MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 38 – Thanksgiving -1964
As much as I did not want to share Billy during those last days before he left for Ranger School, our little family decided that we had no other option than to go to Griffin for Thanksgiving, more for the boys than for anyone. Even though Helen had not been much of a mother, the first holidays are always the most painful, so Billy wanted to be there for his brothers, and we both knew Michael would be a welcome distraction. I also thought perhaps I could be of some help to Gram, and Gene had not seen the car Billy bought with his ‘gift’. I knew Gram would be preparing a large meal, and I knew any help offered she would accept with gratitude and love. No longer was it a dreaded trip since Gram and Poppa were both loving and compassionate grandparents and great grandparents, but the daily care of young boys at their age had to be tiring, and it had been a long time since they had the responsibility for such a young family. For the first time in their lives, these adorable boys had some stability and lots of love in their home.
I wondered how long it had been since they had come home from school to a house filled with the delightful aroma of cookies baking in the oven, and when I questioned Billy whether he remembered his mother baking, his one word spoke volumes - “Never!”
I found that more descriptive of what Helen had not been than if he had written a book. Among the myriad of tasks that had been my responsibility when I lived with my parents was that of ‘baker’ for my brothers, and to this day, I am the only one they remember baking cookies for them when they were young and that makes me sad. This recollection just made me even more determined the simple act of a mother baking cookies would be a memory I wanted our children to take with them forever, and continue with their own children.
Even though we had already decided to go to Griffin, Gene called, and more insisted than invited us to come for the holiday. When he told Billy, he had something very important to ask him and could only do so in person, both of us wondered what it was he had to say so crucial he could not discuss it over the telephone. Would he implore Billy to come back to Griffin again, and ask us to move into the house so I could be a mother to the boys? Not that I would have objected, but never would I leave my husband, and I knew giving up the Army was not an option for him – not for any price, which led to the second situation. Was he going to offer him a large salary to go to work for him, and not go to Ranger School, and/or not to renew his commission when the opportunity presented itself in December? Again I knew the answer, and I would have thought Gene, after all the arguments he and Billy had about the subject, would have known this too, but perhaps he planned to use the plight of Billy’s adored little brothers to soften him up. It still would not happen, and if ever I had been positive about anything in my life, other than Billy’s love for me, it was his determination to be the “best damn soldier in the United States Army.”
His two years of mandatory service would be finished on December 10, so finally we both agreed, because of the timing, this had to be why Gene wanted to talk to him in person. I also had the idea this was one of those conversations where I would not be welcome, at least by Gene, but I knew whatever it was he wanted; Billy would discuss it with me before he made any decision. Of course, since he was about to go to Ranger School, I knew the answer to any of the offers regarding the resignation of his commission.
Billy had the coveted gold and black Ranger patch almost within his grasp, and I knew from our first date of all the things he really wanted to accomplish was that of becoming an Airborne Ranger. Now he already wore the silver wings on his chest and with one school down and acceptance in the other, I knew he would never even contemplate resignation. His dream was about to come true – to be one among the few officers in the prestigious Ranger Corps, which was also a big step forward in his career. Once he even mentioned Special Forces School at Ft. Bragg, N.C., but calmly, although with tears running down my face, I begged him to consider his growing family. Although I did not threaten, as had been my previous manner, I did ask him to be content with Airborne and Ranger Schools, at least until Vietnam was concluded, and lovingly, I told him I would support him in whatever schools he wanted to attend, even flight school, which was the one I dreaded the most. I knew from reading The Army Times our helicopter pilots were dying almost weekly in Vietnam, so reluctantly, but also with the love for his family foremost in his mind, he promised not to consider any more training until the conflict had successfully concluded. Oh how naïve we were in those early days of the war.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving we once again packed our car with the playpen for Michael’s makeshift bed, the small amount of clothing we would require, and, with Billy wearing his Class ‘A’ green uniform, his silver wings on his chest, we set out for Griffin. He looked so handsome and so proud, but no prouder than I was to be by his side, and once again pregnant with his son, and both of us more in love with the other than ever before.
We arrived in Griffin just before noon and Billy drove straight to the store to show off his wings, and I thought perhaps his father would want to take him out to lunch to talk about whatever it was that was so important. I could always take Michael with me, and drive our car to the house, leaving Billy time to talk with his father alone. With a mind of his own, Billy had also made the decision to tell his father before he even began, that if this discussion concerned our future – his family’s future - then he wanted me to be present since it would affect me as much as it would him. This was Billy’s idea and I had not brought up the subject since the conversations I had been privy to between Billy and Gene regarding Billy’s choice of career had been anything but pleasant, but if Billy wanted me to be there, that is exactly where I would be. While Billy had his goals, my own goals in life were to be the best mother to our children and the best wife possible to the man who I loved more than life itself.
Just as soon as Billy parked the car, in his usual ‘loading zone – no parking’ space, Michael threw himself over the front seat in his excitement to see his grandfather since he knew there would be a new toy waiting.
“Slow down, son, and be careful, you almost kicked your mommy in the head!” Billy berated our impulsive, almost hyperactive son, but then he picked him up, held the door open for me, and we all went into the store together.
