My grandpa was a mule skinner. My husband, Norman Mailer, thought that was a noteworthy fact, and he loved to toss it out there in conversation at New York dinner parties, watching the stiff smiles of the socialites as they imagined someone like the Texas Chain Saw Massacre guy skinning out a mule and nailing its bloody hide to the barn door. They'd glance at me a tad uneasily, Norman much amused, while I'd explain that a mule skinner was a mule trainer and try to change the subject. The truth was, there might have been a little flick or two of a black snake whip involved to get their attention (mules being one of God's most stubborn creatures), but they were valuable property, not to be abused, and while I'm proud of my ancestry, I don't think that particular talent dribbled down to me in any ability to skin-er, train-Norman. He loved to hear the stories of my family-he said he felt like he had married the great American novel. I guess you could look at it like that, since I have a Cherokee great-great-grandma and I can trace both sides back to the early and mid-1700s, when the first big wave of immigrants started arriving from the British Isles, looking for a better life-or maybe running from the sheriff. Nobody really knows now; it's all lost to the years.
I don't even know for sure which country they came from, the Davises and the Phillipses, but several family stories survive, some birth and death records, and a few old pictures. My great-great-great-grandpa Stephen Phillips fought in the Revolutionary War; maybe my great-great-great-grandpa Caleb Davis did, too. He was in America then, living in Maryland, but records are sketchy. Both my great-grandpas fought for the rebels in the War Between the States, as they called it then. Down the line, the assorted grandpas and uncles married women with names such as Sarah Allen, Dicey Benefield, America Dillard, Tennessee Chronister, and Lavinia Pigg and named various of their children after George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, and Andrew Jackson. Somebody in the mix was called Seaborne Featherstone. The majority of them are now only names on a register, dates on a page, the women giving up their fathers' names to take their husbands', whole branches of family for the most part lost. They settled in Virginia or Maryland or the Carolinas, raised cotton and farmed; some had slaves. I hate that but choose to believe they were at least kind to them, because one of the slaves on record, Granny Flowers-along with her son Jasper-didn't leave the family after the Civil War but went with my great-grandpa George Washington Phillips and his wife, Sarah, to Dardanelle, Arkansas, in 1869, where they started a cotton gin. Granny helped raise their kids. It was noted that she liked to gather apples in her apron and eat them while sitting out under the apple tree.
A few stories survive, like the one about my great-great-grandpa's sister Anthroit Phillips (she called herself Ankie, as anybody with that name would), who lived in a one-room log cabin her father built in Hendersonville, North Carolina. She never married, instead staying home to take care of her mother, Violet, which is what people did back then before nursing homes were invented, and Violet, bless her heart, lived to be more than a hundred. Right across the road from Ankie and Violet's cabin was the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the graveyard, and one rainy day there was a funeral. After the funeral was over and the cemetery deserted, Ankie looked out and saw a little girl of about six sitting on the fresh grave, crying. It was getting dark, so she walked over to see why the child was still there. She was named Ellen Morgan, it was her mother who had died, and everybody probably thought someone else had taken her, but she had no place to go, so Ankie took her home and raised her as if she were her own daughter. Because that's what people did. The good ones.
On my father's side, my great-great-great-grandpa Caleb Davis and his wife, Catherine, moved west from North Carolina to New Madrid, Missouri, in 1808, which was just time enough to get settled in before the great earthquake of 1811 wiped out most of the town, his house included. Fortunately, nobody was killed, so he built a houseboat, loaded it down with all the furniture and livestock and goods he could salvage, floated it down the Mississippi to the Arkansas, took a right turn upriver, and settled in Gum Log Valley, Arkansas, where he claimed nine hundred acres and built the first house in the Valley. He farmed, raised livestock, and built a Methodist church and a school. He became a county judge and was the postmaster. His great-grandson was my mule skinner grandpa, Jeames, who raised cotton and corn right on the home place in Gum Log Valley. Jeames died at forty-seven during the Great Depression, leaving my grandmother Sallie with five children and a two-thousand-dollar mortgage he had taken out to buy more land to put in cotton. My beloved father, James, who was nine, never got over his father's death. In those days, two thousand dollars might as well have been two million to a widow with small children; they lost the farm and struggled along, my grandmother cleaning houses or taking in wash or whatever she could do, until my father got big enough to go to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp and help out. Then he joined the navy right after Pearl Harbor and sent money back to support his mother and little sister, Chloe Dean.
There are so many stories that have been passed down in this family, stories that might even be true. So many characters-judges and doctors, bootleggers and drunks; sharecroppers and cotton gin owners; grocers and truck drivers and coal miners. Somebody stole a car and did time in San Quentin; somebody was the deputy warden in the McAlester prisons. Most were farmers who worked the land and did the best they could. One great-whatever-uncle got drunk one Thanksgiving and slung the turkey down the table, scattering sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, and it landed in the lap of his brother, who calmly put it back on the platter, sliced off a piece, and finished his dinner. Another great-uncle had a goat that climbed up and ate the cloth top off his brand-new Model T, so he went into the house, got his gun, and shot it. They ate barbecued goat for a week.
Some were good-hearted; some were as hard as new whiskey, like my great-great-uncle Phillips who, when accosted by the revenuers for bootlegging pear brandy, ratted out his neighbors who were doing the same thing, and took a deal that allowed him a government still. He invited the neighbors over for a barn dance, and-surprise!-they were locked in his barn for several days until the judge could get there. The neighbors were tried and sent to jail-although, unfortunately, not for long, and the great-great-uncle, who clearly hadn't thought the thing through, had to pack up his family in the dead of night and move to Indian territory, as the neighbors were out to kill him.
