Dot Dot

Dad got home late from the bank. He always got home late from work. That money can’t watch itself. Actually, his excuse usually went something like-I was walking out the door and Jimmy Webb got on the elevator and we got to talking… Dad walked in taking off his tie and unbuttoning the top buttons of his dress shirt. His undershirt now visible was not exactly as clean white as it should have been. He did not like to buy things so he would make those undershirts last until my mom ripped them into rags. The conservative suit would have been charcoal gray or navy pinstripe. Mama was harboring anger over his tardiness, as he came in charming us with hugs and asking about our day. The chicken was getting cold. And my sisters and I had picked the Hellmann’s mayonnaise and grated cheese off of our pear salad.

Aunt Dot Dot had invited us to visit and Mama was angry as a hornet. Dad had spent years not speaking to his sister, but I wasn’t supposed to know that. Mama did not tolerate their visits well. Their dislike for each other was mutual.

The night before I had been lollygagging in our pink tub while Mom sat on the tile floor leaning against the sliding door that could close between the pink side and the green side of the Jack and Jill bathroom. We often sat like this. One of us in the bath and the listening and processing the day’s events. Usually mom was the one in the tub with the water extra high and I was the one ignoring any need for privacy to tell her about the wrongs and the rights of the day in Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee.

Mama was not looking straight at me, which was helpful because I was not up to speed about her line of thought on Aunt Dot. Mama talked freely like I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had lots of experience listening without asking questions. Lots of kids did not have this skill but I was a connoisseur of adult conversation. I loved it. Eavesdropping in plain sight. The key was to appear a tad bit disinterested. I had grown up a puny sickly child which had been advantageous because it allowed me to hang out with my idols, the stay at home moms. At the time, they were known just as moms. Mom was talking to me like I was her friends, Mary Jean or Cathy not the 8th grader I was.

“I’m not sure why she wants y’all to visit now. After all these years. Your dad and Aunt Dot have not even been talking since Ginger. You probably don’t remember. Her husband left her in such a horrible state that she moved right in with Ginger. They probably met at the truck stop.”

I needed to put this together fast. Dad dislikes Ginger so much that he doesn’t talk to his sister if she lives with Ginger. I didn’t get it. I nodded and hmmmed.

“Your dad is not okay with this but she is his sister. I bet they even share a bedroom.”

Ohhhh. I needed to say something to keep the conversation going and to allow my mom to keep believing that I understood. I was adult enough to be the bearer of her confidences. “But Aunt Ginger is so old.”

“A shame isn’t it.” My mom was not the type of mom to gift me with secrets. This was an unusual circumstance. She was not my friend. She was my mom in the original early 80s version of moms. Wrap around skirts and pressed camp shirts. You can get your ears pierced when you turn 13, kind of mom. Kids played outside and came in for dinner or watched tv at a neighbor’s. My mom was dependable. She did not change her mind. I was not her usual confidante. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

Aunt Dot Dot and Aunt Ginger are a couple? They are gay together? I didn’t know any gay people. It was the mid 80s. I grew up on the Baltimore Catechism and Days of Our Lives. Gay if spoken of was a sin or a slur- ugly words spoken as hurtful put downs. Maybe Three’s Company if mom was lecturing at Weight Watchers and dad was too busy to notice. Mom always lectured at Weight Watchers on Tuesday evening which was perfect because that was the night for Three’s Company with that hilarious Jack Tripper. Three’s Company was the raciest thing we ever watched. My knowledge of gays was imparted by Jack pretending when the Ropers came by. If all went well, dad would be wrapping up his lawn mowing as the show came on and moving into weeding his tiered garden of marigolds and cherry tomatoes.

How did this happen? How could my dad have a gay sister. How could my God fearing CPA dad be related to a gay lady? My dad is the epitome of George Jetson- extremely normal. My grandma had been eccentric? quirky? a might bit left of center? My grandma was accused more than once of just falling off the turnip truck. Maw needed her parents, my dad’s grandparents to take care of her and her children. They were not an average family of the 50s and 60s. Not the nuclear family written about in Dick and Jane.

Ann Patchett has a quote in her essay, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty- An Introduction.

