My boyfriend and I had signed the lease together and packed the last of our boxes when I went out to the stoop to call my parents, clutching a full pack of Camels. Moving in with Miles just makes sense, I thought. I said it aloud, rehearsing as I flipped the cell phone open and shut and then open. I could hear the catalpa trees dropping their pods into piles of leaves. One more catalpa pod drops, and I’ll call. One more. One more. One more.
I imagined my parents’ kitchen in South Carolina, the counters cleared after supper, the light on over the sink, the beige phone they did not know was about to ring. My mom would reach for the dishcloth and dry her hands; my dad would pick up first, grabbing the cordless when he saw my Massachusetts number on its display. I would not manage so much as hello without whimpering.
Mom said she’d “never look at me the same way again.” Dad said to her, “Sarah, stop!” then told me this wouldn’t make him think of me any differently, though the fact is I have felt differently about myself ever since that night, when he answered the phone, “Darlin’ bones?” just before I blurted, “I found a real nice apartment. And I asked Miles to come and live with me.”
In my darkest speculations, I’d imagined he might fling that phrase living in sin at me, that he might cry and rail and tell me there are no nice apartments in hell, but he didn’t.
He said, “I could tell you that this isn’t what our family is like. I could tell you that this isn’t what we want you to be like. But what worries me most is you crying like that—did you think I’d forbid it? Do you want me to forbid it?”
And, before I could get enough breath to say no, he said, “Why are you telling us this?”
I’d seen Dad perform probably a hundred weddings in his full-length robe, with its black embroidered collar and tasseled silken stole. He pulled out the robe and stole even for the most informal of weddings—and many were informal. He’d started getting requests from outside our church once word got out that he’d officiated for a Baptist couple whose preacher wouldn’t marry them because they’d had three children out of wedlock. No matter to him. He carried his battered little Book of Order, with its directives for Communion, baptisms, and marriage, in the robe’s heavy folds, and read from its scripts and benedictions in living rooms and parks and under backyard arbors. Sometimes, after we’d arrived for a wedding and he’d changed into his robes, he’d realize he’d left the Book of Order in the car and would ask me to run get it for him. Its hard cover had been folded once and bore a deep crease. Its pages were rubbed velvety from use. I’d make a tray with my hands and carry the book carefully in front of me, all the while thinking, and trying not to think, of the bad things—rain, a tumble into a mud puddle—that might happen between the car and the place where he waited.
The winter I was fourteen, Dad brought The Book of Order with him when he officiated for my brother Parks’s wedding, though that was the first time I saw my father stand and give the invocation, “The Lord lift up the light of his countenance on you,” in a plain old shirt and tie.
My brother’s bride, CeeCee, wore a formal wedding dress—the big white classic, complete with train and veil—and you could not tell she was three-months pregnant.
She and Parks, we learned, had been living together for eight years. All along, we thought she had an apartment in her grandparents’ basement. And in fact, that is where she stayed when Parks forced her out of their apartment each time my parents and I visited. After they married, she’d describe—loudly, and always at the wrong time, like at the table after Thanksgiving dinner, when I could hear my mother in the kitchen, humming over the leftovers—how Parks sent her off, loading her clothes and makeup into her car, collecting the contact lenses in her prescription, bagging up any snacks my parents knew he didn’t like, every time we came to see him.
The desperate way he hid their cohabiting made me realize just how much my family’s traditions mattered to him. Hewing to those traditions had seemed so simple to me then; I’d thought that Parks just didn’t care to. He told me once, during some holiday when I found him sneaking a chew behind a car in our parents’ driveway, that he knew Mom and Dad hated CeeCee. “I know they don’t like her ’cause they think she’s coarse, and she is coarse. But you know what? So am I.”
Even so, Parks had always sworn he wouldn’t marry CeeCee. My dad had asked—in front of me, once or twice—why Parks didn’t just move on then, find a nice woman who could be his wife. “Dadgummit,” my brother would say, “I don’t want a wife. And don’t worry about me and CeeCee. Ain’t never gonna happen.” So he couldn’t have really thought, when he drove in from Georgia for Dad’s birthday and asked for the wedding ring our great-grandmother had willed him, that he could get by without telling us CeeCee was having his baby.
He came in and sat in front of the TV with Dad and my grandmother Mimi. I heard the conversation from the kitchen, where Mom and I were icing the birthday cake.
“Dad, I need that key to the safe deposit box.”
“The safe deposit box? Whadya need out of there, son?” His voice was bright and buoyant; he was so excited to have one of his boys home.
“I want the diamond ring for CeeCee, Dad.”
Mimi gasped and said, “Is she pregnant? Parks? She’s pregnant?”
Parks slumped, sobbed.
Mom rushed in to bring him a tissue he would not take.
