The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

April 10, 2011

Southern Motherhood, and why you’re glad your momma lives up North

In Union, South Carolina in 1994, a young woman — white, church-going, apparently loving mother reported to police and  the world, that her two adorable boys had been car-jacked by a black man.  She tearfully plead in front of cameras for this black man to release her children.  Finally, after long, tense days of  interrogation, she finally admitted to having killed these  kids, driving them unimaginably into a lake and letting them drown in the back seat of  the car.  She might have gotten away with it, too, because she fit the model of a perfect Southern lady mother — neither too educated nor too little educated, dress-wearing, Bible-quoting, knickknack collecting, and outwardly demure.

Susan Smith -- murderess and somehow typical Southern Mother

I submit to you that Southern motherhood is both powerful and dysfunctional — sometimes demure, sometimes outspoken, but always given great license even when no one should give it any.  Southern women may not all be feminists, but the culture has carved  out a significant power, however martyred, to the cult of Southern motherhood.  I submit that power over small children is no substitute for power over one’s adult self, one’s emotional life, one’s economic destiny, and that some women I’ve seen or heard of down South wield this power like a sledge hammer  — the problem is that the only thing that sledge hammer can really hit is the heads of  their children, bashing  out brains.

I am not providing statistics here, only anecdotes.  However, I do have some tales to tell of Southern motherhood gone  horribly wrong.  No names are offered, so if the picture isn’t yours, make no assumptions that it might not be your next-door neighbor:

1)  I know of  one mother who had a beautiful teenage daughter.  This girl was not astonishingly intelligent, but she had good enough looks to almost, not quite, be a model.  In high school, her mother had no particular ambitions for this  girl.  They lived in a trailer park near the Gulf of Mexico.  The mother  had a job at Wal-Mart — one of  those low-paying jobs that Wal-Mart is trying to  fight getting sued for, even though the store most certainly did practice a pattern of wage discrimination against women.  She was busy a lot.   They talked about Jesus but never read the Bible, never went to church for more  than a special occasion.  This girl was enrolled in school, but the mother never cared much what grade the daughter  got.

As she grew older, she became prettier — too pretty for her own good.  The mother was too busy to care much about the parade of boyfriends, paid no attention to  drug and alcohol use,  turned the other  way when the girl was out late, never asked questions, never talked about AIDS or birth control, never gave her standards by which to evaluate the quality of any boyfriend or boyfriends, just let the daughter careen brakeless down a steep hill.

This girl moved in with a man — what a Christian who was dedicated to traditional church teachings would call living in sin.  The mother raised no objection, even though the man was much older and was without visible means of support — an unlicensed electrician.  Three months later, the daughter was pregnant, and  this man tossed her out on her ear.

She turned  to her mother for help.  The mother suddenly chose this moment to raise a traditional Christian-sounding sentiment.  She told this eighteen year-old girl that abortion was murder, that it was against their religion.  Note that she had never once told  her that it was against the Bible to sleep with a man out of wedlock, to do drugs, to do any of the other  bad  things that she had ever done in her whole short life.  So  given  what her mother said, this girl carried the baby to term and kept it.  Had she remained unpregnant might have ended up, given her looks, despite her education, the receptionist at a well-heeled business in a town like Baton Rouge,  which while not a perfect life was far better than what she already knew in the trailer park in the small, dirty town.

However, because the mother, the Southern Mother, said so, this daughter had a baby with a man who is bad news, she lives in the trailer with her mother, who sometimes helps with the baby, but no better than she helped the mother of her grandchild, the daughter-newly-made-mother works two thankless jobs, one of them at the oppressor of women Wal-Mart, and she has no ambitions.  Her youth is effectively gone.  Her looks  remain.  For how  long?  We don’t know.  The mother has contributed much to their destruction by indifference to consequences in all cases but one.

2) I know of another mother, again — this might be your next door neighbor.  She  has done what the mother did in Bastard Out of Carolina — she has chosen her abusive boyfriend over the daughter he abused.  She sided with him when the cops were called.  They made no arrest.  The girl is in a safe place now, but because her mother has made her  feel so guilty over  the years when it suited her  to put hooks  in  the child, she has the girl thinking  that if she moves back in,  if only the boyfriend dumps her, which he inevitably will, all will be well again.  What she doesn’t see clearly is that this is something that has happened before in her mother’s life — she abandoned her children for another man’s love.  She will find  someone to cling to again — I can’t bring myself to imagine this woman is capable of love — and this poor girl will be cast aside again.

Are there good mothers in the South?  Of course there are plenty.  Are there also bad mothers in the North?  Yes.  But the berth that is cut here down south seems to be a wide one.  Mothers are generally trusted.  Mothers are not always worthy of the trust.  People think of  the institution of  motherhood  as sacred, but it is only as sacred as the women who practice it.

