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Death of a Blythe Spirit

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I Care for Him!


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What Price Love?

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Moving Again

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Mother's Essays

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Gina's story fragment

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July, 1994


Years ago, my friend Sarah (who has a green thumb like my mother) asked me to go to the county fair with her. We could pick up prize iris for a dollar a bulb. Wow, who could resist? Prize iris, just like something out of the specially tended English country gardens in "Mrs. Miniver." Having nothing whatever in mind to do with them, I picked up a dozen different bulbs, and I had been trying, or rather, wishing, ever since that by some miracle they would flourish in my yard. When I moved, I dug them all up, threw them unceremoniously into a box where they sat until I had a few seconds to dump them equally casually into my new backyard garden. Now, two years later there were big clumps of iris root all over my garden. This past Spring I had actually gotten two tall, beautiful flowers, a blue one and a yellow one, but mainly there were just ugly globs of bulb.

The cannas, a gorgeous, deep crimson color, were offspring of Sarah's own garden, and I love them. The Sunday afternoon that she planted them in my front yard, next to the garage, she mistook a sprinkler pipe for a root. What excitement! Water shot up as though someone had opened a fire hydrant on a hot summer day. I ran to turn the water off at the street, and then because I lacked the tool to turn it, ran to my neighbor who, happily, was home, was able to turn off the water and who gave me a list of items to buy at the hardware store which was to close in 10 minutes. When everything was back together I laughed like the dickens; what an adventure we had! Yes, I loved those cannas.

The place looks a little naked now, but it won't be long. I've been reading articles on gardening in shade, and I've already picked up a couple of plants. I planted a fuchsia right off the patio next to some tomatoes. The tomatoes were doing great, but the fuchsia was dying until, at Sherry's suggestion, I transplanted it to a different part of the garden. Now it is flourishing. I have learned to notice the patterns of sun and shade throughout the day. That little patch next to the tomatoes may be shady most of the time, but it gets a couple of hours right at noon, the hottest part of the day.

Next week I'm putting in a water garden and a little waterfall. After all, if my yard has all the shade of a forest glade, I might as well make a forest glade. When I went to the nursery to look at pre-fab ponds, I noticed, in a corner, a bunch of garden statuary-nymphs, frogs, fawns, Japanese lanterns, Buddhas, and even a St. Francis of Assisi. My mother had had a statue of St. Francis in her garden, and I've always wanted one. I looked at it more closely. Too small. Once, when Gina and I were driving home from Modesto, we stopped at a statuary place along the highway just so I could look for a St. Francis. There were some there, even the right size, but not the right color, so I didn't spend the $39. Now I'm glad I didn't. St. Francis was at home in my mother's garden; he doesn't belong in mine. Something does; I just haven't found it yet.

The last time I saw my mother's St. Francis was when we packed up her and Dad's house on Fulton Avenue in December, 1991. My brother, Bob, and sister, Deedee, had lunch at Denny's that day and told each other stories from our childhood. Our father was an alcoholic and a wife beater all his life, but I guess we loved him anyway. He's dead now, and I hardly ever miss him, but I loved him. He and Mother raised four children and now have five grandchildren. Their garden was fruitful. I don't know if their crop would take any blue ribbons; we'll have to see.

Bob, Deedee, and I sat in that coffee shop for hours. We just sat around and reminisced, talked of Mother and Father. We had been brought together that December in 1991 to pack up our parent's Fulton Avenue house. They were to move in with my sister Penny and her family in Angels Camp, up in the gold country. Mother had had Parkinson's Disease for over 20 years by then, and Dad, at 81, couldn't cope anymore. Actually, I wonder if he'd ever been able to cope. If my Mother had kept a vegetable garden, Father would have been the bitter vetch.

Mother's green thumb was legendary. At Fulton Avenue she had picked avocados from a tree she had grown from an avocado pit. In the front yard was a huge kumquat tree whose fruit made great jelly. No one could believe she had also grown that from a seed; but she had. My mother had had a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in her garden, and I've always wanted one. I can remember, when in Tijuana over 30 years ago on a jaunt with my fellow college freshmen, asking around for a "San Francisco". I didn't find one-possibly because I didn't know how to say "statue" in Spanish or possibly because God knew that at that time in my life I not only had no garden but couldn't even have cultivated a schefflera. However, Mother did bequeath me all her garden books in spite of my "black thumb."

Mother had had that statue of St. Francis for as long as I could remember. That gentle man who so loved animals was a fitting symbol for my mother, who in her entire life had never owned less than at least one dog and at times had as much as multiple dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats, mice, fish, birds, and even snakes!

The last time I saw my mother's St. Francis was when we packed up her and Dad's house that December. The St. Francis had been on the list of items that Penny had asked to have, so I went looking for it.

It wasn't in the front yard. Now, no flowers flourished under the kumquat. The yard was thinly carpeted, like a rundown motel, with weeds and bare earth. In the back yard the weeds were knee high. There was no garden, just an assortment of spindly little fruit trees, obviously no longer maintained, left over from Father's excursion into horticulture a few years back. Way in the back of the yard I found St. Francis, lying on his side, a big chip missing-apparently long missing-from the birds he cradled in his arms. Ol' Frank didn't seem bothered by it; he was as placid as ever. As I dusted him off and packed him away, I wondered if he remembered the gardens he had known.

