Down home, where they know you by name and treat you like family,
Down home, where a man’s good word and a handshake are all you need.
Folks know when you’re fallin’ on hard times you can fall back on
Those of us raised up—down home. (Alabama, 1985)
When my grandmother died, it was April, and the lilacs were in full bloom. I think back on those lilacs now, realizing that they, like the women in whose lives they played such a part, define homeplace for me. I realize that I cling to them, the flowering, decadently-scented lilac that stands at the doorway like the angel at the Garden of Eden, and the women of Big Mama’s. But the angel armed with flaming sword was placed at the Garden’s entrance by God to keep people out, so homeplace, even as it beckons, has its own fiery barriers. I can no more cross the threshold of home guarded by the lilac than Adam and Eve could get past God’s messenger. And yet, just as the searchers have sought the now mythic Eden, Southerners, like me, spend an endless quest yearning for homeplace, trying to go home.
It was around my grandmother’s table that I first learned about homeplace, as she and her 5 remaining daughters, the sisters, recollected the old hard days and made plans to go back. In the same way that bell hooks (1990) contends, “houses belonged to women” (p. 41), for me, home is made by them. On Sundays, over coffee and caramel cake, they lovingly described the house and place where six babies were born. I learned that the old homeplace was a location of enshrined desire. And it is within nostalgia, a yearning for home, that desire and homeplace ideology intersect.
Daddy’s people did not like Mother’s people. My father’s father had finally left the farm, got factory work, and moved inside the town limits. When his son, my father, fell in love with a girl from “the mountain,” it appeared to them like a step backward. My mother’s home was a place of noise and music and laughter and hard liquor—everything that Daddy’s fundamentalist Christian mores denounced as sinful. The pact was made: when they married, she would disavow that lifestyle, stay away from home. I knew very little of my maternal family until I was 12 years old and my mother could not stay away any longer. She took me with her to Sunday coffee at Big Mama’s.
By the time I met them, Big Mama had left her job at the local truck stop, and the sisters had divorced the wild young men who drank and played music on Saturday nights. I returned to a Sunday afternoon matriarchy that had resigned itself to calm. Now the sisters and their daughters returned to sit around the same table, now cluttered with chipped coffee cups rather than bottles of Jack Daniels. Big Mama’s house was not quiet or orderly. The old house creaked and heaved with determination as it enveloped the lives it cradled, including, again, Mother’s, and now, mine.
Some images never leave us. When Big Mama got sick in 1983, the sisters rallied. Nobody was taking care of their mother except them, and they stayed with her around the clock for a year. On a Sunday very different from those spent around the table, I saw death still in the claiming. Big Mama had no appetite and was drinking only a little milk. Mother was at her bedside trying to get her to eat yogurt. I could not bear to go into the dark bedroom, witnessing the scene instead from the next room, as close as I could get but not nearly as far away as I longed to be. My mother coaxed her mother to eat, tiny spoonful by tiny spoonful, cooing to her as she had to my own baby, to me as an infant. She tenderly spoke words of love to her mother, words devoid of joy, words sickeningly rich with heartache. I had never felt so low and empty and sick, and I never have since.
After she died, I was wracked with remorse because I missed so many years. I loved her, and I treasure the time I spent with her. But regret and guilt are old friends who call often; there would be no moving forward. Then I dreamt my dream. She and I were alone in the darkness, and I, grown and helpless, was sitting in her lap. She enveloped me in an old string quilt, soft and comfortable with age. Her words and her body soothed me; I knew that I had known her. And my heart and mind rested easy.
When the sisters finally made the pilgrimage back home, some 50 years after leaving it, they carried with them buckets and tools. They came for artifacts, tangible memories. Each collected cuttings from foliage that remained, now overgrown with scrub bushes and weeds. My mother and her four sisters cut through the wild vines and tall weeds to re-claim their mama’s garden and take it home with them—old plants: mock orange, iris, forsythia (yellow bells), and lilac. Since then, wherever Mother has lived, wherever I have lived, we have dug up a piece of those plants, with good roots so they will live. “They won’t ever even know they’ve been moved,” she tells me. I do this because wherever I live, it comforts me to know there is a lilac by my door.
