Tales of High Cotton, Part Two

(When I was fifteen, my father took us on a Spring Break road trip through the Deep South with his girlfriend, her sons and their Norwegian exchange student. This is the true story of what happened. Serialized, because long. The first part is here.)

iv.

The Illinois State Memorial at the Vicksburg battlefield is a domed marble temple that looks like the kind of place you might sacrifice a goat or a daughter on the way to fight Trojans. I’ve been stretched out on the cool floor of its portico for about fifteen minutes. My official excuse is that I’m trying to shoot an artful picture of the blue sky between the columns. The actual deal is that I’m sleepy and I hate the battlefield and everybody visiting the battlefield and the history that made the battlefield necessary. I eavesdrop on visitors It’s just so sad what happened to the confederates. I think it’s awfully suspicious that our southern boys didn’t get fancy memorials like this. Why do you think that is? And because I’m fifteen, I just keep repeating, “Because you were on the evil side and you lost, dummy” under my breath and start making up a story about a southern belle who burns down her father’s house, runs off with the union army and ends up in New York running a combination theater/dancehall with a bunch of attractive, if impoverished immigrants on the Lower East Side and even though she’s broke she never once feels a twinge of regret or considers going home because literally everything and everyone sucks there.

 A battlefield park ranger gives me a side-eye and suggests I find somewhere else to rest. I shuffle back down to the minivan, which smells like Doritos and farts, and ask Dad’s girlfriend if we’ll leave soon or if we’re going to ride out the siege. She thinks this is funny and laughs. I stand with her against the side of the car, thinking that she’s beautiful and genuinely kind and smart and I can’t figure out what she sees in my dad. The kids come bounding through the grass followed by Frederick and my father, snapping his own photos. We trundle into the van to drive on to the next grand monument to the Union Dead. I talk loudly about the attractiveness of Ulysses S. Grant.

A toxic combination of heat, hunger and collective annoyance at Civil War history finally curtails the battlefield visit after about another hour. By that time, Frederick’s in a foul mood, my sister is near tears and I’m furious enough at lost causes that  more than twenty years later I will find vengeance by forcing my otherwise disinterested father to spend several chilly, gray, rainy hours at  Culloden as payback. Dad announces that he wants to drive a bit before we get lunch. This decision incites the starving masses into a van-wide scrounge for the last remaining crumbs of snacks. I reluctantly surrender the last of my granola bar, as Dad’s girlfriend recommends an alternate plan. Maybe we should just stop at McDonalds. Dad demurs, as he pulls onto the scenic, rural highway you may know from a Dusty Springfield song, and insists that we’ll certainly find something better, something healthy and authentic, just down the road apiece. I’m dubious. And after miles of absolutely nothing save abandoned churches and heavy greenery, Dad’s girlfriend referees a fistfight between her two sons over a single peanut M&M and forces the issue. We take a less scenic, more rural highway into a ghost town full of empty-looking mansions and a Depression-era downtown.

There’s no fast food but Dad points out a small grocery on an otherwise empty block of Main Street and assures us it will be full of wholesome fruits and vegetables, perfect for me and his girlfriend to make lunch! I think this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard and find seethe at the notion that I should be responsible for making lunch. I tell Dad that he’s a chauvinist and I’d rather die than make him a sandwich and stomp out of the van   It is gloomy and unairconditioned in the shop. The Stars and Bars-hatted gentleman behind the counter greets us with a look of pure contempt as we peruse sparse shelves of Vienna sausages and fishing tackle. We end up buying mustard, American cheese, white bread and some perplexing variety of off-brand Frito with a horse on the label. Dad’s girlfriend pays and seems about as peeved as I am, which is probably why she lets me grumble about my father all the way back to the van. I stop to take some pictures of decaying mansions and insist I’m not hungry. The children make disgusting white bread balls moist with hand grease and Frito dust. I cue up Private Idaho so I don’t have to hear anyone chew, but before I do I hear Dad saying something about Authentic South and ask how I thought my life would be if I grew up in a place like this.

I think it’s unlikely I’d survive long in a place like this. I don’t even mean that as a joke. Bad enough you assholes brought me up in hippie Appalachia, but this . . .I sigh, “This town is hell, Dad. I’d rather kill myself than live here” and put on my headphones before he has a chance to respond.

v.