Dad was a remarkable consoler. He told Parks we would all help him get through this, that “this is why God makes it take babies nine months to come.” But I was the good girl, and a bit of a prude, and as soon as Parks left, I said that this was the worst thing that had ever happened to our family.
I wish I’d never said it. I saw Dad catch on that remark and watched his tenderness toward Parks begin to turn to self-pity. He quoted me as news of Parks’s marriage spread in whispers. He quoted me as I grew up and left home and came to understand—at least a little—my big brother begging for the lockbox key. And ten years later, I cried on a stoop and counted falling catalpa pods and imagined hearing him say to me the words I’d said about Parks. When I’d calmed a little and finally lit one of those Camels, I heard him say instead, “This isn’t who I wanted you to be, but I haven’t always been the person you wanted me to be, either, have I?”
The day Parks got married, Dad, Mom, my other brother, Sean, and I came to Atlanta, where Dad performed the wedding in CeeCee’s parents’ doublewide. My parents took their car to the trailer, leaving Parks to come in his own car and, as my dad put it, take his time. Just before he started the car though, he thought better of this and said, “Bub, you better let Mary Helen ride with you.” I guess the idea was that you can’t jilt your pregnant girlfriend and flee to Mexico with your little sister in the car.
Parks smelled like booze and Canoe, and he whimpered every few seconds, all the way to the trailer park. I couldn’t think of anything at all to say—not then, and not when we arrived and he gripped the door and said he wouldn’t go any farther. My dad almost didn’t get him inside the trailer for the ceremony. I could hear Dad saying that if we were going to have a wedding, it was time. He tucked the Book of Order into his shirt pocket. “Son, we can go home right now, or we can do this.”
During the wedding, the bride’s brother cracked a beer during the I dos. Her stepfather almost got us kicked out of the hibachi restaurant CeeCee had chosen for the reception when he ashed onto the grill. On the way back to Parks’s house, Dad wept and bellowed as we flew down the highway. “I told him not to give my name to just anyone, and he gave it to her. Trash! She’s nothing but trash!” Dad said, the final sh flecking the windshield with spittle. When we got to Parks’s house, he parked across the street, grabbed an empty can of Coke from the cup holder, threw it down, and then kicked it, sending it clanking against the asphalt and into the yard. He belched loudly. I joked the way my brothers and I always did when Dad burped: “Fah-ther, are you ill?”
He spun toward me. “You’re goddamned right I’m ill! I am ill. I am fucking sick!”
Mom cried, “Lee!Enough!” and pulled me against her as my father reeled and raved in the middle of the street.
Seven months later, Parks and CeeCee had their baby boy, whom they named Colt(after the malt liquor, the handgun) Plummer(my dad’s middle name) Kennerly.
My brothers were teenagers by the time I was born; they were raised when our parents were, as they put it, “young and poor,” before my dad got a college chaplaincy in South Carolina and moved the family out of rural Georgia. Parks and Sean held two jobs in high school, starting at dawn to drive the school bus on the rural routes and then going to work again, at a truss mill, from the final fourth-period bell until midnight. And all the while, I was still wailing through the night from my crib in the next room. While they spray-painted road signs and drank beer in the woods, I learned to say what is recorded in my baby book as my “first big word”: delightful. I took my first steps in the space between my brothers’ outstretched arms; at about the same time, Parks forfeited his admission to Francis Marion College by refusing to pay a forty-dollar dorm room deposit he called “a rip-off.” He and Sean enlisted in the Air Force and got matching Stars and Bars tattoos, whose emblems read “The South Will Rise Again,” while my parents got school board permission for me to enroll out of district and away from my brothers’ alma mater, Dixie Elementary.
I went to visit Parks in Georgia a month before I left for college in Massachusetts. I read a book at the kitchen table as Parks watched TV on mute and settled into a Jack-and-diet-Dr.-Pepper drunk. Not long after CeeCee took Colt to bed, I heard the recliner creak, and Parks lurched into the kitchen with his ashtray in one hand and a big tumbler in the other. I hoped he would give me some wise word, even though we’d never had much to talk about. I wanted him to come sit with me, scared as I was about college. But he scared me, too, a six-foot-seven man so red-eyed and unhinged.
He sat in the chair across from me, pressed his palm into the tabletop, examined the crumbs that stuck to his skin.
“Your brother and I never . . . ,” he started. “Well, I guess my point is that we used to make ourselves feel better by saying we went to the school of hard knocks, but, you know, you really should go to college, and I guess you’re already, uh, already set to do that . . . It’s just that, you know, I think the world really can be your oyster.” He did not know what specific guidance to give, couldn’t come up with even the canned pre-college advice, like, Study three hours for every hour spent in class, or, You’ll regret it later if you don’t take advantage of office hours. And that was part of his sadness.
