Just the Way It Was
James L. Howard owned the funeral home in our single-stoplight town of Southwood, and he looked a little bit like Humphrey Bogart. It was a resemblance he cultivated—low, sexy voice; hair slicked back, no part. James L. (my parents knew him well, so I didn’t have to call him ‘Mr.’; he called me ‘Kiddo’) had married an elegant, dark-haired woman named Camille Gilliam, of The Gilliams, an old East Coast family. James L. drove a powder-blue Cadillac, and the Howards had the town’s only back-yard swimming pool.
In spite of—or because of—all these things, everybody liked James L. and Camille. James L.’s father, Mr. Howard, had been a great benefactor to little Southwood. In fact he was so revered that no one ever said his first name. For all I knew, he didn’t have one. After making a success of the Howard Funeral Home, he paid for the merry-go-round, swings, and slide in the town’s only park, commissioned the big Jesus the Shepherd stained glass window at the Methodist church, and planted crepe myrtles along both sides of Main Street. He and his wife had three sons—Lindsay, Croom, and James L. And he died believing that the Howard business and name were guaranteed for at least several generations.
But Croom was an alcoholic and Lindsay was a philanderer–handsome, suave and, in the eyes of the community, ‘sorry’. He helped at the funeral home sometimes, and people tolerated him, but didn’t trust him like they did James L. How, they asked, could you count on anybody who’d been married—and left—three times? That made James L. the family’s white sheep, a good businessman and a good citizen, carrying on his father’s philanthrophy (the Cub Scouts were often invited to swim in the pool—if they showered at home first; when a family couldn’t afford a good funeral, they got one anyway.) So the town figured he’d earned his swanky car and swimming pool. And besides, who wanted an undertaker who always behaved like—an undertaker.
Camille taught music at the high school and had written the school’s fight song—“Southwood, Southwood, we’ll always stand with you….” She also gave private piano lessons at home. I was one of her Friday afternoon students, and, for her sake, I hoped her other pupils had more enthusiasm and talent. She was kind to me—expert, efficient, and always a little reserved. I sometimes imagined she’d rather be living in a big city, playing in an orchestra or maybe a classy, smoky bar.
The Howards didn’t have children. To me, they didn’t seem like the children type. In fact, I believe James L. and Camille and my parents became good friends because, for a long time, both couples were childless. When I came along—a surprise to everyone, I suspect—I was more or less absorbed into the friendship. They continued to have their Friday night rummy parties, meeting at one house or the other for bourbon and 7-Up, T-bone steaks, and cards. Like Camille, my father and mother taught at the high school—math and home ec., respectively—and since teachers couldn’t be seen drinking alcohol, around the time I was 5, I began to stand lookout, answering the door if someone knocked and stalling until the evidence could be hidden. (Of course, in our little town, everybody knew what everybody else wore, spent, ate, and drank, but as long as your sins were subtle and civil…. And nobody expected James L. Howard/Humphrey Bogart to hang out with teetotalers.)
Not that our town was forgiving of blatant misdeeds it couldn’t ignore. My parents often cautioned me: “If you have to misbehave, come home to do it. If Miss Bell hears you using bad language at school, if Mr. Hardy at the post office catches you riding your bike on the sidewalks downtown, you’ll be in all kinds of trouble. You—and we—have a reputation to maintain. And you know about reputations—they’re like….”
“Like teacups,” I’d finish. ‘Once broken, never mended.’ I’ll be very, very, very careful.” And I was.
I loved going to the Howards’ house because Camille never mentioned my sad performance at the piano, and I got to eat with the grown-ups. Camille’s wedding silver was the heavy, ornate kind, and the knife handles always shone. After dessert (my favorite part) I could read myself to sleep in the big four-poster guest bed, listening to the laughter and talk from the rummy table and feeling completely, deeply safe. Sometimes, Camille would let me look through her jewelry box, and for my tenth birthday, she let me choose a ring from her collection. After much consideration, I choose a gold ring with a small emerald stone—which I lost before I turned 11. Camille never spoke of it.
The ritual dinner and rummy parties might have gone on until somebody began to forget the rules, but not long after I lost the ring, a new couple came to town. James Spencer, the town’s new doctor, and his beautiful wife Della, who had been his nurse before the two little boys came along, moved into a handsome old house shaded by 100-year-old oak trees. Oh, people gossiped at first—that’s how a small town entertains itself. Della, rumor said, was Dr. James’s second wife. With her long blonde hair and ready laugh, she might have lured him out of his first marriage. And maybe Della had been married before; the doctor might or might not be the father of the two boys—active, fair-haired fellows of 4 and 6. To me, this was adult business, uncomfortable stuff I’d rather not know.
