Mother stood at the top of the ladder, scraping wallpaper off the living room walls with a putty knife. Uncle Frank's wife, my Aunt Mary, came through the unlatched screen door without knocking.
She looked up at Mother.
"Louisa, I just want you to know that you'll never have a house as nice as mine." Mother looked down at Aunt Mary, who stood with her hands on her hips, a white leather handbag looped over one arm. She was dressed in a red-and-lavender polka-dotted dress and white sling- backed shoes. "I tell you this now so you get all such thoughts out of your head from the start," Aunt Mary continued.
Mother-married three months and already six weeks pregnant with me-was wearing a sweat-drenched cotton housedress. Scraps and curls of wallpaper lay around the ladder. All afternoon she'd been soaking down the layers of old, stained paper and scraping them off; rose-colored stripes and rosebuds, formal bouquets and baskets of violets, bits and pieces of Richter family history were now strewn on the floor.
Aunt Mary was much older than Mother, who had married the youngest of the three sons in the Richter family. Daddy and Uncle Frank were partners in a produce business. With their sister Bama-her real name was Alabama Margarete-living miles away in Columbia, North Carolina, Aunt Mary was reigning matriarch, and according to Mother she intended to keep it that way.
Mother climbed down the ladder. "Why, Mary," she said in what must have been that sweet tone of hers-ice water running just beneath the words-"a new house is the farthest thing from my mind. I'm just trying to get this dirty old place clean and decent before the baby comes."
She offered Aunt Mary a glass of mint tea.
Aunt Mary declined. Hers was not a social call.
This was one of the first stories Mother told me, and she retold it again and again. This, and how Aunt Mary somehow manipulated herself into the delivery room to watch Mother's manners and restraint dissolve into one scream after another as I wrestled my way out of her tortured body while lightning lit the sky and thunder rumbled like an angry god. "Your birth was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me," she repeatedly told me.
Mother was twenty-four years old when I was born.
She never stopped talking about what she referred to as the humiliation of Aunt Mary's shocking invasion of her privacy. She claimed that the sight of my aunt's face over my carriage was enough to send me into a fit of screaming. I don't know if Aunt Mary actually scared me or if I picked up on Mother's controlled but ever-present and powerful emotions. I have no memories at all of Aunt Mary in my infancy. Nevertheless, I grew up with Mother's stories of her a part of me as surely as the genes that gave me green eyes and a prominent nose like my father's.
Growing up I had a pleasant relationship with Aunt Mary until Uncle Frank died in a house fire in 1945 and Daddy and Aunt Mary had a dispute about the division of property and the business. After that Aunt Mary forbade her children to relate to us, though her son Peyton and I continued our friendship in secret and her daughter Roberta remained fond of Mother.
As an adult, on a trip back to my hometown-I believe it was in 1970-I decided to ignore the tension of the years and visit Aunt Mary. I phoned first, and her daughter-in-law said it would be fine for me to visit. Aunt Mary welcomed me warmly. She was lying in bed, smoking a cigarette. Holes from cigar and cigarette burns dotted her lavender satin comforter. Beside the bed a wicker clothes basket held a pile of paperback murder mysteries.
I bent down to hug her, and she opened her arms eagerly.
"I'm so glad to see you, Margaret. Here, sit on the bed beside me," she said as if the past twenty-five years of silence and distance between us had never existed. And in a sense that's true, for that brief visit seemed to erase the past as easily as my teachers had erased numbers and letters from the blackboards in the elementary school around the corner from her house.
Mother and Aunt Mary had a contentious relationship from the time Mother married Daddy until the evening Aunt Mary called her not long after my visit. Mother told me that the two of them talked for nearly two hours, finally making their peace. According to Mother, my aunt died shortly after hanging up the phone.