I can’t help but think that Susan Smith and the two anonymous mothers I told  about here would have been capable of being better at mothering if they had first learned to harness and rudder their own personal power — psychological, spiritual, economic, and political.  In the South, motherhood is encouraged, celebrated in superficial ways that show superficial  respect.  It is often the only power that women think they have.

Motherhood is no substitute for self-direction.  Self-abnegation is inherently unreliable.  The unacknowledged self sometimes pops up in monstrous ways — three cases in point.

January 1, 2010

Christmas at the Casino

I spent Christmas in the casinos of Vicksburg.  I would have rather spent it ministering to the inmates on  death row. They would have been cheerier.

The last place I would have chosen to remember my Lord’s birth would have been at the slot machines, among those who are too soulless to imagine donating their gambling losses in advance to the poor and too disinherited to spend their holidays at home with loved ones. I went to the casinos during my waking hours, and at night, I wept and dreamt of nuclear apocalypse.

Here’s how it happened:  My future mother in-law asked my future husband if she could spend Christmas with us.  Understand I knew my stuff would be in boxes, having just moved from New York, but how could I possibly say no?  My future husband, oblivious, really, to the implications, dutifully told his mother that she could come but that we could not possibly provide her with Christmas dinner. That was absolutely no problem as far as she was concerned;  she is the absolute Grinch, anyway.

What this woman likes to do is gamble.  Then, she likes to  gamble.  Finally, she likes to gamble.  When my fiancé was little, they never had warm, fuzzy Christmases. His parents were effectively atheists, and they didn’t have a Frank Capra moment within them.

Vicksburg, my new home, has several casinos.  Mississippi law permits “gaming,” – not called gambling, although the stakes are the same – on riverboats and on the banks of the Mississippi.  They  serve food that is generally better than  the fare at the local restaurants for not too much money, and while nothing like Vegas,  they have the occasional has-been guest entertainer —  Jewel recently played here, as did REO Speedwagon.

So I was powerless to change the course of events, unless I was prepared to move back to New York City – after all, I could not produce so much as a glass of water out of my boxed-stuffed kitchen,  much less a meal, and forget about a tree or even a sprig of mistletoe.  My future mother in-law wanted to gamble.  My fiancé tends to appease his mother on all counts.  I think he would not contradict her if she told him that the name of the capitol of Mississippi – Jackson –was named for Michael Jackson, not Andrew Jackson.  He just doesn’t bother – she never listens to him.  She is not inclined to listen to anyone, I found, and she does not so much engage in conversation as blurt out various non-sequitur opinions the way a  six year-old does, only she’s too old for anyone to correct her with a, “Sweetheart, the group is talking about something else right now.”  She is not doddering – she has merely always had her way in this manner.  Hence, when she was not at the penny slots, I was regaled by a series of trite observations from the stream of consciousness of an undeveloped mind.

I would speak differently about her if I thought she had loved my fiancé even a little bit.  I asked her to tell me everything she could remember about his childhood, and she could not come up with a single cute story.  She remembered times he broke the rules and times he was injured – I swear Hitler’s mother surely could have come up with a cute story about little Adolf and his watercolor kit and his funny way of marching around the living room – but no, she had no such memory.  We spoke to her about her grandchildren, and she seemed largely disinterested –she hasn’t seen them in years, not for lack of opportunity, and is in no hurry to visit them.  I might also write differently about her here if she seemed even vaguely inclined to read this blog,  but she thinks the Internet, she told me, is for fools, and why would she care what I have to say when she  doesn’t even care about her eldest son?

I intend to make up for many loveless years in my fiancé’s life.

Anyway, I stared at the sad, empty faces at the casino – men who looked like they were lost; old women grimly hitting the same button over and over again like pigeons in some Skinnerian experiment.

My fiancé clams up around his mom. Hence, I was largely alone in this place.

The best conversation I had over Christmas was with a drunk girl at the buffet.  She was tall, like me, and she told me I reminded her of her sister – I could tell she missed her sister right then.  She was half passing out when her boyfriend, or whoever he was, came up to take her to her seat.  He was half her size.

“Weren’t you taller last night?” She slurred in a Mississippi drawl.

If he felt insulted, he didn’t show it.

“Oh, I remember,” she sighed, “You were standing on top of your money.”

I assured my future mother in-law that at the wedding next week, we will give her a nice corsage.  She didn’t attend my fiancé’s first wedding, not because of any objection to the woman he was marrying, but rather a general lack of motivation to go, but I don’t think she cares about the corsage.  I apologized for not cooking her Christmas dinner, but she didn’t seem to mind that, either.  She seemed distracted, perhaps thinking about getting back to the machines.

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