A Roof Over Our Heads
When Scott tried to put on the boots stored in the attic, he found they were half stuffed with cotton. This recalled his mother’s remark long ago, “My father had no feet.” He took it to mean her father was a stick-in-the-mud, but now it struck him that these riding boots, dusty and dried out, would fit stumps. Grandpa really had no feet. He shuddered, but less in horror than pity, for he had loved his grandfather and grieved at his death.
It was June of 1935 when Scott explored the attic, shortly after the family took over his grandfather’s house. As attics go, theirs was grand. Framed for a third floor, it had a high ceiling, three walk-in gables, five windows. The corners bulged with old furniture and bric-a-brac. One contained his grandfather’s roll-top desk, its pigeon holes still crammed with papers and letters.
Scott asked his mother, “How come Grandpa didn’t have any feet?” He wasn’t expected to be tactful with the family.
She looked up from her sewing. “He lost them.”
“He couldn’t go on farming, with his handicap, so he sold the farm in Mississippi and studied accounting in St. Louis. After that he went to work for the Treasury.” She was avoiding the subject. “Maybe it was all for the best; you know what it’s like for farmers in these terrible times. My cousins in Virginia haven’t fared much better.”
Scott would later reflect that she may have identified with storied Southern belles deprived by the War Between the States. Conditions in the thirties could have reinforced her impression. Scott’s dad, in his second year of job seeking, complained that architects were especially expendable.
Their home was in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. The neighborhood was a Norman Rockwell model. Its streets, spare of traffic, were sloping, paved, and shady. Theirs ended at a field bordered by woods. Like most of the houses, Scott’s was a two-story Victorian, with slate roofs and embracing porches.
He and his dad often sat on a side porch after dinner and talked until late. Scott’s mother and sister usually stayed upstairs. If they overheard, they probably didn’t pay attention, as the topics were generally male oriented. One evening he asked his father, “What happened to Grandpa’s feet?”
“It’s a story out of Faulkner,” his father said, flicking cigar ashes over the railing. “Vintage Southern gothic.” Scott was used to literary allusions beyond the scope of a thirteen-year-old with a preference for Dumas, Verne, and Stevenson.
“Well, I’ll tell it the way your grandfather told it to me, sitting at that old desk in the attic. I’d gone up there to see what he’d think of the engagement ring I’d just bought for your mother, but it was mainly an excuse to get to know him better. He handed me a letter from Henry Ford thanking him for buying a Model T and promising a refund if they sold over three-hundred thousand cars . . .”
“Then he told you about his feet?”
“Mm—that’s right. He was leaning back with his legs up on the desk, smoking a corncob pipe. He said, ‘I see you staring at what isn’t there. I usually say I tangled with a reaper, but since you’re about to become a member of the family, I’ll tell you the true story’. Then he related something that’s always been a source of anguish to your mother. I wouldn’t mention this. Keep it under your hat.”
The neighbors’ lights had come on; they were all reading the Evening Star. Fireflies glimmered. Scott saw an arresting image: his grandfather’s white hair, arched brows, and handsome face; but also his legs in folded-up trousers resting on the desk. He waited for the tale to unfold.
“Though married to your grandmother, he was seeing another woman. A beautiful free spirit, as he described her, who lived alone in a nearby town. He called her Maeve, so she was probably Irish. We shouldn’t judge them harshly. Taken at his word, they were deeply in love. Such things happen.”
His father lowered his voice. “She became pregnant and in time gave birth. Or rather, started to. The birth was difficult and the midwife sent Grandpa for a doctor. When they arrived, a child had been born and another was on the way. Then Maeve died in delivering a twin girl. It must have been one hell of a night.” He paused to flick ashes, and Scott leaned forward as he continued.
“When your grandfather left at dawn, he took the first child with him, leaving the other, who was sickly, with the midwife. Now, strange as it may seem, he placed the baby in his wife’s care. I should add that their own marriage had been childless.”
“But what’s all this got to do with Grandpa’s feet?”
“I’m coming to that. He returned to check on the other twin. It had died, though, and Maeve’s three brothers had come to bury it. They wanted no trace of a bastard kid. These were a very scruffy lot—hillbillies, moonshiners—and they accused Grandpa of wronging their sister. He remembered arguing with them and taking a heavy blow on the head. When he woke up, he was lying on the ground in the woods, bound, and the brothers were digging a hole.
