Motherhood and Moving

Courtney Wells

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Motherhood & Moving: A Reason for Denying the Privilege of the Heart

When I close my eyes, I want to be where it is cold. Maybe this is because, as a second-generation Tennessean, I’ve never really known the cruelty of mountains of snow, but my dear friend would say that my fondness for such a place is entirely intuitive. Likewise, she would excuse her desire of mucky, sandy, shoreline to the spiritual idea that our feet are driven by a force that turns the most unappealing humidity or the cloudiest of forecasts into an enchanting summon for people like us.

I’d like to think that this was the deciding factor when my grandparents drove through East Tennessee in March. When they retell this story, I have a vision of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” playing on the radio of my grandfather’s bright blue Oldsmobile. The convertible top of the car is down, the heat is on the floor warming their toes, and a rainshower of white flower petals are delicately settling into my grandmother’s curly black hair. After all, there must have been something radically glorious in the Tennessee landscape beyond the mere low mortgage rates and general lack of snow. However, nothing led them across the country more than the desire to leave their Wisconsin homes.

Oconto Falls is a small town, one that I imagine always smells of sulfur and river water. This is not a place that exists in reality for me, but a dream of stories told. I’ve been there once or twice, and the most I can say of it is that Wisconsin has always felt clean to me. We always visited in the summer where even the hottest days felt like paradise compared to the Tennessee humidity. The city sits on the banks of the Oconto River in Eastern Wisconsin. There are two beaches: one has a lake that is quite literally full of leeches, and the other is a pinnacle of beauty with picnic tables and lifeguards. I can’t imagine the one small hotel ever housing more than a few straggling tourists.

        In fact, as far as I know, my family only chose to settle there because of convenience. As early as 1900, the first Beaumia to settle in Oconto Falls acquired his home through the Homestead Act of 1862. It was an Austrian immigrant in 1908 that improved the sulfate pulping process and built the paper mill that, through trial and time, still endures today. It’s a large, river-side, foul-smell source, building that serves as the main source of income for most of the town; or, at least, it was in 1950 when my great-grandfather worked there.

My great-grandparents were entirely antithetical personalities. He was a quiet man with nothing to say other than, “I have absolutely nothing good to say.” He was a hard worker, and he did a good job providing. However, I can’t imagine that with his quiet heart he served as a close father figure. When there was company in the house (and, with seven children, there was always company in the house) he would pretend to sleep and happily listen to the conversations around him without ever having to say a word. Millie, on the other hand, was the jovial type of woman that glued people together. “Her home was always full,” is something my mother would always say. My great-grandmother was a phenomenal chef that often outcompeted her sisters with a carrot cake recipe that has lasted generations. She always had busy hands that were stirring, washing, crocheting, painting, building, organizing, and always creating. In fact, there is a frightening story of her collection of faux fur from one of the nearby factories. She would craftily use the fur scraps to wrap spare tin cans in shades of brown and white and then paste googly-eyes on as if she were bringing to life helpful (terrifying) little creatures to collect pens and trinkets for her.

        I know that Oconto Falls was a special place despite its faults. And it had many. My grandmother was part of a very poor seven-child family of hard-laborers. She grew up sharing bathwater with her siblings and challenging the defense of cotton-blend skirts against the snow. Factory work left my families’ bodies broken. My great-grandfather worked in the mill his whole life. He had a heart attack at only fifty-four years old. After that, he worked one more year, although it was widely recognized by friends and family that he wasn’t in the necessary health for it. Polly lost a bit of her thumb to the machines and, eventually, stopped being able to kneel in church. Those long factory hours of monotonous movement left them with wounds that were only worsened by those damned semi-spontaneous ice crystals. But the snow and the pain are only part of the reason they left.

It was in the American farmland of Oconto Falls that Millie perfected sourdough starter and would often pop out her dentures to make all of the children laugh. It was there that Polly searched for snails and turtle eggs in the clearest of all bubbling springs and sat with the wild trillium and mayflowers. It was there that my mother gathered with her scores of cousins to leisurely stroll to West Side Beach and collect knick-knacks by the train tracks that lay in front of the house. It was in that small town on a summer night that Millie unexpectedly passed away in May of 1978. By the next summer, my grandparents and their three children moved 656 miles from Wisconsin to Tennessee.

I think that when Polly came to Tennessee factory work felt like a piece of home that she could take with her. It was a connection to Oconto Falls. She had picked up work at a lock factory when she met my grandfather in Wisconsin. In Tennessee, Polly found security by working for a rubber manufacturer. Factory work was reliable. It meant that she could manage the bills that my grandfather couldn’t because of his struggle with alcoholism and addiction. Through her work, she was a provider. She paid the bills, cleaned the house, and took the kids to school. In fact, Polly did everything when it came to her three children. Just like her mother before her, Polly was a Creator of a home when her husband was uninvolved. When Polly had no choice but to spend long hours away from her kids, making an income to support them, she chose a profession that was not only reliable but also reminded her of home.

        My mom worked hard through college and late-night shifts as a nurse to be a provider. Again, the work of creating a home was left to a Beaumia woman and an uninvolved father. My father pulled a disappearing act on our lives by the time I was three. He was always chasing women from Arizona to South Carolina. Mostly for the sake of my brother and my mom, I learned that it was easier to imagine he didn’t exist at all. Part of me is ashamed to admit that I spent most of my life pretending he was dead. Polly stepped up to become a parent again for her grandchildren. Polly not only created a home for my mother in 1969, but she helped my mother create a home for me and my brother in Tennessee thirty years later.

She is now eighty years old, and I don’t know of any other college student whose grandmother visits them in the dorms. Sometimes I cuddle up with a blanket on the floor when she visits me, but we often share the small bed after a long night of Game of Thrones and talk about the snow of her younger years and life in Oconto Falls. Although she is sometimes a bit loquacious, I have savored everything she has said since I was a little girl.

I can remember being eight or nine and spending the night at grandma’s house. Sharing the bed is something we have always done. Her bedroom is a major testament to her life with walls covered in Egyptian papyrus and planetary science art: a collection of items from her travels abroad. I think they serve to remind her of how far she’s come from small-town Wisconsin. Her home has, like her mother’s, become very full.

        On these nights, Polly and I are used to long nocturnal conversations accidentally hitting the 4A.M. mark before we give up and surrender ourselves to sleep. It was in one of those conversations that I first remember her bringing up death:

“I want you to know that when I die, it will all be okay. I have lived a good life.”
I remember my gut sinking and the immediate tears that suffocated my eyes. I watched the ceiling fan making its rounds, and I focused on the comforting consistency. Her attempt at protection had a funny way of unavoidably feeling like submission. I wanted to be angry. I never could understand why she felt that she needed to say this. All I could muster to do, and all I ever can do, is hold her hand tighter.

Recently, she told me about the day her mother died and I recognized the familiar puddle of tears collecting on her face. On an early-summer night, Millie had complaints of bodily pain. After being taken to the Oconto Falls hospital, she was found dead in a room after changing into her hospital gown. Her heart had failed. She had lived in the small town for forty-one years. She had spent her life making a home for her seven children, and she had spent the last fourteen years joyfully being a caretaker to her ailing husband. She had learned to drive at fifty-six and weathered the snow in her aching bones for the sake of her family with the biggest of smiles glued to her face. Polly knows the hurt of death in a way that, even now at twenty-three, I can’t imagine. She also knows the intimate nature of a motherly bond: one that she had with her mother that she now sees in my relationship with her.

        My grandfather had been wanting to move to Florida for years because of the pain of the snow, but it was only when she was without her mother that Polly finally agreed to drive. The ache of the Oconto Fall’s snow was a pain only endurable because of the bond that Polly shared with her mother. She was gone.

Oconto Falls was a good place to grow up. I imagine a small white wooden-planked house with a small hand-built porch. The lights were always on in my imagination. I tried to google it once or twice, but the names of the roads have all changed. It still sits there, as far as we know. It sat awkwardly close to the railroad tracks where my great-aunt would climb the railroad cars with a telescope and a blanket to spot UFOs. Jupiter was always her favorite planet because of how she imagined the storms. The house was merely a five-minute walk from the town’s Catholic church, where Millie, at nineteen had apostatized her Luthern upbringing in favor of her fiance’s Catholicism. To get to the bathroom in the house, you would have to walk through a bedroom that was home to a massive wardrobe and a piano. It was always a home full of food and art. The home within the town has a living history that makes it a special place: the ability to walk where my ancestors once thrived.

Today, although I have never met my great-grandparents, I imagine that Millie and I would be kindred spirits. I think of her busy hands when I crochet kitten scarves, and her paintings have traveled generations to now rest on my walls. I’ve felt connected to Millie since the first time I heard she was a writer, like me. She seems like a woman of incredible versatility and talent. For many years I have wished that Millie lived in an era of video or that more of her belongings had been saved over time. The photos I collect of her are framed in my mind looking for any kind of resemblance. It’s no secret that I am starstruck by her: frustrated that I am unable to know such an essential woman, but simultaneously feeling as if she is my friend. This, very well, could be attributed to my relationship with Polly. I love that she wiggles her toes as she falls asleep to alert a room that she is still listening as her father would have. She points to her open mouth and sings, “I have a frog in my throat!” to a throng of giggling cousins as her mother would have. I never knew them, but it seems they have found a way to remain.

        Millie’s death was incredibly sudden. She played such an essential role in Creating a home that understanding the quality of motherhood has been a central tenant in my family ever since. Millie was the kind of woman that had the ability to glue people to a place even when their hearts led them somewhere else. This is what made Oconto Falls the special place that it was. Without her there we still visited often, but Oconto Falls could no longer be a home to my grandmother or her progeny.

The northern climate does call to me now, maybe due to some ancestral gene. I think that I might foolishly belong to the snow. However, the yearning for cold weather that I feel is temporarily in competition with a gravitational bond I share with Polly.

When it comes to finding homes in places, people often stay where they are planted. Many people are also restricted: involuntarily rooted to a place because of a situation of war, poverty, abuse, etc. Polly, despite the passive nature of her husband, stayed in the marriage because of cultural expectations. The indulgence of the heart is a freedom. To pick up and leave their husbands wouldn’t have been possible for most of the Beaumia women. However, when Polly left Wisconsin she finally followed her heart as she fled the cold despair of her mother’s death and found a warmer climate to heal in.

        Making a home out of a loved one is a connection that I know has the power to keep a person in place or the power to move and depart in grief. That kind of love is voluntary bondage. And while I do not believe that blood is thicker than water, I know that there is a special binding in motherhood that defies stately lines, bodily intuition, and time. Everyone told me that Millie was Polly’s reason for staying, and I’m lucky to have discovered what they mean.

“It is my mother’s place…but it has become, through time and habit, my place.”
– John Lane, “The Inheritance of Autumn”


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