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Buryin' Daddy

Buryin' Daddy: Putting My Lebanese, Catholic, Southern Baptist Childhood to Rest

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Buryin' Daddy
    Book Description:

    A descendant of Lebanese Catholic immigrants on her father's side and Baptist sharecroppers on her mother's, Teresa Nicholas recounts in Buryin' Daddy a southern upbringing with an unusual inflection. As the book opens, the author recalls her charmed early childhood in the late 1950s, when she and her family live with her grandparents in a graceful old bungalow in Yazoo City, Mississippi. But when the author is five, her eccentric father-secretive, penurious, autocratic, hoarding-moves his growing family into a condemned duplex nearby. Separated from her beloved grandmother and chafing under her father's erratic discipline, the girl longs to flee from the awful decrepit house. When she's a teenager, she and her father find themselves on conflicting sides of the civil rights movement and their arguments grow more painful, until a scholarship to a northeastern college provides the means of her escape.

    Two decades later, Nicholas has built a successful career in book publishing in New York. When her father dies suddenly, she returns to Mississippi for the funeral and to spend a month in the hated duplex as her mother comes to terms with her husband's passing. But as she sorts through the strange detritus of her father's life, the author comes to understand that he was far more complex than the angry man she thought she knew. And as she draws closer to her surprisingly resilient mother, affected by stroke but full of blunt country talk, she finds that her mother is also far from the naïve, helpless creature she remembers. Through a series of surprising and oddly humorous discoveries, the author and her mother will begin to unravel her father's poignant secrets together in this graceful and generous exploration of the intermingling of shame and love that lie at the heart of family life.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-971-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Part I “Home Again, Home Again, Jiggedy-Jig”

    • One
      (pp. 3-13)

      I stand on Grendaddy’s reclining chair in the center hall and let the yellow morning sunlight fall across my face. Arms outstretched, I reach toward the transom of the front door to catch the sunbeams. There are so many today! But as soon as I cup my small hands around them and pull them toward me, I open my fists and see that they are gone.

      Every morning before breakfast, everybody goes outside. The old house quiet. I am the last one up, except for Mama. I jump from the recliner and head for Grandma’s closet. Rows upon rows of...

    • Two
      (pp. 14-21)

      After my brother was born, everything began to change: my sense of place and time, my sense of happiness. Also, we began to run out of room in the fine old bungalow that we thought of not as my grandparents’ but simply as Grandma’s. When my parents brought my brother home from the hospital, Mama put Sol Boy in a slatted crib next to their double bed, so five of us were now sleeping in Grandma’s two back bedrooms. There was a black-painted door between our rooms, which my parents would leave open so they could keep watch over Debbie...

    • Three
      (pp. 22-32)

      January 1959, a month before I turned five, Mama had another baby, a beautiful girl with downy black hair. Mama wanted to call her simply Lisa, but Daddy insisted she have a saint’s name like the rest of us. He had named me after St. Teresa of Ávila, the patron saint of headache sufferers, whose symbols were a heart, an arrow, and a book. He had even given me for a middle name the Spanish town where she was born. But for once Mama persevered, and Father Hunter christened the baby Lisa, though Daddy tacked on Maria. She was called...

    • Four
      (pp. 33-40)

      In the duplex, there were no sunbeams to catch, no transom over the front door, the windows too stingy to let in much light. It was February when we moved, and the wind whipped under the brittle, termite-eaten floorboards. Daddy hadn’t replaced the outdated gas space heaters, with their open flames that looked like the Cheshire cat’s grin; he would let us light only the ones in the living room and bathrooms, and then only during the day, because he was afraid we might asphyxiate. At night he would leave the water faucets dripping to keep the pipes from freezing,...

    • Five
      (pp. 41-47)

      Daddy was standing in front of the television, legs wide apart. He was wearing white canvas slip-ons from the Army-Navy, khakis held up by a leather belt, and a white short-sleeved shirt. It was eight o’clock in the morning. He pointed his index finger at the three of us. We were dressed for play, because there was still some summer left before Debbie went back to St. Clara’s and I entered kindergarten. “Be careful!” he ordered. Then he bounded down the front steps, slid into the Chevrolet, and drove to his glass-enclosed office next to the Place’s busy repair shop,...

    • Six
      (pp. 48-57)

      The fall after we moved into the duplex, I was enrolled in Gussie White’s kindergarten, which was held in an airy corner room on the first floor of St. Clara’s convent. We called Gussie simply by her first name, without the prerequisite “Miz,” perhaps because she picked some of us up each morning in her big black Buick. The class quickly split into cliques. There were the popular girls—Nell, Donna, Ginger, Pam, and Susan—with their peaches-and-cream complexions and Old South manners, and then there were the rest of us. The popular girls had lawyers and cotton farmers for...

