Joan Brooks Baker : …where you ever gonna belong, chile? : Memoir : July 2019

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in New York with dyed-in-the wool Southern parents. They arrived in the city during The Depression determined “to make it,” as my father said, and they did. But they brought along with them the Southern rulebook of “shoulds” and expectations, which I called The Magnolia Code, and to which I, as a little girl named Cactus Pete, rebelled against.

I learned that you cannot erase your past but instead you can risk to find yourself: by including parts of your heritage, by daring to take new paths, and by hopefully living with the consequences. As my Aunt Billie often quoted Oscar Wilde—in her messed up way—“might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

…where you ever gonna belong, chile?

  Uncle Itch, my eccentric and wild uncle on his journeys to New York from the South, teased me as a little girl: “You’re just a little damn Yankee girl. Where you ever gonna belong, chile?” He laughed as he swung me up in the air, and even though I giggled, I was a perplexed innocent child, not knowing what he meant, just that it wasn’t good. I stored the question somewhere in my head.

Aunt Luna and Cora

On vacations when visiting Aunt Luna, married to Mother’s brother Uncle Jack in Corwith, I wondered what it would be like to grow up in the South. People my age were different from my New York friends; at times so proper, so unbelievably polite. Alicia and I laughed how they ended every sentence with “Ma’am or Sir.”  “They sure do “Ma’am” a lot,” Alicia said.  

There also was a sultry, slightly improper side. At the age of fourteen on a hot summertime night, Aunt Luna said we could go off with two nice boys to the drive-in. We saw the 1958 steamy, film, The Long Hot Summer, and it was that film, a small jug of Mint Juleps, plus the kisses in the back seat of Knox’s car, that made the experience a great one. I missed the point of the movie but not the positive feeling that the film exactly represented the languid temperature of the South, and it felt just right. Southern boys danced differently from Northern ones, at least that’s what I remember. Maybe the heat slowed the dancing, but hot hands held onto each other and the sweet-nothing whispering was dreamy, calculated to make you think you were the “one.”  “They’re taught to behave in that Southern way, that appeal to the hidden delights of gentle but urgent needs. I think it’s the humidity,” Aunt Billie laughed.  “Anyway, they get to you; your father has that charm. You just can’t resist it.” 

         I liked the taste of Mint Juleps. On summer nights in the country, Father would tell Alicia and me, “Go cut me some mint; get the pretty ones, no brown tips. Now, take that hammer, Joanie, and crush those ice cubes.” He would laugh as I put my strength into hitting the ice bag on the floor. Father then added the sugar, mint and bourbon, slowly pouring the liquid over the slivers of ice into a silver mint julep goblet. I must have had early-age sips of the Juleps as now I hate the scent and taste of bourbon. But I do own those goblets.

             Aunt Luna and Uncle Jack had stayed on in Corwith, with no desire to leave the South. Their home, Mother’s growing-up house, became a meaningful center of town for times of fun, cocktails and civic concern. Luna was full of life. She moved around her “everything must be painted puce green” kitchen with ease, baking, frying, never bothering to take off those big rings. Dinner rings she called them—but she wore them all the time —even cooking, so they weren’t just for dinner-time. Huge pins of butterflies with sapphires and rubies peaked over the top of her apron. I told her I loved one particular pin. She said she’d leave it to me when the fine day came that the Lord might allow her into heaven. Luna was never under-dressed.  She wore a thin flower-patterned skirt and matching top, cool for the Carolina heat, but on her legs and feet were stockings pushed into low-heeled, slightly fancy shoes.  That was the Southern woman’s look, “always ready for hospitality,” Mother said.

              Alicia and I would sit on the porch swing on either side of Luna, swaying back and forth looking to catch a breeze in that humidity.  Between Luna’s big jangly bracelets worn on her left arm and the stabbing rings on her right hand her squeezes—when punctuating a thought—made us yell, “Ow, Aunt Luna, ow, ow, that hurts.” 