This piece was adapted from an academic paper published as Whitlock, R.U. (2006). Season of lilacs: Nostalgia of place and homeplace(s) of
difference. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education. Fall-Winter 2005.
I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.
Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.
Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.
This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.
It is Holy Saturday, God, the day good Christians celebrate Jesus’s body lying in the tomb while his soul descended into hell, the Harrowing of Hell, they call it. Holy Saturday is coming home from a funeral. Everybody is exhausted, and the loss is starting to get real. You have to eat~~people have brought food~~but you are not hungry, might never be hungry again. After Big Mama’s funeral, I sat at the familiar kitchen table with her old friends, who told stories. Those of us at the table laughed until we cried, but the sisters—my mother and Lois and Mary and Judy and Barbara—were in the dark bedroom where their mother had taken her last breath; they did not laugh. They could hardly hold themselves up, so they held each other. It was raw and ugly, and if any of them had dared, they might have cursed you, God. They were groaning in their utter desolation. Holy Saturday started like that, with women holding vigil in their sorrow.
There is another word I first (and pretty much only) heard in the Bible: iniquity. Iniquity is to wickedness what groaning is to grieving. You are good, God, and trust in your goodness outweighs my worry; but my fundamentalist conscience tells me our United States will give an accounting for our iniquity. We sin together, all of us: we are inhospitable to neighbors at our borders, we march in hatred to maintain an apartheid state, and we lay offerings at the feed of corporate gods. We do not merely turn our heads as our poor fight to live—and often lose the fight—but we defiantly jut out our chins at them because they got what they had coming. It helps that they are different colors than we are. We incarcerate young men of color to prove our point. We busy ourselves with what goes on in one room of the house—the bedroom—with little concern with what goes on in the rest of your world. Longsuffering God, batter our hearts, as the poet cried (John Donne). Lay us bare again so that in our nakedness the only place our eyes can turn is to you. On this Holy Saturday, harrow our souls toward reconciliation with you as we keep vigil for the terrifying Resurrection we (don’t) know is coming. Amen.
The cat hated everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. And Sarah, of course–but she had owned Sarah for seventeen years, so that was to be expected. I only knew her for five months, and I didn’t really expect her to warm up to me. More than that, I never expected to warm up to her. So when we helped her to her final sleep on Monday, the last thing I expected was to feel what I felt and react how I did.
First of all, I am not a cat person. I had a cat once, and I despised it. Yes, my cat-loving friends will be shocked at that. Kitty was part Siamese and was mean. Worse than that, she caused me to lose sleep every night. If she was outside, she wanted in; if she was inside, she wanted out. Day in and day out. Why didn’t I just leave her in or out, you might ask? Well, I believe if you ask that, YOU are not a cat person. She would come to my bedside and claw at the blinds until I was awake. If I shooed her away, she’d wait till I lay back down and begin again. When she was outside, she would come to my bedroom window and claw on the screen, which is not a sound conducive to sleeping, especially as I lay there envisioning a trip to Home Depot to replace yet another screen. When I moved from Louisiana to Georgia, I gave the neighbors a bag of cat food and $20 to take care of the cat. I drove the U-Haul truck away as fast as I could so that Kitty couldn’t somehow attach herself and hang on for the cross-country trek. I was free of cats. Until Diana.
