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January, 2001

There's a Devil Behind You

by Larry

Given the ways that, with a full subsequent life's packed experiences vying for preeminence in the little gray cells plus the sometimes uncertain understandings of childhood, memories may yield a less than totally accurate view of reality, I cannot say that this is precisely what happened. It is, however, precisely how I remember it having happened.
Larry, at a boat show on the Potomac, about 1948.

I had only had my fifth birthday two or three months before when, shortly after New Year's, in 1949, a telegram was delivered, where we lived at 121 E. Marshall St., Falls Church, Virginia. Dad was a 36 year old Air Force captain stationed, I think, at the Pentagon, while Mom, at 26, looked after me, in the tradition then of women staying at home while the men were the breadwinners. It could have been that the news came by other means; but to me it was first announced by messenger, confirmed later with anxious, tearful conversations on the telephone.

My great grandpa, John, was dead. He was my mother, Julia's, paternal grandfather, who had helped raise her in his home, after his son, her father, also named John, had abandoned his family when she was nine, in the midst of the greatest economic devastation this country has endured.

Mom was now on the phone with her step-grandma, Florence, who wanted us all to go out to Texas to help with things and to attend the funeral. My great step-grandma had also helped Julia during those difficult years after Mom's father had left, but, perhaps not very pleased with the intrusion into her household and feeling as well that Julia needed more discipline, after the upbringing she thought my mom had had till then, she did so with a strict harshness and vehemence that were hard for a young girl to accept. Julia's biological grandmother, Hattie, Great Grandpa John's first wife, had died a few years earlier, still relatively young. While there was not great love in evidence, on the surface, between her replacement, in Great Grandpa John's affections, and my mother, it became clear to me, within just a few more days, that they had developed a certain feeling between them during the difficult years of adapting to and caring for one another, as my mother was growing up.

Great Grandpa John, Waco, circa 1930-35.

In our own family then, my father's rule was law. He said he could not suddenly take off from his work duties to go off across the country to Waco, Texas, Julia's birthplace and where Great Grandma Florence lived. He did, however, give permission for Mom to go, taking me with her, for how else was I to be looked after?

Julia did not learn to drive for yet many more years, which was just as well for we had only the one car, that Dad required for his work. In those days, plane travel was not a simple matter of catching a non-stop jet flight. But it was still faster than going by train or bus. Our trip was quite an adventure for a young lad, involving at least three relatively small propeller-driven planes, some probably commercial conversions from the twin-engine Army Air Corps World War II craft that had served our side so well as aerial workhorses.

I remember the thrill of my first take-off. I had a window seat and could hardly believe that something as heavy as our plane could safely get off the ground. The engine noise seemed very loud. There were no pressurized cabins; so we stayed much lower than is usual for flights today. Whenever there were breaks in the clouds I could see the houses, farms, vehicles, and even people below, looking like tiny toy replicas of themselves.

Eventually we arrived in Texas. I remember a bizarre montage of images. There was a large old house, which I assumed was my great grandpa and great step-grandma's place. While my mom and Florence were doing something together, getting things ready for the funeral, I suppose, I had a chance to go out and explore the neighborhood. The sky was dark, overcast, and gray, threatening rain. Yet the temperature, without a coat, was comfortable, though in northern Virginia, at that time of year, warm clothes outside were a necessity. There was a small field, in which the winter-dried weeds and Johnson grass were at least half as tall as I. Small paths ran through it, between the dead vegetation. I turned around to look it over; and when I turned back there was a tall girl with long, brown hair, standing with me in the field, two or three yards away. I took her to be about 10. Instead of a normal greeting, she stared at me for a minute or two.

Detail, Tentazioni di Sant' Antonio, by Rosa.

"There's a devil behind you," she casually informed me, speaking in a typical Texas drawl.

"There is not," I said, distressed with such an introduction.

"Is so," she affirmed, as calmly as before.

"There's no such thing as devils," I educated the impudent lass.

