A Crazy Leslie
My parents were very young when they found one another. My father told me once, when I was far too young to know such things about my parents — either one of them — he told me that the main reason he didn’t leave my “crazy” mother was me. Daddy omitted, as he did habitually, the fact that I have a younger sister. Then he added that the other reason he didn’t leave my mother was that her parents were the family he had never had. And that was true. But my grandparents were far from an idyllic choice of substitutes and the mere fact that Daddy settled on them as the parents he never had speaks volumes. I am truly sorry about that.
When I was very little, I spent many nights on the orange vinyl pull-out couch in the living room at my grandparent’s house on Aurora Street in the Houston Heights.
My “Pappy” was a construction worker in Houston. At the peak of development and growth in the post-war years he did very well. He was called all over Texas and Louisiana to manage special private and public works projects. Pappy put the great big statue — I think they were horses, it’s a fountain, actually — Pappy put the statue in the middle of the University of Texas campus. He was very well respected among his peers. And he was one of the construction workers who survived the massive gas explosion in Texas City when flammable compound ammonium nitrate ignited back in the forties, where they were working way too fast, in the effort to produce energy for the post-war rebuilding efforts; it killed over six hundred people. Pappy survived and helped in the clean-up after he knew his family was safe. Pappy could always be counted on in a crisis. I suppose my steadiness in a bad situation is something I must have gotten from him. God knows, that didn’t come from my parents. Pappy was a rock: a deeply flawed human being but absolutely unshakable in his devotion to his deeply flawed family. I think, as I look back on it now, that he was such the rock that he relieved everyone else of the responsibility for pulling themselves together.
Construction work was, in all likelihood, the most natural extension of his up-bringing on a working farm. Where? I do not know. Those details are among the details I did not retain in my resolve, my innate compulsion, to put distance between myself and the circumstances of my birth, even as my sister grew almost irrationally obsessed with the minutiae of our ancestry. Her conversion to Mormonism as a teenager — owing primarily, I speculate, to a precarious-ness on the home front that exacerbated an adolescent crush on Donny Osmond’s glossy, idolized specter — Mormons are oddly adamant about investigating the precise details of followers’ ancestral lineage. The Mormon Temple houses some of the best mechanisms in the world for tracing the genetic markers of the faithful. My sister dove in head first. It’s always been the essential contradiction of our upbringing — and our lives — that my sister, a geriatric nurse who never so much as left East Texas, except for the two years she spent in Los Angeles on her Mormon Mission, prefers burying herself in the past of just about anybody’s life but her own, while I have virtually no interest in that which does not contribute to aligning myself in the absolute present. That is all by way of saying that I don’t remember if I ever actually knew where my Pappy came from, but my sister certainly does. She knows the state, the county, the town, the country road, at least as it existed in 1908.
Pappy’s parents’ family consisted of eight kids who woke up at three in the morning every day; they ate a hearty breakfast at four o’clock and were in the fields before sunrise. He maintained pretty much that same schedule for the rest of his life as the chief dragline operator on innumerable major construction sites.
My Nanna was at his side like a growth, always up with him no matter what. And there was a lot of “no matter what.” Nanna’s parents were country people who’d both died young, within a year of one another, leaving five young children, including my Nanna and her twin sister, Aunt Lura, to be divvied up into a multitude of variously very unfortunate situations. When she married Pappy at sixteen, he must have seemed like the answer to her prayers — a real knight in shining armor — especially after he helped Nanna rescue her twin sister from the masochistic fuck the relatives had married her off to at thirteen. One of my favorite family myths is about the lawyer who told Aunt Lura’s sack-of-shit first husband, when he said that he would never let her out of the marriage, that he — said lawyer — would make it his personal business to make said sack-of-shit’s life a living hell until he did liberate the teenaged Aunt Lura. I don’t know how much truth is in the details, but it is a great old story, and my Aunt Lura became a legitimate hero to me as I watched the events of her life unfold in my growing up. Ironically, that which I so admired in Aunt Lura were the things she was most ashamed of but I didn’t care. Aunt Lura was fierce. So that became what would become the genesis of my family: Pappy, Nanna and Aunt Lura. The people I grew up with: the elders.