He sagged over the tabletop, struggling doggedly to impart some instruction, all the while taking purposeful pulls from a Black & Mild. I could not follow his thinking, did not know what to say. I wanted a cigarette bad, though I would’ve never asked for a drag: his first—and only really self-assured—piece of advice that night was that I should never start smoking.
Parks was also pretty certain, though slurring, when he implored me not to be like him and Sean. I kept telling him I thought he and Sean were very smart, that I longed for their know-how and quick thinking.
My brother shook his head. “No, Mary Helen, common sense’ll come. I’m an idiot. I read your e-mails, and you sound so smart, I’m afraid to write back. You have something special. Don’t do like me and Sean did.”
I’d heard this before, or something like it. When I was growing up, my dad told me relentlessly that I was his “only hope,” meaning, partly, that he wanted me to go to college, as my brothers had not. He did not want me to wear away my mind with whip-its or to sleep through the SAT, as they had. He suspected Sean was shacked up, too; knew that they both got drunk, smoked, and, when questioned, had no idea where the nearest Presbyterian church might be found. Our people, as he reminded me daily, tithed and were called Children of the Covenant, set aside for God’s purpose in the same way my great-grandmother had cordoned off part of her garden for church suppers: in one corner, there were okra and beans, and in the other were God’s okra and God’s beans, bound for shut-ins’ suppers and potlucks at the fellowship hall. Nothing was wrong with the children I went to school with, Dad would say, just like nothing was wrong with the plain beans in Granny’s garden. But as with the beans that belonged to God, I had to be more than just good. What’s more, I was the late-baby, the last of his children, and represented his last chance to send a child to college, as his mother had toiled in textile mills to do for him. At first, I was wide-eyed and pliant; teachers remarked on my almost pathological eagerness to please. But my response to his pleas that I bind the Kennerly name to goodness, if not greatness, has varied some from the initial “Yes, Daddy.”
A few months after I moved in with Miles, he came to South Carolina with me for Easter. We lugged our bags into the house and paused. Where would he sleep? We were standing in the doorway of the spare bedroom—where Miles stayed on his first trip to South Carolina, before we lived together—when my dad came in from the car. Gesturing to Miles’s backpack, I asked, “Where should we put this?”
“Up in your room, I guess,” he said, pushing past me.
The rest of the family—Parks, Sean, CeeCee, the kids, my dad’s brother and his wife—arrived later that day. We put a leaf in the dining room table and sat down to supper together. The only thing on the table that suited CeeCee that night were the biscuits. She cleared her plate, and Parks was settling in for seconds, when she said, “Where are we all gonn’ sleep? They putting you on the sofa, Miles?”
Miles paled, panicked. “Well, I—”
“He’ll sleep upstairs,” my dad said.
“With Mary Helen?” The natural setting on CeeCee’s voice is just below a holler, but just then, she was shouting. “That ain’t fair! I never got to sleep with my husband when I came here before we got married. That ain’t fair!”
I wanted to say that if her husband had been honest with his parents like I’d been, maybe they’d have let her, but I didn’t because just then Dad pushed his chair back, snatched the empty bread basket, and said, “Hey! CeeCee? Enough. We’re not talking about that tonight.”
My aunt, Dad’s sister-in-law, sat across from me, cowed. She is directly descended from a former governor of South Carolina; she’s all drawl and pantsuits. Once Dad had gone into the kitchen, she sipped her water and said softly, “Way-ul, it’s a different time, isn’t it?”
That Sunday, Miles and I rode the forty minutes to church with Parks and CeeCee. Colt, ten years old, brought his BB gun, and he was leaning out of the window with it, training the sight on the cows and goats in the fields we passed. Miles’s eyes widened, and his grip on my leg grew uncomfortable.
“Son, you better watch it!” CeeCee said. “Mama’s fixin’ to smoke a yuck out this window, so get back in your seat or don’t cry to me when you get ashed on.”
Parks glanced at me in the rearview mirror, asked me how Mom and Dad found out that I lived with Miles, and I said they found out because I told them. He asked the same question they had asked me: “Why?”
“I wanted them to be able to visit me in Massachusetts, and I wasn’t going to
kick Miles out.”
“Uh-huh,” CeeCee said, glaring at Parks from the passenger’s side. “She didn’t want to
do Miles like you did me.”
“Well, we all know how well that worked out,” he replied, scratching his Fu Manchu, his eyes fixed on the road.
“Yeah, I guess we do, Mister I-don’t–need-a-condom.”
But it was something more than that—something more than not hiding Miles or being honest or brave. I wanted my parents to come stay with us, to fix pork chops, cornbread, fatback, and collard greens in our hodgepodge of pots and pans. I wanted to sit with them, and Miles, on the porch of our new place and watch the gold dome of the Polish Catholic church across the street turn pink as the sun set. And all of those things have happened, though I can’t know if they understood what it meant for them to come and see me.