“Lawsy, what’s the matter with you two pretty little girls, it’s just a sweet ole love squeeze?” 

The porch, a fifteen foot distance from the sidewalk, was long and wide enough to have two seating areas with a table in the middle, spread beautifully with two cut-glass bowls—one for pecans and another for cheese straws. Anyone walking in front of the house would call out, “Hey there, Miss Luna, what you doing on this hot day? Those your two favorite nieces?”

“Yes’m, they surely are, and we are just havin’ the best of times, right now enjoying some sweet iced tea. You come onto the porch and join us, if you like. If you don’t want iced tea, the other decanter is full of sherry.” The scent from the mint hanging over the edges of our silver tea goblets and the sweet fragrance of the camellias, cut and displayed on a blue and white elegant plate, gave the setting an atmosphere of Southern graciousness on a slow-moving day.  Everything at Aunt Luna’s displayed comfort and beauty.

Luna’s accent, so thick and Southern in a non-stop discourse —many times one-sided—was interrupted and exaggerated by rolling laughs. During one visit, while she was making aspic salad for lunch, I was the willing recipient of her chatter, “I just came from the jail and I told that judge, I said, Judge, my cook Cora should have shot that man, she was absolutely right. Why, I encouraged her, Judge, him mean as a snake like that to her; sometimes you just got to, who cares the consequences. Shoot him again, I say. And, anyway, he’s not even dead.”  

“Great, Luna, you really told that judge, what did he say?” I asked with eyes wide open.

“Good grief, he just said something moronic about laws and that it’s up to the police.   So I said to him, so when are the police on the side of my wonderful Cora. Just tell me that, Judge, go on, tell me.

“But Joanie, right about then my anger was too hot boiling up in me. I thought I’d better leave. I mean what are those people thinking? Well, they’re not thinking, just their own stupid thoughts is all. That judge, oh he’s probably head of the KKK.”  

With that Luna quietly edged across the room to take a nip from the glass of bourbon hidden behind the puce-green radio. She thought I wasn’t looking and I pretended I wasn’t.

“But, Luna, you say damn the outcome, but what will happen to Cora?”   

“Oh Lord, I don’t know. I do want to scream sometimes. Just stand up and scream.  It hurts my heart for Cora.”   

“Funny you say that. Sometimes, Aunt Luna, I too want to scream. Last week I was at a school concert and I wanted to yell right in the middle of it—just to see people’s reactions, or to see if I’d faint. To scream—and then walk out.”  

Aunt Luna looked at me and then fell out—as she would say—laughing:  “Oh I’d love to see your mother’s face, oooh, she’d have a fit, she would just have had herself a fit. She being so proper and lady-like. She probably wants to scream herself. I think about her, Joanie, yes, I do.”  

“You do, what do you think about her?”  

“Oh, she’s never been very happy, and I’m sorry for that. She cares too much what other people think, all those rules. She’s stuck and she can’t scream.”

“Rules, I’m not very good at rules. I get in trouble a lot.”

“Well, you have to follow some rules, that is for sure. But sometimes you got to choose, best thing is to stand up for yourself, and that can be plum hard, just like Cora shooting that ornery husband and, well, just like this cooking lesson here. There you are writing things down like it’s an actual recipe…there just isn’t any recipe. I said “throw in a world of salt, give the pan a big shake, butter, butter —Lord, put in a load of butter and that’s it. Now, you can’t really write that down, can you Joanie, you have to get the feel for cooking, like choosing, you have to choose what you know feels good.” I listened and laughed, and thought about what she called feel-good choices. I figured I would learn to make the cake another time. 

She hesitated, “Oh, Lord, best get this fried chicken on the stove.  I make the best fried chicken. You knows that, everybody knows that,” she said, chuckling to herself, to whomever…. “Go on, explain more about what you think of rules, I can do two things at once. But, I want to tell you that you just gotta know what lives down deep inside you and then take a chance.”

