The title of this series comes from a line in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land": April is the cruelest month. It's certainly the cruelest month for me.
I don't understand how so many tragedies managed to gather so close together within the span of 31 days. I do know from talking to other people that sometimes it happens this way, and there's no useful explanation for it. It's just one of those things.
On April 2 of this year, I lost my mother, Bettye Seitz, with whom I had a long and contentious relationship. On April 27 of last year, I lost my second wife, Nancy, to metastatic breast cancer. That's the same day I lost my first wife, Nancy's younger sister Jennifer, to an undiagnosed heart ailment, fifteen years earlier, on April 27, 2006. Nancy and Jennifer's times of death were minutes apart.
April 25 is the day I lost my stepmother, Genie Grant, a jazz singer and union administrator in Dallas, Texas. The year was 2009. Genie was the most benign and loving parental figure I ever knew, such a bright light that she made up for the conspicuous failings of the others. It was Genie who brokered a series of meetings between myself and my father, Dave Zoller, who had been estranged throughout my youth due to mutual misunderstandings, his own limitations as a dad, and generous doses of anti-father propaganda supplied by my mother and stepfather. Genie's diplomatic, embracing personality brought me and Dad together in a meaningful way for the first time. Her death brought us even closer, because now we had something horrible in common. "This is the month we both lost our ladies," Dad told me. It was very strange being his guide through an emotional experience that I'd had first. It wasn't how things were supposed to work. But Nancy and Jennifer's parents losing their only two children isn't how things are supposed to work, either. As John Galsworthy wrote: life calls the tune, we dance.
Roger Ebert, the founder of this website and a mentor to many writers, myself included, died April 4, 2013. Two days before that, Roger published "A Leave of Presence," the title of which describes and anticipates his persistent life force. I will never forget waking up from a nap and eerily receiving a call from critic Kim Morgan, another friend and pupil of Roger's, and answering her not with "Hello" but "He's gone, isn't he?"
On April 12 of this year, ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Cinemas announced that they saw "no viable path forward" after the pandemic and would close 300 screens in California, including the beloved (and landmarked) Cinerama Dome. That and the ArcLight, which was built next to it and fused to it, constituted my favorite moviegoing experience in North America. I mention it here because so much of my life has been spent in movie theaters, as a moviegoer, a critic, a filmmaker, a festival-goer, and a programmer and emcee. Losing that particular theater hurts as bad as losing any person I've ever known. You can tell that I'm still in denial about this one because I can't bring myself to refer to the ArcLight in the past tense just yet. I remain hopeful that someone somewhere will realize that a grave mistake has been made, wipe the slate clean, and allow the place to live again.
And then there's the date, and the number, 427, which snakes through my entire life, the digits rearranging themselves in eerie ways that would seem contrived and absurd if you encountered them in a work of fiction.
I thought about starting this series with Nancy, because it's her birthday today, April 19. She would have been 54. But I'm not ready for that, so I'm going to start with the most recent addition to the cruelest month, my mother. At various points in her life, she went by Bettye Pierce Zoller, Bettye Pierce, Bettye Zoller Seitz, and other names. But the name that followed her throughout her life was Hurricane Bettye, because she left a trail of destruction in her wake.
When I think of my mother, I think of the phrase that a character in "Sid & Nancy" uses to describe Sid Vicious: she was a fabulous disaster.
She was as great a talent as my father, who went much further in his field because he didn't have the debilitating problems she did, and there's no question in my mind that she was the more charismatic performer. My father's genius was in his hands, and in the charts he wrote, and in the way he put a band together and conducted it. My mother's genius was her. She was a star. And the fact that she never got to be a star, except occasionally, and in her own mind, never reaping the rewards we associate with stardom, was an inexhaustible wellspring for her anger.
My mother was gorgeous and raspy-voiced and sexy, and knew it. When she crossed rooms, men and some women watched her walk, and their significant others got jealous. She was a brilliant singer, and knew it. She was a terrific songwriter, and knew it.
