Only twice in our years together did I hear my mother mention love. The second time was June 1975. I was twelve, gazing down at my grandmother in her open casket, which took pride of place in the living room of my grandparents’ bright and airy Savannah home. My grandfather stood with one hand on the casket’s rim and cried. Shaking her head, my mother said: ‘Love is the only thing that makes life worthwhile.’
I doubt that my grandmother Martha ever made any such claim. Her death-stiffened face looked disapproving, incapable of affection, bearing out my mother’s verdict of her as cold and resistant to love. She did not resemble my mother Luciana, my younger sister Etta, or me, her only surviving blood relatives. I remember her mouth particularly. It was sharply turned down at the corners, a parody of surliness. There were murmurs at the wake that the mortician had ‘done his damnedest’, but that it had been impossible to shift the expression of stubborn disagreement that my grandmother wore after – during? – her fatal car accident. It was the visage she presented to death itself, and to twelve-year-old me it seemed both appropriate and brave. ‘She was the finest person that ever lived,’ my grandfather kept insisting, as if he was contradicting somebody. Luciana and my grandfather stood next to the casket, hand in hand, for quite some time: his gaze lowered in devotion to the corpse; hers fixed almost warily on the assembled mourners.
Even before my stay at my grandparents’ for Martha’s funeral – my first and last visit – their house was familiar to me, at least from the outside. There was a photograph of it at home in England. The colours were washed out – by that time the photo was already about ten years old. Etta and I would prop our elbows on the deep sill of our living-room picture window, and ponder this alien milky-hazed world that somehow belonged to us.
208 Columbus Drive was set back from the road behind a palm tree and a white picket fence. The windows had dark shutters, and there was an elegant porch wrapped around the clapboard façade. Compared to our characterless 1960s brick box in Surrey, the Savannah house was beautiful, a model of domestic promise.
Just off-centre of the photo, in front of the porch steps, stands my grandfather, arms folded and chin raised. His right foot is turned out slightly, at an unnatural angle, as if he is about to demonstrate a dance step. He lost his right leg to shrapnel at 1000 feet over the Dutch-German border in 1943. This was universally known in the family, but as a simple fact rather than the often revisited memories of Martha’s life. If ever I asked Luciana about it, she just said: ‘The plane made it, thank God, or I wouldn’t even be here.’ It was she who took the photograph.
I have a distinct memory of arriving at my grandparents’ house for the funeral: Luciana and grandfather amble up the front path arm in arm. My grandfather is rheumy-eyed with new grief, but sleek and silver-haired, more distinguished-looking in the flesh than in Luciana’s photo. His uneven walk fascinates me, and I long for a glimpse of his artificial leg. Etta and I follow in silence, as if we are already part of a cortege.
‘Here they are,’ cries a large-bosomed woman as we enter the white-tiled hall. She surges towards us from the sunny living room. ‘Luciana, look at you!’ She gives her the sort of crinkly smile that hides not only what you are thinking but also whether you are truly smiling. ‘So fine in that pink outfit.’ I can’t quite tell from her tone whether this is a good thing. ‘So like your dear departed mama.’
‘Now, now, Aunt Beth, my looks are all your side of the family,’ says Luciana, her voice more southern drawl than I’ve ever heard it.
She introduces us to our Great Aunt Beth as Calliope and Henrietta. Cally, we insist, Etta.
‘My, what your grandma wouldn’t have given to set eyes on you-all,’ says Aunt Beth.
‘Nobody but herself was stopping her,’ snaps Luciana, and Aunt Beth gives a little gasp.
This is the first, but certainly not the last, reference anyone makes to the fact that in the thirteen years since my parents married and moved to England, my father’s home, Luciana has not once seen her parents. Nor has my father, Edward, who has stayed behind in England. I miss him; I do not quite trust my mother in his absence.
‘His patients cannot possibly spare him,’ I hear her explain to people at the wake and echoing in my mind is his refrain of exasperation with her: ‘You would test the patience of a saint.’ Until I was about eight, I assumed he meant the patients of a saint. By the age of twelve, I can smile at my childish word-confusion though I am also beginning to understand that, like my father’s patience/patients, Etta and I too are being tested, our upbringing an exam that we could so easily fail.
Martha’s funeral service is held at Savannah’s grand St John the Baptist Cathedral. Gazing round at the luminous white and gold interior, Etta nudges me and whispers: ‘Incense is the smell of heaven rotting.’ The comment later becomes a joke at Etta’s expense, but is in fact astute. Not only is the incense that wafts around the marble columns hauntingly oppressive, but as my grandfather, mother, Etta and I perform our religious observances in the front pew, an insidious rot is setting in.