            Ain’t Nothin’ Happen Here, Lady

On a hot May afternoon in 1965 three of us drove our rental car into the gas station in Selma, Alabama. The big-paunched and very white gas attendant looked over at me while he was pumping gas, “You fixin’ to do something to this car, tires look mighty down—needs help, just like that old Chevy over there,” he said chuckling and nodding toward a truck with a big vine sticking out the front window. “Same as me,” he yawned, “plum wore out.”

“Gas will do it right now, thanks.  We’re heading toward Georgia; just came across the bridge there,” I pointed toward the Selma bridge, “King and the march. Pretty important spot right there, isn’t it?” I said with naive assurance.

The attendant wiped his hands slowly on a dirty cloth and gave me a side-ways sneer.  “Ain’t nothin happen on that bridge, ain’t nothin’ happen here, lady. You hear me?  Now why don’t you jes pay for the gas and git on down the road, don’t make me more tired.”

Cynthia from Alabama and Andrew, her close friend from England, and I were driving through the South, visiting relatives, showing Andrew our version of Southern culture.  Part of the journey was to compare home-made mayonnaise, made by Aunt Luna or Cynthia’s Aunt Emma. Cynthia called the trip the home-made mayonnaise bake-off journey.  Andrew, the foreigner, would be the judge.

“Jesus, that man is scary, let’s get out of here,” spat out Andrew.  

“Dirty bigot, what does he know?” Cynthia added.

                  But what actually did we really know of the march across the Selma bridge. We knew the historic names, we knew who the heroes were: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the four young girls who died in a church fire in Birmingham, the white people/celebrities who joined the march. We had pictures in our memory’s eye: the images on TV of attacking dogs, the hatred on the faces of white boys and girls jeering at black students entering the 1963 newly integrated Alabama University. 

Were we naive, were we at all insensitive to the angry man, shoving him aside by thinking of him merely as a racist, not giving a care to his fear that the black man was gaining power over him, might take his job, might even marry his daughter? We were three young privileged white people with not well-thought-out questions in our Civil Rights knowledge: what the reality was of the black versus white life in the South.  

By the time we reached Highway 90 and took a right to Monticello, Georgia, to my Grandmother’s birth place, and had stopped to talk to people at fruit stands, cafés and one 

hardware store, our gap of understanding was slowly, very slowly beginning to diminish.  

The guide book said Monticello was “the old deep south cotton plantation country,” a small town of tree-lined streets, antebellum homes and a courthouse, even an opera house. Nothing was left of Grandmother’s plantation as it had been burned down in the Civil War.

I hardly knew her; Grandmother died when I was seven but I remember her petite yet formidable presence. She would visit us in the summer and we would write poetry and prose together, or at least she kindly included me as one of the authors. Her topics were history, family—all with religious undertones. One of her short stories was about Mammy, her children’s nurse who had been born a slave. She loved Mammy in that Southern way, with compassion and care but with an assurance that Mammy’s plight in life was God’s Will.  To Grandmother, Mammy was child-like and lived only for service and honor to Grandmother’s family. In “My Memories of Mammy” Grandmother wrote that on Mammy’s one hundredth birthday, she had asked her “Mammy, what do you want the Lord to give you when you go up to Heaven? She replied to Grandmother, without hesitation, ‘I wants a pretty garden full of lil chillun and I hopes my Jesus will let me be de Mammy ob dem all—and dats all I wants.” 

            We stopped outside Monticello by the banks of the unspoiled Suwanee river. The three of us lay in the grass dreaming in that hot half-asleep time of afternoon. The words of the gas attendant, “Ain’t nothin happen here, lady” were lost for the moment. I imagined my grandmother on her family’s veranda looking out over the plantation’s lush green toward the beckoning cool stream on a summer’s day; a bucolic life, really. The day on the Selma bridge for Grandmother was in the far-off future. I thought of family moments, Uncle Itch’s teasing words, “Where you ever gonna belong, chile?” I knew I wanted to go South to find the answer…if there was one.

