Southern Legitimacy Statement: I reckon my statement should include things I take for granted even as I attempt to ignore all the stereotypical attributes. I grew up in a three room shotgun shack that leaned to the left upon rotted floor joists. I worked on a farm picking cucumbers, hoeing and picking cotton by hand, cropping tobacco and even suckering, topping and picking off the tobacco worms by hand. I recognize soul food as a marketing ploy for the cheap food us white folk cooked with the only grease available–hog fat. All our meals were simple and sustained us to grow more for the next day. We learned from experience to grow dope in the cucumber fields as it was forced to run with the vines and couldn’t be seen from the air. We didn’t make sweet tea for two reasons: we didn’t have tea and all the sugar we got our hands on went into making liquor to sell. Yes, in the South we make liquor and not moonshine or white lightning. It’s just liquor with no descriptive monikers. I know non stereotypical and boring–right? Folks went to church on Sunday for the spectacle of watching the church ladies fall out overcome with the spirit–always after tugging properly at their dress tails to make sure no one got a free look of course.
But, you get the notion of what I’m describing. I grew up here and don’t buy into all the hype and theatrics of Hollywood or Dollywood–heresy, right?
I could go on but what’s the point. You all know where I’m coming from and where I came from. I guess you may need some contact information–that’s another Southern tradition, my kin would always take paper bags with them because you never could tell when someone may give you something.
The Day I Grew Up
I’ve thought—pondered upon this topic and I honestly, cannot say I’ve ever witnessed anyone spontaneously “grow up”—or spontaneously combust either. I’m sure it’s been done; I read about it all the time in famous highfalutin books. Those epiphanies of coming of age are met with nostalgia and romanticism as we hurriedly cast our egos into the scripted scenes with the sad music playing loudly in the background. I’ve seen it characterized and glorified in box office releases; described to be a natural result of hardship, tragedy, life, death, caring, self-martyrdom. But, upon reviewing all the files in my brain, I cannot say I’ve actually witnessed someone grow up. I know folks who claim to be and often they point to some flash in the frying pan sent from the heavens or some divine moment when they were hit in the head by a rock “chucked” by Jesus. But still, perhaps it is my perception or my ego that I jealously refuse to believe in grown-ups. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve hung out with a lot of folks both young and old, dregs, favored sons, winos, whores, preachers, murderers, PhDs, humans who can’t read and write. Perhaps it’s akin to universal truth—everyone glorifies it but each gets pissed as hell if we actually encounter this lauded trait peacocking down the street. Somehow it just ain’t what we imagined.
You know why I think that is? Well, I’m fixin’ to tell you whether you care or not. Even, if you done quit readin’ this and gone on to sippin’ your sugared coffee, protrudin’ your lips and lookin’ askew towards the heavens…It’s an ego thing. I simply cannot grow up due to that I me mine voice that resonates throughout everything we point to as an adult. Jesus told all those hungry sick folk the very same thing but they paid him no mind—probably ‘cause of their growling stomachs salivating over fish and chips and that ego voice throwing a tantrum like a kid in Wal-Mart.
Maybe, if I tell a small bit about “where I come from” you’ll understand where I’m “at” with all this grand philosophizing. I kind’a like that word, sort of cuts through the bullshit by realizing that words such as that are either ego enhancing (big bulges in my crotch) or poking fun at the very same bulges.
My life has never been nostalgic and especially not romantic. I grew up in a series of three room shotgun shacks that fronted a dirt road and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. This assemblage of shacks was affectionately known as Chinchrow—given that title by the tobacco farmers who came to town to auction off their tobacco crop. It seems they became infested with the very same beg bugs that infected every aspect of my world.
My mama never knew my daddy and it followed that neither did I. She entertained the out of state farmers’ needs during the summer months and the local crowd during the off months. I did notice some semblance though to the local Holiness Preacher, so who knows? Preacher Vainglory did describe me as a “white lowlife motherfucker”, so, there is familial evidence.
