MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 21 – Summer – 1962
Unfortunately, the time came when I HAD to stay with Billy’s parents. The plumbing in our apartment required a major overhaul, and it is impossible to live anywhere with a baby and no water. Billy was in summer school so he could shower and shave at the dorm, but I had no choice but to leave, even though I was very apprehensive about spending even one night, without Billy, in his parents’ home since I barely knew them.
With Helen at the store all day and the little boys at home, unless they had a ball game, I thought perhaps my stay just might be tolerable, at least until our water lines were repaired. Given the choice, it was there or my parent’s house, and while neither was even close to ideal, Billy, for some reason, thought I would be ‘safer’ at the house in Griffin. He also knew his son and I would have endless admiration from his brothers. He hated the thought of leaving his us there, but also hoped his father would run interference in the evenings to prevent Helen from making me miserable.
Unfortunately, Gene was rarely home since he had one meeting or another, or who knows what other appointments, and now Helen would have a new target for her internal rage and her hatred of the world. I cried almost the entire trip, and being without Billy was hard enough without wondering what torment his mother might have in store for me.
Since summer camp, Billy and I had not been apart other than my brief stay in the hospital when Michael was born. Even though he too was seldom at home between his class and work, I could always depend on him coming home for lunch, then for supper, and of course sleeping wrapped in his arms. I worried too that something might happen to him while I was gone, but he assured me he would be extra careful, and even promised to use his electric razor. I tried to come up with any possible way Michael and I could stay there without water, but even the minister’s wife was taking her children to visit her parents, so I knew there was no alternative.
The drive to Griffin seemed much shorter than usual, and my tears started to fall long before we even reached our destination. When it was time for Billy to leave us, I held onto him as long as possible and cried even harder, and felt abandoned on an alien planet with no way home. I knew no one in Griffin, no one knew me, so all I could do was take care of our son, and attempt to stay away from Helen, and that would be all but impossible. After all, I had to come out of our room sometimes!
During the day, I occupied myself caring for the baby and took him for long walks in his stroller, the boys leading the way. They loved Michael and me, and that made Helen’s hatred of us even more intense, but Michael doted on his young uncles and even as an infant would chortle with glee when one of them paid attention to him.
The first thing Helen had done the night of our arrival was to give me ‘rules’ that MUST be obeyed, as if I were a child. The first ‘rule’ was that the washing machine and dryer were off limits during the day, just in case the maid might need to use them. Another was that the maid would not do anything to assist me in the care of Michael, or to clean ‘our’ end of the house, Billy’s old room, and its private bath. I was to clean my own bathroom, make my own bed, and prepare my own meals except for supper, which she would prepare as usual. I was also to ask permission before I had anything to eat out of the refrigerator, just in case she was planning to use it for a meal, or if my use of something, for instance, mayonnaise, would leave very little for the family. I was never to use the last of anything.
During our stay, I was not to interfere with the normal routine of the household, and she would not tolerate a crying baby, particularly during meals. If the baby (she never did call Michael by his name but always ‘the baby’) did cry, I was to excuse myself from the table and take care of him, as if I would not have anyway. It was as if she wanted me to remain invisible, and she certainly made it clear neither of us were welcome, simply an intolerable situation where she had no choice but to put up with us. When I think back on how it could and should have been, with me cooking meals to spare her the bother after a long day at the store, I cringe at the thought of taking on that much responsibility, since she would think I was usurping her place with her other sons!
