Sunday, June 1, 2008


(Mary Jo Atkins, Midcontinent Supply, Bowie, Texas, 1945)

When I was 13 we moved back to the tiny North Texas town where my mother, her mother, and three generations before that had grown up (and gone to the same school). What remained was the school, a gas station, and an occasionally-meeting Baptist church, plus houses and trailers of people who had not yet moved away.

My mother was valedictorian in high school. She was also two years younger than her classmates because she had twice been moved ahead a grade. Smart as hell. And, I slowly learned, had a wild streak. Her father was a Wobbly and that whole line was radical as well as bookish, so I figure it comes from them.

After we moved back to that town, from the people who knew my mother when she was a teenager, I learned things nobody else in our family had a clue about. Because of our relationship, I was able to go to her and ask her about these rumors. Most of them turned out to be true. The one that was false is that she had an abortion as a teenager -- which did seem far-fetched, given the region and the era.

Mama used her young age as an excuse not to date boys individually. She'd go out with groups of friends, but her scrapbook was choked with photos of the girls she knew, not boys. When she was 16 and had just graduated, that summer she had an affair with another girl, some years older than Mama, named Mary Nell Howard. Mary Nell had a motorcycle, which was an extraordinary rarity in 1943 in rural Texas. She would pull up to the farmhouse, Mama would run out and hop on the back, and away they'd go. Montague County was dry (as was most of North Texas). You had to cross the state line into Oklahoma to get liquor. But Mary Nell knew an Italian immigrant in the county seat who made bootleg chianti, so they'd roar over to his place and pick up a bottle, which Mama would hold in public view as they zoomed off to wherever they went -- some place out in the boonies -- to drink and make love.

One weekend Mary Nell didn't show. Mama had gotten a job in the nearby Big Town, Bowie (population 3000) as a secretary, so she went off to work on Monday worried sick. That evening, Mary Nell showed up wearing a cheap gold band. She had gone to Wichita Falls with some folks, gotten drunk and married an airman. The breakup was just that brutal. Mama nearly died. Her childhood friend, Son Henry (a distant cousin), talked her through the next few weeks.

Thing is, Son had been in love with Mama all their lives. His sister Margie was Mama's best friend, same grade, and Son was waiting for Mama to love him back.

Mama instead focused on her job, and quickly got promoted from secretary to bookkeeper at Midcontinent Supply. She still ran around with her friends, but she garnered the attention of the manager at her job, a married man named Johnny Cooper. Johnny was half Comanche, and his wife was not just full-blood but a member of a prominent tribal family across the border in Oklahoma. Johnny lived in Bowie during the week and went home to his family on the weekends.

Eventually Johnny hit on Mama, and, with no word ever from Mary Nell, she said sure, why not. They began having an affair. Despite Johnny's efforts, the scandal of course broke. After a few months, one day while Johnny was out of the office, a well-dressed older woman pulled up in a nice car and came in, looking for Mama. It was his wife, driving down from Oklahoma. She said, in a voice everyone else could hear, "So you're the piece of trash who's been shacking up with my husband. Well, honey, have fun while you can. He'll never leave me -- I've got control of the money. You're not his first and you won't be his last." Then she turned and left.

Mama was beside herself. Once again, she turned to Son Henry. She wanted to be done with Johnny, but she was afraid if she broke up with him, he'd fire her. And she really wanted that job. It was her doorway to independence. So she and Son came up with a plan. They let themselves be seen on main street in Son's open roadster with a bottle of whiskey on the seat between them and a folded blanket in the back seat. They headed slowly out of town and went to the lake, where Mama sat on the blanket and drank steadily, weeping not over Johnny but Mary Nell, while Son tended a small fire and kept his hands to himself. In the morning, they made sure to be seen at a local diner.

That's all it took. Word got back to Johnny swiftly. He confronted Mama, saying everybody knew Son was in love with her (which was jolting news to her) and now she'd cheated on him. He did fire her, after all. When I was in high school, Johnny was elected mayor of another nearby town. I never caught a glimpse of him, though.

Mama went to work as a soda jerk at a drugstore. Crappy pay, but one of her good friends worked the same shift with her and they were both lookers, got some tips that way. A crew of doodlebuggers was in town, looking for oil. They heard about the gorgeous babes making ice cream sundaes at the drugstore, and one night after work, a few of them dropped in to order shakes and have an ogle. One of the young men asked if he could come back after the drugstore closed and walk Mama home to her boarding house. She said sure, why not. Five weeks later they got married by a Justice of the Peace. That was my father.

He told me, several times, that he fell in love with her the minute he laid eyes on her. My mother, on the other hand, said that Daddy looked kind and he promised they would live in Bowie so she could find bookkeeping work, advance a career but stay close to her friends. She was right about the kind part, but not anything else.

When I was 17 and fell in love with my high school history teacher, and our affair was the talk not just of our town but the entire county, Mama pulled me into her bedroom one day after school and told me about her and Mary Nell, about Son and Johnny. She said I was going to get shredded, that this teacher would leave me to return to her husband. Then she said "I learned to stick to men, honey, because they'll never get close enough to break my heart."

But I had a date to meet my new lover out in the country, and I sat there impatiently, finally saying "I'm not you, Mama. Can I go now?"

I have a photo of Mary Nell. I'd give a hell of a lot to talk with her, but have not been able to track her down. After Mama died, I was the only person in our family who knew any of this. But the only reason I knew it, really, was because of the stories I heard from Mama's high school friends. When I began turning out like Mama, well, you can just imagine the gossip. And, of course, I followed up on what I heard with Mama. She and I talked, really talked. Even when it was godawful uncomfortable. I've kept her secrets until now. The rest of my family is dead, and it was a benign secret.

Or maybe not. Maybe Mary Nell took real advantage of my mother, as I have come to understand that the high school teacher, five years my senior, had no business on earth becoming lovers with me. I insisted it was love, it did me no harm, I wanted her. Now, thirty years on, I can see it was in fact part of my training as an object of abuse, welcoming the sexual attention of someone older and much more powerful than me. Despite the fact that we lasted five years, and I got a daughter out of it, I still wish I had not been lovers with her, after all. Some lessons come harder than others. We had no chance of ever being equals. And I've learned that power imbalance is actually not erotic, after all.

Ten years ago I ran across a photo of Mama's mama, Hettie, wearing a man's suit and bowler, in a passionate clinch with another woman. I pointed to the photo and hoarsely asked Hettie's sister, my Great-Aunt Lee, what that was all about. She laughed merrily and said "Oh, your grandma, she liked to dress up and play-act. It didn't mean anything." But Hettie married late, and only after the woman in the photo, Nora Armstrong, left for Fort Worth to work in a department store as a sales manager. Nora never married. Hettie died a year after Mama was born, so neither of us knew her. Still, I consider myself third-generation Lesbian.

Except we all collected our identities in different ways. I used what was available to me in the mid 1970s, a freedom they could not have imagined. I didn't ever have to bend my will to that of a man, not with regards to intimacy. I can't speak for them. I can pass on Mama's quote for what it's worth, but she also did come to love my father. Though I very much doubt it was ever as much as she loved Mary Nell. That's my bias. I could be wrong. If someone appears to shed more light, I'll be sure to listen.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Was this hard to tell, Maggie? I hear your pride in being a third- generation lesbian.