“Now comes the gruesome part. It was pitch dark. In the light of a lantern, he could see a tiny bundle wrapped in a towel―the dead baby. Picture these men, digging, spitting tobacco juice, giving him a kick now and then. The hole got bigger and bigger. Finally they shoved him in, and he lay on his side with his legs and wrists wired together in back. Then they dropped in the baby and pitched dirt.”
“Gosh! How did he escape?”
“The very question I asked him. He said a bunch of dry leaves had fallen between his face and the fill, giving some breathing room. I guess the grave was pretty shallow, besides. Anyway, he survived there for two days.”
“Wow! Think how scared you’d be, lying in the ground like that with a dead baby up against you. Yuk!”
“I find it hard to imagine. But the next part has a lighter side. Grandpa chuckled about it as he cleaned his pipe. Some hunters came into the clearing to skin a deer, and he felt them walking over him and yelled out. You can picture how startled they were to hear this muffled voice. One of them shouts back, ‘Where are you, ghost?’ Then they must have realized they were treading on a grave. They dug him up, more dead than alive. The wire around his legs had cut off the circulation―”
“Gangrene set in.”
“Exactly. So his feet had to be amputated.”
“Poor Grandpa. He really had it rough.”
At that point his father lowered his voice further, glancing at the open window beside them. Scott, sitting on the edge of his chair, became aware of a singing in his ears, rising and falling. Did he hear night sounds or a hum in his head? He could smell his father’s tobacco breath.
“The story doesn’t end there,” his father said. “Grandpa’s wife—your grandmother—with the aid of a wet-nurse, cared for the child until they could find adoptive parents. At least that’s what your mother would like to believe. You know how proud she is of her ancestry on her mother’s side—to the extent, in fact, of taking Monroe as her middle name. To be from presidential stock is as close to royalty as you get in America. She firmly rejects the other version.”
He glanced again at the window. “That she, your mother, is Maeve’s child. Where did that come from? Gossip probably. But you can see how it would devastate anyone concerned about ancestry—to be the child of your father’s mistress, illegitimate, and a nobody besides. I’ve often thought of searching his papers for a birth certificate, to settle her mind on that score. So—not a word, okay?”
“No! I’ll keep it under my hat.”
In fact, it all seemed remote and long ago, and for a while he lost interest. He and three friends were busy damming a creek to make a swimming hole. Unlike his father, he didn’t consider the move from city to country a calamity.
Soon it was the Fourth of July, and Scott was busy with fireworks. One of their neighbors, Mr. Kent, was a jolly man whose house lay catty-corner to theirs and looked down on a main highway. That morning, to amuse Scott and his sister, he sat on his porch and tossed pellets that exploded on contact. Betty, twelve and shy, covered her ears. Scott spent the afternoon discharging firecrackers, impatient for nightfall. Then, with his dad as accomplice, he fired off Roman candles, sky rockets, and pinwheels. Afterward, as burnt out with the Fourth as the fireworks themselves, he welcomed another porch talk.
“How did Grandpa die?” he asked.
They had both seen a curtain stir at the open window. “Let’s see if your mother will tell the story,” his father said, loud enough for her to hear. She appeared at the side door. “Come join us, dear,” he said. “We’d like to hear your version of your father’s demise.”
Scott’s mom was modest, withdrawn. Since she seldom entered their discussions, he was pleased when she came out and leaned against the railing. “He had a burst appendix,” she said.
“We were in New York at the time,” Scott’s dad put in. “Later we talked to Kent about it. I find the doctor’s role singular, to say the least.”
“Dr. Baxter,” she supplied. “He didn’t think my father had appendicitis. He came that afternoon and said it wasn’t. My father tried to convince him.”
“I thought Baxter liked to operate,” said Scott’s dad, flicking an ash. “Hadn’t he removed nearly every appendix for miles around?”
“I think he was a bit loony. I’ve told you how I ran into him that time in a store and he said, ‘Do I have yours?’ I couldn’t imagine what he meant.”
“That’s understandable.” They both laughed. Scott felt good about the moment of lightness between them. “Tell us about Kent,” his dad went on―“how your father signaled him.”
“Papa was alone, lying in the back room—Betty’s room now. He had told Mr. Kent what he’d do in an emergency. He took the big revolver—”
“The Colt forty-five.”
“Yes—and shot it out the window. Mr. Kent came right over and called an ambulance.” She paused as if she might be talking too much.
