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“Jersey” and “belle.” Not two words one usually hears together. That is until Bravo smashed them together into a hot reality mess set right here in, well, let’s just say the Birmingham area (Mountain Brook, Cahaba Heights — they can’t seem to decide which).

I haven’t watched the show. For the record, I don’t watch any reality show that takes a stereotype and exploits it for profit (you hear me, Robertsons?), but I considered Jersey Belle for a nanosecond because it is, unfortunately, set in the town I call home. And I admit that I was curious, but a preview and a few random clips were all I needed to decide that I wouldn’t waste my time.

Photo: Bravotv.com

The Jersey Belle her ownself, Jaime Primak Sullivan Photo: Bravotv.com

Even though I didn’t suffer through the hour-long premier, the show did make me think (miracle of miracles). The premise, as I’m sure you all know by now, is that a woman from New Jersey marries a fellow from Birmingham, moves down here, and tries to fit into a seemingly elitist, Southern society. Of course there is a culture clash and drama ensues. So as the social media buzz ramped up about whether Jaime Primak Sullivan really, truly lives in Mountain Brook or just near it and the controversy of to monogram or not to monogram swirled through the Twitter-verse, I started to wonder, what really makes a person Southern?

The answer? Being born and raised in the Southern United States.

That’s all.

The same thing that makes a person “Jersey” — being born in New Jersey.

Now all y’all know I’m about as Southern as they come, at least I think so. I like pimento cheese, especially in finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off. I’ve attended a tea or two. Shoot, I’ve even hosted a tea. I can tell the difference between Francis I and Grande Baroque silverware from across the room, but I also don’t mind licking the barbecue sauce off my fingers. I have monogrammed bath towels. I can shoot a gun. But none of that really makes me Southern.

Just like being a loud, brash, crass, vulgar woman with little regard for the niceties of polite society, Southern or otherwise, doesn’t make one “Jersey.” It just makes you, as we in the South like to say, trashy. I feel quite certain that there are plenty of folks in New Jersey who watched the show hoping that everyone in America doesn’t think that they are all just alike, just as I did when I saw my Southern sisters portrayed as blank-eyed, ignorant, sighing, shallow coquettes.

The fact of the matter is that stereotypes of food, custom, and culture, while certainly part of who we are and where we come from, do not, in the global society in which we now live, define us. I know what cannoli is and have actually eaten it, both in New Jersey and in Italy. That doesn’t make me Jersey, or Italian. It makes me lucky — lucky to be able to travel and try new things.

What does define us? How we embrace our differences and learn from them. How we make those who are unlike us feel welcome. How we try to respectfully fit in as best we can when we find ourselves the odd man out. If you can do that, you will be the belle of the ball no matter what side of the Mason-Dixon line you live on.

Storytelling runs in my family.

We sit around and tell the same tales over and over and over. Somehow they never get old. Extra emphasis, a rolled eye, a dramatic pause entertains. A little extra detail here and there educates. In the retelling, heritage and history are passed down.

My grandfather, “Baw,” and his brothers hear someone is coming to visit driving a fancy, new car. Mischievous young ‘uns, they conspire to put nails out in the dirt road in hopes that the car will get a flat, and they a closer look.

Granny’s grandparents make a journey to Colorado hoping for a better life. They tie a rope between their home and the outhouse so that they can find their way back and forth in the blinding snow. After a hard year in the mountains, they return home, wiser.

Daddy and his brothers, boys who dive down down down to the bottom of one of the pilings that holds up the railroad trestle where it crosses the river. There’s an opening and they swim up inside the piling up up up until there is an air pocket.

Mama reciting Citronelle’s family trees for generations and generations back. Who is related to whom. Where they came from. Where they went. What they did.

Uncle Red and me

Uncle Red and me

Five little fishes swimming in a brook. Papa caught ‘em with a hook.

Mama friend ‘em in a pan. Daddy ate ‘em like a man.

I snuck in to get a bite, and Daddy knocked me outta sight!

Uncle Red’s sing-songy poem, complete with a roundhouse punch at the end, told to a giggling little tow-headed girl over and over and over.

