My mother is all radiant, feverish energy. Of course Freud would stop me there, hand me one of his books, and save me 40 years of analysis. For those of you who would like to do the same, I would gladly appreciate the book donations, valuable as they will be for future literature classes and resale to Booktrader. Actually I am quite comfortable with my Freud, though not fireside-chat comfortable per se, and I have long realized that I go the way of Elektra (hopefully sans the House of Atreus hubris).
But this article is not about my father. It’s really about my radiant, feverish mother, who this past Sunday reached the age of fifty. A bit frightening, I am sure, for the younger generation, but enough denial and drive can help anyone feel young for quite some time. For my mother, saving her youth required several new wardrobes and a lifetime commitment to browning her hair. This fascination took on fanatical form during her brief stint as a suburban housewife, causing her to take to the lawns of our house with a green spray-paint can, concealing any trace of mortality in her beloved grass. Of course, in the classically ironic scheme of things, our spray-painted lawn gained fame amongst the neighbors for its “natural beauty and color.”
Clearly, these aren’t the tools of the trade for your average preppie lass but the clever inventions of a counter-carpet bagger, a woman who pulled herself up to Yankeedom from the mire that is the Deep South.
The Deep South. The DEEP South. Is there a more mysterious term? Is there a more mysterious place? It is a realm we Northeasterners have only seen manifest in the self-parody of daytime talk shows, and into which I have gained entry through the difficult and transcendent story of my mother.
Anniston, Alabama could in no way be more iconic of the history of America. The town is divided in half by train tracks, one side extending up the side of a hill, a geographical and monetary ascent to the heights of Anniston wealth and society. The other side devolves into trailer parks and projects, fabulous cinderblock masterworks and conceptual landscapes of flaming trash cans. My mother, of course, was a “wrong side of the tracks” girl and spent her evenings at home with her seven siblings watching cockroaches race up the wall. The house was barely adorned, with the exception of “Jesus on Velvet,” and some nails, which Grandma used to hold down the window curtains.
At an early age my mother came into the one significant artifact of her childhood: the rattler of a snake that her mother had killed while hoeing in the field. Perhaps we could call this the birth of music within my mother’s life; perhaps the birth of her eccentric accessories apparel. In any case, she had much time to rattle and shoot BB guns as her mother and older sister worked through six husbands each. Her sister recently ran away with a cross-dressing computer salesman with breast implants. Says my mom: “Faulkner has nothing on my family.”
As my mother grew up, her Ugly Duckling looks transformed, under the double-edged might of puberty, into quite formidable aesthetic material. That’s right, my mother became a super-babe. All throughout high school she amassed the credits to prove it: Homecoming Queen, Ms. Anniston, Ms. Cotton Crop Beauty Queen and Ms. Tobacco Chew Beauty Queen. Each Saturday before the drag car races began my mother was paraded around the racetrack, upon which many jealous “right side of the tracks” families pelted her with eggs. Perhaps she provoked this cruel treatment at times; after winning three of the four prizes in the Cotton Crop Pageant, she was so overcome that she “accidentally” flipped off all of the losing contestants. The curtain closed, and a Southern horde descended upon her, tearing off the heads of her roses and giving her two black eyes to accompany her golden crown. Needless to say, the one Cotton Crop competition my mother lost was Ms. Congeniality.
Through the fortunate mentorship of an aging ex-beauty queen in the town, my mother was able to turn her high school streak into some serious pre-professional modeling, ultimately securing a contract in New York and the opportunity to be the first member of her family to leave the state. What followed — as many have found in their twenties — was a blur, but an exceptional blur: travels to exotic locales, nights at Studio 54 (which, obviously, are only remembered in a blur) and a sensuous game of backgammon with Cat Stevens which, luckily for my father, myself, and my two brothers, ended then and there.
This past weekend saw the coming together of relatives and friends in celebration of my mother’s life, saw suburban housewives cutting a rug in Manhattan, saw ex-models reminiscing on 54 (the drugs! the drugs!), saw my younger brothers finding their childhood female friends wavering alongside them near adolescence and macking on the opportunity with all their might. More than anything, it saw my mother dancing in her Dolce on the floor, on chairs, with the wait staff, with the chef, in the chef’s apron and hat. After fifty years of struggle and success, my mother soared into the next fifty as she danced upon the floor as sheer potentiality.
T. S. Coburn might well understand what “sheer potentiality” is… he’s that kind.