COLLEGE PARK, Md. – It was left to Judith, the eldest Paterson child, to sort through musty trunks of family belongings and sell the Alabama home of her girlhood.
She’d buried in a year-and-a-half’s time her father, stepmother and only brother, James, who died, she suspects, of a cigarette and alcoholism-driven aneurism.
All three of Judith Hillman Paterson’s siblings inherited her parents’ deadly fondness for drink, she said, a fondness that helped kill her 31-year-old mother in the summer of 1946 and robbed then-9-year-old Judith of any remaining innocence.
“Sweet Mystery,” the latest work of the Washington-based writer and University of Maryland journalism teacher, is a memoir of her first nine years in a family whose members seemed genetically doomed to lives of sadness.
It wasn’t intended to be a memoir, said Paterson, 59, whose blue eyes and soft features bear no trace of past emotional turbulence. The old photos, newspaper clippings and assorted memorabilia in that empty house near Montgomery drew her into the lives of Hillmans and Patersons from generations past.
The Hillmans were cash-poor, post-Confederate aristocrats with a history of melancholy and alcoholism, she writes. The Patersons were shirt-sleeve, Scots abolitionists come South to teach freed men.
The families were polar opposites in thought but equals in intensity. Paterson, who earned a Ph.D. in English from Auburn University, decided to resurrect both families by writing a genealogical history.
But in those boxes she sifted through in 1987 were memories of her mother, she said. To bring to life the unmet faces on the yellowing photos she would have to first bring into focus memories once thought best forgotten.
Paterson’s mother, Emily Hillman Paterson, died from the toll of addiction to alcohol and sleeping pills, and because her madness sapped away her will to live. Some thought it was suicide.
“I don’t think it was a deliberate overdose,” said Paterson, a witness to her mother’s final collapse. “It was sort of drug abuse as usual.”
After the death of her mother, her father’s problem drinking worsened. “His problems just got the best of him,” she said.
At night Paterson would hear the swoosh of opening cabinets, the clinking of ice dropped into glasses, and would know the whiskey was splashed in next. Yet she never discussed it, not even with her sister, with whom she shared a room.
“It’s odd, the fact that we slept in the same room for years and years and I never said to her, `Isn’t this just driving you crazy?'” Paterson said.
They didn’t discuss their mother after her death either, and certainly didn’t address the pain her loss caused, she said.
While her own two children grew up, Paterson, who divorced in 1978, could hear her mother’s voice when she spoke to them. She began to realize how much her mother meant to her. When her mother wasn’t drinking, she was security, she was home.
“I realized what a blow the death of my mother was,” Paterson said.
“Sweet Mystery,” named after a song her Great-aunt Bessie Ware Walker sang to her, brings to life her childhood – the perplexity in the mind of an alcoholic’s child, the safety net of extended family members, childhood pranks and the loss of innocence.
“I started writing it before I knew how to write it,” said Paterson, whose previous works include a biography of feminist Marguerite Rawalt. “I was just going to write an essay about my mother for the end of the book. Instead, that became the book.”
There is more to her memoir than the pain of parental drinking, though. With the backdrop of World War II, the searing heat of the cotton belt and pools of spilled well water turned red from iron pipes, Paterson’s Alabama is told through the Crayola kaleidoscope of a child’s eyes.
“I don’t like the phrase `broken childhood,’ ” Paterson said. “Childhood seems to be by definition broken. Something always goes wrong eventually – the Garden of Eden doesn’t last that long.”
Her work has been favorably compared to Harper Lee’s Southern classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but Paterson said she was inspired more by James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.”
“I wanted to keep the childhood view, which is a very hard thing to do,” she said. “That’s why the book took forever.”
It took almost 10 years to write, she said. It was finished in the summer of 1994 and released early this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She said the public reception has been positive.
“The most gratifying response I get is that people can talk about their childhood even though it was very difficult,” she said.
Soon after she finished the book, however, she wondered if writing it had been a mistake.
“When I had time to think about what I had done, that frightened me,” Paterson said. “We all create this formal, public image of ourselves, and I just had to kiss it goodbye.”
But all told, the experience has felt liberating, she said.
Despite the book’s deeply personal and often disturbing details, Paterson said she has garnered only support for the project from her family. She sent chapters as she finished them to family members, who urged her to send more, she said.
Paterson said she had hoped to show the book to her sister, Jane Paterson Cope, but she died in the summer of 1995, before the book was published.
Her youngest sister, Joan Paterson, said she read it. But because Joan suffers from alcoholism-induced brain damage, Paterson said she doubts Joan comprehended it.
Paterson herself was lucky enough to have not become an alcoholic, she said, but she did run from the memories through workaholism.
Her now-grown children and their cousins have been spared from alcoholism, too, she said.
Writing is how she “collects her wits,” Paterson said, and her next work may address what it is like to be an adult after a childhood of tumult.
“I don’t see it as a horrible childhood but a very intense childhood, a very frightening childhood,” Paterson said. “The last thing a child needs to be is to feel frightened.” -30-