I dont know how Mother handled it all as well as she did. Every morning, no matter what had happened the night before, she got up and put her game face on. And what a face it was. From the time she came back home from New Orleans, when I could get up early enough I loved sitting on the floor of the bathroom and watching her put makeup on that beautiful face.
It took quite a while, partly because she had no eyebrows. She often joked that she wished she had big bushy ones that needed plucking, like those of Akim Tamiroff, a famous character actor of that time. Instead, she drew her eyebrows on with a cosmetic pencil. Then she put on her makeup and her lipstick, usually a bright red shade that matched her nail polish.
Until I was eleven or twelve, she had long dark wavy hair. It was really thick and beautiful, and I liked watching her brush it until it was just so. Ill never forget the day she came home from the beauty shop with short hair, all her beautiful waves gone. It was not long after my first dog, Susie, had to be put to sleep at age nine, and it hurt almost as badly. Mother said short hair was more in style and more appropriate for a woman in her mid-thirties. I didnt buy it, and I never stopped missing her long hair, though I did like it when, a few months later, she stopped dyeing the gray streak that had run through the middle of her hair since she was in her twenties.
By the time she finished her makeup, Mother had already run through a cigarette or two and a couple of cups of coffee. Then after Mrs. Walters got there, shed head off to work, sometimes dropping me at school when our starting times were close enough. When I got home from school, Id keep busy playing with my friends or with Roger. I loved having a little brother, and all my pals liked having him around, until he got big enough to prefer his own friends.
Mother usually got home by four or five, except when the racetrack was open. She loved those races. Though she rarely bet more than two dollars across the board, she took it seriously, studying the racing form and the tout sheets, listening to the jockeys, trainers, and owners she got to know, debating her options with her racetrack friends. She made some of the best friends of her life there: Louise Crain and her husband, Joe, a policeman who later became chief and who used to drive Daddy around in his patrol car when he was drunk until his anger died down; Dixie Seba and her husband, Mike, a trainer; and Marge Mitchell, a nurse who staffed the clinic at the track for people who had health problems while there and who, along with Dixie Seba, and later Nancy Crawford, Gabes second wife, probably came as close as anyone ever did to being Mothers real confidante. Marge and Mother called each other Sister.
Shortly after I came home from law school I had the chance to repay Marge for all shed done for Mother and for me. When she was dismissed from her job at our local community mental-health center, she decided to challenge the decision and asked me to represent her at the hearing, where even my inexperienced questioning made it obvious that the termination was based on nothing but a personal conflict with her supervisor. I tore the case against her to shreds, and when we won I was thrilled. She deserved to get her job back.
Before I got Mother into politics, most of her friends were involved in her workdoctors, nurses, hospital personnel. She had a lot of them. She never met a stranger, worked hard to put her patients at ease before surgery, and genuinely enjoyed the company of her co-workers. Of course, not everybody liked her. She could be abrasive with people she thought were trying to push her around or take advantage of their positions to treat others unfairly. Unlike me, she actually enjoyed making some of these people mad. I tended to make enemies effortlessly, just by being me, or, after I got into politics, because of the positions I took and the changes I tried to make. When Mother really didnt like people, she worked hard to get them foaming at the mouth. Later in her career, it cost her, after she had fought for years to avoid going to work for an MD anesthesiologist and had some problems with a couple of her operations. But most people did like her, because she liked them, treated them with respect, and obviously loved life.
I never knew how she kept her energy and spirit, always filling her days with work and fun, always being there for my brother, Roger, and me, never missing our school events, finding time for our friends, too, and keeping all her troubles to herself.
I loved going to the hospital to visit her, meeting the nurses and doctors, watching them care for people. I got to watch an actual operation once, when I was in junior high, but all I remember about it is that there was a lot of cutting and a lot of blood and I didnt get sick. I was fascinated by the work surgeons do and thought I might like to do it myself one day.
Mother took a lot of interest in her patients, whether they could pay or not. In the days before Medicare and Medicaid there were a lot who couldnt. I remember one poor, proud man coming to our door one day to settle his account. He was a fruit picker who paid Mother with six bushels of fresh peaches. We ate those peaches for a long timeon cereal, in pies, in homemade ice cream. It made me wish more of her patients were cash poor!
I think Mother found enormous relief from the strains of her marriage in her work and friends, and at the races. There must have been many days when she was crying inside, maybe even in physical pain, but most people didnt have a clue. The example she set stood me in good stead when I became President. She almost never discussed her troubles with me. I think she figured I knew about all I needed to know, was smart enough to figure out the rest, and deserved as normal a childhood as possible under the circumstances.
