Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dr. Smelly

While shopping the other day, I overheard a woman say, “I need candles; my house is smelly,” and it brought back a memory of Lorene so vivid that I almost burst out laughing. And then, I felt sad.

Lorene was Bill’s stepmother and in her eighties. Although she was financially secure, and could have done just about anything she wanted, she never went anywhere. Her friend, Mary, handled her finances and chauffeured her around; other friends mowed her lawn and did odd jobs around her house, offering to take her to church and out to lunch or dinner. But she spent most days in her blue recliner, her Chihuahua perched in her lap, gazing out the window.

We visited her two or three times a year, and when we arrived at her house just about this time last year, she met us at the door in her pajamas.

"I thought y’all would be here sooner!” she said, “I was getting ready to just lock up the house and go ahead on to bed!"

She dropped her long, thin body into her recliner and pulled the lever, sending her feet high in the air. "Bella’s walking funny,” she said, “Y’all have got to take us to the vet."

I looked at Bella, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes at me. The dog had been taken to the vet so many times in her 11 years that her tiny body quivered and quaked at the mention of “The Vet.”

“Y’all have got to take me to Dr. Smelly tomorrow, too,” she said.

“Smelly?” I said, trying to stifle a giggle, “Did you say ‘Dr. Smelly’?”

She pulled the lever again and slid to the edge of the chair. “Yes, her name is Dr. Smelly,” she said, “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” I said, “With a name like Wooley, I can’t talk. But you should not be going to a smelly doctor.”

She jumped up, glowering at me, and I broke into a torrent of giggles. We always tried to deal with Lorene’s crankiness with humor, but I knew I was carrying it a bit too far.

"I don't believe in making fun of nobody," she said, "Dr. Smelly can't help what her name is!"

"Does she stink?" Bill quipped.

"Y’all ought to be ashamed of yourselves," Lorene replied, "Dr. Smelly is a very nice doctor!" She got up, stormed to her bedroom and slammed the door.

The next day, we drove her to Dr. Smelly’s office and the pharmacy.

"Y'all are gonna have to take me to Wal-Mart," she said, after we picked up her prescriptions.

We accompanied her up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart, looking for batteries, denture adhesive, a special unscented hand lotion, and hot chili peppers. She mixed them with everything she ate—from beans to scrambled eggs.

As we were heading toward the check-out, Lorene stopped, “I need rubber gloves.”

I volunteered to get the gloves for her, since they were on the other side of the store, but when I handed them to her, you would have thought I had presented her with a dead rat.

“They ain’t the right kind,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “These ain’t worth a toot!”

The following day, we took Bella to the vet. The diagnosis was arthritis, so we went back to the pharmacy for dog medication and back to Wal-Mart for dog food.

When Bill said he would wait in the car, I made a face at him.

I thought things were going well. We strolled along, laughing and talking, filling the cart with everything she wanted, and I was congratulating myself on being such a congenial companion. But something changed on our way back to the car.

“She run off and left me," she told Bill, “She run clear off!”

Actually, I had stepped over to the next aisle for Pepto Bismol. For some reason, my stomach was upset.

Evenings, after dinner, Bill and I usually retired to the front porch. Lorene couldn’t join us, she said, because she was allergic to mold.

We enjoyed those times; being back home put Bill in a reflective mood. He talked about growing up in the Deep South, running around in the hills and hollows of Alabama, the church where he was subjected to hellfire and damnation sermons each Sunday, and being pushed out of his home when he was only 15.

“I had to leave,” he said, “I tried to get along with Lorene, but she lied to Dad, telling him I wouldn't do my chores and causing all kinds of trouble.”

“I’m surprised you even want to visit her now,” I said.

“She’s just an old, lonely woman, now,” he said, “With nobody, really.”

“Well,” I said, feeling guilty, “I guess you’re right.”

Suddenly, Lorene appeared. “Y’all are sitting out here because y’all don’t want to be around me!” She placed her hands on her hips and gazed at her neighbor’s neat little house, “Has Buford been over here?”

Buford was in his eighties and a very nice man; Bill had known him all his life. He sometimes stood at the fence, talking to us, when Lorene was not around.

“His granddaddy was his daddy, you know,” she said, “And I don’t want to have nothing to do with people like them.”

"I don't know how much more we can take," Bill said as we were preparing for bed that night.

Lorene burst into our bedroom the next morning, Bella at her heels. “Y’all have got to take us to The Vet,” she said, “One of Bella’s eyes don't look right.”