The fact that she knew all these things about herself made her insufferable, but also, to certain people, incredibly attractive. Confidence is drug that gives other people a contact high. Mom's swagger could get whole auditoriums even more stoned than they already were. Even people who hated her guts had to admit she was the best singer in town. And I’m not gonna lie: I thought that was awesome.
Hurricane Bettye was born in 1943 in Kansas City. Her mother was a concert pianist, teacher, and composer who had a regular gig as a piano player with a local radio orchestra (they had those back then, yes). She was a child actress in Hollywood in the late 1940s, where she was (or so she claimed) under contract at 20th Century Fox, which trained her and a bunch of other girls as candidates to replace Shirley Temple, a moppet superstar who had recently aged out of her typecasting. I have pictures of her on backlots and in studios in LA, often with tights and tap shoes on. She graduated from UMKC and became a graduate student, which is where she met my father: she was the teacher's assistant in a composition class, and he was the most talented student.
They gigged all over Kansas and Missouri and traveled East and West and South and Southwest, playing small and medium-sized venues, bars and restaurants, cocktail lounges in hotels and motels and airports. They were staying with two other musicians in a small house on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Louis when they first listened to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. They got high on pot that grew wild on the shore. Then mom got pregnant and she and Dad moved to Dallas, where a friend of his had just joined the staff of a so-called "jingle factory" that needed an in-house composer to write radio commercials.
They each used to tell their kids that the marriage broke up because of infidelity. Each insisted the other was the guilty party. Dad later made a convincing case that he only started stepping out on mom after years of her stepping out on him. The straw that broke him was the night in spring of 1975 when he finished breaking down the equipment after one of their gigs, went to the bar for a drink, and saw mom practically draped over a tall, long-haired guy with a beard and mustache. Dad and mom made eye contact and she didn't seem embarrassed. He said, "How much longer are you going to be?" She said, "You should just go home. I'll be back later."
They were officially divorced that summer, and my brother and I were shipped off to Kansas City to live with her parents. We stayed with our grandparents for five years, making occasional trips to Dallas to see mom and dad, or hosting them for a few days at a time in Kansas.
The man that my mother draped herself over was Bill Seitz, a bass player from Queens, New York who had fled a nasty divorce and moved in with his younger brother Rod, a Dallas cop. Bill would subsequently move in with Mom, marry her, and become a stepfather to me and Jeremy. He was a gun nut who stashed a firearm in every part of the house because he was terrified of crime and didn't want to be caught unarmed if somebody decided to do a home invasion. There was a twelve-gauge shotgun under the bed in the master bedroom. There was a .410 "snake charmer" shotgun in the closet of my bedroom, the spot where Bill also kept his bass and amps. There was a .38 snub in a basket in the laundry room off the kitchen and another .38 snub in a basket on the top shelf of a bookcase in the living room, hidden underneath a Snoopy doll. (Why? I have to imagine he concocted a scenario where we were being held hostage and asked if he could get Jeremy's doll to keep him from crying and then BLAM BLAM BLAM.)
They fought constantly. They drank constantly. Their sex was so loud that it kept me up at night. Mom cheated on Bill and Bill cheated on Mom and each denied it when confronted, which precipitated many furious arguments that escalated to the point where Mom was slapping and hitting him and throwing things at Bill (including a large metal stool, various glasses, ashtrays, bottles, and reference books, a chair, a printer, and her college diploma). These incursions would be answered by Bill choking her, slapping her, or worse. One time Bill came home later than expected and she accused him of cheating and they had a huge fight during which, he later told me, "she said some things that were very emasculating." She went to bed and he got twice as drunk and went into her bedroom, beat her in bed, then dragged her into the living room and beat her some more.
When Mom kept screaming and cursing at Bill and refusing to stop, sometimes he'd go get one of his guns and fire it into the ceiling, the floor, or the wall. The house was filled with bullet holes. There was even one in the ceiling of the room where my brother and I slept. Bill didn't just fire guns in the house when he was angry at Mom. Sometime he did it when he was angry about some unrelated thing, such as the treachery of Democrats as described on his favorite cable channel, Fox, or his humiliation at being fired by the manager of a Fotomat where he was working for extra money.
