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“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.”