after “The White Horse” by Yasunari Kawabata In the low light…
When I was in high school, my favorite actress was Katharine Hepburn. She wore those man-style trousers, and with her neatly coiffed hair she was the perfect mix of tomboy and girly girl. She had the most unusual voice; it was not so pleasing to the ear and very nasal. Kate stood tall and radiated elegance in her films. It’s not hard to understand why a teenage girl would admire her, but when I told my momma all of this as we stood in our kitchen, she smirked at me.
“Katharine Hepburn?” Momma asked. “Is that the redheaded one?”
I don’t know. I’ve only seen her in black and white.”
The apples in Momma’s cheeks grew more pronounced as she smiled wider. Momma’s amusement grew when I told her Kate was someone I’d like to befriend.
“That ole white lady?” Momma laughed. “If she’s alive, she’s a hundred.”
I wanted to be friends with Kate because she was so different from anyone I grew up with in the nineties. No one dressed like those old film stars. No one was so polished, especially not in my family. Momma worked in a poultry processing plant. She came home with her hair in a net, smelling faintly of chicken shit.
I read stories about bold, tomboyish, unpopular Kate. People like her proved it was okay to be eccentric. What I didn’t realize as a teenager was that being eccentric when you are a wealthy person is not like being eccentric when you’re an ordinary teenager in a working-class, black family. Burying my nose in a book or watching old movies did not qualify me to be admired as Kate Hepburn. For me, being different meant being lonely, which my father was sure to point out. He scrutinized me, and sometimes when he saw me read a book or watch an old movie, he shook his head and said with sadness and pity, “You live in a fantasy world.”
He was right. I was lonely, so I made Kate Hepburn my friend by watching her movies. I was poor and lusted after her polished outfits. Daddy was an alcoholic, so I read teenage wish fulfillment books like the Sweet Valley High series, in which the characters rarely had serious problems—and those they did have were solved within the space of 140 pages.
Even though Daddy was right about me living in a fantasy world, I still fumed at him for calling me out. I needed to escape his drinking, the thing that pushed me the furthest into my own world. Who was he to shame me for living in it?
When he was drunk, Daddy spent his days in my parents’ bedroom with the door closed, but when sober he came out and criticized us. He ridiculed my brother for his weight problem and made me feel uncomfortable since he favored me. But he rarely spoke at all when drunk. He usually came home with the liquor in a brown paper sack, bottles clanking together as he walked. When he disappeared into my parents’ room and shut the brown, rickety door, we all understood the unspoken rule: Don’t bother me; stay away.
My momma’s way of avoiding him was to lose herself in soap operas. When she came home from her job at the poultry, she planted herself on the couch in front of the TV and tuned in to General Hospital. She didn’t like to be bothered when she was on that couch. As a small child, I wanted to read board books and Berenstein Bears with her, and I had to pull her arm and whine to get her attention. She never shooed me away while she watched her soaps, but she wanted to. As I read aloud to Momma, she focused on Frisco, Robert Scorpio, and Anna Devane, three TV characters whose lives were infinitely more exciting than ours. She sat in sock feet, eating a Little Debbie snack cake with a glass of Sprite. Sometimes she peeled open a can of Spam, cut out small chunks of the slimy meat and stuck them between two slices of mayonnaise-slathered white bread. To this day, the mention of Spam—the way it slid in its own juice across my momma’s old-fashioned stoneware plates—takes me back to that trailer in north Georgia and the rapt attention Momma paid to General Hospital.
While Momma watched soap operas, I escaped from Daddy’s alcoholism by reading books, and when the TV was available, I watched those old films. Bringing Up Baby with Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant was my favorite. It was comedic genius. The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year entranced me, but my taste in old films wasn’t limited to Kate’s body of work. In my early teens, I discovered Gone with the Wind—the big, hoop skirts, the sweeping music and, of course, Scarlett O’Hara. Her tenacity and gumption were desirable traits.
While I immersed myself in fiction, Daddy’s health began to decline. One morning during my senior year in high school, he came into my bedroom slurring the words, “I can’t talk.”
I lay on my bed, propped on one elbow, and watched him as he stood in front of my dresser.
“C-can’t talk,” he said again.
It sounded like his tongue had been removed or like he had a mouthful of Listerine. For a moment I thought he was choking, but I didn’t make a move to help him. I had no concept of what was happening.
Momma, who had followed him down the hallway to my room, came through the doorway. Her eyes darted back and forth between Daddy and me. She asked him to follow her. I don’t remember if she drove him to the hospital or if they called an ambulance. I do remember that I went to school as usual that day and every day afterward. I pretended that nothing was wrong, that it was normal for my daddy to be hospitalized.
