CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED SOUTHERN LADY
MY ladylike adventures have taken me from Seattle to Paris, but last year I was carried back to Tidewater Virginia, which my ancestors helped to unsettle.
A romantic version of my address can be found on the first page of Thackeray's Henry Esmond, which kicks off with a description of the Esmond family's royal grant "in Westmoreland County between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers." It was the only book I ever read that Granny did not tell me to get my nose out of. Though she hated "bluestockings"her name for female intellectuals, who could never be ladiesshe actually read a few pages of it herself, muttering, "Esmond ... Esmond ... do I know any Esmonds?"
Being an Englishman, my father was singularly unimpressed by Granny's ancestors, so I knew he was getting ready to enjoy himself. I met his dancing eyes and read the message in them: Don't tell her it's a novel. We let her go on until she was saying, "It was Samuel Esmond who married my great-great-grandfather's half-sister." Preening herself, she added, "Our royal grant was next to theirs."
I had heard about our royal grant many times. Granny was always careful to keep it in the same place, but the grantor changed depending upon what monarchicalname happened to pop into her head while she was launched on her pipe dreams. Her boasts were believable as long as she stuck to kings and queens from the pre-1776 era, but when she claimed a royal grant from William IV, my father started laughing so hard he had to leave the table.
"William the Fourth reigned from 1830 to 1837, Granny," I said.
"Be that as it may," she replied serenely.
Our ancestors did arrive very early in Virginia1672but they were not the kind of people Granny said they were, and they rose very little in the social scale in subsequent generations. I would not be at all surprised if I turned out to be a direct descendant of the Spotsylvania hatchetman who relieved Kunta Kinte of his foot.
I began life by letting down the side. Being the first person in my family who was not born in Virginia made the radio quiz shows of the forties a painful experience for me. Crouching like Cinderella beside the huge Philco console, I listened to the wild applause that vibrated through its brocaded sound vents when a contestant named Texas as his home state. Texas always got the biggest hand, but any state seemed to arouse the audience; even Rhode Island got a big sympathy vote.
I looked up at the two adults on the sofa. Granny was crocheting and Mama was reading the Times-Herald sports page and chainsmoking Luckies. They looked as if nothing was wrong, and of course, nothing was wrong for them. They had a home state; I did not.
"What would I say?" I asked.
"About what?" Mama muttered abstractedly.
"If I was on the show and they asked me my home state?"
"You're a Virginian," Granny said with a sublime smile. "Everyone is."
"But I wasn't born there. Suppose they asked me where I was born?"
Mama lit a new cigarette from the butt in her yellowed fingers.
"Well, tell 'em the truth, what's wrong with that?"
"Because they wouldn't clap. They only clap for states."
"If the District isn't good enough for 'em, tell 'em to take their sixty-four dollars and shove it."
"Oh, Louise!" Granny cried. "That's no expression to use in front of the child! How do you expect her to grow up to be a lady if you cuss like a trooper?"
"I don't have a home state," I mourned.
"Oh, for God's sake! Tell 'em you're from Maryland, then. Washington's really in Maryland anyhow. Washingtonians used to have to put both District and Maryland tags on their cars. Tell 'em that."
Like charity, schizophrenia begins at home. Washington would really have been in Virginia, too, if Virginia had not been what Mama called "a bunch of goddamn Indian-givers." In 1789, the Old Dominion donated a section of Fairfax County to make up the South Bank of the District of Columbia; but angered when all the important government buildings were erected on the Maryland side, they took it back. The disputed portion was called Alexandria County until 1920, when it was renamed Arlington County. It was here that Mama was born in 1908.
Arlington is now part of the polyglot Yankee suburb known tactfully as "Northern Virginia," but until the end of World War II there was no such place. It was simply part of Virginia, a rural area dotted with small villages whose names survive today as shopping malls or beltline exits: Rosslyn, Clarendon, Ballston, Cherrydale, Tyson'sCorner, and Bailey's Crossroads. The people who lived there were not commuters in the modern sense; they might, like my grandfather, have worked for the "guvment" because the government happened to be close by, but otherwise they looked on the Nation's Capital as a shopping town, the way people in northern Mississippi regard Memphis.
Mama grew up in Ballston on a dirt road in a white frame house bordered by a field of wild strawberries and enhanced by a lacy gazebo in the backyard. She had an older brother, Botetourt (pronounced Bottatot), named for the Virginia Royal Governor from whom Granny claimed descent. Granny, of course, actually called him Botetourt; Mama called him Gottapot and everyone else called him Bud. After my grandfather died in 1921, the worthy Botetourt married and moved to Falls Church, leaving Granny and Mama to fight out alone what was by then a hopeless battle over Mama's image.
