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Momma's Girl

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":

Love will fly if held too lightly
Love will die if held too tightly
Lightly ... tightly ...
How do I know
Whether I'm killing you or letting you go?

When Grace was in the hospital, mother and daughter tended to bicker, and one of the social workers thought it best they not live together. Against all reason, Lizzy insisted, saying this was simply the language they spoke, and every family speaks a different one.

"We do have a relationship," she said. "It's just like banshees.''
In River Oaks, the Hargrove house is considered small, but since Lizzy collects only seashells and ''fiction with pretty covers,'' there's plenty of room for parties. Lizzy sat primly on a couch just two doors and several steps from mother. She was tall and dark and 48, but ''through the years, her features have held up really well,'' mother had said, ''no wrinkles or flaws.'' Mother said Elizabeth had won the KILT Smile Contest and was Miss Congeniality in the 1968 Miss Astro Contest. Yes, she was also the homeless projects coordinator for the Houston READ Commission, but mother considered that job far beneath her talents.

''I guess I wanted her to enjoy the things I never participated in,'' said Grace, from her bed. ''I wanted her to be happy and do the things I didn't have the guts to.''

''It's hard,'' said Lizzy, from the couch, ''when your parents don't have lives of their own.''

They are entirely different people, but for 18 years they lived as one. Grace spoke endlessly about Elizabeth, but about her own parents, she only said, ''He was a good man, my mom was a good woman, what can I say?''

Her mother and father were Lebanese immigrants, old-fashioned and strict. Her father, Sam Bashara, eventually became a successful oil operator, and Grace grew up with money, said Lizzy, but in a family that favored one child. It was not Grace. The schools Grace attended were predominantly white, and because of her dark skin, she was chased down the halls by other children who called her ''Mexican.'' Grace said she came to think of herself as "the ugly duckling'' and was the bashful sort till she married.

"We're on our honeymoon and it's love all the time," were the words she wrote on an ancient photo. She is young and beautifully smiling, and her thick black hair is pressed against the cheek of a handsome, happy man. Howard Greene was the son of poor Arkansas farmers, and Grace's parents never approved. Grace married him anyway, but he drank and he drank, and ultimately Grace lost faith in him. In Lizzy's last childhood memory of her father, he and Grace are standing with the police.

Grace had a baby by then, and a baby was everything she needed: someone who wanted her, who couldn't leave and couldn't do anything wrong. She was born at 3:14 a.m. on January 4, 1949 -- eight pounds, three and a half ounces, with straight hair and a fair complexion. "She's just my doll baby!'' Grace wrote in an overstuffed pink baby book. Mother kept meticulous notes -- how they rode home from the hospital, what Lizzy ate, when she received her first dose of cod liver oil.

Soon afterward, Sam Bashara left the home on Avondale for a ''bombproof house'' he built on the corner of Inwood and Kirby. Grace and Lizzy moved in, and it wasn't long before Lizzy was taking private swimming lessons at the River Oaks Country Club and being tutored in piano, ballet and drama. When she was seven, Lizzy won a citywide piano contest, and modeled for the first time on the Sky Terrace of Sakowitz. Grace entered her in countless contests. At the River Oaks School, Lizzy was only in kindergarten when Grace wrote in the baby book that she was "very popular.''

''She wanted me to be able to walk into any room and be comfortable,'' the daughter recalled, and pushed forward so often, Lizzy did come to feel like a doll -- controlled by someone else.

"But not the JonBenet thing,' " she said. "I mean, I really enjoyed it.''
Grace told Lizzy she would be her shadow, that whenever Lizzy took a step, Grace's foot would fall into step behind it. Grace was den mother of the Brownies, and homeroom mother from kindergarten through 12th grade. She opened a business selling insurance to truckers, but it was never a large business, in part because Grace only worked during school hours. She dropped Lizzy off at school in the morning and picked her and her friends up in the afternoon. Mother let Lizzy know which friends were acceptable and which were not. Few boys met the standard. Grace always feared Lizzy would marry a poor man like her father.

 

When Lizzy was in the seventh grade, Grace moved out of the house on Kirby. ''Two women can't live under the same roof,'' Grace explained. ''I needed my space, that's what it amounted to." Even then, Grace had a passion for old things, but Mrs. Bashara did not. She had thrown away Grace's Mickey Mouse watch. Grace never forgave her.

The home on Avondale had never been sold. Mother and daughter settled in, and Grace began filling the space with what she brought home from antique sales. Before long, the house didn't look like everyone else's, which Lizzy saw as more proof that her mother wasn't like everyone else's. Grace had never remarried. (You couldn't know what a stepfather might do to a little girl.) She didn't play bridge, and she spoke "like a sailor." Lizzy was voted most popular her freshman year at Lamar High, but the upper-crust parents of Lizzy's friends never included Grace in their gatherings. Lizzy was embarrassed, but Lizzy's friends came to love the difference of Grace. For her 60th birthday, many paid tribute in writing.

