Someday I’ll be so independent no man will ever leave me

To be Southern is to know what it’s like to be a woman.  To be Southern and a woman is to know too much, to spiral too close to the core.  It is women squared, women damned.

All Southern women of my time who have a sense of themselves as independent, separate from husband, family, place or kin, have taken the Road to Scarlett, a road that must begin in Blanche, then skirt or pass through the realms of Zelda.  For Blanche, Zelda and Scarlett are the three great archetypes underlying the South’s feminine Unconscious, the way-stations in a labyrinth engendered in us from birth.  This three-fold pattern winds back into the farthest reaches of our ancestors, threading the members of our nation and clan like beads on a knotted string, stubborn and strong, but isolated by the knots in between.

This is an untying and an attempt, as Blanche once wrote, to fill in the hole in the center of life through which sorrow threads itself over and over.  I write in the hope that my journey on the submissive treadmill may shed light on much of what has passed, as the merciful extinction of our type coincides with the rise, and fall, of a ruthless world.

In order to do this, it is necessary to go back in time – and back inside – to turn over the particulars in order to reveal the whole, to forget for a moment the sum in order to re-embrace the parts.  Let us begin.  Let us begin with birth.

Southern mothers (both victims and perpetrators) like generals waging war, raise their daughters like electric light bulbs to self-destruct without a man.  This guarantees they’ll marry and, what’s more important, when they do, they’ll stay that way. The alternative is too terrible to comprehend.

As a young girl growing up in Chapel Hill – a flower-laden Eden walled off from the parched red-clay Piedmont of the rural South – life for me and my girlfriends was like a well-made bed, richly laid out, secure and comfortable, covers turned down, beckoning; all the years of our life-to-be-lived was spread before us like a bridal pattern on a four-poster bed.  All we had to do was climb in, and climb under.  It was as easy as that.

Everywhere I looked from first grade on, I saw souls staring out at me from bright eyes and chubby boy faces; every glance provoked the age-old question: Are you my soul-mate?  Will I marry you?  Are you be the one I’ll love forever?

My best friend, Shirley, lived at 511 Senlac Road, an imposing two-story white house with dark green awnings above the Boxwoods that shielded the first floor from the hot sun.  Her father, Fred, the town doctor, was a dark-haired handsome man and descendant of my own ancestor, General William Lenoir, the Revolutionary war hero I’ve always identified with because he was born in Happy Valley and died at Fort Defiance.

At any rate, this lineage meant Shirley and I were distant cousins to some infinitesimal degree and made me a suitable playmate in her mother’s eyes. Her mother, known only by the diminutive nickname “Bootsie,” was a frail brown-haired woman with the quiet beauty of a sparrow, devoted to being a wife and blue-blood mother.

After school, Shirley and I would go home to her house to play. Inside, it was dark, still and peaceful – a good place to dream.  We’d drop our books and rush into the kitchen for a ritual coke and one napkin of potato chips; then Bootsie would gather us up like baby chicks and we’d sit at her feet while she read to us from the “Ladies Home Journal” about how to get, or keep, a man.

On nights when I’d sleep over, we’d sneak out of bed with our pillows and sit at the window, looking out over the tops of the tall pecan trees in the back yard, staring at the full moon, bathed in its light, holding pillows we called our “future husbands” as we dreamed.

*   *   *

When I was twenty-one I left home and moved into a Southern mother’s dream: Cambridge and Boston in the early 60’s when the Boston Strangler was in full swing, strangling hapless women who dared to live alone; his moniker came up at least once in every phone call home.  Mail order cans of mace in plain brown wrappers arrived from Chicago on a regular basis.  Step One on the road to the well-made bed.

I stared enviously out at the long-haired, free-love hippies of the 60s, their minds honed by Harvard, Henry Miller and Camus, young women who seemed to fall in and out of love so easily.  I wanted to be like them.  I wanted to be independent.  I wanted to be strong.  But inside, in my head, all I could hear was my mother’s voice on the mile-closing telephone, “Oh darling, I know you say you’re staying with Lisa, but I hope you’re really living with him.”

Sweet rebellion nipped in the bud?  Liberal, you say?  Not at all.  Out of the dark fabric of Southern sexual mores, an ancient mandate snaked its way into my life like the decisive thread, binding me to a terrible fate: the way to get a man to marry you is to sleep with him.  Step two on the road to the well-made bed.

My mother, in her daughter-marrying prime in the early 60’s, seemed to spin, like Ariadne, the events of mine and my sisters’ lives – even the times – out of her primal desires.  And so the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, declared married men exempt from the draft.  It was a done deal.  Step three…

I married my “roommate” and best friend during a blizzard just before Christmas in 1964 when the full moon eclipse of the Winter Solstice set in a cold and furious sky.  Our honeymoon was at least as auspicious.  The next day he went north to Maine to be with his mother, so she wouldn’t know.  I went south to be with mine – and deliver the good news.