She was not pretty but our Indian blood had come out in her and given her face a noble cast. She looked like a blond Duchess of Windsor; the same winglike cheekbones, big tense jaw, and thin clamped mouth. Her stark features and big-boned bonyness were made for devastating compensatory chic, but unlike the Duchess, Mama was not interested in creating illusions.
She started smoking cornsilk at eight. At twelve she taught herself to drive by stealing Botetourt's car and driving all the way to Fairfax Courthouse before they caught her. At fifteen she quit school, applied for a work permit, and got a job as a telephone operator at the Clarendon exchange. With her first pay she bought an infielder's glove and joined the telephone company's softball team as shortstop. Granny tried to put a good face on matters by attending a few games so people would think she approved of girlish sport, but the day she noticed a lump in Mama's cheek and realized it wastobacco, she had to be helped from the bleachers and escorted home.
Scarcely a day passed without an "Oh, LouiseOh, shit" argument. The worst crisis erupted over the gazebo. Granny kept telling Mama to "use" it, so Mama hung a punching bag from the middle of the roof and got one of her good ole boy pals to give her boxing lessons. Needless to say, men felt comfortable around her and frequently took her to ball games and races, but no matter how many times Granny told her to keep her dates waiting, my competitive mother would dress early, lie in wait behind the curtains watching for her escort, and then throw open the door before the first ring and say, "I beat you!"
Knowing that she could do nothing with Mama, Granny looked around the family for a malleable girl who would heed her advice, a surrogate daughter cast in the traditional mold, someone delicate and fragile in both body and spirit, a true exemplar of Southern womanhood. Someone, in other words, either sick or crazy.
One of the joys of growing up Southern is listening to women argue about whether nervous breakdowns are more feminine than female trouble, or vice versa. They never put it quite that bluntly, but it is precisely what they are arguing about. These two afflictions are the sine qua non of female identity and the Southern woman is not happy unless her family history manifests one or the other. Her preference is dictated by her own personality and physical type. Well-upholstered energetic clubwomen usually opt for female trouble, while languid fine-drawn aristocrats choose nervous breakdowns.
Granny's next-door neighbor in Ballston was Aunt Nana Fairbanks, who made a home for her niece, Evelyn Cunningham. Evelyn was the same age as Mama but famed for a very different sort of double play: on the day she was supposed to be taken to the state mental hospitalin Staunton, she had such bad cramps that she missed the ambulance.
Here was an ornament to grace any family tree, so the two dowagers started fighting over her. Picture, if you will, Aunt Nana, née Cunningham, moving across her yard in her Mandarin glide to meet Granny, née Upton, who is moving across her yard in her Roman matron strut. They meet at a hole in the hedge like two opposing generals in a parley ground and discuss the prize booty both of them are determined to claim.
"Evelyn is having a nervous breakdown," Aunt Nana said proudly. "All of the Cunninghams are high-strung."
"Evelyn doesn't take after the Cunninghams," Granny replied. "It's the Upton womb that's causing those spells of hers."
"I was in the middle of my nervous breakdown when I married Mr. Fairbanks," Aunt Nana recalled with a fond smile. "I was so run down I only weighed ninety pounds. He had to carry me around in his arms that whole first year."
"When I married Mr. Ruding, the doctor told him I might never be able to carry a child." Granny smiled. "I had a descending wombit runs in the familyand it was just hanging by a thread. I couldn't sleep, I cried all the timejust like Evelyn."
"I almost lost my mind," Aunt Nana reminisced. "Evelyn's mind is going, I can see all the signs."
"You can just look at Evelyn and tell she's delicate down below," Granny sighed.
"It's the Cunningham taint."
"It's the Upton womb."
Granny got the prize booty. One morning around four she was awakened by a violent pounding at the door. It was Evelyn, her blond hair in rag curlers and her peaches-and-cream complexion streaked with tears.
"Aunt Lura! Aunt Nana said she's going to send me to the insane asylum again!"
"There's nothing wrong with your mind, it's your parts. Come in and have a glass of warm milk."
Evelyn accepted and stayed two years. During this time Granny had the malleable daughter of her dreams. Clay in the hands of a strong personality, Evelyn did everything she was told. There was no need to teach her to be late; her catatonic seizures, when she stood frozen in the middle of her room with silent tears running down her face, were good for at least half an hour. Nor did she have to be reminded to "make him look for you." Wandering off was one of her specialties. Ballston parties at this time were enlivened by the many girls who pretended to disappear, and Evelyn, who actually did.
