Swamp Woman

My brother Bob told me, when he was forty and I was forty-two, “Dad never talked about his experiences in WWII. It was too much for him to bear.”

But our father told me, in gory detail, about navigating Fletcher class USS Hopewell all over the South Pacific, when I was a young teenager. He’d take me on Sunday drives, stop at a diner, order a Budweiser for himself, a Coca-Cola for me and off he’d go–Elder manic speed talk, telling every step he took from Young Harris college pre-seminarian pacifist to eating eight bananas a day, (trying to gain enough weight to qualify for acceptance into the Naval Air Corps), before settling for regular Navy.

Long before those confessional days, when I was four years old and about to start first grade, my father told me other stories. I didn’t get into school that young for being a ‘whiz kid’ as they called super high IQ students in the early 1950s. It’s just that with Mom pregnant, my brother and me rampaging hell-bound all over the island on good days and inside the trailer on rainy days, she was ‘going bats.’ So my parents decided to get rid of one noise maker by putting me into school.

I was the only kid on Chincoteague who could count to one hundred, write the ABCs, read words like ‘cat,’ ‘dog’ and ‘hat’ who wasn’t in school. So the principal let me in. There wasn’t a kindergarten on Chincoteague or Assateague. Just a little schoolhouse, white clapboard, with first through sixth grades. My class had ten or twelve students most days.

Every weekday morning from August-October (we moved to Florida just before my fifth birthday), I’d ride a ferry boat with Dad to Assateague. On one of those ferry rides, he told me, “You are the eldest Elder. It’s your job to memorize all the family stories from now on. That was my job when I was your age but now, I am passing that job on to you.”

I loved school, even though we moved six times that year and the Ohio principal and teacher were mean. We read from “The Geese at Blue Barns,” a primer for country children which would later be replaced by the popular “Fun with Dick and Jane.”

us kids in Wyoming 1961

I never had that book, but my brother and sister learned to read with it. At one first grade, in Ohio, my class had a primer my parents did when they were in grade school–McGuffey’s Reader. That was fun, reading aloud to my little brother as he ran through the trailer. By then, my sister was born, and when Bob got bored of stories, I’d sit cross-legged beside her pulled-out dresser drawer and read to her as she kicked her chubby legs and gurgled happily.

Kathi, a true ‘Whiz Kid,’ could read by age three and was laughing at Moliere by age eight. But she hated school due to a mean first grade teacher, so—as she wrote in her last letter to me, before she died at age thirty-eight–I was her “first room-mate, first friend and favorite teacher.”

We stopped at Miz’ Bonnie’s, grandma Elder’s, in Georgia on the way to and from Florida. She drove Dad nuts but he followed the rule ‘honor thy father & thy mother that thy days be long in the land.’ (He lived to be nearly 90 so I guess that rule worked).

In one of those first grades–Orange or Ponce de Leon Florida, we first graders were shown slides of tapeworms that lived in mud puddles. “Always wear shoes” our teacher, Miss Purdy, told us barefoot lovers. (She was pretty, too.) My boyfriend Billy (one of three Billy beaux), a freckled kid with a shock of red hair, got tapeworms and was proud of it. “The doctor ga’ me a pill an’ it come out mah butt,” he’d brag during recess. Yuck!

I was a bluebird reader, and he was a redbird. “West Side Story” for primary students. My father told me sternly, “you don’t want to run around with boys like that.” Which made me love James Dean, who died that year in a fiery car crash, even more than I thought possible. I fall in love with dead men.

During rides to school, in places where we lived so far from towns or cities no yellow buses ran, Dad told me family stories. One of my favorites was about his Great-Aunt who lived in a swamp.

“Your Great-great-Aunt had a house up on pylons.”

“Pylons!” I pictured a shack on top of a pile of huge snakes.

“You cut down eight straight pines the same size, sink them into the mud until you hit bottom. Those are your pylons. Shore them up with rocks and mud. Build the house on a platform in case of floods.”

“Why’d she live in a swamp?”

“She was in her nineties when I was ten. That was 1930. Do the math.”

I took Dad’s gas mileage booklet out of the glove box, glanced at him for approval. He handed me a pencil from his USGS shirt pocket. I wrote on a new page: 1930 – 90.

“I can’t do it. You have to carry the one or something.”

“Round it off. Say she was one-hundred years old in 1930.”

I did that in my head. “Oh, Okay. 1830 she was born if she was one hundred when you were ten. So, 1840 if she was ninety.”

“Nobody knew exactly how old she was, but she told me when I was coming around, ‘up in the nineties.’

“Why was she living in a swamp and not Taylor’s Creek?”

