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Tiffany McDaniel on the Woman Behind Betty

Posted on 1st August 2021 by Mark Skinner

Tiffany McDaniel's astounding novel Betty is a richly evocative coming-of-age tale steeped in the Cherokee heritage that is a fundamental part of its author's DNA. In this intensely intimate and deeply fascinating piece, Tiffany explores the upbringing of her mother - the inspiration for Betty herself - as well as discussing her wider family and the traditional culture of her childhood. Featuring beloved photographs from Tiffany's personal collection alongside haunting poetry written by the author, this is a truly unique insight into a powerful story.      

 

Betty

This novel is inspired by my mother Betty’s life and I couldn’t have asked to be raised by a better woman. I am inspired daily by her intelligence, her creativity, her determination, and her strength. The poem ‘My Broken Home,’ at the beginning of the novel, was written by her. And when I read the lines, ‘you give me a wall / and I’ll give you hole,’ I understood that she was finally breaking down the walls and freeing everything behind them. Mom is so thrilled to see the book out on the shelf. And to all you readers, she thanks you dearly for reading this story. I hope in these photos you see not only her beauty on the outside, but her beauty within. May Betty the novel and Betty the person inspire and empower girls like her to dare to dream and never give up.


Tribal Birthmark

Choking on feathered headdresses and tepees they had never lived in,

the stereotypes are a confusion they tuck their knees in for.

The fortunate years are still awake on the right cheek.

They kneel to them, making circles for the departed.

A hive of wasps promises to summon the old cats from the cribs

in the unseen pollen, their footfalls inhale the surface, like haunted scripts.

Even the crickets are liquored up on moonshine and the hard stoop of life.

At midnight a procession of celebration, knowing their mothers and the truth,

They speak like explosions of old gods and mighty warriors.

Dear Name, Dear patience, I am too poor to journey back, so lift my womb

and give birth to the Cherokee so they may shake the ground and free the graves

for the ghosts to cry, a million cheekbones against the slender bosoms.

Our reason is a golden spade into the ground,

revealing oblivion and all the rivers she took to get here.

 

Papaw Landon

Landon was the type of father who would stand on his head, walk across the room like a spider or crab, and perch his long legs up on his elbows, making funny faces. He’d do anything to get a laugh from one of his children. As Mom says of him, “He was a lot of fun.”

I wish I would have gotten to know Landon. He spent over a decade in the grave before I was born. His character was shaped out of the Q&A sessions I conducted with my mother, his wife Alka, and other family members. One of the stories Alka told me about Landon was one I didn’t put in the book, but is a memory I still smile at today. Landon and his siblings didn’t have a lot of money growing up. As Alka told it, he and his brothers had one good pair of pants that they were not to dirty by their mother's orders. But there were plants in the fields to tend to, and how can children not get dirty doing that? When one of Landon's aunts died, she left behind her tattered and torn dresses. His mother, the smart woman she was, dressed her sons in the dresses of their dead aunt and sent them out to work the field in them. Landon was raised by strong women in a Cherokee household. A dress to him represented that strength. It’s no wonder he wore it with pride as he drove his hoe into the ground, carefully thinking of where to plant the corn for it to grow best. 


Mamaw Alka with the children, Arkansas

In this photo, Mamaw Alka is holding my mother as a baby. It’s 1954, and Mom is just a few weeks old. The oldest daughter, Fraya, stands at her mother’s side, while Flossie, the middle daughter, strikes a pose in front wearing cowboy boots in just her size, her pale blonde hair blowing in the wind like her mother’s. I always look at this photo and notice the way the house appears to be leaning, as if about to slide off a hillside. And they, standing there, ready as a family, hoping for the best.


Mamaw Alka as a young woman

One of the most emotional scenes to write in the book was about my mamaw’s abuse as a child. Later, as an adult, she would say she didn't speak about it because she thought it was what happened in every family. When it’s both your mother and father who is hurting you, you are left alone in that abuse. I imagine her looking at the other houses she passed, thinking that inside them were other little girls and boys going through what she was. Only when she was old enough to know better, did she recognize the type of home she was living in.

Perhaps in this picture she is on the verge of imagining a different future. At the very least, a place different than the hell she had come from.


The Time Grandmother Was Held Captive

Having fed the husband’s heart to the wolves,

she feels restored to the burden.

Publishing against the tide, her fury is talented, if not wise.

In the delicate distance, malice lazes in bed,

her unborn children play hopscotch in the ravine.

