Catherine Carson explores family history and stability in her hometown of Marianna, Florida.
Along with the pregnancy test, I buy a pack of Nutter Butters. I will eat them either way.
This follows five days of nausea, two days of vomiting. I threw up on the steering wheel of my car and mopped it up with a white sweater, short-sleeved for the Florida heat.
My new therapist says, “It sounds like you’re pregnant.”
Alarms go off in my mind. These are different from the intrusive-thought alarms. These are the trumpets of angels mixed with the alarm of an emergency door shoved open by mistake. I am not married, but that is okay. I’ve been in a relationship for over nine years. The problem lies in the meds I’m on, meds that could disfigure a fetus, meds that could cause serious impairment and bring me to a decision of whether to abort or move ahead. We have put precautions in place, so many precautions.
On a summer weekend in 2006, I visit my grandparents in Marianna, Florida. My grandfather, whom I call “Papa,” and my grandmother (his second wife) have lived here most of their lives. I’m torn between thinking of big things and little: the war, the size of my ass, how I only look like my mother when I cross my legs, and how much I look like the grandmother I don’t remember when I sip one of Papa’s memory-killer martinis. Even now there is a shadow, a hope for more. Perhaps a child, perhaps someone to pass stories along to.
I am a sixth-generation Floridian on my mother’s side. My grandfather, Papa, is the son of a man who saw his father get killed in a knife fight, and the family seems to have survived like the pervasive alligator, all rough skin and slitted eyes.
Papa’s always got a parable, and I listen hard. During the Depression, he raised a steer that his father butchered. He and his father pulled the steer’s meat on a wagon from house to house until it was all gone, and Papa didn’t understand why he didn’t see a dime.
On another occasion, my great-grandfather came home with a puppy. With friends, he got drunk. With their help, he wedged the dog in the forked trunk of a tree. He bobbed the dog’s ears and tail with an ax.
“That dog went into the bushes and bled to death,” Papa says, looking into the space between us. The living room’s air is warm. The couch is hard against my lower back.How was my great-grandfather such a horrible person?
Somehow, perhaps because he saw his father’s anger and meanness in action, Papa learned to be a kind man, full of tickles and hugs. At the same time, he said that if I was a bad child, I’d have to cut my own switch from a tree, just as he’d done when he was a child. I had laughed, mesmerized and terrified.
I want my future child not to even know that other kids got hit. I want this to be so far from normal that it sounds absurd. There is knowledge and gravity in trauma, and it’s possible that trauma can be transferred through stories. I am a teller of true stories. What will I tell, and what will I leave out?
There are details I will tell, like that Papa says his hair is brown, even though it is clearly gray. His skin is tanned from years in the yard, and when I was a child I thought that the green tattoo of a dagger on his forearm was in the shape of an alligator.
After my grandparents and I catch up, I take my bike to the Florida Caverns State Park behind his back yard. The park had once been visible from the back porch of the house, a curtain of trees in front of the porch’s cement stage. Papa and Grandma (his wife since Nana died) have turned the porch into a living room, and this view of the woods is only available through the slotted, pink vertical blinds that slice up the landscape.
My father and I used to duck under the barbed wire fence that separated the back yard from the state park when we visited, but now there’s an actual fence, no longer wires we can bend and step between. We would walk through the woods to the park’s few paved roads, past the bed of ashes at the campground and the rusted, rectangular jungle gym. I tilted my head all the way back to see the tops of the tall trees, and I got dizzy. I stepped as quietly as I could through the blanket of leaves so I wouldn’t disturb the birds or deer, and then I remembered that snakes might hide in the brush, so I stomped to scare them away.
This park is known for its caverns, excavated by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Men forged through walls of rock with pick-axes and little light. They lay on their stomachs, some rock slimy, some rock rough. They decided which formations to preserve and which to wreck. I’ve been here so many times I could lead a tour by myself. My favorite feature is the “rock of many names.” It’s a mound on the cave floor, easily tripped over. Guests often trip over the rock and then hit their heads on one that hangs above it, calling the rock names in the process.
At the entrance of the park, I tell the guard I’m riding through. He doesn’t make me pay. I hit my first hills ever. That’s the thing about North Florida—there’s elevation, movement in the earth. Nothing moves in this small town but the hills.
I’m drunk on wind, high on downhill speed, full of more oxygen than my body’s known in years. At the bottom of the first hill, the trees talk, filled with cicadas and gossiping birds. This constant movement means everything. So often, I am still. I sit on the couch, watching TV. I want things, like a child and mental stability, yet I feel like I don’t push forward. Sometimes, it takes all my strength to stay where I am, to keep pedaling, so I don’t fall. When I ride away from home, I always return.
Pedaling keeps me upright.
Nana’s pictures hide in photo albums and wooden drawers that stick. Her skin is loose and suntanned. I wonder what Papa thought when he knew Nana was dying. I’ll bet he measured the thinning of her wrists with his eyes. In a photo, I am diapered, seated in the crook of his arm, staring at the water streaming from a garden hose held in his other hand. I remember a rainbow in the water. Now, I imagine that he lifted me to Nana’s arms in an effort to get her to live just a little longer, if not for him or for their daughter, then for me. She died when I was two years old, her official diagnosis a heart condition.
Back at the house, I ask for a tour of the town. This is one of Papa’s favorite activities. Usually, my mom drives, and while she passes their old houses and those of family members and friends, Papa and Grandma tell stories—who has died, who has married whom. I remember these small brick homes and sloping, green lawns from filmstrips and slide shows. I get nauseated as we roll up and down the hills. My mom used to bike these hills to visit her friends. Little has changed in this town since Mom was a kid, except that now I don’t see anyone outside.
