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He always claimed to be a “war casualty.” With that sly grin and a slight wink, Daddy said that, after spending all those weeks, months, years in the South Pacific, our Mama was the prettiest thing he had ever seen. That night in the cafe on Main Street, he spied her in the corner booth drinking a Coca-Cola with her girlfriends. She noticed him, too, but pretended she didn't. The tiny diner was crowded and noisy with all the boys returning from the war and the local girls trying to attract their attention. The jukebox sang and the kids moved the center tables so they could “jitterbug.” Daddy watched as the shy beauty headed for the door.
“Who's that?” he asked a buddy.
“Carmelita Sides, you remember her. You've probably fox hunted with her brother Darrell. He got shot up pretty bad over in France, but he made it home.”
Paul Askew was glad her brother made it home, glad that all of them in that cafe that night had
He didn't remember Carmelita Ruth Sides, for lots of reasons. He was a “town boy” and she was a “country kid.” There was a clear demarcation back in the 1940's in their small rural town. The kids who lived in town were chosen for leadership positions at school. They got to participate in after-school activities while country kids had to take the bus home and do chores. The town girls arrived at school looking pretty, with their hair still curled and their skirts still starched and pressed. Mama said that she pressed all three of the dresses she owned twice, when they were dry and she took them off the clothes line and, again, right before she wore them. Mama told us that she would rise at 4 a.m. to do her chores in the dark, and then skip breakfast to curl her hair and iron what she planned to wear to school that day, before she trekked over to the bus stop, which was half a mile to two miles away, depending on where her sharecropper papa was currently raising his family by farming on the shares.
By the time she got to school, Carmelita's curls were drooping, her skirt was wrinkled, her smile was gone, and she was jealous of the town girls who chattered and laughed up at the front of the room where everybody could see just how perfect they were.
Another reason our Daddy didn't recognize this pretty girl was that, though she was only seven months younger than he was, she had been held back one year in elementary school because she had whooping cough. Daddy started school at four years old. His mother was a teacher and she didn't have a babysitter because her own mother was “working herself to death,” as Grandma always mourned, doing laundry for the more well-to-do families in town. Carmelita graduated two years later than Paul from Red Oak High School.
The real reason that this pretty girl, who had the bluest eyes he had ever seen, grabbed our Daddy's attention was that he was looking. Paul was ready. When Mama left the cafe and started her walk home to the house on the hill a couple of miles east of town, Daddy paid for his coffee and borrowed his brother's truck. When he caught up with her, he slowed down, opened the passenger door, and asked her if she needed a ride home. I asked Mama many times why she accepted that ride because our mother was not in the habit of getting into strange vehicles with strange men. She never answered that question; she just smiled. Carmelita must have been ready, too.
That short ride home inaugurated a whirlwind courtship. They saw each other every night until, one night, Carmelita told Paul that she didn't want to see him the next. She wanted to stay home, wash her hair, and spend time with her mama. “By 10 p.m. that old truck was bouncing over the hill with Paul Askew, good Baptist boy, drunk as a skunk inside.” He begged her to marry him that night. And she said yes.
The local Baptist preacher, who had baptized Carmelita just a few years before, pronounced them man and wife in his living room on Christmas Eve, 1946. Uncle James and Aunt Vera were the witnesses. Then they all got into Papa's car and drove to nearby Wilburton, the county seat and site of stores still open on Christmas Eve, to walk up and down Main Street while Uncle James and Papa Allie haggled with Mr. Thomas and, eventually, paid too much, they said, for a record player they bought Grandma Jewell for Christmas.
Mother, in her darker moods, told me that she should have known she was marrying into a closed society when she spent her wedding night clomping up and down Main Street and, eventually, getting a cup of coffee and a piece of pie at the Green Frog, the most popular diner in town, for her wedding supper. “Them four and no more!” is how she described the close-knit Askew family to her daughters years later.
Carmelita always felt like an outsider. She felt like an outsider in her own family where she was the seventh of ten kids. They accused her of being lazy when she dragged behind the others while picking cotton as a child; they tattled that she was a cheat when she put rocks in her tote sack to make it weigh enough so she could quit picking because she had “made weight”; they laughed when she jumped at a stick on the ground thinking it was a snake; they punished her when she said there were no eggs because the hen was still on the nest, when in fact she didn't want to reach her hand under the hen, afraid she would get pecked or, worse, grab hold of an old chicken snake; they derided her ambition to finish high school; they labeled her prissy when she spent hours in front of the mirror; they claimed she was disloyal when she announced that she was going to marry Paul Askew, a town boy.
