“Sometimes when we travel, my friends and I forget how to get home. But when that happens, my husband or one of his friends finds us. They’re very polite and always bring us home. It works out. My husband and his friends, they’re all policemen, you see. They know how to find people who are lost. Maybe if they had gone looking for John, they would have found him too. He would not have gotten lost. Stayed lost.
“Sometimes when we travel, my friends and I just up and get on the bus to Mobile or New Orleans or Memphis, without saying a word to anyone. Sometimes we take a long walk together, down the old road toward the family farm, near Laurel, where my brother John…Well, we won’t talk about John, not just now. Maybe another time, if we’re not feeling so sad.
“We especially love to visit my son, Charles, his wife, Ruth, and their two red-haired daughters, Ellie and Caroline. Ellie is a little standoffish sometimes. I don’t know why. But sweet Caroline, with her ringlets and big blue eyes, loves to sit with me and hear my stories. I love it too. So do my friends, my special friends who keep me company wherever I go.
“This time, my friends and I get on the bus to West Point where Charles and his family live. He meets us at the bus station so we don’t get lost. We’ve been here before but this visit is special. We’ve brought a big suitcase with things we like, special things. We can hardly wait to show them to Caroline. So we do.
“We are very unhappy when Ellie opens the door and interrupts the stories I’m telling Caroline about her grandfather. We can tell she doesn’t like the special things we brought. And then that Ruth comes in and takes Caroline away to a birthday party. Or so she says.
“I don’t know why Ruth did that but she spoiled a wonderful afternoon. My friends are angry. There’s no telling what they might do.”
My father’s mother came to visit in the summer of 1960. I was ten. My grandmother was sixty-six. She rode the bus from Meridian, Mississippi, to West Point, Georgia, a trip that took a full day. She brought a small, box-like case—a “lady’s cosmetic case” it was called—and one large suitcase. We expected her to stay a couple of weeks. Then my father would drive her back to Meridian, visit for a day or two with his sisters, and come home.
This extended visit was not one I looked forward to. For as long as I could remember, I had been uneasy in my grandmother’s company. If anyone had asked (no one did), I could not have said why exactly. But I saw that she was different from other ladies. For one thing, she wandered. Once when visiting, she disappeared and turned up hours later at the stable where I took riding lessons, way down by the river. She was in the barn, speaking earnestly to the horses, a big Phillips-head screwdriver, missing from my father’s tool box, clutched in her hand. The owner of the stable called my mother and asked her, politely but urgently, please to come and take her mother-in-law home.
Another time, my grandmother was found at the Church of the Holy Family, the small Roman Catholic church across town where my friend, Margaret Rose, once showed me a piece of the true cross. I was skeptical but good manners prevented me from saying so. My grandmother told the priest, in no uncertain terms, that the relics must be boiled to cleanse and purify them. He said, “You’re perfectly right, Mrs. Langton.” Then he called my father to come and get her. “Right now, Charlie.”
Sometimes, my grandmother murmured to herself, on and on, absorbed and oblivious. Sometimes, she stood up abruptly, spoke loudly to no one I could see, and left the room. Perhaps most mysterious and unsettling, my grandmother moved through space as though she were in the center of a tight crowd, schooling the way fish do to avoid a predator. She swam around furniture, potted plants, the cat, me, and anyone approaching on the sidewalk or in the grocery store aisle. She kept well away from all, lest, I supposed, her unseen companions bump into something and call attention to themselves. The air immediately surrounding her person seemed thick and disturbed.
From time to time, all of this and more provoked whispered conversations, urgent telephone calls, and much scurrying among the grown-ups. I sometimes heard my father or one of his sisters say, “Just like Uncle John. Do you remember when he…?” I had no idea who Uncle John was or why he was mentioned on these occasions. I decided not to ask. I did not want my sharp hearing and devoted attention to the secret lives of grown-ups to be exposed.
Later, I understood that what I had seen and heard were fragments of a long-running shadow play in which my grandmother was the central character. Everyone around her was cast in a supporting role, me and my baby sister included. But, at age ten, all I knew for a certainty was that something was wrong, something I could not name but might see out of the corner of my eye if I just paid attention.
No wonder. In July of 1960, I learned that my Mississippi grandmother was dense with other lives, voices, worlds, terrors. They roiled and clamored and struggled for dominance. Like a giant star with more energy than it can possibly contain, she might explode at any moment, transformed into a brilliant, blinding supernova. In the end, every supernova collapses upon itself, becoming a black hole that sucks all light, all life into darkness. This is inevitable. It is a law of physics.