It’s less than 80 miles between Vicksburg and Natchez. Somehow trip takes us five hours. Warp zones and alien forcefields are weakly suggested. I know for a fact that we inexplicably backtracked for an hour or so because I studied the map for a while. The reality of what Dad’s short cuts and scenic routes actually are, what they really mean, and how much time they will waste have slowly started to dawn on everyone that does not share his surname. By the time we check into the motel, everyone is grouchy, gross, hungry and spoiling for a fight

In a rare moment of clarity, Dad ascertains that he’s in clear danger of a mutiny, possibly even a violent one, and recommends we all go downtown for a nice dinner at an historic inn he remembers from childhood. Everyone showers. I put on a dress. Frederick puts on a shirt with a collar. It’s rosy dusk when we glide into town past the superb neoclassical birthday cakes of the historic district. All of them are well lit, well maintained and stir  complicated feelings that I decide not to talk about.

The concierge at the Inn tells us one of the houses is owned by tanned celebrity George Hamilton and another by Hari Krishnas The latter are particularly reviled by the local socialites. “They do so spoil the Pilgrimage. Nobody like seeing a bunch of bald hippies in orange bedsheets among our fine ladies in period costume,” he says.

“Period costume means hoopskirts,” I say to Frederick, though he doesn’t seem interested. He’s taking in the lobby and all of its ferns and shutters and wicker and floral chintz. He probably thinks it’s not very metal. I think it’s a bit on the nose, including the obsequious team of elderly black waiters in bow ties and white jackets hovering over our table to ensure we never see the naked bottom of an iced tea glass. The kids are making forts out of napkin rings and saltshakers. I watch them for a moment and wonder if I shouldn’t try to make a point about the complicated racial politics at play in the dining room or the fact that my father seems to be indicating that the black men in the white jackets are, in fact, what makes this place “fancy.” I consider the fact that we’re all starving, save my father, who seems perfectly content to pick at a salad after a whole day of nothing but stale Wonderbread and mustard sandwiches, and decide I should probably eat something before I say something inflammatory in a dining room I imagine to be thick with Klan members and Boss Hog types. I order two fried appetizers and don’t even care that Frederick can see me eat them.

After dinner, Frederick announces that he’s going for a walk. I go with him. We wander out into the otherwise silent streets. There’s not much to Natchez, but we dawdle through the lamplight down to the river. I walk close enough to him to know how he smells—clean, but not American. He makes a comment about the end of the Cold war and I’m thrilled he wants to discuss European History instead of the South. I find the way he says Moscow kind of sexy. I wonder if people think we’re a couple. I hope so because the lamplight is flattering and it’s probably hard to see all of my zits in the gloom. We could kiss now. We could totally kiss.

But instead I start talking about the news. Because I want to appear smart. Because I want to appear progressive and radical and not southern.  I ask his opinions on pertinent issues of the day.  His answers horrify me and by the time we’re at the river, we’re arguing about saving the rainforest, an issue I have several t-shirts about.

He says: “The  only way you’re going to fix the problem is to get rid of the indigenous people in Brazil and all of the foolish Latin Americans—either bombing or prison—and take over. Because they are too stupid to save it themselves. Those people down there are not like us. They are like children. They have no sense of their own welfare.”

And this is when I stop dead in my tracks, thinking I’ve spent the last few days crushing on this Scandinavian douchebag in order avoid dealing with this whole Deep South thing and it turns out this selfsamedouchebag is a giant racist. The call is coming from inside the house. I sniff. “I think you’re a fucking nazi,” I say, because it seems accurate and sounds harsh and is really the only thing I can think of to say. He laughs and tells me I’m a stupid American. I turn and fast walk back to the hotel.

He comes in later, aggrieved perhaps, but unapologetic. I resolve to ignore him entirely, completely for the rest of the trip.

Dad’s girlfriend pulls me aside at the motel to ask if I’m okay. I tell her what happened, expecting her to be horrified. She equivocates. His English is not perfect. Maybe he didn’t mean— But I’m sure he did. I’m sure.

That night I wake up sweating out of a dream about getting picked up by the Gestapo and forced to make mustard sandwiches at gunpoint.

The Gestapo, of course, is six  Fredericks in matching black uniforms.