There were other stories Mother told me about the four years we lived in The Old Home Place before Granddaddy died and we moved to the new house up the street. She told me Daddy was often away on business trips, leaving her alone with Granddaddy and me, and Bubba, my first brother, the new baby who kept her awake with his earaches. One night, when especially tired, she picked him up from the crib in the dark and- missing the rocking chair altogether-fell down hard on the floor beside it. "I just broke down and cried and cried," she said each time she told the story, and each time my own eyes filled with tears. Mother seemed so fragile that I wanted to protect her.
She also told me about the way Daddy always put Granddaddy before her. "He made me sit in the backseat of the car while that old man sat up front with him. Even when I was pregnant." And she told me that after Granddaddy died Daddy kissed the glass over his photograph every day before leaving for work and the first thing on coming home. There was also the framed eight-by-ten photograph of Uncle Frank that stood on a table in the living room of our new house after Uncle Frank was killed in the fire. I would walk away from the picture, then turn around quickly to see if those eyes were still watching me. They always were. They followed me all around the room. I swallowed my fear and told no one.
I don't remember when or how she managed it without Daddy's resistance, but I was relieved when Mother took Uncle Frank's photograph, along with the large-framed photograph of my Aunt Bama's house in Columbia, and buried them under the bedsheets and blankets in the linen closet.
Mother had married into a more eccentric family than she'd realized. I suspect that Daddy had married into a more conservative family than he'd realized. Both had little tolerance of the other's parents and siblings. Grandmother Ledford's voice at our front door was enough to send my father, her son-in-law, fleeing through the back door to his car, and then to the safety of the produce warehouse.
Mother too had difficulty with Grandmother Ledford. Though in her later years she referred to her mother-at that point long dead-as a wonderful person, the tension between the two of them when I was young, until Grandmother's death when I was fifteen, was thick and constant. Mother felt Grandmother to be cold and domineering, and closer to her other daughters. As the fourth daughter in a family with no sons, Mother felt unwanted. She told me how, when she was a young child, Grandmother would sometimes rock her in a rocker on the front porch in the evening. Packs of wild dogs skirted the town, howling. When Mother fussed and wouldn't settle down to sleep quickly enough, Grandmother would threaten: "Hush! If you don't go to sleep, I'll feed you to those dogs."
Mother was also upset about Uncle Frank's cursing and drinking, and Aunt Bama's intrusion into her life. She did more than complain about the occasional beer that Daddy drank at a drive-in restaurant. My birth finally gave her adequate ammunition to fight this rare indulgence. The three of us were together when Daddy reached for the beer he'd ordered. Mother announced firmly: "If you take one sip of that alcohol, I'll give it to the baby as well. I intend to make the baby drink whatever you drink."
Her voice filled with pride. "That was the end of your father's drinking."
Then there was Fanny McClure. Fanny had a long, thick neck and dark wavy hair that spilled down her back. To me she always looked like a merry-go-round horse. My cousin Peyton told me that Fanny had been determined to capture Daddy for her own until Mother came into the picture and altogether eliminated what-if any-chance Fanny ever had. Nevertheless, according to Peyton, for several years after my parents' marriage, Fanny devoted many Sunday afternoons to riding back and forth in front of their house in her dark green Chevrolet sedan. Uncle Charlie, Daddy's middle brother, offered to take Fanny off Daddy's hands. He not only did that, he married her as well. Mother never mentioned anything about Fanny chasing Daddy. I don't know if she was even aware of it. But she did tell me that for some reason Fanny didn't like her and had once tried to run her down with her car when Mother was crossing the street from Mizell's Drugs to Roddenbery Hardware Store. But these things happened after Granddaddy died, after we moved into the new house up the street.