When I visited him in the hospital, he sat forward in bed and inclined his head toward me. The blue and white hospital gown left his back naked and hung loosely from his body. His movements were jerky. At one point his physical therapist stepped closer to him and said, “Before you make any movement, you have to stop, Mr. Stewart, and train yourself. Don’t try to move too much or sit forward until you’ve gathered yourself, okay?”
She spoke to him as if she were giving instructions to a first grader. Would Daddy have to live the rest of his life this way, confined to a bed and unable to sit forward without running the risk of toppling over? He kept trying to talk to me, but his words were mostly incomprehensible. I couldn’t wait to get out of the room.
That same week I rode the school bus with my basketball teammates to an away game. My coach asked how Daddy was doing. I was sitting off to myself near the back of the bus. When she asked me that, I wondered who had told her that Daddy was sick. I hadn’t said anything to her about it.
“The doctor said a blood vessel burst in his brain,” I told her.
The wind, so noisy in my ears, whooshed through the open bus windows.
“So he had a stroke?” she asked.
I wished I had heard her wrong, that the word “stroke” had been somehow carried in through the bus’s open windows, and that if I just willed it away it would fly out again. I had heard the word used before in other contexts, and I had grown to think of it as a killer, like cancer and heart attack. I thought the word meant Daddy was going to die.
It was the first time anyone used the word stroke in reference to what had happened with Daddy. Our family never spoke earnestly about his alcoholism and health problems. Growing up in my family, I learned to shut myself off from everyone. I learned to be silent at home and at school, too. I thought that no matter how decent people seemed, they would always disappoint me like my parents. I withdrew into a world of movies and books, partly because inhabiting a fictional world was not as messy as dealing with real people. No matter how many times I watched a Kate Hepburn film, the characters and the ending would always be the same, but in the real world people were unpredictable, my daddy in particular. He sometimes went through periods where he abstained from drinking, and those were followed by his dark periods, during which he drowned everything in liquor.
Daddy began to speak and move normally again after weeks of speech and physical therapy. However, there was one skill he never recovered.
“Why don’t you read the newspaper anymore, Daddy?” I asked him once.
He sat down at the kitchen table and looked up at me.
“I can’t understand it no more,” he said. “I can read it, but it don’t make sense.”
He could comprehend spoken language, so why couldn’t he understand written words? I’d always loved books and couldn’t imagine how I would feel if I were somehow rendered unable to comprehend them.
Daddy put his palms flat on the table as if he intended to push himself up to stand. As he struggled, I had the feeling that I wasn’t watching my daddy anymore. He was someone else entirely. In an old photo on the wall beside the kitchen table, a younger version of him lifted my brother Nathan above his head. In the picture Daddy’s arms looked strong and taut, but the man who pushed himself up from the kitchen table in front of me had loose flesh hanging off his arms, which were thin to the point of scrawniness. His narrow face revealed prominent cheekbones.
The man I had been slightly afraid of during had a loud, deep voice, especially when angry, and I always shrank away when he yelled. As I watched him struggle to stand, it was a wonder that his figure had once been so imposing. The 6’1” Daddy of mine who had once weighed 240 pounds was gone.
It hurt to look at him in his weakness. I turned from the table and walked away.
Daddy’s health worsened in the years that followed. He fought stomach cancer and what at least one doctor diagnosed as cirrhosis of the liver. Sometimes he could barely walk because of the fluid in his legs. His heart disease, stroke, liver problems and cancer were all caused by the abuse he put on his own body, and so I blamed him for the drinking and for his habit of chainsmoking. Anger, resentment and worry consumed me.
There is nothing sadder than watching someone die in poverty. I couldn’t handle it. I was in college in Atlanta, and even though my parents’ trailer in Commerce was just sixty miles from my apartment in DeKalb County, I only went home about twice a year. I managed my full-time job while I sleepwalked through my full-time course load at Georgia State University. When I wasn’t working or studying, I holed up in my apartment, half-buried under a pile of books and DVDs, trying to not think about him.
In 2003 at a drugstore in Metro Atlanta, I saw pictures of Kate Hepburn on the cover of a magazine. One of the photos was in color, and I could see that she was indeed a redhead. When I picked up the magazine to look at it more closely, I saw that it read Katharine Hepburn 1907-2003.
Something rolled over in my belly. I did not tear up, but I felt as though a friend had died. It was strange to want to mourn her death, not just because I never knew her, but also because I was twenty-one years old and had not watched any of her movies since high school. Even now, fifteen years after her death, and I still haven’t been able to watch any of her films. To see them would bring back too many painful memories of my teenage years. How could I watch Bringing Up Baby without thinking of the trailer where I first saw it?
