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

July 27, 2016

Breaking Glass and Other Unladylike Activities

Pardon my silence, gentle readers, over the last two weeks. Apart from the horrible shooting of innocent civilians and police officers in Louisiana, about which I will have much more to say later, I have been glued to the television watching a barrier  to women’s progress drop — why others seem to care less, I cannot say.  All I know is that whether you adore or loathe Madam Clinton, that barrier got busted last night, and I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of me that the women in my family have carried for generations.  I suspect the women in your family have been carrying it, too.

window glass

It’s not corny. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s really important.

My family’s women fought for the right to vote.  They have been involved in politics in material ways since then.  One of my grandmothers joined the League of Women Voters pretty much as soon as it was opened and organized for the Democrats.  My other grandmother joined the Communist Party when she was young, attended meetings (really quite possibly) in the same place Arthur Miller did.  The women in my family never devoted much energy to Junior League-approved activities.  Multiple generations of them (before me) were bad cooks. They never did more sewing than the socially acceptable minimum, probably dating back to the reign of Queen Neb in Ireland. They wanted something more public to do, always.more engaged with the world outside, but that world dismissed their efforts.

Survival for these women was always precarious, as they couldn’t run their own lives as much as they ought to have been able to do, and it was always by grit that they pulled themselves out, not ladylike graciousness.  Let me give you some examples from my past:

Sfearthquake3b

My great-grandmother walked out of this mess with a chest of drawers strapped to her back and toddlers clinging to her skirts.

One of my great-grandmothers lived in San Francisco in 1906.  She had a drunk for a husband and several small children. When the quake hit, her house stood, but her husband was trapped under rubble in some bar.  She assumed he must be dead.  As the fire approached her block of the city, she had to flee.  She took a chest of drawers, some of her husband’s belts, filled the chest of drawers with all the valuables she could stuff into it, strapped it shut with one belt, strapped it on her back with two others, and she told her children to cling to her skirts while they walked away from the fire, the billowing smoke close behind them, the sound of windows exploding in the heat shattering, the dust of the rubble in their nostrils. She managed to walk the little family to a patch of land they owned far outside of town.  She managed to get a house up.  She managed to get a job as the post mistress, though this was a novelty at the time, a woman touching others’ letters. She put money aside to build a church in the country town near the house was.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually showed up, temporarily sober, and eventually disappeared again for years and years, to show up periodically. She didn’t legally own the land or the house.  She couldn’t preach or even read a Bible passage in the church.  She couldn’t have risen in the ranks of her profession.  She didn’t own her own life, really, but she had built it out of the ashes of disaster.

lower-east-side-history

My widowed great-grandmother, saddled with six kids, made it out of this squalor and sent all her children to college.

Another example: Another one of my great-grandmothers was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married young to a door-to-door salesman at about that time.  They had six kids, one right after the other.  She did work with artificial flowers for a factory at home as she watched them in a tenement apartment. When the youngest child was two and the oldest child was only ten, my great-grandfather stepped on a rusty nail while making his rounds and died of tetanus the next day.  There was no social security back then, and no life insurance.  By the absolutely mammoth grit of that woman, she worked herself harder than a human being ought to work in order to send all six of those children to college.  She made every activity into a lesson.  Counting blocks on the bus was a math lesson.  Family meetings were run by Roberts rules of order as a civics lesson. All six of those children went to college. A couple of them became millionaires. She never lived in anything bigger than an apartment in a city. She poured all her resources into others, except for her truly indomitable strength.  I remember her staring at me when I was a toddler, beaming with pride.  She did not suffer weaklings well.  In the bitterness of her hard life, she could be cruel. In me, she saw a future of strong women.  That, she liked. She needed someone to win the fights she had not been able to win, to carry on a struggle that stemmed class struggle and the double indemnity of being born female and poor.

