MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 34 – The Aftermath
The drive back to Griffin was one of almost total silence and even the normal sounds of traffic seemed muted from inside the long black car as we left the big city behind. We all were lost in our own thoughts that must be processed and catalogued before we could talk about this entire happening, at least with the boys, and again I felt like I would be walking on eggs when and if they wanted to discuss their mother. I would have to think hard to find one redeeming grace that was left of the shell of Bubba’s lovely, carefree daughter, and Gene’s teenage bride. I knew, other than her needlework skills, I would be hard pressed to think of anything ‘good’ I could share, and try as I may, I could not come up with any thoughts that might soothe these small boys.
“Oh yes,” I reflected, “she was the mother of my handsome husband and these wonderful boys,” so at the very least that was the one thing for which I was grateful. Secure in the fact I had discovered the best thing to say when someone asked me about Helen, and I knew the time would eventually come; I now had the perfect answer.
Even before we reached the Agricultural Station right outside of Griffin, Gene and the boys were either asleep or had closed their eyes as if to try and forget these last two days had ever happened, and even Billy, with his head resting on mine, seemed deep in thought, or asleep. I felt like I would sound as if I were shouting in a cathedral if I tried to speak, so I just squeezed his hand softly to see if he was awake, and he immediately lifted my chin and kissed me on the lips and the forehead. I knew he would have plenty to talk about once we were alone, and I vowed to be ready to listen and do what I could to soften the grief that surely would follow the shock. All the way to Griffin Billy held me close to him, and as I laid my head against his broad shoulder, he laid his head against mine, and I knew regardless of the outcome of today, all was well between us, and that was the most important thing for me.
It was dark by the time the limousine pulled into the driveway of the McConnell home, but lights blazed in almost all of the rooms across the front of the house, and only Helen’s bedroom remained dark. I know if I had been in the house, I certainly would not have wanted to go in there, as if I might disturb some unknown entity left behind during her struggle to live, and I was not sure I could ever step in that room.
Some of Gene’s employees and church friends were at the house, and several were playing with Michael who seemed no worse for our absence. Once again, after offering their condolences and any assistance to the family, slowly they began to leave, one or two at a time, until the house was empty except for Gene, the boys, Billy, Michael, and me. I was, for the time being, the ‘woman of the house’, and it was a very uncomfortable feeling and a huge responsibility for one so young. Although I offered to fix some supper, everyone said they were not hungry, but since I was the only ‘mother figure’ around, I insisted the boys at least eat a turkey sandwich and drink a glass of milk before they went to bed. Billy excused himself to change out of his uniform, but told me he would feed Michael when he returned.
I only managed to kick off my heels before I busied myself in the kitchen. I cut large slices from the whole turkey that someone had brought to the house, smeared an entire loaf of bread with mayonnaise, and made a large platter of sandwiches. I then looked for the congealed salad I had seen pass through the house earlier since I knew all of the boys would like it, even Billy who had now joined me in the kitchen.
First, he checked his son’s diaper, which was clean and dry, and then he sat him in his highchair while I cut up some pieces of turkey and buttered some bread for our son, along with a bowl of the gelatin mold filled with peaches, Michael’s favorite fruit. I felt sure as soon as everyone began to eat their appetites would return so I put the gelatin on the table, poured three tall glasses of milk, and a glass of coke for Billy. The boys, now in their pajamas, obediently joined us in the kitchen. They certainly did not make a liar out of me, and in no time at all the first plate of sandwiches was gone and I began spreading mayonnaise on bread to make more. Billy was eating with one hand while he attempted to prevent his son from throwing all of his food on the floor with the other, which was Michael’s new game. Since surely, I now had enough sandwiches made, I could sit down and eat my own in this rather domestic scene. It seemed as if Billy and I were the mother and father with four boys, not one, and I enjoyed taking care of them since I knew whatever cooking Helen did, it was not with joy. When I lived at my parent’s house, I had always enjoyed cooking for my own brothers, then I married Billy and after learning his strange eating habits, I enjoyed feeding him, and now his brothers. Thus, my own Southern heritage was coming to the forefront since I felt much better after I fed these starving boys and my own hungry ‘man’. The same ‘need to feed’ that Gram had exhibited was also rooted deep inside of me, and I was amazed how much better it made me feel to accomplish something useful and obviously much appreciated. The boys’ faces were glowing with devotion, as if no one had ever fed them before, but I knew better – it was just that I fed them with love.
Gene had disappeared towards the back of the house but I could make him a tray when he returned, and I knew if I put the food in front of him, he would eat it, even if he did not taste it. In the meantime, I poured more Coke for Billy and he thanked me with a kiss when I put it in front of him. I cannot say this was a typical meal with the boys since none of them was talkative, other than to tell me that these were good sandwiches, but I hoped with a few days away with their father in the mountains, they would return the same precious boys I had always known.
