Lula Gaines

Louie Crew

They named me for the pretty lady
        who ran the silent picture show,
but people always said as I grew up,
        “Your five older sisters
got all the looks in your family.”

Later people whispered that the first Lula
        wore her red professionally.

I worked as bank teller
        and memorized a thousand dirty jokes
to win people’s attention.

So far as Erman knew when he came courting,
        Daddy was the respectable “Mister Johnny,”
even when the depression ruined his sawmill.
        Now 45 years later even in this quiet place
I fear someone might have told Erman
        he married the bootlegger’s runt.

Great-grandma Griffin had 1,000 slaves,
        but my son turned queer
and married a black man
        who was real sweet and did not force
his way in on us in our old age.

I refused to cut the boy’s pretty curls,
        but when he was 4,
his daddy sneaked him to the barber.
        The next year, Dorothy nextdoor
gave him his first candy bar,
        and he fattened just like me.
For a long time he and his daddy blamed me.
        I remember later when they sang,
“Praise it, praise it, all the little children,
        Food is Love, Food is Love.”
That was when the boy went to prep school,
        read Freud, and mocked Sunday School.

I gave up telling dirty jokes
        back when he was in high school and scared,
telling me what he’d done with the boys
        who came to spend the night
when Erman and I went off to watch
        Alabama beat Auburn at Legion Field.

Although he made me promise I’d not tell
        his father, I had to.
Erman said the phase would pass.
        I started reading the Bible straight through,
and did so for 35 times
        in as many years before I died.

I gave up playing cards when I was 65
        and gave up smoking at 70.
God must not have been impressed,
        because nothing changed.

Erman got meaner when he retired,
        and I was always embarrassed
when the neighbors could hear him yelling at me
        after he had lost something
and needed someone to blame it on.
        He could always work me though.
If we were at a picnic and the wives
        said each could make his own sandwich,
he’d smile sweetly and say to me,
        “But, honey, you can make a sandwich
more betterer than I can.”

        Funny how we always imitated the maid
whenever we got really intimate.
        I named Eula “Belle”
just so strangers wouldn’t confuse us,
        but then even friends
started calling me “Lula Belle.”
        Then I liked it when folks would ask,
“Is this Eula your sister?”
        “Yes, the only difference is
that one is black and the other white.”
        I resented it when Eula died
just as I began the hard work of wearing out.

I called Erman my “Rock of Gibraltar”
        and he could fix almost anything,
if you were willing to wait for three months.
        I loved him but still resented him
for treating me like a little girl.

His people always felt they were better than me.
        I was the only child in my family never to divorce,
but he reminded me that no one in his ever did.
        Even so, his grandfather deserted his grandmother,
and his other grandmother kept snuff in that can
        Erman still wouldn’t let me remove from her clock,
even after she’d been dead for 60 years.

When Erman’s mother would come to visit,
        she always wrinkled her nose
before she tasted, as if my spaghetti-and-cheese
        was not sharp enough or didn’t have enough butter
in the bread clusters on top.

Still, she knew I baked the better cakes,
        and would always ask for what was left
to carry it back home with her.

My son never liked her.
        “They’re so rural,” he complained.
Even when they moved from Coosa County
        and bought the big house in Birmingham,
he emended:
        “Big frogs can’t quit croaking at the ocean.”

I remember when Erman wouldn’t buy us ice cream,
        and I drove the child and myself,
the two of us on the front seat of the Chevy
        fussing away till the child screamed,
“Someone’s in the back, Mother!”
        Erman’s bald head rose up cackling
like a ghost, him having run out the back
        just to scare us.

When the boy was 4 or 5,
        he used to lie in the bed with Erman and me
and we would all play.
        Erman would say, “Now which of you two
deserves a whipping today?”
        and each of us would point to the other, laughing.
Erman would lovepat both of us.

I didn’t like life much after that
        till I grew old.
Erman was always saying
        that he was going to buy this
or going to buy that,
        but he went bankrupt instead.
I left the country club
        to take up bookkeeping again.

I got lots of respect in my 70s,
        because I demanded it.
I’d call up the power company
        and the bank manager
to complain if a bill was too high
        or a clerk had been rude.

My son once complained,
        “Anyone who reads as much as you do
should have better things
        to do with her time
than to keep up with who is taking
        whose parking place in the lots
behind the apartments.”
        But I got him told,
reminding him that when he gets to be old,
        he might find that friends neglect him
so much that he’d be glad
        to have a parking lot to keep up with.

I drowned in my own fluids
        the way Daddy did.
It was very painful.
        I kept wanting Erman and my son
to get in the bed with me
        like old times.
They said my mind wandered.
        I doubt it.
I was just hitting bedrock.

At least my boy got the wooden box
        that I had requested
and wouldn’t let anyone see me.
        No more can they talk
about the bootlegger's runt.
        I even managed to get Erman and me both
right next to Daddy,
        cause my family had the bigger lot,
and our cemetery has perpetual care.

Lula Gaines Hagin was Mother’s maiden name. She died in January, and Dad six months later. I wrote the poem a few months after she died, still in the throes of grief.

As an only child, I had not observed others close to me grieving, so had not learned how to do it, or more precisely, how to let it happen fully and then be done with it. I wished society still specified mourning periods and mourning dress, so that I could know when it was reasonable to end it.

I did not cry outwardly, but could not stop crying inside. My grief debilitated me for well over a year, until the next winter, when, at about 3 a.m. on a very cold morning, I awoke to sounds of sobs heaved in slow and harsh rhythms from a woman in the bedroom just below mine. I was teaching in China at Beijing’s Second Foreign Language Institute and was one of only two foreign teachers who elected to live on campus, rather than across the city in a compound of foreigners teaching all over the city. I did not know the woman downstairs; until that occasion, that apartment had never been occupied.

Involuntarily I began to heave in unison with her. Our moaning continued until dawn, when I had no more heaves left; nor apparently did she. In the deep new silence, I went to the window and watched neighbors across the path burning coal fires to boil water for cooking and washing.

Later I learned that the woman crying with me was a peasant who had come all the way from western China for the funeral of her son. He had won a scholarship to our school. Up at dawn earlier in the week he had chinned himself on a soccer goal. The goal toppled and cut off his head.

Mother speaks in monologue in “Lula Gaines.” She exercised little privacy in life, and should not have been surprised that I had told her rather than spare her once I learned that my being queer was not a passing phase and was not going away. When I did tell her, she paused a long time and said tentatively, “But they have an operation for that now, don’t they?”

Bless her heart. I replied, “Not on your life.”

Mothers in her generation were mis-educated to feel they were responsible for a son being queer; fathers were mis-educated that they caused it when a daughter grew up lesbian. Such theories were pernicious: they were never stated in ways that could be proved right or wrong, so people were prompted to force their reality into the stereotype. Mother was a master at feeling inferior and a master at assuming guilt for anything that went wrong.

In the poem, I am trying to get outside myself (and my grief) and inside her head.

One of my favorite assignments for the next 18 years of teaching, before I retired, was to ask freshmen to write an imaginary monologue as a friend one of their parents. They were to time the monologue to occur before they were born. The assignment always proved to be a strong challenge. Many of us find it hard to imagine our parents without us as integral to them.

I did not make my own assignment that constrained in this poem. Nevertheless it is Lula’s poem more than mine, and sometimes I still read it to spend some time with her. My Chinese friends taught me a lot about respecting ancestors. Those of us who are Episcopalians call it the “communion of saints.”

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