|Oct/Nov 2014 Nonfiction|
With one large exception, the tableau has all the features of the classic American family road trip. It is the summer of the Watergate hearings, 1974, and as we drive from St. Louis to St. Paul to London, Ontario, Niagara Falls, Washington DC, and finally back home, the Dodge Dart wears its McGovern sticker with pride. I am in one back seat, age eight, bottle-bottom glasses, one front tooth missing from an encounter between my face and the playground blacktop, able to entertain myself for long periods by zoning out but also disposed to go on endlessly about baseball statistics, either real ones or those of the imaginary team manned by pets of my acquaintance (the cleanup hitter is Big Yellow, our cat, whose stats are modeled on those of 1920s Cardinal second baseman Rogers Hornsby).
In the other rear seat is my sister J, just turning fourteen. To the angst implied by that fact is added the frustration of having had to return home after living with our cosmopolitan older sister. She longs to escape again, but in the meantime must attend Our Lady of Lourdes middle school, which does at least let out earlier in the day than my public grade school, enabling Jane to get dibs on the TV and watch her beloved Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin celebrity talk shows. I should give you a physical description, but really, to the eight-year-old me she just looks like J; the salient fact is that she is bigger and stronger than I am, and that when she gets annoyed by my baseball stats or bored with our game of listing all the states we can find represented by the other cars on the freeway, she can torment me by singing "Baby Driver," the most irritating Simon & Garfunkel song ever except maybe for the one about the toaster and the boysenberry jam.
In the front passenger seat (do people still call it the suicide seat?) sits Mom, a.k.a. Evelyn, 50-something with glasses and thin wisps of white hair. Even to an eight-year-old, her physical presence is defined by her shape, five-three and about 270 pounds as measured at the last Weight Watchers meeting.
Well, I guess we've deviated a bit from the stereotype already, since Evelyn is not exactly Mrs. Brady. But the big surprise comes when the camera shifts to the driver's seat. Perhaps we could start with a generic Dad and then, as in the old insurance commercials, superimpose a black rectangle over his face—my father died several years ago. In his place there is a woman, our "old family friend" Georgia, who is in fact the owner of the Dart with the McGovern sticker. I put old family friend in scare quotes even though she really is an old family friend, because, as I will learn when I am older, she was my father's mistress before she met any of the rest of us. Or let's call her his girlfriend—mistress suggests the kept woman of some sleek French bourgeois, not the beloved of a man who worked at a gas station.
How did my mother and my father's girlfriend end up taking a road trip together? What did they talk about for those hours upon hours in the car? I am reasonably certain that they did not exchange reminiscences of Pop (a.k.a. Ed), and he was most of what they had in common. Georgia listened to Bob Dylan and Brownie & Sonny records and had been married to a jazz musician; Evelyn despised what she called Pruitt Aigo music (that was a famously disastrous housing project in the St. Louis ghetto). She listened to WRTH, home of living-strings covers of easy-listening tunes and a funereally soft-spoken DJ whose name was probably Doug Knicely, but sounded to me, appropriately, like Dug Nicely. At home we ate a full range of TV dinners and frozen pizza, enlivened by the occasional hamburger as J and I got old enough to do some cooking; Georgia ate vegetables from her garden and made a (to me) bizarre kind of green spaghetti called pesto. Evelyn was a Catholic, Georgia (so far as I can recall) an atheist. The safest conversational topic for them was probably politics. Many years later, I asked Georgia what they had talked about, and she said she didn't remember—this is one case where I wish I were one of those memoirists like Augusten Burroughs, who are happy to fill in gaps by making stuff up, so that I could insert a couple of pages of dialogue here.
Perhaps they talked about work. My mother had been a nurse before moving to a hospital desk job, and Georgia was a biologist—indeed it would be fair to say that science was the most enduring love of her life, and it is what caused me to be thinking about her during the last few weeks. I was reading Annihilation by Jeff Vander Meer, who is the sort of science fiction writer who gets raves in the New York Times and, perhaps not coincidentally, appears to lack any understanding of or affection for science. The narrator, known to us only as the Biologist, forms the greatest possible contrast to Georgia in her utter failure to connect with other humans and is also about as convincing a scientist as the Professor from Gilligan's Island. Georgia too was a biologist and an environmental activist, but while the Biologist's work consisted of pointless, solitary observation and note-taking, Georgia's was always collaborative and directed at answering questions that mattered to people.