But little by little, the family became a familiar part of the town and people stopped wondering about their history. After all, no one even noticed that the grocer was named Pink Moose (really) or that Miss Bell, the school lunch lady, wore her dresses wrong side out. “That’s just the way it is,” we said, a formula that soon applied to the Spencers.
Besides, James Spencer (inevitably christened “Dr. J.”) was a good doctor. He was tall, thin, and sometimes a little socially awkward, but he was willing to make house calls, glad to talk about a mole or sore back at the grocery store or post office. And no one could resist Della, who liked to play bridge (but had the good sense to lose often), wore such pretty clothes, and volunteered for everything. The family was invited to backyard barbeques, football games at the high school, and, eventually, to steak and rummy Friday nights.
And the long-established, cozy, predictable atmosphere of those evenings shifted a bit. The well-behaved boys, Michael and David, came for the first half hour or so, to paddle in the pool and eat ice cream. Then they went home to the babysitter (a job for which I never volunteered). After that, the drinks got just a little stronger, the jokes a little more suggestive. The rummy games gave way to poker and the stakes got a little higher—a quarter rather than a nickel a hand. I didn’t mind. In fact, I liked the change. I related the jokes—even the ones I didn’t understand—to my girlfriends at school, and they giggled, even if they didn’t understand either.
While the grown-ups were sipping their bourbon and 7, I was moving close to my first teen-age year, and one night Dr. J. handed me a drink he’d made especially for me. It was pale amber and had four maraschino cherries at the bottom. “Doctor’s orders,” he said. “It’s time for you to know how whiskey makes you feel. Pretty soon, you’re going to have to say ‘no’ to some naughty boy who’s trying to get you tipsy.”
James L. chuckled and said, “Drink up, Kiddo.” When I looked to my father for permission, he nodded and said, “Just sip slow, Janie.” And I sat among them proudly, dipping shrimp into cocktail sauce and nursing my first glass of sophistication.
Soon, Mother and Camille invited Della to join the Lyceum Book Club. The other members were delighted, since when it was Della’s time to entertain, they had a chance to admire how she had decorated the Spencers’ big house. All the ladies just loved the living room wallpaper with its big yellow roses. And everyone—with the possible exception of Mrs. Creech, the Methodist preacher’s wife—appreciated Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which Della recommended ‘as a classic’ for the April book. I benefited as well. Several nights of reading my mother’s copy significantly broadened my knowledge of sex.
And Della treated me in a way that Camille, with her natural reserve, could not. Energetic and playful, the doctor’s wife seemed not much older than me. Once, when she invited me over to help entertain Michael and David, she told me that she thought “Kay and Charles” were “darling,” a term I’d never associated with my parents. She went on: “To tell the truth, when we first met them, I thought, ‘They’re school teachers–probably kind of dull,’ but they’re really cute and funny.” Then, Della loaned me her little velvet cape with ermine tails to wear to my first spring prom, assuring me that she wanted to come over and see me when I was all dressed up.
By now, we all knew that Della was a giver—sunflower seeds for the Audabon Club, a rose bush for my mother, opera tickets in Raleigh for Camille, milk in a bowl for the stray cat. She’d asked to be included in the Meals on Wheels route that Mother and Camille had done for years, and they said the deliveries took twice as long because Della included a little present—a Hersey’s kiss, a tiny nail file—with everyone’s dinner and always wanted to stay and chat. “Well,” they said, “that’s just the way Della is.”
Walking home, I reached into the bag to touch the fur and velvet, and imagined that wearing the elegant wrap would make me look more like its glamorous owner. I also tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine my parents as ‘cute,’ though I was a little confused that Della had thought they might not be fun because they taught school. It was easier, I decided, when grown-ups didn’t tell me what they thought.
“I sometimes suspect that James L. is sad that he and Camille didn’t have children.” This was my mother telling me more adult stuff I didn’t want to know. I liked to think that grown-ups were immune to regrets and disappointments, just as they never seemed to catch mumps or chicken pox. She had taken me to Siler City to buy some loafers I’d been yearning for, and we were having our usual cream cheese and olive on raisin bread sandwiches at the S & W cafeteria. “Have you noticed how he loves the Spencer boys?”
