MY MOTHER WAS A HIGH SCHOOL BEAUTY QUEEN. THERE WERE THREE crowns in as many years: first Prom court, then Homecoming court, then Miss Blair. I usually offer this fact hesitantly, almost embarrassed. It conjures visions of Miss America, of bimbos and swimsuit competitions, but it wasn’t like that.
I see my mother standing on my grandparents’ front steps when I imagine her during this era. She’s on her way to a parade, purple gown ruffled by a slight breeze, brown and orange and yellow leaves floating across the lawn. She holds her shoulder-length blond hair away from her face with white-gloved fingers, loose strands escaping from beneath her crown, Miss Blair sash slipping over her shoulder. Her skin is smooth, her smile perfect.
I may have seen this moment archived in one of my grandmother’s disorganized photo albums, wedged between snapshots of my uncle hiding from the camera and my aunt delivering her commencement speech, but I don’t know for certain. Those albums are almost as inaccessible as my mother. They hide in my grandmother’s chilly front hall, in a trunk that lies beneath rain scarves and heavy jackets. The albums are buried beneath the weight of afghans and bedspreads and old winter coats that smell of wool and dank air trapped for years. Anyone searching the trunk has to kneel next to the front door in the dark, blocking entry, ready for her knees to bruise should the door swing open.
Inside Blair, Wisconsin’s one-room library, I perused bound volumes of The Blair Press. I was struck by the front page headlines: middle school students competed in the state quiz bowl tournament, the Lutheran churches hosted a lutefisk supper, the Sons of Norway held a picnic in the park. It was amazing how many girls wore crowns and evening gowns on the front page, too. On June 6th, the Taylor Days royalty was announced; July 25th showcased the Trempealeau County Fair Princess; September 5th offered biographies of the Miss Blair contenders; September 19th featured the Cheese Queen and her attendants, draped in sashes, wearing crowns, holding flowers.
My mother smiled from a yellowed, thirty-year-old edition of her hometown’s newspaper, the caption offering her name in small print as though there were people in Blair who wouldn’t recognize Susan Thorpe. She beamed as 1969’s queen crowned her Miss Blair 1970. Her smile was wide, revealing the slight gap between her front teeth, and her eyes shone. I can’t remember ever seeing this expression on her face.
My mother is proud to have been the first Miss Blair. She reminds my sister and me of this fact every year when we travel across the state to our parents’ tiny hometown for the Cheese Festival—a celebration featuring a parade, a carnival, a tractor pull, and numerous contests and events.
A commemorative plaque hangs above a drinking fountain in the community center, a monument to the Cheese Queens. My mother’s maiden name is listed under 1970, gold capital letters on a shiny black background. For years I attended birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and family reunions at the community center, playing cards, making awkward conversation with distant relatives, eating ham sandwiches and drinking watery pink lemonade beneath the inscription.
My mother noticed it every time she was in the building, I’m sure, and might have admired the plaque in secret. I was probably sixteen before I discovered it, dark wood blending into a dark paneled wall, hanging above my bent head as I sipped from the fountain or filled Styrofoam cups with cool water.
Blair’s little girls aspire to be Cheese Queens early on. The Cheese Festival’s Kiddie Parade, a small Saturday morning event limited to entrants ages twelve and under, often features girls who walk through the streets wearing plastic crowns, paper “Miss Blair” sashes over their shoulders.
Not me. In 1988, at age seven, I wore the real thing. My mother’s rhinestone crown was too big and slipped on my head, periodically tangling itself in the blonde hair that fell half way down my back, freed from its usual, stifling braid. My mother safety-pinned her yellowing satin sash to my dress to keep it from sliding.
1988 marked the Cheese Festival’s Golden Anniversary. My father commemorated the event with a Kiddie Parade float so elaborate it won a blue ribbon and a spot in the Sunday afternoon Cheese Festival parade, the same parade in which Miss Blair’s float appeared. He decorated a trailer with crepe paper streamers and painted a lawn chair to resemble a throne. The throne sat next to an enormous cardboard birthday cake topped by a plastic Christmas candle; my father painted over the “Noel” to mask its identity as a lawn ornament. He also built an old-fashioned camera and tripod from scraps of wood. Ingrid, my five-year-old sister (dressed as Mr. Dismoor, a Blair local who owned a photography studio at the time of the first festival), stood behind this camera to photograph me, Miss Blair.
I was ecstatic to emulate my mother that day, to sit in the glorified lawn chair waving to an entire town as she had done eighteen years earlier. I waved to my grandparents, my godparents, my aunt. My mother. I wanted to be just like her as I channeled her Cheese Queen spirit, just like my imagined version of the way she used to be.
