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Atlanta Magazine, April, 2004

Mama was born on Walker Street in a house that no longer stands, in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood that used to be called Snake Nation.

Not long after her birth, Mama and her mother were quarantined in a “pest house” during the great Spanish influenza pandemic that swept into Atlanta in 1918. Mama said she and her mother had smallpox, not the flu. As proof, she pointed out that I was immune–I never developed the little dime-sized smallpox vaccination scar on my arm like my classmates.

Mama, whose maiden name was Winifred Louise Black, lived all over Atlanta. One Sunday, a dozen years ago, I drove around with her to see all the houses and apartments where she, her mother, grandmother and aunts lived. Mama was an only child and her father lived out his days in a veterans hospital far away.

We started off in College Park, at a rambling old home at the corner of East Main Street and Mercer Avenue. It was built by Mama's grandfather, Duke G. Bettis, who was mayor of College Park. After he died in 1911, his accountant stole his money and went to Florida to live it up.

We went to 20 addresses that Mama could remember. We went by her alma mater, Girls’ High, which is now a fancy apartment complex called The Roosevelt. She graduated in the class of 1935.

Mama once lived in the ornate old house at 1192 McLendon Avenue, near the heart of Little Five Points. She lived in Candler Park, Inman Park, Morningside and Midtown. Her great-grandmother, Jane Belle Isle, operated a boarding house at Piedmont and Sixth and kept a cow in the yard.

Jane’s sons, the Belle Isle Boys, were Atlanta’s first auto mechanics. They were also the first cruisers. Mama told me the boys rode around town chanting crudely: “We're rough! We're tough! We’re Belle Isles and we never get enough!”

Mama’s great uncle Alvin Belle Isle was Atlanta’s first cab driver and held a taxicab monopoly until after World War II. The monopoly was broken up by Mayor William Hartsfield, who wanted veterans to have a better shot at cab-driving jobs. Hartsfield’s private secretary was Alvin’s niece, Fannie Lee Bettis, which led to a fine family feud.

Mama had relatives who stood on a hill in the Civil War and watched Atlanta burn. Mama nearly burned it down again shopping. She dragged my sister, Trisha, and me to downtown Atlanta every week of our childhood, wearing a little hat and rooting through sales merchandise at Rich’s and Davison’s, which became Macy’s. She’d take us to the movies at the Loew’s Grand or the Paramount. Sometimes she’d let me go in The Trick Shop at Peachtree and Carnegie Way to buy fake vomit. Then we’d hang around to meet Daddy for dinner at the S&W Cafeteria.

As Mama approached death recently, she looked around and asked me, “Is this Rich’s or Davison’s? It was neither, I told her. It was a nursing home. She said the wallpaper reminded her of the old downtown department stores. I’ll bet she thought she was in heaven.

Mama was an artist who painted like Marc Chagall, with vivid colors and scenes reminiscent of Atlanta. There is a clown in many of her paintings.

“Why do you paint so many clowns?” I asked her.

“I wanted to be one,” she said.

Another standard character in the paintings is a little girl, wearing a red dress and standing aside as an observer, just watching. Mama was that little girl. She stood by and observed the drama of Atlanta. She ached to go on an art trip to Paris with friends from church. “If we had had the money, she would have gone,” Daddy says. That was in the quaint days when people didn’t take trips unless they could pay for them right then. Daddy’s prudence saved Mama’s life. We were at First Presbyterian Church the morning in 1962 when the Rev. Harry Fifield announced that the plane had gone down at Orly Field near Paris, killing 106 Atlanta art patrons.

We were riding to church another Sunday. Peachtree was covered with cops. That was the morning in 1958 after The Temple had been bombed. As our Plymouth Belvedere crept by, we were horrified as we saw the damage.

Mama loved rock and roll music. We first listened to it on WAKE at 1340 AM on a little white and green plastic transistor radio. When Trisha won tickets from Paul Drew at WQXI to see the Beatles at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville in 1964, Mama couldn’t imagine not going, even though Hurricane Dora came through the day before the concert. The wind was so fierce that Ringo had to strap his drums to the stage, and there was Mama, watching from the stands at the 30-yard line.

Mama had the old Atlanta accent you almost never hear anymore. When she said, “I’ve had so many beans, I think I may float up into the air,” she pronounced “air” with two syllables. It wasn‘t “a-yer,” like the stock car drivers say. It was “eye-uh,” soft and lilting, a forgotten language from a time gone by.

Mama was the kind of tempestuous, erratic and vulnerable Southern woman that Tennessee Williams captured so well in his plays. Whenever I see a production of The Glass Menagerie, I’m tempted to stand and shout, “Hey! That sofa wasn’t there!”

Trisha found one of Mama’s notebooks full of her random thoughts and pasted-up articles. One of the things Mama wrote was this: “I come from a family of clowns. They didn’t know they were clowns. They took themselves very seriously. When I became old and looked back through the years, it was clear to me that I had grown up in a circus. Maybe I was the funniest one of all and the youngest. We’ll see.” On the next page is a pasted-up picture of Steven Tyler, the lead singer from Aerosmith.

Mama died on January 3. I was holding her right hand. Trisha was holding her left. Grandkids were gathered around. We all told Mama we loved her. A preacher came from First Presbyterian to pray with her.

At the funeral home, I pushed my father's wheelchair to the open casket. He stood and looked at his wife of 57 years. He sat back down, weeping softly.

“She’s beautiful,” he whispered.

We buried Mama on the coldest morning of the year. My son, Matthew, stood at the graveside and spoke about his grandmother, who he called Nana: “Nana had something rare and innocent about her that most of us lose as adults. Nana had the ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, with innocence and curiosity and genuine enthusiasm.”

He noted that Mama, who was always happiest during the holidays, had made it through another Christmas. The nursing home took a picture of her, 10 days before her death, during a visit from Santa. She was frail, barely able to move. Someone had been thoughtful enough to apply bright red lipstick and put on her wig. She was holding Santa's hand and grinning like a little girl.