Gertrude 1981

Title

Gertrude 1981

Subject

Creative Rewrite

Description

My father never wanted me to marry a “man of color” (he used a less sensitive description common to the vocabularies of white fathers of 1947 Kentucky).
“Gertrude. You’re my pretty little lilly, you need to learn to keep the mud off your petals” he told me.
My mother was less judgemental, but she kept her opinions quiet when it came to contradicting my father. I imagine him turning over in his grave on a yearly basis, throughout the 60s and 70s as I danced my way through the civil rights movement and right into my own feminist revolution. By 1981 I’d had enough of the world, enough of the racism, the sexism, the beatings, and living an unappreciated life. My coked-out son, Oliver, was studying at Tisch school of arts. Arrogant and pretentious, he refused to listen to any advice I’d offered him. Following in the steps of his father, he harboured a violent racist demeanor and a similar attitude towards women. When he heard the news of his father’s passing in 1982, he came home to Louisville ready for a fight. He was a boy who loved pointing fingers, this particular time it was directed at me. This particular time he was not as far off as one might imagine.
Things weren't always unbearable with Roger, he was my highschool sweetheart, though he left for the army right after we graduated. I was 17 the summer before I went to Indiana University, and I can’t say I was entirely faithful, but he hadn't promised to marry me yet and I was a young woman going away for the first time. But Roger had been home for a while after his ROTC training, and in the period of time from when I left for college in ‘58 to my pregnancy in ‘61 we were married, graduated, and had moved ourselves back down to Kentucky to be near our parents for what little time they had left. We had already lost my father by 1960, and my mother in law wasn't doing well with age. I had my son in 1962 and we named him Oliver, a Danish name, after my father. He was three when his father was deployed to Vietnam- a confused pain for him and a relief for myself. The years he had been home since Oliver was born were filled with fights and my own frustration at what I would later realized was a completely imbalanced household. His leaving simply meant it was a suit I didn’t have to iron everyday and one less plate on the table. Less yelling. Never having to worry about his temper upon coming home from a night out with the boys. A night out doing god knows what or who.
I imagine Vietnam wasn't much different. I’ve heard the stories of the way those men entertained themselves over there. The women they took advantage of. The children they sired without the knowledge of their wives. Ironic since his own father had a child by the woman who had nannied Roger and his sister, a young black woman, who had a young black baby- Claude.
I first met him in the yard outside the house we owned in Louisville, the one my father and mother raised my two brothers and I in. It was the summer before I left for Indiana University, and a month after Roger had left for the army as most young men did in those days. Claude pulled into my driveway in a shiny new pickup truck, one I recognized to be my boyfriend’s. He had told me he would be sending his half brother over to help with the moving, but I was not to ride in the truck with him. Roger made it sound as if Claude was hotheaded, not to be trusted with anything more than a few trunkfulls of my wardrobe, and I would be riding in with Lucille and Mary, only meeting Claude at the University to direct the move. My father was away on a business trip the weekend I was supposed to move in, and Claude was as it seemed, deemed the last able body to assist my young, frail, and pale feminine self.
He looked out over the passenger side window, smiling with eagerness to finally meet me, and everything Roger said melted from my mind; Claude was none of those foul things. Sadly, Roger was just another white racist man of his time who had learnt to tolerate his half-brother for the sake of his ailing mother, and in honor of his deceased father. Claude’s short sleeve button down rolled up over his arms in the summer heat of 1958 Kentucky as a cigarette hung from his lips. I told Lucille and Mary to go on without me, and hopped into the cab of that teal pickup truck, ready for the three hour drive. We talked the whole way up, windows down, sun blazing over new tar, and leaving Kentucky behind in its own dust.
We saw each other from time to time as the years passed, but nothing too obvious until after Roger left for Vietnam and I was alone with Oliver. We would often go dancing, his dark eyes full of caring and soul. He would spin me under the lowlights of the dancing clubs, my full skirt flaring out around me like a floral circle, and when he pulled me back into him, the skirt wrapped around me, caught by the inertia of his rhythm. Caught by his arms, strong and overworked. He took me to his friend’s apartments in the city, those rooms were filled with 20 somethings starting to figure out just how sick of pain they were, the discrimination. The type that flooded streets to protest the inequalities. The type that inspired women to do the same a decade later for their own rights. He saw this connection. He was smarter than most men, more sensitive, and cared more about me than anyone else I had ever met. He gave women the respect we deserved. He had lived a life full of disrespect for his race, he gave me the kindness he was never shown. He was the love of my life.
Roger was not. After he came home from Vietnam in ‘67, being honorably discharged on account of battlewoods to his foot, things started to fall back into place. It was good at first while I helped him heal, but slowly he descended into his old habits once he went back to work. He travelled from time to time, business meetings, veteran organizations, he was a valued member of our community, and a loyal patriot- his foot wouldn't keep him from doing his part. He was shocked to find the woman he married to be a no-good-anti-American hippy. I simply opposed the war, and killing the Vietnamese for our own selfish gaines. Killing out of self defense is a different story, but I suppose he thought he could beat that out of my mind. He never saw it coming.
Killing a man is easy when you make his meals everyday. When you wait on him hand and foot. Perceptions are dulled when all he drinks is light beer, and his taste buds are accustomed to so much salt and grease, a tinge of cyanide at every meal slowly over a year goes undetected. Killing a man is easy when he’s already killed you. When he had no one to fight anymore after the war and decided your body was good enough of a canvas for his aggressions. Old habits die hard. He never hit me while I was pregnant with his son, his little prince- a brief respite from his violence, but since then it almost never stopped. At his funeral my bruises had began to heal, and I saw Claude once again, the man who never laid a finger on me without my permission. The man that marked my college years, and the years Roger was away, with nights of dancing and riveting conversations. The man I finally committed myself to after Roger’s death. The man I had wanted all along. My father told me to never marry a black man, but lord I loved him.
My son told me I should have never married that black man, and lord will I pay for it.

Creator

Fiona Luddy

Comments

Citation

Fiona Luddy, “Gertrude 1981,” Shakespearean Journeys, accessed November 28, 2021, http://shakespeareanjourneys.emerson.build/items/show/50.