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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Last of the Parkers

She is forever there, imprinted in a thin layer of emulsion, a smile on her pretty face and the West Texas wind billowing her long flowing dress. Behind her a grainy, unformed mass of what appears to be creosote or catclaw grounds her to a desert landscape that could only be Chihuahuan, white hot from the sun, bleached out, baked to iron. Her white shoes, looking impossibly large for her frame, thrust from beneath her skirts like runners. She seems to totter on them, at once ungainly and gangly, as if a gust had overbalanced her. I imagine them layered with a fine patina of dust as everything in that forbidding landscape was layered. A small spray of flowers pinned to the front of her dress perpetually colors the monochromatic imagination. One hand carefully draped to her side, fingers splayed as if something light and insubstantial had been released, or freed.

As a portrait it lacks any sense of professionalism, the background blown out into an unrelieved white nothingness, her face shadowed, too much empty space, too little detail. A family snapshot and no more. And, for me, all that I have of Dorothy Mae.

It’s curious how she stands at the head of my family photo archive. Considering that I never met her, or if I did it was so long ago that memory wiped it clean. Why it’s there at all is something of a mystery. I’m sure it was part of a batch I’d scanned with the intent of compiling a database of old family photos, but the project itself had quickly fallen through leaving me only a handful of what I considered compelling images. 

And why compelling? Better to ask Freud. Most of the kept images revealed details of the homeland, paintless picket fences, dirt roads bearing toward ruler-flat horizons, women in shapeless flour-sack dresses and men with weathered Stetsons and worn shirts buttoned to the throat. Dorothy Mae stood out for her youth and beauty, and perhaps even of the manner of her dress. She was dolled up and had places to go, though where that might have been is also a mystery.

Last week she embarked on her final voyage. The message, as is often the case when laden with news of such terrible portent, was short and to the point, with no other detail than that of her passing. When I called my father he placed her for me in the pantheon of his people, five brothers and one sister (my great-aunt), now all departed from this mortal plane. “She was the last,” he said. “She was the last of the Parkers.”

***

In retrospect it seemed an odd phrasing. At the time I was nursing a bloody cavity where yet another tooth had been extracted, and nursing a medicinal glass of bourbon, too. Parts of my mouth were still numb and puffy, dragging my words into a slight slur. Echoing through my head was a conversation I’d had with Lori before she left for work in which she asked—even while knowing the answer—“Does that make three in the last year?” The idea made me cringe.

I thought of that for a long while as I fought boredom, depression and something I could not name. When I had the first two teeth pulled it was almost with joy, for both had caused me great trouble and expense and having them exorcised was like being freed from their tyranny. To have it happen yet again, and so soon, hammered home the frangible nature of my remaining ivories. All are either crowned, capped or filled, with more than a few held together with steel pins. As if that weren’t enough, my gums are receding. 

“It won’t be long until you have dentures,” Lori added. 

Her remark was like a slap. Dentures are for old people, I thought. I’m not old.

Not that old.

But, I had to admit, I’m old enough to begin to experience the subtracting influence that age imposes upon us. For my parents, and perhaps my father most of all (for it is he who speaks the most on the subject, and never with bitterness or melancholy but in a factual, dead-pan tone with only a trace of sorrow), the subtraction is even keener and usually in terms of friends or relatives. He used to attend the annual Pyote class reunion in Texas until most of his classmates either grew too frail to travel or passed on, and now he watches the steady diminishment of World War II veterans. It’s not a regular subject of discussion but crops up now and then. Mostly he likes to talk about places where they’ve recently eaten with a commentary on the quality and piquancy of the green chile. Plus he still has his original teeth.

Our dialog about Dorothy Mae followed the same pattern. First the food and then the main entree, by which time my empty stomach was howling for anything remotely related to food, and the hotter the better. 

When he said that Dorothy Mae was the “last of the Parkers,” I knew what he meant. Though outwardly it was a simple classification of the generation preceding his own, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it. Lori tells me I tend to psychoanalyze others without the requisite training, so I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. But I sensed that he recognized the loss of that generation as a metaphoric step to the front of the line. The last of the Parkers hadn’t passed, obviously, they had merely stepped out of the way. As an only child, he himself had become the last.

I suppose there’s no other way. And yet it’s not that simple. We could just as easily say that those of us past our child-bearing days are the last in succession, and we would be correct. I see it differently: we the living are neither the last nor the first. Our traits, our behaviors, our beliefs, our physical characteristics (bad teeth and all), are influenced by the DNA passed down from those former generations. Until the stars burn out they live in us. So who, then, is the last? Dorothy Mae’s spark, her vitality, her smile, that hot West Texas wind, those hardscrabble ranchers, they are us and we are them. We are, simply, the living. We’re the Parkers. 

7 comments:

Le Grand Lapin said...

The Subtraction.You've coined a new metaphor for what we see receding in the rear-view mirror.

apixelatatime said...

Similar thoughts swirling in my brain. My great neice (the first in my family) was born yesterday - the same day my father passed away four years ago. I am grateful she changed that calendar day to one of celebration. We are at the precipice of the final generation - soon to be the "old ones" Such an indignity to digest! So hail to Dorothy and those great Parker genes that seem to allow life for nine plus decades!

Wes said...

We used to go see Dorothy Mae and Wendell when we lived in El Paso. Wendell had taught Roy Orbison to play the guitar when they both lived in west Texas. We'd take the girls and Wendell would get out his guitar and we'd all sit around their living room listening to him play. Boy could he play the guitar! As you said, Tom, stories keep the departed close by in fond remembrance. I still remember those nights and miss them so much. It seems like life was easier back then, once upon a time. What a great article, and one that brought tears to my eyes.

Reece said...

This is a subject I've been spending more time with lately, the thought that we're all shuffling to the front of the line, knowing sooner or later you're it, you're next.
Great writing.

Vikki said...

I remember visiting their home as a little girl, as well as the guitar music. The picture of her is beautiful. Your writing is so moving. If not for your blog I would not have known of her passing, and though it's been so long since I was in her house, I knew immediately who you were writing about. And, I wonder if the bad teeth could be familial...the problems you describe are so eerily familiar.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for the beautiful Article about Dorothy Parker/Gray. Last of the H.B Parker family of Pyote Texas. It brought me to tears. Becuase Dorothy Mae Parker /Gray...was my Mother. She Passed peacefully in her sleep at age 97.
Now I am the Last of the El Paso Texas Grays
Mom Left to Join Wendell, and my Brother and Sister
and I am the Last of that family.
and Sometimes it does feel like the absolute silence of the desert when no one is around.

tom said...

James — And yet we are here and hear you. Hang in there. I wish I'd had a chance to meet your mother, but time and circumstances never arranged it. Perhaps in the hereafter...