All my life, these stories and so many more were told on a dark, summer front porch, around the fireplace, over the dinner table. And when I was old enough, I chimed in with my stories too. I didn’t have a lot of history to share, but I quickly learned that I could make people laugh. I knew it was a really good one if Mama laughed so hard she wheezed.

That’s why, 3 years ago today, I started a blog. As a freelance marketing professional [read: "unemployed person"], I had extra time on my hands and a head full of stories I wanted to tell.

The first one started with a blank screen, just like this one did. I wrote it out thinking Mama would read it and, I hoped, like it. That’s what Mamas are for. Maybe a few of my friends would read too. Maybe.

Mama did like it.

I kept on writing.

A few friends did read.

I kept on writing.

A few more folks read.

I kept on writing…until today, and I am proud to say that this is my 100th post!

ONE HUNDRED, y’all!

In the last 3 years, I have joined a couple of blogging groups (See Jane Write and Alabama Bloggers) through which I’ve made some new friends and learned a great deal, I’ve done a little freelance writing (all those Bourbon & Boots posts), and I’ve dreamed of that elusive book deal. I’ve had a few posts that were very popular (like this one and this one) and some that just weren’t (like this one). I’ve written so many posts, that I can’t remember them all!

Most important of all, I’ve found my voice. Whether in print or out loud, my stories sound like me. And that’s just fine.

I guess now that I’ve got 3 years and a hundred posts under my belt, I can say that I am officially a “blogger.” But before I ever had a blog, I was a storyteller. A storyteller from a long line of storytellers. And a storyteller I shall remain, for as long as there are stories to tell.

For as long as you’ll keep on reading them.

 

I stood at the foot of her grave, the bahia grass tickling the back of my knees and a cacophony of summer insects loud in my ears. I hadn’t come to Monroeville looking for her, but I’d found her.

Sook.

Twenty-seven years ago, almost to the sweltering June day, I stood at the foot of another grave. This one not yet marked. The red clay freshly turned. The bahia grass. The bugs.

Sarah.

Sook was the elderly cousin of Truman Capote, who spent several years living with his kin in Monroe County, Ala. While the other relatives worked, young Truman stayed at home with her and their dog Queenie. “We were each other’s best friend,” he wrote — this young, lonely boy and this aging, eccentric woman.

Capote recounts their special relationship in A Christmas Memory. Mama recommended I read this autobiographical short story while I was researching another article I was writing. I wonder if Mama knew how much of little Audrey I would see in “Buddy,” Capote’s childhood nickname, how much of Sarah there was in Sook.

Sarah, charged with my care, as well as keeping Granny’s house and cooking our meals, was my only companion while the rest of the family worked. Sarah. So tall, skinny as a rail, cheekbones sharp and high, hair braided in two perfect, inverted French braids that circled her head. Sarah. Brown eyes filled, it seemed to me even at a young age, with sorrow. Eyes that would sometimes light up with laughter as we played before going dark again.

As far back as I can remember, it was Sarah who dressed me, tamed my stick straight mop into pigtails, or even braids like hers when I begged and her arthritic fingers would allow, fed me, read to me, and entertained me. We were each other’s best friend — at least she was mine.

Sarah and me

Sarah and me

Our days were filled with bed-making, dusting, sweeping. Sarah let me “help.” We would hang the laundry out on the line while we sang Bringing in the Sheaves, which I thought was “bringing in the sheets” because that’s what we did when they were finally sun-dried.

Bringing in the sheets, bringing in the sheets,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheets,
Bringing in the sheets, bringing in the sheets,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheets.

In the summer we would pick blackberries in the ditch down by the road. Always looking out for snakes, we’d pluck the dark, black fruit, trying not to eat more than we saved but not always succeeding. When our bowl was full, we’d go back to the house and make cobbler, Sarah’s long, brown hands covering my pudgy pink ones as we rolled out the dough for the crust.

Once I started school, I saw Sarah less, mainly during school breaks and summers. It was different then. I had friends my own age, play dates, I was old enough to go to the pool. I still helped in the kitchen, Sarah showing me how to fry chicken until it was perfectly “cripsy” and how to make chocolate icing in a double-boiler, cooking it until it “looked right.” She still reached out to tuck my hair behind my ear. She still hugged me tight.

