Chapter 89: She Went to Sweet Briar

I’m  back to blogging sooner than I expected because I heard we are losing  Sweet Briar College….

It has taken me a week to digest this and I still can’t believe it.  We always think our colleges will outlast us.  Will be eternal.  And it’s a shock to lose one that meant to much to so many of us…

First of all, I did not go to Sweet Briar.  I am a man and therefore excluded from the Sweet Briar sorority.  But I did go to Washington and Lee University in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when it was still an all male school.  And Sweet Briar was a big part of my college experience.  I dated Sweet Briar Girls.  Sweet Briar Girls are some of the best friends I ever had….

Let me first of all say, I mean no disrespect calling them Sweet Briar “girls”.  I was a Washington and Lee University “boy”.  We didn’t think of ourselves as “men” or “women” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.   But looking back, we were so much more mature than today’s college “men” and “women”, yet we knew we were just kids trying on sophistication like a new sweater.  And we really preferred to think of ourselves as “Ladies” and “Gentlemen.”

Let me take you back…

Washington and Lee University in the late 1970’s- early 1980’s was coasting a bit on its past and its reputation.  This was before W&L went co-ed in  the fall of 1986- a decision that probably led to its survival.

During my time at W&L, it saw itself as the Oxford or Cambridge of the American South.  It was based on tradition based on tradition based on tradition.  We were only a few years past the “Assimilation Committee” which taught young, Southern Gentlemen and wannabe’s from up North how to fit the “mold” and how to behave in polite society.  It was academically rigorous and socially staid.  The goal was to turn out proper, liberally educated Southern Gentlemen to “take their place” in society and the business world.

Most of us went there more than willing to be indoctrinated.  Our backgrounds led us there.  We were taught not to question the status quo.

I’ll never forget my shock my Freshman year when my Politics 101 professor started the first class by saying: “Gentlemen, you are all anachronisms.  Your day has passed, but you don’t yet know it. You are privileged, white men.  I want to  make you think outside what you were raised to think so you can survive in the new world coming.”

And this was at a school some of my friends back home called “a rich, bitch preppy Southern Boys School.”

Sweet Briar had even more challenges in perception.  Some people called it the “Virgin Vault” where rich families sent their daughters to be properly “finished” before they met their future husbands at W&L, UVA or, god forbid, Hampden-Sydney.

Both perceptions were wrong.

I met girls at Sweet Briar who were much smarter than their counter parts at W&L, UVA or that other boys school….

What we had in common was that we needed a small school where we could safely learn to question what we had been told not to question…

We needed to be at small, liberal arts colleges as opposed to big Universities so we could grow and thrive….

If you want to get a picture of how it was to be at W&L and Sweet Briar in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, watch the opening credits to “The Way We Were.”  In many ways, that was our journey.  We were Hubbel Gardners, Katie Marowsky’s, Debutantes, would-be writers, social butterflies, and fraternity boys learning to find ourselves and who we were in a changing world.

We were Protestants, Catholics, High Church Episcopalians and Jews who didn’t wear our religions on our sleeves or take them nearly as seriously as we did our wardrobes.  We were all, to varying degrees, intellectually curious and wanted to learn, but we also firmly believed our pursuit of an education should not get in the way of our exceedingly active social lives.

We danced the nights away at parties where the music was early 1960’s soul and balls where the Lester Lanin Orchestra played dance music from our parent’s generation.  There was an intense debate at my fraternity over whether  we should play Evelyn “Champagne” Kings hot new disco song “Shame.”

And there was a Motown song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes , “The Love I Lost”, whose lyrics we swore included the words:  “She went to Sweet Briar.”  We were also masters at self delusion…

Even then, I think we knew we were caught in a bit of a time warp. We were the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation.  A bit of a Lost Generation ourselves as we didn’t yet have a defining moment.  We were children during Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement.  We didn’t know AIDS was coming.  We were at a loss to define ourselves individually and as a generation, but we didn’t worry about it too much.  We danced to the Tams singing “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” and we tried to do so….

I was engrossed in my F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasies of the American aristocracy at that point in my life.  I had not yet reached my equally Fitzgeraldian disenchantment with the rich. Several of my friends from those days say I was like “The Great Gatsby”‘s Nick Caraway character of our time and place.  A financial aid student from a small town, who never felt like an outsider, but who saw things through a different lens.

We saw ourselves as the privileged “best and the brightest” and were yet uncomplicated by the realities of life in a multi-cultural world.  Some of us would later embrace the changes to come, be grateful to our past and what we had learned and move on.  Some of us would be lost in the myths they weren’t willing to challenge.  But we were still too young to know that then…

I’ll never forget the Friday afternoons at W&L.  None of us would ever dream of taking a class after 1:00 pm on a Friday.  My friends and I lived in an apartment building over stores on Washington St/Route 60.  Around 3:30 or 4:oo we would start having cocktails-bourbon and waters and bourbon and ginger.  Or just bourbon….

And we would wait…

Route 60 went from Amherst, Virginia over the mountains from Sweet Briar to W&L in Lexington.  It’s amazing we all survived the drunken commutes between dances, balls and fraternity parties.  Miraculously, luckily we did….

But on the average Friday, we would sit in the open, ancient windows of our apartments and drink and wait for the girls to arrive.  Very few of us had cars, so everyone car pooled back and forth over the mountains…

I’ll always remember one family who sent their daughters to Sweet Briar with then elderly Cadillac convertibles.  We would watch for them to come into town in a yellow ’68 caddy convertible and wave to them from the windows as they arrived in town and went to check into Mrs McCormick’s Guest House.  Sweet Briar girls were not “rack dates.”  They did not spend the weekends in the apartments of their dates-no matter how long they dated.  They understood propriety and keeping up appearances.  And it was frustrating and it was nice.  It was our life and we played by the rules.

But that caddy driving into town, packed with Sweet Briar girls is one of my fondest memories.  They were young, they were smart, they were beautiful and they were enchanting.  Each in their own way.

