Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Millpond Moment

When I was little I loved playing with my cousin Tara who had hair as red as Ronald McDonald and lived further out in the country than I did. Tara lived in a tiny house on acres and acres of land by a pond where otters played loudly all night. To the East of her house was a peach orchard where we played and where, as a child, I gained great fame amongst my cousins for stepping barefoot on a snake. Of couse it had been a complete accident, but I told everyone I did it on purpose and then we all swore that it had been a copperhead or a cottonmouth or whatever we thought sounded scariest and most poisonous. In reality I think it was just a black racer looking for water rats that had come up into the orchard to nibble on rotten, fallen peaches. Across the street from Tara's house was a green pepper field where sometimes in the summer we would sit in the dust and pick peppers for Memere Marie's now-husband Ray who owned the field. Back then they weren't even dating, so this was just a coincidence.

Tara's mother, who was also my cousin, although I called her my aunt, was the sort of mother who canned her own vegetables and jellies and who let us drink Kool-Aid, play in the sprinkler and stay up late. I loved going to Tara's house and sometimes I would stay for several days on end. I also need to add that Tara had an Easy-Bake Oven and did not mind taking her Barbies outside and getting them extremely muddy. This was the epitome of fun.

When Tara and I got to middle school something happened and she became different. We were never in the same classes because she was at a lower level than I was, but when we passed in the halls we never even spoke. Later I learned that she had endured a terrible trauma, which I won't detail here. At the same time I was enduring my own trauma, living with my stepmother and biological father and these collective problems caused us to stop being the muddy, jelly-sticky little girls who tore through the peach orchard screaming at imaginary terrors. Because before Middle School the only terrors in our lives were made up. Then suddenly, we were growing up and the things that scared us became very real and very horrible and because neither of us had words to express what we were going through and because each of us thought the other led the perfect life, we never shared our stories and we never talked again.

I was 20 and lived in Atlanta when Tara got married. She was almost a year older than me, so she was 21, which to me was appallingly young to be getting married. At 20 I was at the peak of my bohemian, wannabe artist, never get married phase and although I was a high-school dropout I fancied myself as quite the intellectual because I read a book every few months. I was an asshole. I heard about the wedding through relatives and then to my surprise Tara actually sent me an invitation and I went to her wedding.

Tara made a lovely bride, but all brides are lovely. I had a really good time at her wedding, but it was definitely your average Millpond wedding - pot luck and held in the fire house. Everyone wore jeans and there was a keg, but that drained pretty fast so some boys (my cousins, all of whom look like Kid Rock) took off in a truck to make a beer run and on the way back they hit a deer which they put in the bed of the truck with the beer to later skin and butcher. Then everyone line danced to Billy Ray Cyrus playing on a boom box and when the beer ran out again we all left. The after-party was in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

I didn't talk to Tara after that, but I always sent her Christmas cards. She got a job working for the state making Xerox copies. Mommom Jewel reminded me of this often as I went from working in a hotel to a collection agency to a pottery studio to a kindergarten.

"Your cousin Tara's got a good job workin' for the state. She makes Xerox copies. You could do that too you know but you just want to run around like you do," Mommom Jewel would say. Repeatedly.

I never told her that if I ever had to work for the state in Millpond doing nothing but making Xeroxes all day long for hours on end that I would surely start pulling out my hair by the roots and biting chunks out of my own arms. Tara and I had taken very different paths in life apparently. By the time we were 26 she had four little boys.

I decided to go see Tara. I have a better understanding of what happened to her. I wanted to see her children and reconnect with her.

Tara is still married. I don't know her husband, but everyone says he's a good guy and I wanted to spend some time with them. They live in a buttercream colored house, still way out in the country, surrounded by sorghum fields and dark, piney woodlands. There are no other houses around and when pulling into Tara's driveway the first thing that came to mind was that this was the sort of place where people get abducted by aliens. I was glad it wasn't night.

A gun case figured prominently in the living room. Someone had customized the gun case with airbrushed pictures of wolves and bucks with a confederate flag waving in the background. The kids weren't there. A framed Nascar poster hung on the wall. Tara was quiet. Her hair was permed and she looked too skinny. She still bit her nails. I wondered how she got the bruise on her wrist.

"Where's Dean?" I asked (Dean is her husband).

"Dean took the boys 'coon hunting with Big George," she said.

"Oh," I said, hoping very fervently that she mean Rac-coons. The confederate gun case scared me.

"Who's Big George?" I wanted to know.

"He lives up the road. He's a 'coon hunter."

I wondered if 'coon hunting was a profession. I asked what they did with the 'coons, praying she wouldn't say that they ate them.

"Make hats."

Hmm.

"Or sometimes we just hang them on the walls," she added.

Then she showed me the den where one wall was covered in raccoon skins. Luckily I was saved from having to compliment the raccoon wall because a pregnant teenager knocked on the screen door in the kitchen and we had to go let her in.

"Tara, you know when them boys is supposed to get back?" asked the pregnant teenager.

Tara didn't know.

"'Cuz I got cravins and Big George took the truck so I can't go into town and get some Krystal burgers!"

The pregnant teenager left on foot. We invited her in, but she declined our offer. Tara told me her name was Misty and she was Big George's 18 year old girlfriend. The baby wasn't Big George's. Big George had started dating her when she was already 3 months along and had been broken up with the baby's father for a couple months already.

"How old is Big George?" I asked.

"37."

"I see."

The next half hour was tense and awkward because Tara and I had nothing to talk about at all and she is very reserved. I would ask her questions and she would only say "yeah" or "no." I couldn't get anything out of her and I felt like she didn't want me there. Her life looked depressing to me, but maybe it isn't to her. I couldn't tell because she seemed so robotic and devoid of expression. I found it all, honestly, very troubling and I didn't want to come off as being a snob, but I think that's how she saw me anyway. I left Millpond. I got educated. I don't have kids. I live far away. I don't make Xeroxes for the state. I am threatening, but I don't want to be.

"Do you remember when I stepped on the snake?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Did your mom teach you to can? I used to love her blackberry jam. She was good at getting all the seeds out."

"No."

"We used to have a lot a fun didn't we?"

"Yeah."

I couldn't take it. I still don't know what to make of it. I left before the sun set and on the drive back into town I thought about how I must seem very foreign to her. Maybe I make her sad because I remind her of a time that was stolen from her too soon. Maybe she makes me sad for the same reason. I hope that she is not as unhappy as she seemed.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

:( How sad. I sortof know how you feel. I have a cousin that I haven't spoken to or seen in 15 years. She lives two states away, an 18 hour drive at the best. When I was a kid we used to drive to visit her family and my grandmother every summer for a few weeks. She and I played and got along swimmingly, although it felt like every year was just a bit harder to connect. When she was a teenager she left home to find her real parents I think. I never saw her after that. A few months ago I decided to try to find her and get in touch. I found her My Space page and sent her a nice email, about how I've thought of her alot, how we had good times as kids during the summers, how I'd like to get reaquainted with her. Never heard back. Not a single word. Makes me wonder - does she have hurt feelings? Does she want nothing to do with her former family? I don't know... it's strange and sad.

Wide Lawns said...

I know. I know exactly how you feel. It's the strangest thing and after I read this over, after I wrote it, I thought I wrote it with the same sense of ambiguity that I felt about the situation. I wanted it to be like it was when we were little and it wasn't and I hope I didn't come off as being stuck up and superior in real life or in the written version. I have a lot of conflicted feelings though. On one hand I'm so glad I got out of there and didn't end up like that, but on the other hand, maybe they're really happy in what I call "like that" and maybe I'm projecting my own distaste of their way of life onto them and perceiving them as unhappy. Except, she really seemed sad to me. I don't know. It's a hard call.

Green said...

If you decide to try again with Tara, maybe you two need a project to do, to distract you both from trying to make small talk.

(The word for my word verification is 'turd'. Just thought you'd like to know since usually I don't get real words.)

JTN said...

I know exactly how you feel. My closest cousin had a child when she was 17. I send them Christmas cards every year, and have never received one. I'm in contact with her daughter who was a freshman in college this year. Her mother doesn't want to have much to do with me because *our* family never accepted her because she was adopted. My response was huh? I didn't even know she was adopted until I was 15. I was then informed that it was my uncles that were the ones that always treated her different. My response was: you mean the stoner and the drunk? Heck, they didn't even know we were in the room most the time we were growing up. They were so wrapped up in their hardcore addictions, they treated everyone like crap.
This is still playing out, but my guess is her adolescent self read her own insecurities into behaviors and decided to cut us off because she felt we didn't care. Frankly, I got tired of trying over the years because it was like throwing communication into the black hole of calcutta. I still try because she's family and with more people dying in the family every year, I want to talk to someone who remembers how it used to be. Unfortunately, I think she has cast the world into an image of her own making and judging everything from that perspective.

booda baby said...

That was lovely and I really like your careful ... what to call it ... conflictedness.

She might very well have seemed sad, but there's a possibility that you were the sad ingredient, rather than her being sad in general.

Which has its own sadness to it.

Which is a wee bit arrogant of us, isn't it? (I had to go all plural at the last second, when really I'm talking about my episodes of arrogance in sympathy's clothing.)

UmmFarouq said...

Sad. I hate coming off as a snob because it is not who I am.

It is most likely not who you are, either. You just chose a different path, wanting to get away from "all that." Maybe she does, too, or maybe she doesn't. And that is when we have to sit back and recognize that others' choices are just that--their choices.

Elise said...

That was a beautiful and sort of haunting story. I feel like I've felt that way, on both sides of the issue at one time or another. It's weird, but I do kind of agree with the commenter up there who suggested that maybe it's the out-of-place person (in this case you) that brought on the element of sadness. I don't know, sometimes when you hold your life up to some other standard you are usually not faced with, things look weird.

Anyway, I'm glad you went to see her. Maybe you will try again someday; maybe she will.

Sare said...

I would really just like to say that thanks for updating so often lately. I've been having the epitome of bad weeks & reading your stuff is a good break from my reality

Wide Lawns said...

You're very welcome. I love to update when I'm not too busy. Tomorrow I may have to skip because a friend is visiting from out of town. I'll try though.

Karen said...

I talked with my brother once about people who "got out." His theory is that every one of them was somehow abel to connect with the world of ideas through books, and that's what the ladder is. I think he might be right.

I don't want to drool my appreciation all over your blog, but it's one of the most entertainging, through-provoking and well-written blogs I read. Thanks for all the recent posts.

jeepgirl17.blogspot.com said...

I just stumbled across your blog and I am so glad I did. Your story is beautiful and haunting and sad; I think everyone can relate to it.

You are a wonderful writer.

Anonymous said...

I studied abroad several times in college and am now earning a PhD. I come from a family who all work long hard hours in restaurants and none of which went to college.

I love what I do and the experiences I've had, but I've learned to not talk much about it while I'm at home. It feels a lot like what you are describing.

SoozieQ said...

My biological father's family is in a different world than I am. I often feel uncomfortable and worry about seeming stuck up around them. I remember finding out by accident that I make more than my biological father. It was an awkward, uncomfortable moment.

My step father's family has always treated my mother and I like we were less than them and I hated the thought I might have made him feel that way even for a second.

It makes you sad for the time lost and you wonder how life would've been different for either of you if you had stayed in touch.

spekz said...

I like your question regarding whether 'coon hunting is a profession.

It is always difficult realizing a disconnection exists where a tight bond did previously. Might there be a way to get together with her away from her house and away from her family? Do you know anyone she associates with (in our out of the family) regularly? If so, do they see her as being in a bad place or having changed for the worse?

Lars said...

I expect I'm reading too much into the situation, but from strictly outside it sounds like your cousin grew up to somehow have no validated personal sense of "self"; what she likes to to, how she feels, what she's worth. She probably only sees what's reflected in the eyes of her husband (how does one say it nicely, likely a self absorbed, and possibly aggressive guy), and her four boys, who all speak MEME! like young boys do. What with taking care of 5 males at age 26, trying to have any time to herself, with probably minimal education and life experience, who is *she* when they are all gone and she's home alone? The person who makes Xeroxs all day long? The mom, the wife?

It sounds like she is someone trying to make the smallest impression on her world as possible, take up only the tiniest amount of space, and that really is sad. She couldn't even talk to her own cousin. If she seemed sad I'm sure it's because she was and is, our gut feelings or instincts are usually correct. Some of the horrible things that happen when we are younger (or older) leave deep and permanent scars, and that is how we end up; damaged, maybe clueless, often silent.

Whiskeymarie said...

I have several cousins/shirttail relatives that are in situations like this. Like you, I never know if they're o.k. with their situation or not, and I have too much going on in my life to take on a project.
How sad.

pearlsandchocolate.com said...

What a wonderful blog! You are a very gifted writer! Loved the story!

Chris (Dippy Chick) said...

You and I are so alike. I kind of grew away from my family as well. It's not because I felt I was better than them. I just had a different path. I have always gone out of my way to keep in contact with my relatives and be super nice and helpful. I think they look at me as "little miss perfect" though, and it has caused a huge rift. Like you, I had a lot of hurt from the past. I was finally able to let it go during the past year. I've been reading a lot of spiritual books (A New Earth, etc.) I understand now that I have to do my own thing and I shouldn't feel guilty for it. It's MY life. I am a good person who cares about people. I can't help that. I can't help that I have a great marriage and two great kids. I can't help that I have a positive outlook on life and good things come my way as a result. That's just how things work, you know? My mo always said "Christine could fall into a bucket of shit and come out smelling like a rose". Well, it's true. You get what you give.
Anyway, I'm sorry it was a weird visit. I bet you are right about her unhappiness. Please don't think I'm crazy, but I'm very sensitive to the point of being psychic. I often feel uneasy or sick driving through certain areas, or get a bad sense about people (or good of course). I sense that you are that way too. You probably sensed her vibes and then felt guilty thinking you were a snob. She was probably a little intimidated of you, but also unhappy.
Love your writing!
Chris
Don't take too hard.

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