Behind the mask of polite affectionate loving mother, imagine another Cruella, if you will, with a dyed jet-black beehive do—like the color of a raven—nicotine beige overly large false teeth, and colossal eyes like a grisly gecko getting ready to let slip a stealthy long forked tongue; this from a distorted Polaroid photo that still haunts me to this day.
Unlike Spencer, my first and only impression of Gramma Lexington is an artifice—the superficial criticisms she sandwiches between the shade of phony praise for anyone with an undiscerning ear and the manifestations of misogyny and antagonism she engenders in her daughters behind feigned smiles and flirts. Among several of the tools in her repository of dark and nuanced amusements, she ruthlessly fosters competition in her girls through malignant machinations, indelicately composed of small bites of masochism. She force-feeds them this with a heaping side dish of narcissism to feed her ego. This represents her legacy to her daughters—to women everywhere. This maternal sadism thrives and they will worship at the throne of patriarchy and white supremacy fostering their privilege—and ignorance.
The tenth youngest of twelve, Dame Lexington is the average female child of impoverished white Appalachian hillbillies. Born in the local post office deep in a Clendenin holler named Falling Rock, each member of the family educated poorly by the one-teacher-two-room schoolhouse that sits at the mouth of said holler. The youngest nurtured in rejection and avoidance; a superfluous burden of a reproductive slavery foisted onto her poor under-educated mother who—like so many other women during this time—wanted to stop after the first. Alas, Great Grandma Baker—who sometimes slept amongst her children to avoid the randiness of ornery Grandpa Baker who never took no for an answer—kept propagating like a rabbit. Young Lexi did what she could to survive her childhood and adolescence evolving into the woman and mother of five daughters and two sons.
Jumping forward in a flash of dance and flurry, I stand watching her clog to the beat of a Bluegrass tune as, her beastly beehive head down, she watches her two feet move to the music. Black polyester slacks and a frilly crimson red low cut top encase her double D-cups as they shake with her skillful steps, I hear woohoos and hands slapping together in rhythms of pun and play as I eye the gabby group of family and friends. Normal peoples in 1970s’ garb hooting and hollering, attempting to find the words to a song they’ve long heard but never learned, I see the ridicule and jealousy and amusement that sits allusive in their eyes as they watch Dame Lexi parade herself with such vanity and value. Their smirk of mockery slips occasionally in low self-regard when the whisper of angels nestles in their hearts examining their antagonistic thoughts with threats of hell and damnation. Sadly, the shadows swallow the light and darkness rises once again to find solace in the faulty and frail—flawed and fucked up humans, we struggle evermore.
An alcoholic, Dame Lexi smells of bourbon mingled with the soot of cigarettes and the spectacle of shame she lets occasionally slip to invoke pity to feed that other addiction: narcissism. Her slurred run-ons—along with grandpa Spencer—make for a dark hillbilly comedy. Sometimes, I would sit and watch them in fascination submerged in their performance as they were—villains in my tragic comedy; some obscure rustic power play about the mundane and mediocre circumstances of their lives; their solid black shapes a vacant inverse of the middling sized kitchen window and the dull pale grey day that hovers behind them; the remote country church stands slight and ominous in the background; the lit cigarette hangs loosely from the Dame’s fingers—the swirl from it spiraling black. I endeavor to decipher their inert body language and passive faces; their long flat run-on labyrinthine string sentence filled conversation soars to a powerful hush; the encore, a grunt and groan of the monosyllabic yes and no in a breathtaking conclusion; the final silence and scene, a bow in surrender.
I give you leave to guess who flays and conquers. Never underestimate the power of a matriarch; she who shines sway will swallow you whole.
The leggy atypical average couple, Spencer and Lexington considered the holler hotties but pedestrian rubes in the conventional world and apparently a swinging couple’s dream; whispers say they’ve been known to swap partners post fetes.
No judgment here. I find it one of their more whimsical and audacious qualities.
Assigned as menial underpaid laborers by virtue of their class and lack of education, their barely tolerable inadequate means systemically program their subsequent journey; if the internees don’t know they’re allowed more, they will not reach for it; an allegory of Plato’s cave. They cannot pursue happiness if the very institution and economic system that educates them, keeps them ignorant and suppressed; a commodity of low cost labor that does little to nothing to make them an equal in the eyes of the United States Constitution. That said, Spencer takes a job as an auto mechanic at a car dealership in Charleston and Dame Lexi helps one of her brothers at his small roadside diner between Clendenin and Charleston where she allegedly likes to dance to the jukebox more than she likes to serve the ogling and flirty male truck drivers.
But not by much.
During this time, doubtlessly sooner, the dame transfers her motherly duties to her eldest, Sheridan, the shy continually blushing oldest child forced out of school to take care of her brothers and sisters. At eighteen, liberated by the age of majority and exhausted by the bonds of a conscripted motherhood to six children, she accepts the recycled ring of a rejected recent proposal from my dad in want of the romanticism of escape and adventure.
The reality of this exposes a disparate struggle.
After much persuasion, she confessed to me she never had an orgasm with my father. This during one of those many conversational sit-downs I have with the Dame and her daughters.
In a flutter and a flash, I move forward towards one of these sit-downs; one in which I confront Dame Lexi much later in her life with the rumored swinging.
In front of me, the Dame and her daughters age like a waning oil portrait of The Last Supper—the smooth oil finish tarnishes and cracks as time swiftly passes. I’m older, in my early forties, sexually confident and comfortable, unapologetic and unafraid of examining the sexual lives of older women like my grandmother and her daughters—my aunts and mother—who lived in fear and shame of talking about sex and their bodies for so long.
