Wednesday, September 10th at 7pm
Local Author Margaret Symmank will speak about her new book Lower Than the Angels. UHCL professor Dr. John Gorman will provide an introduction.
Margaret Symmank is a Texas playwright turned Texas novelist. She lives on the Gulf Coast in the town she grew up in where she often writes in the tree house in her backyard. She has no plans to leave, or to stop writing. The Friendswood Public Library carries a copy of Lower Than the Angels.
Read Chapter 1 from her wonderful new book, Lower Than the Angels:
The Danby girls were the prettiest girls in town, and Nell was the prettiest Danby girl. She was also my maternal grandmother, taken by a fever, the kind no one dies from anymore, before she reached middle age, years before I was born. Modern medicine came too late for the prettiest Danby girl, so I knew her only as a lovely, ethereal face in an oval frame that hung in our front hallway.
My dead grandfather, Harry Stoddard, hung next to her, captured in a long-ago studio photo. He wore a dark fedora angled the opposite direction of his rakish grin. Their marriage disappointed her family because he had little to offer Nell other than a strong back and every bit as much charm as his smile suggested. Their twenty-year love story was legendary and produced my mother, Marion, and my Uncle William. Harry followed my lovely grandmother out of this life in less than a year after her passing. It was his heart they said. I always figured it was broken.
My father’s parents, Edna Parker and Charles Platt hung on the opposite wall and smiled across the hallway at Nell and Harry in a way that always made me feel the four of them might engage in quiet conversation deep in the night or when everyone was out and the house was still. Edna’s high, curved forehead and wide set eyes bore evidence to her reputed quick intelligence, while Charlie’s gentle reserve could be seen throughout his face from cheek to handsome jaw. The two of them also died young from causes and medical complications that seemed absurd this side of enlightenment and antibiotics, leaving me to never know any of my grandparents. I was not a genuine orphan, but a sort of grand orphan, I decided. It was a loss that I was always conscious of. I knew without a doubt that I had been denied something of enormous value.
Their collective visage was a constant reminder of the superior moral and physical attributes represented in my ancestry. Beauty, strength, charm, keen wit and a spirit of repose – an impressive heritage that had been handed down to my parents and that should have been mine as well, but had somehow missed its mark. Beneath my grandparents’ gaze I lived my weak-willed, sluggish existence. Only in imaginings and dreams could I aspire to please them or myself. By the time I was eleven I knew who I was, the stuff I was made of. It was not and would never be my grandparents’ stuff I was certain. I had also noted early on that all of them had some measure of wave or curl to their thick, luxurious locks of dated, but nonetheless enviable, hairdos. Another family trait that had, regrettably, passed me by.
My mother had, I supposed, attempted to fan a familial flame in me by giving me a combination of her name, Marion, and her brother’s name, William. Willamary. Willa for short. My sister, Dot, who by the age of fifteen already displayed an inheritance of quiet grace as well as wavy, butter rum hair, had been christened Dorothy Rose for two aunts on my father’s side. Dot and I were given the naming of our brother, James Albert, who came along five years after me. She chose James after James Stewart for whom she held an infatuation after seeing him on the silver screen for the first time the year James Albert was born. My offering of the name Albert was inspired by the picture of Prince Albert on Uncle Will’s tobacco can. At the time, he was the most distinguished fellow I had ever seen. I reasoned that by having my baby brother share the prince’s name, he might someday have his equally handsome face on a lidded tin of his own.
By the summer he was six, James Albert showed no signs of becoming distinguished, but was instead quite wonderful in many other ways. His pale, pencil-thin legs and arms were remarkably strong, allowing him to shinny up a tree without any boost at all. There was the cap of light brown hair that formed soft curls around his face and neck and his ability to mimic any songbird with convincing accuracy. But, the most notable thing about James Albert was that he smiled with his whole face. His hazel eyes turned to twin half-moons, his delicate eyebrows lifted slightly, the tiny dimples at the corners of his mouth tucked themselves in and his lips spread across his fair little face with the effect of the sun breaking through after rain. It was my Grandmother Nell’s smile, and my uncle Will’s. It was new every time and was the thing that would open doors for James Albert his entire life.