No matter when these spells occurred, Granny always blamed them on premenstrual tension, which she called "the pip." Eager to deny Aunt Nana's diagnosis of madness, Evelyn grasped the pelvic straw Granny held out. Soon she forgot all about the Cunningham taint and started talking about the Upton womb, until she convinced herself that being "delicate down below" was part of her charm.
Choreographed by Granny, she became the most popular hysteric in the Virginia Hump. Men came from as far as Leesburg to gaze into her popping eyes and grasp her trembling hands. The intense femininity that seemed to come so naturally to her held them in sexual thrall. They grew hot with desire when she searched frantically through her pocketbook, shrieking, "Oh, what am I looking for?" They sighed like furnaces over her habit of breaking into a chorus of "Jada Jada Jing" and being unable to stop. They could not get enough of her berserk sensuality; the more she shook, the more she gasped, the more their spirits rose, for if she was this way on theporch, what must she be like in bed? Even the man whose car she wrecked came back for more; he bought another one and went on giving her driving lessons just to be near her.
The one man in Ballston who was not in love with Evelyn was Preston Hunt, whose heart belonged to Daddy. If the Jewish boy's problem is the umbilical cord, the Southern boy's is the tail of the spermatozoön. Preston's father was a classic Colonel Portnoy whose favorite word was "manly." Preston was not manly enough to suit Daddy. The family hardware store was frequently the scene of screaming debacles whenever Mr. Hunt, who saw himself as a hot-tempered beau sabreur of the Old South, lost what little self-control he had and inflicted corporal punishment on his twenty-eight-year-old son.
It was rough-and-ready Mama who met Preston's emotional needs, and so he began courting her. She despised him for being the garçon manqué she knew herself to be, but he came along at a time when she needed to show Granny and Evelyn that she, too, could catch a beau. They got together, and to Granny's unanalytical delight, they used the gazebo, where the punching bag swaying gently in the breeze supplied the filip Preston required. He came over every night and sat in the lacy boxing ring talking about his father.
"My daddy whipped me till my nose bled buttermilk," he confided happily. "I was late to work this morning and he took an old harness left over from when we sold them, and he just laid it on me something terrible. But I deserved it. Daddy's right to whip me when I need it, I know that. I don't mean to talk against him." His voice began to tremble. "You know that, don't you? I love Daddy! Did I sound to you like I was finding fault with him? Tell me the truth, Louise. Do you think I badmouthed Daddy just now?"
"You're a sissy, Preston," Mama snarled in the azalea-scentednight. "I hate sissies! If I were a man, you wouldn't catch me being a sissy! I hate you, Preston! Get out and don't come back!"
Naturally he obeyed but he always came back. He could not keep away from her. A few nights later he would return and they would sit in the moonlit gazebo and whisper another round of sweet nothings.
"I'd like to kill you, Preston. I'd like to get in my car and run right over you. If I were a man, I'd wipe the floor with you! I'd knock you into the middle of next week! Stop doing your mouth that way. You know what way I meantwisting it down at the corner and making that squirty noise. Why are you sitting with your feet folded one over the other? You always sit like that! I hate the way you sit! I hate your feet!"
"I'm sorry, honey"
"Shut up! Get out!"
In the summer of 1933, he bought season box seats on the first base line at Griffith Stadium and took her to see the Senators play every weekend. As Mama expertly marked her scorecard and squinted through the smoke from her Lucky Strike Greens, Preston gazed at her with plangent expectancy, but she was so intent on the game that she forgot to bully him. Unable to bear the torments of respite, he devised ways to get on her nerves, like eating his hot dogs from the middle, but it drew nothing more than an absent-minded "Stop that, Preston."
As the season wore on, he developed several new facial tics, squeezed his blackheads, and even tried wearing one black shoe and one brown one, but Mama was too engrossed in Lou Gehrig to notice. At any other time of the year she would have threatened to cut off his feet and throw them in his face, but not in summer.
By the end of the baseball season Preston was in an advanced state of anxiety. The situation came to a head the night he escorted Mama and Granny to adinner dance given by the Daughters, at which Granny was scheduled to play the Statue of Liberty in a patriotic tableau.
It was a dressy affair that required all the things tomboys hate, like armpit-length white gloves, so Preston was counting on Mama to be in a bad mood. She was, but there was nothing she could do about it. The hall was crammed with Daughters, and like all Southern girls in the presence of formidable dowagers, she was forced completely out of character. She could not very well bellow threats about running over him while all the old ladies were telling her how sweet she looked, so the abasement Preston craved continued to elude him. He lasted through dinner, but finally the specter of a gentle Mama proved too much for him. Murmuring his excuses, he drifted away. Some moments later when the dancing began he was nowhere to be found.