That year I gift-wrapped my marriage certificate and put it under the tree.  Christmas morning came.  My mother opened it and cried out, “Oh, darling! You’ve given me the best present anyone could ever have!”  Then it was gone, whisked off into a box of mementos.  I never saw it again.  At the time, I was pleased with myself.  It was a relief.  I had fulfilled my mission.

I should have been happy but wasn’t.  Instead, I picked at the tapestry of life.  I wanted to be independent; I wanted to be strong.  And so I set impossible goals for myself, ways to become like the long-haired daughters of the intellectuals.  “Blanche” wrote: “Life doesn’t run for me smooth, like the hair down the backs of the long-haired daughters of the intellectuals; sometimes it hardy runs at all.”

And so I decided that if I could get into Harvard I’d be happy.  My life began to turn on it.  My mother said, “What do you want to go to Harvard for?  Your husband has a Harvard degree?”  But I turned a deaf ear… applied, and got in.  But I still wasn’t what I wanted to be.  Funny how those things work.

Inside, I began to weigh the options:  I could stay in the well-made bed forever and live a lie, or I could unravel the tapestry.  The consequences echoed across a void of time. I didn’t know how deep or how long the void would be.

*   *   *

So the years of Zelda began, when you pull the decisive thread to unravel the future.  It should be a slow process but it’s not; at the first unraveling, you see and feel the end, the emptiness, as you stare at the blank walled future, knowing you’ll have to reinvent yourself with nothing but the fragile strands of a defective soul.

My hands shook and I was filled with vague fears, certain I would die.  My husband was kind.  I must be crazy, I told myself.  I can never make it on my own.  I cried a lot.  I should try to make it work, I thought.  I had to.

Back and forth, back and forth, I went.  I was admitted to the Infirmary for “exhaustion” – a polite word they used.  In the South I’d have been diagnosed with the ‘vapors.’  While there, I agonized about what to do with the rest of my life.  Then, one morning at breakfast, I saw the answer at the bottom of my coffee cup.  It stared up at me, daring me, beckoning — a sign from God. I stared at it for a long time.  And from that moment on, I knew what I had to do.  I never looked back.

What was it I saw on the bottom of the coffee cup?  Harvard’s motto on the shield: “Veritas.”  Truth.

*   *   *

I was spirited when I was young.  Strong and strong-willed: a leader among little girls.

I lived with my mother and sisters at 524 Hooper Lane, a small wood-frame house at the edge of the UNC campus built by the University for young faculty during the Depression.  The house was one of a series of nine nestled in a ravine that sloped down to Battle Woods – small wooden houses that grew like spindly plantings in the backyard shadow of the grander homes that lined Franklin, Hooper Lane and Senlac Road.

Our house, shingled and painted grey, was surrounded on two sides by a hedge of Wild Honeysuckle that ran along Hooper Lane and Boundary, shielding us from the street.  A Hydrangea dwarfed the front porch.  Beside it, a rotting Apple was being consumed by Trumpet Vine while, over in the corner, a couple created a livelier scene: a sturdy Crepe Myrtle supported a Wisteria Vine so that it became two trees in one.

In early spring, the Wisteria bloomed, forming a thick lavender and green canopy along the bare branches of the Crepe Myrtle, its heady flowers thick and sweet with new life in the humid air; then in August, when the hot sun had parched every blade of grass and the leaves of all the other trees drooped in the dusty air, the Crepe Myrtle would explode into a second life, it’s garish pink flowers mocking the coming fall.

But the most wonderful tree grew on Boundary just outside the honeysuckle fence: a Willow Oak; its branches ran the length of the house and covered the entire side yard; they brushed against the screens of my room, my mother’s room, my two sisters’ room.  The sun, the moon and the stars rose out of Battle Woods through its branches.

My mother, my two sisters and I lived beneath that tree for fifteen years.  On warm nights, we’d sleep with nothing between us and several thousand freshmen and sophomore boys on the campus but a crooked wire latch and the screen doors that let the night air in; I felt protected in its branches.

Sometimes I’d look out through the branches and see Pete’s black car parked on Boundary beneath the tree, watching the house, engine idling in the winter to keep warm. In my heart, I felt safe from harm.  I was fearless then.

*   *   *

Fearless.  One warm spring night during a slumber party at three in the morning, I and my girlfriends – Marian, Roberta, Kay and Liles – decided to go out and play on the campus.  We were all of sixteen.  I grabbed a carving knife for protection and off we went, chubby and well-endowed, wearing only the diaphanous knee-length gowns that teenage girls wore in the late 50s – fushia, aqua, lime green, Tuesday Weld pink, and yellow – like fairies out of some madman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, we frolicked past the girls’ dorms, through Coker arboretum, down the dread path of periwinkles where the bodies of coeds were found murdered in the spring… (any self-respecting attacker in the bushes would have taken one look at us and run!)

