A Brief Respite from Pandemic Fatigue
Updated: Oct 30
Here's a short excerpt from "Love Letters From Appalachia," to get you out of your pandemic head and into the head of my protagonist, Claire. If you have comments or questions, please leave them!
A tepid, steady drizzle fell on the mourners gathered at the Pleasant Valley Cemetery. Most were listening politely to the young, inexperienced Methodist preacher give a dry, bare-bones eulogy for a woman he never knew. Those standing in attendance were trying hard not to shift their weight too much on the damp ground. The heavy clay indigenous to the area could ruin a pair of shoes in a heartbeat. The older women languidly flicked fans handed out by the funeral home director when they arrived half an hour before.
I should have gotten someone who knew Mama well to speak and skipped the preacher, Clarinda Mattison groused silently. Those fans with Coburn’s Funeral Home in big red letters emblazoned on both sides… honestly. Those are so gaudy. This is a funeral for pity’s sake. They’re like vultures waiting for their next unfortunate victim. I suppose I should be grateful half the county businesses aren’t listed on them.
Irritation buzzed around in her jumbled thoughts like bees on clover in midsummer, and there were plenty of those in the sweltering July heat. The ancient family burial plot was hacked back the day before to knock down the worst of the summer growth. It was still an unsightly mess of weeds and sinking headstones that needed restoration, but there wasn’t time. She sighed and tried to arrange her expression in more appropriate lines for the occasion. People were looking at her.
Claire scheduled the hasty burial of her mother’s cremated remains in less than four days, which hadn’t given her much time to order a headstone for the grave she now sat beside. The one she chose matched the double stones for her grandparents and great-grandparents, who were interred here along with others six generations back. As usual, she received no help from her sister with this short memorial graveside service. Caitlin blew in like a summer thunderstorm on the last flight from New York to Atlanta for the service held at home two weeks ago. Her typical lack of planning made things difficult. Claire spent three hours trying to find someone with a small private plane to pick her up at Hartsfield-Jackson.
She had nothing but an enormous gym bag when she piled into Claire’s car at the local municipal airport a few minutes after midnight. Other than medication, makeup, and paperback books, she had nothing to wear but the clothes on her back. Claire had to lend her a dress, underwear, and shoes for the service the following afternoon in their hometown of Montford, Georgia. She successfully curbed her irritation with her younger sister in public so the animosity between the two of them wouldn’t be fodder for gossip at local dinner tables that evening. However, it didn’t stop the inevitable argument which occurred at her own. Caitlin was there in large part to stake her claim to items she wanted out of their childhood home. Claire’s patience wore thin, as it always did where her sister was concerned. Just thinking about Caitlin made her mad. It would be prudent to put her out of mind.
Her decision was short lived. Ennui with the eulogy that droned on caused her thoughts to revert to the last substantive conversation she had with her mother. It was three weeks before the cancer she battled so hard to win for six years finally won the war.
“Clarinda, we need to talk.”
Mariah Mattison laid beside her eldest daughter in the bed Claire’s great-grandparents slept in most of their married lives. Claire knew this conversation wasn’t going to be pleasant. Her mother never called her Clarinda unless she was mad or there was trouble.
Oh, no, Mama. Not now. I’m not ready to talk about this now.
However, only the most indomitable souls dared say no to Mariah Mattison when she was hale and hearty, much less when she was dying. Claire realized protesting would fall on deaf ears. Resigned, she sat up and crossed her legs on the bed swathed in pale blue sheets.
“Okay, Mama, let’s talk.”
“The doctor says I have little time left, Claire.”
Her mother talked about impending death in her usual direct manner, as if telling her oldest daughter she was going downtown to the grocery store. “There are things you need promise me you’ll do. We’ve already discussed services, cremation, the headstone, and everything else.”
“Mama, there’s not much left to discuss.” Claire knew what was coming, and distraught as she was about her mother’s passing, she was annoyed. Everything was always about Caitlin.
“Now, Claire, don’t give me that lawyer tone of voice. We need to talk about this. Consider me a client...you discuss unpleasant things with them every day.”