Awful words accumulate in her mouth, and all her books have been neglected.

In the final amber, she assumes the torches are really funerary jars

for the silent hours lost. Quick, punish her. She hears the lemons being squeezed.

The yellow drink, made cold by his ice. He’ll take her by the wrists and pin them down like dogs. They’ll howl and bark, across a thousand moons, until her tongue shrivels like

dry grass, growing crooked by the house. It takes an old woman to guess how lost things can get.

In threads behind her back, she ties knots of remembrances. Dressed in fine linens,

midnight erupts at her knees. The world is beautiful but withered

and all her smiles have dropped to the ground like bread the birds pick up and eat.

Somewhere the warriors are perched on the ironing board,

and the great Vikings have drowned in the soapy water of the kitchen sink.

Swords have been abandoned, knives and guns, too.

Only an old lion remains. Her paws wet, her fur touched by the lightning leaning in.

Destiny is a fact passing from one year to the next. Nothing is there for the lion to run to.

She settles in the tall grass, only rousing at the sound of her own strength

being fed to the children, slapping their ribbons and echoing across the field

in a magnificent run they will make legends out of.


Lint as a baby

This photo is of my uncle Lint as a smiling baby. He’s someone I have fond memories of. Someone who always made sure there were butterscotch candies in the fish bowl in the kitchen for me, and someone who loved history and reading about it. He was also someone who could make you laugh. I remember these moments more than I remember my uncle for his mental illness. This smiling baby would one day grow up and ultimately die from an overdose, but my uncle will always be the person I remember standing on the creek bank with me, his hand over his eyes, looking out for the animal that had made the track in the wet mud at his feet.

 

Young Flossie

In this photo, fading with time, stands Flossie in a white dress. Her blonde hair cut to her shoulders, and a stance that says she hopes to one day grace the movie screen as her idols. Flossie once said to me, when she was an older woman worn down by her addictions and sitting on the porch swing at our house, that she could have been more famous than Elizabeth Taylor. “They were going to write my name in those big block letters,” she had said. “At all the theaters.” Flossie had big dreams, but she never quite made it to Hollywood. Though in my mind, she’s there now. On the stage, the lights shining on her smile, her father Landon somewhere in the audience, throwing roses at her feet.

Betty with her daughters

This photo was taken on a cool spring day. I was not yet born. My sister Jennifer wears her little blue jacket, while my sister Dina, her white sweater. By the time this photo would have been taken, Landon would have been dead for several years. I imagine what type of Papaw he would have been. I imagine he would have been standing there in this photo, beside his daughter and her own. He would have likely been telling a story to his granddaughters, perhaps one about their mother's hair being from the raven's feathers, or maybe he would have just dared them to run to the edge of the field behind them. "Quickly," he would said. "So you can see the alligators and mermaids and the most fantastic of creatures swimming by in the river below."

Three Sisters

Mom was one of three daughters. As fate would have it, she herself had three daughters. Here I’m with my two sisters. Dina is on the left, I’m the baby in the middle, just a few weeks old, and the second born, Jennifer is on the right. Growing up as one of three sisters, my mother raised us on the Three Sisters story.  But it’s more than a story, it’s a gardening practice adopted by many Native American tribes, including the Cherokee. Landon used the three sisters story to empower his three daughters, and it’s something Mom shared with me and my sisters. And as Fraya was maize, so, too, was Dina. Jennifer was beans like Flossie, and, me, being the youngest would be squash. Like Betty in the book, I am the protector of the corn and the beans. In this photo on the right, I wasn’t yet born, but you see Dina and Jennifer happily holding large squash that they’d just picked from the garden. If you were to ask Mom, she would say I am in this photo. She says I am the squash in their arms.

 


Tiffany and Dolly in a field of dandelions

Much like Mom and her sisters grew up under Landon’s wing and his teaching of the value of nature and plants, so, too, did my sisters and me. Mom raised us in gardens and with the knowledge that plants, even the ones generally considered a weed, are to be valued. In this photo I would have been fourteen and I’m sitting with our family dog, Dolly, a rescue from a farm. We’re in our field of dandelions, which is the inspiration for Dandelion Dimes in the novel. Unlike some other elements to the story, the diner is a place I created from my imagination and my love of dandelions. Dandelions are among my favourite foods to eat, and if you were to open a random book on my bookshelf, you’d likely come across a dandelion from some previous summer, flattened and pressed between the pages.

 

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