Polly, the Prima Donna

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In the late 1950s we inherited Polly the parrot from our Chesnut/Storey forebearers, thrived on attention and didn’t care whether it was amused, irate, admiring or hostile – just like Grandma Marrs. Polly craved an audience ALL the time and her ultimate punishment was to see that cloth cover coming down over her cage. Left alone? Oh no! From her covered perch, she’d moan “Boo hoo hoo. Poor Polly, poor poor Polly. Ooo Hoo hoo!” Cheez. It could break your heart. Totally convincing.

Polly was a Party Animal. She would run through her whole bag of tricks, hanging upside down with wings spread and laughing like Vincent Price, singing away. Sometimes she’d add a rhythmic head-ducking movement to her trilling. Why she seemed to follow a Bossa Nova beat was never clear, but we did play the radio a lot . . . Guests – warned to stay clear of possible chomping – were delighted and would hang out in the kitchen, laughing at her antics. My own friends would come to check in with her first when visiting.

Polly’s soprano was truly seductive and enchanting. She performed a full volume operatic rendition – complete with spread wings – of the Doxology: “PUHHRaise Goddd frommmm whomm all blessingssss flowww! Tra lah lah lah lah!.” Her dead ringer imitation of Auntie calling her dogs to supper had resulted in the miscalled dogs bewilderedly woofing around the screen porch while Polly cackled with glee. A real prankster.

Watching Polly perform, eye glittering madly, I felt real admiration for the bird. Deep in the midst of preteen angst, I was hot on the trail of Deep Meanings. Here was a creature stuck for decades in a cage, but determined to live the gay life – be at the center of whatever she could. A real inspiration. I was very impressed. Until my next turn to clean her cage . . .

Mom’s Persuasion Technique

Dishes

It was fall of 1961. I was 16 years old. My life was ruined. Utterly completely ruined. Dad had been called to active duty with Alabama Air National Guard in response to the Berlin Wall crisis and sent to … France. Wha? France? The President had activated the entire Ala. Air National Guard and shipped them off to Dreux, France. Take THAT, you stinkin’ commies! We’ll show you!

Actually, it kinda made sense. The ‘Bama Guard was a reconnaissance unit. So they’d fly missions over Germany from Dreux, photographing any sneaky Russian troop movements like mad. By this time, Dad was the commander of the unit’s hospital – not a big wig yet, a medium large wig.

Dad being gone meant zip to me. We basically didn’t get along/ never had gotten along. So he was off somewhere? I didn’t care.

I did care about me. (I was 16.) I was now cookin’ with gas: was my school’s head writer for “Teen Topics” appearing every Friday in the Montgomery Advertiser-Journal, named Art Director of the “Scabbard” yearbook my sophomore year, cartoonist for “Stars and Bars” school newspaper, etc. etc. In my pond I was a big frog.

Most importantly, I had been discovered by…boys! Yes indeed. After a lifetime (actually 3 yrs.) of being a wallflower, no dates, decorator-only of school dances, I was finally the object of male interest (woo woo). This was of prime importance. There was one Special Boy I liked and he had asked me to the Robert E. Lee High Harvest Ball in November! Life was finally beginning to take off! I glowed going to school every day.

Now, Mom announced that we were JOINING Dad in France! What? Dad had written Mom that there was an elementary school and an American high school at Dreux AFB. As part of serving the needs of overseas personnel in Europe, boarding schools had been set up throughout. They’d opened one of these institutions only one year before the Guard showed up, on the then-deactivated Dreux WW II base.

Mom and Dad figured that this might be the family’s only chance to SEE EUROPE! Despite the fact that it was ILLEGAL for Guard families to come to France (a crisis, who knew what the Russians might do next etc.), we were gonna go. My parents never shunned rule-breaking when pursuing pleasure. We were gonna go using tourist visas in order to get around the regulations.

Hey. Waitaminit. I had been asked to the Robert E. Lee High Harvest Ball! Get a grip, folks. Hold on. What’s really important here? My first real date! With even a boy I actually liked. On reflection, I decided the important thing was to remain calm. Reason was the way to go. Reason almost always worked with the parents.

I said – in response to the news – the trip to France sounded interesting. For Mom and the boys. I would stay with beloved Mammaw and Bampaw, our grandparents, here in Montgomery. I usually spent the night with them every other weekend. There was plenty of room there. I wasn’t interested in SEEING EUROPE. My sights were firmly fixed on Robert E. Lee High… and the Harvest Ball. Period.

One night as Mom and I washed, dried and put away the dishes, she brought up the Europe trip again. I remained adamant. Repeated the reasons I should stay. Drying her hands, Mom said we had to have a Talk – now. In her bedroom, door closed, we sat opposite each other. She looked me in the eye. Took my hand. (She NEVER looked me in the eye, much less took my hand.) She laid out what a great opportunity this was. What a Great Adventure. We would see the historic places, eat French cuisine, see all the famous paintings and sculptures I’d studied! This was a Wonderful Opportunity for an artist. My pout grew so large I resembled a Ubangi. I still …didn’t … want… to …go.

