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Cotton Days McKinney, Texas
It was still early on the morning of what had been forecasted as a very hot summer day. Rachel Jerrod saw her mother the minute she pulled the car into the driveway. It would have been hard to miss her. Alana, or Laney as most people in town called her, was dressed in the most brightly flowered capri pants ever to leave a retail store. They were matched up with a baggy, redorange T-shirt that hung down almost to the knees. Her feet were encased in drab olive garden clogs and on her head was a wide-brimmed straw hat decorated with a huge sequined flower.
Rachel simply shook her head and rolled her eyes. Her mother was so weird.
As soon as she spotted Rachel, Laney rose to her feet and waved excitedly. She was speaking before Rachel was even out of the car.
"Let me see, let me see," her mother said, indicating her daughter's hair.
Rachel turned slowly, giving the full three-sixty.
"Nice, very nice," Laney said. "You look wonderful, as always."
"I can't say the same for you, Mom," Rachel replied. "What are you wearing?"
Her mother looked down at her clothes as if noticing them for the first time.
"I'm just trying to be cool and comfortable," Alana said. "Besides, I'm gardening."
"Well, you shouldn't be," her daughter said. "You'll get all hot and sweaty and you'll have hat hair for the parade."
Laney laughed, refusing to take offense. "I was thinking of wearing the hat for the parade," she said. "It will come in handy on that hot sidewalk taking photos."
There was a whiny quality to Rachel's utterance, familiar to anyone who's spent time with a seventeen-year-old girl.
"Come back to the deck," Laney said. "We've got a smidgeon of time all to ourselves, we should enjoy it. There's still a breeze out there and plenty of shade. You'll get more sun than you want this afternoon."
The two walked the length of the driveway to the backyard and up the steps to the wooden deck off the family room.
"I'll fix you a nice breakfast," Laney said. "You ran out of here this morning without so much as a bite."
Rachel shook her head. "Nothing to eat," she told her mother. "I'm already so jumpy I could barf."
"Well, how about a nice cup of coffee," her mother suggested. "Hot drinks are cooling on a summer day."
"Caffeine to cure the jitters, Mom? I don't think so. Besides the stuff is supposed to be terrible for the skin."
"Then I'll brew a pot of healthy, herbal tea," Laney said. "It'll calm your nerves and quench your thirst."
"Okay," Rachel agreed.
Rachel seated herself at the round patio table beneath the umbrella. She was staring out over the backyardher own backyard since second grade. It was a very ordinary place. If one of those fancy brass history placards were placed at this location it would have to read: No truly important event has ever occurred here. But this backyard was where Rachel had her swing set as a child. Replaced by a volleyball net when she was a teenager. She'd hunted Easter eggs among the shrubs. And last year, she'd had her photo taken with Clint Howell among the leaves of autumn before their date to the homecoming dance.
Nothing truly important.
But Rachel had begun to wonder about the unimportant things. The things no one really examined. The events that no one wrote down. She had become curious about the day-to-day happenings that added up to a life. On the cusp of her own entry into womanhood she'd begun, perhaps for the first time, to look outside herself and her little circle of girlfriends for answers about what the world was like and what her place in it might be.
A knock at the French doors had Rachel jumping to her feet. She hurried over to open them up for her mother.
"Here we are, sweetie," Laney said as she carried the tray to the table. "I cut up some melon and I found these tea cookies in the pantry. I know it's white sugar, but you've got a big day ahead of you and we can't have you keeling over in a faint. That's very unqueenlike."
"Yeah, I'm sure these small-town gossips would have a field day with that," Rachel said.
"Oh, it gives them something to do," Laney said. "Otherwise they'd have to create drama in their own lives."
"The yard looks great, Mom," she said, indicating the abundance of flowering shrubs grown as large now as trees. "The colors are fabulous this year."
Laney looked out and nodded.
"Wet spring, hot summer," she said. "It's the best combination for Crepe Myrtles, and McKinney is the 'Crepe Myrtle Capital of the World.'"
Rachel laughed. "I thought it was the 'Diamond Stickpin in the Lapel of Texas,'" she said.