Sarah called her Hissing Ball of Fury because that’s what she turned into whenever anybody tried to touch her. Over the months, as I met Sarah’s friends, they all asked, “And how are you getting on with the Little Cat?” Only they don’t say “Cat.” They had learned the hard way. “Oh, she’ll like ME,” they had said, one by one. “I’m good with animals,” they had said, one by one. And one by one, they had approached Diana talking softly and reaching to pet her, only to have her turn into Miss Fury. Diana had been banned from veterinary practices in two states because she bit. I witnessed this myself when we took her to the vet three months ago. Two young techs had assured us, “Oh, she’ll be fine with us,” only to bolt from the room to fetch the doctor to do this first-year vet school procedure himself. “Diana bites” was written in bold red letters across the top of her chart. And so she did.
So what was my secret? I think it was that I let Diana be Diana. I let her come to me. When she sat with her back to us, which was her usual position until she got ready to be petted, I let her be. I only spoke to her when she looked at me, and never reached out to touch her. Then one day when she came to Sarah for her evening head-butts (Diana was a head-butter), she walked right into my hand. Then one morning I awoke with a cat sleeping on my head. On my head. She only hissed at me once. I had reached down to pet her as I walked by the couch where she was lying, foolishly thinking that we had bonded over the head-sleeping. “Don’t get to comfortable with me, old gal,” she seemed to imply in that hiss. “I come to YOU.” I only picked her up once. It was the day before she died. That is how I knew it was over.
The vet must have felt the same way when he picked her up on Monday morning and said, “This is the first time I’ve really gotten to examine her completely.” He gently felt her frail body and asked Sarah if she was sure of her decision. She was. We had set up what Sarah called “Kitty Hospice” at the bungalow over the weekend, administering IV fluids and concocting what looked like an awful mess but was evidently a cat delicacy Sarah called “duck soup.” Diana would take a little, then lie on a pile of Sarah’s clothes and her old teddy bear, Ted, until we took her outside to lie in the grass warmed by the sun. The fluids never pepped her up as Sarah had expected; she was that far gone. So we fed her duck soup and let her be outside as much as she wanted. She even hissed at a stray cat once. We had one brief second of hope, then watched as she turned away all but a bite of food. I am glad we had that weekend. As we watched Diana, I watched Sarah say goodbye to her friend of seventeen years.
I think things happen for a reason. Like finding an abandoned kitten two weeks ago–one that has pretty much taken over our lives by blessedly taking up our attention during the last week. I’ve heard the old saying that we don’t find pets–rather, pets find us. This one was put in our way at precisely the appropriate place and time. Just like Pastor Kim’s prayer in church on Sunday. As I sat there in the choir loft during the service, the words startled me out actually praying, hoping that it might in some way bring Diana’s human some comfort. Give us the courage and grace to live through the dying season, was the prayer. The grace to understand death, as well as life, even though the dying–the perpetual winter–dims a light in our souls.
As we sat outside with Diana Saturday, Sarah told me that she had chosen her name from Edith Hamilton’s famous book Mythology. It is appropriate–and somewhat ironic now–that her name had come from that book. In it, Hamilton quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:
Drop, drop—in our sleep, upon the heart
sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
and to us, though against our very will,
even in our own despite,
by the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus describes the process by which we come to the understanding for which the pastor prayed. Drop by drop upon the heart by the awful grace of God. How profoundly simple that it might come from the great blessing of being owned by a pet. But, if you are a cat person–like I am now–that is no surprise.
One of my friends is, like me, a recovering fundamentalist Christian.
She suggested that I might get to the root of my issues, whether about relationships, teaching, or writing–whatever–by forgiving myself. It took a recovering fundamentalist to recognize that and present it in that way. The closest I ever got thinking about forgiveness was when my therapist (the one I pay) suggested that I look back at the girl who married young because of gender role social expectations and not so subtle pressure from family. She asked me to engage with that young woman, going back even to the smart tom-boy who felt different and often alone. When I did that very hard work, I asked the young me for forgiveness. I realized that I did not feel like I had taken care of her. I remember that was a very hard session.