I remember a humid night in late springtime, my back slick with sweat, the old box fan whirring in our living room window. Kate picks up the phone and says in her goofy voice, “When you hear the tone, the time will be…When you hear the tone, the time will be…”
Daddy coughs his raspy, smoker’s cough in my parents’ room.
Toward the end of the movie, Daddy walks through the living room and out the front door as I laugh at Kate’s performance. A few minutes later, I peek outside. Daddy stands in front of our old persimmon tree. A cigarette glows bright neon between his fingers. He turns his back to me, not wanting me to see that, despite his mounting health problems, he continues to smoke.
In 2005 during my last semester at Georgia State, I got a phone call from my oldest brother Darrell. I had always been a little jealous of him because he was twelve years older than me and all grown up and out of the trailer by the time Daddy got really sick, so he wasn’t around to see the worst.
On the phone that day, Darrell told me Daddy had been hospitalized again and that I should come home. He didn’t say, you better hurry up, but I heard it in his voice.
I stood on a sidewalk in downtown Atlanta, staring down the sidewalk grate into a dark hole. I told Darrell I’d go back to my apartment and wait for my husband Charlie to come home, that we’d drive to the hospital together that evening.
“Okay,” Darrell said, drawing out the second syllable of the word. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I can come now and pick you up.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll be there a little later, okay?”
I probably should’ve let my brother pick me up, but I was stalling. I didn’t want to go.
When my husband and I got to the hospital, Momma and my brother Nathan were both there with Daddy’s sister and one of my uncles.
My heart was in my throat as I entered his room. A tube snaked its way down from Daddy’s nose. He fiddled with the little clamp on his finger and winced, as if it pinched his skin.
He looked at me and said, “It’s about time you showed up.”
I made a whimpering sound but couldn’t manage a reply.
His eyes and face softened. “I hate to see my baby cry.”
What he said next was completely unexpected: “I love you so much I can’t explain it. If there’s anything I’ve done to hurt you, I’m sorry.”
Not long after that Daddy began to vomit blood, and the nurse told me to get out of the room while she took care of him.
One of the staff members brought out some forms for Momma to look over. As we sat together in the waiting room, Momma explained to me that when Daddy’s heart stopped he didn’t want to be resuscitated.
“Are you sure that’s what he wants?” I asked her.
“Yeah. He told me. He don’t want them to keep him alive like this.”
The doctor told us that Daddy’s heart was only performing at fifteen percent of what a normal heart should. He was scheduled to start dialysis for his kidneys the following week, but the doctor said there’d be no use since he didn’t have a fully-functioning heart.
I felt like my own heart would stop. I hugged my arms around myself so tightly that my fingernails pinched into my skin. I needed comfort. My sullen, reticent parents seldom offered affection, and so as a child I rarely received hugs and I-love-yous. I didn’t learn to accept hugs until I grew into adulthood, which is a strange thing to admit. How could a person be unable to accept a hug? All you do is put your arms out and squeeze, right? But it wasn’t so simple for me.
For a long time, I had the attitude that it was not even worth it to make friends, that being alone was ideal and hugs were unnecessary. Those were all lies I told myself to feel better about not having friends. I needed people desperately, and on that day when the doctor confirmed my daddy was dying, I especially needed to be hugged.
Momma stood right there beside me in the hospital hallway, but I did not hug her. My husband Charlie sat right around the corner in the waiting room, but I didn’t go to him either. Charlie had often expressed his frustration that I didn’t talk to him enough and I wasn’t affectionate. Whenever an emotional crisis arose, regardless of how much I wanted to be comforted, I pushed everyone away.
I didn’t stay more than twenty-four hours with Daddy. I promised to see him in a couple of days, but when I said it and met his eyes, he looked away. He didn’t believe I’d be back.
Two days later when I called my momma and told her I was coming back, she told me she was just leaving the hospital and to meet her at the trailer.
“Are you sure? I can meet you up at the hospital,” I said into the phone.
“No, just meet me at home,” she said again.
When I got to the trailer, two of Momma’s sisters and my cousin Kalisha were already there. We all waited for Momma to come home, and when she finally did arrive she came through the back door and walked slowly across our kitchen toward me.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she said. “He’s gone home.”
I didn’t respond. I walked from the kitchen and into the bathroom, sat on the floor in one corner and wept. Kalisha came and sat on the lip of the bathtub. She rolled toilet paper from the holder and handed it to me. I blew my nose and wiped my eyes, collecting a small mountain of used tissues in my lap. Kalisha took them from me, accepting the wet tissues without even making a face, filling the wastebasket.