…up onto the main campus, past Morehead Planetarium, on to the Old Well at the heart of the campus where we were apprehended by two astonished campus police in a patrol car.  “What do you think you’re doing,” they asked in alarm?!

“Don’t worry, Officer, we’re protected,” I said with authority, whipping out the chuckie-sized carving knife from under the folds of my flimsy nightgown.  The officer’s eyes widened in horror.  Not only were we fugitives from a slumber party, we were carrying a concealed weapon and instrument of our sure destruction.  We were hustled into the patrol car, all five of us, scolded, not cuffed, and lectured to at length about the dangers of men, spring and the night.  We were driven back to my house and ordered not to come out again.  That night, we fell asleep on the floor about dawn, the patrol car still circling the block.

*   *   *

But the incident that best shows how inescapable the consequences of growing up southern and a woman is the following, because even though my girlfriends and I didn’t fit the typical mold, the information we were fed about love and men went in and down and emerged in its own unique, demented fashion in a way more passionate than our proud mothers ever dreamed.

I was in high school.  Shirley had long ago been bundled off to Saint Katherine’s School for proper girls in Richmond and my house had become the favorite gathering place for my less conventional girlfriends.

On many a day, we would arrive after school to indulge our passion for pizza and men.  A favorite pastime was to shut ourselves in the dining room, blinds closed to darken the room.  I’d go into the kitchen and ask Josephine not to come in, then return to the dining room where the record player was on, record spinning, needle poised…

By now everyone had taken a place.  We littered the room, cross-legged or lying prone across the floor in a dramatic pose. Once settled in and comfortable, we got out the pictures.  I had an 8×10 glossy of the UNC wrestling team.  Joseph Perrini was in the center, his black eyes staring out at me like holes in an eternity of hope.  Marian and Roberta had 8×10 glossy’s of UNC basketball stars, York Laresse and Pete Brennan.  Kay and Liles had snapshots of actual boyfriends.

After the photos came out, we were ready.  Deep sighs were followed by a moment of meditation, then… I’d drop the needle on the record and the room would be filled with Maria Callas singing great arias from Puccini and Verdi – La Boheme, Turandot, Gianni Schicchi’s beautiful “O mio bambino caro” – while we sobbed uncontrollably over the pictures of our “boyfriends” in the darkened room and Callas sang out her beautiful and inscrutable tragedies in Italian.

Lord only knows what Josephine thought, but she probably knew that as “Southerners” and “women” we were “right on schedule.”

*   *   *

And so, years later, I crossed the threshold into Zelda armed with the certainly that there were better times ahead.  How far ahead, I never knew.

*   *   *

After Zelda, there was another Blanche, subdued.  Blanche is the victim, the quiet one.  Blanche would never run wild and half-naked across the UNC campus with a carving knife at three in the morning.

Blanche is the accommodator, always accommodating, appearing to give in so she can get.  Blanche is needy.  Blanche gets by on the kindness of strangers.  Blanche has been disarmed.  She isn’t a threat to anyone but herself.  She won’t talk back, stand up, or sue.  You can do with her what you will.  If you wrong her, it’s your fault; the inexorable laws of Karma will be your undoing, not her.  She will go to her grave smug in the knowledge that no matter what happens, no one will ever be able to say she was mean.

Blanche is a lady; she is nice.  She has her moments, of course, when she is not.  Often these coincide with her time of the month, or year, but with the help of the medical profession, she usually manages to stifle it, hold it in; with the help of her shrinks and the medications, she learns to “sit on it” which is part of “not taking a stand.”

At the root of Blanche’s problem lies an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a festering, gut feeling.  She wants something she’s not getting, they say.  The truth is, she wants something she isn’t.

This is a subtle difference lost on most people who see only a fluttering of the arms, a hint of what Freud called hysteria.  Blanche is frustrated; she flirts with life.  What does she want, they’ll ask?  Who does she think she is anyway?

A pompous Shrink once scrutinized me.  “Your problem,” he said, sizing me up, “is your sense of entitlement.”  Entitlement, I thought.  Fuck you!  Then Blanche intervened. Is that nice?  No?  Then perish the thought!  And he was right: it was true.  I felt entitled to all sorts of things: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness… just to name a few.

Where does the anger go when it goes away?  It goes down, then comes back up again in more socially acceptable ways.  Blanche is passive in her aggression.  She wheedles, she manipulates, she cajoles.  Anything not to be mean.  Blanche has been reacquainted with mother’s Law of Honey and Vinegar, and she lives by it.

