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Toward the end of the 1960s, my grandparents bought a house in the Florida Keys. In those days the keys were sparsely settled–many were untouched and a few seemed barely even observed. The house my grandparents found for themselves was on Big Pine Key. It was by the beach, with just a few other houses in walking distance; the most prominent local landmark was a canal where alligators sunned themselves. This hot, windblown, sun-dazzled spot was about as far away as my grandparents could get from their starting point in Illinois without actually leaving America.
Once they were settled in, they immediately resumed their old routine. Clarence got up before dawn each day and went out fishing in a little outboard boat. Mary stayed at the house and painted. Every few months she took her work into Key West and sold it at art fairs. She gave up canvas; she got the idea instead of painting on driftwood.
These pieces proved so popular with tourists that her beach ran out of driftwood and she had to start manufacturing it. She bought wooden crates, smashed them up with a little ax, and soaked the pieces in tubs of seawater until they looked like they’d been in the ocean for days, if not for generations. Then she’d paint them over with pelicans on docks and boats bobbing in serenely cluttered harbors.
One winter when I was 12 my parents took me to Big Pine Key for a visit. Clarence was in poor health then; his emphysema was getting worse, and I’m sure he knew he didn’t have much time left. But he insisted on taking me out fishing with him each day. We spent hours in total silence, drifting past lush, uninhabited islets; the waters were pale blue and aquamarine, and so clear I could see carpets of bulging sponges 20 or 30 feet below. I wanted to say something to him, but I had no idea what. At last I asked whether it was true that time passed more quickly when you got older.
He regarded me in astonishment, as though he’d never heard such an idea before. He looked out for a long time over the ruffled water. At last he said, “Well, the years do go by like a rocket. But the days just get longer and longer.”
Around that time, my great-aunt Hilda was diagnosed with colon cancer. Her first impulse was to keep it secret. That was how everybody in my family felt about serious illness: there was something shameful about it, it wasn’t a thing you discussed publicly. And cancer was practically obscene. So Hilda made her doctor’s appointments in confidence, and she carefully scheduled them for times when the rest of the household would be gone and she could sneak out unobserved. She might even have tried to keep the surgery to herself if she hadn’t been worried about her husband, Marty.
She went to her other housemates, her brother Eugene and her sister Helen. She told each about her condition, and that the doctor had said her chances were good. She herself was skeptical, though; she was remembering how horribly her father Bosh had died. She wanted a promise from each of them: if she didn’t survive, they would let Marty go on living in the house. They agreed, none too happily. Nothing more was said.
If Marty himself had any inkling of the deal, he gave no sign. Hilda’s surgery was successful, but for months afterward she was feeble and as pale as wax. She forced herself back into her old habits, cooking and cleaning with a hint of her old gusto. It wasn’t in her nature to complain; she took for granted that only an immoral layabout would allow illness to keep him in bed. The rest of the household followed her lead–Marty especially. He barely acknowledged she’d been unwell. He still expected her to fetch his newspaper and serve him dinner and wash out his underwear, and in general he gave the impression that her illness was mainly an imposition on him.
Eugene watched Marty’s treatment of Hilda with gathering rage. One afternoon the two men were carrying a small couch upstairs so Hilda could sit at ease at the window if she was feeling too weak to leave her bedroom. Midway through their maneuvers up the back stairs, Eugene realized that he was doing all the heavy work while Marty put on a great pantomime of groaning effort over nothing. The moment they set the couch down, Eugene punched Marty in the face. Marty fell backward onto the couch and began bawling. Eugene landed several more blows on his face and in his belly. Then he grabbed Marty by the throat and squeezed. Marty stared at him in bug-eyed terror. Then Eugene let go and clumped back down the stairs.
Marty was left with a face badly scratched and bruised, and he had to get new glasses to replace the pair Eugene had smashed. But he uncharacteristically refused to look for sympathy. He didn’t even invent a story to explain his appearance. For weeks afterward he avoided Eugene, averting his gaze if they happened to meet at the dinner table. When eventually Marty resumed his old rounds of heavy joshing and teasing, Eugene refused to respond. He acted as though Marty was invisible. If Marty addressed a direct question to him, Eugene pretended not to hear it. If Marty asked for or offered something at the dinner table, Eugene ignored him. Eugene routinely shouldered past Marty in the hallway, sometimes knocking him into the coatrack or against the umbrella stand without a word of apology. Soon Eugene refused to use or touch anything in the house that was associated with Marty in any way.
This was a problem at dinner, because table was still being set with the flatware Marty had brought back from the navy. Eugene ordered his own set of black-handled silverware from a mail-order catalog and ostentatiously set it out at his own place each night.
Helen did go on acknowledging Marty’s existence–but only with great reluctance and invariably in tones of sarcasm and contempt. She refused to be alone with him. She wouldn’t accept his help with chores on those rare occasions when he offered it. She never laughed at his jokes; the most she’d permit herself was a disgusted sniff whenever he said anything she considered particularly stupid. And every night before she went to bed she prayed he would die before Hilda did.