Once inside he put Michael down so he could run into his grandfather’s waiting arms, and Gene, having seen us drive up, hoisted his first grandson high into the air, and told him how much he had grown since he had last seen him. Then carrying Michael in one arm, he walked up the main aisle to greet us. Holding my hand tightly, Billy, and I had followed our rambunctious son, who no longer walked, but ran everywhere he went. Gene shook Billy’s hand while he stared at his oldest son as if he did not recognize him, and when he gave me a quick hug, I pointed to the silver wings on Billy’s chest. Of course, Billy had his wings for his mother’s funeral, but with all that was happening, Gene had not noticed and we had not made a point of discussing it. Naturally, Gene was full of congratulations, telling all his employees his son was now an airborne soldier, almost as if he really was proud of him, and in his own way, I am sure he was. He just did not understand how important this was to Billy now he had done one more thing his father had not. Nor would Gene have understood the ‘competition’, which was as complex and as deep rooted, as were both father and son.
Much to my embarrassment, Billy just had to point out my rapidly growing tummy, and his father congratulated both of us on the pending birth of another McConnell boy.
Impatient with the adults, Michael had enough of talk, so wiggling to get down from his grandfather’s arms, he took off for the toy department, and his grandfather told him he could choose one toy. Billy turned and began to walk to the back of the store and to Gene’s office to talk to his father in private, but as they walked away, I heard him say if this conversation had anything to do with our future, he wanted me there too. Much to the surprise of both of us, his father assured him it did not. Now we were puzzled and far more curious than we ever had been.
I had thought certainly, Gene would want to talk to Billy at length, and after Michael made his choice, I planned to drive on to the house and leave Billy with his father. Much to my surprise, not fifteen minutes later, Billy came looking for us, and as he bent down to kiss my cheek, he quietly said, “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
He hoisted a protesting Michael, who had not one but two toys in his hand, and taking my hand we walked rapidly out of the store. Billy’s face filled with anger, his jaw clenched, he had that look on his face I had first seen when I told him about our first baby so long ago. I could not even begin to imagine what his father had said.
Billy put Michael, still clutching both toys, into the backseat while I quickly climbed in the driver’s side and moved over to the passenger window. Without any doubt, Billy was very angry about something, and I knew I was about to find out why, whether I wanted to or not. The tires on the car squealed as he backed out of the parking space without even looking to see if another car was coming, and then he peeled away from the front of the store, leaving rubber skid marks all over the road. I silently watched his rigid face and waited for him to calm down, since talking to him when he was this upset was of no use at all. He slowed down when we reached the main thoroughfare in the small town, and paused for a moment as if he did not know which direction to turn.
“I feel like going straight home,” he said, “but I need to see my brothers first. I don’t know if I can stand the sight of my father over the weekend, but we can go by the house for now.”
“What did he do?” I tentatively asked, and Billy, lip quivering, looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Can you believe he is getting married the day after Christmas, and he had the nerve to ask me to be his best man!” It was far more a statement than a question, and I did not know what to say, but it was time to listen and let my handsome husband do all the talking.
I softly told Billy that no, I could not believe it, but neither did I quite understand why this made Billy so angry, but he continued to talk, as if he did not know what else to do.
“After all his concern about the gossip in this small town where he is supposed to be some kind of ‘big shot’, if we had an ‘early’ baby, he is getting married before my mother is even cold in her grave! It has nothing to do with my mother since I know they had not had a ‘marriage’ in a long, long time, but just his audacity and the embarrassment it might cause the boys makes me sick. He could at least wait a decent interval, and July is not that far away. If I think so, can’t you imagine that almost everyone else in town will assume he has been seeing this woman for some time now, long before my mother died?”
It was as if the dam had opened, and all of Billy’s rage over the abortion came spilling over the side. There was little I could say that would soothe the remembrance of the tiny male fetus, and his unfulfilled life, so I just sat quietly and listened while Billy cried the tears that soaked my pillow a long time ago. Certainly, I had never fully forgiven myself, Billy or Gene for the loss of our first baby, and probably never would.
“He was so concerned about his reputation he forced us to commit an illegal act, the murder of his first grandchild! Now he thinks so little of the feelings of my brothers, who have to go to school and live in this town, he cannot wait a year! One short damn year!”
Billy had told me not long after we met that his father was not faithful to his mother, and he understood his reasons. But being discreetly unfaithful, and getting remarried and bringing another woman, with her four-year-old son, to live in the house where his mother had died just a few months earlier, well, it was just too much for him to absorb. I knew it would not be a pleasant Thanksgiving after all, but the boys needed us, even more right now. Billy also wanted to talk to them about their thoughts on the matter, and to ask if they had met her. He also wanted to question Gram and Poppa who had been there for the boys, while obviously Gene was not coming home very often, but staying overnight in Atlanta, where his ‘bride-to-be’ lived. Enraged, Billy had not given his father an answer to his request to be his best man either, but this matter needed closure before we left Griffin since Billy would be leaving for Ranger School almost as soon as we got back to Ft. Benning.
