Read an Excerpt
A Deep East Texas Memory
By Gerald Duff
TCU PressCopyright © 2011 Gerald Duff
All rights reserved.
What You're Named Is What You Are
SO I was doomed. I knew that as my mother told me there was no escape from my name, and I knew that words were what doomed me. They always have.
The first memory I can recall is my being lifted over a wire fence by my father while my mother watches, and being placed down on a surface covered with snow. That was in Texas, but I didn't know it at the time. I must have been well over a year old because I can remember standing in the snow and looking up at my parents on the other side of the fence, wondering why they were beaming at me. They must have told me what the white stuff on the ground was, but I don't remember that and I don't remember being much interested in where I had been placed or the white stuff I was standing in. I did realize the two of them wanted some reaction from me, but I couldn't figure out just what that was. That puzzlement as to how I ought to react to their expectations of me did in fact set a pattern and characterized the entire course of my relationship with my parents from that day forward.
They intended what they presented of the world to me to have a certain calculated and known effect, as they saw it, and they habitually stepped back to watch me gather it in. My problem was not one of having no reaction to their proffers, but of having an impure one, a reaction composed of contradictions and second guesses. I knew they wanted something from me, but I was doomed never to know just how I should behave at such times. So my habitual response was to make something up to satisfy, to act in a way calculated to advance my state, and by so doing to be left alone to my own devices. I learned to create my own truth. I learned the wonderful use of the lie and how it could serve me.
I've always been a coward physically—as far back as I can remember and all the way up to today—and soon after that snow episode on the Texas Gulf Coast, the first event illustrating that fact occurred. It involved a board laid over a ditch full of water which I was expected to negotiate alone. I must have successfully gotten over it on the way out of our yard, because I was coming back toward the house when the trouble began. A boy named Jimmy was blocking my way over the board, and I knew I was no match for him, of course, though he was smaller than I was. I knew he would prevail, and I knew that because I feared it. By that point, I had learned that what I dreaded was likely to happen precisely because I didn't want it to happen. Jimmy would master me because I was afraid he would.
I was shirtless, and I know that because he scratched my back hard enough to draw blood as I struggled to get by him on the board over the ditch. I was weeping before the action even started, always being good at crying, and I knew I was doomed to defeat from the beginning because I saw it coming and because the boy had a better name than I did.
His name was Jimmy, a good, solid, ordinary label, and I was called Gerald, a designation I had already learned was that of a sissy and a loser. So when Jimmy went to work with his fingernails, I hardly even pushed back, but wailed instead for my mother to rescue me. She did, explaining to me later that I'd have to learn to stand up for myself and fight back against those who opposed me. There was no comfort for me in that, and I remember crying even harder then, realizing I'd never be able to take up arms and defend myself from Jimmies and Johnnies and Bobbies, permanently hampered as I was by my weak name.
What you were called was powerful and indicative of success or the lack of it, I knew, and my parents had betrayed me at birth by naming me Gerald, adding further damage by giving me the middle name of Aldine. "Why?" I remember asking my mother. "Why am I Gerald? Why can't I be Johnny?" She didn't attempt to answer me, except to say later when I declared that I would be known as Johnny henceforth, "No, you won't be Johnny. You won't be anything but what you are. You're Gerald, and that's what you're going to be called now and forever."
I had two grandfathers, unlike my own grandchildren who have five or six at last count. One was my mother's father, Grandpa Irwin, who always wore a tie and a starched shirt, and drove a car to come see me. He brought bananas when he came, a rare treat in wartime Texas. So when he invited me to go back with him from where we lived in Hardin County to spend the night in his apartment in Beaumont (he was separated from his second wife by then), I was eager to go. I wouldn't have agreed to go with my other grandfather, my father's father, who had a full beard and lived in a log house even deeper in the country than we did. He lived with a wife who was not a real grandmother to me, and he was sick and stayed in bed all the time, even in the daytime, waiting to die, though I didn't know that was going on.
Once when I was visiting him with my parents in his log house, and my cousin Willie Vee was there, too, he asked us grandchildren to give him a kiss. That would've involved crawling up in the bed where he lay and putting our lips somewhere in that tangled mass of hair on his face. Neither of us would do that, of course, Willie Vee shaking her head no so hard that her hair thrashed back and forth and the tears from her eyes splashed on the floor like big raindrops.
Amos Duff then reached into a pocket and drew out two nickels, offering Willie Vee and me one each to kiss him. I immediately did what I had to do to get the money, sticking my face into that mass of whiskers and rubbing my hand across my lips afterwards until my mouth hurt. When Willie Vee continued to refuse the offer, I did it again and got the other nickel, causing all the adults crowded into the room to laugh loud enough to hurt my ears. I remember looking at them in contempt and anger, wondering what was wrong with my aunts and uncles, my mother and father, and the old man lying in the bed next to the fireplace. Nothing was funny when nickels were involved.
