The Strength of Secrets

                                    Chapter 1, No Wonder I’m Crazy

“So I’ll cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown. Ahhhh-men.” I finished the hymn with gusto; singing was the best part of church. In one fluid motion I sank onto the wooden pew, crossed my legs and slipped my hands under my butt to serve as a cushion so my backside could endure Pastor Rozell’s lengthy sermons. Seconds later, Mother, who was seated beside me, tapped my knee and pointed to the floor; her subtle way of reminding me fourteen-year-old young ladies do not cross their legs at the knees.

For heavens sakes, I thought. It’s 1960, not 1860. What difference does it make what I do with my legs? But, I moved the offending leg; church was not the place to challenge Mother. 

Five minutes into the sermon, I sighed with boredom. Mother frowned and then focused her gaze on my bulging cheek. 

Uh-oh. I’m in trouble now. I stared at Pastor Rozell, feigning interest in his sermon. He as saying something about the wages of sin being death.

“Rebel,” Mother hissed my nickname. 

I was thankful she had not uttered my given name, Redcliffe Rose, in public. None of my friends knew my given name, and I wanted to keep it that way. “Take that gum out of your mouth. You know ladies don’t chew gum in public.”

“It’s not gum. It’s a chaw of tobacco.” I sucked a dribble of brown juice into my mouth.  

Mother inhaled, her eyes narrowed to slits. The muscles in her jaw throbbed. I turned away, fearful her gaze would turn me to stone. By the time Pastor Rozell finished his sermon, Mother had hers prepared. 

Our twenty-minute walk home was a one-sided harangue. My older sisters, Columbia and Amherst, usually walked home on the opposite side of the street rather than be seen in my presence, but today I felt their breath on my neck. They never missed a chance to eavesdrop on my misfortune, having honed gloating to a fine art.  Hearing mother’s reprimand would give them fuel to torment me for weeks. My younger sister, Bryn Mawr, affectionately called Mouse, shuffled along beside me, unaware of my tongue-lashing. 

  “Gum I could forgive, but tobacco!” Mother’s quick steps kept pace with her angry words. “What in the world possessed you to chew tobacco in the first place? And in church, no less. The saints preserve us. I ought to snatch you into the middle of next week for a stunt like this. Rebel, you’re enough to try the patience of Job.”

Behind me my older sisters chuckled.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“Where in the world did you get that nasty stuff?” She demanded.

I mulled over whether to lie or tell the truth. Since I already was in a heap of trouble, I figured telling the truth would be best. “The guys building the house next door gave it to me.” Confession may be good for the soul, but not when it fans a raging inferno.

“What?” Mother snapped. “I can’t believe my ears. How many times have I warned you about talking to strangers?” She shifted to her lecture from my unladylike behavior to the snares awaiting young ladies who talked to strangers, especially men. “And taking gifts from them; it might have been poisoned.”

While she ranted, I concentrated on saving enough saliva to spit a stream of tobacco juice two feet away like the guys next door did. “Pit-too.” My effort fell a good six inches short of my goal. 

“Stop that! Spit that horrid stuff out, right now.” Whomp! The palm of her hand sent a shock through my shoulder blade.

  I gasped, gagged, and sputtered, “I can’t. I swallowed it.”  

Columbia and Amherst convulsed with laughter.

“What’s funny?” Mouse asked.

“Nothing,” Mother snapped. “And as for you, Rebel, it serves you right. I hope it makes you sick.” Mother shook her head and lamented, “What am I going to do with you, Rebel? It’s a poor house that can’t raise ladies.”  Mother and my sisters marched into the house, leaving me on the front steps to ponder my misdeeds.

I sat on the steps and pondered where this “poor house” proverb originated. My guess was Cassidy; Mother’s mother, the original “Miss Manners.” In addition to being the matron of superstitions, a prophet of doom, a monumental worrywart, and a self-proclaimed psychic, my  Grandma wrote the book on what ladies did and did not do. Since my family was above the poverty line, I’m sure Mother felt compelled to obey her mother’s edict and transform my sisters and me into ladies. I was not a willing subject.

I pulled the screen door open and slipped into the house. Daddy looked up from the Jumble in the Sunday paper. “What's next, Rebel?” 

I shrugged my shoulders and went to my room. I hung up my Sunday dress and pulled on my pedal pushers. Once again, I had racked up points in the “ladies do not” column. When Grandma learned of my behavior, which she would since my older sisters lived to tattle on me, my Sunday afternoon visit to my grandparents would be torture. Mother lectured; Grandma threw the fear of God into you.

***

My grandparents lived in an apartment across the alley from us. Grandma usually had a special treat for me, because I was her namesake, but there would be no treat today unless I arrived before Columbia and Amherst; good fortune was not on my side. My sisters gobbled their lunch, fought to get out the back door first, and raced across the alley. 

I was left to wash the dishes, my punishment. Two hours later, the kitchen clean to Mother’s satisfaction, I pushed open the screen door and was greeted by smirking faces.

“Grandma’s waiting to talk to you,” Amherst sneered.

“You’re both rat finks. Bleah!” I pushed past them.

“I’m telling Mother you stuck out your tongue.” Columbia flounced into the house. 

“So what else is new?” I hollered. “Tattletale, tattletale, hanging on a bull’s tail.” 

Arriving at Grandma’s, I put my hand on the doorknocker. It was cool to the touch, but my hand was warm and sweaty before I had the courage to use it.

“Come in. The door’s unlocked,” Grandma called.   

“Hello, Grandma.” I stuck my head inside her apartment. “I can’t stay long today. I have a lot of homework. Need to write a huge report about railroads that due  in history class tomorrow, and I haven’t even started. I better go. Bye.”

Grandma hobbled toward me, extending the handle of her cane like a hook. I backed into the hall.  

“Not so fast, young lady.” Grandma’s cane prevented me from closing the door. 

Behind me a door creaked open. A green eye peered from a two-inch-slit. Mrs. Snyder, Grandma’s nosy neighbor.

“Hello, Mrs. Snyder.” I turned and spoke to the eye. “Nice day for spying, isn’t it?” Her door slammed shut. 

Grandma looked down the hall to make sure no one else was gawking, and then she jerked me inside her apartment using her cane as a crook. I was a lamb being pulled to the slaughter.

“What’s this I hear about you chewing tobacco in church?” She pointed to the sofa with her cane and plopped into a nearby wing-back chair.

“Where’s Grandpa?”  I needed his moral support.

“He’s playing cards at his lodge. He won’t be home for hours. That gives us plenty of time for a private talk.”

I slumped in my chair. I was doomed. 

    "Sit up straight, Rebel." I did as I was told. Now, explain yourself. Amherst and Columbia told me you had tobacco--"

”They are no good rat finks.”

“Don’t interrupt."

"Sorry, Grandma, but I don’t know why everyone’s making such a big deal out of a little bit of tobacco. It’s not like I used the collection plate as a spittoon.” 

“Land sakes, I should hope not!” Huffed Grandma. “Rebel, I don’t know what’s to become of you. If you don’t mind your P’s and Q’s you’ll turn out just like my sister.”

“Aunt Lily? What’s wrong with her? Outside of the fact, she’s been married four times to men who were all no damn good.”

Grandma arched her eyebrows.

“Pardon my French, but those were your exact words to describe her no-account husbands.”

“I’m not referring to Lily.” Grandma leaned forward. Her gnarled finger emphasized each word as she spoke. “You remind me of my younger sister.”

My mouth gaped. Astonishment silenced me. For my entire life, all fourteen years, I’d been told Grandma had only one sister, the formidable Lily. “What? A younger sister? You’ve never mentioned her. Is she dead or alive? Where does she live? What’s her name?” 

