In the Blink of an Eye (or, thinking about the father I never knew)

I’ve spent the last few years deliberately redirecting myself to keep on the sunny side of life.

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It’s not always easy, believe me. And I don’t always succeed.

For instance, last Sunday, driving to work, I was behind a terrible automobile accident on Highway 24. It had just happened; Bob called me as he had heard about it and wanted to make sure I was okay. I thought to myself, “Great, I am going to be late for work and we have a crowd waiting for the shelter to open to so they can adopt those 6 incredibly cute beagle puppies that just came up.” Maybe a silly thing to stress out about, but I don’t like being late for work. And people get emotional about wanting to adopt puppies, so the more hands on deck to handle to crowd, the better.

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I settled in with my audiobook of American Gods (the mind of Neil Gaiman is a crazy place!), and sipped on my coffee, periodically moving forward a foot. Six lanes were being merged into one. People were getting fractious, honking and not letting other cars move in. It was 11:30 on a Sunday; most people were likely on their way to the mall or some such weekend pursuit.

I was doing my best not to look at the accident. Then the CHP officer directing traffic suddenly stopped the single file of cars with me up front, right next to the overturned car, to allow the clean-up crew to move some final wreckage from the one operational lane. I couldn’t help but see the car. Overturned, destroyed, horrifying. It didn’t look at all likely that anyone in the car would have survived. I started to shake and feel sick to my stomach. In the blink of an eye, lives were lost, destroyed, unalterably changed forever. It could happen to anyone.

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I don’t know why it took me so long to connect this to the death of my father. Stephen Pierre Cottraux, Jr., aka Daddy, was killed in an automobile accident on November 15, 1962, not quite a full month after my first birthday. I have no memories of him. But I grew up hearing stories about him from my siblings, and wondering if he was watching us from heaven.

As first-born, Cathy remembers him the most. I recently asked her about the piano we had growing up, which led her to relate a Daddy memory:

“I have a few memories of Daddy playing [the piano], he was really good. They would have band practice at the house (in Macon) and he played the piano a lot of the time. I remember one night, I must’ve been 8, and he was playing and I was sitting next to him on the bench. I hugged him (I adored Daddy) and he smiled and said ‘Why don’t you go in the kitchen and tell your mama that I love her!’ That’s a memory I have carried my whole life.” She also remembers that Daddy liked to dance and he taught her to do the twist. Cathy was 9 when Daddy died.

Daddy with Cathy and Ellen
Daddy with my sisters Cathy and Ellen, circa 1956.
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Daddy, second from the left, and the jazz group he was in.

Here are some writing exercises I did a couple of years ago that say more:

[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

   Number one:  

There are no photographs of Daddy on display in the house. Mom keeps one, with an old Valentine card from when they were high school, in the top drawer of her dresser, which I go through looking for jewelry to dress my dolls and stuffed cats with. We don’t ask about him; I’m not sure why but we don’t. But when Mom isn’t around Cathy and Ellen tell me and Steve stories of what they remember. I love to hear the ones about when I was born, of course.

            “He said if they were all like you, he’d be happy to have a house full of kids,” says Cathy.

            “He liked to feed you eggs at the breakfast table and say ‘Is it good?’; your first word was isitgood, all run together in one word.”

            We watch the movie musical Carousel, and I am captivated by the idea of Daddy up in heaven watching down on us. Especially me. I could sit in the dark den with the late show on the television watching that movie night after night, warmed by the feeling that Daddy is with me.

Number Two:

Mom was only 26 when Daddy died, so we are used to her going out on dates. It’s been almost 10 years, after all. We even like some of the men. There is Joe Kellum, who owns Pizza by Candlelight. At first I love going to the restaurant, red and white plaid plastic tablecloths and red plastic water tumblers, candles in old Chianti bottles, the smell of garlic in the air. He has 2 kids, Mike and Angel. They hate me. They are the same ages as Ellen and Steve. They like to remind us that it’s their father who owns the restaurant and we are intruders. I begin to dislike them and the restaurant and their father.

            The one we do like plays the guitar and sings the Mountain Dew song. We don’t drink Mountain Dew, but it’s still fun. We all crowd around him in the living room and ask him to sing it again and again. He quits coming to the house.

            I love to read stories about widowed mothers with broods of children, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. In these stories, the mother struggles, but dating and men don’t come into the stories and everyone cherishes the memories of dear old dad. The kids do what they can to take care of the mother as the years go by. That’s what we will do.

Daddy and me
The only picture I have of me with Daddy, 1961.

I spent the rest of Sunday in a funk, triggered by the car accident into thoughts of how lives change in split seconds, people leave for work and don’t come home again. Families are left behind. Promising lives are cut short. Perhaps the driver had been distracted. Perhaps the driver had swerved out of the way of something, a deer or a piece of debris in the road. Maybe the driver nodded off to sleep. I don’t know.