He was not the happiest with his lot there-the only work he could get was in a coal mine-but his son made out fine. Working with an old braided Creek named Boney Reynolds, he rounded up, broke, and sold wild Indian ponies for five dollars a head, and he excelled at a game the young men played, in which they put a cow's skull on top of a high pole and tried to knock it off with a rawhide ball flung by a hollowed-out, curved stick. The games were mayhem. More than one of the men had his own skull cracked, and a few were actually killed. A white boy who could keep up with that pack earned a lot of respect. When the government gave every Creek child on the reservation one hundred sixty acres, and oil was later discovered, my great-great-uncle's son married an Indian woman. They built a big brick house, they had black servants, and he joined the Masonic lodge. He tried to set his brother up with his wife's girlfriend, Susie Tiger, but she was too fat and ugly and his brother couldn't bring himself to marry her, even for a hundred sixty acres and oil.
Then there are the Civil War stories! My great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Davis and his two brothers, who had spent months walking home across the country after the signing of the peace, were attacked by outlaws who snuck up on them in an old church while they slept and killed one of the brothers, just one day's walk away from home. Another story was of when one of the uncles pulled a gun on the battlefield surgeon who was about to saw off his leg, and then ran off with a nurse. (P.S. The leg healed.) There are a lot of Depression stories and World War II stories from my father. Every one of these people lived a life full of adventure and pain and love and drama and dull hard work. Any one of them is worthy of a book, but this is my story, my little link in the chain, my page in the great American novel. It starts in Washington state, where I was born, and ends, as far as it goes, in New York City with Norman Mailer, who, Lord knows, had his own story. I lived with him for thirty-three years. I was his sixth wife and the mother of his eighth and ninth children. Rude people (there are way too many rude people in this world) used to ask me, "Which wife are you?"
"The last one," I would answer. I didn't even knock wood. I was certain it would be true.
And it was.
After the war, my father, James Davis, who had learned how to operate heavy earthmoving equipment in the Seabees on Okinawa, came back to Atkins, Arkansas, and worked in his cousin Check's grocery store (called Davis Groceries). One Saturday night my father and his buddy Reece drove fifteen miles to Dardanelle to hang out and look for girls. James was cute-twenty-two, tall and lanky, with curly blond hair and blue eyes, and a big shiny smile that featured a gold cap on the bottom half of his front tooth, acquired at fourteen when he stuck a broom handle into a buzz saw and a piece of it flew back and hit him in the mouth.
My mother, Gaynell Phillips, was walking down the street with her girlfriend Mary Sue when a car with boys hanging out the windows passed them. The girls pretended not to notice them, sauntered on into the drugstore, and sat in a booth at the soda fountain. My mother was a beautiful girl, with long black curls and chocolate drop eyes. The friend was maybe not so beautiful, as she had regrettable frizzy hair, but the boys didn't care. They parked and followed the girls into the drugstore and began the age-old game of "What's your name? Can I buy you a Coke?" "No, thank you. My mama said I shouldn't talk to strangers." After they had drunk their Cokes, the girls announced they had to get back before it got dark, and set out walking the two miles home. Slowly. The boys of course followed, and by then the girls had dropped the coy act and let them drive them on home. After all, a ride's a ride.
My mother lived in the middle of a cotton patch where her mother, Annie, and stepfather, Z. T. Shepherd, were sharecroppers. Her father had died when she was three and her baby brother, George, was one. Her mother soon married Z.T., a widower with six children. My mother had two older brothers and an older sister as well, so at one time there had been eleven children and two adults living in this four-room house that was perched on rocks stacked on the ground at each of its corners. Gaynell and George were the only ones left at home to help in the fields by the time she met James. Dragging that long heavy sack up and down the dusty rows of cotton in the shadow of Nebo Mountain was hard, sweaty work, and at twenty-seven, Gaynell was more than ready to do something else. Not that she was desperate, but she was verging on becoming an old maid, as the boy she'd been engaged to had been killed in the war. James pursued her hot and heavy for a few weeks. Then one day he pulled into the yard, scattering chickens, and announced he was going out to Washington state to work on the O'Sullivan Dam and if she wanted to go with him, they could get married. By then she knew he was not the owner of Davis Groceries, as he had kind of let her assume in the beginning, but she liked him anyway. He was sweet. So, two months after they met, on January 18, 1947, they got married, packed up the old car, and headed to the Northwest to Moses Lake, Washington. They lived in a tiny homemade trailer with a bed resting on orange crates, and no fridge, but what the heck? They were newlyweds.
After a couple of years, I came along, and they were entranced by me even though I arrived with red hair, which totally threw my father for a loop. He was expecting me to be blond and blue-eyed like him. They named me Barbara Jean, after the little girl who lived next door, and when the dam was completed, we moved back to Little Rock, where Daddy got a job building roads. When I was three, my mother saw a sign in a store advertising for little girls to compete in the Little Miss Little Rock contest, so she entered me and I won. I was by all accounts an adorable handful. On the health checkup we all had to take, I got good in all the categories except deportment, which was marked "poor."
(In my defense, there was a category on the card marked "genitalia," for which I got a "normal." If indeed some strange doctor was examining my genitals, it's no wonder I pitched a fit and earned a "poor" rating in deportment. Examining a little girl's genitals should have been outlawed, but it was 1952 and nobody thought anything about things like that in those days. If it was a doctor doing it, it must have been all right.)
My mother had a great time getting me all dolled up in a yellow chiffon dress with rhinestones, white patent leather Mary Jane shoes, and socks with ruffles. The mistress of ceremonies, a former beauty queen in a purple evening dress, handed me the golden trophy and put the crown on my head, and when the audience clapped and cheered, I loved it so much that I wouldn't leave the stage.