Written by Jan Kline on November 28, 2011

Chinaberry Sidewalks: a Memoir, by Rodney Crowell

Have complaints about the way you were parented? Did Mom and Dad favor a sibling, buy you downmarket toys, crack corny jokes in public? Read this memoir and you may be shamed into shutting your pie hole. Texas singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell gives us a (literally) blow by blow description of his hellish childhood. With no sibling to share the abuse, Crowell absorbed it all — except when his parents attacked each other, which happened regularly. Here he describes an outing with his dead drunk parents to a drive-in restaurant:

Biting her fingernails was a habit my mother indulged to the hilt. “It’s my nerves,” she claimed, and she took nervousness to new heights — “down to the quick,” as she put it — until her fingertips were a throbbing bloodred pulp. Considering this, it’s hard to imagine how she could produce claw marks on the side of my father’s face. But I saw it happen as Jimmy wailed on.

The time bomb suddenly exploded. My father punched her in the face, hard. Unfazed, she kept scratching away at his face and screaming “Go on and hit me. Show everybody what a big man you are. Go on, knock my teeth out. I know you hate the ground I walk on.”

These were eight-year-olds in drunken thirty-something bodies powered by pent-up rage. If experience had taught me anything, it was how to defend myself from their periodic need to hurl themselves into the inferno. But in the cramped quarters of the Studebaker, the flames were dangerously close to torching my self-preservation. Survival, from my vantage point in the backseat, was fast becoming an issue.

In my parents’ world of downward spirals, outside influences — like the carload of customers parked next to us, or concerned carhops asking if everything was all right — were less effectual than a kite in a hurricane. Quelling these prizefights called for more drastic measures.

Clarity came from a familiar source inside my head. If you want this to stop, get their attention. It occurred to me the Dr. Pepper bottle in my hand could end this brawl once and for all.
“Look what you made me do!” I yelled above the din of their vitriol, and was surprised when the fighting stopped instantly and both my parents granted me a haggard glance. Then, with the stage set, I busted myself over the head with the bottle, opening a three-inch gash just above my hairline.

Add his mother’s epilepsy and her periodic forays into Bible thumping to the mix, and is it any wonder Crowell wound up writing country songs? But the big surprise to me is that he was able to forgive them, make peace with his nightmarish upbringing, and even ease their way into whatever afterlife they earned for themselves. His account of both of their deaths is every bit as riveting as the story of their lives.

author photo: Alan Messer

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