The Correct Position
Even as a pre-kindergardner I was aware that girls had private areas. And I say areas because I really didn’t know how many of them there were. Or exactly what they were. And once I knew, and that ocean of complexity lay before me, my focus first changed to my place in that complexity and then to everyone else’s. And it has been that way ever since.
My Uncle Albert weighed just over three hundred pounds and stood some six feet five inches and limped, staggered really, when he walked, shuffled in a ponderous forward crab-like strut. In short, he was out of alignment, heeling over before burdens and forces I could not see. My father said he was one of the kindest men he had ever known. And that he was deeply private.
He married Aunt Sally when he was almost fifty and she just a few days over forty. She stood no more than a few inches above five feet and also limped and was unable to maintain a true course, angling her diminutive torso first right, then the left, driven by her own little pendulum of awkwardness and later, pain, as her joints froze, at first slowly, and then more rapidly, until their walks together were limited solely to the hottest days of July, August and September. Even then with her piggybacked up behind him.
Uncle Albert taught school, and was beloved by his sixth graders, who – parents complained – would not leave at the end of the school day, begging him to tell them one more story about this legend or that carefully concealed and controversial lesson in history, biology and Inca astronomy. The last straw was when he began teaching them rudimentary Latin so they could one day read the love poems by the Roman poet Catullus. At the school board hearing held to consider his case and his future, an Episcopalian with knife-sharp creases in his trousers and indignation in his voice, got up and read a poem from a dusty translation in which one object of the poet’s romantic interest, a young woman, on being approached by the poet, trembled like a fawn on a mountainside.
I had been one of his former six graders and was now an eighth grader. I sat beside my father at the hearing, who had come to assure himself that his brother would receive justice. My father was a fearless if slow public speaker when he stood up, took off his felt hat and began to speak at our town’s town hall meetings. There he was known for his furious defense of the beavers that swam submerged and blocked the culverts that, left unattended, flooded the town’s woods and marshes, making them breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“The woods and marshes become a haven for fish and wildlife when there is water,” my father’s voice boomed out over the graying heads. “It’s a natural rhythm. Flood and bounty, flood and bounty. It only takes a few minutes now and then to break up the beavers’ dam building in the culverts. We can hire a college student for that. The beavers bring a richness to the county, fishing for everyone, a biology lab for our children, interesting hiking grounds for our scouts, and protection for our deer, raccoons and wildcats. Let me remind you that before the arrival of culverts and dirt roads the area was called Wildcat. As for mosquitoes, it costs very little to pour barrels of mosquito fish into the water where they will breed on into the future. That is a far better solution than the present one which is to fly C47s low over the town, spraying tons of DDT on all of us.” This was the kind of talk that came out of the mild, quiet man who was my father.
“As for my brother, he is, as you all know, a brilliant teacher for our children who are reluctant to leave the classroom at the end of the day because of the interest and enthusiasm he kindles in them. I sincerely doubt that my brother made any reference to romantic activity when he described a young woman trembling like a doe on the mountainside. I even went to the extent of asking him this question to which he replied he had not and would not ever. So, good citizens, it is not as if he were reading to his 6th graders from the secret sex diary of a reprobate. What he is in fact doing is showing them that there are other languages and that they carry our history of literature in themselves. What he has done is elicit curiosity and the desire to learn in our students, not just in language but also in biology, history and even mathematics. My brother invites you to visit his class, with permission from the principal, of course, to see for yourselves how lucky we are to have a man of this stature and devotion.
No one spoke after my father. People looked at each other as if to say, “Who left the door open? or “Why are we even sitting here?”
And that was the end of it.
I saw other things as I grew up. How each day Aunt Sally waited for his huge frame to come in sight at the corner of Pitnam Ave. and Curtis Place, when Uncle Albert rocked and swayed and elephanted his way home, always with a thin bouquet of poppies, rock roses or Shasta daisies, which he plucked from this or that forgotten bloom between the sidewalk and the street on his path home.
Once I watched him pass by our wooden porch, and then saw Aunt Sally waddle toward d him, rolling from side to side from their house, which was next door to ours. Saw this from the window of my bedroom when I had just gotten up from a nap. They were smiling and wiping tears from their eyes as they came and then held each other in a delicate, tender long embrace, where his massive arms held her head against his stomach, at a level not much above his belt, even when he was leaning forward to accommodate the difference in their size.
