By Rebecca Wells
Rebecca Wells, who is best known for her wildly popular book "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood," is out with a new novel about coming of age in Louisiana in the 1960s and 70s. Wells is a native of Louisiana and a major plot point in her new book "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder" is an explosion on an oil rig in the gulf. Her novel is excerpted below.
My name is Calla Lily Ponder. I was born in 1953 in La Luna, Louisiana, on the banks of the La Luna River. That is where my mother cut and curled hair, and my father and mother together taught tango, waltz, and the Cajun two-step. They said they named me for their favorite flower because they wanted me to spiral open into radiant beauty, inside and out. Even when I was born, a red, tiny, hollering thing, they claimed they could see the beautiful, creamy-colored, velvety bloom of a calla lily.
My eyes are blue like my mother’s—I call her M’Dear—and my complexion is olive like Papa’s. I guess the only thing that resembles the flower I’m named for is my long, strong legs. They’ve served me well so far, and I’m grateful for that. I was taught not to care much what other people thought, unless someone said you were mean to them, and it was true. Then you better pay attention. My big broth¬ers and I learned this at an early age: That it is kindness that makes you rich.
I also learned very early that I loved my mother’s hair. Family stories have it that when I was young, nothing soothed me more than being held in M’Dear’s arms, playing with her long, shiny chestnut-colored hair. It fell down to her waist, but photos of her at that time show how she held it back in combs so only part of it fell forward. I’d reach up, let it fall over me, then part it, pat it, and curl my fingers in it. I’d play with it the way other children did with new toys, only my mother’s hair was new to me over and over again. After a spell of playing with it, I would settle in and just gaze up at her. She would look back, and when she did, she let me see myself reflected in her eyes. It was as if she held this little mirror inside her, just for me, to see me, to know who I was.
_M’Dear was the owner and sole practitioner at the Crowning Glory Beauty Porch. The name of her business came from two sources. First, the Bible. Second, the fact that we had a porch that ran all the way around our house.
_M’Dear taught me about the Bible early on. “‘A woman’s hair is her crowning glory,’ the Bible says. It’s a beautiful quote. Along with the Beatitudes and the Commandments, it’s one of the teachings I hope you and your brothers will learn. And don’t just learn them, let them into your heart.”
_Papa said, “Just be kind. Period.”
_When M’Dear and Papa first moved into our house, M’Dear had the big side porch enclosed and turned into a beauty parlor. It was there that she washed, dried, curled, dyed, bleached, permed, and gave manicures—but not pedicures, and I don’t blame her. Down off the porch was the Beauty Patio, with a fountain that had a lady with mermaids swimming under her like they were holding her up. The Crowning Glory Beauty Porch was where most all the La Luna ladies came to catch up on the latest news. Even ladies without appointments stopped by in the afternoons for coffee, bringing some sweet baked goods to share with everybody. As Papa put it, “Lenora has made her beauty porch the Crowning Glory Gathering Place!” I always got goosebumps and felt slightly disoriented when I heard my mother called by her name. It reminded me of her life that was separate from being my mother. As close as M’Dear and I were, it was good to be reminded. It kept things in balance. In their classes, I watched her at Will and Lenora’s Swing ’N Sway, Papa and M’Dear’s dance studio. I’d see her cha-cha, swirl and dip, waltz, fox trot, and samba with other men on a regular basis. She had two chiffon skirts, and when she dressed up in one of them, she looked so different from the M’Dear I knew in her cotton dresses, or shorts and a starched white blouse. On the nights when she was demonstrating dances and teaching certain moves, I was both proud and a little jealous. When I told her that, she hugged me, and said, “Oh, little Calla, there’s enough of me to go around. I have enough love for you, and other people too.”
On the days that M’Dear washed her hair, she called them “Days of Beauty.” She spent the whole day pampering herself, and she taught me how to pamper myself as well.
_“If cleanliness is next to Godliness,” M’Dear said, “then pampering is next to Goddessness.” My mother would say those kinds of things and then give a little laugh and a wink like we had a secret club.
_On Days of Beauty, we had fans made of vetiver root so that when we fanned ourselves we smelled the wonderful, spicy, of-the-earth smell that is the vetiver plant, grown on the Clareux plantation not far from La Luna. M’Dear made it a game for us to create facials from ingredients out of the kitchen and the garden. This was all before I started school, and was graced to spend days on end with my mother, so rich and private that even now I can close my eyes and relive them. I do not mean to say that those days were perfect. Even at that age, I heard the edge in M’Dear’s voice when she and Papa sat at the kitchen
table, at night, talking about money. Sometimes we had very little, and that was scary, although I didn’t know then what it all meant. It was just as well, since it all worked out. In the world of La Luna, my par¬ents were too creative to go broke.
