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When my grandfather died he had a pair of my mother's panties in his pocket: white cotton, soft-worn from my mother's three-year-old girlish round butt. There in the pocket, he could reach, rub the smooth fabric between his thumb and finger when feeling thoughtful, worried, afraid. It was a sudden death.
I never knew my grandfather. But I have felt his hand reach through time. I've felt a man's fingers part my own panties from the upper crease of my thigh, and I've looked away, pretending nothing was there, just as my mother grew up to tell us the story of how her daddy loved her so much that he died with a pair of her panties in his pocket. She was proud. She never seemed to think, as I did, that there was something wrong, something missing in this story of her dead daddy's love. There was a blank page in the story, a vast blank plain that even as a girl I knew I shouldn't walk out into. Wait. How? Why? My mouth shut, eyes wide-open wondering. Panties in a dead man's pocket? If my daddy died with my panties in his pocket I'd never tell the story. I would be too embarrassed. Ashamed.
When my mother was a girl she liked to bury her dolls and dig them up to bathe them in a pan of soapy water, wash their clothes, and dry them in the sun on the grass. She rocked her babies, pretended to feed them honeysuckle and sang to their wide-open blue eyes. Then compelled, she would bury them, using a spoon stolen from the kitchen to scoop the earth up and her palms to slide the dirt over their faces until they were buried from the light.
She wasn't a bad girl, not mean like her grandmother said when she'd whip her with a switch, shouting with eachstroke: "One day you'll learn to appreciate things." My mother would run and sit under the pecan tree in the backyard. She would watch the sun move through the delicate lacy pattern of swaying leaves and try not to miss her daddy who was dead and her mother who never seemed to be home. She would sit, sweat mingling with tears on her face until a breeze came and cooled her as she hoped she could keep the promise and not bury her dolls again.
I never buried my babies. They were too dear and hard to come by. I needed those plastic dimpled arms, round bellies and soft heads to cuddle under covers through the nights. There was enough death in the living world to keep my dolls alive. My puppies choked on chicken bones; some were hit by cars. I cried, screaming always, teased sometimes for the ugly way my face twisted with pain. I tried to cry in private, but death is such a public thing with puppies writhing in the grass while flies and fleas buzz in summer heat. After death I calmly claimed my pets while my sisters, repulsed and angry, always ran away. I wrapped my pets in pillowcases stolen from the closet and carried them to rest in their corner in my woods.
In addition to puppies, I loved and lost my goldfish who in time always bloated and turned belly up, their tiny fish souls swimming off as I went back to Woolworth's and plunked my quarters down. Carrying pair after pair home, sloshing dully in their bags, I dumped them in the bowl and named them the eternal names of Flip and Flap, as if persistent naming could make resurrection true.
There were also turtles, tiny store-bought things with hard backs, fragile yellow bellies, tiny claws and cool black bead eyes. Without complaint they climbed my dirt piles, swam mudhole creeks, and lived dull short lives in my turtle bowl with the spiraling ramp that ended at a flat plastic palm tree glued upright at the center like a rigid useless flag. Suchlives weren't meant to be lived. But ever hopeful, I kept buying more turtles so lively and green at the start as they crawled across my hand. Then I watched them slowly wither like freshly dying leaves.
The dogs, my daddy buried; at least that is what he said. But as I watched him roll them in a plastic sheet and throw them in the back of the truck, I knew he'd toss them in a wood somewhere or throw them with our garbage at the local dump.
Some things went beyond my service. But puppies, turtles, goldfish, even after death were mine. My private graveyard was for smaller things, a little world of loss. A perfect place, a tiny space where I was too human and giant-sized to fit my thick grief in. So I shrunk the pain to a smaller scale, set a little stage of death, and reduced my sorrow to the plastic human forms of Barbie and Ken.
My momma's boyfriend, Wally, brought my first Barbie doll. He was a truck driver and came on days my daddy worked. With Daddy's twenty-four-hour fireman's shifts, Momma took the risk. Wally was a lean man with biceps that bulged like living things breathing in his arms. I couldn't help but stare at his muscles, his flashing eyes, his grin. Sometimes he'd let me run my fingertip along the thick veins that curled like snakes under his taut, tanned skin. Wally smelled like Old Spice and cigarettes and looked cleaner than my dad. He always tapped the front door, opened it, peeked with a sneaky smile, then came in. He gave us balls, jacks, Bo-Bo paddles, and Little Debbie snack cakes pilfered from his truck. Momma always took the brown paper sack he brought her with a laugh. She'd unwrap the fifth of whiskey, give him a kiss and us a look that meant we had to go. Without complaint we took our snack cakes, toys, and secrets out the door. We'd play outside under trees knowing what went on inside. We'd seen the dirty magazines underneath the bed, had squealed at the mottled skin and hairy crotches, saw that wild dog look frozen in some stranger's eyes. We knew what Wally came for, but we kept our momma's secret and our minds on the games we played until we saw Wally's truck leave and heard Momma call us in.
