Apparently Papaw Ridley’s dementia was the slowly evolving type that seems to sever permanently–but only one at a time–all the little threads that connect us to what we like to think of as a shared reality. Even near the end, he looked like a perfectly sane man in photographs, grizzled in a noble-looking way, though in person he often had the look on his face of someone on the verge of recalling something alarming, that peculiar look of otherworldly concentration that you also see on the face of half-trained children who need to visit the bathroom but have no intention of doing so.
Well, now that I think about it, during my lifetime, one never had to converse with him for very long to know that he had entered the land of make-believe in a rather permanent way. But no other adult (except our neighbor Mr. Wanly) ever conversed with him that long or paid much attention to what he said, and we children had a shifting, sometimes disappearing line between what was real and what was not. We were also addicted to thrilling information of the sort that comes from people who thrill themselves with their own thoughts.
Matu was a loving, vigilant, and efficient mother, but she had her own life, and when she was away from home, we were often “looked after” by Papaw Ridley. He had a beautiful voice, had, in fact, The Voice that seemed to have jumped over to my other grandparents’ house because Deena had it too. When I am alone and conjure up the voices of other people, I hear an amalgam of their speaking voices, but when I listen through the past to hear Papaw, I hear many different voices, and my mind is like a thick forest in which the various birds of his voice are singing or crying out. He could sing—low and almost whispery as if merely a part of the sounds of the day or as if possessed by bawdy exuberance. His lullabies held us or soothed us to sleep when we were infants as often as Matu’s did, and later his singing a song of his choosing was the price he paid for us to lie down for naps so he could watch his soap operas on TV.
He was addicted to soap operas and watched them with the kind of barely blinking awestruck gaze one imagines on the faces of people who are witnessing a visitation by the holy mother or aliens emerging from a spaceship that has just landed in the backyard. When he bought soap opera time by singing to us, I suppose that he was singing us the ballads of his youth or show tunes. The lyrics made no sense to us, seemed to come from another world, though we loved sometimes to repeat phrases from his songs over and over, such charms did they hold for us. We did so a bit more discreetly after Molly and I entertained the minister with “Get Out Your Garters, Gertie.”
But what we loved most about Papaw was not his singing but his repertoire of fantasies about how the political world of adults was going to intersect with our young lives when no adults were looking. “The Communists will come and take away your dancing shoes,” he would say very seriously, leaning a bit forward as if imparting information for our ears only. “But Mama won’t let them,” Molly would say. Papaw would then say, “But the Communists will kill your mother and eat her hands.” At that point, ever eager for details of any sort, I would ask how exactly they would cook Matu’s hands, and Molly would poke me. “But someone will help us,” Molly would say. “No,” he would say, shaking his head sadly, “No, there will be no one left to help.” “OK, then,” one of us would say, “What kind of clothes will they wear?”
And then the call and response on the subject of the Communist invasion would begin. Papaw would pretend not to want to tell us because it was all just too awful, but we would press, and he would give in and tell us that they would kill all the adults and burn our piano, that they would give us only bones to eat, that they would throw all the Sunday clothes in town into a pile and burn them and make us rub the ashes all over our faces. Yes, the arrival of machete-wielding Communist mobs dressed in crisp uniforms (while they would make us wear rags) would put an end once and for all to lollipop eating, bike riding, and playing dress-up. Among other things. “Where are they?” we would ask. “Oh,” Papaw would say, “Closer and closer.”
Matu must have had no idea; in fact, I am sure that she didn’t. And we didn’t want her to have any idea about this imminent change in our lives. We never spoke of it even with each other because it riveted us so with fear and shameful delight. We thought what he told us was true because it had engaged our imaginations, and there’s nothing quite like imagination to construct a truth. But for Matu’s sake, we still hoped that this particular future would not come to pass, and we protected her in that way that children protect those who protect, or should protect, them: by not breathing a word, by pretending that nothing had happened or would ever happen.
Later on, Adela and Bobby would fly to Molly or me to report Papaw’s latest installment of the Communist Invasion, and we would assure them that it was just a story but not to tell Matu. And so we protected Papaw too. Of course, by the time Papaw became babysitter for Adela and Bobby, his capacity to hold forth in a frightening way was rather diminished by the lengthy pauses occasioned by his search for words that seemed to escape him and by his attempts to rearrange his false teeth. In fact, for Adela and Bobby, Papaw was just an amusing cartoon character whose performances engaged their developing sense of word play. When Papaw regaled them with tales of impending doom, “Communists” became “severe fishes,” “piano” was “plates,” “shoes” became “supper,” and “kill” became “con.” Evidence of the nightmare dictionary that Papaw had in his head even became a topic for Molly and me at bedtime, and we would laugh till we choked up when one of us, imitating Papaw’s hieratic voice, would say “They will con your mother and cut off her pots” or “They won’t let you play refrescos when they doom” or “There’ll be no more farty tresses for you, little Missy.” From time to time, Papaw appeared in my dreams as a disheveled Moses figure pacing a barren mountaintop and pausing periodically to simply sputter.
