Mattie, Mattie, sweetheart, I love you.
It's all so surprising. Here we are, staring into the jaws of a new century and I at twenty-five years of age am left to ponder the world as if I were a woman of eighty. My remembrance, my meditation on Nick Blue—who he was and why his life was important—is a simple act by a grieving wife, yet his story cannot be told to the exclusion of mine.
For twenty-two years, I existed as that murky shadow at the far edge of your peripheral vision, a faint reminder that there are those among the living who are exceptional at no level. My head down, my shoulders slumped, my manner of dress benign and colorless, I drifted through life with singular purpose: never to draw attention to myself. Fearing both judgment and recognition, I scuttled along the fringes, noiselessly.
Today, if you pressed me to come up with something nice to say about the old Mattie I suppose it would be this: I was dully efficient. Bookish without being brilliant. Quiet without an ounce of presence. Unflagging in my devotion to sensible shoes.
Enter Nick Blue, a man who didn't have a dull bone in his body. Nick was a dreamer, a pure-hearted shrimper who could hear the wind creak through the bent wing of a roosting heron and who would whisper into that same wind, "Bring me a good haul, tonight, sweet bird."
Despite my reticent nature, Nick's charms were not wasted. The very moment he held me in his gaze, my denial of myself as a sexual being began to crumble. This isn't to say that before meeting Nick passion escaped me. I
had desires, dreams, carnal fantasies. But there were problems. One, the episodes occurred at embarrassingly infrequent intervals. And two, they invariably involved extreme flights of fancy during which for a few minutes, an hour, perhaps several weeks, I stoked the flames of a private crush on someone with whom I could never, never, never really have an affair. I was mad for old movies, you see. And I spent a rather unhealthy amount of time daydreaming about the likes of Cary Grant, Sir Laurence Olivier, Robert Mitchum, Richard
Burton, and Paul Newman. The pitfalls, I believe, are obvious.
Nevertheless, these secret one-sided romances got me through some rough spots, perhaps even saved my life, at least kept my libido in some semblance of working order because when it came to real flesh and blood passion, I'm afraid that more often than not I possessed an extreme case of cold feet. In fact, mine were frozen to the bone.
I blame my sexual stage fright on my mother. She was a withholding woman when it came to loving me. But she had other priorities. Such as the fact that Daddy was a booze hound who wandered out of our lives when I was seven.
Minutes before he disappeared into the mosquito- and gnat-infested Jacksonville Beach night, he staggered into my purple bedroom with its white
eyelet curtains that smelled of bleach and dust, shook me awake, and mumbled in a Jim Beam haze, "Matilda Fiona O'Rourke, sweetheart, I'm leaving. I'm joining the circus. Make sure your mama brings you to see me next time we roll into town."
He kissed my cheek. His day-old beard scratched my face. I looked up at him, blankly, intrigued that my daddy had aspirations beyond his job as a shipyard welder yet also confused at his intentions. I'm leaving. Two spare words tossed into the close air of my bedroom as if they held no weight. As if they wouldn't claw at my heart for the rest of my days. As if his presence in our lives didn't matter, had never mattered. I stared into his bloodshot pale eyes. They shone with tears. Or was it excitement? I reached up and touched his stubbled beard. I was Daddy's girl. His little angel. Cupcake.
"Got to, Cupcake. Time to see the world."
He tipped his finger at me in a drunken salute. Signaling his resolve, he folded in his dry, full lips and squeezed shut his eyes. "You close your eyes, too, sweetheart," he said in a slow singsong voice. "That's it. Keep 'em closed."
I heard him pick up the jewelry box he'd given me just that Christmas. When you opened the lid a ballerina popped up and spun in a perpetual pirouette to the tinny strains of Swan Lake. I loved that shiny black lacquer box and its pretty music. But on that night the song sounded warped, too slow. The little gear needed to be rewound.
Daddy said, "Gooood girl. Doooon't peeeek." His heavy footsteps glommed across the pine floor. "Just listen to the music, baby. That's right. Sweet dreeeams."
The door creaked open and he was gone. The music stopped in mid-note and I knew the ballerina was no longer dancing. I kept my eyes closed but hung on to the only thing I had left of my daddy: a sour, thin gust of Jim Beam.
I do not know if he said goodbye to my mother or not. She didn't volunteer the information. And I did not ask. In fact, she behaved as if he had never happened. After that night, the words your father, your daddy, my husband never crossed her lips.
One afternoon I came home from school and found that all physical traces of him were gone, as well. His clothes. His greasy tools. His ashtray shaped
like a bass. Even his collection of sweat-rancid baseball caps. All evidence of him kaput, except for me—that part of him she couldn't erase. My presence was a constant, painful annoyance, the rock in the shoe that wouldn't let her forget.
But she tried. By God, did she ever.
Other than to criticize or browbeat, she rarely spoke to me. I suppose that could be chalked up to her hysteria over being a single mother. But being a single parent doesn't explain her refusal to look me in the eyes or hug me or attempt a normal conversation. Maybe that's what I regret most about my unconventional upbringing. My mother and I never simply chatted. Not once. Maybe she kissed me when I was a baby. But I have searched my memory backward and forward, and for the life of me, I cannot recall one single instance of even the most summary peck on the cheek.
Her relations with men stood in night-and-day contrast to her at-arm's-length handling of me. After Daddy left, Mother spent the rest of her days becoming her own three-ring circus as she chased, entertained, and made a fool of herself over an uninterrupted series of no-good prospects who kept her ceaselessly brokenhearted. She danced for them. She cooked for them. She even shined their shoes. But none of them stuck. It was as though her vulnerability awakened their basest instincts. She was a woman cut from the same gossamer cloth as Blanche DuBois—her desperate need for a man led even the kind ones to use her.
I once saw her shimmy for a man. Through my cracked-open bedroom door, I watched—a mixture of shame, revulsion, and fascination keeping me pegged. He sat on our natty brown couch, his legs spread wide, stroking himself as my mother—with an ear-to-ear cheerleader's grin plastered on and panic filming her eyes—shook for all she was worth.
He laughed and said, "God, you're stupid." Then he grabbed her arm, tore off her panties, and shoved her down on him. She grunted and her eyes winced
with pain but she kept that smile intact, even when he smashed his lips into
The more judgmental among you might say that she suffered from some sort of sexual pathology. Being her daughter, I can't accept that Pearl Monita O'Rourke's problems boiled down to loose morals, physiologically driven or otherwise. I prefer to think that her aberrant behavior was spurred by a relentless, profound, and yet rather boring bent toward self-destruction.
Though Mother tended to ignore me in favor of her beau of the week, she occasionally tossed me blemished pearls of queenly wisdom which she fitfully
conjured during the many hours she spent on that love-stained couch smoking cigarettes and staring into space.
Sometimes her advice ran contrary to her own actions: "Don't ever believe anything a man tells you. They just want their pants washed."
I was never sure whether this was a sexual euphemism or a laundry tip.
On other occasions her words ran true to form: "Don't set your sights too high, Matilda. Don't try to be a doctor when you can marry one. And whatever
you do, don't major in English."
Mother viewed anything remotely associated with the English language as a mortal sin—grammar, spelling, literature, punctuation. That's because in the arms of a good book, I could be lost to the world for days. And while Mother didn't want to be involved in my moment-to-moment existence, she believed anything that could keep a child occupied from dawn to dusk and beyond was cause for alarm.
"Books!" she'd say. "They're rotting your brain! Why can't you just go outside and play like other children?"
When I was old enough to know about both bras and sanitary napkins, she decided it was high time for me to leave the nest. "Don't you have any prospects?" she would nag. "When I was your age I was hanging out with my friends, flirting with the boys. You're never going to get married at this rate!"
I would pause from my reading and say, "Mother, I'm only fourteen. This isn't Kuwait."
She'd look over her shoulder, her cigarette poised in the air and her eyebrow angled haughtily—an homage to Dietrich, I suppose—and she'd snap, "Don't you use those big words with me, young lady. You think you're so high and mighty. Well, you're not. You're nothing. You're no better than I am."
Her vitriolic insistence that I wasn't worth squat had its way with me. The last ambition I experienced was in eighth grade. I desperately wanted to be class secretary. The prospect of reading the minutes to my fellow classmates
filled me with the sort of joy that causes a person's toes to tingle. But I never gathered the courage to run for that office or excel in any other fashion. It was as though I lived forever in Opposite Day, a world where parents beat their breasts and pulled out their hair if their children met with success.
