November 18, 2013
We left Oklahoma for West Virginia. It was a surprise for me but of course it was Dad moving us as far away from the poet/plumber as he could. “As far as he could” was limited by the prospects of a job and that meant we went where there was a glass factory. That would change years later, moves again prompted by my mother’s appetites, but then, in those first postwar years, we went where the glass was being made.
Laboring on the piece-work system is not the same for everyone caught up in it. This was particularly true sixty-five years ago. If you were young and single and in good health, the idea of being paid in ratio to your productivity, piece by piece, could seem sensible. A strong young man with no one dependent on him could make as much or as little out of the job as he needed it to be. But for a married man with kids, edging into middle age, slowed by the effects of bad diet, cigarettes, whisky, and the inevitable industrial accidents generated on what was essentially a nineteenth-century work-floor, piece-work seemed increasingly like a pact with the devil, made at eighteen and called in at thirty-five.
This system drove the labor/capital relationship throughout the glass industry in the late 1940s and through my childhood and adolescence; it shaped the calendar of my life, determined where I lived, constructed manhood, defined marriage, fixed abstractions like authority, respect, and privilege. The mechanism was fear, of course. My father lived in fear that the factory would shut the tanks down and we’d have to move yet again. By the time I was 13 we had lived in Shreveport three different times, Fort Smith, Okmulgee, and Charleston, West Virginia. Even in Shreveport we moved often, every time in response to the productivity of the glass plant. Sometimes we had a bit of money and Dad and Mom would buy a house; then they’d sell it at a loss and we’d move back down the scale to an apartment or a shotgun house we could rent. There were times when we left in the middle of the night.
This all weighed on Dad, but he had a kind of optimism that protected him from despair. I don’t know how deep-seated it was, how fundamental to him that trust in the future was, but I do know it was basically unwarranted. I’ll never fully understand how he maintained his belief that there was enough in the moment to sustain him until better days came, since they never did. Nevertheless, he had a kind of love for the day at hand that colors all my memories of him. But if I were to be truthful, I’d have to say that I have from time to time suspected that it was all performance, that at his center he was deeply hurt by the world. And if that is so, then the most amazing thing about him may well have been the very perfection of performance.
My mother, on the other hand, was ruined by disappointment. If our intermittent slides into poverty kept Dad awake at night, at least he woke every morning, before either of the other of us, to make coffee, read the paper, and sing softly to himself before he came to where I slept and eased me into his day. The older I got the earlier he invited me. My mother could rarely face the day and theorized that if she woke too suddenly she would be out of bed and into life before her soul could get back from its endless wandering and into her breast. My mother was, I think, never at home.
It was a better place she wanted. She had none of Dad’s optimism; she performed despair and loss. But let me qualify that. Despair and loss were not her performances; they were her life. Her performance was as accomplished as my dad’s but it was somehow hollow. My dad’s performance was the same in the kitchen at seven in the morning as it was in church on Wednesday night at prayer meeting or at the Corner Bar on Saturdays teaching me to shoot pool. Mom’s genius was to mask the very real blackness of her vision of the world with glittering wit, song, beauty. She performed “performance” itself. Most people who thought they knew her knew only that performed self. Even her grand children were never allowed to see beneath the spangles.
That performance covered one other of my mother’s attributes, her anger. As she saw things, the world refused to take her seriously, to see how really smart, clever, talented, beautiful, she really was, so she performed an imitation of her real internal self. But she harbored an unforgiving anger at the world’s refusal to see the real her. The tragedy was that my father and my mother were thus locked into a struggle neither could win, a struggle for the other’s soul. The world my father had inherited from his country folk parents accepted poverty as the default position from which you negotiated the day’s pleasures, if any were to be had. And if there were none that day, some would come another day, “further along,” as the spiritual he loved promised. He likewise loved the Louisiana Cajun concept of “lagniappe;” it was that unexpected something carrying pleasure that came along on top of the everyday deal you had just made with the world. If he had, as I sometimes suspected, penetrated to the false promise of that hope, he never failed to perform its story. The performance itself held him up.
But to take my mother seriously, to take as his responsibility the maintenance of her text of the world as bitterly lacking in all that she needed, would have crippled him, I think. And it did. The daily evidence of the world’s neglect, as my mother experienced it, was the very poverty my dad had woven into his performance. To enter her “slough of despond” would have drowned him. And yet he wanted to “save” her. He kept a journal later in his life, at her insistence, and in it he records his daily regret that he cannot ease her pain at being trapped in such an ungrateful world. This all comes long after the days of her infidelities and long after he had left the glass factory to help her chase the love she needed less from him and more and more from a world that barely suspected she existed.
And so, the poet/plumber, the Boy Scout leader, and the acting coach.