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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Chapter 81: We Never Sang for Our Fathers-Part One

My Father has been a peripheral character in this blog.  It is very difficult for me to write about him.  Mainly, because of our complicated relationship that was ultimately unresolved due to his early death.  He died in 1983 when I was 24 years old and he was 54.  We had a complex relationship that, 30 years later, I am still trying to understand.

When I knew him, he was one of the Don Drapers of “Mad Men”fame.  A man of his time and place, a salesman driven to succeed for his family.  A man who shoved convention down everyone’s throat- including his own.  That was how he was raised…

Daddy, and I will  call him Daddy like a good Southern boy, was a complicated man.  He was brutal, he was funny, he was brave, he was fragile and he was a survivor.  He was also a slave to his times.  I realize that now.  He was a man who embraced the role he was given to play because he did not know any better and wasn’t brave enough to challenge it.

After 30 years of reflection, I like to think I almost understand him.

And I have almost forgiven him….

There is a saying that all girls become their Mothers and all men become their Fathers.  The older I get, the more truth I see in that truism.

My Father’s story is one  that I’ve pieced together  from whispered conversations and funeral confessions.  That’s how one finds what passes for truth in the South.

He came from a complicated background that could only have resulted in a complicated man.  His parents married and divorced within months of his birth.  That simply was not done in Virginia in the late 1920’s.

I don’t think he ever recovered from not knowing his own father.  From what I know, his Grandmother, known to one and all as Mrs. Rush, ruled the roost.  From all I heard from his relatives she was a “hard woman.”  In today’s vernacular, that means a total bitch.  From the pictures I have, she was one scary woman.

She did not approve of my Grandmother and his mother, Susan Catherine Rush, marrying Jasper Michaels.  She did all she could to sabotage the marriage after they eloped.

She was very conscious of being a “Virginia Rush” with claims to the glory of being a FFV (First Family of Virginia)  by way of my multiple -great grandfather/uncle (depending on the version) Benjamin Rush who was the founder of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and other tales of family lineage.  This heritage would haunt my father throughout his life.

Susan Catherine, aka Susie, would have the honor of being the first divorcee in the family and the first one to go to the looney bin.

Apparently my Great Grandmother, Mrs. Rush, saw the scandal of divorce- and it was a scandal in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s- as preferable to allowing the marriage to continue.

This was not talked about when I was growing up.  My father never met his father until late in his life.  Mrs Rush erased him.

Mrs Rush kept her daughters close.  Her daughters were Lily, Mary and Susie and they lived together most of their lives.  Lily was married and had children, but eventually returned to the fold just like Susie.  Lily was the plain, practical one.  Mary, forever known as “Little Mary”, the family beauty,  was the virgin spinster aunt of Southern lore.  She was the pretty, fragile one who went to a tuberculosis asylum in the mountains in her youth and returned in “fragile” health until she died at 88.

Susie was the rebel.

I only have one picture of Susie and Jasper.  It was in Mrs. Rush’s papers that I somehow inherited.  In this picture, Susie is a stark, dark-haired beauty with bobbed hair and a flapper’s dress.  I was taken in the mid 1920’s.  There is a companion portrait of Jasper Michaels, a handsome, dapper man in a suit with half a mustache.  I’ve always wondered what happened to the other half….I can’t help but suspect alcohol was involved.

Family legend was that Jasper was a gambler and, in Mrs Rush’s view,  not good enough for Susie. Therefore, she broke up the marriage.

With all these elegant Virginia ladies of the 1920’s there was only one problem.  It was a problem epidemic at the time.  No money.  Old name, lovely house but no visible means of support.  Susie eventually became the one to support them- by working in a cotton mill.  I can only imagine Mrs Rush’s thoughts as she confiscated and cashed Susie’s checks.

But my father was the family prince with four women devoted to his upbringing and development.  He was the hope and dream of the four Rush ladies.

Eventually, Susie faded into the bread winner role and was put aside as the drudge.

The mill broke Susie.