Dad often talked about swimming in Taylor’s Creek with his cousins and brothers. There was a photograph from the 1930s of five gangly boys in black bathing shorts that had overall type straps, standing on top of a bridge. Dad said they’d spend half the day diving into the river. That town got taken away by the government for a military base before my father joined the Navy. But he grew up there and in Hinesville, Georgia. Places where his father, a former circus acrobat-turned-horseback-preacher did his work.

“Think about it. What was the white man doing in the 1840s that made her hide?”

I ran through my mind all the history lessons my parents made us learn as we traveled from the coast of Virginia down to Florida, up through Georgia, South Carolina, over to Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia as Dad mapped those areas with his team. We’d stop at Civil War (“Uncivilized War” he’d say) battlefields and walk along, looking for minie-balls. Mom was Queen of finding things, she’d spy six before anyone else found one.

I kept a minie-ball for good luck in my pocket for a while until I figured it was really bad luck, after that mean Ohio teacher gave me a “U” on my composition. Dad wrote “you failed to clearly explain the assignment so give yourself a ‘U’.”  I buried the minie-ball in the deep, dark loam of a West Virginia trailer park one cherry blossom Spring day, hexing the mean teacher as I dug.

I got my mind back on track. “Slaves?”

“That’s G–D– right. She escaped by the skin of her teeth. It didn’t matter to the white man if you were Spanish, Negro, Chinese, Cherokee or had one drop of non-white blood–if your skin was dark, they’d get you. Your great-great aunt had the blackest skin I ever saw. Just like your great-grandfather, Asa. People called her a witch but she just knew how to use herbs for healing.”

Herbs? I thought. One of my father’s workers was named Herb. I wondered how you’d use him to heal anything. He drank Martinis, which he made in this space ship shaped metal container. Maybe Martinis could heal you. I vowed to try one the next chance I got, so maybe I could sleep for longer than 3 hours a night.

“Yeah, but Georgia had slave owners so why didn’t so why didn’t she go North?”

“Could you walk from Georgia to Pennsylvania? Some few were that brave and strong, but the majority hid out for the duration.”

I knew ‘the duration’ meant anything from how long a battle might last to an entire era ruled by people like Genghis Khan or Czarina Catarina. This duration must mean until the slaves got freed. I was too afraid to ask what year that was. I was in school. Supposed to know these things.

“She was Asa Elder’s aunt. My great-aunt. How was she related to Catherine Wilkerson?”

“Sisters?”

In previous stories Dad told me, Catherine Wilkerson took that name when she signed on as an indentured servant with a plantation in Virginia. Nobody knows her Cherokee name. She was allowed off the Trail of Tears by a nice soldier. Why, my father had no idea, unless she gave him something he wanted like women sometimes have to do for survival. I wondered what that might be? A beaded arrow bag, maybe.

She wandered through forests, eating berries and sleeping on the ground, until she saw a big white house. I always pictured the one in Washington, D.C. where we went one day on the way to New York for some topo work.

“She worked in the fields. Cherokee women are as strong as men. You’ve got that blood, you can do anything you want and some things you don’t want but have to for survival. When the Scottish minister came to tell slaves about Jesus, he fell in love with that Cherokee lady and adopted her little dark-skinned baby boy. Maybe he figured Asa was Cherokee, too. But he was born during those seven years so you figure it out. She married William Elder and they moved to Alabama, where they bought thirty acres of land and eight slaves.”

“But if she was a slave, why did she buy slaves? That’s weird!”

“Those days were weirder than hell. And people haven’t gotten any better.”

I was watching this Elder story like a movie in my brain when I heard Dad say, “We’ll continue this tomorrow. Remember to raise your hand and don’t just call out the answers. Nobody likes a know-it-all even if you Do know it all.” He parked the Willy’s in front of the line of yellow buses.

Grab paper sack with banana, cheese and butter on wheat bread sandwich. (Wonderbread kids called it ‘weird’ but Mom baked our bread. She didn’t trust store bought.) Check pocket coin purse for my milk nickel. Make sure cotton plaid dress hem isn’t caught in back like that one day when kids teased me, “I see London, I see France, I see Dixie’s underpants!” Trip over my Mary Janes, polished diligently every Sunday. We didn’t go to church, so Sunday was a big chore day. I often wished we were church-goers so we could skip chores now and then. Dash upstairs, braids already coming undone. By the time I got home, Mom would click her tongue, “Gosh Almighty, can’t you be more Kempt?”

PHOTOS: top left, in Baltimore, MD at Aunt Bernice’s & Uncle Tony’s the night Kathi was born.
Me 4, Bob 2, Cousin Mike 9, Cousin Suzanne 12.  Top Right, Christmas in West Virginia. Me 4, Bob 2. Bottom: Dad, Mom, Kathi (2),me (7), Bob (5) with our beloved 1950 DeSoto, our home from 1952-1963.

