No Dessert Til You Clean Up That Mess

mrstennessee.jpg Around our house in those days, if you didn’t clean up your room you went to bed without dessert.  Not just a mess in your own room, either.   If you left a mess anywhere and refused to be responsible for it—reasons ranging from recalcitrance to outright sloth—no matter!  There was NO EXCUSE FOR IT!   You hit the sack with a hole in your belly.  Tough patooties.  That was the law of the land.

In the great Southeast, no meal was complete without something sweet to finish it off. Round it out, take the edge off.  Such punishment then was tantamount to twenty lashes. While you might be able to stand fast, stay whatever course had to be stayed concerning your Mess and its necessity, it was you, the Messer, who teetered bedward in sugar shock, the withdrawal kind, not the law upholders of the land.

It was 1960, when our mother’s chums entered her in the Mrs. Nashville contest as a practical joke.  Not because she wasn’t up to muster in all things home ec, it just wasn’t something anybody from our side of town had ever “done.”  Nonetheless, she went right on ahead with it, jumped through the field trials, and sashayed home with the banner.  Mrs. Nashville, 1960.  Nice picture in the paper, everybody got a big kick out of it.

Then she was honor bound to compete in the Mrs. Tennessee contest.  After all, she was representing our Capitol City (Athens of the South) and took to making appearances with the mayor for ribbon cuttings. At this point, the big guns came out about home decorating, magazines were thumbed and clipped regarding interior decorum and elegant entertaining. 

Recipes were banged out by all the “girls” who were responsible for this mess—Wordie, Martha, Rose, Marie, Norma, Miz Lanier, Jean Sanders, and Billy Buck Armistead who was the real instigator.  Pot lucks and tastings went on for weeks leading up to the state wide showdown.  Once again, our champeen mother captured the sateen banner.  Now it was Mrs. Tennessee and more paparazzi camped outside our front door.  Not only that, but truckloads of accompanying prize booty rumbled up the drive.  We got a brand new stove, a brand new frost free refrigerator, spanking clean ultraluxe no wax linoleum, and boxes of pots and pans, all the kitchen accoutrements a real contender was going to need to bone up for the Big One.  Next stop:  you got it!  MRS. AMERICA.

50skitchen.jpg The house was a mess.  Living room and dining room flush with sketched layouts of fin de Fifties swank furnishings, drapery swatches, coffee table books open to “what’s happening now” in room design.  Tables were laid, centerpieces arranged and struck, but it was, of course, the kitchen where the rubber really hit the road. 

Mama and Martha were perfecting a refrigerated fancy fruit dessert that we were then subjected to for weeks on end.  No more happy island paradise banana puddin’ or fudge pie for our house!  It was this layered gross-out pyrex item with thick white goo at the bottom, then icky sticky fruit to-do—whatever they were trying out at the time (cherries, peaches, berries, or  the ultimate winner—pineapple—yuk!)  We were begging to go to bed without the frappe.

Mamo came up from Atlanta to keep us while Helen and Herb, or Mrs. and Mr. Tennessee (Buck had gotten Daddy his own satin banner) packed off to Fort Lauderdale for the nationally televised event.  To tell you the truth, we were frantic as hamsters to see them go.  Mamo was famous for her brownies, both butterscotch and regular, and we’d had it with the whole damn contest fiasco.  It was cutting into our self-absorption and our mother’s daily complicity with us to that end. 

After days down there of tireless competition in every form of all-American domestic arts and sciences, the field was pared down to ten finalists from the original fifty-two.  Needless to say, Mrs. Nashville dang Tennessee, our five star mother was among the top-flight ten.  A note:  all our childhood, Helen and Herb had been swooned over by our little friends because they “looked so much like movie stars!”  This similarity was not lost on the Ft. Lauderdale press who snapped both in their banners and featured them prominently all week.  They were definitely the favorites going into the final round.

ontheair.jpg The Big Night arrived.  Everybody was in our den with their highballs. The family TV set was fired up.  My brother kept messing with the rabbit ears til we had to whack him with a flyswatter.  The Mrs. America extravaganza was ON THE AIR, live from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, North American continent, western hemisphere, planet Earth.  The grown-ups were all abuzz.  We were on the floor with a king size bowl of popcorn and Dr. Peppers.  Mamo had a dry sack and the decanter plunked down right beside her.  All was poised for the obvious end result:  a Tennessee Triple Crown!

