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In a Sweet Magnolia Time
By Robert Wintner
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2005 Robert Wintner
All rights reserved.
In a Sweet Magnolia Time
Magnolia Cemetery lies on the southern edge of the no-man's land called North Charleston, a gray-brown collection of dirty brick and smoke stacks under yellow sky, where God helps state senators make jobs for the people. You'll count six new car lots and eight used on the way out. Two tenement projects across the road, a paper mill and a chemical plant a half sniff yonder round out the neighborhood. Salvation is what North Charleston means to the nitty gritty folk who work there. Elsewhere it only means ugly.
North Charleston grew and spread, painless as a brain tumor, while the body proper carried on as usual with delusions of antebellum, though now the antebellum remnants are mostly cordoned off for the edification of Yankee tourists, much as a mental patient might be subdued for her own good and confined to a padded cell with a one-way window, so the doctors and concerned passersby can take a closer look. What's left of antebellum on the street is tired talk of what was and the same tired sigh at the old houses it lived in.
Magnolia sits between the two, appropriately at the top of old Charleston, marking the passing epochs with forty thousand headstones marking the graves of forty thousand white people. Forty thousand makes for history to the horizon, the names carved into granite as testament to the greatness that was.
To that day all was white, and white was the lasting intention. But the day Waties Waring went under was different. He was white too, with a discordant note echoing down the years. It was 1968, and only Waties Waring in a century and a half and forty thousand graves had a colored funeral.
I finished early in town and rode on up. Everyone knew about the funeral but wouldn't discuss it, and I'd frankly had enough of pretending it didn't exist. Talking a thing to death went along with our chronic circumspection, so the absence of banter was refreshing. We weren't short on intelligence, genetically speaking, though I'm certain that massive cerebral segments collectively atrophy by middle age, what with such caution in keeping things polite. Take the industrial ugliness of the unspeakable North, with the paper mill stench and lunchbox mentality; better yet, take the aforementioned senators responsible for such "growth." A senatorial appearance for cocktails off the cuff could send a murmur through our crowd in town, but anyone stepping back to see what any senator had actually done in accordance to what we truly hold dear would concur: we are represented at the capital by bumpkin politicians with no regard whatever but for jobs for the people indirectly as they translate to job security for themselves. Oh, you might ask what's wrong with that. Nothing, if you eat lunch from a metal box, have more children than you can afford, yearn for another car, and care not a shred for the countryside making this region unique. And the conversation of these politicos could drive a sane man twitchy.
Waties Waring never ran for office. He was appointed but was as much a politician as all the professional men in Charleston needed to be, maneuvering, strategizing, polling, lobbying, cajoling and ruling as necessary, but always politely, and never more politely than when conversing. The topic went to power, always power, whether tomorrow is Election Day or this afternoon bodes ominous for lunkers in the surf because of a spring flood near dusk. You had to consider the power in the fish or the man catching the fish, or the man who had no time to fish, because he was too busy working for the betterment of all, don't you know. New ideas were not trusted or tested or talked about too much, lest the talker be deemed impolite. Polite is the root derivative of politic in our town.
I don't think I ever grew out of our local scheme of things but rather grew away from it or maybe stepped aside of it so I could breathe. I loved our society and still recall certain times fondly, but something changed. I needed air long before that day in '68, and I wouldn't call that day cathartic, though it does mark the beginning of my removal from civilization, physically speaking, that is.
I needed to get away from town and its strained consensus that served as a collective assurance, sort of a safety net. You could sense and feel a topic being avoided by the mere traffic jam of glances here and there seeking insight to what was understood as terribly coarse and possibly abrasive and certainly not grist for our pleasant mill.
Waties Waring was the federal judge to first rule: Separate but equal is not equal. He gave life to an appeal process leading to the historic ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States in Brown v. The Board of Education, changing life as we knew it. That is, he was the first judge in the history of the United States of America to rule in favor of the Negro struggle for civil rights, yet his ruling is not considered historic, and that of the Supreme Court is. But he set the wheels in motion and garnered a niche in Charleston history, or rather in local notoriety. The notion of civil rights was safely constrained before his ruling. His jurist's logic was simple, with deadly results. He cost us millions in funding, knowing we could never, nor would we want to, comply with the integration standards resulting from what he started.
He cost me more in many ways. I was him; he was me. In a manner of speaking we were bound at the hip by self-destruction. You outlive the age of realization and realize it's all turned bad on you, and destruction has a warm fuzzy feel to it, maybe revealing what the afterlife has in store, which may not be so bad after all; I don't know. God knows that vale of tears had yet to stack up to what it promised. As I live, my search continues, though I wonder now if continuation is better than the alternative.
