Illustration by Paul X. Johnson
It’s a mistake, somebody or other once said, to have three cats, for if you have three, why not five or six, or more? The same may be true of husbands and wives. If three, why not five or six? I’ve had three cats at various times in my life and, as it turns out, five husbands, so maybe there’s something to it. Five husbands, the number boggles the mind, whatever “boggles” means.
I also have ovarian cancer, or so I’ve just been told, which makes this as good a time as any to try to explain my life, if only to myself. The theme of my life, as I’ve known for a long while now, has been freedom, or at least the hope of gaining freedom, and just as it looks as if I have it, here comes my death sentence in the form of ovarian cancer.
I’ve always had a man problem, the problem being how to get away from them, beginning with my father. I grew up in a small town in north-central Arkansas, Batesville by name. A handsome man, my father had a beautiful but nutty sister, my Aunt Velma, and a kindly but retarded younger brother named Roscoe. Velma flounced and fluttered around and Roscoe walked the yard of their small house, with his kindly face behind which who knew what was going on. My father worked as a stone mason, always in business for himself, for he was too independent—“too damn mean,” he would have said—ever to work for anyone else.
Why my mother married him I haven’t the foggiest notion. My mother was reserved and artistic. She made beautiful quilts and also the uniforms for the cheerleaders and marching band at Batesville High. My father didn’t so much give her a hard time as mostly pretend she wasn’t there. When he wasn’t working, he was out hunting and fishing. He kept a large freezer stuffed with fish he had caught and rabbits and squirrels he had shot. The freezer was near our bathroom. For some reason my father never saw fit to put a door on our one bathroom, which was covered by a sliding drape, making for a terrible absence of privacy. I was ashamed to bring friends home from school, and so rarely did.
Daddy kept his drinking to the weekends, and he was not a happy drunk. He never beat my mother, nor my older sister Dottie and me, but on his rampages he did a pretty good job on our furniture and dishes and glassware. The effect of her marriage on my mother was to make her seem defeated, old before her time, and resigned—above all, stuck with a man who had no sense of what stirred her soul. I’m not sure thatI ever openly said it even to myself, but I decided never to be resigned in life, never to settle for a situation like my mother’s.
I hope I’m not giving the impression that I hated my father. I didn’t. He could be humorous, even affectionate. But I knew I wanted to get away from him. Dottie must have felt the same, for she left home at sixteen, to marry a man who sold potato chips and other snack foods on his truck route through the Ozarks. I made it until seventeen, when I left home four months pregnant with the first of my five children.
Van Willis was a high-school football star. The Willises were more middle-class, which I guess is to say more respectable, than our family. At least they had a door on their bathroom. Ernie Willis sold insurance; he was in Kiwanis. They were members of the second Baptist Church. They lived in a modest but well-maintained white house in a better part of town than we did. Ernie and Edna Willis were disappointed to learn that I was pregnant with Van’s child. They wanted something better for him and made no secret of it. Van, as they say, did the right thing, and we married while still in high school.
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