And then I got mad at the fractious drivers of the other cars, honking and impatient. Put things in perspective, people! So you’ll be a little late for wherever you were headed. At least it wasn’t you and your car turned over in the road. Your life goes on. Appreciate that. And our hearts should go out to the survivors.

My father was so young, and he left behind an even younger wife and 4 small children. In the blink of an eye.

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Mom and Daddy, circa 1953.

Of course, good things can happen in the blink of an eye. Falling in love when you look a certain someone in the eye. Making a new friend who will mean the world to you. A split second decision that will change your life for the better even though it seems crazy (like signing up for online dating even though you swore you wouldn’t, leading to life with Bob). Meeting a beagle puppy and knowing she’s the one.

Be open to the special moments, but be careful out there. Don’t drive distracted. Seriously. That one quick text could be all it takes to end it all for someone, maybe yourself.

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The beagle puppies all found homes that day. I snapped out of my funk eventually. But I’ll aways wonder how my life would have been different if my father hadn’t driven away never to come back.

I love you and miss you, Daddy.

Some of the books that made me a life-long reader

As I get older I get nostalgic for more and more things from my youth. There are certain books I carry in my heart; I read and reread them. Thinking about them brings back sense memories of the time and place in which I read them. The Wind in the Willows takes me back to the den in our house in Atlanta, in the green nubby-fabric wing chair, with our cat Whiskers and a sunbeam coming through the windows just so–it’s keeping me warm and cozy and I can see the little dust motes floating in the light. The Borrowers I associate with reading in bed; Mom would let me sleep in her bed when I was afraid to sleep in my own room. I read The Borrowers propped up on pillows while she read her book next to me.

In no particular order, here are some of the books that helped instill my deep loving of reading. Of course my mother gets credit too; she was a voracious reader and was very open minded about giving me free rein to decide what to read. There was a time when instead of an allowance, she would take me to buy a new book every week at Rich’s department store (now a Macy’s). The book section was directly across from the candy counter, so I would sometimes get a little bag “fruit slices” if I had been especially good that week. Many of the books, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, were already on our bookshelves.

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Rich’s was an Atlanta institution. We went to the one at North Dekalb mall.
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Fruit slices. A little paper bag of those and a new book, and I was good to go.

 

The books that touched my heart and  imagination:

Amelia Bedelia  (by Peggy Parish, illustrated by Fritz Siebel, 1963)

Amelia Bedelia 1

Of course I have my own story that goes with this book. I forget what grade it was, but my best friend Leila Greiff and I used this book for a class project in which we were to present a book to the class. Leila played Amelia Bedelia, we made props (somewhere we managed to get a rubber chicken), I was the narrator, and I think my mother contributed one of her delicious lemon meringue pies. Our teacher liked it so much that she had us go with her to her university to present to a class she was taking. She played Mrs. Rogers (who gets to eat the pie).

The other thing I adored about this book is how it teaches about the different meanings of words and phrases, the concept of taking something literally (Mrts. Rogers did say to draw the drapes), and not to make assumptions. Bonus lesson: being a good cook goes a long way toward getting you approval!

 

The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (by Margaret Sidney, illustrated by Hermann Heyer, 1881)

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Yes, it was written in 1881 (the first of a series); I read it in the late 1960s.

As the youngest of 4 children in a house headed by our young, widowed mother, I was understandably drawn to any stories of hard-working widows and their spunky children. And there would pretty much always be a dog and a cat, too. Mrs. Pepper, called Mamsie by the children, works hard to make ends meet, with the help of the children Ben (Ebenezer), Polly (Mary), Joel, Davie, and little Phronsie (Saphronia). Joel is the one who always gets in trouble. Davie is the quiet one. Ben is ultra responsible. Polly is sweet and pretty and tries her hardest to help Mamsie.  Phronsie is only 3 at the beginning of the book, but she’s a little blonde cherub who everyone adores, of course.

Five 2
Again we have cooking. And of course there is a dog! I think Phronsie acquires a kitten as well.

 

Little Women and Little Men (by Louisa May Alcott, 1868 and 1871)

These were in combination in a flip book; the bookshelf in my older sisters’ shared room contained a complete set of the Companion Library flip books, a set of children’s classics published in 1963. I’m pretty sure I read them all along the way, but this was my particular favorite.

Etsy view

In my usual way, I tried to assign a sister from Little Women to each of the Cottraux sisters. There are 3 of us, not 4, but it kind of works. Cathy was clearly Meg, the beauty, the eldest and the one most set on a life as a wife and mother. And Ellen was so obviously Jo, the smart, funny, irrepressible sister. My brother Steve didn’t really fit into my scheme here, but I doubt it bothered him. That leaves kind, shy, musical Beth and the artistic, spoiled youngest, Amy. Which am I? I think a bit of both. I’m not musical and of course I wasn’t sickly like Beth, but  I hope I am not so thoughtless and narcissistic as Amy.