This time, it’s just me and Papa. He sits in my passenger’s seat and places a glass filled with ice and golden alcohol in the cup-holder between us. We drive to the place where kids with developmental disabilities raise money by cracking nuts and selling them. We pass the boys’ school, where mass graves were found a few years ago, the bones of adolescents. My grandmother denies they were killed. She denies man landed on the moon.
Then, we go to the prison, where I’ve never been. He makes me drive past the pink crepe myrtles and open steel gates and tall fences, their tops curled-over barbed wire, right up to the door. “This is where you’ll go if you do something wrong,” he says.
I nod and drive back down the unpaved road carefully, so as not to anger anyone.
Papa wakes up in the middle of the night to shoot armadillos. Their progeny learn to walk the perimeter and avoid his plants.
Papa grows tomatoes that taste like juicy, red water. His green peppers are crisp and cool. When I was young, we would dig for worms and fish for catfish and brim. I was disappointed that my brim were so full of bones. One of my earliest memories is of him holding a fish down with his foot and wrenching a hook from its jaw.
My mother does not remember Marianna fondly, but she loves her father and my grandmother, and so we visit. I am respectful of the trees and hills, my grandparents’ gentility. I say, “Yes, sir,” but only there.
I do not share my mother’s features. I am taller and broader than this side of my family. I doubt my future child will look like Nana, but I am following in her footsteps. She moved in and out of hospitals, getting electro-shock treatments.
My mom told me the story like this: “She and I picked out a beautiful blue Easter dress, and then she went into the hospital. When she came back, she said, ‘Where did you get that pretty dress?’”
Today, we don’t know exactly what mental health issue Nana was diagnosed with. My mom’s best guess is major depression. She shopped for pills, getting doctor after doctor to prescribe more. She was a lab technician, swishing urine in cups, no gloves used back then. She caught TB while she was pregnant and delivered my mother a month early. At home, she cared for my mother. It’s a miracle that my newborn mother and grandfather did not catch the disease, too.
The fertility book tells me that baby girls hold all of their eggs even as fetuses. This means that when my grandmother was pregnant with my mother, there I was, nestled inside them. Half of my genetic material was there, lying in wait.
My doctor says electro-shock is different now. We are anesthetized so that we don’t break our jaws by clenching too hard when the seizure hits.
For Nana, was it the way Sylvia Plath described it in The Bell Jar—a bright blue light? Lighting in the skull? Man-made light illuminating a cavern, a white formation that looked like a wedding cake?
Could Nana not live for me, for her daughter, for her husband? Did the heart disease kill her, or was there more to it?
If I ask Papa about Nana, will he talk?
My boyfriend says men of his generation don’t talk about those things. I’ve told Papa about going to the hospital myself, my frankness a front for the fear I really felt. I didn’t want him to be scared for me. I didn’t want him to equate me with his late wife.
He is 91 years old now. He once mailed two Oxycontin tablets to my uncle because his back hurt.
When I am with him, I realize how much money I spend on stupid things. My $400 iPod amazes him, a jukebox in my pocket.
Papa used to supply jukeboxes to nightclubs—juke-joints—and decide what records to provide. He gave his one remaining jukebox to my mother. We filled her SUV with liquor-store cardboard boxes of 45s, the wax so heavy, me so strong. I am the strongest in my family. I have the railroad-building bones of my father.
While my body is strong, my mind is fragile. My body can’t always keep up, and I suck my breath in hard. Thoughts throw me forward in a convulsion of worry. Panic attacks plague me for days.
Now, I want to have a baby. Now, I want to stop taking Valium because it can cause birth defects. It’s such an old drug. Did Nana take it? In time, did it stop working?
I want Papa to hold his great-grandchild. I want a child to call for me in the night. I want to turn on the light. To open the cave, my bones stable as a rock formation.
I read all of the directions in the pregnancy test’s package. I read them again, and then I take the test. It’s easy. I bury all evidence in the garbage so that I won’t worry my boyfriend.
The test is negative. I wonder if I did it wrong, so I take the second test in the package. This one comes up with an answer not in the directions, a vertical line rather than nothing. I throw it away. I can’t be pregnant. Logic has prevailed. I eat five cookies.
When my boyfriend comes home from work, I immediately tell him about the tests. Why do I do this? I tell him with heavy laughter about my fear that I had taken the test wrong. I dig them out of the trash, show him the evidence.
We talk for three hours. “I want to shape a life,” he says. “I wouldn’t have bought a house so big if I didn’t want to fill it.” I cry. My emotions coast mountains tonight.
Will I take my future child to Marianna, her neck sloped to gaze at the swaying tops of trees? What will I fear for my child? We are slipping away, the wind rushing us to the ground.
I know one thing for sure: I will never tell the story of the puppy. I think I will tell the story of the knife-fight. I will lead her around the “rock of many names” in the cave.
I will break an aloe frond to dress her mosquito bites. I will teach her a healthy fear of alligators, tell her how my teeth crawl when I imagine them walking the streets in the middle of the night, always searching for the next pond.
An alligator will go limp if you rub its belly. We are those creatures, imposing yet vulnerable, clawed and crouching low. Our skin is tough. We speak in bellows. We smile before doing gruesome things.
I’d like to think that with each generation my family gets kinder. Does my brain work better than Nana’s, or is it worse? Will my child’s neurons forge pathways that help her rather than hinder her? Can I help shape her view of the world, her view of herself?
If the cavern fills with water, will she find her way out, shouldering past man-made doorways toward the green, mossy light outside? Will my child swim away?