Claire Fullerton: A Place in the World

Southern Legitimacy Statement: a proud Southerner from Memphis, Tennessee. For nine years,  I worked in Memphis radio, beginning with a Memphis Music show on WSMS and ending on WEGR, on the infamous Beale Street.

A Place in the World

I used to go home every Christmas to the house I grew up in, and Finley used to be there—eventually, anyway. He’d come swaggering in, all blue-eyed, and gray, three-quarter coat swinging. In from Virginia. The educated man; all beaming, charismatic six- foot- two of him, setting the stage in that rambling Southern house by virtue of his presence. It was that way every year because Finley was the kind of guy who could enter a room and take over completely. My brother was that magnetic.

Every December, my mother went all out. She’d have the yardman wrestle yards of pine garland into the entrance hall and drape it languidly along the curving banister in elegant loops tied with taffeta bows of red floral ribbon bordered in gold wire. She draped garland over the downstairs mantle pieces, sylvan and pungent as a forest bed, scenting the rooms in an aroma so redolent it tickled the back of my throat. Year after year, she had the fifteen piece crèche hauled down from the attic and would arrange it on the fold-out desk in the parlor. I never knew how she procured it, but ritualistically a ten foot tree from the outskirts of Memphis would appear in the parlor, skirted in velvet and appointed with lights before she invited anyone to assist. She made a sacrament of Christmas every year, and would slide the big cardboard box marked Christmas from the closet under the entrance hall stairs. She’d reach into the box reverently to produce the ornaments Finley and I made in kindergarten and would coo a wistful, diaphanous succession of “I remember when’s” and “y’all were so cutes.” I’d stand in the entrance hall and watch her delicate gestures, realizing there was a side of my mother given to maternal nostalgia.

I was sitting on the sofa in the card room when Finley came swinging in wearing his gray coat from Brooks Brothers, all long haired and collegiate-cool. He covered the card room in six strides and gave me a hug that lifted me off the floor, before he sat beside me and squeezed that funny area above my knee.

“Quit it,” I squealed, but I didn’t mean it. He could have slapped me upside the head in that moment, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Even the Colonel seemed elated to have Finley home. He gave him a good-ol’-boy back pat and let ring a jolly, “What can I get you to drink?” Surprisingly, in four short months, my brother had risen in our hostile step-father’s estimation. He’d left just as familiarity was starting to breed contempt, but here he was now, an honored guest.

Finley winked at me then walked to the marble-topped table, where an array of crystal decanters held pride of place on a silver serving tray the size of the great outdoors. Something about the way Finley stood made me look at him in a new light. He was tall and fluidly built; the dusky red/blond of his hair waved gently, in a manner mine never could manage. There was something hypnotic about the blue beam of his eyes as they focused from the long angled planes of his face. He stood soldier straight and balanced, exuding an enviable self-assurance in his burgeoning manhood. There was something captivating about Finley, something compelling and electrifying, although few people would call him handsome. But Finley was unique; the kind of guy people turned their heads to watch because something about him was so attractive.

Finley stood shoulder to shoulder with the Colonel, a collegiate Southern gentleman now, making his way in the world. Mom beamed as she watched him, the look on her face reminiscent of the words I’d heard her say a million times before. She’d wave her graceful hand and lilt in her plantation accent, “Well, I just don’t know where Finley came from,” as if she’d woken up one day to the great surprise of Finley at the breakfast table, in the cavernous house she’d grown up in and subsequently inherited in Memphis’ Kensington Park.

“Millie,” Finley turned to me, “what can I get you to drink?”

It was the first time my brother deferred to me as a lady, in that way Southern men do before they help themselves to a drink. In that moment, I was grown up. In that moment, Finley beamed his blue eyes upon me and they set my life in orbit and gave me a place in the world.

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