We have met the enemy and he is us.
I wonder if anyone really truly believes this. So easy to buy into the lie that life is like a racetrack, a seemingly endless series of laps, a delusion
fueled by a culture that worships youth and marginalizes its elders.
I remember rolling my eyes when my mother and her friends launched into a litany of aches, pains and funeral reviews. I vowed I would never allow my world to shrink so small, become so focused on myself. I would be involved with life – would have far more important things to think about.
But to my chagrin, I find myself actively participating in these conversations with my friends nowadays. It is, after all, what is happening to us. One more thing to add to my list of things I vowed I would never do.
What I hadn’t counted on about growing old is that nothing stays the
same for very long. Some days are full of hope and good fortune. I am brimming over with gratitude for my friends, my family, my reasonably good health. Other days it takes all the strength I can summon to put one foot in front of the other, to stay the course.
If we haven’t learned life lessons along the way, if we don’t have friends and loved ones around us, if we don’t have creative outlets that give us joy, God help us. Because the older we get, the larger the challenges, the bigger the losses, the less we control.
Living a successful old age is hard work, in my opinion. I need all the resources I can muster. But no matter what my situation, I am in charge of the path I take. I always have choices.
And in the final analysis, it’s not that the road ends, it’s where it ends that matters.
Years before Millennials coined BFF (text-talk for Best Friends Forever), we were Friends For Life. (FFL). We were in primary school together.
No one knows you like those you grow up with. Posturing is pointless around these folks. They always knew whether you were clumsy or a basketball star, could or shouldn’t sing, nerdy or poor at math, pretty and popular or not so much… whatever you were. And they still know.
If you think time stops when you visit your college roommate, try re-connecting with your third-grade nemesis who played Mary in the Christmas pageant while you sweltered under a scratchy sheep costume. Or your senior classmate elected “Miss Popularity” while you were voted “Most Likely to Travel.” Or the Football Sweetheart beaming on the arm of the football captain at the Prom while you slinked in accompanied by a truculent cousin. You’ll pick up exactly where you left off, like it or not.
Having now achieved a certain age, I have come to treasure these friendships, even though I lived far away from them for many years. All is forgiven now — well almost all. So after the obligatory family news updates, the “do you remember’s” take over. “Do you remember the time the home-ec teacher ripped out all our aprons and made us start over the week before finals? Or the time Becky stole secret photographs of her sister and sold them to neighborhood boys? Or the summer that June and Vicky drove twenty miles every Wednesday night to meet their boyfriends while their mothers thought they were at vacation bible school? Or the day Wanda backed her daddy’s car all the way home from the lake trying to run back the miles on the odometer? Or the time Jane burned her tongue trying to smoke cornsilk? Or how we used to “Dive and Duck” under the desks for bomb drills? And so it goes until we’re all hoarse from laughing. There is just nothing else like it.
But there is more here than nostalgia. Our bond was created by an accident of birth that consigned us to the same zip code for our most formative years. We weren’t friends because we chose each other. We were friends because we knew each other. Our parents knew each other. In most cases, our grandparents knew each other. Many of us were cousins. We went to the same churches. We stood in line together for school vaccinations, we rode the same school-bus, went to the same Saturday afternoon movies. We had crushes on the same cute boys, cheered the football team together and wore the same ugly gym suits. Community was a given. We absorbed it like the summer heat. Even when we didn’t like each other, we belonged together. And we still do.
I have many beautiful friendships that came later in life. They have enriched, supported and inspired me. They are no less cherished, but they are different. They did not spring from what I will call generational community. By definition, generational communities accept and take responsibility for their members. We found a place for Linda on our softball team even though she never hit the ball. When Sandy’s ill-tempered little dog Princess died, we cried together. And today, if Sarah needs a ride to the clinic, even though we may cringe at her political views, one of us is there.
These days we choose our friends. People we work with, who share our hobbies, political views, churches, professional organizations. But we may live for years next door to families we wouldn’t recognize at the grocery store. And I think we are poorer for it. If I don’t know my neighbor, I can’t help my neighbor; my neighbor cannot help me. If I hide behind a cloak of anonymity, does anyone really know who I am? Do I?
