Katie Letcher Lyle

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When the Fighting is All Over

When the Fighting is All Over

© Longstreet, 1997


I am in the middle of telling some terrific story when Mama comes in and accuses me, in front of Andaddy, of exaggerating. Andaddy laughs easily and says, “Oh, but Betty, it makes life so much more interesting.”

“Cap’n!” she protests. “You ought not to encourage it!”

He says, “Now, Miss Betty, the truth is generally boring. But everyone loves storytellers!” And he winks at me.

It is below freezing, and why didn’t we think of this last August when we were here for Daddy’s funeral, how cold it would probably be? It is January 1995. How we decided on this date had to do with all the dates some one of us couldn’t come. Scattered from Maine to the Midwest, from mountain farm to city house, we have returned for this moment, the four of us together to this house for the first time since we can remember, resentful loving strangers, exasperated siblings, stressed aunts and uncles, forced grown-ups, now that our last excuse for being children is gone.

We are wary and weary participants in this tearing apart of a house containing all our own parts and pasts, roughly a half century of the material all families accumulate. As if pulling out rats’ nests, or tomb-robbing, we are newly surrounded by the moldy detritus of our six lives. In addition, Daddy was heir to the effects of six of the governor's, his grandfather’s, children as well, another vast collection of stuff that must be dealt with.

My sense of history wars with my sense of economy what, for instance, do we do with a broken tortoise-shell hair-comb with a spidery note attached saying this was a gift from Mrs. Robert E. Lee from her husband to his goddaughter, our great-aunt Lizzie, one of Governor Letcher’s daughters? With a small locket (initials indecipherable) carrying the picture of an unidentified child, found among Aunt Jennie’s effects? With a ghastly pair of Victorian andirons on marble bases sporting stags, twined grapevines, and crystal pendants that we can’t just throw out, as they were once in the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. “They’d look great in your house” I tell my sister. “Oh, mercy, no,” she counters. “You’re the oldest. You deserve them.” We make faces at each other, shove them toward the auction piles.

We are bound by the strange (and, at first glance, generous-seeming) directive of our father’s will that any of us can purchase from the estate any part of it, at eighty percent of the appraised value. But this means that every item of value not already clearly someone’s property, small or large, must be appraised. Items whose ownership is in question go to the highest bidder among us. Not conducive to loving resolution. Speaking for myself, I never liked competitive games. I particularly dislike this one, which seems devised to turn us mean-spirited.

So here we are. In order to sell the house, we have to clear it out, distribute books, china and crystal, bolts of silk from China wound on bamboo poles, the carved walnut furniture, the painted Shansi chests, the double baby carriage, the wheat grinder, the red cider mill, the old 78 Vernon Dalhart records, the 33 rpm Stravinskys and Sousa marches, the Chinese rugs, the fishing tackle, the little carved walnut cabinet with a marble top that Daddy bought for Mama when she was dying.

The outside of the house Daddy built for Mama in the back yard of Andaddy’s is still bare of planting, for Daddy was convinced roots would undermine the foundation. The poured concrete is exposed like ugly legs under a too-short dress.

The front-porch aluminum window frames, which never did work right, now have rigor mortis. Bamboo chairs and chaises are piled there like bones in an ossuary.

Off the back porch is the treacherous rock “terrace” Daddy laid with undulating river rocks hauled home one at a time from all over Rockbridge County. There is one space left empty up under the bathroom windows. In this hole there are two exceptions to the no-planting rule: a fig tree and its progeny threaten to tear the house apart, for Daddy loved figs, and had cultivated them in California before the War. Afterward, he actually managed to grow them here in the mountains of Virginia where figs do not grow. Now the old tree annually offers up a lesson in resurrection as it sprouts bravely each spring, flirts its Rubensesque leaves throughout the summer, tries valiantly to make it through our harsh winters, dies down, and sends up more stolons to try again next year. Occasionally, figs still appear on it. The other exception is Mama’s mint bed, gone wild and scraggly among the stones.

This white asbestos shingle house has its back set resolutely to the big house, our Andaddy’s, which stands facing Letcher Avenue in front of it.