No sooner had he parked the car, as always, the boys were first out the door to greet us, but now Michael was the prime object of their attention, not me. I was delighted they loved their little nephew so much they treated him like another little brother, and Michael clearly was excited to see them again too. The house looked the same from the outside, but once inside the door the smell of baking cookies filled the air, just as I imagined, and a feeling of warmth I had never felt before. Where once there was only hushed silence or the low murmur of a television, and where the smell of bourbon and cigarettes permeated the walls, now this big house seemed, for the first time, like a real home. Gene had obviously grown up in a home that radiated this love, but somewhere along the line he had learned the coldness that had existed here before Helen’s death, and the ravages of alcoholism, since my own childhood home had the same unlived in ambience.
Once inside the door, Poppa took our little boy from his uncles and raised him high into the air with his long, strong arms. He was a tall man, lanky without an ounce of fat on him, and long retired from the Atlanta Fire Department, and it was no effort for him to lift Michael far above his head. Gram was tall too, for a woman, at least the women in our family, but more solidly built than Poppa was, although she certainly was not fat either. She had that grandmother roundness I had always admired, yet I could see the strength of character in her kind eyes. Gene seemed to have inherited his father’s height, but his mother’s looks and build, although Gene’s own sons, except for Billy, were not very tall.
Billy looked like the Smiths, his mother’s family, with his refined features and deep blue eyes, yet he had his father’s build, although he was just a little bit shorter than Gene.
Even though the boys had seen Billy with no hair when their mother died, they had seemed not to notice, but now they laughed and teased him about his shaved head. The huge scar than ran practically from one ear to the other where he had peeled back his scalp chasing them was all too obvious now, and I shuddered at the thought of that old injury. However, it was his silver wings, of course, that fascinated them the most, and I knew more tall tales about airborne school would likely follow from their adored older brother, at least those he had not already told when they visited with us.
Gram welcomed us warmly and immediately offered lunch, but Billy was still too upset to eat. I did ask if I could make Michael a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but Gram insisted on doing it herself, and from the corner of the kitchen, she pulled out the highchair that Gene had brought home for the use of his only grandchild. While Michael ate his lunch, under Gram’s supervision, Billy gathered Poppa and the boys in the den to talk to them about the impending wedding. Poppa admitted he did not know where or when Gene had met “this Ruth woman,” but all of a sudden, a few months ago, he would call the house before supper and say he had to go to Atlanta and would not be home until late. Late usually meant he did not show up until early the next morning, so Poppa figured it had to be a woman. Charles and David said they hated Stuart, Ruth’s son, even though they had not even met him, and insisted they were going to get Michael to beat him up, although Michael was a good two years younger! Dickie said very little, and I thought perhaps because he was closer to his mother than the younger boys were, he was even more upset, but much later I was to learn he was actually looking forward to having a stepmother. This should not have surprised me since he had never known a sober mother.
Gram, carrying a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, brought Michael into the den holding his own cookie tightly in his hands and saying repeatedly, “cookie, cookie, cookie.”
She joined the conversation and told us from photos they had seen Ruth was an attractive woman, not too much older than Helen had been. She had a grown son with two children of his own, and a grown daughter whose husband was also an officer in the Army. Then there was Stuart, who was the son of her first husband, whom she had divorced and remarried only to lose him to cancer not long after Stuart was born. Like Poppa, Gram did not know how Ruth and Gene met, but she saw her son almost cheerful for the first time in a long time and that alone made her happy. She then added that we all should be happy for him, and give Ruth a chance.
I knew both Gram and Poppa were tired and anxious to get back to their own comfortable brick home Gene built for them some years ago in the Atlanta West End neighborhood where he grew up. Like Billy though I had many questions, and even more apprehension about this sudden, surprise marriage. This was still the ‘old South’, and within ‘proper’ families, certain etiquette is to observed, although that does not mean your family cannot contain an alcoholic or two as long as one does not discuss it in public or private. One of the ‘unwritten’ rules was that widows and/or widowers were not to remarry, or even become engaged, until their late spouse had been deceased for a year. This was not done just out of respect to the memory of the dearly departed, but mostly to quell gossip mongers who would turn a situation like this around to mean that the relationship had existed prior to the death of the spouse, even if this was entirely false. In a city that was growing rapidly and becoming too large, like Atlanta, this ‘faux paux’ might go unnoticed, but in a small, sleepy Southern town like Griffin in the mid 60’s, Billy and I both knew Gene’s marriage would be the ‘talk of the town’ and ‘gossiped’ about for months on end, before and after the actual ceremony. Most probably, at this very moment, the ‘premature wedding’ was very much the subject of the local ‘gossips’ all over town.
Obviously, Ruth was in a hurry to get married, and Billy wondered silently if she was pregnant, although he did not confide his suspicions to me until later that evening. Now that would be a ‘kick in the face’ to Billy after Gene ‘forced’ us into the abortion, and the deeply imbedded heartache came roaring back into my heart, just as it had to Billy’s. This would be an interesting weekend, and I wondered if I dared breathe aloud when Gene was around since I knew the tension between father and son would be audible and awkward for all of us.