When I first read The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty I thought she was a fabulist, a writer endowed with a superior imagination and love of tall tales. Those things are true, of course, but Welty, who spent most all of her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house her father built when she was a child, was also telling the truth.

“The reason it’s so impossible to write about Mississippi,” Donna Tartt once told me, “is that everyone thinks you’re exaggerating.” It had never occurred to me that Welty was accurately representing a culture until I married into that culture myself. In the last twenty-five years in which I’ve been going to Mississippi regularly, I’ve come to believe that Welty was to her state what Joan Didion was to California: the clear eye of verisimilitude.

I knew she was saying an important fact about Mississippi- it is fantastical. Some things happen in the Deep South that no one would believe to be true. After hours and hours of driving across the country from California to Georgia, I once got lost on the way to my aunts farm because google maps has never actually been to Tutwiler. I ended up crossing railroad tracks and seeing a chain gang. I wondered if I had been dropped into the movie with Oh Brother Where Art Thou. I had a cinematic vision of actual men in oversized canvas uniforms with huge green and white stripes. Black Block lettering saying Tallahatchie County Prison System on their backs and on their fronts. I saw human beings in uniforms that Hollywood used as caricatures of the Deep South. The prisoners were picking up trash from a ditch. It was 2015 and I drove through Mississippi with my white son and my black daughter, there was not a single white prisoner in sight.

I had to unpack what Ann Patchett was saying about Mississippi. Who is Donna Tartt? A literary awarded author from Greenville, Mississippi and a contemporary of Ann. What is versimilitude, other than being a gorgeous word? – the appearance of being true or real. Wikipedia says truthlikeness. I know Joan Didion. I will put Eudora Welty on my To Read List. Mississippi is a land of exaggeration. Growing up there or having family live there endows one with stories to be told. I inherited most of my stories from my dad, who grew up in the Delta, Tallahatchie county, Tutwiler Mississippi, pronounced Tutt-waller, Mi-sippy. I could easily do a deep dive into facts about Tallahatchie County being the poorest rural county in the country and other dismal statistics. I want to prove to you the reality of Mississippi, because I know you won’t believe it. Do not get me wrong- as my dad would say, you can find the sweetest families in the most beautiful houses with the biggest azalea bushes on earth. You can visit Morgan Freeman’s rebuilding of Clarksdale, Mississippi. You can read the some of the best literature in the world written by authors from this state poor in education. There are Targets and a national forest and amazing tailgate parties. NASA Scientists live in Mississippi. It is an encapsulation of the mystery of life. The best and the worst bound together. Life is beautiful and brutal. Mississippi is life in technicolor- even the soil- orange clay or rich loam or rusty dirt sprinkled with evergreen pine needles.

My story of my Aunt Dorothy, Aunt Dot Dot is fantastical. It is how I remember it and how I have told it on camp metal spring bunkbeds stacked three high and over cafeteria lunch tables of tired teachers. My relatives could add their own truths to my story. I could ask for other versions to spot check mine but I don’t want to. My memories are too good to tamper with. My recollection of the story my dad told me is the story I want to tell, the truth I want to remember and retell. If anything the story will get to the heart of the truth and become a tale of the fish weighing more and more every time I tell it. I will gather the essence of this Mississippi family as I know them to be.

Fields of cotton. Plots of soybeans. The two in opposition. Cotton all just one sweet pouff per angular dried stick with many offshoots. The stem and sticks all dead looking like they gave everything they had to the white cotton ball. That small amount of product clinched in dead prickled crusty fingers. Mainly beautiful to the white folks because of pride in money and heritage. Beautiful to me because of memories connecting this image with homelands and relatives. Never picturing the cotton pickers, the sharecroppers, the slaves. The soybean acres are one shade lighter than 1970s kelly green. Leafy rows so thick the canals of dark dirt are sinking into invisibility. So much less labor intensive to farm. So much cheaper. Railroad tracks separating the wrong side and the right. Brick houses with pristine green grass lawns and white concrete driveways to carports. And on the other side, wood shacks lifted off the ground about three feet with splintered wooden steps to the dirt yard, swept clean of pine needles. The broom bristle tracks still visible on the dirt like vacuum tracks on shag carpet. The complete stillness of air. Large old barns no longer important and too expensive to keep up. A horse or two or three. A cow or two. Main street is boarded up, now, some of it was then too. It wasn’t ever quaint or Andy Griffith-esque. One needs horse blinders to see beauty in Tutwiler. If you turn 15 degrees, the beauty is distracted by the reality of a Confederate flag, a home burned to the ground, a barn ravaged by a tornado, a rough shod wheelchair ramp to a front door.

