“How the hell did we end up here?”—Christopher Columbus
My mother, Rheua–Nell, was five feet and one half inch tall. She always included that one half inch. (Hey, if you got it, flaunt it.) Bright and talented in music and dance, she won a Charleston contest when she was sixteen. Had she been younger, I suspect, my grandfather, Pee–Paw, would’ve soundly whipped her with his razor strop. He raised his family in a strict Southern Baptist tradition; no dancing allowed. Shortly thereafter, still sixteen, she graduated valedictorian of her high school class and went off to Dallas to study cosmetology to become a beauty operator. Four years later, she was working in Mrs. Rose’s beauty parlor on Main Street in Healdton, Oklahoma, when she met my father, Bill, who had hurt his back in the construction trade and was managing a billiards parlor a few doors down.
Six weeks later, they married. Ten months after that—February 21, 1934—I was born. The doctor nicknamed me “Frosty” because I had a full head of white–blond hair, but when Mother saw me, she burst into tears. I’d been taken with forceps after she labored (at home, of course) for thirty–some hours, so my head was elongated and blue and apparently quite alarming to behold. I soon rounded out and pinked up to her satisfaction, however. Mother thought I was adorable and took photos like they were going out of style.
When she was pregnant, Mother had been approached by Aunt Wenonah Sue, my father’s sister, begging to let her name the baby. Mother acquiesced, but only if she could name Wenonah’s firstborn, to which Wenonah agreed. Frankly, I wouldn’t let anyone name my firstborn. But my mother was a sweet and compliant young lady of twenty, Wenonah’s junior by a couple of years, and somewhat under the thrall of this enthusiastic and insistent sister–in–law. My father’s name was William Edwin. So when, in the fullness of time, I was born, Wenonah brought forth her marvelous name: Eddi–Rue, a little composite of both my parents’ names.
Everyone just loved it. It was so cute! It had a hyphen.
“Eddi–Rue,” my aunt Nonie has been heard to say, “I think you have one of the prettiest names in the family.”
Then Wenonah Sue married a fine fellow named Earl and had a daughter whom Mother dubbed Earla Sue—no hyphen—who wisely dropped the “Earla” when she was fourteen. Because of the “Eddi”— which people always misspelled “Eddie” like a boy—I was sent a man’s handkerchief as a high school graduation gift from Daube’s Department Store, along with the other male graduates. I also received a draft notice, inviting me to come down for a physical exam. I’ve always thought maybe I should’ve gone for that physical. Some childhood friends still call me “Eddi.” People who knew me as a baby call me “Frosty.” My friend Lette called me “Baby Roo,” my friend Jim Whittle called me “Rutabaga,” Betty White calls me “Roozie,” and my friend Kathy Salomone calls me “Rue-Rue.” The staff at Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center call me “Mrs. Wilson.” And my husband calls me “Darling.” I like them all. Each name brings forth its own era and memories.
When I was in my late twenties, I bought eight used dining room chairs for a dollar each (yes, a dollar!) and set about removing the old varnish. As I applied the varnish remover, a vivid visual memory flashed into my mind: I was almost eight months old, sidestepping along the front of the sofa, holding on for balance, looking up over my left shoulder at my mother and Aunt Irene standing in the doorway making vocal sounds.
“Iddle bongingferd da wondy,” said Mother.
“Bid gerpa twack kelzenbluck,” replied Aunt Irene.
“Ferndock bandy,” Mother replied. “Critzputh.” And they laughed.
I realized they were exchanging thoughts with those sounds. Oh, I thought, I’m brand new here. Soon, they’ll teach me to do that, too. What an exciting thought!
Smells are strong memory–triggers. Mother and Irene must have been using varnish remover that day in 1934, and the odor of it in 1963 popped out this early memory, crystal clear. My next memory is of Christmas when I was ten months old: a circle of uncles and other adults winding up a little red rocket that chased me from one side of their circle to the other, everyone laughing. But I was truly terrified, running frantically from the noisy thing and wondering why they thought it was so funny.
Mother gave me my first perm when I was eleven months old, under one of those old stand–up octopus–armed permanent wave machines. Mother was movie–struck, you see. She kept the beauty shop stocked with current movie magazines, was nuts about Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple, and wanted me to have a full head of bouncy sausage curls, just like Little Miss Broadway. And I never existed without a perm until I was well into my forties.
“Why do you keep a perm in your hair?” my beautician asked me one day.
“Can you exist without one?” I responded, utterly amazed.
This revolutionary concept had never occurred to me. Wouldn’t my hair just flail about wildly? Like Albert Einstein’s? I gave it a try, and from that day to this, I’ve lived quite happily without a perm. And learned that I have a natural wave to boot.