Willie Vee remembers that event, too, but nowadays as an older woman self-christened Virginia for decades, she claims she was the grandchild who traded kisses for nickels in that log house full of wood smoke, a bunch of Duff family members, and an old man lying in a bed in the daytime.
"I was the only one who kissed Grandpa," she will say, and then making the lie even bigger and better, "and I said to him I wouldn't take a nickel to do it. I'd kiss my grandpa for free as many times as he wanted."
I have to admire Virginia for that, and for the other ways she's reconstructed the past and the present over the years to suit her needs. She never finished high school, for example, dropping out in her junior year to marry a tall duck tailed electrician, destined later to become an ardent George Wallace fan, so she never attended college, of course. Yet I've heard her tell people that she was a "history major" and that she still loves the subject, making this announcement with a wonderfully wistful look on her face. Like me and most of the Duffs, Virginia learned early the need and advisability of recasting reality to make it palatable. It's the only reliable way to get through the day in East Texas.
But I did once agree to leave my home with my parents from where we lived in Hardin County to spend the night with my mother's father, my civilized grandfather Irwin, the easy access to bananas in his apartment in Beaumont on my mind, and all went well until it was time to go to bed. That was when I announced that I was ready to go home now, and the story is I did it so forcefully and tearfully that Grandpa Irwin didn't waste time trying to persuade me otherwise. So he drove me back from his apartment in Beaumont all the way into the darkness of Hardin County and home.
That part of the event I don't remember, but I can still see the hall my grandfather tried to get me to walk down toward a room where I was supposed to sleep. And that hall is dark in my memory, and narrow and threatening, and I still wouldn't want to travel it.CHAPTER 2
I was born in Hotel Dieu in Beaumont, Texas, in September of 1938. Whenever I was told that fact as I grew up, the person pronouncing the word always made dieu rhyme with boo. I don't think anybody in my family realized the words were French and one of them meant God. They knew the name of the hospital was Catholic, of course, as most strange things were in that part of Texas, the area where Louisiana laps over into the Lone Star State and exerts its warping influence. But I learned to be proud of the fact that I came into the world in a hospital with such a name. It was a mark of distinction.
That I was born in a hospital at all was worth comment, in fact, and indicated merit. My sister Nancy, three years later, was born at home, a small house in Hale Station, a railroad stop in Hardin County. But I was the first child, at least the first one of my mother's children to survive birth. I was born in Jefferson County where Spindletop, the first successful oil well in Texas, was drilled, and in a hospital dramatically named Hotel Dieu, and I was a boy. The signs were right, and all was auspicious.
My mother was the third of four children, thus the baby of the family for a period of years before she was usurped by the last one of her siblings, and she never got over the shock of having been deposed. Her father and mother were Nebraskans come to Texas in connection with John Irwin's employment with the Magnolia Oil Company, and her mother died when my mother was around eleven. John soon married a woman named Belle whom all the children hated, and I was raised to view her as an interloper and a fraudulent grandmother.
I still have a photograph of my mother Dorothy at age six or so. She stands on the front porch of a house somewhere in Nebraska, dressed all in white and bent over a toy crib filled with dolls. She looks up wistfully into the closing lens focused on her, as if she can see the long spiral down the social ladder to come: the move to Texas, the new baby sister of the family assuming her rightful role, the death of her mother, Belle installed in her mother's place, all that grief waiting to descend upon her.
Dorothy Irwin was never taller than four feet, eleven inches, but she had played basketball guard for Beaumont High on the same team with Babe Didrikson, and in her forties, sick already with the cancer that would kill her at fifty-two, could still throw a basketball the length of the court. She did that once when we happened to be walking through a gym together, challenging me to try it first. I did, sending the ball almost to half-court and pitying the small woman who would try to match that.
She did, of course, and more, using her arm as a lever and her entire body as a fulcrum, sending the ball flying away to the other end of the floor. Like all women I would come to know, she had secrets which, when revealed, would show me up.
At first, I believed the Babe Didrikson story she told, and then as I grew older and learned how to lie convincingly and defensively myself, I came to believe the story was at best an exaggeration and at worst an out-and-out fabrication. I learned well and early the use of fictitious narratives and depended upon their service. Decades later, though, my mother dead for over thirty years by then, I picked up a biography of Babe Didrikson in a library in Baltimore and flipped through it to the collection of photos at the center of the book. There beside Babe on both the basketball and volleyball teams, dressed in a uniform with a tie drawn up to the collar and long socks and strange athletic shoes, my mother stood looking out at me, her usual unsmiling serious self in a picture. Unlike her mythologizing son, she hadn't been lying after all.
