Betty, The Cross and The Tree

Contrary to popular belief, Ernest Ford was not a particularly religious man. No more than the next person is, anyway. We were not a faith-based family. Religion did not dictate our habits or customs, it did not govern our lives, and we did not live by the lyrics of the hymns that provided the income that we lived on.

We did not go to church every Sunday. In the North Hollywood years, we attended the First Methodist Church on Alameda occasionally, but it was not customary. What was customary was getting take-out from the Kosherama delicatessen on Olive after the service. Greatest corned beef on rye in Burbank. Not wanting to offend anyone, we sang with the Christians and ate with the Jews.

We said grace at the table, but not every night. Brion and I knelt by our beds and said our prayers, but not every night. More often than not, we prayed that Mom would not come in with a belt, after having several of another sort. If she did, we prayed her aim would be accurate, because the leather falling on our legs or our backs was way worse than on our backsides. And we prayed that Dad would take pity on us and intervene sooner, and not later.

When we moved to the Bay Area, even our sporadic church attendance stopped after only a few Sundays. I suspect that Fame had something to do with that; I have fragmented memories of Dad’s unease and embarrassment, surrounded by an infatuated congregation paying more attention to him than the sermon and the pastor giving it. I suspect Mom also had something to do with it; services traditionally began at eleven, and Sunday or not, she’d usually had a glass or two of tomato or orange juice by then – mixed generously, of course, with a healthy splash of Smirnoff. Add just a dash of unpredictability, and an ever-so-slight pinch of unexpected caprice, and God only knew -literally- what wondrous thing one might behold or hear from Betty Ford, wedged in a pew between her seditious sons and her pious-in-the-eyes-of-the-public-husband.

Confliction and faith existed side by side in our house, and while I believe that Dad was, for the most part, secure in the beliefs practiced historically in his family, faith neither offered, promised, or provided any such covenants for Mom. While her mother, Jesse, was raised a strict Irish Catholic, and her father, Charlie, was brought up by iron-fisted Dust Bowl Presbyterians, their daughter took no refuge in the scriptures, or strength in the prayers of either doctrine. On the contrary, she recoiled from it, carrying a distaste and distrust of dogmatic ritual with her throughout her life.

That aversion was never more evident than in a letter from April of seventy-nine, when Jesse passed away at ninety-two. “Ernie is gone to Vegas,” she wrote. “Wouldn’t you know mother picked this week to die. Didn’t go to the funeral, as I feel they are heathen and barbaric.…” Her Christmas letter that same year included a sketch she’d done of herself, suspended from a cross, crowned in thorns, blood and tears staining her face.

I have no memory of ever hearing Mom profess alliance with any denomination, let alone those of her parentage, and I am ashamed I never asked her as much. In my youth, asking such a question was unthinkable. Not unpardonable — just unthinkable — I simply never thought to ask. Growing up, I assumed that she was what Dad said we all were, Methodist. And I never questioned my assumption; choosing instead, to believe in the Word of Dad.

While I don’t believe Mom was agnostic, and certainly not atheistic, she was normally noncommittal when the matter of faith came up, and she usually changed the subject, feigned boredom, or busied herself with some innocuous task until the subject changed itself. Pressed into a corner, however, she rarely failed to make the moment memorable.

Not long after moving to North Hollywood, Look magazine arranged to come to the house for a cover story, feature interview and photo spread, hoping to capture the ‘real’ Ernie Ford and family. When the editor on hand suggested a shot of all of us at the kitchen table saying grace, he got way more real than he ever anticipated.

Excusing herself, Mom withdrew to her dressing room upstairs. When she returned, she’d changed into old capris, a dowdy sweater, and strategically placed about seven oversized hairclips around her head. Adding the piece de resistance to her homely ensemble, she breezed over to the pantry, and slipped an even older apron around her neck. No one said a thing, but had anyone wanted to, there was plenty of room–the silence was deafening.

Looking at the picture today, it speaks as loudly now as her actions spoke that morning. Seated at the rectangular table in the kitchen, Brion, Dad and I are in earnest prayer; our eyes closed penitently. To my left, Mom sits forlornly, hair clips and all, her eyes wide open, staring blankly at the Formica patterns on the surface of the table.

All this is not to imply that we did not observe or acknowledge Christian tenets as a family – we did. But the truth is, we observed them less because they gave order and foundation to our lives, and more because we were expected to; the public expected Dad to live by that image, and Dad expected his family to reflect it, or at the very least, not to tarnish it.