When I was fifteen, events overtook the silent strategy. Daddy started drinking and behaving violently again, so Mother took Roger and me away. We had done it once before, a couple of years earlier, when we moved for a few weeks into the Cleveland Manor Apartments on the south end of Central Avenue, almost to the racetrack. This time, in April 1962, we stayed about three weeks at a motel while Mother searched for a house. We looked at several houses together, all much smaller than the one we lived in, some still out of her price range. Finally, she settled on a three-bedroom, two-bath house on Scully Street, a one-block-long street in south Hot Springs about a half mile west of Central Avenue. It was one of the new, all-electric Gold Medallion houses with central heat and airwe had window-unit air conditioners back on Park Avenueand I think it cost $30,000. The house had a nice living room and dining room just left of the front entrance. Behind it was a large den that connected to the dining area and kitchen, with a laundry room off it just behind the garage. Beyond the den was a good-sized porch we later glassed in and outfitted with a pool table. Two of the bedrooms were to the right of the hall, to the left was a large bathroom, and, behind it, a bedroom with a separate bathroom with a shower. Mother gave me the big bedroom with the shower, I think because she wanted the big bathroom with its larger makeup area and mirror. She took the next biggest bedroom in the back, and Roger got the small one.
Though I loved our house on Park Avenue, the yard I worked hard to keep up, my neighbors and friends and familiar haunts, I was glad to be in a normal house and to feel safe, maybe more for Mother and Roger than for me. By then, even though I knew nothing of child psychology, I had begun to worry that Daddys drinking and abusive behavior would scar Roger even more than it would scar me, because hed lived with it all his life and because Roger Clinton was his natural father. Knowing my father was someone else, someone I thought of as strong, trustworthy, and reliable, gave me more emotional security and the space necessary to see what was happening with some detachment, even sympathy. I never stopped loving Roger Clinton, never stopped pulling for him to change, never stopped enjoying being with him when he was sober and engaged. I was afraid even then that little Roger would come to hate his father. And he did, at a terrible cost to himself.
As I relate these events from long ago, I see how easy it is to fall into the trap Shakespeares Marc Antony spoke of in his eulogy for Julius Caesar: allowing the evil that men do to live after them, while the good is interred with their bones. Like most alcoholics and drug addicts Ive known, Roger Clinton was fundamentally a good person. He loved Mother and me and little Roger. He had helped Mother to see me when she was finishing school in New Orleans. He was generous to family and friends. He was smart and funny. But he had that combustible mix of fears, insecurities, and psychological vulnerabilities that destroys the promise of so many addicts lives. And as far as I know, he never sought help from those who knew how to give it.
The really disturbing thing about living with an alcoholic is that it isnt always bad. Weeks, sometimes even whole months, would pass while wed enjoy being a family, blessed with the quiet joys of an ordinary life. Im grateful that I havent forgotten all those times, and when I do, Ive still got a few postcards and letters Daddy sent to me and some I sent to him to remind me.
Some of the bad times tend to be forgotten, too. When I recently reread my deposition in Mothers divorce filings, I saw that in it I recounted an incident three years earlier when I called her attorney to get the police to take Daddy away after a violent episode. I also said hed threatened to beat me the last time I stopped him from hitting her, which was laughable, because by that time I was bigger and stronger than he was sober, much less drunk. Id forgotten both instances, perhaps out of the denial experts say families of alcoholics engage in when they continue to live with them. For whatever reason, those particular memories remained blocked after forty years.
Five days after we left, on April 14, 1962, Mother filed for divorce. Divorce can happen quickly in Arkansas, and she certainly had grounds. But it wasnt over. Daddy was desperate to get her, and us, back. He fell apart, lost a lot of weight, parked for hours near our house, even slept on our concrete front porch a couple of times. One day he asked me to take a ride with him. We drove up behind our old house on Circle Drive. He stopped at the bottom of our back driveway. He was a wreck. He hadnt shaved in three or four days, though I dont think hed been drinking. He told me he couldnt live without us, that he had nothing else to live for. He cried. He begged me to talk to Mother and ask her to take him back. He said he would straighten up and never hit her or scream at her again. When he said it, he really believed it, but I didnt. He never understood, or accepted, the cause of his problem. He never acknowledged that he was powerless in the face of liquor and that he couldnt quit all by himself.
Meanwhile, his entreaties were beginning to get to Mother. I think she was feeling a little uncertain about her ability to take care of us financiallyshe didnt make really good money until Medicaid and Medicare were enacted a couple of years later. Even more important was her old-school view that divorce, especially with kids in the house, was a bad thing, which it often is if theres no real abuse. I think she also felt that their problems must be partly her fault. And she probably did trigger his insecurities; after all, she was a good-looking, interesting woman who liked men and worked with a lot of attractive ones who were more successful than her husband. As far as I know, she never carried on with any of them, though I couldnt blame her if she had, and when she and Daddy were apart, she did see a dark-haired handsome man who gave me some golf clubs I still have.
After we had been on Scully Street just a few months and the divorce had been finalized, Mother told Roger and me that we needed to have a family meeting to discuss Daddy. She said he wanted to come back, to move into our new house, and she thought it would be different this time, and then she asked what we thought. I dont remember what Roger saidhe was only five and probably confused. I told her that I was against it, because I didnt think he could change, but that I would support whatever decision she made. She said that we needed a man in the house and that she would always feel guilty if she didnt give him another chance. So she did; they remarried, which, given the way Daddys life played out, was good for him, but not so good for Roger or for her. I dont know what effect it had on me, except that later, when he got ill, I was very glad to be able to share his last months.