Her husband, my father, Willie Ellis Duff, was six feet, five inches, in his stocking feet, and he reminded people of that fact all the time. He also was a handsome man, intelligent, and he spoke well and fulsomely, and those characteristics he asserted to any and all who would stand still to hear him, whether they were listening or not. He met my mother when they were both rooming in the home of Nelia Davis, an old lady in Nederland, a few miles south of Beaumont. Dorothy was attending nursing school at a hospital, and Willie was working as an oil field hand for a company somewhere in the area. Both were well past the usual age for unmarried men and women at the time, twenty-five for her and ten years older for him.
"First time I saw your mama, Gerald," he told me over and over (he told me all his stories, the same ones, throughout his life repeatedly, with the same amount of relish each time), "she was tripping up the steps of Nelia Davis's house there in Nederland, and I knew I had to meet her."
So in 1935 Dorothy Irwin, daughter of a respectable mid-level manager from the Midwest, married Willie Duff out of Polk County, deep in East Texas, the red clay of the failed family cotton farm heavy on his shoes. She settled for good and for ill in him and in all he ever was and did. Her family never understood the union, and neither did his.
What he crucially had in common with the woman he married, I think now, is that at age eleven both lost mothers, both had usurpers installed in their mothers' places by their fathers, and neither one ever accepted or understood the trauma that resulted. My mother's false mother was named Belle, and my father's was called Alice. Belle had children of her own, and so did Alice. The real difference between the two situations was the number of offspring involved. Dorothy's stepmother had a normal number of children of her own and produced no additional ones with her new husband John Irwin, and my grandfather Amos Duff, had thirteen children with my father's mother, proceeding to add nine more with Alice.
That second group, the half-brothers and half-sisters of my father and his true and full siblings, was always identified by them as "the top crop." I learned to consider that second harvest from Amos Duff's loins as beneath real consideration. They weren't of the same species as my father's real brothers and sisters, uncles Lewis and Jim and Miller and aunts Mary and Myrtle and Rosalie and MayBelle and Linnie and the other ones dead before I was born. The ones by Alice (I was taught never to call her grandmother or grandma but always Aunt Alice) had names like Effie and Dura and Ferguson and Yvonne and Valerie and Felder and other lesser ones whose names I never learned nor was expected to.
I also learned from my mother that I was to care about my aunts and my uncle on her side of the family, the Irwins, and I learned from my father and my mother to suspect, distrust, fear, despise, dismiss, ridicule, condemn, and criticize most of my father's true siblings and all of the "top crop," that whole collection of people from Polk County together named Duff and known by others throughout that country as the Duff bunch.
It made for double-mindedness in me and my sister Nancy. We were taught to admire and respect Aunt Ella, Aunt Norma and especially Uncle Roderick, the Irwins from Beaumont in Jefferson County, who had gone to real high schools and had come from Nebraska, one of those states far away and therefore cleaner and respectable and less emotionally cluttered than Texas. The Duffs, though, were a different breed. They never smiled or laughed or appeared to like seeing us unless they'd been drinking (always whiskey, straight from the bottle and never in a glass or in front of anybody else, expect for Uncle Lewis who'd drink anything anywhere at anytime and would come into his relatives' houses when they weren't home in his search for whiskey, which he would always find no matter how well it had been hidden). They didn't like each other ever and didn't mind showing it. In fact, they liked to say terrible things to each other about character flaws, wrong actions, and sorry behavior in their kin, in their kin's children, in-laws and acquaintances. And they did it often, and they did it well.
A good example was Pascal Richardson, the only child of Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Buck. Pascal had suffered polio at an early age, leaving his legs withered and useless, and he had to get around on crutches. Probably in reaction to the slowdown his disability caused him, Pascal developed a sharp tongue and a quick wit. He needed all the defenses he could come up with, given the fact that he lived with his parents on the hardscrabble cotton farm adjoining Aunt Mary's and Uncle Jesse's place with their six sons and one daughter. One day, the story went (and it was a story my father featured often in his arsenal of illustrations of sorriness in relatives and comeuppances duly dealt), Pascal found himself alone outside and undefended by an adult, with three or four of his first cousins ringed around him.
These three or four Richardson boys (they were double first cousins, their fathers brothers and their mothers sisters) were probably Jesse Lee, Bethel, and Wilson, and they immediately began to torment their crippled cousin, Pascal, mainly because he was there and it was possible to do so. Why not? My father always said when he was telling the story.
Excerpted from Home Truths by Gerald Duff. Copyright © 2011 Gerald Duff. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.