Expectations and imagery notwithstanding, our observance was practiced more often seasonally than regularly, and most often at Christmastime.

Oddly, I have no memory of Christmas before we moved to the Bay Area. I’m certain that we celebrated it in North Hollywood and several early snapshots from the Whittier years confirm our commemoration while we were living there. Nevertheless, my holiday memory banks from those years are empty. Weird.

Few days of the year were as important to Dad; he reveled in the preparation, the decoration, and the anticipation, He ordered enormous hams from a Virginia smoke house, and bought immense turkeys that cooked, seemingly, for days, taking an almost perverse delight in the art of basting. He baked golden pones of stone-ground cornbread in iron skillets, and labored over his cornmeal and sausage dressing – a master’s recipe I vainly try to reproduce each year.

He rose early during the season, long before everyone else, and built great fires in each of the fireplaces, waking us slowly and peacefully with the sound of oak hissing, and the smell of cedar burning on the hearth.  Like an older brother, he counted the days until school ended, waiting in the parking lot for Brion and I on the last day, the station wagon warm, carols on the radio, pipe in his teeth, waving us to the car and into his embrace.  Like a Rockwell scene come to life, we motor home, tree strapped to the roof, Dad, me and Brion singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’ along with Bing.

Alas, my memories of Mom during Christmas are less idyllic, though they are no less evocative.

Of the hundreds -the thousands- of pictures chronicling our lives, I have only four taken during the holiday that include Mom. One is from nineteen-fifty, her and Dad in front of their tree in Monterey Park, both of them smiling, but her eyes are closed. Jump ahead eleven years to sixty-one, when we traveled back to Bristol to spend the holiday with Dad’s folks. Here’s a black and white of Dad standing between his mother and Mom, looking for all the world like a worried referee; Maude to his right, her eyes on her son, beseeching and …fearful? On his left is Mom, her jaw clenched, eyes riveted on the table, where, for all the world, she appears to be beating the living hell out of a defenseless ham.

The last two were taken on Christmas morning of eighty-two, just minutes, maybe only seconds apart; Mom sitting on the steps of the living room, frail and thin in a faded pink housecoat, a Bloody Mary on the tile floor next to her, a wan smile gracing her face.

I believe that Mom wanted Christmas to be merry, but I do not believe that they were ever so for her. The Holidays I remember are wrapped with very few memories of her being truly happy during the season. Save for one year. It was the only year I remember she accompanied Dad and Brion & I to select the tree, and she came only because she was promised that the selection would be hers. No interference from Dad, no meddling or griping from Brion and me.

The lot was not far from Stanford, and the night was cold, even by Bay Area standards. We’d been customers of the sawyer for a number of years, so he naturally began the tour of the trees with the blue spruces; regal, tall, and redolent with the scent of evergreen. They were beautiful, and perfect for the sixteen-foot ceilings in the living room.They were also in a completely different part of the lot than Mom. She’d simply disappeared in the forest. Not knowing what to expect (she’d had a few drinks before we left the house) we split up, and initiated a search.

It was Brion who found her first, alone in the back of the lot, where the stunted trees were tossed after being discarded from the truck as undesirable. They lay there in a pile, boughs bent, stacked like so much cordwood. Amid this refuse stood Mom, holding a tiny, nettle-bare pine, not three feet tall. It looked like it had the flu, if trees could catch the flu. She’d placed it on a stump used by the sawyer for trimming, and was waiting for us.

“I found it,” she said.

Later that night, a fire burning brightly on the hearth in the living room, Betty Jean finished putting the last ornament on the little tree, on top of the round federal table near the window. As she slid the star over the tiny evergreen’s tip, the weight of the ornament was too much, and bent the tree to one side. But the star did not fall. Brion moved to aright it, but Mom stopped him.

“It looks sad, Mom.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m going to call it my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

“Why?”, he pressed.

“Because Charlie Brown’s Christmases were always sad,” she answered.

The big back log in the fireplace hissed and rolled forward, sending Dad to the hearth for the poker. Mom laughed a small laugh, took a sip from her drink, and we all took turns placing presents under that year’s tree.


From “River of No Return – Tennessee Ernie Ford and The Woman He Loved”

©Turner Publishing. All Rights Reserved.