Mama always accused my grandmother of stealing away my love for her. Well, if you leave your baby totally in the care of others, that baby will bond with them. If you ask that child to choose between grandparents who treat her kindly and rescue her from marauding turkeys and a mother who often abandons her, why wouldn’t you expect allegiances to form so fast you can’t break them? I can understand her feeling of loss once she realized I loved my grandmother more than her. It’s just when it’s too late, there’s no point in accusations. I listened to Mama’s complaint over the years and I even sometimes felt sorry for her, but I knew she really hadn’t given it all enough thought.
Mama might have been the problem to solve in my life and in order to understand her, there was always the writing.
When did I decide to become a writer?
I don’t know for certain when I knew that was my destiny. It might have been something deep in me by the time I could read and fell in love with the written word. It might have been ignited by the murder of my aunt and uncle when I discovered the True Detective magazines detailing their murders. I know the deaths pushed my curiosity forward toward the dark where insane people commit insane acts. Why did they do it? How could they do it? What apparatus in their minds allowed them to take someone’s life?
The only evidence I have of when the dazzling, and insanely crazy ambition to be a writer hit me was a blue padded plastic diary with a locking clasp given to me as a birthday present when I was thirteen. The key is missing, but the pages are pristine though this little diary is now very old. Inside are a couple of hundred lined pages for a teen girl to spill her guts. The first surprise is there are so many pages, but so few written upon.
“I stayed home from school today.”
“I went to school and had a good time today.”
I wasn’t yet pouring out my little soul on the paper. I didn’t know yet that to write truly is to let go, step away, and write all the hard truths. Some writers called it cutting your wrists and bleeding all over the paper. Others called it walking a high wire without a net. I just step away and let go, but at thirteen I didn’t have a clue.
There is one unusual and telling entry in the diary of my thirteenth year. It is short and sweet and true. I wrote, “I want to grow up to be a writer.” Nothing else, only that. No indication where I got the idea or why the idea would be strong enough to note down in a diary.
No one in my family had been a writer. I knew no writers, nor had ever met one. In fact, I didn’t meet a real writer until I was in my twenties writing short stories and he, Terry Cline Jr., was signing his novels at a table in a Mobile, Alabama mall bookstore. We became fast friends and we still are today. At thirteen, however, the proclamation was a prophecy more than anything else.
My mother had a great voice and could play guitar. She had even written songs, country songs she sang herself accompanied by her guitar. People tell me they came from all around to sit on Bigmama’s porch to hear Yvonne sing. I imagine some of the men came because they were half in love with her and the singing was just a bonus.
I believe that’s a true story because I heard her sing and play when I was a teen and I thought it quite pretty. She had some talent—a nice voice, songs sung with feeling and on tune-- but she had no drive. I was hoping for both. I hoped to be blessed with talent and I’d provide the drive. I instinctively knew it would take both to succeed. By the age of thirteen I believe I already had the drive and it would propel me through all the rest of the years of my life, propel me right to this day where I sit typing this memoir.
That’s how you get what you want I could have advised my Mama, who never got fame when I fear that might have been something she wanted. It doesn’t help to be beautiful and write songs and strum the guitar if you don’t mean to do it until it half kills you and everyone over a dozen years reject you and every one of them tell you to give it up. Even then still you go on, believing.
Don’t sing pretty songs at all with the idea of fame tapping your shoulder unless you’re prepared to cut your wrists or walk a high wire for them.
I was preparing for the writer I would become by listening. Bigmama and Bigdaddy hosted their extended family quite often. One son would get down on his luck and haul his whole family back to Paul and ask to stay a while, just a while. A daughter or granddaughter would show up with her husband and visit for a week. Someone always seemed to be there. It was not uncommon for the little house to overflow, for the table to be laden with cooked meals, and for the nights to turn into hours of telling tales.
What they said about their lives was something I wanted to hear. It was important to me to hear it. I didn’t want to engage in the conversation. I was young and without experience; I’d have nothing to offer. Besides, youngsters were meant to be seen and not heard. So when smaller I would sit underneath the table out of sight and out of mind, listening to the grownups talk. Or if they took to the porch on a summer night to get cooled off (that cinder block house was not cool), I’d slip near the end of the porch, my back to them so I wouldn’t accidentally catch someone’s eye. I’d dangle my legs off the porch edge, listening intently to their voices combined with the sounds of crickets in the grass. It is marvelous to be a fly on the wall. All you’re required to do is listen well.
It is a fact that if you want to learn, you must listen. Talking is a fine thing and I married a man who is a Talker, because I love it so much in other people, but listening is the only way to get the goods. I bet just about every writer who wrote a novel possessed a good listening habit. And they know when to keep quiet and out of the way so people forget they are there. You hear plenty of things that way.
I didn’t know it then, but it’s possible I have an eidetic memory. It was commonly called photographic memory at one time. It’s a psychological or medical term defined as the ability to recall images, sounds, or objects in memory with extreme precision. I especially remember words—conversations.
I listened to scary stories of ghosts and monsters and horrible stories of revenge and stories sad enough to make you go off and cry by yourself in the dark. The world, it seemed to me, was one big story house or library and people were their own stories; they were the books.
Now I write my life story because the porch overflowing with people are all gone and dead now and I’m the one left standing. If I don’t tell this story, no one will, and the story would have ended here, with me. Bigmama and Bigdaddy deserve more than that. They deserve to live again in words as good as I can make them and as true, as unvarnished, as unembellished as the past will let me tell it. I’m just letting go.
* * *
Now I must slow down this tale of a life. I’ve been rocketing you through years of life in just a small number of pages. That’s all right because what I’ve told you prepared the way for the scary things to come. They’re coming and there will be no rocketing through them. There would be no justice or understanding in that.
I was still nine years old, but now I wasn’t in Alabama anymore, Dorothy. I was with Mama and she was in Jackson, Mississippi. Daddy wasn’t with her. Brent was. It was the three of us because she had left Daddy and not for the first time—nor would it be the last.
To understand this family dynamic all you need to know is that when Mama got bored, as she invariably did, and her “sprees” came on her, she took off in the wild blue yonder. This time we went with her and the trip happened to land us in Jackson. We were plucked up and on the road again, moving somewhere, crossing state lines, setting up in a new place.
We called Mama’s crazy spells sprees because that’s what they felt like. I understand today what they really were. She was undoubtedly bi-polar, what back then would have been termed manic-depressive. She had an illness of mind that dropped her into the deepest holes where she contemplated suicide. And it raised her into the stratosphere, right into the ozone layer with giddiness. Much later in my life I would also realize my mother was pathologically narcissistic, and that was why she believed the world revolved around her and anyone else could never matter enough to keep her from having her own way. As a child I didn’t know any of this and no one ever spoke about mental illness—even when Mama spent various times in psych wards. It held a stigma that was worse than calling someone a downright whore. If people knew you had a screw loose, they made a wide circle around you when passing on their way. You might as well be wearing a big scarlet letter C for CRAZY.
At nine years old it felt like a spree. I had no other word or concept for it. Mama’s not happy, she’s having a spree, I’d tell myself. Live through it. Find a way to live through it and one day she’ll take you back to Bigmama. You can do this, I’d advise myself. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again. Just hold on. Hold on tight.
In Jackson she had taken a downtown second-floor apartment with a balcony overlooking the street. It wasn’t a bad place, but rather bare and sad because it came furnished. There was one of those terribly uncomfortable Danish modern 1950s sofas upholstered in dark gray. The television was black and white and possessed a small screen. The occasional chairs were vinyl and hard. The table and chairs in the dining room were old and battered by renters who banged down pots to burn the top and let their little ones scrape at the table edge with knives and spoons. The place was in the simplest sense a dismal outpost despite the view from the verandah.
I hadn’t been there long. School was out, I knew no one, and I dared not question her about leaving Daddy. Again. I knew she’d go back eventually, she always did. This apartment was a temporary way-station. It would get too hard to make enough money to support us. She’d get lonely. She’d get scared. She would come down out of the giddy ozone and get so moody she’d recognize we’d have to go back to Daddy or Alabama where people could take over. She wouldn’t be able to cope.
