Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya SisterhoodRebecca Wells
Divine Secrets of the
This book is dedicated to
my husband, helpmate, and best friend.
MARY HELEN CLARKE,
midwife of this book and steadfast buddy.
And to the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,
in all its incarnations.
We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later. . . . Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.
Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hourunceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.
Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
—H. L. MENCKEN
Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of…
1 Tap dancing child abuser. That’s what the Sunday New York Times…
2 Vivi Walker walked down the tree-lined drive at Pecan Grove.
3 Back at Pecan Grove that night, Vivi sat in her…
4 Sidda stood on the upper deck of the Bainbridge Island…
5 Taking out the journal she’d packed, and intending to make…
6 After writing in her journal, Sidda felt sleepy. She let…
7 Vivi Abbott Walker knew she wasn’t supposed to be drinking,…
8 In spite of the light drizzle that evening, Sidda was…
9 It was drizzling the next day when Sidda and Hueylene…
10 From May’s cabin Sidda struck out in the rain along…
11 Sidda carefully folded the letters and slipped them back into…
12 The next day around noon, Sidda woke to the sound…
13 May was correct: the person who snapped the photo of…
14 The wrinkled page looked like it had been torn out…
15 It was Friday afternoon and Sidda was speed-walking on the…
16 The two clippings from The Thornton Town Monitor were stapled…
17 If Sidda Walker had been able to witness Vivi and…
18 Sidda sat in the phone booth and practiced breathing.
19 Caro lay back in her recliner and let her mind…
20 For a week after Vivi’s birthday ball, Buggy Abbott woke…
21 When Sidda found two packets of letters in the scrapbook…
22 The girl in the photo on the front page of…
23 Vivi put on her sunglasses before stepping out of the…
24 The address on the envelope was barely legible, but Sidda…
25 The next day Vivi went wild cleaning out her closets.
26 To say that Sidda was startled by the sight of…
27 Caro closed her eyes for a moment, gathering strength. Then…
28 It was early afternoon when Sidda began to stir form…
29 Lawanda, the Magnificent, a huge female elephant, came to Thornton…
30 Connor and Sidda sat out on the deck in their…
31 September 8, 1993
32 It was after one in the morning when Sidda and…
33 In her father’s field of sunflowers, early on the evening…
Note to the Reader
About the Author
Other Books by Rebecca Wells
About the Publisher
Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens. It is Labor Day, 1959, at Pecan Grove Plantation, on the day of her daddy’s annual dove hunt. While the men sweat and shoot, Sidda’s gorgeous mother, Vivi, and her gang of girlfriends, the Ya-Yas, play bourrée, a cut-throat Louisiana poker, inside the air-conditioned house. On the kitchen blackboard is scrawled: smoke, drink, never think—borrowed from Billie Holiday. When the ladies take a break, they feed the Petites Ya-Yas (as Ya-Ya offspring are called) sickly sweet maraschino cherries from the fridge in the wet bar.
That night, after dove gumbo (tiny bird bones floating in Haviland china bowls), Sidda goes to bed. Hours later, she wakes with a gasp from a mean dream. She tiptoes to the side of her mother’s bed, but she cannot awaken Vivi from her bourbon-soaked sleep.
She walks barefoot into the humid night, moonlight on her freckled shoulders. Near a huge, live oak tree on the edge of her father’s cotton fields, Sidda looks up into the sky. In the crook of the crescent moon sits the Holy Lady, with strong muscles and a merciful heart. She kicks her splendid legs like the moon is her swing and the sky, her front porch. She waves down at Sidda like she has just spotted an old buddy.
Sidda stands in the moonlight and lets the Blessed Mother love every hair on her six-year-old head. Tenderness flows down from the moon and up from the earth. For one fleeting, luminous moment, Sidda Walker knows there has never been a time when she has not been loved.
Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what the Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi. The pages of the week-old Leisure Arts section lay scattered on the floor next to Sidda as she curled up in the bed, covers pulled tightly around her, portable phone on the pillow next to her head.
There had been no sign the theater critic would go for blood. Roberta Lydell had been so chummy, so sisterly-seeming during the interview that Sidda had felt she’d made a new girlfriend. After all, in her earlier review, Roberta had already proclaimed the production of Women on the Cusp, which Sidda had directed at Lincoln Center, to be “a miraculous event in American theater.” With subtle finesse, the journalist had lulled Sidda into a cozy false sense of intimacy as she pumped her for personal information.
As Sidda lay in the bed, her cocker spaniel, Hueylene, crawled into the crook formed by her knees. For the past week, the cocker had been the only company Sidda had wanted. Not Connor McGill, her fiancé. Not friends, not colleagues. Just the dog she’d named in honor of Huey Long.
She stared at the phone. Her relationship with her mother had never been smooth, but this latest episode was disastrous. For the umpteenth time that week, Sidda punched in the number of her parents’ home at Pecan Grove. For the first time, she actually let it ring through.