Waties Waring and I were born in Charleston, where The War began. His family was eighth generation landed, three hundred years in the same town. He suffered cross burnings in front of his house and brickbats through his windows before he was driven out of Charleston and South Carolina, ostracized in every way and shamed into exile in New York for his last fifteen years. New York; it can make a man tremble. After three hundred years of Lowcountry, a man approaching the age of reckoning could damn near swoon.
I had to get out of town the day of the funeral because it seethed with silence on the subject, people milling outside their offices on the street, quite a few bankers and real estate agents and most of all the other lawyers, all convened informally to participate in not talking about it, to shore up the bond, whatever it was. The judge died five or six days prior to the funeral, so the newspaper had enough time to stoke the old coals, see if a little spark hiding in there could ignite the old fires. Everyone downtown knew the self-evident truth of the story, because we grew up and grew old with the fact that Waties Waring practiced separation of the races with the best of us. His radical decision from the bench was motivated by revenge — on us — urged not by sudden epiphany but by the woman who cost him his life. I say his life in the figurative sense; he didn't die for another fifteen years, which is like doing time in the federal slammer if you spent the first sixty-five years all warm and cozy in the garden out back, scotched up past smelling the flowers and making chitchat easy as you please. Sure, it gets stifling, but try New York on for size and you'll feel a hair shirt of a different itch.
The Broad Street regulars and those who yearned to be viewed as Broad Street regulars were predictable as sunrise the day the judge got put under; they'd mosey up and down the sidewalk, never straying farther from their office façades than they ventured otherwise in life, as if the phone might ring. It wouldn't. They'd look up slow as wise men receptive to cosmic truth, and they'd stay calm, coming on back down to street level for some meteorological prognostication and potential variants on the diagnosis, which local insight factored years of experience equal to great wisdom, don't you know. Each would predict or agree, staying so painfully superficial that what they weren't discussing felt tangible as a force 5 hurricane blowing in from the Battery. Might rain. Might get right torrential, but not before noon, maybe eleven, or ten, but not likely before noon. Therein, practicing that perfected habit of old Charleston — that happy, deliberate ignorance of the blissfully better off — they gave the bond meaning and strengthened it with consensus on what was being lived and protected here. Or so they thought, and many still do, though the hard core is down to octo and nonagenarian. There were more of them back then, talking of the tides, the seasons, prospects and past catches.
Modern population density dilutes what was so clear and concise just a few decades ago. Simply put: we had a death in the family, a sudden, tragic and grotesque fatality, but he was either insane or criminal and best forgotten and certainly not worth soiling a perfectly normal morning with morbid recollection of a most unfortunate turn of events.
Most of the in-town crowd weren't born stupid but learned by example: stick your head in the mud and see if it doesn't feel all right. Moreover, just you take a good look and see if the safe view from down in the dark won't make the unpleasantries plain damn go away. You can't do anything about North Charleston but ignore it, even when it smolders and festers, its gray and yellow flatulence drifting south at sunrise after a night of chemical burn — night, so nobody complains, unless they wake up and ponder gratitude for a fortified tax base. Maybe that wasteland serves as paradigm for our cares and woe; no matter how awful things seem, we wake up sunny and cheerful to a brand new day, and the stink blows away by lunch, for us, taken at a table with a cloth and dishes and silver service.
We lost one of the keenest minds our little town ever produced, and if the loss was unavoidable, just as the old society crumbled along with the houses it lived in, and the rot and ruin of the industrial hinterland to the north filled our noses, we could have paused at least to ask each other why. We could have examined this man's faults in the light of our own, if we could have seen that light. I don't know how much longer this part of the world, this Lowcountry, can go on; so many people want jobs with more factories or more resorts with more promotion for that shrinking part of it called quaint and historical; come on down, y'all. Park your car and take a look. The outlanders want to see blacks on City Council now, but they want to see them out weaving baskets by the highway too. They want it old; they want it new; they want it all. Maybe that's what people do, but whatever quaint charm was there seems so poorly defended anymore from within.
I went one night about twenty years prior to the judge's funeral with another lawyer, a shrimper and a real estate man to the small park between the post office and the judge's house. I hadn't thought about it much since then, because I repressed it. We stood a wooden cross in an iron pot filled with dirt, since the judge's steps led right down from the house to the sidewalk with no dirt anywhere to stick a cross. Now what must they have been thinking, building a house with no dirt in front for a cross? We carried our cross over as close as we could and doused it with gasoline, then lit it and threw four or five brickbats through the windows, yelling all kinds of sonsabitches. Then we ran.