Her research partner once told me that his fondest professional memories were of field work with Georgia, driving all over the Midwest taking a thousand samples from the tributaries of the Mississippi. The point was to trace the sources of nitrates in the water; this would have meant little to most people at the time, but by now a lot of people have heard about the destructive effects of these nitrates, including algal blooms and dead zones near the river's mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Their work showed how much of the nitrates came from the excessive use of fertilizer on farms and lawns, and it was important enough to provoke outraged reactions from large agricultural corporations.
So as our little group heads north to Saint Paul across the Mississippi valley, Georgia must see a landscape with a different texture and meaning than the monotonous plain visible to the rest of us. Maybe that's what they are talking about in the front seat, maybe she is giving Evelyn an introduction to environmental science. Or not.
It was during the late '60s, when he was already suffering from the illness that was to kill him, that Pop started introducing the children to Georgia. Perhaps he was moved by the recognition that the older kids were becoming adults, perhaps by the thought that he did not have many years to live and it would be good for the children to have a sane grown-up in their lives. In the most detailed account that I have, my sister A says that he seemed anxious about her reaction—needlessly so, because all she felt was relief that he had a sane grown-up in his life. It is, I think, common for children to feel some sense of betrayal and divided loyalties in such situations, but if my siblings felt anything like that, they have never said so to me. Knowing my mother as they did, nobody faulted him for seeking companionship elsewhere. And knowing Georgia, nobody questioned his choice.
She must have seemed quite exotic, especially to the younger kids, not so much her Texas accent and edible cooking, or even the fact that she was the only woman scientist they had ever met, but her patience and stability and benevolence. Soon she had become the person you would call if you were 16 and out at a party where things were going in a bad direction and you needed someone to come and rescue you and not bite your head off. And then she was the person you would move in with if you returned to St. Louis and needed a place to stay—at one time she had two of my sisters, their husbands, and their small daughters living in her house. That may not have been all (at that age, I wasn't always so clear on who exactly lived where), but I'm sure there was plenty of drama, since the sisters in question were later on non-speaking terms for years.
By the time another sister (E) fell in love with and married Georgia's nephew, it must have become obvious to Evelyn that she would have to treat Georgia as part of the family or risk being excluded from it herself, and, surprisingly, she seems to have made the rational choice. The treasury of family stories is oddly silent on this process, which leads me to suppose that if Evelyn expressed her aggression toward Georgia with anything more than the smilingly cutting jibes she directed at all her loved ones, it was not in a way that was considered worth retelling.
What did Georgia see in us? As suggested above, we must have provided quite a bit of entertainment; as I creep into middle age myself, I am keenly aware of the pleasures of having young friends, including but not restricted to the fact that it helps you avoid becoming a complete cultural time capsule from 1985 or whenever.
But there's more to it than that. I remember once hearing Georgia shout, when she had caught her dog Sugar in some naughtiness, "Hey Roy, get out of there!" While Sugar is by no means the only dog I've been mistaken for, this strikes me as telling because Georgia's dogs were not just your standard pets—she always seemed to find the most lost and abused animals to rescue, and somehow the devotion of the damaged was especially valuable to her. Nowadays there is almost a machismo of dog rescue, where people at the dog park take pride in telling how desperate their pet's situation was before adoption, but with Georgia it was just a way of life.
Which is not to say that it was a one-way street. One of those sisters who lived with her for a while, who happened to be one of the two siblings of mine who didn't come to Evelyn's funeral, came back to live with Georgia again decades later, when 50 years of smoking caught up with her and she needed help living and then needed help dying. Others too offered real assistance as well as affection, and those of us without useful skills offered entertainment. I last saw her a few days before her death, still living in the big house with the garden she couldn't tend any more, with my sister A and her husband, with Raleigh, her latest damaged and devoted dog, and with the brilliant stained-glass windows she had made over the years. This last brought to mind Shelley's elegy for Keats:
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity
Until Death tramples it to fragments.