One evening when night was just minutes away, the dark growing blacker, I left the television in search of Mama. I found her in her bedroom at the vanity table, putting on mascara.
The minute I saw her I knew I wasn’t going to like this. She had on a black sequined dress, black high-heeled shoes, stockings, and her lush black hair was curled and brushed, lying on her shoulders like satin. “Where you going, Mama?”
Stupid question. She was going; it didn’t really matter where. A bar, I was sure. She had, like her Hyde sisters and brothers before her, turned into quite an alcoholic. I didn’t know that’s what she was. She didn’t drink at home with us; it would be decades before she did that. I just knew she liked bars. She liked dressing up and going out. Also, now I know she did it to drown reality because reality would kill her. Life was so desperate for Mama, so hard for her. Like many people who cannot handle the world, she searched for surcease from pain and her own mad thoughts. She hunted for peace without knowing where it might be hiding.
Without taking her gaze from the sultry eyes in the mirror she reached out and handed me a folded twenty-dollar bill. “Here, honey, take this, you can buy you and your brother something with it tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? I almost started bawling, though I thought of myself as a Big Girl now. “Won’t you be back tonight?”
She was very busy with making her brows arch perfectly with a Maybelline eyebrow pencil.
“Mama? You’re not going to leave us alone tonight, are you?”
My heart was in my throat. She couldn’t mean it. She had never left us overnight before. No mother could do that, could she? Not a nine-year-old and a six-year-old alone in a new city with no one around they knew…
“Mama, aren’t you coming back tonight? Mama, don’t go off and leave me here with Brent. I’m scared.”
She laughed, stood up, and reached for her black pearl clutch purse. “Oh, stop that, nothing’s going to bother you here. I’ll be back sometime tomorrow, I’m sure. Let Brent watch TV and he’ll fall asleep.”
I couldn’t stop her. I didn’t know how to throw a tantrum or scream or scrunch up my face and start crying hard enough to stop her. None of that would have done any good anyway. It would have just made her mad.
By nine I knew some things about dealing with my mother and one of them told me emotion didn’t affect her. Sometimes, if you were lucky, she might listen to reason, but only if your reason was superior to her own. (Usually it wasn’t.) I always tried to be reasonable with her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back. And listen here, the old nosy landlady lives downstairs so don’t you let her know I’m gone, you hear me? Stay out of her way.”
Then she was off, breezily swinging through the bedroom door, her heady perfume following her like a cloud. She dipped to the floor in the living room to kiss Brent’s cheek, told him to be a Good Boy, and she was out the back door and down the stairs before I could make another weak protest.
I went to the double glass veranda doors and opened them. I walked onto the veranda and stared down at the street full of cars and into the soft small city night. What if someone climbed up here and got in through the doors? Hadn’t I heard Mama and a neighbor lady talking about the “Latin” district just down the street? I had no idea what that meant, but I’d also overheard their whispers about how bad it was down there and how people had died. What if someone from that district came here and had a knife with him? What if he had a mind to kill us? I had seen countless scary movies and TV shows about killers and bad people. With my mama I had watched The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, and every mystery movie or series they showed in the 1950s. I thought criminals were everywhere, in every corner, lurking in every alley.
She had left us alone before during the day (never the night, all night), notably when Brent was three or four and I was six or seven. She had to go to work and so did Daddy. Brent got a chair and climbed up, reached on top of the refrigerator and got down a box of Fenament, an adult laxative, and had eaten the whole box thinking it was a fine tasting gum before I found him. Within minutes he was pooping his pants, diarrhea running blackly down his legs, and I called Mama at work to tell her what he’d done. He was rushed to the hospital and I was dropped off at the downtown theater and told to stay with the projectionist in the booth until she got back. I expect the projectionist was a friend of hers. Sitting at the little window up there in the darkened theater I watched the double feature over and over and over until I fell asleep. One of the movies was a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comedy. I never did like their movies after that.
But until this night in Jackson, Mississippi Mama had never left us alone throughout an entire night. This prospect was a chasm that seemed to be longer and deeper than I could bear.