Until I give them a poke.
Elderly, in her early eighties, stricken from a stroke a year and a half prior, Gramma Lexi’s broken grey body sits hunched in her wheelchair. Weighing under eighty pounds, her hands and wrists frail, her paper skin thin and peppered with spots of all colors; the funk of cigarettes—still potent—now cover the ammonia pungent padded scent of a urine-filled diaper and stale body odor. Her pitiful cantankerous temperament diminished into the petulance of a child demanding favor and courtesy without return.
Very little of the mask remains.
Would it for any of us?
She denies the swinging rumors with a pointed sour face of distaste and blames all on Spencer’s depravity for sex in her usual hillbilly elegance: “He forced me to suck his thing,” she tells us as we—her granddaughter and five daughters—sit opposite her. “Pushed my head down and made me suck it. Hurt me. Forced me. Choked me. It was nasty.” Her voice cracks and grumbles with age and degeneration.
“‘His thing?’” I ask, eyebrows raised. “First of all, that’s rape; second—there is no second: That’s rape.”
White bourgeois women sheltered in their insular worlds, the daughters range in age from fifty plus. My mother, Sheridan, the oldest, flush with embarrassment, and Addison the second oldest, curls their lips in disgust.
“Mom, I don’t want to hear that,” snaps Jacey. Spencer gone a deep and distant five years and Jacey—his and the Dame’s favorite—positioned her father on a saintly platform the likes Jesus Christ couldn’t touch. “Daddy wouldn’t do that.”
“Do you not like oral sex, gramma?” This does not surprise me. My mother is as frigid and prudish as a Republican senator.
Gramma Lexi looks at me, her disgusted expression, the same as her regular, and spits out a violent “No! It’s disgusting!”
My eyes wide, I decide to poke some more. “I personally like it. There’s an alluring sort of power in it that’s … hot. The giving and the receiving.” I hear modestly adamant approvals from the somewhat sexually progressive and disgust rolling off the prudes. I decide to roll with it driving my point educationally informing the squeamish squealers of something they’re obviously missing and misinformed. “There was this one guy,” I take a long dreamy sigh of satisfaction: “He tasted and smelled so good. His scent must’ve done something to my pheromones because I couldn’t get enough of him. Until, of course, later when he opened his mouth.”
Jasmine and Kennedy, red faced, giggles like five year old boys. My mom shakes her head and curls her lip in repugnance, avoiding my eyes, ashamed of my debauchery once again. Addison looks at me like she’s always looked at me: repulsed by my very existence—my sins taint her born-again atmosphere. Jacey’s wide toothy smile splits her face in shock and laughter.
Jasmine, out of nowhere—as self-involved and boastful as ever—chimes in with an “I had seven orgasms in one night.” She reminds me of 45 in looks and temperament—that bloated self-congratulatory narcissism those types throw out to compensate for their ignorance and lack of self-worth. “I am the best”, “I am great at this”, “I am smart and beautiful and I do everything perfectly.” Never a chance to pass up saying ‘I’ and how wonderful and flawless they are to compensate for their woeful inadequacies and mediocrity.
Frowning, I nod her off then decide to scandalize and enlighten them further: “And there was this one woman … she tasted like … vanilla … ”
Their open-mouthed wide-eyed innocence fades into condemnation and disgust, a by-product of their reconstituted enthusiasm towards the literal word of their god and the Christian bible.
I don’t roll by those archaic and repressive rules and neither do my more progressive Christian brothers and sisters.
Two of them explode out of their seats like popped balloons embarrassed and outraged.
“That’s enough,” barks Sheridan, a distasteful glower shapes foul across her features. The lines highlight her bigotry disfiguring an otherwise mild-mannered woman or the mask of what appears to be one.
I croon, grinning in candor and compassion, forging forward overlooking her perpetual rebuke—a sting that turned numb long ago: “Your ignorance is your loss. It’s a personal power to find passion and eroticism in our lives. To embrace our sensuality. How a woman cannot educate herself on that power is sad. We must know our clitoris and body and allow it to sing with pleasure especially at our own hands. That way no man … or woman—person enslaves us by our own orgasms or lack thereof. Take back our agency. Own it.”
I feel that empowerment and satisfaction once again of sharing and affirming something so very important to me. My vulnerability fades in that glow.
This feeling doesn’t last long around them and never has.
A “hear, hear” from Jasmine and Kennedy. Jacey laughs so hard she snorts and a “Good Lord!” from Gramma who looks at my mom: “What in the world?! My mother would’ve beat me blind if I said that kind of filth in front of her.”
Mom sits silently shaking her head and Addison continues to sit in judgment on her mighty angelic throne. Jasmine and Kennedy disperse into the background about how “being gay” is against their religion and they don’t “believe” in it as if that would stop all gayness from existing—hardly. The conversation devolves into a wasteland of bigotry finally dispersing into insincerity and ostracism.
Thrust elsewhere in time and venue at the very young age of ten, I scrounge for information on sex because I’m curious and no one wants to discuss it. My unending questions bounce hollow off hard censorious stone-like faces. Reprimanded and shamed for being perversely wicked in my ceaseless quest for knowledge, I’m not deterred. I find porn in my parents’ bedroom under the towels on top of the cheaply made wardrobe in the form of a blank white envelope filled with a newsletter full of photos depicting couples in flagrante delicto. I take these to mom and ask her to explain and she sputters and spits red flames matching the blush that heats her face. I feel the slap of words before it stings my face; a full handed crack, the echo of which I endure throughout time repeatedly. “Never, ever go into our bedroom again! These are bad and very nasty. Very, very nasty.”
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins