Excerpts for People in the Trees
I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest. By which I mean that the town, as I remember it, was exceptional only for its very lack of distinguishing details. There were silos, and red barns (most of the residents were farmers), and general stores, and churches, and ministers and doctors and teachers and men and women and children: an outline for an American society, but one with no flourishes, no decoration, no accessories. There were a few drunks, and a resident madman, and dogs and cats, and a county fair that was held in tandem with Locust, an incorporated town a few miles to the west that no longer exists. The townspeople--there were eighteen hundred of us--were born, and went to school, and did chores, and became farmers, and married Lindonites, and began families of their own. When you saw someone in the street, you'd nod to him or, if you were a man, pull down the brim of your hat a bit. The seasons changed, the tobacco and corn grew and were harvested. That was Lindon.
There were four of us in the family: my father, my mother, and Owen and me. (1) We lived on a hundred acres of land, in a sagging house whose only notable characteristic was a massive, once-grand central staircase that long before had been transformed by generations of termites into a lacy ruin.
About a mile behind the house ran a curvy creek, too small and slow and behaviorally inconsistent to warrant a proper name. Every March and April, after the winter thaw, it would surpass its limitations and become a proper river, swollen and aggressive with gallons of melted snow and spring rain. During those months, the creek's very nature changed. It became merciless and purposeful, and seized from its outgrown banks tiny, starry bloodroot blossoms and wild thyme by their roots and whisked them downstream, where they were abandoned in the thicket of a dam someone unknown had built long ago. Minnows, the creek's year-round inhabitants, fought upstream and drowned. For that one season, the creek had a voice: an outraged roar of rushing water, of power, and that narrow tributary, normally so placid and characterless, became during those months something frightening and unpredictable, and we were warned to keep away.
But in the heat of the summer months, the creek--which didn't originate at our property but rather at the Muellers', who lived about five miles to the east--dried once again to a meek trickle, timorously creeping its way past our farm. The air above it would be noisy with clouds of buzzing mosquitoes and dragonflies, and leeches would suck along its soft silty bottom. We used to go fishing there, and swimming, and afterward would climb back up the low hill to our house, scratching at the mosquito welts on our arms and legs until they became furry with old skin and new blood.
My father never ventured down to the creek, but my mother used to like to sit on the grass and watch the water lick over her ankles. When we were very young, we would call out to her--Look at us!--and she would lift her head dreamily and wave, though she was just as likely to wave at us as she was to wave at, say, a nearby oak sapling. (Our mother's sight was fine, but she often behaved as a blind person would; she moved through the world as a sleepwalker.) By the time Owen and I were seven or eight or so (at any rate, too young to have become disenchanted with her), she had become an object of at first pity and, soon after, of fun. We'd wave at her, sitting on the bank, her arms crossed under her knees, and then, as she was waving back at us (with her whole arm rather than simply her hand, like a clump of seaweed listing underwater), we'd turn away, talk loudly to each other, pretend not to see her. Later, over dinner, when she'd ask what we'd done at the creek, we'd act astonished, perplexed. The creek? But we hadn't been there! We were playing in the fields all day.
"But I saw you there," she'd say.
No, we'd tell her in unison, shaking our heads. It must have been two other boys. Two other boys who looked just like us.
"But--" she'd begin, and her face would seize for a moment in confusion before clearing. "It must have been," she'd say uncertainly, and look down at her plate.
This exchange occurred several times a month. It was a game for us, but an unsettling one. Was our mother playing along? But the look that crossed her face--of real worry, of fear that she was, as we said back then, not right, that she was unable to trust or believe her sight or memory--seemed too real, too spontaneous. We chose to believe that she was acting, for the alternative, that she was mad or, worse, genuinely moronic, was too frightening to contemplate seriously. Later, in our room, Owen and I would imitate her ("But--but--but--it was you!") and laugh, but afterward, lying in our beds, silent, considering the game's implications, we were troubled. We were young, but we both knew (from books, from our peers) what a mother was expected to do--to chastise, to teach, to instruct, to discipline if necessary--and furthermore, we both knew our mother was not fit for those tasks. What, we wondered, would we grow up to become under such a woman? Why was she so incapable? We treated her like most boys would treat small animals: kindly when we were feeling happy and generous, cruelly when we were not. It was intoxicating to know we had the power to make her shoulders relax, to make her lips part in an uncertain smile, and yet also to make her turn her face down, to make her rub her palm quickly against her leg, which she did when she was nervous or unhappy or confused. Despite our concerns, we never spoke of them aloud; the only discussions we had about her were tinged with derision or disgust. Worry pulled us closer to each other, made us ever bolder and more obnoxious. Surely, we thought, we would push her to a point where the real adult she'd kept cloaked so well would reveal itself. Like most children, we assumed all adults were naturally imbued with a sense of intimidation, of authority.
Besides her lack of substance, there were fundamental ways in which my mother might be considered a failure. She was a slipshod cook (her steamed broccoli was rubbery, its florets bristling with the crunchy carcasses of minuscule unseen beetles, her roasted chicken squeaky with blood) and an only occasional housekeeper--our father had bought her a vacuum cleaner, but it sat neglected in the coat closet until Owen and I one day dissected it for its parts. Nor did she seem to have any interests. We never saw her reading or writing or painting or gardening, all pastimes that we (even then) knew were of intrinsic worth and interest. On summer afternoons, we'd sometimes find her sitting in the living room, her legs tucked under her girlishly, a silly smile on her face, staring fixedly yet vacantly at a vast constellation of dust motes made visible by a stripe of sunlight.
Once I saw her praying. I went into the living room one afternoon after school and found her on her knees, her palms pressed together, her head lifted. Her lips were moving, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. She looked ridiculous, like an actress playing to an empty theater, and I was embarrassed for her. "What are you doing?" I asked, and she looked up, alarmed. "Nothing," she said, startled. But I knew what she was doing and knew too that she was lying.
What else can I say? I can say she was vague, drifty, probably even stupid. But here I must also say that she has remained an enigma to me, which is a difficult thing for any human to accomplish. And there are other things I remember of her as well: she was tall, and graceful, and although I am unable to recollect the specificities of her face, I know she was somewhat beautiful. An old, blurred sepia photograph Owen has hanging in his office confirms this. She was probably not considered as beautiful then as she would be now, for her face was ahead of her times--long, white, startled: a face that promised intelligence, mystery, depth. Today she would be called arresting. But my father must have considered her very beautiful, for I can think of no other reason that he might have married her. My father, when he spoke to women at all, enjoyed well-educated women, though he did not find them in any way sexually appealing. I assume this is because intelligent women reminded him of his sister, Sybil, who was a doctor in Rochester and whom he admired enormously. So he was left with beauty. It disappointed me when I discerned as an adolescent that my father had married my mother only for her beauty, but this was before I realized that parents disappoint us in many ways and it is best not to expect anything of them at all, for chances are that they won't be able to deliver it.
Mostly, though, she was unknowable. I don't even know where she came from exactly (somewhere in Nebraska, I believe), but I do know she was from a poor family, and my father, with his relative fortune and undemanding nature, had saved her. But curiously, for all her poverty, there was nothing work-worn or used about her; she did not appear to be depleted, nor hardened. Rather, she gave the impression of being one of those indulged women who floats from her father's home to the finishing school and into her husband's arms. (The glow that seems to surround her in Owen's photograph, her early, quiet death, her sleepy, slow movements, all make me remember her as luminous, protected, cosseted, even though I know otherwise.) As far as I know, she had no education (reading our report cards aloud to my father, she stumbled over words: "Ex-, ex-em-pu," she'd sound out before Owen or I would shout out the word--Exemplary--to her, smug and impatient and ashamed), and she was very young when she died.
But then too, she was young in all things. In my memories she is persistently childlike, not only in behavior but in appearance as well. Her hair, for example: no matter the occasion, she wore it loose, rippling down her back in a loose, snaking helix. Even when I was a child, this hairstyle of hers was troublesome to me; I saw it as further evidence of a rigorously, inappropriately maintained girlhood--the long hair, the distant, vacuous smile, the way her eyes would wander from yours the moment you began to speak to her, all things not admirable in a woman with her supposed responsibilities.
It is discomfiting to me now, as I list these few details of my mother's life, how little I know and how incurious I have remained about her. I suppose every child yearns to understand his parental origins, but I never found her an interesting enough person to consider. (Or should that reasoning be inverted?) But then, I have never believed in romancing the past--what good would it do me? Owen, however, later became much more interested in our mother, and even passed through a period as an undergraduate in which he attempted to trace her family and complete an informal biography of her. He abandoned the project months after its inception, however, and became very defensive about it when asked, so I can only assume he found our maternal relatives without much trouble, realized they were yokels, and gave the whole thing up in disgust (he was still enough of an avowed elitist back then to do exactly that). (2) She has always mattered to him in a way that I have never been able to understand. But then, Owen is a poet, and I believe he thought it important that he have these details available for future employment, however mediocre or ultimately disappointing they may have been.
At any rate. It was July of 1933. I hesitate to say "It was a day like any other," for it sounds so melodramatic and portentous, as well as wholly unbelievable. Yet it is also true. So: it was a day like any other. My father was off with his friend Lester Drew, a small-time farmer, doing whatever it was two small-time farmers did together. Owen and I were gathering a bucket of leeches that we planned to bake into a pie and then give to Ida, the part-time cook, a sour woman we both hated. My mother was dangling her feet in the stream.
For weeks afterward, Owen and I would be asked to try to remember--had anything seemed different about her that afternoon? Had she seemed listless, or ill, or particularly fatigued? Had she spoken to us of feeling dizzy or weak? But the answer was always no. Indeed, if I can tell you very little about my mother's actions or mood that day, it is probably because they so closely resembled what we had come to accept as her normal behavior. As exasperating as our mother was, we could never accuse her of inconsistency. Even her last day of life followed that same inscrutable rhythm that only she could decipher.
(1) The Owen to whom Norton refers is Owen C. Perina, Norton's twin brother and one of the few significant adult relationships in his life. Unlike Norton, Owen was always interested in literature, and he is now a renowned poet and the Field--Patey Professor of Poetry at Bard College. He has also twice been awarded the National Book Award for poetry, once for The Insect's Hand and Other Poems (1984) and again for The Pillow Book of Philip Perina (1995), as well as numerous other commendations. Owen is as famously taciturn as Norton is voluble, and I once witnessed a very amusing exchange between them when I visited Norton a few Christmases ago. There was Norton, fist full of chestnuts, spewing, chewing, gesticulating, holding forth on everything from the dying art of butterfly mounting to the strange appeal of a certain talk show, and across from him, his lumpish mirror image, grunting and murmuring his occasional assent or dissent, was Owen. Sadly, Norton and his brother are now at irreconcilable odds. As these pages will reveal, their estrangement was abrupt and devastating, the result of a terrible betrayal, one from which Norton will never recover.
(2) Owen Perina has written a rather lovely poem about his mother and her death; it is the first poem in his third collection, Moth and Honey (1986).