My mother, father, little sister and I were living with my widowed grandmother, Frieda Hambleton, in her house in a poor neighborhood of Wichita Falls, Tex. We were crowded, but it was what I had always known, and I was happy. Then she built a house on Grant Street, in the developing part of the city, on the very edge of the prairie. I thought we would go with her; instead, we moved across the tracks past a Pig Stand Drive-In into county housing. Our duplex was not well furnished, but here my deeply religious mother could set up an altar and hang devotional pictures. In Frieda’s Lutheran house, we had to say our prayers in a bedroom with the door closed.
We couldn’t have moved with Frieda anyway, because she lived in the new house with a man, Collins Hamon. She called him by his last name, in the manner of millworkers, policemen and nurses. They both worked at millsshe packed flour, he packed feedand they had been friendly for a while, but none of us had ever met him. And though I now remember him vividly, because he behaved in a way I had never seen a man behave, the memory lay dormant for 50 years. Then, a long time after Frieda’s death in 1983, I began reflecting on certain aspects of her life.
I was interested in learning about the Grant Street house because it was the house I had thought of as home-base for nearly 30 years, and for most of that time I had depended on my grandmother for her unconditional love. Facts are a scaffold for narrative, and though I didn’t know it yet, I was searching for my grandmother’s story. From public records, and much to my surprise, I learned that Collins Hamon bought the Grant Street property in 1949 for $5,000 and transferred ownership to Frieda in January 1953 for $1. (This is not to say that he gave her the house. Records also show that she paid the mortgage from 1953 to 1979.)
I always thought my grandmother had the house built, but what I saw must have been a nearly completed house on which she and Hamon did the finishing work. He had probably been living in it like a squatter; rough men need few amenities. As the house took final shape, it became her house. I was with her when she planted rose bushes in the front and two apricot trees near the back property line. This is my last house, she said. Her first house had been emptied by her husband’s sudden death and by poverty, and she was separated from her children for three years.
I went to Grant Street on Saturdays and was home again by dark. Frieda had a television set (we did not), and magazines, and paper for my drawings. Sometimes we drove to my great-grandparents’ farm in Devol, Okla., for a few hours. Other times we did small chores, like the laundry. I folded clothes while I told Frieda about school. Were Hamon’s clothes there? I don’t think so. I don’t think I would forget something so odd, so thrillingly repulsive.
He went in and out of the house a lot, banging doors. Although I didn’t think Frieda liked him, and I didn’t understand why he was there, it never occurred to me to ask. I didn’t know they were married, nor did I wonder about it. Adults did what they did, and children fit in around them.
She had been widowed since 1936 and was still young, but I think in time she became ashamed of the choice she had made, and her shame turned to bitterness, as grief had done before. Now my writer’s mind runs freely over their history: meetings with friends from the mills; the flattery of his attention; maybe his look that suggested things she wantednot vulgar things, but intimacies.
Now and then his daughter, C., was at the house when I was. She was 12 years old, a polite and pleasant girl, who lived with her dead mother’s parents. We were too old for play and found nothing to talk about. Usually she studied or read.
She kept her head down. Soon I learned why.
Her father, Hamon, beat her. I remember the first time I was there when it happened. I was at the kitchen table. I heard his harsh voice, her yelps, and then he stormed through the kitchen pushing her ahead of him outside as she whimpered that she was sorry, so sorry. I looked through the window, and I saw that he had taken her to the far end of the large back lot, by the alley near my grandmother’s apricot trees. He swung his arm around and hurled it hard against her back and she twisted away, then tumbled to the ground.
I didn’t think he would hit me, but he was a frightening, monstrous man, and I rushed to find my grandmother. She was in the spare bedroom changing the sheets.
Did you forget I was here? Why didn’t you come get me? I cried.
I also asked, What did she do so bad? Why is he hurting her? Aren’t you going to do anything?
