Killing Us Softly – Terry Barr

Terry Barr

When I was six, my Nanny decided to tell me my birth story. I know her intention was to tell me how much she loved me.

I didn’t know then about self-filtering mechanisms, about choosing words carefully, or editing what you say to sensitive children who, no matter what, always hear the worst.

In Sunday School, for instance, despite stories of the boy Jesus teaching his elders in the temple, or the prime-time Jesus dividing fish and bread among the multitudes, the legend I took to heart about “our savior,” the one that stopped me dead and kept me from crossing the line from awed listener to fervent believer, was the broken one. The heartless one. The one where he gets a spear rammed into his side, watches his hands and feet get penetrated by enormous spikes, finds himself fixed to and uplifted upon his death cross, complete with a crown of thorns, hours of agony, blackening skies, and no one to aid his pain.

How does a boy digest a human sacrifice, a “godly experience?” What should he understand of this religious testing, especially if he is the son of a Christian mother and Jewish father? If he is told this story of what happened on a supposedly good Friday by teachers who explain that the ones responsible for murdering “God,” are “the Jews?”

What could anyone say to help him recover from being surrounded by those who “love[d] to tell the story…the theme in glory of Jesus and his love,” when all he heard was His death cries, and the blame?

I tell that story only to give relief to this one: the one where my Christian Nanny found me in the cold heat of a winter morning in our Alabama home, and explained what the terms of her love meant: “When you were born, they led me to the hospital nursery where you were lying in your bassinet. When they pointed you out to me, at first I hated you because you nearly killed my baby.”

As my mother would explain decades later, my head kept pushing against her pelvic wall, and the doctors couldn’t easily alter my need to be born in that way. I don’t know how long I pushed or the agony I cost my mother. I don’t know if the process ever got to the point where a decision would need to be made—my mother or me. I never asked about that part of the story. My mother convalesced for weeks, unable to care for me properly or breastfeed me. I developed, as the most obvious condition of this experience, a case of severe colic. The doctors tried every formula they knew, but nothing from a cow worked. Finally, my primary doctor advised giving me goat’s milk.

I wonder what would have happened had I screamed through the night after drinking this tonic? What else could they have done to sustain me? In the years after, we’ve laughed as my mother finished the story by telling how, after almost starving, I couldn’t be fed enough, and so in the months before I turned one, whenever I cried, I got a bottle stuck in my mouth. We’ve laughed also, at the pictures of me when I was five months old: when I had become so rotund that the rolls of fat on my arms seemed like something had been tied to cordon off the individual arm sections. By the time I was in fourth grade, I weighed 100 pounds, but no one laughed then. They put me on skim milk for a time and then gave that up, letting me freely flop around in my husky-sized phase. I don’t know what a normal weight for fourth grade is, but I do know that I came in last at every race we had on my grammar school playgrounds.

I don’t know how long I was kept on nanny-milk, but this past Saturday as my wife and I were driving yo the Albino Skunk Festival, we passed a farm of goats, and I thought of this story, and of the goat I keep asking my daughter Layla to paint for me. She’s recently completed a Cow series, and the multi-hued facials of old Bossie are stunning. Yet, I yearn for a goat. I’d like to look at him, my savior, from the wall of my writing study.

Maybe it’s funny or sacrilegious, but goat is the one animal flesh accessible to me that I refuse to eat. I don’t want any sort of lamb either, but I refuse goat. I love the cheese, but the actual milk I haven’t touched for sixty years now, even though I am mostly lactose-intolerant. That bout of colic never quite left me, it seems, and now it’s coupled with the findings of a lab in Memphis, which tested my saliva and concluded that I am on the road to Celiac.

So I have been converted into a non-gluten eater, but never to a goat-eater. My staff of life now is rice or corn-based.

I think both of my parents are gluten-intolerant, too. My mother complains of acid-reflux and severe indigestion, and my father complained at least once a week during his adult life that his stomach was “all torn up.” Both parents consumed as much milk as possible: my mother having a tall glass of white milk with Hershey’s syrup each morning; my father having cereal with milk every day for breakfast, then snacks of tall glasses of “sweet milk” that he dipped his graham crackers in, on weekend afternoons. Some sort of bread, naturally, had to be served with all of our meals.

To complete one part of this story, while my mother loves eating fresh fish of every sort, except salmon and tuna, my father hated fish, mainly because his mother, my MaMa, served him the Jewish delicacies of gefilte and smoked sable once. Once would have been enough.