When I mentioned that I might like to go see the boys play ball, she made it very clear she did not want me seen outside of the house, although that did not stop our daily walks. I felt as if she was ashamed of her grandson and especially of me, and was trying to keep us a secret, as if the entire town did not already know. Gene had been excited about Michael’s birth and had the announcement printed in the Griffin paper, and I had been to church with them at Christmas when I was obviously pregnant. For Helen, none of this had ever happened, as if she wished Billy might eventually come to his senses, and get rid of us. She could not even begin to understand how wrong she was, and for once, her oldest son had a normal home with a loving wife and a happy baby – the security he had never had in her house. He knew what he would come home to every day, and that I spent my days caring for our son, cleaning our home, washing our clothes, scrubbing the floors until they sparkled, and preparing meals I knew he would enjoy. Not to mention our ‘trips to the moon’ after our son was sleeping soundly. How could she possibly understand how much Billy dreaded the moment she walked in the door each evening, and how he made certain if he had guests, they were long gone before her arrival.
To say I was miserable is an understatement, and as the time neared for her to come home in the evening, I would begin to shake in anticipation of her ‘mood’, and what she would discover I had done to break her ‘rules’. I barely ate anything all day until supper since I never knew what she planned to use, or what she would ‘find missing’, so I stuck to the same peanut butter sandwiches the boys ate every day without fail. As miserable as I was here, at least if I had stayed with my own parents, I could be out all day with my friends. It just had not dawned on me that they too had moved on, either working or having made new friends at college, and I would be just as ‘stuck’, but having to care for my 3-yr-old sister, and my son! Plus, God only knows what could have happened if my father was drinking!
Helen never once changed her routine. She would march in the door from work, slam it behind her, without a word to anyone, stride purposefully straight to the kitchen cabinet that contained her medications, grab a handful of pills and chase them down with a shot of bourbon. I have no idea what medications she took, but I was certain the pills were for pain and perhaps depression and the alcohol just exacerbated their effect on her. I wished she had a ‘happy’ pill - it would have made my stay almost tolerable, but most of all, I missed my darling Billy dreadfully. At night, as I lay in the bed where he had slept long before we met, I would think about the nights we had so happily spent in that same bed, but now it was far too large for me alone.
It was about the third or fourth night we were there and supper was over. I was taking advantage of the maid having gone home by washing diapers and clothes for Michael. I thought I heard Helen call me, but since Gene and the boys, supposedly were keeping an eye on Michael, while watching television in the den, I did not give it another thought. Not being sure I had heard my name called, I continued to fold diapers while the rest of the baby’s clothes were drying, but soon I heard her call again, this time with annoyance in her voice. I walked into the den so I could better hear her, and she just looked at me with loathing in her eyes and said, "Diane, your baby is crying."
He was not her grandson, but MY baby, and he was lying on the rug right in front of her! Gene rose out of his chair to pick him up, but Helen told him to sit down, that Michael was my responsibility. She would not allow the boys to pick him up either, rather allowed her own grandson to lie in the middle of the floor, surrounded by family, and scream! That was the last straw. I called Billy crying, I told him the entire story, rules and all, and within four hours, he was pulling into the driveway in Griffin having made the trip in record time. I do not need to tell you I was packed and ready to go home the second he walked in the door.
He stormed into the house, brushed past his mother as if she were invisible, and told his father, "I have come to take MY family home where they belong."
He continued shouting at his father and vowed not to return to Griffin, ever, until his mother could learn to treat his wife with respect and his son with love. He then picked up our already packed belongings and we were gone in less than ten minutes. I never stayed in that house again without Billy, and even then, I was most uncomfortable.
The look on Billy’s face was one of pure rage, regret, confusion, and determination, and it was obvious he was even angrier with his father who did nothing to make my stay more comfortable. I hoped I would never see that look on his face again, but when he was involved with his mother, and sometimes with his father, I would see his brow begin to crease and knew that once again he had been disappointed.
On the drive back to Dahlonega, I sat as close to him as I could. He drove with his arm around my shoulders and promised me he meant every word he said to his father. He vowed always to protect me and be there for me, and I knew he meant it.
"If my mother thinks she can break up our marriage by treating you and our son with contempt, then contempt is all she deserves from me and that is all she will get!"
