NORTH & SOUTH by Sally Clay
I was perched on one of the wide windowsills in my room. By leaning against the glass, I could get a partial view of the street, and I would be able to see my father's car when he drove up. My fingers left streaks on the black grains of soot accumulated on the panes, and my breath made gray circles of moisture. It was June, time for me to spend my summer vacation with my Kentucky family.
I had not seen my father for several weeks, and I always seemed to forget what he looked like. I could only picture a faceless male figure seated at the head of a dinner table or behind the wheel of the automobile that drove me back and forth between Ohio and Kentucky. Along with these incomplete images came the sharper ones of my mornings in bed with Clay long ago and the warm afternoons with E.E. My stepmother Dai and stepsister Jeannette, and my new baby sister Kathryn, figured in my thoughts not as individuals but as part of a unit or a way of life, part of a larger picture that included their house, their street, and all the other houses and streets in town, including Sycamore Street. As I waited for my father, I felt a longing for the light and comfort in that little town, for the slate slabs of the sidewalks that were each different and each familiar, and for the little candy store and the drug store downtown where everyone knew me and called me "Sally Sue" with genuine affection. I yearned for the ordered security of my father's routine, for suppers that were always served at 6 o'clock sharp and for conversations that always stayed within predictable bounds.
This was always the transition that I had to make just before my father picked me up and that I made again in the car on the way back. Over and over again I made the transformation from mother's child to father's daughter, and back again. Each transition brought with it the promise of change--maybe this time I could succeed in the role I was supposed to play. For the truth of the matter was that my roles always seemed to overlap in the wrong places. In my father's household, I tried to converse with and even dispute adults on a equal footing, and for this I was told that I was "talking back." I exasperated Mommy with my stubborn logic and perfectionism. "You're just like your father," she would say, not at all sympathetically.
My anticipation as I pressed my nose against the window was naggingly painful, like the crescendo of hunger before a holiday feast. Why was there no satisfaction? At this point I always slipped into reverie, making my own solutions. Maybe Mommy will move to Mt. Sterling. Maybe Dai will go back to her first husband, and Daddy will marry Mommy. Maybe I will become a cowboy and go West, leaving both Cincinnati and Mt. Sterling behind, a child star. When I finally I recognized my father's car, I was too excited to wave, and he did not see me anyway. "He's here! He's here!" I shouted, running downstairs to my mother, who was sitting in the kitchen.
She nodded silently and rose to answer the door. I ran ahead of her, arriving just as my father knocked. But I was too shy to say anything, and I waited breathlessly for Mommy. But she did not open the door; instead she stood with her hand on the lock and straightened her shoulders. "I'm not going to let you in, William," she said, using his formal name instead of "Bill." Mommy really knew how to be insulting. "I can't let you take Sally unless I have an agreement in writing that you will return her to me and until you agree to make the child support payments that I wrote you about."
"What do you mean you won't let me in!" my father shouted. "Betty, you know that you are required by law to let me see my own daughter."
I cringed from these angry words and retreated to the stairs. Bits and pieces of the rest of the interchange hit my ears like electric shocks, stiffening my body with each jolt.
"I'm not going to put up with your legalistic manipulations."
"Betty you are irrational!"
"You think that just because you're a lawyer you can get away with anything. Well, I'm telling you that you can't! Not with me. Not with my daughter."
"Let me in! I'm here to get Sally!"
"Will you sign that paper? Will you agree to the child support I am asking you for?"
My father began pounding on the doors. They were enormous double doors of thick, carved wood, and I could tell that, even though he could not make much noise, he must have been hurting his fists.
"Let me in, damn it!" he yelled. "You can't do this to me!"
Mommy snorted, a phony laugh. "Oh yes I can!" She walked to the stairs and grabbed my hand. "Let's go upstairs, Sally," she said with self-conscious dignity.
Reluctantly, I went with her, although I could not shut out the noise of my father's pounding. She took me up to her room, where we both sat stiffly on her bed. The pounding continued for several more minutes, then stopped. "Can't I go with Daddy?" I asked finally?