She was another case, my MaMa. My mother tells this story about MaMa’s first sighting of me:

“Not hours after you were born, that woman came to the hospital. I was so weak too. And all she brought with her as a present was one lone blanket! Anyway, as soon as she saw you, she started doing this little dance and singing, ‘Little George is here, Little George is here!’ That’s not the name I wanted to give you, but what could I do? She pitched such a fit!”

“George” was the name of my paternal grandfather who had died just a couple of months before I was born. According to the descendants of dead Jesus, the next son born after his grandfather’s passing should be named after that grandfather, a circumstance that let my cousin Ricky—born two years before Granpa George’s death–off the hook. At least my Uncle Richard had the good sense not to give Ricky the middle name Richard himself got stuck with by MaMa: “Shirleigh.” I guess I should consider myself lucky, too, because like one of MaMa’s brothers, my grandfather could have been named “Mose.” Should I consider it a mitzvah or an act of mazel that my great-grandparents had the good sense at my grandfather George’s birth to anticipate that one day a Beatle would share his name, the only grace I got out of being the only living George that I knew during my childhood?

I think my mother wanted to name me Alan, but after George, she chose to give me her own maiden name, Terry, which she demanded I would be called.

I never found out what my father thought about all this naming. He began calling me “Buddy,” a nickname he quit using for me by the time I was two or three, when he switched to “Bobby,” which I selected for myself maybe because no one in the Bible who killed or didn’t kill Jesus was ever called that.

To my Nanny, though, I was always “Buddy,” except when she’d slip toward the end and call me “Sonny,” the nickname of her own first-born son, the one who died in his twenties of a bad heart. Clearly, she thought of him when she saw me, making me wonder now about the circumstances of his delivery, and, again, the reasons she told me about mine:

“Yes, I hated you at first, but then the nurse brought you closer to the window, and I saw how beautiful you were, and I couldn’t help but love you.”

I was the one they “couldn’t help but love,” meaning, of course, that for maybe even just a few minutes, they tried hard not to.

Nanny’s conclusion, though, could have made this into another tale of love conquering hate. But then she added a coda: “Yes, you were so beautiful, and then they put you back in your bassinet, right next to the ugliest baby I’d ever seen. Oh lord, that baby was ugly And, you know, he was the son of Ward McIntyre—that man who does the news sometime on Channel 6. I felt nothing but pity for him, having to see his ugly son lying next to you.”

***

A few years after Ward McIntyre entered my life, I discovered this amazing fact: though he wasn’t the first—that honor belonged to early 1960’s Channel 6 weatherman Bart Darby who once tripped while trying to leap the benches where the children in the studio audience sat, losing his clown head in the attempt—Ward McIntyre became the second and longest-lasting Bozo in Birmingham, Alabama, TV history. I can still hear his Bozo laugh, too—“heauh, heauh, heauh, heauh”–sounding more like a seal barking than any clown I had heard before. It must be hard to laugh on demand so often in a thirty-minute period, five times a week.

After Bozo retired, Ward returned to his first career as an AM disc jockey, this time premiering the return of Saturday night oldies on Birmingham’s top AM station, WSGN-610. This was the mid-1970’s, AM’s last hit gasp, kept semi-alive through the nostalgia of American Graffiti.

My uncle Leon—uncle by marriage to my Dad’s sister Carole—knew Ward when they both played high school football, Leon claiming to be the star running back for Woodlawn High.

“He’s not so hot,” Uncle Leon said of Ward’s DJ-ing, but then, no one in the family ever believed much of what Uncle Leon said.

Dad thought his sister married out of fear of becoming an old maid. Carole was thirty-four or thirty-five when she married. Before that, she lived with MaMa in a one-bedroom apartment, the old red brick ones in Mountain Brook, next to the Birmingham Country. MaMa and Carole each had a twin bed in that tiny room, and when Carole married and moved out, MaMa openly lamented to us—God knows what she said to Carole—that “the lunk” had taken her baby away, that Carole was “too fragile.” Too fragile for what, I didn’t learn until I made the mistake of suggesting that one day MaMa might have a new grandchild. I was maybe twelve then, but I knew well enough where babies came from, if not how they got there.

MaMa’s cries then flooded the street outside her apartment on Beverly Drive: “Oh Nooooooooooooooo! She can’t have a baby!”

She went on to vent about how she hated Uncle Leon, no “but after I really saw him, I came to love him” ending for MaMa. Much later I tried to imagine what my aunt felt toward the woman who insisted that they share a bedroom for so much of Carole’s adult life. I never heard Carole use the word “hate” against her mother, but I did notice that at Passover, Carole brought to our semi-Seder decidedly leavened mushroom and anchovy pizza.