The inside of this postwar salt-box is plain and ugly with its two small bathrooms, peach and blue, in which we tangled each morning, all six of us (and finally seven), in each other’s ways, in each other’s smells. The other rooms are more or less square, five on the first floor, four on the second, and have low ceilings, small windows, odd thin squatty baseboards, cheap floorboards. Unimaginative paints (light green, pale blue, peach, boiled custard yellow) tint the walls.

Rockbridge County, named for its famous Natural Bridge, was formed in 1778 out of vast Augusta County, Virginia, reaching from the Shenandoah Valley all the way to the Mississippi. George Washington, one-time surveyer of Natural Bridge, once said, during a dark period of the Revolution, “If I am defeated, I can retire to the wilds of west Augusta and hold out indefinitely.”

In addition to the furniture, we have cleared out the junk long crammed under and into the unfinished eaves and attic (somebody recalls that at some point Daddy hid some of the silver under the fiberglass insulation on the attic floor, and sure enough, blacker than night, a tea set and a small fortune in flat silver come to light).

More stuff is piled in nightmarish profusion in the half-finished basement picnic gear, cookpots, metal outside furniture, the old front-porch glider now paralyzed with rust. Jars of screws and nails. Tins, ammunition, tools. Years of canned tomatoes and blackberry jelly, honey, applesauce, and chutney.

Our piles of sad treasure block all but the most perilous passage through the rooms. My sister has claimed the marble-topped walnut night-stand. My own stash, things I can’t use but also can’t let go, include the filthy and now-rotten tarp that enclosed the back porch where I slept throughout the fall of 1947, the brittle Blue Horse notebook with my first novel scrawled and illustrated on twenty-seven of its pages, a big glazed crock that once held baked beans, a brittle tiger-belly-fur laprobe from Peking, my little blue 78 Victrola from California, long defunct, but its smell still capable of recalling with one breath the whole feeling of my early years. I have claimed, too, my old blue-rimmed enamel potty with Chinese lettering on the bottom that stayed in whatever car we owned until I was past grown up, the red plaid suitcase that crossed and recrossed the continent with me nearly fifty years ago, Boppie’s (our other grandfather’s) old coffee grinder that Mama got when he died. It still retains the ghost of the A&P Bokar coffee (“Vigorous and Winey,” said the label) that he ground each morning fresh.

I can conveniently keep more than the others, for I still live in the same town where we grew up. The others will have to ship home the rolled rugs, the boxes of books, the silver, whatever they keep, wrestle it all into a back seat, or a truck, or take extra luggage on the plane.

In this terrible cold I have broken out with the hives that I get every time I go down to the house for more talk, more work. Whatever parts of me are exposed—face, hands, calves, throat—sport itching red continents and islands rising out of a sea of white skin, for as long as we are about this stressful task.

Here is the tin tomato juice can with the wire handle that was our cooking pot on the trip Daddy and Johnnie and I made across the continent; into the trash it goes, along with stained leg bandages from my horseback riding days. Every item is a landmine, exploding memories from somewhere deep in the past. There is a dried-up bottle of L’heure Bleue, Mama’s party scent, with only a brown tobacco-juice stain in the bottom. I stash it until my pile grows unwieldy, then it too goes into the trash.

My hives, I know, have to do with another coldness: that of our family, gathered here to absorb, or make disappear, the leftovers of three generations. Out in the yard are other piles of things: scrapbooks, boxes, cookpots, a parachute, wardrobe trunks. Johnnie wants the six-foot brass telescope Daddy got off a dead Jap, and we haul it into the yard in its heavy case with rope handles. Peter wants the silver, guns, and tools. Betsy would like the rare Czechoslovakian plates. Of the valuable items, I want jewelry. I spot and grab the scratched tin plate my grandfather used to feed the birds on every morning. A quizzical look from Betsy, and I realize nobody else cares or remembers what it was used for. And what will I do with it?

The entire situation seems orchestrated by our dead father in order to pit us against each other, though that was surely not his conscious intention. What we always did know was that Daddy was reluctant to give us things, and that in his mindset, money corrupts. Both would make us soft, he believed. I don’t know why—apparently, things and money didn’t corrupt him, but he believed that if any of his kids ever got flush, we’d instantly become bums, dope addicts, alcoholics, or gamblers.

In this January, we will sometimes pay our own money for things from our childhood, Ming vases and lamps, fine Chinese plates. Betsy and I run up the price bidding on a real gold matchbox someone once gave our grandfather.

