Chapter Two: BECOMING A POLEMICIST
I was born in Surrey England but have very little memory of it. My parents brought us; two younger sisters and an older brother, to the states when I was fairly young. Betty, or Beatrice, was my grandmother’s name and not one I embraced having when I was in grade school. But, like the ears that stuck out from my head, I grew into it.
My name is Betty Underground. I’m a writer. I’ve lived an unconventional life. Admitting that is liberating in the moment, and terrifying for all the moments still to come.
I write stories of love; inconvenient, unobtainable love. And any writer who says they don’t write from personal experience is full of crap. It’s all we know how to do. But do we intentionally create situations in real life that spark our creative flame? I’ll let you be the judge of that. The stories that follow are mine; how close to reality they are is grey and blurry at best. As writers we get to write stories as we remembered, or wished, they happened. As the people in a writer’s life you’re left to wonder how you might be portrayed. So, consider this a heads- up to the men of my past; names and facts might be changed, but you might still see yourself in these characters.
One of my best friends once asked if I intentionally pick the most impossible relationships; my only response was that they made for better stories.
Another asked if I ever wrote love letters; I told him I only wrote about the men I loved when the memory of them was safely in the past. And some of them took longer to push into the past.
It’s widely believed that our past experiences inform our future actions. How we’re raised, the culture that defined us at a young age. My early years weren’t out of the ordinary, as far as I knew. My mother married my father because he’d be a good husband, father and provider. He was also a pretty awesome guy. And then they divorced because they wanted different futures. Something not often done in the 70’s, so much so we were asked to stop attending Sunday Services at our Episcopal Church. Which, as a kid wasn’t much of a punishment; I suspected we only attended because that’s what people did on Sundays in our beachside community, and to not do it was a kind of exile two Europeans weren’t keen on dealing with. So we went. Sang in the church choir, volunteered at the church bazaar, and then as quickly as we were accepted we were booted.
I’ve never blamed any of my experiences on my parents divorce. I believe in every failure is a lesson. And in every heart break, a story. The woman I am today is because of the decisions my parents made; from leaving England, to settling in Southern California, to their divorce. I’ve no doubt those things shaped me, and I’m thankful for the life I was given. If I’d bothered to sort out the emotions and consequences in therapy I’d not be sitting here today with the stories I have to tell.
I was 15 the summer that I went alone to Memaw's house in Southern Georgia. For the years leading up to my parents divorce we’d always gone on holiday as a family to Memaw's, but the years post-divorce made family gatherings a strain on everyone. I missed the summers spent with Memaw and Pepaw. The huge 4th of July fireworks show over the river. Making fresh squeezed lemonade and sugar cookies. And finally, the year came when I got to go back.
Their home was a large, but modest, 2-story plantation style with plenty of rooms for guests who came and went through the summer. It was yellow, trimmed in white with a porch surrounding it full of mismatched patio furniture scattered about in no particular fashion. French doors opened out from every room on to the deck. Windows had bench seats so there wasn’t an inch of the property you couldn’t sit and watch the day leisurely go by.
Memaw would wake us early in the morning, throw open every window in our rooms and open every door, all the while saying, “I’m letting the sun in so you best get down here and play with it before it gets bored and burns the place down!” When I was little, I believed her and was dressed and in the kitchen in no time. Now, just the opportunity to spend time with her and Pepaw was all I needed.
I don't remember many of the rooms, as plentiful as they were, but I do remember the kitchen. In the morning it was filled with sunlight warming the red walls. The cabinets were white with tulips cutout in the doors of the upper ones. The sink was a massive porcelain farmer sink, so deep I remember worrying about my little brother drowning in it as my mother bathed him one summer when he was very little. We enjoyed many meals at a large wood plank table Pepaw had built from the old barn doors. Sometimes we had to drag the hodgepodge patio furniture in to seat all the guests.
The other room I remember was the one Memaw shared with Pepaw - it smelled like lilacs - the ones she’d pick from the side yard and put in glass mason jars placed on every possible surface. The bed was covered in old quilts she had collected - she had an affinity for garage sales and was always finding treasures, like the vanity from the late 1800's Pepaw had refurbished for her. The stool that sat in front of it looked like a sled, covered in mustard colored velvet with little pompoms hanging along the edges.
