Growing Up Inside A Southern Gothic Novel

If you read any good Southern literature, the heart of the story is the insidious web of family relations.

There’s the crazy aunt, the alcoholic grandfather, the black sheep, and of course the long-dead ancestor whose left a myriad of unsavory skeletons in the family closet. It’s set amidst a backdrop of aching staircases in musty old houses with bellum antecedents, in lands where even the windows perspire and the wilting magnolias decay with grace. With murky bogs and heat-soaked delusions, the South paints an all-too-believable landscape for a Gothic narrative. We pick up William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams or Harper Lee and we’re transported into towns and families that make us feel better about our own lives for not being quite as crazy.

Except the heart and power of these novels is their truth. The bonds and connections of blood in the South that tie you to generations of misdeeds and heartaches. Even when you leave the South, sell that rambling house full of darkened secrets, that blood pounding through your veins is still buried deep in its soil. You feel it in the pressure to carry on a long-forgotten-by-society name that’s been in the family for generations. It’s the onus to cherish and lament a history you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies, but one you’ll defend and make amends for even centuries after the deed was done. There’s a gripping need to settle around a table with your kin, no matter how much bad blood is between you, and break bread together. At its heart, the South is where contradictions go to nest, the ghosts of the past walk beside you, and where everything new will rapidly be made old again.

Growing up in a Southern family, no matter where you may happen to live at the time, is often like living with an albatross surgically attached to your neck. You’re never quite free of the obligations of family or tradition, and when you try to escape the noose of guilt becomes ever snugger. Pointed remarks from your grandmother on how she didn’t see you at the Easter service make you tug at the neckline of the dress you put on for family supper so maybe she wouldn’t comment on the state of your soul. As the generations-old lime-green gelatinous fish-shaped dessert is passed around the table, everyone eyes it dubiously, taking the prerequisite spoonful as our holiday-enforced medicine, doled out three times a year. Conversation at every major family gathering turn to the Glorious Dead at some point in time, and “memories” of ancestors dead long before the birth of anyone presently alive are passed around like pieces of salacious gossip.

And if nostalgia is the national past time of the South, then secret-keeping is its profession. One of the first lessons bestowed upon children is that they’re not to be airing their dirty laundry, be that your actual dirty diapers or innocently telling the neighbors that mommy and daddy don’t sleep in the same room. The general perspective is why be open and upfront about something when you could be close-mouthed and pretend it doesn’t exist? Divorce, mental disorders, money problems, sex, unkind opinions, and the cleanliness of your house are state secrets more closely guarded than the president, and more maliciously wielded than the sharp side of the town gossips’ tongue.

As a child walking into my grandparents kitchen filled with my mother and aunts, all conversation would cease, with only fading echoes of “her ex” drifting into my ears. No begging, spying, or hissy fits would make them share, and it wasn’t until I was nearly 10 that I learned of my mother’s previous marriage. By that time, a rather innocuous fact was blown so out of proportion that it held the weight of treasonous betrayal instead of an unfortunate first marriage. Times may change and the severity of the secrets revealed in society may lessen, but in a Southern family, the only safe place for your scandals are the walls of your homestead. Generations come and go, but those walls hold the scurrilous shame of them all, whispering tantalizing hints of the scandals it beholds with each crack of the floorboards.

If Lord forbid a secret escapes the bounds of the home, it is ignored with such intensity you almost believe you imagined it. No matter the event—unsavory associations, jail, out-of-wedlock children, drugs, affairs, theft—it will never be honestly discussed. You can go your whole life not knowing that you had numerous stillborn siblings, your grandfather had a stint in the pokey, there’s a long history of mental illness, alcoholism runs as rampant as colic in a baby, or that *gasp* someone happened to have premarital sex (and liked it enough to keep doing it).

Yet while such “distasteful” things are never spoken of, they also never stay buried. The subtext of each long begotten slight is brought into every argument, tempered phrase, and subtle dig. Memories are as long as the family tree and the only thing longer lasting than your mother’s stubbornness is the family’s ability to hold a grudge. Heaven help the poor heathen whose perceived misdeeds are known to one and sundry. They’ll be reminded of it indirectly with a “sugar won’t melt in my mouth” tone via anecdotes of other families who have suffered shame because of unruly children. A holiday affair will suddenly turn into an unspoken game of “who can be the most passive aggressive in the kindest possible way” while you’re reminded of that time you happened to date a less than respectable man, your split ends, or how your grades weren’t good enough for the family alma mater. Since you’ve been playing this game since birth, you know to counter with, “It’s unfortunate that not all of us can have such unimpeachable and plentiful tastes such as you, Auntie,” an indirect but subtle dig at her terrible taste in past liaisons that make yours look like Rhett Butler incarnate.

Perhaps it’s the generations living amidst the muck and the mire, the oppressive heat swallowing your breath and boiling your blood, that keeps Southern tempers permanently riled. Maybe the years of fanning air wetter than the muddy river out back in our faces permanently etched itself into our DNA. Even long after you and yours have moved from the South, after the sweet cadence and slowed down speech has slipped from your vowels, and your patience for small town politics has gone; the Southern temperament never dies. It’s the ardent and unrepentant devotion to tradition and values that you’re not even sure you believe in. It’s in your mastery of the thorniest of conversations and ability to say you can rot in hell, you bastard through kind eyes and a smile. You see it in how every daughter works herself to the bone to please her mother, and even if she hates her siblings more than Scarlett loathed curtains, she’ll fight for them, and keep a civil if barbed tongue at all family events.

For that’s life in a Southern gothic family. It’s full of eccentric characters who spend so much time in historical societies and reenactments that their children thought the Civil War ended in their lifetime. Grandmothers are matriarchs who rule with an iron fist that would make Margaret Thatcher seem meek. Crazy isn’t a disorder that gets treated by professionals, but rather receives cute monikers or is staunchly ignored. Realities of life and society are pushed aside to withhold the dignity of the family legacy and name. Inheritances are wielded and withheld with Machiavellian precision and the in-fighting is legendary enough to make the War of the Roses seem plebeian. Come to Jesus meetings are rarely delivered by the preacher and make you fear for your life more than your soul. The family dog will forever be more loved than the children, the food is held in nearly as much reverence as the Lord Almighty, and appearances will always matter more than realities.

My family may have moved from the Deep South in 1973 to the land of half-Southern/half-Northern Virginia, but between the boiled peanuts, devotion to pork on New Years Day, and making passive aggressiveness an art form, it has pervaded all our lives. The 1730 farmhouse my grandparents purchased in 1988 may not have the bones of my ancestors residing in its graveyard, but we’ve done our due diligence to unearth its secrets and cover them with a veneer of our own. The next generation is already fighting over inheriting it, blood feuds are brewing, and it has never once been acknowledged around the dinner table.

Maybe when we settled in the South’s inhospitable, mosquito-ridden, swamp-laden expanse hundreds of years ago we signed our souls over to its fertile lands. We owe it the blood and toil of our generations and the inescapable shadow of the sins we committed to tame it. Our families pay for it, keeping its secrets, telling its lies, and protecting a way of life so many fought and died to achieve. No one bothers to ask whether it’s worth it, we just accept it as what is and make do, projecting a sheen of poise and dignity over the rattling of the skeletons that haunt us. And so we smile and laugh, bite our tongues and sharpen our wit, fill our tables and open our homes and pass it all to the next generation to buckle under its weight and cherish it with equal measure.

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