The rest of the household goods will be dispersed the following summer at an auction, with some bizarre results. Our walnut sideboard will sell at the auction for $200, and change hands again later the same day for $1600. Chairs, china, and cupboards will show up for months at local antique stores identified as “being from the Letcher estate,” but which did not come from there at all. Local dealers are apparently trying to cash in on the faded past of a family that once gave Virginia a governor.

At a cocktail party a man will say, “I bought one of your family portraits at Henry’s. I can’t understand you all letting them go.”

“But there were no family portraits,” I say, truthfully. I can tell he doesn’t believe me. Another man will call from Pennsylvania to say he has bought a Letcher piece and will I tell him what I know of its history? When a photograph of the piece arrives, it is a cabinet I’ve never laid eyes on, certainly not from the Letchers.

And the next summer my brothers can’t believe until I show them the receipts and the cancelled checks, that we netted less than two thousand dollars apiece from the Ruritan Club auction, which we four children agreed was more palatable than a sale on the premises.

“2 deerhides, $1.00,” the sales slips say. “Box of 19th c. Iawbooks, 75 cents.” “Bk of Know. Encyclopedia, $5.” (My childhood dream-fount, the pictures of ruined Mayan cities rising out of jungle, of Roman temples and Greek colonnades.) “Chinese rug, 12 x 15, $45.” “Wardrobe trunk, $6.” “Box of Blue Willow china, $5.” “Posthole digger and Misc. tools, $1.” “Parachute, $1.” We know they’ll all be hauled off and possibly sold for many times what was paid for them, but what can we do? Or what say to the million people who ask, “How could you sell all those family things?”

The black walnut tree halfway to the woodshed still drops its exhausted load of fruit onto the tin roof and into the sagging gutters, and sucks up the nourishment from the side yard, leaving only moss and brown grass as thin on the soil as an old man’s hair. We cross back and forth from the house to the cold woodshed/office, trampling last year’s harvest, trying to decide what to do, what to keep, what to toss, what to sell, what to give away.

The woodshed. When I first came to Lexington to live in 1943, it held wood and coal in bins. It had a stall for the horses Daddy and his brother Gee once owned. It was a wonderful filthy trove of abandoned tools and boxes. Now we pry open its ancient wooden door, breaking the lock, and find it full of garden tools. The woodshed was my playhouse. It was where Andaddy had taken Daddy to whip him for wrongdoings in the early years of the twentieth century, and where I was twice taken in the middle of the century for serious transgressions, Iying I think it was, both times. Around 1960 after Andaddy died and Daddy sold the big house on Letcher Avenue to Virginia Military Institute, he renovated a part of the sagging old structure, adding a tiny coal stove and bookshelves, and jury-rigged himself an office. For years it’s been crammed with file cabinets, old maps, artillery shells, med-packs from World War II, books, boots, uniforms, collapsed tents, luggage, unopened crates of low-quality silver compote dishes from China. There are a dozen snake and alligator skins from animals Daddy had flayed in the south Pacific or the Virginia mountains, the worst a rattlesnake skin six feet long, eight or nine inches wide. All are curled permanently into useless keratin-hard bundles. Tottering piles of framed degrees, citations, photographs, religious art, maps, grim-faced people peering out of cracked glass in whom I imagine I can see one of us, balance uneasily. Beneath greasy coal dust we discover more Chinese platters, a silver samovar, the beaver coat Daddy made for Mama (now brittle as cardboard) in a box tied with cord, the huge brass bullet casing we'd used as an umbrella and walking-stick stand. My wedding dress, carefully wrapped in blue tissue paper.

Six tall filing cabinets are packed with papers. Some can go: decades of annual reports from companies Daddy owned shares in. Others vote to throw out all the papers, letters, files of Andaddy's law cases. I cry No, and offer to haul them home. I agree to arrange them in file cabinets.

Things surface like fragments in dreams: Daddy’s three white BVD nightshirts that I know he wore on their honeymoon. A box of Betsy’s schoolbooks. An entire barrel of old lace, napkins, and linens, stained and rodent-chewed. Books that fall into crumbs when picked up. Over everything, black greasy soot, years and years of it. Precious goods, or worthless trash? Unclear.