Laney shrugged. "That, too."
"So I stopped by to see Grandma this morning," Rachel said.
Laney chuckled. "I suppose she was in fine spirits," she said. "This being her big day and all."
"She tried on her dress for me," Rachel said. "She looks fabulous. And she's really looking forward to the parade."
"I'm sure she is."
"I told her that you were dragging your heels," Rachel commented carefully.
"Then you misspoke," her mother said. "Dragging heels indicates reluctance. I'm not reluctant. I'm refusing."
Rachel made a little puff of annoyance. "Mom, everything's ready and we've put so much time into it," Rachel complained.
Laney shook her head firmly. "I never agreed to this, you and your grandmother agreed and thought you could just force me into it. She was able to do that twenty-five years ago, but I'm not so much a doormat these days."
"Doormat? You, Mom? Not likely."
"Perhaps malleable is a better description of how I was," Laney said. "Rigid is more my stance with your grandmother today."
"Okay, so what's the deal between you and Grandma?" she asked.
"There's no deal between us," Laney said. "We're fine."
"You never talk to each other."
"Don't be silly, I talk to her," Laney answered. "I talk to her several times a week."
"Oh, yeah, I know," Rachel responded dismissively. "I can probably quote the whole conversation verbatim." She put her hand up to her ear like an imaginary telephone. "'Hello, Babs. How are you?'" she began, mimicking Laney's more formal tone. "'Fine, Laney,'" she replied in the croaky voice of an aging matron. "'And yourself?' 'Fine. Do you need anything?' 'No.' 'Well, call me if you do.'"
Laney smiled, but not with a great deal of humor.
"Very amusing," she commented dryly.
"She's an old lady, Mom," Rachel said. "She's not going to be around here forever."
"Oh for heaven's sake, Babs is sixty-five," Laney said. "She'll probably live to be a hundred."
"I hope she will," Rachel said. "I hope she has thirty years left. But I guess it wouldn't matter if she had thirty minutes if her own daughter won't give her even one summer afternoon for something very special, something that she's dreamed of and hoped for for a very long time. Something that would mean so much to her and to me."
Laney laughed aloud at her daughter's sincere intensity.
"Is she giving you guilt lessons?" she asked Rachel. "You're sounding more like her every day."
"No, Mom," Rachel said. "I'm not the one that's like her. It's you. You're the one who's just like her."
"Me? I'm not like my mother."
Rachel nodded. "You are both stubborn, single-minded and determined to have your way."
"Oh, please, it's not that bad," Alana insisted.
"It is that bad," she said. "It hurts you. It hurts Grandma. And it hurts me to watch the two of you."
"She and I just have very different views on this queen thing," Laney said.
"You didn't want me to be this year's Cotton Queen," Rachel said.
"That's not true," Laney told her. "It wasn't that I didn't want it for you. I didn't want you to be pushed into it."
"I wasn't pushed into it," Rachel said. "It's an honor and a privilege to represent the people of McKinney."
Laney rolled her eyes. "Rachel, honey, save it for the acceptance speech," she said. "It's a small-town beauty pageant that has about as much meaning in terms of your long-term happiness as a bug splat on your car windshield. A woman's life is not a reign of glory. I want to protect you from that kind of thinking. It's not smiling in the spotlight and having every eye gaze upon you in awe. The things that make up a life, a real life, involve lots of hard work, plenty of disappointments, tremendous failures, horrible twists of fate and fortunate accidents. I know that it's tempting to think that if you're a nice person, a good person, a deserving person and attractive as well, that the world just falls at your feet. You get chosen as Cotton Queen, you wear a fancy dress, people applaud and you live happily ever after. That's not how it is."
Rachel's brow furrowed.
"Mom, I'm not an idiot. I know it's not that simple."
"No," her mother agreed. "It's not."
I remember how I laid my finger upon her tiny open palm and she clutched her little fingers around it. My daughter, just fifteen minutes old, wrapped in a little pink blanket in my arms.
