The South did not experience me as it did so many of its children. I was a rebel among dissidents. I did not often notice lines of class, race, or gender, and when I did my appreciation for those lines was usually made quickly and loudly apparent. I was a kind and respectful child, but not one given to false courtesy. I didn’t give two figs for polite society. Still don’t. I was never encouraged to sit idly by and allow injustice to be committed. Perhaps that’s a legacy of the Old South and the New, or maybe it’s simply that I’m a flag waving South Carolinian and we have trouble keeping our mouths shut when we feel passionately for something. Nevertheless, the ideals took root in me strong and at a young age, even if my ideas about who was worthy of defense differed greatly from what our history had taught us about persons of value, people of importance.
I was, by all accounts, a sweet, but scrappy child. I didn’t have a problem throwing a punch over a dog, or my little brother. I could puff up to at least twice my size like an adder, or a cat. I couldn’t stand to see a classmate teased when that child wasn’t able to give as good as he got. I got into my first real fist fight in second grade when I heard some boys teasing a child who’d just lost his mother the year before. I leapt in like a dervish. I’m pretty sure Eddie never knew that they’d been talking about him. I’m also pretty sure that they never talked about him again. When Mum, godsloveher, heard that I’d been scrapping, she always asked “what did they do?” because she knew that if I’d throw the first punch, it was for a good reason. She also knew that I rarely threw the first punch, and I almost always tried to solve things diplomatically before resorting to righteous violence. For the record, Eddie ended up one of the most important people in my life for a time, though then, I’d not met him.
The pattern continues. I punched a boy in the face for attempting to molest a girl at the local teen hang out. He hit me back. He also learned his lesson and we were friends until he died. I have carried a knife since I was twelve and learned how to fight with kitchen knives not long after that. I have, fortunately, had only a few occasions to use those skills and I have done so with reluctance, but also with conviction. I know that I could kill a person, but I also know that I could die for the things important to me. I’m also Southern enough to die for a lost cause. Though we certainly haven’t cornered the market on that one.
A great deal of my nature is owed to the happenstance of my birth, or if you are such a person–and I am–then it was hardly happenstance at all. Either way, the web of circumstances that intersected, diverged, and careened about to form the foundation of my character was a remarkably Southern one, and yet the antithesis of so much Southern tradition. I’m a farm girl with a love of good dirt, growing your own food, or at least being able to walk down the road and “swipe” Mr. Sammy’s sweet corn. I don’t mind bird seed on my porch or snakes in my yard though I suffer from varying degrees of both ornitho- and ophidiophobia. I am a Disney Princess. Birds have been known to fly right up and touch my cheek. Deer have walked up to me in the woods. I’ve had “pet” squirrels, deer, and an alligator. I was raised with chickens, horses, dogs, geese, turkeys, and goats. Some of them we even ate. This was, in fairness, an agrarian life, one not limited to southern experience. I think in large part, that came from economics, and tradition. Those were the legacies of my families.
Most of my family was of modest means, which I’ve learned is the way those-of-not- modest-means pretty up the struggle for survival that others face in this cushy modern world of ours. I affectionately refer to us as dirt-poor farmers, but I know that this is a shade exaggerative. While my father’s family had lean years and often only one shirt to each child (all hand-me-downs), they had land that grew food and cash crops and the sense to stay away from the destruction that tobacco can wreak on that land. They also had maternal grandparents who were well-enough off and would not have let their grandchildren starve (even if they were not my grandfather’s biggest fan). Mum had homemade clothes as a child (for that matter, so did I, but I loved them) and hocked her high school ring to buy my baby formula, but I never lived in a car and I always had a puppy. It’s hard to imagine that I was poor. I guess I’m just one of those uppity peasants, though I tend to think of everyone else, regardless of economic situations, as peasants.
My biological father, henceforth referred to as Dadai, was one of thirteen children, raised by a god-fearing, god-loving mother whose only supposed flaw was the fact that she remained married to her alcoholic, abusive, and womanizing husband. A man who would one day become my most beloved grandfather. But times were, as they say, different then, and that I grew up with very particular views of what marriage and parenting should be was partly because of the fifty some odd years that they spent together. I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask her why she had stayed with him all those years, but I have a feeling that her answer would have only made me feel that much more the alien in the family, and not actually enlightened me. By all accounts, my grandmother was a saint. Finding her prayer journals after she died only reinforced this notion, but I suspect that it was from her that I got my temper. She slapped my mom once for being harsh to me, and she was positively aggressive if you messed with her cubs. She defended them to a fault, and contrary to my own doubts, her children worship her, even now. She and I crossed words over my father more than once.
I think I was probably the only grandchild who dared argue with her. I did so as politely as I could.
Mum was about as opposite in her upbringing as could be. Well, her father was also unfaithful to her mother, but that seems to have been about it. Where my father had seven brothers and five sisters, mom had three brothers. Her father died (at thirty-one) when she was seven, and because she didn’t at the time know of his infidelity, she idolized him until she was much, much older. Her mother was about as nurturing as…okay, so I can’t think of a mammal less concerned with her offspring…but she worked to support her four children, while leaving the household tasks to her seven year old daughter. The new “man of the house” was mom’s oldest brother, a basic unsavory abusive sort that is now my mom’s only surviving brother. The “good” two died at the ripe old ages of twenty-one and twenty-six. Both left children without fathers. Children that Mum doesn’t get to see. The short version of that explanation is that my mom’s family has a hereditary heart disease, the MO of which is to take you out without any warning.
My mom has survived the longest with the disease. She sacrificed more than any mother should to not leave my brother and me motherless. I hope my angel sibling forgives us. If it means anything, I will always be grateful not to have lost my childhood with Mum and Da, Canard and Sundance, and the myriad creatures we met and loved along the way. These things would not have been possible if we’d had to live with Dadai. He was a bachelor through his second marriage, and only got himself mostly together for his third. I would have been fourteen or fifteen by the time he scraped himself together to be “saved by faith.”
We’ll get to that last bit later.