My dad grew up here in the decades before the US entered the Vietnam War. He lived with his grandparents and his mom- who came and went some. He had three sisters, two older and one younger. His mom, my Maw, was married eleven times. Family will argue the number. Mostly their point hangs on the fact that she married some men more than once. I debate that she still got married eleven times. I once asked, how. How is this possible? I was told that the farm wasn’t that far from a truck stop. This was the only answer I was given. I have deduced many stories from this one sentence. My Maw had two brothers, Pelham and Trochu, pronounced Tro-Q. Pelham married Aunt Teenie and they had one daughter Modena who died young. Trochu married Aunt Evelyn and they had children who continue to live in teh Delta and farm. Trochu and Evelyn were salt of the earth hard workers. Evelyn wore an apron. Pelham and Teenie were business people who had marble like floors and a grandfather clock. Teenie wore pantyhose and leather pumps. I imagine my dad was a combination of his uncles. Raised by the same people, Grandfather Roloff and Grandmother Dorothy. My dad spent more time with his grandparents than his mom, Martha. I imagine that was his saving. His sisters spent more time with their mom. And hindsight appears to illuminate possible traumas. Hindsight shining on Maw and her daughters is like one of those spotlights spinning conspicuoulsy in the sky at a spring break beach spot announcing a flagrant wet t-shirt contest and cheap beer. Driving home from a dinner of fried shrimp and hushpuppies, the sky full of stars is disturbed by a glaring revolving searchlight announcing Trouble with a capital T. I would love to tell you that my aunts, my dad’s sisters were not harmed by this upbringing. I would love to tell you that they are living pain free lives rocking in rocking chairs on gently sloping grand porches. Trauma doesn’t work that way. I do not know what happened to each of them. I have only heard my dad’s tales of stepfathers with a theme of fear- like a step father rolling him up in an oriental rug and leaving him there.

He reminded me of this story while I gingerly pushed his wheelchair down the dock so he could watch the sunset. His view from the hospital bed that had been moved into his bedroom was impeded by glorious monstrous Live Oak trees. He winced with the bumps in the weathered wood of the dock and I winced at causing him any pain. I bet we went down to the dock out of habit and my desire to make something better. Anything better. He had loved sunsets. Over and over like a mantra, my dad had said “It’s a great day to be alive.” and “Look at that sunset.” In my desire to fix the unfixable situation- cancer, I had brought my dad down an elevator and down a sidewalk and over a dock so he could see another heavenly sunset. He was nervously anticipating yet, another scan the next day. He needed a valium to be in the claustrophobic MRI machine detecting his cancer growth. The cancer was horrible. We could see it overtaking his body with its purplish undergrowths on his skin. But at that moment on the dock, the memory of a man overtaking him by enclosing him in a wool rug was equally horrifying. His fear and dread of tight spaces had lasted over sixty years. The cancer, the claustrophobia, the pain, the fear, the inability to control his body and make it do what he willed it to, and the childhood memories were enough to kill any man. I just wish it had been any man besides my dad.