"She's beautiful," Tom said beside me. He was still dressed in fatigues, having hitchhiked from the air base in Biloxi as soon as I'd gone into labor. Twenty-two hours of contractions had allowed him to make it to the waiting room in time to meet up with his parents and field requests for pink-ribboned cigars.
"I know you wanted a boy," I told him.
Tom laughed and shook his head. "I can't imagine ever wanting anyone else but her," he said.
That's what I loved about Tom. One of the many things I loved about him. He always seemed to be so pleased with me and with everything I did. I swear, if I'd presented the guy with a five-limbed, hare-lipped gorilla, he'd have said she was the prettiest child he'd ever seen.
But it was no stretch for him that day. She was perfect. "I don't think Thomas Henry Hoffman, Jr., will work for her name, though." Tom laughed ruefully.
"Do you still want to name her after your mother?" he asked me.
I looked up at him, serious but open to discussion. "If it's all right with you."
"I didn't know your mother," he said. "But I know you and how much you loved her. It will be a fine name for the baby to live up to."
"You don't think it'll make your mama jealous?"
He shrugged. "This is her ninth grandchild," he said. "I don't think it's all that big a deal for her."
"Maybe we could use her name for the middle."
"Alana Helen Hoffman." Tom voiced the name thoughtfully. "I like it," he said. "But it's too big for this little bit."
I smiled down at my baby once again.
"Oh, we'll shorten it till she's big enough to manage such a mouthful," I told him. "We'll call her Ally or Laney."
"Laney," Tom said. "I like that."
And so it was that seven-pound, two-ounce Laney Hoffman entered into life in McKinney, Texas, in the summer of 1958. It wasn't a perfect summer. Tom was in the Air Force. He'd joined up hoping to get into mechanics training. He thought that would offer him big opportunities with a big private company like Pan Am or TWA. That was our plan.
Unfortunately much of it involved me living in the small apartment above my uncle Warren's Pennsylvania Street Coin-Op Laundromat. He let me live there free just for opening the door at 6:00 a.m. and closing at midnight. Between time, I had to keep the floor clean, the change machine full and run interference on washer backups, overloads and plumbing calamities, all of which were common.
But I didn't mind, especially that summer when the courts mulled over public school integration, and Elvis spent his days in the Army. I took my Laney in her little carry basket to work with me and I spent every spare moment singing to my little girl, playing with my little girl. It worked out well. Much of the time we were alone. And even when the laundry was full of people, the whirr of the washers and fft-fft-fft of the dryers enveloped us like a cloud of privacy. It was Laney and me against the world. We were a powerful pair that summer. Nobody could ever come between us.
I hadn't known all that much about caring for babies. I had, of course, put in a million hours babysitting my cousins.
I was an orphan, though I guess I didn't think of myself that way at the time. Orphans lived in big brick institutions waiting for someone to adopt them. I'd not spent one night in such a place. I'd lived with Uncle Warren and Aunt Maxine.
I don't remember much about my father. He was a soldier in the Second World War and died in Holland in a place called Arnhem. That's all I know about him. I'm sure he must have had parents, siblings, someone. But I never met any of them. My family had been my mother and me. When she died I was fourteen, and I went to live with her brother, Warren Barstow.
He and Aunt Maxine were nice to me, but they had plenty of children already. Warren Jr., whom we called Renny, was five. Pete was four. And the twins, Janey and Joley were toddlers. I was immediately put to work.
I was pretty certain that if there had been anyone else available, my aunt and uncle would never have taken me in. But there was no one. So I was determined to never make them sorry for the decision to keep me. I was Aunt Maxine's right hand in the house. I was in charge of the children whenever she needed me. And I earned my own clothing and spending money working for Uncle Warren wherever he required help. He owned a half-dozen little struggling businesses in McKinney and, sooner or later, I ended up working at all of them. I did my time polishing at his Shoe Repair Shop. I packed clothes in plastic at the Spotless Dry Cleaners. And I served up ice cream at Dairy Hut.
Of course, I also kept up my grades, joined 4-H, attended pep rallies and ball games. I wore saddle oxfords and bobby sox during the week and white gloves and a pillbox hat on Sunday. I tried to do and be everything that I thought was expected of a perfect teenager.