My mother had a sixth grade education. She was a southern girl raised on a farm in the South Carolina low country. My Uncle George, her brother, died in The Battle of The Bulge. He was my grandmother’s youngest and the apple of her eye. My grandmother was dying from a brain tumor when my mother was pregnant with me, her first child. She told my mother that I was a boy and made her promise to name me George. Mom also said that my grandmother’s ghost visited her the night after she died.
Mom had many superstitions and odd beliefs. She believed that sea shells were bad luck, and that eating a banana after drinking a coke was certain death. Of course I tested that one out. I swear that she never had an inkling that there was anything sexual about this, but she believed the coachwhip snake, a long black snake, would hide in fields and wait for a woman to pass by. Then it would rise up, make a perfect construction worker like wolf whistle. When the woman looked at it, presumably a white woman, it would hypnotize her. Then it would crawl up to her, wrap around her, and squeeze her to death.
I have a brother one year younger and a much younger sister. Our parents loved us and sacrificed a great deal for us, but both were severely flawed, and the family unit deteriorated as the years went by. Mom suffered from ever worsening bipolar depression and dad had an ever worsening drinking problem. If anything mom was overprotective of us when we were young and her mental condition less pronounced. Dad was from Missouri, a child of the great depression, which intelligence aside limited a poor farm boy like him to an eighth grade education. He worked hard all his life at a dirty job, a welder in a naval shipyard. I liked the members of his Missouri family. However from age ten on we lived in the south, and mom’s family always seemed disdainful, almost hostile to us kids. I don’t think they cared for dad, and somehow that extended to us. Often my brother and I were treated like cheap labor. I was a bright kid with good grades, my brother valedictorian of his class, but my Greek uncle by marriage told us on several occasions that we should quit school and get a job washing dishes. When Uncle Jim lay dying, my brother and I had to sit death watch in the hospital in the wee hours.
Eventually our family disintegrated entirely when dad’s alcoholism finally cost him his job. My brother and I were in college, and due to scholarships, government loans and grants, and some work, we were able to get by on our own, if barely. My younger sister went to Missouri to live with her godparents, a wonderful childless couple who eventually adopted her. Perhaps the greatest thing my mother ever did for any of her children was befriend Lee and Nina back when we lived in Missouri and make them my sister’s godparents. I think they were the only non-related friends my parents ever had, and maintaining that friendship would have been impossible had we not moved away to South Carolina. Whether it was divine intervention or just lucky circumstance, I was grateful that she was taken care of. When things fell apart, mom followed my sister up there to Missouri. By that time her mental conditon had made her impossible to live with, and she would have fought institutionalization tooth and nail. Her family would have crucified us as well. As the oldest I experienced a great deal of guilt and anxiety about her, but there just wasn’t much I could do. I keep telling myself that.
A year or two later mom died. We brought the body back down to Charleston. I was working at the time, fresh out of college during a recession, just getting by. My brother stayed with me in a big house I shared with friends. My sister stayed with the family of another friend of mine. Mom’s family blamed us of course. I don’t think they ever acknowledged her mental condition. Even toward the end she could hold things together to some degree for an hour or two when a sister visited. Still it was there if you looked, but family doesn’t always look. I coordinated the arrangements with them but otherwise we didn’t have any face to face contact until the day of the funeral. My main concern was shielding my siblings as much as possible. As expected they were pretty cold toward us, barely civil, but we got through it.
That night I slept downstairs on the couch, having given my brother my room. I felt drained from the whole experience, sad but relieved that the ordeal was over. Sometime in the night I felt something land on my stomach. I sat up. I suspected that the cat had jumped down from the couch back, but I couldn’t find the cat. I went back to sleep. Sometime later I opened my eyes, and by the light from the street side window, I saw a key on a string twirling around above my head. I quickly closed my eyes. I told myself that understandably I had taken things harder than I thought. So I opened my eyes again and now the key was twirling faster and closer. I was scared. I closed my eyes. I took a few minutes to screw up my courage before I opened them again. Thank God the twirling key was gone. I sat up and took some deep breaths. I lay back down and had just closed my eyes, when I felt two hands touch me firmly three times top to bottom like a body search. At that point I jumped up and started yelling. Lights came on and people rushed down. I think all I said to them was that something strange was going on. That was the end of it. The next morning I noticed a key on a string hanging on the inside of the nearby window frame. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was all a dream due to extreme stress, combined with my childhood memories of mom’s superstitious tales. All I can say is that looking back I acted quite rationally in that dream, if indeed it was a dream.