When I heard that Sweet Briar is probably closing, I couldn’t help but think back to those Friday afternoons and the breath of fresh air and excitement those young women brought to us in our all male world at W&L.

We didn’t think the fact that Sweet Briar was giving women a chance to excel at the sciences when women were discouraged from doing so.  We didn’t think then that they had a week of freedom from competing with men and the social expectations of the time. We didn’t think about them having a special, non-competitive, social arena to bond and grow as women.  We didn’t think they had a special time and place to find themselves as women just as we had a special time and place to find ourselves as men.

I think of those girls, women today, when I hear Sweet Briar is closing.  I can already see they have many different perspectives and different thoughts on what the proposed closing means.  I also see us all looking back to those years we shared…

I think of Carolyn, Tish, Sandy, Rachel, Charlotte, Julia, Anne, Katie, Myth, Lollie and so many other Sweet Briar girls who crossed my path.  Some who became life-long friends.  Some who are magical shadows in my past….

And I hate to think other young women won’t have the chance to know and learn from them and be inspired  by them as fellow Sweet Briar alums.

Sweet Briar should survive.  Maybe not as what it was, but as what it could be in the 21st Century.  I hate to think there is not a place in the world today for Sweet Briar and those special Sweet Briar girls…

There are still W&L and other Southern men-and women- who need to meet them…

We still need women who can both wear pearls and kick ass…

Women who can make a point subtly when needed and not so subtly when necessary….

And a place that gives them the environment to learn and grow and to have the courage become women who can take on the privileged men in a changing, modern world….

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Chapter 88: You Can’t Go Home Again

This is going to be somewhat of a valedictory post. A summation of the past and a look to the future.  And like most valedictory addresses, it will probably be too long…

This blog has served me well during a difficult chapter of my life. I started this blog when my Mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and I had a certain distance from the past. The humor and detachment came easily to me. I had not been “home” for a very long time for more than the obligatory few hours at Christmastime. I had the distance that is necessary for perspective.

That all unexpectedly changed over the last two or three years. I had to go home again. The humor became more difficult to find and the past seemed much closer than it had for years…

When I look back on this blog, I can see a journey. Socrates once stated, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, based on this theory, mine is definitely worth living because I have examined the hell out of it for the last few years on this blog. It wasn’t always pretty and I cringe at some of it, but it was honest.

It was truly how I saw things at a certain time and place.

Looking back on this blog, I can see the struggle to deal with reconciling people and places with how I remember them and how others do. I lost a few friends along the way and made some people very mad. I can see the evidence of depression during some phases of the journey.  But I am grateful that I made a few people laugh….

And I would not change one damn thing.

This was my journey “home”.   A journey home to a difficult family and a difficult place. A journey to and through a difficult time.

And I learned an important fact. It may be a cliche, but “You can’t go home again.”

There are a lot of reasons for this. I think the main one is that, at least for me, home is a changeable concept. It’s not the place I was born, the town I grew up in or where I came from.

It is where I am now- with my partner, my love and my family of choice. It’s a house in Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.  A  place in my soul where I live in comfort and safety. I am more than ever aware that the “home” place may change over time. For now, it is that house in Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC where we live a very happy life. I like to think it always will be that, but who knows? Someday it may be somewhere else, but the constant thing that makes it a home is being with someone you love. Feeling loved and feeling safe.

Based on that theory, it should have been easy to do home to Danville. I still have family and friends there that I love. But it isn’t “home” and hasn’t been for a very long time. When I was forced to deal with my hometown on a regular basis, it was not a good experience. It depressed me in ways those who still live there will never understand….

It also challenged my identity.  I’m a pretty free and easy, openly Gay man in Greensboro.  Going back to Danville, I was immediately reminded of a time and place where this was not the case.  I remembered the closeted, fearful young Gay boy I once was and was challenged to reconcile the two….

I was older now.  Heavier, but more self assured.  I’ve been to London, Paris, South Africa and all over the U.S.  Going “home” to Danville was the strangest journey…

Sometimes, you have to be away, have a certain distance to have a different view from those who live in a place day by day in your old hometown.   It surprised me how hard it was when you come back to your past and realize others see it as their present….

And memories can be colored by time so that things may not be exactly as we remember them…

Going home…

First of all, it’s always difficult to have change forced upon you. I was forced to go home. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. But my Mother had come home to die.

It’s difficult to deal with going home when you know it’s to deal with the death of a parent. It changes the perspective and makes everything much more real. It intensifies the feelings.  It makes you see things and doubt things you would never have imagined doubting or questioned your perspective of otherwise.

It makes you look back….

And it makes you deal with the present in surprising ways….

And I was immediately struck by how different it all was from how I remembered it….

The town I grew up in had an economy based on tobacco and textiles. Both industries are as gone with the wind as the Civil War. And with the loss of these industries, the town seemed to have lost its identity. It was no longer “The World’s Best Tobacco Market” or “The Home of Dan River Mills.” These industries had been the foundation of a thriving middle class. That was all gone too….

I was struck by how a pretty little town had become ugly and bare. They were tearing down the mills and selling the hundred year old bricks and old growth wood  flooring to “reclamation” companies for use in new construction by rich people.  They were throwing up corrugated steel and aluminum buildings in the place of historic structures.

I hate to say it, but there was an obvious leadership vacuum.  Everyone younger and educated got out as fast as they could.  This did not leave much of a leadership class….

I was struck by the acceptance of casual racism as it seemed everyone who still lived there seemed to need to blame someone else for their troubles.  They saw everything as Obama’s fault or the fault of giving too much to “them” so they didn’t have to work.  Even though there were no jobs….

I was struck by the loss of thriving local restaurants and businesses and the domination of chain restaurants and stores that obscured what was left of the uniqueness of the town….

I was stuck by how much it had changed and it pained me…

I didn’t recognize the place I was born…

And I was struck by the overall hopelessness of the remaining people and their need to justify why they were still there. Like there was a judgement awaiting them for staying.  They closed ranks and hung to each other like the steerage passengers on the Titanic who didn’t get a place in the lifeboats and didn’t quite know why.  They defended their choices because they had to to survive and live with their choices….

