Humble Beginnings

It was a small, white box of a building with a screen door imprinted with the words: “Rainbo is good bread.”

My mother worked at a hamburger stand on the outskirts of an East Texas town that nobody ever heard of. Daddy owned the place. It was a small, white box of a building with a screen door imprinted with the words: “Rainbo is good bread.” Built in the days before drive-thru windows were commonplace, customers parked out front and went inside to place their orders at the counter where my mother would sweetly ask, “Can I ‘hep’ you?” The ‘L’ in help was always conspicuously absent.

I can still see my mother frying ground beef patties on the large, flat grill, liberally salting and then peppering the meat as it sizzled. She wore a nurse-like uniform consisting of a white dress, white stockings, and, of course, white, sensible shoes. Her heavily starched frock crinkled at every move and her stockings rubbed together at every step, generating the high-pitched “cry for help” that nylon makes when forced to endure such distressing circumstances. Not that she was fat; but it’s as if her thighs were whispering: “I’ll let you go by, if you let me go by…I’ll let you go by, if you let me go by.” And so on. She always smelled like Gardenias; Jungle Gardenias, to be precise. These, and precious few others, are the only memories that I have of her.

Mutt, as Daddy lovingly called her, married my father when she was only 13 and had her first child a year later, give or take a month or two. She gave birth to ten children, seven of whom lived. Three of the babies, all of them boys, were born dead. I guess you could say I was one of the lucky ones.
When she wasn’t barefoot and pregnant, Mutt helped my father build what could have been a small empire. It could have been, but fate had different plans.

The lonely two-lane roads that cut through the Piney Woods led to much better places, and my mother wanted to go there. Anyplace would do, as long as she didn’t have to flip hamburgers with one arm while holding a baby in the other. To no one’s great surprise, except for Daddy’s, Mutt ran off with a truck driver when I was two.

From the beginning, my life seemed destined to play out like some white-trash soap opera or a country-western song. After she left, Daddy gave up on life for a while, and eventually he lost everything they had worked so hard to build together. All of his businesses failed. He went from empire-building to barely keeping his head above water.

As for me, I had to seek comfort wherever I could find it. Like so many children of the ‘50s and ‘60s, I grew up glued to my babysitter and watching mindless sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver. The show, like others of its genre, set standards that were impossible for families to live up to. In Theodore Cleaver’s world a mother wore pumps and pearls, even to do the gardening; a father never raised his hand, or his voice, for that matter; a brother was not only absolutely dreamy (oh, how I lusted after Wally), but also the best friend you could ever hope to have.

My world was the exact opposite of the Beavers’. My stepmother wore muumuus and pink fuzzy house slippers whether she was cleaning house, mowing the lawn, or feeding the chickens. My father was prone to violent fits of temper, once even threatening to cut off my head and throw it at my dying body. My youngest sister, Regina, threatened to kill me if I ever told Daddy that we didn’t really go to the skating rink every Saturday night. The truth was, I spent most Saturday nights in the front seat of Daddy’s ‘57 Chevy while my sister did unspeakable things in the back seat with boys—and sometimes men—who were less than delighted that I had to tag along.
Somehow, I made it through childhood without losing life or limb. If “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” as Nietzsche said, I figure I must be damn near invincible by now.

I don’t know if it’s an actual memory, or propaganda that Daddy planted in my head as a child, but the way he told the story, and the way I remember it today: The night Mutt left, I sat on the edge of their bed between the two of them and begged her not to go.

A lifetime would go by, it seemed, before things finally started looking up.


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