Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The South I've Always Known

This past Sunday night, I had been really sick for several days with the flu, the kind of sick where I'd just recorded my fourth day with a fever of 102, I'd been through the totally unexpected and demoralizing vomiting and diarrhea stage, and my nose and lungs were raw meat. My vision was too blurred to read or work on the computer, so what else was there to do? Suddenly there was time to think.

I am rarely this sick, but whenever I am, I remember being a little kid with a fever of 105 and a bad case of the measles... and being really scared. My mother was frightened, too. This was the same woman I had seen kill with a garden hoe a rattlesnake that had invaded my sandpile where I played out under the cedar tree. My daddy was frightened, too.

They were scared because we had no doctor.

At that time in our nation, the fact of poverty was that 1 in 7 people lived in it. Our county, the southernmost raggedy tip of Appalachia, scored higher than 1 in 7. We were officially the poorest, least populated county in the poorest state in the nation. (There for a few years Alabama somehow 'out-povertied' Mississippi.) Not only did our county have its typical Appalachian poverty in the northern part, it had its fair share of minority poverty in the Southern part. Two out of every five households in our county did not own an automobile, and this was in a county covering 635 square miles with fewer than 10,000 residents. It wasn't like you could just walk next door and borrow a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread. There were no chain grocery stores, no movie theatres, no four-lane highways, and only one doctor, Dr. Goff. He was the doctor who had delivered me, assisted by a mid-wife. He had done this at my parents' home because it was February and the unpaved roads were too bad to risk traveling to a hospital in a neighboring county. By the time I had the measles, Dr. Goff had died. I doubt the roads were much better.

I remember the night when my fever spiked so high my mother finally stopped coming into my room to push the glass thermometer under my tongue and moved me into her own bed. She alternated between carrying me to the bathtub and immersing me in what felt like ice water, then when I was shivering uncontrollably, taking me back to bed to cover my body up with quilts as she continued to wipe my face with a cool damp washcloth. I remember the look on her face when I asked her why she had put black sheets on the bed (no one had ever heard of black sheets back then) and whose face was the mean man I kept seeing, the face whirling larger and larger when I closed my eyes? I know now I was hallucinating. At the time, I was miserable and scared.

I remember hearing both of my parents on the telephone, a party-line system shared with other households, calling doctors day and night in neighboring counties, hoping someone would accept me as a patient. I don't recall all of the details. But I know that not long before my mother died she bitterly recalled the name of one of those doctors and reminded me that right after Dr. Goff died, she had paid a 'well-visit' to this doctor's office, paying a fee and filling out paperwork to establish our family with his practice just in case one of us fell ill or was injured. During the time when I was sick, this doctor would not return my parents' phone calls. Surprised by her rancor after more than 40 years, I asked my mother why this doctor would do that, and she replied, "It was because of where we were from. There was a long distance fee to make a telephone call here." And then she said, with no bitterness, just matter-of-factly, "No one cared what happened to you if you were from Coosa County. We had to learn how to take care of ourselves because nobody else cared whether we lived or died."

Shortly after I lived through the measles, my pretty mother stopped putting on her high heels and red lipstick in the mornings and stopped working for Judge Thomas and took a position in public health instead. In 1960, she worked taking the census in areas of the county no man would volunteer to go. During census season, on Saturday mornings when I was not in school, she took me and a stack of LIFE and SATURDAY EVENING POST magazines with her in the family Chevrolet. She said it was against the law for her to take me and that I would have to sit in the car and not go inside the houses and, most importantly, never tell anyone she took me, but she felt it was important for me to go.

Sometimes the car's tires slipped on rocks as we forded small streams. Sometimes the feral smell of wild game and human sweat was unforgettable as it lingered on my mother's clothing after she had visited in these homes and gained the trust of the people enough for them to share their private, sensitive data for the census. How many children? Ages and names? What is your income? These are not popular questions in households where there are secrets such as incest and bootlegging, households with a stack of loaded shotguns by the front door. Later, working in public health, similar questions might include birth control needs, sanitation issues such as the total lack of a septic system, symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, physical abuse, basic nutritional information and needs for pregnant women and mothers of infants.

Why this long trek down the memory lane of Southern poverty?

The sting of poverty had more than one barb during those blessed/cursed 'interesting times'. I had a little humming make-believe play dream, an alter-ego fantasy of what it would be like to be a girl growing up with a closet full of new wool school clothes in a state where there was beautiful snow in the winter and no one hated you because of your accent. I thought it would be cool to have a mother who stayed at home and cooked dinners of frozen Birdseye vegetables. This dream was inspired by the family road trip out West in 1963. As it turned out, driving around the United States in a brand-new Chevy with Alabama license plates was an invitation for open hostility and ridicule, having Dixie cups of soft-drinks thrown at our car, a man walking up to our family out of the blue in a restaurant in Landers, Wyoming, as we sat having dinner, demanding to know who we thought we were to be lording it over minorities and breaking laws in order to do so. If I opened my mouth to order a hamburger, everyone, it seemed, turned to glare in my direction. The day Bull Connor ordered the fire hoses and dogs loosed on the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, my mother and brother were half a block away at the federal building. My brother was too young to drive but had prepared to take the Amateur Radio Operator's test ('HAM' radio). He had ordered the parts and built a HAM radio station in his upstairs bedroom. Sometimes he would enlist me to crawl up on the roof, in storms (my mother did not know this),and sit astride the highest roof ridge and adjust whatever homemade antenae he had recently built. I suppose when the end came--and to our young eyes, the news Walter Cronkite told us each evening clearly pointed to the fact that the end was near-- my brother would be the last outpost, the sole electric signal emanating from the chaos, letting Australia and Argentina know how we were faring now that the bomb had been dropped on us and the assassinations and riots had succeeded in breaking down what was left of society.

