by Irene Hoge Smith
Ann Arbor, February 1961.
I don’t know where she is. Maybe I’m supposed to know what she’s doing this afternoon, but I just know that I’m cold and that it was a long windy walk from the bus stop and that I’ve been thinking all the way up the hill how pleased she’d be that I took the bus by myself. I leave the soggy black leather boots on the concrete floor of the carport and come into the kitchen in damp knee socks.
Mama doesn’t get why I hate to take the bus and I can’t explain it. I started worrying even before I left the house this morning. Is the fare still twenty-five cents? Do I have quarters in my pocket? Are they still there? It’s the 12B, I know that. I thought I knew that. Unless it’s 12A. No, I’m sure it’s the 12B. Except how will I know if I’ve already missed it, and when will the next one come? If I get on the wrong bus I could end up in Ypsilanti or, worse, Detroit. But the boxy black and white 12B bus stopped at the foot of Pinecrest Crescent about five minutes after I got down the hill, and during the long stretch down Miller Road toward town my heart gradually stopped pounding in my ears. When I saw the first red-roofed university buildings I started watching for the arch at the corner of the quad, but everything looked different from inside the bus. I was supposed to get off at the corner of South University and East University, I remembered that, but at State Street I saw the Carillon and got confused again. What if we’ve already passed my stop? I should have gone up front and asked the driver, but then everybody would have looked at me. There’s the arch. There’s Ulrich’s bookstore. I pulled the cord and the bus slowed to a stop and I was on the sidewalk. For a minute I was sure I’d made a mistake, but I was just looking the wrong way and when I turned around I saw, halfway down the next block, catty corner from Ulrich’s like I remembered, the school steps. My armpits were wet and I didn’t catch my breath until I got to homeroom.
Now it’s almost four o’clock, no one’s home, it’s getting dark out and it’s even darker inside. Across the living room the tall windows glow blue in the twilight and it reminds me of something that I want to ask her about. The blue time? A perfume? A poem she wrote? When I switch on the light, indigo turns to black and I see only a reflection of myself and the living room, the kitchen, orange countertops, dishes in the sink, piles of newspapers and books on the table.
Where is she? I hope there’s something to eat. Maybe she’s at class? Which class? I’m pretty sure there’s some instant cocoa. I’d like to go with her to pottery class again. I run water into the scuffed aluminum kettle, put it on the electric stove, find a heavy white china mug in the sink, rinse it out. I wish she wouldn’t go to that writing class. She’s wearing lipstick and putting something on her hair called a “rinse.” Yes, there’s the red box of Nestle’s EverReady, and it’s at least half full. I feel better, and realize I’ve been crying.
My parents met in Washington as World War II was winding down. She’d dropped out of Smith College to join the WACs, he’d gone into the Army after finishing an engineering certificate in Arizona, and both of them were doing secret work that, as far as I know, neither of them ever talked about to anyone. She’d found a handsome, smart engineer, like the father who died when she was eight. He was fascinated by her writing, her education, and most of all her admiration for him.
Getting married and having babies was what everybody was doing and what they did, but they weren’t cut out for it. He was insecure, angry, needy and nasty to her when things weren’t going right for him. She was looking for someone to take care of her and help her grow up, but as she began to realize, they were both infants themselves.
We moved from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor in the summer after sixth grade. I was going to start seventh at the University School in the fall, and everything seemed to be looking up. Daddy finished graduate school, left Willow Run Labs for a job on campus, and things were better in ways I can’t put into words exactly that had to do with them not fighting so much, not being so mean to us, me and Patti not having to take care of the little kids all the time, and not—not other things I don’t even want to think about.
And there must have been more money and enough hope that they decided they could build a beautiful new house in a nice part of Ann Arbor.
She’s happy here. She was excited all during the construction. When a gigantic boulder came out of the excavation she got the bulldozer man to move it to the back yard, imagining the bachelor buttons, Queen Anne’s lace and purple vetch that would grow around it. She chose the pumpkin-orange Formica, told the workmen how to arrange the gray-speckled linoleum tiles, found a dramatic black stain for the vertical support beam in the middle of the house, didn’t let them box it in with drywall. She’s in a good mood a whole lot more since we moved here last summer. Our house is as nice as the other ones in the neighborhood, or it will be when Daddy gets the foundation painted and when Mama plants the Japanese maple tree out front that she wants. She finally made curtains instead of just buying fabric and saying she’d get around to it. They’re just bed sheets but she sewed pleat tape across the top and put in the little pronged doohickeys that make gathers like machine-made drapes. Daddy put up real curtain rods and I helped Mama draw free-form flowers on the bottom edge of the sheets with magic markers, and they look pretty nice. She’s cheerful, making things, full of plans. I forget to worry about her for a while.
