Introduction: Julie Showalter’s Unpublished Writing
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Julie’s Unpublished Writing comprises a group of pieces I’ve found on Julie’s computer or in her office that range from workshop exercises to story fragments to projects set aside to finish at a later day to work that appears, at least to me, to be fully as polished and effective as her published stories.
The Cuckoo, the latest addition to Julie’s Unpublished Writing, was incorporated, in modified form, into Julie’s novel, Needlework. It was originally posted April 9, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com.
A will reading was a novelty in our family. We were more accustomed to the kind of post-burial gathering where the brothers and sisters get together in the back bedroom, figure how much of the hospital and funeral bills Social Security is going to pay, and split the rest. Granny was the first person in our family to die with something left over.
I didn’t expect anything for myself in the will, even though I was her only grandchild. Everyone knew that everything Granny and Gramps had would go to my mother. Mother had told me often enough about how she’d tried to get Gramps to retire and quit farming before it killed him, and he said, “I’ve got to make sure there’s enough left for your ma, and for you after.” Well, there’d been enough for Granny — she’d enjoyed life in the ten years since we lost Gramps, and she was always able to help Mother out when she needed it. We didn’t know how much was left, only trashy people talk about how much money they have; but Mother had some contacts in real estate, and she thought there might be as much as $60,000, maybe even as much as $100,000 if the rental property brought a good price.
I got to the lawyer’s office early, but Mother was there before me, sitting stiffly in one of the burgundy leather chairs, wearing the black linen suit she’d worn to the funeral. Despite her reddened nose and eyes, she looked beautiful. When I was growing up, I thought one day I’d be as pretty as Mother, one day even prettier; but now she was fifty and I was thirty, and it was clear she’d always look better than me. Here she was in the middle of August, looking cool, elegant, model-thin. And here I was, sweating, rumpled, my hair limp from the heat, wishing I weighed ten pounds less.
I walked to her and kissed her cheek. I said what I knew would make her feel best. “You look great.”
“Do you really think so? I feel like something the dog dragged in. Are my eyes too puffy?”
“No, you look wonderful. Granny would be proud. She told me once she never knew how someone as pretty as you got into our family. She thought you were a miracle.”
Mother squeezed my hand and dabbed at her eyes with a linen handkerchief. “I don’t know how I’ll go on. She loved me so much.”
“She and Gramps worshiped you. Everybody knows that.”
Mother smiled and tried to fluff my bangs up off my face. “Now I just have you to love me.”
“Me and Daddy,” I said.
“Yes. You and your father.”
We sat and waited. When the receptionist turned her back to us to get something from her files, Mother grabbed a rumpled Kleenex out of her purse and blew her nose. The Kleenex was hidden in her hand and the linen handkerchief back in place before the receptionist turned around.
The room was so quiet that when the outside door opened, Mother and I both jumped like we’d been caught doing something wrong. We looked up, and there in the doorway, sunlight streaming in around her, stood Cousin Feckla. In her orange muumuu with her bright red curls, she looked like a gigantic sun herself.
Mother dropped her dirty Kleenex on the floor. “What the hell is she doing here?” she said.
Cousin Feckla wasn’t really our cousin. In fact, as Mother pointed out frequently, she wasn’t really any blood relation at all. She was the daughter of a distant step-relative of Granny’s who left her orphaned at twelve. Granny, herself an orphan raised by strangers with no blood tie, thought she had a mission from God when she heard Feckla had been dropped in an orphanage. “It’s like being given my own orphaned self to raise,” she said. Gramps expressed some concerns about taking in a strange child when they already had a daughter of their own, especially in the middle of a depression, especially when it seemed like the only crop he could grow on his Missouri farm was rocks. But practical considerations were little ammunition against Granny and a mission from God.
Their daughter Mildred, my mother, who was fourteen at the time, was less accepting of God’s will. “I’ll have to share my room with a twelve-year old Okie?” she’d shrieked. “I’ll die!”
But she didn’t die, and Feckla lived with them for four years until she ran off with a sailor.
Once when I was little, Gramps told that story on Mother. “I’ll die!” he said, and chuckled. “She sounded just like Scarlet O’Hara. ‘I’ll die!’”
Mother didn’t like to be teased, even a little. She stubbed out her cigarette and her eyes narrowed. “We were dirt poor,” she measured out the words. “We didn’t have anything and all of a sudden I was supposed to give half to her. You don’t know what she was like,” she turned on Gramps. “You thought she was sweet, helping you milk the cows and bring in the milk, but she was sneaky. She watched me all the time. And she sneaked things. She’d say she didn’t want any more dinner, and then I’d see her, sneaking up after dark, eating everything she could find, just stuffing food into her face.”
Granny tried to calm things down. “We knew she did that, Hon. She was bashful about eating in front of folks. I think she may have been real hungry in that Home before we came to get her. I left food out for her at night because I knew she wasn’t eating enough.”
