I've done almost nothing on this project. I've been busy with work and I think this is the sort of thing that needs time to unfold. I know it could unfold faster, perhaps even too rapidly if I actually got the nerve to write my Aunt Brenda an email and ask her to talk with me about my mother's surgery. It might just spill out explicitly "You really didn't know your momma had a lobotomy?" I can't really imagine it would go that way but it could. Sometimes family secrets are like that.
About five years ago I worked on another project about my mother. I knew my mother had been in a car accident that her injuries prevented her from finishing her senior year of high school. I got it into my head that my mother had suffered traumatic brain injury and that was the reason she was how she was. I could picture the accident and an old car, no seat belts. I imagined the dark road, a humid Georgia summer night.
Back when I was researching the car accident I called my Aunt Betty (my mother's oldest sister) and asked her for information. I questioned her about a number of lies I'd grown up with, things I believed to be fabrications by my mother. Stories that I felt had no rational basis. My conversation with my Aunt Betty moved in and out from specific to general. Finally, I asked her why my mother had been such a liar.
She told me -- in a tone that seemed very sincere-- that my mother wasn't a liar. That wasn't it. She said, "No. I wouldn't call your momma a liar. I'd say she just embroidered the truth." That cryptic message stuck with me. I still can't figure it out. What does it mean to embroider the truth. To me embroidery means publishing. It also conjures the old fashioned female rhetoric. It's the rhetoric of home life. In it's moral reminders and imperatives. In it's utilitarian function--practicing the alphabet. Usually samplers don't embroider lies, they are a record of the facts of family life.
Maybe my mother was the only one telling the truth.
My mother had always told me that when she was young and when her parents were sharecroppers my grandfather would binge drink once a year. They had been so poor, but there was one time a year when he earned a good sum of money. That was when they got paid for the the cotton they'd harvested. My mother said my grand father would get drunk for a week straight and come home and beat his wife, my grandmother.
I asked Aunt Betty--was it true?
She told me, "Well, it's true that we would make money on the crops, a big sum when we brought the cotton in. And daddy would -I suppose I do remember something about a fight, but it was momma who always provoked him."
So now if I call Aunt Brenda--if she'll talk to me--it may very well be that the truth will roll off her tongue too. Maybe my mother had confided in Brenda, her sister-in-law, her best friend. Maybe she sat there with her over the phone or across the table and went through the whole thing over and over, trying to make sense of it. Or they may have never spoken of it, they didn't need to because my aunt had been there back in 1970.
My Aunt Brenda might not want to speak to me at all,