When Caroline Brown said "Jump," she expected her three surviving sons to say "How high?" Daddy, the eldest, looked exactly like his father, Rueben Brown, a dramatically handsome man.
Earl, the dark middle son, didn't resemble anybody. We never knew where he came from, and he didn't act like a Brown. He acted like a banty rooster.
Claude, the youngest, another handsome blond fellow, radiated goodwill and happiness. He and Daddy were alike except that it's always easier to be the baby of the family than to be the eldest.
Dad was not the firstborn. Carrie (Caroline's nickname) bore a son, John, before my dad's birth. The death of a child is deeply painful, but in those days people knew better than to believe all their children would live to adulthood.
Carrie bore it in stride. She was a strong woman. The hopes of the Brown line now transferred to Ralph, a sunny, jovial, sweet-natured man who was willing to work hard and did. However, he was not a man to carry the burden of the world on his shoulders or even the burden of the Browns.
You see, Carrie nursed ambitions. In that respect she was a bit like Aunt Mimi. These women were going to get ahead. If they couldn't push you, they'd pull you. Failing that, they'd put a stick of dynamite under your ass.
Fortunately, Reuben possessed vision. The Browns had sprung out of the Pennsylvania soil. They'd been here since the earth was cooling. Graveyards throughout York County are filled with their ancestors. Bold, they pushed over to the west bank of the Susquehanna River--when most white folks clung to the Atlantic shoreline.
Unlike Mother's family, the Browns were tradesmen. They were greengrocers and butchers for generation after generation, with a merchant's keen eye for value. They believed in service, not just customer service but community service. Between Reuben and the three sons, they must have lent their support to every worthy cause in the town of York, Pennsylvania, to say nothing of joining organizations like the Rotary Club. They were doers, people who worked with other people, whereas the Buckinghams were people who worked with animals. It wasn't that the Buckinghams didn't get along with people; they were exceedingly popular and fun-loving. It's just that their view of life contrasted sharply with that of the Browns. The Buckinghams displayed all the characteristics of impoverished English dukes, barons or squires.
The Browns displayed the characteristics of organized, fanatically clean Swabians, the inhabitants of the German state from which they originally emigrated before the Revolutionary War. And like the Swabians to this day, the Browns were tight with a buck.
The Buckinghams belonged to the "consider the lilies of the field" philosophy of finance. They didn't give a rat's ass what you thought of them. A Buckingham liked you, or didn't like you, based on you, your character. Money couldn't sway them.
The Browns preferred that you be swaddled in the clothes of bourgeois abundance. The Victorian age was their highest point. All that overstuffed furniture, doilies, drapes, all that propriety and careful grooming of image suited them perfectly.
The Buckinghams could be happy in a bloody palace or in a simple Quaker farmhouse with a few chairs and beds. Mother and Aunt Mimi deviated from this simplicity in that both adored color.
The dominant possession of Reuben and Carrie Brown was an imposing black clock from the 1840s that ticked away on a big mantelpiece. It now ticks away on mine, and if Carrie Brown could come back from the dead and see that I have her clock, she'd pitch a hissy.
Mamaw Brown did not like me. Papaw accepted me but he wasn't a man to spend much time with children. Neither one had an ounce of affection for me. I don't remember ever being hugged or kissed by them. Perhaps they did but I can't remember, which says something right there.
How could Ralph Brown, their golden boy, the beautiful, strapping son whom everyone adored, lower himself, first to marry that wild rat, Julia Ellen Buckingham, and then fifteen years later, when they both were old enough to know better, adopt Juliann Young's illegitimate baby? No bastard could carry the unsullied Brown name.
Of course, the Buckingham name was far grander than the Brown name, if you wanted to be picky about it, and if you weighted English aristocracy over Swabian merchants. Mother ignored her in-laws' sense of superiority. Aunt Mimi didn't. She'd sniff, lower her voice and say, "Carrie Brown, who does she think she is?"
