Martha King


All the Greene's

I was permitted to call Florence's father "Chris." The whole world did. This alone made him unforgettable in 1940s Charlottesville. Chris was Florence's dad, but not like my dad or the fathers of other children I knew. He was bony and his face was netted with wrinkles. He was clearly very old but also not like a grownup at all. His tiny blue eyes would full of electric mischief, and his place in the world was unique. He was never introduced with a title like "judge" or "classics professor" or a descriptor like actor or author. I never heard him spoken of as someone who "did" something. Had he ever done something?
     Chris could fish as beautifully as a painting of nineteenth-century heaven: in his brown waders and shapeless fish hat, leaning against the rapids of the Bull Pasture River, his rod flicking with a soft movement of his wrist, the fly floating across the shadows, a chorus in Yeats, merged all orders of proportion. Chris never stopped moving as he fished and yet he seemed at rest. He caught the fish he calmly expected. They were the fish. Give us this day.
     Chris and Aggie sat in her living room laughing and lifting glasses very much the way my mother described Aggie with the grandfather I never knew, in the library of their house in Rye, New York, where she smoked tiny black Balkan Sobranies and argued his law cases with him. With Chris, Aggie smoked white Chesterfields, and he relaxed on the love seat, the one my father hated, with the lumpy carved grapes on its rim. They were perfect in that room-Aggie's thick body in the corner easy chair, Chris's permanently grimed fingernails against the glinting highball glass. He stretched his legs across her threadbare oriental rug, turning his head to sweep the fall of white hair out of his eyes, always with a cigarette burning between his stained fingers. I never saw his hair singe, no matter how close the burning end came to it. Talking, talking. This warmth might be as dangerous as mercury, this adult thing that glittered back and forth. Mercury was why hatters were mad, I'd been told. Aggie's living room curtains were made of India print bedspreads. They moved easily in any draft. The blue smoke curled.
     "Your grandmother never lacked boyfriends," my mother said.
     I saw Chris dressed up only once-at Aggie's funeral in 1965. I was married to Basil and the mother of Mallory and Hetty by that time. Chris was wearing a dark tweed suit and a shirt so white it glowed in the gray light. He was the only one of Aggie's remaining men friends still able to attend such an event and he refused to sit, in her honor. He held a hat in his hand. It was raining on his bare head, and the wind was blowing. My father stopped my mother who wanted to stop him and he stood out there while the rest of us sat on folding chairs under a tent.

Florence's mother Ruth lived in the country and never came to Aggie's house. Everyone liked it that way. Ruth was "good country stock," my grandmother said. She meant that word stock. Chris was lucky to have a good cow to look after him. "Thank God," Aggie once announced, "Chris had enough practical good sense to marry her."
     When I got to spend a weekend with Florence, Aggie would drive me down miles of country road and then over two-tire dirt tracks to get to their house. But she never got out. I was let out of the car with my overnight bag and all the usual instructions about tooth-brushing and saying thank you. Aggie would honk and wave, and call out that she was terribly late for some appointment or other, and drive away.
     Ruth focused on me, good cheer lighting up her ruddy cheeks and grey-blue eyes. She was an opinionated woman and full of conversation but she never talked about sin, taxes, the rape of the land, important books, or even what the neighbors said. She never told long amusing stories. She liked to talk about how to do things, and she laughed a lot about the dumb mistakes made by people who couldn't do things. She talked about the food we'd eat, the health and behavior of their pigs, chickens, and dogs, and whether any disastrous weather was predicted and what had resulted from previous insults of nature. And she cooked magnificently. She was queen of an iron kitchen and all the food obeyed her. Pie crusts coiled up on her rolling pin and then uncoiled, slipping effortlessly into her black pie tins. Dumplings in her stews always floated; rice and hopping john swam in shimmering pot liquor. All her pots were iron, their insides sleek and soft, their outsides crusted inches thick. She treated her giant iron woodstove as familiarly as an old goat, kicking it and tickling it with an iron stick. CLANG. The hand pump on her sink creaked and burbled out cold water. The toilet was an outhouse.
     But they did have electricity. "Ruuurl FREEEE Lek Tris-a-tee," Florence and I sang together. It was something wonderful. The Greene's had a naked light bulb hanging down on a cord in the middle of every room. Ruth had shortened the cords with knots and fastened small lampshades on, upside down. She called them pigtails. The little lampshades had scorched, and the evening light was blotched yellow and brown. The beds in the upstairs bedrooms were gaudy with orange velour coverlids. Downstairs was mostly open and there was very little clutter-just chests, wooden chairs, and a long scrubbed wood kitchen table in the middle of the room. Lye water had made the wooden floors as soft and silver as Chris Greene's hair.      Dogs and chickens hung around outside. There was derelict machinery behind the house, and some fields beyond Ruth's vegetable patch. Ruth grew flowers in her vegetable patch, in rows, just like any of her other crops. Florence and I liked to pinch out the suckers on tomatoes. We had mason jars for the worms we'd pick off cabbages and I liked the flowers best. Dinner plate dahlias and larkspur and giant marigolds in between the green beans and the kale. She never picked any of them for the house. She said she had them to be pretty where they were.
     I don't know where Chris spent his time. I don't think he worked those far fields but I never really wondered about it; he always appeared in the kitchen exactly at mealtime. There was no yard or place outside where grown people sat for drinks. There was no maid, no furnace man, no laundry woman. Ruth would have laughed her head off at the thought that she couldn't take care of all those things herself. While she finished making our supper Chris put whiskey and pump water in a tumbler and sat at the kitchen table telling me and Florence stories. The Indians who had once lived here, the floods following ice ages that had carved up the landscape, and how grubs turned themselves into butterflies by reorganizing all the living stuff in their bodies. Ruth liked the stories and would egg him on.
     "I expect Ruth is used to it," my mother said once as we drove away. "Florence is such a nice child."
     "Florence is such a nice child," Aggie would say when I was back in her house after weekend in the country with the Greene's. But you don't have to talk me into liking her, I thought. Florence never gave me a blank, fishy look if I suggested a new pretend adventure or talked to her about a book she hadn't read.

