It’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead. But Christmas is coming and we’ve been dragging out all the old photo albums, and there she is. Iva. Maw. My ex-grandmother-in-law and the meanest woman I ever met.
I honestly can’t remember a moment of kindness from that woman that wasn’t followed up by some horrific stab in the back. Or the eye. That was her M.O. – make you feel comfortable for an hour or so, then viciously attack the very thing you care about most. Iva talked about you behind your back and to your face, both with a cruelty that could take your breath away. And no one was spared. For Iva, truth was relative. If she thought about some imagined wrong done to her enough, then it really happened. The telling and retelling of the lie made it true enough to her to invoke a confrontation. Iva was a tornado dropping out of the sky, decimating everything in its path, then just as mysteriously lifting back into a harmless cloud.
From a distance, Iva was fascinating. I only knew her in bits and pieces, but what I know is that her mother was a cold, silent, stubborn Native American of various tribes, depending on who told the stories. Iva picked cotton and lived scarce, even when she married Ben Prouse (or Prowse – spelling was optional in that part of Faulkner County). Ben was a red-headed Irishman who must have been in the Navy at some point, but who ended up in Naylor, Arkansas with Iva. They had three children, the youngest dying as a child from a burst appendix. Ben died from a heart attack many years ago and the picture of him prone in the coffin at his funeral is still in a photo album somewhere. Iva took the picture. I’m still haunted by the image of a woman leaning over her husband’s casket with a Polaroid flashing. It’s unsettling.
My timeline’s a little fuzzy, but not long after Ben died, Iva retired. She’d worked at the Children’s Colony (now the Conway Human Development Center) for a number of years. I’m not sure I understand how she worked with mentally retarded children, because it didn’t suit her personality at all. At any rate, there was an accident at work involving a kiddie train ride that circled the Children’s Colony estate and Iva had been on the train with her charges. I’m not sure if or how badly she was injured, but the state paid her a nice settlement and she went home for the duration.
There, she made life a particular hell for her remaining son and daughter, as well as their spouses, children and ex-wives. Oh, the stories I could tell. I’ll leave everyone else out of this, though, because in the end, Iva is enough.
She dated a lot for a church-woman, danced every Saturday night in El Paso, and had men sleep over, much to the disgust of her relatives. She even married a couple of them. One in particular was a strange man with a metal plate in his head who sold some of her belongings at the Naylor Auction. He eventually shot himself in the head right there in her house. She was in her seventies, then.
Christmas in Naylor followed a predictable pattern. The celebration was always on Christmas Eve at my in-law’s home, and the house was festive, food and children everywhere. Just as predictable was Iva’s yearly Christmas tirade. She’d pick a target each year and hammer-down. After years of this, I quit trying to understand why she wanted to ruin everyone’s good time and simply counted the minutes until it happened.
Some Christmases ago, it was my daughter. Iva’s cruelty dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on Emily in the middle of her yearly Naylor Christmas Eve. She was seventeen. I understand the ensuing scrap between her father and “Maw” over the attack ended with Rick wishing “the old bitch would just die” and Iva’s furious stomp off across the road to her house to do just that.
When her son looked for her on Christmas morning, he found her on the toilet, dead from a heart attack.
If there’s a lesson here, I’d rather not attempt it. Out in the County, things are what they are. The family, extended and close, breathed a collective sigh of relief and buried her. I’m sure that like all good people, they try to remember the better parts of Iva.
I keep writing bits and pieces of her into my stories. She’s not the kind of character to write “as is,” though, because she was her own literary cliché. No one would believe her unless I made her a little kinder, so I’m giving her a sort of eulogistic synopsis here. In my stories, she’ll just have to be a little less Iva.