My Aunt Dot Dot was larger than life- she was over six feet tall and big boned. Her hair might have been the biggest part of her- high and wide waves held up by jeweled butterfly combs- frosted pieces on top of jet black. Nothing about her was subtle. Her makeup announced her. Warm colored foundation, tattooed eyebrows the obvious black and blue color of the ink. Lipstick on pursed and puckered lips. She made these faces where her lips were puckered up in a kiss as she paused in thought- usually when she was holding court telling stories of her own. Small dogs surrounded her. Pomeranians. Lhasa apsos. Maybe a toy poodle once or twice. Last I visited her, when I got lost and saw the prisoners in their stripes, Dot was living in the family home with her dogs. There were at least five. The house was fixed for her life with her dogs. Her eyesight was deteriorating. She had a sidewalk poured at the perimeter of her small rectangular yard which was fenced in chain link. She could walk around her yard and watch her beloveds without fear of falling. The sunporch became the dogs bedroom. There was a Dutch door in between the sunporch and Dot’s den. She sat on her favorite chair and could watch tv while her dogs yapped and bounced high enough to be seen over the half door, until she let them into the tv room with her. Those dogs were comical bounding up and down like little jack in the boxes just high enough to be seen over the Dutch door. I’m pretty sure she was watching The Price is Right last I saw her. Bob Barker had died and been replaced by a comedian named Drew Something. Those dogs were her babies. My Maw had a toy poodle years before named Joe Buddy Montana, after the football player she found the handsomest. As Mim, would say, she was boy crazy. Dot kept better care of her toy dogs than Maw. Joe Buddy had no teeth. Maw said he loved chocolate so she she had to feed it to him. She rotted out all his teeth, and she continued giving him Hersheys chocolate even when he couldn’t chew it. Aunt Dot’s voice boomed. Her stories were as big as her hair. And her hand motions and lipstick coated puckered lips, she was a sight to behold and she commanded us to be present with her- immersed in her story.

I was about 9 years old and we were about to pull into our gravel driveway. The gravel was high because my dad had just had new gravel delivered. It was the palest chalky gray. The pieces of gravel were way too big to walk on barefoot until the very end of summer when your callused soles had finally adjusted. No one else had this kind of driveway, probably a cost saver found by my dad. On the opposite side of the driveway from the house, there was a four foot drop off. I could never ride my bicycle on this driveway but my younger and braver sisters could. Turning left into our driveway after school day, Mom stopped and we looked to see what was happening. A van was in our driveway. A big conversion van with curtains. The kind I had to ride in for kindergarten carpool with Chuck who pooped his pants and ate ketchup in his oatmeal on the way to school. But that was back in Mississippi and we had moved to Nashville so it couldn’t be Chuck and William.

“Mom, I think that is Aunt Dot Dot and Maw.”

“No, Martee. The van isn’t coming to our house. It is just turning around.”

“But Mom, I smell Maw. I smell her perfume.”

“Look, Mom. The wheel thing has the lhasa apsos on it. That is Boomer and BJ.”

“It’s them. It’s Maw and Aunt Dot Dot. They’re here!” squealed Amanda and Susan.

“That’s them alright.” Mom said under her breath.

The new knowledge that Aunt Dot was gay sunk in. It was explained as a gayness of convenience or need. Right after her husband left her with a young son and no money, Aunt Dot met Aunt Ginger. Ginger was much older and much gruffer- a smoker’s voice and a pock marked face. Before my mom’s bathtub revelations, I believed they were roommates. The two of them lived in Anniston, Alabama, which we only visited once. We begged to go because they had horses and I fancied my self an equestrian after once summer at camp and a trail ride on an old horse who appeared hypnotized by the trail and the swishing tail in front of him. I didn’t have to steer or kick. Nilla Wafer just trudged along after the other horses. My sisters and I did not get to ride in Anniston. The mare we were supposed to ride bit the heck out of my dad’s chest when he was attempting to put her bridle on. The bite was in the shape of a horseshoe right on one of my dad’s pecs. Each tooth had its own separate red indentation a few teeth drew blood. We tried to laugh through the fear stricken unfortunate situation so Aunt Dot wouldn’t see how disappointed we were. Dad was wearing a white polo shirt and the bite marks clearly went straight through the shirt. We had imagined ourselves the sisters in Little House on the Prairie trotting in long grass like the Ingall’s girls. And now our Pa had practically been eaten by this beast. I would never get to be Mary, the oldest sister on the after school tv show. I had dreamed of being the blind one. On the way to Anniston, I had stared out the window straight into the sun so that I could ruin my eye sight in preparation for this very visit. Amanda was already precocious like Laura, and Susan was our baby just like their Carrie. Imagine the miraculously happy ending when I rescued Carrie and Laura from their run away wagon. I would ride on Aunt Dot’s mare, blind as a bat, but by using my other senses, I would track down my little sisters and save them seconds before they fell off a cliff as they rounded a treacherous Alabama mountain curve.