"Not today, honey," Mommy answered. "I have to do whatever I can to make him support you as he should. He has money and the legal system behind him; I have to use what weapons I have."
My tension melted into tears, and my shoulders heaved. "I want to go with Daddy!" I sobbed. I cried not just because my mother would not let me go, but also because the scene between them had been so ugly and so scary. Why was there no solution?
Later in my room I pulled out my box of fossils and Indian arrowheads for consolation. I felt almost disembodied, having already slipped into my Mt. Sterling persona as a well behaved little Southern girl. I was not yet ready to return to the elf/explorer self that I felt myself to be in Cincinnati. My collection of rocks and artifacts represented to me a reality more reliable than either of these selves I was constantly juggling.
I had collected a shoebox full of rocks and flint on visits to the farm of one of Mommy's friends. Connected to the farm were several acres of woods, where I played near a good-sized creek that ran through the woods. It was near this creek that I found most of my treasures, irregular bleached stones imprinted with shapes of prehistoric animals and shiny, sharp flints in varying shades of clear gray or brown that had been chipped and polished by Indians long ago. I often just opened my box and looked at them. Sometimes I ran my hand through them, or picked them up one by one, balancing and turning them in my palm, learning to distinguish and appreciate them by their weight and their feel against my skin. They were substantial reminders to me of the primeval life that I had recognized in Fantasia and in the Museum of Natural History, some ancient truth that was somehow still present.
When I finally got to Mt. Sterling the following week, I was greeted by Dai and Jeannette with gifts of summer clothing, and I squealed with delight, as was expected of me. Readily I exchanged my favorite grubby bluejeans for a frilly yellow sunsuit that matched the one Jeannette was wearing. It was all part of the transformation process.
"Do you like your new clothes, sweetie?" Dai asked me.
"Uh, yes," I answered. "Thank you."
"Yes, ma'am," she corrected me gently.
"Yes, ma'am," I said reluctantly, wrinkling my nose.
A frown passed over Dai's face and rested briefly in the line between her eyes, but she said nothing.
"Let's go see the baba!" whispered Jeannette.
"The what?" I said.
"The baba!" she repeated. "Little Kitty."
I had forgotten about my new sister.
"Wait until Kathryn is awake," said Dai. "You know we have to stay quiet while she is taking her nap."
"She's awake," said Jeannette cheerily. "I can hear her," and she grabbed my hand, jerking me behind her.
Sure enough, some soft little sounds were coming from the nursery, and we found Kathryn lying happily on her back singing to the ceiling. Jeannette climbed onto a chair and leaned over the crib so far that her face nearly touched the baby's. "Ooh, isn'th thee a thweet little thing!" she cooed, grabbing both of the baby's hands. "Thee's a good little baba."
Kathryn stopped singing and looked puzzled. Her mouth began to pucker. "Pha," she said, sending Jeannette into raptures.
"See, she's already talking!" she announced, leaning over still further to pick up the baby. "She's trying to say 'baba.' Itchy, gitchy, goo," she said, "Come to mama, little baba. Thee's a good baba, thee's a thweet little baba." She picked up the baffled baby and sat down with her in the rocking chair nearby. "Itchy, gitchy, goo," she repeated, holding Kathryn against her chest as she had seen her mother do.
I was thoroughly revolted by all of this. I was aware that Jeannette was establishing her own territory as big sister, but I had not the faintest idea how I myself was supposed to respond to this tiny little black-haired person who was supposed to be my sister. Did one have to speak gibberish to communicate with a baby? I could not bring myself to do that, so I just stood by uncomfortably and watched. I was afraid to hold her, not knowing how to tell whether she liked it or not.
Daddy rescued me, jovially coming to the door with a highball in hand. "How about a swim, girls?" he said. "Sally hasn't even seen the swimming pool yet."