All of my friends have been and continue to be teachers in my life. But my first grade friends were my first teachers. They taught me the meaning of community. And the lessons we learned together in our first community have supported and united us through the hills and gullies of our lives. That’s why we’re Friends for Life.
A question I’ve been asking my entire life and I’m not alone. A Google search will return over 175,000 hits. Sadly, while they promise to dispel the myth of the Southern Belle, most characterizations eventually come down to sweet tea, southern accents, good manners, football and looking pretty with little attention to intellect. In other words, the Southern Belle.
I never bought this, and though I tried to be a southern belle in my teens, I could never quite make it work. And frankly, I don’t know that many southern belles. In my experience, the Southern Belle is just someone we made up to avoid the southern reality.
I always knew there was something else, something achingly beautiful and tragic that southern souls are compelled to share in spite of their differences. An elusive fragrance in the air, a whisper in the trees, a ghostly sprit in the bayous. Ingrained in childhood, handed down through generations, clinging to us tighter than skin. An elaborately crafted mantle designed to hide something dangerous. Something I couldn’t name.
But I think I know what it is now. It’s our heritage; the legacy of the Civil War. A war predicted to last a few months, that raged on for four years, taking the lives of 620,000 American men, more than all the wars to follow combined; approximately 20% of them under the age of 18.
And at the end, for the South, there was bitter defeat and a legacy of shame, poverty and rage
Wounded and weary, fathers, sons and husbands, reviled and shunned,straggled home to homes and crops devastated in the path of the war, while northern soldiers returned to a hero’s welcome to homes untouched by war for the most part, with fanfare.
Salt in wounds already festering. And yes, the slaves were freed, but with no support, no access to the tools they needed to prosper. Free, but not equal. And so the war ended long ago but the struggle continues. No wonder there is such free-floating rage in Southerners. It is rage born of grief that has nowhere to go but inside.
State sovereignty is sometimes offered as a righteous rationale for the war, and it’s tempting to cling to this slender reed. But the Civil War was about slavery and all of us bear the responsibility for it. Slavery existed in all 13 colonies prior to the Civil War. My ancestors owned slaves. Black people owned slaves as did American Indians. But none of this matters. Slavery is wrong. Just wrong.
But before I get too sanctimonious I realize I cannot know what I would have believed, or what I would have done, in a time when slavery was the acceptable norm. I can only hope I would have had the clear-minded courage to speak my truth.
I take some solace in the knowledge that not all legacies of the Civil War were bad. The southern woman rose from its ashes. Left with farms and businesses to run and children to raise, they had to be strong to survive. They relied on each other; they formed strong communities. Their faith was their only source of hope through terrible loss and deprivation. They had to be resourceful to provide for their basic needs; they made clothing and quilts from draperies, feed sacks, scraps from worn out clothing. Together they birthed their children and buried their dead. Food was scarce, they had to raise their own; they became expert gardeners and didn’t flinch at killing a chicken or butchering a hog. They were recyclers before there were recycling bins. The land and its creatures provided their needs and so were respected; they were environmentalists before Greenpeace. They found beauty to ease their harsh lives in the things they had; a rose, a treasured teacup, a button from a favorite dress.
So it’s not surprising that southern women are strong, that they are passionate about family and community. That they are unapologetic about their religious faith and famous for their elegant quilts, their welcoming homes, their sumptuous recipes and lush gardens. That they value hard work and frugality.
These are the Southern women I know.
It’s true, you’ll know a Southern woman by her accent and colorful turn of phrase. She has good manners and she won’t leave home without her makeup. But she is made of stronger stuff. Much stronger.
My mother and I weren’t close. But we never fought, not overtly. She was gentle and mild-mannered to a fault. Mother didn’t raise her voice or indulge in corporal punishment. She had very few rules but her “no” meant no and there was no point in challenging her.
