Crazy Quilt: Prologue
My sister McCall always said it was just too hard growing up in the South when you didn’t believe in Jesus and you didn’t think that black people were stupid. Grandmother Randol nearly had a fit when she heard that one.
At seventeen, McCall was eight years older than me and heading off to college. She planted a quick kiss on the top of my scrawny head and ran for her old blue Rambler, its seams bursting with all her teenage possessions. I wasn’t sure if she took off so fast because she was afraid of breaking down or if she was just in one hell of a hurry to get out of there.
I stood in the driveway grinding the heel of my hand into my eyes to keep from crying and felt totally, hopelessly and helplessly abandoned. A rare, but much appreciated, August breeze blew at the hem of my cotton dress as I watched my sister drive east to what was surely freedom. Even at that young age, I could see that I had been left to endure an insufferably boring life with my Grandmother and a colored maid who came in three times a week.
The sting of those tears soon faded as I settled into a routine of schoolwork, holidays and vacations, and with each passing year McCall and I grew more distant.
Now, fifteen years later, that same sort of summer breeze is whipping at my skirt. Standing on the porch of my Grandmother’s house, the house I’ve lived in practically my entire life, I watch my sister pull into our gravel drive, her dark gray Volvo bursting with her adult possessions.
Our Grandmother was one of the wealthiest women in our small Georgia town, having inherited a great deal of money from her husband, Milton. Grandfather Randol had owned the largest hardware store in the county and sold out in the mid-sixties. The truth was, when Jack, his only son and our daddy, died in a car accident, he just lost interest in the business. He had hoped to keep the store in the family, but with Daddy gone, that was impossible. Granddaddy died a few years later, but not before making some wise investments that assured the financial security of his wife and granddaughters.
In her will, Grandmother Randol left her ‘73 Buick, the house and all her possessions to McCall and me, as well as a small trust and ten thousand dollars in cash to each of us to “do something frivolous”. The playfulness of that gesture surprised me, because my Grandmother was known for being a serious minded woman. There was additional money so that Nora, the maid, would receive her weekly salary for as long as she lived, whether she continued to work at the house or not. The rest, and there was a lot, went to the First Baptist Church of Comstock, where Grandmother had been a loyal member for 61 years.
After she graduated from college, McCall worked in Baltimore for a while as an advertising copywriter and later in Washington, D.C. as a speech writer. She thought the two occupations were not that different, but with the last election she found herself out of a job and reduced to writing for technical journals. I don’t want to sound heartless but the news of Grandmother’s death and our subsequent inheritance must have come as a welcome relief to her problems; a rent-free place to live and the freedom to work on some book she was always threatening to write.
On the surface, McCall’s reasons for moving home were clearly more practical than emotional, but then so were mine. To suddenly become half owner of a large Victorian home was a blessing to me as well since I was close to finding myself out on the street. Until last year I had worked as a checkout girl at the A&P, a job I’d held since I’d graduated from Comstock Central High. When I was twenty, I married Nick, the Coca-Cola delivery man for our store. Nick was incredibly handsome in his uniform with the red and white patch. He’d sit there in his big truck, his left arm, tanned and muscular, hanging out the window and flash me a smile that made my teeth hurt. Once a week he’d stop by and if I wasn’t busy we’d talk by my register. Nick would lean against his hand truck full of empties and gaze at me through long dark lashes, and I’d speak in a whisper, head down to hide the rising blush in my cheeks.
We started dating and married after only four months. I found out too late that he gambled away most of what he earned. Three years and no kids later, he left me for the produce clerk at the Kroger out by the interstate.
The humiliation was so bad that I quit my job and went to work as a typist for an insurance company in the next town. Typing had been my best subject in school and it wasn’t so different from punching all those little buttons on the cash register. Anyway, there had been talk of getting a fancy scanner system for the checkouts. I would’ve hated that. It wouldn’t have felt so much like honest work.
The money wasn’t as good at the insurance company, but at least no one knew about Nick and I found I had this miraculous gift for typing not only quickly and accurately, but for drifting off in my thoughts while I did. I thought about what a mistake it had been to marry Nick; about how Grandmother had hated him; how she always spelled out his name...called him N-I-C-K. It drove me batty.
When I was eighteen, I had wanted to marry a boy from my high school but Grandmother said I was too young and besides, he had epilepsy. Her argument was that I had enough crazy genes in me from my mother. Any possible products of our union wouldn’t stand a chance of being sane.
Grandmother Randol thought our mama was one crazy bedbug and she was not about to let an opportunity to say so pass her by. It was true that mama had a history of mental illness, but whether she was possessed by demons on the scale Grandmother related, I would never really know. I was only three years old when my parents died and I have to rely on a couple of old snapshots to keep their faces fresh in my memory, but McCall, who was eleven at the time of the accident has a slightly clearer recollection. She said that after the accident Granddaddy cried for two solid weeks and Grandmother rarely smiled. When we were older and would ask about the accident, Grandmother always maintained that Daddy Jack would have never killed himself and left his beautiful little girls if our mother hadn’t forced him into it. He was crazy in love with her and she was just plain crazy. Tired of hospitals and doctors and things in her head she couldn’t understand or control, she wanted to die, so Daddy Jack went out and bought a brand new ‘57 Chevrolet to do it in. The way I heard it told, Mama and Daddy took a bunch of sleeping pills, doused the car in gasoline and right before they conked out, Daddy drove the car off an embankment and it burst into flames. All they found was Mama’s teeth and Daddy Jack’s high school ring. That’s the way I remember it, anyway.
Just to be on the safe side, Grandmother Randol took us for a yearly psychological examination. I do believe we went to the shrink like most people go to the dentist. “I just want to make sure you two are healthy, physically and mentally,” she would say.
McCall and I got so good at answering the doctor’s questions that even if we had been crazy no one would have been able to tell. After every visit Grandmother Randol would sigh and mutter, “Thank God your father's genes are dominant.”