Now he was over the first shock of the pending marriage, Billy wanted to have the long talk with his father, but this did not happen. Gene came home for supper, and immediately following, without even a hug for his young sons or grandson, he left for Atlanta and his fiancée’s house. Now Gene knew we would be here for the long weekend, which I could tell was getting longer by the minute, unless Billy decided to ‘pull the plug’ and go back to Columbus, so why did he not invite Ruth and Stuart down to Griffin to meet the family? Why was this all such a big secret? Gene expected Billy to be his best man at a wedding where he had never even met the bride, and a thousand and one questions went unanswered by Gene’s absence, but perhaps he and Billy could have a good talk on Thanksgiving Day.
Poppa insisted on reading to Michael while rocking him in Gene’s big chair, and before long, Billy carried our sleepy son down to our room. All of the boys, by that time, wanted Michael to sleep in their room with them, and Billy told them as soon as he was just a little bit older he could, but that often he would still wake up during the night and cry for his mommy. I was not quite ready to let my ‘baby’ go, but perhaps by the time the new baby arrived around Valentine’s Day, I could stand for him be more his own person and not such a “mommy’s boy”, as Michael himself liked to say.
Often when Billy would come home from work and give me a big hug, Michael would squirm his way between us and while trying to separate our embrace, he would say repeatedly, “My Mommy”! Then he would try harder to push us apart. He was my little shadow, and my daytime life was devoted to him, unless I had an official function, and these had become more frequent since Billy had joined Headquarters staff. He had to go to all the parades, the spouse’s attendance, while supposedly mandatory, just like when our husbands were ‘tact’ officers; was mostly required, and we were there, at least the wives of the officers who planned to make the Army their career. For Michael that meant more days in the post nursery, and although he did not scream as he had at the beginning, he did cry, and it always broke my heart.
One morning I had to miss an ‘official’ coffee, the only one I had ever missed, because Michael had a fever of 104 degrees with the usual diarrhea and nausea. I do not think the Colonel’s wife even had time to get her girdle off before she phoned me questioning why I had not attended. I tried to explain that Michael was suddenly ill that morning, although he showed no signs of being so the night before, but she went on to proclaim unless my child was in hospital, there was no excuse for my absence. While I tried to explain the nursery would not take him with a fever, and even if we could afford it, by the time I knew he was ill, it was too late to call a babysitter from an agency, but she continued to berate me as if I was a ‘naughty’ child. I told her I could not ask my neighbors to keep him either, since they all had young children, and I did not want to expose their children to whatever was causing Michael’s illness. Still not satisfied with my excuses, she informed me this was just a ‘warning’, and not to let it happen again since it could reflect badly on my husband’s efficiency report! Now I was angry. How dare she threaten my husband’s career! She was not the colonel, her husband was! This was the first, but not the last time I ran into an officer’s wife who ‘wore their husband’s rank’ on their own collar!
When Billy arrived home that evening, I asked him where my paycheck was, and why did I have to let her talk to me in that tone of voice, and that I thought her husband wore the silver oak leaves, not her! After I explained the rather upsetting conversation, Billy was livid, especially about her ‘threat’ to his rating, and the next morning he made an appointment to talk with her husband. Afterwards, the colonel personally called me to apologize for his wife ‘misunderstanding’ the situation, and assured me this would not happen again. As for his wife, she never even looked my way except out of necessity, which was a relief to me. So Michael was very much ‘Mommy’s boy’, and I was content to leave it that way, at least for the time being until my hands would be full with his baby brother!
After Gram and Poppa said their goodnights to the family, Billy and I watched television with the boys for another hour. I believe we finished watching the ‘Orange Bowl Parade’ from Miami, but then Billy rose from the sofa where I had been cuddled in his arms, pulled me to my feet, and told the boys ‘goodnight’.
Since we were not the last to utilize the shower, Billy and I did not use all the hot water that night, but once again, we took a long, relaxing shower together. My swollen breasts and my bulging tummy excited him, and the fact that my shape was quite different this time and all ‘out front’. With Michael I was pregnant all over, and my paternal grandmother said this was a ‘sign’ I would have a boy, so if she was right, we would have a little girl this time, a miracle that neither of us dared to hope for since there were nothing but boys in the immediate family. I knew Billy would have loved to have a daughter, and ever since Elizabeth had mesmerized him, he had longed for a baby girl of his own. We had chosen a name for a girl, just in case, but as large as I was becoming, so very early, I was wondering if I could possibly be carrying twins! Twins ran in the Bowen family and my own grandmother had a twin brother and sister, but there had been no twins since their birth. Was it my turn? I hoped not since I could barely keep up with one little McConnell boy, and three would drive me right up the wall! At least it would more than keep me on my toes. We had chosen the name Mark William for a boy, keeping the ‘M’ for the first letter of the first name since it went so well with McConnell, and Billy liked the sound of ‘Mike and Mark’. For a miracle, a girl, should it occur, we chose the name Marjorie Diane or ‘Margie’. I did not remember at the time we chose the name that my mother’s name was Marjorie Elaine since she went by ‘Elaine’, and my own name was Diane Elaine, and by naming a daughter, Marjorie Diane, there would be three names divided by three females and each one using a different ‘first’ name. Billy said he liked the way ‘Marjorie Diane’ sounded with ‘Michael David’, but of course; we never dared to dream we would really get to use the name.