Her name was Lena Ponder Langton. Her grandchildren called her “Big Mama” with the emphasis on “Big.” This nickname was bestowed on her by my older cousins in Meridian. I had no say in the matter and just accepted this as what we called her. Only later did I understand the deep logic of “Big Mama.”
Tall and dark haired, Big Mama grew up on a farm near Laurel, Mississippi, that had been in her family since before the Civil War. She was the youngest of four children, the only girl, and resembled her brother John, the youngest of the three brothers.
As a child, I knew a little, but not a lot, about Big Mama’s life as a wife and mother in Meridian. She and my grandfather married in 1914 and had three children. Born in 1923, my father was the youngest and the only boy. Big Mama made scratch biscuits, served with blackstrap molasses, for breakfast every morning. The family attended the Disciples of Christ Church every Sunday.
Their home was a neat frame house with a hospitable front porch and big backyard in a neighborhood of similar homes. Pin oaks lined the street, which was not paved until the 1940s. Like most of their neighbors, my grandparents had a small barn out back and kept a cow and a few chickens. This was Big Mama’s home from shortly after her marriage until her death in 1980 at the age of eighty-six.
Of her three children, my father was the apple of her eye. Named Charles after her father, everyone, except his mother, called him Charlie. To her, he was always “Chaaarles…” or “Suh-un.” I can hear them now, those elongated vowels like wool, swaddling the sharp screws of possession and command. He was hers, first and last.
This is surely one reason why, when offered a scholarship to Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, my father jumped at it. But freeing himself from the apron strings was not the only reason young Charlie jumped. There were others, hiding in plain sight.
What the grown-ups knew, but I did not until that summer, was that Big Mama had behaved erratically for most of her adult life. She careened from not speaking for hours, to speaking with people who were not there, to engaging in mad tirades aimed at those who were, and back again. Occasionally, she disappeared for several days only to turn up in New Orleans or Mobile or some other place, having no recollection of how she’d gotten there. One week, her next-door neighbor of many years was her dearest friend. The next, Big Mama was sure the lady was trying to poison her and said so to everyone.
That neighbor was anxious and rightly so. On a sweltering summer afternoon in 1958, Louise, the older of my father’s two sisters, stopped by her mother’s house to find her with a big pot of water at full boil on the stove. The kitchen was an oven. Big Mama was pale and soaked with sweat. Her green cotton housedress stuck to her like wallpaper.
“Mama, what’s the matter?” Aunt Louise asked. “What are you doing? It must be a hundred degrees in here. Why are you boiling that water?”
“I’m going to throw it on her.”
My aunt stepped back. This was not the first time she had seen her mother in this state—wild-eyed, agitated, talking crazy. Just like Uncle John. There was no telling what she might do.
“What? Who? What are you talking about?”
“That woman next door. She’s trying to kill me. But she won’t.” Big Mama’s voice, normally low and soft, was high and shrill, almost as though someone else was speaking. “I’m going to get her first. I’m gonna burn…her…straight…to hell.”
Big Mama did not move away from the stove. She glared at her daughter, fingers dancing on the hot pot handle.
Aunt Louise stood perfectly still. With effort, she kept her voice steady and quiet. “No, Mama. You’re mistaken. Elizabeth is your friend. She goes to our church and…”
Big Mama cut her off. “Don’t talk to me about church. She’s a bitch is what she is.” Dancing fingers picked up the tempo. “She hates me. She hates my friends. She wants to hurt us.”
“No, Mama. No.” Steady, quiet. “She’s a good lady. A widow, just like you. Remember? You know her. The two of you drink tea and play cards on her porch in the evening.”
For a long moment, the only sound in the hot kitchen was that of water boiling. Then, Big Mama’s shoulders drooped. She looked at the floor, eyes blank. Her hand dropped away from the pot handle.
My aunt stepped toward her mother and gently took her by the arm. “Come sit with me on the porch now. I’ll fix us some iced tea, sweet the way you like it. That’s what you need in this heat. You’re just tired. You’re not yourself. You need to rest. Come sit on the porch. Please, Mama.”
Aunt Louise managed to calm Big Mama and bring her back from wherever she had been. She poured the hot water over the railing of the back porch, giving the chickens something to squawk about other than the black snake that lived under the steps. She made sweet tea. Mother and daughter drank it, sitting quietly side by side, on the front porch.
