|The Murky Mississippi and Me
||[Oct. 1st, 2009|04:33 pm]
“I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts.” |
Mark Twain, Wearing White Clothes Speech, 1907
I agree Mark, or shall I say Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Why do I so love cantankerous old men? Oh yes, I know! Because I was raised by one, and in the hometown of one. That is, I had the most cantankerous Grandpa ever, and grew up with him and my Grandma (and Mom and sister, Kyle) in Hannibal, MO, under the twitching whiskers of Mark Twain. Perhaps no one realised the sarcasm and satire was settling in to my foundations but indeed it was. Rather than just adding a lick of paint to the attic of my brain it demolished any hope of a new build and set up camp in the cavernous, echoing rooms, and somewhere I am still there clamouring around playing with words. I’ve got nearly every kind of room you can imagine now built into my attic brain but the details are strictly secret… Back to the cranky old men though as they are truly the reason I am here writing.
Hannibal has long been a subject off limits with me. I don’t speak of it because I get irritated when I feel the urge to justify the wonderfulness of my memories. It is especially so since I’ve been in England, where the prevailing opinion of small town America is Hicksville. Well I don’t dispute that element exists but I don’t want my life reduced to only that any more than every English person would like to be counted the same as the Royle family. Hannibal is also taboo because it is over and gone. It was a time in my life I can not reclaim and the town itself is unrecognisable, as is our old family home. To put it simply; it is absurdly painful for me that these things are out of reach. I tend to choose not to think about them, it is all bound up with the relentless banging wish to force time to do my bidding. I’m going to set all that aside and tell you about the Hannibal I knew from the early 1980’s, and a few of the people who made it for me. Don’t expect it to be overly factual, and if you have your own first hand experience of the place or people, don’t expect to agree with me. This is my perception, my memories and reflections of what I saw and knew of my world before I was ten years old.
“A banker is a man who lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”
The Mississippi River held infinite promise for me. I’d go down at the weekends and stare in to the water and some days, I would see beauty; blue green water, shadows of fish, a big, wide river full of mysteries, sunken treasure, huge trees either side, river boats and barges going up and down. Other days I would go down and see nothing but mud; murky, slodgy, brown, meaningless mud that would bring forth nothing no matter how long I stared; nothing magical or special or worthy. Each time I stood on the river bank I was aware of history of the place. History has never been terribly far from me, it presses against my back like transparencies on a projector screen. Like the currents of the river, the people and events of a place remain buffeting around. Some days you sit and all is still and you feel you are the calm centre and other days you are a wind sock. The Mississippi is like any other place of interest in the world, infused with fiction, truths, tragedy, humour, love and stories.
Sometimes the Mississippi decides it doesn’t fancy behaving anymore, and bursts its banks. This is devastating to the human and animal inhabitants of nearby areas. It is a great irony that early settlers had to set up camp along the very waterways that would plague their descendents. One summer when I was very young, (I’m afraid I can’t remember the year but I will estimate it to be around 1985 or thereabouts), the Mississippi flooded. All of downtown Hannibal was underwater, and that meant our banks were as well. I remember this more from hearing about it in the retelling than an actual memory of my own; I would have been six in 1985. They were rowing people in boats back and forth across the road so they could withdraw money from their bank accounts, and my sister (who would have been 11) and I, were rowed over to our bank with our Mom’s bank book to take our money out. I shall forever think of sandbags, every summer, sandbagging at the river. The flood of ’93 was the worst but I was in St. Louis by that time, although I did sandbag at River Des Peres (only other St. Louisans will get that stinky joke).
“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”
Missouri is very much on the North/South divide. I have always identified more with the south, in the sense of the surreal and the genteel. I have never been very industrially inclined so that aspect of the north leaves me cold, as does skiing and all winter sports in general unless one counts shopping. When I read Dr. Seuss I sound like Scarlett O’Hara but really I am nothing, I am not of the South or the North, or America or England. No one recognises my accent as their own and I don’t belong anywhere comfortably.
