Here’s the first chapter of a work in progress. “Southern Gothic” is a funny, sort of anti-romance. It starts at a wedding but the bride runs. It’s about a southern woman who discovers herself and the journey is hilarious.
Southern Gothic by Shanna R Dodd
The day had finally arrived. All my family and friends had gathered at the First Baptist Church in Barston, GA. My bridesmaids twittered and preened and chirped and fluttered like candy-coated budgies in a gilded cage. Mom, being a traditional southern mama, was in her element, glowing in champagne silk. I’d never seen her happier but then she’d been planning my wedding since the doctor shouted, “It’s a girl!”
Mom loves weddings, especially if she is at the heart of it. The pageantry, the little traditions, the showers, the dinners, and on and on. Endless. Mind-numbing. I often felt like Reese Witherspoon in “Pleasantville” or maybe Bette Midler in “The Stepford Wives.”
I would’ve been happy with a small wedding in the backyard. Me in a sweet little sundress, barefooted, hubby-to-be in jeans and his favorite tee. Maybe a big barbecue afterward. My mother would have died a thousand deaths first.
I did get my way on a few things. One – and this was a biggie – no big country club reception. I’d worked those events. I would feel as if I needed to grab a tray or something. We settled for a small reception with a receiving line in the Simmons’ Building beside the church.
The other? No limousine. I had to argue with everyone about this one, including my fiancée, Dell. One – it was gaudy. I mean, who are we? The Kardashians? Two – it was a ridiculous expense added to an already long list of ridiculous expenses. Daddy, of course, sided with me and that was that.
Bessie, my old Honda, had been my high school graduation present. I love her. It was only fitting that she should see me off. She sat regally in the parking lot waiting to whisk us to the airport. Dell intended to junk her for a brand-new SUV from his father’s car lot. I admit a new car, especially a sweet little Prius, would’ve made me swoon. I’d retire Bessie to all the comforts of a garage but junk? Never!
Dell and my mother got along like peaches and cream as far as the wedding plans went because his motto was, “Go big or go home.” It fit in perfectly with my mother’s idea of what her baby daughter’s wedding should be.
In her defense, I believe that Mom truly believed she was creating a treasured memory for me to savor in the long years to come. She had always had the ability to twist me into some sort of tortured pretzel of obeisance using time-honored techniques like guilt and familial obligations. So, here I stand, the great sacrificial virgin (as if) struggling to squeeze myself into a big poufy white dress. Yes, she chose the dress. She claims I did but we all know the truth. The things we do for our parents…
Mom was helping me into said big poufy dress as we stood in front of a full-length mirror. She positively glowed in mother-of-the-bride splendor with her face flushed and growling.
Yes, growling. She shook me like a dog with a bone while she bravely battled the zipper of my wedding gown. (I’d grown a little since the fitting.) I staggered and wobbled while gripping the sides of the mirror, praying that the damn thing wouldn’t fall.
Oh yeah, it was the stuff of dreams – my wedding day.
Mom stepped back with a groan and, shaking her hands to try to get feeling back into her fingers, said, “Pam, could you come over here, please, and see if you can get this thing zipped?”
“Oh, joy. Pam, to the rescue.” I clenched my jaw so hard I felt my back teeth crack under the pressure.
Pamela Buckland-Perkins, my perfect big sister, smiled her perfect smile and walked towards me, a vision in a size 2 peach chiffon.
I hated her.
Well, okay, not really, but…yeah. She was everything I would never be. Never hoped to be really. She personified parental pride and joy and knew it. She had the perfect storybook wedding with the big country club reception. The perfect marriage to Andrew Perkins, a prominent oral surgeon. They had produced 3 perfect children – Tyler, Sophia, and Zoe. Did I mention she was perfect?
“Just couldn’t resist the chips, huh, sis?” my loving sister said under her breath.
“It wasn’t the chips, honey. I prefer pleasingly plump to angry anorexic. Shoot me,” I shot back as hot tears burned the back of my throat. #”Haven’t you read the latest Vogue? Angry anorexic is over. Pleasingly plump is it.”
Oh, but they were happy tears. Happy, happy, wedding tears.
Pam tilted her head and smiled one of those evil little church lady smiles. “Blow out all that air, now, okay dear?”
