Being single with three kids didn't mean that Whitney gave up on her hopes of becoming a star. She was dedicated and a hard worker. She worked as a bookkeeper and stenographer at the Lockheed Aircraft plant during the day, but at night she'd take acting classes and appear in plays at small local theaters like the Pasadena Playhouse, leaving us in the care of a string of housekeepers and friends. When she couldn't find anyone to watch us, she'd take us kids with her and we'd entertain ourselves in the dusty prop room, wardrobe room, and the cavernous wings and bowels of the theater until she was ready to go home. I remember those times fondly because not only were all of us siblings playing together but I also knew exactly where my mother was.
Although she herself was independent, Memaw's biggest message to Whitney when she was growing up had been: You need to find a man to take care of you. With my father out of the house, Whitney decided that my eldest brother, Dick, had the right chromosomal makeup—forget that he was about eight at the time—to fit the bill. She told him, "You are now the man of the family." But she kept looking for grown-up men as well; there were always plenty of them around our house, guys she'd met at class or in Playhouse productions. I remember two in particular: Ray, whom I liked because he fixed our sagging garage door, and red-haired Art, whom I didn't like. He mocked my fear of the rats that sometimes crawled out of our attic and ran across our backyard.
After the divorce, my father, Tom, remained part of our lives, but a small part. We'd see him every other weekend, and on the occasional Wednesday he'd pick us up after school and take us to his mother's house in Pasadena.
That grandmother's name was Jean Lawson Baxter and there was nothing soft about her, either. (What is it with my grandmothers?) She always spoke regretfully of being called Grandmother, instead of Memaw, the moniker she was hoping for. Unaccountably we called her husband Pepaw, but it was my maternal grandmother who was dubbed Memaw. Consequently, I always felt a silent competition between these strong women, whose paths rarely, if ever, crossed. Grandmother was tall, stout, formidable, very old, and had white hair that she wore circled and pinned. She didn't try to hide the fact that she had never been Whitney's biggest fan. One of my clearest memories is of her standing in the middle of our little house on Indiana Avenue, running her fingers over the mantel, saying negative things to Whitney and making it clear that she didn't think much of her housekeeping skills. She wasn't above interrogating me, either. She would sit me down on her porch swing and ask questions about Whitney—"Was she home at night?" "Were we left alone?"—making me feel very defensive. I didn't always understand her questions, but the tone was unmistakable. To my grandmother, as pious and self-righteous as she was, Whitney must have seemed irresponsible, flighty, and downright non- Christian.
Grandmother was too stern, imperious even, to bring much real coziness into our lives when we were little, but she did try. Once as a gift she gave me a pair of large, beautiful, fairly fragile, hand-painted boudoir dolls, more appropriate for window dressing than play. They were blond and brunette, stood about two feet high, and were dressed in gorgeous long satin and lace dresses. Though they were quite valuable in their day, I played with them until their gowns hung in tatters and their wigs were askew. At a certain point I decided that the dolls needed friends, so she made me two male dolls, sort of in the style of Raggedy Andy, with suits, ties, and shirts. But their faces were flat, and when I asked her to give them features, she obliged by figuring out how to gather the material together and make a seam that gave them little noses.