One afternoon, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched Memaw wrap her long jet black hair around and around and around until it formed a perfect bun. She held it together with a single large pin that she told me was made from the tusks of African Elephants. She despised the harming of animals for vanity but thought it a way of protecting the soul of the animal if she had acquired it second hand and saved it from being discarded.
Everything in her world had a story. As I was getting older, beginning to imagine how my own life might take shape, I found comfort in her storytelling. She painted pictures with her words. Her and Pepaw had been together forever. They’d been everywhere and had pieces of their years on display all around the house.
I could hear the man across the field start up his tractor. He just rode it around the perimeter of his property, not really doing anything that required a tractor. Memaw called him eccentric, I didn’t exactly know what that meant but I suspected it had something to do with being a tad crazy. But the way she talked about him, was as if she was like him. Like she understood his off-beat ways and was perfectly accepting of it.
It was the time of morning when the sun was coming in the window behind her vanity and Memaw asked, "Do you have a boyfriend yet? Seems you are getting to that age and you should start to think about it."
I giggled with embarrassment and replied "Not a BOYFRIEND, but I have a friend, who is a boy that I sorta kinda like.”
"Have you told him you fancy him yet?"
"Not yet. I don’t think he likes me the way I like him. I’d hate to scare him off and we couldn’t be friends anymore."
Truth was I’d spent the whole year swooning over him. Two years older than me with a smile that dissembled all reason in my heart. I’d barely escaped the embarrassment of wanting so bad for him to ask me to the winter dance; I’d even had my mom make me a dress in anticipation of him asking. Turned out to be a mean joke played by a girl I thought I could trust. She’d been the only girl I ever told about my crush on Joshua Taylor. She convinced me she’d over-heard him telling his friend he wanted to ask me. Convinced me every single day as the date grew closer that it would be the day, the day he got the courage to ask me. Until the Wednesday before when I mustered the nerve to ask Joshua what he was doing for the upcoming weekend, desperately hoping to get him to finally ask me to the dance. “Going to see my grandmother”.
There it was. The cruel joke’s final punch-line. He wasn’t ever going to ask me to the dance. Victoria Banfield had made the whole story up. A mean-girl at the core it was probably the beginning of my life-long struggle over trusting women. But my crush didn’t wane, and though the summer would bring change for us both, I held hope that something might spark a romance with us the next year.
I didn’t tell Memaw any of that. It still stung. “Listen to me,” she said, “there is no harm that can come from showing your heart. Only from holding those feelings tight in your grip.”
“So, how do you know when you fall in love?" I asked.
"Love isn't something that you fall into, it’s something you grow into. In my opinion, the notion of ‘falling’ is far too romanticized. Love happens over time. Time spent with the person that makes you smile the most. "
In her chifforobe she kept a few of her favorite things. Keepsakes like blankets and scarfs; including the silk one she told me a Sultan have given her. She pulled out a sweater I’d always loved. It was one she wore when I was younger and she was ‘less fluffy’ as she called herself. A simple cardigan that was hand-knit of blue yarn. Along the border it had silhouettes of owls with black buttons sewn on for eyes. There had been a matching skirt that the moths got to, but I only ever remember her wearing the sweater; she’d put it on first thing it the morning to come shake us out of bed. She handed it to me and I put it on.
Memaw wasn’t a big woman, barely clearing my height but still it was a tad too big, "One day you will find that boy that makes you smile, then grow into love with him - much like you will grow into this sweater - a little each day, until one day, it fits perfectly."
She smiled that smile that comes from experience, and sprayed the pillows on the bed with Chantilly perfume.
"Did you grow in love with Pepaw?"
"I did. Pepaw and I fit perfect together, now, but it takes time."
One day, years later, Pepaw left Memaw. I was in my twenties when my mother told me. He just quietly packed a few things into that old blue suitcase one day and left. I visited her shortly after and she said nothing. Like as if she expected him to just walk in the front door for dinner. She never spoke of where or why he left - or if she even knew. My mother never spoke about him either. Eerily quiet, the both of them; as if some sort of family secret was being buried in the back field. When Memaw passed, I was asked to go to Southern Georgia to sort out her affairs. I packed boxes for days. A few of the ladies who had worked with Memaw at the library came and helped sort through the years of artifacts that had accumulated. I asked if they knew Pepaw. They told me how she occasionally would speak about him as if he was away on business or some grand adventure. It wasn’t often that she’d mention him, but it seemed like she always knew he’d be back. What we uncovered in that house was the truth; Pepaw had another family, one he had started years before. A double life, being a devoted husband to two women. Women who were once friends. Friends who had shared adventures as little girls, and then shared a man.
I came to find out, as we tracked the letters and journal entries Memaw left behind, that on that day when Memaw gave me that sweater, Pepaw had already started to grow in love with another woman. A love that slowly unfolded into the years and only came to fit perfectly the day he packed his suitcase.
It’s said that women are cruelest to each other. They’d cast aside years of dedicated and snatch the husband right out from under their best friend. I’d argue that a man can never be stolen. That those who stray do so willingly. Put blame on the tethering institution of marriage that says faith to one person for the rest of your life is the value of a good man. It’s that very institution that forced Memaw to turn the other cheek. To accept a life with a man who only had half himself to give.
What if marriage was less permanent? Divorce a little less a stigma? What if Memaw didn’t carry the shame of having to share her husband? What if she’d been given the chance to find a more complete love?
I still smell lilacs when I think of that day. My heart breaks wide open when I think of how happy Memaw was in the ignorant bliss Pepaw had created for her, and how her heart must have been ripped from her soul when he left. She died of a broken heart and while I think there is still some truth in people ‘growing into love’, just like that sweater I’ve long since out grown, it’s hard to trust that anything will ‘fit’ forever.
As children, how much do our relationship role-models affect our own behaviors? I’m the child of divorced parents, but am certain that the successes I’ve created for myself are a positive result of that dissolved union; the woman I would have become under the roof of both my parents would have been someone entirely different. I love my parents, and have great respect for the lives they built separate from each other and think that I got the better bits of who they are. My two younger sisters might argue against that, but we all have choices no matter the cards we’ve be dealt.
If my parents had stayed married, I would have likely married in my mid-twenties. He would have been a man with a solid footing and the potential to become more. In building a life we’d come together as equal partners and when we felt stability beneath our feet, we’d add a dog, and eventually children. At some point there’d be a mortgage, a car more suitable for a growing clan, and maybe a recreational vehicle if we fancied boating or something. Once or twice a year I’d pull out the good china we got as a wedding gift and host some holiday related meal. We’d cobble together family vacations and juggle play dates as the space that our relationship once lived became crowded with tasks and rituals. And because our lives looked like the lives our friends were living, we’d figure we were doing just fine. We’d hit the major milestones, and stayed on track with all social norms.
We’d be enormously comfortable with each other, that husband and I; anticipate needs and finish sentences. We’d move through our choreographed lives mostly with ease and rarely hit a bump. And maybe neither of us would wake up one day and realize we’d been on autopilot for a decade. Maybe neither of us would add up all the stuff we’d acquired and still have a gapping hole that couldn’t be filled. Maybe we’d ignore that ache we had for more from each other, and from life.
The thought of this kind of life is soothing for many; for me, it gives me hives. I was a religious watcher of “Sex and the City”; one part Carrie, one part Samantha, I identified with the struggles these gals had with modern relationships. Though I can tell you the episode by the opening scene, there is one episode that hit so close to home I almost couldn’t watch it: Season 4, Episode 15 “Change of a dress”, in which a pregnant Miranda convinces Carrie, who is struggling with her engagement to Aidan, to try on wedding dresses. Once in a long sleeve, high necked, lace covered gown with hundreds of tiny buttons up the back, Carrie launches into a complete panic attack. A rash quickly spreading and her breath in a vise, Miranda has to rip the buttons to free her friend.
I can literally feel her anxiety well up in me every time I watch that episode. Though my one opportunity to try on wedding dresses had come years before that episode aired, how I handled it was probably one of the deepest insights into my matrimonial psyche; I bought a wedding dress without every trying it on, and never took it out of the box once it arrived. I moved it from one apartment to another and sometime in the 90s it was inadvertently left in the garage of my beach apartment with a box of my high school yearbooks.