I gripped the sides of the mirror while Pam, with gritted teeth and an air of refinement, got the dress zipped. I’ll give her that one, I mean if you can look graceful while stuffing a size 12 into a size 8, you deserve it.
“You’re going to have to be careful, sis, it doesn’t look very, um, secure.” Pam dusted imaginary dust from her hands and walked back over to the covey of bridesmaids.
“Mom,” I whined. “I can’t breathe! This thing is squeezing my lungs shut.”
“It’s too late, now, Jenny. You’re going to have to grin and bear it.”
“I’m going to pass out before I can actually get married!”
“Don’t be dramatic.”
I tried to sigh with frustration but I couldn’t take a breath.
There was a knock at the door and Juju sauntered in. No, not some magical thing, although you could make a case for it. No, it was my grandmother. Mom’s mom, Juju. The smell of cigarette smoke trailed her. She took one look at my woebegone expression and chuckled, “Well, aren’t you the picture of the happy bride.”
Mom sniffed the air like a bloodhound, narrowed her eyes and glared at my grandmother. “Mother, have you been smoking? Here? On church grounds?”
“I am so ashamed,” Juju said in a flat voice. She batted her eyes at Mom a few times then wrapped her arms around me and hugged me close. I closed my eyes and tried to inhale as much second-hand nicotine as I could. I had quit smoking a while back but there were times that I wanted a cigarette more than anything else in the world. This was one of those times.
“It’ll all be over soon, Pip” she said and pecked me on the cheek.
My name is Jennifer Louise Buckland, by the way. I guess I should’ve introduced myself sooner. I apologize for that oversight.
Pip is the nickname Ju gave me when I was a little girl in braids. I have thick, curly, auburn hair. Sound gorgeous? Are you picturing luxurious tresses flowing in the breeze? So. Not. Me. This mess is frizzy and stubborn to a fault. It does whatever it wants. The shortest I can wear it is just past my shoulders before I begin to look like a demented poodle. Mom kept it in braids until I started high school. Ju said I looked like Pippi Longstocking. Mom hated the comparison, hence I was forevermore “Pip.” Everyone calls me Pip. Well, wait. Mom refuses to call me Pip as does Dell and his mother. Daddy? He says Pip Squeak though I think that’s just to appease Mom.
Speaking of mom, she was shooting daggers at my grandmother and me as we giggled and gossiped like mean girls. Most mothers would find a singular pleasure in the close relationship of their baby daughter and her mother. Not my mom. To her, Ju and I were her special burden to bear in an otherwise lovely world. Whenever she was at her most frustrated with me, she’d screech, “Jennifer Louise, you are just like your grandmother!”
You see, everything about Jane Buckland, my mother, is very proper and conservative as if she starched even her white cotton underpants. She and my father, Wyatt Buckland, had been high school sweethearts. They’d gone to Georgia Tech together. She’d gotten a degree in education and he in accounting. They married in May, right after college graduation. I don’t think she’d ever dated another man. She’s never worked, though she was active in the PTA and taught Sunday school. She’s a housewife and mother who has always lived her adult life in understated shades of beige.
Her childhood, however, was a different thing entirely.
Grandma Juju, otherwise known as June Carson, is an old hippie. A chic and very cool old hippie but, yep, that sums it up. She had dressed for this occasion in a peacock blue linen kaftan and Birkenstocks. She never wore makeup but she adored big pendants and so many bracelets, she rattled when she walked. She looked as if she belonged in the Garden District of New Orleans or a market in Marrakech, not the First Baptist Church in Barston, GA.
I never knew my maternal grandfather but then neither did Mom. I asked her once where my grandfather was and she’d said that he’d died when she was a baby. She became very nervous and changed the subject. I asked Dad but all he said was, “Don’t upset your mother.”
To a girl on the cusp of puberty, there was a romantic mystery to it all. I figured there must be something gorgeously tragic about the whole thing. I could understand why my Mom would be unable to talk about it.
I decided to ask Juju. There was nothing you couldn’t ask her.
“Who?” Juju squinted at me in confusion.
“Grandpa,” I said, “Um…Pupu? No, wait,” I blushed and giggled.
“Poo Poo?” Ju arched one finely groomed eyebrow at me.