On and on about the boring competition, clips from the arena and film of the Missuses at work.  Certificates were issued about how our mother won this one and how she won that.  Yak yak, etc. etc.  All this was as expected.  In this married-with-children contest, the Missuses weren’t required to sport around in bathing suits.  But the ladies did have to pull together their evening ensembles and this counted for points.  As noted, this was fin de Fifties and so all contestants were paraded out at the end in a glorious display of tiered and tulled exploding ball gowns.  The kind of drop-shoulder hoop-skirted overkill favored by Miss Scarlett a hundred some odd years ago.  But not our Mom.

Mrs. Tennessee, who made every article of clothing I’d ever had on my back my entire short lifespan, not to mention her own tailored shirtwaists and skirts, had crafted for the occasion a pencil thin long white satin number with a simply elegant scoopneck sleeveless bodice (I believe it was a St. Laurent pattern) and looked for all the world not like some two bit Hollywood movie star, but America’s knock-out new First Lady Mrs. John F. Kennedy.  She took your breath away.

tvset.jpg Now came the names of the five finalists, now came the three.  My brother wasn’t great at holding it when he had to pee, so praise the Lord for a break in the program. The adults mixed another stiff one and made a lot of hubbub about how it was all their doing.  They got her where she was today!  Mamo dabbed her neck and forehead with a lace handkerchief and poured herself a second sherry. (This was before AC down South.) The emcee was ready to pop the final questions to the other two pretenders and our obviously preferred mother.  Stuff about hospitality and graciousness in the home, blah blah blah and hand over the crown, already!  When our mother’s name was called for her question, she strode down the runway for all the world like springtime in Paris, France, and all of us were faint with anticipation.  She answered with the savoir faire of 38 years of full-fledged southern belledom and we could tell she had it bagged.

Another cut to commercial.  Holy Moses!  Yet another commercial—Jeez, Louise!  And finally, with a returning swell of huge orchestral fanfare—the moment we’d all been waiting for!  Third runner up, Mrs. California—come on down!  Clap clap weep weep-- cut to the chase.  Not a peep in the family room, nothing but the happy nervous chink of ice cubes over everybody’s now pure-T straight-up bourbon whiskey.  Glasses clink, Cheers!  Salut!  And now…let’s meet our second runner up!  Mrs….Tenn-es-see!

What the %^*&^%$!  The entire group jumped to their feet in a swoop of indignation.  We’d been robbed!  What the damn Sam Hill?  The goldarn blue ribbon in every damn event except the damn dessert category—what’s goin’ on here?  Where’s the fix?  They can’t do this to US…they, they, they…that network in New York!  Damn them Yankees!

By the time Mama and Daddy got back from Ft. Lauderdale, we had it all figured out.  You see, the national sponsor of the Mrs. America contest besides Whirlpool appliances and Betty Crocker etc. is natural gas.  That’s right, the natural gas companies of America, even our local contest was sponsored by the Nashville Gas Co.  So, what’s the catch?  We live in TVA, see?   The Tennessee Valley Authority which makes our state—Total Electric!  They had to run special gas lines down the middle of our street for those fancy new appliances.  NOBODY HAD GAS back then!  Nobody!

But I want to get back to that business of going to bed without dessert if you made a mess and refused to clean it up.  This was obviously not the law of the land in the home of George and Barbara Bush with those five rambunctious little monkeys because the current Leader of the Free World has never had to clean up MESS ONE HE’S EVER MADE, not once in his entire What Me Worry? “world owes me a living” lifetime.  Not one of the many businesses he’s driven into the ground with other peoples’ money, not the DUI’s and other drug-related difficulties, not the AWOL’s from the National Guard, not his eight years of empire-ending tenure—oh no, the next president can clean up the mess he made.

Why on God’s green earth, I ask you, is this feckless freeloader and his evil overseer exempt from cleaning up the mess they made before they, god willing, are finally, let us pray, sent to bed without dessert?


Carol Caldwell is a screenwriter and journalist who lived in L.A., lives in her hometown now, and whose new play about current First Ladies, My Secret Weapon, won best original play of the year, 2006, in its Nashville and North Carolina runs.