 

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Sisters

My little sister was born a couple days after the fourth of July. I remember standing with my very pregnant mother, a few days beforehand on a warm summer afternoon among the twisty dogwood trees on the bank over the lake dam. I asked her when the baby was coming. She told me soon. Again, we went through the what happens—I have a little suitcase packed, your dad will take me to the hospital, somebody will come to take care of you until your grandmother gets to town. Again, I tried not to worry about my mother leaving in the middle of the night. Again I wished for a sister. Boys ruined everything. If I had to have a sibling, it should definitely be a girl.

We called the baby “Robertini” in utero, because we’re the sort of family that has weird names for everything. I credit my father. Want to feel Robertini kick? What to pick out a toy for Robertini’s crib? I don’t think my parents knew the sex of the baby beforehand. But I remember she was always going to be Sara or Caitlin or Sara Caitlin. Even with the names, I still worried Robertini might be a boy. It wouldn’t be the first time my parents were caught unawares. My nursery had been decorated in a green and white with Peter Rabbit pillows. I was supposed to have been a boy named Thomas Butler. Tom for short. I turned out a girl, not even a proper tomboy, and my name always felt like an afterthought. I worried Robertini might suffer the same fate. And what might his name be? Mom liked Mitchell. Dad didn’t. I liked Octavius or Tiberius or maybe Ferdinand, but no one asked for my opinion. I figured they’d probably just go with Robertini. It sounded like a fine name to me.

I watched my parents set up the room across the landing from mine. They put together the crib, stacked fluffy things on flat surfaces, hung a mobile made of tiny wooden airplanes that played a music box version of “Fly Me To The Moon.” My mother said this used to hang over your crib. I tried to remember it so hard it made my head hurt in my nose. We opened Mom’s big steamer trunk, full of her old evening gowns and sparkling shoes and fancy keepsakes. She pulled out stacks of pastel baby gowns and bonnets, silver rattles, soft blankets. When you were little your Nana and I dressed you like a doll. We bought little French dresses and tiny shoes and hats and sometimes you’d wear five dresses in a day. You were the prettiest baby. I didn’t think it was fair that Robertini might get to wear my pretty baby dresses, even though I couldn’t wear my pretty baby dresses anymore. Mom cooed over them and I pouted because she wouldn’t give me a single one of my old dresses to dress my dolls.

I remember what I dreamed the night my sister was born. I was in an old hotel mostly empty, painted pale green and full of bright light through windows. A scarecrow lived there. Everyone was afraid of him, though he ended up being kind, just lonely and misunderstood. I played him the song from “The Rescuers” on a record player in the empty hotel dining room and told him we could be friends. I woke up crying and realized all of the lights were on and my parents were not in their beds. I padded downstairs and discovered that my best friend’s mother was in the kitchen. “Your mom and dad have gone to the hospital,” she said. “The baby is coming.”

I felt slightly annoyed that I wasn’t invited to come along, that somehow my father was deemed more useful than I. I went back to my room and shut the door and played paperdolls until morning and my grandmother’s arrival.

I had a dress picked out well in advance to wear to the hospital. It was white with red piping and cap sleeves, printed with tiny red apples and hand smocked by my mother. I wasn’t overly fond of it, as it lacked both tulle and sequins, but Mom had been awfully proud of herself for making it so I begrudgingly wore it in her honor. When Nana arrived she helped me brush my hair and manage the cowlick that created a tiny version of Natural Bridge out of my bangs in the center of my forehead. I was grumpy. Nana took me out for ice cream and records on the way to the hospital. She was genuinely impressed at my firm handle on local geography. What a good little navigator you are! I beamed and figured a superb sense of direction was quality that would compare favorably to Robertini’s limited skillset.

Mom was at the hospital without the nuns, which I found disappointing, because I liked nuns and I had lots of questions for them Are all of you good singers? What sort of underwear do you wear? How, in fact, do you solve a problem like Maria? Monks: actually kind of creepy, right?

I ran into Mom’s room. She seemed less excited to see me than I ‘d hoped.

“Where’s Robertini?”

Everyone looked at me like a crazy person so I asked louder.

“Your little sister is in the nursery,” said my mother. “Her name is not Robertini, but Sara. Sara Elizabeth.”

I thought it was supposed to be Caitlin.

“I couldn’t call her Caitlin. She wasn’t a Caitlin,” said my mother. “She was an Elizabeth. She came into the world like an empress.”