“But—” Scott prompted.
“But it was too late. He died a few days later.”
Scott burst out, “How could that doctor have been so dumb!”
It was time for his father to be sardonic. “Maybe he was afraid they were on to him. He thought he’d better stop appendectomizing for a while.”
Scott laughed at the made-up word. His mother said, “My father would be alive today if that man had listened.”
Moved by her loss, Scott planned to search the roll-top desk for proof of the baby’s placement. While noble heritage didn’t impress him, it did his mom, and he wanted to reinforce her pride.
Unemployment had made Scott’s father bitter, and he often railed against the ‘system'. Happily, his ire didn’t extend to hoboes, children, or animals. He had sheltered a family friend, a shell-shocked veteran, for about a year. He taught neighborhood boys to play baseball. Before people neutered pets, he would chloroform rather than drown newborn kittens. Such a task confronted him as the summer drew to a close. He and Scott walked to the pharmacy, where he could buy chloroform on his word.
“What happened to my grandmother?” Scott asked.
“She died of tuberculosis a few years after they bought the house. Your mother was about eight. She was raised by your grandfather and nannies.”
They put the kittens and a wad of cotton into a shoe box, keeping one out to nurse the mother. Their eyes were still closed. Scott’s dad poured the sweet-smelling chloroform on the cotton and put on the lid. They buried four kittens in the back yard. Scott was sad when the mother, a Russian blue named Sonya, anxiously nursed her remaining kitten between searches for the others.
Several days passed. Then Sonya started to vomit. She had eaten rat poison in the Kents’ chicken yard. “Arsenic,” Scott’s father said. “There’s nothing we can do but give her water.” Days later she died, and Scott hid his grief in open anger. Sonya’s fate seemed especially unjust as she had been a good ratter.
Meanwhile, the family took care of the kitten. Scott got a medicine dropper from the pharmacist, and his mother warmed some milk, testing it with her little finger. Betty wanted to do the honors, but her mother said, “You’d better let me do it.”
“No, I want to,” said Betty firmly.
Betty won, and Scott was surprised at her dedication. Also secretly pleased, for the single kitten had acquired a certain significance. It reminded him of his mom’s lonely life as a child.
Sonya’s death had instilled a horror of poison, even for rats. He asked his father, “Can’t you talk to Mr. Kent?―tell him not to put poison around?”
“I’ve tried. It’s hopeless. You can’t reason with a person whose highest aspiration is to brew coffee for the Lions, Moose, and Elks. It’s called promotion.” Mr. Kent, despite his effort to rescue Grandpa, had greatly shrunk in Scott’s estimation.
The following evening, he approached his mother as she sat at a window of her room. Her profile touched by the sun’s last rays was beautiful. She seemed at peace. He wanted to ask if she thought ill of her father, or whether her mother ever forgave him. But he could only bring himself to say, “Do you ever think about Grandpa?”
“Was he good to your mother?”
“Oh, yes. He took care of her right up to the end.” She smiled at him, probably puzzled at his interest.
“I mean before that.”
“My father was a gentleman, and he respected the traditions that came down through her family. Sometimes tradition is all we have. I don’t think she resented what he’d done; he paid a terrible price. I know he wasn’t perfect, but he was a good man, and we can thank him for the roof we have over our heads today.”
In referring to matters that Scott wasn’t supposed to know about, she had practically confessed to eavesdropping. But wasn’t it better if she knew that he knew?
“How’s the kitten?” he asked to change the subject.
“Apparently doing fine. Betty feeds it every two or three hours. This morning its eyes were open.”
After dinner Scott got around to searching his grandfather’s desk. A newspaper clipping caught his eye. It noted that three presidents—Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe—had died on the Fourth of July. This should interest his mom. Another item, though, might be distressing. It was dated April 1, 1895, and seemed to certify an adoption. By his grandparents. Was it Maeve’s baby―his mother―they adopted? He should take this up with his father.
On the porch, his father read the document by light from a mackerel sky. “It’s good you found this,” he said. “Sooner or later it could surface.” He rose and went down the side steps, and Scott followed him to the trash burner in the back yard.
“This poses a dilemma,” his dad mused. “Is it better to be truthful, or better to be kind?” He lit the paper with a wooden match and held it until it burned well. “We should probably rely on instinct.” Then he dropped the blazing paper, and they watched it curl up and disintegrate into ashes and smoke.