It was into The Old Home Place, the wood-framed house that Granddaddy had built, that Mother-who by her own account was immature, naïve, and timid-moved after marrying Daddy, bringing her clothes and her few treasured books. She looked forward to a life of financial plenty after all the penny-pinching necessary in her father's family, one of the most respected families in town but one lacking in financial abundance. The reason, Mother always explained with pride, was because her father, Mercer Ledford, was one of the rare honest lawyers. He also served as state senator and later as state treasurer; national senators and representatives were his friends. As a child, Mother was impressed that Senator Russell wore silk pajamas when he stayed overnight with the family. As an adult, Mother, who hated asking favors of anyone, called Senator Russell and reminded him that she was Mercer Ledford's daughter when she asked him for help in bringing my brother Mercer back to the States after he became psychotic while serving on a ship stationed off the coast of Vietnam. Senator Russell responded immediately and had a helicopter pick my brother up and take him to the Philippines, then to Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Mother spoke with adoration about her father, but she told me only a few stories about him. One is how he gave her sister Curtis a dollar for every A she made in math, while he gave Mother a dollar for every time she passed math. She also told me how he sometimes bought ice cream for his daughters on his evening walks home from his courthouse office, during which he stopped to say hello to so many friends along the way that he often arrived home with the ice cream melting, cones gone soft in his large hands.
Because he never learned to drive, Mother at thirteen began to drive him around the county for his law practice. She took great pride in that role and was grateful for the time they spent together. He worked to send all four of his daughters to college and lived to see them all become teachers. He died from a heart attack the year before Mother's marriage.
Mother had suffered another loss, but a loss she acknowledged aloud only after Daddy's death. While her father was serving as state treasurer, she became involved with the son of an ambassador from Brazil. She said that her father had given the relationship his blessing, but shortly after her father's death, the young man was killed in an automobile accident.
Other than the fact that she was glad Daddy's family had money, Mother said little about her feelings toward him before they married. It was Daddy who told me how he dressed mornings in suit, tie, and spats and sat at the window watching until he saw Mother walking past his house on her way to teach Latin classes in the high school across town. He would rush out the front door and offer to drive her to school. This daily ritual continued for some time before he dared to ask her out on a date.
Daddy played the piano by ear. Although he couldn't read a note of music, he composed a love song to Mother and had a musician write the notes down for him. When she went to New Orleans to summer school at Tulane, he arranged with her host and hostess to take her to a nightclub where the band played the song dedicated to her. Her father and boyfriend dead, Mother finally accepted Daddy's romantic overtures.
They were married on New Year's Day, 1935. And though they fought often and bitterly as I was growing up, Mother and Daddy ended many of their days walking hand in hand through the flower gardens. And they spent most Sunday mornings of my childhood in bed rubbing each other's feet.
I remember the house when it was white and the steps held you up when you stood on them. The porch columns were white, solid, and straight. The kitchen cabinets glistened buttery yellow, and the linoleum glowed with wax. The furniture was dusted and polished, the paper on the walls new. But the floors in every room were slanted like a ship tossed at sea, and cracks crisscrossed the ceilings and traveled from wall to wall like roads on maps of places I'd never been.
Mother, Daddy, and I lived with Granddaddy in the The Old Home Place, where Daddy, his two brothers, and his three sisters were born and grew up. It was there, sixty-eight years later, that Daddy died. By that time, his sister Bama had inherited the house. She did little to take care of the place. After several renters defaced the house before moving on, she let it stand vacant for years. Kudzu vines took over what had been Mother's flower beds and covered the abandoned heart- shaped fish pool she had dug from the hard earth.
After Uncle Earnest died, Aunt Bama and their son, Earnest Junior-who must have been in his forties by then-stayed in the house with their parakeet when they came down from Columbia, North Carolina, several times a year. The usual pretense for their visits had something to do with house repairs, but Bama's real reason was to visit Daddy and check up on, and criticize, Mother. Though Aunt Bama was the only family member left with wealth, instead of staying in a hotel she, Earnest Junior, and the bird always stayed in the living room of The Old Home Place, where they'd set up army cots for sleeping and hang sheets over the windows for privacy.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Long Journey Home by Margaret Robison. Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Robison. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.