I’d always remembered the house we lived in when I was born, a corner row house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, as a vast castle with an enormous round tower. After we left Ann Arbor, I developed a similarly aggrandized image of that house, imagining the low-slung yellow rambler near the crest of Morningside Drive as larger, more striking, more beautiful than it really was. It had the shallow-angled roof that says “contemporary,” cathedral ceilings, and clerestory windows—elongated scalene triangles just under the roofline. It was a nice house, especially compared to anywhere we’d lived before, but not really grand. Ann Arbor has a rich architectural heritage of mid-century modern houses, and their iconic lines, expanses of glass, and pleasing simplicity became conflated, after we left, with memories of the actual house we lived in for two and a half years. Two and a half years. It doesn’t seem possible. I don’t want it to have been such a short time. How could it have always meant so much to me when we were hardly there at all?
Our parents’ marriage was never easy, and at times it was awful. He had affairs and left several times when we were small. At least once she tried to leave him but he convinced her to come back. In the darkest time (his father died, he had a setback at work), he abused all of us, and she was powerless to do anything about it.
Things calmed down between them after the first decade. He got a grip on himself as his career became more promising, and being less afraid of him helped her start to rebuild her self-esteem. She was changing, hoped he’d change too, and it started to seem things were going to be okay.
They have a housewarming party. Mama serves angel-food cake with frozen strawberries and sour cream. I think sour cream sounds like a good way to ruin strawberries and cake, but it’s delicious. Like the curtains, the orange counters, the unfinished post in the living room—I wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing but it turns out to be exactly what she had in mind, and just right.
They haven’t had a really bad fight since we moved to Ann Arbor. She still doesn’t always get up in the morning, but she doesn’t stay in bed all day, either. Patti has the alarm clock, and I get out of bed when I hear her in the shower. I put cornflakes, milk and sugar, four cereal bowls and four spoons on the table while Patti wakes the little kids up. Sally’s in kindergarten, and can dress herself and help Ruthie, too. Usually they’ve had their breakfast and are ready by the time the car pool comes.
I’m in seventh grade, have some friends, and am starting to feel pretty good about this new school. I draw a peace sign on my olive-green canvas book bag and sling it over my shoulder just the way Patti and her ninth-grade friends do. I try to forget Ypsilanti, and hope that this tenth move will be the last.
At Christmas our parents were happy all day long, although we were on edge, waiting for the first impatient words, a quarrel escalating to yelling, crying, and four girls running to separate corners of the house.
She sat smiling, legs crossed in the yellow canvas butterfly chair. He leaned back on black leather, put his feet up on the matching ottoman. They talked and joked after the presents. Kennedy was going to the White House, a friend had landed an important job in the administration. She’d gotten over Stevenson, didn’t sneer about Kennedy any more. He said something about a leave of absence from the university, about a job “on the hill.” She said it’s too soon to tell the kids. I didn’t know what a leave of absence was or what hill they were talking about and I didn’t want to ask.
In January they told us that there would be another move. We agreed to believe them when they said it was only for a while, that after a year or two in Washington we would certainly, definitely, absolutely move back to Ann Arbor. Daddy went to Washington after the inauguration, coming back every few weeks, and things were more relaxed with him gone. We wouldn’t have to leave until the end of the school year.
I stopped expecting to find Mama at home in the afternoons. She was taking a class in poetry and another in Russian and I came home one day toward the end of winter to find the living room windows lined with Cyrillic letters painted in robin’s-egg blue. Yevtushenko, she said. The most beautiful poetry in the world. Much better to read it in the original Russian. Maybe in Ann Arbor it’s okay to have Russian words on the windows. I hope so.
I knew about the poetry and the Russian and even Artesian, the literary journal she was helping to revive. I didn’t know about the man, the teacher, the editor of the journal, about what was happening between them while she was so happy and busy and creative. And I couldn’t know, of course, how little time was left.
