Excerpt 50

Memphis

1958

In my parents’ house, nothing was traditional.

For Christmas, sometimes, my father created a tree from small green umbrellas sprouting up like giant cattails from a New Jersey swamp. Other times, Robert sprayed enormous magnolia leaves gold and bound them together like large fans used to cool off a surly pasha.

In those politically incorrect days, there was an institution in Memphis called Home for the Incurables. Nancy briefly belonged to some women’s organization that  visited the patients, all of whom could have appeared in a Flannery O’Connor novel.   I accompanied her there once.

I had never seen so many helpless, hopeless, and deformed people, and I began to cry.

A nurse softly said to my mother, “You really shouldn’t bring a young child to a place like this.”

Nancy did not respond.

When we were inside her Chevrolet station wagon with the batlike fins over the rear lights, she screamed, “Stop it with the crocodile tears! That’s life. Get used to it!”

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