I first met Jefferson when we were coordinating an appearance for a writer. Jefferson was coming from Charlotte and I from Claremont, so Mooresville, home of NASCAR Teams and the only Steak and Shake in three counties fell closest to the middle. We were friends in an instant. We were far more four hours later when we said goodbye.
We could finish each other’s sentences mostly because we were talking in movie lines and we loved the same ones. Steel Magnolias topped the list. We went through more napkins than the waitress could bring us, wiping tears of laughter as we exchanged stories of Southern women in hair salons, the practice of taking casseroles to the families of the dead but not before writing your name on a piece of tape and sticking it to the bottom of the Pyrex dish on account of wanting it back after the burial, and our favorite Southern phrases.
Jefferson’s is “from off,” as in, “Oh, you might not would know him. He’s from off.”
Yesterday, the elected officials of a state whose very name makes me a tiny bit weepy decided that it is fine for me to get married no matter how many times I have proven my profound lack of good judgment in that regard, but Jefferson cannot.
David Williams and I rode in the back of Deb Cooper’s show dog van, balancing on bags of Purina stacked five high, being stared at by Shar Peis from their travel crates, while Cooper broke speed limits in a vain attempt to get where we were going so she could escape the woman riding shotgun, the woman who endlessly chatted about her hobbies of restoring rocking horses and researching Navajo Indian weaving techniques. David and I clung to one another, not so much to avoid being thrown into the side walls of the van but in a desperate attempt to quiet our nearly hysterical laughter. Witnessing Cooper, a Chicago girl, never met a diamond she didn’t like girl, a girl who did not/does not/will never own a pair of sensible shoes, nod politely while driving like a maniac and fake an interest in paint scraping and ancient tribal patterns, was nigh on more than we could take and remains strong enough in my memory to make me laugh out loud in the grocery store five years later when I see a bag of dog food and think of it.
Months later, I would go to the post office box I had to rent and find a check for $500 from folks calling themselves the Southern Handlers Charity League or something similar. I think there was a note telling me how sorry they were about my fire and hoping that the money would help, at least a little. There was no name. There was no single person claiming credit. No one in the dog world I asked knew who they were or where they came from. Only last week did I see a Facebook post from David listing the good works done by the Southern Handlers Charity League. They did not use my name because that would be against a Southern sense of manners. All it said was “a person in the dog community who lost everything in a fire.”
David. I might should have known.
Those high and mighty legislators in Raleigh have decided that I am deserving of a right that David will be denied should he ever move to Carolina and fall in love.
When did it happen? Was I just not paying good attention? When did people who live in a country made up of every conceivable heritage and belief suddenly start deciding that their way was the only way.
I’m paying attention now.
Some wrote that they were ashamed of our state. Some wrote that it was a bad day to be from North Carolina. Some wrote that they were ready to go.
But, I’m stayin’ and I’m keeping Andrea Busbee right here with me. She’s got a smart husband and a good family but my money’s on Andrea in this dog fight.
Andrea is crazy smart. She’s so smart that it is a tiny bit hard for her to fake her way through dealing with those less endowed with gray matter. That makes me laugh. I could make a morning’s entertainment out of watching her in the drugstore, that look on her face. Andrea requires a fair amount of caffeine and more than a healthy dose of intelligence just to get through the day. Sometimes, she only gets the coffee.
See, Andrea and I are gonna fix this. We’re gonna call on the history of Southern women who, after finally taking all they could take, got fed up and fixed whatever was wrong. They ran the Underground Railroad, sat at the back of the bus if they were white and refused to go to the back of the bus if they were black until someone decided that they’d better stop acting like a jackass or find a way to live without biscuits and sex, not necessarily in that order.
Don’t blame this current bunch of horseshit on the South. Don’t blame it on the country South.
I knew a woman, not a tooth in her head, who rented a house to two gay boys who collected beanie babies and groomed dogs and decorated to perfection. I was standing in her garden one day when one of them came walking across the yard. A crate had fallen on him, tearing open a gash in his back. He was bleeding horribly. She saw him and quickened her pace among the chickens running wild. He held up his hand and lowered his head. He told her to stop, not to come near him. He asked her to go in the house and see if she had anything he could use for bandages, just enough to stop the bleeding so he could get to the hospital.