I have pondered motivation since. Was I so ambitious? Well, yes, I was; but, moreover, frustration drove me to tantrum, with the bricks and burning cross. So, am I to be excused, like a modern defendant pleading temporary crisis of the emotions? It doesn't matter, not to anyone or me; what matters is the wheel of life, as the Buddhists call it. Oh, you challenge the notion of a dyed-in-the-wool redneck reading The Book of the Dead? Go ahead and challenge, then come on down, park your car and take a look. The wheel doesn't stop, but if we pause to view it, we may gain a greater meaning for the ashes and broken glass littering its periphery.
I attended the funeral because I was practically part of the family. His daughter and I were close once; that seems lifetimes ago, though I recall wondering if she thought it was my forearm that her little hand grasped in our shared bed of youth, like it was only moments ago. That sort of thing was not the basis of our love, and it was love, but I'm a man on the far side of a failed, meager marriage to a woman now clearly perceived as a total stranger. I no longer wonder what might have been with Anne. And I digress; Anne's mischief notwithstanding, I saw no reason to bear a grudge against the old man. Forgive and forget, after a fashion, had become my practice, in keeping with the smug summation we excelled at; forgiveness was for those who got caught, with smugness reserved for the unexposed.
The last time I saw him was in New York a year or so before he died, though what kept him alive then was a mystery of nature. Flat pitiful, shrunk down, bent, shriveled and plain worn out, he looked dead and done for, but he surprised me, perking up when I apologized for any ill will between us, meaning the social resentment he suffered when nobody invited him and his new wife anywhere, including me, which was no surprise to me, after all, but may have surprised him; we were such colleagues. Professional resentment was an equally gravid potential, because every lawyer in town declined his company and/or counsel, including me, which must have hurt as much as intended and then some. He said he'd dealt with that ill will foolishness long ago. Any bad feelings left were for my town and me to resolve.
He was just that good, casually waving off the rancor that went blood deep with a foolishness disclaimer.
I arrived at the cemetery early and drove on down toward Belvedere Section, the headstones reading like road signs on the past, back through a nether world that actually existed prior to the myth of itself, where spoken names flowed like currency, their value emanating directly from the mellifluous accent, correct intonation and languidly precise enunciation of the speaker. Because the state of being and being able to talk about it in the genealogical patois capturing the soul of the region seemed damn well heaven on earth for a singular-minded group of white people. The dialect is a singsong rhythm of bloodlines with denomination in the names: Pringle, Prioleau, Drayton, Lowden, Bowden, Snowden, Drydon, Reardon, Jervey, Gasque, Gaillard, Grimble, Greeley, Pinckney/Taveau, Montague, Manigault, Rasque, Rhett, Rutledge, Sumner, Smythe, Stillwell, Cromwell, Hopewell and Gervaise.
Burma Shave. The road reads with a French flair at the outset, because the Huguenots were first. But the Tory influence mixes in before too long, and the resulting lilt is uniquely Charlestonian. Most Warings are in Belvedere Section, as are the Covingdales. Covingdale begins with Arthur, who landed in '41. (The Seventeenth Century is presumed here; that's 1641 for those of you who went to public school.) The Covingdale line continues roadside to Henry, Richard, Charles, Edward, James, George, and here I be, Arthur again, just like the first, and like the judge, eighth generation landed. The Warings came a few years earlier than the Covingdales but only buried six generations in Magnolia, the others having died sometime before the cemetery opened and settling somewhere between the Ashley and the Edisto Rivers. No one knows where, but they call it the Old Waring Burial Ground. Less cavalier than that, the Covingdales knew exactly where their roots were sunk. We transplanted our earliest antecedents to achieve a more concisely visible continuity of our history, family, longevity and grandeur, whatever those lofty principles were worth, which was plenty, or at least plentiful was the perception.
Magnolia proper is only Nineteenth Century, but with notable foresight and apparent good taste, the Covingdales moved their old bones to the best place to be, once development could accommodate the more civilized traditions. Anything 1800's doesn't count for much around here, it's so recent (besides being the Century of our Misfortune) but some of us saw the value of disinterring the forbears so whole families could stay together like a matched set in a different sort of hutch, rendering the soil at Magnolia more venerable from the outset. Because a century or two does make a difference in esteem, socially, in this part of the world, and I suppose the cemetery's grand opening was a good chance to free up some prime garden space behind the house too, since the antecedents got planted out back before Magnolia. We lived up next to the ancestral shrine, the house only a step and a stumble from our proper inevitability, our rightful place in the limestone lineup. All that changed with the advent of Magnolia Cemetery, kind of.
Excerpted from In a Sweet Magnolia Time by Robert Wintner. Copyright © 2005 Robert Wintner. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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