I carried Brent to bed when he fell asleep on the floor watching television, but I couldn’t sleep. Every creak in the house found me shivering in dread. Every branch scraping against the windows and walls brought me to tears and the belief someone was climbing the tree near the veranda to break in. My vivid imagination sketching these scenarios in my head wouldn’t do me much good as a kid except make me scared, yet would do me great good when I was grown and writing novels about people who get scared. That night I understood being scared affected every part of you. Even your eyeballs hurt and your hair feels stretched and your stomach clenches into a real knot. Fear is a physical malady as much as a mental one.
I won’t have this, I thought fiercely. I’ll go to the kitchen and get a butcher knife. If someone comes in here, I’ll kill him. Fierce little dandy of a girl I must have been. I yell BRAVO for myself. I had it together. I was ready for a fight.
In desperation and rampant fear I rummaged for the largest butcher knife in the kitchen drawer, sneaked back to the dining room floor and curled into a fetal ball on the linoleum, hand fast around the knife. I had to keep watch. Someone coming in would come through the easiest entries--the verandah doors or through the back door where the stairs were. In the dining room I was in the middle between the kitchen and the back door and the living room and the verandah doors. I’d have a chance to act.
No adult has ever been as frightened as a nine-year-old who thinks she may have to knife-fight her way out of death’s clutches with an intruder bent on murdering two small children. I was weaned on violence from TV and drive-inn movies and I expected violence lurked everywhere but the one place you’re looking. I knew there were bad men, men who kidnapped and killed children. At age five I had seen THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS with Peter Lorre. My Aunt Dean, who had taken me to the theater, had to leave when she recognized I was terrified. I’d seen Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Mitchum, of the creepy, droopy gaze, chased two little kids forever to find the cash their Mama had hidden inside the little girl’s doll.
I knew being alone was not a good thing and Mama never should have done it. She had cast us to the wind and I was going to have to make the best of it; I was going to have to get us through. I was going to be what my Bigdaddy questioned me about later in my teens: I was determined to be tough enough.
I would not let anything happen to us. I swore it. And then I fell asleep, just like that, worry frowns furrowing my forehead.
When I woke up, Brent was poking me with his foot and asking what there was to eat. “I’m hungry, Sue, get up.”
I ached all over and my legs and arms were cold. I got up, the knife still in my hand, and brushed dust balls off my clothes.
“What’s that?” Brent asked. “What’re you doing with a knife?”
I ignored him; he was just a little brother and didn’t have to know everything. I climbed on the kitchen counters and opened cabinet doors until I found the oatmeal. I saw there wasn’t much else there. In the refrigerator I saw there wasn’t much besides hotdogs.
Well, we both liked oatmeal and hotdogs. That would have to do. Besides, I did have the twenty-dollar bill in my pocket and we could go out and buy something to eat if we wanted to. I had never had that much money in my whole life.
Brent complained about the oatmeal, saying it was lumpy. He kept asking where Mama was and wouldn’t shut up about it. I didn’t want to tell him she was coming home soon because I was afraid she wasn’t. I wouldn’t lie to him if I could help it. Not me. I didn’t want to scare him because then he’d be harder to handle.
He kept being just plain quarrelsome about everything until I was beginning to lose my temper with him. It was still morning and if I had to listen to him all day, I’d be terribly unhappy. Here we were cooped up together, but I did have a twenty-dollar bill.
I had an idea. “How about if I call a cab and we go to the ten-cent store?”
“Will you buy me something?”
“Sure, I will, silly.”
His eyes brightened and he didn’t even fuss when I told him to get dressed. I picked up the phone and called the number for the cab company I found in the phone book. I gave them the address.
We watched off the verandah and when we saw the cab coming down the street, we hurried down the stairs as quietly as we could so as not to run into the nosy landlady, circled the house, and stood out front under the shade of an oak waiting for our ride.
When the cab drove up, I opened the door like I knew what I was doing and we both threw ourselves into the back seat. We straightened up real fast, our feet sticking out from the worn seat. “Take us to the ten-cent store,” I said in my most grownup, authoritative voice.
The cabby turned and placed his arm on the back of the seat, giving me a suspicious look. “You two going alone?”
