“Are we by that river?” Olive asks.
She is swathed in white nightgown and bedclothes, her cheap brown wig—the family calls it the helmet—askew. The skin of her face is loose and corrugated. Photos of grandchildren and folks long dead and one framed print hang over the bed. The twin bed cater-cornered from hers is empty; the occupant died this morning.
I assume she means the Mississippi River, a mere two miles from the nursing home here in Alton, on the Illinois side just north of St. Louis. All her ninety-five years she has had close attachments to rivers: baptized in the Kaskaskia River, fished in the Big Muddy in Southern Illinois, and the river-like Shoal Creek wound like a coiled snake through her father’s farm.
The nursing home is a hundred miles from Mt.Vernon where she had lived on two farms and another house most of her life, the first of which my parents and sister and I lived in for three years. We were very poor, so the story goes, my father making one dollar an hour in a local foundry.
My mother and father had met in Mt.Vernon, the local bad boy bootlegger and the pretty, redheaded, freckled girl from Oklahoma, whose father was an oil derrick worker for hire, and Southern Illinois was rich with oil in those days. My mother got pregnant with me at age sixteen and it was downhill from there.
When I was four, my parents—we had moved to Alton by then—headed for a no-children vacation, would drop us kids off at Grandma’s farm. She took us to her Holy Roller church, and we watched and listened as parishioners spoke in tongues and fell to the floor, and attendants draped towels over the ladies to protect their modesty.
Olive and Grandpa Floyd lived west of town in what was called “the colored section.” My sister and I, in rare moments when we weren’t being indoctrinated with religion, had black playmates. I romped around the fields with a light-skinned older boy, Georgie. He would carry me on his shoulders and in winter we would slide in our shoes across the ice of Georgie’s aunt’s pond.
In August 1970, I read a Time magazine article about George Jackson, founding member of the Black Panther party and author of Letters From Soledad, who had been shot to death by prison guards. The article said that Jackson had been buried in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, his casket carried on the shoulders of Black Panthers through the main street.
I called my grandmother, now living in a trailer down the road from my father’s country house. “Gram, remember that black kid, Georgie, who used to play with me when I stayed with you?” “Yes,” Grandma answered. “Georgie Jackson. His folks were good colored. Oh, he took a shine to you, Gene.
“Remember Shoal Creek? Floyd and I used to let you and your sister play in the water there, and Georgie would come along. And in the late summer, the banks of the creek like walls of a fort, the walls made of corn.”
She used to walk us to the edge of the yard, corn in every direction in September, tall and green and rustling in the breeze, in the waves. “You live on the ocean, children. This farm is an island. When people say, where did your old granny live, you tell them the ocean. You-all been to the ocean.”
“I’m a-take a willow switch to your heinie,” Grandma says, a phrase I have heard all my life. “You ain’t too big to whup. Answer my question.”
Alton is at the confluences of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers, a huge watershed below high bluffs.
“Yes, dear, the Mississippi is nearby.”
“I knew it.”
Her sisters Maude and Pearl and Lola got away from the farm as quickly as they could, becoming one room schoolhouse teachers. Pearl was a champion swimmer; I have a trophy of hers in my house. Brother Roy hitchhiked around the country as a farm worker and sometime fiddle player. He simply disappeared.
(As a little boy, I had been lowered into the caskets of the three sisters and made to kiss the corpses on their sewn together, cold lips.)
Olive stayed behind and nursed her dying mother for a decade. Then she took her widower father into the house of her first marriage. Evenings, she read the Bible to him while husband Fred Baldwin catted around.
Her sisters now married and moved on, her dearest friends, Olive’s only escape from nursing her sick mother was walking. She met a boy across a fence, Morris Royer, on one of those walks, and she kept the meeting a secret, and saw Morris every chance she got. I found this poem stashed in an old shoebox:
“You are witty, you are pretty
You are single—what a pity!
And I am single, for your sake:
What a couple we would make.
And there was this diary entry:
“Began meeting M.R. in the barn at night. He told me he loved me and he held me in his arms. He talked about us getting married and said we could seal the deal here in the barn, the moon shining through the window of the horse stall. And last week we did.
That was the last time I saw him.
Whenever I hear Pete Seeger sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, I think of my Big Muddy River, the family picnics and fishing for channel catfish. We were poor enough that fish or alligator snapping turtle was often our only meat, not counting Sunday chicken dinner, supplemented with canned produce and fruit and Olive’s vegetable soup which consisted of red-tinged, boiling water, a few stewed tomatoes and a lot of over-cooked cabbage. To this day, I cannot stand the smell of boiled cabbage. Or the mouth feel of congealed mush.
Breakfast for my sister and me was fried cakes of cornmeal mush drowned in syrup and warm milk brought straight from a cow in the barn. The adults ate eggs and cornbread. I learned class distinction at an early age.