Our little town of Rainey sat some twenty miles in on the Texas Gulf Coast, close enough for beach excursions or a rare picture show over on the bay in Harmon, twelve miles away. But, this summer there were no beach trips or picture shows. Folks stayed home and away from crowds. Fear and uncertainty as palpable as the sultry June heat held us like minnows in a shrinking puddle. Every morning at breakfast Daddy read the reports in the Venado County Voice which reinforced our self-imposed quarantine. “Infantile paralysis spreads across the state. Seven new cases reported in the county.”
The words were new to us, but soon grew familiar. Silent and unseen, the crippling, often deadly disease, stalked children by way of some unknown source. Any and everything was suspect with new theories arising every day. Citrus fruit from the Rio Grande Valley, poultry, mosquitoes, swimming in infected waters, heat, shellfish, the air. Parents kept their children close and routinely felt their foreheads and woke in the night to listen for a cough or a labored breath.
Stirring from sleep, more than once I looked up to see Mama standing in the dark with her worry-watch smile – heard her softly reassure Daddy as she slipped back into bed, “They’re fine, Davis. It was nothin’.” And I knew she was right. Not by any scope of my imaginings could I feature calamity descending on our lives. We seemed chosen, golden – safe from harm in any form. Our idyllic lives were protected by providence and smiled upon by God.
School let out abruptly ten days early that summer. Daddy was on the school board and told us the vote to dismiss early was unanimous. “There’s no certainty that it’s even passed from one person to another,” he said, “but we have to do what we can to try and stop this.”
There was a flurry of turning in textbooks and clearing out desks. Doors were locked and the schoolyard emptied and suddenly the whole summer lay ahead of us. Summers were longer then. Mornings came early and slow and the evenings stretched and sighed toward night with the light lasting until nearly nine. But this summer would be the longest summer we had ever known. The summer that everything changed for all of us. By the time it was over, even my long-passed grandparents would have shifted in my mind from their place as distant onlookers to that of silent guardians that I would carry with me all my days.
I suspected Mama had something to do with the idea of closing school early. Uneasy for weeks, she was more than a little relieved now that we were out for the summer. She still made us take after-dinner rests in the heat of the day and told us not to eat any berries we picked wild or pet strange animals. Our own animals – a horse, a couple of milk cows, a sow and various breeds of poultry – were considered safe as they had no social contact with any others. The exception was Birdie, our speckled, half-breed bird dog who roamed far and wide as she pleased, but was much too smart to transmit contagion unwittingly or otherwise. Besides her intelligence, Birdie possessed an exceptional good nature and the calm confidence of one who has all the answers. She wore a perpetual expression of well-being on her lovely, spotted, black and white face. Although we never spoke of it, it was understood that her love for us all was deep and abiding. We loved her back in the same way.
That summer we spent long mornings on the front porch memorizing selections from A Child’s Garden of Verses, playing Old Maid and Go Fish, or sometimes tracing Flags of the World out of the Funk and Wagnells with colored map pencils. We drank gallons of Kool-Aid – James Albert’s favorite was cherry and mine was root beer. Dot had graduated to iced tea. She was working her way through a lazy recitation of “Looking-glass River” while we sipped a concoction of lime and orange flavors for an olive drab change of pace. We all saw the De Soto at the same time – a dark, emerald jewel moving silently up the road, the morning sun bouncing off the gleaming, waterfall grill.
“What’s that?” James Albert’s voice jumped with delighted curiosity.
“Who’s that?” was my question. We rarely had visitors we didn’t know, and we didn’t expect any now for sure.
The car pulled into the shaded loop of driveway in front of the house and purred to a stop under the big oak. We stared, waiting in silence for a full minute before the door opened and the coupe released its occupant. She was the shortest grown-up I’d ever seen. Except for her legs, which were as long as pole bean stakes and appeared to run clear to her waist without the interruption of any kind of hind end. Her bright skirt and blouse hung loosely over her scrawny frame and a braid of gray hair fell down her back from under a printed scarf. Two dark green, circular lenses and a vivid mouth, which we were to learn was always and forever tinted with a lipstick aptly named Brilliant Poppy, all but obscured her pallid face. Her long, thin feet were attached to a pair of sandals which looked to be fashioned from rope and were knotted about her tiny ankles. I was sure the ties were holding her feet to her legs. She stood perfectly still, looking as though she and her remarkable vehicle had been rendered in bright water paints right onto our front yard. Then she exhaled a wisp of powder white smoke that rose over her head and drifted into the oak branches above.
Mama stepped out onto the porch and I heard her catch her breath just before she said, “Dear Lord,” with something that suggested both awe and misgiving.