“You have any money for a ride in a cab?”
“Sure.” I pulled out my twenty and showed him.
“Your mama know you’re going in a cab downtown?”
“Of course.” I laced my reply with sarcasm as if to say I’m a Big Girl, who could you be talking to? Surely not to me.
“Okay, whatever you say, kid.”
And off we went to downtown Jackson to the ten-cent store that was really named Woolworth’s.
Inside there were aisles and aisles of wonderful kid things. Toys, books, drawing tablets, balls, plastic this and plastic that, whirligigs, balsam airplane kits--they had the works. But what I liked best popped out at me between the marble bin and the big balloon bin—a bag of Magic Growing Rocks. These were small nuggets in different colors that claimed to grow into fantastical shapes when put into water. (They are still sold today.) I looked at the price and they cost $.39. These would be mine, I thought, pleased, and took them with me as I walked the aisles. I noticed a man going up and down the aisles keeping an eye on me. I gave him a haughty look as if to say I’m a Good Girl, I wouldn’t steal, you ninny.
I found Brent hanging onto the lip of a counter, high up on tippy toe, and he clutched a red truck in a plastic package. I asked what he had and took it from him. It cost over a dollar and that was just too much. I didn’t exactly know how much twenty dollars was and how far it would go. I had already determined we would next take a cab to the zoo and we would need enough money left over to get a cab back to the apartment. That was essential.
“Oh, you can’t have this,” I said, putting it back. “Why don’t you get some magic growing rocks like I’m getting? They’re only thirty-nine cents.”
“I don’t want any old magic rocks! I want that truck, Sue!”
They all called me Sue. I was Billie Sue Naomi Stahl and it wasn’t until I went to college that I ever got anyone to call me Billie. Billie Sue, what my Mama called me and what schoolteachers called me, was so tacky Southern I just couldn’t stand it. Most of the time, thank God, Mama called me Sue, too, unless I was in trouble. Then it was the full name. BILLIE SUE, WHAT DID YOU DO TO YOUR BROTHER? BILLIE SUE, I TOLD YOU TO WASH THOSE DISHES. BILLIE SUE, DAMNIT ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?
“You can’t have that truck,” I told Brent. “It costs too much.”
He began to wail. “You got what you wanted, let me have what I wanttttt!!”
The man who had been pacing me down the aisles, thinking me a little kid shoplifter, came around the corner. I grabbed Brent by the collar and marched him toward the checkout counter in front. I quickly paid the clerk and pushed him out the door to the sidewalk. The whole time he was blubbering about how I wasn’t FAIR and he was going to TELL MAMA and why should I get something from the store and HE DIDN’T.
I knew it wasn’t fair and to this day my brother believes in his heart I was just stingy and mean that day. The truth was more plebian. I was scared and had to hold onto the money or I’d get us both in trouble. I could see the cops now, dressed in dark blue with shiny black shoes, asking, “Why are you two kids standing outside the locked zoo gates this time of night?”
I could see being taken to a police station and trying to explain my brother wanted the truck so badly, I blew the money and didn’t have enough to get back home. I knew they would not believe the story about Mama being on a spree because she just couldn’t help it, don’t blame her.
This kind of pessimistic thinking might be part of being a creative writer. You must follow an event in your mind’s eye to its end to see what might realistically happen. It doesn’t matter so much what good may happen. You have to know what trouble might come your way in order to be prepared.
Something BAD would happen if I didn’t control this entire day and do it right. This may have been the day I contracted “control issues.” It was like a cold. Came on fast and settled to stay a while. Like forever.
I calmed Brent down in the cab by telling him I’d for sure, swear on the Bible, buy him something real good to eat at the zoo and we’d go see the monkeys first thing.
I kept my promise. I felt tremendously guilty for having some Magic Rocks while Brent had nothing. I’d make it up to him.
At the zoo we wandered around for hours peering at the animals, and we ate. We ate until we got sick. I bought us donuts and cotton candy and hotdogs and candied apples. I don’t know what-all I bought us, but we ate until we wanted to puke. When Brent tired of walking around and complained of a stomachache, I called a cab from a public phone, our third cab, and got us home safe and sound with several dollars and some change left over.