My parents’ former selves were mythological to me, larger-than-life characters who were young and beautiful, divorced from the mundane parents I knew, the tired parents who bought my school clothes and made me eat my vegetables and decided my bed time. I sculpted my image of their former selves from the stories they told, filling in details to create glamorous people who somehow became an earth science teacher and a housewife.
I pictured my father at the center of his stories about driving alone from Wisconsin to New Orleans in a day, attending a Christmas ball at a rich man’s mansion, running from a trailer park to escape a tornado. He was brazen and courageous, unintimidated. Of course he’d be married to a Cheese Queen, the crème-de-la-crème of his hometown’s beauties. This glorified father was exaggerated, but based on real events and real personality traits, like a made-for-TV movie.
My mythological mother had a much hazier basis in fact, because my real mother didn’t tell many stories. I knew only that she was a bank teller before I was born, that she left college after a semester because she was homesick, and that she had been the Cheese Queen. In life she was timid and quiet, which was fine for my mother but not fine for my imagined version of the person she was in another era, so I unconsciously erased those characteristics. I didn’t envision scenarios for her to move through, but I created a personality. She smiled a lot. Her hair was always perfect. She was nice to everyone, and articulate. Popular.
It was my creation that I wanted to imitate as I rode in the parade, not my actual mother. I didn’t realize I inhabited myth as I sat on the disguised lawn chair, the Cheese Queen’s heavy crown slipping through my silky hair.
Blair’s elementary school sponsors a float decorating contest every Cheese Fest. Students transform shoe boxes into their favorite parade floats. Most of the girls create the Miss Blair float in miniature and adorn their shoeboxes with glitter, streamers, and Barbie dolls wearing glamorous pink chiffon. Blair’s little girls are indoctrinated early, and I would have been, too, if I’d grown up there.
They don’t realize that, in all likelihood, they’ll never ride the pristine Miss Blair float, trimmed with blue garland and crisp, silver sparkles. Most of them will not sit on Miss Blair’s throne, vases of fresh flowers at their feet, looking beautiful in front of a glimmering wire gazebo reminiscent of the local park’s most prominent landmark.
The losing candidates follow Miss Blair on what my once-geeky aunt (short brown hair, thick glasses, honor roll) dubbed “the reject float” after having the opportunity to ride it—twice. The reject float is just an unadorned convertible or, if there are a lot of rejects, a pickup truck borrowed from Ladsten’s Chevrolet. This “float” is labeled with a hand-written sign that says “Miss Blair Competitors.” The rejects do not use the crisp and exaggerated “elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist” wave reserved for Miss Blair. Instead, they try to conceal their failure as they wave sheepishly, timidly wiggling fingers at friends and relatives along the parade route.
This would have been my legacy, had I been raised in Blair and thus been steeped in the Queen tradition. After slaving over my shoe box Miss Blair float every year, after portraying Miss Blair on a prize-winning Kiddie Parade float, after seeing queen upon queen on the newspaper’s front page—I would have been a reject. Girls who join the debate team don’t wear crowns; rhinestones are reserved for the girls who stand on the sidelines to cheer for their boyfriends during the home games. Even as an heiress to the title, I would have graced the stage as an imposter.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, before I realized there was such a thing as popular and I didn’t fit that mold, I discovered my mother’s high school yearbooks. I lay on my stomach at the foot of her bed, my elbows buried in the chocolate-colored carpeting, and turned the black-and-white pages. Year after year my mother smiled from the theater stage, from the marching band lineup, from the choir. From the Prom court, the Homecoming court, the Miss Blair court.
Her friends’ loopy signatures left little white space on the inside covers and spilled onto the interior pages. The bubbly messages alluded to parties and bonfires, mentioned dances and concerts and basketball games, spoke of memorable bus rides and road trips. Though many of the vague references were lost on me, I sensed that they added up to a person vastly different from the mother I knew. The yearbooks painted my mother as a person who was invited to the cool parties, who went on dates and was asked to dances, who wore lipstick and fashionable clothes. This girl—a girl I never knew—would not have befriended my high school self.
I can scarcely reconcile the person in the yearbooks with the woman I know, as though someone else once inhabited my mother’s body. The woman I know has few close friends and rarely leaves the house. She spends her evenings watching sitcoms and reading romance novels. Some of her Christmas sweaters have been in rotation for more than a decade. The gap between who she is and who she was is startling, like walking into sunshine after spending an afternoon in a darkened theater. I don’t know when or how she changed, and I don’t know how to find out.
My mother and I talk, but not often and never deeply. When we are in the same room we say, “It was hot today” or “Gas sure is expensive” or “What should we have for supper?” When we are apart, which is most of the time, we barely speak. A typical phone conversation—
Me: “Hi, Mom. I got the package you sent. Thanks! So…is Dad there?”
Mom: “He’s in the garage. I’ll go get him.”