Mom sighed. The silence grew. She finally said “I NEED you to come.” I was speechless. Thunderstruck! Mom had said she NEEDED me. Actually said it. Verbally out loud. In real time.

Privately I knew how hard it was to manage all us kids, do the shopping, plan the meals, shop for the meals, manage the money, do the taxes, ferrying us around. We had Annie Mae to do the major cleaning & some meals now, but just giving three boys baths resembled a soggy 3 ring circus. We were constantly cleaning up spills, taking off their jammies and putting on all their clothes, then taking off the clothes to put on jammies. With one spill of chocolate milk, the kid had to be redressed again. Putting caps & jackets & shoes on/off … it was endless. Plus James Webb was only 2 – at the mobile-but-no-judgment stage. However, I hadn’t known until this very minute that Mom saw this noisy chaos as anything but the normal way of things.

She had always tried to project a calm, composed manner. Totally in control. An entire box of cereal secretly dumped on the clean laundry? Get the whisk broom. Hose left on overnight? Sweep the flood into the flower bed. Gate left open so the pedigreed Weimaraner got out? Take the leash and search the neighborhood. Don’t forget the flashlight. She was the One Who Knew What to Do. I was the one doing 60% of the doing. To my mind.

Suddenly it became clear to me. A lightbulb went on! She couldn’t manage without me. She had NEVER been able to manage without me. I could see that now. I HAD to go. As a romantic (if sarcastic) teenager, the poet in me suddenly saw myself as the Loyal Sidekick. I was Chingachgook or Robin the Boy Wonder, trekking through snowdrifts at Mom’s side. Together we would manage! (I could hear “Dixie” began playing slowly & softly as the soundtrack.)

“I guess I’ll go then” I said sullenly.

Mom smiled and dropped my hand. She turned to the pile of laundry on her bed.

“Fine” she said “Now go finish the dishes.”

Polly Wanna Cracker, a Finger, a Nose?

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You’ve no doubt seen those movies where the unsuspecting family welcomes a hitchhiker, distant cousin or long lost college roommate into their cheery lives. Soon the audience sees the eye twitch that signals “Hi. I’m a homicidal maniac. Just give me a half hour and you’ll all be in freezer bags labeled ‘lunch’.”

Well, my family had seen the tell tale signals of Polly, the 75 year old parrot handed down from my great aunt Willie Belle Story Raines Roden to my grandparents and finally to us. Although we didn’t visit Auntie often, we had heard Polly would grab ya if she could. And there was her evil chuckle . . .

Once my grandparents had inherited the bird, it was obvious that a cunning devil spirit had arrived. B movies recycled on TV featured such creatures: fascinating, charming beauties who turned into Panther Ladies or Reptile Women intent on disemboweling you as you slept. Bright green Polly was lovely. She cocked her yellow head, cooed sweetly, and strutted with real grace. Her cage acrobatics were excellent too – a feathered Flying Wallenda!

Living in her cage in my grandparents’ kitchen, Polly soon found a source of major amusement: taunting my grandfather, Bampaw. Bampaw & Polly waged a roller coaster duel for years. He’d imitated a growling gorilla with bared fangs while poking her cage with a cane. She’d shriek and stretch out dagger talons to snag him. With false teeth protruding (his) and open beak bouncing (hers), you could almost see a family resemblance . . . They’d whip each other into frenzies. Hard to say if this was parrot abuse or grandad abuse – they seemed evenly matched.

Finally, Bampaw moved too slow while cleaning her cage bottom and Polly struck! She locked her jaws around the palm of his hand and wouldn’t let go. It took two people to get her off, with stitches, shots and a permanent scar for my grandpaw. Thereafter, he was more cautious. There was respect in his contempt. While spinning recipes for parrot stew, he’d declare that she was a tough ole bird – just like him.

When we inherited Polly, Mom laid down strict ground rules and located the bird in a safety zone in our kitchen corner. Present day friends have questioned the wisdom of bringing this convicted mutilater into a house with small children. At the time, there was no question. Polly was a relative, she’d been in our family since before Mom was born.

Everyone had weird kin – this was ALABAMA. Besides, Polly was much more entertaining than any of our other relatives and didn’t eat one tenth the amount of Aunt Ida Mae.

Ode to a Southern Belle

Summer1944

Summer 1944- Annette’s Engagement Picnic

“Boys only want one thing.” That’s what my mother said. That was the universal first wisdom about being with boys. You were supposed to believe your mother. She’d been there before. Where ever “there” was. She Knew.