Dot found her voice first. “Who is that, Mama?”
“A gypsy,” was James Albert’s offering.
“It’s Aunt Babs.” Mama had come to herself and was headed down the steps.
“Whose Aunt Babs?” was what came to me.
“Ours,” Dot elbowed me gently, “hush.”
This small, odd personage now moving gingerly to accept Mama’s offered hug was, more accurately, our Great Aunt Babs, my Grandpa Charlie’s sister. Once this was explained to me, I remembered seeing a faded, sepia print of a group of siblings, some ten or so in all, and being told they were my Grandpa’s family. They were mostly all dead now from smallpox, childbirth, the Great War or old age, except for two ancient, great uncles whom I’d never seen who were living in Wisconsin and Idaho, as well as I could recall. In the front row on the far left in the photo, was a strikingly beautiful girl – small, shiny-eyed, with a rose in her cascade of dark hair. Great Aunt Babs sixty years ago.
At the age of twenty-two, so the story went, she’d jilted her young fiancé the day before the wedding and headed for the California coast where she painted seascapes until adventure called her elsewhere. Over the last five decades she’d employed her artistic talents to make her own way, crisscrossing the country any number of times. She never married and she never looked back.
Daddy grew up hearing stories of Aunt Babs, who’d appear out of the blue every few years, stay a few days with the family, then leave as abruptly as she’d come. Her whereabouts had been unknown for several years now, save for occasional vague reports from various relatives of her being out west, or back east, or settled for the time being in Mexico. Dot held a distinct memory of Aunt Babs visiting us once before when I was a baby. She’d left us presents from her extensive travels. My wooden horse on a stick that galloped when you pumped a little lever up and down, Mama’s turquoise eagle pin and Daddy’s bloodstone cuff links, the tiny pair of silver mesh shoes that Dot had long since outgrown, but still kept wrapped in pink tissue in her drawer, had all come from Aunt Babs.
But, this time she brought no presents. Aunt Babs had landed here with nothing to give and in the process of losing everything. She’d left Arizona and the conclave of artists she lived with behind, climbed in the De Soto and headed back to her beginnings in South Texas for the last time. By evening, she was settled into mine and Dot’s room and the two of us found ourselves relocated to the sleeping porch. She was family, Daddy said, we’d do what we could. For reasons of his own he decided to keep her prognosis from James Albert and me for the time being. Aunt Babs was sick, he told us, and one look at her confirmed that for me. But, he didn’t say just how sick she was.
Within the next few days a routine surrounding Aunt Babs had been established. James Albert took tea and toast to her room in the morning, I carried her dinner in, and Dot tapped on the bedroom door just before supper at which time Aunt Babs would shuffle out to the table and pick at the food on her plate until we finished and cleared the dishes. Then she’d shuffle out to the front porch where she sat smoking in the dark until bedtime. She rarely spoke except in reply to a direct question or when she requested an ashtray. Mama dug one out of the cabinet – a heavy, blue glass receptacle lettered in red and white with, “Texas State Fair 1886 – 1936.” We took turns transporting it from place to place in the wake of an ever-present cloud manifested by Aunt Bab’s beloved Old Gold Regulars. All of this, Mama explained, was to make sure that Aunt Babs felt welcomed by each family member. We were encouraged to chat with her whenever possible and see to any and every comfort we could provide. For Mama, hospitality ranked next to cleanliness and godliness and encompassed generosity of self as well as one’s possessions.
I had a go at conversation with Aunt Babs one night as she reclined, propped up on pillows, in the chaise lounge on the porch. “I noticed you have a kind’a interestin’ smell, Aunt Babs,” was my opening. It was an aroma that couldn’t be mistaken for perfume, but wasn’t altogether unpleasant either, so it seemed more like a compliment than not to me.
In the dark, the orange dot at the end of her cigarette glowed from the draw and I heard her exhale before she answered in little more than a whisper. “It’s an herb. I wear it around my neck...for my lungs.”
“It smells...nice.” Silence again, punctuated by Aunt Babs’ long, slow, outward breaths of smoke. “What kind is it? What kind of herb I mean.”
“Astragalus.” Silence again.
“Never heard of that one.” More silence, leaving my admission of ignorance suspended in the dark between us. Not wanting to end it with that and getting no help from Aunt Babs, I added, “Where’d you get it?”