Doors open and shut, first the heavy inside door, then the porch screen door. Sometimes she has to shoo a cat first. Her loafers slowly click across the asphalt driveway as she carries the phone to my father. “Larry,” she says. “Phone.” I imagine her arm outstretched, reaching across paint cans and stacks of scrap lumber, handing me off.
Other girls call their mothers to chat about school or work or boyfriends. When I call my mother, I seek concrete information: “Mom, how long do I have to boil corn on the cob?” Our conversations rarely last more than a minute or two, unless she has gossip to share—one of my high school classmates had a baby, my cousin has a new boyfriend, family friends are adopting their foster daughter. And then she becomes briefly dynamic, speaking too quickly and stumbling over words, laughing mid-sentence. Perhaps this is a shadow of the Cheese Queen.
I had been dating my boyfriend for three months before she knew for certain I was seeing someone. I sensed her curiosity, but I didn’t intentionally keep a secret. The subject was hedged for weeks in the brief intervals between answering the phone and fetching my father. She didn’t know how to ask, and I didn’t know how to tell. My sister finally relayed the information.
When I say “I love you too” before hanging up, it’s usually to my father. Not because I don’t love my mother—I do, fiercely—but because I don’t know how to tell her. And she doesn’t know how to tell me, either. It’s awkward even to hug her at the most appropriate times, like before boarding an airplane; she feels too small and foreign in my arms.
I can sometimes feel her listening on the kitchen phone, the one that’s attached to the wall by a long beige cord, intently absorbing the conversation that flows freely between my father and I. I’m always startled when she interjects, because though I know she’s there and she’s listening and she cares, it’s surprising to hear her voice.
And so this is what I know of her: it’s laundry day, the house next door is for sale again, the diabetic cat is gaining a little weight. Small talk. Nothing. Silence.
When my mother ran for Queen there were nineteen contestants—it was one of the largest competitions in the Cheese Festival’s history. On coronation night, after an off-stage interview consisting of questions such as “Why do you feel you would be a good representative of our community?” the candidates anxiously waited in the brightly-lit high school gymnasium during a community-wide awards night. The entire town sat on uncomfortable bleachers or cold metal folding chairs for several hours; nearly every family had a member competing for an award: Star Farmer, Best Lawn, Grand View Nursing Home royalty. The emcee announced titles, shook hands, and distributed commemorative trophies, plaques, and certificates until only the Cheese Queen was left unnamed.
The lights dimmed and the theater department’s spotlights illuminated the stage at the gym’s far end, framed by heavy red curtains. Each contestant’s name was called and the girls filed onto the stage one by one, taking their seats in a row of folding chairs. They squinted in the blinding white glow as they waited.
The emcee announced Miss Blair’s attendants, the runners-up, first. They squealed and hugged one another, and walked to the far side of the stage to receive their sashes, tiaras, and bouquets. Then, for an added bit of drama, the 1969 Queen of the Cheese Festival came on stage carrying Miss Blair’s rhinestone crown. The reigning Queen paced back and forth, pretending to place the crown on several heads before resting it atop my mother’s puffy blonde hair.
I wonder how Susan Thorpe felt in those last moments before her victory. Surely there was a sense of anticipation and, more importantly, a sense of possibility. Two contestants had already been eliminated, but my mother—the girl who, eleven years later, would become my mother—still had a chance. She could wear that crown, smile for the cameras, and be somebody.
I’d like to know if life measures up to what she imagined in that moment. I doubt she planned to leave college without a degree, quit her job to become a mother and a housewife, and spend her life in the bachelor-sized house her husband bought years before they were married. More than three decades after the Cheese Queen, no longer wearing her rhinestones, there’s nothing to separate her from the contestants who stood with her on the stage that night. She cooks dinner and sweeps floors just like they do. My mother is an ordinary woman living an ordinary life populated by ordinary people and ordinary things. Whether or not she’s okay with that—happy—I do not know. I will never know. It’s a question that stretches far beyond the limits of our halting conversations.
My mother is a different kind of beautiful now. Her once-slender figure has softened and filled out. A rounded belly protrudes, the result of bearing two children, and small lines accentuate her eyes and forehead. Her makeup is thicker now, and no longer a daily occurrence.
She moves slowly, wobbling and leaning on a cane when navigating from room to room. My mother has less control of her voice than she did when I was a child; it shakes when she’s tired, and slurs even when she’s not. Her sentences squeak and catch in her throat when she’s excited, and she sometimes speaks too loudly. She cannot get her words out fast enough to keep an impatient listener’s attention. People ask, “What’s wrong with your mom?” after they meet her.
The first time a friend asked, when I was in junior high, I was puzzled. “Nothing,” I said. This was before the cane, before our family was granted a handicapped parking permit, before my mother began seeing double and so stopped driving.
