tagChain StoriesWomen in Time Ch. 04

Women in Time Ch. 04


I've often felt that the web that connects mother and daughter is paradoxically as strong as steel and as fragile as glass, particularly when secrets are woven into its threads. Never was this more abundantly illustrated than in my own life.

The screen door slammed closed with the arrival of my granddaughter Thea, returning tearfully from yet another tempestuous visit to her mother, Frannie. I realized my daughter had not yet found the courage to be completely truthful with Thea, and it was only deepening the chasm that had existed between the two almost since Thea's birth.

I heard Thea's muffled sobs from her room, and Bobbie's wordless, comforting murmurs to her. I was sure Thea had no idea of the source of her mother's self-hatred, and why it seemed to poison everything and everyone she touched. I also realized that Thea deserved an explanation for her mother's inability to sustain a relationship as important as theirs.

For a brief moment, I considered calling my son, Frank, to help me. My son had provided Thea with a solid male presence all of her young life, and had doted on her as if she had been his own daughter instead of his niece. She adored him.

As good as Frank was with Thea, this was a matter between the women in our family, and it was clear to me that I would have to be the one to provide Thea with peace of mind to which she was entitled. Then my thoughts turned to Bobbie, with her ability to remain calm and rational even in the direst of circumstances. She had been my stalwart companion and partner in life for almost thirty years, and Thea loved her dearly. But this deception was not of Bobbie's making, nor was it her responsibility to handle.

When I entered Thea's room, she flew into my arms and clung desperately to me. "Why, Grandma? Why is she so horrible to me? What did I do to her? Sometimes I just hate her!" As Bobbie and I looked at each other over Thea's head, she knew it was time, too. She caressed my face as she brushed the hair off my shoulder, and gently patted Thea's back. Then she quietly left, closing the door behind her as I prepared to give my granddaughter the explanation she deserved.

After all, it was my secret.

Macon, Georgia - August 1934

The screen door slammed for what seemed to be the hundredth time that morning and it was only 10:30. Frank and Frannie, my four-year old twins, awakened with limitless energy, and were sorely trying my patience. On that sultry August morning in 1934, I had been trying to finish canning preserves for the winter. The kitchen had been warm by 6:30, oppressively hot by 8:00, and was stifling now. With any luck, I'd be able to finish before I had to make lunch for the twins. The oscillating fan barely made a dent in the wet heat that clung to my body and my hair stuck to the back of my neck in sodden clumps.

I'd done the laundry the day before, another hot and sweaty task, although I had found some comfort in splashing about in the cooler water of the final rinse. The Maytag wringer washer Howard and I had purchased in 1928 was still quite serviceable, but had I known then that it would be me rather than a half day maid using it exclusively, I would have insisted on getting a more substantial model.

As I stepped out on to the back porch, I shaded my eyes with my hand, and wiped my sweaty forehead with the tail of my apron while I watched miniature dust tornados swirl in the bare dirt beneath the children's tire swing. "Frannie! Frank! Ya'll come in now and have lunch." I watched as the twins looked up at me from their play and scowled. "Ya'll come on now, and you can have some fresh peach preserves. After your nap, we'll go to the drug store."

As in other areas of the country, the Great Depression had hit hardest among farmers and industrial workers in Macon. Those from the middle and upper classes had lost all the money they had felt was safely ensconced in their hometown banks, to be sure, but I did not personally know anyone who went to bed hungry at night. I had found assurance in President Hoover's insistence that "Nobody is actually starving." My faith in the word of our country's leader was somewhat shaken in 1932, when the federal government began supplementing the local relief programs, not long after the news stories on the radio about hundreds of homeless women sleeping in two of Chicago's parks at night.

The same caricatures of shoeshine stand operators and street peddlers that had sprung up all over cities across the United States haunted the streets of Macon, too, although in far fewer numbers. I suppose it made them easier to pass almost unnoticed as I went about my weekly routine – the one that kept me sane in those years of lack and despair. At least we had not had to go on relief. There were many families in Macon who had, and some who had flatly refused, begging and scavenging instead from remote corners of their community, hoping no one would recognize them.

