Authors: Gail Godwin
In memory of John Hawkins, agent and friend
There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.
That summer, Flora and I were together every day and night for three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August. I was ten, going on eleven, and she was twenty-two. I thought I knew her intimately, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.
At the beginning of that summer with her, I seesawed between bored complacency and serious misgivings. She was an easy companion, quick to praise me and willing to do what I liked. My father had asked her to stay with me so he could cross over the mountain from North Carolina into Tennessee while the public schools were not in session and do more secret work for World War II. This would be his second year at Oak Ridge.
The summer before, my grandmother had still been alive to stay with me.
Flora had just finished her training to become a teacher like my late mother. She was my mother’s first cousin. Embarrassingly ready to spill her shortcomings, she was the first older person I felt superior to. This had its gratifying moments but also its worrisome side. She was less restrained in her emotions than some children I knew. She was an instant crier. My grandmother Nonie, that mistress of layered language, had often remarked that Flora possessed “the gift of tears.” As far as I could tell, layers had been left out of Flora. All of her seemed to be on the same level, for anyone to see.
Nonie, who had died suddenly just before Easter, had been a completely different kind of grown-up. Nonie had a surface, but it was a surface created by her, then checked from all angles in her three-way mirror before she presented it to others. Below that surface I knew her love for me resided, but below that were seams and shelves of private knowledge, portions of which would be doled out like playing cards, each in its turn, if and when she deemed the time was ripe.
My father, who was principal of Mountain City High School, was described as “exacting” or “particular” when people wanted to say something nice about him. If they were being politely critical, they might say, “Harry Anstruther can be very acerbic and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” His social mode was a laconic reserve, but at home, after a couple of drinks, he stripped down to his comfortable mordant sarcasm. His usually controlled limp, from a bout with polio in his teens, became more like a bad actor’s exaggeration of a limp.
He married my mother when he was in his early thirties. He was assistant principal of the high school at the time and
also taught the shop classes for the boys. He had learned carpentry when he was convalescing from polio. My mother-to-be, a new teacher in her early twenties, came to his office to protest her new assignment. She had been hired to teach English, and after she got there they had added Home Economics, which she felt she had to swallow, she said, because new teachers couldn’t be picky. But now the public school curriculum had introduced something called Girls’ Hygiene into the Home Economics hour. “I cannot stand up in front of a class and teach this,” she told my father. She held the little booklet apart from her body like a piece of garbage. Her disdain along with the “cannot” impressed my father. Though she was from Alabama, she spoke like someone trained for the theater. “The girls would be shocked and disgusted,” she told him. “Or they would laugh me out of the room.”
My father took the booklet home, and after dinner he and Nonie took turns reading aloud from “Social Hygiene for Girls.” As I got older, Nonie would recall hilarious examples from this booklet. It became her way of imparting the facts of life to me without the hush-hush solemnity. (“I’ll tell you one thing, darling. It made me glad I was brought up on a farm and saw animals go about their natural business without all the clumsy language.”)
My grandmother asked if the well-spoken new teacher was “the kind of person we’d like to invite to dinner.” She probably wouldn’t come, my father said, because she was a chilly sort and hadn’t seemed to like him very much. But Nonie insisted on asking her and she came. Her name was Elizabeth Waring, but by the end of the evening she had asked them to call her Lisbeth. She had been orphaned at eight and raised by two uncles and a live-in maid. The first thing she said when she walked
into our house was how wonderful it must be to live in such a house. “I fell in love with her first,” Nonie liked to recall. “And then, one night, when the three of us were playing cards, Harry finally looked across the table and realized what he could have.”
FLORA CAME WITH
her father, Fritz Waring, to my mother’s funeral. They rode on passes because he worked for the railroad. My mother had caught pneumonia during a stay in the hospital. “There was a lot of it that year—if only they could have gotten sulfa in time they might have saved her.” When I was older Nonie explained that it had started with a miscarriage. “They’d been trying to get you a little brother or sister, but I guess you were meant to be one of a kind, Helen.”
I was three when my mother died and have no recollection of the funeral, or of fifteen-year-old Flora, though Nonie told me Flora would sit me on her lap at meals and try to feed me little morsels from her plate, which I refused. “One time she cried into your hair. She had been telling us how, since she was a small child, she and your mother slept in the same bed. She confided to us she had always slept with one leg over Lisbeth to keep her from going away. At this point your father rolled his eyes and left the table.
“It was a very strange week for us. This was the first time we had met any of your mother’s people. This little man with shaggy eyebrows and a bulldog face steps down from the train with his arm around a sobbing young girl in a black coat way too old for her. ‘She feels things’ were Fritz Waring’s first words to us. Immediately after the funeral, he apologized for having to ask us to drive him back to the train station. He had to be on duty next day. ‘But we’ve hardly even spoken to the two of
you,’ I said. ‘Oh, Flora can stay on with you awhile,’ he said, ‘if she won’t be any trouble.’
