Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Mobile, Ala., to parents whose ancestors lived throughout the southern parts of Alabama. My parents’ divorce eventually migrated me to the most Southern place on Earth, the Mississippi Delta. I was raised in the Delta, went to college at Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, and am now married and raising two mostly behavin’ kids in the Pine Belt of Mississippi.
Granny’s Bowl Rode Shotgun: A Musing on the Things We Carry with Us
The truths of my mostly Mississippi childhood can be summed up as follows: We moved around a lot, and no one could touch Granny’s mixing bowl but Mama. In those frequent moves, these realities would collide; and there was no use arguing with my sister about who would sit in the front seat, because Granny’s bowl had already called shotgun, cocooned lovingly there in threadbare towels and held still by a seatbelt, in all of its inanimate glory.
Granny’s bowl is this ugly crockery mixing bowl crackled with shades of beige and brown, and, as you might can guess, once belonged to my mother’s grandmother. I doubt seriously this was a store-bought bowl – it’s far too utilitarian and imperfect and wholly unaesthetically pleasing to have been commercially produced by any right-thinking entrepreneur. Somehow Mama ended up with this bowl, and to this day, it is her most prized possession. Growing up, we’d watch her use that bowl to mix up brownies and cakes and our favorite Christmas sweets; and then under Mama’s hawk-like stare, my sister and I would hand-wash that bowl, dry it meticulously, and then put it back up in the cabinet with the same level of intensity and care as, say, as a squad leader overseeing a bomb retrieval. Up it would go, waiting for the next suitably important baking occasion to arrive.
The bigger truth, though, is that we grew up in a museum of my mother’s making, surrounded by things that once belonged to someone else.
There’s a breakfront with china and tchotchkes and a Honduran mahogany bedroom suite that once belonged to my Mimi, my Daddy’s mother. Mimi and Mother loathed one another and probably exchanged fewer than twenty civil words between them in their 20+ year relationship. But when Mimi died and left those items to my sister and me, Mother gladly made houseroom for it all; and the Saturday morning list of things my sister and I had to use the Old English polish on got appreciably longer. That breakfront has been the bane of existence for every back that ever helped us move, and my husband and brother-in-law can’t walk past it without phantom lumbar pain and muttered curses.
The china of every dead close female relative has lived in that breakfront at one point or another, rarely or never used. Her kitchen cabinets have stored the drinking glasses of her mother, my Nana; and her silverware drawer is a random assortment of Nana’s spoons, the Olive Garden forks her sister, my Aunt Gloria, was so fond of pilfering (that’s a whole ‘nother story), and whatever cutlery Mama bought for her own use over the years.
There’s the Ethan Allan bedroom desk and chest of drawers that once belonged to my Daddy, the villain of my mother’s life story. His outdated-even-in-the-early-1980s stereo record player and vinyl record collection have sat on top of that desk in the spare room of nearly every house she’s ever lived in. (Post-divorce, clearly.)
She’s acquired the rocking chairs of my grandparents and her grandparents, including the assortment of baskets her grandfather was apparently fond of weaving. None of these have ever been used by her for their intended functions of rocking or storing.
My Aunt Gloria’s passing was a family tragedy for all of us, one that Mama feels keenly to this day, lamenting frequently that she wishes she could get her hands on Gloria’s silver and art and cookbooks and Bill Clinton memorabilia (maybe also a whole ‘nother story). Some of her scarves and best costume jewelry did eventually come into her possession, kept company there by Nana’s hair comb and fuzzy blue bathrobe – the one that made me feel like I was wrapped up in a hug from the Cookie Monster – and if I concentrate hard enough, I swear I can smell Nana’s signature scent of Jergen’s lotion, Mentholatum, and Prell shampoo. (Oh, to be little again, waking Nana up with my coughing and her forcibly giving me Creomulsion.)
Mama has held on to everything that once belonged to my sister and I that we have said – repeatedly – we do not want. I reckon she’s holding out hope that we’ll all of a sudden become really sentimental about, say, that ceramic cat collection nested inside of an Amish wall cabinet (we won’t), or the recital costumes for the dance lessons I begged to quit (for sure won’t).
At age 73, Mama lives among very few things that she picked out and bought because she herself liked them. At age 40, I guess I’m finally old enough to really ponder why that’s so. Why, when life is so short, has she repeatedly chosen to carry these hurts and surround herself with tangible evidence of them in her home – when home should be a comfortable refuge? Why does she want to keep the things that once belonged to my Daddy and his mother? She actively loathed them in life. Why does a retired schoolteacher need that many china sets? She can’t entertain in her duplex and has always wanted to have holidays and celebrations in the homes of others. Most of her possessions come with stories that she faithfully tells (either out of habit or Olympic-level grudge-holding) to illustrate just how much her life’s journey is not what she wanted for herself. Hers is a perspective of perpetual disappointment over what has been denied to her in life, immovably fixed in have-nots and should-haves.