Carrie and Reuben turned their backs on Dad when he married my mother, a worldly woman. As members of the Church of the Brethren, their views of what constituted worldliness were quaint. Mother smoked, drank, danced all night and, horrors, worked in a silk mill.
What good were exalted bloodlines when you worked next to common folk?
Dad rebelled and married her. It was the smartest thing he ever did. They were made for each other.
Carrie Brown all but huffed and puffed and blew the house down. However, the Depression roared into everyone's life shortly after Mom and Dad married. They lived in a tree house on Long Level on the Susquehanna River. They worked like mad and saved as much as they could--never easy around Mother, since money burned a hole in her pocket.
Had Dad chosen a suitable wife, they would have been invited to live for free on the third floor over the store, Browns' Meat Market, on a corner on Market Street in West York, Pennsylvania.
Earl and Claude received favors and goodies from their mother and father. Mom and Dad got a fat nothing, but they had each other. That was enough.
I should add that both Earl and Claude married women who passed Carrie's test. All the Brown men had emotional sense when it came to women. They had the sense to know what they needed in a partner. All three marriages endured and grew, as did Reuben and Carrie's marriage, for they too were a good team.
The Depression forced Papaw to lay off workers at the store. He called back his oldest boy. Mother, usually a font of information, clammed up on the details.
What I think happened, though I can't prove it, is that Reuben promised the three sons the store and probably finalized his will even though he was in the prime of life. He may well have done this over Carrie's objections. The Browns enjoyed robust health. Built like Warmblood horses, they had solid, heavy bones and big muscles, yet a cleanness, even refinement of facial features.
So Dad came back to the store. He and Mom moved into the third floor of the building after all, and if Carrie wasn't welcoming to Juts, she at least tolerated her.
Mother didn't give a fig.
However, by the time I appeared Mom and Dad lived in a small, adorable house on a hill in south York very close to the Maryland line.
Carrie couldn't abide what her son had done. She froze him out again. Mother never could understand how a grown person could be so cruel to an infant. Carrie wouldn't let me in the house.
So Dad and Mom didn't go over. Dad dutifully appeared at work. The tension probably resonated in Browns' Meat Market.
Then one evening Daddy showed up at a huge party at his parents' house with me in his arms. He strode through the door, and I expect everyone there was struck dumb, a truly amazing occurrence given that gathering. He held me up over his head in one big hand and called out, "I have the most beautiful baby in the world right here. Who will bid on this beautiful baby?"
No one knew what to do.
They tell me Uncle Jim, Carrie's brother, made a bid. Soon everyone was into the spirit of it. Carrie stood in the kitchen surrounded by "bidders."
Finally Dad yelled, "You can't have her. A million dollars won't buy this baby. She's mine!" At that everyone cheered and Uncle Claude came up asking to hold me. Dad told him he could in a minute and then, with me still over his head (the man was strong beyond belief, but I guess you get that way lifting three-hundred-pound sides of beef), pushed his way through the crowd.
Carrie, to her credit, didn't turn her back or run to another room and shut the door in a huff. She waited. Daddy placed me in her arms and said, "Mother, this is your granddaughter and she's beautiful."
Even Carrie, in all her hatefulness, couldn't resist me at that moment. Why, I don't know. By now, thanks to Mom and Dad's feeding me around the clock, I'd gained enough weight to pass for a pink cannonball.
Pretty soon everyone was cooing and aahing, and Carrie was bouncing me around and telling Dad how a baby must be treated.
Wonderful though that moment must have been, Carrie Brown couldn't truly warm to me. I know she loved Dad. The distance of years has taught me many things, one being that Caroline Brown may have been cold to me but she was fundamentally a good woman and she loved her boys.
The problem was she couldn't leave anyone alone. She lived her children's lives for them until the day she died, and Dad, number-one son, deeply disappointed her twice.
My earliest memories of her are how peachy, creamy and rich her skin was, like Devon cream. She had the skin of an angel. I also remember the smell of fresh-baked bread and her flourishing little garden along the fence line between her house and a neighbor's.