Because her husband was a detective in the Meridian Police Department and had certain connections, this episode and others like it did not land Big Mama in jail or worse. When she wandered, a policeman or deputy sheriff or state trooper would find her and bring her home, discreetly. These interventions continued even after my grandfather’s death in 1950, favors quietly done for the family of a deceased senior officer.
But each time a bizarre episode was glossed over, each time she was found and brought home, the cycle repeated itself. A week, a month, six months later. Just like her brother John. Between times, she was cogent, sweet, and cunning. Butter would not melt in her mouth. So it went for years and years.
All this came crashing in during the summer of 1960, brought down by the suitcase.
My mother had a way of talking to me sometimes as though I were not a child but a grown-up, just like her. This is how I knew not only that the parents of my friend Martha Jane were divorced (all of us kids knew that) but that they were rich, loathed one another, and could not both be invited to a party lest they make a scene. I also knew Martha Jane’s mother was keeping company with a wealthy Republican banker in Atlanta who had a big house in Druid Hills. “What’s special about Druid Hills?” I wondered. Something, clearly. I could tell by my mother’s tone.
This habit of Mother’s is also how I knew about the incident with the boiling water in my grandmother’s kitchen that hot summer afternoon. It’s how I knew my grandfather and his colleagues searched for Big Mama when she disappeared. It’s how I knew my mother dreaded visits to Meridian. She made no bones about it, not to me, her child-grown-up.
When a visit was imminent, she admonished me sternly: “Mind your manners. Eat what is served, even if it’s turnip greens, which I know you don’t like. Help do the dishes. No smart remarks.” Of course, these general instructions applied to a visit anywhere. But for a visit to Meridian, they came packaged with others that were quite specific:
“Don’t squabble with your cousins. I know they invite it. Just don’t. When the younger ones start to whine, and you know they will, be a big girl. Don’t whine back. Don’t make a face when Aunt Margaret talks with her mouth full. Don’t give me or Daddy that ‘look’ when Aunt Louise’s husband speaks rudely to her and orders her around like a servant and she lets him. Don’t say anything when they use the word ‘nigger.’ It’s ugly and we don’t talk that way—I better never catch you saying it—but they do and there’s nothing we can do about it. Don’t roll your eyes when Uncle Phil drinks too much Jack Daniels, gets all weepy, and goes on about how his daddy was run over by a train and his sainted mother (to hear him tell it) had to raise him all by herself in that big house of hers. Sit up straight and stay awake at the supper table when Big Mama’s brother from Laurel talks and talks and talks about his new barn and cotton prices and the manure pond he’s just dredged out. Most important, don’t ever, ever speak to your grandmother when she starts talking to herself. You know what I mean. Leave the room quietly, take your sister with you, and find someplace else to play. Don’t come back until either Daddy or I say it’s OK. Is that clear?”
It was the same, every time. Even then, I knew my mother was admonishing herself at least as much as me.
What I did not know until the summer of 1960 was that Mother dreaded these visits not so much because she found the company tedious and uncongenial. She dreaded them because she was afraid Big Mama would do something in front of me and my sister that would scare us half to death. Or worse. The closest she came to voicing this fear, perhaps even to herself, let alone to me, was the imperative, “Leave the room. Take your sister. Don’t come back.”
A couple of days into Big Mama’s visit my parents were tense. I could sense it, especially in Mother who was at home with my grandmother all day. She could not sit still. Her tone was sharp. Her patience was in even shorter supply than usual. That’s saying something.
I noticed that my grandmother took special pleasure in my three-year-old sister’s company. Big Mama talked to her, on and on, in a low, sing-song voice about growing up on the farm, about her parents and her brothers, especially John who was her favorite but got lost somehow, and about her husband who was kind to her but then he died. Caroline just smiled her shy smile and continued to play with Alice, her favorite doll. Like Linus and his blanket, my sister and Alice were seldom parted.
I also noticed that, two days after her arrival, Big Mama was still wearing the dress she had worn for the long bus trip. It was a dark-blue cotton shirtwaist with mother-of-pearl buttons down the bodice, short sleeves, and a gathered skirt. Why? After all, she had brought a big suitcase and we had a washer and dryer.
On day three, Mother said, “Ellie, go ask Big Mama if she doesn’t have something she’d like to put in the wash. I’m fixin’ to run a load of clothes.” The message was tactful but clear.
