with a surprising memory involving me; once reminded, I can usually call up the file and add to their version.
So I'm all the luckier that the first sustained memory of my life -- a memory that covers more than a few minutes of the past -- has kept long stretches of a warm evening alone with my parents, probably late in the spring of 1936. We'd finished supper and, to give the house a chance to cool, we left all windows open and awarded ourselves that peaceful pleasure of roomy prewar America, "going to ride."
Elizabeth likely suggested it. More than most things, she craved the sight of people -- people doing anything. She'd sit in the baking ear in a parking place on Main Street, with me more fretful by the minute, and just hungrily watch people passing, ordinary homely citizens. There seemed to be more deaf-mutes visible in those days; and without knowing a word of sign language, Mother could watch their coded gestures with rapt dark eyes that barely blinked; and she laughed when the mutes laughed. Maybe she had a passion for witness deep in her that came to me in her blood and made me the writer she never thought of being but had many skills for.
Whoever the instigator, in that warm spring dusk we drove out aimlessly to the open country that lay no more than a quarter-hour south of our house -- flat fields of wild grass that I see as almost gray, no later than early May then. Planted like dummies in the grass, real cows gazed at us as if we were some entirely new creature. We stopped at the creamery for Dixie cups of vanilla ice cream. Then we sat in the creaking ear, in the graveled parking lot, and ate slowly from the quarter-pint cups of waxed cardboard with wood paddle-spoons that tasted as good as the cream (you could also rub them pleasantly on gums swollen with the buds of new teeth).
It was a time in America when you never thought of phoning your friends to ask if a visit was welcome; you just drove up. If it was inconvenient, they either said so or hatched a white lie, "We'd love to see you; but right this minute, we're headed to see Uncle Foy at the clinic -- not expected to make it through the night, they say." You knew it wasn't strictly true (you used similar tactics), but you sent love to Foy and got out cheerfully.
So next we cruised past Margaret and Ray Jackson's -- Ray worked with Will -- but saw no one on the porch. We turned at the end of the street and tried again -- a tap or two on the horn, nobody. They must be at Margaret's mother's, Mrs. Wilkerson's. No, we won't bother them there; let's mosey on back. So we wandered home, or at least to the last whole house we'd occupy for three more years, slowing only once to wave back heys to Doretha Bumpass, our young blue&black maid who waved and laughed in our blue exhaust.
Sometime in the ten-minute last leg of that ride -- before we stopped in the drive by the white rock steps of our house on the hill on South Lamar Street, there on the rough cloth of a back seat -- I knew for the first and final time that we were all married: Elizabeth, Will and Reynolds. We were now in this car, in all the world and in all our lives from here out, three people who'd trust each other for good; and that trust would last on every side.
Why the revelation came at that moment in my life and theirs, I still don't know. Ignorant of any syllable of news about my harrowing birth and Will's ordeal, I watched this knowledge open inside me like a sudden strong flower. I knew that this thing here in the car with us was what both Will and Elizabeth meant by a word they used several times a day and begged to hear from me. I'd heard the word hundreds of times and never thought to wonder at its meaning, love. In general, I thought I could tell it was good. But best of all for one who was growing a little bored with the powerlessness of childhood, I saw that it gave me a job. From this night on I must do as much to love and help them as they were daily doing for me.
Obviously I didn't have anything like the powers of logic or language to lay the proposition out so clearly. But even a casual watcher of primate behavior knows how a nonverbal mind can steadily consume the visible world and transform the data into unspoken decisions of great complexity, wit and even benevolence for the creature's own safety and pleasure and for those of his tribe. So my present mind has no trouble in affirming that -- on a particular night, silent on a back seat behind my parents -- I deduced a fact: Will and Elizabeth and Reynolds were one thing and would stay so.
In the past I'd gone straight to one or both of them with all my inventions, but now I kept silent. Maybe I thought they'd always known or had learned like me in the last two minutes. Maybe I thought it was my secret, like whatever secret they kept from me when they took their Sunday afternoon naps behind a shut door, an exclusion that I can't recall minding. Anyhow in the front seat, they were talking to themselves -- something they glimpsed on the ride, some joke.
Nothing we'd seen or said in the past hour would have proved interesting to anyone else in the world, only the quiet here and now of a lazy town becalmed by spring and the oncoming dark; but I saw it as light and heard it as grand, and it changed my life. Without their knowledge it also changed theirs. Without ever saying so, they let a child help them. We had another five years to work our triad, till Will and Elizabeth gambled again and started another child, one that would live.