The rest of the family was never told about Hilda’s cancer. Instead the word went out that she had anemia–a suitably vague condition with an infinitely extendable prognosis. It explained her perpetual air of exhaustion and why the children couldn’t possibly visit that summer–or the summer after, or the summer after that. She wasn’t worried about the children. She knew how children were: something else would come up, and then another thing. If the visits never resumed we wouldn’t notice.
That’s how it worked for me. One year I didn’t go to Edwardsville; my parents enrolled me in a day camp instead and I spent a radiantly happy summer playing baseball in familiar sandlots and swimming in local park-district pools. The summer after that was Little League–or maybe it was summer school that year and Little League the next year; then there was a year we went to visit my father’s relatives, who were scattered around Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Somewhere along the line I came to assume that Edwardsville was part of the past.
By the 1970s the dominant presence in Edwardsville was Southern Illinois University. Its huge campus sprawled over the countryside on the western outskirts of town, and the student body of 12,000 was more people than had ever lived in the town itself. Downtown Edwardsville had been taken over by chain stores, fast-food restaurants, and campus hangouts. The old building that had once housed my great-great-grandfather’s hotel was now a hamburger tavern where an improv group performed on weekend nights. Even the old Nelson brass foundry had been reoccupied: it now belonged to the university’s art department, and its interior had been transformed into a warren of cluttered cubbyholes smelling of clay and plaster and lath.
But some places had the feel of the old times. One was the big park opposite the town hall. It held towering old oaks and maples and sycamores and a scattering of new ashes and ginkgoes (to replace the magnificent elms that had died in the Dutch elm blight of the 50s and 60s). Paths wound through enormous swaths of sun and shade. Here and there were benches and tables where old men sat and talked and played checkers. After Eugene retired from the oil refinery in the mid-1970s, he often passed afternoons there reading his seed catalogs.
For a while the other regulars left him alone. But the same people showed up summer after summer, and Eugene was drawn insensibly into the group. They found him a hard nut to crack, but they had time. Ignoring his expressions of steely indifference, they subjected him to long monologues about their old employers and their heedless children and their baffling medical problems. At last they got a stirring of involuntary interest from him when they talked about the war.
Eugene had never spent any time with veterans. Cautiously, beginning with nods and grunts and surprised acknowledgments of shared experience, he admitted to being a navy man. He sat on the outside of the circle that gathered around the chessboards, and he listened to their endless talk about what had happened to them: the night terrors, the endless dread, the irrational fear of being sent back to the front lines–everything they could never express to the people back home. They talked about the misery of the winter battles in Europe and the sweltering horror of the South Pacific. Surprising even himself, Eugene told about landing in the Marshall Islands after the shoreline had been pulverized by artillery: for a mile inland there’d been nothing but splinters of palm trees and threads of human flesh.
He had thought that story would shock his audience. But they just nodded their heads. They’d all been through things as bad or worse. So next he talked about what had happened on Saipan–how he’d seen hundreds of Japanese civilians throw themselves off the cliffs rather than surrender. When he and the other Seabees found Japanese soldiers who refused to emerge from their bolt-holes in the hills, they bulldozed over the entrances.
And then he told about how his time in combat had ended. One summer night on Saipan a Japanese soldier on a suicide run broke through the American lines near the airfield and triggered a storm of gunfire and mortar shells in all directions. It was the sort of thing they’d endured every night–but for some reason this time it was too much. As Eugene waited it out in his foxhole, he began sobbing uncontrollably. He didn’t stop after the all clear. He was still gasping and wailing and crying when he was brought into the aid station. By the time he’d reached the base hospital he’d fallen silent, and after that he wouldn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone. There was a long voyage to a military hospital in Australia, and afterward to a stateside hospital near Yosemite, where his treatment–including electroshock and massive injections of insulin–at last brutalized him into speaking again.
Once he told that story it was as though some inner barrier had collapsed. He began to talk. He talked about anything that passed through his mind–first to his friends at the park, and then to anybody and everybody in earshot. He took to launching into enormous monologues at the family dinner table: every night he’d spill out talk from a lifetime’s reserve, about being on the bum during the Depression, about hunting and whoring with Uncle August and Uncle Frank, about Bougainville and the Solomons and Saipan. “It was amazing,” says his niece Dorothy, my mother. “Suddenly you couldn’t shut him up.”
Mainly he talked about his gardens. He had countless stories about his against-all-odds triumphs and inexplicable failures, about his risky ordering of rare bulbs from obscure catalogs, about his anxious internal debates as to whether the zinnias or the sunflowers would do better or worse this season. He talked about his gardens at summer barbecues and during holiday parties, a gargantuan flow of talk about seeds and peat and forced bulbs and fertilizer and topsoil, a Mississippi of gardening lore that was silenced only by the fatal heart attack he suffered on New Year’s Day 1986.
The next spring when the gardens began flowering, Marty took them over. He proved to be an untalented but conscientious caretaker. He didn’t bother to replace any of the annuals, and he let some of the frailer perennials die; but he faithfully watered and pruned and weeded even in the hottest summers, and the gardens retained most of their beauty for several years. He was surprised and touched when visitors complimented him on his success, but he was quick to say that all the credit belonged to Eugene. He invariably spoke of Eugene with respect, as though he had forgotten, or perhaps never even noticed, their feud. Sometimes when he came to the dinner table after a hard afternoon in the gardens, he would declare, “I just don’t know how he did it all. That man must have been some kind of dynamo.”
