Queen of the Pearly Gate Lounge
Remembering our weather girl
Did you have a relative who you only met a few times when you were a kid, but who so impressed you that they became a legend in your mind? For me, that was my cousin Corky.
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She was glamorous and had a huge scratchy laugh. She wore giant gold hoop earrings and stacks of sparkly bracelets up and down her freckled arms. She had bouncy shiny flaming red hair, personalized stationery, and flawless loopy handwriting. She was a beauty queen, a weather girl, a newspaper reporter, a legislative aid, a hijacking hostage, a senator’s wife, an interior decorator, and today would have been her 77th birthday. She was my cousin, Corky.
Back in 2020 when Corky died, I wrote a song for her which begins:
The smoking section has opened in Heaven and there’s a new girl at the bar – a drink in her hand in the arms of her man, the Channel 34 weather girl star.
Our family is big. I mean huge. Both of my paternal great-grandparents were one of eleven children and they had seven children themselves. All of their children had children, and so on. In the photo below you’ll see how things were at the reunion in Virginia in 1949. My late 20th century experience of these gatherings was that everyone walked around saying “Where is everyone? Why didn’t so-and-so come? We’re low on numbers this year. Well, such-and-such is down in his back and that one just had a baby . . .” There was a lot of jello salad.
Corky was the daughter of my grandmother’s eldest sister, Edith. I’ve written about Aunt Edith many times in the past because lots of her stories became songs and she helped me identify bunches of old photographs. Edith was the original Tazewell Beauty Queen in the imagination of my songs. She married Doug Mullins and they moved away to Florida where Doug’s family established a timber and then a heavy machinery business. They were the only ones in the Narcie and Avery Smith family to move that far away from Virginia until my Mom and Dad took my sister and me all over America.
Aunt Edith had a swimming pool. She and her daughters wore beautiful clothes and jewelry. In my mind, they were movie stars and glossy magazine people.
Corky always drove a Mercedes Benz. She was a Mercedes Benz kind of gal. She never stopped smoking. She was like a chimney. It wasn’t good for her health. But she just wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in laughing and jingling her bracelets. I could almost never get her into a photo. As a former Homecoming Queen, I understand. This is what happens to beauty queens after beauty queen days are over. They elude cameras. She also almost never stood still. She was like a hummingbird. You couldn’t catch her in a picture because she was either arriving or leaving, going out for a smoke, on the phone walking around, laughing with her whole body. She didn’t want a bunch of pictures of her older self hanging around. She remembered the Corky of 1962. In her heart, she was the Corky of 1962.
She’s got her Mercedes Benz at the ready now she’s crossed to the other side. Her party is waiting. No more hesitating. She gets in her car and she drives.
In October of 1969, she told her parents she was going to a Florida football game, but instead she was on an airplane with her boyfriend, a state senator, (who quickly became her fiancé when the news broke) and their plane was hijacked to Cuba. Corky who never missed a beat made national news by interviewing the hijacker. She and the senator got married, had a son, and got divorced.
Know your emergency exits. Turbulence is expected. Oh, drinks all around, the redhead’s in town – the Queen of the Pearly Gate Lounge.
Later, Corky remarried, became an interior decorator, and lived happily with her husband Michael in a wooden house on stilts called The Puddle. The Mercedes Benz lived in the garage under The Puddle. I thought it was very cool to have a house with a name (note: this is entirely normal in Britain, but not in America). Corky had a wall of mirrors in her bathroom with lights above them like backstage in the theatre and she had a special hairdo drawer for her curling irons and hot rollers where the electrical cables and plugs were hidden away. This impressed teenage me.
When I was a kid, I thought being an interior decorator must be the most glamorous and indulgent job ever. I dreamed of advising other people on their curtains and carpets.
Streets of gold could use some re-paving. The curtains in Heaven have faded. She’ll stay for a while – lend us her style while the pearly gates get some updating.
Because they lived all the way down in Florida and everyone else either lived in or flocked to Virginia, we didn’t see Corky and Aunt Edith and the rest of their family much when I was a kid. Below there’s this picture from when I was about six and Corky’s red-headed son Shad is sitting next to me at the children’s table looking not too happy about his Christmas dinner. The absolute idol of my childhood, my cousin Rachel, is brushing my hair from my eye and we are sharing our plate of food because that’s what best friends do. I am aware of two other photos of Shad and me when we were littler and bigger than this. So, that probably means that I saw Corky three times for a few hours at a time before I was thirty. Those fleeting moments were enough to establish her as a flaming star in my mind.
When I started playing concerts in Florida every January or February, one of the highlights of my tour was staying at Aunt Edith’s house, admiring her planet-sized stag horn ferns, watching the Super Bowl, recording the sound of the torrential Florida storms, and waiting for Corky to come over. Corky didn’t like to make plans, but she would appear like I Dream of Jeannie to give big hugs, laugh her huge scratchy laugh, and flit in and out of the sliding glass doors for a smoke. When it was time for me to get back on the road, she’d say, “See you tomorrow,” but then she’d never arrive. She hated goodbyes.
She’s brought high glamour to Heaven and she’ll stay ’til the barman calls time. Then she’ll hail a warm cloud, slip softly out – she was never that good at goodbyes.
I do know that she owned a quirky collection of CDs. They were all Jeni & Billy and Jeni Hankins records. She once said to me that she didn’t need to listen to anything else.
When she was in the hospital with cancer at the end, she’d lost her son and her mother just months before. She was a strong person having lost her husband to a long illness, and having pulled her son from the grip of addiction over and over again. But she was getting tired and her body was letting go. She lay in the hospital with Covid restrictions leaving her often alone despite how much her steadfast and ever-patient sister wanted to be physically there for her at the end.
Did she know how she had woven her magic around me for years? I always tried to tell her – to look at her in the eye and say so – but she had no time for compliments. She just laughed and flitted away.
She just laughed and flitted away.
Happy Birthday, Corky, from one of your biggest fans, from your Jeni.
Keep the aisles all clear in Heaven. Get ready for thunder and smoke. Take crash positions for Eternity missions. The redhead is headed for Home. Yes, our hearts have been hijacked to Heaven. Negotiations have all broken down. Lord, please hear our prayer, send the girl with red hair – send the Queen of the Pearly Gate Lounge.
Corky, Aunt Edith, and Corky’s son Shad, who was just one month younger than me, three generations of our family, all died in 2020. This letter is dedicated to Sharman, Corky’s sister, and Corky’s nephew Dak who hold the flame and who remember best.
And here’s Corky and her brother Don with their mother Edith back in the 1950s.
Thank you, always, for reading along and for remembering cousin Corky with me. You can hear her song at the top of this letter!
I’m sending you kindness and friendship.
You may have noticed that I haven’t been on tour this year. Personal reasons have lead to my decision not to tour. But I’ve never stopped writing stories and songs. That’s just part of me, always. Thank you for continuing to travel to Jewell Ridge and back in time with me through the magic of the internet. To support my writing, I’d be glad, if you’re not already, if you’d consider becoming a paid subscriber. Should your financial or philosophical circumstances not permit that, write to me for a gift subscription. No questions asked!