The answers to these questions probably lie in a complex analysis of her lifelong PTSD (courtesy of her father, who was a mean drunk, and also her two failed marriages), growing up poor, and under-treated mental health issues, though I am not professionally qualified to diagnose any of that. In my more generous moments toward her, I imagine that she’s held on to these things as living proof of the upward mobility of her family’s story – so that we can see where we came from and better appreciate where we are now. Even as a divorced, retired schoolteacher, her standard of living is so much better than that of our sharecropping ancestors. In many ways, her packrat, relic-based decorating raison d’être makes sense for her – material things do seem to matter a whole lot to a Baby Boomer with impoverished Greatest Generation parents who grew up poor in the South.
My own childhood was scarred by a fair amount of trauma, the kind that produces a different sort of lifelong PTSD than Mama’s. Somehow, though, my childhood brain cottoned on the fact that I didn’t want those tragedies and traumas to dictate my attitude toward life like it did with Mama. That baggage is too heavy, and I did not want to carry it – my arms would be too full to carry anything else. I was blessed with friends and relatives and mentors who helped me realize that I could choose happiness. I had a counselor who once told me that rather than focusing on the things I viewed as negative about Mama, I could instead find the inverse positive of those traits as aspirational goals. My happiness could be a choice – not a state of being that magically arrived with comfortable finances and stable relationships. When Mama waited for someone else to gift her life with happiness and contentment, I would embrace my agency and the sole ownership of the state of my mind.
Like so many daughters, I see my mother in my reflection as I age…even though I have always been so convicted I’d do things differently than her. I’ve worked hard to keep the past in the past, but sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of it, lingering there in my rearview mirror. I’m absolutely guilty of holding on to relationships and situations and memories that were toxic, instead of letting them die the deaths they deserved. I’m trying to get better at that, though.
What I hope I am guiltier of, though, is remembering kindnesses, acts of love, and the sweeter parts of my past. I wish I could walk through the last house Mama and my sister and I lived in together – the one we lived in the longest – and holler “Mama wants you!” into my sister’s ear. I wish I could lather up with Aqua Net to float in Aunt Gloria’s pool one more time, and then go in to grab an RC and yell hello to her over the Perry Mason theme song. I wish I could answer the phone and hear my Daddy say, “It’s only me, your father,” one last time. The cumulative nostalgia of days gone by peeks out at me everywhere: At work, where the only picture on my desk is that of my Aunt Gloria smiling her cheeky grin and reminding me to do my best. In my kitchen, where Nana’s Desert Rose plates adorn the walls, along with watercolors of bell peppers and onions – because that’s what our kitchen smelled like on really good days growing up – and a smattering of Mother’s Fiesta bowls and Aunt Gloria’s Olive Garden forks and Nana’s spoons, on which I feed my own family. (I love it when one of my kids holds up a fork and asks if it’s from the Olive Garden collection.) In my bedroom, where pictures both loose and framed are tucked everywhere – along with the bedside lamp Aunt Gloria gave me when I turned 15. My closet, where a pastel Ralph Lauren button-down of my Daddy’s lives, faintly scented of menthol cigarettes and Brut cologne. In my son’s room, where the mirror that accompanied his grandfather’s Ethan Allan chest of drawers now lives. In my daughter’s room, where she sleeps on my sister’s childhood bed and is waiting on me to refinish that Honduran mahogany dressing table that belonged to her great-grandmother. My children are starting to tell these stories almost as well as I do.
I do these things to keep people close to me. I’d rather have the people, of course, but that’s not possible. The reasons for my museum might be different than Mama’s, but the end result is the same. Perhaps this is my contribution to the proof of our family’s upward mobility – to tangibly show that that happiness can be willed into being, that you can strain the good from an experience and throw out the bad. That, like William Faulkner said, you don’t love because, you love despite, not for the virtues, but despite the faults. What I wish I had, though, are more (well, any) childhood memories of Mama when she was happy. This is my perpetual disappointment, the part of me that is immovably fixed in should-haves and have-nots.
My husband joke-jabs that once something is in the museum, it can never leave. As someone who believes either you own your stuff or it owns you, my husband is more than a little perplexed and annoyed at these tendencies of mine. I pray daily that our children inherit the best parts of my sentimentality and his Jack Kerouac-like vagabond approach to the ownership of things – both tangible and intangible.
My sister and I groan when we think about the herculean chore of going through Mama’s museum one day, a day that used to seem foggily far away but now, I know, is closer than I am comfortable thinking about. But when that day comes, you best believe I’m sneaking Granny’s bowl out the door and to the front seat of my car.