I have a beautiful name—Lily. The name belonged to my great-grandmother, and it should have stayed buried with her because it doesn’t fit me too well. My mother, the lovely Rose, had been a bit optimistic while she was pregnant with me. When her sister Daisy, a midwife, had laid me in my mother’s arms squalling and shaking my fists and toes at the world, Rose had written the lovely name “Lily” with her fingertip across my forehead. Maybe she had hoped that by rubbing that name into my egg-shaped head, she could erase the plainness that was already etched into my bone structure. I think I even remember their conversation at my birth:
“Now Rose, stop that cryin’. All babies are ugly at birth. Shoot, they’ve been squished up inside of you for nine months—give this child a few weeks to shape herself and she’ll be a pretty lil’ thing. Just wait.”
“But Daisy, she doesn’t look a thing like me at all! She’s all dark-skinned and wrinkled and scrawny looking. Look at all that hair stickin’ out every which way! She looks like Papa Charlie. Good Lord, she looks like some papoose!”
Well, maybe I don’t exactly remember the conversation, but I can imagine it. I know my mother, and I know her expectations. She wanted me to look like her, and her mother Violet, and Violet’s mother, Lily. As if by giving a child a beautiful name she would be assured of future beauty. Only my great-grandfather understood the burden of that name. He was called Charlie Treetalker, though his real surname was Ross. At some point in his life, Papa Charlie’s Cherokee blood quelled his weaker Scottish blood and proved to be his true ancestry—and mine as well.
Papa Charlie had married the beautiful Lily over the objections of Lily’s lily-white family. Oklahoma, still a toddler state in the 1920s, was not overly proud of its original status as Indian Territory, and though many of its inhabitants had intermarried with the Native Americans who were forced to live here, few admitted any mixed blood. My grandmother Violet used to tell me she was “Black Irish.” When I told Papa Charlie what his daughter had said, he laughed.
“Dadburn stupid nonsense. We’re Cherokee with a touch Scots for fierceness. Black Irish, my ass! My daughter has a stick up her rear—walkin’ around town actin’ like she’s somethin’ she ain’t.”
Well Grandmother Violet had given birth to a daughter that had the same stick up her butt, and it didn’t matter how much I plumped up over the first few years of my life; I never lost my dark hair, dark eyes and light brown skin. And I never got any cuter—certainly not pretty enough for one of the Treetalker (or Ross, as they preferred) flowery names for their women. First there was Lily, then Violet, then Rose (my mother) and Daisy (my aunt). And of course, there was me, a rather wilted Lily.
You may ask about my Daddy—did he think I was all right? Was he happy at my birth? I think so—I remember his smiles and soft voice. But I think maybe he was invisible. We were the Chapel family: Terrence, Rose and Lily. We were a family for five years. I remember my mother crying all the time, and then yelling at my dad. My dad never yelled back; it was like he wasn’t even there. He was only a soft murmur of sound. My Aunt Daisy said he was a quiet, gentle man and was too good for my mother. My mother wanted a different sort of life apparently. So she changed her life; she ran off with a traveling evangelist who was conducting a revival at a local Baptist church. Created quite a scandal. Grandmother Violet had some sort of conniption fit and had to go live in a home, and Daddy just curled up into a hard, little ball of pain and eventually disappeared into himself.
Aunt Daisy and Papa Charlie took him to Vinita and left him in the care of the State’s mental facility. After a few months, he found a way to kill himself—pretty creatively, too. He tied his sheets to the bed like he was trying to escape or something, and then took strips of his clothing and a belt he’d hidden somewhere to form a noose. Then on the weekly visitation day when all the patients were cleaned up and paraded around outside with the sunny forsythia like they were rare blossoms that had just wilted a bit, he jumped out of his fourth floor window and hung himself. Seems he’d pushed his dresser up against the door of his room so that by the time the orderlies had broken in, it was too late. Unfortunately, Daddy’s room was right over the entrance to the mental hospital, and they’d had quite a turnout for visitor’s day, as it was Easter Sunday. I remember Daddy hanging there, dangling like he’d fall just in minute and bounce right up to give me a hug and exclaim over my flowered dress Aunt Daisy had sewed for me. And oooh and ahhh over my white patent shoes and my little hat that had pink ribbons hanging down the back. Aunt Daisy turned me around quickly and hugged me tightly to her bosom. My hat fell off. We left it there while Papa Charlie went inside to “make arrangements.” I’ll never forget that Easter. Christ rose, and Daddy fell. It was a tough year.
I’d been living with Aunt Daisy and Papa Charlie out on their farm near Wagoner. Papa Charlie was getting old, and since Aunt Daisy was a spinster (I never understood that word then—I thought it had to do with her spinning wheel in the back room), she volunteered to help Papa Charlie on the farm. It was small farm and I was small girl, so I fit there just fine. No one in Daddy’s family wanted me, so Papa Charlie was stuck with me. We were both happy about the situation. So happy that I had my name legally changed from Lily Marie Chapel to Lily Marie Treetalker. Funny how a name transforms you.
This is my submission for the Weekly Writing Challenge.
Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/beautyofafrica/2060435288/”>Elis W. Alves</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>