I realized that it wasn't likely that the twins and I would starve anyway. I was always aware of the whispers of pity behind the hands as we arrived for Sunday service. I tried to ignore them, but inside I seethed, not at my well-meaning fellow congregants, but at myself for giving them fodder about which to whisper. And I gratefully took the hand-me-down clothing offered by women with children older than mine. Still, I hoped for the day when this wretched Depression was over and sometimes allowed myself the futile luxury of remembering when things were different - the more prosperous and happier times of the past. To get to the really happy times, though, I'd have to go further back than that horrible November night in 1929, the night my husband died. The night I just as good as killed him myself.

1926 - 1929

I married late in life, and truthfully, had it not been for Mama's insistence, I probably would not have married at all. Make no mistake, my mother, Martha Jones Fenton, made me a good match. . . Howard Charles Miller, II was quite a catch. He was handsome and intelligent, and possessed a keen sense of honor and duty. Howard worked for the second largest bank in Macon, having landed the job when he returned from a six-month tour of duty in France at the end of the Great War in 1918. By 1920, he had risen to a management position at the bank, and in 1923, he became an officer.

Howard was an excellent bank officer. The almost religious fervor with which Howard approached the job – indeed, any responsibility in his life – was largely due to the rigid training of his father, who had died during the influenza epidemic of the late teens. Howard had learned at his father's knee that weakness was the antithesis of a real man.

I had never dated much, not being one to go along with groups of girls my age, hoping to be seen and admired by a boy. In fact, Mama had been the one to introduce Howard to me, and looking back on it, it was Mama who encouraged the courtship, practically shoving me into Howard's arms, determined to make sure that I, her only daughter and now twenty-eight years old, was not destined to lead the life of a spinster. When Mama ran out of reasons I should marry Howard, she tried another out of desperation.

At first I was sure she was joking, but the look on her face told me otherwise. "He has a good pedigree? A pedigree? Mama, we have no pedigree. We are all mongrels, the whole lot of us. Gemmie would turn in her grave if she heard you say that. She'd be far more interested in whether Howard will stick by his family through thick and thin. You know that, you're the one who told me all about her." "Gemmie" was what some of the older children had called Mama's paternal grandmother, Emmaline Jones. Even though I was only a toddler when Gemmie passed on, Mama had told me stories about Gemmie's spunk and determination, as well as her desire that all the women in the family would be women of substance.

Mama had come by her persistence naturally and a dark scowl was her reply. As usual, I gave in. Howard Charles Miller, II and I were married on May 29, 1926, in a lovely service in the church where Howard was raised. We had our reception in Mama's rose garden and followed with a week's honeymoon in New Orleans.

I knew the war had taught Howard some hard truths about life and death, but I didn't know that he brought home a secret from France – one that in a roundabout way was our undoing. And even though he tried hard not to show it, Howard wasn't happy that I took no pleasure from the marriage act. He tried awfully hard to be patient with me, and I wanted desperately to give him a son.

We led a very comfortable lifestyle, and entertained often, frequently in the home we had purchased immediately after our marriage, only three blocks away from Mama's house. Howard's boss had been most generous with his wedding gift of cash, as well as his connections in real estate, and Howard told me we'd be able to pay off the three-bedroom home in ten years if his salary at the bank continued to increase at the same rate.

He spared no expense in making sure my wardrobe was one befitting the wife of the vice president of the bank. He complimented me on my appearance often, and I was almost ashamed that I wasn't the active bed partner I knew he wanted, but I never refused his advances.

Our mothers fretted and stewed that we had not given them a grandchild, and I sometimes wondered about that myself. Given the difference in our satisfaction with sex, it hardly seemed fair to say anything to Howard about it, and he didn't bring it up either. I know he was proud of me for making a lovely home for the two of us, and he told me that I was a wonderful asset to him in his business. I was quite popular with the wives of the other bank officers, and frequently helped organize dinner parties when two or more officers were courting prospective and well-heeled customers for the bank.

