Monday, January 2, 2017

Part Four: Books (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)



Dear Sunny -


After college, John works for his father in the wool manufacturing industry, but he doesn’t like it very much. He wants to be a preacher. John Samuel Sr., however, doesn’t see religious service as a legitimate career path for his last living son. So John waits and works. Then in 1928, his father passes away and John joins the Philadelphia Divinity School.

For 8 years, you live at the Stephenson Homestead on Main Street in Philadelphia, while John studies and works as the assistant minister in a nearby parish.  Next, you move to a townhouse in Germantown, a poor suburb of Philadelphia. The church where John works has a convent. Nancy likes to visit the nuns there. She is nine. Your other daughter, Helen is six. Your son, John, is three. One day, an ambulance is called for you ---alcohol, pneumonia, depression--- these "demons" send you to the hospital many times, I’m told. But aside from the bottles and the cigarette boxes and the dreadful depressions, you also fall inside the bindings of open books. Grandma Nancy calls you a voracious reader.  Books are so generous - aren't they? Portable stories inked permanently onto paper pages for our eyes to run, roam and ramble along, while our minds strengthen and stretch and build us into stronger, more enriched persons.  I imagine you reading about world explorers, impressionism, fauna, flora, Mexican pottery, poetry, biographies, human biology and even silly romance dramas. I see you tracking your way through mystery novels, more out of necessity than anything, that needing to know, that curiosity some books give us. I imagine you reciting psalms and Shakespeare sonnets and the poems of Emily Dickinson. Do you have a favorite, familiar story? -one you retreat to when you feel heavy with worry? ...............................................................I am currently reading a book my brother gave me for my birthday. It's called, How to Be a Woman and it's by British Journalist, Caitlin Moran. It is hilarious. Last night, as I lie in bed reading, I start chuckling to myself about this part in the book where she's drunk at a wedding and on a tour of a fancy house with a glass of red wine when out of nowhere a bat flies in through an open window and crashes into her face. Her reaction is to scream, "WHAT THE FUCKING?" and throw her red wine across the white carpet. My reaction to her reaction (of receiving a bat slap to the face) causes me to giggle / fart and then CACKLE and FART- CACKLE - FART - FART - CACKLE. My husband, Scott sits at the computer by the window. He turns immediately to give me a stern shush, but this only makes it worse. He wants me to be quiet because our 16-month-old baby's bedroom is beside ours and we like it when she stays asleep at night. I cover my face with my book until my hyperventilating slows into normal breathing. I read for awhile longer before turning off the light and chortling myself to sleep. Next I'm going to read a two book biography on Eleanor Roosevelt.  SHOULD BE A HOOT!

Are there any good books to read when you're a child? My favorite book growing up is called The Little Match Girl. It is by Hans Christian Andersen. It's about a homeless child on New Years Eve who's starving and barefoot and bareheaded. She freezes to death in an alley, lighting the matches she's supposed to sell. I am fascinated by suffering. I seem to seek it out. I think it's because I always have mittens, knit hats, boots, books and breakfast. What is it like to be a little girl in that coal company town? Are you beaten like The Little Match Girl when you don't make any money? Are you terribly bored? Hungry? Forgotten? Are you overworked with raw blisters on your knuckles and scrapes and scars on your knees? With washboards and homemade soap and boiled water  ---how many rinses does it take to get that black dust out of cotton? How heavy are the water pails when they are full and how far must you walk to the pump? Do you play hopscotch, jump rope, baseball, kick the can? Do you make dolls out of old flour bags and run races in the middle of the black gravel lanes?  Do you have a swimming hole in the summer and a great hill for the snow in winter? Do you learn cuss words and practice saying them whenever you're alone? Are you loved? Or is love not a matter discussed by the poor at the start of the 20th century? When your daddy carries you to the hospital, when he leaves you there with the nurses and doctors, does he tell you he loves you? Does he bend down, take off his hat and kiss your feverish forehead, then wipe your wet eyes and runny nose with his coarse coal-stained fingers, before whispering, "I love you, sweet Carolyn May?" Or does he mumble some inaudible, meaningless phrase like, "be good, kid" before hurrying off for a drink? Do you get your need to drink from him? Do you get your depression from your momma? Are you just an unlucky combination of two unfortunate souls? Does she take her own life and the life of the baby in her body, feeling an irrevocable doom birthing another child, her eighth, into the dark, dusty world of her terribly sad circumstances? Or is she full of light and life and devotion for God and her children? Is she an optimist, a painter, a songbird? I just hope you are a loved child. Neglected children can have such a difficult time in life.

When your own children are off at school, are you chain smoking in the kitchenette of your townhouse, watching the clock tick to the end of the school day? Do you stand by a roasting pan, a paper package of pork and a mesh bag of little yellow onions, while you hold a recipe from a magazine and a half-lit cigarette? Are you trapped in that townhouse, stuck in the mine of your time in history as an American housewife of the 1930s? Is this home your own personal mental asylum? Or is it your quiet castle? Your sanctuary? Gram says you are a wonderful mother despite all you have gone through. But at the time of your ambulance rides, your children do not always understand what is happening. For most children are not given the entirety of sad stories. Instead, they see what they see and are often told very little.