writing

photo: Marek Prochazka

photo: Marek Prochazka

I Love Aunt Lou

Published in Kinebago, Fall 2012

We’ve been thinking about dead people.  Over the past year, my partner, Lida Winfield, and I have been creating a performance piece about the vast collection of dead people we each have to thank (or curse) for getting us here.  We’ve recorded stories directly from family members. We’ve rebuilt the houses of our great- grandparents from memory, listing the details of these places out loud to one another.  We’ve played with euphemisms, shouting “kicked the bucket, found peace, croaked” until the words were no longer sad but funny and then foreign and then, finally, just sounds.  And where words fail, we’ve explored the body’s own language of memory and kinship, mapping out remembered places and dancing with both the presence and absence of another person.

This project feels deeply personal and completely universal – we’re thinking of it as an opportunity to tell some of our own stories in a way that invites others to explore theirs, their own long gone people.  We’d like to ask these questions while exploring the sad and avoiding the sappy: How do the dead live on through memory and imagination?  How do we approach these ongoing lives with the right blend of respect and irreverence? How do we allow for heartache without dwelling on it?  Can we make performance art about people we’ve lost that’s not about loss itself?

Because let’s be honest – there are plenty of dead people we don’t miss.  And then there are all the cherished memories of folks we never actually met.  We feel kinship with some long lost cousin because we love his story.  We’ve seen his photo enough times to know for ourselves that he was wearing suspenders, that the trees were full of apples.  We’ve appropriated these memories and taken part in embellishing them.  Constantly, incrementally, we’ve made our fiction into our truth.

This is what Lida and I are most interested in, the hazy realm in which memories evolve and take on lives of their own.  How much time has to pass before stories can be rewritten?  And are these stories, edited and enlivened by the imaginations of the storytellers, any less valuable than they were the very day our aunt or dad or sister died?

And what about those more deeply rooted, sensory memories, those of the body itself – the smell of her hands in the soil, the grating of a key in the lock each night, or even the slow fade of residual warmth onstage when a duet becomes a solo.  These are the ones we can’t shake, the fragments that remain bright and sharp after the rest have faded.  So we create new details, building new frames for the few, brilliant images that tell us who we are.

Here’s where dance really comes in.  In order to grasp at anything as slippery as memory, I need the wide possibility of movement, appearing so clear to one person and so completely ambiguous to another.  This is the shifting ground upon which I’ve built a solo within our project.  Spare in movement and shape, the solo comes from a story I’ve heard many times from my mom’s father, Papaw.

Papaw’s family has been in Kentucky for six scrabbling, churching, drinking generations.  Many lifetimes of hymns sung, wells dug, debts owed and paid.  A Confederate soldier, a cross-eyed beauty, an axe-murderer, a Gideon.  Weird, colorful names like Ivy Indiana, Dallas Raima, Leona Gladys, Garland, Otho, Lula May.

Lula May was Papaw’s aunt.  Aunt Lou.  Her story’s a good story, a sad one, one that’s intricately twisted up in Papaw’s own story.  In the end she dies but in the beginning, this is how it goes:

“A man – and I don’t know his first name – Stafford, back in the 1850’s married an Indian.  Her name was America and then she became America Standard, no, America Stafford.  She had a number of children.  One of the children she had, unfortunately, was named George, who many people described as the meanest man that ever lived.  George was a half-breed and not a very good half-breed.  Anyway, along about 1880, George married a woman – I can’t remember her name – and they had five children.  Two boys and three girls.  Lula was the middle one of the five children, born in 1886.  Now, among the bad things that George did in life was to pick up a piece of stove wood and broke his little daughter’s back so that she grew up as a humpback girl, only about maybe four foot nine, maybe four foot ten.  But she had a heart of gold.

As time progressed, sure, she was never married because of her physical condition.  So she became a live-in housekeeper for a dentist in town, in Latonia, by the name of Duncan.  And so she lived in and always was there, and I would see her on family occasions but also whenever I went to the dentist – she was always there.

It so happens she played an important role in my life because she happened to be at our house the day that I was born.  At home, my mother had a difficult period when they’re expecting the baby – she was in labor, that’s the word I was searching for.  All day Mothers’ Day in 1928.  I didn’t make it on that day so she had to wait 365 more to get a Mothers’ Day.  I arrived on the morning of the 14th with the doctor in attendance, and it was a difficult birth because of my size and other problems.  He said at that time, ‘I can’t save them both – I’m gonna save the mother.’  Aunt Lula was there and she said, ‘Give me the baby,’ and she ran into the kitchen and putted me under the cold water faucet and started me breathing.  That gives me a shudder about cold showers now.  Without her I wouldn’t even be here- that was in 1928.