He would laugh and say, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they both became doctors and their names would be M.D. McConnell, M.D.?” It was obvious he was getting excited about the new addition to the family, and usually he fell asleep with one hand on my tummy, as if already cradling this child in uteri.
Were we still ‘silly’, as Larry said? Yes, we probably were, but neither of us could keep our hands off one another, at least not for long anyway. My heart still skipped a beat when I saw him from a distance, or even when I was on my way to pick him up at work. The pinnacle of my day was when Billy walked in the front door, full of hugs and kisses, and such a zest for living it was as if he had to hurry up and get all he could out of life.
I would be terribly lonely with him in Ranger School, but instead of fighting it, as I had Airborne School, this time I remained silent. There was little doubt his heart was set on finishing this school, and then getting some ‘command time’ under his belt so he could apply for a Regular Army commission. I loved him enough to wish for him his utmost desires, and to help him obtain his goal. No matter how lonely I would be while he was gone, and that would be plenty, there was nothing I would not sacrifice for my handsome Billy - not then, not now, not ever - and without a doubt, we would be in love even when old and gray.
The next morning, Michael did not wake me up until after 9:00 a.m. since we had allowed him stay up way past his bedtime. Rarely did he take a nap anymore; instead, he slept much later than usual, which was fine with both his daddy and with me. With a long soft sigh, I slid out of the bed, looked lovingly at my sleeping, handsome husband, softly touched his cheek (Was that a smile?), and then changed Michael and took him upstairs for his breakfast. Gram and Poppa were already up and had eaten, and Poppa was still sitting at the table with a cup of coffee reading the morning newspaper. Gram offered to fix breakfast for Michael, but I told her she did not have to bother that I could do it, and she could sit and enjoy her coffee. She insisted she wanted to, anticipating that her baby-sitting duties would end at the first of the New Year after Gene and Ruth returned from their honeymoon. She had already made enough bacon for everyone, an entire package, so now, she rose, and scrambled eggs for both Michael and for me, then, taking some homemade biscuits out of the oven, filled our plates. The boys had never eaten so well since Gram and Poppa had been staying with them, except that one disastrous Christmas when I fixed their breakfast.
One at a time, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, but enticed by the delicious aroma of bacon and jam, Dickie, David, and Charles soon joined us. Not long after the boys, Billy appeared with tissue stuck on his face where he had cut himself several times while shaving. I touched his still bleeding face, and gave him a kiss, and he pulled me to him in a warm embrace.
“Hey Poppa, isn’t this the most beautiful pregnant woman you ever did see?” he asked, not really expecting an answer, although Poppa politely nodded in agreement to his oldest grandson, and Gram just smiled.
Gently I touched his face, still moist from his aftershave, and slipped both of my arms around his neck as we kissed each other good morning. Gene did not appear, since, as we learned later, he had not even come home that night at all.
No one seemed surprised, although the anger once again registered on Billy’s face, and I held him close, buried my head beneath his chin, and softly whispered, “Oh my precious Billy, I love you, so.”
He held onto me and replied with similar words of devotion, and once again, all was right with my world. I was in my Billy’s arms, and oh, he smelled so good in the morning. How I wished I knew some magic words to heal his hurts, both physical and emotional, but none came to mind other than to softly touch his face and kiss him gently one more time.
After breakfast, I took Michael downstairs to dress him in a new overall set I had bought at the PX since, naturally, none of his winter clothing from the previous year came even close to fitting him. This set would be fine to play in, and depending on whether Gene brought Ruth home with him, he could stay in it all day. If Ruth came, I would dress him more appropriately for Thanksgiving dinner but for now and the raucous play with his uncles this would be just fine.
After he ate his own breakfast, Billy followed me downstairs, and after sending Michael up to play with the boys, he pulled me down onto the bed, saying, “Little girl, you will never know how much I love you.”
We often played this game. As usual, I answered, “More than all the stars in the sky, and the moon, and even the Milky Way?”
Each time Billy replied, “I love you more than life itself.”
Then he got up and locked the door, and once again we made love in broad daylight, with the house filled with family, but he said he had to make up for the time he would be gone, and I might be too pregnant to make love when he came home on Christmas break. I assured him I would never be too anything not to make love to him. As we kissed and held on to one another, I knew even now, after being married over 3 ½ years, I could never deny Billy McConnell anything, and I wondered, as I often did, how I got so lucky.
I could have lain there in his arms all day and never tired of his kisses and his arms gently holding me. When we finally decided everyone would begin to miss us, we got up and I found the band-aids I always packed for razor cuts or skinned knees, and with a warm washcloth, I wet the tissue, now firmly stuck to Billy’s face with dried blood, so I would not start the cuts bleeding again.