I was in high school when Sarah got sick. She quit working for Granny. After more than 30 years with our family, after being there every day of my life, she was gone.

I went to visit her at her little house under the hill. It was dark and suffocatingly hot inside. Sarah was wrapped in a blanket. I kissed her cheek when I left. I knew it wouldn’t  be long.

Brother and I tried to slip into the back pew at her funeral, but Sarah’s six children invited us to sit with them as we paid our respects. On the second row, I cried as if I was, indeed, one of her own. I had loved her like I was. I believe she felt the same.

Later that day, I stood at the foot of her grave. A grave not yet marked. The red clay freshly turned. The bahia grass. The bugs.

Fast forward to Monroeville 2014. Husband and I decide to take a detour on the way back to Birmingham. We want to see the literary heart of Alabama. There is a walking tour pamphlet. See the Monroe County Courthouse; here’s the Wee Diner where Gregory Peck ate; here’s where Harper Lee’s house once stood; next door is the foundation of the home where Truman Capote lived.

Wait. What?

The home where Truman Capote lived. The home where Sook lived. The home where they made all those fruitcakes, drank the leftover whiskey, made kites. The home of Christmas memories.

Continue on around Courthouse Square; notice the Monroe County Bank, site of A.C. Lee’s office, and the Monroe Journal, which he also owned; here is The LaSalle Hotel, where Gregory Peck stayed; visit the cemetery where you will find the graves of A.C. Lee, Son Boleward, the inspiration for Boo Radley, and many of Truman Capote’s relatives.

Truman Capote’s relatives? Sook! I’d wondered if she was real. Now I knew she was. Not looked for, but found. As real as a friend can be. As real as Sarah.

And that’s how I cameto be standing at the foot of Nannie “Sook” Rumbley Faulk’s grave, remembering my own best friend, tears mixing with sweat trickling down my face, the bahia grass tickling my knees, a choir of summer insects singing them both home.

 

 

 

One step is all it takes to begin a journey, whether it’s a thousand miles or only one.

Photo courtesy of the Citronelle Historical Preservation Society.

Main Street, Citronelle (Photo courtesy of the Citronelle Historical Preservation Society)

When I was a little girl I walked a thousand miles through Citronelle. With no one to look after me, I stayed at Mama’s office. More accurately, I strayed around Mama’s office.

Left to my own devices for hours on end, I walked. I always left her office and went south on North Mobile Street. At the corner, I would wait for the revolving time and temperature sign on the bank to do a complete revolution so that I would be in the know.

Turning left on State Street, I would walk a block past the First Presbyterian Church, which always seemed curiously locked up tight and in which I have never stepped foot to this very day. Come to think of it, First Presbyterian is probably the only church in Citronelle that I’ve never attended. But I digress.

On past the church at the next corner was Main Street, anchored on the south end by Newberry’s Department Store. I would usually wander in to examine the new clothes and shoes and admire all the lacy, embroidered handkerchiefs displayed in a long, glass case near the front. It was air-conditioned in Newberry’s.

Then on past the thrift store, which was always hot and dark and musty-smelling, past Mr. Carl’s barber shop where the men would all be gathered to talk, and past the Benson’s flower shop, which always smelled of funeral.

On to Terrell’ five-and-dime for a visit with Mr. Buster, the owner. Terrell’s had everything from toys to costume jewelry to crochet thread to candy. Sometimes I would get a Sugar Daddy, or some wax lips, or candy cigarettes. You have to be careful with candy cigarettes, however, lest you be perceived as trashy.

Back out on the sidewalk, I would always stop to talk to Gladstone Trotter, who drove the cab. Gladstone ran his business from the only pay phone on Main Street, and if you needed a ride, you called that number. Rain or shine, summer or winter, Gladstone could be found leaning up against the storefront waiting for a call, usually surrounded by a few other fellows who would stop to chew the fat. I’m here to tell you that a little girl can learn a lot listening to what men say when they think she is not paying attention.