As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Mother told me briefly what to expect in the coming months. A new baby was growing inside her the way I had. Soon I'd have a playmate. Since we were living in the country with few other children near, the prospect excited me. But I also recall that it was during the pregnancy that I began to recover or invent persistent and powerful uterine memories. They were purely visual, no sound whatever. I was suspended in a straw-colored fluid, staring out at the feeble light which barely seeped through Mother's skin, if she stood in bright sun. I've never heard similar memories from anyone else; and I suspect their reliability for several reasons, mainly because they feel more than a little like the self-reward of a child about to be joined by an unknown equal -- someone else is in there now, but I was there first, and I remember how it was. Still the images have stayed strong with me for more than forty years. This instant I can see the slow rose light at it sifts through Mother's flesh, blood and water; I can enact a stillness so dense it seems like unearthly music and a safety so total that again I know why I turned my butt to the outer world and very nearly refused to be born.
The coming months were uncomplicated, and Mother's labor was reportedly clamorous but much less difficult than with me or the dead girl. A friend named Kitty Headen and one of my adult cousins had stayed at home with me through the Sunday-afternoon wait; and though I don't remember worrying, I did phone the delivery room more than once and ask the nurse for progress reports. And after dark the cousin took me in to Mother's room where she and Will and I beamed at my thoroughly substantial ten-pound, ten-ounce brother, young William Solomon Junior -- Bill.
In a week they were home where I could check the continued strength of Mother's loyalty and, satisfied, watch and touch my brother. Despite the odd uncertain or desolate moment, I yielded quickly to the realization that, if the triad had grown, then in compensation my loneliness had ended. One of my epic uncertainties entered the family treasury at once -- the day Reynolds dislocated Bill's shoulders. Bill was lying on the floor, we were playing, I extended my forefingers, he held on with grinning trust, I kept lifting till Bill was upright -- all his weight on infant arms -- and both of his shoulders suddenly dislocated: screams, a rush to the clinic and everyone's laughing assumption that I'd intended jealous harm. I doubt my knowledge of baby anatomy extended so far. I can recall once biting his fingers as he gave me a generous bite of his toast. Despite such moments, I can taste even now the fresh delight of learning the boy's open face, his early laughter, prevailing geniality and the immediate presence of a watchful mind, ready to learn every trick we could teach and to thank us steadily with stunts of his own.
Yet with all his eagerness to grow and join us, his first year was as hard as mine -- a severe strep-throat infection, still before antibiotics, that nearly finished him; then at age two, an emergency tonsillectomy. I was ten when I saw him wheeled back from surgery, unconscious and blue with a scary long tongue stretched out on his cheek. I thought he was dead, and any lurking trace of rivalry dissolved on the spot. The coming years would see us in rare territorial skirmishes, but at least from the time of that hospital sight -- fresh from surgery and all but dead -- I silently opened the triad and worked him in.
The resulting rectangular family, as strongly as it was braced, seldom climbed to the old intensities of the triad; but if I look back honestly, I have to guess that by then I was ready for a seismic change. I'd already stolen glimpses of the skyline of puberty (the bodies of adolescent boys in the pool bathhouse, the fragments of sexual code I stored from family jokes and other children's stories). So I was half-longing for that sweet promise to thrust me a few steps ahead and away -- a loss, I foretold, and a welcome liberation.
But our Roxboro evening has a half-hour to run. We are still a triad. And we waited in the drive. Will and Elizabeth gave their patented chuckles, which I couldn't match; then they reached for the doors and looked back at me. I hope I managed to touch them somewhere, the sides of their necks or the rising line where jaw meets ear. They welcomed touch till the day they died and generally thanked me. The fact that I don't remember acts or words after my moment of understanding -- our leaving the car or climbing steps to open the front door that we never locked -- must mean I was drowsy, maybe already nodding, maybe carried by Will.
In my own room a few minutes later, I was awake again in my bed -- still a high-sided iron bed, all but too small. Mother had left me and the room was dark, but a hall light was on and would shine through the night. I knew any minute my father would come in to kiss me once and say "Said your prayers?" I had the vaguest notion of what prayers were but I usually nodded.
