Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood

Fragment 1

I’m two or three swinging in a backyard swing and am attacked by an angry rooster. (Escaped cock fighter? Demented sufferer from bird fever?). I pump my legs to swing higher to escape the onslaught, though, of course, gravity sweeps me down across and up through the pecking zone. I’m screaming at the top of my little lungs. Mr. Long, a neighbor, runs over to my rescue.

Fragment 2

I’m six or seven. My mother, grandmother, and Aunt Vee (who is only six years older than I) are traveling by car through rural Dorchester County to visit my Great Aunt Creesie, my paternal grandfather’s sister. My grandfather, whom we call Kiki (short for his Christian name Kistler) is not along. According to Mama, Kiki hasn’t been “right” since a Greyhound bus door smashed closed on his head and fractured his skull. By being “not right,” they mean that Kiki gets mean as hell when drunk and spends his days under voluntary house arrest holed up in his room listening to the radio and playing his ukulele. (You can read about one of my visits to see him here).

Mama explains as she drives past corn fields that Aunt Creesie is “very poor” and that her son Trim is retarded — the word in those days preferable to the less scientific but often used “half wit.” She tells me that Trim is an epileptic and could have a seizure while we are there.

spursWe eventually arrive at Aunt Creesie’s unpainted shack. Beautiful oaks surround the house, but not a blade of grass grows from the dirt yard, which is crawling with hens and a couple of roosters. Aunt Vee informs me that roosters have spurs on their legs and that they can attack. I’m, of course, terrified. The spurs look downright lethal.

Inside the house the most conspicuous piece of furniture is a player piano on which are arranged gaudy, orange-colored pitchers and vases. Trim shambles in, a bear of a man whose mouth is always open and twitches.

He sounds like this:  

I don’t want to go outside and play as instructed. Rooster-phobia. But I do. The roosters don’t attack.

Later, I poo poo in an outhouse, my tiny butt positioned over the hole. I have no memory of wiping.

Fragment 3

I’m thirteen or fourteen and visiting with Mama, Daddy, and my brother David our Great Aunt Ruby, my mother’s mother’s sister. There is also an aunt Pearl, and my grandmother’s name is Hazelwood, but all of her people call her Saisy.

Aunt Pearl lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment. She lives with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. She is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Kruschev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.

Sallman JesusThe house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus (see left) hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible school are displayed all over the place.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.

We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.

Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.

 * * *

My own children have enjoyed essentially Gothic-less childhoods. No visits from Daddy’s aunt, my Great Aunt Lou, tipsy on sherry, telling us about the time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired.

“I don’t think she knew it was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when the gun went off.”

My boys do, however, eat some holiday dinners with their Great Aunt Vee, who was once diagnosed as schizophrenic because she thought she was Queen Nefertiti.

So their childhoods haven’t been completely deprived.

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