She felt like an outsider at school where she was timid and self-conscious of her flour sack dresses and cornbread lunches. She felt like an outsider in the Askew family because she believed they thought she wasn't good enough for Paul. She felt like an outsider at church because she was convinced that everyone liked her husband more than they liked her. She felt like an outsider in the neighborhood where she rarely had time to sit down and have a cup of coffee with the neighbor ladies because she had to keep her home and her children perfect and spotless. She felt like an outsider at the local school because she felt her education was inferior and she had no time to volunteer to make cupcakes or host holiday parties. She even felt like an outsider with her three daughters because she sensed that they adored their father and preferred him to her. “You girls and your precious Daddy!” she would moan when she thought we were ganging up on her.
Though he didn't want to leave his small town, our daddy moved his growing family to an oil town where he could make a living. He worked two jobs so that she wouldn't have to work and could be home for their children. He continued to hunt and fish with a passion, often getting off the graveyard shift and heading either to the squirrel woods or the local creeks to try a little fly-fishing, before coming home to sleep and prepare for the next night's work. He took on even more responsibilities at the local Baptist church they helped to start, finally being ordained a Deacon.
I believe there was some discussion about whether Paul had control of his wife and her “tongue” because Carmelita had quite a reputation, not as a gossip, but as a woman who spoke her mind. Though those discussions were private, I believe Daddy clarified that he was the head of his household while remaining loyal to his wife. It was the 1950's and he, in fact all of us, believed that the woman was to submit to her husband. Carmelita might have believed it, but she had a very hard time doing it. And she never could “remain quiet.”
Carmelita felt left out of Paul's life. She felt like an outsider in her own home. Her reaction was to criticize, belittle, cry, curse, suspect, accuse, diet, clean, pick fights, spend money, and take pills. And still, he loved her. The fights could be ferocious because Mother could curse and cut with the best of them. I remember one time when Daddy threw a cup of coffee up against the wall in frustration, shattering the china cup and splashing coffee all over Mother's waxed linoleum tile. Then he left. Usually, he just left. I don't know whether he went hunting or just drove around or found a place where a Baptist deacon could nurse a beer in private. He always came back.
I remember my greatest fear was that someday he wouldn't come back. Mother's too, I'm sure. My sisters and I secretly hoped he would divorce her, move out, and take us with him. He never did that. “Why?” I asked him, years later. “It would be too cruel.” he said. “Your mother would baffle a whole team of psychiatrists. But I believe she just never got enough of what she needed. In that house full of ten kids she was always last to the trough, as they say. There just wasn't enough left over for her. And now she just can't get enough even when we are doing the best we can.”
It went on like that for almost 69 years. When Daddy retired, they moved back “home” to his precious mountains. They built a house on the 150 acres his dad had owned since the 1940's. My husband and I joined them a few years later, building a log cabin across the pond from their place. My husband took over the cow/calf operation and I taught at the local community college.
As they aged, they fought less. She was still critical, but, luckily, Daddy lost his hearing, and he didn't hear many of the cruel things she would say. Sometimes, he would look at me and ask, “What did she say?”
“Oh, nothing, Daddy, nothing.” And we would both grin.
He loved her. And she loved him. He knew her. She thought she knew him.
I would peek in their bedroom sometimes and see them sitting up in bed, holding hands, talking. I would sit on my deck and hear their soft voices from across the pond, sitting in the porch swing and making plans. Plans they would never fulfill. He still called on me to buy gifts for her—for Christmas, for her birthday, and for their anniversary. She never did like what I bought, but we continued the tradition. And he bought her beautiful cards that he picked out himself. Beautiful, sentimental, romantic cards that he paid too much for. She always chided him, but she kept every one. After her death, we found them all. They began, “To my beloved wife...” They ended, “…Your loving husband, Paul.”
They decided sometime in their early 80's to pay for their funerals. Always trying to save the daughters trouble, they picked out their caskets, paid for the embalming, selected their tombstone, and had it engraved. Midway between their names and the dates of their births, with the death dates to be inscribed later, they chose two wedding rings intertwined and the words “Together Forever” surrounded by roses. I'm sure that Mother made that choice and Daddy agreed. As he always did.
Daddy would often joke, “We always hoped to go together, but since the girls won't let me drive anymore, I guess it would have to be a murder/suicide so I guess that ain't gonna happen.” He would smile and Mother would scold, “Oh, Paul!” To Mother, it was no joking matter. Mother could not understand, indeed, none of us could understand, that as Daddy neared his 90th birthday, he was ready to die. He was tired; he was sick; his mind was not processing like it always had and he knew it. Paul Askew was ready, but none of his family, especially his wife, was ready to let him go.
The day came. The day we had all dreaded. Daddy, our rock, our anchor, our foundation, died. People came from far and wide to pay homage to this good, humble man. Friends and neighbors and relatives brought food, and Mother sat and smiled and talked and then would disappear, and I would find her in their bedroom, crying.
