Toni Myers

Betty Myers and her “ugly baby” Toni.

 She wasn’t the milk-and-cookies mother. You didn’t go to her crying for help.  Yet one night, ever alert to dangers in the dark, I tiptoed downstairs while a party was in progress.

I must have been a pathetic sight, whimpering, “Every plane that goes overhead, I know the next one will drop the bomb!”

Detroit was a big industrial city at that time, it was the Cold War, and I was the Paul Revere early-alert person in the family, listening to overhead planes, cat-burglar sounds, and the occasional clanking of chains if my big sister was hiding in the closet.

Mother laughed and said, “Fiddle dee dee! When the bomb hits, we’ll be so busy, we won’t even notice.” 

Wrong answer. I would notice! I slunk back upstairs. No, she was not a milk-and-cookies mom.

My brother commented recently:  “It wasn’t easy growing up with Scarlett O’Hara.” And she was a drama queen. But her stage was too small, and because of this, she was an unfulfilled heroine.

Mother was a teenager in the late 1920s, when fashion was paramount.  She became a fashion original. Her hats often featured fruit and flowers. By the 1940s, she must have been half-supporting Chanda, the maker of beautiful but wacky hats. Mother adored shoes; she settled on her signature 3- inch spike heels with open toes, commenting that she came into style every 10 years. She loved wild colors and odd fabrics and made it a rule never to be boring.

Toni_&_mom_004

To me she was impossibly glamorous and sophisticated.  I was in awe of her sharp tongue. Mother loved Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table gang, and, like the gang, she had a biting wit. When I told her I would like to study French, she replied that that should be easy, because my vocabulary consisted of “Y’know” and “I’m sorry.” She was full of clichés that she made her own by delivering them in a staccato, raspy Pall Mall voice, with a cigarette waving like a flag as she carried on.  We kids were mesmerized by her tales, partly hypnotized by the cigarette’s weaving trajectory as the ash grew impossibly long and then crash-landed, unremarked. Her motherly advice if you were morose:  “Don’t act like the dying swan.” If you were not going to bed in a timely fashion, she hustled you with  “Parting is such sweet sorrow!”

Elisabeth Jane (Betty) Taylor was a smart girl.  She attended the University of Michigan, but dropped out in order to marry Father.  But Betty Taylor wasn’t suited to be the stay-at-home doctor’s wife in suburban Detroit, where we moved shortly after Father returned from World War II.

The happiest era in her life, I believe, was during the war, when Father was away running field hospitals. Her best stories conjured up the crazy doings of her pack of women friends in St. Louis. They were on their own, coping with children and rationing and faraway husbands.  It was the one period of her life when my mother got to be in change.

In the suburbs she was adrift. She tried the PTA, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the ladies’ auxiliary to father’s hospital. The idea of getting together with neighbor women for coffee filled her with horror, a “crashing bore.” She enjoyed using her talents making tableaux featuring paper-mache dolls in diorama-like scenes for the ladies’ auxiliary teas.  She gave parties, fairly wild ones, offering whimsical foods or whatever was new and different. A childhood favorite was Sterno canned heat set in a purple cabbage with Vienna sausages stuck into the cabbage here and there.

She did outrageous things—cut the thick telephone cord when she thought Father had gotten too many calls (you have to be old to understand that this was just not done). She covered our dog Hansy with Chanel No. 5 after he got into the dead fish by the lake water. She drove across state lines to get fireworks in Ohio, setting them off like a maniac in northern Michigan. One day at the lake, she fell asleep in Kontiki, our rubber life raft, and the lake current took her out to the middle. When none of us rescued her, she used the covers of the book she was reading to paddle back. I think her later emerging from the woods shooting a roman candle at us was revenge.

There was a bit of a soft side. She loved books, and she passed that  on to me. I got my love of memorizing poems from Mother. We also grew up singing.  Mother adored  Broadway musicals—anything by Rogers and Hammerstein. I went to New York with her for Mary Martin in Peter Pan and Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town. She had us three kids perform “Be Kind to Your Parents,” from her favorite musical, Fanny, for Thanksgiving guests. We can all still sing it today.

But all those glasses of Canadian Club hidden in cupboards and branded with her telltale red lipstick were a reminder of how her boundaries narrowed as she got older. TVs were on everywhere as Mother hid out in her bedroom with Mama Sita, her wretched Burmese, and a box of chocolates and a good book for company. 

She died in her sleep at age 67, a terrible surprise despite her heart disease and her habits. A neighbor who helped my father that night later described her as a “recluse,” an idea that took time to absorb. My vivacious, fun-loving mother a recluse? 

I think about all the gifts she gave me: her romance with words; her love of poetry and music; her laughter at life’s absurdity; those big parties she threw; her fearless way of dressing (though mine is more quirky than elegant); most of all, her sense that life is meant to be fun—silly, big, gigantic fun. I carry these things with gratitude and a better realization of the limitations she faced.

