Southern Comfort was my first attempt at writing a book about my childhood, and it was a difficult book for me to write. How to explain . . .
For years I promised myself I would not write about my past. It felt too exposed, too open, like an unhealed wound. But my children urged me to break that promise. Living in suburban Ohio, they were entertained by my stories of the South and the farm I grew up on, stories that sounded to them like a chapter out of a Faulkner novel.
And maybe that was and is part of my resistance. Some of the stories I tell about life on the farm are a lot like Faulkner’s stories, complete with racism, sexism, and many deceptive, criminal, and strange as well as wonderful people who walked up the dirt road to our barn like stray cats and stayed for months or years.
But how do I begin? I wondered. After all, a childhood has so many layers to it, especially a childhood with many characters. Not only were there six children in my family and an endless train of farmhands and guests and aunts and uncles and cousins, there were also the horses, the cows, the dogs, the cats, the chickens . . . Back then the animals were as important as the people.
The problem was (and is) that I have many books to write on the subject. Who knows if I will write them.
I decided that if I could compose a single poem that gives a sense of the accent of the South, the pace, the lilt like a dip in the middle of each word that catches the mood, that makes meaning settle in the brain like that warm, wet Virginia air, and cling to your skin and slow you down, then and only then would I try to write a book on the topic.
The poem had to be called “Southern Accent.” While writing the poem, I pictured a southern accent as a hammock for words that lets them swing in the air for a while, as if enjoying the afternoon sun, while I contemplated the next line.
After I wrote the poem, others came more easily.
The day I came home with a busted lip and two black eyes,
my mother said the problem with me
was my southern accent. Get rid of that extra y
in Dayaddy, and you’re talking about your father,
not some deity.
I tried to tell her it began with a dayare,
but my mother said it was dare, not dayare,
and besides that, she didn’t want to hear one thing about it.
A girl is supposed to act nice.
And speak like a lady.
If you’re going to fight like a boy,
you can cut your hair like one, too.
What’s more, that stuff growing on top of your head
is not hay as in hayer, it’s hair.
Driving to Watson’s Beauty Salon downtown
on Jefferson Park Avenue, she instructed me
to open my mouth nice and wide, say ahhh, not ayyy.
I didn’t mean to, I tried to explain.
It was just an accident.
Not everything rhymes with Bayer, my mother commented.
She was from New England. She wasn’t like me.
But I never could get it right. No matter how hard I tried,
I’d hear my father’s voice,
his Memphis drawl in the back of my head:
You being about as helpful as a crawdayaddy under a rock?
When was the last time you peeled your mama spuds
or washed your hayands and said something sweet
with a smile on those rosebud liyips?
I knew how to answer him, keep my eyes cast down,
my voice a wisp: No, Sir. Yes Sir. Or, if I dared:
Can I please be excused?
No Ma’am, he’d answer just as quick as a blink.
You can. But you may not.
Not as long as you don’t know
which word is proper,
and what kind of excuse you might be.