As Earl recalled the scene, her eyes were glowing.
It was the summer of 1928, the Ozark Mountains. Her father steered their Willis Knight towards a roadside watermelon stand, the midpoint of the 300-mile drive to visit relatives in Pine Bluff. Six children — three across the back seat, three on fold down jump seats — poured out of the car and onto the grassy bank of a mountain stream; their mother handed out sandwiches she’d prepared back home in Shreveport. Earl, four years old at the time, can’t quite remember the sandwich she had, but she remembers the watermelon, the way her father tied a rope around it and sank it into to the stream to cool, the way, after lunch, he carved it with a long knife.
“That was the best I ever ate,” she recently said.
“The best watermelon?”
“The best anything.”
My mother (whom I call Earl for reasons neither of us remembers) will turn 79 in October — that drive to Pine Bluff is closer in time to the Civil War than to the moment of this writing. Her parents, Percy and Mathille Meyer, died decades ago; the names of their children echo another era: Sophie, Bertha, Herman, Tillie, Percy Jr. and Leona. Only the baby, Leona — also known as Earl — is still alive.
And only recently have I begun to coax out of Earl details of her early years.
It turns out, for example, that the great love of her life was not the father of her two children but a hard-drinking, motorcycle-riding daredevil pilot named Buddy — her first husband — whom she seldom mentioned even after my dad died in 1979. Last year, though, after I nagged her an entire afternoon, Earl finally broke down and showed me a magazine clipping she’d saved. It told the story of how Buddy, flying “coffin corner” on a bombing run over Germany in May 1944, wound up with an unexploded bomb lodged in the tail of his plane — and how he had to fly back to England and land knowing the bomb might detonate at any moment. He made it back alive. And after the war, she married him….
But then, as Earl was tucking away the yellowed clipping, I glanced up at her: I’d always thought she’d gotten married before the war. Well, yes, she nodded. Then she blushed. After the war, she’d married Buddy a second time.
It was her own little bombshell.
Since that moment, I’ve become an eager historian of Earliana, a collector of recollections and images from a life more adventurous, more dramatic, more (no use denying it) romantic than my own. Other impressions from the war years: Earl, in a pair of oversized aviator goggles, buckled into the front seat of an open cockpit, screaming herself hoarse as Buddy takes their crop duster on a series of barrel rolls; or Earl and her chum Eunace driving from Ohio to Florida — despite fuel rationing — managing the entire distance by flirting with gas station attendants.
But the most surreal images are of Earl as a little girl, the tiny terror of Louisiana Avenue, falling out of a treehouse in her backyard, slinging stones at bumblebees and then dashing for cover, setting fire, accidentally, to the family garage. (She swears she wasn’t smoking!) When she was six, playing cowboys and indians, waving a wooden arrow, patting her open mouth and yelling woo, woo, woo, she tripped and fell — and wound up with the arrow broken off in her throat. When she was eight, playing cops and robbers, she tried to arrest an older male cousin; when he wouldn’t go quietly to their make-believe jail, Earl ran back into the house, grabbed her b.b. gun, marched back outside, and shot him in the leg.
There are only five photographs of Earl prior to 1941. Two are class portraits, static black and whites, and distant enough so that I must take her word that the blurry face in the middle row is hers. The other three are rigidly posed, one in a confirmation gown, two in Sunday School dresses; these too have a generic quality. There is little of Earl in them — one of them, in fact, looks more like my sixteen-year-old niece.
That’s the reason mental images are so precious. Baby-boomers take for granted the many photo ops of our own childhoods, yet our parents comprise the last generation not photographed on an obsessive basis. Nor, of course, can we go to the videotape, now ubiquitous in the lives of our children, of Earl’s first toddling steps …or her first ride on a two-wheeler…or her first prom date.
I propose, therefore, a different kind of celebration for Mother’s Day 2002. Let’s set aside, for once, the flowers, the chocolates — even the coffee mug proclaiming “World’s Greatest Mom.” It’s all fine, but it’s supporting actress stuff. Let us, rather, corner our moms. Let us be their paparazzi. Let us sit them down in comfy chairs and nag and nag until they give up their secrets.
They may have more than they let on.