“You must have been half asleep when you shaved this morning,” I said, but his reply was he thought his blade was too old and he was going to check out his father’s medicine cabinet to see if he used the same kind before Gene got back from Atlanta.
Of course, no one knew when that would be. Careful to cover the entire cut, I put three small band-aids on his three small cuts, kissing each as I did so, and once again, I found myself in his arms while he held onto me as if we had not just spent half an hour making love.
“I love you so much, darling, and I promise you this, I will love you forever, and I could never live without you, but most of all I promise you I will never do anything to embarrass you or to hurt you.”
Without a doubt, he was thinking of his father’s imminent marriage again. I assured him I would love him forever, and I knew I could not live without him either, but he reminded me of my promise, and I told him the promise went both ways.
“Except,” I said, “I could not bear it if you ever got married again.”
He smiled and assured me that would never happen, that he could never find anyone who would love him as much, or put up with him like I did, and with that, we unlocked the door and hand-in-hand went upstairs to join the family and to find our son.
We had nothing to worry about since the boys and Poppa were out in the backyard taking turns pulling Michael in a red wagon. With ‘Fella’ joining in on the fun, the four boys were alternately jumping into the leaves Poppa had carefully raked into piles just for their pleasure. On this sunny and warm autumn day, the excited dog was running around in circles having the time of his life playing with all of the boys, including the baby he had protected as a newborn. Gram, with her apron on, but in a fresh dress, was putting the final touches to a cranberry salad mold, and the mouth-watering aroma of the roasting turkey came from the oven. Kissing me on the top of my head and slowly letting go of my hand as if reluctant to leave, Billy went outside to join the boys and Poppa, while I asked Gram what I could do to help her.
As I chopped and peeled, Gram and I talked, and she told me she had never seen Billy as happy as he obviously was when he was with me, in spite of his disagreement with his father over the upcoming wedding. I told Gram all I wanted was to make him happy and to love him, and then she said, “The two of you are good for each other. In the years you have been together, I have seen Billy change from a spoiled, little, rich boy, into a mature man who loves his family and puts them first, and sometimes I do believe matches are made in heaven. The two of you are a blessing for each other. I just hope the same happiness I see on my son’s face is still there in a few years, but I just don’t understand his reluctance to introduce her to his family.”
Ignoring her last comment since I did not know what to say, I told her both Billy and I had grown up too early, and how we were adamant our children would have a better life and a happy, loving home.
She said, “Good for you, but you know Helen was a very sick woman, and I knew her before she began to drink, and she was a loving mother to Billy.”
To which I commented I wish I had known her before the brain surgery that Bubba told me caused Helen so much pain and suffering. It was then Gram told me Helen had started drinking long before the last surgery, but it was a good excuse for Bubba to explain her only daughter’s weakness for alcohol although she never acknowledged it. I had not known this, and I doubted if Billy did. That pleasant Thanksgiving morning I learned a lot more about Helen and Gene during their younger years, not the least of which was how young Helen had been when they married.
I suspected then it was a ‘necessary’ marriage just like ours, and she too had an abortion, remembering Helen’s words, “I would never ask you to do anything I haven’t done.”
Then Gene’s angry retort, “Shut up, Helen.”
I think I had it all figured out now, and she, of all people, should have known an abortion would not change Billy’s love for me, only make it stronger, which it had done. Slowly over the years to come, perhaps, through other family members, I just might get to know this complex woman, although it was now too late. The young and beautiful mother who had cradled my husband in her arms when he was an infant, just as I now cradled his son; perhaps I might some day know why she hated me with such a passion.
The boys, Billy, and Poppa were pink-cheeked and laughing as they burst through the side door, but also very hungry from all the exercise. Since Gene had not come home yet, or even phoned, and Gram and Poppa did not know Ruth’s number, which made Billy furious (What would they do in case of an accident?), Gram decided to give the boys a sandwich now and hold Thanksgiving dinner until suppertime, even though the turkey was ready to be carved. I was worried, and wondered if he had been in an accident, but Poppa assured me no news was good news, and in all likelihood, Gene was having dinner with Ruth and her family, and would be home in time to have supper with his own family. Later we were to learn that several times, late at night, after a long day’s work, then a drive to Atlanta, Gene had fallen asleep on the way home and driven off the road. It was then Ruth began insisting he stay the night and return to Griffin refreshed after a good night’s sleep, which is understandable, but it also was the beginning of his lifelong battle with narcolepsy.
After making soup and sandwiches for the boys, including Billy and Poppa, Gram and I ate a quick bowl of soup while we continued to put the finishing touches on the meal that would now be supper. By the time Poppa rocked our exhausted little boy to sleep for a rare afternoon nap, Billy was asleep on the couch while the boys watched football on the television. Billy could sleep through cannons roaring, so the television did not bother him, and soon Poppa, still holding our sleeping toddler, was fast asleep too.
“Guess it’s a McConnell family trait,” I said to Gram, and she nodded her head in agreement. Three generations were sleeping soundly, the television blaring.