I was struck by the coarseness….The hardness.

And I was stuck by the kindness, graciousness and gentility of some old friends and members of the Old Guard. Mainly older members of the community who made me still feel at home with their acceptance and graciousness that made me proud to still be a Virginian by birth.

And I was struck by having to deal with my family again.

My family, as it remains, is small. It was once much larger, but we lost so many families members in the 1980’s that I once joked we paid for wing on Townes Funeral Home.

I had to deal with my sister….

I’ll be honest, as I see it,  we had never bonded while we were growing up. I am four years older, which makes a difference when you are young and through High School. I was at college before she came to my High School. And High School is very important in small Southern towns.

The Friday Night Lights burned bright over Christopher Stadium at George Washington High School for the Football games that are a rite of passage in the South.  But I was already a “boy in the band” ghost, away at Washington and Lee University, when my sister entered the spotlight in her sequined majorette uniform.

It was always her town more than mine…..I knew even then I truly belonged somewhere else….

And  we never bonded at home. It was a house too filled with fights, thwarted dreams and frustrations that had to be kept from the neighbors at all costs. It was a house where my Father’s temper was a land mine to be carefully avoided or manipulated to one’s own advantage. It was a house where we were all passengers on an American Titanic fighting for our own places in the First Class lifeboats. And it was also the “Mad Men” era facing the changing times.  We all just tried to survive as best we could.  There wasn’t time to make friends.  It makes me think Familial Darwinism is a new concept that is worth studying….

Then, we had spent 25 years only seeing each other at Christmas for a few hours, then going back to our own lives. Twenty-Five years of shallow conversations and hidden truths.  Twenty Five years of avoiding old land mines left over from previous wars.

You really can’t go home again.

And if you do, you have to play by their rules.  That was the hardest part for me.  I am still very rule and structure oriented.  I did not recognize the place I was forced back into…I knew my rules, but was hesitant to see if they still applied.  I feared I was too formal and old school Virginia….It was like landing in a foreign country without a Rough Guide.

I like to think we all have an imaginary soundtrack to our lives.  I try to make mine Cole Porter and the Gershwins as sung by Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  My sister’s seems to be Journey, Bon Jovi, Boston and a touch of Loretta Lynn.  Not a compatible combination….

For functions, I believe in sterling silver forks and china plates.  My sister is disposable plastic and paper plates.

I love old things and tradition, she loves the here and now.

I believe in formal dining rooms and proper situational manners, she is great rooms and casual lifestyles.

I believe in formality and social rules. She is anything goes….

I won’t judge which of us is right.  At least not in public….At least not now…

And I’m not sure which of us is adopted…..

So, it was all bound to explode….

We managed to get through the my Mother’s prolonged death.  We were civil and kind to each other.  We practiced admirable degrees of give and take on both sides.  Much to my  regret, I even gave in on the funeral home choice- which is a whole different blog to follow.  We compromised.  We got through it.  I don’t think either of us was happy with how it all  went, but we got through it….

Then we had the fight from hell.  We got down and dirty and mean in the way that only families can. The scary thing to me is it seemed to energize her.  It exhausted me.

It made me want to go back to my real home and get away from that place I grew up in and the family I left there….

It made me want to put up walls and fill the moat….It made me want to lock myself in my castle and defend it against all comers.

That’s when I realized “you can’t go home again”…..

Funerals do seem to lead to drama.  People seem to get so emotionally tired from the process and trying to figure out what is  expected and what is the “right”thing to do, that they eventually crack and have to tell the truth.   It’s an escape valve.  And someone being dead is a great rationale to break confidences, let your hair down and all it as you see it.

Now,  what I hope to get back to doing is telling the truth as I see it…

From a respectful distance and with a revised perspective.

It may take some more time and some more distance, but I will be back…

I’ll get the time and distance to remember a truly Southern Gothic Life….

And tell it as I see it….

 

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2014 in Review

Here is the annual report on blog activity that I receive from WordPress,  the company that hosts my blog…

Many thanks for all your readership and support!

I’ll be back soon with new posts~

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Chapter 87: The Click

There is special state of mind called the “click.” It’s hard to describe it. It’s that brief, ephemeral moment you achieve when you have had just the right amount- not too much, not too little- to drink. The “click” is hard to maintain.  It’s a level of consciousness that makes life both understandable and comfortable. Stress is gone.  Clarity arrives.  Peace ensues…

Tennessee Williams, one of our greatest playwrights and one of our greatest drunks, created many memorial characters. Brick, in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” addresses the “click.”  It’s that moment he achieves when the demands of his desperate wife, Maggie, the expectations of his family and the uncomfortable feelings he may have had for his friend Skipper no longer matter. It’s a moment of peace. He drinks to find that peace in his complicated world and Maggie accuses him of devoting himself to the “occupation of drinking.”

Drinking, to me, isn’t an occupation;  it’s an occasional hobby.  I don’t understand desperate alcoholics who drink to obliterate the world, who drink to kill a part of themselves.  That’s not the “click” I’m seeking….

In a world where what was once normal and acceptable behavior is now held suspect by Health Nazis, that is a dangerous hobby to have…

It’s now too easy and way too politically correct to condemn those who prefer a few quiet moments with their friend Jack Daniels on the porch.  People now are entirely too anxious to judge and make themselves feel better by having an “intervention” and sending one off to rehab if a person has that one cocktail too many…

Drinking is now suspect….

I was raised around drinkers. My Father drank. His friends drank. My Aunt Goldie drank. Everyone I grew up with and admired drank. It was a part of our culture.  It was a part of celebrations of life, life itself and comfort when life became too complicated for the moment at hand.

Mind you, they didn’t drink to the point of danger or excess- at least not very often. They drank to find their “clicks.”

And they knew there was nothing wrong with a man or woman sitting on the porch, alone or with friends, having a cocktail or three to find the “click.” They may not have used that verbiage, but that was the goal.  The internal search for truth, peace or clarity that just the right amount of bourbon or scotch can bring….

