My upcoming novel, Family Law, is set in the time and place of my own childhood—the ’70s and ’80s in Montgomery, Al. I haven’t written a distinctly Southern novel since my first book, The Well and the Mine, came out in 2008. As I get ready for this book’s release, I wanted to spend some time very consciously thinking about the South. I’ve been thinking, especially, about my own childhood. I’ve jotted down around a hundred memories—some of them quick flashes and some of them more fully unspooled.
I’ll share a few of them each week, and I suspect that for those of you around my age—children of the ‘70s and ‘80s—you’ll recognize some bits and pieces. As I look for threads that link all these snapshots, one theme I keep seeing is how a connection to rural life was just barely under the surface of my urban childhood. The Great Depression was lingering, decades later, through my grandparents. Many of these memories involve heat. (Oh, the feel of sweaty thighs sticking to hot car seats!) Food. Family. I tend to think, if there is a universal truth of the South, that surely those themes resurface again and again, no matter gender or race or age or background.
But maybe food and family are the center of most people’s memories from any place at any time.
So here we go….
1. Most of the girls my age took group swimming lessons with Miss Mickey, a woman known apparently by all the moms, and five or six of us girls would cram into someone’s station wagon and getting dropped off at Miss Mickey’s house. The pool was in the backyard. The truth is that I don’t remember much of the lessons. Only flashes. The feel of the concrete edge of the pool under my pruney fingers as I practice my kicks. The burn of chlorine up my nose. The satisfying gasps for air after a full lap finished. Miss Mickey’s hands on my ankles, straightening my legs. Mostly I remember how, when lessons were finished, we’d wrap towels around our bathing suits—oh, the unsettling feel of water steadily dripping from the crotch of your suit—and Miss Mickey would hold out a bowl of dum-dums. We could pick our flavor, although too much indecision was not allowed. I always got root beer. Then we’d climb, still dripping, into the backseat of some other mom’s car, with one unlucky girl having to sit with the mom, and our legs would stick to the hot upholstery and the car would fill up with the smell of chlorine, and we’d eat our lollipops and see who could make theirs last the longest.
2. This is how I looked when I went to church as a child: hair curled from sleeping on those stupid sponge curlers, elaborate monogrammed dresses, black patent shoes and tights. I hated every bit of it. There were parts I liked plenty about church itself, but I’ve been thinking the eternity of the Sunday service. There were limited ways you could pass the time in the church pew, after you got old enough that you weren’t supposed to connect the dots or color or play tic-tac-toe against yourself. My stepmother brought a few hard candies—toffees or peppermints, usually—and the silent unwrapping of these candies and then the careful sucking of them passed the time a little faster. Napping was allowed for longer than coloring books were. I could lay my head against my father’s shoulder or on top of my mother’s thigh, although she didn’t care for it that much because I tended to study her face too closely from below and point out an interesting mole or weird bit of skin.
My father could not manage to be solemn for an entire service. Somewhere around the closing hymn—maybe before or after or during—he would lean against me, slowly and inexorably, giving me more and more of his 200-ish pounds, and eventually I would topple, bumping into my stepmother or possibly a stranger, and he would stand there straight faced.
3. I’m aware that some kids grew up going to the good kind of wedding receptions—live bands, dancing, buffets, open bars—but I had no idea those kinds of receptions existed. The only ones I knew were in church fellowship halls or basements.
Paneled ceilings with fluorescent lights. Tiled or linoleum floors. Long tables with paper—maybe lace—table cloths. Cheese straws and nonpareils and punch, usually involving sherbet and Sprite/7Up. Thirty minutes, tops, of snacking and handshaking and hugging and chatting, topped off by hurling those little mesh bags of rice.
4. One more church memory: my father’s voice, unparalleled, singing church hymns. I still miss the harmonies of those old church songs. Dad could sing any part, but it was bass that I loved, how you could hear his voice spreading solid underneath all the other voices– It is well with my soul— holding the weight of every single soprano and alto and tenor.