However the house that I will always consider my original home, the home of my heart, is a classically southern home. It belonged to my Grandparents, Duane and Bernice. It was big, wooden, and white, of the Colonial style. It had been around since Civil War times (a southern lady once said quite rightly “there was nothing civil about it”) and there were rooms in the house that were supposed to have been slave quarters in centuries past. I was positive if I looked in the right place I would find a notch in the wall that a previous owner would have carved, to install a secret door for the Underground Railroad. (I always wondered why this extraordinarily brave system was called a ‘railroad’ when there were no trains or tracks.) Never mind that Grandma and Grandpa had bought the house and it hadn’t been ours for generations, I felt that it had been ours spiritually, and there was no way a house which belonged to us could be cruel to anyone.
Grandpa was an artist, and a very temperamental one at that. He painted successfully commercially, but he also did the most magnificent, dark and powerful paintings for his own pleasure. He built a garage/barn near the house and above it was his studio which I only recall having a brief glimpse in to. At the end of the gravel drive was a very heavy iron statue of a smiling black man in a red coat with his arm extended outwards. I believe that this type of statue was used to loop the reins of horses around the arm. Looking back on it there are racial implications with a statue like that which I was unaware of then, but it didn’t feel bad at the time, and my family certainly had no malice. At any rate, I was in love with the man in the red coat. He was just the right height for me, and I held on to his extended arm and pretended to waltz through ballrooms and fairy orchards. I sighed over him and brought him flowers and prattled on to him and never understood why on earth he was there in my Grandparents driveway.
They had a large front porch that was raised off the ground; the sides were covered in lattice woodwork. I used to crawl underneath it with all of my imaginary friends who looked a lot like tiny Ewoks. It’s amazing that I did that as I have a horrific spider phobia and it must have been full of them under there. We had Easter egg hunts in the garden, all the grown ups sitting in folding chairs drinking iced tea and the children obsessively looking for eggs. You do not really understand this sort of day unless you own a devilled egg tray, but I am not snooty and happily give lessons using my own devilled egg tray (thank you Mom). On the side of the house was a small apple orchard, it seemed huge and now there is no way of knowing how big it actually was; I believe there are apartments built there now. I wondered around the trees for hours, apples and twigs and leaves and treasures and eggs, and turning back to see the house, and always, always making up endless stories and singing.
I stayed at the house a lot, Mom, Kyle and I lived in another house in Hannibal that I can hardly remember. I remember the room I slept in at Grandma’s and I remember her bedroom so well, how pretty it was, with all her jewellery and perfume on her dresser. There was a dainty little balcony that looked out of the front of the house.
I once walked out of my room towards the stairs and I swore I saw the apparition of a young black woman, in an apron and carrying a tray, coming up towards me. I was frightened and I ran back into my room, peaking out of the door. Then I was ashamed of myself. Why, even if there were a ghost, she looked tired, didn’t she? I should have gone to help her instead of running into my room like a ninny. I lurked and waited for my chance to prove I could rise to the challenge but it never presented itself, much to my disappointment.
“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy, you must have somebody to divide it with.”
Grandma and Grandpa had some vegetable beds behind the house in which they grew tomatoes. I informed my Grandma that I did not like tomatoes, and she replied that that was nonsense and she would show me that I was wrong. We were in her big kitchen with the brick walls and pots, pans and spoons hanging up around us. She sat me down at the wooden island with cubby holes on the sides, and old spinning stools next to it that I span on until I was dizzy and sick. She placed a bowl of tomatoes, a cutting board, knife, and some salt in front of us. Grandma cut a slice of tomato, not a cherry tom, but a big one. My Grandparents were practical people; I think they would have deemed cherry tomatoes a bit of an extravagance. She sprinkled salt on a slice of tomato and held it out for me to eat. I took a bite; it was lovely, unexpected and made my mouth feel nice and tingly. You can do the same with sugar. When I was pregnant I used to have a plate of cherry tomatoes every night, each one cut in half, 50% had salt, 50% had sugar and I ate them like a true connoisseur.