Mother's desire to live in a beige world unfettered by the pressures brought on by success and achievement wasn't simply because Daddy's abandonment of us had left her stark, raving mad. Not in the least. You see, my mother believed in mediocrity. She saw its potential. She thought that if everyone lived life haphazardly and half-assed, there would be no wars. She once said to me, "Matilda, overachievers are the unhappiest people in the world. They have ulcers and bad hearts. They make the rest of us uncomfortable."
Her faith in mediocrity was buoyed by her abiding laziness. Mother's was a life of sloppy hems, dirty floors, smeared mascara, a terrifyingly long succession of Patio Mexican TV Dinners, and inspirational platitudes feverishly ripped out of Reader's Digest and left to curl and rot on the refrigerator door.
She did manage, however, to become an Avon lady. She rarely got her orders exactly right and she often forgot to turn in her paperwork, but she could match eye shadows with nail colors like nobody's business. And I, for one, was fascinated by the lipstick samples that came in diminutive white tubes and were, in retrospect, shaped like miniature nuclear cooling towers.
If Mother caught me lingering over even so much as a nail polish she'd say breezily, the glint of a razor shimmering in her voice, "Hands off!" So I'd wait for her to go pick up a quart of milk at Winn-Dixie or to the movies with her man of the hour and then I'd rummage through the samples—Lilting Lilac eye shadow, Perfect Petal blush, Rendezvous Red lip gloss—momentarily believing with all my heart that cosmetics held the key to my future, that they would transform me into a grown-up woman who was as mysterious as she was alluring, a seductress who by the grace of God also managed to be of the highest moral fiber. Joan of Arc, Joan Crawford, and Joan Jett all wrapped into one fabulous package.
After spending a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV watching Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, I stole from Mother's Avon-issued box of magic tricks the darkest eye shadow they made. Midnight Blue. Cream-based. I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and smeared it on. Two sweeping half moons that dramatically narrowed into cat-eye points at my temples. With my fair complexion, red hair, and blue eyes, the shadow made me look like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and the Joker. But at the time, I thought I was a
knockout. That is, until my mother busted into my bedroom, took one horrified look, and proceeded to smack my face and shoulders, again and again, shouting that I was nothing but a show-off and she wouldn't have it. She just wouldn't.
To this day it annoys me that she was determined to keep all the Avon for herself. But perhaps her behavior was motivated by her sheer love for the stuff. Her favorite scent was Hawaiian Ginger and she'd drench herself in it
even if she wasn't going anywhere. When she did make sales calls, she'd plaster onto her small face all the beauty products she could possibly manage—she was a thin tart of a woman—and inevitably her cheerleader smile would be compromised by lipstick-flecked teeth, a sin I vowed to never repeat.
Here's the enduring image I have of my mother: her leaving the house in a bright pink suit she bought at a church tag sale—her lip color the exact shade as her cotton candy blazer—lugging her samples to our VW, teetering on secondhand patent leather pumps, her golden hair falling messily out of the fancy bun she'd just spent thirty minutes fitfully pinning and spraying, sometimes yelling over her shoulder that she wouldn't have to work so hard if I weren't such a money pit.
As you can see, she was not a perfect mother. And even though in her entire life she never once told me she loved me, I have to believe she did. The alternative is too damaging to live with.
My feelings for her are, I admit, tangled. Sometimes untouchable. But when the recriminations, self-flagellation, and anger have waned, I am always left with this: I did feel a certain affection for her. Maybe it was love. Or pity. I'm not sure. But I know that even before Daddy disappeared into the night in search of the Greatest Show on Earth, I desperately wanted to please her, which meant not doing anything to attract attention or draw it away from her. So I
kept my dreams to myself, painted my face when she wasn't home, learned to lock my bedroom door, pushed aside the occasional renegade aspiration, and slouched my way through the small secret pieties of inconspicuous survival. I did it for her and for me. Compliance was easier than confrontation and far safer than doing anything that might inspire or compel her to become a better mother. And although I understand that the healing and raising of a parent is not a child's job, I regret that I lacked the gumption to try.
Excerpted from Remembering Blue by Connie May Fowler. Copyright © 2001 by Connie May Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.