I understood. I spent fifteen years in the big city. I understood. I wondered if she did.
“Hush,” she said. “I don’t care nuthin’ ’bout your ol’ AIDS.”
I watched that woman, without anything more than a fourth grade education, put on a pair of Playtex dish washing gloves. She cleaned him while reminding him that she had told him to be more careful. I don’t think she stopped fussing at him the entire time she tended to his back. When his partner came to fetch him, tote him to the hospital, she said, “You s’pose I need to go, n’case that doctor tries to be mean to y’all?”
She is my people.
My cousin, who has Tennessee red mountain clay running through her veins, said it best. “You don’t agree with gay marriage? Don’t have one.” My agent, in a pissed off rant said, “Exactly what do they mean, they don’t believe in gay marriage? Well, guess what? I can say I don’t believe in pine trees but there they are.”
Eudora Welty, a proper Southern woman who had her own recipe for pecan pie and mint juleps and wrote many of the Southern classics, enjoyed a long and happy friendship with Reynolds Price, a man who preferred to be called “queer,” as he thought that was funnier. His own writing was elegant. Miss Eudora thought so. I talked to him on the phone once. There is only one word, lovely. He was lovely, and when he died this past year North Carolina grieved, as well we should. He belonged to us, to these hills, to this place. Sometimes I look at his picture and wonder if he would have thought I was any good at this writing thing. It doesn’t really matter. Still, I wonder.
Nelle Harper Lee spent her childhood protecting a slight, oddly dressed little boy named Truman Capote, and defended him in adulthood even when he didn’t deserve it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood, The Grass Harp—my favorite—all written by a gay man who was first befriended by a Southern girl, a Southern woman who would ask all the questions that needed to be ask, say all the things that had to be said, and put in the pages of one book all that we need to know about how to treat each other; that walking around in another man’s skin was the only way to know what his life was like. She wrote the book to which all other books are compared and always, always fall short.
Miss Nelle knew a thing or two about looking for mockingbirds. She was right. It is a sin to kill them. They do nothing but make music, write books, paint, draw, laugh, cry, love, live…just like the rest of us.
It’s a fine line to walk, to criticize, to question something and love it so very much. I continue to love my Carolina, my South. I know we were wrong yesterday, that the rights of one are the rights of all. Anyone who does not agree with gay marriage is free to go to a church with like-minded people and exclude anyone they wish. A government cannot, must not. I believe that Andrea and I will see it change. She and Scott are fifteen years younger than I, so they may have to pick up the charge if I wear out, but I believe their daughter, London, will grow up to wonder what all the fuss was about, that in her lifetime no one will ask and everyone will tell because it finally dawns on people that it just doesn’t matter who is sleeping with whom.
It really doesn’t.
If you want something to worry about, how about this: let’s forget about those neighbor boys who hope to get married someday soon and both wear white lace and pumps. Let’s wish them well, along with their maid of honor, the one with the five o’clock shadow. In fact, let’s go to the wedding because if one stereotype is true it is that gay boys can dance. You have not lived until you’ve seen them hit the dance floor when the deejay plays “I’m Every Woman.”
Now I don’t care who you are, that is funny.
Instead, let’s worry about the neighbor down the other way, the one who has cancer but no health insurance since getting laid off down at the mill. Let’s fret over the children who keep coming to school saying they “forgot” their lunch money, or their coats, even as the temperatures dip. Let’s say we’ll get together and find a way to save a home, just one, in our town as the bank threatens to take it away from the couple who bought it not knowing they’d run out of work long before they ran out of bills. Let’s worry about the man we haven’t seen at The Café in a few days, the baby who the doctors said would not live but did, the man who walks the streets and talks to the bushes, the nice lady trying to run the store by herself. Let’s worry about that.
And, if I were all y’all on the wrong side of this, I might would worry about me and Andrea—cause in the words of Tombstone, baby, “You tell ’em I’m coming and hell’s coming with me.”