When I brought her two grandchildren to visit her in Dallas a couple of years ago, we all went out to lunch with her and Harvey (this was back when I thought Harvey was just a befuddled coot) and she cleared up some details of her and Bill's financial life, including the fact that they had to take out a loan to repair the ceilings of the living rooms and dining rooms because they'd completely collapsed. They’d collapsed because Bill fired his 12-gauge into the ceiling over his brown corduroy chair, which Jeremy and I referred to as "The Throne," not once, but twice during the course of two weeks. The second time, everything in the attic fell into the living room and dining room. It’s a wonder neither of them were killed.
"Grandpa Bill fired guns in the house?" my daughter asked Mom, her jaw hanging open like a cartoon character.
"Oh, sure—when he was angry, you know," Mom said.
"Weren't you scared?"
"Heavens no!" Mom said. "He never aimed them at me!"
Mom was the radio voice of Chiffon Margarine ("It's not nice to fool mother nature!"), sang backup on albums by Doc Severinsen and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and taught at pretty much every university in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area at one point or another. She gave private voice lessons and created books (traditional and audio) with titles like "Speaking Effective English" and "How to Get What You Want on the Telephone Every Time."
She started a business with two colleagues to try to build a fortune from self-help books. This was one of many attempts at business success that didn't work out because Mom and her collaborators had talent and ideas but no financial acumen. Sometimes the problem was much simpler: mom blew through money the way she blew through cocaine. If she had it, she never had it for long. She and Bill declared bankruptcy twice, and Mom went into counseling for her credit card spending at least three times that I know of.
She was as flaky and manipulative as she was talented—a raging narcissist who saw everyone as an extension of herself. If you were mad at Bettye, she wanted to fix it so that you wouldn't be mad at her anymore, not because she thought she'd done something wrong. She's the only person I've ever met who has been sued in small claims court by not one, not two, but three of her closest friends. My dad liked to tell the story about how she got a band together to play a wedding, accepted payment from the father of the bride, then neglected to pay the other musicians for weeks. When one called her to ask when they'd be paid, she said, "I don't have it." "What do you mean you don't have it?" the other musician asked. "I mean I don't have it." "Why don't you have it?" "Because I spent it," she deadpanned, as if she honestly believed that not having those particular bills in hand anymore absolved her of debts.
I think about my mom’s sexually compulsive behavior more often than any child should. It’s not the sort of thing that should’ve been on my mental radar, but if you grew up with her, you couldn’t get away from it. With some adult distance it just seems like a broken and self-flagellating kind of sexuality, inappropriate and danger-seeking, rooted in insecurity and a need for constant reassurance, even the transparently self-interested kind that men slather on women when they’re looking for action. Coupled with the culture of casual drinking and drug use that was part of the music scene in Dallas – jazz, pop, studio work, everything – it made for mortifying situations: Mom flirting shamelessly and sometimes filthily with a musician or studio engineer on a gig while my brother and I watched through recording studio glass; Mom going off with some guy and coming back an hour later, looking as if she’d gotten away with something, and saying she just “needed a break“ I tell myself that they were doing drugs or having a drink because I don’t want to think about other possibilities.
Mom never flirted harder with any man than she did with my father after the divorce. Every time she was in the same room with Dad, she would have too much to drink and start shamelessly coming onto him, often while my stepmother watched and laughed made comments (“Watch this—she’s about to go for the knee!”). There was never any danger of Dad reciprocating because he found her pathetic when she drank. I’m sure her demeanor brought back humiliating memories as well. At my first wedding, Mom was practically humping Dad’s leg at the reception. Bill had to hustle her out of there right after the garter toss because, as Genie put it, “if they’d stuck around a minute longer, he would’ve had to go to the hardware store and buy a crowbar.”
