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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 43

...Mama never told us she thought we were pretty because she didn't want us to be vain, possibly because her parents taught her that vanity was a sin. She would have thought me conceited had I entered the contest on my own so I made it clear that was not the case...

Famous artist Bertie Stroup Marah tells of becoming a beauty queen.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit
To see some of her pictures click on

I had just turned fourteen when P.G. and Mama traded the small trailer for a tiny house in Bloomfield. The house had two rooms, an outside privy, and our only water was carried in buckets from the cistern. But it was surrounded by a fertile orchard that produced sweet apples and peaches. And I think what I loved most about that time was the feeling that, finally, we belonged to a place of our own. At least for those two years.

P.G. could never stand the responsibility of owning a place, and trailers offered him the comfort of feeling instantly mobile. P. G's employment, like most oil-field work, came in spurts. By this time in our lives, we'd all become used to portability. None of us were surprised when P.G. traded the house for a "newer" trailer that we moved to nearby Aztec and at least we had the consolation that the trailer did not appear as shabby as the tiny house.

Because of our folks' drinking, and the fear that they might create a scene made inviting friends to our home out of the question.

I loved going to high school. It gave me the chance to reinvent myself and I took full advantage of the opportunity. I was determined to overcome my background. I was obsessed with it. In a period of four years I made cheerleader, majorette, homecoming queen attendant, carnival queen, and I even performed in class plays. My sewing ability came in handy and I designed and made my various uniforms and all my school clothes.

I continued to draw and paint with cheap paper and pastel crayons and was proud to show off my efforts. I did a painting of the area with colorful sandstone formations and cedar-covered hills that my parents proudly tacked to the wall. I loved the lush valleys and farmland bordering the San Juan and Animas Rivers but never attempted to paint them. I just never knew where to start and had no confidence that I could capture their beauty.

I did everything I could to create a good self-image, and I made friends who have lasted a lifetime. I treasured my new popularity and vowed to maintain a sterling reputation. I was so successful in that regard that some students considered me prudish.

Mama had never discussed anything about sex with me other than repeatedly warning that men would say anything to have their way and that pregnancy was usually the results. I learned about the functions of the female body, including menstruation, from Wanda Gurley when we lived in Weed. Mama seemed relieved that I didn't ask for information when I asked for some sanitary napkins. When I started needing to wear a bra she handed me a couple and said, "I bought these for me and they're too little, maybe you would like to try them on." End of discussion.

In March of my freshman year, I became sick one day at school. I rode the school bus home and went straight to bed with a high fever. Months earlier, Willie and Mary Jo, had moved to Bloomfield so my brother could work in the oil fields, and they were living in a trailer on our property. Phyllis and Reita were worried about me and called Willie. When he came to check on me and saw how ill I was, he became very concerned.

Because Mama and P.G. had not yet come home, Willie called the bar in Bloomfield. Through the haze of my fever, I listened as he spoke.

"Hello, is P.G. and Bee Anderson there?" he asked. "I need to speak with Bee." He sat quietly for a moment then I saw his body stiffen.

"What do you mean they're not there?" He began to shout, shaking with anger. "I know damned well they are, and if I have to, I'll come down there myself, and drag them home!"

A few moments later Mama came to the phone and it didn't take much to imagine her usual greeting.

"Hello, what's up?"

"You wouldn't have to ask if you'd been here when the kids came home from school." Willie said, his voice now ominously low. "Bertie is really sick. She needs to go to the hospital if you can tear yourselves away from the bar long enough. And you tell that damned barkeep if he ever lies to me again when I ask to talk to you it may be the last lie he ever tells." He almost slammed down the phone.

P.G. and Mama came home fast. When they saw how sick I was they drove me straight to the hospital in Farmington. This was the first time I had ever been to a doctor much less a hospital. Mama sat up with me all night offering comfort and stroking me when I stirred. I saw fear and concern on her face when she learned the next day that I was diagnosed with Polio. The year was 1954, and a few months later, the Salk vaccine would be approved for use.

Amazingly I experienced no paralysis and recovered remarkably well. I know Mama felt awful about not being there when I came home from school. She must have felt especially ashamed that Willie had to pull P.G. and her out of a bar to take me to the hospital. She loved Willie so much that his anger must have cut like a knife. He and Mary Jo lived in the area for about three years before moving back to Artesia. Oh, how I missed Willie.

I worked from the time I was in the tenth grade to pay for all my clothes, school supplies, lunches and dental care. My sisters were poorly dressed in clothes Mama and I made for them and they visited the dentist only when they had a tooth ache. I was more than used to my parents' indifference to my academic progress. I had no expectations that they would suddenly change. But I did get angry when they woke us up by coming home late in the night talking, sometimes arguing, and rattling around the small confines of the trailer house.

My little sisters were still in elementary school and more than once they were punished by teachers for falling asleep in class.