I had noticed, and sometimes felt a little jealous of, James L.’s friendliness toward David and Michael. He’d always been nice to me, but kept his distance. Now he bought the boys blow-up toys to play with in the pool and took them riding in the Cadillac with all the windows down. Then, Mother said, “Camille has a tipped uterus and couldn’t get pregnant”—which was way more than I wanted to know.
On the evening of the dance, both Della and Camille came by to see me in my finery and tease me a little about my date (I was going with Russell Fields from next door, an arrangement of convenience, rather than passion). I enjoyed their admiration, though I knew it was mostly for my mother’s sake. Camille said, “You look lovely, Janie.” Della said, “Oh honey, you are scrumptious with your little high heels and forget-me-not eyes. You’ll be the star, the darling of the dance.” Two styles—Camille kind and restrained, Della exuberant and bubbly. Sometime during the night, I lost one of the ermine tails on Della’s cape, and though my mother apologized profusely, Della never said a word to me about it.
One night when we were all at the Spencers’ place for a cook-out (Dr. J. was a wizard with barbequed chicken and in great demand as a cook for Rotary dinners), Della asked me to help her pour the inevitable sweet tea in the kitchen. I liked listening to the ice cubes crack in the liquid and arranging the sweating glasses on Della’s silver tray. She leaned on the counter and said, “I want to tell you a happy secret. I’m going to have a baby.”
I thought a baby would be cute and said so. She hugged me and said, “Maybe you’ll babysit for all three of the Spencer children sometimes,” and laughed at my alarmed expression. “Just teasing, honey,” and we carried the drinks out to the patio.
In a few weeks, the whole town knew, and there was much rejoicing and celebration—baby showers, baby blankets, baby booties. About two months before Della’s due date, Camille gave the most elegant party of all, which, untraditionally, included both women and men, and a few select children—Michael and David, and me. I thought Camille’s silver, her mother’s china and crystal, and the vases of yellow roses made the house look like the Biltmore mansion. And it was full-to-bursting of people who had known each other forever. The Spencers were the newest newcomers, and they’d long since ceased to be new. Della looked beautiful, of course, in a long, floating dress the color of daffodils. She pretended to sulk when her husband wouldn’t let her have a glass of champagne. (Champagne wasn’t like bourbon. Everybody, even school teachers, could drink champagne in public.)
And soon afterwards, the baby arrived—a perfect, dark-haired little boy. My mother told me it had been a very easy delivery, which was as much as I wanted to know.
When Mother and I went to the hospital to visit, James L. was just leaving. He’d brought a bowl of shining fruit for Della and three presents, one for each of the boys. Della welcomed us and pushed the blanket away from her new son’s face so we could see. I thought he looked like a hairless puppy. Mother said he was precious. “Did you decide on a name?” she asked.
Smiling, Della said, “James.”
From the start, Jimmy (we had too many “Jameses” already) was different from his brothers—darker, smaller. Did people talk? Of course they did. “Is he all right? You know, ‘all there’?’ Will he be a dwarf or something? Too bad, with the other two so bright and handsome.” But Jimmy was ‘all there,’ with interest. Soon, everyone acknowledged that he was more athletic, and a little more assertive, than either of his brothers, who sometimes seemed a little shy. In fact, Jimmy became a town favorite. “Hey, Mr. Moose, hey, Miz Hardy,” he’d greet the grocer and the librarian. “Just like Della,” people said. “So friendly. Not a shy bone in his body.” In Southwood, all doors opened to Jimmy Spencer.
But of all places in town, Jimmy preferred the Howards’ pool. Even in March and October, when the water was too cold for his brothers (and certainly for me), he begged to go swimming. James L. and Camille’s pool became a gathering place for the now much-expanded Friday night steak/rummy/poker/bourbon/swimming group.
On thick summer evenings, when the lawns had been burned crisp and brown and the trees were tired of their leaves, I enjoyed sitting on the edge of the pool, my feet in the water, watching the three boys. Michael took his role as older brother seriously. “Don’t run, it’s slick, you guys,” he’d say, and “Come on out and eat now. Hamburgers are ready.” David and Jimmy squabbled sometimes. It was hard for the middle child that the baby was a better swimmer. But usually, the three coexisted happily.
As for me, I liked being an observer. From my position halfway between the boys and the adults, I could splash with the kids, chat with the grown-ups, or just watch, my eyes half closed in the sun. One of the things I saw was how much James L. loved Jimmy. Well, I thought, everybody loves Jimmy. And Jimmy, as most children do, responded to this attention.
