Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Mammy and Little Five Points

Dear John,
I found this photo on Pinterest. I'm not sure if the photo or the caption was more fascinating. The caption I found with it told the name and age of the infant and the name of the photographer, then said "smiling African American woman." Did they really not know that this was a southern child with her Mammy? Who on earth wrote that?
So that got me thinking about you, and all the Southernness you had to learn as you got to know me. I want to thank you for being so open-minded and respectful about my Southernness. You were fascinated by the idea of a Mammy, and never questioned my love for the woman who had been mine. It's a relationship belonging to a different time and place. But your respect was total, and that meant so much to me.
I grew up knowing that I'd never marry a Yankee - the cultural differences would be too great to bridge. By my late teens I saw that such a marriage could be workable, but it would take some work. To you, the only difference in our backgrounds was our accents and some culinary eccentricities. Then came UK Homecoming, and a whole bunch of differences blew up in your face.
Remember? Linda Ronstadt was there in concert, but you didn't take me to hear her. You took me to the little, musty Student Center Theater for a showing of Gone With the Wind. And that was a very bad decision. But it led to a very good conversation, and an important one. You thought that, being from the South, I'd love the chance to see the movie. I'd seen it when it was re-released, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta where it had premiered. And I decided I'd never put myself through that horrendous pain again.
Well, I watched it. I snuck a whole box of Kleenex into the theater in my purse. I lost it at the burning of Atlanta and never recovered. I cried to the end, out to the car, and for the next three hours. During those three hours I tried to explain and you tried to understand. Bless you, you were very patient and gentle, and you never said that I should be over it. Which is the reason you survived into your twenties.
For you, the Civil War had been an impersonal study of battles and tactics; for me, it was deaths in my family and the destruction of my homeland. For you, the burning of Atlanta was an obvious military move to shorten the war; for me it was personal - the street hospital location in the movie is Little Five Points, where I grew up shopping. This was my home being burned to the ground.
Then we went a layer deeper. I asked you how you'd feel if that had happened to your home, and you said it wouldn't matter since it was so long ago. As we hashed that out, I came to realize that we Southerners have an attachment to land and peoplehood that most Northerners just don't have. And then we went into the psychological ramifications of having lost a war, of a people having been conquered and occupied.
We sat in the car and talked, while the used-Kleenex pile grew, until after 3 in the morning. It was the only time I came in late enough to have to have the door unlocked, show ID, and sign in. Our security guard saw that I'd been crying, and bless his heart, he stopped me and made sure that I was okay and nobody had hurt me. And he understood my point of view, too.
You wonderful man! You never laughed, or dismissed or invalidated anything, or thought your view was superior to mine. You were actually fascinated by the whole thing. You were delighted to have found these hitherto-unknown depths in me - you said it just gave you so much more to learn about me and from me. Somebody throw a net over this man and marry him! Which, of course, I did. And for over 36 years it was a joke between us that you never would take me to a Linda Ronstadt concert.
I'm grateful for that night, for the mistake in judgment that sent us to the movie instead of the concert, and for all the time and effort you spent trying to understand me as well as you possibly could. You were still figuring out Southerners when we were in Greenville for a month in the summer of 2004 closing my parents' house. You never quit wanting to learn more and understand better. In the last months of your life you had Leadbelly on in the car, with me translating his lyrics line by line for you. And from you I learned that some people actually believe that Leadbelly has an accent of some sort.
To try to sum up: Thank you for respecting not only who I am, but where I came from and who my people are. Thank you for not minding that there were things about me that you'd never completely understand. Thank you for taking me just as I was and loving me. Thank you for loving me, the real me, and not some image that you'd projected onto me. Thank you for being the world's only perfect man. And the great wonder is that you achieved that rank without even being Southern!
Love you with all my little Southern pea-picking heart,

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