At the sound of Vivi’s hello, Sidda’s stomach began to cramp.
“Mama? It’s me.”
Without hesitation, Vivi hung up.
Sidda punched automatic redial. Vivi picked up again, but did not speak.
“Mama, I know you’re there. Please don’t hang up. I’m so sorry this all happened. I’m really, really sorry. I—”
“There is nothing you can say or do to make me forgive you,” Vivi said. “You are dead to me. You have killed me. Now I am killing you.”
Sidda sat up in bed and tried to catch her breath.
“Mother, I did not mean for any of this to take place. The woman who interviewed me—”
“I have cut you out of my will. Do not be surprised if I sue you for libel. There are no photographs left of you on any of my walls. Do not—”
Sidda could see her mother’s face, red with anger. She could see how her vein
s showed lavender underneath her light skin.
“Mama, please. I cannot control The New York Times. Did you read the whole thing? I said, ‘My mother, Vivi Abbott Walker, is one of the most charming people in the world.’ ”
“ ‘Charming wounded.’ You said: ‘My mother is one of the most charming wounded people in the world. And she is also the most dangerous.’ I have it here in black-and-white, Siddalee.”
“Did you read the part where I credited you for my creativity? Where I said, ‘My creativity comes in a direct flow from my mother, like the Tabasco she used to spice up our baby bottles.’ Mama, they ate it up when I talked about how you’d put on your tap shoes and dance for us while you fed us in our high chairs. They loved it.”
“You lying little bitch. They loved it when you said: ‘My mother comes from the old Southern school of child rearing where a belt across a child’s bare skin was how you got your point across.’ ”
Sidda sucked in her breath.
“They loved it,” Vivi continued, “when they read: ‘Siddalee Walker, articulate, brilliant director of the hit show Women on the Cusp, is no stranger to family cruelty. As the battered child of a tap-dancing child abuser of a mother, she brings to her directing the rare and touching equipoise between personal involvement and professional detachment that is the mark of theatrical genius.’
“ ‘Battered child’! This is shit! This is pure character-defaming shit from the most hideous child imaginable!”
Sidda could not breathe. She raised her thumb to her mouth and bit the skin around the nail, something she had not done since she was ten years old. She wondered where she’d put the Xanax.
“Mama, I never meant to hurt you. Many of those words I never even uttered to that damn journalist. I swear, I—”
“You Goddamn self-centered liar! It’s no Goddamn wonder every relationship you have falls apart. You know nothing about love. You have a cruel soul. God help Connor McGill. He would have to be a fool to marry you.”
Sidda got out of bed, her whole body shaking. She walked to the window of her twenty-second-floor apartment in Manhattan Plaza. From where she stood, she could see the Hudson River. It made her think of the Garnet River in Central Louisiana, and how red its water flowed.
Mama, you bitch, she thought. You devouring, melodramatic bitch. When she spoke, her voice was steely, controlled.
“What I said was not exactly a lie, Mother. Or have you forgotten the feel of the belt in your hand?”
Sidda could hear Vivi’s sharp intake of breath. When Vivi spoke, her voice had dropped into a lower register.
“My love was a privilege that you abused. I have withdrawn that privilege. You are out of my heart. You are banished to the outer reaches. I wish you nothing but unending guilt.”
Sidda heard the dial tone. She knew her mother had broken the connection. But she could not lower the phone from her ear. She stood frozen in place, the sounds of midtown Manhattan down below, the cold March light of the city fading around her.
After years of directing plays in regional theaters from Alaska to Florida, after numerous Off-Off-Broadway productions, Sidda had been ready for the success of Women on the Cusp. When the play finally opened at Lincoln Center that February, it was to unanimous golden reviews. At the age of forty, Sidda was eager to bask in the light of recognition. She had worked on the play with the playwright, May Sorenson, since the play’s first reading at the Seattle Rep, May’s home turf. She’d directed not only the Seattle premiere, but productions in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Connor had designed the sets, and one of her best buddies, Wade Coenen, had done the costumes. The four of them had been a team for years, and Sidda had been thrilled to sit back with her pals and soak up some glory.
Roberta Lydell’s initial review of the play had fawned over Sidda’s work:
Siddalee Walker has directed May Sorenson’s tour de force about mothers and daughters with gutsiness and compassion. In Walker’s hands, what could have turned maudlin and overly comic is instead stunning, heartbreaking, and deeply funny. Walker has heard the purest tones of Sorenson’s rollicking, complex, sad, witty play, and has shaped these tones into a production that is more a force of nature than a stage production. The family—its secrets, its murders, and its miraculous buoyancy—is alive and well at Lincoln Center. The American theater has both May Sorenson and Siddalee Walker to thank for it.
How could Sidda have known, a month later, that Roberta Lydell would snake her way into her psyche, extracting information that Sidda normally shared with only her therapist and best friends?