In retrospect,  I’m not sure which part of this I took harder, the fact that I could no longer refer to my hypothetical sibling as Robertini or that my mother could look me, her firstborn, her already-alit-with-imperial-ambition-but-saddled-with-the-most-common-of-commoner’s-names child straight in the eyes and tell me she’d named her other daughter after the actual queen.

I was so mad that I threw a small tantrum on the way to the nursery. My over-generous grandfather bribed me to stop crying with M&Ms and pocket money. Settled down, I stood at the window looking at the weird squirming mostly bald humans in their glass boxes. My grandmother pointed out my sister. She had more hair than most Just like you when you were that age but otherwise unremarkable. The people around me all cooed. I sulked. I couldn’t figure out what made a baby so interesting. I didn’t know why anyone would want a baby. Babies couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t talk to you or perform song and dance numbers or navigate their grandmother across town. Stupid baby, I thought. Why would anyone need a baby when they have a me?

 Truth be told, I was an asshole about the baby for a while. I’d been an only child for almost six years. I wasn’t a little girl particularly moved to nurture (I loathed playing house) and was, at best, befuddled by what I was supposed to do with this infant now demanding my parents’ attention. People came to see her; people brought her presents and seemed, in all ways, not interested in me. To add insult to injury, the older she got, the cuter she got. What an adorable child, they’d say in the line at the grocery store, talking about the baby riding on top of the buggy, not the one sitting cross-legged, sulking on the shelf beneath.

My mother exhorted me to spend time with her, but how do you . . . what do you do with a baby? She seemed as wary of me as I of her. She didn’t like it when I tried to hold her. She cried when I came into the room. It’s not personal. Babies cry, said my mother. And I’d go upstairs or outside or into the sunroom and put my fingers in my ears and know my mother was dead wrong. It was personal. The baby didn’t like me. And that was fine, I thought. I don’t have to like you either.

So it was and so it is that I don’t remember exactly when it was that I realized my sister was my sister, not just a random baby, not some inexplicable, inconvenient presence, but a person. I don’t remember the precise circumstances—where we were, what we were doing, how the weather was—but like most great love affairs, the start of ours came out of nowhere, the kind of crashing, dumbfounding epiphany that’s too clumsy to exist outside of a  romcom or an undergraduate fiction workshop. I was sitting. She crawled over and sat beside me, sat against me, of her own volition. She didn’t say anything, but I felt her warm tiny body against my own lonely, weirded out stupid baby self and suddenly I knew, ineluctably knew, that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that  could never let anything happen to her and that she was precious to me in the most pure and perfect sense.

This is not to say that were instant friends and peaceful siblings from then on. As children, we were not much alike in interest or temperament. She liked numbers. I liked narrative. She gravitated toward the kind, soft and beautiful. I sought out vulgar, difficult and strange. She wanted control. I preferred chaos. She was superstitious. I was skeptical. She was stubborn, single-minded, prone to hold grudges. I was quick to explosive, uncontrollable anger, but fast to forgive and desperate to forget. Our childhood fights were epic. Our adult squabbles infamous. Love came like a bolt, an understanding on an almost cellular level, but liking was a whole other ballgame. It took us the rest of my childhood for us to become cautious friends. We wouldn’t become close friends of the soul-baring, drunk dialing ohmygodimissyousomuchyourcrazybastard variety until a sunny, boozy marathon tour of Europe sometime after her freshman year of college and my twenty-fourth birthday when I think we stumbled (perhaps literally) into the shared realization that we brought out the best in each other and usually  had more fun together than apart.

Today is my sister’s birthday. We are each ages I could not have imagined decades ago when I twirled outside my mother’s hospital room in my smocked apple dress waiting for a sibling to change my life completely. And here’s what I can tell you about her: she’s an extraordinary woman—beautiful, smart, accomplished, hilarious, magical. She’s my confidante, my hero and inexplicably, my biggest cheerleader, even when I know I don’t I deserve it. I am genuinely her biggest fan, even when she thinks I’m just kissing her ass. It is my privilege to know her, to see her become all that she is and all that she will be. She is the greatest gift my parents ever gave me. And I love her. I’d do anything for her. I won’t let anything happen to her. She is precious to me, in the most pure and perfect sense.

Happy Birthday, Queen Robertini.

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