One of the books I re-read for our Southern journey was the story of Br’er Rabbit from the Tales of Uncle Remus. Years ago—I was probably seven—my family visited our cousin’s plantation in South Carolina. I particularly remember the Spanish moss hanging from every tree shadowing the endless porch. Alicia and I wanted to run into the fields, but cousin Jim Davis said the snakes had come out in full force. “Instead y’all go on with Old Joe here back to the barn; he’s gonna read you some stories ‘bout Br’er Rabbit. We call Joe Uncle Remus cuz of his beautiful white head of hair and beard.” I looked at “Uncle Remus’s” old lined face and saw him nod and heard a chuckle, “Yes’m, y’all can call me Uncle Remus.” Alicia and I sat with him in the barn and listened intently to the stories, mesmerized by his accent, not caring that we could hardly understand a word.

In the stories Br’er Rabbit was portrayed as a trickster fooling his fellow animals, but now I have recently learned that the tales were actually created in order to teach slaves how to overcome their ‘marsters,’ how their cleverness, their deep-down resources could outwit the authorities. White people thought the anecdotes were sweet tales for children, not survival teachings.   

“What would Br’er Rabbit’s creativity say to the man who boasted “ain’t nothin happen here, lady?” We pondered the thought, but we weren’t clever or scared enough to know.

Throughout the trip Andrew fiddled with the radio, obsessed with finding the local Gospel stations. “Bessie Smith, can’t we find her?” Andrew mumbled. 

“Have you ever heard Nina Simone sing Strange Fruit?” Cynthia asked.  “It’s a song Southerners don’t want to know about. Black bodies swinging in the Southern Breeze.  Strange fruit hangin’ on the Poplar trees. 

With this new information, we silently drove on in the lush beauty of Georgia and crossed the border into the middle part of South Carolina, agricultural country. Then into the eastern part of the state where the scent of the sea, not ten miles to the east, was heady. We were north of Charleston, about one hour. Aunt Emma’s house was planted on the banks of the tidal river, the Cooper. Cynthia told us that it was the only house left standing on the family’s large rice plantation. “She’s lived there forever, married a Harbor Pilot, a real character named Rabbit.”

“Another Rabbit?” asked Andrew.

“This Rabbit’s a charming good-looking Southern bigot. He had a lot of luck, some say. Wait till you see their plantation.”

Yvette, the cook, greeted us and said that Aunt Emma was lying low and sick in bed with the shades drawn. “But Mr. Rabbit, he’s takin’ care of y’all, nothin’ he loves more than that.”

Rabbit showed us around the plantation, the rice fields, the slave quarters and the mill.  He told stories about the Southern bravery and the fights on this land. “And Yvette, she prepares a great dinner every few months for our group. We call ourselves The Boys of Dixie.”  

“What do you mean?”

“The dinner?  It’s for the memory of those who fought valiantly in the War between the States. We sit around, tell stories, drink a bit.” 

“And Yvette caters the dinner? A black woman cooking for all you boys while you sing Dixie?”  Our mouths were open with the incredulousness of his insensitivity.

“How’s that?” Rabbit asked with a questioning stare.  “She doesn’t mind, we’re good to sweet Yvette, we love her,” now his voice rose with irritation.

On our return to the house, we immediately went to Yvette and asked about her catering for The Boys of Dixie. “How could you do that for those entitled little boys?” I asked her.

“I did, I made some good money. But I do have a story for you, ya’ll gonna like this,” Yvette answered.  “Yes, for about five years I catered that party, cooked fried chicken, barbecue, all the fixins and those men, they just loved it all.  I heard the stories they were saying ‘bout us—black people this, black people that, and having themselves a laugh.  At first I didn’t really care as I charged them a heap of money, maybe a little more than usual being who they were. So all was fine until one day I walked into Mr. Rabbit’s office room, a new toy he’d been given sat on the floor at the door. And, y’all know what that was?  It was one of those little Nigger boys ‘bout a foot tall holding the door. That was it… I said to Mr. Rabbit:  ‘What do you think you’re doing with that door stop? You just take that and throw it somewhere. I was deep down mad. Mr. Rabbit, well he got himself into an angry place too and said that he didn’t mean anything by it and he would put it somewhere, but that night “The Boys are coming for dinner and they gave it to me.”