The new swimming pool had only been completed that spring. It was a good-sized pool about 40 feet long with a deep end and a shallow end, and painted a pale aquamarine. It was surrounded by a concrete sidewalk and had a small covered patio attached. It was Daddy's pride and joy, for swimming was the only recreation he really enjoyed. Already he had taught Jeannette and me the fundamentals of swimming, and that summer he even paid a swimming instructor to come to our pool to teach us the finer points. Daddy was content. He had a thriving law practice with his own office and staff downtown, and he had his happy family at home, since at least during the summer I could play the role of contented daughter. Now he had his swimming pool, where he could spend all of his free time basking in the cheery stability of his work and his family. All was right with the world.
Of course, we never discussed his scenes with Mommy such as I had recently witnessed. And neither my father nor Jeannette nor anyone else in Mt. Sterling ever mentioned my life or my friends in Cincinnati or any of my experiences that might conflict or differ in any way from the unspoken model of Southern girlhood that Jeannette and I so diligently presented. This family was to be a happy family, a model of order and contentment, and my father's chosen role was Head of the Household.
There was unquestionably a lot of security in this way of life, or at least so it seemed, and when I was younger I accepted the role of second daughter to Daddy's role of Patriarch and Jeannette's role of fulltime daughter. It was something of a relief to take time off from my mother's world, where there were decisions to be made and a spectrum of sometimes uncomfortable feelings to be felt and expressed. If only there had been some backstage intermissions, some interludes of intimacy, my father might have pulled it off. But neither I, nor I think anyone else, could ever really talk to him apart from his sitcom script. We had to be happy.
On rainy days Jeannette and I played for hours at a time in the basement rec room. The rec room, with its concrete floor partially covered by thin rugs, contained a couch and a few old chairs, a ping pong table, and an old upright piano. It also contained the recording equipment that my father never used anymore, a phonograph, a xylophone, and an old saxophone. In his college days, and no doubt in the days when he was courting Mommy, Daddy had loved music. His collection of old 78's contained lively music from the swing era, some blues and ragtime, and an early Mahalia Jackson album. But Daddy never listened to these any more, and he never touched the xylophone or the saxophone that he had brought home from college. Now if he listened to music at all, it was only light classical or Muzak.
On earlier visits, Jeannette and I always played with our collection of miniature people and furniture, devising elaborate plots involving hideous accidents or terminal illnesses, in which Jeannette's characters were most often the doctor or the mother and mine were either the villains or the victims. Occasionally we played the roles ourselves, as we did the fall before when we decided to play Turkey Dinner. On that occasion, Jeannette was the pilgrim and I was the turkey. We both got a little carried away, I'm afraid, for I agreed to lie down on the "dining room table" and raise my blouse, whereupon the pilgrim took a hearty bite! I had a circle of red tooth marks on my stomach for days afterwards.
That summer we became bored with our little people and their melodramas, and in search of something more exciting decided that it would be a good idea to conduct a church service in the rec room. We let our intentions be known, and Dai helped us locate the appropriate costumes and props. Jeannette wore one of Daddy's old bathrobes and I fit into one of Dai's; on us, they were both floor length and suitably flowing. We devised a passable pulpit at the front of the room, with a card table altar behind it on which we placed a pitcher of grape juice, several glasses, and some slices of Wonder Bread. All that we needed was a congregation.
We rounded up about a dozen people, mostly adults, including our Aunt Lorraine and several neighbors. As they filed quietly in the door, Jeannette and I stood solemnly beside the pulpit clutching our Bibles and nodding. We had agreed that Jeannette would do the preaching and I would do the scripture, so as soon as everyone was settled and we all sang a round of "Fairest Lord Jesus," I went to the pulpit and opened my Bible. To me, just about all parts of the Bible were equally incomprehensible, so I just opened it up and read at random. As it happened, I had chosen The Song of Solomon :
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the Vineyards of Engedi.
Behold, thou are fair, my love; behold, thou are fair; thou has doves' eyes .
Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant: also our bed is green.
What I took to be a reverent silence descended upon the congregation. I nodded to Jeannette, who took her turn at the pulpit to make announcements. What was there to announce? Jeannette managed to dredge up several sick relatives, a sick cat, two sick dogs, and all the poor starving children in Europe, after which she called for a few moments of silent prayer.
I returned to the pulpit and continued the biblical reading:
Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb:
honey and milk are under thy tongue:
and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.
A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse;
a spring shut up, a fountain sealed
Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south;
blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.
Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
The congregation was becoming glassy-eyed, and Aunt Lorraine was biting her lip. But since this was the way most of them looked in church anyway, I thought nothing of it. Jeannette again took her turn and delivered a fiery sermon. I do not remember what she said, but it was very impressive--she held the pulpit in both hands and leaned out over the congregation, making eye contact with just about everybody.
After the sermon, we distributed the Welch's grape juice and the Wonder Bread. Both Jeannette and I were getting a little antsy, so we rushed through communion. I was supposed to deliver the closing prayer, but feeling uneasy about that I concluded with one last passage from The Song of Solomon :
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave:
the coals thereof are coals of fire, which has a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it:
if a man would give all the substance of his house for love,
it would utterly be contemned.
We sang one last hymn, "For the Beauty of the Earth," then Jeannette and I stood at the door to shake hands with the congregation as they left. They all looked dazed.
At Hyde Park Elementary School, girls were segregated from boys. During recess we were required to use a separate playground (a smaller one) on the left of the building, while the boys used the athletic field on the other side. But since I never did learn how to skip rope and soon tired of "Mother May I," I frequently sneaked over to the no man's land between the playgrounds to trade designer playing cards and Lone Ranger rings, bullets, and secret messages with the boys. Occasionally this would lead to romance, and the boys and I would steal kisses. This in turn led to several proposals of marriage, and at one point I was simultaneously wearing glass dimestore engagement rings of green and red and amber from Bobby and Herbert and Michael.
I did not mind school itself, but neither did I apply myself to it with any great enthusiasm. I had little patience with my conscientious classmates; while they plodded obediently through their Dick and Jane texts, I giggled disruptively with my boyfriends in the back of the room. Mrs. Worth, my third grade teacher, noticed my tendency to con the boys out of their treasures and to laugh at the plodding diligence of the girls. She wrote on my report card, "Sally refuses to respect the rights of the other students."
Mrs. Worth was very patriotic and very concerned about such things as rights. She was always lecturing us on patriotism, and it was she who instructed us that we should always leap to our feet and start singing whenever we heard the "Star Spangled Banner." She illustrated her point by describing how she had done just that in a movie theater recently, even though everyone else stared at her for it. None of the other students took her very seriously, and it appalled me to think of making such a spectacle of myself, but I still squirm when I hear the national anthem, guilty that I don't have the nerve to belt it out like Mrs. Worth would have done.
No doubt Mrs. Worth also noticed my tendency to boss other girls around. By the fourth grade I had made close friends with several girls in my class, and my obsession that fall was to create a special club for myself and my girlfriends, to be based in the unoccupied third floor apartment of my house on Drake Street. The function of this club was less clear to me than its nature as a secret and exclusive organization; planned activities vaguely included newspaper production, sales and commerce, and various rituals of sisterhood.
"We could become blood sisters," I suggested to my friend Sharon as we walked home from school one day.
"Not me!" Sharon responded. "Yuck!"
"It wouldn't hurt!" I persisted. "All you need is a little pin. We could sterilize it!"
"Oh Sally, don't be silly! Why do we have to do that?"
"We have to be blood sisters. We have to belong to each other."
"Not me!" Sharon repeated.
"Well, maybe we could sign an oath of office."
"An oath of office. To promise that we will obey all the rules of the club and stay friends forever."
"I'll stay friends forever."
"Good! Let's make that a rule."
"Why does it have to be a rule?"
"Because you can't have a club unless you have rules."
