And now I’d like to go down memory lane again and talk about a unique member of my family, Big Mommy.
When I talk about “Daddy”, I’m actually talking about my step-father. But he’s been my Daddy since he married my mother when I was 5 years old and raised me and my brother as his own. But talk about two different worlds. Mami was born in Havana, Cuba and grew up a member of three yacht clubs with a nanny and a lamb (well, ok, she only had the lamb for a weekend, but that’s longer than I ever had a lamb). Daddy’s family is from Georgia – from a line of old peanut farmers – and even though his parents ended up having their own successful sandblasting business, they were still Southerners through and through.
The matriarch of the family was none other than Daddy’s mother, Margaret. But my brother and I called her Big Mommy. Now Big Mommy was no fading Southern violet. She weren’t barefoot with long hair and overalls, neither. She was a glamorous firecracker who blazed trails from Jacksonville to Baton Rouge in her El Dorado, with her scarlet nails and bouffant hairdo. She wore heels so much she had a permanent arch in her feet that kept her from ever being able to walk flat footed. She’d plucked every follicle from her eyebrows when she was young (as was the trend at the time) and painted them on every day (though sometimes she was so heavy-handed she looked like Uncle Leo when Elaine painted on his eyebrows with a Sharpie).
But she was still a Southern belle. Most Sunday dinners (ie, lunch) she’d make a big spread and we’d all gather around. I always knew where my seat was because of the sole glass of water in a sea of iced tea. You see, I was not a very Southern gal. I did NOT like ice tea (still don’t). I was a fussy eater, too. I was already trying to get away with just eating cereal for every meal. So things like fried green tomatoes and black eyed peas held no appeal for me. I’m sure I was a bit of a black sheep to Daddy’s side of the family.
But I always loved at least two things Big Mommy made: skillet cornbread and fried chicken. And I have to say, of the two, I was in love with the cornbread the most. First of all, it was bread, which was the only food group I was interested in at the time. Secondly, she baked it in a cast iron skillet and I always thought that was just so neat. I never saw any other bread cooked that way. And it weren’t none of that sweet cornbread mess you find elsewhere (otherwise known as Yankeeland). This was hearty, almost dense, savory bread. Hell, you could almost give someone a concussion with it, but it was heaven to me. Sometimes she’d add some cracklin’ (that’s Southern for fried pig’s skin – yeah, sometimes it’s better just not to know these things). Sometimes there’d be jalapenos. And I would just gobble it down – slowly moving and arranging the ham and tomatoes and other stuff around my plate so it looked like I’d actually eaten the other things. (Thankfully I have widened my gustatory repertoire so that if I went back in time, I’d be gobbling down a whole lotta other things. But that was then and this is now.)
Oh lawsie and that voice. Lots of other Americans don’t realize that there are many, many Southern accents out there. And Jacksonville itself, being a major crossroads in the Southeast where I-10 and I-95 intersect, is FULL of them, as well as sounds from many other cultural communities. A lot of Daddy’s family have this smooth as silk, buttery accent that flows up and down and falls softly on the ear. But Big Mommy, bless her soul, had a voice like a gravel road. It was loud and caustic and when she called my parents on the telephone, I could hear her end of the conversation from another floor of the house. But she sho’ nuff always got her point across. I’d cringe sometimes listening to her – but I was also fascinated by the terms she’d use – ‘gimme some sugar’, ‘let me hug yer neck’, ‘laaawd have mercy’.
And I never thought she liked me. Well, it was a big deal when Daddy married a divorced Cuban with two small children back in 1973. In fact, I believe it was the most ‘mixed’ marriage that side of the family had experienced. We talked funny (well, my mother technically ‘talked funny’ – my brother and I watched so much TV we ended up having more of a boring, standard American accent). And I was a girl. Big Mommy most definitely seemed to prefer men. She coddled them, cleaned for them, cooked for them. She was a Southern queen bee in her glory when the men folk were around. Even my brother seemed to get more attention than me. And to my horror, Big Mommy would proudly claim to never having read a book voluntarily in her life. She certainly thought I was a strange girl with my nose permanently stuck in a book.
But when I started performing on stage in theater or singing while playing guitar, she was completely on board. She’d say “That girl’s just like me, she’s got personality plus!” (only it was more like “That gull’s jist lahk me, she got puh-sonality plus!” Love it.) While being a mother and taking care of the family business, she still always had this flair, this sense of drama. One of her prized possessions was a long sequined dress. It was black with gold starbursts emanating from her shoulders (w/ pads of course). The beading alone weighed a ton but it made her feel like a movie star. Oh, and she loooooved Elvis. If he was crooning on the radio or TV, I’d sometimes spy her doin’ a little twirl in the kitchen, reliving some long gone social from her youth. It always tickled me to think of Big Mommy as a rock ‘n roll fan.
Still we were different as different could be. She didn’t believe in allergies or dental care and I did. She believed in bathing babies in Tide and I didn’t. We never spent much time alone and I figured that was just how things were between us. And when she died in 1996 and I walked into the chapel for the viewing and saw her in the coffin, I convulsed into tears on the spot. As aloof as she sometimes was with her affection, I suddenly realized how much I loved her and would have given anything to hear that gravelly voice and have some of that heavenly cornbread. And, as happens after you lose someone, I learned so much more about her. How she was a tomboy growing up, how she played a mean game of basketball, and how much she’d bragged about me to other folks.
She left me the sparkly dress but when I think of her, I see her wearing it with metallic gold stilettos, her head flung back, scarlet nails a’snappin’, doing the jitterbug with Elvis for all eternity.