To say that my mother didn’t take to the idea of moving back to the mountains would be a vast understatement. It was for her as if she’d followed Joshua into the promised land and had adjusted to a steady diet of milk and honey, only to have him up and decide to take himself and his house back to the wilderness where they would be dependent on a fickle god for food falling out of the sky.
I should mention here something I’ve previously referenced. Some time in the early sixties my mother was in an automobile accident which injured her back. She had at least two surgeries. A disk was removed from her back -- something I don’t think is done anymore -- making a woman who was barely five feet tall even shorter.
Anyone who has ever had even a strained muscle in his back knows the misery it brings and how it can sour one’s outlook on the world while it lasts. Some of the saddest cases I’ve handled as a criminal defense attorney involved educated, middle-class people who were repeatedly sent back to prison for forging prescriptions and burglarizing pharmacies to feed their addiction to pain medication. Invariably they had been victims of severe back injuries who had become addicted to powerful painkillers under medical supervision.
So I’m sure I should have cut Irene more slack than I did, but when you’re thirteen you only see how scary the world is for you.
My mother didn’t become addicted to Seconal; that would have defied the draconian moral code by which she lived. She became addicted instead to vitriol.
(“Old Maids” is the only card game my mother would play. Traditional playing cards with their pagan symbols were not permitted in the house. The rest of us were allowed to play “Rook,” although she never befouled herself with the game.)
I remember riding with my father and her to some thread mill in Canton where she was applying for a job, remember seeing her hobble to the door while we sat in the car. A child of today could not imagine the shame I felt thinking that my mother would get a job, any job. I was furthermore shocked that the world valued my mother’s considerable talents as only being fit for factory work.
Irene didn’t take the job. She may have never intended to. She may have been running a bluff that if my father wanted to go back to the hills he would do so without her and his son.
Near this time she would take me aside and tell me that she and I might be leaving at any moment, to be prepared. I listened to this without response, because even though I was scared by the idea of moving away from my friends in Holly Springs and the world as I knew it, I knew there was no way I was leaving my father’s house wherever it might move. I didn’t tell her so because I never had to. One of the lessons I learned from my father which serves me well to this day is to not fight unnecessary battles.
My mother was a strong and stubborn person and a great holder of grudges. Only death could release her from the hold of the grudge once formed. She refused to speak to her sister in Virginia for probably ten years after Ruby declined to take her turn keeping Grandma Harkins, but after Grandma died the grudge was lifted and they went back to being friends.
Even more remarkable, Irene had a brother of whose existence I never learned until his corpse was brought back to Fannin County from Ohio, and at 14 I was designated one of his pallbearers. The source of this grudge was a fairly substantial transgression on Uncle Charles’ part, but even though he didn’t kill anybody, except in WWII, the sweep of my mother’s vendetta was so broad that my sisters and my father, who knew Uncle Charles, were forbidden to mention his name in her son’s presence.
We did move to Fannin County where I was immediately accepted as being super cool because I was from “Atlanta” and had a Beatlesque haircut. There the force of my mother’s new grudge settled in and attached itself to my father and anyone who might have been involved in his progeny. Whenever she could corner me, she would assail me with my father’s many shortcomings which I should avoid at all costs.
I really don’t know now what she said about Wallace, because I didn’t listen. I couldn’t put my hands over my ears and go “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah,” but I would incur my mother’s furor when she would realize I was singing under my breath, probably Beatles and Stones, and if that failed there was always revelry in my new found super coolness and the attention of pretty young mountain girls that status offered.
Suffice it to say that anything which she perceived as a problem could be blamed on my father. A minor example. Once when I brought a Catholic girlfriend home from Emory she took me aside afterward and told me Wallace should have had this talk with me if he’d been a decent father, but it fell on her to tell me I shouldn’t be dating a Catholic. She then went on to detail a fairly informed if absurdly biased account of papist atrocities from 33AD to present.
My father, as you may have garnered by now, judged people by the content of their hearts as manifested in their behavior. The girl in question, the daughter of a wealthy Harvard Medical School graduate from Asheville, was charmed by Wallace, and he had enough sense to see that the likelihood of her marrying me was so slim that counseling on the pitfalls of interfaith marriage was one of those battles that likely need not be fought.
Wallace purchased his freedom from Irene’s grudge by dying in 1974 at 63. After that she softened, became more tolerant, though not enough to keep her from criticizing at any opportunity the lifestyle of her wayward son, which was a far cry from her definition of Christian Gentleman. It was only after 1980, when I took up with and a year later married Cynthia Bolkcom, who was neither Catholic nor Yankee, and pointed myself toward law school that my mother and I again became the friends who had built a clubhouse from scrap lumber and read Little Golden Books until the son could read them himself. From then until she was overcome by dementia later in the century, we spent pleasant times together, I with the pretty wife and grandchildren, and she with tales of a way of life that survived only in memory and murky photographs.