On northward to the Courtesy Food store. As shoppers moved in and out through the glass doors, great gusts of cold, cold air smelling faintly of onions and Pine-Sol would momentarily refresh me. A quick peek to see who was bagging groceries that day, then on my way.

Down through the alley by Andrew’s Hardware, where I always cut through so as not to have to pass the liquor store to get back to Mobile Street. Lord only knows what kind of degenerates would be at the liquor store. I listened to the preaching. I knew. Best for a little girl to avoid it altogether.

Back on Mobile Street, I always checked for want ads in the Post Office in case I might recognize someone, then I would meander next door to the Citronelle Rexall Drug to see if there was a new Richie Rich comic book. If I had a little money, I might get a vanilla Coke from the soda fountain. If not, I would smell all the perfumes while singing the Enjoli jingle.

Walking south on Mobile Street toward the prisoners washing the fire truck in front of the jail, I would arrive back at Mama’s office, my journey complete — at least until tomorrow.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, every step in my ritualistic, block-wide odyssey was a lesson – lessons I still rely on every day. When to talk. When to listen. When to explore. When to to be careful. Who can be trusted. Who can’t. People are all different. People are all the same. Get by. Get along. Trust your instinct. Trust yourself.

All in the span of a block, walked.

The summer heat often turns my thoughts to cool, refreshing cocktails. If you’re having such thoughts and happen to be in the Magic City, here’s a list of go-to watering holes in my latest guest post for Bourbon & Boots. I know there are many, many more, and I hope you will let me know your favorites!

The Bohemian at The Collins Bar

The Bohemian at The Collins Bar

 

I have seen the light. I have been converted. I have been shown the wicked ways of my traditional, jewel-toned, over-stuffed style and become a Mid-century Modern disciple. The preacher?  None other than the fabulous Barri Thompson, proprietress of Atmosphere Home Essentials in Birmingham, one of the nicest, funniest, down-home-in-the-big-city people I have ever met.

Read our Q&A at Bourbon & Boots! While you’re doing that, I’m going shopping. Lucite table, here I come.

barridesign

Today I took a walk. A long walk.

William Wordsworth told me to.

As I sat in my office working through another lunch, answering calls, returning emails, problem-solving, trouble-shooting, I heard it, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”* Old Will was whispering to me. Chiding me.

That’s what you get when you’re the child of English scholars — 19th century poets talking in your head.

The world was too much with me. After a long, cold winter, after several hectic months at work, after cooking the dinners, folding the laundry, paying the bills, and doing all the things that mothers and working people everywhere do every day, I had reached my end. The world was not just with me, it was all up on me, and I had to get out in the sunshine. Right then.

So I did.

I started out from the office deciding I would walk as far as I could in 30 minutes, then turn around and walk back. It didn’t take but about a half a block for me to remember how much more you see, how much more you hear, how much more you feel when you’re hoofing it down the street and not riding in a car.

I walked past a crowd gathered around a preacher shouting messages of hate and damnation. The onlookers weren’t buying it. A few hollered back. Most gazed at the spectacle with varying degrees of bemusement and disgust. I walked on.

I heard two women talking as I passed. “Thank you again for caring enough to ask,” one said. “That’s what friends are for,” said the other. I walked on.

I saw dogwoods, irises, pansies, kale, and flowering things for which I have no name. The pollen swirled around me in a yellow cloud. I sneezed. I walked on.

Wordsworth’s admonition rang in my ears. “For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”*

I walked in the shadow of Southside Baptist Church. I felt small gazing up as its enormous marble columns lifted the pediment to the heavens. Insignificant. Humble. I walked on.

I saw award-winning chef Frank Stitt sitting on a fountain getting his picture made. He posed. A reporter hovered. The photographer snapped away. I walked on.

Almost back at the office, I saw a sticker on a traffic signal control box. It said “Be Open.” I am, I thought to myself. Open to taking a break when I need one. Open to walking. Open to experiencing life instead of driving by it. I walked on.

Wordsworth was in my head again. I felt like shouting. “Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; so might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”*

I walked on.

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* From “The World Is Too Much with Us,” a sonnet by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth.

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