Lately, I've been finding a lot of strength looking at family photos. Here is a photo taken in 1957 of my mother, her beautiful red hair in pin curls, my great aunt and her movie star pretty girlfriend. They seem to be looking at a family photo album - fitting. My aunt and her girlfriend were brave. My mother welcomed them; no one else in the family would receive them. They came to do my mother's hair and insisted on having a reason to come when my mother would say, "Oh, just come over!"
Here is a chapter from my novel, Holy Days inspired by my Great Aunt Bettina and her love, Susie.
BETTINA AND SUSIE
“In the home,” Daddy was saying, his voice cracked with sobs, “they never let us...”
“Take it easy, Billy,” consoled my mother’s Aunt Bettina, with her deep voice, “that’s all over now. You got a nice family now and a nice home. You made it out of there. Right?”
With her own strong grip, she held his trembling hand across the kitchen table. He didn’t often do that, break down about the home in which he had spent much of his childhood, but, occasionally, if the conversation hit a nerve, he crumbled.
They’d been talking about me reading at the dinner table, how I always had a book and whether or not it was a good thing. Daddy broke down because the priests wouldn’t let them read books. If they were caught doing nothing, as the priests called it, they’d be given work to do, like scrubbing the toilets or the long staircase in the rectory.
Aunt Bettina had a voice as deep and gruff as a man’s could be. She fooled me every time she called on the phone.
“Rosie, there?” she asked in the playful tone of a man, who was strange to me, but who seemed to know Ma secretly and very well.
My back went up like a little porcupine. Who was this guy who thought he could talk to my mother like he was her boyfriend? Annoyed, I handed Ma the receiver.
“It’s a man,” I said, disapprovingly.
She looked quizzical. Her insurance broker? A salesman?
I could hear the male voice laughing, deep and loving, echoing along the little space between Ma’s ear and mine.
“It’s a man, Rosie! It’s a man!” Aunt Bettina teased.
Ma laughed, looking my way and shaking her head.
“It’s your Aunt Betty, you stupid,” she said, affectionately.
We were supposed to call her Auntie Betty, but I couldn’t resist calling her Aunt Bettina, which was a much prettier name. She was a small woman who wore her thick brown hair short and combed straight back from her noble forehead. She smoked more cigarettes than Daddy. When she visited Ma, she drank Lipton tea, but I always envisioned a heavy set glass of whiskey rather than Ma’s crockery mug with the tea bag’s tiny string and label dangling out that seemed so fragile in front of her square body. Aunt Bettina was Grandma’s sister, but our family was the only one who would receive her.
She came, always, with her girlfriend, Susie, who called her Tina, in a secret pet way, which was lovely to hear. Susie had pressed gold hair that she wore in the style of the glamorous movie stars of the Thirties, like Carroll Lombard or Betty Davis, in permanent waves cascading close to her skull. She held her neat, golden head very erect upon her tall, thin frame, like a ballet dancer.
Bettina and Susie had to have a purpose for coming, usually to do something for Ma. Maybe, that was their way of rationalizing this risk to Ma’s standing in the family. I had no idea why Aunt Bettina wasn’t welcome at Grandma’s house, Grandma, who was the most generous person I knew, but the only thing wrong with her was her voice and her hair, so, I assumed, whatever these were clues of, that was the reason. This “reason” floated above Bettina and Susie like - curiously enough - halos, since it seemed to single them out for a perverse kind of sainthood.
In fact, there was something uncannily sweet and fine about Bettina and Susie. Bettina and Susie. Why do some of the names of our pasts ring out like the bells of heaven? And others like the tolls of hell? Bettina and Susie, two saints, two angels kicked out of the church, but, I was sure, not out of heaven.
On this night, Susie stood and retouched Ma’s hair with Blondex while everyone talked. I was reading Dickens, “real reading,” not for school. I always read every book the author had written, not just what I had to read for school. “Real reading” became like a song for me.
Ma sat without her glasses, her beautiful eyes puffy from the shampoo, a towel spread over her shoulders, the squirmy terrier in her lap. Susie called Tareyton, “La Pishashta,” in bastardized Italian, the little pisser. Ma handed Susie bobby-pins as Susie sectioned the wet, dark red hair, spun the ribbons of hair on her finger and pinned them in little circles against Ma’s head, till Ma’s hair disappeared and she was wearing a bathing cap of tight red spirals. Daddy sat with us, which was a phenomenon, a tribute to Aunt Bettina, really. He kept trying to give her “a little shot” with her tea.
They were asking me about the tiny print and the thin pages in my book.
“Look at the pages! So thin! Like the Bible! How the hell kin you see those words, Gloria? You’re going to ruin your eyes! Billy, you should get her a magnifying glass, no shit.”
Daddy laughed, kind of proud of me, “Ah, she loves that stuff! The smaller the print, the thinner the paper, the better! What’s that? Shakespeare?”
I called all the books by their authors now, no matter what the title, they were Dickens or Stewart or du Maurier.
“Oh!” he said, like he knew.
“She should be a teacher,” Aunt Bettina advised.
Susie agreed. She nodded, bobby pins jammed in her mouth.
“I’m going to be a writer,” I said.
“Mmmm!” Susie murmured, impressed.
“A what? What, like for a newspaper?” Aunt Bettina growled.
“No, like for books.”