All of a sudden, we heard glass breaking, and violent cursing coming from Gene, somewhere in the back of the house. With Michael strapped safely in his high chair, the rest of us rushed towards the boys’ room where the sound came from, and found Gene standing in the middle of the room with an open suitcase dangling by one handle clasped in his hand. He had found a half full bottle of bourbon in the suitcase, and in his anger had shattered it against the wall, and the smell of alcohol permeated the room as it dripped down the paneling onto the floor littered with shards of broken glass. Innocently he had been taking down the suitcase from the closet shelf to pack for their trip to the mountains when he found the half-empty bottle. I imagined, like my father, Helen had hidden bottles all over the house, and Billy and I would find even more before the week was over and we had finished cleaning out Helen’s personal belongings, per Gene’s instructions. I was a champion ‘finder of bottles’, having had so much practice.
Unable to look at his sons, Gene told Billy to go get a broom, dustpan, and some wet paper towels, while I ushered the boys back to their sandwiches and milk. At first, they seemed glued to the floor, but I promised them a bowl of ice cream with fudge sauce once they finished eating, and they all obediently filed out and back to the kitchen. During our brief absence, Michael had taken the opportunity to smear his dinner all over his tray, his face, clothes, and in his hair, but shortly, he would have his bath, just as soon as I finished feeding his young uncles.
After the excitement of the smashed bottle, the rest of the evening passed in relative silence, with everyone physically and emotionally too drained to converse. With Billy’s meal interrupted while he helped his father clean up the mess in the boys’ room, I made a tray of sandwiches and carried them to the den where both Gene and Billy were sitting in silence while the television played in the background, although I do not think anyone was paying much attention. It was a relief when I was able to excuse myself to bathe my son, and after I put him into his pajamas, I took him upstairs to the den to say ‘nite-nite’ to his daddy, and Gene asked if he could rock him to sleep. Although Michael had long ago given up his bottle, he seemed to sense that his grandfather needed to hold him, so he did not try to cling to me as he usually did; rather he held his chubby little arms out to Gene, who put him in his lap and began to rock. He did not sing to him as I did, rather he talked to the baby in a low, almost monotone voice as if he were telling him a story, although none of us could hear what he was saying. Obviously though, Michael, mesmerized by his grandfather’s soft whispers, in just a few minutes was fast asleep on Gene’s shoulder. Billy rose to take his son from his father’s arms and carry him to our bedroom, but Gene put his finger to his mouth and whispered, “S-h-h-h” as he rose and carried his only grandchild downstairs and gently tucked him into his makeshift bed.
It seemed as if he was gone at least fifteen minutes, and when he came back upstairs, I thought I saw tears in his eyes, for the first time during the last two long days.
“You know,” Gene said, still speaking in a soft voice, “life goes on, and the next generation steps up to the plate when our time at bat is over. He sure is a bright little boy, and someday maybe he will want to work in the store too.”
Then, as if by magic his moment of melancholy over, without missing a beat, he was all business again as he sent the boys off to bed. After they left the room, he repeated the instructions he had given us earlier, reminding us that he wanted us to get rid of ALL of Helen’s belongings, and neither Billy nor I thought to ask if we should ask Bubba if there was anything special that she might want. He told us that when they returned, he did not want one thing in the house to remind the boys of their mother, and I was not so sure this was the right thing to do, but I said nothing, just listened for the third time to all his instructions. Above all he did not want the boys or himself to find any more of her bottles as had happened earlier, and I assured him I was an expert at finding hidden bottles, to which he commented, “I imagine so.”
We sat around in silence for about an hour, more listening than watching the television, when Billy rose, pulled me to my feet, told his father we were tired, and suggested that he too should call it a night, especially if he wanted to get an early start in the morning. Gene cut off the television and then, for the first time ever, he kissed me on the cheek and told me how much he appreciated my participation the past two days, especially the way I stepped in and took care of the boys. He then added if we found anything that either of us wanted that had belonged to Helen, to be sure to keep it.
I really did not want anything of Helen’s. I had felt sorry for her, but certainly had not felt any semblance of affection. She had treated my son and me with contempt and pure hatred at times, and while I could grieve for the boys, I could not grieve for her. She was in a far better place now than the hell she had made for herself here on earth. I have always believed that our God is a forgiving God, so I felt she was safe in His arms now and no longer was she burdened with pain and sadness. For the first time I realized there were some people that were truly better off dead than alive, and Helen was one of them, since she obviously had not enjoyed her life here on earth, and had made so many other lives miserable too.
I thought surely Billy would be exhausted from our seemingly never-ending day, and he would just take off his clothes and crawl into the bed, but no, he wanted me to shower with him, so of course I did. From then on there was no going back and we made love several times before we fell into an almost coma-like sleep.
