Monday, April 19, 2010

Why I'm an Artist: A brief History of my Mother

My mother, Maizie, valued a good story more than she valued the unvarnished truth. If there were two ways to look at an occurrence and one was full of drama, intrigue, unspoken motives, and double crosses, while the other was mundane, day-to-day life, just people getting by, she would always go for the juicier interpretation. I mention this because what follows is based, in large part, on stories she told me. I have no way of verifying their voracity. That is OK with me because true or false, fact or fiction, they are my stories. I grew up on them and was well on my way to being an artist before I realized they might have been less than one hundred percent factual.

The Barrel

My father was an inarticulate guy. He spoke Polish until he was five years old. When he went to kindergarten the nuns taught him English. However, he continued to live in a family and community, Hamtramck, Michigan, where everyone spoke English as a second language. Expressing himself in words never came naturally to him. I think this explains perfectly his technique for picking up women. This was back before the war, maybe 1940. He was already in the navy. He would go to Jefferson Beach Amusement Park in St. Claire Shores and hang out in The Barrel. The Barrel was a rotating tunnel about eight feet in diameter and maybe twenty feet long. It wasn’t hard to master the trick of getting through the barrel. All you had to do was walk into the spin, step up the wall as it was coming down and gradually move in the direction you wanted to go. However, it was totally believable that you might trip up, tumble at the feet of the girl next to you, causing her to go down on top of you, scramble to your feet and try to help her up only to trip again and end up in a tangle of arms and legs on the smooth curve of the polished wooden floor. After all that physical contact, before a word was spoken, it was an easy next step to go o the dance hall for beers and more physical contact. That was how Johnny met Maizie.

Shot From Guns

My mother was orphaned by the time she was two. Her father died hopping freight trains. Her mother, a very young and beautiful widow, caught the attention of an older, politically connected man. When she shunned his advances, he killed her and went unpunished. These events took place in southern Ohio around 1919. An older sister of my murdered grandmother, Callie Stevens, and her husband, Daddy Jim Stevens, raised my mother. They lived in Detroit. My mother’s status in the family was less than an adopted child, maybe more like an indentured servant. She was reminded frequently that she should be grateful to have a roof over her head and food on the table. Another cousin, Hobart, was also raised in the Steven’s household. My mother was very fond of Hobart. The only thing that I can remember about him was that he was obese, fat enough to make an impression on a young child. He was older than my mother and she was older than Callie and Daddy Jim’s three biological children, Jim Jr., Frank, and Mary Jane.

By 1945, my mother and father had been married for five years. I’d been born. The war was over, although my father hadn’t made it home yet, and my mother was sharing a house with Hobart, his wife Lou, and their daughter Sandy, who was only a month or two older than me. Lou was my wet nurse. My mother’s milk hadn’t come in, but Lou had plenty for Sandy and me. We all lived right across the street from Jefferson Beach Amusement Park where my parents had met. Lou worked at the park.

In those days, Jefferson Beach had a carnival midway and Lou performed in two acts. In the first act she was the human cannon ball. Wearing a sequined, red, white, and blue bathing suit, she would wave to the crowd, salute them patriotically, then slide into the barrel of the cannon. The cannon would be raised to the correct angle and a spring mechanism, timed with an explosion of gun powder, would launch her twenty feet over the heads of the spectators and into a huge net. This spectacle served to draw a crowd who would then be enticed to step inside the tent to see several sideshow attractions.

Lou’s second act took place inside the tent where she performed in a tableau entitled The Woman From 10,000 BC. Her performance consisted of donning a wild blond wig and a skimpy leopard skin bikini and lying motionless frozen in a block of ice. Actually there were two blocks of ice with a hollow space in between for her. A coating of Vaseline prevented frostbite for the three minutes the rubes were allowed to ogle her prehistoric curves.

I imagine Lou getting home from work, scooping up Sandy and me and putting us to breast. We would have sucked greedily. At first, the milk would have come out cold from having recently been kept on ice, but as we sucked, it would quickly have warmed up, within seconds it would have been warmer than her nipple. Was the milk a little creamier when feedings followed the human cannon ball act? I think it was. Was there a lingering odor of gunpowder? I think there was.

