Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mother Machree and Helen Lucille

My Aunt Ida Mae outlived three husbands and one boyfriend. Divorced at 47 and living in the small Tennessee town of Trenton, she took it upon herself to enroll in a local beauty school and ended up opening her own shop, "Coiffures by Ida," in the mid-Sixties. At the time, we all asked her what "coiffures" meant, and she said it was just a fancy French word for hair styles and that she thought people would notice it more than "Ida's Beauty Shop."

Ida's business flourished. She converted the living room of her High Street house into a salon, and she proceeded to build a loyal contingent of customers who would walk up the steps to the front door, then come in for their scheduled appointments and of course, a little bit of socializing. Ida had a great air conditioner in the salon, so people liked hanging out there to take a break from the Mid-South heat. All the customers (except for her son Marion) were women, but one day, a well-dressed man came up the steps, and Ida introduced him as her new boyfriend Mac.

It's important at this juncture for me to create a mental image of Mac. Think Monopoly Man. Mac stood only about five foot six, just a bit shorter than Ida, and always wore a starched white shirt, suit vest, and trousers. He generally opted to forego the suit coat, owing to the heat, but he always wore a pocket watch attached to his vest, and he would pull it out to check it from time to time. A retired insurance executive who apparently had lived life on a schedule, Mac was well off and lived in a tidy brick house just down the street from Ida, which made walking to her house his preferred method of "courting." He was, of course, always impeccably dressed.

To say that Mac was entertaining would be a vast understatement. He was a natural comedian who spoke in a rather hybridized accent that was some mysterious fusion of Southern, Cajun and a few other things which would be hard to categorize. His expressions were punctuated by long, drawn-out vowels more reminiscent of the South Carolina Lowcountry than our part of West Tennessee, so I had to believe that he had spent some time there or in some place with a similar accent. We never got around to discussing that, though, because it was his humorous exclamations that preoccupied us. My favorite of his was one that I've never understood, even after years of searching for the meaning online. When Mac was truly surprised by something, he would contort his face into an expression of astonishment and exclaim, "Mother Machree and Helen Lucille!" He drew out the phrase so that it actually sounded more like, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL!"

The only consistent reference I've found to either of the two ladies mentioned in this expression is a definition for Mother Machree. This was the title of a 1928 silent film about a poor Irish immigrant who moves to America. Helen Lucille was not the name of any other character in the movie, and a web search only reveals obituaries for people by that name, none of whom seemed to have acted in movies, although I suppose that would have been possible. At any rate, this Helen Lucille appeared to have had quite an influence on Mac.

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The green neon lights shone against the black night sky on the quiet highway outside Milan. Mac had decided to take Ida, my mother Peggy, my cousin Marion and me out for ice cream, so here we were, off this deserted highway at some place that had "Freeze" in its name. Marion and I ordered soft serve cones dipped in chocolate, and as soon as we had them in our hands, we started devouring them. Mac, on the other hand, ordered a large cone of plain vanilla soft serve, and when the server handed it to him, we all stopped to behold its glory: there, resting upon the top of a humble wafer cone, was a veritable tower of ice cream. It must have been at least eight inches high. Mac looked at it, then with a swipe of his right hand, removed the top half and dumped it onto the ground as he exclaimed, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL! No way I can eat this much cream!" We laughed so hard and so long, until we finally jumped back in Mac's Caprice Classic and returned to Trenton, full of frozen deliciousness.

Mac was not a good driver. My mother especially hated riding with him, and for good reason. He would run out in front of other motorists, veer intentionally off the side of the road, and jiggle the steering wheel back and forth, all the while saying, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me!" Mac loved to go to buffets on Sunday, so whenever we were in Trenton, he would take us out, insisting that he drive one of his Caprice Classics (as you may have imagined, he had several over the years). These trips were always nerve-racking ordeals. One day, Mac wanted to take me out for a personalized tour of Trenton, and my mom reluctantly agreed. Our brief expedition was highlighted by a drive through the town cemetery, where at one point, as the car veered off the drive, Mac commented, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me, right here in the graveyard!" We got back home, and when my mother found out where we had been, she was not amused.

But despite his reckless driving, Mac had a good heart. He and my Aunt Ida had some fabulous times together, and until his passing in the early Seventies, he was a constant source of companionship and amusement, not only to Ida, but to us all. Mac was really and truly Ida's boyfriend: after her divorce, she focused on making a living for herself and raising the one of her two sons who still lived at home, and she did well, so Mac was like the icing on the cake. He was a classic gentleman who would come courting at predictable times, and even though not formally a member of the family, he seemed like one to us. After he died, his survivors had little to do with Ida, and although at first she was hurt by this, she recovered in short order and found another husband, and when he died, yet another. They were fine gentlemen both.

Which brings me back around to the point of this story: we all encounter people in our lives who leave on us a lasting impression. At the time, it seems that they will be with us forever, but in truth, we must take advantage of the time we have with them. In my case, I have never met another Mac, although my eyes are always open for someone else of that ilk. I would love it if that were to happen.

Oh, and one more thing: If you know or can find out who Helen Lucille was, please let me know.