I knew that sex was a dirty steaming swamp ahead. My older sister had told me it was awful, that being a girl only got worse each year once you let some boy get in. I clung to my Barbie's perfect grown-up body, its smooth flat crotch, its promise to stay pure. My Barbie was a virgin, even though she came unwrapped and plainly offered from rough truck-driving hands. Wally had pointed to the brown bubble-do hair, and the big blue eyes and said, "She looks like your momma. Why don't you call her Bobby Jo." He squeezed my Barbie in his hand, looked at me, and grinned. "No, she's Barbie," I said, reaching. I'd seen Momma naked and knew she was no doll. She had hair and fat and freckles. I'd seen her pee and bleed. My Barbie was a lady. She had money, cars, and boyfriends who only kissed with their mouths sealed off from tongues and spit. So I gripped her in both hands and stared at those sweet blue eyes. My Barbie, my real Barbie, the name-brand one. I couldn't help but smile. Now I would be like those blond girls on TV with straight teeth, ponytails with ribbons, and nice clean clothes. They all had real Barbies and their mommas baked them cookies and never locked them out when Wally the truck-driving boyfriend came. I looked up at Wally and whispered, "Thank you, thank you, Wally." He beamed down and said, "Take her out and play now." That time I went happily out to my place in the yard. I was reborn then into a purer world of name-brand toys like real girls in that clean bright world beyond. No more cheap pink imitation fashion doll, no more pretending I had a real Barbie with that dime-store fake Babette.
While Barbie was a debutante, Babette was local white trash. With her sluttish black-lined eyes, her lips too red and skin too pale, she looked cheap no matter how she dressed. Babette died the day I was reborn with Barbie. It was a quiet death in the back corner of my closet, with only my child's blind loyalty preventing her from being thrown away. So she remained my secret low-class self, the doll not good enough to play with Barbie, the girl I kept but hid.
Momma said she had really looked like Barbie once, before she met my dad. She said she was the kind of girl all Ken-doll boys had wanted to go out with, said she was neat and sweet and pretty back then when she was young. Momma cried when Daddy got drunk and swore, "Like Barbie, like hell, you were never nothing but a whore!" I wanted to believe she looked like Barbie with her blue eyes and bubble hairdo, but then I'd seen her laughing when Wally grabbed her butt. I'd seen her open mouth, her cheap red lips, her pale pink skin that never tanned. I knew she was no Barbie. Babette was in my blood.
But Barbie was what I could be if I practiced, prayed and tried. I planned one day to be her, but had to struggle first to make my doll look like the one in commercials on TV. She had a boyfriend, cars, houses, and at least a dozen outfits with tiny shoes that matched. She went to California beaches, New York nightclubs, sometimes even Paris, France. But my Barbie never went beyond my woods and the backyard of my house. She couldn't afford those fancy outfits. She made do with homemade clothes.
I swiped my family's socks to make them, cut them down to tube-shaped dresses, shirts and skirts. I snipped armholes, added buttons, rickrack, ribbons, glitter, glue. I used my pink lace-edged Easter socks for her cocktail dress and loved the girlish ruffle stretched across her rock-hard breasts. The sexy cocktail dress was my most prized creation until I saw Flash Gordon on TV one day and was inspired to higher realms in my design. I ran to my mother's kitchen, swiped a roll of foil, found scissors, tape, and glue, then hid for hours in my bedroom, where in all flashing crinkling glory, my Space Barbie was born.
First, I wrapped her in press-on foil pants, made a halter top and used Scotch tape to secure her flowing cape. I made a miniskirt and a straight shift dress that glistened above her silver press-on boots. I added foil wrist bangles, and when her hat fell off I stuck it on with a pin rammed in her head.
Space Barbie came from Mars. She knew the secrets of the universe and flew above the daily trauma of dead pets, secret boyfriends and my momma and daddy's fights. But she didn't visit often. She had better things to do out there with stars and angels, her visitations holy days that couldn't come too often or they'd lose the magic that could lift me from my world. So most days she was plain bubble-do Barbie in her clothes of cut-up socks. She was happy with her shoebox house, had a good life, never once got hit or hurt or sick. And she had Ken to talk to when I sealed them up at night in their cozy shoebox home. I never thought to bury them. They weren't worth the trouble since they never really died. They'd always be alive above ground, promising an eternal present without age, loss, or pain. They always smiled, never argued with my plans and so became the perfect tools of grief for the mortal living dying ones, my pets.
My graveyard was scaled down with paths just wide enough for the dainty steps of Barbie and the flat bare feet of Ken. Mourning clothes always meant the risk of black socks stolen from Daddy's drawer. I sneaked in when Momma was out, pushed through the rolled lumps of socks to finger his heavy silver dollars, dirty playing cards, and rubbers wrapped in foil. I held in secret my fascination for the grown-up man things he only thought he hid. But I justified my theft claiming proper death had a higher purpose and thinking things couldn't really be stolen from a family with a blood connection. Lost things weren't really lost; they simply moved around. I knew he'd never miss those socks and I was safe since Momma was too busy with Wally and whiskey on the days Daddy worked to notice what I did.
I hid Barbie's grieving face with a veil cut from the toe of Daddy's sock. She walked the pebble-lined path as I held and slowly guided her to the gravesite with my right hand, and Ken followed barefoot in my left. They stood balanced in my grip above the open grave and grieved.
A girl finds comfort in her small worlds: shoebox houses, tiny toys, and painted castles in the bottom of fish bowls. A girl needs a kind of smallscale peace in a house where yells, smells and secret things are too thick to grasp. So I reached for what I could hold in my quiet careful hands. A living doll, they called me for my sweetness, silence, cuteness, my ease at being good. I knew from my baby dolls how to do it, how to smile and eat and drink and sleep and pee on cue. A "living doll" they called me, but I knew that underneath the plastic my blood breathed, heart pounded, belly moved. Just like my puppies, I could cry and choke and bleed. I could die like my dead things, and once buried I would rot. I knew I was a creature more like my puppies that rotted when they died, that I was nothing like those dolls. But I thought if I could be like Barbie, no one would tease or hurt. If I could be like Barbie, some larger hand would always hold me safe above an open grave, and I would never die.
So I played my graveyard game and kept my private line between the living and the dead, split myself between the smiling sunlight side and the rank decay of graves. I lined the little graveyard paths with bright pebbles, and transplanted mosses, violets, and wild strawberries. I watered, loved them, but they never seemed to grow. In time they always died.
I dug neat graves and wrapped my dead in clean bright cloths. Then as I offered my pets to the ground like little presents, Barbie and Ken mourned. They carried bouquets of honeysuckle rubber-banded tightly to their stiff and outstretched hands. They stood at the gravesite the proper time for grief. Then I laid them on the ground with their rigid arms reaching, and eyes staring up at treetops as I scooped the dirt back slowly into graves with my spoon. I held Ken and Barbie upright in my hands and prayed. Then I carefully peeled the wilting clumps of honeysuckle from their hands and let Barbie place the flowers on the grave. Finally I shoved a Popsicle stick cross for a headstone in the dirt. I knew the first rain would knock it down, but I loved the daily tending of my graveyard the way I'd seen my momma tend her petunias and red pepper plants. My dead pets were my garden; Barbie, Ken, and stolen socks and spoons my tools.
And so I wanted to be my Barbie who seemed happy in her sock clothes. When my dog chewed her head flat, the face bounced back and smiled. She could stand all day at a graveside and stay pretty, sweet and upright as long as I could hold her in my sweaty, gripping hands.
Barbie taught me death was not a sequence, no cycle of darkness and light made by some sad girl's need to dig holes with stolen spoons. I knew my mother's claim was wrong that scooping dirt from her dead doll's mouth meant she was revived. For me death was a dark division made in private shadows of my head and heart, not a cycle as my momma thought but a constant shifting border like the horizon that stood rolling between the earth and sky.
A mortal girl, I went down and died a little with my puppies, turtles, goldfish. The hurt part stayed buried with the pain and love and hunger blocked with each little scoop of dirt. But the living doll girl stayed above ground, stiff and smiling. I knew mortal things were too ugly to be left above, too stinking full of blood and bugs and rot. There was a future with my Barbie, a life that felt no pain with that hollow heart and head. So I lived on, like Barbie, stayed above ground, steady, and forgiving, so sweet and pretty sometimes they would swear I was alive.
My mother used to sing for doughnuts. On Saturdays she rode the bus downtown, her weekly outing with her mother who worked all week at the Moon Pie factory, day in, day out carrying the scent of sugar and oil on her clothes. Her mother sat at the counter and drank cup after cup of black coffee, while my mother sat politely rocking back and forth on her stool, never spinning around because that wasn't ladylike. She contented herself with gripping the counter in both hands and pushing herself gently left and right, feeling the sway of the stool beneath her, imagining how it would feel to spin all the way around. Finally her mother would finish the coffee and tell my mother that it was time to go.
My mother never said she was bored, restless, ignored. She told me that as she walked into the doughnut shop, the man behind the counter would say, "Morning, Bobbie Jo, you gonna hop up here and sing?" Someone would lift her up. Then standing on the counter, she would clasp her hands at her waist, sway a little with the beat in her head, and sing what she could remember of "Chattanooga Choo Choo." She told the story with a quiet light in her face, a peaceful smile pulling at her lips as if these moments of standing on a counter and singing for a sweet were a piece of heaven in a life of rationed sugar, butter, and bread, and a mother who always worked at the factory, who day in, day out smelled of those sick sweet Moon Pies.
I used to love to hear my mother tell this story, would request it again and again. As she fingered, fondled, loved and sucked down the memory as if it were a piece of butterscotch candy, I would listen, watching, clinging to every word, charmed, but knowing that I would never do that. I would never stand on a counter where everyone could see my panties. I would never sing for a doughnut. I would be too embarrassed. Ashamed.
My mother named me Shirley, for Shirley Temple, she said. I taught myself to tap dance, made myself look bright-eyed, practiced in the mirror how to be a darling thing. It worked. "Sweetest little thing that ever drew breath," my mother told me as she dressed me and curled my hair. She bought me matching lace socks and lacy-bottomed panties, shined my patent-leather shoes with Vaseline and took me out, the model child, the only one of her children she took to lunch to show off to the grown-ups, her badge of the good mother she claimed she was. They would smile at my big brown eyes, face like a doll, and offer me things just for being sweet: a nickel, a peppermint, a piece of Juicy Fruit gum.
They all said it, friends and strangers would shake their heads and say: "She looks just like Shirley Temple, ain't she the sweetest little thing." I was trained to be, had to be a darling ray of sunshine, a perfect angel of a girl. I knew the danger of a rule broken, a cry of selfishness or rage: a scream, or smack, or worse. So like Shirley Temple, I learned to step forward, my mouth fixed in a cute pout when angry, a comic frown that I could transform to a smile on demand. I was Shirley, a living doll, they said, just like Shirley Temple. How my sisters must have hated me.
My mother bragged that when I cried as an infant, her raised hand alone could make me stop. I must have been a smart baby to know the sign and consequence of that raised hand. I was rarely whipped —the belt curled in my mother's purse was enough warning for me. I could feel it lashing at the back of my legs while my mother held my arm, me trying to run as she gripped me and we turned round and round in a circle, my mother at the center turning with me as I tried to run away.
I can still remember the time she slapped my face so hard I fell off the kitchen stool. I had talked back, had told her I was going to play at Kathy's house when she had just told me no. "Don't you ever talk like that to me!" One flicker of will, and a slap that took my breath, sent me to the floor, a time I took the hit, didn't have a chance to see the hand raised.
I never knew my daddy, but carried the legal name of my older sister's daddy. Jack Stone. "Daddy Jack" I called him, but my sister, Ruby, had the high cheekbones, that rich coffee skin of her daddy's Native American blood. I was fair, with a face like the Little Dutch girl on the can of powdered cleanser. I didn't look like Ruby in the least, nothing like the daddy they said was mine.
I didn't belong to my stepdaddy either. The father of my little sister Sally and my brother, Glenn, he dated my mother when I was a baby. He took me on dates with them, treated me like his own at the start, fed me cups of vanilla ice cream, then later peanuts and popcorn. This was the man I felt was my daddy, the one who taught me numbers, who kept treats for me in the glove compartment of his truck, the one who showed me card tricks, taught me to catch a fish with a cane pole, let me play all I wanted with the carton of worms.
I had the legal name of one daddy, loved the man who raised me, but never knew my own. Like a doll rolling off the assembly line, no single pair of hands made me. I was adjusted, attended to, made, and sent on. My legal daddy belonged to my sister. He took her places, brought her presents, brought me something once: a big stuffed Yogi Bear when he brought Ruby the Huckleberry Hound. A sudden gesture of equal affection, but it was Ruby he spent the day with. I stood at the window and watched them back out the driveway, Ruby bouncing behind the windows of his shiny blue car. Later I would stare at the huge stuffed Yogi Bear, watch the wide-open friendly plastic brown eyes. I knew a piece was missing. My mother was my mother; I had two daddies, one by name, one by habit, but even then I knew something was wrong. I was fifteen before I learned the name of my blood daddy, the man who came in between.
Copyright © 1995 by Jane Bradley
Posted May 14, 2012