When I grew a little older and a little meaner, I found myself preoccupied pretty much with one question, and that had to do with the act. The way it was clearly done according to the movies I saw, where the male held his doe-eyed love below his muscles and bounced around on top of her while she sighed as if she were just short of fainting.
Then my Uncle Albert choked to death on his own saliva during my freshman year in college when a nasty flu brought the city to its knees. Then something happened that made my father very angry. At first I thought it had something to do with me and my attitude. But that wasn’t it. My mother told me to listen carefully, as she rushed to finish a flower arrangement for the funeral. It was during the war, she said. The Navy rejected Uncle Albert because of the way he walked, but then inducted him because of the way he swam. They trained him in demolitions and appointed him the leader of a squad of some forty other men who together with my Uncle Albert arrived at Utah beach, Normandy, dropped off by submarine, long before the great armada and in silence and predawn darkness blew up steel landing boat traps and obstacles, clearing routes for the Allied invaders, and who only faded away, mostly submerged, when the German defenders, boys themselves, raked the beach with searchlights and M60 machine gun fire, killing all but Uncle Albert and three others. “But why is my father angry?” I asked. “Because somebody said again that Albert had died because he had drunk too much water staying submerged and hidden from the German machine guns—a stupid cruel joke that we’ve heard before. In fact, he received some sort of distinguished service cross for towing the three wounded survivors all the way back to the distant half submerged submarine when he was badly wounded himself.”
Aunt Sally lay beside him for two days, refusing to release her grip on the man she loved so much, and only let go when our doctor decided her own health was in crisis and slipped a handkerchief laced with chloroform over her nose and laid her unconscious into a waiting stretcher. A special coffin had to be built, and a truck with a crane swung it up onto the back of a second truck and after the trip to the cemetery they unloaded the box beside an oversized grave.
In the space of a few days, Aunt Sally found time to make several quick arrangements, one of which was a note for my father saying she was too distraught to attend the service, that she would contact him about other matters later, and then she dropped out of sight completely.
When the crane was about to lower Uncle Albert’s huge box at the end of its greased cable, and we bowed our heads and tried to weep for the sadness of it all, a dark van drew alongside, stopped, and two men, not quite dressed as funeral directors, carried a small pomice-whitened box to the edge of our circle of mourners and stood back. In a voice that was deeper and stronger than usual, my father asked the mourners to come away from Uncle Albert’s grave, to ask no questions and to face away in the opposite direction. Which the mourners did, murmuring and mildly miffed, but complying. Thinking, I suppose, my mother and father needed a moment to kiss the coffin or something. Though I was too old for it, my father took my hand and led me back to the grave.
Following someone’s instructions, probably my father’s, one of the new coffin bearers raised a hinged window of old beveled glass, and we saw our Aunt Sally looking up at us, but not really looking because her eyes were shut, her face sad and serene. She held a very familiar looking bouquet of flowers, the kind of flowers you could not find between the street and the sidewalk, and very much unlike the kind Uncle Albert had liked to pick.
The new funeral directors, who seemed more relaxed and pleasanter than real ones, turned some wooden latches on Uncle Albert’s coffin and removed the lid. My uncle lay face down. I expected an awful commotion, like the one I was feeling myself, part shock, part horror, part sadness and anger. But the mourners continued facing away. With my father’s help, the two men placed the flower arrangement in Uncle Albert’s coffin and Aunt Sally herself on top of him, higher up in what you would have to call a piggyback position – not the one I would have chosen if I had done the planning. Because it could not have been the position they chose for themselves in the private moments of their strange and unbalanced relationship. Plus, it was all a little ghoulish, I thought, to have moved her even stiffer limbs so that her hands wrapped over his shoulders as if she were hanging on.
After the coffin crunched down on the bottom of the hole and the cable snaked back up and the truck left us standing in diesel fumes, my father handed me a shovel and together we set to work on the great mound of excavated earth, rattling it down over his brother and Aunt Sally. We did not talk. At times, when I glanced over at him, his eyes were red and filled with tears. Then, when we were finished and the mourners had left, a few of them Navy veterans, he turned to me, laid his hand on the back of my neck, held me for a moment and said, “Now you know.”
I learned that Aunt Sally had taken sleeping pills. But for a long time I did not really understand what my father had meant by his comment, and then he himself was gone before I was old enough, mature enough, and kind enough to ask him.