Prohibition seemingly had no effect on the party atmosphere at these dinners, as the liquor flowed freely. None of the wives knew how or from where the bottles appeared, and only a few of us noticed that some of the stuff that was swilled so freely was vintage liquor. It was one such night in August 1929 that I had more to drink than was my custom. I liked the warm and free feeling the drinks gave me, and since Howard always drove, I thought nothing of consuming every drink placed in my hand. I even stumbled into Arthur Levy, one of the junior partners at the bank, as I went toward the bathroom to freshen up.

"Oh my, I am so sorry. How awkward of me. . ." I remember that my voice trailed off as my gaze met Arthur's boyish smile, erasing my embarrassment. He assured me that there was no harm done, and a few minutes later, even gallantly offered to drive me home when Howard came to tell me we must leave early because he had an excruciating headache. Looking forward to some quiet time in a dark room to ease his pounding head made Howard agreeable, and after thanking his host, my husband left the party alone.

My temporary escort made sure my glass was full for the remainder of the evening, till I told him, "No more, Arthur, or I won't need the ride home, I swear I'll just float there." Arthur's green 1926 Model T sedan was his pride and joy, and he opened the passenger door for me and helped me step up and in. He got in on his side, set the spark lever, and then got back out to crank the car.

We talked and joked for most of the leisurely ride, and I found I was enjoying myself more than I had in months. I had just remarked that it was a shame the night had to end when Arthur turned the sedan left down a road behind some empty warehouses that sat on the east bank of the Ocmulgee River.

Even now, it's hard to remember all of it. He stopped the car and turned to me, sliding his hand under the full skirt of my cocktail dress. He didn't pause as he grasped the leg of my underpants and pulled them forcefully out of the confines of the girdle, throwing them as well as my shoes aside.

My head was swimming and it was through the haze of the liquor that I felt his fingers grope between my legs as he unfastened his trousers. His engorged manhood found the mark instantly and in seconds, he was rutting inside my moist passage, grunting with lust. I felt like a casual observer, dispassionate and detached, as if watching a film in slow motion. A shudder and primal moan from Arthur startled me back into reality and I began pushing him away while pulling at the hem of my skirt, trying to get it back over my knees. The absurdity of my efforts amused Arthur and he began to laugh.

Dazed and with tears streaming down my face, I stumbled from the car, only turning to hiss at him, "If you ever come near me again, I will kill you, I swear it." I ran the rest of the way home in my bare feet, and collapsed under the big oak tree in the backyard, trying to regain my composure and hoping against hope that Howard had taken one of his pills for his headache. When I could breathe normally, I went in the house and straight to the bath. With scalding tears running down my face as I scrubbed my skin raw, I vowed to put this night out of my memory and my life.

November 1929

It was a night so horrible that even now, I wrestle with panic as I recall it. As had become his habit, Howard had come home from work very discouraged that evening and I had hoped to lighten his mood with a suggestion to take a picnic lunch down to the river the next weekend, where I could tell him our good news. I had discovered I was pregnant with our first child and was hopeful it would be a boy. I had started to tell him about my plan for the picnic, but he brushed me off with a wave of his hand as he poured himself another drink and settled into his chair.

I knew he felt just awful about losing our money in the stock market crash. He had been buying stocks "on margin," whatever that meant, and had learned how bad things really were a few days before Black Tuesday in a meeting with his boss that left him stone-faced and trembling. I had never seen Howard like that before.

As he explained it to me, we had no more savings and he would have to pay back a lot of money to the bank. He apologized to me over and over again - I was almost sure I heard him weeping in the bath that night. What he didn't say (and I later learned), was how many banks had closed in the days just after the crash. If his bank was one of the next to close, he might not have a way to pay the money back.

In the weeks after the crash, Howard was silent and distant when he arrived home each evening. He only picked at his supper. I tried gently chiding him, reminding him of the increasing number of news reports on the radio about people going hungry and how lucky we were not to be in those numbers. But his withering glare stopped me in mid-sentence, so I decided just to try and tempt him with what I hoped were tasty meals.

That night was no different. Although I had spent two hours preparing a new chicken dish, Howard ate no more than a few bites before pushing his plate back and announcing he was going outside for an after-dinner drink and a smoke. I decided to wait no longer with my happy news and I asked him to sit down again. As was so characteristic of Howard, he got right to the point.