I sometimes enjoy finding the “click”. That moment of relaxation where you aren’t contemplating the next problem, but are relaxing into your bourbon or scotch and finding that brief period of  peace in a too busy world in just that moment. That time you have a heightened sense of awareness of the clouds and the sky when you look up from your porch. Of the beauty of your yard and how the seasonal changes are impacting it. That time when problems cease to seem so problematic as you are finding a quieter place where you are at one with the world and no longer fighting it alone.  That time when you somehow find perspective…

Some people find this in yoga or through meditation. I enjoy those, too, but  there are still times when a downward facing dog just doesn’t compete with Dewars.

In a world where there is so much pretense and where image is so important, there is a relief in relaxing into a scotch-induced peace while sitting in a comfortable chair on a screened porch on an autumn, winter, spring or summer night…

My best friends and I, in both High School and College. bonded over beer or bourbon and that other now forbidden pleasure, cigarettes, during nights of long conversations.  In my twenties and thirties, we laughed over cocktails while both planning what to do next and enjoying the moment as it was….

Now, when I find that elusive “click” I often mentally drift back to those days and think of those times and those people.  Not with a sense of melancholy, but with a feeling of spiritual kinship that brings them forward with me to this day.  A feeling of oneness between younger selves, looking so anxiously to the future, and the comfort that now comes with experience and, yes, age.   Taking a moment to appreciate the rare pleasure of having survived this long and appreciating what I have learned along the way.  Feeling comfortable,  as opposed to feeling the fear and anxiousness of youth.  And thinking so fondly of the ones who have shared this journey with me….

There is a special peace in that kind of “click.”

I don’t feel guilty for my “click” as I remember my cliques…

I feel warmer and more comfortable with life- and know I will have to face it again tomorrow without the “click.”

But, the time with the “click” somehow gives me more strength and patience to do that…

I don’t want to ever give up those moments on the porch with the “click” and the peace it brings me from the present and the comforts it brings me from the past…

I will just be sure not to jump any high hurdles, like Brick, and seek to lose myself in the “click” too often or for too long…

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Chapter 86: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning

It’s the wee small hours of the morning.  Hours I always think of Sinatra when I am feeling sad and a little lonely….He had a classic album of this title.

There are hours in the morning.  Late in the morning when you can’t sleep.  Thoughts are coming too quickly.  You know you should be in bed, but your mind won’t let you.  You’ve had a few drinks.  You started smoking again…Still no respite.

Your mind won’t stop.

And the older I get the more I understand and relate to Sinatra.

Sinatra sang:

“In the wee small hours of the morning.While the whole wide word is fast asleep.  You lie awake and think about the girl and never think of counting sheep. When your lonely heart has learned its lesson.  You’d be hers if only she would call..”

He sang this song about his lost love, Ava Gardner.  My Mother told me that….

I’ll make this correlation on the grounds that all Southern boys have a special love for their Mothers.  They put them on pedestals.  It’s trained from birth and it makes it that much more challenging for both when they inevitably tumble down to earth.

And I’m still awake at 3:oo am, having had enough wine and out of cigs, but still not able to sleep. It’s just me and Frank still awake in the house…

My loving partner, who understands me so well,  has learned to give me space when I get like this.  Sometimes, you I need to be alone with Frank, a little wine and a few cigarettes….

I’m thinking about the women in my life and in my family in a totally different context.

My Mother, my feisty, complicated difficult Mother died last week.  I’ve been forced to deal with my very different, emotionally unfiltered,  totally unlike  me, unreserved sister-who is currently furious with me because I suggested she might show some reserve in her public behavior.  And I’m furious with her for many reasons, too.

Death is never easy, but families can make it worse….

Sinatra sang:

“In the wee small hours of the morning, that’s the time you miss her most of all.”

I don’t know if I miss my Mother most or miss what I wish she had been.  It makes grief much more complicated when you remember both a beautiful, ephemeral woman who floated through life in an unthinking cloud of Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass cologne and a woman totally unequipped to deal with any variance to the small town social codes.  A woman who would never really accept as I am once I found and accepted my own true self. She still loved me and I loved her.  And she also  understood keeping up appearances and making the best of differing views.  We agreed to disagree even on vital issues.  We just grew more apart, more distant….Don’t ask, don’t tell was born and raised in the South.

Growing up in a small town, we always knew how to adapt and follow the rules even when they weren’t published and didn’t make sense.  It was a ritual ingrained in some of us from birth.

But my sister has never understood the game that is life in the South-especially in small towns.  She has always thought she could ignore the rules she found inconvenient and do whatever she wanted.  She never realized that others still do recognize the rules and that the price that one pays for disregarding them is not always obvious.  She has never been big on subtlety.

I love my sister and, in my own way  have tried to do everything I can to make this loss easier for her.  I know she was the one who took Mother to Doctor’s appointments, the hospitals and moved her from nursing home to nursing home.  I’m the one who kept his distance, made occasional visits and wrote the checks.  A lot of checks.  That doesn’t mean I cared less….

“In the wee small hours of the morning….”

I  said goodbye to my Mother a long time ago.  I’ve always believed the mind, not the body, held the soul of the individual.  I said goodbye when my Mother stopped recognizing me and stopped making rational comments.  To me, that was harder than watching her last breaths at the nursing home….

But I was there as she took those last breaths.  Because it was part of the ritual and because it just might give her some comfort.  I was willing to do “the right thing” and check my emotions at the door- something I’m very good at.

And I wish my sister didn’t publicly judge my attempts or motives to make her loss easier and help her manageh ow others may view her comments and actions.  Frankly, you must be careful with blogging.  I’ve learned that.

I’m coming out of the closet yet again.  She is the one causing me to break my promise not write about those who are living and recognizable.  When I advised her, in a very private message,  to “dial back” her Facebook comments about her grief, but never her grief itself, she lashed out at me in a public way that I don’t know that I can ever forgive.  I’m too old to forgive an emotional recklessness that is only, possibly, tolerable in the very young.