There is another picture of Susie at my parent’s wedding.  My mother’s family is showing their rough-hewn West Virginia roots.  Susie, who was by then a mill rat, is wearing a hat with a jaunty feather and gloves.  The only one besides my Mother wearing gloves- the then true mark of a lady of that time.  But her face is thin and haunted.  She would be put away in the State Mental Hospital, for the rest of her life, within a year of that photo.

There are many versions of the story as to why Susie was put away.  My favorite version is that she called my parents one night and told them she had ground up a coca cola bottle in her Waring blender and made it into a milk shake and drunk it to try to kill herself.  My mother swore to my sister that she had Susie committed because Susie tried to kill her with a knife.  No one who knew my mother would view that as grounds for insanity….

That was in the early 1950’s.  In all versions of the story, my mother was instrumental in putting Susie away.  She forced the issue.  And Susie would spend the rest of her life in the State Hospital for the insane.

My sister and I spent a good part of our childhood bracing ourselves for our annual visit to Granny Susie.  We hated those visits and the Susie we saw then was the only Susie we ever knew.  Daddy would park the car and go to check in with the administrators to check Susie out for our visit.

While we were waiting, the free-roaming, less insane inmates would come around the car, climb on the hood, beat on the windows and beg for money and cigarettes.  Lou, my mother, said “just ignore them.”  She was a master at ignoring the unpleasant.

We would take Susie out and drive her around Staunton and later Petersburg, Virginia.  We would take her to civil war battlefields and drive her through decaying downtowns.  She refused to recognize my Mother, the enemy, and asked questions like: “Why are all those colored people walking around?”  She carried a notebook and made marks every time she saw a “colored” person.  She could barely keep up in downtown Petersburg.

My Father talked to her like a person.  To the rest of us, she was much less than that….

We had not known her before the breakdown and commitment….

This went on for more years than I can recall….

Jasper Michaels, my Grandfather, was never mentioned….

Susie died sometime in the 1970’s.  I think I was around 12,  I was there alone with my Father when the telegram came.  Yes, a telegram.  He said: “My Mother is dead.”  and started to cry.  The first time I ever saw him do that…

I remember saying:  “Good.  That means we don’t ever have to go back to that place.”

He slapped me.  Not for the first time, but with more justification than usual.  He said:  “You heartless little bastard, my mother is dead. You don’t understand.”

I didn’t.  I just walked away and roamed around the yard until he pulled himself together…

We had the funeral in Danville and everyone pretended Susan Catherine Rush had a normal life and a normal death.  The secrets were to be buried with the body….

But my Uncle Joe, Susie’s brother’s wife, “Big Mary”, pulled my Father aside at the reception at our house after the funeral.

In the South, Funerals are a time for confessions. It’s a cliche, but it is true….

Big Mary said to my Father:  “I have to tell you something.  It’s time.”

Mary told a story.  It seems my Grandfather Jasper, the man my Father thought had abandoned him and his Mother, had sent letters, presents and cards to him for years after the divorce.  He had tried to see him on several occasions.  Mrs Rush had destroyed the cards and presents and refused to let him into the house to see him or Susie….

Apparently, this had gone on for years after the divorce…

My Father never knew his Father cared….

At age 40 something, his whole world was turned upside down.

Shortly there after, Big Mary and my immediate family all piled into my Father’s new Ford LTD and went to see his Father.

Jasper was a little old man living with a woman, not his wife, in High Point, North Carolina.  She would not receive us, but Jasper came out and we drove off, parked the car and visited in a parking lot.

He confirmed Big Mary’s story….

We took some pictures.

And we never saw Jasper again….

(to be continued)

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Chapter 80: The Shopping Gene

I used to swear I was adopted.  I couldn’t think of anything I had in common with my family.  Therefore, I developed this fantasy where I was the Love Child of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn who had been placed by the Studio with this family in Virginia to avoid the bad publicity.  I was always convinced they would come get me one day….

Eventually, however, I came to accept reality.  I really was genetically connected to these people.  By at least one gene….

The Shopping Gene….

