This is just one part of a much larger story.
Growing up in the South
In the deep south, along the gulf coast of Mississippi, Gayle Marie was born, her mother and father’s only child, the treasure of their hearts. In true southern tradition, Gayle Marie was raised by her mother, but her many daily needs like feeding, diapers, and such were entrusted to the care of a “mammy”. In this case though, Molly was as much mommy as mammy for she loved this little blue-eyed treasure dearly and watched over her as protectively as a mother bear over a cub and George and Marie couldn’t have been happier about that. This little darling blossomed under the love and tutelage of her mother, and the care and watchful eye of her mammy, and was completely spoiled at every opportunity by by her doting father.
Unknown to all but George and Marie, Molly had graduated from a northern university with a degree in literature and home ecconomics. Molly and George had been classmates in his senior year and when he found out that Molly couldn’t find any suitable work, he had offered her the job of managing the business of his household in order to free Marie to continue her volunteer work and to have more time to spend with their daughter. The job of mammy had been Molly’s idea from the start and both Marie and George were happy to accept her offer. Molly was eager that her little charge experience the world of books, stories, literature, and poetry, as well as proper care of a house and home. The upbringing of a proper southern young lady left to Marie. Thus, to this end, Molly emmersed herself into the culture of a southern lifestyle. To the world outside of “the farm”, Molly was just seen as “hired help”, but behind this orchastrated facade, she was family.
Life moves slowly in the south. The baby in the cradle, smiling and cooing, was coddled and wrapped in a cocoon of love by all around her. All too soon though, she was crawling through the house. Then came the afternoon, while in her father’s study, she called to him, “Dada”! . and took her first steps alone across the office floor to her astounded and adoring father, who then called her mother and Molly to witness this minor miracle. Then came the “terrible two’s” which weren’t quite terrible, and gradually, under the tutelage of her mother, and the oversight of her mammy, she matured into the gentility of southern childhood, though sometimes with a bit of attitude.
Gayle, as a child, was cute, always a bit thin, but fearlessly adventurous. At the age of 5 she was riding horses, swimming, and starting to learn piano, which she loved and was an apt pupil. There were no close neighbor children near the farm so she was left to entertain herself, except when cousins came to visit. She never looked forward to that though because they would try to push her around and would call her derogitory names. No one took it seriously at first.
“Mammy, do I have to go to that dumb party at Cousin Jennie’s house”? She pouted and stared out the kitchen window at the horses running in the pasture near the stable. “Yes, darlin’ y’all have to go to that sioree. It be the proper social behavior for a young lady such as yourself, ‘sides, y’all know they’ll be ice cream and cake and a lot of games and fun. Y’all just run up to your room and change to that dress your momma put on y’alls bed now. Get on little one”! A bit later she was off and, in due time, delivered at the party. As Molly had told her, there was plenty of cake and ice cream but after the games had started, less than pleasant things began to happen. Some of the other children were less than sensitive and began calling her “skinny”, “scarecrow”, “y’all just mud ugly”, and she ran from the house, hurt, angry, and tearful. When her mother came out to find out what had happened, she refused to go back to the house or the party. She just wanted to go home. She sat quietly and stared out the side window on the way home, refusing to answer her mother’s questions about the other children. Unwanted and unbidden tears formed and rolled down her cheeks. Arriving back at the farm, she ran from the car up to her room, closely followed by her mother. “I’m not skinny! I’m not ugly!” she sobbed into her pillow. Marie embraced her and held her close for a few minutes until she became quiet. “Who dared call you ugly, or skinny”? Marie, usually calm and serene, seethed with anger. “Darlin’, you are not ugly, nor are you skinny! Now please tell me who said these mean, cruel things to you. I will not tolerate anyone treating you this way”! “It was Billy, and Jenny, and Lawrence and his sister, momma. They were awful and worldn’t stop. I never want to see them again. I will not go to any of their parties and I don’t want them to come to any of mine. They’re just very, very bad”! In spite of her anger, tears came to Marie’s eyes. She couldn’t bear to see the hurt in her daughter’s eyes. “Come with me, darlin’. I want to show you something and then we’ll talk”. They went downstairs and into the library where Marie took down a large album of family pictures. Finding what she wanted, she called her daughter to her side on the sofa. “Sweetheart, this is a picture of your gram when she was your age, and here is a picture of me when I was your age…, and here is your picture”. “Momma, we all look almost the same”! “Yes, darlin’, we do, and none of us are skinny, or ugly, and gram grew into a beautiful woman…” “…and you are too, momma”. “Well, my dear, looks like those mean children at the party really don’t know what they’re talking about, do they”? With a smile as big as the room, she looked up and hugged her mother, “I love you momma”. And as time passed, she only became more and more beautiful, but still lingering in the back of her mind lurked those jeers and names that thoughtless other children had called her.