My Father always said grief was a personal, quiet thing.  You sucked it up and went on.  That it was tacky and self-indulgent to wallow in grief too publicly.  It makes some people uncomfortable and seems, to some, self-serving.  Life has to go on.  People do talk and judge- especially in small towns. Maybe I was wrong to give that advice to my sister, but it’s how I was raised to get through the public rituals of death.

Maybe neither my Father nor I were made for the Jerry Springer world of the internet and the modern tendency to put all your emotions on public display.

Neither was Sinatra….

Some of us still struggle quietly alone through the “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” alone- trying to find out how to balance the old ways with the new. The small town upbringing with a wider world view and experiences we’ve gained since we left there…. Still trying to navigate the minefields of familial relationships and small town rules and games- even when we think we have moved on and left all that behind….

In the wee, small hours of the morning…

Writing on about our journeys and our thoughts on the internet.

With Frank, a little wine and an empty pack of cigarettes….

 

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Process Check

I started this blog when I was forced to re-enter the world of my youth due to my Mother’s alzheimer’s disease.  I had been away from my hometown for many years- only spending a couple of hours there at Christmas.

When circumstances forced me to spend more time there, I was shocked at how it had changed physically and how so much of the physical past was being destroyed.  For the first time in many years, it made me want to look back.

Looking back is like crack cocaine to a writer.  Once you start, you are hooked…

And as I looked back, I realized I probably saw things differently than those who never left that little town….

And my observations have made a few of them angry….

Frankly, I don’t care.  These are my stories, my memories and my realities.

I started this journey with a sense of humor and detachment.  As time went by and I spent more time in my hometown, it was harder to keep the sense of humor and the sense of detachment.

The past became very real again.  I dug  more deeply into my memories and thoughts than I originally intended.

My Mother died last week and I thought this blog might die with her.  But people, through memories, live on.  And I’ve realized I’m not through yet.  There are stories I haven’t yet told….thoughts and observations I haven’t yet expressed.

I’ve dug too deeply over the last few years on this blog to give up now.  I may have made a few people question and re-evalutate their memories- and a few re-evaluate me.  I know I have made a lot of people defensive.  But to me, that means I may be evolving as a writer.  At least, I hope so….

And I hope I can keep the humor and maybe regain some of the detachment.  Or maybe not…

Time will tell…

But I’ve decided, My Southern Gothic Life will live on…..

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Chapter 85: The Tiger at 2:00 a.m.

I think I knew my father best at 2:00 o’clock in the morning…

In our house, when I came in from a night on the town in my Teens and early twenties, I had to pass through the downstairs den on my way to my bedroom.

The den was his Den. I guess what is now called a “man cave.” He would sit down there and play records, watch TV and drink. Mainly drink…

He was in remission from the cancer he thought he had beat that ultimately killed him in his mid ’50’s. He was dying and may or may not have known it…

I would come home from a night of trying to escape my own demons and trying to find my own way and hope I could just safely reach my bed without encountering him. I was always so relieved when I could go to bed without running in to him, but more often, I had to share a late night chat. I wish those chats had been kinder, gentler and more understanding on both parts. But mostly, they were an endurance test that I seldom won….

Late night/early morning conversations after one has had a few drinks take two routes; either people say things they don’t mean and you can laugh it off in the morning or they say things they really mean, but normally wouldn’t say, that cut to the core and are hard to forgive or forget. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference…

It took me a lot of years to understand and forgive some of those conversations, but I will never forget any of them….

Especially now, when I realize how much like my Father I am and the lessons I learned at 2:00 am….

He expected people to do what was expected. One did ones duty. Period. He always did. Few saw the price he paid to do that or the anger he had for doing it. But at those 2:00 am meetings, I saw it all….

I saw a man who struggled between being happy with what he had and anger at what he never had….

I saw a man who was a victim of a time and a place who would never see himself as a victim…

I saw a man who wanted to fight, fight hard, but didn’t know the enemy to whom to direct his anger…

At 2:00 in the morning, after numerous glasses of bourbon or cans of Budweiser, it’s hard to be precise and to hit the intended targets. Targets are hazy and moving on their own volition. They won’t stand still for you. Therefore, your attack is scattered and often results in collateral damages.

His anger was a shot gun blast. Fire from a semi-automatic weapon that hit random targets. And occasionally from a stiletto welding with just the right amount of momentarily perfect insight and direction…

We had a love/hate relationship on both sides. He hated me for my youth, my freedom and potential to make my own way. He hated me for having the chance to not make his mistakes. He hated me for asking too many questions and not just accepting the status quo. I hated him for his power to make me feel insecure and to make me hate and doubt myself when his attacks hit their targets.

But, once I realized the power of his weapons and my own potential to weld them, I vowed never to use them myself. I am proud to say, I have mostly kept that vow.

I now understand his anger and I’m glad I’ve mostly avoided it myself. I know I am happier than he ever was.

There is nothing more desperate than a caged animal in pain. I learned that lesson well.

But at 20 or 22, it still hurt to have to face the tiger…

To hear him rage over what he had missed…to hear him rage over the places he would never see or go. To hear him rage over the trap of having to be a good provider who couldn’t provide for his own needs…To hear him resent those he felt he had to protect. To watch him throw himself at the bars of his cage, knowing he couldn’t escape, but determined to hurt those who captured him if they came close enough…

To see him realize how trapped he was- by love, by family, by the time and place. To somehow know that time was running out and he would miss so much he wanted to see….

I sat there,sipped my own drink, and heard him rage- saying things I won’t repeat. Things that cut to the core. I saw him rage against who he had become and spread that rage against those he saw as trapping him in a time and place he didn’t want to be in. I saw him rage at not knowing what to want…

Part of me is glad I’m the only one who saw and heard it all. It’s something, as a man of fiftysometing, I can now understand. I don’t think my Mother or sister ever would have….

I took the blows. He somehow knew I was strong enough to take them and somehow learn from them. That wasn’t intentional, it was instinctual. I guess it was a man thing…

I didn’t make the same mistakes he had made. I learned from his lessons without even knowing they were lessons or what I was learning. Over time, I somehow knew what to accept and what to discard. Maybe that was his unknown intent….

And, over the years, I’ve learned how much like him I am. And I’m so grateful, now, that I had those 2:00 in the morning conversations and learned those tough, subliminal lessons that let me avoid his mistakes and make my own.

Those lessons took me to college, to a successful career, to London, to Paris, to South Africa, to Mexico, to Toronto, to New York and so many places he never went. They made me strong enough to truly know myself…

But I still fear the tiger at 2:00 am….

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Chapter 84: The Last of the Great Southern Ladies

I’m thinking tonight of a dying breed. The true “Southern Lady”. Even the definition of a Southern Lady is a challenge. Some see her as a weak, charming delicate flower. Most of us know “Steel Magnolias” is an understatement.

Let me begin by saying, no reference is intended to reflect any real person living or dead. I’m talking about my fictional friend “Sally Anne” who is an amalgamation of many ladies I have been privileged to know…

Sally Anne is a tough broad. Or she would be if I was writing a film noir script about a Yankee girl. “Tough Broad” is frequently viewed as a term contradictory to “Southern Lady”. That is a mistake.

“Southern Ladies” are “Tough Broads” with a better publicist.

They have it all…and get away with murder. Frequently in fact as well as in fiction.

They have that proverbial iron fist hidden in the velvet glove. They have the scent of “moonlight and magnolias” that can hide a desperate heart and desperate actions. They know their power is really in what they seem to be instead in what the are- up to a point- and have the balls to cross the line when necessary.

And some have the guts to just be who they are….

Remember, Scarlett O’Hara married a man she didn’t love, killed a Yankee soldier, stole her sister’s fiancé, all but slept with her best friend’s husband and still saved both Tara and her reputation. And is still the “Gold Standard” for Southern Ladies

A true Southern Lady has more balls than any Southern Man.

My fictional Sally Anne would be the person I called when my Father was dying one of many deaths in a hospital out of town. She would insist on going with me and sleeping on the floor while we waited…

She would have been the person I called when I was a twentysomethting emotional mess after he died and wrecked my car, late at at night, and said “come over here” we will fix it in the morning. And had the contacts and experience to do so…

She would never have said a word about any of this…

She would have loved her Father and her family no matter how many “Jerry Springer” moments there might have been. Because she loved them…

My Sally Anne would have been real. Very real. She might have said “fuck” as often as others said “hello” and allegedly might have gone water skiing naked at Smith Mountain Lake on the Fourth of July, but she was a true “Southern Lady.”

Why?

Because, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t hide how much she cared about other people.

And because no matter how many times she might behave “inappropriately”, she had the heart and soul of a champion.

She cared about other people.

Deeply.

She always tried to be there for them and take care of them…

No matter how hard she tried to hide it.

That’s what would make Sally Anne the last of the “Great Southern Ladies”…..

And why I’m glad she is a character on this blog….

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Chapter 83: Comrades in Arms

It seems every generation has their wars; some are just more obvious than others.

I’ve been reading a biography of the poet Siegfried Sassoon and studying the British “War Poets” of the First World War.  Stories of young men struggling with the realities of war and trying to reconcile them with the peaceful, conventional world they were fighting to preserve.  Many of them were young men trying to reconcile their sexuality with the roles they were raised to play in a world that was fast disappearing.

In theory, my generation had no wars.  We were too young for Vietnam and too old for the first Gulf War.  I remember being in my early teens when the Vietnam War ended.  I remember being outside as fireworks exploded and everyone tried to make merry over the fact the Paris Peace Accords had ended a war no one had really wanted by then.  I remember my neighbor, whose son had safely survived the conflict, hugging me and saying:  “I’m so glad you won’t have to go to war.  You are safe.  We can all get back to normal.”

But some of us would have our war.  Partially external and partially internal.  In many ways, it would be a guerrilla war against our own people.  It would be the War on AIDS, the war for equal rights and the war on our own self-expectations.

I know this is tenuous and dangerous comparison to use, but the one commonality in all wars is that young men die- many of them needlessly.  The young learn about death and loss before their natural time.  And their world and their perception of it is changed forever.

And young men bond, as they struggle to find their place in the new world, in ways that their friends and families, who are not veterans of the conflict, will never understand.  They build a comradery that only fellow veterans of the same conflict can share.  Whether the veterans die from the conflict and its consequences or survive to face more mundane, but no less tragic young deaths or live to a ripe old age, they are always comrades who fought the same war.

As I read about these young men in England during World War I,  I can’t help but find a connection to my youth and the young men who fought the good fight, but are no longer here to swap stories and share remembrances of times past, over cocktails, at reunions that never came to be…

The other thing all young men have in common is that they always think there will be a tomorrow….

Dennis.  The center of our High School group.   We all revolved around him like young planets around a shining star.  Funny, audacious, fearless, brilliant- determined to find himself on his own terms even if it meant leaving us behind.

He was the first to go and in so many ways the hardest to lose.  We had drifted apart and never had our final reunion. I wrote him a letter and mailed it the week he died, not knowing how badly he was doing.  I thought there was still time….

After 20 years, I still recall the sense of devastation, the sense of unfairness and absolute, unfocused anger I felt when I heard of his death.

Buddy.  Sweet, funny, crazy Buddy.  The only one of us better at compartmentalizing his life than I. We had a kinship of conventionality that fought with our own best interests.  In our youth, we tried to fit into a mold that neither of us could really make work.  He went to Hampden-Sydney and I went to Washington and Lee.  We shared the unique journey of young gay men who went to College at all men’s schools and thus had a shared understanding for that special world.  He could ultimately shed that role easier than I.  But Buddy was in the theatre.   And he could act almost as well as I could when called upon to play a conventional role in real life.

I remember the last time we spoke.  My phone rang one Saturday afternoon and I answered wondering who the hell  could be calling me from South Carolina.

I said “Hello.”

“Scott?  Buddy here.  I was just listening to French Operas and vacuuming when I suddenly just had to speak to you.  How are you?”

That was Buddy.  We had not spoken for several years, but picked right up where we left off.  In fact, we moved our friendship forward.  We were more honest, less oblique, than we had been in the past.  We were older, braver and more comfortable in our own skins- something no one who knew us well would have said 10 years earlier.