“So, I thought and thought,” Yvette went on. I made them boys a stew, a very good okra stew, but I added—not just a little, but a cupful of a special herb. You know the one, the herb that treats constipation—called Senna. After dinner when I saw them all runnin’ for the bathroom, I had myself the biggest laugh. And that was that, the little black boy went into the trash and nothin’ more was said.” 

  “Oh, that’s so good, Yvette. Guess they were stupid enough to not understand the meaning of ‘never say anything bad to the Chef.’”

Yvette rubbed her neck and we were quiet to let her answer. “You know, there’s that little niggling spot in all of us where we just don’t recognize our own weakness.

“Oh, I almost forgot, your Aunt Emma made you some mayonnaise yesterday before she took to her bed.”

“Yvette, tomorrow’s Sunday, do you think we could go to the Methodist black church in town?” I asked. “We’d love to hear the music.”

“Hmmm, that might be real hard right now with all the trouble. I’m not too sure you’d be welcome. But,” she hesitated, “you could park outside.  The music’s plenty loud comin’ through the open windows. Ya’ll could do that, but I wouldn’t mention it to Mr. Rabbit.”

  Aunt Emma still felt ill the next morning but we called to her through the bedroom door that we were walking to church a few blocks away. She thought we meant her Presbyterian Church. “Oh well, that’s probably a good thing but I warn you, that Minister could bore the curl right out of your hair.”

“And Aunt Emma, that is some delicious mayonnaise.”

“I am delighted. When you return, I’ll be up and we’ll make a kitchen-sink-tomato sandwich. Do you know what that is?”

“Can’t imagine.”

“So, you see, you put so much mayonnaise on the tomato sandwich, you have to lean over the sink to let the mayonnaise run down your arm.” We could hear Aunt Emma give herself a big laugh.

Sitting in an un-obvious place under the trees, we watched as the church-goers’ hats, dressy dresses and striped business suits emerge from cars and sway a bit to the music leading them inside the church.

We heard the minister start:  “Today we’re going to celebrate the rivers, particularly our beautiful Cooper Tidal River here in Medford.  We give thanks to this water of life that gives energy to our crops and to the beauty of the land. And with equal importance, we recognize the river as a symbol of freedom, as the good Bible tells us. Here we go, the choir will begin our thanks this morning with Sam Cooke’s song of courageous protest, A Change is Gonna Come.”  

The choir and band played, the congregation joined in. The two lines of the chorus rang out:  

I was born by the river in a little tent

Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gon’come, oh yes it will.

Heading North from Aunt Emma’s for a visit to Cousin Robin’s gave us more moments of Southern wonder—good and bad—and provided more tastes of the relatives’ home-made mayonnaise. No one really won the contest; “It’s a draw,” Andrew said politely. 

One day at noon we experienced a disturbing moment. Parked by a dusty roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere, Andrew went in to find seats. A room on the left was filled with five tables of white people eating just what we wanted—grits and sausage. The man behind the counter looked at Andrew, heard his English accent and said, with that same slur we’d heard at the Selma bridge gas station, “Yeah, we’re open but we don’t serve lunch.“

Andrew started his retort with “I don’t understand, I see all those people…” but he quickly knew to walk out, feeling the man’s piercing eyes on the back of his beige linen jacket.

Hurrying to the car, Andrew reported, “Plenty of room, they don’t serve lunch, scary, let’s go.”   

“And that’s just the way it is down here in the gallant South.” Cynthia from Alabama, commented.  

Joan Brooks Baker