Aunt Billie sat poised, her ninety-four year-old fingers delicately curled around a menthol cigarette. She was gently rocking—her feet lifting a few inches in the air—on the porch swing of The Cypress, the retirement home she had lived in for ten years. Spring had come to the South early; heavy-scented magnolia blossoms filled the air.
I’d arrived before lunch and immediately we rolled into conversation, as if it hadn’t been three years since my last visit. I sat across from her in an old-fashioned wicker chair as we talked of family, people in her past, her youth.
On my drive to Billie’s, I thought of family moments, especially my Uncle Itch—from my father's side of my Southern family—who liked to tell me, with a big laugh, that because I had been brought up in naughty New York City by dyed-in-the-wool Southerners, I was probably a confused little damn-Yankee child. “Where you ever gonna belong, chile,” he teased me. With that question in mind, I went South, a few years after my parent’s deaths, and find the answer…if there was one.
Although I didn’t like categories, the promise of belonging to the Southern way had had an appealing hook. I knew some of the great traits of the South. The South can tell a story. He or she wants you to sit down in the rocker —let it be your comfort—on his or her porch, have a cool drink in one hand, and receive the joy, sorrow and yearning vividly expressed in the tale being told. Take it further and you will hear the rhythm, the jazz in the cadence of the words. Life seen through their lens has a mix of romance, brutality—even freakish—sensuality, humor, compassion. Their storytelling had a touch of magic.
When we were little, my sister, Alicia, and I visited a cousin’s plantation in South Carolina. We were told to follow the elderly Black man with the greying hair to listen to his stories. Sitting in the barn in the sweet aroma of hay and horses, we were rapt in attention as he read the tales of Bre’r Rabbit in their original dialect. I still swear the kind man told us his name was Uncle Remus. Although we could hardly understand a word, I was hypnotized by his deeply accented talk.
To react to a Southerner’s tale, you are meant to cry, belly-ache laugh—with a slap on your thigh—and sometimes utter a plaintiff “yes’m” to the story’s final words: “She killed that no-good husband, Bless her heart; Why…he is a damn fallin’ down drunk, Bless his heart.”
I know that “Who are your people?” is a mainstay of a Southern question. You hope your answer points to a verifiable family. If you are “family,” you are a blessed soul, no matter how many transgressions you have performed.
The Southern step has a lightness, a grace. And surely Mother’s soft North Carolina accent was the prettiest I’d ever heard. A Southerner exudes hospitality and friendliness. Therefore, public persona has a most important place. You better be ready to greet someone who might stop by or, as Mother would say, “Joanie, always dress, no tellin’ who you’ll see at the grocery store.” And I knew that if you did see that someone, you are likely to feel their reciprocating ease. There is an opposite opinion regarding this hospitality. A cousin who moved North said that within the Southern graciousness is hidden the violent undertones of the legacy of slavery. I once asked Mother if the concept of “smudging of the truth” meant that everything in the South was covered over in some sort of dewy magnolia scent. I’d heard my Aunt Billie use a phrase, “It’s all moonlight and magnolias.” Mother didn’t laugh at any of the phrases. She told me to stop questioning everything, “Accept life, Joanie. It is just as easy to follow the rules.” Rules, questions…I didn’t like rules but I liked the questions.
I had driven west across North Carolina, a two-hour back roads sweep through the piney woods from the small town of Corwith, where Billie Lee Howard and her family had grown up. My drive had given me time to think about my question to Billie: what does “being Southern” really mean? I’d heard it said: the Deep South is not a place, it’s an attitude.
Driving down the tree-lined entrance, I saw Billie at the front door waiting for me, expectant, lofty and looking strong, although she weighed only eighty-seven pounds. The hot time of day didn’t bother Billie; she looked fresh and comfortable, and her streaked grey hair, framing her vivacious face, gave her an elegance. She had a love for shoes, and today she had on fairly high heeled ones, with little black bows on the toe. Instead of the I’m-going-to-die-tomorrow-so-who-cares-that-my-slip-is-showing attitude, she cared how her rust-colored, matched skirt and sweater set looked underneath her strand of simple pearls. Good-looking all her life, age added to her stylish presence. She certainly wasn’t a fading Southern belle; I’d always noticed that. She had her own look. I couldn’t place it, but I liked it. Billie was similar to my mother in mannerisms—a certain forward stance, a slightly surprised, open expression. But they didn’t look alike, and wouldn’t have, as Billie was Mother’s adopted sister.