But forgiving myself now–that’s different from looking back at me then. Forgive, for what? The issue is the essentially the same it seems. Since my divorce, I have felt robbed of the 16 years I was married. (Side note: it has been 16 years since my divorce. Geez. Get over it.) Robbed, as though they were taken. Passive verb. I had blamed the fundamentalist church, my parents, my husband, Alabama–anyone, everyone. But me. Thing is, I’ve been furious with myself for having done this to myself–and for staying in it for those years. I did this. Me. (Now suddenly the anger issues my paid therapist brought up that I couldn’t see became very clear and noticeable). My unpaid counselor friend calls it discipline fundamentalism. I try to be “good,” but all that old unforgiven baggage surfaces and I act out (yes, there has been acting out), leaving me guilt laden and sorrowful. I make a pact with myself and resolve to do better. Trouble is, that doesn’t work. Hasn’t worked.
In addition to forgiving my self, I will tell myself as often as I need to hear it, “it is enough.” Not “I am enough.” I know I am–my issues are not about confidence or worthiness. I’m just never satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. It’s almost always writing. When I can’t dig in and write a lot, I will read, or now, write here. That’s enough. It’s working. Even writing it now I feel a tremendous sense of relief and peace. So whatever I do, it’s enough for today.
You may ask what this deep reflection has to do with fundamentalism. I think the imprint fundamental Christianity has had on me as a female has been about judgement. Naturally, I was taught at all costs to be a good girl because I would be judged by God. Here on earth, meanwhile, I was expected to be good and conform so I would be judged acceptable by others (what will the neighbors think). I learned to be good so that my daddy would not lose his temper. Be good, be good, be good. And if I were ever human–spontaneous, uninhibited, free-spirited (and all the behaviors these entail)–I felt that judgement upon me from all sides and fell short. So, forgiveness and acceptance is the first, deeply internal step to recovery from fundamentalism. It is the step that allows me to see that judgement is something that somebody else does. And it has very little to do with me. More on this later.
Today, January 8, is Elvis’s birthday. He would have been 79 years old, which seems astonishing to me. So on this day, I will offer some random thoughts about Elvis and me. Because of those various threads that run through one’s life from age to age, stage to stage, place to place, Elvis runs through mine.
I saw Elvis in 1975 when he came to the new civic center in Huntsville, Alabama. My parents, who have never been to a concert before or since, sent away through the mail for tickets. It’s really remarkable to look back that it ever happened at all–but we went. I, nerd that I am, was having a little temper tantrum because I was having to miss the last day of my 5th grade class. That didn’t last long. My parents remind me that I commandeered the one set of opera glasses they bought and saw Elvis magnified throughout the concert. As I have done since then whenever conversations turn to how his body became ravaged and bloated from drugs, I can testify here that in 1975, Elvis looked good. He was in shape physically and vocally; he was on his game in Huntsville. Of all the things I have done in my life, I am glad I saw Elvis Presley in concert. I am glad my parents sent off for those tickets.
But let me back up. Elvis was a fixture in our house my whole life. My mother owned several original 45 records, and I think eventually she collected every album he ever recorded. I have listed elsewhere all my mother’s Elvis collectibles, so I won’t do it again here. Those records were treasures. The tacit understanding among us was that Elvis was different from the other singers from the 50s they had listened to as teenagers. Even now in my mind there is Elvis and there is Everyone Else. And, as I have also written before, as a good Southern boy, he was ours.
I am listening to the Elvis station on Sirius radio as I write this, a rare live recording of Doncha Think It’s Time. His voice is familiar and comforting. I know all the retorts, have heard them all. Elvis stole black music. He didn’t write his own songs. He was just a performer. He let himself go physically. He split his pants and busted notes on stage. He shot out tvs and caroused with the Memphis Mafia. He did drugs. He mad b-a-a-a-d movies. He posed for a picture with Nixon. And you know what? I’m at the point in my own life to where I say, “So?”
