Archived Stories
from the Road

 


 

GROWING UP SOUTHERN
Stories from the Attic of Childhood Memories
Prologue

 

In the South, strangers greet each other when they pass on the street
the highest compliment one can receive is you are a good person
funerals are lively
and the tea is sweet

Di moin qui vous laimein,
ma di vous qui vous ye'

The above is an old Creole proverb meaning
“Tell me whom you love and I’ll tell you who you are”

Whether to the South born or to the South drawn
the answer is the same

We are the South

 

Emily Proctor, Actor
LOVE LETTERS TO THE SOUTH
Messages of Hope, Faith and Healing
to all those affected by Hurricane Katrina

 

 

Forget geography. Florida is not the South, but with a Mama from North Carolina and a Daddy who hailed from Georgia, I grew up thinking I was a Southern Belle.

Mother’s people were cotton and tobacco farmers in Benson, near the Bentonville Battleground where Sherman’s army fought the Confederate Rebels in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. She graduated from Benson High School and went on to Pinewood College in Durham to become a beautician. Most summers of my childhood were spent on my great-great-grandfather’s farm where Mother had been born.

Daddy grew up in the tiny rural community of Wrightsville, near Swainsboro, that was in the wake of Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. He never graduated from high school, but took off for Florida, where, at the age of seventeen, he got a job as a soda jerk at the Rexall drugstore in Leesberg. By the time he was twenty-seven, Daddy owned the store and was practicing pharmacology.

Daddy’s shameless philandering drove Mother to the nut house, shortly after the birth of my brother, where she received Electric Shock Therapy during her six-month stay. I had been born on the eve of WW II, and was four years old at the time of Mother’s confinement.

Mother, the epitome of the Tammy Wynette anthem “Stand By Your Man,” and for richer, for poorer, through sickness and in health, til death do us part… ad nauseam, was a true survivor, and managed to flourish during her nearly forty years of marriage to my father. Buried deep in the attic of childhood memories was the fear that I would one day lose my mind as Mother did. It would haunt me most of my adult life.

My maternal grandmother died in childbirth when Mother was only two years old. Her death was a source of great suffering throughout Mother’s life, yet she showered us - my brother, sister, and me - with all the love she had never known as a child. We were the center of her universe, her fulfillment as a woman. She was our constant source of unconditional love. Even though Mother’s life had been hard, she overcame many obstacles. The stigma of mental illness, the betrayal of her husband, the humiliation of his illegitimate children, among other disgraces, instead of breaking her, made her strong and resilient. I think her determination to “be there” for her own children helped Mother navigate the troubled waters of her life.

Puberty came to me at an early age. I hated it. I had developed breasts - large breasts - by the time I was in fifth grade, and walked around school clutching my books to my chest to hide the bullet shaped bulges under my sweater. I started menstruating on Father’s Day that summer. Mother called it “The Curse.” During the sixth grade, I believed I had actually been cursed by some unknown Providence earlier that year when I’d come down with a mild case of polio resulting in having to wear a God-awful metal brace on my left leg for more than a year. It seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t dance, didn’t have a boyfriend, and felt like an outsider at school. And, if that wasn’t enough, my favorite cousin, with whom I was secretly in love, committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his college dormitory his first week at Florida State University. My coming of age had gotten off to a pitiful start.

Yet, despite the calamity of these events, shortly after my fourteenth birthday, and several years before his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, I met Elvis Presley who was touring with the Grand Ole Opry at that time. My life was changed forever. I got hooked on rock ‘n’ roll, “the Devil’s music,” as it was called from many a Christian pulpit.

Music became my salvation, my refuge, the sanctuary where I would go to calm myself during the turbulence of teenage life. It was also the year that Rosa Parks, revered now as “the mother of the civil rights movement,” refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a racially segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Those two events (Elvis and Rosa) would become powerful influences in shaping my attitude about a woman’s place, and it wasn’t just “in the home” as I had been raised to believe.

We moved to Lakeland my freshman year in high school. I didn’t know a single soul that first day, but decided, right then and there, that I wanted to be the most popular girl in school by the time I graduated. It was easily accomplished by smiling and making eye contact with every student who crossed my path while walking through the halls and corridors, and in the classroom.

I was an editor on the school newspaper, a cheerleader, president of my high school sorority (service club), and won almost every popularity contest my senior year. I was voted the girl most likely to end up in Hollywood.

The primary reason for going to college was to get a Mrs. Degree. I had been told that it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. For three summers, to help pay my way through college, I worked in a Kosher Resort in the Catskills in upstate New York, similar to the one portrayed in the film “Dirty Dancing.” It was owned, however, by a German couple that I sang with in the Methodist Church Choir in Lakeland. But I got caught up in the civil rights movement in the early 60s, dropped out of college, and moved to New York City.

My first job was as a receptionist in the Station Relations Department at NBC at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Wanting to look just like Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” I bought a Chanel knock-off suit and purse, and a pill box hat and faux pearls from Saks Fifth Avenue, and took a modeling job on the side to make some extra money.

Being the daughter of a pharmacist, I had easy access to “speed” which, along with canned tuna and hard boiled eggs, was a staple in my daily diet. Daddy called them “pep pills.” I weighed 103 pounds soaking wet, and at five-foot five, Mother said, “Honey, you’re so thin you look like a gutted fish.” But the mantra I grew up hearing was, “You can never been too rich or too thin.”

The following year I moved to California where I immediately joined the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), much to my parents’ chagrin. I got a job at NBC in Burbank where I was working the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

The head of the Presidential Campaign unit at NBC invited me to work as his secretary during the 1964 election. That was the year Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona, in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention for his nomination for President, made the statement that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

It set the wheels in motion that created a political context in which the President of the United States and government officials came to believe they could operate “above the law.” It created a ripple effect starting with the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, leading up to the current state of affairs with the war in Iraq.

My parents were the only Republicans on either side of the family. In the 1964 Presidential election, Mother voted for Barry Goldwater because he was so handsome, and Daddy voted for George Wallace because Daddy was secretly a racist himself. Everyone else in our family was a Southern Democrat, the Hubert Humphrey kind of Democrat - liberals with a strong social conscience.

When I enrolled at UCLA to take an Art History course, Daddy referred to it as “The Little Red School House.” Red as in Communist. “Better dead than red” was a common topic of conversation at cocktail parties at the time.

But the times they were a changin’. I went to work for the head of Columbia Pictures during the era of films like “Easy Rider” and “A Man for All Seasons,” and got swept up in the wild life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in Hollywood. I strongly identified with the Broadway production of “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” and let my long straight hair grow down to my waist. I began to see myself as a “hippie liberal.”

By 1968, I was heavily involved in the anti-war movement protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I was utterly devastated. By the end of the war, the youthful enthusiasm and idealism that held the belief that “my generation” could make a difference, and change the course of history, was beaten down by a decade of violence against civil rights workers, peaceful demonstrators, anti-war activists, race riots and police brutality all around the country.

The riots in Newark and Detroit during the “Summer of Love,” the arrest and trial of the Chicago Seven, the Kent State Massacre, and ultimately, the Watergate scandal and impeachment of Richard Nixon had suffocated the breath out of the peace movement, and left many people feeling broken and alone.

I turned my attention to the burgeoning women’s movement. I had been inspired by Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique,” which is commonly thought to have started the “second wave” of feminism, the first wave being the Women’s Suffrage Movement. My role models were Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and especially Bella Abzug, who had started her career as an attorney at a time when very few women did so, and took on civil rights cases in the South long before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1970. I organized “consciousness raising groups” at my house on Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon high in the Hollywood hills. A whole new world began to open up.

Subsequent years, however, would reveal the domination of corporate greed that mandated policies of government and the suppression of civil liberties. It happened right under our noses.
The 1976 fictional film “Network,” written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, tells the story of a TV journalist, who, upon learning that the conglomerate that owns the network is about to be bought out by an even larger Saudi Arabian conglomerate, launches into an on-air diatribe urging the audience to send a message to the White House saying, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more,” in hopes of thwarting the merger.

Later in the film, there is a much more insidious message promulgated by the Chairman of the network who delivers a speech, like the wrath of God, to the journalist in the darkened shadows of a conference room. With the authority of a Messianic leader, the Chairman explains the “corporate cosmology” of the world. He informs the journalist that there are no governments, there are no nations, that “…the world is a college of corporations inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.” A quarter century later, the film seems to have been a prophecy of the shape of things to come.

Up until the time I was about thirty-five years old, I told people I’d had a Norman Rockwell childhood. I thought a picture said a thousand words, and I had a family photo album filled with pictures that looked like they belonged on the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.” But my childhood had not been a bowl of cherries. I wanted a Doris Day life. I had a family that was as dysfunctional as anything in a Tennessee Williams play.

For many years, I felt a deep-rooted shame about my upbringing, especially that my ancestors had owned slaves. I had purposely changed my Southern accent and flattened my breasts because I’d heard men say, “The larger a woman’s breasts, the smaller her IQ.” I wanted more than anything to be acknowledged for the quality of my mind and the nature of my character, rather than as a sex object. But I had thrown the baby out with the bath water. It was only after years of critical self-inspection and searching for a spiritual connection that I came to realize the essence of my heart and soul had come from the South.

GROWING UP SOUTHERN – Stories from the Attic of Childhood Memories is about how the sensibilities of the South shaped and informed the person that I would grow up to be.

 
©2006 Jane Bay - All Rights Reserved