"Is so! If you don't believe me, then take a look," she debated, pointing vigorously.

If only to prove her wrong, I glanced behind, convinced, but not absolutely certain, that I was right. There was no devil. But of course, it could be invisible. How can one tell with devils? Still, if I could not see one, how could she, unless she were one herself? But when I turned back around, she had gone, as quickly and silently as she'd earlier appeared.

Later I was at the funeral, staring into the open coffin at my great grandpa, stretched out, as if he'd just gone to sleep in that long box. I wondered if I should touch him, to say "Goodbye." I wondered if he'd be soft or hard. But someone told me not to. There were an awful lot of flowers. My mother and the other people seemed tearful. I did not really know him, but caught the sadness as if it were a cold.

Then it was evening. Florence and my mom had been talking and talking, alone, back at the house. I was mostly quite bored. But later Florence seemed to have gotten herself pretty worked up. She kept yelling and sobbing. At one point she was running about the place with no clothes on, suffering from diarrhea, trying to get to the bathroom or outhouse in time, but not making it. She was a large woman. The great bulges and folds of her nakedness were fascinating to me. I discovered I had never really known human anatomy before. Here was a vast landscape of flesh. As she moved there and here, disastrously leaving hot, brown, liquid masses on the floor, the mountains and valleys rose and fell like waves of the sea. Mom had me try to help clean up some of the mess.

Still later, it was time to retire. Though my mom and her step-grandma would stay up much longer talking, I was put to bed in Florence's room, where there was a high guest bed, the mattress seeming to be several feet off the floor. It was only a couple yards from Florence's bed, which was also of this very high variety. In the room a prominent feature was the fireplace. It was made to look like it had a real wood fire but really was just burning gas, the "wood" glowing red with the heat but never igniting as the jets flamed all around it. I could see how, in the Underworld, sinners' bodies could glow forever like that from the heat but never burn up. The artificial wood fireplace had been turned to the top level. It was too warm at first for me to sleep. I had gone to Sunday school and knew about Hades. I imagined it must be horrible if one had to stay forever in a place as hot as this!

Great Step-Grandma Florence,
Waco, 1938.

Florence had continued to be still extremely upset, with sobbing alternating with great hacking fits of coughing, so that I could hear her from even off in a far part of the house. At last, all the lights went out. She came and got into her bed. I relaxed, hoping that, finally, things would quiet down and I could get some sleep. I was terribly tired. The night must have cooled things down some; and I did not mind the heat so much by now. But Florence could not settle down. She lay there heaving, taking in huge drafts of air and releasing them in awful sobs and wrenching coughs that went on and on. I just could not sleep through that! I remembered that at church they had taught me about prayer. I figured this was the time to try it. I hoped the Lord was listening!

"Dear God," I fervently prayed, "please make her be quiet, so I can get some sleep." On and on, she gave vent to her bitter convulsions of grief, that rocked her body and ended with desperate, explosive fits of coughing. She must be keeping Mom awake too, I thought.

So I prayed on and on, over and over passionately repeating my simple plea to the Lord, "Please make her be quiet, so we can get some sleep."

Eventually, the Lord heard my prayer; and I was able to get some rest.

The next morning the sun was shining brightly in through the long, high windows throughout the bedroom and the rest of the big house. When I got up, I noticed that my great step-grandma was still asleep. In fact, she had a funny color and looked kind of like my great grandpa John had in the box. I could not help but notice she was not breathing.

I called out to my mom but got no reply. All was terribly quiet.

Other things must have happened; by I do not remember. The next thing I do recall, Julia was lying stretched out in the hall outside the bedroom where Florence and I had spent the night. I could not tell if she were breathing. But a man from an ambulance came in and told me it was OK, she was not dead, that she'd just fainted. He broke open a stick of smelling salts and held it under her nose. She made a face and opened her eyes.

So, when we returned to Virginia, there had been two funerals. I had lost two relatives I'd never really known. Mom seemed pretty sad for awhile after that.

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