Thursday, November 01, 2007


Last weekend I had to get out of town, had to get away from it all, had to visit my granny in Huntsville, Alabama.

The culture shock never ceases to be any less shocking with every visit to the South, where most of my extended family lives. The people just seem to get fatter, the strip malls longer, and the accents more and more inaudible. The only things which struck my as culturally significant, "signs of our times" perhaps, were the drive-through Starbucks (see picture), the proliferation of Mexican restaurants, and the slovenly dressed, malnourished-looking folks selling goods, yard sale style, in front of the Piggly Wiggly or Wal-Mart--this was particularly disturbing to me, as I was reminded of a scene in "Roger and Me" where a woman in Flint, Michigan is selling rabbits at her home, "For food or meat". Desperate times, desperate times.

I guess I've been in California too long, or Europe for that matter.

The South is a source of constant fascination for me. It will always be a part of me, not only my heritage, (my father's side of the family includes slave-loving, marauding confederates including Nathaniel Bacon of "Bacon's Rebellion", much to our amusement and shame), but also as a place where I began to form my identity as an adult.

How I got there is irrelevant, but, after growing up in California and Nevada all my life, I found myself in Mississippi for my first year of high school. I was horrified by what I experienced: being picked on mercilessly by preppy cheerleaders who thought I was from another planet, blacks and whites sticking to opposing ends of the classroom, teachers taking students out to the halls with a wooden paddle to discipline them, English teachers who seemed to be speaking anything was frightening, and I had to get out. After one month, my mother found a new school for me in Memphis which centered on the performing arts, and was far more progressive in a sense.

I'll never forget that day in the Principals' Office, where me and my mother nervously awaited the Principal himself so that we could file the necessary papers to get me the hell out of Mississippi.

In a classic cowboy swagger, he came up to me and said, "So, Yn'kee, are school ain't good enough fer ya?" I looked up at this towering man, reflecting upon the fact that several of my textbooks at his "fine establishment"were recognizable from classes I'd had two years ago, and the fact that half of my day was spent in study hall, sleeping and dreaming of escape...meekly, I replied, "'s not that.." He interrupted, "I'm just teasin."

And that was that. I got out, and, although the remainder of the school year was spent in Tennessee, I headed back to the West as soon as possible and knew then that I wasn't a creature of the last weekend I went to Huntsville.

Besides spending time with my grandmother, two delightful aunts, a sweet uncle and a teenage cousin, I spent time reading novels and transcribing everything interesting I could find. This included recipes from Southern Lady magazine, and poems from my scholarly great-gradmother, Faye Brownfield, who graduated from Mount Union College in Ohio some time around the 1920s or 30s. These were written somewhere around that time; taken from a booklet she put together for her family entitled, "Verses For Those Who Love." This is one of my favorites:

A Wheel

Were I a wagon wheel
Joined to the rest by fate
To try the road ahead,
I would not wait
Til it was leveled.

I would take
Fate's jolts and jars, my toll
Because I was a wheel
And made to roll.

Were I a mere cart wheel,
One of a willing pair
To bear a lesser road,
Well, I would share
Nor wish to have it lightened.

I would dare
To rumble toward the goal,
Because I was a wheel
And made to roll.

But, were I just the wheel,
The rest disintegrate
And I alone were left,
Then I would hate
To be a round white ghost
Beside a gate,
No burdens to control
As when I was a wheel
All set to roll.

Great wheel I never was
Or ever hoped to be
But make some other use
Of what remains of me,
Til hub and tire and spoke
Have ceased to be
Be glad, be glad my soul.
That I have been a wheel
That loved to roll.

Here's another one, written in 1942, that, she noted, was used during a sermon at her church:

Would Be Author

I wrote, but lived apart from life.
I wrote in vain.
I lived and loved; joined in the strife;
Knew joy and pain.

The leaves of my book that might
have been
Are yellow with age.
But the love I gave my fellow man
Makes a living page.

Cheers Faye, cheers Alabama.

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