The Truth Behind the Photo

C-SPAN featured this photo of Mama when they interviewed me about the memoir

I recently posted this photo on my Facebook page. Folks left sweet comments about how pretty Mama was. But truth be told, she was in bad shape the day that image was captured.

She had been on a crying jag and was in no mood for a photo shoot. I was about three and crying, too. The family was hurting, unraveling. This was around the time she left me in the bathtub at night and went out to pursue other “comforts.” There I was, in the tub, alone in the house. Eventually I headed out and wandered through the neighborhood looking for her. That’s the reason the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) entered our lives.

I described the DFACS home visits in The Cracker Queen–A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life but didn’t divulge what actually prompted them. I wanted to spare Mama that pain, at least. As it was, there would be plenty on those pages for her to confront and process.

Once the book was with the publisher–and not a word could be changed–I sent her the manuscript. I was terrified about how she’d react. Would she disown me? Would she wage war in defense of the lies she’d told about her life? Or might she actually accept what I’d written?

Well, here’s how it went down. 

She took the manuscript to her bathroom so that she could read it in private. Her longtime live-in partner knew only her version of things, so she needed to see what I’d exposed. As the sun was rising the following morning, she emerged from the bathroom and handed the manuscript to him.

“Here’s Retta’s book,” she said. “Every bit of it is the truth, and I don’t give a damn what you think of it because I AM THE CRACKER QUEEN.”

I wish I could say she maintained that position. At first, she was Cracker Queen (CQ) Fan Number-One. Proudly wearing her CQ t-shirt when running errands in her small town, she’d scope out potential places for me to sell the book. After scouting out a Christian bookstore, she sent a note that read, “This one is Jesus only.”

In the last months of her life, she summoned me to the dining room table. Taking a drag off her Basic cigarette, she unleashed a laser death glare in my direction.

“Retta, don’t you write another word about me. Ever.”

Without thinking, I let out a belly laugh.

“As if I could?! Sorry, Mama, but you’ve made that impossible.”

“I’m serious, Retta. Not one more word.”

I asked her why, but she refused to answer. You see Mama was more of a “my way or the highway” woman than a talker.

No matter. I shall continue to be a defiant daughter because she’s worthy of legions of words. I’ll never stop telling stories about that magnanimous, chain-smoking, kindhearted, funny as hell, complicated heroine. I think it’s what I’m supposed to do.

After all, y’all–SHE IS THE CRACKER QUEEN.

Read about The Cracker Queen–A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life.