The Borrowers (by Mary Norton, illustrated by Beth Krush and Joel Krush, 1952)

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This is the book that I read snuggled under the covers in Mom’s bed. I was afraid to sleep in my own room for some period. There was a metal fence post outside my window and a light somewhere glinted off of it at night. The twin gleams looked like eyes to me and even if I pulled down the shade I could see them through the gap. I would crawl in Mom’s bed, where the dog Tripp was always asleep too. It was probably kind of crowded but I only remember it being cozy and safe.

The Borrowers so spoke to my imagination. I wanted there to be a family of Borrowers like the Clock family–Pod, Homily and their daughter Arrietty–living under the floorboards of our house. Their matchbox beds and thread spool tables and their distrust of the “human beans” who they borrow from seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I hoped to see things that Borrowers could use slowly disappear from the house, but I never did find a family like the Clocks.

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The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Paul Bransom, 1908)

Perhaps my favorite of all time, the adventures of Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger and the sporty Otter are at times sad, frightening, and heartwarming. Mr. Toad tends to get a lot of attention (as he would say is only right), but it was always Mole who tugged at my heart. He has a kind of innocence and a longing for something, but also a sense of nostalgia that make him so much more of a real character to me than the incredibly silly Mr. Toad.

 

Heidi (by Johanna Spyri, 1881; pictured 1929 edition translated by Philip Schuyler Allen and illustrated by Maginel Wright Enright)

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Set in a place and time that I had no comprehension of, this children’s classic will forever be associated with the Swiss Alps in my mind. If I ever go there, I am sure I will be disappointed that it’s not all beautiful meadows, goats, and hay lofts. The first night Heidi is at her grandfather’s and makes a bed in the sweet-smelling hay and looks out at the stars; oh, I wanted to be Heidi. And I loved a cute dress with a pinafore back then. I would tuck my Crayons in the waistband and forget they were there and then they’d get run through the washer and dryer…Heidi would never do something so careless.

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The copy I have of Heidi was my mother’s when she was young. Her bookplate is inside the front cover.

 

Daddy-Longlegs (written and illustrated by Jean Webster, 1912)

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The letters of spunky orphan Jerusha Abbott, who calls herself Judy, to her anonymous benefactor who she nicknames Daddy-Longlegs, was probably the first book I read that really had a clear sense of romance (between people, not cartoon animals like Lady and the Tramp). Even though I know the book and its ending by heart, I’ve read it at least 50 times and it makes me happy every time. Her adventures at a women’s college also put the seed in my head that I wanted to go to Mount Holyoke to college when I was a teenager. That didn’t happen. And again, would 1970s-1980s Mount Holyoke have been remotely like the college depicted in early 1900s Daddy-Longlegs? I think not. But I can still wonder how different my life would’ve been if I had been able to follow that dream.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tomorrow Will Be Better, and Joy in the Morning (by Betty Smith, 1943, 1947, and 1963)

I couldn’t choose one so I listed all three. There is a fourth book that Betty Smith wrote in 1958, Maggie Now, that I haven’t read. I’m not sure why! Much of her writing is based on her own life experiences. Side note: when she was a girl in the tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was a very poor, hard place. I wonder what she would think of the hipster culture there now.

Queenie Peavy (by Robert Burch, illustrated by Lerry Lazare, 1966)

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I have a feeling this is one not so many people will be familiar with. Queenie is growing up in rural Georgia during the Depression; her father is in jail and her mother is always working at the local canning plant. Poor and with a chip on her shoulder, Queenie’s temper tends to get her into trouble. I remember being particularly struck by a scene in which there is very little to eat in the house; I had never thought before about children going hungry.

Queenie 2
Queenie talking to her friend, the roster Ol’ Dominick, about how they are both going to go hungry that night.

 

The Summer of the Swans (by Betsy Byars, illustrated by Ted CoConis, 1970)

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Lest you think I only ever read really old books or books written about the past, I did read contemporary books as well. One of my favorites, probably attained on an aforementioned trip to Rich’s, was The Summer of the Swans, about sisters Wanda (19) and Sara (14) Godfrey, their brother Charlie (10), and dog Boysie (old). It’s essentially Sara’s coming of age story during a difficult summer. When mentally-challenged Charlie wanders off, Sara, as the one closest to him, must set aside her angst while learning about the nature of love and family. The illustration of Sara and Charlie also influenced my artistic sensibility.

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I tried to recreate this as a 3-D shadow box diorama in 4th grade.

 

Harriet the Spy (written and illustrated by Lousie Fitzhugh, 1964)

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I still like to imagine I am Harriet. Among my takeaways from this book (maybe not what Louise Fitzhugh intended): a period when I wouldn’t take anything in my school lunch but tomato sandwiches, just like Harriet. And a to-this-day unaccomplished desire to try an “egg cream” in New York, which I understand contains neither eggs nor cream. I think a lot of people focus on Harriet as a spy, but what Harriet wanted was to be a writer and her spying was a way to fill her notebook with observances. You go, Harriet!

 

I could keep going (Nancy Drew, anyone?), but I’ll leave you with Harriet.

Keep reading!