Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, Glenda Baggott: Hyperphobic Matriarch and Dream Mother

I make references to Glenda Baggott all the time.

For example, I've written (for Real Simple magazine -- perhaps not an exact quote but close):

"My mother, Glenda Baggott, is a hyper-phobic matriarch constructed out of the hardy starch of pure love and I'm her fourth and final creation, her prodigy, now grown. She has spent her life creating Rules for Our Family's Survival -- they include elaborate categories of things that can kill you and not just the most obvious maternal dangers: water fountains, public toilets, foods ingested past their sell-by dates, asbestos-wrapped furnace pipes, pesticide-sprayed grapes, unfiltered tap water. Her list is more elaborate: lying down on bare grass, standing near idling cars, elastic – in most forms, canned peaches, unscraped bananas, flea collars, mop water smeared on grocery store linoleum (which will rear its ugly head in this essay), louver blinds, any form of mushroom or shellfish, orange juice sipped from coffee mugs, especially coffee mugs bought while on vacation in Mexico..."

GIRL TALK is a mother-daughter novel. THE MISS AMERICA FAMILY a mother-son story.

Here's an outtake from p. 11 and my own life:

"I’d just started to notice how bizarre our relationship was, the way she’d never allowed anything to be too itchy or tight on me, and still snipped the elastic around the waistband of my underwear and the thick edge around the leg holes. “It might diminish your circulation,” she claimed. I assumed she meant the circulation to my balls, but was never clear on that. I was once called to the principal’s office in seventh grade because she couldn’t remember if she’d peeled the waxy edge off of my bologna sandwich or not, and, afraid that it might be toxic, she wanted me to check first. The secretary told this to me, trying desperately to keep a straight face. My mother had, in fact, peeled off the waxy edge. And she was still at it, cutting my fruit for me in small pieces to minimize the risk of choking. I was born sickly and she never got over it, but it’s more than that, too. I mean, when I was Mitzie’s age, for example, I wanted a cat and she wouldn’t let me have one, but she offered to let me pet her slippered feet while she purred. What was stranger was that I liked petting her fuzzy slippers, liked listening to her purr."
Did I get sent to the principal's office in 7th grade because of the possible toxicity of wax? I did.

THE MADAM is based on the life of my mother's mother -- the family stories I'd heard all my life. There's that hugely important mother figure in MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS and THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED -- in one she wears a valor sweatsuit and has a well-endowed dachshund and in the other she wears linen and swoops her hear up in a French twist.

And then there are the novels of mine where the mother is simply longed for, dead and gone, but more present in her absence: my N.E. Bode books -- THE ANYBODIES Trilogy and THE SLIPPERY MAP and then THE PRETEND WIFE (Asher).

The central haunting figure in the upcoming PURE Trilogy? Yes. The mother.

Too many of my essays to count are about Glenda Baggott, including the recent Best American Essays notable: "For All the Ladies in my Mother's Book Group."

My entire first collection of poetry THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS? Um, yes. Glenda Baggott.

The novel that I've been writing for the last ten years -- now called THE 7th PACT OF THE WINSLOW SISTERS -- central mother figure holds it all together.

So, yes. Glenda Baggott. She is a force of nature. Her mother had her at seventeen. She was an only child, a redhead. Her parents ran an oyster bar. Their marriage was volatile. But her mother protected her from the larger world, put her in Catholic school, and had her learn the piano. And my mother drilled the piano up into her fingers. By 13, she was practicing three hours a day. She was obsessive-compulsive, yes. It runs in the family -- keys are keys are keys.

I remember her apologizing to me once. She walked into the playroom, turned off the television and said, "I'm sorry and you'd just better forgive me." She once threw a dinner roll at my father because he wouldn't share it with her. She once threw a fork over her shoulder into the kitchen, where it banged around, because it wasn't the right kind of fork. But as loud and fiery as she gets, she's also the first to laugh at herself.

She gave me the greatest gift a parent can give to a writer -- the permission to write about her. When someone asks her if my writing embarrasses her or upsets her, my mother says, "My daughter writes what she has to," which is a line she picked up from an interview with Faulkner's mother. And, even better, that permission gave me access to a goldmine of material. Glenda Baggott is a writer's gift.

Many medical breakthroughs and reversals my mother has called years ahead. In fact, I'd go so far to say that she was one of the first true leading pioneers of germphobia. She no longer the only one with handiwipes. She's not the only one who knows how not to touch anything while in a public restroom. She started a movement.

A woman who knows her own mind.
A woman who dresses up by brushing her hair.
A Pulitzer-level braggart about her offspring.
A hot head.
A sage advisor.
A woman who can take off an itchy bra in two seconds and pull it out of her sleeve like a weird feminist magician.

Glenda Baggott.

Thanks for having me as your baby for all these years!