Nobody tells these stories to children, I think.  They don’t want to frighten them.  Grandmas are supposed to bake things. They are supposed to sing songs with little girls and braid hair. But that’s not the truth, really. The truth is that life is always tough as a mother in one way or another, and the women have to dig deep into the dirt, drill into the concrete, to make sure they can withstand it all.  You probably have no idea of the struggle behind you.  It’s not ladylike to talk about such things.  I’ve had to piece together the real story of my family in tiny scraps. You weren’t told the war stories of your foremothers.  You don’t even bear their family names.  But believe me, this is your story, too.  You probably don’t know half the hell you’ve made it out of, because you were clinging to somebody else’s skirts while you walked along slowly singing the alphabet, unconscious of the disaster you just barely eluded.

So all this I just told you — that’s why I don’t care whether you love Hillary Clinton or you hate her. What happened last night in Philadelphia matters to those rugged women behind you that got the short end of every stick. When they announced her nomination, my lungs filled with new air.  I stood taller. I felt different, a difference that I am certain will be permanent.  If you are a woman, and you don’t love what happened last night, I declare you blind.  I declare you unpatriotic.  I declare you so frigging privileged you have no idea what a spoiled brat you really are.

Gentle readers, I tell you — register to vote. Be brave. Take a deep breath.  The air is different today.  You can breathe deeply today.  You have no idea how much oxygen is left for you to take in.

 

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November 20, 2009

My second act

“There are no second acts in American Lives.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every Jane Austen novel ends at the marriage altar.  Dissatisfied wives in literature end up dead — like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary.  Satisfied wives end up obscured in fiction, without their own narrative, accessories to the real plot.  Unmarried women barely exist at all.  When things go wrong in literary plots, women end up strangling themselves with their own bridal veils, like Antigone, or they end up obliterated some other way.

A couple of years ago, when my life fell apart, I wondered which dramatic death I was destined for.  I did not want to die, understand, but where did I have an example of a woman who picks herself up, dusts herself off in her forties, and starts all over again?  I had a couple of television-world examples, less than half an inch thick.  I had CJ Craig from The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin imagines a second act for one woman

, who becomes the White House Press Secretary after a failed Hollywood career in PR.  I had Samantha Jones from Sex and the City, who at a perpetual 39 seems to have no regrets.

Sex And The City imagines a second act that ressembles act one precisely, only with the possibiliy of Botox.

In fiction — well, I had Scarlett O’Hara, shaking her fist at heaven, swearing that as God as her witness, she would never go hungry again.

After marriage #2, Margaret Mitchell imagines a still-feisty Scarlett getting engulfed by Rhett Butler's embrace.

I did a great deal of soul-searching, of Internet searching, of job searching, of PhD searching, but I dare say I have drummed up a second act in this American life, no matter what Fitzgerald thought:

  • I’m getting remarried
  • I’m becoming a not-so-wicked stepmother
  • I’m getting my PhD
  • I’m working part-time while I do so and my future husband pays the bills.

The one thing, though.  Perhaps Fitzgerald could have said, “In New York lives, there are no second acts.”  However, in other places, I find that I can have one.  Scarlett gets hers in Georgia.  Mine, it turns out, is in Mississippi.

Yes, I’m moving from Brooklyn to Mississippi.

Horrified?  So are my New York friends.  They imagine Klansmen.  They imagine a total lack of Sushi — which, I admit is a legitimate consideration.  They know that Mississippi is the number one  state for teen pregnancy, illiteracy and  obesity.

Don’t they get it?  Down there, I’m skinny.  What dieter wouldn’t want to go?

Seriously, here is a photo of my second act:

That smiling woman is me. That cute man is my fiance.

I corresponded with my old writing teacher from my Freshman year in college — Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All — a Southern writer if there ever were one.  He told me that he thought my adjustment from New York to life on the Mississippi would be more dramatic than my adjustment were I to move to the Belgian Congo.

He may have a point.

This blog, which will document my adjustment weekly, will examine just that.  Those of you  who like Jeff Foxworthy jokes, or  remember fondly The Beverly Hillbillies, feel free to watch in  morbid fascination as I document all that I find to love about the South, all that I find cumbersome or odd.

Intermission is over.  The house lights dim. Enter our heroine, stage left.  We see a ranch-style house in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There is a small dog yapping.  There is a man seated outside, sipping a can of beer, smiling.  The woman is carrying an armful of books,  and she is  dressed in black.

The second act, written by my hand and the improbable divine hand, begins.

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