    • Seven
      (pp. 58-68)

      One Sunday after ten-thirty Mass, Grendaddy and I were by ourselves in the grocery, the light through the plate glass window soft, milky. He was behind the cash register, while I was on the other side of the counter facing him. He opened the register and began counting the bills. I watched him, biding my time. These days, Grendaddy seemed shorter and rounder, his hair more grizzled, his complexion more sallow. He seemed more alone. At Mass today, as usual he’d tiptoed up the center aisle and sat with us in our pew, in his regular seat beside Debbie. As...

  3. Part II “You Don’t Know Your Daddy”

    • Eight
      (pp. 71-80)

      Mama called.

      It was a blinding January morning, the kind that happens rarely in New York, when the slow gray clouds of a winter storm finally lift and the sun comes out startling strong, composing the day into hard blue skies and white-capped lawns.

      Even before her stroke, Mama would always wait for me to phone her, ever since I’d left Yazoo City twenty-two years earlier. I dutifully telephoned weekly, when I would talk to Mama and Daddy for ten minutes or so, long enough to find out that nothing much had changed with them, at least not for the...

    • Nine
      (pp. 81-87)

      I was standing at the living room window, watching for the car that would take us to the airport. I had called Mama twice while we were getting ready to leave. The first time she hadn’t been able to say anything except, “Y’all are comin’ today, ain’t you?” The second time, James had answered; so thathadbeen his voice I’d heard in the background. Sol and his father-in-law had worked side by side in the maintenance department at Mississippi Chemical Corporation. Gray-haired yet still muscled at sixty, James had done manual labor all his life, and he had not...

    • Ten
      (pp. 88-94)

      After the relatives left, we remained on the corduroy couch in uneasy intimacy, with Mama slumped between Gerry and me. I thought I needed to say something about Daddy’s death, but I couldn’t think of what; the phrases that came to mind—I’m sorry, andEverything is going to be all right—didn’t seem worth much. Two or three times, Mama repeated in a pitiful tone, “He did ever’thang. I don’t know how to do nothin’”. When I began to feel an immense awkwardness seeping out of me, so great that I wondered if Mama and Gerry could sense it,...

    • Eleven
      (pp. 95-103)

      I woke up when the light turned gray in the Toy Room. This was Sunday, the quietest day, the through trains halted elsewhere, maybe out West, and the car traffic, the little that there was, deliberate in its mission: By eleven o’clock, the Baptists would assemble on Grand Avenue for another day of worship. Downtown, the black street sweepers would also be out, cleaning up the broken whiskey bottles from Saturday night.

      I examined my bedraggled dolls, heaped on the floor where I’d brushed them aside the night before. They had once meant everything to me: wished for out of...

    • Twelve
      (pp. 104-109)

      It was well after noon, past time for dinner, but nobody had an appetite. Mama lowered the shades and drew the pink polyester curtains across the living room windows. She settled herself in the La-Z-Boy and clicked the remote, and the greenish light of the television flickered in the dark room. She stared at the Zenith, which Daddy had bought twenty years ago, after lightning struck the antenna and blew out the last set. An addicted viewer of reruns, ofLeave It to BeaverandThe Andy Griffith Show, she was especially fond ofBonanzaandGunsmoke, which played at...

    • Thirteen
      (pp. 110-119)

      I slept even worse that night in the Toy Room than I had the night before. At dawn, with Gerry resting peacefully beside me, I watched the sunlight seeping through the sides of the window shades. I was remembering a photo taken on another sparkling day, this one in late October. Daddy is standing outside on the sidewalk under the giant American flag he’d hung from the front porch. He’s dressed in cutoff shorts and a baseball cap, ready to play with Erin, who is sitting next to him on her tricycle. She has a wide grin that reveals her...

    • Fourteen
      (pp. 120-131)

      There’s that moment after a funeral when nobody knows what to do. When the service was over, the mourners milled awkwardly, then drifted back to their cars. Only the family remained under the tent, lingering at the foot of Daddy’s grave, with the heavy Mississippi earth heaped close at hand. Then my sisters walked away, and Gerry and I stayed behind with Mama. In the navy shadow of a cedar tree, I saw two black gravediggers, their dirt-encrusted shovels, so I took Mama by the arm and guided her to the car. We had one more ritual to go through,...

    • Fifteen
      (pp. 132-142)

      When I arrived back at the house, the visitors had already departed. Mama was in her La-Z-Boy, still dressed in her funeral outfit, clutching one of Erin’s baby dolls, a blond imp in a pink dress. My sisters, Gerry, and Joel had changed into jeans and were sprawled on the two couches, while Elizabeth sat on the floor absorbed in a game of solitaire. The television blared a commercial for Herrin-Gear Chevrolet.

      Lisa asked after Johnny.

      “He’s okay,” I answered a little guiltily. Gerry inched over to make room for me on the corduroy couch. “What have you been doing?”...

    • Sixteen
      (pp. 143-149)

      A broad-faced, middle-aged man came right over to greet Mama, who didn’t say a word; she just nodded and let Debbie do the talking. My sister asked this vice president if we could speak in his office, and after we were seated, if he could advise us about the status of Daddy’s accounts. I was convinced we were making fools of ourselves, until he said he would print out the up-to-the-minute balances. After he left, it was my turn to tap my feet.

      “Hold them legs still, young’un,” Mama told me. “I feel higher’n cat hairs, and you’re shakin’ the...

    • Seventeen
      (pp. 150-156)

      Mama walked to the rack in the hall, picked off her beige car coat, and struggled into it. Then she went to stand in front of the television. Debbie slipped on her black leather jacket and joined her there. I rushed to get my coat, too.

      “You ain’t goin’”, Mama told me. “None of you is goin’ except for Debbie.”

      “Why can’t I go?” I asked. Even if this turned out to be only a fishing expedition, I didn’t want to miss it. As a child, I’d liked fishing.

      “Because I said so.” When we were little and Mama used...

    • Eighteen
      (pp. 157-168)

      In the front yard, Mama stopped long enough to kick at some dry sycamore leaves, wide like the palm of a hand, and watched as a gust of wind rolled them in the air. Glancing up at the wispy clouds, she announced, “Mare’s tails this evenin’, rain tomorrow.”

      She made her way up the front steps and into the living room, where she dropped down into the La-Z-Boy. The room was lit only by the lamp next to Mama’s chair, on whose shade I’d painted long ago, on a bored afternoon, a pair of bright red lips. Gerry had parked...

  4. Part III We Rode, Remembering

    • Nineteen
      (pp. 171-182)

      Mama soon found out what it was like to buy a can of tuna. The next morning, when I asked her if she wanted to visit Glenwood Cemetery, she said no, the Jitney Jungle.

      The Jitney is only two blocks from the house, but we drove anyway, Gerry parking as close as he could to the store’s entrance. Mama went ahead through the automatic door, then stopped to take in the bright reds and yellows and oranges of the potato chip bags, the muted browns and blues of the bread and cake packages. Maybe, like me, she was remembering the...

    • Twenty
      (pp. 183-187)

      When I came through the front door, Mama was still sitting in the La-Z-Boy, feet propped on the swing-out stool, watching Bob Hope and Bing Crosby caper across the silent television. Though the living room clock showed twelve-thirty, she hadn’t done anything about fixing dinner, and I was sure she hadn’t taken her insulin, either.

      I lowered the flame on the heater and sat down on the couch opposite her. “Mama, are you just going to sit in your La-Z-Boy all day?”

      She kept on staring at the TV. Finally she said, “Ain’t a La-Z-Boy.”

      “What do you mean?”


    • Twenty-one
      (pp. 188-193)

      The next morning, I woke up to the mean stares of my dolls, which were still strewn on the floor beside the bed in the Toy Room. It was Monday, and judging by the traffic on Calhoun, rush hour in Yazoo. I threw back the quilts and went to find Mama, but she wasn’t in her chair. I walked around the back of the house: her bedroom, the Junk Room, the tiny kitchen. Then I looked out the front door and saw that the Oldsmobile was missing from its spot in the yard.

      Where could she have gone at eight...

    • Twenty-two
      (pp. 194-200)

      On Tuesday, the day we were finally supposed to go to the bank, I woke up to the discordant symphony of the old black telephones Daddy had peppered throughout the house. Where was Mama, and why didn’t she pick up? I was beginning to revise my impression that she just sat in the Bassett all the time. Lately, it seemed she was out of her chair more than she was in it.

      When I got to the wall phone in the hallway, the line was dead. Then as I was replacing the receiver, the back door slammed, and Mama came...

    • Twenty-three
      (pp. 201-207)

      Not long after, Mashburn Realty placed a crooked metal sign in Grandma’s front yard, next to the linden tree on whose gnarled roots I’d so often played as a child, pretending they were a scale for telling my weight and fortune. Several times I’d started to tell Mama that we had to sell the family homestead to keep Grandma in Martha Coker, but I hadn’t been able to say the words. Now that the sign had gone up, I had no choice. I sat down on the edge of the love seat in the living room and muted the television....

    • Twenty-four
      (pp. 208-214)

      One Sunday morning, Mama decided to fry a chicken. She hauled the phone out from under her Bassett and invited Cindy and Erin to eat with us, then turned on the television. Although she hadn’t gone back to Mass, saying she didn’t like to sit alone in the family pew, she’d devoted herself to another ritual: She watchedMeet the Pressand had even gotten on a first-name basis with the anchor. This morning when the show finished, Mama complained about the Republicans.“I just don’t like the way they talk,” she sighed, handing off the clicker to me.

      I watched...

    • Twenty-five
      (pp. 215-221)

      As the afternoon deepened, the day turned black dark. A thundercloud hung in the western sky; soon the temperature would drop and the wind pick up. Mama yawned, stretched for the remote, and reduced the TV’s volume. Before she could settle into her chair nap, I got the Oldsmobile key from the wicker basket. “I’m going to visit Grandma,” I told her, and she sent me off with a wave of her fingers.

      I drove the few blocks to Martha Coker without meeting another car, diagonal parking in front of the nursing home. But I waited, preparing myself for my...

    • Twenty-six
      (pp. 222-234)

      The sky was on the move again. The black birds returned one afternoon at five o’clock, massing like a dark cloud over St. John’s.

      “What in the world is happening?” I called to Mama from the porch.

      But she didn’t answer me. She was in her Bassett with the telephone next to her, waiting for Mr. Tyson to call to tell her when he’d start painting. Yet the phone hadn’t rung, and she’d grown worried. She had no bother over birds.

      Early the next morning, I came upon her in the door of Daddy’s closet, pulling his shirts off their...

  5. Part IV Buryin’ Daddy

    • Twenty-seven
      (pp. 237-245)

      We circled over the city. This time, I wasn’t cheered by the endless stretch of sodium lamps twinkling orange in the twilight across the five boroughs of New York. The same car service picked me up at the airport, and as the driver headed toward Westchester, I looked out at the city’s tired street corners, capped with mounds of black snow and bits of stray garbage. After a long day of travel, I walked into the always-waiting house and Gerry’s embrace.

      I went right back to work. I took with me the six posters from the Yazoo County fair, put...

    • Twenty-eight
      (pp. 246-251)

      I knew what Mama needed to do to put Daddy behind her, but it wasn’t so easy to see what I had to do. In New York I found a therapist and spent my lunch hours talking about Daddy, about how I’d felt muted by him and rebelled against him, even when I was five years old. My therapist was a sympathetic woman who told me that I was stuck in childhood anger, but it all seemed too theoretical. So I kept on going to Mississippi, first in May, then again in July, both times for long weekends, both times...

    • Twenty-nine
      (pp. 252-259)

      In August and September I stayed in New York, but instead of writing, I began long-distance running. Weekend mornings, I jogged on a path along the Bronx River, ten or so miles, then I spent the afternoons recuperating in our backyard. We kept a wrought-iron table and chairs on the patio next to a small fishpond, and I would rest while Gerry tended the garden, a twisting border of phlox, coreopsis, hollyhock, foxglove, and coneflower.

      On the cordless telephone, I would call Mama for news of home. I daydreamed about buying Grandma’s house and living in it, just as my...

    • Thirty
      (pp. 260-264)

      After Brother died, Willie Belle bought security bars for her doors and windows and began sleeping with a pistol tucked under the mattress of her canopy bed. Then came the news that Dot Knot had lung cancer. When Mama told me, I recalled Dot’s rasping voice, rough from the years of her habit. She wasn’t sick for long, but before she died she proposed to Mama that Willie Belle buy her house so that they could live side by side.

      So even before my aunt sold her ranch house on the old Vicksburg highway, she bought Dot Knot’s. Willie Belle...

    • Thirty-one
      (pp. 265-276)

      We went home for Christmas that year, the same as always. By then my arm had healed completely, and my ankle enough so that I could walk with a cane. We traveled through Texas, changing planes and flying west to east, because that was how the airline had routed us from New York. It was a bright sunshiny day, and I could see when we reached Mississippi because there was the great twisting river converging with its largest tributary, the Yazoo, at the port of Vicksburg. I thought about how my great-grandfather George, his wife, Rosa, and my toddler grandfather...

    • Thirty-two
      (pp. 277-292)

      It was March again, and we were all going home for Mama’s seventy-first birthday. Late on a humid afternoon, Gerry drove the rented Chevrolet Prizm north on Highway 49. When he stopped at the traffic light on the outskirts of Flora, he gestured toward the circles of fat, gray clouds. “Are they always so dramatic this time of year?”

      I nodded, proud of the landscape. It was sky we had here, not skyscrapers. Gerry hadn’t ever been in Mississippi during the spring, so he didn’t know: March was the beginning of tornado season, when warm, moist Gulf air, heavy as...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 293-293)