Aunt Irene, my mother’s seventeen–year–old sister, moved in to take care of me while Mother worked in the beauty parlor, but I wanted to be downstairs in the shop. It was lonely upstairs, and boring, and Irene was hot–tempered and brusque, while Mother was jolly fun. It’s hard to remember her without a smile. I was allowed to play in the shop from time to time, as long as I sat under the counters and didn’t ask too many questions. It was fun under the counters. Legs coming and going, chatter, things happening. To help keep me quiet, I was allowed to nurse my bottle until I was over three. It was bolstered with Eagle brand, a thick, sweet canned milk, because I’d been born a bit scrawny and, on doctor’s orders, Mother was trying to fatten me up. She used to send me up the street to the five–and–ten store to buy my own rubber nipples. I remember standing at the cash register getting change.
Mother had also been taking me to the movies since I was a babe in arms, wearing PJs under my street clothes. One night as I sat in the row behind her, waiting for the picture to begin, I tapped on the back of her seat, saying, “Mama?”
She turned and said, “Eddi–Rue, you’re too old now to call me ‘Mama.’ From now on, call me ‘Mother.’ ”
Ooooh. I was so chagrined to be reprimanded in front of everyone, I wanted to crawl under my seat. I never called her Mama again. Mother and Bill expected me to behave like an adult, and I was dead set not to disappoint them. I never went through a rebellious period and was terribly stricken whenever I accidentally lost or broke something. They worked so hard for their money, and I knew this, though I don’t recall being at all aware of the Depression. Mother had plenty of customers, we went to the movies every time we turned around, I had a new doll every Christmas, a new birthday dress every year, plus a birthday party. However, I do remember pinto beans every night for supper; I never ate a supper without pinto beans until I went to college, where I was astonished to learn that you didn’t have to have them on the table. I’d assumed it was some sort of rule. On the rare nights Mother was too tired to cook a meal, we had corn bread crumbled in a glass of sweet milk, which I considered a big treat.
But it was probably because of the Depression that my father had to go off to the oil fields to get construction work. He was called “Bill” by everyone, including me. (Just in case an old girlfriend showed up, he joked.) He left before I woke in the morning, came home long after I was asleep, and didn’t toss me around like my uncles did. He wasn’t a hugger. His mother, Fanny, was the only daughter in a family of four boys, forbidden to have a doll (her father even burned a corncob dolly her mother made her, the old buzzard) or to show physical affection. She, in turn, didn’t hug her four children. Still, she made me an adorable new outfit for every birthday and taught me to sew on her big treadle sewing machine. She was a loving, kind person—just not one for hugging. So my father never learned how, I guess.
One day when I was five, he came home from work earlier than usual. I was standing on the front porch as dusk settled over our neighborhood, and as Bill walked toward me, my arms and body ached so deeply for him to stop and hug me hello that my skin hurt. But he only said a weary, “Hello, Frosty,” and I said, “Hi, Bill,” as he trudged past me, leaving me feeling empty and alone. (Later, when I was in the ninth grade, I watched my friend Carol Ann Bristow hugging everybody and decided to learn to do it. It took courage the first few times, but I made it a habit. And it felt good! I’m a staunch advocate of hugging to this day.)
Aunt Wenonah always told me my father was a brilliant man.
“But strange,” she always added. “Not like the rest of us kids.”
Yep. That he was. A dry and hilarious storyteller, Bill wrote a dark play during his senior year in high school, exposing some ugly truths about the people in Healdton. The principal made him burn it after one performance. Bill was funny, poetic, and moody, while Mother was funny, musical, and feisty. Bill, six feet tall, had thick, slightly wavy ash–blond hair and big blue eyes. Mother had green eyes and dark auburn hair and was quite petite (even with that all–important half inch). Both were good–looking and popular, with plenty of friends, but Bill wouldn’t sing if anyone was listening and couldn’t dance worth a hoot, unlike Mother the enthusiastic Charleston champion. She played piano in an overripe, barroom style without having had lesson one. All her family sang, and she started teaching me songs before I could speak.
“Who’s that comin’’down the street with that organ grinder’’beat? Da-dee-ah …” I sang for the ladies being primped and permed in the beauty parlor. “He’s the greatest rhythm king with that organ grinder swing! Da-dee-ah …”
Mother enrolled me in tap–dancing lessons at the Armory when I was four, but I hated it. The only child in a class of adults, I was lost in a forest of legs wearing clickety–clackety tap shoes and wanted nothing to do with it. A year earlier, my first appearance in front of an audience had been a fiasco. I was supposed to be the ring bearer at a fancy Lebanese wedding, a big family whose sons were Bill’s best friends. Decked out in an adorable dress, I sailed through the rehearsal in the empty church, but the next day, the music started, the church doors swung open, and—well, you remember the old nursery rhyme: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people! Nope. Not me, nohow. No matter how they cajoled.
But by kindergarten, I’d gotten over that and was cast as Mother Cat in “The Three Little Kittens.” We all knew our lines and were ready to perform. But those three little kittens giggled instead of saying their lines, ruining the illusion. I was disgusted. “We’re cats! We’re not little girls! Stop that giggling!” Oh, it was all too childish. Someday, I’ll do “The Three Little Kittens” again and do it right.