So, finally, here's the payoff in this long fever dream. How can these stories possibly link to the present? No medical care for the poor. My mother's chosen path. The rest of the nation feeling sure we were too stupid to extricate ourselves from our problems. My brother prepared to serve as witness to the chaos. These are indeed the threads that have been woven together to create the fabric of my life.

At the end of the fourth day of the flu, my temperature was still 102. Alone in the house I settled in with a quilt on the sofa to watch 60 Minutes. This was going to be a particularly interesting segment because it would touch on Alabama politics, more specifically how one political party in Alabama allegedly illegally manipulated the justice department and succeeded in imprisoning Alabama's latest former governor on trumped up charges. In the election environment, this story was emotionally charged, and nowhere more emotionally charged than in this state. This should be interesting, I thought.

And then suddenly I am in The South I've Always Known. For the past thirty years I had somehow convinced myself that I had outlived and overcome the sixties, but now the past came rushing back. When the local TV station I was watching mysteriously went blank for the Alabama politics segment of 60 Minutes, regaining the signal just as the segment concluded, suddenly I was the kid with no medical coverage again, the self-conscious kid sure that the world was laughing and shaking its head, the kid who followed her big-brother's lead and described as a clear-headed observer just the facts of what had happened. I got on the internet and contacted CBS. I emailed every site I could find. I described the facts: no other cable channels were affected, the screen just went black, Comcast said it was a network problem, not a cable problem. Apparently other affected viewers did the same thing. Soon we learned over the internet, through chats and blogs and official and non-official sites, that the 60 Minutes segment covering the imprisonment of a former Alabama governor was not, for some reason, broadcast in most of the Northern one-third of the state.

When a television station in Alabama fails to carry the 60 Minutes segment blowing the whistle on alleged illegal political cronyism in the state, there is no good way to spin it.

Even if the reason the 60 Minute blackout occurred is the least offensive possibility of all--that the cause of the blackout was entirely accidental-- suddenly the rest of the nation sees us as being too stupid in this state to operate normal equipment the rest of the world can easily manage.

Well, there are some areas of Afghanistan where technicians experience such lapses in technical know-how. But when it happens there, we call it by other names.

"May we live in interesting times", indeed.


Reader said...

Ms. Garner,
I've lurked around your blog for a long while now. Your posts (and prose) are painfully beautiful and funny, and sometimes arouse in me a guilt I've been utterly unable to explain to myself. Or to assuage.
My grandparents and great-grandparents left the South (for reasons as dark as the secrets your mother encountered as a census worker) and meandered through Oklahoma and Texas, finally ending up out West. Most of the places my grandparents told me about are now only a plane ride away for me. But it's a journey I've never taken, despite solemn promises to my grandmother that I'd do just that one day. Now she's gone, and most of her kin are gone, too, and I'm wondering what stops me from walking my feet onto an airplane and keeping my word.
I like to tell myself I've made it up to my family with my love of Southern literature and my careful attention to recipes and warnings and wisdom; with my Muddy Waters and Hank Williams collections; and with my attempts at writing stories I shamelessly stole from family I never knew.
I'm not from Wyoming-- or Texas, or New Mexico, or Utah, or Colorado, or Arizona-- though I've lived in those places. And I wasn't even born yet when you took the trip West in your family's new Chevy. But I'd like to offer you my apologies for the rough treatment you endured as a tourist of your own country. No doubt your parents saw what your child eyes did not: just over the shoulders of the critics and bullies who ranted at you in Wyoming, there on the horizon only a few miles away, lay the Reservations that ought to have informed any Westerner's attempt at a "conversation" about civil rights and human dignity.
I never went "home" with my grandmother like I promised. And when I read your post today, I felt shame for my broken promises, for my Yankee education and my backsliding, and for the distance I spent a childhood trying to put between myself and places I now wish I'd been.
A good daughter of transients, I wander. I scour the libraries and bookstores, I roam the internet and meander cyber space, in search of a place I've never been, hoping I'll just know it when I get there. The South is my own fevered dream. But honestly, I don't know if I'll ever recover, or even if I should.
I'm sorry about the 60 Minutes blackout suffered by viewers of your CBS affiliate. But I take comfort in knowing that you're still perched up on the roof, adjusting the antenna, bearing and broadcasting witness. Your brother, wherever he is, must be proud of you for putting your pen (and keyboard) to such fiercely beautiful and formidable use. There is no static on your blog, no interference, and there are no blackouts; none at all.

Fevers and storms and steep-pitched roofs be damned. Hope you're feeling better.

Anita Miller Garner said...

Thanks for your comments, reader.
Any time you choose to come South, it is here, waiting for you. Nothing has changed much at all, not the landscape, nor the politics, nor most of the social issues. They have morphed somewhat, but not disappeared. You can visit your grandmother's grave and tell her you've decided to come visit after all.

You must have a blog of your own. Hook us up with an address. Let us know how our 'wandering daughters' are coping.

Reader said...

No,I don't have a blog (though the pressure is mounting). I'm waiting for relevance and voice to intersect on my keyboard here. Til then, I just drift to and from blogs and lit mags I admire and enjoy. Thanks for the message, which I'll read as another road sign in my wanderings "home," literary and otherwise. I'll stop "lurking" and drop in again some time.