This little girl and her mother were nearly inseparable. They walked together, rode the horses together, sat on the veranda, sipping iced tea and reading their books together, and one of their greatest joys, planted a beautiful garden of flowers together. They carefully tended it year by year and the garden grew as Gayle grew. It was a showpiece, admired by all who visited the farm. She was 12 and now in the 7th grade, becoming very pretty, and entering a time of her life when she had a lot of questions about sensations she was having…, such was the onset of puberty. Mother tried her best to explain what was happening and what her daughter should expect and what to do when it happened. She had Molly talk to her young charge too, about the changes that were happening and how to be prepared. Somehow, even with all of this, Gayle was less than confident about the situation. Lately mother had become ill and couldn’t tend the garden, leaving it to her daughter’s care.
As her mother’s illness progressed, Gayle spent more and more time with her, helping her with more difficult and tiring chores. She wasn’t completely aware of how seriously sick her mother really was but just knew that she seemed to be tired most of the time and spent a lot of time reading or drawing in the sunroom or on the veranda, never venturing to the garden they’d shared. Gayle kept maintaining it though because of memories of all the time she and her mother had shared there among the flowers talking, laughing, and sharing with each other.
Late one evening, after she had gone to bed, she was awakened by the sounds of hushed conversation in the hall and peeked out to see men carrying her mother on a stretcher down the stairway to an ambulance at the front door. She was frightened and ran to her father in tears. He explained that Mother was very ill and had to be taken to the hospital and to get dressed and they would follow. Her father had always been straightforward and open with her no matter how painful it might be and this was to be no exception. He told Gayle that her mother had a very serious disease, cancer, and that she might not come home from the hospital. A fearful, broken-hearted little girl buried her head into the cushioned car seat and cried.
It was morning; she had fallen asleep on a hospital sofa. Molly and her father came to sit next to her. They told her that her mama wanted to see her and talk to her. As they entered the room she became frightened at the sight of all of the wires and tubes attached to her mother. Mama beckoned to her, “Come here darlin’, and don’t be afraid. I need to talk to you and I want you to listen very carefully”. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she looked at her mother with tears in her eyes. ” Gayle Marie, you know that I love you more than anything in this world, darlin’. This is difficult for me to tell you but I must. The doctors told me this morning that a disease has spread all through all of my body and they can’t do anything to make it go away, dear. I want you to stay with me for as long as you can because…., I don’t know how to say this darlin’, except to tell you that I may not be with you and Daddy, and Molly much longer, dear. It hurts for me to tell you this because I know that you will hurt inside when I leave you and I don’t want that to happen, but I know it will. When I’m gone, Gayle, please share your love with your papa as you have with me, dear. He will be lonely too and will need you to help him. Can you do that for me”? A stunned, confused little girl looked at her mother with tears streaming down her face, “Mama, I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I want you to get well and come home. I need you, Mama”, as she buried her face against her mother’s shoulder. “I know what you are feeling sweetheart, but I can’t change things and the doctors can’t do anything to help me. The disease is too bad to be treated and, darlin’ I don’t know how much time I have to be with you anymore. Please, Gayle, promise me that you will love and help your father…, I need to know this…, please. Gayle nodded and whispered, “Yes Mama, I promise”, and more tears flowed openly.
The afternoon passed slowly and Marie weakened steadily, the cancer rapidly taking its toll on her. She had actually been ill far longer than anyone had known and by the time she was taken to the hospital it was in a very advanced state, untreatable and she was already in the final stages of the disease. George, looking worn and tired, and with a sad, long face came to the waiting area and collected Molly. Gayle was still with her mother. “Its time”. Gayle looked up as they entered the room. “She’s dying, isn’t she, Daddy”? He could only nod and whisper, “Yes, darlin’ girl, your Mama’s dying, and she wants us to be with her”. Gayle made no response except to take her father’s hand as they sat by the side of the bed. After a while, a gaunt faced Marie called to them and as they gathered at her side she said in a whisper voice, “It’s time to go now. Goodbye my loves. I’ll hold you in my heart forever”. With that said, her eyes closed and she was at peace. There was a somber silence in the room, broken only by a soft small voice, “Good bye, Mama. I love you”.
At home, after the funeral, Gayle looked across the lawn to the beautiful garden that she had helped her mother maintain. It only brought tears, memories, and more tears. She swore to never go out there again. Papa, she called him that now, or Pops, was in the study working. He seemed always to be tired and sad since Mama left them. She felt that sadness too, but, true to her promise to Mama, tried her best to comfort him and make him happy. Sometimes it worked, most times not…, and there was no comfort for her own loneliness.
School went on as usual and she became withdrawn from the popular social cliques, choosing not to be part of their scene. Some of the girls were already dating boys but she had no interest in them, though they pestered her frequently (to no avail). In the summer before high school Pops had taken her to a local beauty contest and she became interested and asked him if he thought she could do that. “Well, you’re certainly beautiful enough, darlin’, but you would have to learn some talent like singing, dancing, or playing an instrument or the like”. She thought about it for a bit…, she knew how to play the piano…, and she loved to sing (wondering if she could sing well enough). Through the summer she practiced both and by autumn felt that she might have a chance…, if Pops would let her compete in a contest.
Then came high school……