Trying hard to stifle my giggles, I shook my head. “No, no. You know, Mom’s daddy? What happened to him? What was he like?” I straightened my shoulders, swallowed convulsively and, with all the seriousness a 10 year old kid can muster, said, “If you don’t mind me asking. I don’t want to upset you.”
“Oh, oh, Jane’s father. Ohhhh.” A light visibly appeared over her head. “Him? Why would that upset me?” My grandmother scrunched up her face and looked at me strangely.
I sat there struck dumb and unsure what to say.
Then Ju’s face softened in memory. “You know, I haven’t thought of him in years. I don’t know what happened to him. I heard he went to Canada and started a commune or a pot farm or something.”
“Do what?” I shouted. I was shocked! “Does Mom know? We need to tell Mom. She thinks he’s dead. Oh, my God. Poor Mom.”
Juju hooted loudly with laughter. I nearly fell out of my chair. “Dead? Aww, she knows he’s not dead. Is that what she told you?” She gave a snort of derision and pulled a long brown cigarette from the ever-present pack on the table beside her. She began tapping it, filter side down, on the table. Tap, tap, tap.
“I’ll tell you the truth. It was the 60’s. The summer of love. I was a freshman at Georgia Tech. 17 and full of piss and vinegar.”Tap, tap, pause, tap. “We had a piddly little protest against the war. This was the south, now, not Berkeley. Protesting the establishment didn’t go over well around here.” She lit the cigarette and blew the smoke out slowly.
“It was more of a party than a protest but I was there. That’s where I met him. What was his name?” She tapped a finger on her face to spur her memory.
My mouth fell open. She can’t remember his name! Surely, she wasn’t talking about Mom’s dad.
“Oh, yeah!” She hit the table with her palm.
I jumped like I’d been shot.
“Harry…Harry…something, I think. Or was it Harvey? Anyway, he had the prettiest head of hair you ever saw. I mean thick and right at his shoulders. Big mustache. Hmm.” For a moment, she looked just like the proverbial cat remembering a very tasty canary.
I think my jaw was becoming unhinged by this point.
Ju shook her head back and forth to clear the memories. Then she winked at me, closed my mouth and continued, “He and a few others burned their draft cards. I thought that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. Of course, we were all high as Georgia pines so it didn’t take much to amaze us.” She snorted and giggled. “One thing led to another. Like I said, it was the summer of love. He left for Canada or wherever the next morning. I found out a few weeks later that I was pregnant with your mother.”
If she’d turned green and sprouted horns I couldn’t have been more shocked.
She laughed and tweaked my nose. “Don’t you tell your Mama I told you all that. I am not a bit ashamed but Jane, well, Jane is a bit pretentious.” She shrugged her shoulders and took another drag of her cigarette.
At 10, my friends and I had a general idea about S-E-X and the horrors of unwed mothers. This? This was way beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Tactfully, I blurted, “So y’all didn’t get married? What did you do? Did you go home? Could you go home?”
“Married? Why the hell would I do that? And who would I have married? Harry, or whatever his name was, disappeared to who knew where.” She looked at me as if I’d asked why she didn’t move to Mars.
“Though, really, you do have a point, Pip. I did go home and was promptly shown the door. But, hell, I had never fit in with my family. I wasn’t just the black sheep, I wasn’t even in the flock.” She snickered. “I ended up on a…” An ironically pregnant pause ensued as she looked at me as though it only just occurred to her that I was 10 years old then with a deep drag on her cigarette, “a… farm with a bunch of people. Your mama and I lived there for a few years but,” she sighed, “I really missed running water and indoor plumbing so we left. I got a job as a go-go danc..uh, waitress.”
“What’s a go-go waitress?”
“Oh, well, we wore white go-go boots. Nancy Sinatra, you know, Frank’s little girl, sang a song about them. It was a thing.” She took another long drag on her cigarette. “You wanna make cookies?”
Quick on her feet, my Juju. She was definitely not the grandmother Norman Rockwell pictured. She told me things as I was growing up that would’ve given Mom a stroke had she known.
We did a lot of baking, which was about the most traditional grandmotherly thing we ever did. Well, until she introduced me to her brownies…. but that’s another story for another day.
I guess I understand Mom’s extremely conservative outlook but, in my opinion, she’s missing all the fun.