Even as a child, I was more than disenchanted with that sleepy Oklahoma town, which I assumed to be the whole world. No one spoke the same language as me, so to speak. One summer night, gazing down on Main Street from our apartment above the beauty parlor, I watched cars driving from one end of Main Street to the other (all of about a block and a half). They’d slowly cruise down the main drag, turn around, cruise back again. June bugs buzzed through the air, sticking to the grilles of the cars, crunching under the feet of people on their way to the movie theater. Monotony beyond bearing. I specifically remember realizing: I’ve been born into the wrong world! A terrible mistake has been made!
“I want to learn to read,” I kept begging Mother. My friend, Emma Jane Irving, a year older, started school and shared her penmanship exercises with me on the beauty parlor floor. I learned the alphabet and was delighted to discover how letters fell together to form words.
This is Jane. This is Dick. See Jane run. See Dick run.
Thrilling! Action and romance!
In 1939, Mother was expecting, and for months I waited with bated breath for the new arrival, fervently wanting a baby sister. One day, in mid–August, when Mother was almost due to deliver, I was doing acrobatics and broke my arm. Aunt Irene whisked me up and ran lickety–split down the street to the doctor, followed by a waddling, distraught Rheua–Nell. I was given ether and promptly died right there on the table. Doc Cantrill revived me, set the arm, and sent me home. Quite a trauma for poor Mother, nine months pregnant, but wonderfully dramatic from my perspective. Just like a movie, only I was the star!
I awoke a couple of weeks later to find she’d been taken during the night to the Ardmore hospital twenty–five miles away. The wall phone rang, and Aunt Irene answered with me at her feet. Finally, she looked down and said, “Well, Frosty, the baby’s here.”
“Oh, Irene!” I was bursting with hope. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Oh, joy! Trumpets blow! I had a baby sister, Melinda Lou! That night, Bill drove me to the hospital. I clambered onto Mother’s bed with my broken arm.
“Frosty! Get down! Don’t shake the bed!”
Oops. Big goof. Embarrassed, I climbed down. Mother smiled. The little bundle, face all squinched up and red, was a miracle to behold. I was bursting with happiness and didn’t want to leave, but Bill took me to a rooming house to spend the night. I had never spent a night away from Mother, never slept away from home, except at grandparents’ houses. And I had certainly never slept anywhere with just my dad! Bill turned off the light and rolled over to go to sleep. Feeling lonesome and scared, I said, “Bill? Can we talk for a while?”
“Frosty, this is not the time for talking, it’s the time for sleeping.”
Watching headlights sweep slowly across the faded wallpaper, I felt panicky, my chest tight with fear in that dreary, empty room.
In a few days, Mother and Melinda Lou came home and I was allowed to hold her, even with my arm in its sling. Melinda looked up blindly toward my face and scratched my forearm with her sharp little nails. I wondered if she liked me. I was certainly proud to pieces of her. But Melinda scratched a lot. She wasn’t a terribly affectionate baby and didn’t appreciate the tenderness I lavished on her.
“If Eddi–Rue had been the baby and Melinda had been born first,” Bill has been heard to say, “Melinda would have killed her.”
There was no jealousy or sibling rivalry. I simply and unabashedly adored her, and she was the best possible playmate. As we grew older, we became great pals and I never thought of her as “the baby.” She was extraordinarily bright and able to grasp pragmatic things (as one might expect from a future Ph.D. in radiation biology). She was vivacious, flirtatious, and self–assured, but she could be stubborn. When she was two, she dropped something or other on the bedroom floor and created an all–out battle of wills with short–tempered Aunt Irene.
“Melinda Lou, pick that up and put it in the wastebasket this minute!” ordered Irene.
“No!” Melinda flatly refused, determined to defy Aunt Irene.
“I’ll spank you!”
Irene ended the standoff, seizing Melinda’s hand and forcing her to put whatever it was in the wastebasket. And then she spanked Melinda—pat! pat!—on the bottom. Oh, why wouldn’t one of them just pick it up? I fretted. Mother did not believe in physical punishment. She simply told us what was expected and, because we loved her so, we did it. About the harshest reprimand I remember receiving from Mother was for talking too much in the beauty parlor one day.
“Eddi–Rue,” she finally said in exasperation, “go sit on that chair and be quiet for five minutes.”
I obediently sat, eyes fixed on the clock, but I thought it was a minute between each number. After an eternity, the minute hand had traveled from twelve to five, and I said timidly to Mother, “It’s been five minutes. Can I talk now?”
“Why, Eddi-Rue!” Mother exclaimed. “Are you still here? You were so quiet, I forgot all about you.”
Not surprisingly, that was the day I learned to tell time.
From the Hardcover edition.