Lady Lessons

Photo-illustration (left) by Sean McCabe
by Lee Smith - June/July 2011

The path to becoming a Southern woman often takes twists and turns, especially when all you really want to be is a tomboy

When I was a little girl, my mother and I used to drive every summer from the Appalachian Mountains where we lived (“The sticks!” she called it) all the way across Virginia to visit my Grandmother Marshall and my Aunt Millie and Millie’s best friend, Bobbie, in Baltimore. This annual trip was part of my mother’s grand plan; she was raising me to be a lady. The drive took two days with my mother at the wheel. We “broke our trip” by staying with Mama’s friend Frances at Port Republic in the Valley of Virginia. My mother always said “the Valley of Virginia” in a certain way, with a certain tilt of the head. Frances’s family lived in a huge house, a plantation really, with a white columned portico and a long view out over the golden, rolling land.

Back home, we had no view. The rocky mountains were so close and so steep that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. This caused Mama great consternation as she tried valiantly, year after year, to grow roses. Sometimes she’d lie on the sofa fully dressed and cry about it. Apparently, any lady worth her salt had a rose garden.

In a way, our summer journeys symbolized the difference between my mother and father. She came from Chincoteague Island, off the Eastern Shore, where her father had been in the oyster business. A picture of him hung in our sitting room: a handsome man with a big mustache, dressed to the nines, standing tall and straddle-legged atop what appears to be a small mountain of oyster shells. He carries a silver-headed cane; he wears a dark broad-brimmed hat; the drooping gold chain of his watch hangs down from his pocket. A man of consequence, of style. The family lived in a substantial square white house with a green lawn sloping down to the Chesapeake Bay. I never visited this house myself, though Mama talked about it so much that it is as clear in my mind as if it were my own memory. In the backyard stood the summer kitchen, the smokehouse, the icehouse, the cistern for catching rainwater, the little train my grandfather had constructed mostly for his children and his own amusement; it carried loads of mainland goods and groceries from dock to house. In those days before the Bay Bridge was built, the only way to the mainland was by boat. In winter, Mama said, she had to “walk the ice” to get back to Madison Teachers College after her Christmas vacation.

My mother was named Virginia Marshall, called “Gig,” and she was, I have to say, an absolutely adorable young woman. Her photographs show a mop of unruly dark curls, huge blue eyes, a carefree smile, and deep, mischievous dimples. She was also lucky in that her flapper-style looks exactly fit the prevailing beauty ideal of the day.

My father, Ernest Smith, was a mountain man whose people had lived in remote Buchanan County in far southwest Virginia for generations. He came from a big extended family of story-telling, yellow-dog Democrats—politicians, store owners, gamblers, speculators, and “traders”—who would sit on the porch and place twenty-five- dollar bets on which crow would fly first off a telephone wire. They were all big talkers.

He met my mother at a wedding (his uncle had married her sister, creating a mix of strange combination cousins I haven’t figured out to this day) and fell madly in love with her at first sight, even though she had an “understanding” with another man at the time. No matter! My father knew how to court. He had both the time and the inclination. He arrived in Chincoteague ten days later, only to learn that she had to leave immediately for Pennsylvania, her first teaching job. She’d scarcely been there a week when—to her surprise—Ernest showed up. He took a room at a local boardinghouse, then appeared bright and early each morning to carry her books to school, where he’d be waiting by the gate at the end of every school day with a bunch of roadside flowers and a big grin on his face. This went on for months. The whole town took a fancy to it. By Thanksgiving, he had worn her down; at Christmas vacation, they eloped.

Then Daddy brought her home to Grundy, to those peaks and hollers where she would feel a little out of place forever, even though she adored him. And he adored her. In fact, I was horribly embarrassed by the Technicolor-movie quality of my parents’ passionate marriage.

I remember one bright summer Sunday when my cousins gave me a ride back from Sunday school—for some reason, my parents had stayed at home. I ran down our flagstone walk, burst into the house, and yelled, “Hello! I’m back!” but the sunlit living room seemed strangely empty. I went into the kitchen, following my nose. I smelled bacon and coffee...sure enough, their breakfast plates were still on the table. This was not at all like Mama, the best housekeeper in the world...maybe they had been kidnapped by aliens, I thought, which happened frequently in the pages of The National Enquirer, which Mama and I loved.

“Mama?” I called. “Daddy?”