Thrashing about in a repetitive dream rather like a DNA sequence ending in frayed telomeres affecting memory, I awoke wondering if I had imagined the people and events of my colorful life. If I had invented them. For months I had been working on a childhood memoir and needed pictures to accompany the text. Scrolling through hundreds of photos that I once threw into shoeboxes but had finally scanned into a computer file, was slow going. Every photo conjured up a story, a memory of place, smells, relationships, both good and bad, but seldom indifferent. It was as if I had died and my life flashed before me in one fast blink and then curtains, a light at the end of a tunnel, or some such thing, or heaven, or the other place, if you believe old time preachers, or even modern day politicians. It took me hours to scan through the pictures. I studied the images as if I could bring the subjects into the room with me where we would laugh and remember all the details of when the photo was taken and what were we laughing about. In one picture I’m in a black and gold Sari and my friend Mary Lou Ward Is wearing a Sari of silver and blue. We’re at a Maharishi party in 1968 in my San Francisco apartment on the crooked block of Lombard Street. We both look so young and so alive, laughing, having a giggle over costumes and the band I had dubbed the Gurus. Mary Lou died a year later in a mysterious fire in that same apartment. Five years later I was finally able to write about that tragic event in The Intruders. On the June 21st anniversary of her death, truly the longest day of the year, I plant flowers in memory of Mary Lou.
I'm so happy to have a picture with Mother Teresa, soon to become a Saint as decred by the Catholic church. She was a woman so tiny that I felt giant-like standing next to her. She let me interview her about forgiveness after I said I asked God what to say to get an interview. “And what did God tell you?” she asked. “To ask you,” I said, which proved to be the correct answer. She said, “Well then I must do it” and dragged a chair out from a green curtained area.
A 1987 picture memorialized the day in 1987 when I addressed six thousand people in the Kremlin at an International Women’s Congress with President Mikhail Gorbachev seated on the dais behind me. Looking at the picture, Gorbachev listening, a full house in back and front and sides of the auditorium, usually gives me an ego boast even though today many people don’t have a clue about the Cold War much less President Gorbachev. Ah, fame.
I can drop the names of deceased or deposed or out of power Heads of State the way Hollywood movies can blow up cars. One more and I’ll move on. I promise.
It’s December 25, 1987 and I’m in The People’s Republic of China with Premier Zhao Ziyang. The Premier and I are walking side by side over lush red carpet, a series of crystal chandeliers overhead. A Mao suited translator walks a step behind us, taking notes. The picture was taken in the Great Hall of The People where I brought twelve children to discuss peace with the Head of State. I have a video of the event and it’s bitter sweet to see Zhao laughing, hugging the kids, and to know that during Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he sided with the students and was placed under house arrest where he remained until his death in 2005.
But as is true for most of us, the picture I treasure most has to do with family, in this case my birth family. This picture was taken in 1934 during the Great Depression. I have no idea who snapped it or who owned the camera. It wasn’t common for us to have our picture taken, no instant anything in those days. I was eight, the youngest of seven children until Little Jimmy the baby in Mama’s arms was born. The house behind us crying out for paint is the church parsonage. The spiffy car belonged to my brother Carlos Morrison, eighteen years my elder and the youngest school Superintendent in the State of Oklahoma, and bossy as can be. Lordy! On the far left is the sister five years my senior, Poor Little Glendora we called her. Can you imagine what a label like that would do to a person? And it did. Then comes Daddy who scared me half to death with sermons about hell fire and brimstone. But he also taught me tolerance and lessons in equality. And even when there was hardly enough food for us I came to expect a hobo guest at our supper table sharing a meal of red beans and cornbread. But when Daddy invited black folks to attend his services and six men showed up, Daddy was told he could no longer preach the gospel. The same as Jesus would have done? Brokenhearted he didn’t live long after that.
Mama is next in line holding Little Jimmy. She was great with kids and especially good with babies but when I got older and had a mind of my own she was like a hanging judge. With it all, she taught me poetry and expression and she was a writer. When I think I don’t have time to write I remember Mama cooking from scratch using a smelly kerosene stove, and for a massive amount of laundry, a scrub board, teaching Sunday school and playing the piano for Daddy’s services. Of course our house wasn’t exactly company ready. If we had guests, although no one was a guest, in the true sense of the word, we threw toys, clothes, books and assorted debris into the nearest closet or under the bed and swept dirt under rugs.
I’m smiling, happy to have my picture taken in a new yellow dress, without a hint of my near future. A few months after this photo I almost died after an accident from which the title of my new memoir derived, Peeing On Hot Coals.
Sitting on the car running board is my brother stubborn Charles Clay and my older sister Minnie Faye, both of them kind and good hearted, willing to help any family member at any time.
My oldest sister and a great beauty Nina Aileen is not in the picture. She didn’t like to visit because we were so messy. “Mama, y’all have to get these kids to clean this dirty house,” she would say, sighing, sigh, sigh, sigh. “I’ve got a bad headache from all the dust and noise.” Mama shushed us, and told Nina to go lay down awhile.
Another sister I thought of, as Dead Betty Ruth died a scant eleven months before I was born. I grew up hearing about her, how beautiful she was with her black curly hair. My persnickety sister Nina was quick to tell me that I was born bald and was an ugly baby. The story was that Nina made Mama cover my face with a blanket because she was ashamed of me. Families!
But, I miss them. All. Even Nina. I am the only one still living. Being from such a large family spoiled me. They supported everything I did and showed up for book signings, held my hand when I had surgeries, bailed me out when I was without a job. It never crossed my mind that someday they would be gone and I would be the one responsible for bringing them back to life.
And now they call to me, so I add kindling to the fire around which are gathered the dreamed up characters of my life. Every night when at last I sleep, they lie down beside me soothing me, crooning their stories to me as if to a child and reinforcing my memories in dreams and occasionally in nightmares too.
Causes Pat Montandon Supports
PETA, Women for Women, Amnesty International, Children as the Peacemakers, Peace to The Planet