December of 1996, my sophomore year of college. It was the last day of finals before
Winter Break. I was excited to go home and see my family and take a well-deserved rest from the rigors of my class load. But I was more excited to be going on my first date with a guy I had recently started seeing. And by seeing, I mean fucking. We had decided to hold off on our first real date until finals were finished for the semester. I skipped out of my last exam with a real excitement in my heart. Romantically speaking, my first year of college was a total bust. I was still occasionally having comfort sex with my high school boyfriend (when he wasn’t in jail) and hadn’t met anyone interesting … until now.
“This is going to be so great,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what we’ll do. Will he take me out to dinner, will he bring me flowers? What am I going to wear?” I never think these things.Never. I am just on the girly side of actually being a dude so the anticipation I felt was completely unfamiliar territory.
I get back to my dorm room and my roommate Kelly is watching television. He would be calling me soon. He got out of his final right before I did and just needed a chance to get back to his apartment. I busied myself by picking out clothes. Then, the phone rang. I looked at Kelly. She gave me the “thumbs up.” I smiled as I picked up the phone.
“Julie?” A woman’s voice. Not what I was expecting. “This is Mandy.” One of his roommates. “I have some bad news.”
“What’s up?” I immediately pictured him in the hospital, a car wreck, all the worst.
“We need your help. He’s been arrested and we have to bail him out.”
I fall back onto the edge of my twin bed. Kelly whisper/shouts at me “Is he in jail?” I look at her and nod. She replies, “All mine are gay, all yours go to jail.”
He had gotten out of his final, gone home, and smoked some pot, when police in full riot gear with automatic guns broke down his apartment door. Turns out an ex-roommate and known crack dealer was still using their address, so the cops thought they were on a narcotics bust. They were almost gone when one of them saw the bong behind the chair and asked if anyone had anything in their pockets he should know about. My guy had a small sack of pot, so he pulled it out and dropped it on the coffee table. He was immediately arrested, cuffed, and taken to lockup.
We go to bail him out. I put up the money. This is a good guy and I know he’s going to pay me back. Which he does, in full, the next day. Needless to say our date plans had to be postponed. That evening on the local news (thank god my grandparents didn’t see this), his photo was aired along with all the other crack dealers the cops had busted in their sting that day. Oy.
I leave the dorms the next morning to go home to my grandparent’s for Christmas. I come from a huge family and most of them were at the house when I arrived. Of course, I got kicked out of my bedroom so my aunt and her husband could have it. My younger sister and I were sent to sleep on the foldout downstairs.
I can’t go to sleep. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say to my grandmother about the jail situation. My sister is snoring next to me. Every soul in the house, adult and child, is asleep. I hear Mamaw come down the stairs around 12:30 for a midnight snack. “This is it. Nut up, Cowden.” I take a deep breath, hit my snoring sister in the face with a pillow for the fuck of it and head upstairs.
Mams is in the kitchen, putting together a bitchin’ snack: summer sausage, sharp cheddar, spicy mustard, and sourdough bread. She hears me approach and says “Oh, good. I thought I was going to have to eat all this crap by myself.”
A few words about my grandmother. She is in essence my mother. I was raised by her, lived in her home, and went to her with all my problems and triumphs my entire childhood. She is a strong and whip-smart lady who raised four children mostly by herself while my grandfather was overseas in the Air Force. This woman is hard to fool and has already seen it all with her own kids the first time around. I always just accepted that, and kept lying to a minimum. There was no point. She would know. A tall woman with salt and pepper hair, she cuts a striking figure. And her signature glasses. Purple Liz Claiborne’s, large and square. The glasses are important. They are how a person in the know can judge my grandmother’s feelings. I grew up watching those glasses move as if through their own volition down her nose, up onto her forehead, or just clean off her face. I only ever saw her use her hands if the glasses came all the way off, or Defcon 4 as I thought of it. It was rare and terrifying. Because by then you knew that any fucks Mams had to give were out the door. Bye, fucks! You were gonna get it.
We sit down to snacking’ and I casually open with, “Hey. Remember that guy I told you about?”
She counters with, “Yes. And I’m glad you brought him up. When will I have the pleasure of finally meeting him?” Snaps! The woman is a master. Her glasses are firmly placed in the neutral position. I have not said anything stir-worthy. Yet.
“Mamaw, I am going to tell you something. Something you are not going to like in the least.”
Defcon 2. Glasses slide to tip of nose, full eye-contact engaged.
“And what could that be?” A casual slicing of the summer sausage, a spread of mustard. She never looked down. Damn!
“The man in question was arrested yesterday. For misdemeanor possession of marijuana. I bailed him out. He paid me back within hours.” Defcon 3, top of the head. Yaarg. “I am telling you about this because I have decided to continue seeing him. I think he’s a good person and I wanted to be an adult about it.”
Here. They. Go. Right off her forehead. Her face into her hand. Nuclear meltdown.
“Oh, Julie. I thought you of all my children would know better than this. He may be a good person, but if he is part of that sort of crowd it won’t be long before he gets into trouble again. I don’t want you getting wrapped up in it, too. You have worked too hard for that.”
Man. Even typing that last sentence made my bowels seize up.
Maybe the hardest thing I have ever said to anyone came next. “I understand and appreciate your feelings, Mamaw. But I have made my decision. And I hope that you can trust in me and how I was raised to navigate this situation on my own.”
Glasses somehow magically back on her face. A return to neutral. An exhale.
“If you think that’s best. I trust you.”
This was the moment when I felt adulthood slot into place for me. What a Christmas gift.
She couldn’t resist the urge to close with a zinger. “I would like to meet him, however. Just to see what all this fuss is about.”
And meet him she did. About three weeks after break, I decided she’d had enough time to simmer down. The fellow came over to my dorm room one sunny afternoon. I looked him in the eye and said, “It’s time to go meet Mamaw.”
My grandmother was the chief administrative assistant to the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. That meant you had to go through her if you wanted to see the guy in charge. She knew everyone, and everyone knew her. I was taking him to meet her in her office, her turf. A dicey proposition, but I felt I owed it to her.
We walked up the hill, into Old Main, and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. The walk down that hallway seemed a bit long that day. We walked through her door and she was on the phone, so we waited in the hallway. When she was finished, I stepped in front of her desk and said,
“Mamaw, I’d like you to meet Neal.”
The exchange that happened next is now legend in my family. I remember it verbatim:
“Hello, Neal. Nice to finally meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Mrs. Cowden”
Glasses down. What is happening?!?!
“Are you behaving yourself, young man? Because if you aren’t, this will be the last time you ever see her again.”
Without missing a beat, without a stutter, he steps up to the plate.
“That is more than enough incentive for me, ma’am.”
YASSSSSS! Home run! My grandmother is obviously impressed by the cojones and poise that it took to say those words. Her glasses slide back up her nose and she simply replies,
“I am very glad to hear that.”
In the interest of full disclosure, the fellow I have been talking about is my husband Neal and we have been married for twelve years. Mamaw adores him and spoils him just like she does both of her sons. She trusted me, and I proved her right. A Christmas miracle.