I had never considered myself from my dad’s family. I was always a mama’s girl, a Bishop. My last name was obviously Bullen but I felt commonness with the Bishops not the Bullens. My sisters were willing to be combinations. I was on my mom’s side completely. It wasn’t that my dad was bad, at all. I mostly think it was because I idolized my cousins, especially Nisie, who wore pearls, played tennis, and dated a man just like the early Bruce Willis. The women in my mom’s family were short and dark haired and olive skinned with mostly prominent noses. They lived in or by New Orleans. And they knew how to drink coffee by the time they were five. They could peel shrimp and crawfish and they were effortlessly cool and constantly sarcastic. My dad’s family recognized my affinity for my mom’s family or they naturally preferred my sisters. Like the time Maw and Aunt Dot came to visit in that conversion van with Boomer and BJ airbrushed on the wheel cover. My grandmother and my aunt who we seldom saw, brought us authentic adoption dolls. The real cabbage patch dolls were made out of fabric not plastic. The real cabbage patch dolls were heavily coveted by elementary school girls in the early 80s. The squinched face dolls came with real birth certificates and life like outfits. Amanda, Susan and I were excited to get one of these collectibles to love and parent for the rest of our lives. Aunt Dot and Maw promised us these treasures. We were ecstatic- adoption dolls were the closest to a real baby as a little girl could get. Aunt Dot and Maw rummaged through their multiple bags and sundry make-shift suitcases. They unwrapped Amanda’s doll, a brunette, and they unwrapped Susan’s doll, a blonde, from gray unprinted newspaper. That was it. They had not gotten me one, like I didn’t exist. No explanation. No acknowledgement. Just no doll. The dolls were expensive. SO expensive that my parents had said no. We didn’t get extravagant gifts like a practically real baby made of fabric similar to skin colored panty hose. Not even Santa could afford Adoption Dolls.

I had not done anything wrong. I had never been rude to them or even impolite. I just looked exactly like my mom. I was short. I was olive skinned. I had brown eyes and brown hair. I had a prominent nose. Amanda and Susan both had olive skin, brown hair, brown eyes. But they were tall and they had small noses. I cannot claim to understand why I did not get a real certified adoption doll. It has taken me decades to learn that people who are nutty, out of their mind, eccentric, kookoo, or unstable— those people will do crazy things. Unpredictable. Inexplicable. We will never understand why nutty people do nutty things. It will have nothing to do with me personally. And I may never understand what or why it happened.

I’m not sure my dad ever understood that principle. He was always expecting his family to do sane things. He was expecting the most unusual people to act in usual ways. He expected his mother and sisters to behave like common people. He did not stop thinking they would be more normal like him and less bizarre like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Aunt Dot and Maw were not simple characters. They were oh so complicated, amazing and outlandish. The banker in my dad could not get over that there 1+1 never equalled 2. No matter how much he explained or pleaded, their numbers were fantastical and fluid like neon, and never practical. My dad was the definition of practical. He saved for his girls to go to college. He saved for his girls weddings. He made a binder of passwords and directions and information when he got that deadly blood cancer. When we were little girls, on Sundays, we would go for a ride in the company car and Dad would get us ice cream sundaes at McDonalds because on that one day of the week, there was a 29 cent special.

My dad handled Maw’s money. He doled it out in small increments hoping she could make it until the end of the month. On the first day of the month, she bought jewelry she had been eyeing while she had been broke the past month. As she would explain to my dad, after he checked her balance, she did not care if she had to eat bologna sandwiches for the rest of the month. She needed that opal or diamond or onyx or ruby. Maw loved jewelry. She wore a ring or two on every finger. Necklaces. Bracelets. Combs in her incredibly thick hair. Maw did not know I had touches of her in me. Luckily, I do not covet jewelry but I spend money I should not. I overestimate how much money I have and I underestimate how much I need to make it till the next paycheck. Maybe if she knew this, she would have gotten me a cabbage patch baby doll, too. But I doubt it because she is stubborn like me and once she has made up her mind it was impossible to change it. I think I have her wrinkles. She loved my daddy so much. “My pride and my joy. My golden haired boy.” He was her greatest treasure. Maybe they hang out in heaven together. My Maw set up my dad on a blind date the night before his wedding to my mom. This was just the way she was. I figure that she got stuck in early adolescence. That Trauma with a capital T made her forever a teenager, unable to take care of herself or her family. Loving men and sparkly things with never a care for the consequences. Rotting her dog’s teeth. Living off RC Cola and moon pies. Coming and going as she pleased not noticing the effects on her children.

