We had a green roadster with a rumble seat where I usually rode in solitary splendor, then with my little fox terrier, Rinty, later run over by a motorcycle he was chasing. In this roadster one time my mother was stung by a yellow jacket and I wept for her. She had blood on her skirt, probably from her period, but I, connecting cause and effect, thought the wasp had caused her to bleed.
The hurricane of 1938 arrived when my twin sisters, Joyce and Janet, were only a few months old. The wind increased, shaking the small house. I don't know where my father was, probably at work. We had no telephone, no radio. My mother decided we should take refuge at a neighbor's house down the road. We walked, my mother burdened with boxes and a suitcase and one of the twins. Although I was barely three I had the job of carrying the other twin. At the neighbor's house I remember the moaning wind and the French doors that suddenly began losing panes of glass, and men hammering boards over the outside of the glass doors, making the house gloomy as well as strange.
My mother came from a large rural family of five girls and four boys. A few years after the hurricane we moved to a house in Plainfield, Connecticut, a house that belonged to my mother's parents, Lewis and Sarah (Geer) Gill. My mother's antecedents, the Gills, Geers and Crowells, came from longtime farm people who began to be absorbed into the textile industry in the nineteenth century. The Crowells had an artistic bent; one was a master furniture maker, another created stencils for the decorative panels of Hitchcock chairs. During the time we lived in the Plainfield house, my father was abroad, helping set up a textile mill in South America.
This roadside house had been a gas station at one time, one of several of my fertile-minded grandfather Gill's business ventures. He had invented devices for textile machinery that made him no money at all, then started the gas station and, a few years after we lived in it, converted it to a fabric and millends shop. He could fix anything and was a skilled carpenter. These grandparents, whom the children and grandchildren alike called Ma and Dad, had a huge garden where I loved the exotic husk tomatoes, peeling their papery covers away and eating the sweet-tanged fruits. Dad had a grumpy old dog named Duke. There were a few cows that my uncles had to tend and an electric fence around the garden. My cousins and I thought it was fun to make a human chain, one grasping the electric fence, the one on the end getting the magnified jolt.
My maternal grandmother, Ma, née Sarah Mayo Geer, was descended from two orphan brothers who came from Heavitree near Bristol, England, to Connecticut in 1635. She always seemed harassed by her large family of children, and with so many people swarming in and out, the house was less tidy than comfortable. She washed and ironed her paper money so it would be crisp. She may have starched it. She was impatient, but a sucker for kitchen gadgets and an inventive storyteller with a grand sense of humor and at one time wrote a newspaper column. The family, being what it is, has always assigned my interest in books and writing to Ma's influence. Why not? Others in the family have written books and essays as well; my uncle Ardian Gill wrote a novel about John Wesley Powell's journey down the Colorado River. Cousin David Robinson wrote for National Geographic for years. Music and art and crafts were strong interests. My mother and her sister Gloriana (everyone had two or three nicknames and we called her Hikee) painted. The oldest sister, Sarah, got greatly involved in tinsel painting and resurrected the stencils of their great-uncle, Bill Crowell. All of them sewed their children's clothes. My mother had a loom and wove rugs. My sisters and I grew up accepting the making of things as normal. For years I sewed my own clothes until computers made sewing machines so complicated and cranky that the fun was gone.
Excerpted from Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx. Copyright © 2011 by Dead Line, Ltd. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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