My Grandparents were the best people I’ve ever known. My Grandpa was crotchety in the most honest sense of the word, but still very loving. He once locked me out of the house and ate my favourite crisps in front of a glass door, right in front of me standing on the other side, he was giggling and I was irate. After his strokes when he could no longer maintain the Hannibal house and its grounds they built a house that was partially underground to maintain energy. It was all on one level, made for old age living, and I used to walk round the back and climb the low hill that mounted over what was the roof of their house, and look down over the front door as other family members arrived for various family functions. It felt so gloriously detached being on the roof, on a hill, and Grandpa often joined me up there.
My Grandpa was very brave. For a man of his generation who found emotions hard to speak of he was always touchingly emotional with me. I never parted from him without hearing “I love you” and being kissed, I was his pet. I was an impossibly troubled teenager with no active father in my life. I had “sexually available” written all over my pale skin and black clothes, but to him I was always a fey little girl who wanted to read National Geographic magazines for ten hours straight. He worked up the courage to tell me not give myself away too easily, that I was beautiful and precious and brilliant, and some man would one day want to lay down his life for me, feel as he felt for my Grandma. I looked at him and wanted to cry, because I knew then that he was the only one who would see me like that. Everyone else would see the pieces of me here and there that suited them, or even that suited me, because I was never very good at throwing open all the rooms in my attic at once. He saw that I was on a road which would never be smooth and he knew enough to love me for it rather than despite of it.
Grandma was a devout Christian who never made anyone feel bad; she only ever had kind words to give. When someone had done wrong she would say, and it stung, because disapproval from her was a terrible thing to feel as rare as it was. She did her best to be fair. She had so many grandchildren that inevitably there were arguments over who got the biggest piece of cake. She had the simplest and most effective solution to this problem. One child cut the cake, the other child chose who got the pieces; this ensured everyone was meticulously fair. Grandma always flirted with Grandpa as if she were still 15 and they had just met at the dance, and he was about to go off to war. Each time I phoned her from England, for all of the 7 years that I lived here while they still lived she would answer and say “Honey, now, where are you?” and I would say “England, Grandma!” and she would say “England! Dewey! It’s Erin, she’s calling us from England!” and go into a breathless state of excitement, week in, week out. And by the end of the conversation she’d always say she was floating on a cloud, she was that happy. No wonder I’m mad as a hatter with temperamental Him and off with the fairies Her as my two dominant influences.
Grandma and Grandpa were married for 62 years and they died 12 days apart from each other. Grandma had Alzheimer’s and Grandpa had had many strokes, but was mentally able and clinging on to ensure she was well looked after. They shared a room in a nursing home, in another small town on the banks of the Mississippi. The last several times I saw them I had to fly for 10 or so hours and coach myself to use the words of my youth rather than the easy slang of England so that they could understand me. They still made me feel like the sun rose and set on my shoulders. Grandma quietly passed away and Grandpa announced he was done now; 12 days later he followed her.
“I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
Mark and I agree on a lot (see my previous blog on pedantry).
“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him.”
Isn’t that remarkable efficiency? What a scoundrel! A man after my own heart.
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Grandma told me not to go to Hannibal the last time I was in America. She said it would make me sad as it had changed so much from when I was little. I went anyway and drove to the old house. There were ugly buildings in the way, trees cut down, a basketball net on the side of Grandpa’s barn, and it needed to be painted. This is the reality, this is what a panel of disinterested men and women would say they saw if you paraded them by and asked them. I don’t like it but it doesn’t matter. If anyone else is living there, if any trees are gone and my man with the red coat is gone and the Ewoks upped sticks and left then the whole house and all of Hannibal may as well be on the moon because it is all perfectly in tact, preserved elsewhere.