I had similar problems getting my point across to my other friends, all of whom were quite agreeable to coming over to my house to play, but none of whom seemed able to apply themselves to the formation of rules, rituals, and philosophical principles. Martha Louise liked the idea of a newspaper, but was offended at the idea of putting eternal friendship in writing. Jill was not interested in writing anything at all, either rules or news, but she did express a willingness to exchange blood. Margaret wanted to bring her dolls, and Maureen just wanted to play.
After we reached Sharon's house, I walked the remainder of the mile home dreaming about my club and shutting out the rest of the world. When I did this kind of dreaming I would start bouncing and skipping as I walked, absorbed in the sharp pleasure of my thoughts. I could see our group sitting together in a circle in the very private territory of the third floor, where we would share important and secret mysteries uninterrupted by teachers, parents, or the uninitiated in general. I could see, and even feel, our club as something very real, more real than what we did in school, more real than anyone expected from just children, just girls.
When I got home I ran to my room to change. What a relief to take off the wide-collared plaid dress that Mommy had insisted that I wear in the morning! For some time I had screamed in a fury of temper every time she had made me wear a dress. Finally we reached a detente by which I agreed to dress respectably for school and other social occasions, and Mommy agreed that I could wear whatever I wanted when I got home from school. Accordingly, I tossed my dress on the floor and pulled on my soft and dirty jeans, topped with several layers of cowboy shirts and a sweat shirt. I kicked off my scuffed oxfords and put on my high-top black and white sneakers. On my head I wore a coonskin cap. That was better!
But before I could run outside, Mommy returned from driving her Play School children home, and she invited me to come into the living room with her for tea. For Mommy, tea was always an occasion, a little ritual that we generally shared only later in the day or on stormy holidays or evenings. I knew she was up to something, so I waited for her politely and did not try to talk while she poured my "Cambret" tea, very weak with lots of warm milk.
"I just want you to know, Sally," she began in her "down to business" voice, "that this has been the last day for the nursery school. We are moving to Houston next week. I didn't tell you before now because I don't want your father to know about this. I want us to start a new life together, and I don't want him to harass me any more."
I was shocked. "What about the nursery school?"
"I've sold it to Catherine, my assistant. She will keep it going here. And the money from the sale will let us get started in Houston."
"That's right. It's a good place to move, and I have some friends there who will help me get started in real estate."
I could not shake the numb feeling, the shock. "What about my school?"
"Well, you will just have to change schools. I am told that the schools in Houston are very good."
"What about Daddy? What about Thanksgiving? I am supposed to go to Mt. Sterling for Thanksgiving."
"I told you, Sally, I don't want your father to know about this. Believe me, honey, this is the best way. You belong with me. It will be better if we can have our own life together."
The whole thing had a air of unreality about it, and it did not really register with me that I was to be separated from my father. I realized only that I would never see my friends again. Plans for the club evaporated in the sadness of being parted from the girls themselves. I called them all on the telephone that evening, and we all cried.
Before Mommy and I left, my friends and their mothers hurriedly planned a party for me. It was the nicest time we had ever had together, and I felt as close to my friends as if we were a club after all, as if we did share an unending friendship. For my going away present, they gave me a bracelet of five sterling silver links joined on a black satin ribbon. On each link was engraved a name: Sharon, Martha Louise, Jill, Margaret, and Maureen.
To keep me company, Jill gave me her pet hamster in a cage. Its name was Cleopatrick, because nobody knew whether it was a girl or a boy. Just before Mommy and I left the next day, we placed the cage on top of the pile of luggage and boxes stuffed into the back of the station wagon. Cleopatrick immediately began running around on his or her exercise wheel, a marathon run that lasted all the way to Texas.
All of our personal goods were in the station wagon, with furniture and appliances to follow by freight. Only much later did I learn that not all of my belongings had been packed. Among the boxes that Mommy had thrown away because they took up too much room were my collection of fossils and arrowheads.