We both must have slept the sleep of the dead, as neither of us heard David come into the bedroom to retrieve a wide-awake and loudly protesting Michael. Gene had told the little boy to let us sleep, if we were not awake, and by the time we did get up, Gene had changed Michael’s diaper, fed him, and dressed him. He had found the diapers and folded stacks of clothes in the laundry room basket, and had done a very good job matching his grandson’s outfit. I guess I had never thought about how much of the responsibility he had borne when raising his own three youngest sons, but he knew just what to do and how to do it. Michael was happily playing with the boys while Gene was fixing everyone pancakes for breakfast. I offered to clean up the kitchen while he finished packing, and hoped beyond hope that no more bottles would turn up this morning to dampen the almost holiday mood. Thankfully, all went smoothly and by 10:00 a.m., Gene and the boys, in Helen’s big station wagon, were pulling out of the driveway.
Billy and I were now alone, with our son, in this big house, with a difficult task ahead of us, and a $2000 check for a car just burning a hole in Billy’s pocket. I did not know if he would finally break down while going through his mother’s personal belongings, with his brothers out of sight of his tears, but I was ready to console him to the best of my ability. With Michael contentedly watching cartoons on television, at least for a short while before he found something to get into, Billy, with that look of determination on his face that was so familiar, headed first for Helen’s medicine cabinet in the corner of the kitchen. We had so often watched her as she walked in the door from work, not even acknowledging her own sons, and headed straight to that cabinet where she grabbed a handful of pills and chased them with bourbon. Naturally, Billy thought this would be the simplest place to start since all we had to do was pour the pills down the drain and get rid of all the prescription bottles with her name on them, so with a large paper bag hanging from one of the kitchen drawers, he opened the dreaded cabinet.
I have never seen so many pill bottles! We found prescriptions dating back to the 1940’s, and there were always a few pills left in each! There were painkillers, narcotic and otherwise, strong psychotropic drugs, and even unopened packets of birth control pills. These she certainly did not need since she obviously had not been sleeping with Gene, at least not for as long as I had known her. Instead, she usually passed out in her chair, and he would carry her to the master bedroom and their king sized bed while he slept in the extra bed in the room with the boys. I did not want or need them since I was on my six months off schedule, and I could get them free from the Army when it was time. Billy threw all the pills into the sink, and ran hot water over them to wash them down the drain, and then he threw the empty bottles into the paper bag. At first, he was keeping count, but before long, he gave that up, but he mentioned something about their family doctor, and how could he give her all this medication, especially since he had known she was an alcoholic. I wondered if there had not been something further wrong with her health that no one knew about and perhaps I could find out from someone on her side of the family, if anyone mentioned her name, since I would not bring up the subject. On the middle shelf of the cabinet were bottles of alcohol, the contents of which also went down the drain, and the empty bottles into another several bags. I knew from the expression on his face Billy was hurting, and I longed to reach out and hold him in my arms, but I also knew I should allow him time to finish this, the most odious task, and then I could soothe him. As I watched him work and kept one eye on Michael, I wondered if he remembered the attractive woman with the bubbly personality that Helen had once been. I had only heard how very popular and pretty she was at Girl’s High in Atlanta, and a terrific tennis player and I wished I had known her as young woman. Perhaps then, she would have grown to love and accept me had it not been for the alcohol. I knew only the scantest of details about her accident and her surgeries, and it was not until many, many years later I learned the entire story.
I left Billy working on his mother’s medication cabinet and, taking one of the brown bags, with Michael following close behind, I decided I would ‘search’ the house for bottles. Once again, my experience would come in handy, but I doubted if Helen could be nearly as devious as my father could and I always found his bottles. I started in our bedroom, which was the least occupied now that Billy was gone, looked under the bed, in the closet, the cabinets in the bathroom and behind the curtains, only to find just one empty bottle in the top of the closet behind the extra blankets. Now she would have to have done better than that to test my skills! I literally turned the room upside down since I knew without a consistent occupant, this would make a perfect hiding place; even the maid did not clean down here regularly. It was then I found a box that at first glance seemed to be overflowing with family photos, and interested in looking through them to see if I could find any of Billy when he was young, I dragged the box out of the back of the closet. As I reached in, hoping to find albums filled with snapshots of my handsome husband taken when he was a baby, and during his childhood, of which I had none, I found the box to be a subterfuge! Under the first layer of recent photos, even some of Michael we must have sent Gene, I found four full bottles of Four Roses bourbon, her favorite, and a half full bottle. Yes, this usually empty room had made a perfect storage space, and in the back of the closet, I found Billy’s old golf bag, and sure enough another bottle. Billy had not played golf, nor been interested or had the time since he was on the team in high school so again this was a perfect hiding place.