That was before the diagnosis—before there was an official reason for why my mother sometimes tripped over nothing or lurched sideways while walking, for why stronger eyeglass prescriptions and special lenses did little to correct her faulty depth perception. That was before the semi-annual trips to the Mayo Clinic, one of the best in the country, to see a neurologist who could name the condition but not the cause or the cure: cerebral degeneration.
Part of the beauty queen’s brain is shrinking. Her motor skills have been deteriorating for years and will continue to do so. Hence the stumbling and staggering, hence the impaired speech, hence the blurred vision. My mother is in a perpetual state of drunkenness, but without the drinks, the hangovers, the giddiness, or the fuzziness of mind. This condition may or may not be genetic.
We’ve never talked about it. When I was maybe ten years old she began to go, without explanation, to days-long doctor visits while my sister and I spent time in Blair. To distract us, our grandparents spoiled my sister and me with trips to the root beer stand and they bought us trinkets at Liquidator’s, the local discount store. I still use my rudimentary childhood language to explain her condition. “My mom’s brain is shrinking,” I say, not because I wouldn’t like to offer a more scientific explanation, not because I wouldn’t like to be more precise in naming a disease, but because I can’t. Because I haven’t been told.
My high school boyfriend’s parents were doctors. He asked me more questions about my mother’s health than I’d ever asked her, or my father. Eventually, tired of saying “I don’t know,” I tried to talk to my mother. I lingered at the kitchen table after supper one night, silent, rehearsing the questions in my mind and working up the courage to inquire.
She leaned against the sink rinsing forks and cups, bending to place them in the dishwasher, no doubt curious as to why I wasn’t doing my math homework, watching TV with my sister, or reading in my room.
She looked over her shoulder at me, expectantly.
“What…uh…what exactly do you have? I mean, what’s your disease called?”
She was quiet for a moment, frozen with a plate in her hand. “Cerebral degeneration,” she said, “or cerebellar degeneration.” She rinsed the plate and closed the dishwasher. “Something like that.”
There are few important things we can talk about without strain, few life-changing events open to conversation. Being Cheese Queen is one of them—but only if I ask questions. My mother doesn’t tell stories about herself without being prompted, especially stories from her past. Perhaps the stories no longer feel real, or they remind her of a person she no longer recognizes. Maybe they are as mythical to her as they are to me.
Home from college one weekend, I asked my mother to tell stories from her Miss Blair reign. She wore a flowered nightgown and sat in an old armchair as we talked, not bearing an iota of resemblance to the girl in the newspaper photo. She didn’t have much fun at the Cheese Festival that year, she explained, because she spent her time running between events. Miss Blair had to ride in the parade, not watch it. She sat in the front row at the community ecumenical church service on Sunday morning, handed out ice-cream samples in front of the bank Saturday afternoon, attended the talent show on Friday night.
Moments before it began, my mother was asked to participate in the talent show. One of the performers sang a rendition of “Elvira,” a love song I’ve never heard, and—possibly because the original Elvira was a no-show, my mother can’t remember—Miss Blair was forced into the role. “I had to drift across the stage,” she said, moving her arms in a gesture reminiscent of a Hawaiian hula girl.
She smiled, no doubt envisioning what would happen if she drifted in her current condition. A few years earlier, while playing Guesstures, a charades-like game in which players act out words to earn points, she accidentally jumped into a wall while trying to make her team guess the word “leap.” Because of this incident, and an accumulation of others, I can’t picture my mother drifting across anything, much less while wearing a billowy floor-length dress and heels.
I don’t know that woman; I know a woman who must be driven to the beauty shop when she gets her hair frosted, dropped off at the mall to get a manicure. I know a woman who avoids grocery shopping alone because it’s difficult to control the cart, who is no longer coordinated enough to do the intricate needlework she loved when I was a kid, who can read only in short spurts because the words give her headaches. And I am clueless to what goes on inside.
“I can’t imagine you drifting across a stage,” I say.
My mother keeps the crown on a shelf in her closet, in a white box whose corners are dog-eared, whose lid isn’t a perfect fit anymore. The box rarely comes down, especially now that my mother is too unsteady to stand on a chair and retrieve it herself. It sits among other mementos—autographed high school yearbooks, laminated newspaper articles, boxes of photographs, my parents’ wedding album, baby books.
I understand this need to collect the artifacts of one’s existence. I have an antique hatbox filled with my own memories—letters from an old boyfriend, ticket stubs, a carefully dried corsage, nametags from former jobs, a mini golf score card, snapshots that tell stories. It is a collection of things meaningless without their associations, valuable only to me. My hatbox is now stacked among other boxes, occupying space in what used to be my bedroom before I moved from my parents’ house. The aged cardboard is too fragile to be transported, and so it stays where it is. The bottom, repaired with duct tape, has separated from the box. The heft of its contents is too great.