“Doesn’t matter. What’s important for you to know is her behavior was shameful, like yours. Decent folks shunned her.” Grandma leaned back. Tears formed, but she blinked them away. “She was such a pretty girl.”

“What did she do?” I crossed, and then uncrossed my legs. Pulled my cotton pedal pushers over my knees. Scratched my nose, and then crossed my legs again, this time at the ankles.  

“Stop squirming. Ladies don’t fidget.”

I willed myself to relax. “Well, what did she do? Huh?”

“Don’t say ‘huh.’ You sound like a donkey.” Grandma rubbed her swollen arthritic  knuckles, pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed the corner of one eye. “She did things ladies didn’t do in 1912.”  

I leaned forward, wide-eyed, expecting to hear a sordid tale, but she said nothing. The silence was suffocating and eternal. I knew asking personal questions was impolite, but I forged ahead. The only way to curb my fidgeting was to satisfy my curiosity, plus knowing something Columbia and Amherst didn’t might prove to be a bargaining tool one day. My misbehavior was worth an additional rebuke.  “What things, Grandma? Did she swear? Smoke? Dye her hair? Take a drink in public?”

“She might have. I don’t know,” she mused. Then her voice became stern, “Of course, no lady would ever do those things. You know that, don’t you, Rebel?” 

I gave a quick nod.“Yeah, sure, but if she didn’t drink, smoke, swear, or dye her hair, what did she do?” What’s left, I thought but s-e-x? This ought to be good!

Grandma exhaled. Her small body slumped, dissolving her rigid posture. She gaze d at me, but her focus was on a past event. She squinted, as if to sharpen every detail about her long-lost sister.  “I’m not saying another word about her. No one in the family has uttered her name since that dreadful day more than forty years ago, and I don’t intend to break our vow of silence. Don’t ask  again, Rebel. Just let this be a lesson to you.”

She pressed her lips into a tight line and pulled herself erect. There was no way to pry information from Grandma once she’d set her jaw like that.  As I walked home, I mulled over Grandma’s final words, “Let this be a lesson to you.” What lesson am I supposed to learn from this? I don’t have any idea what this sister did.

After supper, as I cleared the table, I asked Mother about Grandma’s younger sister. She was as tight-lipped as Grandma. Begging and pleading for ten minutes only resulted in Mother threatening to give me something to cry about. As I stacked plates in the soapy dish water, Mother said, “Her name was Franklin.”

Odd name for a girl. Worse than mine.  “Was that her real name?”

“Yes. Her name was Begonia Franklin, but no one ever called her Begonia. She was always called Franklin or Franky.” 

“What did she do that caused such a fuss?”

“That doesn’t matter. All you need to know is . . . ”

I didn’t want a whitewashed version of  Aunt Franklin’s life. My desire for the truth got the best of me. “ Did you know Aunt Franklin?  Was she married?  Did she have children? Come on, tell me what did she did, puh-lease.”

“Rebel, quit whining, and don’t interrupt, that’s not polite.” 

“I know, sorry.” I waited; Mother was quiet, but I could not hold my tongue. “Tell me about Aunt Franklin, I promise I won’t interrupt this time.”

Mother skipped the story and went right to the moral. “As I was saying, Franklin’s behavior got her branded as the black sheep of the family. She was disowned. Do you want that to happen to you?”

Black sheep! Hmmm that sounds more interesting than being a lady. I wanted to say “yes,” but Mother was not in a joking mood. After that enticing statement about Aunt Franklin, Mother stuck her hands in the steaming dishwater. I picked up a dishtowel, without being asked, hoping my unsolicited help would reward me with information; no such luck. Try as I would, the only other solid fact I squeezed from Mother was Aunt Franklin’s fall from grace involved selling the family cemetery plot. That seemed harmless to me, but I had no idea what being a lady entailed in 1912, and further more, I didn’t care. I had yet to comply with the 1960 requirements. 


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