Charlie and Maude
If we were lucky and Charlie was feeling mischievous, he’d let us follow him into his bedroom at night, wide-eyed and jostling for position at his knees. With a bit of theatrics, he would reach up to the fleshy crevasse behind his right eyelid and pop out the ceramic eyeball he had worn since losing the real eye in an accident with a bedspring sometime in 1912. The round yolk of non-vision, with its carefully painted on pupil and iris, bobbed in the glass of water on the bedside table where Charlie had placed it. Lifeless, yet terrifying in its imitation of sight, it leered at us, inanimate, yet mocking, sending the girls squealing out of the room while the boys feigned bravery and stared it down. Charlie loved playing the provocateur.
I have a photo of Charlie and Maude, his new bride, taken in 1918, on their wedding day. She wore a dark grey linen blouse and a pleated skirt. Her long black hair was bound at the nape of her neck in a bun. Her look was solemn, as if she had a premonition of the difficulty ahead, as if she knew at eighteen that her life would include the Great Depression, a second World War, giving birth to nine children at home and being a grandmother to twenty-five, of which I will be number twelve.
Maude’s family name was Moss and it always seemed that the name had shaped her, that her personality had developed according to the laws of genus and phylum. Like moss, which grows in damp places hidden away in shaded woodlands, Maude was quiet and non-assuming, fragile and soft. My memories of her are like that too, hazily tucked in between the larger fragments of childhood recollections. Memories of Charlie, however, flash neon sign bright.
When my cousins and I were little, Charlie would throw a quilt over his back and let us climb on. He would pretend to be a bucking bronco, or an African elephant carrying us someplace far off and exotic. When he tired, he’d shake us off and morph into a monster, or a tiger, and, knees shuffling across the wood plank floors, he would chase us from room to room, bellowing or roaring beast-like over our laughter. In the evenings he would sit in the, big yellow armchair facing the fireplace in the “company” room of their small farmhouse, two or three of us perched on his knees. He’d read Uncle Remus to us, changing his voice as the narrative volleyed from Brer Rabbit, to Brer Fox and back again.
One of Charlie’s jobs was to keep Maude alive, and this was always so, even before she got so sick later on. When my mother was a girl, the family lived on a farm that sat along the banks of the Cumberland River. If Charlie came home and asked where Maude was, and none of the children could locate her, he would search the house, he would look in the garden, then the hen house or the water pump in the backyard. If he could not find her near the house, he would hurry down the long slope of pasture that led to the acres of rich bottom land running alongside the riverbank.
Sprinting, he would rush to the river, hoping not to see her standing along the edge about to step in, hoping not to see an apron floating, swirling out of reach in the swift current, hoping her deep unfathomable sadness had not overtaken her. Maude’s depression must have been a constant companion, a jealous lover lying in wait, hoping to steal her away. Charlie battled that lover and won, keeping her with him for fifty years, losing her finally to heart disease when she was sixty-eight.
Maude died in the grim chill of January, three weeks before my twelfth birthday. I was clammy and uncomfortable in the dress-up clothes my mother insisted I wear for the visitation the night before Maude’s funeral. To escape the hordes of grown-ups, I stole off to the little anteroom that had been set up for the family in preparation for the next day’s service. The folding chairs were lined up to face a set of double doors that opened to the front of the auditorium, giving the family a side view of the casket and the podium behind which the preacher would stand to deliver the eulogy. Ensconced in this small room, the family could watch the funeral without being viewed in return by the merely acquainted, the gawkers, the non-related. We could be bereft, unaffected, or inconsolable in private.
I was alone in the anteroom, bored, and sleepy. In front of me, just through the doors, was Maude in her shiny oak casket, her quiet dead face strangely foreign and familiar at the same time. I was surprised when Charlie walked down from the back of the auditorium and into my line of vision. He seemed quite old to me, his shoulders a bit slumped under his suit coat, with a hint of shuffle in his lanky gait. He stood over the open coffin, gazing at Maude lying ashen and fancied up in her black linen sheath, her grey-black hair captured by a plain wool hat with a silver hat pin holding it in place, as if she might spring up at any moment and the hat tumble from her head. As if something in his grief might animate her in a way that her life could not.
The light above the casket spotlighted them both as Charlie stood beside her, hands gripping the casket, as if he were contemplating climbing in himself, lying down beside her for good. I wondered briefly if he would shake the casket, and rouse her back to life. I realized that Charlie was crying, his head hung over his chest, quiet sobs shaking his body, and I was transfixed. I knew I was witnessing a private moment, and should look away, but I could not. I had never seen Charlie cry. I had never seen him hold Maude’s hand, or give her a kiss. I had never heard them call each other a special name, or gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, yet on that day he sought her pale absent countenance with a longing so deep and ragged I realized that Charlie had a life to which I had not been witness, not until this moment in the soft, lonely quiet of death. He must have loved her terribly. He must have loved her like the river, calm on the surface, yet deep and swift underneath.