I found that letter-what I have come to call the "Blythe Spirit letter"-while packing to close up my parent's house. A single type-written sheet of paper, it was lying deceptively casually on top of a stack of papers in my mother's office as though someone, distracted, had forgotten to hide it away. Mom and Dad's house was full that day: my brother Bob, sister Deedee, our four children, and Deedee's husband Tom. I called them together and read the letter aloud.

*******************

Jere, I want you to read this through, even though you may not like it, agree with it, or even understand it. It's something I've tried to tell you all my life, but now it has become of paramount importance. You say that violence is the only language I understand, what a simple way to exonerate yourself and how wrong you are. Have all these years of driving and beating the poor brute brought you any result or is it just the old question of getting the old mare down to one straw a day before the ungrateful thing went and died. It's very easy to rule through fear, but the cost is high. Not only does it brutalize the perpetrator, but it is pretty well established that such a rule carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Is this the Kingdom you would rule? A wife so cowed she obeys every order blindly and explicitly, and afraid to make a decision for herself, a household that breathes a sigh of relief whenever you're out of it, without joy, without any real affection. How can there be spontaneous joy when you must match your Master's mood, can you love the heavy hand held over you? And the cost is eternal vigilance, eternal friction eternal discontent. Sure, your explicit order is obeyed, but your comfort is not anticipated. Through fear of blows you will get obedience, but will you get love? Your wife will be a stranger that shares your house, and your children will flee you as soon as they are able. And though you may not prize it very highly right now, it will cost you my love, which you will probably shrug off and say "Words, words, that's all you have ever given me. Words that don't mean anything." Maybe it doesn't mean much now, but it was very real to me at one time, and the core of my whole existence. When we married I loved you as deeply, truly and passionately as it is given one human being to love another, and my only aim (though you hotly deny it) was to make you happy. If your being happy meant for me to subjugate myself, follow all your moods in swift succession, cater to you, yes, and even spoil you, then that was perfectly all right with me. Since the children were born it wasn't possible to devote myself to such a degree, and though you were always first and uppermost in my mind, you can't deny them a certain responsibi1ity, we owe them that, food for their growing bodies, love and understanding for their growing minds. But I was ever willing to please you first, last and always, and if I erred it was because of misunderstanding, and not because I didn't care. Bear in mind that we are two separate entities and speech was invented to bridge that gap. To children and slaves you give orders and expect immediate obedience, but in a partnership explanations are in order. Oh, I realize very well that works both ways, and probably, or if you will, certainly the fault lies with me. I know my limitations better than anyone. I'm obstinate, sure, but has your beating me ever done anything except to make me more stubborn? and more disagreeable?

And that brings me to the point of this letter. You have no right, no right whatsoever to beat me like a dog, no man has that right, it is intolerable and degrading, and not worthy of anyone who wants to be ca11ed a Man. Leave me, if you must, but never lay a hand on me again. For the sake of our future together and our children's serenity, never drive me to the point where I must answer a blow with a blow.

Every time you hit me you strike at my heart, the bruises heal, the soul forgives, but a broken heart is never mended. If you would murder that blithe spirit I once was, it were better for you to put your two hands around my throat and snuff out my life.

Think it over,

Frances

*****************

I wasn't surprised that there wasn't much of a reaction. After all, most of us had seen my father abuse our mother for more than 40 years and had never acknowledged it. Not consciously, not out loud. We never talked about it. I never told my brother or sisters about the old, old memory of mother lying flaccidly on the floor, moaning. On her stomach, with her arms and legs bent like those of a rag doll thrown against the wall and fallen softly to the floor, she is aware of nothing but her pain and does not see the little steps, my brother and sister and me, standing back a ways, side-by-side, quietly looking down on her.

Nor had Bob told us about watching Dad break a broom over a neighbor's head or had Deedee described the first degree burns on Mother's face which she got from the pot of baked beans he threw at her. Nor had Penny told of Mother coming into her elementary school classroom with a black eye.

No, the lack of response wasn't a surprise; the surprise, to me, was that my mother openly acknowledged the abuse, cried out against it, and warned of the repercussions. She spoke only from the silent safety of her typewriter, but at least we could no longer pretend that nothing unusual had been going on. We had to talk about it now. Everything changed with the letter.

Later in the packing up process, my brother and sister and I found ourselves alone together at a coffee shop. In our entire lives this had never happened before. We sat in that coffee shop for hours. We just sat around and reminisced, talked of Mother and Father, stories from our childhood. This impromptu "encounter" felt so good that we decided to do it again and planned for the first time ever a get-together at Bob's house later in the month.

Then we went back to finish packing, and I got my second surprise. I knew my mother kept a copy of all her correspondence, but that day I found-in addition to the binders and boxes full of carbon copies of her letters-dairies! There were several four-year diaries plus some notebooks with journal entries. This was exciting; perhaps in these private papers Mother would reveal how this death of a blythe spirit had come about.

 

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