Frieda pulled me into the bedroom and shut the door. She stood behind me and put her arms around me until my breathing was regular again. She was a hard-muscled, skinny woman, who lifted 50-pound bags of flour every day.
She turned me around to face her: It’s none of our business. You hear?
That was her way of saying I shouldn’t talk or worry about it. (A father beats his child.) She would always protect me. But it was not up to her to protect C.
I never said anything to my mother about these incidents. I added C. to my prayers at daily Mass before school.
Once C. screamed at him, I hate you! She ran, if you can call it that, but Hamon, snorting with menace, was always between her and an exit door. She darted about the house while he feinted and grabbed at her and finally, inevitably, caught her blouse at the back. She wrenched away and I heard the ripping of the blouse as he tore it off her body. My grandmother and I stood in the doorway of her bedroom like people waiting out a tornado.
Hamon was gone from the house in seven or eight months, and he and Frieda divorced soon after. It was as if he had never existed.
When my grandmother planted her trees, I imagined myself checking the apricots on them, watching for the warm colors as they ripened. I imagined myself carrying them in my apron to the kitchen. But I don’t think I ever went near the trees. Frieda made wonderful fried pies stuffed fat with stewed fruit, and I liked them and ate them, but I think I could do this only because the golden crusts and the oozing apricots were so far removed in time and form from the trees and the girl with her father.
Hamon never hit C. in the face, but her arms bore bruises the color of eggplant. I saw him pull his arm back with savage deliberation and swing hard against her body. Once this happened in the house and she thudded against a door jamb and her eye swelled shut. My grandmother drove her home, then me.
C.’s maternal grandparents were able to go to court to stop her father from seeing her again. She disappeared from my grandmother’s house and from my life.
In the 1964-65 school year, I lived with my grandmother and taught at the Catholic school where I had once been a student. One Sunday we saw in the newspaper that C. had married a doctor. Frieda said she was very happy for her. Hamon had long ago left Wichita Falls, had probably killed himself drunk in a car by now, she said. (In fact, he died many years later in California.)
Time passed, and I was much older than Frieda had been that year, and I began thinking about her life in a certain way. I wondered why she would marry someone she did not love and overlook his brutality toward his child. I told myself that it was something about the times, when many parents kicked their children or beat them with belts and fists and sticks and almost no one interfered, not kin or neighbor, church brethren or the law. I’m sure my grandmother believed she had no right. I have considered that she might have been afraid of him. These explanations have not much put my mind at ease. She was a woman who much loved children, and yet she had cared nothing about C.
I didn’t think until recently that Hamon was a man with strong arms, and that the house he helped Frieda finish would be her home until her death, or that she might not have been able to buy the house on her own. I didn’t think until now about the times my hapless uncle lived in her house, or the times that I did, or the two years after my mother died when she rented that house so that she could live with me in Odessa until I finished high school.
All the times she would have said: Thank God I have my house.
I didn’t think until recently that from the beginning she might have meant to use Hamon, and that it might have surprised her to see how much it cost her to do so. I wonder if it has turned out to be part of my mission to do the tally for her, because I loved her and I wasn’t guilty of her sins, but only of my own. I am sure that God knows that she was once young and happy, and that she lost her happiness cruelly through no one’s fault, and where there had once been joy and faith and hope, anger and pragmatism took cold hold.
It isn’t my place to judge my grandmother, or to forgive her, or to try to balance that strange year against her suffering and her good acts. She failed that girl. But I believe in God’s mercy; and as we must seek the right path and do the right things, we must also look inside ourselves for all the ways we are not what we should be, or even who we think we are. I am a writer because I believe there is a kind of word that takes us into the human heart and lays it bare, and I think it is a life’s work to find a way to speak it.
God knows more about Frieda than any of us can know, and about other women who have stood at graves and at the doors of empty houses. God also knows that I will try to tell her story for no one’s saving but my own; and I will pray for her soul, and for theirs and for mine as well.