Chinchrow butted up to the next step up the ladder—the black section of town labeled New Town. (Southern folk have lots of cute monikers for the folks occupying the lower rungs.) Most of my friends were dirty white folk, the black family of Cabbagestalks and the Sweat and Oxendine tribes of Lumbee, but we were “all right there together” as we described our level of maturation. We worked on the farm for 50 cents an hour, duly noted within the farmer’s “old math” notebook to achieve a very “new math”. To supplement our math, we ate the discards from the dumpster behind the local A&P. When discovered, the manager would slam the metal lid, sit upon it and await Sleeping Jesus—the local black police officer, to arrest us for trespassing, also duly noted of course. During these times, I never became mature. So maybe I should continue and see if we can pinpoint that moment.
In my immaturity, three of my friends took turns committing suicide. I missed them greatly as they were the guys I bonded with in life. But, I still hate them for leaving me to face the fight alone. Somehow, I agreed with their decision but their rationale seemed much too practical for my egotistical brain. They were buried in the pauper’s field, locked behind barbed wire to deny their freeloading friends and family visitation rights. Yes, even in death a grown up society expects proper dues and payment to grieve—you know mature responsible commitments.
As a teenager, some of my business competitors, doused the front and back door of my shack with Quaker State motor oil (it burns slow and thorough). But, I recognized the first gasp of a fire reaching maturation and suffocated each door in turn with my blanket. Society never investigated—why should it? But justice has strange bed fellows; justice never caused me to grow up either.
That same winter, one of my teachers nominated me for our state’s Palmetto Boy’s State; promising young minds could hang out with the state legislature and governor learning how proper mature adults behave. My interview was conducted by three of our town’s prominent grown ups—all of which had children who were also nominated (appointed) to be interviewed by their daddies. I anticipated inquiries into my depth of knowledge of state government and civics. The grown up in the middle frowned, cleared his throat, glared at me and said, “Who’s your daddy?”
“I don’t know…” I sensed from their frowns and contorted scowls they needed more so I added, “Probably one of you, but, I truly have no idea. Some folks say he’s Preacher Vainglory but I don’t feel the call to preach.” See…I put them on the hook and then promptly gave them a way to get unhooked after I recognized my immaturity.
The interview was over with no further inquiry into the depth of my civic duties. Oddly, something very similar occurred when I applied to our state’s medical school. I gleamed at my MCAT scores and GPA and anxiously awaited a golden ticket during my interview. After all, I had worked 70 hours a week while attending college and wrapped myself in the Hippocratic Oath. I received a similar verdict, “You should continue working as a car mechanic; it’s good money for a person like you.” No shit, that’s what the educated president of the university told me. I found myself far from grown up after these “who’s your daddy” lessons so, let’s dig deeper.
My youngest son developed a rare disease known as HLH (hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis) after his inoculations in November of his sixth grade year. He died over my birthday and Christmas. I recognized the medical types that lead to his demise from my medical school interviews—memorization and mature connections that open doors. When one doesn’t know, one’s grown up status refuses to admit, and continues with the same memorized diagnosis and treatment even as the symptoms worsen. I watched him die for three weeks in an induced coma knowing it was my decision to have him vaccinated which brought on his death.
When his EEG and MRI announced the end, I didn’t grow up. When the person with the medical ego told me she would be around all night, just let the nurse know when you decide to disconnect the ventilator, I didn’t grow up. When I watched the ventilator hiss for the last time and his face turned gray, I didn’t grow up. Later when adults said, “He’s in a better place, God took him to be with him, I know exactly how you feel.” I didn’t grow up. And, when his casket was closed for the last time and I watched the shadow slowly eclipse his face I didn’t grow up.
I rationalized to myself that death is a part of life and life is a part of death, even as my logical brain saw the inherent childishness of human rationale. I am thankful for the 11 years we were together but I still want and expect more. A mature person wouldn’t trade other lives to get their son back—but, I would. The reason for my failure to achieve the grown up status is that thing I mentioned in the beginning of this essay—truth. I simply do not have the necessary traits or mendacity to ever grow up. As Big Daddy describes, “You won’t live with mendacity but you’re an expert at it. The truth is pain and sweat, paying bills and making love to a woman you don’t love anymore. The truth is dreams that don’t come true and nobody prints your name in the paper until you die.” Honesty mocks my maturity. But, my immaturity did stay within the word limit.