Wednesday, April 11, 2007

make mine with a twist

It was 1973 in Laurinberg, North Carolina, which is about two hours east and a little south of Charlotte. My family and I were staying at the Holiday Inn with the rest of the out of town family for the wedding of my cousin Reg and his fiancĂ©e Melissa. “Cousin” was a loose term. I think we shared great-great-great grandparents or something, but we were family nonetheless. Everyone in North Carolina was family. I was ten; my brother was eight.

On one of the three nights we were there the air conditioner in our room wouldn’t turn on. It was an unseasonably warm March. Our family of four shared a room, my brother and I in one bed, parents in the other. Mom and Dad had a habit, perhaps something borne of the 1950s, of setting up a “bar” in whatever space they occupied. So on the countertop by the bathroom where we all put our toothbrushes and my dad put his deodorant and my mom put her Chanel, they also had their ABC Store-bought fifth of gin and vodka and a couple bottles of tonic water, and a metal bucket of ice from down the outside hall, around by the swimming pool. Mom would put some of the vodka in a plastic flask that had as a cap a man’s head, crew cut, with eyes kind of loopy drunk. She carried this with her to social gatherings down south. Too many teetotalers having dry parties for the likes of that New York socialite.

My mom called the front desk while taking a nervous drag of her Virginia Slim, bright red lipstick leaving its mark as the cigarette left her mouth, followed by a furious exhale of blue smoke.

Short time later a man, apparently the manager, knocked on the door and began dialogue with my parents about the air conditioner not working and mom going off on how were we all going to sleep it was hot and there were two boys and four people in this one room and this isn’t what they paid for, dammit all. Basic New York attitude. Your fundamental dressing down.

So the manager suggested leaving the door ajar that night and letting the cool North Carolina air later that night provide the comfort.

Furious blue smoke. Narrowing gaze.

More words. Gesticulating with cigarette tip glowing red from increased air flow from my mom’s waving hand.

The manager listened. And then, “Bless your heart, ma’am, but this isn’t New York…” You can leave the door open, he continued, and not worry that your offspring will be spirited off by evil-doing city folk, in essence. We’re a kind bunch here, in Laurinburg. In North Carolina. We’re family.

This simple phrase, Bless your heart, has always amused me. I know many have written on it. I am sure many have blogged about it. The man was saying in exchange, “Oh, Silly Yankee Lady, let me tell you…” When I hear friends from different regions than the northeast say, “Bless his heart,…” I know the next phrase coming out of their mouths will say the person referred to is your basic nutjob. Or it comes at the end of a sentence that provides a disclaimer along the lines of, "What I have just said I realize has cut to shreds a dear friend of mine, yes we go way back, even to school days, and yes, I realize I will one day stand before the judgment seat of God and answer for my words, but dammit all, this person is a veritable nutjob." Bless his heart.

The upside is that I think this phrase is a basic societal building block to keep us from killing more of each other.

“Bless your heart, ma’am, because even though your General Sherman burned down my great-grandmama’s house in Atlanta, I’m going to call our maintenance man and have him fix this unit right away.” That’s not what he said, but it’s what he meant.

I’m sure my mother walked away from the manager, allowing my Diplomat Father – “My love,” he would say, “Why don’t you go make yourself a drink?” – to ensure that her two little ones were safe from harm in this small southern North Carolina town, only a few miles away from the border of that vast, lawless territory known as South Carolina.

I am sure my mom walked over to the “bar,” unscrewing the vodka bottle while the cigarette stuck crisply out of her taut mouth like a warning to all comers: Don’t Screw With This Yankee Mother, Cracker.

My brother Jim and I didn’t get kidnapped. We skateboarded by the pool the next day because the concrete was smooth. We went to the service at the church – major BORING, I remember the bridesmaids wore yellow – and to the reception back at the Holiday Inn. At one point, the crowd thinned considerably, and Jim and I went to explore.

In a hotel room on the second floor at the back of the property, the door was wide open and people were jam-packed, shouting at the TV, drinking beer and laughing and elbowing each other. Carolina and State were playing in the ACC Men’s Basketball Championships.

Mom and Dad had been married on Saturday, May 4, 1957, on which the Kentucky Derby was run that year. All the folks had left the reception in the living room at Mom’s parents’ house in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, to go upstairs to watch the most exciting two minutes in sports.

They always celebrated their anniversary on Derby Day, whatever date it fell on, not necessarily May 4.

photo: matchstick

1 comment:

endangered coffee said...

Having not spent a lot of time outside of New England, I had never given the "Bless his Soul" a lot of thought, although my friend from Georgia does use it a lot, and much in the context you explained.