Chapter 1: My Southern Gothic Background

There is a big difference between “Southern Gothic” and “The Jerry Springer Show.”  I should know.  I’m Southern.  And I’m a Virginian.

Since I’m writing this blog, I feel this need to disclose the factors that color my perceptions.  Things a lot of people who know me know,  but that may surprise others.  In recent terminology, I’m “putting all my business in the Street.”

Discretion is so passe, so  what the hell?  So here we go…

“The Jerry Springer Show” is/was based on sensationalism and trashy revelations.  With our “Southern Gothic” tradition, we all know each other’s secrets and no one cares.  Therefore, we can’t have “revelations”…It’s the inverse to the New England reticence.

We may choose not to acknowledge or mention certain details, but as I said in the South, we all know each other’s business.  We accept things without comment.  Even when we know better…

We put our crazy relatives out with the “sane” ones.  It never really occurs to us they are different.  For us, it’s just normal to have crazy relatives and to accept differences within the Family.   No locking them in the attic for us!  Well, most of the time…

I grew up dealing with this situation.

The first thing my Mother did after marrying my Father was to have his Mother committed.

Like all good Southern stories, there are multiple versions of the tale.  The one I prefer is that my Grandmother, Susan Catherine Rush Michaels, called up my parents one evening and told them she had just ground up a Coca Cola bottle in her Waring blender and drank it in a drink to try to kill herself because she was tired and depressed.

My Mother had no sympathy for quitters.  And she wanted her furniture.  So, off Susie went to the State Hospital at Staunton.

Unfortunately, for my Mother, my Grandmother’s maiden sisters, who lived with her, sold all the furniture during the Commitment Trip for cash because they were afraid my Mother would put them on the street penniless.  My Mother never got over this betrayal.

It’s also important to note the differences between my Mother’s family and my Father’s family.

My Father liked to think he came from a background beyond reproach.  He claimed he was descended from  a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, and his relatives were allegedly inter-married with the Virginia Randolph family.

This means two things:  My Father could claim undisputed FFV status (First Family of Virginia, for the uninitiated-and no one ever disputes anyone’s claim) and that I was genetically predestined to go to Washington and Lee University.

My Mother’s family was from the mountains and coal fields of West Virginia.  They literally walked down to Virginia to work in the cotton mills.

In any event, my Mother ultimately became a Cheerleader, which we all know means a woman determined to better her station in life by jumping and screaming in front of hundreds of strangers in 30 degree weather.  I hear she was beautiful and a classic Southern Belle.  My Father never had a chance…They married in 1950.

What my Mother apparently didn’t know was that my Father was from the most respected category of Southern lineages:  Old Family, No Money.

This is another thing she never got over…She always thought a woman had one card to play- her virginity- and that it went to the man best positioned to enable her to retire early.  She never recovered from, in her mind, misplaying her card.

Growing up, I always thought my Mother’s first name was “Goddammit”.  As in, “Goddammit Lou, what were you thinking?” or “Goddammit Lou, how much is this going to cost me?”

I’ll never forget her coming downstairs to the den one night when I was about 12, all dressed up in a new negligee’ and trying to look fetching, and my father just looking at her and saying:  ”You still aren’t getting new furniture” and pouring another glass of bourbon.  Cheerleaders don’t have a long shelf life.

But it was her family that grounded me.  My Grandmother Sigmon could barely read and write, but I was much closer to her than the fancier Rush relatives.  I’m not quite sure how she produced my Mother.  She was non-judgemental, accepting of all people and infinitely curious about life.  She also thought my Mother was a pretentious fool.  My Father adored her.  She proved a Great Lady was made by an open heart and not by an open checkbook or family lineage.  She practically raised me, as a small child,  as my Mother was too busy with other things…

I found my Mother’s family infinitely interesting.  When she dumped me off at my Grandmother’s house in the Mill Village, I was in a different world.  Her instructions were not to play with anyone there or leave my Grandmother’s house.  She did not want me “mixing”.  But I did…

One of her brothers, my uncle, Wiseman Lafayette Sigmon, lived with my Grandmother and had not left the house since about 1945.  Today, we would call him crazy or agoraphobic.  Then, he was just different.  He would stay up late watching whatever would be on late night TV.  Back then, it wasn’t much.  But a lot of it was about history.  He loved history and learned it from TV.  I’m convinced he gave me my love of History that led me to major in it at Washington and Lee University so many years later.  He was crazy as a could be, but to me, he was just a normal part of my life.  I loved him.

My Mother’s Sister Goldie, was a working single woman.  Rare in that era.  She moved to Charlotte, NC, alone, in about 1965 and was the first one in her family to go out on her own.  She was a brilliant woman.  Valedictorian of her class in High School.  She took some college course, but never finished.  She knew her options were limited, but still made the best of it.  She was like my Auntie Mame.  She would sweep into Danville and give me a taste of the outside world.  She actually saw Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly” on Broadway, the first time she played it.  I never got over this revelation.  She let me know there was a life outside of Danville and  you could get out to a much more interesting place.  She also taught me not to forget your roots…She never did.  I’ve tried not to….I loved her very much.

My Uncle Sammy was a mystery to me.  He was younger than the others and just kind of a laid back, occasional presence.  He’s still an enigma to me.  I really don’t know him…

My other uncle, Daniel, was a cautionary tale.  I won’t speak of him too much as that was how I was raised-to not speak of or to him.  Let’s just say, I know White Trash when I see it.

This is where I come from…So, what can I say?

I learned to keep my eyes and ears open at an early age.  I come from a complicated background and from complicated people.  This all  taught me to watch people and question everyone and everything.  Not to accept anything at face value.  I have no regrets and many thanks for these lessons….

You know me a little better now, but none of this-and all of this- defines me.  That’s what it’s like to be Southern.  We like the Gothic side as much as the classy white bread side.  We invent ourselves and are a product of our past.

We all have secrets and we all usually know each other’s.  We just try to pretend otherwise.  We are raised to accept the perceptions one choses to offer at the expense of reality.  It’s much more pleasant.

We are all a mix of different energies.  That’s what makes us all unique and never boring…

I just choose to talk about the secrets and to explore them.

I’m getting older, but no less curious.  I want to revisit some of these secrets and memories from my older, hopefully wiser, perspective.

I want to keep all of this information forefront in my mind as I continue my journey.  It all colors who I am and will be…

It all means/meant different things at different stages in life.

And if Jerry Springer can put it all in the street to entertain people, I can put it out there to try to learn from it….

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One Response to Chapter 1: My Southern Gothic Background

  1. Carol Sklenicka says:

    Thanks for your fascinating revelations. Can anybody help me with information about Sub-Deb Clubs in Chapel Hill NC in the late 1930s??? I need more information for a biography of novelist Alice Adams, who grew up in Chapel Hill. Her novel FAMILIES AND SURVIVORS portrays a Sub-Deb Club.

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