When I was a small child, my Mother would spend hours at Belks and Rippes.  She once understood the importance of buying jackets and skirts, in pure wool, with chains in the hem, like Chanel,  or extra cloth to give the appropriate weight and drape.  She would buy matching hats and gloves for each outfit.  She gave all this up, eventually, but I remember when she had these rules…

Her most prized possession was a coat from Rippes, the best woman’s store in town, with 3/4 length sleeves, trimmed, like the collar,  in mink, with matching elbow length tan kid gloves… She wore it for decades.

She would take us shopping and taught me the first rules of Quality Clothing.  Eventually, like most of America, she forgot these rules, but I never did.  She taught me, first and foremost,  that fabric patterns should match at the seams.  Lesson One.

Unheard of today….

She lived in fear of people thinking she might buy cheap clothes.  She used have to buy clothes, once a year, for my Father’s Mother, who was in the State Mental Hospital.  The fact that Granny Susie was in the State Home didn’t phase her as long people understood she only shopped in the Belks “Discount Basement” for her.  Her theory was, it didn’t matter what you wore in the looney bin.

So, each December prior to our visit to Granny Susie, Lou would march down the steps to Belks Basement for her annual pilgrimage.  She would stop at the bottom of the steps and loudly announce:  “I’m here to buy some things for Herman’s Mother. They aren’t for us. Where are the cheap old ladies panties?” She lived in fear of people thinking she might need to shop in the “Basement” for herself.

My Father taught me it was better to have “a few nice pieces of quality clothing” than to buy a bunch of crap.  Another largely forgotten rule…

He believed in “good shoes”, something my Cole Haan addiction attests to to this day…

He had great ties, some of which I still have…

It was a rite of passage for me, when I was 16, when my Father took me to Saters for Men, the preeminent men’s store in my home town, and introduced me to Jack, Hi and Hup Sater. He said: “These guys will teach you to dress like a gentleman.  I’m opening a charge account for you to get started.”

A charge account with the bill going to Daddy was something he would regret for years….

I was an amatuer in those days.  A small town boy with limited small town tastes…but I was ready and willing to learn.  The Sater’s men gave  me my first lessons.

I’ll never forget, in  our High School newspaper my Senior Year, you could be “willed” things by your peers.  My friend  Van Hall willed me some “really nice clothes”.  It took me about 30 years to forgive him….

Several of my high school yearbook “ads” were pictures of me shopping…

But I learned…

The summer before I left for Washington and Lee, my Aunt Goldie invited me to Charlotte to shop for my College wardrobe. That was her graduation gift to me.  She told me: “You need to up your game.  60/40 polyester blends may cut it in Danville, but only pure fabrics- 100% cotton shirts and 100% Wool pants and blazers will work in the real world. ” Lesson Two.

We spent a weekend looking at wonderful clothes in better stores than I had ever shopped in before.  I learned the magic of the words “charge/send.”

I also discovered Brooks Brothers and  began a 35 year love affair….

She sent me off as well equipped as a young gentleman has ever been sent to a fine Virginia Finishing School.  I mean, a men’s college in Virginia.

I may have had a few more things to learn, but the clothes were right.  With one exception. One coat, Goldie did not approve of, but that I had to have.  A courdory jacket with a hood.  Major mistake, but I didn’t know any better….yet.

My sophomore year at Washing and Lee, I still had that coat.  I met my next shopping muse that year.  My friend Ralph’s girlfriend Carolyn.  Carolyn went to Sweet Briar and was from New Jersey, which was close to New York, so I theorized her taste had to be impeccable.  And it was….

When we first met, she lovingly referred to the corduroy jacket as the “cub coat.”  Then she sweetly and graciously lead me to the College Town Shop and talked me into replacing it with a Woolrich Down Jacket like Ralph’s.  In another color.  Lesson Three.  I would wear that jacket for 10 years.  The Cub Coat went to Goodwill.  And the bill went to Goldie who asked no questions.

