For years, Blake Allmendinger amused friends with tales of his mother’s antics — for example, how she chased people off her Colorado ranch with a gun, rousting trespassers, hikers, picnickers and even her own brother.
“My anecdotes made her into this kind of crazy but eccentric and colorful character,” recalled Allmendinger, a veteran English professor at UCLA and specialist in the literature of the American West.
But when he turned 50, Allmendinger decided to stop hiding behind his old crutch — a winning sense of humor — to face the painful truth of his childhood, which was marked by physical and mental abuse, alcoholism, divorce and his own struggles with his gay identity.
While Allmendinger ultimately came to see that his father was also culpable in the family’s misery, it was his mother — née Rose Mary Beman — whom both he and his older sister blamed.
So the scholar returned during the summer of 2009 to his mother’s tiny hometown of Rocky Ford, Colorado, to flush out the story of how a teenage beauty queen and trick-riding prodigy would evolve into a pariah to her own children and a recluse in her eventual home of Colorado Springs.
The resulting take-no-prisoners memoir, “The Melon Capital of the World,” has just been published by the University of Nebraska Press, publisher of Allmendinger’s 2005 book, “Inventing the African American West.”
In the book, which takes its name from Rocky Ford’s pre-Depression claim to fame, Allmendinger details how piecing together the early life of the daughter of a demanding mother and the wife of a passive, withholding man filled him with compassion for his mother, from whom he was estranged at the time. But his new insights came too late: Rose Mary Allmendinger died while her son was still researching the book. However, the project ended up reuniting Allmendinger with his father, to whom he had not spoken in 20 years. They remain close to this day. UCLA Newsroom's Meg Sullivan spoke with the professor recently about his quest.
What motivated you to take on the memoir?
Everybody seems to have a crisis in his or her life that corresponds to a birthday with a round number, and I had recently turned 50. I had been in therapy, but I still hadn’t resolved my issues with my mother. I felt like that was a dragon that had to be slayed before I could move forward. But I’d also reached a point where I’d developed some perspective. I felt I could be objective enough to write sympathetically about her. I realized she was part of a chain reaction. She hadn’t originated everything. So that’s what made me decide to try to understand by going back to her childhood and putting her life in the context of the small town where she’d grown up.
What was your relationship with her at the time?
Well, it was nonexistent. I hadn’t spoken to her in four or five years, and my sister had a very tenuous relationship with her. [My mother] had pretty much run off everybody. She’d become a recluse and, although we didn’t realize it until later, she’d become a hoarder. I look back and realize she must’ve been depressed ever since I was born — and probably before I was born.
You basically started out wanting to tell the story of your mother, but the scope of your project expanded.
I began to realize that there were two parallel stories. There was the story of Rocky Ford, which at one point had been a viable agricultural hub along the Santa Fe Railroad line. Over the course of the 20th century and with the Great Depression and Dustbowl, it peaked and lost its glory. Then there was the story of my mother, who was her hometown’s golden girl, but who never fulfilled the promise in adulthood that she showed in her youth and who felt trapped by the town.
What struggles did you face in trying to find a voice for the book?
I kept falling back on wanting to be more David Sedaris-like. I found that comedy was a way to avoid dealing with the pain of my childhood, a useful way of deflecting the pain, but not a very honest way of dealing with it. So while there is some humor in the book, it also deals with the reality of my childhood.
How does your memoir relate to the tradition of literature of the American West that you study and teach?
We tend to mythologize the Old West and the frontier. We tend not to write about or remember or celebrate the people whose lives took a terrible toll in the West or who felt trapped in their destiny, not liberated by it. And I think those stories need to be told too.
You write of having been forced while young to play baseball and an epiphany you had while attending a high school sports game in Rocky Ford when you returned there in 2009.
I realized a lot of my lack of confidence as a child came not just from the abusive things that my mother said to my sister and me, but to my own feeling that I wasn’t what a boy should be because my father thrust me into this world of sports, which wasn’t really my world. It was very traumatic and, instead of blaming my father for that, I tended to blame my mother for everything. Since she was the one who was always there raising us, she was somehow easier to blame.
What surprised you most in your quest?
I was surprised by how much compassion I came to feel for my mother. It made me feel like I was capable of having a deeper relationship with her. But her sudden death that summer was the biggest surprise.
What was the reaction in your department to your quest?
A staffer in the department office was particularly supportive of the project. When I was getting ready to leave, she said she looked forward to hearing about my trip when I got back from Rocky Road. It was an interesting Freudian slip because it did turn out to be a rough journey, and I had no idea how rough it would be.