One sunny June I toddled after her--I couldn't have been more than three--bubbling as I walked. I was a happy cherub, singing, chirping and laughing. For whatever reason, I was with Mamaw alone. We both loved flowers, a step in the right direction. Mom, a crack gardener, had given me a set of baby tools. At the ripe old age of three I considered myself an expert and I prattled off the names of irises and cabbage roses.
The vibrant flowers swayed in rows like soldiers. Even Carrie's flowers were incredibly orderly.
Nestled under a drooping magnificent white peony was a pile of dog excrement. I had not yet developed a sense of what was proper to note and what should be left unremarked. I commented on this gift from a neighboring dog, and then with a sense of discovery and excitement, I said, "Look, Mamaw, it's got peanuts in it!"
I didn't know that dogs ate peanuts. Well, I didn't know a lot of things, but I knew at that moment that Carrie felt such an observation was not in keeping with a young lady's deportment. I was hustled out of the garden into the nook by Papaw's desk. A National Geographic rested on a window seat. She told me to look at the pictures, so I did.
Each time I visited Mamaw, once a week like clockwork, I admired her garden, kept my mouth shut and poured over those yellow-bound copies of National Geographic while she cooked another of her delicious meals.
I felt to my bones that Mamaw didn't like me. There was nothing I could do to change that.
Claude and Jeun, his wife, treated me with kindness. Even Earl, a cold fish, never gave me a harsh word. His wife, Helen, often went out of her way to give me something to eat.
I don't remember Carrie or Reuben Brown ever buying me a Co'Cola, a book or anything else spontaneously. They gave me a birthday present and a Christmas present each year. It was always something practical, which was fine. Even as a child I liked practical things, especially tools. The presents were beautifully wrapped.
Mother bit her tongue. On the subject of her mother-in-law she tried very hard not to explode in fury. She didn't need to, since Aunt Mimi usually did it for her. Aunt Mimi would sometimes be so disgusted with Carrie that she could hardly say hello to her.
Aunt Mimi had taken in a homeless girl, Etta, also not on the social register, and raised her with her two daughters, Virginia and Julia Ellen (named after Mom), so she thought Carrie's selfishness, as she put it, contemptible. Both Buckingham girls would help a child or an animal in need. The number of kittens, puppies, bunnies, birds and squirrels they doctored is beyond counting.
Dad didn't like his mother's attitude any more than the Buckinghams did, but she was his mother. He loved her and he too refused to speak against her, but she hurt him. I don't know if she ever realized how much she hurt him. He wanted her to love the people he loved, his two girls, Mom and me. She couldn't or wouldn't do it.
When I was in first grade, one Sunday Carrie attended her worship service and emerged a shaken woman. What I remember best about this occasion is that Mom, Dad, Aunt Mimi and her husband, Uncle Mearl, were befuddled with amazement.
The pastor of her church had preached a passionate sermon on loving all God's children. He and his wife had just adopted an orphan and he beseeched his congregation not to visit the sins of the father on the child.
Afterward Mamaw and Papaw met with Dad. I don't know what they said or even if tears were shed, but they admitted they were wrong and they would try to set things to rights.
After that Mamaw smiled at me more and Papaw answered my torrent of questions. I truly believe they tried, but the damage was done. I never loved them.
I behaved correctly. Mother would have killed me if I hadn't.
From Carrie I learned that piety is like garlic, a little goes a long way. Whenever I see someone utterly secure in the rightness of their restrictive beliefs I think, "Ah yes, this one's kin to Mamaw," and I pop into reverse and get the hell out of there.
I also remember that the only spot in heaven promised to anyone by Christ was that given to the thief who died on the cross with him. I often wonder if these strident Christians, I'm-better-than-you folks, read the same Bible I do.
For Carrie's sake I hope she got to heaven. She died in 1960. However, if our Eastern sisters and brothers are right and there is karma, I expect that Caroline Brown is right back here on earth learning more lessons. For myself, I hope she's come back as a dog that eats peanuts.
From the Hardcover edition.