Tammy’s Tale

“Tammy has a wooden leg,” dad said.  “It’s her right one, and she likes to knock on it for emphasis sometimes, while telling her stories.”  We weren’t really on our way to Dallas to see Tammy that morning, we were instead going to visit my aunt.  Tammy was just my aunt’s nurse, which meant we got to see her too.

“No laughing at Tammy,” dad said.  “I’m serious.”

Still, no matter how many times I promised to be good, my father continued to warn me about how to deal with Tammy’s behavior.

You shouldn’t laugh at her, especially around death,” dad said.  “It makes me uncomfortable, and will only upset your mother.  Sandy is her only sister.”

So I met Tammy for the first time that morning, New Year’s Day, 2006.  She’d been hired two weeks before as Sandy’s hospice care nurse, and was living with my aunt now in her home.  Tammy’s job was to keep Sandy comfortable, to help her live with stage four lung cancer.  By the time we’d arrived that morning, though, Sandy had already begun to slip.  Tammy said she’d fallen into a coma the previous night, just a couple of hours before our arrival. 

“I was tired, you know?  It was that dead time of night, the witching hour, right before the sun hits the horizon.  I fell asleep for a moment,” Tammy said. “And, when I woke again, Sandy was gone.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  She’s still here, the old girl.  We’ve been talking a lot this morning.  People like Sandy, they can still hear you when they get like this.  Sometimes too, they’ll come right out of it.  There’ll be these lucid moments, complete clarity, right before the end.  So it’s best to talk plenty.  Go on as normal.  It makes them feel better, I think, to hear familiar voices.”

Although Tammy had stayed up most of the night, she was still wide awake and in seemingly high spirits.

“You’re just in time,” Tammy told me, “I was just telling your aunt about a call I made earlier to my Son-of-a-Bitch Ex-Husband Herb. Even the good Lord himself would vomit Herb straight out of his mouth and into hell. Amen, he would.”

Tammy explained that Herb had left her five years before, after she'd lost her leg in a traffic accident. 

“Now you know that crash was Herb’s fault, a drunken mistake.  ‘A drunken mistake,’ that’s what he told the jury,” Tammy said.  “I waited for that asshole a year, an entire year, before his parole.  And then, that son-of-a-bitch gets out only to tell me can’t live with no half-a-woman anymore. So Herb, he left, walked out the door on New Year’s Day.  He threw his bowl of black eyed peas at me, cursed that he don’t want no half woman, and walked right out, right on down the street to Wanda’s place.  Wanda was this woman who lived two blocks down.  Herb told me he needed himself a whole woman, and was going to get one.”   At this point, Tammy grew increasingly excited, knocking on her leg with one hand, and waving her other arm in the air, excited about what was coming next.

“Herb,” she said, “Now, Herb is a racist, member of the KKK.  All this only got worse in prison.  There he got a swastika tattooed on his right ankle.  Herb eventually got what he deserved, though, when Wanda's grandkids arrived over Spring Break.   Since he'd married Wanda a month before on Valentine's Day, a shotgun wedding in Vegas, Herb never did have the chance to meet her kids, or grandbabies.  So by the time Herb had learned what he'd married into, there was nothing he could do but stomp his foot and grit his teeth,” Tammy said.

Tammy looked at me, then over at my aunt and continued, “They were black.  Can you believe it?  Herb got himself a whole house full of little pickaninny grandbabies. So the first day of every New Year, I love to call Herb.  I love my voice be the first thing he hears, an annual reminder of what he's done to himself.  So I called him this morning, told your aunt I’d do it there in the room so she could hear me, and I called Herb and said ‘Here’s to another Happy New Year, darling.  Praised be to the good Lord, and may he bless each and every one of your little Pickaninny grandbabies.’   Well, old Herb, he slammed the phone down, but not before he heard me,” Tammy said.  “Now isn’t that the way to start out the New Year.”