My mother was the youngest of Pappy’s and Nanna’s surviving three children, and when I say “child,” I mean it. She married my father when she was seventeen and, in a gesture as inappropriate in nature as the one my father had made some time before, Mother told me when I was far too young to hear it, that the reason she’d stayed with Daddy was that she’d begged her parents to sign-off on her underage marriage, and she didn’t want Pappy and Nanna to know she had made a mistake. I say I was too young at eleven to hear that, but I could have gone my whole life without having that information. Especially since, as time has worn on, and I’ve seen it all unfold and erupt and fall shattered — and I am an adult — I know that there was so much more to that union — to my parents’ marriage — and so much less. Depth of presence was not in their vernacular.
I don’t think Mother ever really had a concept of relationship — of coupledom — of choosing a partner who was to be your companion in life. As I’ve grown older myself and attempted to relearn some essentials that I was never taught growing up, it hit me somewhere in my thirties: I realized that I wasn’t a “wife” or even a real “partner” to any of my extensive list of lovers and male companions because I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t want to be. What I’d seen of relationship, let alone marriage, had left me decidedly unimpressed by the whole proposition. I didn’t trust anybody, and I didn’t know how to. I didn’t think I was entitled to ask for what I needed. I’d never seen a successful relationship up-close and personal. The sad revelation of adulthood has been that few people have seen that because it so rarely happens. But I took it personally for a long, long time.
Life’s epiphany for me was that I had a choice: I doubt that, if you had asked anyone in my family, people who by-and-large don’t feel like they’ve had a lot of “choices” in their lives, most of them would say that they’ve had little to do with how their lives came to wherever they have found themselves. Relationships have been wanting. For me, arriving at the truth that we are always choosing was the revelation of my life. Those of us who aspire to actually be “in” relationship are pretty much on our own in creating the required skills set. Emotional muscles have to be trained and exercised lest they atrophy like any other muscle. That is a choice, not just another something that befalls us.
My mother had always defined herself exclusively by the man she was attached to, regardless of how totally broken and functionless the relationship, she would not be the one to end it. That extended to absolutely everything: no dispute with my mother ever ended. No responsibility or accountability was ever taken on her part. Everything was someone else’s fault. It made resolution of any conflict or disagreement unattainable. She wore people out over fights that had started over some slight no one could even remember. Mother never let go, she never forgave, she never let it rest, and the real horror is that whatever had triggered her ire might have existed only in her own mind. My father just couldn’t do it anymore, especially because he could not suffer any situation that he could not control. Mother was the definition of an “uncontrollable situation.” Even contemplating the machinations of her mind makes me so sad and sorry that I didn’t have the strength or the power to be of some help to her that I can’t dwell on it: Mother’s mind was too scary and harsh a place to live, never mind the vivid, violent mind projection that was her world.
When my mother remarried, after my father left her — she would never have left him, no matter what — when Mother remarried, it was to a somewhat older man who had worked for years alongside my grandfather. A man who — I’m not kidding now — a man who had exactly the same name as Pappy — first, middle, and last, with the tiny exception that his middle name ended with an “d” and Pappy’s ended with an “s.” My mother actually got her maiden name back when she married the second time, and if she could avoid the unfortunate sex business, she could literally pretend for the duration that that whole unfortunate previous period, those twenty-five wasted years with my father, had never happened. If I am admitting it, speaking my truth, I suspect my mother would have lived quite blissfully — “blissfully” as defined by my mother — she would have lived blissfully in her parents’ home even if it had meant that my sister and I had never existed. I don’t think she ever actually left her parents’ house. My father was less a life partner and a lover than he was an unruly stepbrother or cousin. If I said anything about what my parents’ relationship looked like, from my grown-up point-of-view, it is that they were misbehaving siblings who lucked out when their firstborn turned out to be a sort of “ready-made” little adult. And a fairly decent “parental proxy” to both of them, if for no other reason than that she — that I — didn’t smother them both in their sleep. No jury would have convicted.