One of the joys of life in a small College town in Virginia back then was that the locally owned stores encouraged personal charge accounts  I had 3 accounts each at the two top stores:  Alvin Dennis and The College Town Shop.  One went to Daddy, one went to Goldie and, as a last resort, I had one that went to me if I was afraid things were getting out of control.  I had wonderful sweaters and Alligator shirts in every color.

My first Tux, an After Six from Alvin Dennis was billed to Daddy, who choked but paid the bill anyway.  I wore, and occasionally slept in, that Tux through 4 years of College and a couple of years of post college weddings- including my sister’s.  It was a great investment.

My mature shopping habits were a challenge after college when I returned to Danville for a few years prior to escaping for good.  I didn’t make much money my first few years out of school, which made me appreciate my “investment” clothing even more.  I still picked up a few suits at Saters- which, next to Brooks Brothers, remains my ideal of a men’s store.

But it was time to move on….

As the years went by, I had less and less to say to my family.  We had very little in common.  But we could always shop…

If the conversation was limited, we would just get in the car and head for an outlet center.

I would always go to Charlotte at least once a year to shop with Goldie.  We were still the  true pros and shopped so well together.  We could tear a piece of clothing apart.

Goldie would look at a seam and say: “It may say Ralph Lauren, but I see “made in Japan.”  This is crap.  They wouldn’t make this in America.  This is some foreign made junk.  This is all name and no quality.”  She would die before it became impossible to buy “made in America” and that may have been for the best.

My Mother lost all sense of quality as she got older.  She fully embraced the new American mantra Quantity vs Quality.  She forgot all her rules of craftsmanship, pattern matching and good fabrics.

I’m convinced the decline and fall of America began with the invention of Double Knit Polyseter.

And my Mother willingly drank the kool-aid of more is more….

When middle class women began to buy Polyester Pussy Pinchers, America, as we knew it, was doomed.  These were pants, with elastic waists and no discernible lines, that so many women began to buy in the 1980’s.  They introduced the concept of “camel toe”.  Enough said.

My Mother became a hoarder….

She once went to Waccamaw Pottery and bought so much cheap, imported crap, she had to go back the next day to pick up what would not fit in the car the first day.

Half of my inheritance was wasted at Big Lots.  By the time we realized how far gone she was,  her house was so full of cheap, Chinese made crap you could  barely walk through it.  She had 15 football shaped plastic chip and dip sets “in case I want to have a Super Bowl Party.” She had clothes she had never taken the tags off of….The house was overflowing with cheap junk.

Shopping was no longer a pass time, it was an obsession….

As her life spun out of control, she just bought more crap.  As her memory failed, she just bought more things to make her feel better…Shopping was a way to try to control the uncontrollable.

It’s a cautionary tale for me…

The genes that once brought us together drove us apart as I tried to make her see the craziness of her purchases….

I’m trying to get back to the “less is more” philosophy on which I was raised.

I have a lot of stuff.  Good stuff.  Once I learned it, I never lost my appreciation for quality.

As I get older, I realize I am in the minority.

When I think of trying to unload some of the good stuff we have, I realize there is no market.  People would rather have a bunch of cheap crap than a few good things.

That’s where America went wrong….

Today, people buy a bunch of stuff they don’t need to make themselves feel better.  It gives them an illusion of control.

Americans support Walmart and Old Navy and The Gap and other stores, full of badly made, disposable products, just to make themselves feel better and feel like they have the purchasing power they once had….

But buying a bunch of cheap crap only makes the cycle worse.

People who won’t pay for quality merchandise or who don’t recognize that expensive designer merchandise is badly made, only perpetuate the economic process of mindless consumerism.  They don’t recognize or know the importance of quality or of “having a few nice things.”  They don’t want to think about the big picture.

I still think the world would be a better place if we all just wanted a “few nice things.”  If we appreciated quality instead of quantity.

I know I’m in the minority…And I’m working on this myself.

I only spent $50 on stuff at IKEA today….

Maybe we will eventually all wake up and appreciate quality vs quantity again….

And maybe I really am the Love Child of Audrey and Cary….

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