Michael kept up a constant chatter while I searched, since he wanted to know what I was doing because it looked as if I was playing a game, and in a way, I was. I decided to make a game of it for him too, so I told him that his grandmother had left hidden treasures, and his Daddy and I were looking for them. Satisfied, he played with his toys and kept me in his sight. I think he had missed us the last two days, and he was not about to let us get away from him this day, and he also did not have his little uncles to play with him either. I searched the room from bottom to top, and knew there could not possibly be any bottles left, so I took my full bag full to the den, with Michael following along behind me. When I showed Billy all the bottles I had found, his eyes widened, and I knew he was thinking the same thing I was. I asked him why not take the unopened bottles back to Helen’s favorite liquor store and get a refund! After all, the seals had not even been broken on four of them and I had only searched one room so far, although I thought this was probably her ‘main’ stash.
Billy, had almost finished cleaning out the cabinet, and he agreed it was a great idea and he promised to join the ‘treasure hunt’ just as soon as he completed wiping clean the now empty space. I placed the bag of full bottles on the counter and emptied the others into the sink, and then with another bag I headed for the laundry room. I thought perhaps it would be best if we organized our search rather than wandering first one place and then the other, so we decided to begin at the back door and work our way though the house, one room at a time.
The laundry room, separated from the den by a long row of cabinets, was the passageway from the back door into the den. These were deep double cabinets with doors opening into both rooms separated by wall, and there was a massive amount of storage space. The boys used most of the cabinets on the den side primarily to store their games and some of their toys, while cleaning supplies were stored in the laundry room area. I decided to work from the bottom up leaving the higher of the cabinets for my six-foot tall husband, and Helen was shorter than I was so I doubted if she would climb to hide her precious bottles, but I had learned long ago never to underestimate the will of an alcoholic.
Michael had decided this was great fun and wanted to pull out everything, but I put him to work ‘helping’ without making a mess. His help consisted of putting clothespins, which I dumped on the floor, back into the laundry basket, and I just hoped he would not pinch himself or me! Billy joined me just as I finished the second of the bottom cabinets without finding any more bottles, but right away, he found one more with just about an inch of whiskey in the bottom, behind the extra boxes of detergent,. Gene would get boxes of detergent with the new washing machines and dishwashers, and sometimes instead of giving them to the customer when he sold a machine he brought them home, so there must have been ten boxes of detergent in the bottom cabinets. Billy then decided his father would not miss two boxes since there was plenty more where they came from, and he began his ‘pile’ of things to take home with us. I am sure if we had asked, Gene would have given it to us, but he was not here to ask, so Billy, as he often did, helped himself. Having no further luck on that side of the cabinets, and we even shook the open boxes of detergent, we moved on to the den.
These two rooms were nicely furnished, and like at my parent’s house, they looked rarely used. I thought it a waste of a huge amount of space, but I felt sure when Gene bought this house, he had planned to do a lot of entertaining, and of course with Helen’s alcoholism, this never happened either. So here were these two large rooms, filled with the nicest of furniture looking brand-new, though a bit out-of-date. Now here was a place where we might meet with more success. Amazingly, Michael found the first bottle, quite innocently; when he pulled back the long drapes to look outside. We found another two full bottles hidden behind the drapes in the dining room and another empty in the dining room cabinet filled with sterling and china. Billy asked me if I wanted any, but I knew that would not be right, and we did not entertain formally in our small apartment anyway, so I told him to leave it there. Also his mother had given us six place settings of sterling as a ‘pseudo’ wedding gift, but she must have gotten a real ‘deal’ on it since already it was no longer being made.
Now that he had found a ‘treasure’, Michael was really into the ‘game’ and moving to the living room; he pulled back the drapes and found two more bottles. Like my father, Helen was not going to run out of bourbon anytime soon! Both bottles were open, so we poured the contents down the drain. I could not believe how many bottles we had already found and not even searched but 2/3 of the house!
Billy opened the coat closet door in the front hallway and took down his mother’s mink stole and putting it around my shoulders said. “This is yours now.” You have more than earned it for putting up with her.” He then gave me a quick kiss before he turned back to the closet.
I really did not want the stole since I had only seen the wives of General officers and Colonels wearing mink, never a lieutenant’s wife! I was far too young to wear fur, and I would feel far too conspicuous in it, but Billy insisted we take it with us, so I did, thinking that perhaps I could give it to Bubba later. I knew I could never wear it, even when Billy did become a Colonel, because it had belonged to Helen. I was the last person on earth she would have given it to, and it felt like a suit of armor over my shoulders. No, this was not for me, and I was sure Bubba would welcome something that had belonged to her daughter, even though she had her own fur.
There were no bottles in that closet, not even in the top, so we moved on to the boys’ room where Gene had found the partially empty bottle just last night. The room still smelled faintly of bourbon, but by the time Gene returned home the odor would be gone. There were three closets in this room, one for each boy, so while I searched the bottom, Billy searched the top. We opened boxes and suitcases, and neither of us felt like we were snooping – we were just following Gene’s orders to rid the house of Helen’s presence, and the first thing to get rid of would be her hidden bottles. We found nothing in the first closet, which belonged to Charles, except some old chicken bones, probably hidden there by a hungry little boy, so we moved on to the second. We worked in tandem again, Billy on the top shelf and me on the floor, and again we found two more bottles. One was inside a case that we had no idea what it had originally contained, and one was just stuck in the far back of the closet behind stacks of baseball shoes, bats, and other little boy paraphernalia. I wondered then if her sons had ever found her bottles, but due to the shock Gene felt on finding the first one, I doubted if any of them had ever thought to look. Gene knew Helen had a way of getting the alcohol, and as hard as he tried to keep her from it, he could not win, so I think he just gave up.
Helen had charge accounts in every store in Griffin, and Gene never gave her any cash. However, as alcoholics will do, she would make a purchase and find some reason to bring it back, and insist on a cash refund, thus filling her pockets with enough money to purchase her bourbon. Since Gene did not want the ‘secret’ of his wife’s drinking to run rampant through the small town, as if it had not anyway, he would not humble himself to tell the clerks just to credit his accounts and not give her the cash. Even if he had, she would have found another way, even if she stole money from the store. Alcoholics in need of a drink will use any subterfuge to gain their precious elixir!
Amazingly, Gene truly thought no one knew about Helen’s ‘problem’, but I knew better than that! Griffin, as in most small towns, had its share of local ‘gossips’ and I am sure everyone in town knew about Helen McConnell. Billy had been angry since so many people came to ‘view’ her in her coffin because they were not her friends in life, but Helen was not one to have friends. Her only friends had been her pills and Four Roses. I remembered then how he had told me that first night after the viewing how he never wanted his body to be ‘on display’ for the curiosity seekers, and he had made me promise. Without a thought that I would ever have to keep that promise, I had agreed I would never do that to him.
The third and final closet that belonged to Dickie, the oldest, was empty of bottles, but now the boys had their shoes and other belongings neatly in place instead of just thrown haphazardly on top of the others. I could not bring myself to leave them the way we had found them; rather I organized as we searched, although I was well aware they would not stay that way. Finally, we looked under the four twin beds, behind the curtains, but once again found nothing.
We then moved on to Helen’s bedroom, which I had been dreading with the thought she had died in this room. I would never have gone into that room by myself, but Gene had the old mattress removed right after they took her away. Now a brand new box springs and mattress was on the bed, no sheets, no spread, so I decided to make up the bed for Gene so he could finally sleep in his own room when he returned. The maid was coming on Friday, but Billy and I were leaving for Atlanta after we let her in and showed her the things we had set aside for her and her church, but it would not hurt me to make up the bed. Actually, I think I was just stalling opening her closet, dressing table, and chest-of-drawers. This room had been her domain, and until today, I had never set foot inside it.
I looked for the linen and found it in a huge linen closet in the hall where I also found stacks and stacks of brand-new towels of every color imaginable! Calling Billy, I stepped back to show him the excessive amount of towels, and he decided we could use some, and again his father would never be the wiser. He took eight matching sets of washcloths and towels, after he asked me to choose the colors, although I was not too sure Gene would not miss them, but I also knew I could not change Billy’s mind, so I kept quiet. Sometimes now, I think perhaps I should have said something, but as events unfurled at that time, I was glad I did not. Little did we know that Billy’s ‘golden calf’ was about to turn to stone!
He finished the linen closet since I could not reach into the upper shelves and, as expected, he found no bottles there. Michael did find two more behind the lush drapes in the bedroom, and I could not help but laugh at his delight in being such a good helper. Both of these bottles were not only full but looked brand-new, so they joined the others we had put in a cardboard carton since now there were far too many for a paper bag. We would gain quite a bit of cash if we could return them. It was such a simple, but effective hiding place – behind floor-length draperies! My father had often used the drapes as his hiding place, and even with short curtains, he would place the bottles on the windowsills. Who would think to look there, except perhaps another alcoholic, or his or her families.
Now it was time to tackle her personal belongings, I certainly did not look forward to this job, since I knew everything I would touch, she had touched, and for some reason I felt strange about that. I began with the dressing table and tossed used makeup into our trash bag, but I kept the barely used perfume – most of it the real thing, and not cologne – and the unopened cosmetics. Helen’s complexion had not been as fair as my own, but during the summer, I thought perhaps I could use the makeup or even give it to my mother or my aunt. We had half a bag filled with unopened cosmetics, including those Billy found in the bathroom, and I decided obviously everything Helen did went far beyond necessity. I then opened her large jewelry box, filled with name brand costume jewelry, and I knew I could use these accessories for my social obligations as an Army officer’s wife. I also decided I could use her hats and gloves since I had only one hat and two pair of gloves, both white, one short, one long. Hats and white gloves were required at many events, especially parades, so these I would definitely use. I had never seen Helen wear a hat, not even on that unpleasant Easter Sunday, and many still had the tags on them – perhaps to later return for cash? These I knew would get plenty of use.