I didn’t laugh then, though I wanted to.  Instead, I told Tammy that she had a way with words.  I later learned she also had a way with people.  She loved her work as a  hospice nurse, and often left the Indian reservation where she lived with her husband and his kids in Oklahoma to come to work for weeks in one of the richest neighborhoods of  Dallas.  There, Tammy took care of the wealthy dying in Highland Park.  It was her job to help these people pass from this world into the next.  She was brilliant at what she did. And in a place so foreign to her, Tammy was Highland Park's opposite.  At least I’m sure that’s how Tammy appeared to those she helped, these aged oil tycoons, ranchers, old money, steeped together in anger, sadness, and longing

I'd bet Tammy was the first chain smoking, foul mouthed woman these Highland Park elite ever grew to love.  In their last moments, Tammy was able to show these Highland Park coots that the differences they’d spent their lives fearing were sometimes better than the comforts they’d spent years hiding behind.  All the money, the lipstick, the street names, and the misery dulled by strong martinis and late evening aperitifs only kept them closeted away from their true needs and desires.  So Tammy became the first person they'd ever been completely honest with, as she allowed them to finally be honest with themselves, speaking freely about all the lost opportunities, unrequited loves, sacrificed to maintain the expensive ideal of Highland Park living.

“There was another woman I looked after, down off Mockingbird, pretty close to here.  She’d been by herself for awhile.  Her last husband had died awhile back, the usual absentee kids” Tammy said.  “Anyway, this lady – she had over a hundred different shades of red lipstick, many still in the box.  Turns out she’d spent each afternoon for I don’t know how many years shopping the Neiman Marcus make-up counters, always looking for the perfect shade of red.  We spent hours every morning together going through her collections, trying to match her lips to her pajamas.  While we searched, she’d tell me beautiful stories, all about what life had been like for her growing up in east Texas, before Dallas.  A couple of times some of the girls from Neimans came to visit her.  Said they’d wondered where Mable had disappeared to.  Said they’d missed her stories.  They brought me some polish for her as a present one time, something to match her lips.  So I painted her finger nails and her toe nails red too.  You can see your aunt’s there, though she prefers orange.    I painted her nails last night while we were talking about the next vacation she wanted to take.  She swore when she felt better, we’d take a cruise down to Mexico, where we could find us some good tequila, top shelf.  I told her that was some crazy talk.  Me in Mexico.  I’ve never even left the South.”   

It was the foreign mixed with the familiar that I think allowed Tammy to elicit her clients' confessions.  Talking to her was easy for these Highland Park people.  She’d already seen them at their worst, and hadn’t left them yet.  Plus she was getting paid to stay, though they’d be the first to go.  By becoming this familiar stranger, Tammy provided these Highland Park people with a rare freedom, granting her clients the opportunity to confess their lives, dreams, past wishes, regrets, hopes for the future.  And all of this they seemed to tell Tammy freely, confessed in confidence to what they saw as an Okie half-breed – half Cherokee, half Texan – holding their hand, coaxing them back home again.  

Sometimes I think animals know more about the human condition, or rather the spirit, about this returning home, and what happens in the vestibule of time between where one passes from this life into the next.   My aunt's cat Whiskers wouldn't leave her side.  Refused to move from the foot of the bed, even when her feet began to curl.   And then for about a day, the cat refused to be anywhere near the bed, arching her back, hissing, bristling as if aware of something we'd missed.  It was as if perhaps she knew about the trial of the heart being weighed, all the decisions being made before the end, those occurring on the other side in the same manner that we scrambled here to find her last will and testament.   I assumed all went well, though, because after that day, Whiskers spent the last night sleeping beside her owner, again refusing to be moved.

“You know Sandy loved those cats.  They’re her babies.    She was always asking me to check their water, give them some food” Tammy said.  “You can see Whiskers here.  I’ve grown pretty fond of him.  Unless one of you wants him, I’ll take him when I go.”

After Sandy died, Whiskers went home with Tammy; she said she liked cats and couldn't bear to leave Whiskers alone with the others.   My aunt's other two cats continued to prowl the apartment, though I'm not quite sure what finally happened to them.   They remained feral, having been tamed only by my aunt, who they understood was no longer their keeper.  The Highland Park ladies, Celeste and Libby, tried in vain to lure the creatures out, managing only to snag their hose, catching a claw or two extra in the process.   Her cats were smart.   They recognized creatures like themselves, the predatory Highland Park women, and were scared, defensive. 

“I don’t know about those two,” Tammy said. 

She was referring to Sandy’s two friends, Celeste and Libby.  They’d gone with Sandy weeks before to have their names added on as executors to her will.  The two of them had instructed Tammy not to call my mother, my aunt’s closest living relative.

“I called your mom, anyway.” Tammy said, “Now don’t you go telling them I did it, cause they told me not to.  I just didn’t think it was right.  Something’s wrong with that, with the way those two act, the way they slink around this place.  I don’t like those women.  So I just told them your mom called the house, and was concerned when I answered instead of your aunt.  Just said, she’d decided to come on up to Sandy’s place on her own.” 

The house where my aunt lived wasn't really a house.  In fact, it was a duplex, though it was what my aunt had called her home since graduate school at SMU, about four decades before.  The place always reminded me of a 1970s museum, especially as a child.  Macramé still hung from the downstairs walls, and the bathroom attached to the kitchen had a light switch that transformed the knob into the male anatomy, encased by the image of a male flasher.   Every time you turned on the light, you turned him on as well. 

“I love that little light in there.” Tammy said.  “Your aunt sure has got a sense of humor, though I know you know it.  I never had too many dark moments with her.  You can tell when the pain gets worse, if people have a lot of darkness inside.  That’s when it all comes out.”

Illuminated from the bathroom, across the hall, and up the stairs hung hundreds of pictures, images, reminders of the moments measuring out the time of my aunt’s life travels.   There were so many of them, countless unlabeled beaches, waves crashing shores, mountains, and flowers, and natives from far away.  They meant nothing to me nor to most that saw them, as it remained impossible to tell where each image originated.   It was clear they weren't meant for us, or for anyone else for that matter; they served as her life's work, these moments captured, retained, memories to keep her warm at night, to serve as a confirmation of what she'd created, better than a marriage, more exciting than children.

“I never had no children of my own.  Though I got me a couple little indians at home,” Tammy said.  “After Herb, I married an old friend of my brothers, full blood Cherokee, so his kids look enough like me to pass.  You know, the government gave us a home?  Real nice one too.  Anyway, all of us with the blood look enough alike to pass as family.  It’s like I can see Sandy in you.”

Spread along the table beside her bed, covering her desk, and on her dresser, were more photographs, all beaming, pictures of my aunt and her friends.  They spanned across the last forty years, all showing faces following the contemporary Neiman Marcus trends.  Even while the ladies’ makeup changed according to the decade, their hair did not; always either big and blonde, or big and brown, it stood solid, teased up and out. 

Much like their hair, these women’s faces also managed to defy gravity; indeed, rather than falling gracefully with age, they instead began to rise, eyebrows creeping eerily towards hairlines, mouths reaching for ears.  And yet, in all the photos, all the women, only women, smiled happily together; this was something that remained timeless.

My Great Uncle Bob pointed out Lib  by’s eyes to me later that afternoon.  As she was ushering guests, in and out, running going back and forth, and yammering to Celeste about nothing important, I watched her eyes.  Her forehead had been stretched up, making her appear as though she were in a constant state of surprise.  But even stranger was the way the stretching had caused the whites of her eyes to stand out above her pupils.


“In kabuki theatre,” Bob said, “they make the ghosts of the dead appear with eyes like that, where the whites stand out.”

Sometimes I think people, like ghosts, can get stuck in time.   My aunt existed in some ways like that.  Much like her seventies apartment, Sandy seemed to belong elsewhere, some place out of Dallas, outside of time.  Now while I’m not sure what experience, relationships, or events caused her to stagnate in the seventies, locked in between her wall hangings, paintings, and decorations, the strongest images retained were from her sorority days.  Images of owls gathered from her years as a pledge in Tri-Kappa remained happily hung, solid reminders of the few years she’d spent in Lubbock, entrenched in Southern sisterhood.  Old framed composites of the girls in her pledge class labeled many of the women who continued to stop by that afternoon.  Libby and Celeste told us that Sandy’s friends were her family.  They repeated this many times.  Sandy’s family are her friends.

“Sometimes I wondered if there wasn’t something more going on there with that,” Tammy said.  “You know what I mean.  Something more going on between Sandy and those two women, but especially between those two.  Libby and Celeste seem pretty close.  Pretty close, if you know what I mean.  Now, nothing wrong with that, of course”

It seems that many of my aunt’s old friends did cycle in and out that day, a strong representative of her martini women.  I use the term ‘martini women,’ because that’s the image that comes to mind when I think of Sandy and all her friends, all of them toasting glasses together.  The majority of these were your Highland Park type, in the classic sense, your Texas version of a Southern Belle.  Most of these women never worked outside of doing something with charities or benefits, living primarily off their trust funds, moving from father to husband, man to man.  Many of these women married either their high school, though usually it seemed to be their college boyfriends, men from Tri-Kappa’s brother fraternities, SAE, KA, and Beta.  In many ways the Greek system seemed to be an informal way of designating a self proclaimed Texas Aristocracy, a pattern that still exists today.  All big families in Texas, anyone linked to oil or ranching, know one another.  They marry in and out, over the course of  time, since many marry multiple times now. 

“I think I understood why your aunt never married.” Tammy said.  “Too much trouble these days.”

Following the disintegration of these women’s first marriages, many of these Highland Park women seemed to develop a family all their own.  My aunt and her friends developed a close circle that welcomed its members back into the company of women, while second, third and fourth marriages for many transformed into a matter of business when the trust ran out.  By marrying a man, a minimum of ten years their senior, this group of women learned to ensure they’d always be the younger woman.  And by maintaining a level of intimacy with their female friends, this closeness was no longer a prerequisite required for romance.  Hence, the men became more like their pets, large creatures to be led around at church, taken to parties, and kept to provide them with a nice house and the funds for shopping.  All these Highland Park women seemed to have to do in return was to keep up their appearance, a look, a lifestyle, and a new level of indifference towards love.  Not that love didn’t exist for them, it’s just these women seemed to instead love one another, becoming each other’s version of man and wife.

My aunt never believed in this sort of thing, though, the institution of marriage.   Marrying for money, if one were to marry at all, remained the best of all possible reasons to do so.  Sandy liked to repeat the axiom, “it’s just as easy to love a rich man, as it is a poor one.”    After a close friend of my aunt’s insisted on getting married to a man she truly loved, my aunt refused to speak to her for a year.  My aunt’s sentiments were well known, so much so that Libby, who had intentionally kept her new marriage a secret; she was afraid my aunt would never speak to her again if she found out.  I figured she was probably more concerned about  being cut out of my aunt’s will.  I saw her new husband at my aunt’s funeral the following week.  The man was at least twenty years Libby’s senior, hunched and a foot shorter than herself.  But her new husband afforded Libby the opportunity of opening her own business, and this she snatched up immediately.

Tammy was the first one to point out Libby’s secret.  “Notice the old man that comes with her sometimes.  Libby says he’s a friend of hers.  I told her he’s a friend just like Sandy.”

Tammy seemed to understand all this, having a good sense of the intimate relations that went on behind closed doors in Highland Park.  I think she may have understood it better, the ins and outs, than those who lived and died there.  She told me a story about another client of hers.

“That old coot,” Tammy said, “Mr. Vickers was one of those oil men, real old, way up in his nineties.   Like the rest of them, he had a thing for women half his age.  The younger the better.  He thought he could get them, too, even though he was confined to a wheel chair.  I used to have to open the windows to keep cool in his place.  He’d keep his house heated, even in the Texas summers.  He said it was because of his poor circulation.  He was a smooth fellow.  Really a nice man.  He used to always tell me my wooden leg mattered nothing to him, said if anything that it gave me more character.  More than once, Mr. Vickers tried to convince me to leave the reservation permanently, take up with him, go to Florida or some other place, my choice, so long as it was tropical.  He offered to pay for everything, provided I’d be his girl.”

Tammy said she thought this was the biggest bunch of nonsense she’d ever heard, and told Mr. Vickers that he could keep his Viagra to himself. 

“My refusals,” Tammy said, “only encouraged him. Mr. Vickers said he liked his women feisty.” 