I could have bought the red truck for him, I realized in dismay. I’ve regretted that ever since.
Mama was gone three days. The money held out, we didn’t starve and no one climbed through the verandah doors to kill or kidnap us despite all my misgivings and pessimistic event-building. The landlady never knew a thing.
* * *
There is an addendum to this memory from childhood. It happened decades later. When my mother was in her seventies I was driving her home from a shopping trip. We got into a shouting argument because she always knew how to push my buttons.
“Mama stole you away from me, she stole your love so you wouldn’t love me,” she yelled.
I lost it. She was trying to make the wrong person into an evil creature. I had held my resentment like a tiny orb of fire inside my heart, keeping it alive. After so many years it grew into a conflagration. It was a bonfire, burning me up.
“Why would I love a mother who abandoned me so many times?” I shouted back.
“When did I ever do that? I never did that!”
“You did it when you handed me over to two strange teenage boys in Miami to drive me to Bigmama’s house in Alabama. What were you thinking? Mama, I was a baby! What kind of mother would do a thing like that? They could have thrown me out on the highway! They could have given me to someone or sold me. They could have dumped me in a ditch. I’m only alive because they did what you asked them to do and drove me hundreds of miles back to Bigmama!”
I saw on her face she was getting confused although she had not lost any of her mental acuity. I should have stopped there, but the fire consumed me. My resentment ran hotter than it had before and if we were going to get this thing out in the open then I was going to go for it all the way. I’d ram the walls, I’d throw the rock volleys, and I’d climb the ladders and stand to fight for my life. This castle was mine.
“And what about the time you handed me a twenty dollar bill and left me and Brent alone in a strange city for three days? I was nine years old! Mom, we were alone for THREE WHOLE DAYS. Just little scared kids!”
“I…I…I did no such thing. I never did something like that,” she denied. I heard in her voice a shaky worry.
“You did do that—and a whole lot more. I was there, Mama, you can’t make this go away. I lived it. I was scared to death and I had to take care of Brent. I had no idea when you’d come back or if you ever would. Did you know I called a cab to take us to the zoo where we stayed all day? Did you know I lay on the floor at night with a knife because I was afraid? You never asked what we did or how we lived on our own. I was a breath away from going to the landlady for help. I thought you might have been killed or had an accident and we’d be left in that apartment forever. Don’t you remember what a bad mother you were to us, don’t you remember any of it?”
I saw the truth on her face then. She did not remember it.
The shock treatments she’d had earlier in her life had done damage to her memories of the past. They had scored and ripped holes of darkness in her brain, black holes that swallowed up everything swirling near it. When she did something her conscience might make her feel guilty about, they slipped into the vault the shock treatments had created in her head. In there, they disappeared and in the place of those bad memories or feelings of guilt her mind created new memories where she could convince herself she had been a better person; she had sacrificed for her children; she had loved them completely. It was a survival mechanism. Living with the truth might kill her or cause her to kill herself.
I turned into my driveway and Mama and I were out of steam. I might have scaled the castle and won the battle, but the victory hadn’t been worth the fight. We had shouted at one another and she had made me feel I’d done something irredeemable to love my grandmother and I had made her feel like the worst mother in the world. We had pulled our swords and slashed one another until we sat in the car bleeding, lost in our separate worlds of distress and sorrow. I turned off the car. My mother’s face was a wreck. She might not remember the things she’d done, but she knew I didn’t lie so she had to face the past her mind had so cleverly tucked away and forgotten.
“Let’s let it go, Mama. We can’t change it now. That happened a million years ago.”
Her old rounded shoulders slumped as she walked to my house, half of which she now lived in as her home.
I did feel compassion for her—something I couldn’t manage to muster earlier in my life. Mad people can’t always be held responsible for the mad things they do. Inner demons drive them like fast cars, swerving them off the roads into the briar patches and the dark paths. She spent a life not in her “right mind” as my grandmother might say. She was a sick woman and now she was old and she couldn’t remake the past—she couldn’t repair it. It was what it was and we were locked together, Mama and I, in this fierce life.
We always had been.