Then I found Helen’s pearls. Gene had just given her a three-strand necklace of cultured pearls the previous Christmas, and I now had them in my hand. I had thought Billy’s father kept all of her ‘real’ jewelry in the store’s safe, but I was holding what looked like the pearls I had seen her put on after opening the box. I asked Billy if we should give these back to his father, but he told me to keep them since Gene had said I could have anything I wanted or could use, but this was different, something very valuable, or so I thought. I continued to remain suspicious about Helen keeping this valuable a necklace at the house, so I put a pearl in my mouth and with my teeth scraped it a bit and exposed the bead under the nacre – these were NOT her real pearls! Had Gene just ‘fooled’ Helen, or had she turned the real ones in for cash? On the other hand, had Gene taken the real ones back, or kept them in the safe and left these at the house for her to wear? Knowing her propensity for returning items for cash, and the amount she could obtain by returning the pearls that just might be the case. I did not feel I could ask Gene since either way he would be embarrassed or upset, but I felt better about putting them in my bag of things to keep. Without actually scratching the bead, no one would know if they were real or not since they were expensive ‘fakes’. Eventually, years later, I would have my own ‘real’ pearls, and every time I wear them, I think of that moment. I added her hosiery and under garments to the bag of trash, not wanting to give away such intimate apparel, but kept a beautiful, filmy gown and negligee set that still had the price tags on it, and was the exact shade of blue as my husband’s eyes. I thought I would wear it for him the first night we were home and once again had a bedroom to ourselves!
Now to tackle the closet and I knew Helen had plenty of expensive dresses and suits since I had never seen her wear the same thing twice! I was right! The closet was so full I had a hard time moving hangers to look at each item, and Billy went to the den to get the two large boxes Gene had picked up at the store before he left. One box Billy marked for ‘First Baptist Church’ and the other was for the maid. We both knew there would be little there I could use, and again, I truly did not want anything so personal, although we thought if we found anything that still had a price tag, then perhaps we could exchange it for something to fit me. In an hour we had the closet empty of clothes, none of which had tags, and shoes, some unworn, and Billy went to work taking down the enormous hatboxes, most of which were actually filled with hats! Much to our surprise, we had found no bottles, so far. I tried on the various hats and decided there were only three that looked good on me, or youthful enough, so we put the rest in the maid’s box. When we finally finished, the closet was completely empty, without so much as a hairpin littering the thickly carpeted floor, so Billy said he would leave a note for the maid to vacuum the floor and wipe down the shelves.
There was one other closet in the master bedroom that belonged to Gene, but I thought we should not even open that one. Always curious though, Billy just had to get a look behind those doors, and when he opened them, he found a magnificent double barrel shotgun, and he just HAD to have it! I asked him why he even needed it since he was not a hunter, but he just said he needed it because he wanted it, and he added this to our ‘stash’. We did not disturb Gene’s chest-of-drawers since we knew there would be nothing of Helen’s in there, and I thought the temptation for Billy might be too great if he found something else he wanted! I was beginning to think I had married a ‘thief’, although only with his own parent’s possessions!
With just one more chore before we left in the morning, Billy called the minister of the First Baptist Church and told him we had a box ready for him to pick up, while I dumped the water out of all of the fresh flowers that had come to the home. Most of the arrangements were beginning to wilt anyway, so I threw away the flowers and nearly all of the vases, keeping three. Too late, I thought perhaps we could have combined the still fresh flowers and taken them to the hospital or a nursing home, but Billy was anxious to finish and go to Atlanta to buy his new car! The minister said he could be there about 4:00 p.m., and it was now past lunchtime, so I quickly fed Michael while Billy cleaned himself up a bit. He then changed Michael’s, by now dirty diaper, and put him into clean clothes, since we had all gotten filthy cleaning out closets and cabinets. While Billy took care of his son, I went to the bedroom, washed up, put on some clean shorts, and pulled my hair back into a neat ponytail. As I put on a bit of lipstick and mascara, the girl who looked back at me from the bathroom mirror certainly did not look old enough to be married and have a child of her own, much less accomplish all I had in the past three days. I may have looked young, but inside, my soul was old, and it had been since I was about eight years old and decided I was the only adult who lived in my house. Now I had someone to look after me, and I thought we both did a remarkable job of taking care of each other. I sprayed a bit of perfume on the insides of my wrists and behind my ears, and then joined my husband and my son.
