Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Mother, The King, & I

My Mother, The King, and I

(originally published in BIKINI magazine)

Each of my two brothers and I inherited different things from my mother: the younger one got the sandy hair, the older the blue-green eyes, and I, the lucky one--and I say this without a trace of irony-- got her love of the King.

From the time I was eight or nine, a few years before the King collapsed on his throne, I could name all members of the Presley family (including Grandma Minnie Mae), the Memphis Mafia, and even the birth date of Lisa Marie. My mother kept scores of Elvis magazines that I would peruse at the kitchen table, full of tales of the King and Cilla, his beloved Mama, his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon (for whom my dog is named). I’d dream I was little Lisa Marie cruising around Graceland on my golf cart and waving to the throngs of fans pressed up against the wall that surrounded the mansion. My little brother and I choreographed our version of “Santa Bring my Baby Back to Me” every Christmas, and my mother would laugh and clap, her head thrown back, begging us to do it again.

She was to see him in person for the fourth time four days after his death. I remember coming into the house the day he died, eating Mr. Softee with sprinkles on my tee-shirt and ice cream coating the roof of my mouth, while my mother sat by the television on the arm of the couch and crying.

When I asked her what was wrong, all she could manage was, “Elvis is dead.” Together we sat there as the reporters came on one after another, I with my arm around her, my ice cream forgotten as it dripped on the carpet and left a gooey white paste.

* * * *

It is easy for people to assume that our love of the King stems from my father, who, even at sixty, sports a high black pompadour, wears tank tops even in frigid weather, and bench presses three hundred pounds. “Big T,” as we affectionately call him, has long been razzed about his hair, but his pompadour has nothing whatsoever to do with the King. He is simply a man of the fifties. Recently, while waiting in line at a deli counter, a man asked my father, “What are you supposed to be? An Elvis impersonator?”

If nothing else proves that Big T is no imitator, it is his answer, which came without missing a beat:

“Your mother likes it.”

As I often tell people, Big T, like the King, is his own man. There are no Electra Complexes to be found here. For my mother and me, the King is ours, and ours alone.

* * * *

My mother and I have seen the King together twice, and both events remain some of our finest moments. We visited Graceland together in 1996, an offshoot of a book tour for my first novel. When the people at Harcourt told me they were sending me to Nashville to the Southern Festival of Books, I immediately went to my map and calculated driving time to Memphis before picking up the phone to call her.

“Huh-huh, Mama,” I said, in my best Elvis drawl, “wanna make a road trip to Graceland?”

And off we went, Thelma and Louise-ing it through Tennessee in my rented car, singing Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” until the tape wore out. We stayed at the Days Inn at Graceland, complete with guitar-shaped pool and twenty-four hour Elvis movies, a hole in the bathroom door someone had kicked in--perhaps a delayed grief reaction, we later postulated, that despite the plethora of Elvis memorabilia and the constant Elvis records which played next door at the shopping plaza, the King was in fact, dead as a doornail.

On the tour bus leading us across the street and through the gates, we put on our head phones and listened to the speaker tell us the strict rules about no photography being allowed, that we were to stay behind the velvet ropes at all times, and that the King’s bedroom was strictly off -limits, much to our disappointment, even to the guards.

As we headed into the house, past the third step where Elvis had sat in that famous photograph hugging his father and crying over the death of his Mama, I reached over and held my mother’s hand. We held on through the entertainment room with its shocking white and yellow decor and three old RCA televisions, through the dining room and surprisingly tiny kitchen, and only let go when we reached the Jungle Room. Full of fur-covered couches and a fountain dripping from one wall, Priscilla told us through our headsets that Elvis bought all of the furniture in one big spree, trying to re-create the feel of Hawaii in his den.

My mother leaned over and pulled the headphones away from my ear.

“I want to take a picture,” she whispered.

I shut off my headset and scanned the room for the guard. With a thumbs-up, I stuck my head in front of her camera, gave her an Elvis sneer, and whispered, “Go for it, Mama.”