The breakfasts were plenty, I remember those plates piled high
While Lizzy was shoving eggs under the table so Grace wouldn't cry.
Grace became the designated chaperone. She drove a huge, white, finned Cadillac, with a blackjack on the floor, and would sip coffee and tell them all to be tough and not to worry about other people, just to do what they thought was right. "Only the strong survive, my dear," says Grace, even now.

It wasn't necessary for Lizzy to be tough. Mother wrote her papers and did her art projects, said Lizzy, "everything but take the SAT." Lizzy spent her time socializing. She became a cheerleader, the founder of the Spirit Club, the sweetheart-to-be of the Future Farmers of America. Her house was the gathering ground, and weekends with mother were a rocket ride. The girls all piled into the trunk and went to drive-in movies. They drove to Galveston and had a food fight with boys in the next hotel room. During one slumber party, Grace woke everyone at midnight to go see some go-go dancers. During another, she went to bed with her fist wrapped around Lizzy's nightgown. By morning, her daughter had slipped away, and Grace awoke holding only cloth.

Those slumber parties, dances and dinners were so dear,
But the sound so familiar was 'Elizabeth come here.'

In 1967, Lizzy moved out, and she says Grace sank into depression then. At North Texas State in Denton, Lizzy was determined to find a life of her own, but Grace called every night and visited every weekend, and nothing changed, really. Lizzy started another pep club, was voted "most friendly" in her sorority and, by her sophomore year, was homecoming queen. Pepsi-Cola also named her to its all-American cheerleading squad, but Lizzy didn't bother going to the ceremony. Grace had mailed the application, and "I was the worst cheerleader," said Lizzy. "I couldn't jump two inches off the ground."

Grace also got Lizzy into the Miss America contest, but she said Lizzy screwed it up by getting married. Lizzy liked Tom Hargrove because he was a sensitive kind of boy, but Mother liked him because he was the son of a wealthy ambassador. Lizzy confesses she probably married him because mother approved.

After the couple settled in Houston, Lizzy went into therapy "just to try to divorce myself, try to get my identity away from my mother." She ordered her mother to quit calling every day and visiting so often. It took years, but little by little, Lizzy built a wall, until "it was like she was over there," Lizzy said, "and we were over here."

Lizzy became a model, and Tom an investment banker. Lizzy failed in her first effort to join the Junior League. But "you can't just sit back and say, well, they won't let me in,'' she said, and on her third try, she made it. The other socialites clapped at the socialite who had tried so hard, but it was difficult for Lizzy to enjoy her place in the world. She still couldn't buy a dress for herself without buying one for Grace, too. "I felt like I owed her," she said.

 

Meanwhile, alone in the house on Avondale, Grace had begun making intricate collages out of what Lizzy left behind, hanging these on the walls for none to see but herself. Her life became a tribute to Lizzy's life. Scanning the papers and magazines, she chronicled Lizzy's modeling career in a scrapbook that became two feet thick. Lizzy accepted the gift, but could not lift it and has never looked all the way through it. When Grace presented Lizzy with a shawl, later described by a critic as ''pristine and ethereal in its delicacy, belying the weight of hundreds of pieces of antique lace and tiny trinkets hand-sewn together,'' Lizzy never wore it. ''It weighed me down,'' she explained.

Grace was amazed when strangers grew interested in her work. "I don't really care if anyone else likes it,'' she said. ''I know it's good, and I like it." For three years after the gallery show, her house was on the Orange Show's annual tour of local folk art. The head of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore couldn't afford the thousands and thousands of dollars Grace asked for the buttoned-up dress form, but Rebecca Hoffberger did declare Grace's work a wonderful example from the school of horreur de vacui, fear of the void. Other strangers, emerging from the amassment, simply whispered, ''When did her daughter die?''

To Lizzy, the glass cases were simply a refusal to let go, an effort to keep what had gone away. She saw the house as a gloomy, ''suffocating" place, and to brighten it up, she had once given her mother a parakeet. Grace stuffed the cage with food and toys and had wrapped the bottom in cellophane to keep the food inside. The bird soon had nowhere to fly and thrashed about until it died. In grief, Grace doused the creature in turpentine, cremated it in her back yard and placed the ashes in a container by her bed.

''You can preserve a few things in your life,'' said Lizzy, ''but when you try to collect everything, it just becomes ruin.''

For 30 years, Lizzy avoided the Avondale house and saw her mother only on holidays. One day a year ago, Grace emerged from her house, tumbled down the steps and broke her hip. In the hospital, a thousand-yard stare was fixed on her face, and the doctors thought they detected the first signs of Alzheimer's. Lizzy, full of guilt, knew life had to change.

With everything else her mother had given her, Lizzy had the deed to Grace's home and her power of attorney. She went to the house and opened the door. It was summer, there was no central air conditioning and she was sweating as she stepped into her old bedroom. She glanced around. She looked at what was on top of things. When she gathered up some of her dolls, the old heads rolled onto the floor. That's when Lizzy decided to go.