Although I didnt agree with Mothers decision, I understood her feelings. Shortly before she took Daddy back, I went down to the courthouse and had my name changed legally from Blythe to Clinton, the name I had been using for years. Im still not sure exactly why I did it, but I know I really thought I should, partly because Roger was about to start school and I didnt want the differences in our lineage ever to be an issue for him, partly because I just wanted the same name as the rest of my family. Maybe I even wanted to do something nice for Daddy, though I was glad Mother had divorced him. I didnt tell her in advance, but she had to give her permission. When she got a call from the courthouse, she said okay, though she probably thought I had slipped a gear. It wouldnt be the last time in my life that my decisions and my timing were open to question.
The deterioration of my parents marriage, the divorce and reconciliation, took up a lot of my emotional energy at the end of junior high and through my sophomore year in the old high school just up the hill.
Just as Mother threw herself into work, I threw myself into high school, and into my new neighborhood on Scully Street. It was a block full of mostly newer, modest houses. Just across the street was a completely empty square block, all that was left of the Wheatley farm, which had covered a much larger area not long before. Every year Mr. Wheatley planted the whole block with peonies. They brightened the spring and drew people from miles around, who waited patiently for him to cut them and give them away.
We lived in the second house on the street. The first house, on the corner of Scully and Wheatley, belonged to the Reverend Walter Yeldell, his wife, Kay, and their kids, Carolyn, Lynda, and Walter. Walter was pastor of Second Baptist Church and later president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. He and Kay were wonderful to us from the first day. I dont know how Brother Yeldell, as we called him, who died in 1987, would have fared in the harshly judgmental environment of the Southern Baptist Convention of the nineties, when wrong-thinking liberals were purged from the seminaries and the church hardened its positions rightward on every social issue but race (it apologized for the sins of the past). Brother Yeldell was a big, broad man who weighed well over 250 pounds. Beneath a shy demeanor, he had a terrific sense of humor and a great laugh. So did his wife. They didnt have a pompous bone between them. He led people to Christ through instruction and example, not condemnation and ridicule. He wouldnt have been a favorite of some of the recent Baptist overlords or todays conservative talk-show hosts, but I sure liked talking to him.
Carolyn, the oldest Yeldell child, was my age. She loved music, had a wonderful voice, and was an accomplished pianist. We spent countless hours around her piano singing. She also accompanied my saxophone solos from time to time, probably not the first time an accompanist was better than the soloist. Carolyn soon became one of my closest friends and a part of our regular gang, along with David Leopoulos, Joe Newman, and Ronnie Cecil. We went to movies and school events together, and spent lots of time playing cards and games or just goofing off, usually at our house. In 1963, when I went to American Legion Boys Nation and took the now famous photo with President Kennedy, Carolyn was elected to Girls Nation, the only time that ever happened to hometown neighbors. Carolyn went to the University of Indiana and studied voice. She wanted to be an opera singer but didnt want the lifestyle. Instead she married Jerry Staley, a fine photographer, had three kids, and became a leader in the field of adult literacy. When I became governor I put her in charge of our adult literacy program, and she and her family lived in a great old house about three blocks from the Governors Mansion, where I often visited for parties, games, or singing the way we did in the old days. When I became President, Carolyn and her family moved to the Washington area, where she went to work for, and later led, the National Institute for Literacy. She stayed on for a while after I left the White House, then followed her father into the ministry. The Staleys are still a good part of my life. It all started on Scully Street.
The house on the other side of us belonged to Jim and Edith Clark, who had no kids of their own but treated me like theirs. Among our other neighbors were the Frasers, an older couple who always supported me when I got into politics. But their greatest gift to me came by accident. Over the holidays in 1974, after I lost a heartbreaking race for Congress and was still feeling pretty low, I saw the Frasers little granddaughter, who must have been five or six. She had a severe medical condition that made her bones weak and was in a body cast up to her chest that also splayed her legs outward to take the pressure off her spine. It was very awkward for her to navigate with her crutches, but she was a tough little girl with that total lack of self-consciousness that secure young children have. When I saw her I asked if she knew who I was. She said, Sure, youre still Bill Clinton. I needed to be reminded of that just then.
The Hassins, the Syrian-Italian family I mentioned earlier, were packed, all six of them, in a tiny little house at the end of the street. They must have spent all their money on food. Every Christmas and on several other occasions during the year they fed the whole block huge Italian meals. I can still hear Mama Gina saying, A-Beel, a-Beel, you gotta eat some more.
And then there were Jon and Toni Karber, who were both book readers and the most intellectual people I knew, and their son Mike, who was in my class. And Charley Housleya mans man who knew about hunting, fishing, and fixing things, the things that matter to small boyswho took Roger under his wing. Though our new house and yard were smaller than our old one, and the immediate surroundings less beautiful, I came to love my new home and neighborhood. It was a good place for me to live out my high school years.