She seem to be compensating for something, or avoiding something. Even as a child I could sense it. Mom and grandpa both made vague comments over the decades that made me wonder if Mom had been molested as a little girl, possibly in connection with her training as a child star. I now know that the industry always was, and still is, filled with predators. Shirley Temple, the performer that my mother was hoping to replace, told frank and horrifying stories about the degradation and perversion she witnessed on sets and studio lots as a child. Grandma spent several months out of the year in Los Angeles throughout the 1940s trying to get work as a film composer, and started bringing her daughter along on the trips when she was a toddler. I remember grandpa saying that in 1950, he finally insisted they return home to Kansas City permanently because “Hollywood was no fit place for a child.”
I once asked mom point-blank if anything like that ever happened to her. “Oh, heavens, no,” she said.
Still, I wondered.
Mom lied about all kinds of things. Big things, small things. You never knew what was true and what wasn't until you found out. The entire time Jeremy and I were growing up, she dined out on the story about how, when she was married to my dad, they opened for Count Basie at a big hotel in Dallas. I asked my father about it and he looked very puzzled. After a few minutes of racing down memory lane, he said she might be thinking of Lionel Hampton, and in a different hotel. And, he added, "We never opened for Lionel Hampton. We once played the cocktail lounge in a hotel where Lionel Hampton was staying. At best, you could say we were playing adjacent to Lionel Hampton."
She used to tell me and Jeremy that she played the young Olivia De Havilland in the prologue of the 1948 movie "The Snake Pit." I believed her, and even made both my wives watch the movie so they could see my mom's only Hollywood performance. It wasn't her. It was child actress Lora Lee Michel, who was also in "Mighty Joe Young." I repeated this incorrect fact until fairly recently, when a fellow critic broke the news that the young actress in the film was not, in fact, my mother, but someone else. Even though I fact check everything I write, I never thought to fact check that—I suppose because, like Mom, I needed it to be true.
Two years before Mom died, I asked her if I could interview her about her life. She said yes, and opened by dropping a bombshell. Shortly after her mother and father died, one of her aunts called to say that she deserved to know the truth: the man she thought was her father was not her father. Her biological father was Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
I was astonished. I immediately began reading up on the life of Robert Oppenheimer and studying photos to see if there was a resemblance. Even though she lied about so many other things, this story had the ring of truth because so many of the details were specific, like seeing her mother and "The Doctor" making out the courtyard of the Beverly Hilton, and going to the Santa Monica Pier with him, and visiting the test site in New Mexico, which Mom believed led to her mother's death from a particular sort of cancer, multiple myeloma, which was more commonly found in men who worked near radioactive material.
During a phone conversation relaying all this to Jeremy, he cautioned me to take anything she said with several grains of salt. Sure enough, the following year I asked her Mom more details about my "real" grandfather, and she could barely remember the guy's last name. "Oppenheimer?" I prompted. "The father of the atom bomb?"
"No, not him," she said. "His brother."
"Grandma had an affair with Robert Oppenheimer's brother?" I said weakly. "Well, I guess that makes more sense."
I still don't know if even that was true. Maybe there was no connection to the Oppenheimer family. Maybe it was Steve Oppenheimer, a podiatrist from Kansas City. Or maybe the last name was Offenheimer. Anything was possible with Mom.
Genie used to say, "I envy your mother. Every morning she wakes up and she's a completely different person."
One time when I was in college, the Screen Actor's Guild decided to do an emergency fundraiser for some project, and asked mom to do a concert because they thought she could fill seats without much notice. They were right. She filled up a hotel ballroom with 400 seats. She had more or less quit live gigs several years earlier, but there was enough of the legend left to fill a big room. She told me that I was the guest of honor and asked me to pick a song. I chose "Since I Fell For You," a song I had on repeat while writing a (still unpublished) crime novel. When she got to that point in the program, she said she was dedicating the next one to her oldest son Matt, and pointed me out to the crowd, which applauded. Then she performed "April in Paris," by Count Basie.
I felt weird even bringing it up afterward, but I had to know what happened, so I told her, "I'm confused—I told you I wanted you to perform 'Since I Fell For You.'" She blinked a couple of times and said, "Oh, sorry, I must've misheard."
She didn't catch enough breaks, or was too deeply damaged by her own shortcomings and judgment errors and personal issues, to cross over and become one of those people everybody knows. She was under contract with a studio as a child but never became a movie star. She traveled in the same circles as many extraordinary jazz musicians (including "Blue" Lou Marini, a Dallasite who later became a member of the original Saturday Night Live band) but she never became a jazz star herself, outside of the midwest and southwest. In the mid-1970s, Mom got a contract with RCA Records under the tutelage of singer-songwriter-producer Chet Atkins and went out to Nashville to try to remake herself as a country music star in the vein of one of her biggest idols, Dolly Parton. The label recorded an album of original material in 1976 titled "Passages," with Mom performing as Bettye Pierce, but when the first single, "The Girl From Prairie Flats," failed to chart, RCA shelved the album.
Mom got a couple of things out of the Nashville experience.
One was an education in pop songwriting craft.
The other was cocaine.
Mom was an alcoholic and regular drug user from the 1960s on. According to her, she smoked pot and hash, dropped acid, popped uppers and downers and any other pills she could get, and did mushrooms, but "never anything stronger than that." She didn't do powder cocaine until she went to Nashville, where it was everywhere. Bill didn't approve of drugs, except for wine and booze. Neither did dad (he smoked pot recreationally, but stopped smoking it while composing when he got high one night in 1974 and spent 40 minutes trying to draw a perfect whole note). Cocaine might have been the great love of my mother's life, I'm sorry to say. Greater than her sons, greater than Bill, greater than my father, greater than music.
I had no idea how ruinous the problem was until she got back on cocaine in her seventies, after my stepfather died and she hooked up with a 75-year old, ponytailed, drawling, hunched-over cokehead and dealer named Harvey, a gargoyle of a man who was never without his switchblade and stubby cigar and black leather fedora. I once believed that Mom only had two severe cocaine periods—in the mid-'70s and again in the late '80s, when the family was either living like redneck royalty, with long vacations, fine dining, and a country club membership, or eating potatoes and cabbage and a strip of corned beef three nights a week, like Irish peasants in a Frank McCourt book, and racing downtown to pay gas and water and electric bills in cash and coins on the last day before shutoff. We now believe she was doing coke whenever she could get her hands on it. Jeremy wonders if the cocaine explained why she seemed to switch out "best girlfriends" every few months, and why they were always substantially younger than herself, and why they never hung out at the house, and instead went to some other house or apartment, or to a party. Cocaine destroyed her in the end. The only question is whether she welcomed death's embrace.
Mom had two overdoses last year at age 77, months apart. The second time she was in the hospital for nine weeks. I got her into a nursing home and away from her elderly drug dealer boyfriend near the end, but that uneventful period only lasted four months, and at the end of it, she died.
As my younger brother Jeremy once put it, "she was powerless before cocaine." Mom once confessed to Jeremy that back in the 1970s, when he and I had been sent to Kansas City to live with our grandparents after mom and dad got divorced, she drove over to a drug dealer's house at 5 a.m. because he promised to sell her some cocaine that morning, and sat in the car for four hours because he had a policy of not allowing anyone in his apartment before 9 a.m. Mom didn't have to sit in the car. She could've just gone over there at 9. But some part of her got a thrill from being somewhat near the drugs she knew she was going to eventually have.
Mom was also mentally ill and knew it–or so she told me near the end of her life, when she was mostly confined to beds and chairs in hospital rooms and nursing homes because her legs had given out from diabetes. The diabetes was worsened by her drinking, which was a constant from adolescence until she finally got sober sometime around the turn of the millennium. She also gave up cigarettes, which I found just as remarkable.
Jeremy and I always assumed mental illness might have been a factor in her more destructive or self-destructive behaviors. But we didn't know enough about that stuff as kids and young adults to understand that addiction is itself a kind of mental illness—and that it's bound up with, and expresses, and medicates, the other stuff. Some of the conversations we had with doctors and nurses when she was hospitalized in the psych ward at Parkland following her second overdose helped click some of the cosmic tumblers into place, and explain, in a way, what had really been going on.
They said that when the rage came over her, it was unnerving. And these were people trained to handle anger in psych patients. They said she "got under your skin," that her insults were "invasive," that "she's terrifying" and that "she knows how to get into your head."
"It's been a long time since anybody threatened to beat me with a hose," one nurse told me.
They diagnosed her with "hospital delirium," essentially a term that describes freak-outs that some patients suffer during prolonged periods of hospitalization, and gave her various anti-psychotics to bring her rage down to a level where they could deal with her.
But here's the thing: I saw her outbursts up close. She called people fuckheads and fucking idiots and shit-for-brains. She never called me by my name, always "this one" and "my idiot son" and "my shit-for-brains son." Then she'd cry and hug me and call me her darling angel. Sometimes she'd be sweet as could be, watching Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy films with me and eating cookies and drinking juice, and then the anger would well up and the nurse and I would be lashed with a torrent of invective. I remember that the voice was more guttural than her usual, almost an octave deeper. Jeremy said that when mom got like this, “it was like it wasn’t her anymore. It was like something else was controlling her. I imagined that she was a puppet on somebody’s hand.”
And it wasn't just in the hospital in 2020 that she acted this way.
She always acted this way.
"I'm listening to you describe our mother's behavior," Jeremy told the nurse who administered her medications, "but what you're describing doesn't sound to me like hospital delirium. It just sounds like our mom."
Not all the time. Sometimes she would go long stretches without an outburst. But the behavior was always there.
We told the nurse about the fighting, the throwing things, the sudden eruptions of profanity, the sexually compulsive behavior, the drinking, the drugs, and most of all, the fits of rage and violence that made no rational sense, like the time she tried to clip Jeremy's toenails when he was five years old, and the clippers broke or didn't work (I can't remember which) and she decided to clip his toenails with scissors instead, and he got freaked out and struggled against her, and she cursed him and grappled with him and ordered him to hold still, and he was screaming and crying and trying to get away from her, and finally he knocked her hand up and it came back down again and the scissors plunged into her knee. There was a spray of red, far out of proportion to the seriousness of the wound. Escaping from the bathroom, Jeremy slipped and fell in the blood.
"She's always done that kind of thing," I said. "And let me ask you this: if this behavior has been a constant throughout her life, no matter how she's doing, no matter who she's with, and whether she's sober or drunk, clean or on drugs, making money hand over fist or barely scraping by—if it's always a constant—then is it possible that over and above everything else, our mom is just straight-up mentally ill?"
"I think," the nurse said, "that you might've answered your own question."
In Parkland, I asked her, "Mom, did you ever think you might be mentally ill?"
"Oh, sure," she said.
"Were you ever diagnosed?"
"Did you ever think about trying to get diagnosed?"
"Why not? Were you afraid of what you might find out?"
"Yes," she said simply.
We never did get an official answer. Mom was already in steep decline when that conversation happened. She had been diagnosed with dementia and encephalitis (a condition accelerated by drug use, specifically the cocaine she started doing once again in her last years). I hoped I'd get a chance to put her into a mental hospital or some kind of study environment that would yield more solid answers. It didn't happen, and now it's too late. One more unsolved mystery.
Through it all, her talent never left her.
Her talent was her only constant.
And by "talent," I meant not just her voice, her beauty, and he writing talent, but everything, including that gale of charisma, willpower, femme fatale heat and wounded-little-girl vulnerability that made men into sugar daddies and other women into marks and co-conspirators, and tore everything apart and put it back together again, and tore it apart again, and again, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, from childhood to grave.
There were always periods where we didn't speak to each other. Three weeks. Three months. Six months.
The longest stretch was ten years. It happened after a string of unconscionable displays of self-centeredness from 2006-2008: refusing to come to Jen's funeral, and Nancy's second wedding, because of "scheduling conficts"—meaning some kind of conference she was attending. When Bill died of throat cancer in 2018, I started talking to her again. Jeremy and I visited her in Dallas. She was smoking pot again but not drinking, and we thought we'd once again gotten a glimpse of the goofy, harmless, freewheeling "hippie mom" that we cherished so much, and that was in evidence less frequently than we might've wished growing up. Then Harvey and the cocaine came in, and the final slide began.