However, at that moment, head down, a little bored and aching at the knees, I am ignorant of my mother’s torn loyalties, and focus only what I can see. My mother’s ankles taper into sharp-heeled red shoes. She has changed out of her pink suit into a black dress that shows off her long girlish waist. The priest stands at the pulpit, grips the lectern as if he’s about to embrace it. ‘Martha’s start in life was tough, and yet with God’s help she rose above adversity and trials to be a fine wife to our brother Thomas, and raise a fine daughter, Luciana,’ he waves a hand in her direction. Her eyes are downcast, but open, looking at her lap, where she forces back a cuticle with her thumbnail. ‘Visitors from England’, the priest calls us. I feel exotic, important. I ape the prayers, wanting, despite my exotic status, to belong.
After the service, we dash down the front steps through a heavy shower to the line of black cars that hug the kerb. We drive to the cemetery out of town, over flat marshy ground that merges with the mud-coloured sky until a blade of sunlight splits the clouds. We huddle round Martha’s grave pit as if it were a glowing hearth.
That evening Great Aunt Beth invites us to sing to cheer up our grandfather. I scowl at her suggestion. ‘Cally, with that stare, you’re the spit of our dear Martha! Of all the unfortunate things to run in a family.’ She co-opts our mother across the room: ‘Luciana dear, don’t you agree? Wouldn’t it be nice if your darling girls were to put on a little show?’
My mother gives an indulgent smile. ‘Sure the girls’ll oblige, won’t you, honeys?’ Her eyes settle icily on me.
‘I can’t sing,’ I say loudly.
‘Why, just about anybody but a cold and empty kettle can sing,’ Great Aunt Beth replies. ‘Your little sister is willing.’ Etta smiles, as usual betraying my resistance to adult manipulation with her desperation to please.
The middle of the room where the casket stood is empty, the furniture still making space for it as if in expectation of its return. An arm round each of us, Great Aunt Beth guides us here, where we can be seen by my grandfather, mother and the few other relatives and friends lingering after the funeral service.
My mother lollops towards me in high heels – this is how she lives in my memory: tall, thin and thrust forward slightly, like a rearing insect, creepy but ultimately crushable. She raises a fine black eyebrow. ‘Just go along with something for someone else’s sake, for once in your life,’ she murmurs in my ear. ‘This is not about you.’ She straightens and smiles at great aunt Beth.
Etta sings sweetly – I can’t remember what. I chant, with my eyes closed, ‘A sailor went to sea, sea, sea …’ I run into the hall to hide my burning cheeks and brimming eyes. The porch door is open. I am about to climb on to the swing-seat when I hear: ‘The world is a far, far bigger place than who’s in that parlor.’ My grandfather stands on the porch; his sore eyes peer at me, magnified by his half-moon glasses. ‘Your grandma, she was wise to that fact, the smallness of people’s parlors, and their lives. She hated those sing-a-longs. Always belly-aching at my family’s ways. I reckon she saw right through them, knew baloney for what it was. Singing a plain old little ditty that none of them can possibly coo over, now that was inspired.’ He chuckles, then his eyes go watery. ‘She’d have been proud of you.’
He leads me to his study, a gloomy green-papered room with a worn armchair and a desk, and a TV in the corner perched on a bookcase. He puts a pale wooden box, about the size of a cereal packet, on the desk in front of me and runs his fingers over it. ‘Years of polish. She never let me varnish it. She was right about that.
‘Now, Calliope, your mama and grandma, they didn’t always see eye to eye. I wouldn’t blame your mama, after everything that happened and all, but she might figure this box ain’t worth the keeping. So, you hold on to it for me, you hear? In case I get taken with no warning. That way you-all get to know your grandma.’
He must have recognised how sly I was, to have had any faith that a twelve-year-old could not only keep something precious safe, but also hidden from adults. No one notices me slip the box into the suitcase tucked under the guest bed I share with Etta. That night, as we lie unable to sleep for the heat and jetlag, Etta puts words to the cut-time, two-note locust song that saws through the damp night air: right-wrong, right-wrong, right-wrong.
The next – and also penultimate – day of our stay, curiosity has me lingering near where Luciana sits next to a woman I do not know. ‘But I really don’t see how, without Martha to help him, Daddy can continue.’ These are my mother’s exact words: sinewy, resistant. Her cigarette holder is poised in front of her like my father with his inoculating syringe. Diamonds – probably paste but I didn’t know that then – sparkle like frost against the woman’s black collar. The needle of a record player is tipped with a diamond: this recently learnt fact pops into my mind. A diamond necklace playing my mother’s words over and over, like a song turning in my head, like Etta’s locust song. All these years later, I can barely hear the locusts, but my mother’s words resonate as if she was whispering them beside me now.