Then in 1934 she passed away.  I guess that’d be I was six years old at the time.  And an interesting thing happened: she had a cerebral hemorrhage and died in the evening.  In the course of events, people talked about when they ‘d last seen Lula, and it turns out that everybody had seen her on the last day she was alive.  Of course she never drove, she had no car.  She had walked all over town, all day long, making sure that she saw every person.  And I can remember in our case, because she gave me a nickel, which in those days was big money.

Last I can remember is going to the graveyard out in Concord Church in, near Verona, and she was buried there.  And I always felt like that’s the first person that ever passed away that I had great love for.”

These are Papaw’s words, if you can hear the rounded edges of his accent, with a faint ‘tsk’ at each pause.  I recorded his voice in 2011 and have listened to it countless times in an attempt to tease out the details of this mysterious character he knew so briefly.  In the 83 year old telling of a six year old’s memory, Aunt Lou had some serious magic.  A solitary hunchback who lived at the dentist, foresaw her own death and gave him a nickel to say goodbye?  Not to mention she saved his life?  This is good.

And beneath the good stuff is the skeleton I really wonder about.  The woman who was part Native American in the south at the turn of the century, the girl whose father broke her back, the sister who never got to have a family of her own.  Was she angry? lonely? sexy?  Did she swear? drink? tell dirty jokes?  Did she love her last day of trekking all over Latonia, an arduous journey for a small woman with a limp?

With my own body, I’ve been trying to imagine the inner life of a woman who now lives only in the vision of a six year old boy.  Having no photos of her, I work backwards, listening to the story told and untold, distilling the scenery down to what I feel are its most clear, simple shapes.  Frame by frame by frame.  Curving towards the ground.  Shielding my head.  Twisting a sheet around my knees.  Tipping into cold water.  Drawing the sheet over my face.  Placing a coin into a boy’s hand.  This is how I find Aunt Lou for myself, and the transitional path I take between frames is the most important part of it all – this is the hazy realm in which memory is evolving.  This is where the breath enters the story and keeps it moving.

And here, in the middle of all this totally profound stuff, is the kicker.  When I visited Papaw again this year, I asked him to retell Aunt Lou’s story.  He had no idea who Aunt Lou was.

Now, Papaw is razor sharp.  He remembers dates and names and the price of milk in 1947.  And he’d never had an aunt named Lula May.  “Do you mean Aunt Dee?” he asked.

“No, Aunt Lou,” I insisted, incredulous.

“Aunt Dee.  Never was a Lou.”

“Papaw – Aunt Lou?  Hunchback, housekeeper, dunked you in cold water?  I’ve even got it on tape – you said her name like forty times!  Lou, Lou, Lou – “

This continued.  No, there was never a Lula May, I must have had it wrong, I was full of shit.  Aunt Dee, end of story.  But what about the years of Aunt Lou?  Where did she go once this Dee character emerged to take her place?  And who was Dee?  What did she look like, feel like, move like?  Surely she couldn’t be the same woman I’d imagined, the one I’d spent so long trying to embody, the one I’d made my own.  I loved Aunt Lou.  I knew Aunt Lou.

I was devastated for about a day.  Then I realized that this was all perfect, this was the point.  This drifting of names and faces, the quick, easy loss of Lou for Dee, as well as my own attachment to the Lou I’d created, the Lou that lived far beyond Papaw’s story.  It was better than anything I could have made up myself and it boiled down to the most basic idea at the heart of the project: our stories will inevitably change.

Our relationship with this change, our willingness to debate and imagine Aunt Lou versus Aunt Dee – all this effort affirms that we’re not alone.  Through storytelling we connect our small selves to the greater body of human experience.

Dance-making offers me the same sense of connection.  My investigation of shape and movement retraces pathways of emotional and physical memory.  I’m recreating moments of interaction with fellow performers, with the space and with the audience whose job it is then to receive, interpret and remember.  In committing to creative trial and error, I depend upon a constantly evolving set of memories that, in turn, allow the dance to evolve.  Art that evolves stays alive.

I need my dances to stay alive just as I need my family’s memory to remain vital – both give me access to worlds of experience beyond my own.  In the midst of this living, shifting play of memory, there’s more than enough room for Lou and Dee.  Discrepancies add dimension to the bare-boned structures of choreography and lineage by forcing us to reconsider, to re-engage.

So, I’m sticking with Aunt Lou, because I know her and I love her.  And I understand that, in choosing Lou, I’m also choosing to dance with Dee, with Papaw and with the story I have yet to hear.

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Posted January 17, 2013 by ellensmithahern

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