"Now what do you want to say, Clara?" He looked down patiently at me, and then, seeing I wasn't going to start talking with him standing over me, he pulled the dinette chair back out and sat down.

For some reason, anxiety suddenly washed over me, and I became tongue-tied and awkward. I almost stammered as I told him. "I have news, Howard. Very good news, I think. I hope you'll think it's good, too. I'm pregnant. We're going to have a child, in about six months."

After a silence long enough to make me wonder if he had heard me, Howard tersely told me, "That's not possible." His eyes burned into my skin ominously and I was at a loss for words. What could that mean? He realized I couldn't comprehend what he said. "I said, that's not possible. Do you hear me? There was an accident when I was in France – I can not father children, Clara – yours, or any other woman's."

I was stunned. Wave after wave of dizzying thoughts needled my brain, and all at once, I remembered the drunken night in August, when Arthur Levy had his way with me in the front seat of his car. The horrendous memory slammed into me and when I looked in Howard's eyes, I knew that he knew.

"How dare you? You are nothing more than a harlot, a whore, and you and your bastard will rot in hell." Howard shouted so loudly that the veins stood out in his forehead, making an angry red roadmap across his brow. "Get out of my sight, you whoring tramp. DID YOU HEAR ME? I SAID LEAVE ME!"

Each word hit me like a physical blow and I flinched, the rage in his voice pushing me backward until I was in the living room. I tasted fear in my mouth, like old pennies on my tongue. The baby wasn't Howard's.

I turned away and ran – away from my husband's rage and contempt, and toward the only place I knew where I would be able to make sense of the whole thing. Mama's house – I had to get to Mama's house. Mama would be able to make sense of it all and put things to right again.

I was only two blocks away when I heard the single gunshot as it cracked and echoed through the chill of the clear and starry night. I knew instantly what it was, and sank to my knees in the crisp fallen leaves. I recalled the times I had seen Howard, sitting morosely at his desk, polishing the Colt .38 special he kept for our protection with a piece of linen cloth. I remember covering my face with both hands and sobbing, a moaning wail that started somewhere in my belly and rose to my throat erupting into an endless, hoarse scream that drew Mama's panicked neighbors from their supper tables to their front porches.

I remember little but what I've been told of the two or three weeks after that. Mama and Howard's mother made the funeral arrangements. Mama said I subsisted on crackers, tea and tranquilizers for a week after Howard's death, until Dr. Loomis put a stop to that, citing the negative effect sedatives could have on the baby. He also insisted I begin eating a better diet and the women in my life seized on that decree with a ferocious competitiveness, each trying to outdo the other in creating something that would tempt me to eat.

Almost everyone knew that we had lost quite virtually all our cash and stocks in the crash, and I was horrified to learn they also assumed that Howard had performed the ultimate act of sacrificial love by providing the benefits from a paid up $3,500 life insurance policy for me and our child. Howard's boss applied the proceeds from the insurance to retire the mortgage on our home and presented me with the deed himself.

Howard's mother, Cecilia, extolled her son's virtues to me each time she visited, and always felt compelled to end her speech with a stricken sigh and a meaningful glance at my burgeoning belly, adding, "At least we'll have his son to carry on his name."

By Christmas, Mama insisted I start getting out and resuming some of my customary activities before my pregnancy showed too much for mingling in mixed company. I attended Macon's Christmas parade, and was pleasantly surprised to see so many of Macon's Great War soldiers there. One in particular kept glancing at me quite a bit as the mayor turned on the electric lights that adorned the Christmas tree in front of City Hall. After the ceremony, I went over to introduce myself. The modicum of wobbly peace I had crafted for myself was dashed during our conversation.

Cpl. Harry Stewart already knew who I was, although he seemed quite dismayed to hear me introduce myself as Clara Miller, Howard's widow. His uneasy glances at my belly began to unnerve me. "Yes, Mrs. Miller, I heard that Howard had passed on. At the risk of sounding indelicate, are you sure it's a good idea to appear in public? I personally find it insulting to his memory that you would try to pass off your baby as Howard's."

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