“From a friend, Lijuan, in Chicago. Chinatown.”
I could think of no response to this surprising information, save that which would raise more questions, and not wanting to prolong the exchange, I nodded and smiled as politely as I could then rose and stretched and headed into the house. I was already inside when I realized she couldn’t see my nodding and smiling and stretching in the dark, so I threw what I meant to be a pleasant “good night” over my shoulder, satisfied that I’d fulfilled my duty for the time being.
Even though I went through the motions of following Mama’s instructions concerning Aunt Babs, I saw her presence as an intrusion and an inconvenience. Because of her I had to knock on my own bedroom door when I wanted to get my clothes from my own dresser, which was now littered with a peculiar array of small bottles and jars labeled with fairytale names – Cat’s Claw, Feverfew, Thunder God, Valerian – a collection that might have proven enchanting save for its association with Aunt Babs. Once she’d turned in for the evening, the T.V., the record player and radio, even our conversation was necessarily kept at low volume out of consideration for Aunt Babs. We were forced to negotiate the monopoly board in what ultimately turned into an all but silent, therefore joyless, exercise. Although she had little appetite for Mama’s notoriously delicious cooking, she consumed every bite of anything sweet on the place; cleaning out the last jar of dewberry jelly, leaving empty Fig Newton packages in the pantry and nothing but an echo of disappointment in the crockery cookie jar. Lastly, she emitted what, in the first blush of expansive hospitality had seemed an interesting aroma, but with time, and Aunt Babs’ resistance to bathing – she “used oils,” she said – had ripened into a dusky aura that, had it been visible, would have rivaled one of our Kool-Aid specialty mixes in color.
If I was unable or unwilling to warm to Aunt Babs, James Albert seemed all the more capable and even eager to do just that. He’d recently begun to stay in her room through breakfast while she worried down her tea soaked toast, interviewing her with genuine interest about her life and times. He’d then report to me, completely unsolicited, what information he’d gleaned. He hunted me up on the front porch with the latest instalment of Aunt Bab’s history.
“Aunt Babs lived with the Indians. The Sioux. Look, she gave me her moccasins.” James Albert was beaming at the beaded, leather slippers laced about the ankles of his scrawny legs. They appeared to fit him perfectly.
“Did you ask for those, James Albert?”
“No. I was just lookin’ at a picture she painted of a boy wearin’ moccasins...” He fished a slightly crumpled snapshot out of his front shorts pocket. “See. She gave me this too. She used it to paint the picture.”
It was a black and white photo of a somewhat younger Aunt Babs. Her hair was still dark and hung over her shoulders in two thick braids. She was flanked by two children in native dress squinting into the sun with strained smiles on their faces. The children were both taller than her.
“This was in the Badlands. She has lots of paintings. Some are trees or the ocean, and there’s people from all over.” His delicate eyebrows danced a bit as his famous smile threatened to appear then receded.
His happy enthusiasm only served to irk me, which made me feel uncomfortable since I didn’t know why it should. I responded to my discomfort by admonishing James Albert. “She needs to rest. She’s sick you know. So, you shouldn’t be botherin’ her.”
“I’m not. She likes it when I visit.” He glanced at his newly acquired footwear. “We’re friends now.” He turned and walked across the porch putting one foot directly in front of the other in what I figured was his idea of how Indians walk. At the steps, he crouched, then leaped wildly off the porch with a shriek, landing on Birdie who’d been dozing in the sun, and rolled across the yard hugging her in his warrior’s grasp. Birdie allowed herself to be rolled and hugged, and even indulged James Albert by making obliging little panting noises – her best effort at sounding desperate. He released her and stood victorious, looking down on her as she lay still for a moment, then sprang up suddenly and took off at a dead run with James Albert in pursuit.
Mama and Dot had also exclaimed over Aunt Babs’ art, which she kept leaning against a wall in the bedroom. I’d seen the collection of various sized canvasses when I took her dinner tray in, but I’d not been invited to, nor had I any interest in examining the paintings. There was nothing about Aunt Babs that held any appeal for me. I secretly looked forward to the day when she was well enough to pack her things and move on. I was sorry she was sick, but found it difficult to muster any charity toward the day-to-day reality of her actually living here. When I passed under the ancestral portraits in the front hall, I sent a silent apology up toward Grandpa Charlie for my lack of empathy for his lovely baby sister who had matured, then faded into our Great Aunt Babs.