“I was pretty surprised but I tried to hide it. I told him we would love to have her stay on
for a little while
. After all, this was your mother’s own first cousin. Shouldn’t we want to know her better? And, as a student of human nature, I have to say I found Flora’s visit eye-opening. It was interesting to observe how very different two girls could be who had grown up in the same house. Though of course there was the big age difference: Lisbeth was twelve when the infant Flora came to live with them. Even their speech! Whereas Lisbeth spoke like a stage actress and held herself back in speech and person, Flora’s southern accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife and she burbled and spilled herself out like an overflowing brook. She asked us the most intimate questions and offered disconcerting tidbits about her people in Alabama. She wanted to know why your mother was in the hospital in the first place and where everyone slept, and she would stand in the open door of the wardrobe where your mother kept her clothes and snuffle into her dresses. She told us proudly that the black coat she wore had been borrowed from the Negro woman who lived with them. One time when she was retelling how she had slept with her leg over your mother ‘so she wouldn’t abandon her,’ she went on to explain that her own mother had left town as soon as she was born. Your poor father found more and more excuses to go out on errands, and by the end of Flora’s visit he was taking his cocktails up to his room.”
The year after my mother’s funeral, Fritz Waring was shot during a high-stakes poker game and Flora and Nonie’s great correspondence began. The sixteen-year-old Flora had written Nonie a long, emotional letter with the gory details (he had
been shot between the eyes) and Nonie had answered back. Immediately came a second letter and Nonie felt it was her duty to reply, and this went on until her death. Flora always started her letters “Dear Mrs. Anstruther,” and signed them, “Your Friend, Flora Waring.”
“The poor child thinks I am her diary,” Nonie would remark, reading Flora’s latest letter. Sometimes she would shake her head and murmur, “Gracious!” The letters disappeared before anyone else could read them. “Young people shouldn’t write down personal things they might regret later,” Nonie said.
FLORA RODE THE
train to Nonie’s funeral in the spring of 1945. She was in her last year of teachers’ college in Birmingham and hoped to begin teaching in the fall.
“Flora’s turned into a looker,” said my father, making it sound like something short of a compliment. “Though not in your mother’s style.”
When friends came back to our house after the funeral, Flora greeted them and passed platters and refilled glasses like she was part of the family, which I suppose she felt she was. After the crowd had thinned, we noticed that a cluster of people had gathered around Nonie’s wing chair and then we saw that Flora was sitting in it—the first person to do so since Nonie’s death. She appeared to be telling a story. Everyone was rapt, even Father McFall, the circumspect rector of Our Lady’s, though he was careful to register a degree of separateness by the quizzical twist of his brow. Flora, softly weeping, was reading from something in her lap. When my father and I edged closer we saw that she was reading aloud from Nonie’s letters.
I can still see Flora, the way her large, moonlike face floated out at you from the frame of the wing chair. She wore her dark hair swept back from a middle parting, then falling in soft waves over the ears and pinned up loosely at the nape of the neck, a style you often see in movies and television dramas being faithful to the late 1930s and early ’40s. Her forehead was spacious, though not high, and her wide-apart brown eyes, when they were not silky with tears, conveyed an ardent eagerness to be impressed.
What she was reading from my grandmother’s letters seemed to be snippets of the kind of soldierly counsel Nonie loved to dispense to everyone. About taking control of your life and making something of yourself. But after listening for a minute, my father sent me over to tell Flora he wanted to speak with her in the kitchen and that was the end of the performance.
I have often wondered if that was when he broached the idea of her staying with me while he went back for his second summer to the construction job in Oak Ridge, where they were making something highly secret for the war effort. This would have been in character. My father loathed displays of emotion and he may have decided to offer me up, since he needed someone anyway, rather than to reprimand Flora about the letters and evoke her gift of tears.
My grandmother died while choosing her Easter hat. She was downtown in Blum’s department store and had just pinned on a Stetson trilby with a dashing black plume that had tiny seed pearls sewn into it like random raindrops. “You’re coming home with me, handsome,” she addressed the hat in the mirror. Her last words were “Mrs. Grimes, could I trouble you for a glass of water?” When the saleslady returned with the water, Nonie was pitched forward, her hand deep in her purse. She had been reaching for her vial of nitroglycerin tablets. Mr. Blum insisted we were under no obligation when my father said he wanted to buy the hat. “But my daughter wants it, you see,” my father explained. “It was Helen’s idea.” “In that case, allow me to make a gift of it to her,” said Mr. Blum. “It’s a becoming hat that will never go out of style. She can wear it herself someday.”
This exchange was reported to me by my father. Just as Nonie’s last moments were reported by others to him. Yet I saw both scenes as though I had been there. I was also achingly present at an alternative scene in which I had been standing right behind her, watching her try on the hats in the three-way mirror.