Her tastes were simple and her needs modest. Frugality was a way of life. We never bought anything we could make, grow or barter for. Collars were turned, hems let out. We sewed our clothes, ate leftovers. Nothing went to waste, nothing was for show. We wore our clothes until they were too threadbare to wear in public and then they were recycled into fabric for quilts. She never went to movies or took
vacations. She didn’t wear perfume or go to a beauty shop. Lipstick was her only concession to cosmetics.
Farm life is strenuous and follows a set routine with little margin for error. Rules and boundaries are necessary to insure productivity and safety. They aren’t up for vote. Mother worked hard, gardening, running a household with no modern appliances, cooking, feeding livestock. In spite of its demands, she seemed comfortable with her life and in those days, it was not out of the ordinary. Girls married, raised their families on the family homestead, and once the children were out of the house, they cared for their parents and grandchildren, continuing the pattern of generations. If girls went to college, it was to become a teacher or a nurse until the children came. Though we never discussed it, I knew this was what was expected of me, of all of us, and it terrified me.
I was a boisterous and curious child, a puzzle to my parents; forever pushing the boundaries, challenging the rules, asking why. I read everything I could find in our small library. I was fascinated with faraway places, exotic religions, unfamiliar life styles and beliefs. From a small child, I ached to get out in the “real world,” and abruptly left home at my first opportunity. It was a foolhardy decision made with all the selfishness and confidence of youth. Of course I expected Mother to be disappointed, but instead she was profoundly, uncharacteristically, angry. This was not a decision I could not undo, she told me. Once I crossed the threshold, she told me, the door would lock behind me. That shocked and baffled me, still does. But I knew she meant what she said and anyway, I couldn’t imagine wanting to go back.
And so began our decades-long uneasy journey. Over the years, she “forgot” birthdays, ignored awards, expressed no interest in my accomplishments. All contact between us was one-way. She rarely visited; she never called or wrote. Nothing I did seemed to interest her. I get it, I thought. I blew my chance when I rejected her and her way of life.
It hurt, but I moved on. I couldn’t go home again, so instead I tried to convert her to my lifestyle. This may have been an effort to justify my rash decision to leave home, I’m not sure. But leaving any guilt aside, I couldn’t believe she could be happy, that anyone could be, with such a claustrophobic lifestyle. She had few friends, little outside interest beyond church on Sundays and visits with relatives. Her recreation was limited to crossword puzzles, soap operas and romance novels. I was sure she would want more if only she knew about it, if it was offered to her. Surely she would be delighted to have some of the luxuries her harsh farm life had denied her! I was relentless. I enrolled her in exercise programs, bought her the latest labor-saving appliances, sent her books to read. But to my frustration, she was not interested. The appliances remained in their boxes, the gym membership expired, the books lay on the coffee table, untouched.
This distorted dance continued for years; I pursued, she withdrew. As much as I told myself it didn’t matter what she thought of me, it did matter. A lot. I believed she never forgave me for leaving home, and that her withdrawal from me was my punishment for breaking the rules. I thought she saw my leaving as a rejection not only of my heritage, but of her way of life. But in my mind, I was simply choosing the way I wanted to live my life, nothing more. And in retrospect, I wonder if the same might have been was true for her. Was her withdrawal from me not a rejection at all; but simply her way of living out her life as she saw fit?
The mother-daughter tie is primal, enigmatic, eternal, the strongest of the familial bonds. It is Mother who breathes the breath of life into us. She is our first role model, the architect of those first deep wrinkles in our developing brains. Regardless of what we think or what we tell ourselves, our mothers matter to us, will always matter, probably much more than we realize.
On this Mothers Day, I wish I could re-live the times I hurt and disappointed my mother. I wish we had understood each other better; that we could have been close. But at the end of the day, the maternal bond prevailed and over the years we developed a companionable, if not affectionate relationship. We had some good years.
My mother died over 25 years ago. But there are still nights that she visits my dreams, mornings when I wake up thinking I need to call her. Mother still matters, she will always matter.