“That’s no good! Be a teacher! You get your summers off.”
Everyone agreed, I could travel, they said. I’d get paid for my summers and have them off too.
“She’s always reading,” Ma told them.
“Oh, yeah? You should be a teacher, then.”
“She even brings a book to the table. I have to tell her every night, no reading at the table,” Ma said, proudly, handing Susie another bobby pin for her mouth.
“Oh, that’s no good. You shouldn’t read at the table,” Aunt Bettina told me.
“I can’t stop,” I said.
That’s when we noticed Daddy’s eyes had gone all red and the tears started to drop, one by one, on the table. He sniffed and Aunt Bettina asked him what was wrong.
He told us about the orphanage. Things leaked out, from time to time, about his past, things leaked, just like his tears, one by one and fell before us. I still don’t know everything I should about my father’s life, all the mysteries, all the reasons. But, I couldn’t stand to see him cry. My stomach hurt, as though someone powerful had grabbed it full in his fist and twisted it mercilessly. Tears gathered in my own eyes, Susie looked pained and Ma looked down at the pins held tightly in her red-tipped fingers.
“I keep having this dream,” I said, quietly.
They all looked at me.
“What? Like Martin Luther King?” Aunt Bettina joked uncomfortably, trying to break the tension.
I smiled. “Kind of. The Communists come marching down the street. Right down Hichborn, with tanks and soldiers doing that step - what is it?”
“The goosestep,” Daddy sniffs.
“Yeah, the goosestep. I can see them and hear their feet coming right down our street where we use to play and I’m terrified. Next thing I know, they’re storming up the steps to my room; they make so much noise it scares me to death. They have guns with bayonets and big boots and helmets, like the Nazis. I keep getting them mixed up with the Nazis. They start tearing the books off my shelves and they’re going to arrest me and take the books away and burn them. It’s funny, one of the books they take is The Diary of Anne Frank. And in my dream, I walk right up to the leader, the sargeant, or whatever he is, and I say, “You can’t take them from me. I’ve already read them.”
They were silent a minute, then Aunt Bettina said, “You should come down and talk more often, Gloria.”
It was true. I never came down from my room. I’d created another world up there with my books and my heroes. But, I’d made a special effort this night because Bettina and Susie had brought me clothes. Beautiful clothes. Aunt Bettina’s old cashmere sweaters that had a faint odor and coating of dry cleaning which clung to my hands like a film of oldness after touching the soft cushy fabric, but I didn’t mind; the colors were deep browns and greens, the colors of the forest at night and no one had ever given me anything so fine. There was also a fuchsia wool jacket of impeccable tailoring, not that I would have known what such a thing as impeccable tailoring was, I just knew it when I saw it. The jacket had short sleeves and I marveled that a woman could be cool enough to need a jacket, but warm enough to not need sleeves.
It was then that Jakey walked in the back door with Rick right behind him.
“Where you comin’ from?” Daddy asked Jakey.
Jakey shrugged, “Nowheres.”
Aunt Bettina studied them both. Susie went on with Ma’s hair as though she had no need to study them, she already knew what she’d find.
“Clean your feet!” Ma hollered, after they were on their way upstairs.
As he passed me, Rick mumbled, “Body by Fisher” and Daddy’s head jerked round in my direction.
“What did he say?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. It was from a car commercial, something about the sleek body lines of the car. Earl Rizzo had started calling me that.
“He’s a little scumbag, huh?” Aunt Bettina asked Daddy.
Daddy polished off the dregs of his beer.
“You said it!” he agreed.
“What the hell happened to his face?” she asked.
There was an awkward silence for a minute while we waited for each other to answer her.
“He was hit by a truck when he was little,” I said.
“Want some more tea, Betty?” Ma asked her.
“Kin I interest ya in a wee drop o’ the creacha’, Betty?” Daddy teased with a mock Irish brogue.
It was amazing how quickly and how often my loyalties shifted. How war wasn’t as simple as it should be - it was more like the stories people tell afterwards, as when a prisoner actually has to live with his enemy and the enemy takes care of him, nurses him back to health, and, finally, hides him from his own side and helps him to escape. There was never a time when I could forget, never a time when I could believe that Daddy was my father. At times, he was the enemy and I was his prisoner, and at other times, I was caring for him and hiding him, sorry we were enemies. Never did I plan his escape. No, in fact, I was sure I should kill him. If I were honorable and brave, I would have killed him by now. No hero would have eaten his food or drunk with him at his table. I should have run him through with my sword a long time ago. That much was clear.
What was not clear was why his tears cut through me like a sword. Why it made me proud sometimes to think of him. Why it repulsed me right now to watch him getting another drink, and absentmindedly scratching one foot with the rough, peeling skin of the other. Why I let Rick talk to me like that. Why I was proud to have him think I had a Body by Fisher. Why I was proud that he’d been hit by a truck and was so tough he was still walking around. I should kill them both. I should kill them. Why didn’t I? Why?
©Patricia Goodwin, 2015
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her latest novel is Low Flying, about two women suffering psychologically abusive marriages who find and nurture each other. Her newest poetry books are Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author, and Java Love: Poems of a Coffeehouse.
Within this blog, Patricia writes often about non-fiction subjects that inspire or disturb her, hopefully informing and inspiring people to be happy, healthy and free.