I remember the train, of course I do, though I was but five years old. Except, in truth, when I say I remember, it’s really just pieces. The size and the noise of the engine at the Atlanta depot, puffing like a dragon waiting to swallow up me and Mama and our cardboard suitcase. I wonder, now, about that one suitcase, since Mama’s plan was for us to stay in California a plentiful time. Daddy said it was only that one suitcase got brought home, so if there was more, I guess they got lost somewhere. I can recall us changing trains amongst a throng of travelers, at night somewhere, and later, me holding the hand of one grown-up after another, being led forward and backward from place to place inside a station, feeling confused in some stuffy office, and ending up in a different train going back the way we came. That was in Arizona, I’ve been told.
I remember the bigness of the train on the inside of it, too. Mama would let me walk by myself all the way to the diner when I got itchy from sitting so long. There were Pullman sleepers, but we had only seats. Mama said when we went home to see Daddy at Christmas, we’d get berths, an upper for her and a lower for me, because then we could afford it. We were going to California so I could try out to be Shirley Temple’s understudy, which was a real job, Mama said, paying real money, even more money than Daddy made at the paper mill. Mama was sure I would win because my new-dyed, new-curled hair was so pretty and I could sing and dance so good and was, besides, as she always told everyone, a real American princess, which meant, and still means, that our family — Mama’s family, that is — harkened back to not only Robert E. Lee but also to George Washington.
The County librarian helped me look it up once and found that the wife of Robert E. Lee was a Custis and so was the wife of George Washington. Mrs. Lee was Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter, but only the step-granddaughter of President Washington himself. So Lee and Washington were kin, but not from a straight blood connection. How that came down to Mama’s family, with the last name of Ball, was too much for the librarian to uncover. But Mama’s word alone was good enough for me, and she always did act the lady. To show her breeding even more, we were the only ones in our neighborhood to have a piano and Mama the only person of our acquaintance knew how to play piano, plus, sometimes, if she was cross with Daddy over something, she’d tell him she married under herself, which sounded to me like they were standing on stairs and Daddy was lower down than her, and I do believe that’s how she meant it. He didn’t object when she said this, but only looked sort of sad, like somebody might look who felt disappointed in the shape of their nose or the cut of their cheap coat. He wasn’t drinking yet in those days, in the time before me and Mama took our train trip. Later, when he was drinking, on nights he got to feeling sorry for himself because Mama was gone, he would sometimes say himself about her marrying below.
Because of the sway of the train cars, I had to walk slowly, making a game of keeping my balance, which was especially tricky when I passed over the clattering, scary links from car to car. I wasn’t allowed to go into the diner. I had to turn around there and go back to where Mama sat staring out the window. If I was hungry, she had a carpet bag of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, and apples and peanuts, and cookies our neighbor had made us, and a thermos of water that Mama re-filled when we needed it. We’d eat in the diner, Mama said, when we went home for our Christmas visit. And I could even order hot chocolate with whipped cream if I wanted. It’s something I have yet to do to this day, eat in a train dining car. Travel by train isn’t so popular any more, nor convenient, and things have probably gotten shabbier, as passed over things will do, but it still feels to me an inviting notion to be sitting at a white cloth table with food you didn’t fix yourself and the scenery of the world rolling by while you move away, away and towards, towards both at the same time, like in a fairy tale or a dream.
Another clear thing I remember about the train — the clearest thing, really — is the smallness of where we sat. I should say that even though it’s so clear to me, it mayn’t be a correct memory. It might be that the wideness of the seats and the space for our feet and the way the chairs tilted back if you wanted to sleep were all perfectly fine. Mama was a slender woman, and I was small for my age, which is why I was probably going to be able to be Shirley Temple’s understudy for a good while, so the train seats shouldn’t have felt tight even if they were, which maybe they weren’t. Anyhow, it’s definite that they weren’t room enough for a woman having a fit.
Mama didn’t have fits often, but I knew what to do when they did happen. Take off her eyeglasses. Move the furniture aside. Stay close by and wait. She usually took to bed afterwards, like she had to rest up after a long afternoon hoeing and weeding the vegetable garden. Then my job was to be quiet until she came downstairs again. She always smiled at me then, a special smile I didn’t see other times, a now-that’s-done-let’s-get-on-with-our-day smile, like she’d been away somewhere and was just come home. So on the train, when she slid down and began to twitch and shake on the floor in front of our seats, I quickly pulled her glasses off and stood up on my chair to give her more room. It was dinner time, or maybe lunch time. I know because we were alone in the car, the other passengers gone to the diner. Mama had already got still when the conductor came by. He saw her on the floor and bent down over her with a frightened look and rushed away and shortly came back with another conductor and a porter. The porter, I think it was, led me to a different car and sat me down next to a strange lady who gave me rock candy to suck on. I didn’t like to leave Mama, but it was her resting time. I hoped they were letting her use a berth for just this once. I don’t think they did.