Finally, then, what of Elvis and me? Elvis knew who and what he was. He used his gifts. He had fun and worked hard. He loved his mama and his daddy. He gave back. He never stopped seeking (the last book he was reading was called The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus). And he sang. I’ve decided not to make any more excuse for Elvis. Or me. He is what he is, was what he was. Coming back to this blogging space, I will confess something. When I started it, I was very careful not to reveal anything really personal about myself. As a result, there were chunks of explanation–and really good stuff–that would have been through lines to tie the anecdotes together, making it palpably uninspired. So, like the open casket picture the Enquirer touched up from Elvis’s funeral, I’m writing this for myself, but you are invited to view.
More on this later.
For your listening pleasure, here is Elvis singing the best song ever recorded.
Last night after our traditional family Christmas drama, daddy referred to something I had mentioned in passing–that I see a therapist. The second he asked about it, I regretted it. Actually, I thought he knew; my mom has known for months, so I assumed they had talked. No. So, he asked me about it. He asked me why I’m going to a therapist. “What are you going for?” he asked. Two things here: If I knew why I was going to therapy, I wouldn’t need to go. And also, it’s none of his business why. I thought everybody in the world knew to have enough tact not to aske this question. It is right up there with age and weight. But my daddy does not mind asking questions.
So, despite spending the previous hour processing Xmas drama by using tools from the past year’s work, I knew I might as well give him some sort of reasonable sounding answer. He asked me specifically if it was for anger, which gives me pause because I don’t put that reason high on the list despite being asked about it by 3 other people including the therapist. Maybe I’ll bump it up. Anyway, I talked about needing confidence and tools to trust my decision making ability. I said I wanted to be more productive and explore why I avoided writing, when it is something I really want to do. And, I said–which is the highest actual reason on the list–that I wanted to explore what it was about me that had made me succeptible to losing myself as a young woman in a marriage that I just barely escaped. I still have dreams that I haven’t yet, and it terrifies me. Whatever I said, daddy nodded, but I could see the situation was just beginning to gel in his mind. This was not going to be the end of the matter. He asked me whether it was loneliness. “Would living closer to family help?” I had to restrain myself not to say “GOD no!” He kept looking for the “Big Issue.” There isn’t always a “big issue.” When my voice started to quiver because I was breaking up in spite of myself, we turned our attention to anything else.
Tonight, while reading Bill O’Reilly’s book on Lincoln, he said, “Hey, talkin’ about your therapy, is your therapist, a Christian or a athiest, or do you know? I’m just reading here, you know Lincoln got down during the war and he said the Bible was his best solace and counsel. Of course, I don’t understand.” I know what it is. Daddy is afraid I’m searching for something. Happiness. The Meaning of the Universe. What’s It All About, Alfie. So I told him; I’m not. And, I don’t exactly need a moral compass or spiritual strength. I am really truly a Bible believer. Already. So I told him my therapist suggested prayer and the Psalms, which seemed to be enough for tonight.
A year ago when I told Mother I was seeing my therapist, she thought about it and then over coffee one day said, “If you’d just get back in church you wouldn’t need a therapist.” I didn’t have a good reply to that either. But then, 6 months ago, she had reconsidered. We were talking, like we do, about nothing in particular and everything all at once. I said that I always felt like they didn’t know quite what to do with me. And she said something I will never forget; it cut right to it. “No, we never did know what to do for you.” That kind of changed everything. Then she ended with, “I want you to keep on going to that therapy.” I’m thinking back on this, now that I am coming out to my daddy as a therapy patient.
I know Lincoln fought his demons, which is how I consider depression and meloncholy. Lincoln was a quipper, and he had a public persona and a private self and he was expert at keeping them separate, most likely even from Mary. Or maybe especially from her. Yet, he spoke–and I think really believed in–the better angels of our nature. I like this very much. Faith and hope that came from somewhere very deep. When Bill Clinton was physically moving into the White House, he said he was going to set about doing what every new president must: “get in touch with his Lincoln.” I’ve been doing that a little too. But all of this I cannot express to Daddy.
More on this later.