I know that both of them shared stunningly inappropriate, really intimate, details with a child in an effort to manipulate my affections. No “Parents of the Year.” No “Grandparents of such” either. There is a whole school of psychology around attributes owing to a child’s placement in the order of things: as the oldest child of two incomprehensibly developmentally arrested youngest children — both out of four siblings, though my mother was the youngest only because her baby brother had died… As the oldest child of two youngest children from uber-dysfunctional families, I admit that I think there’s something to the notion that my life was “shaped,” in large part, by birth order and logistics… Well, there that is….
I was a four years old sleeping on my grandparent’s orange vinyl sofa being abruptly awakened, drenched in my own urine, my tender backside stuck to the vinyl and red with rash, by the sound of flying insults. My idiot uncle and my pappy started the day by criticizing Nanna ruthlessly and relentlessly. My uncle who worked with my Pappy right up to the day Pappy died. The same uncle who lived with his parents until they were no more, then lived at the behest of the state of Texas until he died in 2000. By the time I was four years old, that was my life. I would wake up to hear the men folk barking orders and insults at Nanna. She got up every single the morning to make fried eggs and biscuits and waffles with bacon and sausage and ham for the men folk’s breakfast. Lots of coffee. Lots and lots of coffee: a tradition I proudly carry on. If I had bought stock in Starbucks early on, I would have made myself rich by now. While they ate, Nanna packed black lunch pails with three sandwiches and fruit and cookies and several more thermoses of coffee. She did all those things while being called “lazy” by her husband and, worse, by her son.
If I sound like I couldn’t abide my ass-hat uncle it’s because I couldn’t. And I never cared that he was not a brain trust, though he may have been genetically predisposed to whatever psychological disorder preyed on my grandmother’s bloodline. He could dress himself and was not totally lacking in common sense. He could hold a job. He had no excuses for being a total fucking shit. He tormented his mother, and when she wasn’t around, he tormented me and my little sister. He would throw me up in the air so close to the ceiling that I was afraid of hitting it and laugh as I begged him to put me down. He would come around while my parents were at work and keep changing the channel on the television when my sister and I were trying to watch cartoons, and when that got boring he would tell us over and over again that our parents had “gone to Dallas” and “are not coming back for you youngins’.” Day-in and day-out my thirty-something-year-old idiot uncle entertained himself by torturing children. When I told my father, all he said was “just ignore it.” My father was not good at confrontation. No matter what, he never stepped up about anything. Ever. And that would have consequences far beyond my idiot uncle.
It was, in fact, not until I was leaving for New York City after a brief stay in Texas years later, when my idiot uncle said something pissy about my eagerness to leave — when I finally told him to “fuck off” — that my distaste for him was made unequivocally clear. Of course, the kinfolks were appalled at my command of the language: “New York City must be corrupting” me. They blamed a lot of things on New York City. I am sure they were not the first to blame changes in prodigal offspring on New York City, and I am equally sure that New York City can take the hit. Another thing I just hate when it happens. Another thing on the growing list of things “I just hate it when that happens….” Looking on the bright side, my father’s total ineffectualness as a protector forced me to take care of myself, and I kinda’ do have brass balls when it is called for. I credit Daddy with that, and it is, without a doubt, the thing he grew eventually to “dislike” the most about me. Daddy kept a list of his own, though; the thing he held most against me was that I grew up.
Nanna woke up to “stupid,” “halfwit,” “lazy” — irony not to be overlooked when they were sitting down to a buffet at four in the A.M. as she puttered nervously in the kitchen and waited for them to leave — and worst of all for her, the men folk called her “a crazy Leslie.” Nanna’s maiden name was Leslie, and there had been a long run of profoundly mentally unstable people on her side; it was a serious soft spot and my grandfather went in for the kill the minute he opened his eyes every morning. All day. Every day. My grandmother was psychologically challenged, I don’t doubt that. She was a nervous wreck. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, Nanna had some good reasons to be irrevocably bereft: never mind that both her parents had died agonizing deaths by the time she was seven. There is the tale of Nanna and all her siblings out in the yard listening as their young mother howled in her death throes, and no country doctor had anything sufficient to ease her suffering. Or the other tale of her widowed father taking his brood to the houses of relatives asking who would take his children as he was to die soon himself. Nobody really knows what killed my great-grandfather; if it seemed important to the present I might search it out, but it is not so I am not. Knowing every gory detail of such a vicious heartache doesn’t change the vicious fact of the matter.