Aunt Dot and Aunt Ginger were making their own way in Anniston, Alabama. They owned a tire store. It was a front for a bingo parlor. Because the first time I heard this story, I was thirteen, I imagine it like a child would. Even now. The tire store is physically in front of the Bingo parlor. Bingo sounds so innocent. Kindergarteners play Bingo. But apparently in Anniston, Alabama, bingo was illegal. It is gambling and gambling is illegal in lots of places. The sheriff was bribed by my aunt, and the problem was over. Aunt Dot and Aunt Ginger could run a profitable bingo parlor and a tire store without fear of being arrested. I think the sheriff was a loyal customer, until this man of the law got in bigger trouble for racketeering.

Just now I opened another tab on my laptop to google the validity of any of my statements about a villainous sheriff committing fraud. Then I stopped. This is not the truth one can find on wikipedia or an actual newspaper. This is a family truth passed down since the late 1980s that I hope continues to be passed down for one hundred more years.

I did not doubt the criminal activities of a sheriff in Alabama. I had grown up in Nashville, Tennessee during the years of Bill Boner as mayor. Strange that we all grew up knowing unsavory white men in power. Criminals. But we never connected that to the lives of black people. But then I had no idea those powerful white men were ruining lives for everyone with their bribes and financial influences. I knew mayors and sheriffs who were crooks but we had been taught bad guys would go to jail and black people were poor because they did not work as hard as white people. We accepted this as factual. The dots were not connected in the 1980s.

My Aunt Lydia the youngest of my Dad’s siblings, the only one alive, texts me regularly. She wants to give me the original family house, which last I saw was inhabited by Aunt Dot and the toy dog menagerie. It is a well built, well kept house in the Mississippi Delta and she imagines it to be a haven for Mim and I. She desires a solution for my lack of house. And she has the solution- a lovely house that holds a trillion memories. My aunt wants to give me her most special gift. Her most prized possession. That kind of generosity is exceptional. Aunt Lydia experiences the Delta through her lens. The people are nice and welcoming regardless of color. And I believe her. Last I visited, Aunt Dot and Aunt Lydia took Mim (my black daughter), George (my white son) and I to a delicious restaurant in town. Fried chicken from heaven above. Well, actually the fried chicken was made by the black staff not divine intervention. The white guests, plus Mim, ate the delicious lunch made by the black staff. Southern hospitality flowed. The black staff was genteel and the white customers were ravenous. Even the Delta progresses. It isn’t all crumbling buildings and soybean fields. Morgan Freeman has rebuilt parts of Clarksdale, the home of the Blues. The nuns have come to Tallahatchie County. They clothe and feed the poor with the help of generous white folks.

I see her view. I have lived it more than once. I can see the azaleas and rhododendron coloring everything rosy. Southern hospitality overflows like the Mississippi River, covering up the racism. Burying lynchings, housing and loan practices, educational inequity, God professed righteous whiteness. I can even admire their efforts. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t stir up trouble while everyone looks so happy and is doing just fine. It could be a beautiful experience of growing up in a small town. Mim would be outwardly welcomed. But every building with a retro marquis, every clapboard church with a heavenward steeple, every classic red brick school, every man, every cotton picking farm, every business was built on a foundation of black skin being less than. Black being unworthy. Black being it- not even he or she, but property. This can’t be whitewashed. Truth will not be forgotten. It may be buried. It could resurface.

New Englanders, Midwesterners, and other sections of the country live surrounded by white faces and judge the South for being the home of slavery. And I judge those other places. Is it hard to disavow prejudice when you live surrounded by people the same color as you? Is it hard to give to your charities when you never actually experience their difficulties? What it is like to imagine racism is some one else’s problem? What is it like to confine problems to states that are red? Cast the first stone and all that business. I admire Tutwiler and the state of Mississippi for trying to love in harmony and peace. I appreciate states in which people of different colors and different backgrounds live together.