"Where's that nice boy?" bayed one of the Daughters, and it traveled around the herd. Soon the question was on every wrinkled lip as the dowagers rubbernecked the ballroom, speculating to each other and commiserating with Mama about what a shame it was that she had to miss the grand march.
"I'll split his scalp open!" roared Mr. Hunt. But for once, Preston had anticipated his father's desires and beaten him, as it were, to the punch. He was found unconscious in a men's room stall, a shattered bourbon bottle beside him, his stiff white shirtfront saturated with whiskey and blood. Evidently he had slipped while chugalugging and struck his head on the toilet seat. His scalp was split open.
An ambulance came and took him to the hospital.
"Do you want to go to him, Louise?" asked Granny.
Her question turned on the Daughters. Eyes burning with the morbid eroticism of old ladies, they urged Mama to take up a vigil at Preston's bedside.
"A sick man falls in love mighty fast," said one brightly.
"Men don't care about hugging and kissing," said another. "They just want somebody to take care of them."
"Catch a man when he's flat on his back and he's yours forever," advised a third.
It was the penis-washing school of femininity. As Mama tried to dream up an excuse they would swallow, a strange voice spoke.
"I say, I found this on the men's room floor. It must have fallen out of that chap's pocket."
Turning, she saw a tall wiry man in his early thirties with dark red hair the color of black cherries. There was a trombone mouthpiece sticking out of the breast pocket of his tuxedo. He held a cigarette case.
"Oh, yes," said Granny. "That's Preston's. We'll keep it for him."
He handed it to her and was about to turn away when one of the Daughters gazed intently into his face and clawed at his sleeve with her brown-spotted hand.
"Are you here tonight?" she asked.
"I believe so, madam."
Her egrette danced on her palsied head as she peered closer.
"Have I seen you?"
"That's for you to say, madam."
"But I must know you," she quavered. "I've never met anyone I didn't know."
"I'm in the band, madam, my name is Herbert King."
"Oh, the band! Then you're not here." Her head shook harder as she cocked it in the direction of the ballroom and listened carefully. A look of alarm spread over her face.
"But the band isn't playing!" she cried reedily.
"We're on a break, madam."
"What did you break? I declare, this night is star-crossed."
Before it could get worse, they were interrupted by ruffles and flourishes from the Ballston Fife and Drum Corps.
"Oh, Law!" Granny exclaimed. "It's time for the tableau. I've got to get into my costume."
She and the other Daughters bustled off. My parents were alone together. After a stealthy look around, Herb took a flask from his pocket and poured gin into Mama's punch cup, then served himself a straight shot in the little silver cap. They stood sipping together on the edge of the ballroom as the patriotic tableau began.
As the fifes struck up a shrill rendition of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," Granny sailed in, draped in cheesecloth and dignity, a tinfoil-wrapped flashlight in her left hand and a hastily covered 1933 Sears catalogue in the crook of her right arm. Raising the light on high, she began.
"Give me your tard, your poah ..."
"Who's that old bat?" Herb whispered.
It was a bad start but the gin helped. After the tableau Mama introduced him to Granny and he offered to drive them home. Granny accepted, charmed by his accent and the nationality it proclaimed. Like all Daughters in their secret hearts, she was such an anglophile that she would have accepted a ride from Jack the Ripper.
They piled into Herb's roadster; Mama in front holding the trombone and clarinet and Granny ensconced in the rumble seat looking like Queen Victoria presiding at a durbar.
She got the shock of her life when she invited him to dinner the following Sunday. He knew nothing about his ancestors and seemed less than awestruck when she told him about hers. Alarmed, she showed him mygrandfather's framed copy of the Lancashire Assize Rolls of 1246 containing the name "Griffin del Ruding," but all he did was smile politely. Gazing around at the documents and charts that lined the walls of her parlor, he said he felt as if he were in the British Museum, and Granny, whose idea of wit lay somewhere between blackface vaudeville and slippery banana peels, took it as a compliment.
He did, however, expound on the subject of his immediate family because it gave him a golden opportunity to pull Granny's leg. Arranging his face in a deadpan mask, he told her the sad tale of the Kings: his father, a longshoreman on the Limehouse docks, crushed to death under a bale of machine parts; his mother, dying of the drink in Whitechapel Hospital; his brother Harry, fallen at Ypres and buried in Flanders Fields.
This much was true, but when he got to his sister Daisy he gilded the lily.