Billy gathered up the boxes of full bottles, and if I remember correctly, there were now about nine of them. We left for Helen’s favorite liquor store hoping to collect a ‘windfall’ of cash refunds, although I had no idea how much a bottle of bourbon cost! Parking in front of the store, Billy carried the first box of bottles inside while I waited in the car with Michael, thinking a liquor store was not an appropriate place to take a two-year-old. I watched as Billy gestured angrily at the box of full bottles and at the car, presumably referring to the second box. Finally, I saw the clerk reluctantly open the cash register and begin to count out the bills one at a time while Billy retrieved the carton from the car.
After he collected the money, recounting it carefully, I could barely wait to ask him if he had any trouble. “Just a little bit until I told the man he should be ashamed he sold my mother the bottles, and I felt sure he was well aware of her condition and it was his alcohol that had killed her!”
Of course, Billy did not really think that was true, he still had the idea his father strangled her, but the ruse worked, and the man felt guilty and gave him the cash. There was over $120.00, so we celebrated our sudden wealth and went to our favorite restaurant for a late lunch or early supper, and Billy ordered his favorite, the most expensive item on the menu, fried shrimp. He had worked hard, his heart had broken over, and over again that morning, so I thought he deserved to have anything he wanted, even two servings if he was that hungry. I ordered a small filet mignon with béarnaise sauce and a child’s plate of shrimp and fries for Michael. We would not be hungry again before bedtime and I was too tired to even think about cooking supper, although the house was full of prepared food.
There were still over a dozen untouched casseroles, and I had covered them with foil and put them in the freezer, leaving a note for Gram, since she and Poppa would be coming to Griffin to take care of the boys when they returned from the mountains. There were also bowls of fresh cooked vegetables, and fresh homegrown tomatoes I had decided to take with us since they would be too ripe by the time Gram got there. There were also cakes and pies I wrapped and marked for the freezer, but none of Billy’s favorite lemon, so I promised to make one for him just as soon we got home. There was still 2/3 of the huge turkey, and a ham that had not been touched, and I realized the turkey would be close to being unfit to eat by the time Gene returned, so I decided to take that home for sandwiches for Billy. I also intended to cut off several large slices of ham since it would keep longer, and that would make a meal and sandwiches. I left a note for the maid to take what was left of a huge platter of cold fried chicken Billy had been working on, and I would pack enough for us with the rest of the meats. That meant we needed a cooler, but of course that was no problem either since Billy just dropped by the store and told Whitey, the store manager, what he needed and why, and we soon had a brand new large cooler for our journeys, and we certainly did not know, at the time, how handy it would be, and soon!
I felt sure Gene did not plan to stay long in the mountains, only long enough for us to clean out the house, but Gram and Poppa would be arriving from Atlanta on Friday, this was already Wednesday, and I am sure they hoped to stay only until Gene could make arrangements that were more permanent. I did not want Gram to have to cook that first week while she became acclimated to feeding so many mouths once again, so I knew the casseroles would come in handy.
I was more than anxious to get out of Griffin. Our emotions were overwrought, and we were both exhausted after we finished fulfilling Gene’s request as quickly as possible. Frankly, I wanted my husband all to myself, if only for a weekend before he returned to work! Selfish, perhaps, but I was also having nightmares, and every night I was waking up in a cold sweat as the image of Helen in her casket continued to haunt me. Surely, I thought, once we were back in our own small apartment, away from Griffin I no longer would have this disturbing interruption to my sleep. Little was I to know that until an even more horrible image replaced this one, I would continue to dream about Helen in her pink shroud and expensive casket as she clawed at the glass that entombed her!
We arrived back at the house just minutes before the minister came to pick up the box destined for the church, and while he and Billy talked, I took Michael inside for a bath. After we put our tired little boy to bed, Billy and I took a long, hot shower, once again using all the hot water, and this time there was no one who would need it after us! We actually made love in the shower that night, although I really cannot remember how we managed, but when Billy wanted something badly enough, he always managed! Since I had not been fulfilled by these awkward manipulations, Billy slowly and tenderly took me to the moon several times once we got in the bed, and by then we both were so tired we did not even awake until we heard the maid running the vacuum! What day was it? What time was it? We needed to get on the road to Atlanta and look for a new car!
All of us had slept later than usual; even Michael who had worn himself out running through the large empty house as he excitedly enjoyed our ‘treasure hunt’. After a hurried bowl of cereal, it was almost 11:00 a.m. before Billy had the car packed, and this time it was full from trunk to backseat, from floor to ceiling. There was only a small space on the seat for Michael to nap; otherwise, I do not think we could have squeezed one more thing inside. We were all dressed and ready to leave and Michael, as always anxious to ride in the car, was so excited I had a hard time keeping him still long enough to change and dress him.
