Editor’s Note: John Philip Drury’s personal essay is from his full-length memoir to be released in August 2024. Drury was born in Cambridge, Maryland, and now writes from Ohio, where he is professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati.
Author’s Note: “This is the last chapter in Bobby and Carolyn: A Memoir of My Two Mothers, and it recounts a night my mother celebrated secretly for the rest of her life. She and Carolyn raised me together after my father left, calling themselves cousins in order to rent places together. When Carolyn died, my mother’s full name (not Bobby, her nickname) was engraved on the back of the tombstone they shared in Dorchester Memorial Park—like the marker shared by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.”
Full Moon on the Water
ON JULY 31, 1958, the moon had just passed the point of being completely full, but it would have still looked full to my mother and Carolyn as they drove the Chevrolet Bel-Air from the gravel parking lot of Whispering Pines, strewn with brown needles, where they had just bought a fifth of bourbon, and eased down the single-lane Buck Bryan Road, with loblolly pines on one side and cornfields on the other. The road was named for the owner of the liquor store and led to his house on the shore of Bolingbroke Creek, which everybody called Bowling Brook.
Their windows would have been wide open, since cars didn’t have air-conditioning in those days, and it was a warm, humid summer night. But a breeze was blowing off the water. The question was, did they pull into the woods in one of the clearings, or did they continue toward the water? How do I know, in any case, what they were doing on that particular night?
My mother liked to keep records. I learned from her how to annotate receipts when I paid bills, but only when she was too ill to do her own and I had to take over. Once you start the habit, if you’re the slightest bit obsessive-compulsive, you have to continue, if only for the “tiny insane voluptuousness” that Theodor Storm describes in his poem on working at a desk, the pleasure of “getting this done, finally finishing that.”
She liked to keep a datebook for each year, so I have a record of when she did this and did that. On July 31, she almost always remembered to write “CBD and CL” and “Anniversary” and however many years had passed since 1958. What were they celebrating? Why did my mother continue to commemorate the date?
I didn’t know the answer until my mother died, when I went through a large plastic storage box she kept under her bed. I knew she had destroyed a stack of letters Carolyn had received, presumably from lovelorn suitors whom she had spurned. She claimed she had burned them, but that sounds like a lot of work and a sooty mess if you lacked a fireplace. She made a point of telling me that she disposed of the letters so I wouldn’t get them and use them as “material.”
But she did not get rid of Carolyn’s green diary for 1958, the crucial year that was both annus mirabilis and annus horribilis for the two women and me. My mother kept it in a tin box, among her dearest treasures. Although the book said “Diary,” it was really a datebook like those my mother kept, except more elegantly bound. Carolyn had marked down reminders about which students had voice lessons when, which friends she was seeing for dinner, whose birthdays were coming up, which doctors’ appointments she had to keep. Every month, she wrote “CURSE” in red letters, presumably to indicate her menstrual periods. On December 18, she wrote “We Started South” when the three of us left Maryland and headed toward Texas, not knowing then that we wouldn’t get past Alabama.
Here’s what she wrote in her diary on July 31, with the date underlined:
felice per sempre
“Husband and wife, happy forever.” And then I knew how to put things together. My mother and Carolyn had exchanged vows, under a full moon, either inside or outside the car, near the water and the pines, by a side road where no cars disturbed them. My mother had told me she always liked necking better than sex and had declared that no one gave better back rubs than Carolyn, so exquisite that she threatened to cut off her fingers and keep them after she died, no matter how grotesque that sounded. Part of it may have been hero-worship, a fan’s adoration, a schoolgirl crush, but she was smitten—both of them were.
Thinking about this privileged moment, this peak of intimacy, this private, secret, do-it-yourself wedding in the woods by the water, I imagined a motion-picture camera pulling back discreetly from the Chevy and slowly panning down the road between pines and cornfields, surging toward the creek and the Choptank River in the distance, settling on the rippling full moon on the water, accompanied by the sound of clanking bell- buoys, the slosh of waves, the low buzz of a johnboat trolling in the dark, a gull or a mallard ruffling its feathers and taking flight. And then, from the car, the sound of “Whither Thou Goest,” a hit song by Les Paul and Mary Ford, would emerge from the radio, with Carolyn singing along, the lyrics quoting from the Bible: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” My mother, the former Sunday School teacher, surely knew the passage from the Book of Ruth:
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following
1111111111after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and
1111111111where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall
1111111111be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried:
1111111111the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but
1111111111death part thee and me.
Before I actually read that lovely book from the Old Testament, I came upon “Ruth and Naomi,” a poem by Edward Field in Stand Up, Friend, with Me, the first poetry collection I was ever given, in which he describes how “Ruth and Naomi, lip to vaginal lip, / Proclaimed their love throughout the land.” Of course, I didn’t see any personal connection until much later, after I had started writing my own poems, had read more poetry, and had learned more about my mother and Carolyn, especially how to empathize with the predicament they faced every day: hiding and denying their intimate relationship, a love that deserved celebration, not concealment.
Among my mother’s loose papers, the phrase “Whither Thou Goest” appears repeatedly, without explanation. But the words were a pledge, a promise that wherever one of them went, the other would follow, and despite the social pressure against their union and the combustible nature of their personalities, they would honor that contract which no one had witnessed, my mother not abandoning Carolyn in her final illness but tending to her needs, more devoted than any cousin could be, and ultimately following her to the grave plot they shared, with their names on opposite sides of the granite marker, taking her place next to Carolyn’s parents, forsaking her own family and declaring her love in the most permanent way she could. I’m pretty sure that Carolyn sang the words of the popular song and that my mother, her most devoted fan, responded both to the seductive music and the soothing religion it encapsulated. And the romantic, moonlit night by the woods and the water was an essential part of that makeshift, spontaneous, what-the-hell ceremony that bound them so tightly together. They were giving all for love.
Carolyn’s green diary also contained a note for my mother that she had composed in shaky script on a small sheet of paper. It served as a bookmarker for the page that celebrated their marriage to each other. It may have been the last thing she was able to write:
My darling I love you
ybeyond all measure
yThere is no separation
yAll I know is
yI love you more
ythan I ever could
ybelieve. It is a love
ythat knows no end
yLove me endlessly
yI will wait
During one of the last nights she spent in her own apartment before entering the Western Hills nursing home, my mother was surprised when I seized that binder of notes about her life and said I was taking it home for safe keeping. I was afraid she would destroy those personal reminders, which included several references to “Buck Bryan Road” and “Whither Thou Goest,” those fragments toward an autobiography she could never manage to begin, just as she had destroyed the trove of Carolyn’s correspondence. She objected a little but then relented. She knew I was planning to write about her. “I just worry,” she said, “that we started too late, and I won’t be able to tell you all my stories, all my secrets.” But the point wasn’t to be encyclopedic.
“That’s okay,” I told her. “We have enough.”
John Philip Drury, a native of Cambridge, Maryland, is now professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press, 2015) and The Teller’s Cage: Poems and Imaginary Movies (Able Muse Press, January 2024). “Full Moon on the Water” is the last chapter in “Bobby and Carolyn: A Memoir of My Two Mothers,” which will be published by Finishing Line Press in August 2024.
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