Bill and I looked at each other, and Bella looked up at us. Her body began to quiver and quake, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes at me again. Was there actually something wrong with her eyes, or was she the most intuitive pooch on the planet?

“You’re gonna have to take me back to Dr. Smelly, too,” she said, “My sinuses are acting up worse than ever.”

We made another trip to Dr. Smelly’s office, then on to The Vet’s office, where he determined there was nothing wrong with Bella’s eye.

"We're going home tomorrow," Bill said that night, "And I don't know if we'll ever be back."

The next morning I found Bill and Lorene drinking coffee at the kitchen table. “I just don’t know what I’d do without Dr. Smelly,” she was saying, “I dearly love Dr. Smelly.”

I burst out giggling. "I smelled a foul odor in Dr. Smelly's waiting room," I said.

"It was Dr. Smelly," Bill said.

Lorene grabbed a bag of Doritos and a jar of chili peppers, stormed into the living room and reared back in her recliner. She pulled the handle, feet flying into the air, and turned the television to the Andy Griffith Show. She hardly spoke to us the rest of the day.

As we were preparing to leave the next morning, the pharmacy called to tell Lorene she had forgotten a prescription, so we headed to Tuscaloosa again. On our way home, Lorene started to cry.

“I wish y’all would move in with me,” she said, “Then you could take me everywhere and I wouldn’t have to pay Mary to take me around.”

“Lorene, we’ve told you before,” I said, “You could move to Kentucky.”

She cocked her grey head, “Now, what would I do up there?”

“The same thing you do down here,” Bill said.

She burst into tears again as Bill was loading our luggage. “I ain’t no good to nobody,” she said.

“Oh, Lorene,” Bill said, patting her shoulder, “Don’t talk like that.”

We both hugged her, and I hooked my arm through hers as we walked to the car. “I bet I never see y’all again,” she said, wiping her tears with a crumpled tissue, “Never.”

“You say that every time we visit,” Bill said, “You know we’ll be back, maybe Christmas.”

“Nobody cares nothing about me,” she said, “And I always treated folks real good.”

“I know,” Bill said.

“I always treated you real good, didn’t I, Billy?”

“Yes, Lorene, you did.”

As we drove away, Lorene stood in the yard, Bella in her arms, waving until we were out of sight.

Bill sighed as we pulled out on the highway, “Maybe we will come back around Christmas time,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “Maybe we will.”

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis: He gave us all he had.

As most everyone knows, today is the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, but since we still hear his songs often, it is hard to believe he’s gone.
It was January, 1956, when I laid eyes on Elvis for the first time. I was 15 years old. Mother had just finished hemming a dress she had made for me—green-and-white checked, with a dropped waist and square neck—and I was pressing it on the ironing board in the living room. The rest of the family was back in the family room, watching the Jimmy Dorsey Show.

I had just tried on the dress, and Mother was checking the hem, when all of a sudden we heard clapping and screaming coming from the television. We rushed out to the family room, where we saw a handsome, young, greasy-haired guy jumping around and swiveling his hips. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” he squalled, “cryin’ all the time...”

“What on earth?” Mother said.

“Good god!” Daddy said.

Terry, Patsy, Mary Ellen and I were spellbound, and our little brothers and sisters didn't know what to think. Terry looked at us and raised his eyebrows, and we all burst into laughter. I wanted to start jitterbugging, which I had never been able to do every well, and I knew my sisters wanted to do the same. But we knew better; Daddy would never stand for that.

My mother, siblings and I stood in amazement. Daddy? He was tapping his foot, a look of disgust on his face.

The next day at school, everyone was talking about “that swinging singer from down in Memphis.” My friend, Sarah Mae, talked about him all day long and confided that she had a sexy dream about him that night after the show.

Elvis appeared on the Dorsey Show several more times, and we never missed it. By the time he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, on September 9 of that year, every teenager I knew watched it. (I later learned that an estimated 52 million people—one out of three Americans—tuned in.) He did not disappoint us, singing Don’t be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and Hound Dog.

Church people all over the country were outraged, some ministers ordering teenagers to destroy their Elvis records. “We are not going to stand for this,” one said, “This is the work of the devil!”

“The world's going to hell in a hand basket,” a neighbor said.

In November, Elvis’s first movie premiered. Patsy and I went to Memphis with Maw Maw Wilson to spend Thanksgiving with Aunt Mora and family, and cousin Clydeane took us to see Love Me Tender.

“He can’t act very good,” I said.

“Yes, especially when he died,” Patsy said.

The next night, we were in for a surprise. “Do y’all want to go see Elvis's house?” cousin Joe said.
We were beside ourselves. Here is my journal entry from November 22, 1956:

Joe took us to Elvis’s house! When he pulled up in front, we saw a pink Cadillac and another Cadillac in the driveway. There were two or three motorcycles, too. Joe said Elvis must be home. THEN, all of a sudden we saw somebody in the living room looking out the blinds. Joe said it looked like ELVIS! And it DID look like Elvis! I kept wishing he would come OUT! THEN a police car drove up and we had to go!!! There were music notes on the FENCE, and it looked just like it did in the movie magazines!!!

(Before Graceland, it was the first home Elvis bought for Gladys, a ranch-style house on Audubon Street.)

I saw Love Me Tender again, with Sarah Mae, when it came to Bardwell. She was mesmerized. I kept punching her arm to get her attention, but it did no good. She simply did not hear me.

“I love him,” she said as we walked out of the theatre, “I absolutely love him.”

The following year, word went around school that Elvis was coming to Paducah.

“When he comes to Paducah,” classmate Joyce Gail said, “My daddy said I could go.”

I knew I didn’t have a chance in the world of going. Someone said the tickets would be $6.50.

As it turned out, Elvis never came to Paducah. But he and a bunch of friends came through Bardwell in his pink Cadillac one night in 1957. They stopped at the D-X Station on Highway 51, and, according to the little man who owned the place and several lucky customers, he bought gas, RC colas, Moon Pies and candy bars. Patsy and I never forgave ourselves for not being there for the big event, since we often stopped at the D-X for Cokes.
The years slipped by. I graduated from high school and business college, got married and moved to Chicago, then Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, where Suzanne was born.
In the early fall of 1976, I learned that Elvis would be performing live at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

“We’re going,” I said.

“We’d never get in,” Carroll said, “There'd be such a crowd.”

“We’re going.”

“I don’t want to go,” Suzanne said, “He’s a has-been.”

Suzanne had been forced to listen to my music—Elvis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and other fifties singers—while she was growing up, but now she was becoming her own person. She was into Captain & Tennille and Abba, Elton John and Kiki Dee, and TV shows like Cher and Charlie's Angels.

Nevertheless, on Friday, October 22, 1976, we rushed home from work, changed, and after a quick supper, drove to the University of Illinois in Champaign. The show would not begin until 8:30, but Carroll wanted to get a good parking place.

We were in for a shock, totally unprepared for what we saw when we got to the Assembly Hall. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace, policemen were everywhere, and cars were lined up as far as the eye could see.

“I knew it would be this way,” muttered Carroll.

Still, I knew he was excited. He kept putting the back of his hand to his mouth as we eased along, which he did only when he was nervous. Suzanne, an astonished look on her face, sat perched on the edge of her seat.

After finally finding a parking place, we joined thousands of people in the long trek across the parking lot, fighting hundreds more to get inside.

“I’ll give you $200 for every ticket you got,” yelled a man in a wide-brimmed hat.

“I’ll give you $250,” yelled another.

“We should sell these tickets,” Carroll said, “That’s a profit of about $700!”

“I’ll sell mine,” Suzanne said, “If I can keep the money.”

By the time we got in and seated, excitement was accelerating. The place was packed, and it’s no wonder; I later learned 17,000 people attended the concert. There were young couples, mothers with babies, elderly people (some in wheelchairs), teenagers, people dressed in jeans, others dressed in formal clothes, and one woman wearing a sequined shirt, Elvis’s face splashed across her breasts.

When they began playing C C Rider, a hush swept over the audience. The music got louder, the lights flashed on, and there he was. The King. In person!
He was heavy and looked uncomfortable in his glittery white suit and cape, but he gave the audience his beautiful smile and immediately belted out the first words of Jail House Rock.
Everyone jumped to their feet. I don’t even remember jumping up; all of a sudden I was up. Along with Carroll and Suzanne. The roar of the crowd was deafening, the air filled with electricity; the excitement palpable.

He sang many songs, including You Gave Me A Mountain, All Shook Up, Hound Dog, and three of my early-Elvis favorites, Don’t be Cruel, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, and I Was the One. His last song was Dixie, and he sang it with such passion that I thought my heart would break. Although he was heavy, and not as handsome as he once was, his voice was still the same.

