Stories Of The South: Boarders
As a displaced Southerner nesting in a Long Island suburb, I entertain a lot of unseen company. This entourage consists chiefly of my mother, whose name was Velma, my Aunt Vera (Velma's sister), and Vera's husband, Vernon. All three have been dead for many years, but they are boarders in my house or at least in my head. Since I left Arkansas, they have haunted my every domicile. They don't moan or do any fancy nighttime chain-rattling, but they certainly aren't shy about speaking their minds.
They don't like the suburbs. People out here, they say, don't keep track of one another's doings. "Why, " I hear Vera tell Velma, "the man two doors down from us died last spring and none of us knew anything about it till the widow sold the property. Never even hung out a wreath."
As I cook, do the shopping, commute to work, they watch me. If the car chokes and misses, Mother comments, "Frog oil"! "Yankee cornbread," Vera snorts when I leave out the bacon grease and substitute butter. And after a hard rain, Vernon looks out the window and gleefully observes, "It's come a real toad strangler, just like pouring sweat out of a boot." The women grin. "That's no way to talk, Vernon, think of the children."
On the streets of New York I hail a taxi, and if necessary, knock my fellow man out of the way to claim my catch. "Lord have mercy, never heard of a place where you have to act like that, Mother complains. "What do you want to live up here for?" On a rush-hour train I sit down next to the perpetual, contentious, ongoing bridge name. Beer cans and expletives. "why, you'd think those fellows was about to maul each other. No manner a-tall." Aunt Vera is speaking, and she adds, "Don't they ever wash the windows on this train?" Aunt Vera was the cleanliness nut in our family. Dirt always made her mad.
Though I grew up in the country, I have a very urban life-style now. For one thing I eat a lot of raw or half-cooked vegetables in preference to the boiled-all-day-with-salt-meat kind (salt pork having been classified as a toxic substance). But Vernon hates al dente. "Give you a bellyache, honey," and when I order lamb chops rare, my three companions gang up on me and chorus, "EEEoo, can't you just taste wool in your mouth?" I have to send them out of the room when I eat lamb chops.
My housekeeping also gets Vera down. Straighten up your house first thing of a morning, " she exhorts as the alarm rings and I lie inert under the electric blanket. To Vera, doing the housework early was a talisman against disaster. If somebody took sick and died that day, at least the house would be clean. Thus fate could not completely upend you. So she swept and dusted eagerly, always looking for an extra chore, such as washing and ironing a set of curtains. I'd rather do without curtain than wash and iron them. Yet what can I offer as my parley with fate, my hedge against calamity? Nor will my neighbor ever walk through the door exclaiming, "You've done up those panels again, my Lord, you'll be down with the backache."
Mother, gentle as always, tried not to be too critical about the house. But she misses washday – I have no regular schedule – and sighs to see her two granddaughters put their clothes on, as they often do, straight from the dryer. For Velma, washday was a ceremonial occasion. By late afternoon, once every week, her house would be filled with the fragrance of line-dried sheets and fresh-ironed, starched cotton. No such smells ever float up from my laundry room, and clotheslines are against the local ordinance. What worries Mother most is the moral effect this may have on the children. "Hope nobody ever calls on them to iron little puffed sleeves or a shirt front." Will they ever be proper mothers when they don't know the heel of the iron from the tip?"
My threesome frets a lot about the children. I used to watch them bending over the crib at bedtime, asking for "some sugar," and later telling stories in which people were as hot as hens in wool baskets, for example, or cranky as old soretailedcats. Vera, of course, has always stayed on top of me about baths. Three or four of them a day was her idea of what ever small child needed most. And, indeed, bathing a little kid can be an act of love. I managed to get away with only one or two baths per day per child, and I reneged completely on the hair issue. I never groomed and polished those heads, made no fat Shirly Temple curls around my fingers, subduing the wisps with a wet comb, never did up their locks in spit curls or old rags, or tied their topknots in bow ribbons. The girls go around in asymmetrical pony tails of their own devising, or braids brisling with escaping hairs, "every which way," their grandma laments.
And all their clothes are storebought – who can make jeans? – with the result that my profoundest conversations with my daughters tent to take place in fitting rooms. While Mother sewed on the machine for me and I basted ruffles, blindstiched hems, and whipped down facings, she would tell me all the old stories, and what her mother had told her about men, and family scandals. In a fitting room, one hardly speaks or renegade second cousins, babies born out of wedlock, or the dangers of love. Without sewing, how will I teach these girls that stiches have got to even, and that with an ounce of gumption anybody can fix a balky sewing machine?
Vera and Vernon and Velma worry – their worries, of course, are my own. Having left my homeplace, why do I refuse to live any place else? I insist on reminding my children they are not of Long Island, and – in the midst of affluence and uniformity – I preach that poverty had its sweet side and that the best people sometimes don't speak the King's English. I even tell them that having to work hard is no disgrace. And I tell them, too, about three dear old heads who watch over them. I hope that in the hills and copes and interstices of suburbia, my half-Southern kids are discovering truths about their own lives, secrets that elude even me.