I think about her talents, and how women of her time and social strata were expected to be happy being Ladies of the Auxiliary to their husbands. And I am grateful for the work I have been able to do all my life and for the expectations with which we live today.  Barriers still exist for women, but few girls in our time need to look forward to growing up to be auxiliary.

 

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  • Judy Hooper May 13, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Yes, you did absolutely get your Mother’s very best qualities! You have her independent (not follow the crowd) colorful style & the gift of writing is all YOU. Funny, my Mom was quiet but she was her own person … for sure. It must have been such an interesting time to grow up – ! I remember a picture of my Mom in her flapper dress with two other girlfriends, titled .. The Unholy 3! I always loved that picture! hmmm…wonder what that says about me? Again thank you for your beautiful writing & keep it up! xoxo Judy (Your high school get in trouble friend)

    Reply
  • Susan Soriano May 12, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Toni, I’ve read your story at least five times over. You’re a natural storyteller. Such energy, style and humor. I’m a dog lover — the image of Hansy covered in Chanel No. 5 just cracks me up. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

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  • Toni Myers May 12, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    My feelings about my mother are so complex, I don’t think I did justice to how much fun she was. Since writing it, I keep thinking of more capers…the afternoon party for teetotaling neighbors and the lemo libres..steaming open Uncle Gordon’s letter which came to her inadvertently, with me the lucky partner in crime as well as the midnight stealing of large boxes in front of the consul’s house…I could go on and on. We are doing a reunion Up North (in MI) this August and the stories will fly! Thanks, Arianna.

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  • Carol May 12, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    If only I’d met and married your brother earlier…I’d have had the chance to come to know her a bit. I’ve often wondered about what-might-have-been. I know I would have loved her dearly.
    Gratefully, over the years I have come to somewhat know Betty through the family stories and memories. And, oh, you all have some doosies!
    Toni, I do believe you inherited her ‘best’ qualities,
    Always, xoxo

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  • Arianna Paige May 11, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    When none of us rescued her, she used the covers of the book she was reading to paddle back. I think her later emerging from the woods shooting a roman candle at us was revenge.

    This was golden!! I think she is a woman I would have adored!

    Reply
  • Toni Myers May 11, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks for perceptive comments. In truth, I often felt cheated by mother. Writing this piece helped me recognize the intangibles she gave me, the admiration I had for her unorthodox style, and the musing about what-might-have-been.
    Toni

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  • Jennifer Cheyne May 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Ah Toni, such a great article and a really clear ‘picture’ of a marvelous woman. But I see you got one of those moms who make for a spectacular novel or movie, but are not all that a daughter sometimes needs… In this generation, she might have found a balance, but you’re so right about the auxiliary. (My ex-husband’s mother was editor of her college newspaper – after the kids, she volunteered at the hospital while her husband was an attorney and honored with Man of the Year.) Thank god, thank god that we have more options today. One can only hope that those moms who didn’t morph were somehow models that freed the next generation. xo!

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  • Terry May 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Your mother reminds me of my Memphis Belle grandmother who wore a white, beaded flapper dress for her wedding – she was always on top of the latest fashion trends (and, at times, found that her children cramped her style a tad…).

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  • Vivienne May 11, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Toni
    Great, vivid story about your mom. I wonder who she’d be today when women are able to express ourselves more fluidly. She would still have the elan and the vivaciousness, but she could express herself through through a broader lens, full of options not accepted or even thought of during her time. I want to fast forward her life to 2013!
    very nice writing, thanks for sharing!
    xoxo
    Vivienne

    Reply
  • Judy Hooper May 11, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Oh, Toni … I love this …
    Your Mom was amazing … I thought she looked like a movie star …and acted like one and just back from a long day at the studios! I thought she looked like Jane Wyman (? is that her name…gosh, we thought we would never forget those Hollywood beauties) Keep up the great writing! xoxo

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  • hillsmom May 11, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Well told and rather intriguing. I completely agree with Diane Dettmann’s comment.

    There’s an old saying…”Ugly in the cradle, beautiful at the table!” Like you, I always thought the war was just on the other side of the lake, when I was very young. (I grew up in Chicago right by the lake.)

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  • Diane Dettmann May 11, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Toni, I enjoyed your essay, honestly told and wonderful detail. I pictured your mother so clearly in my mind. The piece triggered vivid memories of my mother. Love the photos! Thank you for sharing “Scarlett” with us.

    Reply
  • suetiggers May 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    she sounds wonderful…I wish my mother had just a little of that in her My mother conformed. I did not. She never seemed accepting of or comfortable with who I was and am. She always seemed like someone playing the “good girl”.
    My father was the one I wanted to be like. He was responsible but managed to seem wild and free with his sense of humor and a mind of his own.

    Reply
  • B. Elliott May 11, 2013 at 8:53 am

    So heartfelt and beautifully written. Thank you.

    Reply