It may have been the largest auction ever held in Montrose. The auctioneer had never handled such volume and turned to a shovel to sort through it. On the day of the sale, Grace's valuables poured into the daylight in a long, loud cascade: the barber's pole, the subway clock, parasols, feathers and masks, a barbed-wire collection, boxes of pieces of stained glass and mirrors, hundreds of records, books and shoes, tens of thousands of buttons, maybe 500 handkerchiefs, a room of old food bottles and every item that the child Elizabeth had ever touched.

With carloads and truckloads, the people came and went like ants. One woman, her makeup dissolving down her face, rushed out of the house for air and then rushed back in. A friend bought Lizzy's old high-school yearbook, certain she had not meant to sell it. Thanks anyway, Lizzy said, but mother always bought two.

Piece by piece, the past was taken apart. Grace's home was hollowed out.

''Look,'' said Grace, ''you reach an age where you don't give a good goddamn in hell, so what's the difference? You come in with nothing, you go out with nothing. Who cares?''

Lizzy didn't sleep the night before Grace moved in. She was sick the day it happened. Surrounded by a fraction of her former worldly belongings, Grace simply lay down in her old bed and didn't move until Lizzy came to her side. ''Mother, you're worthless!'' said Lizzy, and Grace got out of bed angry.

Lizzy says now that she wants Grace taken care of just as Grace took care of her. In the guesthouse, albeit in the sun, Grace has been installed behind glass, and Lizzy feels secure she won't die without her knowing. The maid cooks more food than Grace can eat, and in her vitamin allotment, Lizzy makes sure there's some ginkgo -- ''you know, the memory thing.'' Once a month, Lizzy sends Grace to the beauty parlor for the works, and so that she won't be lonely, companions have been brought in: a housekeeper, an art teacher and a stray dog too old to run away.

 

If Grace has any other physical need, her daughter is available. ''But it's not like I go out there and we have long heart-to-hearts,'' Lizzy said, and the first time Grace came into the house, she was told to wait for an invitation. Some days, Lizzy doesn't want to see her mother at all (''I'm a very private person,'' she said. ''I'm an only child.'') If the help can't help then, tending mother falls to Tommy.

''It would not be my desire in life to have my mother-in-law move in with me,'' said Tommy, carefully, ''but there are responsibilities people have.'' And so he wakes at six each morning to take Grace her medicine, take Grace her two packs of cigarettes, walk Grace's deaf old dog. Grace used to get a large stock of dog food, but then the dogs began getting fat, and after she opened 12 cans one day, Tommy cut her back to two. ''Oh, you son of a bitch,'' she snarled, and Tommy tried not to flinch.

Sitting now in bed, Grace wasn't done with her eggs and sausage when Joann brought the steak and asparagus. Take it to the kitchen, Grace said.

She's always wanted to live with Lizzy, she admitted, but she would have preferred not to have broken her hip and not to have these migraines ('' 'Course, my dear son-in-law forgot to leave me any Excedrin.'') She said she was awfully lonely in her old house without her daughter. Then she said she's lonely in this house without her things. Not anything specifically, just everything in general.

''Honey, I had a 15-room house filled with antiques,'' she proclaimed. So she was a pack rat, so what? ''It's not a matter of clinging to the past,'' she said. ''It's a matter of not throwing anything away.'' You never knew when you might need something. Then again, you can't take it with you. Oh, but maybe she could have tried. Really, she blames her son-in-law. Anyway, it was gone forever.

She began to hack and wheeze and bubble inside. Then she lit another cigarette. Lizzy hates it, but ''I enjoy smoking,'' said Grace, ''and if I'm going to die of smoking, so be it, I'm just going to sit here and die.''

Grace said that each of the two poems that Lizzy found was her favorite. ''The Right Touch'' was beside the bed, the empty house poem was on the hearth, and there was something by John Dryden on the mantel. Grace said that was her favorite, too.

I'm a little wounded but I am not slain,
I will lay me down for to bleed a while,
Then I'll rise and fight with you again.

It was Saturday evening, and Grace had been to the beauty parlor, but she was in bed where she always was when Lizzy rushed in with makeup.

''Jesus Christ,'' said Grace, ''where did you get this lipstick?''
''Mother, just put your lipstick on.''
The dogs needed food, said Grace. Lizzy pointed to the dish and said ''Food -- look, food!'' Then Grace asked why Lizzy had sold her things, and Lizzy left because ''you just can't breathe out here.''

When the photographer was ready, Lizzy came back, and they stood beside the button lady. Flash. Flash. Flash. The buttons began to fall off, and Grace stared at the floor, counting. Pick them up, she told Elizabeth. Lizzy said she would. It was the first time they had been photographed together since Lizzy was a little girl. "Oh wow," said the photographer, "I'll have to get you a copy."

''Thank you,'' said Lizzy.
''Be very nice,'' said Grace. ''Can I sit down?''
''One more,'' said Lizzy. ''Smile, mother

!''


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