In spite of resenting the interruption of our sleep, their safe return was a relief because when they went out to bars we worried the long hours away waiting for their return. As we grew older the roles of parents and children were often reversed and we were forced to intervene in their fights, both verbal and physical. Our negative upbringing took its toll. Not one of us was unaffected by their behavior. Willie felt the need to escape into an early marriage and Jessie, who had come back to live with us, dropped out of school. I was ashamed and felt I had to be perfect to make up for the way we lived. Phyllis was insecure and becoming rebellious while Reita was anxious and clung to me like a vine. But in spite of the trouble and strife we loved our parents.

When we were younger we tended to blame P.G. for the drinking. It was not until we became adults that we could admit to mother's role in the matter. Over the years, Mama had made a half-hearted attempt at getting P.G. to cut back on his drinking, including running people off who were bad influences. But she would then sabotage her best efforts by joining him at the bar or taking a bartender's job where P.G. would spend too much time drinking, unable to resist temptation.

My folks never paid much attention to what we did in school. In many ways that was a relief because the last thing I wanted was to have P.G. turn up there half tipsy, which did happen on a couple occasions.

The summer before I was a senior in high school, there was a beauty contest sponsored by the local Aztec merchants. The clothing store where I worked sponsored me in the contest; not because I was particularly attractive, but because the old Italian who owned the store thought it would be good advertisement for his business. Mama never told us she thought we were pretty because she didn't want us to be vain, possibly because her parents taught her that vanity was a sin. She would have thought me conceited had I entered the contest on my own so I made it clear that was not the case.

"Mama, I'm entered in a beauty contest. I didn't do it myself, the store did."

"Well, I assume, you had to give your permission," she said.

"Well yeah," I was forced to admit.

She was not impressed. Such things were foolish and she never approved of women teetering around on high heels exhibiting female vanity. In fact the only time I ever knew Mama to make fun of someone was when she mimicked her sister-in-law. This sister-in-law was a small woman who wore high-heeled shoes and short skirts to better show off her legs. She also lathered on plenty of makeup, mascara and bright red lipstick on her very full lips; lips that Mama described as "looking like a horse's butt." She wore her hair 1940s-style, with the sides swept up in rolls, and the back hanging down, secured with barrettes. She smoked hand-rolled Bull Durhams that dangled from a fake ivory cigarette holder, and swished around with that holder extended between her ruby red manicured fingers, rolling her big, brown mascara dripping eyes, and speaking in a whiney pretentious voice.

We kids fell over laughing when Mama prissed around on her tiptoes, pursing her lips, raising one brow, waving an invisible cigarette.

"Now, honey," she mocked in a phony voice, "You know, I have to use this holder. I just can't stand that yellow nicotine staining my lily white fingers." Mama always got a laugh for her farcical derision. She didn't really dislike her sister-in-law but she detested her pretention.

Even though Mama wasn't pleased at having me in a beauty contest, she drove me to the event anyway. P.G. was working that evening, but his brother, Doyle, who had been drinking that day, insisted on going with us.

I could not see into the audience that evening. The bleachers were hidden in darkness and were even more obscured by the bright lights reflecting off the swimming pool. I couldn't see anything going on behind the lights. If I had, I would have immediately fled the scene. At the time, I was more concentrating on walking in my high-heeled shoes without stumbling. And I was worried that I might fall off the runway into the swimming pool. I could not swim and was terrified of deep water. I was also afraid that the red and white swimsuit I had bought at the clothing store that sponsored me might ride up in back and show more than I intended.

I later learned that while I was worried about drowning, Doyle was waving money around loudly trying to take bets that I would win.

"That Tracy girl's gonna win!" he shouted. Here's ten dollars that says so. Do I have any takers?"

Reita and Phyllis turned away pretending they didn't know him while Mama silently hoped the folly would soon end. She was seated by a lady whose daughter was one of the first contestants to walk the runway in her swimsuit. Earlier, this proud mother had nudged Mama. "Just wait 'til you see my daughter, she's the one with the beautiful blond hair and brown eyes. She's the third in line to walk in front of the judges." As her daughter walked down the runway, she turned to Mama again. "That's my daughter."

Mama nodded her head but didn't comment. Doyle had found no takers for his wager and had at last settled down, much to Phyllis's and Reita's relief.
I was near the last of the contestants to walk down the runway. I stood up, tugged at my swimsuit, and quickly walked in front of the judges. My face was frozen in a smile. I thought I heard a shrill, loud whistle from the audience and something about, "Here's my ten." Fortunately I kept my balance on my new high-heeled shoes. At the end of the contest, when they placed the sequin-crusted crown on my head, Mama turned to the lady and smugly said, "That's my daughter."

After the contest was over and I joined my family to go home, Phyllis and Reita were bubbling with excitement. "We knew you were going to win," Reita said happily.

"Yeah, and Uncle Doyle really thought so," Phyllis agreed.

"I just wished someone had taken my bet," Doyle grumbled.
"Did you hear how I shut that braggin' woman up? Mama asked. She quickly recounted her sarcastic remark. That was as close as she would come to saying she was proud of me. I was embarrassed by all of their behavior but secretly pleased that Mama had supported me in her roundabout way.


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