Mother looked startled, but her anger wasn’t completely gone. “Well,” she said, “I guess you’re the reason she’s fat.”
The stories of Cousin Feckla’s attempts at weight loss were family legend. She told them on herself, laughing along with everyone else. “If there’s a way to lose weight, I’ve tried it,” she’d say. “I’ve done the Weight Watchers, I’ve done Slenderella, I’ve done Scarsdale. I’ve done protein, I’ve done grapefruit, I’ve done bananas. Why, I’ve done diets where you had to measure your pee every day. I’ve had a staple put in my ear and more staples put in my stomach. About the only thing I haven’t tried is the Drinking Man’s diet. I’m not a man and I’m not a drinker, but, I swear, if I thought it’d make me lose weight, I’d try both.” She’d laugh, then she’d say, “Come here, Sweetie, and give your fat ole’ Feckla a hug.”
Feckla was always giving me hugs when I was a kid, big, soft, gentle hugs. She liked to do things for Mother and me — cook things for us, run errands, baby-sit me when I was little. “It’s proper that she does those things,” Mother told me. “Feckla owes our family a great deal.”
Mother thinks Feckla made a mess of her life. “Three husbands, six kids — two of them not quite right, if you ask me — two stillbirths, and Lord knows how many miscarriages. It’s like the woman never heard of birth control. And her weight! It’s not just birth control she doesn’t know about. It’s self control.”
Mother herself has only had two husbands. Never mind that the first one was so bad he left after a month. And never mind that she divorced my father twice before deciding that she might as well stay married to him. “Feckla and I are as different as night and day,” she always says. What she means really is as different as fat and thin, as different as homely and pretty.
When I was around twelve or thirteen, I’d go over to Feckla’s house a lot. There were always babies running around, and sometimes she’d give me a quarter to help watch them. Some days in the summer we’d sit and eat peanuts and drink Dutch chocolate Metrical and watch “As the World Turns.”
Once I was grown, I’d go see her whenever I needed a haircut, and sometimes when I didn’t. She always had chocolate doughnuts or fudge cake or brownies out for her customers, and her shop smelled of permanent wave lotion and chocolate. People were always dropping by just to talk to Feckla, or to get their blood pressure checked. She had to take her own pressure every two hours she was on her feet, so she extended the courtesy to her customers.
I was in the shop the day Gramps had his first stroke. Mother called looking for me. When Feckla heard what had happened, she turned the sign in the door from “open” to “closed” and started shooing customers out. “Lurleen, I promise I’ll make this up to you, whatever happens,” she said to a woman with perm rods in her hair. “Here are the instructions and the neutralizer. You’ll just have to finish it yourself.”
It was summer then too. Feckla and I rushed into the waiting room out-of-breath and sweating. Mother had her arm around Granny. “Feckla, what are you doing here?” she asked.
“I came to help.”
After a couple of hours, during which Feckla brought us dinner, went by Granny’s to make sure the oven was off and the iron unplugged, tracked down Daddy to explain why Mother wasn’t home, and picked up Mother’s mail, the doctor came out. “He’s going to live,” he said to Granny, “but he’s going to need a lot of care. Special care. Probably more than you can give him. There are some fine nursing homes in the area, and I think you should start checking into them.”
Before Granny could answer, Mother stood up and faced the doctor. In her Scarlet voice, she proclaimed, “He’ll never go to a nursing home as long as I’m alive. I’ll work my fingers to the bone, if that’s what it takes to keep him home with us.”
So, when Gramps came home from the hospital, Mother moved in with him and Granny. In a week she learned more than she wanted to know about adult diapers and the joys of waiting on a man who can’t talk but can ring a bell. At supper that Friday, she told me, “I’m just torn. I want to take care of my daddy, but your father is about to start drinking again. I can see the signs. He’s not strong enough to manage without me at home. I can’t do what I want. I have to sacrifice my desires for my husband.”
Feckla called her next-door neighbor to see if he would sell half his lot. Then she found a kit house place that could build an A-frame in three weeks. Within a month, Granny and Gramps were living next door to Feckla. “I can run over between customers in the shop. Any other time, you just call.” When she saw that Granny needed to get out of the house, Feckla rigged up an air horn so that Gramps just had to pull a string and she’d come running.
After Gramps passed, Granny stayed in the little house alone. Feckla came over every day to check on her and to clean a little. She went shopping with Granny when Mother was too busy, and she took a break every afternoon so they could watch their stories together. Once a month she had Granny over to the shop to give her a perm, trim, and dye job. Sometimes Granny just sat in the shop talking to Feckla and her customers.
During this time, Mother seemed very fond of Feckla. She would tell people about everything Feckla did for the family. “She’s like a sister to me,” she’d say. “I love her like a sister.” For a while she even introduced Feckla as her sister, but she stopped that when someone said they could see a resemblance. To me she would say, “She owes us so much. It’s good to see she’s grateful.”