So legend has it that Nanna’s youngest child, Jerald, had been born a few years after my mother, with a hole in his heart. He looked fine, and Pappy refused to believe that there was anything “wrong with his boy” so he insisted on taking the baby home. He got a call at work the next day from his neighbors as Nanna was running up and down the street shrieking hysterically for help with what turned out to be a dead baby in her arms. The neighbors said she appeared totally mad. She blamed Pappy for taking Jerald out of the hospital. He blamed Nanna for not taking better care of the boy. They both had to know that, most likely, nothing would have mattered in the end. The kinfolk said she was never the same, and I don’t much think they ever really transcended the primal scream of that moment. They just got on with the perennial retribution that permeated the space by the time I came along.
This once beautiful woman, by the time I knew her, could barely function socially. She chain smoked, letting the ashes burn down until they fell off onto her clothes. Her face was littered with blackheads that were nothing more or less than tar adhering to skin; her dresses were dingy and she drove on service roads at twenty miles-per-hour angering all the other drivers on the road, as she would only put her arm out to signal a turn or a lane change after she’d initiated the move. She jumped out of her skin at the slightest sudden noise. Nanna apologized incessantly for existing. She looked exactly like Edith Bunker would have looked if Edith Bunker had actually gone totally off the rails. That is no joke: it is absolutely true. And Pappy looked exactly like Archie Bunker. It was uncanny. Envision the Bunkers gone completely mad, envision my grandparents.
But I would wake up to Pappy and my uncle calling Nanna “a crazy Leslie.” There is no escaping the stinky, sticky visceral impact of that memory. I would lay there shaking and scared beyond my ability to process it. And I wet the bed. I dreamt constantly about flying, and I wet the bed. I wet the bed until I was fifteen.
Pappy was an odd bird. A man I might have assumed, from the outside looking in, to be a Barry Goldwater Republican but who was actually a Lyndon Johnson Democrat. I sat with Pappy after he got home from work and washed up; we would watch Walter Cronkite every single night. I watched the taking of Saigon and the fall of Saigon with my grandfather. I watched the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention, and I watched the ’68 election returns with my grandfather. We watched blow by miserable mesmerizing blow as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers unfolded. I knew who John Dean, Leon Jaworski, and Daniel Ellsberg were, and I knew about “Deep Throat.” I knew enough that when the identity of the actual man behind the enigmatic name — William Felt, Sr. — was finally revealed in 2005 I was unabashedly giddy. Information I had been waiting for since I was twelve. I was forty-eight years old, and I wanted to tell my Pappy about it… but he had been gone since 1979. We were watching the night the totally subversive Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour premiered, and we were watching the night it went off the air. We watched the premiers of All in the Family and Mash together. That time with my grandfather probably accounts for my probing interest and acumen in matters of policy and politics, though I doubt Pappy anticipated that I was on the road to a sort of civilized radicalization. I was, after all, a girl. But absolutely no one else encouraged my intellectual curiosity or insisted on my education the way my Pappy did.
Much as my family resented it, especially my mother and my sister, my father and Pappy always acknowledged that I was one smart little girl. Pappy never ever penalized me for that. Others surely did but not Pappy.
One thing Pappy said, though, that really messed with my mind: he’d always worked closely with black men on construction sites. He ate with these men, he fished with them, and he shot pool with them. One night, I don’t remember what prompted it, he boldly announced, “I have enjoyed my nigger friends’ company and I got no prejudice, but if any of you gals marries one, you best not come home.” That was the only time my grandfather had ever put conditions on his love for me. It haunted me for years. I was maybe eleven at that time and this never fit with my picture of my grandfather. It was a sore that refused to heal.