We adored Papaw and loved every minute we spent with him. We felt sorry for him when he had to leave our house to go home for dinner because as he left he often said, “Well, I have to go home now and eat crow.” Molly and I agreed that if someone tried to force us upon pain of death to eat meat we might waver in our vegetarian resolve over a little chicken or ham, but we would never eat crow, we would rather die. That was where we drew the line. But Papaw’s eating crow was another matter. We asked him once if he ate crow just to please Mamaw and because he loved her so, and we thought he just would not stop laughing until he started to cry, and then we thought he would not stop doing that either. This was, in fact, one of the most frightening moments of my life at the time. I’m not sure why, but at that time, I was not yet accustomed to the fact that they were usually out of control whether or not they looked it.
When we went to Mamaw Ridley’s house (and we always thought of it as her house), we were always on the lookout for some tell-tale blue-black feather that might have escaped Mamaw’s fanatical cleaning by disguising itself as part of a pattern in the carpet, or even just some bit of black fluff stirred up into the air by the swinging door that seemed always to be on the move between the kitchen and the dining room. But it would have been hard to espy such a thing, for Mamaw Ridley’s house was always dark, or rather, it seemed always to be dark in the way that a dominant impression will often override reality. I never liked to spend time in Mamaw Ridley’s house—dark, symmetrical, and smooth like a lady’s tightly laced-up boot. I have already commented, more than once, I believe, on my acute abhorrence of confinement.
From time to time, Mamaw Ridley would pack herself and Papaw up and go off on a cruise or some such for whole months at a time. And while she and Papaw, we imagined, ate crow for dinner every night with a flaming perfectly flat sunset sea in the background, we were at home being “looked after” (how appropriate that phrase is) by Romana, a giantess who wore colorful turbans and always carried a little bag of salt with her so she could cast it about her person if she felt a haunting spell coming on. Many many years later, I had occasion to see Romana’s birth certificate, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that her given name was “Grande Romane.” Romana’s storytelling, unlike Papaw Ridley’s storytelling, usually involved sex, though we were a bit uncertain about what that was at the time, and she rivaled the Brothers Grimm in all manner of gory detail.
She swore that she had personally known the most beautiful girl in the world who had made the mistake of rebuffing advances from a grotesque hermit who then sneaked up on her in her sleep and cut her legs off and cut her tongue out and carried her off to his hovel where he did as he would with her day and night. Of course, Molly and I imagined that what he would do with her was make her scoot out on her stumps to fetch water from a well and so forth—we had never actually seen a man doing any work, so we assumed that women did everything. Romana also told us about two young sisters about our age whose punishment for not taking naps was to be awake forever no matter how tired they were.
Romana had a special relationship with Wolf, my savior and protector. He never barked at her or behaved aggressively in any way, but he would sometimes make a low humming sound when he saw her, and his presence always prompted a great deal of salt-tossing on her part. One day when Molly was confined to our room with the mumps and I was smugly stretching myself out all over the place, Romana snatched my arm up and hissed in my face, said, “I know who you are with your witchy eyes and that devil dog. Don’t you think you can cast on me, girl. I got my mojo and you still just a little switch of thang. Tamp it down when I’m around or I’ll make your backbone sprout those horns you got inside.”
People have mistaken me for someone else all my life. When Romana said those things to me, I felt that I just happened to be in the way of the person for whom she really intended them. I gave her a wide berth from then on. But I also discovered that if I hesitated just the slightest bit when she told me to do something, fear would flash across her face like heat lightning, and I could then choose whether to do as she said or not and she would not say a thing to me. If I could find the person that people have always mistaken me for, I would study at her feet, for she is surely someone with power, more specifically with the power to harm and break hearts and turn water into blood and make an old conjure woman throw salt around at the sight of a harmless dog..
Of course, Romana had both direct and sidelong ways of getting to us. I don’t think she liked children very much.. Over the course of a few years until we were too old to be looked after and the other children fell into the clutches of Papaw and Romana, Romana would pull out stories of transgression and punishment from a seemingly endless supply. Without exception, these were stories about girls who had “gone with” men or refused to go with men—it seemed to be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing—and were then punished out of all proportion, often by giving birth to monsters that required constant feeding and special clothes.
Molly and I would sit transfixed as Romana told us these things, though I quickly learned that Molly’s rapt gaze was merely the result of her trying not to laugh at Romana. I never would have laughed at Romana. However, I did not tell a whole truth when I said that I gave her a wide berth. After all, just by looking at her a second too long, I could make her cross herself and rub salt into her forehead. On several occasions, I incited Molly to hide with me around a corner or in a closet and then to jump out at Romana when she was looking for us, and this incited Romana to actually chase us around the house, which we rather enjoyed. And once, Molly and I put flour all over our faces and arms and sat down zombie-like on either side of Romana on the couch just as she had settled in and turned the TV on. When she looked at us, she jumped up so hard and high that she hit her head on the ceiling and then just fell out trembling on the floor. We had to put cool rags on her forehead and dose her liberally with something from the liquor cabinet to get her upright by the time Matu got home.