07 February 2013

Early Lessons, #5

When I was little, I knew a girl named DeDe Walmsley. You'd always see DeDe and her mother and little brother, ghosting around town together in subdued colors (gray, dark gray,... grey) with stricken (DeDe), mournful (her mother), and malevolent (her brother) looks on their faces. The word wraiths comes to mind now. I wouldn't have known that word back then.

DeDe's mother had immigrated to Byesville from Hungary after her children were born. Her name was Lujza, pronounced LOO-sha. Everybody in Byesville said Luh-WEE-shuh--closer to what we thought was a name.
The Walmsleys were Roman Catholic but not in the way the American Catholics I knew were. My mom said that Lujza came from the "Old Country." That could account for it. In hindsight, she did have an overpowering Vlad air about her. You just knew that Luzja Walmsley wasn't one for fun and games. Her children bore visibly the conditioning of strict Catholic confession and penance. It played out daily in their lives in the family home. 

So then, DeDe. 

DeDe was, in her own right, strange in appearance and demeanor. The former was due, in part, to the gray/grey swathes of material she wore where the rest of us little girls in town wore the light, bright greens and pinks of the 60's, with flower patterns and groovy stripes and swirls. 

As to DeDe's demeanor--so hard to describe from a child's memory. It seems to have so much more portent now. When I picture DeDe, I see her forever hanging back, sitting off to one side, at the fringes of every classroom seating chart, peering into a room from behind the door, standing at the back of every line. She is not just sad-looking; her mouth forms a small "o"--as though she is horrified but not at things present, only past and future. And she is judging: you wouldn't want to break any of God's rules (as we knew them then) with DeDe Walmsley looking on at what you'd done.

DeDe and I kind of knew each other, more than the other kids in our school knew DeDe. She often cast me a look through lowered lashes at school because we spent time together privately when I went with my dad to deliver groceries. For years, my dad, who owned the local grocery store, delivered people's groceries for free if they asked, and that included to DeDe's mother's great gray and dusty kitchen every week. I was usually with him, part of the journey home from school. 

We'd go in by the back door with the grocery bags. I'd go over by the kitchen stairs to talk to DeDe. She was always sitting on the steps, half-cloaked by the shadows there. There wasn't much to talk about and DeDe wasn't offering, but I was not the kind of child that let lack of content keep me from going on about something. I pulled out some topics on my mind and generally chatted DeDe up while my dad helped unload groceries. DeDe smiled some, and even snorted a little. I guess she thought I was funny and that's why she'd cast a glance my way at school. The interaction pleased me in its private and special nature.

But there was another, darker incident that involved me and DeDe and being back by those dimly lit stairs. It's what I thought of that led me to write this post in the first place. I can't put my finger on what brought it to mind though.

One time I went to DeDe's house with my dad, and DeDe wasn't on the back stairs. I looked around and saw her in a small room under the stairs, like a broom closet. I peeked in and saw that DeDe was standing on her knees, on the cement floor.

I inched closer and peered in. "Are you prayin'?" I whispered. 

She startled a bit. But without changing position she said, "No. I'm kneelin' on beans."

I leaned down and looked. It wasn't beans per se, looked more like cracked corn. ("Cracked corn is worse than just old beans or rice," DeDe told me later.  "Feels like glass and makes you bleed.")

I was bewildered. I'd never seen a punishment like this, but it was clear that was what it was. It hurt me to think about it. DeDe kneeling there--for how long?--like she felt nothing.

"What did you do wrong? What are you being punished for?"

DeDe thought a moment. Sighed. "I don't know. Lotsa times I don't have any idea."