WHEN DESCRIBING MY MOTHER it is impossible to overstate her grandeur, her haughtiness, her generosity, her old Hollywood star power, her immaturity, her joy, her entitlement, her suffering.
If you want a sense of what she's like, for grandeur and loneliness and elocution, go see Sunset Boulevard. (Like Gloria Swanson, she is a great me-lodramatic ee-nunn-see-ate-oar.) Also see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for Marilyn Monroe (who looks very much like Mom) doing her bombshell country girl thing. Then there 's Mommie Dearest, which captures many elements of her post divorce persona.
I had a truly visceral reaction to this film when I was a teenager. Not the meanness, because Mom has never been mean, but the smothering physicality and desperation and melodramatic manic depressiveness: The scene of the self pityingly bedridden Crawford receiving her Oscar for Mildred Pierce took me back to how Mom would lie in bed for days with the drapes drawn, experiencing dismal languors and dispatching me at regular intervals to the store, where I would purchase gallon containers of Dreyer's ice cream (vanilla) and cans of Hershey's chocolate sauce (this was just before the plastic squeeze bottle came out), which she would consume in their entirety, in bed, in her nightgown, in the dark, me occasionally peeking in to make sure she was still alive. In fact, I saw Mommie Dearest with Mom, and I was amazed she was able to sit through it without turning to me, ashamed, and saying, "I'm so sorry." After my two best friends saw it they said, "Jesus, dude, that is your mom."
MOM WAS BORN in 1928, and by the time she was sixteen possessed great beauty and charisma. But it was not a soft beauty; it was a chiseled, sculptural, architectural sort of beauty (which has barely faded after seventy-seven years), a rock solid beauty that comes of impeccable bone structure supported by a curvy, zaftig, tense, erectly carried frame and long-fingered hands that are handsome and uncomfortable; her fingers abrupt and strong and nervous and ringless.
Mom's charisma is anchored in her beauty, but it goes deep.
Her parents, Myrtle Caldonia Taylor and Charles Clay Montandon, were both evangelical Nazarene ministersshe gentle in the pulpit and hard out of it, he the oppositeunified in their passion to spread God around the West by constantly uprooting the family, moving from town to town, building churches, and assembling new congregations.
In 1896 my grandfather, twenty-one, had climbed a mountain in Tennessee, looked out west, and received a vision from the Lord commanding him to go and spread the word. He started out in the streets of Chattanooga, and made his way to Texas. Doing roustabout work in ranching country he met, wooed, and married my sixteen-year-old grandmother, purchased a carnival sideshow tent, and took her on the road.
Mom grew up with six siblings. There would've been seven siblings, but one, Betty Ruth, died in infancy, just before Mom was born, and my grandfather, who had a barber's license, and was also a mason and a carpenter, stopped them in Merkel, Texas, the town they were passing through, buried the child, and then carved the headstone himself. They stayed in Merkel until MomPatsy Lou Montandonwas born. She was the brazen, silly, gangly, affectionate child who loved being the center of attention, sang loud and tuneless in church, broke her nose on the dash of the car, and had no idea she was pretty, because they never let her know.
The ministering life was equal parts adversity and grace, deprivation and unexpected generosity. Mom and her siblings grew up seeing the best and worst of people, during the Dee-pression (as my aunt Faye calls it). Another of my aunts, my aunt Glendora, persuaded my grandmother to write a memoir of these years, which she did, shortly before she died (from gangrene) in 1979the only one of my grandparents I got to know.
From Oh The Glory Of It All by Sean Wilsey. Copyright 2005 Sean Wilsey. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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