Jonathan Odell: The Language of Home


Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born and raised a white guy in Jim Crow Mississippi. In other words, I missed a hell of lot of what went on around me from my privileged white bubble. Midlife, I moved to Minnesota and was able to see my home state from a distance, which maybe the only way you can really learn about home-from afar. I’ll visit Mississippi as long as my large crop of relatives hang on, and maybe even after that. Any displaced Southerner knows that Tom Wolfe was only half right-you can never go home again, but you can never completely leave either.

The Language of Home

Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

When I began writing, I wanted my novels to be set in my home state of Mississippi, but that presented a problem. As a gay kid, I grew up looking over my shoulder, not at the moon. I white-knuckled it through childhood, without observing the flora and the fauna. I was busy scanning the horizon for enemy fire. 

My writing showed it. It was filled with people with no bodies, no weather, no landscape, no smells, nothing tangible. No setting. The books I escaped into as a child had served me well, but I had missed the details of my own life. I had missed the language of home. I needed help.

When I called my parents, I’m sure they feared I was inviting them to another therapy session in Minnesota to get yelled at about the unchecked drinking, neglect and abandonment. 

“How about this,” I said, trying to assuage their fears, “we’re never going to agree about my childhood, so let’s don’t go there. Instead, Momma, could you show me how to cook a cathead biscuit? And Daddy, could you tell me how you hunt possums?”

They suspected a trap, but I was sincere. Through either age or therapy or both, I was done with yelling at them about my childhood. I had a book to write.

Over the next three years, I came down to spend weeks at a time with my parents. They became my seeing eye-dogs, my interpreters of the South. I asked them the names of shrubs and flowers, the budding times of trees, complexities of weather and the seasons for planting crops, the natural language of home. I went on walks with Mom and instead of talking about her drunkenness and abandonment, I listened as she pointed out flowers by their old-fashioned names: cape jasmine and althea and naked ladies and told me when they bloomed and for how long. 

An astonishing thing happened. As my parents recalled the sensory details of their lives, the telling released the well-kept secrets of their childhoods. When I asked Mom about the growing season of cotton she went on to describe the sharp prick of a cotton boll, the growing heaviness of the cotton sack during the day and how it permanently stooped your shoulders and how after 10 hours in a hot Mississippi sun your fingers would bleed and then mercifully become numb. 

When I asked Mom to tell me how to make biscuits, what came out was not just the recipe but also a specific cold Sunday morning when she was eight and her brother D.W. was still alive, how he liked to stick his finger in the biscuit and fill it with syrup. And how mischievous he was and how sad that he only lived to be three because while running through the house he slipped and tipped over a scalding hot bucket of water the girls were using to clean the floors. How the doctor didn’t come for three days, while the boy lay more still than he had ever been in his young life, unable to bear even the weight of a sheet. How my grandfather sat by the little boy’s bed praying the entire time, and after the boy died, how my grandfather had no further use for a God who would allow that.

And how, when that same man came home drunk from town, her mother would send the children to spend the night in the earthen storm pits where they would sing gospel songs to drown out the sounds of her mother screaming from the blows of her husband.

Riding around in my father’s truck, we didn’t talk about the simmering rage he brought into our home, or how he left it to me to care for his drunken, suicidally depressed wife. Instead we visited the remains of the old homeplace where he was raised. He told me about how his mother had died of an abortion administered by her mother, not wanting to be burdened with another child by her abusive husband, my grandfather. How her plan was to take my father and run off.  Instead she died and left him to be raised by the woman who killed his mother. 

They told me all their stories, some painful and full of abuse, some hopeful and some horrifying. I found that the essence of memory is not stored away as facts, but as stories imbued with smell and touch and sound. 

We three spent hours together, not talking of grievances, or of how we failed each other, but of the earthy details of the world we shared, the one that I had hated and feared and felt so alien to. 

My mother and father changed before my eyes from blundering parents into fascinating characters, whom I could love. As they told me the stories that shaped them, I learned that even though unspoken, these stories had shaped me as well.