“Mama, I get paid to do that. When I go home, it’s my client’s problem, not mine.” Claire struggled to neutralize her facial expression and tone of voice.
“Well, we are going to talk about it regardless of your desire to avoid it, so buckle up.”
She girded herself for battle. I will not let her bully me about Caitlin. I don’t care how sick she is.
“You need to promise me you’ll look after your sister and make sure she gets along alright. I’d feel better if she and Mark would marry, but she prides herself on flouting convention. I think her refusal to marry is her way of trying to irritate me.”
Caitlin irritated everyone, but no one more than Claire. However, she gave her sister a grudging respect for always knowing and speaking her mind. As the oldest of two children, Claire was the one always willing to please. Growing up, she made stellar grades, and took part in everything her parents thought she should. She rarely, if ever, disobeyed them, and even married a man they adored, though she didn’t love him.
Her sister possessed no such loyalties or suppression of self-interest. She did what she damn well pleased and cared what no one thought. She somehow knew from birth her parents would assist her with any scrapes she got into. They guaranteed that knowledge when Caitlin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19. She was a master manipulator, and Claire had no patience with her, which was one of dozens of reasons the two women didn’t get along.
“At least she’s not marrying him because someone else wants her to.”
Claire instantly regretted her remark.
Damn it! Now we’ll harangue over this for the umpteenth time. I don’t want to argue about Ryan. This isn’t the time or place.
“Are we having this conversation again Claire?”
“I didn’t realize we discussed it that much, Mama.”
“You’ve always blamed your father and me for the failure of your marriage and never wanted to admit that you didn’t try hard enough to make it work.”
“I have blamed no one but myself. I didn’t love Ryan, Mama. You and Daddy did. I was young, foolish, and more concerned about what everyone else thought instead of what I wanted.”
“If you had been interested in something more than sex, you would have one of the finest houses in Macon today, children and a more secure future. You can get sex anywhere, Claire. Good marriages are harder to come by.”
“Are you suggesting that I should have cheated on Ryan to get my sexual needs satisfied?”
“Don’t be impertinent. You may be a grown woman and an attorney with your own business, but you will not speak to me in that manner!”
“Mama, I wasn’t trying to be rude. There are things you don’t know about Ryan and me which I don’t think are appropriate to discuss with anyone. This is no time to talk about him. I don’t need a man to secure my financial future or even to have children if I decide I want any. You didn’t. Besides, I don’t see how you can believe for a moment that attraction and sex aren’t important in a marriage. I refuse to become involved with another man where there is no chemistry. You may believe what you wish, but I’m sure of what I want from a relationship. I’m 33 now, not a child who no longer knows her own mind.”
Claire knew that last statement was only true in part. She could tell anyone on a professional level where she stood on issues, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind what she thought. However, it was harder for her to say no and assert herself firmly with people she loved. What she just said to her mother made her stomach hurt. Her tendency to see only the best in people she cared for and not to hurt their feelings got her into trouble more often than not.
“You could have tried harder, Claire. Ryan wanted to see a counselor, and you categorically refused to cooperate. I think you might have worked things out with him in time.”
“Mama there wasn’t anything to work out. Ryan was dating his second wife less than two months after we split up. He married her three months after our divorce was final, had three kids in five years, then left her for his father’s secretary. That isn’t a secret. He would have left me too when I wouldn’t have agreed to become a broodmare for a passel of children.”
“Claire! That’s profane and not true. He really cared for you. He was heartbroken when you wanted out of the marriage… he called your father and me when you left him and was in tears.”
Claire sighed. Ryan always had a flare for the dramatic–and an eye for attractive, pliable women. He miscalculated small town gossip, however, and thought no one had discovered he was seeing his second wife while he and Claire were still together. She discovered that when the daughter of her father’s best friend injudiciously became a bearer of bad tidings. While things between them were irreparably broken, the knowledge he was unfaithful still rankled her. She hated disloyalty in people worse than anything, and Ryan was not the person he held himself out to be. It never occurred to her to cheat on him, even when things were at their worse. Mariah knew nothing about Ryan’s infidelity, and Claire wasn’t about to mention it now.