Family Secrets

December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

©  Excerpt from Reflections of a Porch Sitter by Sandy Richardson

                                       Family Secrets

           I learned most family secrets pretending sleep in the porch swing of my grandmother’s house, as I suppose many Southern children did back when I was growing up. 

That I am a Southerner is obvious just by the way I talk.  And being southern has also been a real handy excuse for the way I act sometimes. Everybody knows Southerners, especially Southern ladies, are a little bit “different” so to speak.  People expect us to be a little strange at times, but you know, that’s okay.  We Southerners are proud of our little idiosyncrasies, and to be a Southern “LADY” in these days is quite an accomplishment, let me tell you.  If you’re female and from the south, you are raised to be more than a little different from all other woman.

If you’re a southern lady, you are supposed to be the moving force behind every member of your family, and I do mean your extended family– that includes everyone up to fourth cousins, twice removed.  (I never could figure out those removed cousins.)

But anyway, in addition to that, if you are a Southern Lady, you have got to make sure your family looks successful, while you look like you are just sitting back doing nothing but giving orders, a real lady of leisure, you know.

You have got to know how to meet and greet all kinds of people, plan a perfect party, cook and clean, sew your own clothes to save money, dance in the cotillion, and dig in the garden, all without ever letting anyone see you sweat–oops! I mean perspire. 

To top it all off, before you get married, your mama’s going to tell you the secret to a happy marriage–Southern style, that is.  She’s going to whisper in your ear that in public, you must ALWAYS be a lady, but in the bedroom… well now, that bedroom’s a whole ‘nother story.

Of course, you all know that Southern ladies spoil their men and their children, all the while making it seem like we’re the ones being pampered.  We’re supposed to love staying home, serving tea, and doing socially acceptable “good works.”  We’re supposed to be sweet and cheerful, and, of course, we should never complain.

Well, the women in my family were raised just like this, but it seems it’s been a real struggle for some of the lessons to take hold in those of us of the last few generations of my family. Oh, in public, we follow the rules most of the time, but behind closed doors, well, let me tell you, things can get a little difficult at times.  I never could figure out just why this was so in our OH-SO-Southern family, but now


I know it’s because of a family secret I unearthed. 

Y’all we are of MIXED BLOOD!…………

There was a YANKEE in our family!

Her name was Martha, and she was my great,great, grandmother — on the maternal side.  And not too long ago, I found her picture packed way down in an old trunk.  Why, this woman was the spitting image of my mama!  So, there was absolutely no doubt that she was a part of our family, but I didn’t have a clue who she was.  I had to practically pinch my grandmother to find out about her.  Because, you see, in the South, some things are best left unspoken of by real ladies.  But after much badgering and pleading, my grandmother finally gave in and told me Martha’s story. 

Martha lived up in Connecticut, and my great, great granddaddy went up there for a visit.  He met her and married her on the spot.  It was all done in quite a hurry because, you see, Martha couldn’t wait to be what she thought was a Southern Lady.  She was absolutely intrigued with all the moss and magnolias she had read about.  And Henry, well, being the good old Southern boy he was, desired to grant her every wish, so he brought his new wife back home to be just that–a Real Southern Lady.

Now, mind you, Martha tried, bless her heart. She really worked at fitting in, and things went along pretty well for a while.  She and Henry had two children, Frances and Henry, Jr., and she cooked and cleaned and waited on her new family.  She went to teas and church and circle meetings. She signed up for community good works, planted the house garden, tried a bit of sewing, and even took to wearing straw hats and white cotton gloves.

But it wasn’t too long before Martha began to get bored with it all. She found herself frustrated, and finally, Martha just got plain mad.  You see, she was a strong-willed individualist, and she discovered she didn’t like doing all those things Southern Ladies were expected to do.  The madder she got, the less she did until, finally, she just up and quit it all!  She is said to have shouted that she simply could not abide being a Southern Lady for one more day! 

She took off her white gloves, gave away her straw hats, and told Henry he could hire himself some servants – AND she was not going to one more circle meeting or tea.  She was going to do her own thing.  And no amount of coaxing, coaching, or coercion by anyone was going to change that.  Martha had made-up her mind.

Several very trying years went by, and then one cotton season an extra man was hired to help out at the gin.  He was a big, brawny, hunk of a man, whose name no one seems to recall.  He was tall, dark, and handsome, as they say — a Yankee, too, from New Jersey. Folks whispered some scandalous things about the women in his past, and he became sort of the Rhett Butler of our little town. 

Martha was intrigued, and with time on her hands, it wasn’t long before she found something to do.  Martha fell in love.

God alone knows the trouble those two stirred up.  Everybody tried to reason with Martha, but she just wouldn’t listen.  Folks said they thought the heat and humidity finally just drove her crazy ’cause as soon as the cotton was in, she packed up the children, and she and that handsome Yankee headed west in a covered wagon. Henry was furious and swore to send out a search party, but before he could, Martha surprised every one all over again.

          Half-way across America some kind of trouble came up, and while no one ever knew quite what the trouble was, Martha sent the children back to Henry while she went on with her Yankee to settle in California.  About a year later, a letter was posted to South Carolina.  Martha wrote to say that the handsome Yankee had disappeared.  She wanted to see her children.  She begged Henry to allow them to come out there to be with her, but that was not to be.  A curt reply was sent, and Martha never saw Frances and Henry Jr., again.  In fact, she, herself, was never heard from again.

Years later, Frances married and had a daughter, who in turn gave birth to my aunt and my mama.  Then of course, my mama had my sisters and me, and in spite of the fact that we were all raised to be Real Southern ladies and married Real Southern men, something just wasn’t quite the same. 

You see, some of the rules of the land just don’t set to well with us.  My grandmama says we are just too independent.  But the truth is, we’re strong-willed individualists, just like Martha.  You see, in spite of all we do, that damn Yankee blood WILL keep showing up.  

But you know, that’s okay.  These days with all the talk about the New South and independent women, we feel just fine with who we are.

 And quite frankly, I think if old Martha could see what’s going on down here now, she’d be right proud of the traditions we are carrying on.  Truth is, if Martha could be a Southern Lady in these days, she might even start loving this New South as much as we do. 

Of course, knowing what we now know about Martha, it’s no wonder that Grandmama was always so concerned about us.  So just to ease her mind, we make double-sure that blood of ours doesn’t start to boil like Martha’s did.  We are very careful not to stay out in the heat and humidity for too long. 

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