10 November 2010

5 she was ever one to clean up after herself

there's this thing that happens when i talk to other people from the american south. people who have left. people who know what that means.

we all get this look. like an alcoholic after draining a glass, we are wistful, wary, and discretely pleased.

factional as the south is, there is a standard sense of exhausted accomplishment radiating from those of us who have left it. it is not unlike being in the dutch resistance or the KGB.

because faulkner wasn't kidding, people. shit was real.

all of this goes unsaid though. we don't discuss it.

dananator says we should. as sensei and i sit with her in the corner of a bar filled with paintings of sarah palin naked, dananator says this is what we should be writing about.

dananator has never been to the south. she wants to go but worries she will not know what to do, how to be. that southern life is an elaborately mannered ritual in which she will inevitably fall short. she believes this and so she stays away.

sensei and i exchange a hasty look, two conspirators trying to determine whether it's time to spill the beans.

and then sensei and i say, no, no, the south will love you. because you are not from there. and you did not leave.

the trick is, if you ever leave then you can never ever go back.

i am the daughter of a new yorker and a southern belle. during an early trip to vickburg, mississippi, i puked pureed sweet potatoes down my father's back onto the edge of a priceless antebellum rug in that great southern landmark, the balfour house. a docent dressed in scarlett o'hara's bonnet and full hoops glared at my father and said sternly, sir, get that girl out of here.

it would take 25 years.

the south is uniquely challenging to write about because it's where i'm from, where i've lived, what i left. it is a huge part of who i am and it is responsible for many of the qualities i dislike most in myself.

at the age of eight, in savannah, georgia, i was made to spit my gum out in an elderly girl scout's ungloved hand, because "young ladies do not chew." failing to realize that young ladies did not chew anywhere in all of savannah, as we traipzed through the many homes of juliette gordon low, i left in my wake a trail of dried up gums in ungloved hands.

that is how this feels. writing about the south, i am that little girl all over again, spitting watermelon double bubble into elegant, yet vaguely threatening, ungloved upturned hands.

i am coming at this from a very particular angle. i am writing as a yankee brat. as someone born in memphis, who left memphis and who came back to memphis. and who- upon coming back to memphis and being dipped into the deep end of the city's political corruption, religious intolerance, racism and poverty- left memphis for good.

so the south to which i am referring is memphis. and though its barbecue remains vastly superior to all other southern sauces, i am mad at memphis to this day.

i am mad at memphis and yet, even 16 stories up in a highrise in the heart of chicago, there is a piece of me- a piece i despise- that longs for it still. for the restlessness of that muddy water, pressing against the bluffs, beckoning, elegant and vaguely threatening, like an upturned palm.


Les Savy Ferd said...

oh the siren song of the swamps of Louisiana.

I sort of envy you two. Coming from a place like Buffalo, I feel like 'my people' whoever they are, are kind of a-historical in the way that most blue-collar drudgery gets quietly churned under and forgotten if it was even remembered in the first place.

oline said...

yes, may we never forget the swamps of louisiana.

and i wonder if it's better to be a-historical that oppressively historic.

Osutein said...

Bravo! So well said.

Last month when we went to Galena, IL, we stopped by the US Grant House there. It was really weird for me to see the Civil War from the other side, to see in it pure triumph and righteousness, rather than tragedy and nightmare. I think it was the first Yankee Civil War site I'd ever visited. It was bran-busting.

Honestly, in some ways, I found it easier being an American in Japan than I do being a Southerner in the North. America I can explain, the South I can't.

But let me try: the South is a haunted house. You can escape, you can run away, but at night, you still hear the whispers and bumps.

Osutein said...

Er, brain-busting

oline said...

THAT is the simile i needed and could never find in four weeks of trying to write this damn thing. bravo.