Then I heard a quiet singing voice in the hall, a song I also knew and had asked about -- "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." I'd asked Father recently what "too old" meant. Now in the doorway stood a small old man with sloping shoulders; the voice was his. He stopped singing long enough to say my name, then started again and stepped to my bed. I was no brave hero, but I'd got a full share of both my parents' endless curiosity-who and what was this? His voice was weak and he wore old-fashioned pinch-nose glasses. Even as he stood at the rail of my bed to finish -- "When I grow too old to dream, I'll still have you in my heart" -- I didn't recognize this tired man with sparse white hair. He was silent a moment. Then he removed the glasses and said "It's me, darling. I'm too old to dream."
From cradle to grave, Will's practical jokes were the welcome scourge of his friends, kin and in-laws. In that less analytical time, nobody asked if a concealed hostility was at work in his impenetrable disguises, ruses, forged letters and convincing crank-phonecalls. If there was veiled anger in his motive, then it seems realistic to see also what an imaginative and entertaining way he found to vent it -- our own home-theater, complete with regular catharsis. No one was ever so much as bruised; and no one ever expressed resentment, neither on the spot nor in after years. Those were tougher spirits in general then, not trained to expect kid gloves, day or night.
There'd be stunned moments as you, the object of the joke, faced this black-coated official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was claiming you'd overplanted your tobacco allotment by two acres and must plow it under by sundown Monday. You'd call for your wife -- "Oh, Molly! Come hear this news." And only when Molly's sharp eyes had come would you begin to guess that this preposterous bureaucrat, whom you'd seen step down from the train half an hour ago and walk your way, was your in-law Will Price who'd planned this flawless skit for weeks and boarded the train ten miles down the line to perform it with you. Then would come volleys of laughter from all and a cry of "Will, you fool!" from the victim, when fool was the last thing Will ever was.
And with trombones blazing, the story would enter the treasury to be told at most large family gatherings. Everyone was skittishly resigned to a turn as the object of one of Will's long-planned hoaxes. What removed all whiff of cruelty was his clear intention to amuse and everyone's delighted response, even the victims', and the fact that the victims promptly began to plot a turnabout, if he or she had the wits to catch Will unawares. In that crew of expert comedians, some did.
The singing old man was my first turn and, I now see, almost my last. (Three years later one evening, against Will's expectation, I opened the door on another strange-man disguise he intended for Elizabeth. He was wearing the pinch-nose glasses again, but this time a small derby hat rode high on his head, and he was draped almost to the ground in a black duster. I still didn't know him; but in too gruff a voice, he asked for the lady of the house. That alarmed me. I hooked the screen door and ran to warn Mother. To be sure, I thereby tipped her off and blunted the point of his joke -- an attempt to enter and formalize the sale of a set of asbestos shingles she'd allegedly ordered.)
My memory of his "too old to dream" guise ends oddly at the almost unbearably forked moment of recognition -- it was my father, he was still here young, someday he'd be old and dead. But Mother often told me how at that point I cried out for her to join us, not so much from fear but in an early flash of foresight. Surrounded as we were by aging kin in varying states of decline, I'd already asked more than one straight question on old age and death. They'd answered me frankly, as they mostly did; and now I saw the lesson, the second in a row.
Mother came quickly with a damp washrag. She rubbed the talcum powder from his hair; and there he stood young again, cheeks bright with fresh blood. I couldn't know I'd just undergone a primal scene in human emotion, the source of the richest moments in poetry -- the lost kinsman found. I knew only the urgent thing. My young father, beaming down at me, would last to be my equal partner in our new triad. I was sitting up-right on my narrow mattress. I know I didn't stand, but I also know I welcomed him back with a heart flung open in heedless welcome.
And curled in his long arm beside him now was the still younger mother I'd long since valued higher than happiness or my own life ahead. Given the chance, that moment there, I'd have chosen Now, forever near them, young as this.
With eyes so dark they barely glittered but drew all available light to herself, my mother watched us both -- a far more tangled gift from fate than any her orphan heart can have begged.
The rest of her days she'd braid and loosen, and braid again tighter, our separate strands till at last she was half-blind, alone in a big house, in the grip of a pain so constant that she finally said to me "If I thought an icepick could find that nerve, I'd plunge it deep in my eye this minute and gouge till I killed it."
Safe in our spring night, none of us saw down that long shaft nor guessed how, a fast eighteen years farther on and forty miles south, I'd stand at another rail beside Will's bed and feel his heart's last beat with a hand still smaller than his and, eleven years farther still, how I'd take the wedding ring from Elizabeth's finger, still warm and soft.