At all our gatherings, he followed “Uncle L.” around, and picked up some of his mannerisms. We all laughed at the little boy’s pretty good imitation of James L.’s gangster swagger, which was straight out of Casablanca.
The summer Jimmy was 4, James L. added a 16-foot speedboat to what Camille called his “toys.” “It certainly wasn’t my idea,” I heard her say to Della and my mother. “I’m like a cat—can’t stand to get wet.” But the rest of us appreciated the sleek, powerful machine. David and Michael learned to water ski—and so did I, but the boys were more daring, and soon were crossing the wake and skiing backwards, making their parents nervous and proud. When Jimmy pouted because he was too little to ski, James L. took him in his lap and let him steer the boat. Soon, we were calling the boy “Skipper,” and I heard James L. say to Jimmy, “I’m glad you like the ship, Kiddo. When I die it will be yours.”
And when Jimmy replied eagerly, “Oh, are you going to die soon?” James L. laughed. That night at supper, he repeated the conversation as proof that Jimmy was “one smart youngun’.” With the possible exception of Camille, we were all sorry when the weather got chilly—by Southwood’s standards—and the boat was stored in the marina for the short winter.
One day that fall, I came home from basketball practice to hear my mother and Camille talking in the living room. Their serious tones kept me from going right in to say hello, and I heard Mother say, “Does it make you sad?” I’d never thought of Camille as being anything but—Camille—strong, steady, in control. And I was relieved when she said, “No, I’m not really sad—or jealous. James L. doesn’t give me any reason to be.” I imagined then what they were discussing so intently: Mother must be worried that Camille felt bad about not having children, and thought that James L’s affection for the Spencer boys, especially Jimmy, was hurting her feelings. Satisfied with my insight, and anxious not to have them think I was eavesdropping, I dropped my books emphatically on the kitchen table and called out “Hey, you two” before I joined them, putting a stop to their intimacies.
In bed that night, I started to acknowledge another reason that Camille might be sad or jealous, but I pushed it right out of my head and went to sleep.
Julian Fields from next door had turned out to be a pretty good quarterback, and the night before Homecoming, our neighbors threw a big cookout in their back yard. This year, excitement was high because the Rams were tied for first place in the conference with our long-time rivals, Goldston. The night was perfect—crisp and clear. The men were basting chicken, flipping hamburgers, and grilling hot dogs for the kids. Women in jackets and scarves brought potato salad, coleslaw, pecan pies, and cocoanut cakes. Nobody drank bourbon, of course, but men could pull beers from ice chests, and youngsters drank cokes and Pepsis and 7-Ups. Most of the women sipped sweet tea.
The Howards and Spencers were there. Della, her blonde hair in a shiny French twist, visited with everybody. The boys tossed a Nerf football, shouting, “Hike” and “First down.” The night was especially exciting to me because my cousin Nina from Wilmington was spending the weekend with me, AND we’d be meeting two very cool boys at the game later on. Nina reminded me of Della in some ways—very social, never shy. When everybody had filled a paper plate, found a place to sit, and started to enjoy the bounty, Nina said in her cheerleader voice, “That little Jimmy looks just like James L. Howard.”
Everything stopped. Plastic forks were suspended, conversation died. Only the boys’ football game went on, unaffected. And then, as if someone had said “Carry on,” everything started again. Nina whispered, “What just happened?” And I said, “Oh, nothing. Let’s go get some of Mrs. Hardy’s pound cake before it’s gone.”
On Sunday night when the excitement from homecoming was over (We won), and Nina’s parents had come to take her home (We’d had a great time at the victory dance), I went to find my mother. She was sitting at her dresser, rubbing Pond’s cold cream on her cheeks. I sat on the bed. This time, I wanted information.
“Mother,” I said, “is James L. Jimmy’s father?”
“Yes, Janie, he is,” she answered.
“And has everybody known it for a long time?”
“Yes, they have, and I think maybe you’ve known it, too.”
I waited for more, but she was quiet.
“But isn’t that really wrong? A scandal or a sin or something?”
“Well,” Mother said, “you can look at it that way. Or you can see it as this town has chosen to see it. As one of Della’s gifts.”
She offered me the cold cream. I sat on the bed for a while, then got up and hugged her goodnight. Her cheek was too greasy to kiss. “Yes,” I said. “See you in the morning.”
And that’s just the way it was.