So while my aunt became a Highland Park woman, she avoided all Highland Park men, those like Mr. Vickers.  She also avoided her parents’ home, where she was raised, in a tiny town called Ennis.  Ennis now exists as a suburb of Dallas, only thirty minutes south of the city.  Still, Sandy refused to visit her parents’ home following her high school graduation.  In the forty years following her departure from Ennis, Sandy made the half hour drive back only a handful of times.  Once, Sandy returned when there were diamonds from my great aunt’s estate to be divided, and only occasionally otherwise for Thanksgiving dinner, sometimes Christmas Eve.  Until my family’s holidays moved  from Ennis to Bob’s condo in Highland Park, the bulk of Sandy’s holidays were spent away with her martini women. 

“She hated that place,” Tammy said.  “Never found out why.  Said it was ‘a God forsaken, tiny little hell hole, not worth the cost in gas it would take to get there.’  I figured that was enough of an answer for me.”

I’m not sure anyone understood why my aunt refused to come home to Ennis, though maybe her martini women knew.  She’d often remark that Ennis had ruined her, not worth the ink on a map.  I never thought there was anything particularly wrong with the place myself.  So while her intense emotion regarding Ennis seemed unfounded to me, I guess most overreactions are responses fueled by the past.  Haunted by something, memories all her own, my Aunt’s intense hatred of the place makes me wonder if there wasn’t something there she’d originally loved.

My own memories of the town remain those of a child.  Ennis reminds me of the farmers market, T-Kals, and the one grocery store, the Piggley Wiggley – it was emblazoned with a giant pink dancing pig.  Things like black-eyed peas, fat farm house tomatoes, my grandfather’s peach trees, full with orange butterflies, and the fear of scorpions dropping from the lamps, snakes striking in the fields, make up my memories of Ennis.  I remember my grandparents’ German Shepherds; they were great because they’d catch the snakes out near the fence, before they got near the house.  Snapping their bodies in half, the broken snakes would be carried and dropped off by the dogs as presents, Water Moccasins and Rattlesnakes, trophies left near their water bowls by the back screen door.  Ennis really seems much like any other small Texas town, still retaining various elements of the West, still very much alive, retaining a guaranteed possibility that there were still things that could get you.    

Still, I think for my aunt, there was nothing left back home for her.  I sometimes wondered if she feared loosing herself there, as she seemed to have found her place, a sense of belonging in Highland Park.  Her home in Dallas remained her refuge, a nest my aunt wove out of things that represented the happy memories of the people and places that set her at ease, peace.  According to her horoscope, my aunt’s chart displayed all four fire signs, which best encapsulates who she was, her personality, her way of life.  With so much energy, she took to barreling though life, though I think she may have burned herself out. 

“Your aunt sure loved bright colors.  All yellows, and oranges.  When I’d ask her what she wanted to wear today, it was always one of those.  Especially that orange,” Tammy said.

Martinis and liquor were some of her other favorite things, though I can’t say my Aunt was an alcoholic.  She was just queen of the martini women, as her friends gave her the official title, “The Goddess of Fun.”  This same message scrolled across her screen saver, red letters on a yellow background.  When it came to a night on the town, my Aunt could outlast everyone.  All spoke of her ‘dreaded second wind.’  My understanding of this term meant that when everyone else was too drunk, too tired, or too worn from the stresses of partying, while my aunt was ready for a second round.  Indeed, she would often drop off one group of women, taking them home, only to meet up with a second group, starting her night over again.

My mom explained it was my aunt’s job as social chair, back in undergrad, to take the new pledges out in Lubbock, show them a good time. She told me stories of the girls from her pledge class when they were freshmen, how my aunt would take them out; she said, she always knew when a group had been out with Sandy  because you’d catch them slowly crawling, hands and knees, up the long flights of stairs, back to their dorm rooms in Stangle.   Many of the women that came by to visit Sandy had been these girls.

“It’s like a sorority reunion in here,” my mom said.

All these women she hadn’t seen since graduation, some who drove across Texas, other flew in from other states, all came to pay their respects to Sandy. 

“I suppose I’ll be home for a couple weeks after this,” Tammy said.  “My girls need me.  I think it’s hard on them, though, my being gone like this.  I tell them it’s my job to help people get to heaven.  I like to think of my job like that, anyway.  It makes it less sad, after you spend so much time getting to know them.”