Buddy and Dennis were much braver and more impatient than I was when we first knew each other.  They moved forward in their journey while I was still trying to avoid the war.  Still trying to play my intended, inherited role in a pre-“Will and Grace” world.  Still being a contentious objector to the conflict.  Not fully trusted because I had not yet committed to the fight.

But at least Buddy and I caught up with each other.  We were both happy.  We made vague plans to see each other and get together soon.  He was more real and grounded than I had ever known him to be.  I thought he was really going to be okay and that we could be new, old friends building on our old foundation…

Within a month he was dead.   An accident.

I can’t explain how much that final conversation meant.  We talked of Dennis, we talked of how we had moved forward and how silly we had been in our youth.  How things that once seemed so important didn’t really matter….

I miss Dennis and Buddy to this day.  We were young and frivolous together and we came from both the same time and started in the same place.

We had come out under fire with the spector of AIDS hanging over us every moment as we struggled to find ourselves.  We were small town, middle class  boys trying to find our way in a world that was more complex and changing faster than we ever anticipated.

Being Gay had gone from “the love that dare not speak its name” to being shouted in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Washington and in the halls of Congress as the Gay Activists and members of Act Up fought to save us all from the neglect of the government under Ronald Reagan and the very public hate disseminated by Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

We were in a war whether we chose to be or not….

I wish those boys were still here.  I would love to have the chance for us to talk again and catch up. The chance to share our journeys and express our shared thoughts on how our middle-age was so different from our youthful expectations of aging.  Probably, so much better than we could have ever imagined it would be back when we were fighting the fights of the 1980’s and 1990’s…

There were others who crossed my path during the war years- and far too many of them are also gone.  Andre, the Black drag queen who wanted to be a Virginia Prep.  Gorgeous,  Carlton, with his unique joi de vivre who adored Judy Garland more than a queen twice his age.  Sweet, funny Gene who’s appetite for life was more than his body could take…

We were all Comrades in Arms and fought a war with ourselves and with the world that only other Gay guys with a similar, small town Southern backgrounds could understand.  Our families and other friends would never be able to know our journeys to the same depth that we could share among ourselves.  Those safe on the home front never can fully understand the world of the soldiers in the trenches.

And we all shared a special secret.  That we were all a little damaged by our war and always would be- however hard we tried to pretend we weren’t.

Our war was not in the trenches of France or in the streets of New York, but in the living rooms, kitchens and paneled basement dens of the South.  With people who could never understand why we were different and that even “tolerance” isn’t the same as “acceptance” and certainly isn’t love.  People, whose hearts and minds we always hoped to win…

And our war was also with ourselves-fighting to reconcile who we truly and natural were  with the ideal of what we were raised to think we should be…

We comrades shared so much, even when we weren’t physically together.  But when we were together, in those brief fleeting moments between battles,  we could tell our tales over cocktails with the style, wry humor and the self depreciation of other veterans of other conflicts.

Thank god, I have my partner who shares the same journey and has lost comrades of his own.  I think the fact that we both came from the same place, in so many ways, is one of the things that bonds us.

And we could host one hell of a party if the guests were still available….

If I could gather all these guys together today, the energy would be too much for any room to contain it.  It would explode.

But then, it is a law of physics that you can’t create or destroy energy.  It only evolves….

And I know we are all still a part of the same shared energy.

The war stories of our big city brothers and sisters have been told by many.  But very few tell the war stories of those who survived the war on the small town, Southern front.

Maybe that’s why I’m still here.

To tell our stories….

 

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Chapter 82: A Death in the Family

I’m going to break the chronological flow, if there is one, of this blog…

We lost our dog Buckley this week.  I knew it was coming and had told my parter Steve this was going to hit me hard.  Really hard…

It has been about 30 years since there was a death in my family.  Mind you, I spent most of the 1980’s saying goodbye to people I loved.  I more than once joked that we owned a wing at Townes Funeral Home in Danville, Virginia due to all the relatives that died in that decade.

My Father, my Grandmother, Uncle Wiseman and my dear Aunt Goldie in the 1993.  We also spent most of the 1970’s  saying goodbye to most of the Rush relatives there- My other grandmother, Crazy Susie, Great Aunts big and little Mary, Great Uncle Joe….the mind reals…

We went from a fairly large family to a very small one very quickly.  Mainly, because my sister and I are the only members of our generation.  My Mother had a sister and several brothers who never had children. My father was an only child.  It doesn’t take long for a family to shrink.

It was hard to lose so many people when I was so young, but I learned a lot about loss early.  The hard part was being out of practice when it came around again.

Some people are going to say:  “What does this have to do with a dog?”

I had warned Steve, it was going to be harder on me to lose Buckley than it would be to lose most relatives.

We said good-bye to Buckley Monday evening at 6:15 p.m.  He had been asleep most of the afternoon and was barely awake when the vet came to give him the injections to pass him on to the next world. Whatever that may be….

Steve and I were with him as he passed in his own bed, in our bedroom, where he normally slept.  It was not easy for me, but I could not stand to have him go through the trauma of being taken to a vet to be put to sleep.  He died at home, with us petting him and loving him until the end.  I only wish everyone could go that way…..

I never knew I could love a dog like I loved that little mutt….

When you get a house, it just seems to follow that you get a dog, so we got Buckley in 2006.  He was a “rescue”.

But Buckley was more than just a dog.  He was our first dog together.  He was part of a new phase in our relationship.

We had lived together in a condo for 10 years.  It was no place for a dog.  We had a cat, Maggie the Cat, that we loved, but the house seemed to call out for a dog.  And we were ready.  We had the white picket fence, we just needed the dog to go with it.  It seemed the appropriate next step.

Steve had not had a dog for years.  I had never had an “inside” dog.

He was the first dog we looked at….

We were told he was 6 or 7 years old, but we never knew for sure.  We think he was older.  At least we tell ourselves that now…

He was a wonderful dog.  A total mutt.  Part beagle, part pug, part terrier and all heart.  He had a wonderful kind of dignity that made us think of a retired British Colonel.  Without realizing it, day by day, we built our lives around him.

