Today is my mother’s birthday and if she were alive, she would be ninety-nine years old. I am the self-appointed sentry of her memory and I think about her often as I safeguard bits and pieces of our life together. So many things remind me of the years she spent as my mother.
The South Carolina town where I grew up hosted the county fair each year. In late October or early November The Dixieland Carnival Company brought a parade of carnival rides, game booths and greasy foods up from Florida for the week. Because Daddy was a policeman, over the years he met many of the “carnies” and their families. When the midway was finally set up with tents and all manner of sucker booths, Daddy and Bernie the Bingo Man would shake hands and recharge a once-a-year acquaintance.
It was advantageous for fair folks to be on the good side of the local law and bribery was sometimes attempted, but declined by Daddy. Mama, however, was a fool for games of chance, so Bernie the Bingo Man would give her free Bingo tokens. Over time, Bernie and his wife Ava became real friends of my parents.
She was a tiny little thing, as was I back in the day, so Ava brought me her upscale hand-me-downs. She was heavy into black and totally nuts for spike-heeled shoes. Bling was her thing.
One particular October, smack in the middle of my teenagery, I had a brush with glamour gone wild, thanks to Ava. Her hand-me-downs hugged my body as though made for me. I felt like a fashionista long before there was such a word.
I put on her black silk blouse one day, and with trembling fingers fastened the showy rhinestone buttons. I stepped into Ava’s tight fitting red satin skirt and slipped my feet into her red sling-back high heels. Delicious!
While gazing at my reflection, I had a strong suspicion that something wasn’t quite up to code with my overall look. That something turned out to be my eyes.
It was 1956 and I was sixteen. I may have curled my eyelashes every now and then, but eyeliner? Mascara? Not yet! On the other hand she maintained a box full of cosmetics on her dressing table. So for the next hour, I went through that box like Sherman through Atlanta.
At last satisfied with my new look, I gingerly descended the stairs wearing Ava’s slinky clothes and her spike-heel shoes.
“I’m going to the teen dance at the church,” I said. “See y’all later.”
My mother looked up from the dress she’d been hemming, one of the many creations she often made for her only daughter. I’ll never forget the expression on her face.
She didn’t say a word but her open mouth resembled a wide-mouth bass.
Daddy had been reading the newspaper. When he looked up to say goodbye, the ragged breath he took sounded like an advanced case of emphysema.
They both must have wondered why the voice of the hussy standing before them sounded so much like their daughter. They both stared at me.
Perspiration collected under my armpits and all I could think about was the sweat stains that could ruin Ava’s silk blouse. Just at that moment, the strap on my left shoe slipped off my heel and both legs began to wobble like they had been programmed.
“Well, okay then. I’m off. See y’all later.” I wobbled toward the door but my fake bravado embarrassed even me.
Mama, having finally found her voice, cleared her throat. “Uh-uhhh. You’re not going anywhere looking like a streetwalker, young lady. You just march yourself back upstairs and put on some decent clothes.”
How could she not like my new look?
“Ava gave me these clothes, and she’s not a streetwalker. Or is she?”
Mama sighed. Daddy coughed.
“No, Ava is not a streetwalker. She’s a very nice thirty-five year old carnie and carnival people like to dress ... loud. We don’t. You don’t. So get your fanny back up those stairs and take off those clothes.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Why should I,” I sassed.
“Because I am your mother and I said so. That’s why.”
The following autumn when the County Fair came to town, Ava brought me a light blue cashmere sweater set. Mama oohed and ahhed. I don’t believe she had ever seen cashmere up close.
When I wore it the first time, she smiled. “Don’t you look sweet … just like a teenager.”
~~Cappy Hall Rearick
Cappy is a columnist, humorist and is the author a dozen books, including the novel, The Road to Hell is Seldom Seen. She has stories in the latest editions of the Not Your Mother's Book series and she writes regularly for Writer Beat, After Fifty Living, and others. Check out her website: www.simplysoutherncappy.com