Carole’s marriage lasted fifteen years. Shortly after she and Leon divorced, Carole was diagnosed with MS, and spent her last years in dementia at a local nursing home. She died in the summer of 1989, age fifty-six. MaMa died in 1995 at age ninety-nine. I went to both funerals, which is more than I can say for MaMa, who attended only her own. Claiming to be agoraphobic, she had us come to her apartment after Carole’s funeral to tell her “all about it.” During the telling, she cried a little, “cheering up” briefly in between sniffs to complain about the arthritis raging through her hands, and the little dog raging through the small plot of yard in back of her apartment, defecating all over her crab grass. As we were about to leave, she grabbed a book from her TV stand: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

“This is the story of my life,” she cried.

I thought Carole died again in that moment.

And then I started wondering who the “good people” were. Those who foist Jewish names on a child whose parents had decreed he would be raised Christian (And what if my grandfather had been a Chaim or Menachem?)?

Those who tell you softly and tenderly that at first they hated you?

Twenty years before Aunt Carole’s death, my Nanny died, two days before my birthday. My mother had her buried the day after she died, so that we could all move on. I was turning fifteen, caught up in a world of girls—I’m sorry Nanny, but while the mourners were at our house, instead of sitting in quiet contemplation, I thrilled in talking to one girl on the phone and, when the doorbell rang, to have another girl appear up to console me–and in wishing I could drive. Still, I loved my Nanny and remembered how, despite everything else she said and the names she mistakenly called me, she most often and most lovingly called me “darlin’.”

I haven’t hated her during my life. I never did hate her, even though her words killed a little bit of me in that moment so long ago, a moment that has seemed to last forever, echoing the very real moments when either my mother or I could have died. Since, as Robert Frost once suggested, there is a design in all things, I’ve been reading Anton Disclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls recently. The novel’s narrator, a fifteen-year old girl named Thea, remarks on the circumstances of her birth. She was the first-born of fraternal twins, her “other” being a boy. Her parents didn’t suspect or expect twins even though her father was a doctor. Of course, she learns that they wanted a boy, but that their initial shock at getting a girl was dwarfed by seeing another head crowning, this time the boy they wanted. So, Thea says,

”Mother would tell us that we were loved even before we were born. But that wasn’t quite true: one of us was loved, the other unknown” .

It’s quite a burden to carry, being the unknown one, the unwanted one.

Did I know before I learned it that my mother nearly died for me? I think so, for I remember the feeling caused by this scene, the moment of my first true separation from my mother.

I’m five years old and starting Miss Carroll’s kindergarten. Our kindergarten is private, so no one thinks anything of it that every morning, along with pledging allegiance to the flag and answering roll call, we all recite together the 23rd Psalm.

I see myself so clearly, standing by a structure pole in the basement of this converted house. As we’re finishing reciting–“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”— I start crying, and my brand new, and still very stiff, Farah jeans are soon spreading the distinct flow of urine down both pants legs. There’s nothing I can do. I don’t remember how my teachers dealt with this, for I had no change of clothes. What did they do with me?

For after all, who cries during a psalm, they surely wondered, not at all seeing as I did the image conjured when the psalmist “walks through the valley of the shadow of death,” his “rod and staff” there to “comfort” him.

That image, the one I saw every day when others saw comfort or perhaps nothing at all, was of my “Mommy” and me, walking down the block near our house, our shadows before us, or behind as we turned back. Long, early morning shadows. Sometimes, my Mommy would pick up a rock to hold if we were nearing a barking dog back in those days when dogs always ran loose. Maybe that rock comforted her, but for me, it couldn’t offset the shadows, the ones I thought of in kindergarten during the psalm. The ones that now would lurk near my mother with me no longer there to protect her from death. I tried to stay home as often as I could that year and in those that followed. Though I did suffer from various earaches, bouts of strep throat, and bronchitis, my true “go to” ailment was caught in this recurring lament,

“Momma, my stomach hurts.”

In so many ways, it still does.

So I came to hate Psalm 23, and though I am a man of sixty now, I still do. Words have of killing us even when they’re said in the most innocent way years after a laborious but successful birth. Even when they’re spoken out of the traditions we call love.

My mother is eighty-three now. One day she will die and I will not be able to save her or make her passing go more softly. Even though I know this, even though I know I have never protected her, that it is out of my hands and has been all of my life, I still fear that day. My stomach tells me I always will.

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