THERE IS AN OLD HINDU FOLK SAYING that the prisoned monkey, given paper and colors, paints a picture of the bars of its cage. I take this to mean we can only portray things the way we see them. I doubt whether there is much use in looking for the truth, though that is why I began this book. My mother had a sad, if not terrible, life with my father during most of the forty-three years they lived together. My stepmother, who married and lived with my father for the last dozen years of his life, had a wonderful life with him. My own life with him was something in between wonderful and terrible, always contradictory. I wanted to know the truth of him, the truth of me, the truth of our relationship.

I was a girl; he wanted a boy. So I learned, more than the boys, to be daring and fearless (though it was already in my nature, for of his four children I was and am the most like him).

He was a good hater, and I wanted to be a good hater. It was something he got from his mother. I never thought to ask what that was, or what good it was, but it got defined and redefined all the time. I loved him maybe more than anyone else; I don't know if he loved me.

I often made him very mad. He often made me very mad. What I wanted was to make him love me back. What he wanted was not clear. One thing I knew he wanted was for me to be less trouble; but I could never help being lots of trouble.

He considered children lesser creatures than grown-ups, and approved of them solely on how well behaved they were. But I was not insubstantial, or subtle, or well behaved, and it made me mad as hell to be so disregarded, and so unfairly judged.

Once, before he went off to war, he’d loved me, I was sure, but the tall ungainly urchin my father kept bumping up against after the war was nobody he knew, and, quite evidently, nobody he wanted to know. He didn’t like the hoyden I’d become, and, not at all given to sentiment, he didn’t seem to recall the past and its idylls as I did. I was soon given to know that I was difficult, disobedient, and headed for jail, or perdition, probably both.

He wanted me to go into the Marine Corps; I went flouncing off instead with a “So there!” and got an M.A. in creative writing and philosophy and sang in a nightclub, more than partially just to show him I could, after getting a similarly useless B.A. in English. I wanted to excel at things he couldn’t touch. But oh, how I wanted him to approve of them!

I hated a lot of things about my father his narrow-mindedness, his suspicious nature, his erratic and uncontrolled temper, his tight-fistedness—while admiring extravagantly his energy, his ability to do absolutely anything he made up his mind to, his outrageousness and defiance of what anyone else thought of him, and most of all his downright charm.

Daddy could be the best company of anybody. He was a great storyteller. He chose his stories; he only told ones that confirmed his view of the world—and revealed only part of himself. For example, I learned only from other people that in his early days, my father was a rounder, a wild man. He never told us that.

With my mother I had a placid, pleasant, loving, and therefore not terribly interesting relationship. We were always good friends, and I knew she loved me and was proud of me. I heard and saw her side of things, and agreed with them, but I couldn’t see then why she wouldn“t fight back. She was a grown-up, not a little child. I now know that she was as physically afraid of Daddy as the children were. I carefully chose a life different from hers.

This book glosses over many aspects of my childhood; specifically, it fuzzes the fact that we children were four interactive and very different siblings, and it avoids the truth that as I grew up I was in many ways closer to my friends and certain other adults than to my family. It skirts the fact that I left home early and for good, though ten years later I did return to marry, and have been in Lexington since. So I’ve left out a lot, and I’ve changed the names of some minor characters, especially where naming them didn’t add to the story. Once or twice, I had to make up a name because I couldn’t remember it, such as the Flournoys’ dog, or because there were two people with the same name.

I have attempted throughout to be mindful that, as Stephen Jay Gould so perfectly put it “(The) propensity to tell stories grants us resolution, but also spells danger in avenues thereby opened for distortion and misreading.” I believe a writer has the right, even the obligation, to interpret events and shape them into story, which automatically means you are fiddling with cold facts. This is my own etiological tale, though the tale of, say, my sister, eight years younger, a girl born of the same (but tireder, older) parents eight years later, with two older siblings and a twin, into a postwar family that was by then no longer affluent, would be a far different tale.

But this is not apology. None of this is made up. I have rearranged some material, but this is the way I remember things.

Something similar to this story must have happened to thousands of American families who somehow survived World War II. Writing this has instructed me in how difficult it must have been to hold together families sundered by years of separation and radically changed roles, and given me enormous respect for all those who managed to stay together with grace or near-grace.

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