Dad was an atheist. Mom was a deist. None of the kids ever knew what I was talking about when I told about those non-religions. Us new students had to go to the front of the class, say your name, place of birth, religion or creed, race and tell a short story about your life on your first day at schools all over America. Try as hard as I could, I’d always get stuck on “creed.” Saying ‘no religion’ was hard enough. Moving on to race would’ve taken hours. And as for ‘where are you from,’ Dad taught me to say ‘everywhere’ to save time.

Even though I could see Jesus from age two, I wasn’t allowed to talk about the guy Mom called ‘Dixie’s Imaginary Friend.’ Dad would fly off the handle if anyone said, ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’. But he’d get mad if you said ‘Geeze’ because that was ‘taking the Lord’s Name in Vain.’ Some kids at recess explained this rule to me, which never made any sense because yelling ‘God!’ was like praying, wasn’t it? And we had to pray out loud right after saying The Pledge of Allegiance every morning before lessons began.

My father told me, “You can say it and not believe it. That goes for the Pledge and the Prayer.” So, I’d firmly place my right hand over my heart, reciting “of the United States of America” and believe with all my heart that America was not God.

Mom hid her mother’s old Bible in her underwear drawer so as not to get Dad all worked up. But one day, he found it and shouted, “What the G— D– Hell is this doing in with your silk undies! Are you and Moses about to run off and leave me with these kids?”

When I was in the fifth grade and that one lady made everyone quit praying out loud in schools, Dad told me he was more an animist than an atheist. Everything: rocks, trees, animals, oceans–had spirits. He hated ‘organized religion.’  

“People in groups act like G— D— idiots. I don’t care if it’s religion or military or a bingo club. Get a bunch of people together and they’ll do something stupid. You’re better off with maybe one friend. And a disorganized religion.” Which was a joke, of course, so I laughed.

That year, he made me walk all over Christiansburg, Virginia one Sunday until I could find at least One person to say they’d be my friend. The girl who said “Okay, I guess,” was an outcast like me. I didn’t know the rules to hopscotch, my family didn’t go to church and her father had a room full of Nazi flags, photographs of Hitler and other scary stuff. We moved before I even learned her last name. Onward to North Carolina. Up near Ashville in the Smokies we drove, DeSoto full of smoke from Winstons, us kids drawing our ideas of what the future would be like. Bob, undersea houses; Kathi, ghosts (for some reason) and me, in a house full of books with a movie theater in one big room.

Constellations

I fall in love with dead men

right now, reading Memoirs of Tennessee Williams

            yes, yes, I know he was gay

but oh, so liquid-eyed & wild honey worded—

He knew a woman’s heart could often be a place crowded

with tragic break-ups & wild nights

of too much champagne & far too little caution.

He knew about mascara-smeared mornings,

awakening to quiet steps & softly shut doors—

birds hectic, so loud; fuchsia-colored tree blooms

spinning all over a dawn-green yard.

Deep burgundy curtains not nearly rich enough

to drown out street sounds of N’Orleans after yet another Mardi Gras night

Men calling “more help over here, we got to get—”

but the window slams shut & all she hears is

raucous yaps of her silky Yorkshire terrier

from the balcony where last night, under a slice of moon, she feigned love

Now this little dog tells the world his troubles.

He scratches ’til French doors swing open

& drags to his tense mistress a pair of shiny shoes.

Tennessee knew, from his dearly beloved

mother & sweet, mad menagerie sister,

how quickly marcel waves fall on hell-hot L’ousiana days.

Leaning on the edge of her satin-covered bed,

struggling to slide feet into feather-decorated slippers,

thinking only of coffee—strong, black & gentled

with rich cream—but that means walking all the way

from this comforting bed, across three Persian carpets,

out the door, down marble steps, onto the promenade

which has not yet been swept by Darius.                                                       8

Then she would have to lean over, open the lead-lined

cooler, pick up a slippery bottle of cream, stand up,

light-headed from too little sleep, wild dancing

& what was that black-haired man’s name?

So she falls back into bed until Marietta

carries in a tray of food she will ignore. 

But the coffee, yes & cigarettes

out of a platinum, swan-shaped case—

those revive her well enough

until she steps out in those red heels & sweet magenta skirt

just so slightly too-tight & a black silk blouse

some boy or other brought her from Japan when

they both were young & truly happy.

Another hopeful evening of song & well-acted pleasure

lips reddened for laughing, fingertips just as bright,

men pressing forward to light her

third or fourth tapered cigarillo, fingers snapping

for service, “another drink for the lady,” requesting

song after song until she chooses, until she takes

someone’s hand & leads him gently through

a Monet-painted night, down light-bulb lit alleys,

past celebrating crowds, masques, roisterers,

not stars but constellations on another magical night.

for Kerra, who loves poetry (word press won’t let me do single space for this poem)

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