Then one year something happened to him. He couldn’t work in the garden; he could barely move or speak. When people visited the house his face brightened and he rose up to shake hands with a hint of his customary enthusiasm; but he was visibly baffled by who everybody was, and he’d quickly sink back into his chair and refuse to say another word.
As he lapsed into complete passivity Hilda spent all her time caring for him. She brushed his hair and dressed him in the mornings; she served him his lunches on a TV tray; she fetched his newspapers, even though he barely did more than glance at them before letting them fall to the carpet. She left the TV on in the parlor all day whether or not he made any sign of watching it.
Helen, meanwhile, provided him with company: a big framed photograph she placed on the mantel. It was a rare photo somebody had taken of Eugene. It was in the gardens, and it showed Eugene regarding the photographer with surprise and anger. Helen positioned it right in front of Marty’s chair, so that every time he looked up he saw Eugene glaring down at him.
But Marty made no sign of noticing. He never remarked on the photo, or anything else. He sat silently, bothering no one and making no fuss, until the day in 1993 when Helen’s prayers were answered and he died in his sleep.
Helen and Hilda stayed on in the house together, carrying on an endless vaudeville of intimate bickering. They made sour faces at each other’s jokes, they cut short each other’s favorite stories, and they snapped at each other over long-standing grievances invisible to outsiders. They argued about everything, from the correct oven temperature for pot roast to the exact alignment of the TV antenna. They watched Wheel of Fortune every day and fought furiously about the proper way to play: Hilda called out the solutions as they occurred to her, while Helen wanted to solve them silently on her own.
They kept up their own tradition of hospitality. My cousin Bill, who was working for Boeing in Saint Louis, would sometimes drive over for weekend visits. Helen and Hilda pestered him with shrewd questions regarding the company’s financial troubles–they’d begun watching CNN. Bill was charmed, but in other ways the visits were trying. He says: “They had this idea fixed in their mind–young men like soda pop. So whenever I showed up they’d have bottles of soda pop waiting for me on the kitchen table. It was some local brand I’d never heard of, orange or grape or something. It was completely flat, like they’d kept it in the basement for years. It was awful. But they also had this weird sixth sense about visitors. If I came by myself, then I had to stay out of the parlor, because the parlor was for guests. But if I brought a friend along they somehow knew beforehand, and everything was already set up in the parlor for us.”
The two women were glad to have a new generation of children come for visits. My cousin Lee Ann brought her children there, and she remembers how fascinated Hilda and Helen were by their toys. “One time I brought matchbox cars. Before you knew it, Hilda had my son Christopher, who was four, driving the cars to an imaginary fix-it shop for repairs.”
Bill remembers: “They obviously cared a lot for each other. They seemed very self-sufficient, like they wouldn’t want to live any other way. But there was this one time, after I was married, when I brought my wife and our new baby daughter, Kayla. Hilda just scooped Kayla up and handled her like she was born to do it. I remember thinking then that it was strange she’d never had children of her own.”
At some point Hilda told Helen the true story of her marriage to Marty. Hilda said that when she’d first met Marty, more than 50 years earlier, he’d been having an affair with a woman he’d met at Wehrle’s grocery store. The woman was married; it had been her idea for Marty to take up with Hilda, just to provide them with camouflage. Hilda herself had never been deceived. She’d known all about Marty and the other woman from the beginning. She’d gone along with it, not because she loved Marty–she never had cared for him much–but because she’d wanted children, and because after all the years she’d spent tending house for her grandmother, she thought she was too old to find a real husband.
So Hilda and Marty had made a deal. They would get married and she would ignore his affair, in exchange for children and a home of her own.
But after Marty got back from the war he reneged on all of it. He said there was no reason for them to spend money on a house when they had free rent where they were. He said he had no interest whatever in having children; he could barely tolerate the summertime visits from her nieces and nephews. He said that he was too old and set in his ways to change, and she should have figured this out before she married him. And that was that.
Hilda’s health began to fail again. Helen described it in a letter: “She is almost blind–has macular degeneration in both eyes. Also had her ear with cancer so she has to have an operation so can hear sometimes. Beside that she had her toenails cut and the gal must have cut too deep as she has an infection in her big toe. I’m glad I am here to keep her. But as you see the golden years aren’t so golden.”
In the last year of her life, Hilda became aware of an unseen presence in the house. She took to sitting in Marty’s old chair in the parlor, where she would spend hours listening intently to obscure noises: an unexplained bump on the stairs, the surreptitious creak of the floorboards, the rustle of curtains in an airless bedroom. Gradually, in the corners of her eyes, she began to make out a figure standing silently in doorways and at the far side of dark rooms. It never spoke or moved, it seemed to be in shadow even when the sunlight fell on it directly, and when she squinted hard at it, it melted away. But she had no doubt about its identity. It was her father Bosh, watching sorrowfully over his children as he had always done.
Next week: This Is All I Know
Previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.