“It doesn't seem right for us to be in there talking as if nothing has happened.”
“I know, Mom, but it’s what people do.”
“I know but he should be here.”
“I know, Mama, I know.”
The day passed, the family went home, we ate all the food and wrote all the thank you notes. I spent every night with her. My sisters came on weekends. She spent most of her time in her bedroom, sleeping.
The family gathered again two weeks later for Thanksgiving, our first holiday without our patriarch. After dinner, she laid down for a nap, and we all meandered over to my house to visit and let the kids play outside. An hour later, Mother walked in my back door and said, “Girls, you've got to help me go find Daddy. He's been gone a long time and I'm sure worried.” We looked at each other and then one of us, I don't know who, said, “Mama, Daddy's dead.” I believe it was my sister Rilla who said, “Come on, let's go out to the cemetery.” And we piled into the car she had driven to my house, she who had not driven a car in years; we drove the long, gravel road to the cemetery. Then she said, “He's dead, isn't he? And he died in my arms. He looked up at me and breathed his last and died in my arms.” It wasn't exactly how it happened, but we agreed to her version and thought it was settled. That she had just awakened from a particularly realistic dream. Until it happened again. And again.
All that winter, we relived the painful night of his death. All that winter, we drove out to the cemetery to see the tombstone that now had a date of death inscribed on it. “I wish I was right down there with him,” she said. “When I die, you make sure they bury me just as close to him as they can get me.”
All that winter, she heard him coming in the basement door. All that winter, she heard him in the shower downstairs. When he didn't come up the stairs, she would start to look for him. She became convinced that he had left with another woman. One day she put on her hat and coat and waited for him in her car for hours. Another day she threw all his clothes, the ones she could find, out on the sidewalk in front of the house: “Just so he will know he didn't leave me; I threw him out!” Many days she sat on the sofa, looking out the storm door, waiting for him. Over and over, I would drive her around while she looked for “that woman's” car because, she explained, “Daddy's truck isn't here so he doesn't have any way to get anywhere. She comes and gets him and brings him home.” After driving around the country roads, she would give up, and I would say, “Now, do you want me to take you where he is?” In silence, we would drive back to the cemetery. “He's dead, isn't he? I wish I was right down there with him. When I die, you make sure they bury me just as close to him as they can get me!”
She didn't eat. I couldn't get her to shower or get her hair cut. She had no interest in television or her crossword puzzles. She wouldn't go to church or talk to any of her friends on the telephone. She slept. I took walks while she was sleeping and talked to my sisters, trying to puzzle out what we should do.
When I returned and checked in on her, she would say, “You just missed Daddy.” Sometimes, I would say nothing; sometimes, I would say, “No, Mom, he's gone, remember?” And then we would relive the night of his death again. Her imagined version, “He died in my arms, didn't he? He looked up at me and then died in my arms. I wish I could crawl right down there with him. When I die, you make sure they bury me...”
One night she thought she heard him in the basement, she started down the stairs in the dark. I was in bed in the other room. I called to her and received no response. I got up and saw her at the top of the steep stairs. I lunged at her and pulled her back. We ended up wrestling on the floor. She screamed.
“I want him here.”
“Mama, he's dead!”
“I don't care. I want him here!”
In frustration, I yelled, “Mama, you usually get what you want in this family, but even you can't insist, threaten, cry, or plead and get him back. He's dead. Only Jesus came back from the dead.”
She stared at me for a moment and then started to laugh. We sat in the floor laughing with tears streaming down our faces.
We took her to a psychiatrist who specializes in elders. He asked us if our Daddy had lots of affairs.
The doctor said, “Adultery isn't your mother's greatest fear. Life without him is her greatest fear.”
The diagnosis was psychotic delusion. Her memory was fine. Her mind was sharp. She just couldn't accept Daddy's death. We were told not to argue with her. Not to tell her that Daddy was dead. But then he said that we shouldn't agree with her either. That it was dangerous to collude with a delusion.
“How do we walk that tightrope?” I asked.
“Perhaps she should move out of that house that they lived in together for so many years?” he suggested.
And so we moved her to a facility where she told everyone that they were in separate hospitals.
I would push open the door to her room, and she would tell me, “Oh, you just missed Daddy.”
I returned her to her room after a visit with her cardiologist, and she said, “Tell Daddy that I had a good report and I hope he did, too. I'm settled in here for the night. Tell him I love him.”
A few weeks later, she died peacefully in her sleep. She finally went to meet Daddy. He hadn't left her after all. He had just gone on ahead. I told the guys at the County Barn, “Dig that grave just as close as you can get it.”
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