The crowd couldn’t quit clapping and cheering. He came back several times, waving and bowing, and, despite never wanting him to leave the stage, I knew he should. He looked exhausted, spent, his face wet with perspiration. He gave us all he had.
When the announcer said, “Elvis has left the building,” there was almost total silence, and then we quietly and solemnly filed out of the auditorium.
On August 16, 1977, I turned on the radio as I was heading home from work. The first words I heard were, "Elvis Presley...dead at 42.”

Elvis? Gone? Was this a joke?

Sadly, it was not a joke, and I spent the rest of the evening in shock.
“Thank heavens we went to see him when we did,” I said.

This time, Suzanne and her father agreed.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Especially Mother

Last Sunday was my birthday, so Bill and I drove to Bardwell to celebrate at one of my favorite places: Mother’s house. Suzanne joined us, as well as sisters Patsy, Mary Ellen and Eva, and brother, Tom, Aunt Mona and cousin Dennis.

We enjoyed birthday cake (made by Mother, of course) and chocolate ice cream (my favorite), then we sat at the dining table, sipping coffee, catching up on the latest happenings in Bardwell, and bragging about our grandchildren, and in some cases, great-grandchildren. (Mary Ellen has a new great-granddaughter, and Patsy is eagerly anticipating the arrival of her first great-grandchild, a boy, in October).

After all my gifts were unwrapped, cards read, and everyone thanked and hugged, we reminisced about my 15th birthday, when three of us--and Mother--almost drowned in Maw Maw Wilson’s pond. We also talked about the cold February night when Maw Maw and Paw Paw George’s house burned, and, as she does every year on each child’s birthday, Mother reminisced about the night I was born.

Mother was 19 when she gave birth to me at home on that hot and muggy night in August. The family doctor came as soon as he was called and stayed throughout the night, delivering me at 11:59 p.m. on August 5th. My 23-year-old father and both grandmothers were there, as well as 20-month-old Terry, who slept through it all. Maw Maw Wilson and Maw Maw George gave me my first bath by the light of the kerosene lamps. Electricity had not yet come to our part of the world; we would not have electric lights until we moved to the big brick house Daddy built when I was seven years old.

Since that August night so many years ago, Mother has given birth to nine more children. We lost Terry when he was 37, and Tim, when he was 28. Another brother, Tommy, lived only five days.

Despite the heartache and grief of losing three sons, two grandchildren, as well as Daddy (the love of her life), and many other loved ones, Mother just keeps on keeping on.

“I had to,” she says, “for you kids.”

Eighty-six, and looking a good 10 years younger, she is truly the heart of our family. Selfless, devoted, loving and always there for us, I really don’t know what we would do without her. (The photo above captures her essence; it was taken by my lovely niece, Christa.)

Mother and I are night owls, so we have long, late-night phone conversations at least four or five times a week.

“Hello, Brenda Gail,” she says, “How are y’all?”

Mother and I are alike in many other ways; we love poetry, good books, antiques, old family pictures, comfortable, worn furniture and cozy rooms with crackling fires. We enjoy thunderstorms, foggy nights, frogs croaking, the Katydids’ song, and the scent of fresh-cut grass. We love the silence of new-fallen snow on cold winter nights, the scent of beef stew or hearty soups simmering on the stove, and curling up in our warm robes, writing in our journals or reading. And we love tear-jerker movies, such as “Trip to Bountiful,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “The Whales of August,”

We also read The National Enquirer. Why? Because inquiring minds want to know!

“Mary Tyler Moore looks like a caricature,” I say, “She’s all mouth.”

“If Barbara Walters has another facelift, she won’t be able to open her mouth,” says Mother, giggling.

We have read every book written about the Kennedys and thirst for more.

“Did you see on Larry King where somebody has written another one?” Mother says, “We’ve just got to get that.”

“Is it the one about Jackie and Bobby?” I say, “There’s no telling what we’ll find out.”

And the Royals:

“I don’t care what they say,” Mother says, “Princess Di was murdered!”

“Yes," I say, “Common sense tells you that!”

Mother and I often have the same ideas at the same time. When she began reading Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life,” at our literary meeting last month, I was amazed. No more than a week before, I had copied the poem and put it into my “Favorite Poems” folder. Mother had no idea I copied the poem, and I had no idea she was going to read it. We had never even talked about liking the poem. And she read it from a book of poetry I had given her in 1974. One of many synchronous moments!

Late that night, after my very enjoyable day, I sat in quiet contemplation, giving thanks for all the people in my life: my husband, daughter, grandson, and my large, supportive family whose unconditional love is always there. Especially Mother. Who, whether she knows it or not, is still achieving and still pursuing.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley