Second Oldest of Seven
She was the second oldest of seven—
the oldest girl—
They were the children not seen in “American Gothic.”
Two others died in infancy
before she was born—
I don't know if that would have made the difference.
I saw an old browned photograph of her mother and father once.
He was Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O'Hara,
She was the farmer's wife in the Grant Wood painting.
I never heard any of them tell of childhood happiness.
Each possessed a somewhat macabre sense of humor—
fatalistic, never maudlin—
too strong for that
If nothing else, their mother was a survivor—
not without talent and ambition,
but whatever fire burned within her
never radiated very far.
I was only six when grandmother died
and her husband was already gone,
so I never knew them as my grandparents.
To the day my own mother died,
I never heard much about them
I can't tell you one thing about my grandfather.
I'm pretty sure about one thing:
I can never know when the transition was made
or to the precise degree,
but, at some point,
my mother, the oldest girl,
became her mother.
I always sensed a sort of reverence and respect for my mother,
from uncles and aunts.
It was more than merely familial—
more like allegiance.
I think she attempted to fill a great void in her family.
I think she tried to be the fire.
There must have come a time
when it became far too great a burden.
She was engaged to a local boy, a nice young man,
but one day the man who became my father appeared,
not terribly handsome, but dashing, confident and
“On his way” (she once confided in a rare moment).
He was driving a new automobile and he was fun.
This must have seemed to be the brass ring,
and she grabbed it.
Like most of her life,
I still don't know all the details.
She was pretty
and inherited the best of her mother's talents.
She could cook and sew
and grow and arrange beautiful flowers.
She was among the best of her time at most things,
but she had no model for sophistication,
and the little fire she nourished—
the one she probably hoped would someday grow into a bonfire—
In her little home town, she would have become a Maven,
but they moved to the city
where my father could be “On his Way”,
and to his great credit, he was.
Cooking, sewing, canning foods and flower arranging
were great talents,
but the ways of great city women escaped her,
and, when the fire went out,
she had nothing to fall back upon.
There were lots of pretty women.
My father was a great man, but far more ambitious.
A country boy himself, he wanted a place at the table
of the rich and famous.
He was comfortable there and well received.
His raw, eager intelligence was refreshing.
He admired many men—feared none—
earned public acclaim, and relished it.
She searched within herself for acclaim,
but found none.
She was her mother—couldn't escape it—
the mother who was always fighting her own loneliness—
the Lady in Black—
conserving every measure of her own warmth—
unable to share.
My mother built her own fire
and made sure every brother and sister
felt the flame.
There became a time, though,
after she had given away
almost every warm cinder—
when no one stepped up to replace them.
Everyone needs an internal fire.
My mother's flame burned out
long before any of us knew or understood it.
In my Seventies,
I am coming to understand.
It still hurts,
but I am coming to understand.