Sunday, October 02, 2011


Prologue last Monday  9/26/11

CHAPTER ONE: Beans and Kool-Aid
        My father, Tom Reed, traveled out of the state of West Virginia only twice in his life: once during a brief stint in the service in World War I, and a few years later to Staunton, Virginia. Reading my parents' love letters sent back and forth in 1918, when he was a student at West Virginia University and she was enrolled at Mary Baldwin Seminary, the pent-up passions between the lines makes it clear they couldn't wait any longer. So when she was sixteen and he twenty-two, my dad hopped a bus to Staunton, where the pricey girls' school was located, and they eloped. The next night found them blissfully back in West Virginia standing before a Justice of the Peace in whose chambers they wed in a double ceremony along with another couple. But the next normative step, settled domesticity, was a long time coming. My parents did pretty much everything they could as members of the local fast set to avoid the reality principle, including commission of the Big Three No-No's: partying, drinking and smoking (in public yet!), with a possible fourth social transgression, my mother's bobbed hair. These Scott and Zeldas of the Hills were probably as responsible as anyone for what little of the Roaring Twenties that made its way to the medium-sized Bible Belt city of Charleston, West Virginia, where they set up housekeeping. Their unconventional behavior continued on well past the early 1920s with the birth of their first child, my oldest sister Ruth Dolores, and didn't stop with the arrival, a few years later, of my only brother, Tom, Jr.
When I came along in 1941, more than twenty years down the line, it was an unexpected and apparently painful birth for a woman entering her forties. Later my mother appeared to revel in telling what seemed like rooms full of strangers how my breach birth had nearly killed her. I squirmed and felt guilty (and later angry) but eventually decided, in fashionable dysfunctional ese, to "forgive" this overwhelmed and overworked woman. My mother would end up having minors in her charge for forty years plus: four kids whose births were evenly spaced out over slightly more than a twenty year period. I find it a chore to care for a child more than a few hours at a stretch.
       As people once put such things, my mother, Mary Shelton, came "from money," but thanks to a combination of the Depression, thieving relatives, bad marriages, and terrible investments, by the time I came along the family's oil and gas empire had all but vanished. Anyone on my mother's side who had barely escaped "relief"-as welfare was once called-was considered fortunate. One of my mother's brothers, John, hacked and hewed away in area coal mines all his adult life only to expire poor of black lung in the early 1960s. During the summer, I would sometimes stay with John and his two sons, Joe and Sonny, at the shotgun shack they lived in at the nearby coal fields. There was a company store where you paid for goods with funny money known as scrip. At the time I remember thinking there was something quite fascinating about food and staples being bought with this "other" kind of money-almost as if one were living in a parallel universe. This was, I later learned, a classic example of peonage that kept American workers in their place with no possibility of looking for more advantageous employment elsewhere (vide the song"Sixteen Tons" and the narrator who "owes my soul to the company store"). I also remember my uncle had the thickest, bushiest eyebrows I'd ever seen, like twin canopies perfect for keeping coal dust out of the eyes and an homage to the equally hirsute miners' crusading champion, union leader John L. Lewis.
      Unlike many of my generation I was spared the usual Depression tales of hard luck and having to eat the family dog. With my father's bohemian sails somewhat trimmed by the late 1920s, he found himself steadily employed as a bookkeeper for a concrete supply outfit where he remained for the next two decades. As a result, our immediate family managed to move fairly smoothly through the Great Crash and its aftermath. Tom Reed, in the parlance of the times, was "a good provider" for his wife and eventual four kids-in addition to Ruth and Tom, my sister, Nancy, was born in '30. I came along a few months before the start of World War II. About the only thing I remember were ration stamps which adults in the house had to keep away from me; if they didn't keep a sharp look out I would paste them allover everything in sight. I also dimly recall those gaudy, gold-stitched silk pillow covers with a painting of Mt. Fujiyama (and the like) my sailor brother, Tommy, brought home from the war. One other thing leaps to mind, that long ago precursor to eco-recycling, WW I I Paper Drives.      