_During the wet, cold months that make up a Louisiana winter, M’Dear’s hair was so long and thick that drying it could take all day. On those days we’d stay inside, cleaning, ironing, and cooking up huge pots of gumbo. I’d climb up onto the big soft chair next to the fireplace in the kitchen, and shine shoes or sew on buttons or do the other tasks she was teaching me. I’d sit there and watch her work, watch her go in and out of the washroom like a breeze was blowing her in.
_On hot Days of Beauty, we’d put on our swimsuits and stand out¬side on the wooden platform of the outdoor shower. It was my happy job to scrub clean buckets and other containers and set them outside to gather rainwater to wash our hair. M’Dear would undo my braid, pour the rainwater on my head, put on a little Breck shampoo, and wash my hair. The sun shone down, my mother’s hands touched my head, and her fingers lathered love into me. Never has my hair been so soft. Sometimes I still wash my hair in rainwater, to remember.
_After our hair was clean, M’Dear would leave hers down, and, still in our swimsuits, we’d hang clean clothes outside to dry on the line, with me handing her clothespins out of a small apron she had sewn for me out of flower sacks. I have a photo of us by the clothesline, doing this very thing. We were working and smiling, squinting slightly in the sunlight. I was just about to enter first grade, just about to leave behind those mother-daughter days of intimacy, of little maternal bap¬tisms. M’Dear prepared me for that leaving so that it was smooth and felt natural. Not all leavings are that easily prepared for.
After finishing chores and when our hair was dry, M’Dear and I would go down to our pier, just before sunset. These memories are so vivid to me that I don’t need a photograph to see them. I carry them inside me.
_In one memory, it is growing toward twilight. We are sitting on the pier with the La Luna River flowing by.
_“M’Dear,” I ask, “can I brush your hair with the hundred magical strokes?”
_“Of course,” she says.
_And as the sun sparkled off the cocoa-red water and the wind stirred in the tall pines, I stood behind my mother, my legs on either side of her, and brushed her hair. I lifted her long chestnut hair up off her neck, twirled it up on top of her head, then let it fall, watching its weight settle back down around her shoulders. Then I’d lean my face into her hair and smell it. I can close my eyes and smell it now: sun and vanilla.
What I first learned about love, I learned on that dock with M’Dear. The La Luna River flowing by with its river sounds, the riverbanks with their lovely sweet citrus scent of jasmine, the scent of M’Dear’s hair, the oils of her scalp, the fullness of her thick, long curls against my hands, our breathing together, the closeness, her love for me—all of this knit my soul together. When the fading sunlight hit the river, it bounced up to form iridescence, like a halo, around M’Dear’s head.
She is the most beautiful person in the universe.
On clear nights when the moon was out, we’d return to our pier. On the way, she’d point out fireflies. I’d hear a screech; M’Dear would stroke my hair, and say, “Calla, that’s just a barn owl, and nothing to be afraid of. Oh, she’s a beauty of an owl, with a white, heart-shaped face.”
I remember the first time she introduced me to the one who would keep me company forever. She must have told me even earlier, because my big brother Will later told me that as a toddler I used to waddle around in diapers, saying “Moolay, Moolay.” And Mama told me, “Your Papa and I held you up in the moonlight when you were barely six months old. Everyone else in La Luna takes their one-year-olds to dip their toes in the river. But we held you up to the moon as well.”
That night M’Dear said, “Calla, now look at the moon!” Her voice was filled with love for me and delight in what she was witnessing. “You see how beautiful She is?” M’Dear always called the moon “She.” “See how bright She shines! See Her light on the water? Here, let me hold you while we look. Tell me, Calla, what do you see up there?”
_“I see a lady.”
_“I do too, little darling.” Then M’Dear wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear, “She’s the Moon Lady.”
_We were quiet as we watched the Moon Lady’s reflection dance on the river.
_“Remember this,” M’Dear said. “When the sky and everything around you looks dark, and you feel lost and alone, the Moon Lady is still there, watching over you, whispering: ‘What do you need from me now, little darling, what do you need from me now?’ ”
_Then M’Dear lightly touched the crown of my head. “The moon is our mother, sweet daughter of mine. Call on her when you need her. Call on her.”
_All my life I’ve remembered those words. Or tried to.
I miss seeing myself reflected in M’Dear’s eyes. I thought I’d lost the reflection when she died. But then I learned that it is not permanently lost. That if you wait, like she told me, then you can lift the gauze, lift the veil, and see her eyes again.
_I see her now as she held me above the La Luna River, her long hair lit by a waxing moon. I see my mother as she held my baby body up to the lady in the moon.
Copyright © 2009 by Rebecca Wells.