Years later I was dating a black man in New York City and this was bothering me: I told my friend about it, and I asked him if he thought my unsettled-ness about dating him made me a racist. He said, “Baby, you’re not a racist, you just loved your granddad and you don’t want to contemplate his disapproval.” It was as though my friend had given me permission to exhale and see Pappy for the complicated man he truly had been. And Pappy thought I could do no wrong; if I embraced his complexities, I would have to embrace the fact that he was wrong sometimes. He was wrong about black folks, he was wrong about his ability to control my choices in life, and he was wrong to treat my grandmother the way he did, and oh was he wrong about my doing no wrong. He was my Pappy: spoiling me was his job.
But I could. Do wrong. When I was little — four or five — I just tortured Nanna when she looked after me and my little sister while our parents worked. Daddy was a barber down to Northline Mall; when he and Mother were gone, I would chase my sister — she was just a toddler — I would chase her around the house with Daddy’s scissors yelling, “My daddy’s a barber so I can cut your hair.” My sister was movin’ just as fast as her chubby little legs would carry her, and I was right behind her waving those scissors, and Nanna was right behind me running in that knock-kneed “Edith Bunker” trot, waving her hands in front of her, bobbing her head up and down frantically, “Stop runnin’ with those scissors, it’s dangerous! I’m gonna’ call yur daddy! I’m gonna’ call yur daddy!” Of course, that didn’t scare me because I knew my daddy wasn’t going to do anything. That was pretty much the way everybody treated Nanna. Besides, even now I remember being fully aware of myself doing it all for effect: I never caught my sister because I never intended to catch her. I never intended to cut her hair. I had Donna and Nanna running around screaming and that amused me. Killing time until I could drive. I had a lot of fun at Nanna’s expense when I was very small. I was adorable and my father and Pappy let me get away with murder. They bonded over their shared affection for me. I think Pappy forgave him for marrying his baby girl because he got me in the bargain. Pappy used to say, “I thought I couldn’t love anything more than I love my kids, then I had my grandbabies.” If it appears that I was inordinately — and inappropriately — pivotal in the family paradigm, that’s because I was, but oh well…
Nanna was afraid to cross the street. Literally. I’m not making that up: I think that may have dated back to the incident that ended in the death of their youngest son as an infant. But at any rate, she was mortified by five-year-old me darting out into the street, sitting on the pavement “Injun” style, daring her to come get me. She would run up and back along the curb begging me, beseeching me to get out of the street. That ended the day my Aunt Mae, my father’s sister, came round the corner on her way home from work and saw me. I knew not to mess with Aunt Mae: she’d been raised in a shack way out in the country with parents so unimaginably foul that I have a hard time speaking about it. She had three brothers, my father being the only one who did not constitute a clear and present danger. My Aunt Mae ended up tougher than any of them and scarier if you were Little Me. One thing that can unequivocally be said about my family is that when my parents said, “For better or worse, till death…,” they meant it. Both sides of this motley misfortune were bonded — fused really — for the duration. Aunt Mae was as surely my mother’s sister as my mother’s blood. Mother, Shirley Jean and Aunt Mae, till death…
As I said, I did not mess with Aunt Mae. I jumped up and ran for my life. But she hit the brakes, put the car in park, chased me down, and left her hand print on my little butt. All serving to drive Nanna to a total humiliating breakdown in the front yard, only to be repeated when my mother got there and beat some more of the living shit out of me. Then my father and my grandfather got home and engaged a ground war with the women for beating the living shit out of me, leaving me and Nanna both in a convulsing heap as the battle extended for hours into every other area of dissatisfaction between the warring parties.
Fighting over me would be an ongoing affair. It seemed that everything I represented to my parents, respectively, was what they grew to resent most about one another. It seemed every fight they had started over me — leaving my sister totally abandoned — and finally breaking me down so completely that I almost didn’t survive it. If I can say anything constructive about it now it is that, while I know that the tectonic rift between my parents that I was the object of — I know that that is at the core of my periodic lifelong and sometimes near suicidal depression — I get that. But I also know that because I was at that precipice so young and so often, that that is where I met God. From the time I was very little, I knew that these two angry children I called Mother and Daddy were not the last word on anything. My good God, they could not find their asses with both hands, and I wouldn’t have minded that had they not compensated for their uncertainty by being so fuckin’ mean at the worst possible moments.
My discourse, my private, intimate conversation with Divine Mind began when I said — I am paraphrasing now — when I said, as a barely sentient little being, “God, seriously, this is it? This is what I have to count on?”
My father’s father — a raging nasty drunk who only arrived at our house when absolutely everyone else had thrown him out — locked himself in the bathroom with a quart of cheap vodka, then passed out face down in his own vomit. True to form, my parental unit started fighting with each other while I picked the lock and called the hospital. Daddy took his the old bastard to the hospital while Mother disappeared, and I cleaned up the bathroom floor. I was six. Daddy gushed over his wunderkind. Mother thought me the competition, and I said to myself, “God, what have you done to me? Tell me why I am here and when I can come home, please.” Pappy knew that about me, I think, because it was the same for him.
My young life would get exponentially harder not too long after that, as the deterioration of my parent’s union accelerated exponentially, and Nanna’s harsh reality was long since beyond any real hope, but she so loved me. She tried hard to make me happier when she knew how unhappy I was. When I was around eight, I became fascinated with mice: pet mice. I don’t know why they appealed to me the way they did, but in no time at all she was taking me to the pet shop at Northline Mall every week to spend my one dollar on a new mouse. Remembering, of course, that all the previous mice had gotten away and were inhabiting the decaying wood frame of Nanna’s house. Still, she took me to the pet shop and, if she had an extra dollar, I could have an extra mouse. One thing you should know about mice, even pet mice, is that they don’t always get along; in fact, female mice who don’t want to be bothered with the nursing business will eat their young. That disturbed Nanna deeply.
So Nanna was driving home — twenty miles-per-hour, cigarette ashes dangling — but I had my two new mice in the little ventilated cardboard box, courtesy of the pet shop. Well, I, of course, wanted to take them out but Nanna kept telling me not to until we got out of the car. I, being a kid and having no fear of her, didn’t listen and both mice sailed out of that box onto the front seat and scurried! Scurried! Scurried for freedom! The little black one ran onto Nanna’s lap, up Nanna’s arm, over her shoulder and down the inside of the front of her dress. She was spastic with terror, swerving the car, as I stuck my chubby little arm inside the front of her dress reaching desperately for the errant mouse. And I have to say, I don’t remember how we got out of that, how the mouse escapade ended. Obviously, it did and we were okay. Relatively.
What I do remember, though, is that at eight, seeing my grandmother that undone, so scared and hurt over something I’d done — that landed. I felt so bad about what I’d done, so bad about not listening to her, about putting her through something so tormenting, just because I did not fear her — that made it hard to exist in my own skin. As if it were okay for no other reason than that I did not fear her. That is when I first started to consciously re-evaluate the way my family rolled as it relates to real people, to flesh and bone and blood and beating tender hearts. A voice from the abyss reminded me that I was not gone yet, “That’s your grandmother; you should not be treating her that way.” So I stopped. From that point on, as miserable and frightened and self-conscious a child as I was, I would set it aside to defend Nanna. Especially from my idiot uncle. It turned out in the end that picking on me was a bad idea. And picking on my Nanna was a worse idea.
The way my grandfather treated my grandmother was confusing to me as a child. Still is, really, but at least now I understand that marriage is its own animal and that theirs had been profoundly challenged. These two people looked like silent movie stars when they found each other, only to be beaten down and broken by devastating loss and blame and recrimination they would never rise above. The wounds never healed, but I tell the truth now: Nanna was very sick with lung cancer for several years. She died at fifty-nine, when I was seventeen, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and from the moment it was clear that she would not survive, Pappy never left her side. She fell into a coma, and he sat holding her hand continually for over three days until she passed. That was the beginning and the end of my ever trying or assuming to understand why people come together, let alone why people stay together. That is my take away on relationship: absolutely no one else knows what exists between two people over a lifetime. God alone is the third in any marriage.
It was on the last day of my junior year of high school when my grandmother passed. I came straight from some function to the hospital, which was a big deal as we lived so far out that driving in took over two hours. I think she may even have died while I was on the freeway. I was wearing something so sweet and demure that it makes New York me laugh a little at the naïve teenage me: it was a pure white sundress with three tiers of lace and ruffles, spaghetti straps that tied at the shoulders and a cluster of pink cloth roses right in the middle of the band at the top that held the whole thing together. My long dark hair was pulled back, hanging to curled ends at my waist. I share this because Nanna liked that look on me, and she loved that dress; in fact, I wore it exactly that way for her funeral. When I arrived at the hospital, twenty or so forlorn relatives were meandering in the waiting area outside her room. By that time I had long since implemented my policy of staying away from masses of kinfolks. I had always felt like such an outsider among these unimaginably clique-ish, course-tongued Christians and never more so than on the days I lost my Nanna and then my Pappy. Life as a child drowning in kin was excruciatingly lonely, and on those days all those years ago when I lost my closest allies, I was tripping on the precipice, flirting with the abyss, convinced my life would never be any more than what it had been.
I positioned myself, alone, a few feet from Nanna’s hospital room and many feet from Mother and Daddy, as we waited for a last look before her body was taken away. Finally, a nurse came out of the room and motioned us in, but before anyone saw the nurse I was already gone. I stepped in for just a moment alone, ahead of everybody: what I saw was Nanna’s motionless body in a long plastic bag — like an in-flight wardrobe bag — left unzipped at the top so I could just see her face. Her eyes were still open, peering out of this disposable bag, sort of bulging like one of our long gone pet mice, and her mouth was open, just a little bit. She looked much like I felt right at that moment. Like after all this, she was still caught by surprise at the end. I can only hope that Nanna didn’t experience her last moments as the horror that seemed etched on her face. The whole thing was kinda’ ghoulish, really, and I don’t know what the hospital staff was thinking when they beckoned my family in to see my grandmother’s body looking like she was about to be put out with the refuse. But I saw it, I registered it. Then I turned around as my parents were coming through the door and I said, “Daddy, don’t let her see this.” In one of the best moments, one of the most honest moments I ever shared with my father, he turned my mother around and walked her out of the room. I was right behind them, I closed the door and no one else ever saw Nanna like that. Not even Pappy. And my father never asked.
Over Christmas my senior year of high school, the clan was at Uncle Chuck and Aunt Shirley Jean’s. Nanna had died a few months before that, and Pappy was so sad. I was just learning to cook. I am a very good cook, I know that now, but then I needed a whole lot of reassurance as I tried so hard to curry approval. I made a pear pie from scratch. Before anyone could get to it, though, some ground skirmish broke out between my father and his brother — my Uncle Charles — and my mother and her sister — my Aunt Shirley Jean, who it should be noted for clarity, was married by then to my father’s older brother. Ten years after my parents were married, my father’s brother, Charles, had been released from the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, his home away from home since he’d first been detained by the state of Texas as a minor teenager then graduated to big boy incarceration. Notwithstanding his periodic release for time served, it could be assumed they were keeping his bed warm for his inevitable return. Three weeks after arriving at our house, Uncle Charles married Aunt Shirley Jean: it was her second marriage and his fifth. Acquiring new wives and siring more children was what Charles did to kill time. Shirley Jean would be his last wife, though. My aunt and uncle’s long, interminable marriage made my parents’ look like Ozzie and Harriett.
Anyway, the holiday brawl that year ended with everyone vacating the premises in a fury, leaving me and my Pappy alone with my untouched pear pie. I was crushed, but Pappy sat there at the table eating pear pie with me and telling me about how his momma used to make pear pies every Christmas and how mine was “jist about as good Momma’s.” Now, we all know that’s not true. In fact, I think the bottom crust was probably still raw, but Pappy ate damned near the whole pie.
Pappy’s proudest moment was when I graduated from high school. None of his own kids or his nieces or nephews had finished high school, let alone gone to college. His ruddy round cheeks positively glowed, and I believe that that is why he stayed alive as long as he did after Nanna died. Looking at those photos years later I could tell he wasn’t feeling well, and I could tell he was very sad.
When I was home for Christmas my freshman year of college, Nanna had been dead for a little over a year and a half. Pappy had made every attempt to show up for my high school plays: I played Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town. Rumor had it that I had been very good. “They” said that being a theater major would be a good choice. Pappy was proud of that. So that Christmas I told him that college was really piling up on me — for so many reasons — it was profoundly overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure that I would make it. I asked him to hold out for my graduation. He said, “Baby, you will make it. You are the one. I love my kids, but your life is going to be different. You are the one who will do something.”
I said, “Pappy, I don’t know. This is so hard.”
“You’ll be okay, Baby,” he said. “I won’t be thur, Baby, but you’ll be jis’ fine.”
Pappy was diagnosed with end-stage stomach cancer in the spring. I remember having some real compassion for my Uncle Tommy, aka my idiot uncle, when he begged his daddy to get up out the hospital bed and Pappy said, “Leave me alone, Son, I’m goin’ home.” Idiot or not, Tommy was absolutely inconsolable by the loss of his parents. He was lost in this world after that. Truth be told, my family was lost after that in ways that took years to appreciate.
My grandfather died two years and two days after Nanna passed away, just after Memorial Day. He never sought real treatment; he must have been beyond wanting to go any farther. He was already gone. It all happened fast, and he went very peacefully. I am pretty sure that one of the main reasons I’ve hung on in life, when I might have preferred not to, has been that my grandfather expected it of me. His peaceful passing has given me a lot of clarity in my own relationship with God. Expecting better of people is not necessarily a bad thing; it is not too much to ask. Something to aspire to. A reason to transcend.
Nanna was, without doubt, mentally ill, but she’d had a hard life and, crazy or not, she wasn’t mean. I never knew her to say an unkind word about anyone, not even Pappy at his worst. Just before I first came to New York City in 1984 I changed my last name to hers. At the time I was young; my “near death” experience was scarcely behind me, and my recovery would take, as I know now, the rest of my life. But I didn’t know it then. All I wanted was to put as much distance between me and that which drove me to my orchestrated “near-death” experience as I possibly could. My bartending partner-in-crime had long planned to change what she considered her dull given name, Elaine, to something better suited to her more ethereal nature. She’d even gone to the trouble of doing all the paperwork herself to save the lawyer’s fees. She came by my apartment totally unexpectedly in 1983 and asked me to go to the courthouse in San Antonio with her to change her name. I asked her if she had another copy of the forms and I picked out what seemed to me arbitrary and pretty, all at once: Gayle Katherine Leslie. But there was nothing arbitrary about it. There is nothing arbitrary in the whole wide world: my taking her maiden name was really a show of solidarity with my grandmother, the person who got possibly the rawest of raw deals in all the world of raw deals and never turned mean because of it. And Nanna loved me, the first grandbaby and a girl.
Having had the occasion to stand at the edge of that abyss — there I found myself by my early forties — and to see how much easier it might have been to let go, to give up, to simply let the fragile structure of a precariously organized mind collapse… Since I’ve been there, and I think I can kinda’ see it her way… Living in a world with so few options and no place really to return to, no higher ground as the reward for claiming her good sense… Only cruel blows and careless gestures from those she loved the most left to look forward to… As I’ve grown older, I’ve kinda’ come to think that maybe Nanna’s smoking herself to death was about the only control of her own destiny that she felt she could exercise. Nanna’s insanity was really the only safe place to be in her world.
Taking her name… That was the least I could do.
About the Author:
Gayle Leslie is a writer, political consultant, published author, actor, and policy wonk publishing extensively on Medium. She is a native Texan, graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Circle in the Square Theatre School in NYC. She wrote her serialized memoir, Dwelling in the Vast Divine Vol. 1 & Vol 2. You can follow on Twitter at @gayleleslie7