So I was surprised at Mother’s anger when Feckla showed up in the lawyer’s office. “What the hell is she doing here?”
Feckla hugged me. Then she hugged Mother. “Oh, Mildred, you smell so good.”
“I am good,” Mother sniffed. “Feckla, what are you doing here?”
“I came for the will reading. Mr. Abbott said I should come.”
“That’s odd,” Mother said. Just then the receptionist told us we could go in. When Feckla walked ahead of us, Mother whispered to me, “Did Mr. Abbott call you? I suppose your Granny could have left a token to you and Feckla. That would have been like her.”
The lawyer’s office was intimidating to all of us, even to Mother in her crisp black suit. When I sat down between her and Feckla, Feckla whispered to me, “I never saw so many books outside a library. Do you think he’s read all of them?” We started to giggle. Mother stopped us with a turned-down mouth and raised eyebrow, the look she used to give me when I acted up in church.
In fact, this felt like church. It was a solemn, legal occasion. We only knew to treat it like a wedding or a funeral.
Mr. Abbott cleared his throat and began. “Actually there are two documents here, Mrs. Wilson,” he nodded at Mother, “Mrs. Finch,” he nodded at Feckla. “The first is a joint will prepared by both your parents about a year before your father’s death. That will was not binding on your mother, but she wanted to make sure that it was read to you It was important to her that you know your father’s intent as well as hers.” Feckla leaned forward and frowned to show that she was listening. Mother smile graciously. Mr. Abbott continued, “The key point of that will reads, ‘In the event of the simultaneous death of Vernon Wilby and Oma Wilby, all property is to be split into two equal shares, those shares to go, one each, to their beloved daughters Mildred Wilson and Feckla Finch.’”
Feckla gasped and started to fan herself with her purse. I looked to Mother. She had turned stone grey. It looked like her fingernails might break through the heavy leather on the chair arms. “What does my mother’s will say?” she asked.
Mr. Abbott picked up the second document. He started to read, “I Oma Wilby, being of sound mind and body, on this fifteenth day of March –”
“Just cut to the chase.”
“Oh, ah, of course,” Mr. Abbott riffled through the pages. “Yes, here’s the part I think you’re interested in. He cleared his throat again. “The property at 914 S. Scenic, including, but not limited to, house, furniture, housewares, and land, goes to my daughter Feckla Finch. All other property is to be divided equally between my daughters Mildred Wilson and Feckla Finch.’”
Feckla was crying now, trying to find a Kleenex in the mess in her purse. I handed her one. “Oh my sweet Mother and Daddy,” she cried, “my sweet Mother and Daddy.”
Mother turned on her. “They weren’t your mother and daddy. Don’t you ever call them that. They were mine. They weren’t yours.” Her voice became louder and shriller. “You were like a cuckoo. Just a cuckoo. You came into our family and you pushed me out of the nest, a big fat cuckoo.” She looked at the lawyer. “I’ll bet she was planning this all along. It was her idea that they move next door to her, build that house. She was planning this, going over every day to turn them against me. I can contest this, can’t I? I can fight this. She’s not their daughter! I am their only daughter.”
Through all of this, Feckla was crying, patting my arm, trying to pat Mother. “Don’t be mad at me, Mildred. Don’t be mad. They just loved me, too. Don’t be mad.”
Mother pulled herself together, picked up her purse, and walked toward the door. In the doorway, she turned back toward Feckla, “You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.” Then she was gone. It was a fine dramatic moment, but we all knew Mother didn’t have any lawyers. There was only one other lawyer in town and he just did divorces and traffic fines.
Mother hasn’t talked to Feckla since that day. She didn’t contest the will, of course. She would have liked all the money, but what she really wanted to contest was the fact that they called Feckla their daughter. Try as she may, there isn’t any way to undo that. I think she misses Feckla. She used to rely on her a lot — to always be there when she wanted someone to go to a movie or a garage sale, or to pick up something at the store when she was too tired. She calls on me more often now. Usually it’s to pick up some food. There’s a Dunkin’ Doughnuts on my way home from work, and almost every day she asks me to get a dozen.
Feckla moved into Granny’s house about a month after the will reading, even moved her beauty shop into Granny’s den. She left her third husband behind next door. “He’s been raggin’ on me for fifteen years,” she said. “I’m sick of it. If he wants to see me, he can pay to get his hair cut.” Once a week she takes him a meatloaf and two casseroles. “He won’t starve,” she says.
I went to Feckla’s for my haircut last week. “Feckla, you look better every time I see you.”
“Isn’t it something? The last time I saw size ten. . . Well, Law, I can’t remember the last time I saw size ten. And I’m not on any of those diets, either. You think maybe that stomach staple started working again?”
I opened the cake stand and picked up a brownie. “These are stale.”
“Are they? Oh, I guess I bought them over a week ago. I plumb forgot. It seems like I’m just not so hungry anymore.”