Little Toot

My favorite ride at Jefferson Beach was Little Toot the kiddy train. Every night part of my bedtime routine was kissing Little Toot goodnight. Every night my mother would carry me across Jefferson Avenue and into the park with its swirling lights, the clacking noise from the big wooden roller coaster, screams and laughter, and smell of cotton candy. She would hold me tight as I leaned out of her arms and planted a smooch on the train’s round, red, plaster cheek. Now, that made for a good nights sleep.

Queen for a day

My mother carried many a grudge in her day. One long running one was against her youngest cousin, Mary Jane. Maizie was a young teenager when Callie and Daddy Jim had Mary Jane. Much of the responsibility for raising her was delegated to my mother. Mary Jane got pregnant and married her boy friend, Tennessee Bowman, by the time she was seventeen. Their first child was named Janet. I can’t reconstruct the sequence of events, but for some period my mother took Janet and was raising her. Then Mary Jane and Tennessee took her back. My mother felt the return of Janet to her parents as a profound loss. About this time it came out that Janet was actually my father’s child. Mary Jane had gotten Johnny drunk and seduced him. She only married Tennessee because Johnny was already married to my mother. I heard my mother make this accusation to my father more than once. He would just mutter, “You’re crazy.”

There was a rift between my mother and her people that lasted several years. Eventually they all reestablished contact and my mother was in touch with both Mary Jane and Janet when she died.

Mary Jane and Tennessee had five more kids. He got lung cancer and was told he’d be dead in a year. Before he had a chance to die of cancer, the furnace in their house blew up on Christmas Eve, killed him and badly burned three of the children. Janet was spared. Mary Jane went on Queen For a Day and asked for money for plastic surgery for the children. As measured by the applause-o-meter, her story was judged far more pitiable than the stories of the other contestants. She won hands down. I don’t know how much money she got for plastic surgery, but she did get a complete make over and a two-week trip to Hawaii.

Later, Mary Jane spent time in prison for passing bad checks. Once, in the early seventies, she called me. I don’t know how she got my number. She told me she was taking care of a very wealthy, older woman. She said when the woman died she would inherit all of her money, but until then she needed money to buy a car. She asked me to loan her a thousand dollars. The next day Janet called me and said not to loan her mother money under any circumstances.

I haven’t been in touch with anyone in Michigan since my mother died.

Art lessons

Maizie and Johnny broke up the first time when I was about nine or ten. We left in the middle of the night and went to live on a farm with my mother’s friend Estelle. I liked it on the farm. Estelle had four or five kids near my age and I have a lot of good memories of our adventures together. Estelle’s partner was a man named George. She had met him in prison where she had gone to do Christian missionary work. She fell in love with him and when he was released, she moved her husband off the farm and moved George on. George had a former Mexican cellmate named Al. Al became my mothers boyfriend.

There was a falling out between my mother and Estelle. We left the farm and moved to the Crocker Hotel in Mt. Clemens. This hotel dated from the era when Mt. Clemens was famous for its mineral baths, but by the time we got there, it was pretty run down. We had a one-bedroom apartment in the back of the building on the first floor.

Al was around a lot. I don’t think he actually lived there, but he stayed overnight plenty. My mother was happy when he was around. He plucked his eyebrows and used my mother’s eyebrow pencil to darken his mustache. I attributed this behavior to his being Mexican.

What Al and I had in common was drawing. Some mornings when he had stayed over, my mother would get up to go to work and I’d get in bed with Al. We would copy my Wonder Woman comics. He would draw Wonder Woman herself, accurately capturing all the positions she got into when she deflected bullets with her bracelets. I was intent on drawing her glass airplane. Once, I did a rendition of the airplane that was spot on. Al said, “That the best one you ever done.” This complement made me so happy I bit his big toe through his sweat sock.

With this background, becoming an artist was inevitable and I’m grateful to my mother for this.

1 comment:

  1. So this made me laugh and cry at the same time and evoked the memory of Maizie standing in her short shorts and loose scoopneck blouse smoking her ciarette looking out her glass sliding door. She remains one of the icons in my life....I told the credit card story just the other day. No wonder you're so full of stories....Thanks. Mariellen