Bored by my instructions to the maid, Michael and Billy went outside and played with old Fella’, who had been mostly ignored all week, except for his nightly meal. Billy had reminded me to ask the maid if it would bother her to feed the old dog, and she said she usually did it anyway, so it was no additional work for her. “Besides,” she said, “he is a good ol’ fella’.” I had to laugh and shared with her an abbreviated version of how we had found him, and how he had gotten his name, and she agreed he just looked like a ‘fella’.
Just as I picked up my purse to go meet my boys outside, the telephone rang, and I quickly answered it. As I would at our own home, I automatically said, “McConnell residence, Mrs. William McConnell speaking.” It was a hard habit to break; this official greeting that was usually required when one answered an officer’s home phone, although there I would have said ‘quarters’, instead of residence. Gram was on the other end of the line and she wanted to know if Gene still expected them to come down the next day since they had not heard from him. I assured her we had not heard from him either, nor did we know how to get in touch with him, but I knew he expected to be back no later than Saturday. I told her Billy and I were getting ready to leave within the next hour, but omitted the part about the car since I did not know if Gene had shared this ‘gift’ with anyone else. Her call also gave me an opportunity to tell her about the casseroles, the ham, and anything else I thought she would need to know and where I had put everything.
Gram then asked if Billy was there, and when I told her he was outside playing with Michael and the dog, she said that was just as well since I could probably tell him this news better than she could. She continued by saying that somehow Bubba had found out Billy and I were getting rid of all of Helen’s belongings, and said she never ever wanted to see or hear from Billy again! Although Gram had tried to explain to her he was only following his father’s instructions, Bubba was not satisfied with that explanation. She wanted Gram to tell us the next time she saw or talked to us that we would never be welcome in her home, not ever again, and as far as she was concerned, Billy was ‘dead’ to her! Gram tried to assure me she would soon forget, and as her grief lessened, all would be forgiven, but I could not overlook what she said about Billy being ‘dead’ to her! I told Gram that was a horrible thing to say about anyone, particularly her own grandson, she agreed, but also told me something I did not know, that Bubba had been a fiery redhead when she was young, and Helen’s unpleasant disposition had been inherited from her mother. Now that was something I never would have thought, but I had learned a lot this week, and most of it I would have been quite happy never knowing. Gram told us to have a safe trip, and I thought it best not to mention we would be in Atlanta today, but rather she found out about the car from Gene, just in case she slipped and told Bubba. I knew that Bubba would think Gene had paid us off for doing his dirty work, and that a car was so important to Billy he could erase his mother’s existence in this house with no qualms whatsoever. I doubted if she would ever think perhaps it would not benefit the little boys if they came home to a house filled with their mother’s belongings, as if she would be coming home soon, and that I thought this had been Gene’s reason for asking us to clean out her things. I told Gram we would see her at least by Thanksgiving, if she wanted us, and she replied while she hoped they would not be in Griffin that long, we were always welcome at any time, and this would always be Billy’s home. Little did she know!
After we hung up, I collected some small packages Billy had left behind, and told the maid we would not be back that evening, so to let herself out – and then I asked her if Gene had paid her. She assured me he left the check every week and not to worry.
As we piled into the old car for the very last time, it was almost nostalgic, but not as much as it had when we traded in the old Ford that Billy drove on the night we had our first date. We had spent so many love-filled moments, both at the copper mine, and necking on Crown Mountain in that old car, but this old car too had its own share of memories. It had carried our newborn son home from the hospital, and had seen its share of our love and even some tears, but I still could not believe we were finally getting a brand new car!
Once we were on the road, Michael promptly fell asleep, without asking for even one song, he was so tired from his late morning romp with his daddy and the old dog. I then told Billy about my talk with Gram, and at first, he was very quiet. I knew he had to be upset since Bubba had always played such a large part in all of their lives, and Billy had undoubtedly, even to the anger of her own sons, been Bubba’s ‘favorite’ grandchild. I could tell he was trying to assimilate the message, and his brain was working overtime as he thought about what Gram had said.
In just a few minutes, he pulled me over next to him, and with his arm over my shoulders and a squeeze, he said, “As long as I have you and my son, I don’t need anyone else – I really don’t. I don’t know how I made it before I met you, little girl, and I do love you more than life itself.”
“Oh Billy, my darling Billy,” I said as I kissed his hand and held it to my cheek, “It makes me very happy we are your world, and I know you don’t think so now, but soon you will miss your grandparents.”
I tried to reassure him that Bubba had spoken in haste and grief, and I thought, correctly, as it turned out, after she got over her anger, she would miss both her grandson and her great-grandson, and she would not want to keep them out of her life forever. I just hoped soon Bubba’s grief would fade and once again, our little family would be special to her. Especially now since I also had a feeling, just a feeling, mind you, that in nine months or less, we would be welcoming another little McConnell boy to the family tree for her to fall in love with, just as she had my handsome husband and his equally handsome son. With me around, there obviously would be no lack of little boys for her to love!