But on that early safer night, sometime in the minute after Mother wiped his white hair and I saw him plain, Will Price leaned to touch my forehead with wide dry lips. Never, on any night I spent under the same roof as he, did he let me leave for anything risky as a full night's sleep without that rite -- maybe in provisional farewell, maybe in self-reminder of his vow but surely in devotion and willed dependence or at least the care that never failed again in his life.
What I thought I'd discovered for good was part right, part wrong. In another few years I made the supplementary discovery -- Will and Elizabeth had not only started without me; they had prior claims on one another, and those claims swam in powerful secret beneath our triad. If I felt deceived or locked out, then I choked the feelings and buried them deeper than I can now find. I remember liking the odd shut door on Sundays; the riddle of what they were up to intrigued me so much that I broached their secrecy only once. That was when I was nearly nine and left my funny papers on the floor by the radio to knock on their door and ask Will where Pearl Harbor was that the Japs had just bombed.
By then anyhow I was constructing a life of my own that was slowly walling them out, though the wall would always have big gates. Because we often lived on a road with few other children, I'd built myself an intricate set of private jobs and games, mostly secret -- drawing and painting, reading and long fantastic games in the woods that had me extemporizing yards of plot and dialogue, soliloquies mostly or coded words of private joy to be alone, spoken to nothing more likely to hear than the scuttling crawfish in the creek behind our house. I'd also found, sooner than most boys, how my narrow body and still-hairless skin could reward itself time and again, a free and apparently harmless narcotic; and that was the highest wall of any.
Yet I cherished my father and mother more than anything else but the dim mirage of my future life. Any threat against them would set off desolating ground tremors -- Will's suspected bad heart; Elizabeth's uterine problems, which fortunately I failed to realize were caused by mine and Bill's huge bodies, not to speak of our long-dead sister. After decades of listening to the confessions of others, I have to say that I spent a lot less time than most people in feeling anger or resentment toward my parents.
Not that we lived in a hushed bland world of becks and smiles. A whole day among us was more like the on-stage sounds and gestures of a tank-town opera house south of Naples. The waves and swoops, bellows and laughter, the threats of vengeance enacted with trick stage-knives were how we evaded mealy mouths and minds stoked to bursting with packed-down rage. That's not to hide a normal set of real wounds under comic wraps. Our excellent eyes and our yen for words meant we knew each other's tenderest flesh and could torment it quickly. I can't recall a whole night though when the verbal aggressor didn't beg the victim's pardon nor a pardon refused, however long the scar burned and showed.
None of that means we aimed at sanctity; no whole family has yet been canonized. And we were not even candidates, but we knew we were all unsparable parts of a vital shelter. Like all shelters, ours was subject to high natural storms within and without. But until Will and Elizabeth faced their deaths, the shelter turned most grades of weather. Much of its strength came from tacit agreement to claim it was permanent, not just a tent for a few thousand nights.
If it was a tent, then after all it was pitched on steel poles, longer lasting than even we suspected. I, and then Bill, were actual parts of the roof and sides, in ways that few children now seem to be. From infancy we not only threw a great steady stream of our strength into earning the care they gave us, unceasing as it was. We also accepted with zest our equal duty to raise the tone of any hour, not with pious sentiment or hymns of thanks but with watchful keen original jokes. Hard as we worked though, tired as we got, neither one of us doubted (or doubts today) that Will and Elizabeth -- children far less wary than we, with homebred fears and yawning needs all dogging their heels -- bore the greater load.
So I sit at this desk most days still, older than Will managed to be, in more or less steady thanks to them and a small clutch of others for basic training in independence, dependence, hunger, feeding, fireworks and damage control, awe at creation and its hid guardian. Maybe I see that the aim of their schooling was something as nearly impossible as courtesy. Courtesy in the broad continuous sense, not the merely polite -- knowing where to look and what to see, when to bow or kneel, when to leave or stay, how to stay alone if death clears the room. Their vision of duty was harder than any combat marine's; and at times they failed it -- loud short floods from their hot abundance, mishaps soon acknowledged and regretted. But none of their failures hobbled me. None of my failures is charged to them -- and I've done harm, past their scope to do. Too young and agonized, they died brave deaths. They were calm and ready. Though I doubt they knew, it was their last lesson.
Copyright © 1988, 1989 by Reynolds Price
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