He was not an easy dog.  It took an hour to walk him around the block as he had to smell every blade of grass.  He took his time and expected us to adjust.

And we did.

Eventually, he had 4 beds in different parts of the house.

When Maggie the Cat passed, Buckley became the TP.  Top Pet.  He always assumed that was his status to begin with….

We have 3 other pets, but they were all expected to defer to the Buckster.  And they did.

It was incredibly hard to say good-bye to him.  Especially for me.

I try to live in a word where people don’t even go to the bathroom, much less die.  I’m a realist who has to be forced into reality.

But reality hit hard.  He was obviously no longer the happy, bouncy dog we had known for so long.  It was the right time and place.  We were keeping him for us, not for him.

The Buckley we knew and loved had already passed….we just couldn’t say goodbye until we had to…

He was family.  I spent the last 3 years working from home with him at my feet every day.  We shared our lives 24/7.  We were more bonded than I could ever imagine being with a dog…

And when he died, I had these incredible flashbacks to the Deaths in the Family of the past.  Where pain makes people say and do cruel and thoughtless things in an attempt to just get through a depseperate situation.

My Father died at 53 when I was 24.  He fought a long valiant fight against cancer.  We had a difficult  relationship….

His death was protracted.  Days, weeks and ultimately months in the cancer ward at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.  My friend Sally Anne and I drove down one  night for the anticipated end of the “death watch.”  We spent the night sleeping in the waiting room.  He rallied and wanted to see me.

My Mother and my sister were much better at this than I was…

I walked into his room that morning.  He could barely breathe, was hooked up to all kinds of tubes and monitors, but he wanted to talk to me.

This was the man who had used every bit of his considerable strength to terrorize me into being conventional.   Who had pushed me to fit an image, from birth to adult, that was not me.  And he was failing and weak….

He told me:  “I know I didn’t do you right.  I was too hard, but I always loved you.”

I looked at him, laying in that bed, weak and on his last legs, but I just couldn’t feel sympathy.  I wish there was a death-bed reconciliation, but there was not.

I looked at him and said:  “I appreciate that, but it’s a little late for that now.”

I turned to my Mother and said: “I’m going home.  I can’t do this.  Call me when it is over.”

I’m enough of a gay man to think of Bette Davis in “The Little Foxes”, but this was not drama.  It was survival.

Hypocrisy has never come naturally to me even when it was convenient…

A couple of years later, my mother’s mother, Granny, passed away.

If you have read this blog, you know my Granny more or less raised me.  I was closer to her and my aunt Goldie than to anyone else in the family…..

She had been in the hospital and was released to go to my Mother’s house to recuperate.  The plan really was for her to live with my Mother…she supposedly did not know this, but I think she strongly feared and suspected this…

She was in my sister’s former bed, a white French Provincial four-poster, in my sister’s former room.  I took the day off from work to be with her.  She asked me to go to the Winn-Dixie and get her some buttermilk.  When I came home, she was dead….

I called the paramedics and they pronounced her dead.  Then I called my Mother at work and told her to come home.  She pushed for an explanation, but I just said:  “You need to come home…”

She arrived just as the paramedics were taking Granny out.  It was not pretty.  She collapsed on her knees and screamed:  “My momma’s dead”.  I told her to get up and told her to at least try to behave with some dignity and like the lady she had always tried to be….to have the self-control I was raised to have….to act like my Father would have decreed.

Later that evening, we were sitting in the living room waiting for my Aunt Goldie to come in from Charlotte.  I had just mixed a drink and sat down…

I said:  “She was the only person who ever loved me no matter what.  She loved me best…”

Lou, my Mother replied:  “She never loved you best.  You forget my brother Sammy, he was her favorite.  She loved him best.”

She continued:  “I’m your Mother.  You forget that.  I may not be what you want, but I’m what you have.  The way you seem to be living your life, no one will ever love you best.  Think about that…”

I knew, in that moment, that something unforgivable and unforgettable  had been said…

I walked into the kitchen, refreshed my bourbon and water, came back, sat down on her French provincial sofa, looked her in the eye and said:  “No one is here so we don’t have to play nice, but that is unforgivable.  Not what you are saying, but that you have to take something away from someone else to make yourself feel better.  Remember,  one day I will decide what kind of nursing home care you receive.”

To my financial detriment, I didn’t let that interfere with keeping her comfortable and in the best possible assisted living facilities when the time came.  But I made my point.  And she made hers…

But what does all this have to do with putting a little mutt to sleep?

First of all, my partner and that little mixed breed dog both loved me best.

We made a family.

Steve will admit, Buckley became “my dog” over the last couple of years.

And for once, no matter how hard it was, I handled death with dignity.  No unkind things were said or unkind actions taken.

Even though we tried everything possible to avoid putting Buckley to sleep.  But when the time came, I couldn’t stand for us to take him out of the house and drag him to the vet to be “put down”.  He didn’t travel well.  It traumatized him even to go to the groomer for a bath…

Instead, we had a sweet lady vet come to our house.  She appeared to be about twelve years old–but an old and compassionate soul.

Buckley was in his bed where he had been sleeping all afternoon.  He never really even woke up…

I was concerned because, given my history, I don’t do death well…

But she made it as easy as possible.  It was natural.  No drama. Just an old man surrounded by love and those who loved him.  It killed me, but I stuck it out.

I an so glad I was there for his final breath.

And,  when it was over,  we walked him out with the vet in his little basket and our sweet, lovely neighbor came by to share the grief and comfort  us.

After 55 years, I finally did a death in the family right.

And he was family.  He was more than just a dog.  And it will take me a long time to get over losing him.

But his last gift to me was to return dignity to death.

And to remind me that drama passes, but love never dies.

Love and death really are simple.  It’s the stuff that goes on around them that’s complicated.

That’s the journey that remains to those of us who remain behind….

And, no matter the past,  all we can do is to just keep trying to get it right while we can….

 

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