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From the porch, the river looked smoky brown sometimes, rosy and lavender when the sun was going down, then slate gray, just before it turned pitch black.
From the porch, the lights of the Island Queen beckoned, like reachable stars.
From the porch, the river promised better times coming, faraway places just around the bend.
From the porch, the river was a wide tranquil ribbon, no hint of a dangerous current. All you could see from the porch were possibilities, not perils.
The porch was at my grandmother's house in Maysville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. Although Maysville was called a port city, it was a classical small town, its life centered in a few downtown blocks between the train station and the bridge: McGee's Bakery, Merz Brothers Department Store, the diner with the swinging eat sign and six stools at the counter, where we sat and watched our hamburgers--the size of half dollars--frying on the grill.
Now that house on West Third Street, high above the river, is spruced up, glistening white, with window boxes full of scarlet geraniums and trailing ivy, listed in The National Register of Historic Places. The side street leading down to the river is named Rosemary Clooney Street. Then it was a rented house, well-scrubbed, but the linoleum on the kitchen floor was peeling, curled up at the edges. There was no central heating, just little potbellied stoves and a fireplace with a grate where my grandmother cooked when the bills hadn't been paid and the gas was turned off. On winter days, my sister Betty, my brother Nicky, and I licked the ice that formed on the inside of the kitchen window.
But my grandmother loved that house, loved sitting in her high-backed rattan rocking chair on the porch, where she could look down at the river rolling by. She loved to cook--floured chicken pieces with lots of salt and pepper, fried to the crackling stage in bubbling hot Crisco; green beans boiled with a chunk of country ham; piles of cole slaw. Once she made strawberry shortcake on the fireplace grate. She loved listening to her daytime serials on the big Zenith console in the living room, always tuned to WLW in Cincinnati: "Stella Dallas," "Backstage Wife." She loved her little garden beyond the porch, with its straggling hollyhocks and snapdragons, late-summer rows of the juiciest tomatoes, the twisted hackberry tree at the far edge of the yard.
Best of all, she loved us.
My grandmother, Ada Guilfoyle, was my mother's mother, one of the strongest women I've ever known. I like to think--and I do believe--I've inherited some of her strength. When she was a young wife, expecting, she and my grandfather were working on a rented farm outside of town. She began to bleed and fell over in the tobacco field. The doctor came in his horse and buggy and carried her back to the farmhouse, where they hung clean sheets on the walls and spread them over the kitchen table. With warm beer bottles pressed tightly against her body, she was operated on for an ectopic pregnancy and warned not to have children. But she and my grandfather, Michael Joseph Guilfoyle, had planned on children, so they had nine: four boys and five girls. When my grandfather dropped dead on the street at the age of fifty-two--an aneurysm--their youngest was just three. So my grandmother had to get a job. Before she was married, she'd taught in a one-room rural schoolhouse, but now, with young children, she needed to be home during the day. She worked nights as a practical nurse.
Frances, my mother, was the third child, the second daughter after Rose, followed by Jeanne, Ann, and Christine. My Aunt Rose was always labeled--even honored--as the beauty of the family, while my mother wasn't even considered pretty according to the conventions of the time. She was straight and slim, with deep blue eyes and thick dark hair, but her features were sharp and angular. So she made up in flamboyance what she felt, and was often reminded, she lacked in looks. She would be the best dresser, the most stylish; she would have flair. She was barely five-foot-four but she seemed taller, with shoulder pads and spike heels and a way of holding herself proud and erect. When she walked to work as a salesclerk at the New York Store, she wore a cartwheel hat and carried a showy purse. She almost always won the Charleston contests on the Island Queen.
She had grown up saying she would become an actress or a dancer. "I want to get out of Maysville. I want to be somebody." Instead, she married a charming, funny, handsome man, Andrew Clooney, who was eight years older and who had already decided that his dreams were submerged at the bottom of a bottle.
When I was born on May 23, 1928, she had just turned nineteen. She and my father had already separated at least once, then they had gotten back together briefly--a dismal pattern that would be repeated often, that would frame my childhood. I don't remember all of us living together under the same roof for more than a few weeks at a time. Sometimes I was with an uncle or an aunt, sometimes at Grandma Guilfoyle's, sometimes with my Clooney grandparents. Because my father was so rarely around, it was his father whom I called Papa. It was easy for my mother to decide where to leave Betty and Nicky and me when she needed a place for us. She just left us with whoever had room. Whoever wasn't rock-bottom broke, looking for work. Whoever said yes.
"You're the oldest. You'll manage," my mother would say. "You'll be fine." She had been promoted from salesclerk to manager of the dress shop, but she yearned to get out of Maysville, so she got a job as a traveling sales representative for the Lerner chain. When her weekly envelope came, with a five-dollar bill, I'd scan the postmark to see where my mother was or where she had been: Dayton, St. Louis, Detroit. "I don't know when I'll be back," she would say. "But I know you'll be a good girl."
So I was. I was very careful never to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. I tried to figure out, early in a stay, what people expected of me, then I'd make sure I was just what they expected. If I wasn't a good girl, I wouldn't be able to live there anymore. Then Betty and Nicky wouldn't be able to live there anymore, either. Then what?
In all the comings and goings of those years in Maysville, my sister was the one constant. I was six years older than Nicky, and we became real friends later. But I was just three when Betty was born, so we grew up together. There was hardly ever a time when I didn't share a room with her, play with her, laugh and talk and fight with her. And there was absolutely no time when I didn't love her.
Betty always listened to me, always did what I said we'd do. One very cold winter day, when I was five and Betty just about two, we got dressed up in one of our aunt's long dresses. "Now we have to go down to the river," I told Betty, "because we're going on a long trip, and we have to wait by the river till the boat comes."
Somehow we managed to sneak down the stairs and out of the house without being seen. We scurried across Front Street, clutching the folds of our long gowns. We were standing at the edge of the river grading, and I was looking upriver, pretending I could just see the boat coming, when Betty skidded down the slick grading into the river. The dark water closed above her head.
I leaned over, grabbed her hand, and dragged her out. She wasn't crying, just coughing and sputtering. I got her home and into the bathtub and then dried off, all by myself--my mother had told me I would manage, I would be able to do whatever had to be done. Betty and I formed a bond, very early, that I was sure nothing would ever break. "We'll always be together," I promised her one day, when we'd just been moved from one place to another. "I'll never leave you behind." I felt absolutely certain nobody else would ever come between us, and I was right. Nobody else did.
From the Hardcover edition.