Diane Payne: The Family Mantra (memoirs)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve lived in Arkansas over 15 years, so I’m feeling Southern.

The Family Mantra

My father bawled one night, wailed just like the pansy he said my brother was when he cried. He didn’t punch holes in the wall, throw chairs through the windows, or kick our bodies while blaming us for all his problems.  This drunken night was different. He rolled on the couch in fetal position, sobbing. Sick from all the drinking and crying, he ran to the bathroom and puked. Then he ran to the couch and cried some more.

“He’s dead!” Dad screamed.

Then the crying.

The ranting.

My mother just sat there, listening to him rant and rave.  Forced to admit his father was alive, something he probably knew all along, he grew weary of all his weeping and drove away to drink or visit a lover. I don’t know where he went. But the house was finally quiet.

The men in my father’s family were like the characters in the Bible who were raised from the dead. Years before, a dead uncle showed up at our door. I never understood the importance of these miracles, the need for these lives to return, but I had a burning desire to understand the secret behind those powers that raised the men from the dead, but never the women.

When I was sixteen, I went to this funeral of the man who could’ve been my grandfather, this man my father despised so much he simply told us his father was dead.  No more discussion.  Dead.

There he laid, this old man of seventy-two, resting in a coffin, the only one in the room who looked peaceful.  No pansies around for this event.  Everyone too sober to shed tears.

After the funeral, we went to his dilapidated house and the neighbors brought casseroles and pies. His wife never said a word to me.  We just looked at each other.

I had heard about the illegitimate older aunt, the dark-skinned woman who sat quietly in the living room, but I knew nothing of the aunt who was born the day after me.  Those men in my dad’s family had a busy week sixteen years ago in August when father and two sons bore children day after day after day.

Sitting next to my wild, redheaded aunt wearing bright purple hot pants and the newly discovered aunt born one day after me, I longed to know my own dad when he’d be peaceful. I wanted to ask my aunt if her father was as mean as everyone had said, but thought it’d be a rude question to ask at his funeral, especially since I already knew the answer.  At least she got to live at a boarding school away from her father.  I also wanted to tell her my father was just like hers, but she probably already knew that also.

Our family had a strange relationship with Jesus. Some would grab Jesus’ hand tight and never cry at church, they’d just sing the hymns, forgiving and forgetting, while others would drink like fools and wail all night long, and when they felt bad, really bad, they’d go to church surrounded by those speaking in tongues and let their demons fly; but, driving home from that country church, there’d be that fifth they’d remember beneath the front seat. People in our family disappeared for lengthy periods of time because they were experiencing religious breakdowns and needed rest in an asylum or at Skid Road or in a lover’s arm. Some disappeared for years, were considered dead, then reappeared.  We were a family of odd miracles.

I wondered if my aunt was like me and got drunk just to forget, then feared she was already turning into her father, and nothing could prevent that from happening.  I wondered if she felt drunk weeping in those same churches with faith healings going on, saddened that our faith was never enough to bring forth any healing.

Looking at my aunt, I knew we shared the same family mantra:  Forgive and forget.  Over and over-forgive and forget-while we clung to our memories and seethed.