Momma's Girl

Thirty years ago, Lizzy Hargrove left home because she needed her space. Then Mother began trying to fill the emptiness.

Past the azaleas, the crape myrtle and magnolia, there's a guesthouse in River Oaks of many windows and much sunlight. In the late morning, a black woman was sweeping the floor, and Grace Greene lay smoking in an antique bed.

Her hair was twisted from sleeping and not sleeping. Her eyes were underlined by deep half-moons. Beside the bed was an old poodle with red bows on its ears. ''Kind of reminds me of me,'' she said, ''old and broken down.'' When the dog started rising, Grace began rummaging through her pillows. She shared her bed with buttons, beads, buckles and things, and in a flash, she pulled out a can of dog food.

''I'm a pack rat,'' said Grace. ''Joann, would you safely say I'm a pack rat?''

''Aha, with no hesitation,'' said Joann, still sweeping.
''They say I have Alzheimer's disease, but do I have Alzheimer's, Joann?''
''They say you do.''
''Ha!'' said Grace. ''I don't believe it. Who doesn't forget things?''

But who had tried so hard to remember? Grace was surrounded by the ones she loves: an old phonograph, an antique sewing machine, hundreds of ancient keys to lost locks, an old bullet, a Nixon-Agnew button, a jack, a marble, one can of sweet mild snuff. Near her bed hung a picture of herself from half a century before. ''I was a very attractive young woman and didn't even know it,'' said Grace. If she had, she would have married a wealthy man and ''lived in the lap of luxury.'' It never worked out that way, but here she was, back in River Oaks, nonetheless, living in the lap of her daughter and her daughter's well-to-do husband. Or at least in their back yard.

Elizabeth was in the big house, and mother was in the guesthouse. Pictures of Elizabeth were on every surface of Grace's room. Her baby shoes were in a glass case on the wall. Her baby clothes, with locks of her hair, were in a case on another wall. On the bed lay a collage of buttons and certificates from every club Elizabeth had ever joined -- from the Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape Magic Club to the Sky King Fan Club to the Presley Rockers (''Motto: Keep Elvis in Your Heart''). Behind glass on the floor were the bouquet, the shoes and the invitation from Elizabeth's wedding 25 years ago.

''God did bless me with a good daughter,'' said Grace. ''When she was three years old, do you know what she said? She said, 'Momma, you don't need a husband because I'll be your husband and daughter.' Wasn't that sweet?''

It's not exactly clear when Grace Greene's obsession became art. She lived on Avondale in Montrose for years upon years, in the decaying old brick house built by her father. She was seen coming and going with bags and boxes, walking her poodle and smoking, but for the most part, she was not seen at all, and the doors to her home remained closed, and the drapes were drawn across windows with bars.

Her father had been a wealthy oil man, but he was long dead and his fortune dispersed, and in her last years in Montrose, Grace was surviving on Social Security and food stamps. It was only then, after she began supplementing her income with yard sales, that she revealed how she had filled her life. The doors opened onto a 15-room house traversable only by narrow paths, a place of dust and darkness and layer upon layer of possessions, ''like every decade, stuff just got left there,'' one tourist remembered, ''so that you could actually feel you were looking through the decades.''

She had hammered old food tins and utensils onto the walls. She had arranged Buddhist figurines, fake fingernails, umbrellas from drunken drinks in printer's boxes up to the ceiling. In the bedroom was a magnificent old dress form entirely barnacled with buttons, with a blinking light bulb for a head.

After a member of the Art League passed through, Grace's work was put on display in 1993, and it wasn't long before she was being called one of the state's finest self-taught art-ists. When the director of the Orange Show came to the exhibit, she was startled by the intricacy of the art. She was more shocked, however, to encounter Lizzy Hargrove and learn she was Grace's daughter. The Orange Show is all about folk art, and for years, Lizzy had been a great supporter. But not once, said Susanne Theis, did Lizzy ever come to her and say, ''You know, my mother does stuff like this.''

Theis didn't know then that one of the rooms in Grace's house had not changed in 30 years, that old class pictures, pompons and corsages had faded and withered while Lizzy had lived in the sun. What her mother did wasn't art to Lizzy. It was a matter of encasing the past, of living with the dead.

She had not stepped into the house in decades the day she decided to empty it. There, among the layers, Lizzy found several framed poems that explained what her mother never had. One was called ''The House with Nobody In It.'' The other was an anonymous few lines called ''The Right Touch":

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