I used to tell people that Mom was a bad mother. I guess she was a bad mother, if you measure motherhood by all the traditional signifiers. That was the source of my resentment of her, my bitterness, my feelings of deprivation and abandonment, and my anger being misunderstood and unappreciated, manipulated, and abused. I was often shocked by how bluntly she told me and Jeremy that she never felt like she was cut out to be a mother. When I interviewed her last summer for a documentary project, she was coked out of her mind, answering my questions while staring off into the middle distance. She was missing patches of hair and one front tooth. It was as if Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" had fallen in with dope fiends and lost everything.
Desperate to facilitate a happy moment between us, I asked, "Mom, do you ever regret having kids?"
"Oh, all the time," she answered immediately.
"Really," I said quietly.
"Kids are a drag, man," she said.
But if, as Genie said, Mom was a different person each morning, I know there were versions of her that loved me and Jeremy with all her heart and soul, however mangled that love might've become in its expression. I saw her burst into tears over birthday cards and flowers, and at seeing me reading stories at the college literary festival, or receiving a writing award, or looking at pictures of us years ago, when Jeremy and I were little round-headed kids with bad '70s haircuts and wide-lapeled shirts.
I also know that there is more than one way to express love, and mom did an exceptional job of it in at least one way: passing down an artistic legacy. Mom paid for drama lessons for me when I was five years old, with an elderly stage actress who lived in an apartment tower off Northwest Highway in Dallas. She paid for private drawing lessons with Linda Finnell, one of the finest artists the city ever produced, and it was with Linda that I learned about composition, line, chiaroscuro, and the importance of letting a medium do what it's suited to do.
And it was Mom who took me to the movies, often very old movies at the Granada Theater, back when it was a repertory house. We also watched old movies on TV and on videocassette. Musicals, comedies, thrillers, melodramas, live action shorts, cartoons. She gave me biographies of movie stars and directors to read. We talked about Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, and what made Marilyn Monroe a different kind of star from Judy Holliday. It was my mother, not my father, that awakened my love of movies.
It was the movies that allowed us to communicate, however haltingly, during those final months. I will never forget sitting next to her in her hospital room watching "Double Indemnity," Mom seeing it entirely as the story of Barbara Stanwyck, laughing out loud any time it was obvious that poor Fred MacMurray thought they were a couple of snakes when really, she was the spider and he was the fly.
And it was Mom who taught me what an unreliable narrator was. We'd put on vinyl records in her office, me and her and Jeremy and sometimes Bill, and she'd talk to us about point-of-view, about the idea of the storyteller not being the same person as the protagonist. We listened to Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Randy Newman, Chicago, Jim Croce, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, Kris Kristofferson, Marty Robbins, and some of the great Broadway musicals. She'd point out how a song can double back on its narrator, exposing them in a way they didn't anticipate when the song began. "Like when Wile E. Coyote sets a trap for the Road Runner, and it gets him instead."
But her favorite Dolly Parton song was "A Coat of Many Colors," a song with a reliable narrator, and one of the warmest songs in Parton's discography. It's the story of a poor young girl whose mother sews her a coat of many colors made from any rags that she could find. The kids at school make fun of the coat, but the girl loves it, because it was made from love.
The song ends with: "Now I know we had no money/But I was rich as I could be/In my coat of many colors/My momma made for me."
I used to get angry when I heard that song—or bitter, or depressed—because it made me wish I'd had a mother like that. My mother couldn't sew. She didn't have the patience for a project like that. She couldn't express love like that girl's mother did. Her way would've been to buy a coat with a credit card that she couldn't afford to pay off and then have to return it.
I thought of her as a failure as a mother. I thought of myself as a boy who had been deprived of the most elemental comforts.
I understand her better now. I forgive her for anything she did to me, or didn't do for me.
And I think that, under the circumstances, she did the best she could with what she had. She showed us love the only way she knew how, through her art, and her scholarly mind. She clothed me in her intellect and creativity.
A coat of many colors my momma made for me.