       We weren't poor, we weren't rich, but whatever we were was a far cry from the affluence in which my mother had been raised. Around the turn of the century my maternal grandmother, Dora Downey, had married my prosperous grandfather, Richard Shelton. She was still in her teens and he was more than twice her age. Six children came along in fairly rapid order before he died of an eye infection in North Carolina sometime around 1915-fully a quarter century before my own birth. I still receive three and four checks every once in a while from oil and gas deals my grandfather made nearly a century ago. Not exactly like Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies but enough to warrant the comparison, when my grandmother was in her sixties she still had four of her six aging children (unmarried, widowed or divorced) along with several of their offspring still living under her roof. At one time, the matriarchal menagerie included my mother, my sister and I, when we stayed with her for a time in the late 1940s. Also on an itinerant or regular basis were my coal miner Uncle John and his two sons, Joe and Sonny, my Uncle Richard, a state government functionary, and my Aunt Ruth, a stereotypical old maid who loved and doted on her surrogate son, me (perhaps even more than my mother did). Years later as she lay on her hospital bed wracked with cancer, my prim and demure aunt looked up at me and dazedly let fly with a volley of four letter words when I hypocritically insisted she was going to be "just fine." I was astonished. It was probably the first time Ruth Shelton had ever uttered any such epithets in her life. Leaving her hospital room, the doctor assured me of my aunt's suspicions: she was not going to leave the hospital alive. But she did! The Cursing Cure had apparently saved her. The next five years she lived were probably her best. I have a packet of leters from her to that effect: "I'm reading Mary. Queen of Scots, also The Persian Boy. I just finished reading Nicholas and Alexandra. I thought it was very good. I read an awful lot but there isn't much else to do." All this has caused me to have a slightly queasy feeling regarding euthanasia.
A half century earlier as a spoiled and pampered young wife and mother, Dora Downey had acquired the habit of leaving her six children in the charge of governesses while she---and this was the word employed by nearly everyone in the family to describe her peregrinations---"gallivanted" about the state of West Virginia" spending money as fast as her husband earned it." And so it was that forty years later, living in a house now overrun with her children's children, the only things she could "cook" were beans, Kool-Aid, and Jello. Well into the late 1940s my eccentric grandmother still had an old-fashioned icebox in her kitchen­ the kind that called for the iceman to cometh on a regular basis. Because she preferred it over one of those new electric or gas jobs, I was sure this automatically meant it was a more efficient and economic method of preserving food. Maybe it is.
Having had parents as well as a grandmother with roots solidly sunk in the soil of an earlier time, I regard myself as more a child of the 19th than the 20th century. Heavily horizoned and cautious to a fault, I bought my current auto 25 years ago, always say Sir and M'am, call an increasingly dwindling supply of elders by their last name, and am often the last to pick up on the latest technological advances. What do I need with one of those fancy High speed modems?; the one I have is plenty fast enough for me.
While we were living with my mother's mother, one of her sons had some fairly stiff child molestation charges leveled at him. Mama (as everyone called her) stood proudly by him during the entire front-page ordeal. I recall her much more upset over being described by reporters as "elderly" than by the social embarrassment attendant to the proceedings. My uncle eventually got off thanks to a character witness from no less than the governor of the state; in all likelihood an imprimatur engineered by my grandmother who clearly retained leftover clout from earlier times. I remember this uncle as being completely inattentive to me. I worried a lot over being excluded from his favors and attention. When I found out he was molesting other little boys, and not me, it wreaked havoc with my self esteem. Now I understand that I simply wasn't his pedophilic type; a Little League baseball coach, he liked boys who were butch and lean. Generally, however, I was too busy at that young age putting on puppet shows and playing house with the neighborhood girls--- no!, not that kind of playing house---to try and conceptualize too much about the who, why and what of sex.
        No matter how good or bad a parent she finally was to her own children, my grandmother---a tough old bird-was my strongest childhood influence and I loved her dearly. But the pragmatic suspicion and cynicism I found so compelling in Mama weren't enough to protect her in the long run. After my grandfather died she married a rounder who, family legend has it, was responsible for draining off the last dregs of the estate left her by husband number one-a man so Highly connected in regional politics that even long years after his death my grandmother still had the goods on just about everyone in state government. Ironically the house she lived in during her final years was located directly across from the West Virginia State Capitol Building. As the various offending parties came and went, she sat in her sitting rocking chair, to one side an old Maxwell House coffee can serving as a snuff spittoon, on the other a radio pumping out non-stop soap operas she called her "stories" as in . . . "it's time for my stories." She kept up an ongoing narrative to her captive audience of pre-adolescent me, grumbling, "See that one going there? Whyyyy, when his daddy was governor I used to change that boy's diapers, now he's nothing but a good for nothing horse thief." Even with six kids of her own she probably had never changed one diaper in all her life. It didn't take an unwanted Sixties war to fuel my distrust of the government; my grandmother got the job done quite nicely.
In the early 1960s two of her children, now old themselves and still living with her, heard a noise downstairs one night. Investigating they looked out the front door to see Mama in her night clothes running down the middle of the street clobbering a would-be house robber over the head with an improvised cudgel-doorbell chimes ripped off the hallway wall. This when she was well into her eighties.
I am my grandmother's son not only for reasons of temperament but also because her house was usually where I ended up staying when my mother's drinking got totally out of control. Nearly a half-century later the digits of that emergency phone number I dialed so often---24-873­---are still engraved in my brain pan. After a day or two at my grandmother's house I'd call home---20-658---and if I heard my mother's sober voice on the other end of the line I'd extract the usual empty promise from her that she'd never "take another drink as long as I live." I'd kiss Dora goodbye, hop on the bus and return home. If I was lucky I might even get taken back home by my uncle Richard in his car. One time I bore witness at my grandmother's house to a neo-Luddite upheaval that occurred when she ceased her usual routine of snuff, soap, and censure long enough to make a phone inquiry about a water bill. The first words out of her mouth, when the call was completed, consisted of a string of curses, then she ripped the phone out of the wall and hurled it across the room. Her inquiry, she said, had been answered by a "record player." I rang up the number myself to see what she was ranting about and on the other end got a mid-1950s prototype of the answering machine, one that must have filled half a room. Used to being bowed and scraped to all her life, Dora Downey Shelton Smith was simply not equipped to handle such impersonalization. No wonder I was the last one on my block (more that twenty years after they had become commonplace) to get one of these newfangled contraptions.
      Throughout my childhood I had automatically assumed that this non-conformist grandparent's position on the subject of race ran counter to the prevailing bigotry of the times. Disabuse of the notion came to me only shortly before her death. One night after supper I offhandedly mentioned to her that I had a date with a girl later that evening whom she knew to be African-American (back in the fifties they didn't call blacks anything nearly that respectful, with the most liberal appellation being "colored"). When I told my grandmother of my plans she began behaving like she had in response to the water company's answering machine, and between gasps exhorting a variant on the Jeremiad usually reserved by her for crooked politicians, "Why, I wouldn't trust a n----r any farther than I could throw one, and that's not very far." Then she flipped over backwards in her rocking chair, knocking over the omnipresent snuff can in the process, and nearly fainted. My grandmother had barely recovered when I left for the evening. A few months later she was dead; hopefully, her passing not hastened by my exposing her to the newfangled concept of minority inclusiveness. They don't make 'em like my grandmother anymore and considering her position on race maybe that's just as well. In all fairness, given the customs of the time and place, Christ incarnate would probably have been a raving racist. Everyone else was. Bigotry in the rest of my family tends to run cooler than Mama's, but, unfortunately, just as deep. When a nephew doing some genealogical research recently came across a Native American forebearer some generations back (not really that close in time), the clan's response was one of classic denial and the closing of ranks. Relatives insisted, "Well, that just couldn't be." And why not?, my calm voice of reason inquired. "Well, it. . . it . . it just couldn't ---that's all." That the family's apparently otherwise lily-white European lineage might be tainted by so much as a drop of Indian blood was simply too much to bear. At last the riddle of my grandmother's over-the-top racism was solved, at least, to my satisfaction: it was her defense against the dead Indian hanging from the family tree. And so, more than a hundred years after its official dismantling, the legacy of "the peculiar institution" lived on in my family ("Well, that just couldn't be. . . ").
          My grandmother had an extreme mistrust of doctors. According to the custom of an earlier time all of her children had been born at home. She was proud of the fact that never once had she been a hospital patient. In her eighties and fading fast from the usual old age combination of a broken hip and pneumonia, the inevitable could no longer be avoided and an ambulance was summoned. When it arrived, though, she fought off the driver and the attendant with such force they refused to transport her and departed. A half-hour later, my grandmother's strength now ebbed even more, an ambulance was summoned again, and this time they were able to take her away. An hour later found her in a hospital bed with one of her sons by her side. Looking at him with an expression that used up every last bit of anger that was hers to muster up, she said, "This would never have happened if you hadn't brought me here." And she expired. My grandmother had always had the last word all her life and she was not about to stop now!
        My mother had attended one of the most exclusive schools for aristocratic young ladies in the country; an institution then known as Mary Baldwin Seminary-now Mary Baldwin College-in Staunton, Virginia. It was an academy so protective of its delicate flowers of young womanhood that in the winter the girls traversed the campus on sidewalks inlaid with heated pipes for melting the snow. I can still hear the way my mother, an otherwise unaffected woman, aristocratically pronounced S~ton. . .fifty years after she last laid eyes on the place. Even when nearly everything else around her had collapsed to rack and ruin, she clung to the memory of Mary Baldwin like a drowning man to a life raft. During later years of faded family glory, all that finally mattered to her was that one day when I finally reached my majority I would somehow manage to revive former Sheltonian renown.
Nearly all my maternal grandmother's children were stunted emotionally; including my mother with her chronic alcoholism. My dad could drink her under the table but mostly I remember him sober. Respective childhood photos find us looking remarkably unalike; now that I've reached middle age, later mutual portraits reveal an almost uncanny resemblance. As the years wear on our ears, struck by gravity, keep getting larger and larger, and the expressions on our faces increasingly dour.
Like most married couples of their time, my mother was saddled with domestic responsibilities, while the majority of his duties lay in the job sector. When my mother wanted to have our own family home built after more than twenty years spent renting, my father's usual low-key response was to the point, "Why Mary, you know we don't have that kind of money." In reply, she reached in a cookie jar and pulled from it thousands of dollars she had been secretly saving over the years for just such an eventuality. The incident became a linchpin of her personal mythology with friends and family continuing to talk about it long after she was dead. Construction on our very own two-story, modest family manse thus got under way in short order; its completion coinciding almost exactly with my birth. Located at the fringes of a then just-beginning-to-expand residential neighborhood, there were still muddy ponds to slop around in and woods in which to play for a while after I came along.
I retain only a handful of vivid memories of my father, the strongest being from the winter of 1945, when I was closing in on five and the two of us were playing in the front yard building a snow man. The next thing I knew, right in front of me, he fell on the ground insensate and uncomprehending. The scene was soon enveloped in chaos and he was taken away on a stretcher. The next day I was told about a vague "long trip" my father had gone on, and I might not be able to see him for a while. I was being lied to, I knew, and fell to the floor screaming, "You're lying, he's dead." I sobbed till I was out of tears and breath while the circle of adults huddled around me looking down, their faces covered with now-what-do-we-tell-him? expressions. How I had managed to gain such a precocious purchase on eschatological finality? They surely wondered.
         And for years to come I too was puzzled. Then one day in my mid­ forties, the memory of a stem lecture I had received from my father four decades earlier visited me on a conscious level for the first time! I was four and had come home one day at the height of summer to proudly inform him about the way my other pre-pubescent pals and I had been putting tadpoles in jars and leaving them out in the sun, with the result that they soon ceased to function. It seemed as if we weren't doing anything wrong, with cruelty being the last thing on our minds. It was mere magic. But my dad wasn't impressed at all and proceeded to give me a stem lecture about the basic sanctity of all sentient existence. It was from this, then, that I had precociously extrapolated the certainty and finality of his mortality. Gone off on a long trip indeed! When a parent drops dead in front of a child it's the most natural thing in the world for the child to think he or she caused it. After all, I had been lobbing snowballs at my dad when he collapsed. But if I ever felt this way, I'm not aware of it (Freud 101). I later learned he had lingered on, comatose from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, for several days.
Born near the turn of the century, Tom Reed's 1916 High school yearbook depicts a sophomore Renaissance man; in addition to drawing all the caricatures in the publication, he was also involved in chorus, the literary society, Latin and drama clubs-even sports-and was the president of his class of twenty. After High school he attended West Virginia University for a year, then volunteered for the service during what turned out to be the final days of World War One. For years after his death my mother received a service pension based on his few weeks spent in the military. My father's father, William Rosencranz Reed, had at one time been a sheriff of Clay County, West Virginia, the place where almost everyone you've read about up until now comes from. This grandfather managed the tragic feat of outliving his son by a few years.
       The only memory I have of my grandad is after his death when, one day I looked up and saw a steamboat bearing his name on its side floating down Charleston's Elk River. At age nine I thought that mighty impressive and wonder if even now it might be still plying its way up and down one of my hometown's two waterways.
       My dad was in his early forties when I was born and my nearly­-unexpected birth brought about middle age renewal in him. I can still recall his carrying me down the street on his shoulders, holding me aloft, displaying me almost like a trophy. All the long way down Matthews Avenue to Pendle's drug store, on West Washington Street across from where I eventually went to High school. Even though I was not quite five when he died, other things I remember about him include a liking of historical non-fiction of the Lawrence of Arabia variety, a passion for rose gardening and an overweening fondness for strong drink. Tom Reed was a “good provider" who "never took a day's vacation" in all his twenty years with Pfaff and Smith Sand and Gravel. Not because of extreme dedication to his job; he held an inconsequential bookkeeping position that must have required his working extremely long hours in order to maintain a family of six and a new, fairly expensive house. It isn't surprising that he checked out so young, almost certainly from overwork, or that he left behind so little economic buffer for his wife and two remaining children at home (my sister, Nancy, and myself) when he died. In snapshots of him taken a few weeks before he passed, he looks tired and woebegone, verging on angry. Most likely he had just finished another hard day at the office.

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