She’s smoking, pacing, clutching a cup of black coffee and I want to talk to her. It was exciting at first to think of our father and Washington and the Kennedys and I even imagined our family might become like them and thought maybe it would be fun and make me special to go away for a year and come back. But the school year is ending and I’m starting to feel sad. I really don’t want to miss being in eighth grade with my friends. I’m tired of being cooperative. I’m ready for an argument.
I start in on her. “I still don’t get why we even have to move to Washington.”
She sighs, but I have more to say.
“We practically just moved here and I’ve only been at U high for one grade and that’s not fair, because Patti’s had three whole years. I finally have friends and Mr. Berg said that next year I should try out for choir but I won’t even be here!”
I start to get even more upset than I thought I was.
She seems willing to hear me out. Maybe I can convince her we should all stay here and Daddy can keep coming home every other weekend and not make us move.
“I know you really like school now, but that’s just because you have a better attitude. University School’s not so special; you just don’t want things to change. Lots of people are afraid of change.” This sounds like one of her speeches about how narrow-minded most people are, but she still sounds sort of sympathetic.
“I’m sure there’ll be a choir at your school in DC, or at the Unitarian Church. You’ll find new things to like. You’ll make lots of new friends.”
“But I’m never going to see my old friends anymore! I don’t want new friends, I want to live here! This is the best place we’ve ever lived and I don’t see why we have to leave!”
“But it’s not forever,” she goes on. “We’ll be coming back, I told you that. That’s why we’re just renting the house and not selling it.”
I’ve heard this before. “When are we coming back? Will we be back in time for ninth grade? Can you promise it will be exactly one year, that I’ll only be gone for eighth?”
“I told you already we’ll come back. Your father’s just on leave, so he has to come back.” She’s not so patient, getting a little sharp.
“Well, how long exactly?”
“I don’t know exactly! You’re making too big a deal out of it, going on about never seeing this place again. That’s just stupid.”
It’s probably her saying I’m stupid that does it. Daddy says that all the time but usually she says of course not, you know you’re really smart but he’s in a bad mood and stay out of his way. But I’m so mad that I say what I’ve been thinking from the first time they told us about moving.
“Well, isn’t that the same thing you said when we left Riverside?” I’m using my most sarcastic voice. “And that didn’t happen, did it? When we came to Michigan you promised we’d be moving back to California, and did we? No, and we never will, either! So why should we believe….”
She puts the cup down, switches the cigarette to her left hand, and slaps me across the face.
Mama’s maiden name was Frances Elizabeth Dean. “Frances after my grandfather,” she told us, which made no sense until I learned to read and could grasp that they did have the same first name, with a different, final vowel. Her father was Samuel Winthrop Dean, and his father was Francis Winthrop Dean. Twelve Dean brothers were supposed to have come over before the Mayflower, settling first in Taunton and later in Lexington. An ancestor’s revolutionary war musket had been in her grandfather’s attic on Elliot Lane, which meant, she said, that she could have joined the DAR if she’d been interested. “Some people think that kind of thing is important,” she sniffed, and I knew I shouldn’t be too impressed. As grand as this all sounded to me, I knew it was because her father died that they had to move in with her namesake grandfather. She and her mother and sister were always the poor relations, and her memories were not happy ones.
I remember Mama. I never called her anything else. I didn’t know the Frances Elizabeth Dean or Frances Dean Smith who wrote so many poems before I was born, and she didn’t start writing again until after she left. I didn’t really know her after that until I was grown up with children of my own. I don’t remember her as S. S. Veri, or f.d.b., or FrancEyE. I only remember Mama.
FrancEyE dies at 87; prolific Santa Monica poet
Frances Dean Smith, a Santa Monica, Calif., poet known as FrancEyE who was inspired by Charles Bukowski, lived with him and had a child with him in the 1960s has died. She was 87.
….A singular character affectionately called the Bearded Witch of Ocean Park—or, as Bukowski fondly referred to her in one poem, Old Snaggle-Tooth—Smith had lived in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica for decades.
Her work under the pen name FrancEyE was published in poetry journals and gathered in the collections “Snaggletooth in Ocean Park” (Sacred Beverage Press, 1996), “Amber Spider” (Pearl, 2004), “Grandma Stories” (Conflux Press, 2008) and “Call” (Rose of Sharon Press, 2008).
….Although Ms. Smith had been writing poetry in fits and starts nearly all her life, she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1960s determined to reinvent herself, leaving behind the man she had divorced and the four daughters they had produced during an unhappy marriage.
(The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2009)