Blanches aren’t born, they’re made: they’re either carefully crafted in early childhood to subdue the male energy of the girl-child or, later on, they’re made out of Zeldas or near Zeldas–all who venture out of the well-made bed and set forth on the Road to Scarlett.

*   *   *

I’d like to stop for a moment in order to clarify a point about Southern mothers.

Southern mothers are not the cause of the problem; they are simply the main vehicle through which it passes.  They are partially responsible, not wholly, and they are not to blame.

There are other far more damaging forces.  One is the genetic cell.  It goes something like this: Southern mothers had Southern mothers and they, in turn, had Southern mothers… and so on and so on.

Imagine yourself standing between two mirrors – walls of the genetic cell – seeing your image receding into an infinitely smaller and smaller past and future.  There are mirrored walls on either side, too – your contemporaries, sisters, friends.  After a while, you can’t tell where the images stop and you begin.  You blend in.  You become one with the mirror-women — an army of illusions, marching through you to the strains of “Pretty Girl Station.”

*   *   *

Beyond the genetic cell, larger forces feed the cycle.  In order to fully describe them, I would have to chronicle the entire history of the world since the beginning of time.  In short: let it suffice to say that society is like an elite ark that likes its members to come aboard two-by-two; in particular, they like their women to be escorted; anything less than that makes them uncomfortable.

Women who live alone are women to be feared.  In India, when husbands die, society burns the wife with them; in Europe, women who lived alone were called witches, their lands were confiscated and they were burned.  Such is the fate of widows and orphans.

*   *   *

Widows.  Black widows.  Widow, wide and void.  All come from the same root.  Men are vertical, upright.  The male energy ascends. The woman is prone, horizontal, not of the straight and narrow.  Wide verges to void; it is an undoing of order; it verges to chaos which is disorder.  The feminine principal is dark, moist, mysterious… It is the unknown, the unconscious.

Now it’s been discovered and Science speaks out, amazed:  “Yes, Virginia, there is a chaos.”  Order within chaos.  This is life, this non-linear process.  Soon they’ll be talking about intuition.  The goddess returns and, ah, the cross (the black and white linear cosmos of Paul) – male/female, vertical/horizontal – is undone.  There’s a blending now and with it a hope for the future that this terrible cross-purpose separation may come to an end.  Soon.  In the new century.

It’s all geometry, the genetic cell.  We need a new shape, that’s all.  But what can we do now?  Only fly above it, looking down with love and pity on our infinitesimal selves… as we make our way along the Road to Scarlett.

*   *   *

Pete had one dream – to build a house – and one fear, which was to owe money.  So he needed two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to build his house.  And so he played the stock market and built an estate with the instincts and luck of a gambler and a lot of aluminum foil.  When he got close to his goal, he had plans drawn up; then he bought a lot.

A one-of-a-kind lot just off Franklin Street in an area that skirted Battle Woods – acres and acres of unspoiled wilderness in the heart of Chapel Hill.  Dogwood, Maple and Oak on a hillside that sloped down to a dark ravine where Battle Creek ran through a thick forest.  He paid five thousand dollars for it from the developer, Watts Hill, who also owned the bank.

In June of 1962, when everything was in place: the money, the plans, the aluminum foil trust, the market fell.  Three months later Pete died.  I got his car to compensate me for my grief, the University sent us a conciliatory eviction notice and then, Watts Hill closed in.  His bankers sold the stock at an all time low and shipped the money over to their buddies at a local Savings and Loan; then they sold the lot for the five thousand Pete had paid for it – years before.

I pleaded with them not to sell.  “Land isn’t a sure investment, honey,” they assured me.  I argued – to no avail; Then I drove by the lot and tore the “For Sale” signs off the trees – until they sold the car out from under me.

I dragged my father’s will around with me for years.  During my more lucid moments, I’d consult attorneys.  F. Lee Bailey gave me the most consideration.  After a through study of the document, his trust attorney, Collin Gillis concluded: Ten thousand had been stolen outright; the rest mismanaged; it would cost fifteen thousand to sue,” making it a pyrrhic victory at best.  “If I were you,” he advised, “I’d take that money and buy a feathered dress.  That way, you just might marry one of those bankers or lawyers!”

“I’ll not be damned in a feathered dress,” Stanley shouted. Blanche said nothing.  She just looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled.  “Bankers have the hearts of whores,” he said.

*   *   *

These were the warring years of Blanche and Stanley, the years when Scarlett is nowhere to be found.  Where is she when you most need her?  Sleeping.  These were the years when all that is strong and assertive in you is perceived as an aberration, eating away inside — a Stanley. These were the lost years on the Road to Scarlett.