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Driving with Miss Molly by DOUGLAS FOSTER \\V e met over the telephone nearly 20 years ago, shortly after I was hired as the editor of Mother Jones magazine. Her voice was, like her, big, blowsy, take-no-prisoners. Couldn’t understand but every third word, though, what with the references to first thang and rats raht out of the trap, followed by subvocalized dipping and bobbing that I presumed was meant to ward off the faint at heart. Molly professed to having a little trouble making out my California accent. We persevered until I’d made my first assignment to her, which marked the beginning of a two-decade long effort, full of cross-cultural missed communication, to understand one another. A month later she called up early one morning to say she couldn’t turn in the story we’d discussed. “My psychiatrist says that if I have to do that piece I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” she said. After a stunned moment or two, though, I realized this novel excuse had been tailored for the supposed sensibility of a Left Coast editor. I pointed out that I didn’t think she had a psychiatrist. She called me a “sumbitch, like all the other goddamned editors,” hung up, and sent along a beautiful essay on presidential politics in the South the very next morning. \(In later years she accused me of having made up everything I’ve written in the previous In the world of political reportersno fancy-pants designation as a double-doming analyst for herMolly had assigned herself at least two pivotal roles by the time we got to know each other in the mid-1980s. In her thrice-weekly syndicated column for the Dallas Times Herald, she pressed a broad front of progressive causes”an optimist to the point of idiocy,” as she liked to say, in believing that Texans might yet discover the angels of their better natures. She also knew how to sting, of course, which kept her boosterism for the Constitution from feeling overly saccharine. Consider her dismissive commentary about the ending of the first President Bush’s inaugural address, in which the president opined about “the ‘new breeze’ turning the page of the chapter in the unfolding story: “I was afraid for a minute there the winds of change would start blowing the sands of time.” Her second important role was as a translator for those of us who had a hard time otherwise understanding how the same state led by Ann Richards and Jim Hightower could also turn out a phony like W. She loved Texas, but she loved, almost as much, puncturing its pretensions. She took it personally that a second, less-skilled Bush had gotten past her. A week before Christmas, I stayed over at her house. She was struggling with her balance and her memory by then, and fighting the cancer to a temporary standoff But in the middle of the night, I woke to the sound of her shuffling through the living room and rose to make sure she was OK. She’d turned on her computer by the time I reached her office, trying to get her fingers to work in the hunt for the right keys to construct one last column. “Somebody has to just say it,” she announced, when she noticed I was there. “This president has slipped on his own dick.” She played to her fans, of course, sometimes crudely. But she also regularly risked playing against type, warning knee-jerk liberals against anti-southern bigotry in one of the many pieces she wrote for me. In a passage about racial politics, she noted, “You see more integration in the bowling alleyswhere the guys from Don’s Cement or Dickey’s Beer Distributor wear the same team shirts and give each other high fives after a strikethan in the posh clubs.” Molly knew those guys from Don’s Cement and Dicky’s Beer Distributor, and though she’d gone to college at Smith, loved the time she’d spent in Paris, and had been a reporter for The New York Times, she never ran out of sympathy for them. Molly knew the peculiar flight patterns of southern women, too, especially their fixation on clan relationships and hunger for connection. She wrote in one of her columns: “A few months ago in Mobile, Alabama, I stopped a lady in the street and said, ‘Ma’am, can you tell me how to get to the bus station from here?’ She said, ‘Why yes, honey, I can. You see that yellow house up at the corner? That’s the old Jessup house there. Jefferson Jessup, he was in the grocery trade. They had a daughter who married a boy from Montgomery. He had a brother who had a goiter, but everyone liked him anyway …’ And with that she was off on the history of the entire Jessup clan, a compelling saga which I thoroughly enjoyed.” She had an ear as acute as Flannery O’Connor’s and shared the appetite of understanding people from the inside out. In describing that woman from Mobile, she might have been writing about herself. I come from a more WASP-ish tradition, where the quickest way to express information is considered best. Molly invariably got her point across through stories, a skill she polished by studying the performances of her great hero, John Henry Faulk. The only problem was that she often answered a direct question about some political development by telling you a long tale about a boyhood prank played by her beloved brother, Andy, or the latest demented scheme cooked up by an old drunk in the Texas Legislature. Of course, you had to know who these people were to understand the story, so she filled you in about all the family relationships at greater length than you might have thought possible. When she moved to California for two months in the late FEBRUARY 9, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 37