“Belonging” (March 1996)

Cleo’s fingers tightened around the handle of her mother’s old cast-iron skillet as she tried to remember Edd’s words before he left for work that day.

“Mrs. Simonds?” the investigator continued, still using the tone he’d learned from watching his partner go to work in countless interrogations. “We need your statement. Now.”

“Of course,” she replied as she turned away from the pot-bellied stove. “Did you want some tea?”

Jenkins shook his head and gestured toward the kitchen table. Cleo nodded, wiped her hands on her apron, and joined the investigator in sitting down. The man who came into Cleo’s house with Jenkins stayed by the back door. Cleo couldn’t tell if he was keeping folks from coming in or keeping her from leaving. All she wanted to do was know his name. Strangers shouldn’t be in the kitchen.

Jenkins cleared his throat and suggested that Cleo think about the question again. “What did your husband have to do with the explosion?”

“Edd didn’t have anything to do with those power lines,” she insisted. “Edd’s a hardworking, honest man. He works all day and night so we can keep the young’uns fed.”

“Now, ma’am, I’m not disputing that. But we know Edd’s in with the union effort. And they ain’t up to no good.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.” Cleo glanced at the clock to see how long she had before her youngest came home from school. The kitchen swelled with heat from an early summer and the pone of cornbread going on the stove. She felt a fly whiz past and remembered how Edd had promised to mend the screen.

Jenkins stood up slowly and placed his hands on the little table in front of Cleo. “Mrs. Simonds, I might as well just tell you, Edd’s already told us what he did. So, you can go ahead and fill in the rest. We know your husband blew them lines up with those other union supporters.” He squinted as he leaned in toward Cleo. “So again, Mrs. Simonds, what do you know about your husband’s involvement with the explosion?”

She breathed in slowly. The cornbread must be browning by now. Her ring finger traced the edge of the apron on her lap. “Sir, if Edd told you anything like that…”

“About his PLAN to protest the union block?”

“About ANYTHING like that… then he’s a God damned liar.” Cleo looked Jenkins over, noticed his partner shifting his weight onto his right leg, then pushed away from the table. “You’ll excuse me now, I have supper to cook.”

Jenkins straightened his tie and shot a look at his partner. Cleo removed the skillet from the eye with a feed-sack dishrag and spoke without turning to face the men, “I s’pose you can see yourselves out?”

It was two weeks before Edd came home. All three of the kids knew better than to mention his absence or to question the bruises they saw upon his return. Cleo worked quickly to swab iodine on the cut above his right eyebrow. She had Edd’s supper ready on the night he came home, just like every night, and he ate slowly, quietly, without uttering his usual, “Good gravy, Cleeter.”

When Cleo climbed into bed after tidying the kitchen, she thought Edd was sleeping, so comfortable in his own bed. Moments passed as she began to drift to sleep, then Edd whispered, “It was me.” She never replied. And the topic would never come up again.

* * *

I was a nineteen-year-old in a Southern History class when I read about The Ducktown 8 and a series of bombings that took place in the 1930s. Union strikes were being suppressed by mine owners and the government, according to my textbook, and bombing power lines was the not-yet-unified AFL and CIO’s way of fighting that suppression. I asked my grandmother if PoPo would’ve known anything about the protest activity, since he was a union worker in the copper mines of North Georgia. Cleo told me stories that sounded far too exaggerated to be anything more than personal fiction: stories of PoPo beaten black and blue, of men in suits coming to scare her, and of having to move every time local police learned that they were the Simonds, not the Simmons.

I was twenty-two years old when my mother asked for my help in sorting through Cleo’s belongings. “Belongings” is this ambiguous term we use to describe the boxes of things that accumulate over a lifetime of moving, packing, moving, unpacking, packing, moving, and leaving some things packed with every move.

My grandmother’s belongings included letters written by her brothers during WWII – whole sections blacked out by the censors; newspaper clippings from every time any member of our family was “newsworthy,” even in the eyes of her tiny local paper; war memorabilia – the stars that hung in the window of her house while her brothers were doing battle – thankfully, none of the silver stars were ever replaced with gold – the sign that your family member in battle had died; faded photographs of people even my mother didn’t quite recognize; “dud” shells from Cleo’s days of funneling tetryl powder; pressed flowers; a bible; a high school yearbook; buffalo-head coins; and ration stamps for gas, sugar, and flour.

Cleo’s stories filled my head as my mother and I placed certain belongings into trash bags, others into boxes marked with the names of each of Cleo’s children. Another box, labeled with a big question mark, received anything that we couldn’t figure out, such as some of the photos or the papers Cleo kept under her tablecloth for “security.” My mother’s siblings would attempt to give each of these items an identity.

Once, Cleo told me about her hair turning beautiful golden color when she worked on the assembly line at an arsenal. About bucking rivets in the wings of the B-29 Superfortress. Her stories were always so far-fetched, it seemed. Finally, I know better. Her stories now belong to me.

My mother didn’t question why I asked if I could keep the photograph of my grandmother, flanked by her two teenaged daughters (one of them – my mother), squinting and smiling into the sun. I think my grandfather photographed them. I never met my grandfather. John Edd Simonds, PoPo, was dead before the 1960s ended. My grandmother, Cleo, I lived with. My grandmother taught me how to tell a fortune with regular playing cards, how to fill in bingo squares with a sponge-tipped “dauber”, to root for the Braves, and that the Simonds are honest people.

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