This had been the last straw for Billy, and it was at this point he never spoke to his mother again unless entirely necessary. In fact he no longer had any feelings for her at all – he did not love her and he did not hate her – he felt total apathy, something I was to feel later with my own parents. I have since learned that no feelings are far worse than love, and even hate.
As the miles ticked off on the odometer, I cuddled next to him, and felt almost smug about his confrontation with his father and how he had taken up for me and for our son. I was back where I should be, under my husband’s protecting wings and rushing towards our own comfortable apartment. As the lights of the distant chicken houses came into view, I knew we must be close to Gainesville. Soon we were climbing Crown Mountain with the softly lit campus and the small village of Dahlonega below, and once again, we were home. Billy pulled into our driveway, and I could hardly wait to get back into our own bed and feel him swell inside of me, again, and again as we made love into the wee hours of the morning, after all we had to make up for the days I had been gone.
Fortunately, the water was once again working. Billy had planned to come down on Sunday to get us so he would not miss his class or his full day at the store, but never again would he leave me any place where I was so unhappy I would cry. It was around this time I think he realized it was a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation; neither of us had a loving home, so he became even more determined to create one of our own. Both of us wanted more for our son than we had ever had while growing up, not material things, since we had been flooded with those, but love, security, and the feeling of a real home where our children would always feel comfortable bringing their friends. That was something Billy and I had rarely been able to do, since we never knew what shape our parents would be in, or what might occur. Although Billy could count on his mother getting drunk every night, I never quite knew what to expect at my parent’s house. This made us both even more determined our son would never experience that insecurity. We simply would not allow anything but love to cross the threshold of our home.
Billy took a class each session of summer school; actually, it was the same class, just the second half of it, and he continued to work at the store, almost full time now. Gene continued to send us the $125.00 the first of each month, and my unemployment check arrived on the same day. I had paid Pop back for the ring when I received my retroactive ‘back pay’, since I wanted him to know he could trust me to keep my promises, and Billy wore his ring with such pride! We were not rich by any means, but life was not as much of a struggle as it had been right after I lost my job. It never entered our minds for me to go back to work since Billy had figured out I could not make enough to pay a full-time baby sitter and he did not want anyone he did not know taking care of his son.
"No one could love him the way his own mother does," Billy would say, "so you stay home and let me bring home the bacon."
I also knew it was a matter of pride for him too; that he could take care of his own little family and his wife could stay at home with his son. I relished each day with Michael now as he was beginning to change so quickly. First, he rolled over, and then he sat up. Soon he would be crawling and teething and I certainly did not want to miss a minute of his rapid development. Already I was thinking about how shortly they stayed babies!
We continued to play cards with Kay and Jimmy although Billy had a serious talk with Jimmy about his own priorities, which were his wife and his son, his classes and his job. Both babies shared Michael’s playpen and both were growing like weeds! Chris was a much longer baby than Michael was, but Michael was a much prettier baby with my fair complexion, which I knew in time, would freckle as mine had when I was a child. Both were good babies and we enjoyed our card games since they, along with drives in the country, were our only outside entertainment.
When Michael began teething and became cranky, we would take him for long rides in the rural countryside and he would sleep, like, well, like a baby! He could be sound asleep in the car, but the minute we got home, he was wide-awake and screaming. I would walk the floor with him at night so Billy could sleep, and the baby’s wails often cut short our time for making love. We had a pediatrician in Gainesville who pronounced Michael, healthy and still on the upper end of the scale in height and weight, but other than his tender gums, could find no reason why he cried and cried. I can still see Billy now, sitting on the daybed studying, with Michael lying across his knees, usually while I cooked supper since Billy’s full attention needed to be on his textbooks. Once, though, when Michael was having an unusually bad night, and I simply could not quiet him, try as I may, Billy put down his book, and taking his chubby son from me, he began the walk up and down the living room floor, talking aloud as he walked. Within minutes of hearing his father’s soothing voice, he was sound asleep, and Billy went back to his studies, this time with me cradled under one arm.