"She was a good sort, our Daisy was, but she ran afoul of a heartless seducer. Left her in the family way, he did. After that she took to the streets. Every night she walked up and down, up and down, up and down ..."
"The poor child!" Granny cried.
"Oh, no mum, she did quite well for herself. She had fifty yards between the station and the church."
Evelyn fell madly in love with him at first sight. Used to effortless conquests, she simply sat down across from him, smiled her exaltée smile, and waited for him to turn to jelly. She met with Herbish impassivity. Challenged by his unflagging disinterest, she started chasing him. When she learned that he liked to attend the National Geographic Society's Sunday night lectures, she got one of her devoted beaux to drive her into Washington so she could stalk her elusive prey.
Herb entered the lobby and found her perched likean epileptic hummingbird on a stone flower urn. There was nothing to do but invite her to join him. Unfortunately, that night's offering was a slide lecture called "Insects of South America."
They went into the lecture hall and took seats on folding wooden chairs. Evelyn's poppy eyes widened. "These are the kind of chairs they have in funeral parlors," she whimpered. As the room filled up with entomologists, she looked around warily. "These people depress me. They look like they're a hundred and thirty if they're a day." She fidgeted and kicked her foot back and forth until the first slide came on.
"The Amazon beetle," intoned the lecturer.
"Oh, my Lord! Why didn't somebody step on it instead of taking its picture? They ought to cut that old jungle down! I bet they brought back some bug eggs on those old pictures. I itch. Don't you itch? I swear, something's crawling on me. When people go to those old foreign countries they always find things in their clothes afterwards. I bet something crawled in the camera when they weren't lookingthere's something down the back of my dress!"
The audience was composed of dusty emeritus professor types whose misogyny was easily stirred. Amid barks of "Get that woman out of here!" Herb led the shaking, sobbing Evelyn outside. As he stood on 16th Street wondering what to do with her, her beau drove up and helped her into the car.
She did not return home that night. Around three A.M. Granny received a phone call from Ellicott City, Maryland, one of the elopement towns of the Upper South. It was Evelyn announcing her marriage to the boy who had helped her stalk Herb. Having caught her in a weak moment, he had begged her to marry him and she, busily scratching, had said yes.
The following week Herb asked Mama out to dinner.I don't know how much his choice was influenced by his bout with Evelyn's full-throttle femininity, but for whatever reason, they started courting. It was a peculiar courtship. They never had a normal Saturday night date like other couples because that was Herb's big work night. They never went dancing; it would have been a busman's holiday for him, and Mama hated to dance. The one baseball game they attended produced a conversation that anticipated Abbott and Costello by ten years, and the bassoon concert left Mama with permanent psychological scars. Herb drank but he didn't smoke; Mama smoked but she didn't drink, so they could not enjoy Repeal. Both liked to take drives in the country but he wouldn't go over thirty and she wouldn't go under sixty, so they could not occupy the same car without giving each other nervous prostration. There was nothing to do except keep on eating dinner, so that's what they did.
What they talked about over their dinner dates is unimaginable because they had absolutely nothing in common. Both had left school at fifteen but Mama quit because she hated school, while Herb's termination was decided for him by the rigid caste system of Edwardian England. Mama never read a book; Herb was a compulsive reader who had educated himself with a library card. Mama hated to be alone; Herb had so many inner resources he could have committed folie à deux all by himself. Had he been shipwrecked on a desert island he would have become, like the Birdman of Alcatraz, a self-taught expert in natural history.
They were alike in only one way, and perhaps it was the thing that drew them together. Neither of them had turned out the way they were supposed to. Herb was a product of the East End slums, the son of a slattern who played the piano in a pub for free gin, yet he was a gentleman and a scholar. Mama was a ninth-generation Virginian, the daughter of a relentless memsahib, yet sheshrugged off every tenet of Southern womanhood and turned the air blue every time she opened her mouth.
My parents were sui generis: they had invented themselves.
Granny was overjoyed by the marriage. Every practicality dear to the hearts of mothers melted in the glow of Herb's sun, which happened to be the one that never set. He was English. It was all she cared about, all she talked about. It dropped, like the quality of mercy, into every conversation she had; the butcher, the baker, the Daughters, the Dames, and the hobo who begged old clothes all heard about "my son-in-law, he's English, you know."
That Herb's free-lance income varied, that he worked in an unstable and sometimes unsavory field, that he occasionally hired out as a bartender, that he would never have a pension, that he was, in fact, technically unemployed, mattered not. An Englishman was Granny's version of a doctor.
CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED SOUTHERN LADY. Copyright © 1985 by Florence King. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.