On Grandpa Floyd’s truck farm were grown strawberries, cherries, pears, apples, peaches, sassafras root, grapes, tomatoes, white potatoes, melons and pumpkins, sweet corn, field corn, peas, green beans, broccoli and carrots. The barns would smell of those things, the sassafras bundles’ odor like root beer. The barns were home to feral cats and rats and rat snakes and raccoons and other varmints. Red fox and coyotes vied for the residents of the chicken coop.
Sundays, Grandma would toss grain to the chickens, and the one dumb enough to respond to its name would get grabbed by the neck and swung violently, to break its neck, or have its head chopped off on a tree stump. The ones which lost their heads would run about for a few seconds. I was in charge of feather plucking and gut removal.
Grandpa Floyd would take me into town to the café (he pronounced it “cafe,” rhymes with “safe”, the way the old Germans did), and I would drink hot chocolate, and Floyd had a coffee, always pouring the liquid from the cup into his saucer. And the customers and waitresses would make over me like I was the only child in the universe.
On bath nights, a metal tub was placed on the kitchen floor and filled with well water heated on the wood-burning stove. Grandpa bathed first, then Grandma, then I was scrubbed raw, and my poor sister was scrubbed last in scum-covered water that looked dirtier than the Big Muddy. We saw the grownups naked, fleshy and scarred and drooping, and they saw us. Modesty is a late twentieth century luxury.
At bedtime, my sister and I said our prayers and were tucked into a feather bed, our bodies sinking deep enough that a ridge of mattress rose up between us and we couldn’t see one another. A slop jar was under the bed, as we were terrified of the outhouse at night. We had heard stories of people getting their backsides bit by black widow spiders lurking under the seats.
“Please, Gene, can I see that river again?”
She had four husbands. My real grandfather, Fred Baldwin, died before I was born. By all accounts he was a bounder—a womanizer and drinker, and general ne’er-do-well. He died of paralysis from drinking a lethal moonshine called Jamaican ginger. Olive hated him so much, she didn’t write her sons, my father, stationed on a minesweeper in SydneyHarbor, and my bomber pilot uncle, in World War II, to tell them their father had died.
Floyd Duncan, the man I knew as Grandpa, was affable and moldable, a good farmer and a friend to Jesus. He was killed as he was driving his tractor and disking a field. He had been watching behind him to make sure the plowed rows were straight, and he passed under a tree on the edge of the field, and a low-hanging branch knocked him backwards over the tractor and into the blades of the disk.
Cloyd Hartman, the third husband, came along a year after Floyd passed. And Cloyd died after two years of marriage—his people said Olive killed him with words—collapsing in his vegetable garden, a hoe in his hand.
The fourth prospective husband—a secret Olive was keeping from the family—I met when I was sixteen. I was staying with her in Mt.Vernon and painting her house, and her seventy-year-old “fiancée,” decked out in a white suit, white shoes and a white straw hat, sat in a lawn chair in the hellish heat and drank lemonade and watched, and gave me a steady stream of advice on how to properly scrape and paint a house. He also marveled at my grandma’s cooking (“That gal make a grand fried chicken—yessir, I do like Olive’s chicky.”) and her “fine, sturdy body,” not something a sixteen-year-old boy necessarily wanted to think about.
That night, I called my dad in Alton and told him the news, and Grandma got on the phone, and they fought. And Grandma won, and she married the gentleman in August—none of us attended the ceremony—and had the marriage annulled in September. The old gentleman, she told my father, wanted sex.
“My church friends, we used to drive across to the Missouri side and have us picnics. I always made my famous fried chicky. I will make you some chicky, you take me to Missouri. Are you my son, or my grandson? I forget.”
Olive Duncan had been a horrible cook. Her “chicky” was oil-soaked in Crisco, fried in a cast iron pan treated with bleach. Her Christmas confections of cookies and fudge were the worst, as she always washed her countertops with bleach and the bleach got into all her foodstuffs. After her farm was wired for electricity, she put bleach and water mixtures in vaporizers and ran them in all weathers.
One Christmas, I volunteered to fetch a plate of homemade fudge from her kitchen. I entered the livingroom, pretending to chew. “Ummm,” I said. “This fudge is your best yet, Grandma. I ate two pieces.”
I walked around the circle of my seated relatives and offered a piece to each person, my father taking his piece and glaring at me, Olive watching with satisfaction as everyone but me ate a piece, the bleachy smell overpowering the pungent odors of the Christmas tree and of the spruce wreathe hanging from the front door. My father waited patiently until his mother wasn’t looking, and he gave me the finger, and everyone choked with silent laughter.
“Can you drive me there? To that river?