I dared not move Michael for fear he would not go back to sleep, and with all the activity, he needed this nap so he would not be cranky at the supper table. Lovingly I looked at my son and my husband and once again thought how blessed I was this Thanksgiving Day of 1964. How I longed to just touch my sleeping husband’s face, and whisper again how very much I loved him, and how lonely I would be when he was gone.
That afternoon, after they woke, the boys and Michael played ‘hide and seek’ in the house until their game became too rowdy, and Billy sat them down in front of the television. By 6:00 p.m., Gene still had not arrived home, but Gram asked me to go ahead and set the dining room table with the good linen, china, and silver. Even the silver shone from a recent polishing for the first time since I had been coming to Griffin! Still thinking he might show up, I set a place for Gene, but by 6:30 p.m. with the table laden with food, we could wait no longer. Poppa said ‘grace’, and Billy carved the turkey. I could tell he was beyond furious, his jaw once again clenched and that look on his face, and I longed to hold him in my arms since that was about all that could possibly soothe the savage beast in him that resented his father’s neglect. Gene had asked us to come to Griffin for Thanksgiving to be with the family, and now he was not even here, nor could we get in touch with him! At least the boys, after so many years of being used to his absences, did not seem to even notice their father was ‘missing’, and Gram and Poppa seemed unconcerned, or at least noncommittal. It was Billy who was angry and growing angrier by the minute, and knowing Billy as well as I did, he was not likely to forget this holiday for a long, long time to come. Plates piled high, we all began to eat the wonderful meal Gram, with a little bit of help from me, had spent the day preparing, and everything tasted wonderful. We looked like a typical family on a typical holiday, and no one peering into the window could have guessed there was a generation missing.
The boys cleaned their plates in no time in anticipation of the pies Gram had been baking all week, but I noticed Billy did more ‘playing’ with his food than eating. He still had that look on his face, jaw set, eyes glaring, but only I knew his mind was far away, with his father, wherever that was. Michael, not receiving enough attention, decided to make sure not everyone had forgotten he was there, turned his plate upside down, started smearing the food all over his high chair tray, and announced, “All done!” I caught him just before he ran his sticky hand through his soft blond hair, and Billy excused himself from the table with his meal half eaten, picked up his messy son and took him downstairs for a bath.
While the boys and Poppa dived into the pies, I told Gram I would be right back to help her clear the table, and I followed Billy to our bedroom where I found him, running water into the bathtub for Michael with tears streaming down his face. “How could he do this to his own sons?” he asked, not thinking about himself, but about his younger brothers.
I had no answer for him because I did not understand it myself. All I could do was hold him and assure him I loved him ‘more than life itself’, and I knew he would never do this to his own family, to which he could only nod in agreement. If he had tried to speak further, I was afraid he would break down in sobs, so I silently snuggled in his arms while Michael unaware of his father’s despair splashed happily in his bath water. Knowing that Billy, more than anything, needed to be alone with his thoughts in order to pull himself back together, with a soft touch to his handsome face, and a tender kiss, I left him bathing our son with the words, “I adore you”.
Reluctantly, I left him to sort out his thoughts; and went upstairs to the dining room to help Gram clear the table and stack the dishes in the dishwasher. That was one thing the McConnell house always had – the best, the newest, and the largest of any Westinghouse appliance, and saved Gram hours in the kitchen.
Finally, with our little boy tucked in for the night, I snuggled with Billy on the sofa while Gram worked the crossword puzzle and Poppa and the boys watched football on the television. It must have been close to 9:30 p.m. when we heard a car in the driveway, and it had to be Gene since the hour for guests had long passed. Billy sat bolt upright when his father walked in the side door, and I looked at Billy, thinking at any moment, he would explode, but he held his tongue to see what excuse Gene could offer for his absence.
Gene looked around the room and said, “I’m sorry. I was so tired I fell asleep on Ruth’s couch, and she did not wake me until almost noon. By then it was too late to get home for dinner, so Ruth invited me to her brother’s house, and we just were having so much fun the time slipped away from me.”
Billy glared at him and angrily repeated the words I had just used on him when he missed his own birthday party, “Have you ever heard of a telephone?”
That one simple question started the shouting. Gene reminded Billy he was the father and he would not tolerate his son talking to him that way, much less telling him how to manage his life. Billy then told Gene he had three younger sons who needed him, and that all of us had needlessly worried, our Thanksgiving dinner ruined, by his thoughtlessness. Gram and Poppa tried to intervene, but knowing their son, and their grandson, knew it was hopeless. I just prayed their shouting would not waken Michael, who had fought going to bed after his long nap, since he did not want to miss a moment of fun, just as he always did when we were in Griffin.
Gram and Poppa slipped quietly from the room, without a word, to go to bed, and the boys, who had witnessed many times their older brother’s disagreements with their father, did the same. I did not know what to do, and I could not think with all the shouting, so I started to get up and leave too, but Billy held onto my arm and pulled me close to him, saying this conversation had as much to do with me as it did with him. I sat back down on the couch, Billy’s arms around me, and observed the most unpleasant conversation I had yet heard between father and son.