Daddy died in February, and I spent that following spring and summer engrossed in books and movies. A thrift store on Lawrenceville Highway sold old paperback books for fifty cents. I was still a Gone with the Wind fan, so when I found a copy of the book at the thrift store, I bought it. I expected to love it as much as I’d enjoyed the film adaptation. I lay in bed and read the entire novel in about a week. The book presented the same storyline of the movie I loved so dearly, but in the book Margaret Mitchell’s disgusting habit of comparing all of the black characters to animals, mostly apes, was off-putting.I wished Mitchell had been smart enough to think more progressively, to be ahead of her time, to defy the crowd.
Her book romanticizes the antebellum era and sends the message that the perfect, genteel Old South, a land of cotillions and magnolia trees and blacks who knew their place, is “gone with the wind.” Mitchell expects readers to be swept away in the romance of it all, which was perfect for me as a child because I so desperately needed romance—the reality of my life was too much to bear.
But as an adult I realized Gone with the Wind isn’t so romantic. Scarlett’s money-grubbing habit of marrying anything rich is not romantic. The way Rhett Butler spoke to her and man-handled her is not romantic either. When he leaves at the end and claims to not give a damn—yeah right, Rhett—you just know he’s coming back. But what will happen then? Two obstinate, selfish people cannot build a fruitful marriage.
After I finished reading Gone with the Wind, I rented the movie and watched it again. Though I had seen it a dozen times before, it was somehow different when I watched it in my little apartment in Stone Mountain just a few months after Daddy’s death. It was like I was seeing it all for the first time.
Picture the scene at Twelve Oaks right before Scarlett sneaks downstairs to see Ashley. All the debutantes are lying across the beds. Young Negro girls fan them with feathers. Scarlett stands in front of a mirror in that huge hoop skirt of hers and pinches her cheeks to add color to them.
As a child, I watched that scene over and over in our dilapidated trailer, ignoring the scent of my daddy’s menthol cigarettes, my body leaning toward the screen. That scene was near-perfect. How lovely and feminine the girls looked in their lacy, white underthings. The music playing in the background reminded me of the tune from the old-fashioned jewelry box I owned; it sounded like a lullaby.
But watching that scene as an adult who was becoming more and more socially and culturally aware, I realized that had I lived in the world of Gone with the Wind I’d probably be assigned to hold a feather fan. I didn’t think I would fare well as a slave. I would have waved the fan only long enough to coax everyone to sleep, and then I would have slit Scarlett’s throat in the middle of the night and taken off north for Canada.
My dissatisfaction with Gone with the Wind mirrored my feelings about life in general after Daddy’s death. The anger and hurt I’d harbored since childhood just welled to the point that nothing was enjoyable, not even the movies.
Daddy had been right to imply that there is something wrong with living in a fantasy world. To live in such a world does not solve real-world problems or even detract from them. While Kate Hepburn and Gone with the Wind helped me survive my childhood, those times could have been better survived had I faced my problems head-on. Watching those movies only made me less lonely for a little while, and they couldn’t make up for the time lost between Daddy and me. Rather than focus on movie characters that did not even exist, I should have driven up to Commerce more. I should have made my love more apparent.
Did I love him? If I’m being honest, it was a mixture of love and hate. I hated what he did to his body with the cigarettes and alcohol, and how it affected our family. I hated his propensity for emotional and psychological abuse, his bullying and physical violence. And yet I know I would not have such guilt and regret about not being a better daughter if I had not loved him.
If my life were like most Hollywood movies, I’d have cried and gotten over it all by the final act. But here in the real world I still can’t think of him without feeling regret. Sometimes when I’m in that trailer in Commerce, sadness overwhelms me in certain rooms—the bathroom where I sat for an hour and cried on the day he died, the bedroom where he was sometimes laid up with swollen ankles and legs.
He haunts me in other ways, too. Though it’s been over ten years since Daddy’s death, I can’t pass the liquor section of a grocery store without thinking of him. I am sometimes tempted to buy several bottles of wine and liquor and take them home with me. The thing that stops me is that I am afraid of what alcohol could do to me. I have an obsessive personality, and the last thing I need to become obsessed with is alcohol. I am told I look just like him, so I probably inherited more than the looks. I’m sure whatever rotten thing inside of him that caused his dependency is also inside of me.
But I have one advantage over him: I have realized the dangers of living in a world of my own. I’m not sure Daddy had enough self-awareness to know that I wasn’t the only one who lived in a fantasy world. His way of escaping our poverty and his own personal failings was to drink whiskey. He’d drink until he passed out, asleep in a fantasy world of his own.