My father, perhaps being proactive and hoping to avoid more maternal misadventures, moved my grandmother near our home in Alton, in the 60s, to a housing project for seniors. She did not flourish; her anguish came with her. She kept escaping from the home, wandering along the river and singing hymns in her low, hoarse alto, her purse filled with cash, and no one ever robbed her. It was a miracle, her church people said: she was touched by God.
In 1969, the night of the astronauts landing on the moon, I glanced away from the TV and saw Grandma in a rocking chair in the corner, draped in blankets on the hot summer night. I walked to her and kneeled and said, “What a life you’ve led, Gram. You were born before man-powered flight and you saw the moon landing.”
“I hope they find the light switch on the dang curse moon,” Olive said, “and them astronauts can switch it off.”
My father bought her a trailer in the country, next to his house. “I built a house middle of nowhere, just so I could stand outside and pee freely, no fear of anyone seeing it. Peeing was my great joy. Then I moved Mom into that goddamn trailer, and the next morning I’m outside and unzipping and I hear her door open and, ‘Ewing Baldwin, I see your wiener.’”
In those days, I was working in the theater, in Chicago. I drove the three hundred miles down to Alton for a visit. I arrived in time to see Grandma standing outside her trailer and throwing objects into a rusted barrel, inside of which was a blazing fire.
I got out of the car and watched her toss oval-framed photographs into the flames. I ran to the barrel and started rescuing the frames and laying them on the ground. I grabbed a cardboard clothes box that was smoking and threw it down. My enraged grandmother grabbed me from behind and slapped my head.
“You leave that trash alone, mister! I got a right to burn anythin’ I please! Why anyone would want trash is beyond me.”
I told her I was saving the family’s history. “History? The history of my misery and the men who ruined my life and the family I sacrificed for?”
The photos, of Olive’s parents and sister Pearl, taken around 1910, hang in my livingroom to this day. Also hanging in a custom frame is what was folded in the smoking clothes box: Baby Maude’s hand-sewn lace christening dress, now framed, with three mussel shell buttons below the neck, and a tiny pair of fingerless, red woolen gloves.
The next day: a family barbeque on the back deck over the pond. Grandma glared at me for my sin of rescuing family artifacts. I said, “Gram? You never talk about the past. Tell us a memory.”
Olive picked her teeth with a wooden toothpick and chuckled. Her eyes darted to her son eating a grilled chicken breast, when she had volunteered to make her famous fried chicky. This was a deliberate insult; it called for a return shot.
“Oh,” Grandma says nonchalantly. “I suppose it is time to tell the truth.”
My stepmother stops eating and bites at her cheek. Father lights a Winston and takes a deep draw. We all feel something coming.
“I lied to you, Ewing,” Olive says to Dad. “The family lied. Gene, you believe your great-great grandma Miller come from Germany. It even says so, in that family tree folded up in my Bible. Ain’t so. The family was so ashamed they made up a story.”
“And you’re going to tell that story.”
My father picks up his can of beer and drains it and crushes the can. And waits. Grandma laughs her signature laugh, which she saves for special occasions.
“The truth is, Grandma Miller, she was a Shawnee squaw. She escaped the Trail of Tears. My grandpa brought her to his farm and wed her. We-all are part Injun.”
“Great,” Dad says, his face turning scarlet. “I can get me an Indian scholarship, go to college like my brother did.”
He spikes the beer can onto the deck. He throws his plate of food over the porch rail. He is a racist, and now he is part Indian. His mother laughs.
If he could do, he would cut open an artery and drain the Indian from his body. He reaches into a cooler and pops open a fresh beer. Olive reaches across the picnic table and slaps the beer onto the deck floor. He stands and walks away. We hear a car start. He does not return home for two days.
“No, Grandma,” I say, “the staff wouldn’t allow it.”
She weeps. Her eyes dart around the nursing home room as if she were seeing something.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“Men,” she says, “controlled me all my life. And I took it—the Bible told me to. Fred Baldwin tomcatted on me and I took it. I traveled with him while he drummed wood-burning stoves and left me in boarding houses and he whored and drank.”
My real grandpa stored empty moonshine jars on shelves on their enclosed side porch. When he was broke and desperate for a drink, he would take the jars and shake the drops into one jar, for one stiff jolt. One rainy day, his two sons were playing on that porch. They had to pee, but they didn’t want to walk the hundred feet to the outhouse. They peed into a moonshine jar, promising each other that they’d empty that jar as soon as they went outside. They forgot, of course. And my grandfather came home and staggered out to the porch, and he found a forgotten treasure: a third-full jar of amber liquid. He drank it, gagged then spat it out. When he caught his sons, he stripped them naked and beat them bloody with a cane.\
“Your father . . . taking out his revenge on me,” Grandma says. “He never forgive me for burying his no-good dad in a pauper’s field, with just a numbered tin plaque for a marker. I should have thrown my husband in the compost heap. He didn’t deserve no remembering.”
