Inspiration for the Character of Birdie Wells

Brad on his inspiration for the character of Birdie Wells

My maternal grandmother, Margaret Maria (Maggie) Wells Watson, known to her grandchildren as Mimi, was married at sixteen—too young to know any better, according to her lights. My grandfather, a determined and persuasive young shoe salesman, had almost bullied her into marrying him, she said. A year into the marriage, this girl, who’d never been more than kissed on the cheek before her wedding night, was pregnant with her first child, my aunt Marjory. Mimi used to say her childhood just vanished.

I was always fascinated by Mimi, who lived to be ninety-three, and her hilarious stories. She told them in a disjointed, lighthearted, rambling fashion, punctuating them with gems such as the time I asked how she felt about my grandfather’s infidelity (like his father, apparently, he got around), and she replied, “Well, it hurt, you know. But at least it kept him off of me.”

She hadn’t really wanted to marry at all, didn’t want to have children, not as young as she did, anyway. She couldn’t stand the Watsons, her in-laws. Earl’s father, an insurance salesman, was a reputed womanizer who’d killed his brother-in-law in a fight many years past; he spent two years in the penitentiary for manslaughter. He carried a little pearl-handled pistol in his jacket pocket until the day he died. Earl’s siblings were always envious of him, especially his brother Klein, with whom Earl fought all the time, sometimes in the house. Mimi said Klein would storm in, raging, and Earl would leap up from the table, and they’d be whaling at each other in the living room. Her sisters-in-law were catty to her and insulted her all the time, took advantage of her, disparaged her character behind her back. According to Mimi, she was plagued by these people. Sometime late in her life, Earl’s sister Myrtle wrote a novel (unpublished), a good portion of which was devoted to disparaging her sister-in-law, Mimi.

When Earl died of a heart attack in 1955, he left a wholly dependent wife who’d never worked a job, and a son (my father) he hadn’t bothered to teach the business. Then someone began to mail her letters made of words cut from magazine headlines, accusing her of poisoning Earl. The letters threatened an exhumation and autopsy. “THE TRUTH WILL OUT!” one said. Mimi knew these letters came from Klein and his wife because Klein was furious that Earl hadn’t left him a share in his two shoe stores. She was traumatized and embarrassed by these things, but nothing ever came of them. “Well, you know they’re just crazy, Maggie!” her friends would say.

Only after Mimi’s death in 1995 did I see this photograph, taken sometime in the mid- to late 1920s. I was trying to begin work on a novel that would become The Heaven of Mercury, and I had a vague idea that my grandmother could be the model for a main character, Birdie Wells Urquhart. But the book gave me fits, and I wrote the rough drafts of two other books in the meantime, just trying to avoid this one. I was finding it almost impossible to invent a story about someone who had been such a strong presence in my life, and so much herself, as an old person. I struggled to see her as a girl, flirting with boys, being desired by boys and men. This photograph, showing my grandmother in something like a flapper’s dress, looking quite flirtatious as she leans coyly against the fancy car (no doubt my grandfather’s—he had a weakness for new automobiles), allowed something of her old lady veneer to crack a little, and I began to imagine her life in a way I hadn’t been able to, before. And I began to weave some of her stories into a narrative, to elaborate upon them, and to invent others.

I also began more freely inventing things about characters based on other people in her life. I knew little about Mimi’s housemaid of some fifty years, Velma Hubbard, but the woman was very sweet and kind, generous of spirit, and very rooted in the old ways of the racist South; I never could get her to stop calling me Mr. Brad. She and my grandmother were always arguing, bickering over little household things—they both got cantankerous in their old age. My grandmother fired Velma several times; Velma would simply let herself in the next morning with her key.

The character invented to become Birdie Urquhart’s unrequited lover (Finus Bates) in the novel has no model, aside from sharing certain crotchety characteristics with me (I am not such an old man but act like one). So I was surprised when, after the book was done, my mother said there was a man who used to visit Mimi, and who cared enough about her to sit by her bedside when she was ill with various ailments. Mom didn’t know if the man was in love with Mimi or not, but she wondered, even suspected he was. I was astounded: It almost seemed like life imitating fiction.

I don’t think Mimi would mind my using her life as inspiration for a novel. She might tell me I got some things wrong, but she’d understand I was making those things up. She’d say she didn’t want the facts, they were so awful, or that things weren’t really so awful as that. Most likely she’d just repeat what she said after reading my first published story, when I was twenty-three: “Well, I know you’re a good boy, anyway.” Meaning in spite of the awful things I wrote.