Michael was a happy baby as long as someone held him, so the time came when we decided to let him cry it out, since was becoming a tiny tyrant while he attempted to rule the household. Oh, it was so hard to let him cry, and I have found there is nothing simple about being a parent. We fed him, bathed him, and gave him a bottle, burped him, and rocked him to sleep, and then put him in his crib, where he would instantly awaken and begin to scream. This night, after checking his diaper and assuring he did not have gas on his tummy we closed the door and walked out. Oh how he screamed! Oh how I cried, and Billy was on the verge of tears himself, but we toughed it out and within twenty minutes, the baby was silent. Fearing the worse, we peeked into the bedroom using the door from the kitchen, which was nearest the crib and he was sleeping soundly, although tiny hiccups of sobs were audible. We did this every night for about a week and by the end of that week, like a well-trained puppy, our baby was going to sleep in his crib and our lovemaking was back on track!
I had thought after I had a baby, Billy would not enjoy sex as much as previously, but I was mistaken, if anything, he enjoyed it more. Perhaps our elation came from the security that I was now on ‘the pill’, and Billy became even more inventive in ways to satisfy both of our needs. Some nights we would fall asleep on the daybed, as we had often done before Michael was born, and we would sleep there until morning, after hours of making love.
In late June, we had Michael christened in the Dahlonega First Methodist Church with our good friend, Tommy, as godfather and my grandmother as godmother. Neither Billy’s nor my parents attended, but that was fine with us, since we never knew what to expect when they were around. Michael proved to the entire congregation he had a healthy set of lungs as the first drops of water trickled onto the downy blonde hair that covered his tiny head. After the ceremony, we all went for dinner at The Smith House with my grandmother treating both Billy and me. It was so good to see her when I could have her all to myself and without my aunt trying her best to pry her attention away from the baby and from me. I had long known my aunt was jealous of my grandmother’s blatant favoritism for me, and thought surely after all these years, she would have given up trying to change it. Whatever she tried, it never worked and I was once again the obvious favorite, now that I was happily married to such a handsome, polite young man who did not drink and did not smoke, and now we had a beautiful baby boy, although she would have preferred a girl. For awhile my aunt thought finally she had won, after I broke my grandmother’s heart when Billy and I eloped and I quit school like my mother before me, but just like she had forgiven my mother, now she forgave me, and once again I was her adored granddaughter.
Earlier that summer Billy had been an usher at Tommy and Sarah Ann’s wedding. For some reason I could not go, and now I think back on that time, it had to have been right after Michael was born and having problems with formula; otherwise I would never have let Billy go without us. Michael had changed our lives forever and we both adored our baby boy who was a good combination of both of us. As he got older, it was obvious his tiny nose, so much like mine, would stay that way. In our family we call it the ‘York’ nose, as my paternal grandmother passed it on to me, and to some of her other grandchildren. He definitely had my very fair complexion and blonde hair, but both Billy and I had been blonde as babies. He had my determined chin with just the faintest of clefts, but his father’s mouth and the shape of his eyes. Yes, he was indeed a good mixture of the two of us just as he should have been.
In late August before classes began, we decided it was time to take Michael to meet his Great, Great Grandmother Bowen in Bowman, Georgia. He was the firstborn child of the fifth generation and ‘Granny’ was in her 90’s, so who knew how much longer she would live. My grandmother had talked about getting all of the five generations together for a picture, so one Sunday Billy put on a white shirt and tie, I put on my best dress, and we drove to Bowman. My grandmother, along with my mother and other family members would meet us there, and I knew my great uncle would be killing chickens to fry for a big country dinner.
As a teenager, I looked forward to our Mother’s Day family reunions in Bowman. Since I was a city girl, they were even more special to me, except for the outdoor plumbing, which I found revolting and nasty. I would ‘hold it’ until I was about to burst before I would go into that stifling, stinking outhouse, but now they had indoor plumbing so Billy would be spared the dreaded reminder of days gone by.
Bowman was barely a stop in the road then, and was actually off the beaten path or any major highway, and I do not recall if the train station was still standing. Eventually, the town withered on the vine as the young people left for the big city and ‘office’ jobs, rather than the difficult and dirty work of their farmer forefathers who barely eked a living out of the red clay soil. My grandmother’s father was a farmer and they lived in a large wooden farmhouse, painted white in various states of peeling during the years we visited.
There was a porch on three sides of the house, and the windows were large and kept the inside cool with the aid of fans. This was my favorite place to sit, curled up in a swing with a Nancy Drew mystery book, unless my male cousins were also visiting, and when they were, we would all be playing baseball in what had once been one of the farm’s large fields. I was the oldest ‘girl’ of that generation, I enjoyed the company of my male cousins, and they took care of me, even throwing the ball softly so I could hit it. After our games we would all go to the small store on the corner where a dime would buy an ice cold Coca-Cola in a glass bottle, retrieved from a cooler full of ice. We would have to take aim for the drink we wanted since keeping ones’ hands in the cooler for any longer than a second or two was very painful. It was that cold! Then we had the contest to see who had the bottle from furthest away, although there were no prizes.
‘Downtown Bowman’ was a town square like Dahlonega, but without the courthouse, and there were no businesses surrounding it, just old men passing the time of day playing checkers, sitting in the shade of trees that were old when their fathers were young. Even the ancient railroad tracks seldom felt the weight of a passing train, and it certainly never stopped there anymore.
I was looking forward to showing off my handsome Billy, and our son, to my aunts, uncles, and cousins. We all realized that having five generations together was a rare occurrence. Also I was looking forward to the huge dining room table laden with fresh sliced tomatoes, steamy hot fried corn, cucumbers soaked in cider vinegar, squash fried with onions in bacon grease, speckled lima beans, fresh green beans cooked with fatback until the ‘pot likker’ had more nutrients than the vegetables themselves. There would be great big squares of cornbread and homemade biscuits and rolls served with home churned butter, mashed potatoes, sweetened ice tea, and milk for the children. Dessert would consist of a variety of cobblers and a coconut cake, and I could almost taste those fresh vegetables that I had so few of because of Billy’s odd appetite. I told him he certainly did not have to eat the vegetables since there would be plenty of other dishes he would like, but that was the beginning of what turned out to be one miserable day!
When we arrived, right behind my family from Atlanta, Granny was all dressed in her Sunday best, with her purple orchid signaling that this was a special occasion. The orchid was almost Granny’s ‘signature’, and not long ago, someone who had known her said that he had never seen her without an orchid. Wisely, my grandmother decided that before Granny had her dinner and wanted to nap, we should take the picture. I am not too sure that Granny understood that Michael was her great great-grandson, but she always liked having her picture taken and now she wanted to hold the baby. Well, my grandmother was not so sure Granny could hold this very healthy, wiggling baby boy, so she stood behind her mother and kept one strong arm on him at all times, but Granny thought she was holding the baby and we took several pictures like that. The best one, though, and the one that was finally in the Elberton paper, was with me seated in the front, holding my son up by his arms dressed in his blue suit and hat, and my mother and grandmother on either side of Granny. It was a good picture of all of us.
With the photo behind us, I fed Michael his lunch while the women set the table and began placing out the huge quantities of food, but Billy was nowhere in sight. I went out to the porch to feed Michael his bottle, sitting on the same swing I used to sit in as a child, and found Billy there, not talking to anyone, just off by himself. "Honey, are you feeling O.K.?" Hoping he was not ill, but he just nodded his head in the affirmative so I questioned him further. "Well I missed you while we were taking the pictures. You should have seen Granny trying to hold Michael! Where have you been?"
Still he said nothing, and when I told him that dinner was almost ready, we and I had another of our major disagreements. He said I knew that he liked his fried chicken cold and he hated all vegetables, except for the baby peas, so he was not going to eat with the rest of us! Trying to remain calm, I told him I would be embarrassed if he did not join the family for dinner since we were the ‘guests of honor’, but he told me to make excuses saying he had to take care of the baby and he would eat when we got home. I insisted with my most determined voice that he join the family for dinner even if he just sat at the table, ate bread, and drank tea. He knew by the tone of my voice I was not about to make any excuses for him, nor would he be able to avoid sitting down with the rest of us.
When the dinner was on the table, my little sister, Lynne sat on my left, and to my right Billy glared at me throughout the meal. If looks could have killed, well I would not be writing this today. I hoped no one else noticed, but I think it was my aunt, who mentioned that Billy certainly was quiet since he was usually the life of the party. Thank goodness, only I knew that look, one mostly reserved for his mother, but this time I was on the receiving end.
Michael slept peacefully throughout our meal and Billy just picked at his plate, predictably passing by all the homegrown country vegetables that came his way. He reluctantly put a piece of chicken on his plate, hoping it would cool while he ate rolls, fruit salad, mashed potatoes, and bread. I should have excused myself and put his chicken in the freezer to cool more rapidly, but by then I was pretty upset too and did not care whether he ate or not, as long as he sat at the table with the family. I honestly thought he was being unreasonable, spoiled, and rude by not wanting to join us and I was not about to back down on this one!
Little did I realize that Billy was thinking about his own family, and how very rare the occasions were when they were all together for any occasion, special or not. In fact, this had not happened even once since I had known him. I had met his Smith uncles and their wives at Bubba’s house, and his cousins, but I had never met Gene’s brother or sister. This was simply a family that never got together – not for anything except a funeral, and I certainly hoped it would be a long time before that happened!
I continued to ignore my pouting husband and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Having grown up on country-cooked vegetables, I delighted in all of them especially the ripe, sliced tomatoes fresh off the vine, and the thick, rich chicken gravy for the fresh mashed potatoes. I knew Billy liked the potatoes, the gravy, the corn, and the rolls, but he was seething because he had not gotten ‘his way’, and he would not have enjoyed the meal even if it were his favorite country fried steak was on the table.
I tried to ignore him, and kept one ear open for Michael so I could give Billy an excuse to leave the table. Not about to let him ruin my day, I enjoyed talking to the family I was so rarely in touch with now, and being with my little sister, who always insisted on sitting next to me. After all, if Billy was not enjoying it, why should I have to interrupt my meal, but Michael slept soundly, Billy glared, and I ate heartily getting my fill of fresh homegrown vegetables and country cooking.
I expected the trip back to Dahlonega would be one of long silences, but Billy acted as if nothing had happened as we bid the family good-bye when we got in the car to leave. Once we were out of earshot, he looked at me with his most pitiful face on and said, "Darling, I’m sorry, I acted like an ass, and I am really, really sorry for ruining your special day. It’s just that we never have family occasions like that, and certainly, my family has not so generously greeted you and loved our son. I guess I was just comparing, and even with your father and mother, the rest of your family is really nice."
I glared at him with one of my best, ‘I don’t give a damn’ looks, and said, "Darling, you did not ruin my day; I refused to let your behavior bother me. You ruined your day, but I accept your apology, and I am sorry you did not have a good time. It is my family you owe an apology, not me. I have gotten quite used to your spoiled little boy attitude at times and I was not surprised, but I love you anyway."
He laughed aloud, put his arm around my shoulders, and drew me close to him, and of course, I did not protest, and all was well once again. That night, we fell asleep on the daybed in each other’s arms after making up and making love. I had it in my mind to ask him if he had ‘picked’ this little fight so we could ‘make up’, but stopped myself, because it really did not matter if he did or did not. I loved him with all my heart, as he once again whispered in my ear, "Darling, please overlook my bad manners at times, and just remember I will always love you more than life itself."