My father carried me into Oak Hill Cemetery when I was two. He walked to the pauper’s field and saw that the tin plaques had been pulled out of the ground and piled into a creek below the hill. He raged and wept and walked around the field. He stood where he thought his father might have been buried.
At Olive’s burial service in that same cemetery, we stood at her twin granite gravestones. Floyd and Cloyd had been buried there years ago, each with Olive’s name etched on the granite stones. Now, as Olive Duncan, she lay with Floyd, my grandpa, and next to Cloyd.
“Mother is having a threesome,” Dad said, and the funeral party laughs.
I walked my cousins to the paupers’ field and told them the story of the grandfather who died before we were born, and my father carrying me around the empty field. I stamped my left foot on the ground in front of us. Grandfather is buried here, I told the cousins.
Dad, dressed in his maroon Sunday suit, joined us, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. My cousin Buddy told him what we were doing.
“Bullshit,” my father said. “Gene, you were a baby. You couldn’t remember what happened here.” “Frederick Baldwin is buried here,” I said, tapping my shoe on the grassy ground. “Bullshit,” Dad repeated.
Afterward, the family ate at a restaurant outside of Mt.Vernon. The brothers drank martinis and told stories about Olive. The tale of the annulled marriage brought the house down, Dad’s imitation of his mother saying, of the suitor, “He wanted sex,” made us howl with laughter.
“Why do you want to go to the river, Grandma?”
“Please little Genie, take your old grandma to the river. It wouldn’t take you but a few minutes and I wouldn’t never ask you-all a favor again.”
“I’ll bring you a photo of the river,” I say, “and hang it on your wall next to your angel.”
All her living spaces had a picture of an angel hanging in them: a beautiful angel in a white robe and china-colored wings, hovering over a rope bridge across a chasm, the bridge storm tossed, the angel’s arms outstretched to keep safe a terrified little brother and sister who are crossing.
“Don’t want no picture. I want to go to the river. Will you take me or not? I will crawl there if I do not get help. Nobody ever helped me—I always did the helpin’, the servin’, the carin’ for others. I am used to it.”
“Tell me why,” I said.
Olive. her eyes suddenly serene, her voice now calm, says, “Take me to the river. And drown me.”
A surge of tears explode from me. I wail and clench my fists. She wants to die. And in that moment of recognition, I fantasize taking her to the river and carrying her into the water and setting her free and listening to her sing her favorite hymn, The Little Brown Church in the Vale and floating downriver and disappearing into the waves and the foam.
She had been cuckolded, lived with an alcoholic. She and her sons lived in abject poverty, going without food for days at a time. As a punk kid, my father ran a still in the woods, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and pool sharked. Her other son, bright with academic promise, was handed off and adopted by a rich man in town who paid his tuition. Price: my uncle changing his name from Baldwin to Summers. She watched family members imbibe at gatherings, condemned the drinkers to Hell, tried to hit them with willow switches and fists. And she deserved it all—the Old Testament said so.
The violence of my life began with her—a little innocuous-seeming grandma with whips in her hands and hell and damnation in her subconscious, who got her hate from the Old Testament, who, in her last years, faithfully watched soap operas depicting sex and over-the-top trauma, and she reveled in it. Ewing ramped up the violence by using me for a punching bag. The depression began with her. My father inherited it and spent his life brooding, drinking, smoking and yet was shocked when told he had lung cancer.
I have suffered all my life. I am being treated for Post Traumatic Stress disorder, from child abuse. I am a solider in an obscene war. I think violently which, I suppose—I hope—counts as an improvement.
“I have to go,” I say. I feel traitorous and weak. “It’s a five hour drive back to Chicago.”
“Go,” she says.
“I’ll call you. I’ll be back for the Fourth of July.”
“Enjoy your life. You’ll be livin’ here soon enough.”
This comment terrifies me. I straighten the helmet wig and tuck the cover under her chin and kiss her on the forehead. She stares at the ceiling tiles. I back away to the door.
“Are you my son? I forget.”
“I’m your grandson. Gene.”
“Are we by that river?”
I feel physically ill. My bowels heave. My hands shake.
“Could you take me there?”
I run to my car.
I stop at a payphone on the interstate, the roar of traffic coming through the window of the booth. The moon lights the rotary dial.
“Now you know how I feel,” my father says oh so casually, the import of what I thought was breaking news mere gossip, the traffic laughing at me. “My mother asks me to drown her every goddamn visit to that shit-smelling home. Home. You live three hundred miles away, beyond the pain zone. I’ve actually talked about it: drowning my own mother. You have no idea about life, you who told me that blood is not thicker than water—”
I hang up. Go back, I tell myself. Do it. Mercy.
I cry all the way to Chicago.