But Mim. She deserves to live in a world where she sees black people as customers, clients, business owners. Equals. Friends. (Now, don’t start arguing. We all have one black friend. Or we know one black business owner.) (I hate the word deserves because we can all argue about not getting what we deserve.) As Mim’s mom, I require that she grows up in a place where she has opportunities. Where people connect all the dots and are open to reparations. Atlanta helps. It is no Paradise or Graceland. But at least we aren’t watched when we walk in. So I will not move to Tutwiler. As beautiful and as gracious as it is for Aunt Lydia to provide for our future, I cannot accept. I know she sees me as the one needing saving because my husband was unfaithful. I’m the only divorced granddaughter. See, I have more in common with Maw than either Amanda or Susan. Maybe if she could redistribute those adoption dolls, I would get the prettiest one. But, I would give the baby doll to Mim.

Mom fumed and I was ready to back her up. Dad was late again. Was it Jimmy again? No, my dad had gotten a phone call. Instead of the nightly apologies about the chicken getting cold, Dad told the story of the unfortunate demise of Dot Dot and Ginger’s tire store/ bingo parlor. The loyal sheriff who had been so easy to bribe was abruptly removed from his post due to fraud and replaced. There was a new sheriff in town. In a moment of haste or a moment of extreme clarity, the bingo parlor was burnt down. Alas, the tire store was caught in the flames. Pyramids of black tires were engulfed in flames and the fire climbed higher and higher. The black rubber smoldering. The smoke rising higher than any hill in Alabama. We imagined the high temperature needed to burn all that rubber and the size and intensity of the fire. The stink must have been severe. Burning rubber. Did the tires melt like lava? Luckily Aunt Dot and Aunt Ginger were not home at the time. The dogs were with them, of course. Some friends used hoses to keep the mean ole horses safe and moved them to a neighboring pasture. The fire was so huge it engulfed the house. The fire fighters couldn’t save the house. The FBI and the new sheriff couldn’t find a thing to implicate Aunt Dot and Aunt Ginger in any illicit gambling rings of The Greater Northern Alabama area. No one knows how the fire started.

My dad told the story with a grin on his face. I think the details he was relaying were so incredulous, he had trouble admitting it was his sister’s reality. Mom’s jaw dropped as she pushed away her plate of oven grilled skinless chicken. The girls and I loved a good story about Dad’s family. He could see the humor of his Mississippi family for the moment. The Anniston fire story was bigger and better than most of the stories. We all laughed in spite of ourselves. Sitting together at the kitchen table, we listened to my dad and the truth was funnier than fiction. My dad had a tendency to pop. Lose his temper out of the blue. But none of those signs were visible. He was laughing so hard, he couldn’t answer our questions. He couldn’t catch his breath. We laughed at him laughing. He got out of the every night fight with mom about being late for dinner. He swiped the tears away with the back of his hand. The girls and I took advantage of the happiness of our parents. We rocked our chairs back so far that we sat on the two back chair legs. Laughing and balancing in fits of funnies and Mama and Daddy didn’t even correct us. A moment of pure shared joy where our parents became people.

We watched each other laugh feeling the safety of being a happy family. We saw the spit in the corner of my dad’s mouth. Our mom’s smile wide allowing all her teeth to show without self consciousness. When we caught our breath, we asked “What will Aunt Dot and Aunt Ginger do?” Mom added, “What about all their money? Did the money burn up in the house?” Dad started the laughing all over again. Laughing without any sound except for the wheezing of trying to catch his breath through the hilarity. He couldn’t… get the words out. “Daddy, is their money in the bank?” We demanded he answer. “They didn’t believe in banks. They kept all their money in the mattresses hidden in the house.” Mom inserted before dad regained his composure. We watched as Dad swallowed his laughs in order to answer us. He took a deep breath, feigned seriousness and said with a very red face, “Good news. They hid the money in the freezer.”

p.s. Mama and Dad got me an official adoption doll after Aunt Dot and Maw left. I got the one who was dressed like Annie from Broadway. Red curly hair. Red dress with a white belt trimmed in navy. She was perfection.

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