This is a guest post by California-based writer Betsy Towner is a regular contributor to AARP Bulletin.
Paul’s grandma wasn’t like ours. Whereas the other grandmothers of my first four years left impressions of intensified mothering—cozier, calmer, softer than Mommy—my neighbor Paul’s was an assault on the senses. A grand assault, mind you: Phyllis Diller would burst on the scene in a storm cloud of sparkle and shine, loudness and laughter. I watched her with equal parts fascination and intimidation every time she visited. I’d never seen such big hair, such painted eyes. Best of all, her name kinda rhymed.
Diller’s daughter Sue and my mother were close friends, two young divorced neighbors raising their toddlers together in a 12th-Street Santa Monica apartment complex. My older sister and I competed for Paul’s attention, and together we’d hang out backstage at his grandma’s show (Knott’s Berry Farm perhaps?) and her home—a place I now assume was a mansion full of 20th-century Hollywood chic. As I recall, it was simply ginormous, white with a tinge of pink around the edges, and Paul’s grandma sparkling in the center of every view.
I compared notes with my sister recently, hoping Mary could improve upon my pinkadelic toddler visions. “We were at Phyllis Diller’s house,” she offered. “I was talking on the phone to Mom and claimed that I’d eaten my lunch—which included peas—and Phyllis Diller said that no, I had not eaten my lunch.”
Profound pea recollections melt all too quickly into ones of new stepparents, new cities, less Paul. Mom died of breast cancer in 1984, taking with her most of the details of those years. But recently my Aunt Laura shared something: “When your mom was getting chemo, Phyllis arranged for her own wigmaker to make a couple of wigs for her.”
Suddenly, I didn’t need to ask any more questions.
I am so grateful to Phyllis for lightening Mom’s pain in a way only the Wig Mistress herself could. And I am grateful to Sue for sharing her family with me, especially her flamboyant, outsized mother. My memories might be hazy, but one thing is crystal clear: I have known from my earliest days that no woman need fit a certain mold to be beloved, generous and happy. Phyllis Diller was my first example of that. Her sparkle lives on.