I knocked on the door of the guest room, twice. “Big Mama? May I come in?” No answer.
I opened the door. Caroline was sitting on the bed, her curly red hair falling across her face. Big Mama sat beside her, the big suitcase wide open. The bed was covered with old newspapers, ribbons, packets of sewing needles, several kitchen knives, and a hunting knife removed from its leather sheath. There were no clothes.
What I had long been on the lookout for, hoping to see it out of the corner of my eye, was right in front of me. There was my baby sister, all red-gold hair and pink summer shift, sitting close to my grandmother, all stale blue dress and vacant eyes. Needles and knives, innocuous enough in their proper place—sewing basket, kitchen drawer, hunting trip—bristled with mayhem that the smallest gesture, the slightest movement of Big Mama’s hand, could unleash. In their midst, bright ribbons, innocent and fey, bowed and danced before a madwoman.
Big Mama looked at me with perfect equanimity, smiled, and said, “I was just telling Caroline all about her grandfather.” She held up a yellowed newspaper clipping with a blurry photograph of our grandfather in his policeman’s uniform. His obituary, I think.
“Yes ma’am.” I tried not to look at the hunting knife, glittering and close. In a small voice I asked, “Do you have any clothes you want Mama to wash?”
“Tell Ruth, thank you but no. I don’t have anything.” She turned back to the newspaper clipping.
“Yes ma’am.” My feet were blocks of ice, my mouth dry as chalk. My heart, roughly the size of a pickup truck, was throwing itself against the wall of my chest, trying to get away.
I managed to make an orderly retreat, backing out of the room and leaving the door open. My mother and Julia-Belle, our maid, were sitting at the kitchen table, shelling butter beans. Our kitchen was vintage 1950s complete with knotty pine cabinets, black wrought-iron pulls, a big white enameled sink and drain board under the window, and walls painted a creamy yellow. Until that moment, it was the safe center of unremarkable, or so I had thought, family life: a place to eat fried chicken, tomatoes from the garden, and lemon pie; a place to do homework, play Monopoly, watch my mother decorate cakes in elaborate fancy dress, and listen to my father’s stories over supper. Gone. The kitchen was no longer safe. Our life as a family was no longer unremarkable. Something had been loosed upon us from a dark place.
I reported what I’d seen in the guest room. “Big Mama doesn’t have any clothes. I mean, she doesn’t have any clothes. She has other stuff. Some old newspapers with Granddaddy’s picture. Ribbons. And there’s a big knife. Like the one Uncle Newt takes when he goes hunting.” My voice was a squeak. My heart was still trying to run away.
Mother and Julia-Belle looked at me, eyes wide, incredulous, and then at each other. Julia-Belle said, “Miz Langton, what in the world…?”
Mother looked back at me and spoke very quietly. “Ellie, I want you to go outside. Do it now. Wait for Julia-Belle by the swing set. Julia-Belle, you wait here while I get Caroline. Take her outside. Stay with the girls until I can get someone to come for them.”
Then she took a deep breath, stood, and drew herself up to her full five feet four inches. Her expression made it clear nothing on God’s green earth would come between her and her three-year-old daughter in that guest room. She marched down the hall.
It took Mother maybe sixty seconds to retrieve Caroline, making some excuse about a birthday party to go to. As Julia-Belle took my sister out the back door, my mother called my father at work. “Charlie, your mother is not well. You have to come home right now.” Then she telephoned my best friend’s mother. “Evelyn, Charlie’s mother is sick. I need you to come get Ellie and Caroline and keep them overnight. Please come right now. They’re in the backyard with Julia-Belle, by the swing set.”
Caroline and I waited outside with Julia-Belle, as we were told. We had no toothbrushes, no pajamas, not even Alice. Evelyn Mormon came for us in a few minutes. My best friend and I spent the night wondering what it all meant.
The next day, my father drove Big Mama back to Meridian. She did not ask why. She was still wearing that blue dress. When they arrived, he made an appointment for himself and his two sisters with a psychiatrist at the state mental hospital in Jackson. It was not the first consultation.
In Mississippi in 1960, involuntary committal of an adult required the written recommendation of a board-certified psychiatrist plus the consent of the spouse or, if the latter were deceased, the consent of all adult children. For years, Aunt Louise was in denial about her mother’s illness and refused her consent. “Mama’s just tired. She’s not herself. She needs to rest.” I doubt my aunt believed it but she said it, again and again. To do otherwise would have required a reordering of her universe too painful to bear.