The flash lit up the room and sent orange spots shooting through my eyes.

“Who took that picture?” the guard yelled.

That night back in our room while sitting on our beds and trying not to laugh through another bad Elvis movie, my mother smiled over at me and said, “I’ll never forget how sad you looked at the Meditation Garden, looking down there at his grave.”

“I know it, Mama,” I said, curling my lip. “It’s an awful thing to be dead.”

* * * *

On our second King extravaganza, we went to see him “live” at Radio City Music Hall in 1997, twenty years after his death. He appeared on a giant screen, his disembodied voice singing along with the reunited Sweet Inspirations, his original band, and the Memphis Orchestra. We screamed, “Elvis! Elvis!”--as if he could hear us--and danced in our seats to “Walk a Mile in my Shoes,” “Polk Salad Annie,” and “See See Rider.”

In the hallway during intermission, I grabbed my camera and sidled up to an older man with a pompadour and a glittery jumpsuit.

“Can I get a picture of my mother and me with you?” I asked the man.

He leaned in closely and looked somber.

“Do you mind if I don’t?” he asked. “I don’t like to make a mockery.”

My mother pulled me by the sleeve and thanked the man over her shoulder.

“He doesn’t want to make a mockery,” she said. “And he’s dressing like a dead man.”

If nothing else, my mother and I are that rare combination--we are Elvis fans with a sense of humor.

At the finale, the closing of “The American Trilogy,” the crowd leapt to its feet. My mother leaned over and squeezed my hand.

“I wish you could have seen him when he was alive,” she said.

“Oh, Mama,” I said, “I wish so, too.”

* * * *

It hasn’t been easy being an Elvis fan, especially now that I’m a novelist. At my recent stay at the MacDowell Colony, I outed myself as an Elvis fan and read a story about a young woman whose mother sets her up on a blind date with Christ. “I got you a date with the King,” the mother says, and her daughter is upset to find that the date is not, in fact, with Elvis, but with the “King of Kings.”

The next day all the colonists received peanut-butter and banana sandwiches in the lunch baskets delivered to our studios. To another novelist in residence there, I confided that I thought I had caused some kind of karmic connection, as peanut butter and banana sandwiches were one of the King’s favorite things--second only, perhaps, to Percodan, Dilaudid, or any number of other drugs.

The novelist looked at me, walked up to where I was sitting, and said with a wry smile on her face, “I’ve realized something about you, Laurie. You’re really not kidding.”

I thought of any number of retorts sitting there, but remembered my mother and I standing shoulder to shoulder at the King’s grave, the feel of her hand as we climbed the steps to Graceland, our screams in unison at Radio City. Elvis loved his Mama, I wanted to say, and I love mine.

Instead I smiled back at her and gave her my best Elvis sneer.

“Huh-huh,” I said, “you have no idea.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Your 71st Birthday


It has become your month now, the month of you, the month in which you both entered and left this world, a month of change and flux, of the onset of colors turned in an instant and then others still coolly green--in many ways, so much like you.

Instead of turning to the end, on this day I have been trying to imagine the beginning, the beginning of you, the you who would become my father, the you who born to who must have been hopeful and proud, the day when you became their son.

I imagine the sky a bright blue, that it was warm for that time of year, that October 14 of 1939 when you came into the world and changed everything.

There are few pictures of you as a little boy, some with your sister, whom you yearned to know in those last months when the end got closer. I remember thinking how remarkable it was, how you let us see your most raw and true self, who yearned nearly sixty years later for the sister who hadn't lived long enough for him to really know. You look so happy in those pictures, in your suit and tie with your little blond sister leaning against you, your eyes crinkling up the way they always did when you laughed hardest.

And then there are the ones of you dressed in ear muffs and coat while your cousin lounges against a fence in a light jacket, the marks of what had been a fearful and overprotective mother.

My favorites are your Little League pictures, the All-Star pitcher with the killer arm. The trophies as tall as you were in your living room next to your mother in a dress, smiling, Gramps in the dugout, you looking serious, not giving the other team anything to go on.

You would like for us to think of those days, I think, when you were so young and hopeful and full of promise.

On my refrigerator I keep a picture of you from your high school yearbook. On it is stamped the words, "Unfinished File," a mark to show it has not yet been touched up, tampered with. Finished.

I don't know if you were finished at the end, Daddy...if any of us ever is.

For me--for us--you will never be finished, for you left behind love--and a missing--that stretches far beyond these days that mark time, these days when everything changed, when you came into and left this world, of this October two years past now, and all of those yet to come.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sh*t "The Woman" Said

I've been reading that book, the book born of a blog, that seems to occupy every front table in Barnes & Noble, Borders, those big wooden tables we so-called literary people secretly hope to occupy.

The book?

Sh*t My Dad Says.

And it's great. Deadpan. Hilarious. That kind of hilarious-without-trying-too-hard thing that some people are so good at.

So, as I'm reading the book in the here-and-there parts of your life that the book seems tailored to (waiting rooms, after-school pick-up, brief moments in the car, the throne), I've been thinking about how I've wanted to try blogging and had that usual sort of scorn that literary people tend to have toward such things (we are a bunch of sneerers, it's true), and today, in the car, with the book beside me, I thought about Sh-t my grandmother said.

The Woman.

That's what I called her from the time I was about fifteen until she passed away a little over two years ago. Because that's who she was. "The Woman." The Woman To End All Women.

She did try to end a few, too. And she wasn't sorry about it.

No, The Woman--My Woman--was about as ungrandmotherly as you could imagine. No soft, high yeasty smell of baked bread lingering on her apron. No candies in her housedress pocket. (She did wear a housedress, this is true, but the smell was mostly mothball-ish or the lingering lemon joy of Jean Nate'. In here earlier years, she probably also called up a Pledge scent as well, since she was forever waxing varous surfaces in varying stages of cleaning frenzy.

But the best part of The Woman was the sh*t she said.

To my brothers and me, parched outside on the back lawn in the heat after rounds of wiffel ball at (roughly) ages eleven, nine, and six, when we begged our grandfather to ask her pemission for us to be allowed inside on the over-waxed floors for a drink of water:

(From the open window): "Drink outta the hose!"

(I think we did).

To my mother on her answering machine at 4:04 pm:

"I thought you said you got home at four...ya liar!"

To me, walking in front of her as my father wheeled her back to her room (these were the nursing home days, but she could still dish it), after initially telling me that I--newly pregnant--looked "good" (a high compliment from her):

(As loudly as possible down the hall):

"Ya gained weight in the back, Laurie!"

On her nursing home roommate when I asked--foolishly--"Do you like your roommate, Woman?"

"No. Spanish!"

Oh, and the gems just kept on coming....until May 2, 2008.

When she died--and here I give you only a snippet of some of the sh*t she said--and some of the kinder sh*t, frankly--we all gathered at the funeral home for her wake. We'd asked for a deacon because no one could really tell how pious The Woman actually felt--though what she claimed was a different story--and because my uncle, her son, had died only months before and because my father, then so sick, couldn't sit through another Mass.

I can still hear the silence that followed when the deacon said to the group of us--my parents, my aunt, my brothers, my cousins, those of us who had surely known her best--"So, tell me about Catherine."

The silence lasted a good fifteen seconds when my mother finally said, "They broke the mold when they made her."

Never have I felt less envy for any human being than I did for that poor deacon, but he delivered one of the funniest, most honest, and warmest--yes, warmest--eulogies I'd ever heard.

She's gone now, of course, but sometimes, in those little moments when I'm in the car and waiting to pick up one of my kids or I'm driving past the nursing home, or when I'm reading a book, say, like this one, I think about her.

I think about The Woman.

And I think about the sh*t she said.