Finally, somebody told me Mama had died. Right before my eyes, though I didn’t know it while it was happening. Or maybe it happened after the fit stopped. Daddy told me the doctor said people with Mama’s complaint did sometimes die in a fit or right after, and nobody could figure out how or why. He said it wasn’t my fault. But for the longest time, I thought it must be, at least partly. I thought there was maybe something I should have done that I didn’t, something I would’ve done if anyone had told me. But it was only her and me, with no one for me to ask. Her in the clutches, and me sort of clutched, too. And God, my Aunt May would say. But if He was there with us, He was no help, and though doctors could never stop Mama’s fits, you would think God could, yet when He had such a fine chance to, He didn’t. Was He waiting for me? Aunt May was fond of saying God gives help to them that helps themselves. But what’s the worth of God if we have to set out shaky and raggedy on our own first? I never was able to like my aunt’s God, who always looked displeased in pictures.
There’s those would say I should be grateful to Aunt May, who took me in after Daddy sent me to the orphanage in Mississippi because he couldn’t work and mind a child both, being broke down by Mama’s passing, and breaking his own self down more with the beginnings of hard drink. But Aunt May didn’t come get me right away. I stayed in the orphanage five years. Maybe, like God, she was waiting for me to help myself before stirring to lend her hand. Though what shape such helping of myself would’ve taken I can’t figure even now.
The orphanage wasn’t so bad, only lonely, which is funny in a way because we were none of us ever alone. Daddy did come see me every once in a while, but so irregular I didn’t look for him, not even on my birthday. That broke me for good of the habit of regarding my birthday as any kind of special day. The only other lasting fruit of my years at the orphanage is that I am a fast eater. When I was a young woman, a man once said to me, “You’re a beautiful girl, but you eat like a gorilla.” I tried to be more careful after that, especially when other people were around, but if I’m on my own, which I am more and more, I fall back into that old shoveling way with food, and I have to say I do enjoy it more. I wonder if that man who called me a gorilla ever told another girl that. There are some wily men as do know just the thing to put you off your balance and tip you towards wanting to prove yourself and please them.
At the orphanage, they made us go to Sunday morning services, but at Aunt May’s church, Sunday was a full day pledge. She took me to church with her on Wednesday evenings, too, and dropped me on Saturday afternoons for the children’s ministry, where we used fat, wax crayons to color pictures of Jesus, and studied hymns and Bible verses ’til we had them by heart, and learned about the sins children are liable to. Lying, mostly, and not obeying, though I did know kids who stole sometimes and a few who used swear words when no grown-ups could hear, and those things were on the list, too. Yet I maintain that anyone honest about their childhood will confess that every once in a while, or in some cases often, a lie or a disobeying is a necessary thing for a child, the only way through something. The needfulness of such small sinning in big circumstances holds when you’re grown, too. I’ve found it so in my life anyway.
Aunt May was Mama’s sister, so she, too, was heir to the Lee-Washington connection and heir to bragging on it, too. She looked the part more than Mama had, since Uncle Norris was manager of the Bank of Chickamauga, so she had lots of dresses and hand-painted china and a garden of prize roses, and they had a cook and a lady who came to clean, and a big, fine house just down the street from the big, fine house where Tom Lee, Robert E.’s brother, used to live.
Uncle Norris had the look of prosperity, too, with his big belly and his shiny shoes and his special cigars sent all the way from Cuba. He had small, narrow-fingered hands for such a big man. His pinky rings, one ruby and one emerald, would draw your attention. But I had other reasons than the rings to watch Uncle Norris’s hands. He never did put them on me in any bold way he shouldn’t have — he was too strict a Presbyterian for that — but he would rest one on my shoulder or on my knee whenever we sat side-by-side, which was more times than you might think, in a movie theater or on the couch in front of the fireplace or on the garden bench under their widespread, hulking magnolia tree. And he’d lift the tips of his fingers and tap and stroke against my skin so soft I might have thought it was my imagination except that a sickish feeling in my stomach told me it wasn’t.
After a few years, when I began to have some curves, he took to hugging me, too — long, pressing bear hugs — when he left for work and when he came back and any other occasions he could manage. Then late one night I woke up to find Uncle Norris sitting on the edge of my bed. The sheet was slid down off me — he must have done the sliding because I never was a restless sleeper and always woke in the mornings with all the bedclothes up to my chin. He didn’t see I was awake, and I kept careful not to let him see. I didn’t want to think of what he might do or say if he knew I knew he was there. He sat still in the dark for the longest time looking at me, up and down the length of me in my thin summer nightgown. I could hear his breathing, sounding like a dog who’s overheated, and I could smell his tobacco mouth. The blood was pounding in my ears, but I didn’t move. Finally, he put the sheet back over me and left.
That very next day, I took Aunt May’s pin money from the cookie tin she kept it in and bought a bus ticket to Waycross. Daddy didn’t ask why I’d come. I was 14 and wouldn’t be a bother, could even be a help around the house, so he was content for me to stay. After a couple of days, he called Aunt May to say where I was. He didn’t make mention whether she’d been worried. But I knew she never was glad to have me. She’d showed that in lots of little ways. If I’d’ve told her about Uncle Norris watching me in bed, she probably would have turned it into something to hold against me. She would’ve said I was lying, or maybe even called me a seducer. I don’t know what Uncle Norris thought about my leaving. Maybe it was a relief to him. He often did have a sorrow in his eyes when he looked at me across the dinner table. But I didn’t care what either of them thought or felt, nor Daddy either, come to that. I knew I was on my own whosever roof I was under. It was a hard thing to know, but it would’ve gone harder for me not to know it, or to know it too late.