Florence didn't live out in the country during the school year. She lived in Charlottesville with her Aunt Flora because the school was better, and I would see her in town during the spring break given in all New York City schools, public or private. Charlottesville would look almost summertime when we stepped off the train in early April. The raw city wind, the trees with not-yet-open buds were in the faraway North. Here, lacy green light dappled the yards and sidewalks and I could run to Aunt Flora's house on my own. No one had to take me.
     Aggie's house was small and my mother often took my brother and sister straight on to the large, orderly world of Lynchburg leaving me at Aggie's. Aggie and I were declared by our parents to have a special bond. Besides three children all at once would have been a burden on Miss Lot and Big Minor. My Aunt Bim and my Great-Aunt Bessie also lived in the Lynchburg house.
     When I became an adult my sister told me how much Aggie's house frightened her. The clutter, the dust, the threat of fleas, the dangerous symphony of smells. She remembered opening a bureau drawer in Aggie's bedroom and finding the mummified remains of four new-born kittens. But it turned out she didn't like Lynchburg either, despite our parents' insistence that Lynchburg was "Charlotte's cup of tea." The insistence on rules and rightness had hobbled her too.
     Aunt Flora's house, where Florence lived during school, had an elegantly columned two-story porch and long windows with dark green shutters. It was a house of proportion and grace, on a wedge of downtown Charlottesville with the shabby rear ends of commercial buildings backed right up against it. It needed paint, roof repairs and yard work and inside it was cut up into apartments. Aunt Flora lived in bohemian clutter in the left-hand half of downstairs. All the rest of the house belonged to her tenants. They were UVA boys, who clattered up and down the main stairs and yelled for each other. They kept their rooms filled with empty beer cans and dirty laundry and let me and Florence have their old copies of Esquire.
     Esquire was filled with cartoons with captions about virgins and photographs of models who showed the actual edge of a pink nipple. The photograph I remember best was of a stripper named Lili St. Cyr. She had a big silver sequin on each breast and a guitar between her outspread legs. I looked and looked. Five strings shimmered over the night-dark soundhole. I had once asked my mother how the baby gets out-a hole you can just fit your finger in. It didn't seem reasonable. It stretches during labor, she explained, and showed me a cardboard beer coaster. Reingold: The Extra Dry Beer. It didn't seem possible. Florence said the picture scared her and turned the page.
     Aunt Flora was even older than Chris. Her skin was like dressmakers' tissue over a network of sky blue veins. Aunt Flora called Florence Flora. The two have an identical meaning, she told me, urging me to agree that Flora "was far more dignified." "Flor AH" started low and ended sung. She spoke, like Aggie, an English-sounding Southern. Bean for been. Anvelope for envelope. Ahsk for ask.
     "Flor AH, be shoe-ah to ahsk Mahtha is she'ed cai-ah f'sum of owah nahs fraish scuppanongs?"
     There were trunks in her bedroom filled with clothing. Gowns heavy with beads and sequins, feathers, covered buttons, gloves, hats in round boxes, molting boas. They smelled of age and spent perfume. Like the house, they must have been hers, but she never said. She never told us a story about them or betrayed a shred of sentiment. Florence and I could use them any way we wanted, for our games. If that meant we went to work on them with scissors and safety pins, and then wrecked our creations as we paraded outside in the muddy grasses or crawled into our houses under the bushes, so be it, although they had been carefully stored for years. If invited, Aunt Flora attended our performances; if not, our doings were as acceptable to her as the starlings on the roof. We were perfectly acceptable too, as long as we kept our part of the contract, hiding our interest in Esquire and speaking to the tenants only when she was not at home.

With Florence

Ruth cooked on a stove like this. They've recently become collectors' items, prized by people with rural retreats being they are completely off the grid. [image from ]

Esquire, 1948.

Lilli as ever in the public domain.