The suitcase changed that. The diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.
From this troubled history—hidden, contained, explained away for decades by the grown-ups and abruptly disclosed to me at age ten—I learned many things.
One was why we visited family in Meridian so seldom. It was not because of the long drive on bad roads in a car without air conditioning; not because of my spoiled younger cousins who whined constantly; not because of the in-grown, claustrophobia-inducing extended family; not even because of the frequent intonations of “Chaaarles” and “Suh-un.” At least, it was not just because of these things. God knows, they would have been reason enough.
We visited Meridian seldom because the grown-ups never knew when Big Mama would have one of her “spells” or what kind it would be: silent (she would sit in a corner, frowning and not speaking for hours); violent (she would rage at someone, anyone, and make threats); disconcerting (she would have conversations with persons invisible to all but herself); vanishing (she would slip away and turn up somewhere, eventually, perhaps).
We visited Meridian seldom because the grown-ups never knew when Big Mama might pick up a knife or a screwdriver or set water to boil on the stove. What then?
I also learned that, because of her illness, Big Mama was lost to herself and her family for most of her long life. This was so, despite the skill of my grandfather and his fellow policemen at finding people who were lost and bringing them home.
I did not learn, however, what it was like for her to be that giant star, alone in deep space but for phantoms of her own making, explosion and collapse inevitable, a law of physics. I did not learn and wonder still.
The few times I saw Big Mama after the summer of 1960, she was “better,” thanks to intensive treatment. No rages, no disappearances, no long silences. But, once in a while, she would become quiet and still, gaze intently at an empty corner of the room, and seem to be on the verge of speaking. After a moment and with visible effort, she would turn away from the seductions of the unseen and come back to us for a little space. I wish she could have stayed longer. I would like to have known her.
Big Mama’s brother John, tall and dark haired like his sister, never settled down but drifted for years, sometimes disappearing for long periods. The only trace of him: a trail of stories passed from farmhouse to country store to police station and back again. All told of bizarre and sometimes violent behavior that cut like a razor across the otherwise unexceptional demeanor of a solitary man.
Like his sister, John had special friends who kept him company wherever he went. By all accounts—there were many over the years—he spoke with them often though they were visible to no one save himself. If asked with whom he was speaking, he became agitated, his voice tight, high pitched, and accusing.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you? Don’t you?” His voice would rise as the color drained from his face. “I’m not. You don’t know anything. You hate me. You hate us.” Pale and trembling, he would raise his thin arms as though to ward off a blow to the head. The cuffs and elbows of his shirt were ragged and dirty. “I know you want to hurt us. Leave us alone. Leave us alone. Please.”
It was always the same.
Eventually, John showed up on the family farm, run then by the eldest of the three brothers. He lived there as a recluse, muttering and puttering, until he hanged himself from the rafters of the barn. It was the summer of 1939. He was forty-eight.
The giant star that was John exploded, transformed into a brilliant, blinding supernova. In the end, every supernova collapses upon itself, becoming a black hole that sucks all light, all life into darkness. This is inevitable. It is a law of physics.
What became of John’s special friends I do not know.
“For a while after John went away, his special friends would come and see us. They said they couldn’t find him and kept asking us where he was. Asking and asking and asking. Every time, we told them the same thing. We told them he went into the barn and got lost. Stayed lost. ‘Why?’ they asked. ‘We don’t know,’ we said. John’s friends were very sad. We were sad too. Then, one time, his friends left and did not come back. I don’t know where they went.
“It has been a long time since Charles took us away from his home in West Point, leaving our special things and sweet Caroline behind. I still don’t know why he did that. But never mind. My friends visit me wherever I am. When they’re not with me, they miss me and I miss them. We’ve done so many things together. We’ve had so many adventures. We like that. We want more.
“But when they visit now, my friends don’t stay very long. They’re afraid of the doctor. If he knows they’re here, he will hurt us. Hurt our head. When they visit, I can’t let on. We must be very quiet.
“And they watch us. The doctor and the others. Watching, watching all the time. This means we can’t travel. They watch us and won’t let us go. Maybe they’re afraid we’ll get lost, like John. After a while, my friends get restless and leave. But they always come back. It’s inevitable. A law of physics. I know what I’m talking about.”