by Carly Taylor
Her mother was cold, one of nine children born to a mother who died at the age of 37. My great-grandmother did not possess the hobby of affection and she did not kiss or love on her children. She believed strength was instilled in the absence of touch, in the assumption of love but never the utterance of it. My grandmother learned affection through her aunt and paternal grandmother, who taught it to her as if it were any other school subject, a necessary knowledge. They hugged her and kissed her, told her nice things, gave her jars of pennies and small knick-knacks for her pockets. Strangely, my grandmother never faltered in her love for her mother; instinctually she knew her mother was doing the best she could with a life miles below the poverty line.
My great-grandfather was a moonshiner and they survived on the money his debauchery in their bathtubs created. A kind man, he was quiet and smiled his sentences instead of speaking them. Apparently other women found him charming as well because my grandmother can vividly remember her mother coming back down the hill, brass knuckles in hand, after confronting a woman who had taken to her Southern woodsman.
She mostly stayed out of their way, playing down by the creek with her sister. They made kitchens in the banks, created meals from the rocks, leaves, and cracked corners of the land. Shoeboxes became buses and models in Sears catalogues became cutout paper dolls. She did not know they were poor. She only knew that she was happy living in a world without phones, electricity, running water or, the best yet, social media.
At thirteen she went to boarding school because that was the expected trajectory in her town. Secretly, she assumed her mother thought someone else could do a better job raising her during those years. She did all the things teenage girls do: falling in love (with a boy named Grice), getting into fights (she hit the girl so hard she bent the hair barrette), and unpacking the tender thoughts of who she might grow up to be.
Many years later, she moved to Atlanta, which provided her some of the best years of her life. It was also where she met my grandfather, Gary. “What the hell was I thinking?” she laughingly has told me. In her defense, their first date ended with him dancing around with a lampshade on his head. I can testify that his tendency to cut up and act a fool has never wavered. They were married after a year of dating because it was what you did in the South when you had a bare left finger and a due date. It was proper, expected, and a decision that became the catalyst for her strength.
Make no mistake—I love my grandfather dearly. He is a decent Southern man and he supports his family in all the ways he can. However, his loyalty does not pay out in emotional currency. My grandmother speaks with an acidic tongue about the years leading up to their separation, about the questions you don’t ask in a marriage, the answers you pretend you don’t know.
She moved him out of the house when my mother and aunt were teenagers. When I say she moved him out, I mean just that. She went out, found him a suitable one-bedroom apartment, and told him to go. (In all honesty, she might have missed her calling working for a relocation service.) She was the first woman on the block to kick a man out in a time when appearances were everything and family salaries weighed heavy in the man’s wallet. He went willingly, their split nearly amicable aside from the passive aggressive undertones that only a couple exhausted in their marriage could exchange. This was not what Southern women were raised to do—they were to stand by their man and Tammy Wynette their way to a golden anniversary. But my grandmother was something of a Southern woman pioneer, creating a hybrid of past notions and future desires. She longed for a house that didn’t smell of smoke and strife. She didn’t care what the neighbors thought—it was her life and it demanded peace.
She worked mostly as a secretary, ensuring her children had a roof over their heads and a mother present when they returned from school. My grandfather came over most weekends to do housework and keep up the lawn. She would make him a sandwich and lemonade, a familiar routine that has now spanned fifty years. I used to think that everyone’s grandparents lived in separate homes and that it was normal for your grandfather to bring you donuts in the morning only to disappear by nightfall. They did not look separated; in fact, neither one ever officially filed for divorce. He has never moved away, his car continuing to pull up in her driveway, a quiet love expressed in trimmed bushes and cut grass.
Now retired, she revisits her hometown—where she built a vacation home—at least twice a year. It sits on a tall, tree-speckled mountain with a wooden front porch and rocking chairs. The wind still carries the sounds of the country, of birds whistling and lone guns firing.
My grandmother prides herself on being Southern. She says that people think Southerners are slower but she knows that the slowness is only in the cadence of speech and it leaves more time to be kind. Shrugging off the societal conventions of what a Southern woman should be, she reinvented herself into a woman who not only knew how to make biscuits but also knew how to make the money to buy them.
Carly Taylor is blessed to have many Southern women in her life, both by blood and by friendship. She received her BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2007 and went on to receive her MFA in poetry from Florida State University in 2009. She dabbles in various genres of writing but poetry remains her steadfast love. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, Anderbo, Pank, and Floyd County Moonshine. She has also held editing positions for the literary magazines The Kudzu Review and Apalachee Review. She currently lives in Tampa, Florida where she balances her work at Pasco-Hernando State College with completing a book of poetry.