My dad died suddenly when I was six of an unexpected heart condition. I remember that I locked myself in the bathroom at his funeral because I just wanted to GET AWAY from all the people. My daddy’s brother, my gruff Uncle T., came to the door and told me to come out because the service was about to start.
For some reason, Mom had assigned me to sit with him during the service. Not with her. Her grief for my dad was always hers, and hers alone. I sat there, numb, not really feeling anything except that my life was changing.
Not long after the funeral, I came home from school to find my mother going through the cabinets, getting rid of things that reminded her of her dead husband. I panicked at all the signs of my father disappearing, so I grabbed a brown paper grocery sack and sneaked into their bedroom to stuff a pair of his pants, a work shirt, and a hat of his into it. Then I folded the sack closed to make it as small as possible and hid it in the bottom of my closet.
Sometimes when I was lonely and missed him, I would creep into the bottom of my closet, pull the door almost closed, and pull out his shirt so I could remember what he smelled like. A mixture of gasoline from the tractor, sweat from the fields, the red dirt of my home county, sunshine from having all our clothes dried on a line outside, and just Daddy. The shirt smelled like Daddy, and I would bury my face in it.
Smell is memory.
One day when I went to the closet, the bag was gone.
I looked everywhere, and when I realized that Mom must have cleaned my room, I felt a mixture of guilt (for not hiding something so precious better) and towering fury. I stormed in to where my mother was and demanded to know what she’d done. She got a pained look on her face, wrinkled her nose and said, oh, she’d thrown all those old things out.
I tried to explain that those were some of the last few reminders I had of my DADDY, and she’d taken them from me. She looked absolutely baffled. It never occurred to her that I had lost someone too.
She tried explaining that it made her so sad to see his things, and she couldn’t stand it. I tried explaining back to her that it wasn’t always just about her. It felt like I was shrieking another language at someone who couldn’t understand. She apologized briefly, insincerely, still clearly focused on protecting her own self from pain.
Over the years, she continued purging my belongings when the whim took her, even if I kept my room neat. It was maddening to come home, look for a toy I loved but hadn’t played with in a while and find that she’d given it away because “you don’t play with it enough.” Sometimes I would come home and find her in the process of loading a beloved toy in the car to give to our maid, and she would shame me into letting it go.
Finally, when I was about 12, I’d had enough. On impulse, I looked in her closet, which had a few really nice outfits in it. There was one early ’70s full-length ballgown I remember vividly. The top was a clingy brown sleeveless knit mock turtleneck, and the skirt was a plaid blend of fall colors (browns and golds and oranges and lots and lots of sparkly gold threads … VERY ’70s). She had worn it to the Governor’s Ball in Mississippi, because my stepfather happened to be good buddies with the new governor, and they’d been invited to the festivities. She only wore it the one time, as far as I know. I remember that she told me she’d spent an unprecedented $400 on that dress and under no circumstances was I to play with it or even touch it. (A $400 dress back in 1971ish would cost almost $2,400 today. I’m sure she bought it on layaway or charged it at McRae’s department store. We never had that kind of money.)
I knew she cherished that expensive dress. So I got another brown grocery sack, stuffed the gown in it, and tucked the sack far beneath my bed, behind some boxes and toys. And I waited.
Eventually, she realized it was missing one day and asked me where it was. I played innocent and asked her where was the last place she put it or did she loan it to someone? She nosed around her room, expecting to find it pushed to the back of her closet, getting more and more frantic, looking in every nook and cranny. When she was about to get in the car and drive over to our maid’s house to accuse her of stealing it, I stopped her and told her I’d thrown her ballgown away because she never wore it anymore.
When her face flushed red in that terrifying “I’m actually going to kill you” expression, I waited a heartbeat and then told her no, that I hadn’t thrown it away, and I would go get it for her. (At this point, it felt a lot like I had poked the caged lion with a stick and then found that the cage door was swinging open.) I crawled under my bed, dug out the bag and handed it to her. She snatched the bag from me and was relieved to find her precious dress. She was still furious until I said, “Mama. Now tell me how it feels when someone goes through your things and gets rid of them without your permission.”
She became even madder, but I could see in her eyes that the penny dropped and she understood.
She huffed and puffed a bit more, threatening me with the spanking of my life if I ever did anything like that again, but I kept just looking at her. (I was shaking on the inside.) I said something like this: “Do you know now what it feels like? You never ask me. You never let me go through my things before you get rid of them. That makes me feel like my stuff isn’t my stuff. It didn’t feel good when you thought I’d done that to you, did it?”
She spent the rest of the afternoon glaring at me, looking askance and alternating between being mad and almost — almost — amused occasionally. But there was a tiny little bit of respect in there, too. I never caught her giving away my stuff again after that.
Sometimes I can’t believe the brass balls I grew that day. Righteous anger will do that to you. This was one of the many times I found anger empowering. I felt powerful and courageous. That didn’t always stand me in good stead the rest of my life until I learned more about how to temper and control it, but it felt good not to be a victim.
Now I’m in my mid-50s and coping with my husband’s infidelity — a huge boundary violation — I realize just how hard I’ve had to fight all my life to defend my personal territory. Sometimes I’m stacking up the bricks around me out of anger, and sometimes I’m tearing down the walls out of guilt. No wonder sometimes I feel like I’ve got 100-foot stone fortress walls around me in some places … and crumbling knee-high cinder blocks in others.
Note from Effie: I was a kid, so my recall of dates is pretty fluid. These are my best guesstimates of years and my age. But my mom remarried in 1970, and there was a new governor in 1972. It was a year or two afterward that I pulled the ballgown heist. So I’m guessing it was 1973-74ish. I started dating when I was 14, in 1975 (again with my mother’s non-existent safe boundaries), and it was before that.