Seeing Billie sitting there, her beautiful skin, proper hair-do soft around her face, reminded me of my mother, and the story she told us several times about the day Billie showed up, a late afternoon in maybe 1920. I remember how Mother relived the story for herself, more than for us. The children were told to come quick and see the new precious child. A white blanket with an appliquéd rose design on it covered the baby. Mother had a vivid memory of that rose. Shewould recount how she, her brother and her mother sat on the veranda swing rocking themselves and the child, waiting for an explanation. But there wasn’t much to tell about this baby except she had been abandoned and needed a home. The question was, “What would the children think if this lovely girl joined their family.”
The way my mother told it, she emphatically answered that this child wasn’t lovely at all, that she didn’t look like any of them—that dark hair, all curly like that. She wouldn’t fit in, didn’t like her and never would.
Mother had a sad face as she recalled that moment. Her adored father had died the previous year, and her mother had soon re-married. Now she was being asked to welcome a new baby who she feared would capture her mother’s affection. She could feel the terror of the possibility.
The two children were told to hush-up with their complaints and bring out their Christian love. That was that, the baby was staying. And before the end of the day they were also asked to think of a birthdate for little Willa Pearl Howard, the name they had given her combining my Grandmother’s name, Pearl, and her recently deceased brother, William.
“Birth date? Just give her any date,” they answered.
“No, that won’t due for this sweet child.” She said cuddling the baby. “Wouldn’t it be nice, Alice dear, to share your birthday with Willa? June is such a pretty month.”
That was the end of the often told story. Then mother would turn to Alicia and me, her hands clenched stiffly at her side, and say, “From then on I hated that baby. She took my birthday away.”
I had hardly stepped out of my car when Billie—who had changed her name from Willa a long time ago— ran over, grabbed my arm, and we hugged tight. She looked at me: “Lord, I am just thrilled to see you, just thrilled; we have so much to catch up on. Quick, let’s go onto the porch. I’ll smoke and you can tell me everything. We’ll sit away from the other residents; don’t worry, they’re happy swinging in the spring sunshine,” she said as she hastily greeted everyone.
Billie, knowing I had driven over from her hometown, wanted to know right away if modern times had affected Corwith“Is Carolina Street still the prettiest street in the world? Corwith always was a town of sweet beauty and,” and she laughed, “sweeter secrets.” She had left Corwith in her twenties and didn’t want to go back, not even in her old age. Her daughter had suggested coming to live in her town where she could see her every day. Answering her question, I told Billie that even though the azalea shrubs hadn’t quite blossomed, Carolina street still had a grandeur, and a softness. She loved that house, set back off the sidewalk, but close enough to let people walking down the street say, “hey,” to you, make you feel a part of them—even if you didn’t really want to be. She recounted how she would come home to her mother’s sweet iced tea and warm cheese straws readied for her and her friends. “My handsome older cousin Franklin, so cute in his little bow tie, always wanted to visit for a time.” She described the hot, steamy afternoons, everything moving slow and how she and Franklin couldn’t wait to go to the back of the house—the dance room, they called it— and try the new swing steps. They danced to the wind-up Victrola. “We wound that thing up tight so the song wouldn’t stop in the middle of our dance.” She told me that Franklin just wanted to dance slow. “Sometimes....we’d kiss. And, why not? Nothing wrong with that. Anyway, we were just playing. We’d get in the back seat of Franklin’s daddy’s car and smoke. When we saw someone coming down the street, we’d hide way down in that big ole yellow Packard car; couldn’t stop giggling. Or we’d be daring and smoke in the house, always on the screened-in porch that looked onto the garden. I liked to watch the smoke’s curls go through the screen. I guess that’s when I started smoking, and here I am at the age of ninety four, still puff’n away.”
She talked about Ben Jones too. He was the chauffeur. “Mother said he was like family, in everything but color.”
Billie confided that she wished she could dance with Ben, that he was so good looking. “But I wasn’t that crazy. Anyway, Ben wouldn’t have wanted to. Lord, if we’d been caught, we’d have been killed; well, Ben would have been killed.”
It seemed like Billie’s behavior was only of a mischievous child, not wild like they said she acted, but a deviation at that time from the Southern Belle concept could be considered “wild.” Her curiosity and restlessness made her want to do things outside her proper world, like dancing with Ben; maybe it was a dare, or maybe she wanted to see his black hand next to hers.
She made me remember a night of dancing with a man from Pakistan. For a date, he had picked me up at the Marchesa Patrizi’s house where we, as students, lived in Florence, Italy. When I returned that night, the Signora was waiting for me. She sternly told me to never bring an Arab into her house again. I’d been raised with parents who had prejudice against Black people, not Arabs. It may seem naive but it was only then that I realized prejudice is arbitrary. I continued to meet Hussein down the street at a cafe, and then we would dance at a student bar. Billie would have done the same, if she could have.
I saw a woman come hobbling over to us on the porch. She may have appearedsomewhat baffled in her demented state, but she was lively in her perfectly ironed flowery dress, sporting a cane that had an enthusiastic plastic spray of flowers around it. Most of the others shuffling behind walkers looked lost and, as Billie said, paid no mind to their appearance.
Billie got up and helped Betty Ann find a chair in the sun. I did notice she made sure she wasn’t sitting too near us. She came back and told me that Betty Ann had become so mixed up lately that one night, when she had gone across the hall to Betty Ann’s apartment to take her out to supper, she had told Billie to go downstairs and “tell my parents that I’m coming, I’ll be right down.”
Billie said she became impatient and told her, “Betty Ann, your parents are not downstairs, they are in heaven, and you’re going to see them soon enough. Now let’s go.”
As she talked to Betty Ann, I pulled out my small camera to sneak photographs of Billie. Her facial expressions were lively and exuded joy. But when she sat back down in her rocker, a frown had appeared. She straightened her sleeves and pulled out her compact to perform the powdering-of-one’s-nose routine, allowing the gestures to slowly free her from uncomfortable memories beginning to crowd her. She didn’t want to get stuck in a mood, she wanted to have fun. Billie and fun went together; she saw life with an amused eye. She suggested that it might be time to go down to the corner cafe and have some truth and memory juice. “You know, a nice little glass of white wine. It’s just a tacky cafe but it’ll do, I like it. They say memory has its own truth; you know that, don’t you, Joanie? Come on, I’d sneak a drink out on this porch, but then all those people on walkers would come over for a nip.”
We settled into a booth at Geraldine’s Corner Cafe, just down the street from the Cypress. A Friday afternoon, and the locals—some in ties or work shirts, all looking for an early start to the week-end—filtered in. Many greeted Billie, one of the cafe characters, I surmised. I asked how often she went there. She told me just one or two times a week. I bet not, I said to myself, bet she’s a regular.
Billie ordered her wine; she didn’t care what the label was, just so it was white. She flirted with the waiters, knew their names, even let one of them give her hand a kiss. Thatpleased her. She knew she could be intimate, but only slightly. Brought up with Southern charm, she knew how to use it, have fun with it, make it work for her.
Jazz played on the local radio station. Someone yelled, “Turn it up, that’s smooth.” Billie stared at a dancing couple, shy to begin their swings into the rhythmical step of Stormy Weather. Billie loved that song, made her think of good times, especially with her darling second husband, Frances. She told me she loved everything about Frances, including his yachts. I pretended I was shocked, “His yachts?” I repeated. “You didn’t marry him for his money, by any chance, did you?”
“Well, of course, but I did love him. I had to survive. How was a woman with two children, one drunk ex-husband and no money going to make it? The one job I could find was selling jewelry at some half-baked store. Well, that and two nickels was going to get me a bus ride, nothin’ more than that. I made Frances laugh. I took care of him. He took care of me. We had a good time, why not marry him? Your mother didn’t approve, I knew that. I certainly couldn’t go to her for help. So, I ask you, who was going to help me?” She lit another cigarette with a flip of her gold Dupont lighter, the one with Frances’ initials on it.
Simple as that, I thought.
Billie ordered another glass of wine; said she didn’t care that she wasn’t supposed to have more than one. At ninety-four what did it matter. I too had a second glass. She wanted to talk about my mother, Sis, she called her. She said they had different versions of the adoption.
“Do you know what I was told? That some lovely person on a beautiful spring day had left me in a basket on my new mother’s porch. Can you believe that? Hell, I am not a complete idiot. I mean are we supposed to break out in song with that hogwash? Hogwash truth, I call it. Someone must have known where I came from.”
“Yes, somebody must have,” I agreed. But I had some impatience as I remembered Mother’s side of the story. “That wasn’t right she was asked to share her birthday...insensitive...it was her special day.”
My response affected Billie. “Yes, I suppose so,” she said, “How could Mother do that to Sis? Sis must have hated me.” But that was all Billie said for a while.
“Billie, I often think about your cat. Did Bastet really protect you? You told me she gave you courage.”
“Oh, yes, that Bastet, she could twirl. Twirled all the opposites right into her tail, until they came together and gave her balance. She helped me in my times of trouble. One particular time, she surely did.”
Billie became solemn, staring off at a clock on the wall that had a string of fake daisies around it. It was 5:00 PM. The music started up again. A ‘30’s mellow jazz piece, The Way You Look Tonight, began. More people crowded the tiny dance floor. Lights were lowered, chairs were pushed to the side, scraping the floor; a muffled laugh came from the next booth.
“I do love to dance,” she murmured. Wine had seeped into Billie’s emotions. She laid her head back on the red vinyl booth seat. “I think Sis knew who my real parents were, maybe everyone knew. Damn the secrets.”
“I may have figured out who my father was, Joanie.” Billie’s theory was that William, her Mother’s much younger brother, and who had died from TB in his early twenties, had gotten some girl pregnant. Mother and her family felt obligated to adopt the child; it was the Christian thing to do, her mother would have said. Billie was satisfied with that thought because, if her uncle actually was her father, then she wasn’t some sort of stray, she was family. She told me all that.
I stared at Billie, nodding my understanding. She was quiet for awhile and then she continued in a slow and soft voice, “Wait, Joanie,” she said as she stared at the dancers, “I have more to tell because I love you and you’re looking for answers to Southern peculiarities, to “The Magnolia Code,” as you call it. For sure my time is passing, so might as well tell you a big truth now, messy as it may be. I don’t know what you’ll think.
“I was in my forties, years ago, before I came North to New York, when Ben—you remember I told you about Ben, my family’s chauffeur? He contacted me—wasn’t too hard to find me, I guess. I was living in a town not too far from his small town. He told me he had a message for me.”
Ben came to her house. Billie said he was still good-looking, nice as he could be. He had a message from a woman named Sarah Langdon, who was dying. She wanted Billie to visit her before she died. Ben said that years ago Sarah had sung in his church choir “Prettiest voice,” he recalled. “Your mother needed someone who could do fine things with a sewing needle, so I suggested Sarah come over to the house. I knew she had a gift.”
“I asked Ben, what does this have to do with me?”
Billie sat up tall in the booth and slowly began to reveal Ben’s message: Sarah, many, many years earlier, had left North Carolina to go to New York to work; she was probably in her early twenties. Billie described how Ben had then hesitated in his explanation, how uncomfortable he became. But, finally he said in a near whisper, “Sarah was a Negro woman, but almost white in her skin color. She thought she could pass, Ben quickly explained; “She thought she could have a better life up North.
Billie stopped telling me her story for a moment. She looked at me and into her near empty wine glass. She said that she quietly told Ben to wait a moment, that she had to find her cigarettes. “I took my time, Joanie, I went into the bathroom and gave myself a long look in the mirror. I started to get boiling mad. So this was the secret, Sarah Langdon was my mother. I almost shouted at my reflection, and to her, Hell, I’m not going. Don’t you mess me up now.”
Billie said she went back to Ben and told him to tell Sarah that they could not meet. She could not come to see her. She told Ben to tell Sarah that she had a life now that suited her, and “Ben, tell Sarah that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”
The tears in my eyes weren’t for Sarah, or for Billie. They were for the irony: Billie’s father had made her a family member; her mother had made her an outcast. Tears rolled down Billie’s face too. As she said, her life suited her as it was. “It was my choice, Joanie.” Imagine, me and the South, the unforgiving South. “Who are your people?” they ask.
“There it is, my dear niece. As long as nothing is said out loud, well, that’s how we are down here in Dixie,” Billie said as if singing a tune. “Cover-up, hush-up, best not to talk about it stuff. Yes’m, like you said, ‘moonlight and magnolias,’ you got that right! Yes, there it damn sure is.”
Billie straightened her ninety-four year old self and said she was plum worn out. She wanted to leave the cafe, find another memory, something a little lighter. She laughed.
We went back to the Cypress. I too was tired. Billie’s Southern tale was so complex, so complicated. I understood it as best I could. For years Billie had looked for her mother but when she found her, she rejected her. She needed to belong, but on her own terms. She would never be a tragedy, or a victim. Instead she would light another cigarette, drink another glass of wine and survive. She had chosen to follow her own path, “But there are always consequences, that’s for god-damn sure,” Billie had warned me of that when I was very young. She had told me about the cat’s tail, about Bastet and the powers that connect you to the earth’s deep soul. Billie was resilient, and the choice to not accept all of her past may have given her the balance she needed.
It was cool in the late afternoon, shawls were laid out for the residents. Billie wrapped herself in a plaid one and put her head back on the softness of a cushioned outdoor chair. She closed her eyes and began to hum softly.
Night and Day, you are the one...only you...
I watched Billie rock and hum herself into a dreamy place. I heard her whisper to her memories, “Franklin, let’s dance to this one. Turn up the volume, just a bit. Yes, go wind up that Victrola again. Oh, that sweet sound.”