Billy accused his father of ruining the family name by remarrying so soon, and told him how he resented having to put me through an abortion to keep gossip from spreading, when Gene was doing exactly what he said he wanted to avoid by us having an early baby. He accused him of having been with Ruth long before Helen died, he accused him of strangling Helen, although he admitted he, himself, might have done so long before then, and the harsh words went on and on, back and forth, one dreadful statement from one triggered an even more dreadful statement from the other. If they had swords and each retort had been a slash, the blood would have been flowing freely, and all I could do was sit there, watch, listen, and wait to see who would throw the final blow.
Now I knew why Billy was so adamant about not going to work for his father. He was right, they could never have worked anything out, Billy would be far happier in the Army, and I would be far happier staying as far away from Griffin as possible after this night. All the contentment of that beautiful fall afternoon, the boys playing in the leaves, Gram’s supper filling the house with the mouth watering aroma of roasted turkey and apple pies, was gone, as if it never happened, when Gene walked in the door to his own home. Everyone who could, fled from the now inevitable confrontation that had been building all day in my handsome husband, but I knew in everything he said he was right! It seemed as if the parent was now the child and vice versa since Billy had spent the day with his family, like most good fathers and husbands did on holidays, and now his rage was uncontainable.
I think Gene too knew this day had been the death knell of any hope that Billy would ever come back to live in Griffin, and he had the saddest look on his face, as if someone he loved dearly had died. In a way that is exactly what happened since no longer did Billy have his father up on that ten-foot pedestal, rather crawling on the ground like a common snake!
However, Billy had not finished, not by any means. He continued to accuse Gene of multiple affairs, naming names, dates, and places. He completely relived all of Gene’s past transgressions, his missed special occasions, his not being there for the younger boys, and even for him, instead leaving Billy to take care of them, and then the maid, after he left for college, while their alcoholic mother could not even fix a decent meal.
Gene insisted the boys were his reason for wanting to remarry, and they needed a mother to be here when they got home from school and as I suspected, his parents were tired. Silently, I had to agree with him that the boys needed a mother to be here when they got home, but they had never had one before, and would Ruth love half-grown little boys who so desperately craved affection. I also knew Gram and Poppa needed to go home and to live the peaceful life to which they had become accustomed, and Gene was right, they both were tired. Although, like Billy, I did not think this was any reason to rush into marriage. Gene could well afford a full-time housekeeper, and had been paying for a full-time maid for years, so why not wait just a little bit longer, and let his family get to know Ruth and her family, and then perhaps we could all welcome her with love. I had heard stories of ‘wicked stepmother’s’ since I had first been read ‘Cinderella’, and was Gene truly thinking of his boys, or his bed? Although these thoughts were swirling through my head, I kept them to myself since Billy seemed to be doing a good enough job for both of us, and I felt it was not my place to criticize.
Exhausted and finally out of things to say, Billy promised his father if, for one single moment, his little brothers were mistreated by “this woman”, he would personally seek custody of them and go to the court to force Gene to pay “child support”. Of course, he had not asked me how I felt about raising three more boys, but he knew me well enough to know I loved them all, and I would have taken care of them if we felt they were neglected and unloved. Indeed, I loved them as much as my own two brothers, and my baby sister, who I had practically raised until I left home at seventeen.
Finally, the now one-sided conversation ended when Billy said we would be leaving in the morning and going back to Ft. Benning, and he would have to think about being his best man, but not to count on him.
Gene said the boys would be disappointed if we left in the morning, but Billy just glared at him and said, “What do you think you did to them, and your own parents, today!”
With that last slash of his saber, Billy helped me to my feet and we went downstairs, leaving Gene to sit there alone mulling over every word Billy had spouted in his rage, and most of them, unfortunately were the ugly truth.
As we sat on the edge of the bed, I held my husband close to me, rocking him as I would rock Michael while I told him over, and over, how very much I loved him, and we would never allow this to happen in our family. He then made me promise again that his father would never get his hands on our children, but I had no worries about that since I knew Ruth certainly would not want to raise Gene’s grandchildren! I had a feeling about her, and it was not pleasant. I felt she should have insisted Gene go home to be with his sons on this family holiday, the first since their mother’s death, and even joined him so we could all meet her before the wedding. Now we would not have that opportunity, and the only contact we had with her in reference to the wedding was her request on our invitation, not to bring Michael since she did not want young children at the ceremony, even though her own young son and grandchildren would surely be present. This should have been indicative of what kind of person she was, but it simply did not cross our minds at that time, and I wanted to give her at least half a chance, but I felt money more than love was her motivation for marriage.
After we ate breakfast, with Gene nowhere to be seen, (supposedly he was at the store for their biggest sale day of the season), we bid farewell to Gram, Poppa, and the boys, and promised we would be back for Christmas, although neither of us was looking forward to what could turn out to be another disastrous holiday. Surely though, Gene would not neglect his sons on their first Christmas without a mother, although if this holiday was any indication, for all we knew Gene would not be home then either. It was simply beyond our scope of understanding that he could possibly not be there for Christmas with his own sons! This goes to show how little we really knew him!