I had met some of them, my mother’s “boys”. They were grownups by then. Their still-energetic eyes rode above small pouches on their cheeks. They flicked cigarette lighters with U.S. Army or U.S. Navy insignias on them and grinned warmly. I was little, they were big.

Their car horns tooted from our corner street, just as she had told me they did when she was in high school. My grandfather hadn’t let her go out on school nights for any reason. But a few boys would drive slowly by after school, give a little toot. A hello. “Boys!” My grand father would bark, “They only want one thing.”

We lived with my grandparents. So it was the same tootin’ corner. The same side porch from which she’d wave, smiling. They might have sailed across the world, fought a world war. She had married, had a baby girl and divorced. Back they all were in the early 1950s, never the same, but still circling.

Years later she confided that she’d never been able to see who it was exactly, in the cars, due to her nearsightedness and vanity about wearing glasses. So she memorized which car belonged to which boy – a green ‘39 Chevy? Jack. A blue Ford coupe? Charlie. “ But what if someone was driving a friend’s car?” I asked. She looked surprised. it had never occurred to her. Then she looked relieved. “It didn’t matter.” That’s right. All she did was smile and wave.

My mother was lovely. Beautiful. Everyone said so, both women and men. Over my childhood head, forgetting I was in the room, they would compare her to Elizabeth Taylor. But not stuck up, the women would say. But classy, the men would say.

That’s what the old men – who’d been young men when I was little, who’d been boys in high school – said when I came along to her 50th high school reunion. They didn’t exactly swarm around her. They creaked around her.

And she smiled. They beamed back. Supposedly telling me, but really reminding each other, my mother and Billy or Sam or Joe would rattle off a short memory of a cheerleader horn left in the rain or the senior play disaster. It became clear: none of these guys had ever even dated her. Just the sight of her, still classy, brought ear to ear grins from them all. And if the grins now slept in glasses at night, no matter. She was still not wearing her glasses all the time either.

Whatever the one thing it was that they had wanted, or thought they wanted, or she thought they had wanted, I could see the real thing, alive and well through the last half of the 20th century: a beaming appreciation, a basking warmth of mutual recognition. They enjoyed her friendly beauty. She enjoyed their worship. This was a dance that gave every player pleasure.

And although the proper dance for that Class of ‘42 would be the jitterbug, I saw them moving in a Virginia reel, forever swinging from one partner to the next, Circling and smiling. With a wave, farewell.

Irene the Fierce

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In 1950s Alabama, when I was little, we lived with my grandparents. Irene was our occasional help. Eagle-eyed, no nonsense Irene.

Now, Irene had unfortunately missed her true calling of Marine drill sergeant. She did have her Rules and you followed them “or else”. She had a very narrow interpretation of what constituted “sass”. A small person only had to open her mouth in response to an order to be declared in noncompliance and relegated to her room.

Irene also did a lot of pointing in my direction, with toilet brushes, feather dusters, and/or dust mops. This would be accompanied by her squinty-eye look and declarations that “I’ve got your number, missy.” or “No backtalk from you, missy.” She could also be the fastest-moving grownup I knew, especially from a standing start. A formidable force to be respected.

Irene never wanted me “spying” on her at work, hanging around. This puzzled me. I had only 75 questions a day to ask her and about 10 observations to make per room, what was her problem? She was the first (of several) I remember to tell me that just listening to me made her tired. At various times, Irene was very clear that she was not being paid to be an encyclopedia, a quiz program or a picture show.

Of course, this behavior made her irresistible to me. Everyone at home did chores, even Bampaw mowed the lawn and swept the driveway. But Irene had … style. She ATTACKED an unmade bed, a dusty hallway, a bathroom mirror. Each task was a race against time. She’d whip through it, give a satisfied grunt, and then take a back porch smoke break. She called this “Gettin’ some air.”, which joined my list of questions.

Each Irene task had an exact pattern. Vacuuming was a matter of short, straight strokes that started in the same corner of each room. Scrubbing the tub was a series of long, circular strokes, always ending with the faucets. Irene was proud of her techniques and my appreciation of her skills was our one area of accommodation. Occasionally, she’d share a household secret.

This led to the one time I recall her actually laughing out loud: my attempt to help her make my grandparent’s bed. To swiftly and smoothly get a pillowcase on a pillow, she’d tuck one end of the pillow under her chin and pull the case up with both hands, letting gravity do most of the work. She handed me the other pillow to imitate her.

But when I tucked one end under my chin, the pillow bent in half against the floor. I was shorter than the pillow! This cracked her up. “You should see your face!” she hooted. I was disgusted, but she reassured me it was only a matter of time before the trick would work.

Sho ‘nuff. Although it’s probably a standard technique the world over, I later quite impressed my college roommates with this neat maneuver.