After the offending profile, Vivi and Shep, Sidda’s father, and the rest of her family canceled their block of tickets to the play. Sidda set aside the elaborate plans she’d made for their visit. She often dreamed of Vivi crying. Dreams from which she herself woke crying. Sidda did not hear from her brother Little Shep, or her sister, Lulu. She heard nothing from her father.
The only relative she heard from was her baby brother, Baylor. He said, “It’s nuclear, Sidd-o. Vivi Dahlin always wanted to be in The New York Times, but this ain’t what she had in mind. You could give her your blood and she wouldn’t forgive you. Besides, you’re the one who’s the star, not her. And it’s killing her.”
“And Daddy?” Sidda had asked. “Why hasn’t he called?”
“Are you kidding?” Baylor said. “Mama’s got him under her thumb. I asked him why he didn’t at least drop you a note. You know what he said? He said: ‘I’m the one who has to live with Vivi Walker.’ ”
Sidda did not want to hang up the phone after her baby brother said this. She wanted someone to shake her out of this feeling of being orphaned. She wrote Vivi:
April 18, 1993
Please forgive me. I never meant to cause you pain. But it’s my life, Mama. I need to be able to talk about it.
I miss you. I miss your voice, your crazy sense of humor. I miss your love. It breaks my heart to know that you have divorced me. Please try to understand that I cannot control what other people write. Please know that I love you. I’m not asking you to stop being angry. I’m just asking you not to cut me out of your heart.
The personal publicity from the profile on Sidda boosted ticket sales. Women on the Cusp became an even bigger hit. Sidda was featured in Time magazine in a piece on women in theater. She was hired by American Playhouse to direct the television adaptation, and CBS was on the phone to her agent about series work. Theaters across the country who’d turned her down for years were now begging her to direct shows for them.
In the midst of all this, May had acquired the theatrical rights to Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women and was adapting it into a musical. The Seattle Rep had been awarded a sizable grant to hire May, Sidda, Connor, and Wade to do a workshop production.
As the date for their temporary move to Seattle approached, Sidda’s neck was in constant spasm. She felt like a walking nerve end. She did not know which hurt worse: the spasms in her neck or the sadness that was released when Connor massaged her. Sidda had the life she’d always dreamed of: she was a hot director, engaged to marry a man she adored. But all she wanted to do was lie in bed, eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and hide from the alligators.
Just before leaving for Seattle, she tried a different approach with Vivi. She wrote:
June 30, 1993
I know you’re still furious with me. But I need your help. I will be directing a musical version of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women in Seattle and I have no idea where to begin. You know everything about female friendship. You’ve been bosom buddies with Caro, Necie, and Teensy for over fifty years. You are the expert. And your innate sense of drama is unimpeachable. It would be enormously helpful if you could send me ideas, memories—anything about your life with the Ya-Yas. If you don’t want to do it for me, do it for the American theater. Please.
Sidda and Connor le
ft for Seattle in mid-July. As she stepped onto the plane, Sidda told herself: I have a great life. I’m marrying the man I love on December 18. My career is taking off. I am successful. I have friends who celebrate my success. Everything is fine, really it is.
In the middle of the night of August 8, 1993, while the moon outside her window shone down onto the glassy surface of Lake Washington, Siddalee Walker gasped and woke in a sweat. Eyes wet, mouth dry as sand, skin itching, she knew for certain that her Connor, her beloved, had died in his sleep as he lay in the bed beside her.
I know it, she thought. He has left me. He is gone. Forever.
Every atom of Sidda’s rigid body strained to discern if Connor was still breathing. Her tears came in hot, silent stabs, and the crazy drumming of her own heart drowned out all other sounds.
She pressed her face against her lover’s. When the tears from Sidda’s eyes dropped onto Connor’s chin, he woke up. The first thing he did was kiss her.
“Love you, Sidd-o,” he murmured, still half-asleep. “Love you, Sweet Pea.”
Such a sudden sign of life startled her, and Sidda jumped.
“Sidd-o,” Connor whispered, “what’s wrong?”
He sat up, pulled her toward his chest, and wrapped his arms around her.
“It’s all right, Sidda. Everything’s fine.”
She let him hold her, but she did not believe that everything was fine. After a while, she lay back down beside him and pretended to sleep. She lay that way for three hours, praying. Holy Mary, she whispered silently, Soother of Troubled Hearts, pray for me. Help me.
When the sun rose over the Cascade Mountains and angry crows noisily fought in the Douglas firs, Sidda stepped out onto the deck with Hueylene. It was a cold gray August morning in Seattle.
When she and the cocker stepped back inside, Sidda knelt down and rubbed the dog on her belly. Maybe, she thought, I’m a woman destined to love only dogs.
She walked into the bedroom and kissed Connor on the forehead.
He smiled when he opened his eyes. She looked at his blue eyes, and thought how they were always darker when he first woke up.