On Sunday, July 5, I met Rebecca and her daughter, Cora. At 87, Rebecca is likely my mother’s last living first cousin and such a lively representative of her generation that I felt I’d gotten a crash course in Life on the Millpond Road. Details that my mother had parsed out over the decades came tumbling out of Rebecca with a specificity and quick recall that I hadn’t truly expected.
Like my mother, Rebecca left Washington County with a World War II serviceman from the North. She married at an age when girls today are not yet able to drive, and traveled from place to place with her older husband and growing family. She had a sense of adventure and good humor, tempered by a religious faith that has stood her well over the years. These qualities persist today. She has an impish smile and twinkling eyes. There are, as my mother would have said, no flies on her.
But unlike my mother, and in spite of leaving the South, my sense is that she remained part of a cohesive sisterhood.
She and Cora gave me a glossy print that features two generations of Chesson women. Three sisters – Inez, Hilda and Cora in their spectator pumps– are flanked by Hilda’s daughter, Sarah Mac, on the left and Cora’s daughter Rebecca on the right. Missing is my mother, Reinette, daughter of Inez.
That she is not part of the group haunts me. Had she been there, each mother would have had a daughter beside her. Had she been there, this picture might have implied that there would also be solidarity with the next generation: mine.
Instead, I am looking at three women who had difficult lives, and two daughters who don’t yet know their fate. One will be funny and smart at 87; the other will die in the Dix Hills asylum at 37.
From what Rebecca told me, it's likely that my mother did not see those cousins again after that day.
In a 1995 interview at Tulane University, writer Dorothy Allison said: “I don't know any southern writer who doesn't begin with momma. You know, she's like the air you breathe and it's a little dangerous because in fact there is this concept of the southern mother in literature. To get serious attention is to give a kind of reverence, you have to write against the stereotype. And the stereotype is frightening. The stereotype is inhuman. The stereotype IS the mother who starves herself to feed her children, you know. And then the other stereotype is the mother who eats her children alive if they do not quite measure up to what she wants them to be. And you're always caught up between those two things if you're a southern writer….”
What will I do, I wonder, as I write my own book, with the stereotype of the ambivalent Southern mother who loses her place, who tries to eschew all things country, many things Southern, and who is often missing from the picture?