For me, growing up down South had a very unusual feel. See, there are two kinds of South...the city version, and the country version. I was lucky enough to experience both. My Dad's mother was my country Grandma, and my mom's mother was my city Nanny, as I called her. Visiting them each had its own feel and it was nothing at all alike! For those of you not lucky enough to be from the South, the two flavors are distinctly unique. Each having the flair of the wonderful South but a taste all it's own.
My country Grandma was one of a kind anyway, loud, opinionated, and loved to work in her garden. My city Nanny had a large house in a well appointed neighborhood and was married to a lawyer who had practiced in front of the Supreme court on the Rights to Privacy. Frank Bruce was my grandfather and he was also the Play-by-play announcer for the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1950s. His picture, to this day, hangs in the Bear Bryant Museum on campus!
My country Grandma loved to have all the grandkids over in the summer to work in the garden. I usually really hated this. It was hot, and damp with humidity, sweat just dripping from my face, as I picked and pruned. I was beet red at days end both from over heating and a stinging sunburn. I hated picking the okra the most. The tiny little prickly parts that would stick in my hands for days, made it the worst of all the vegetables to pick. So I paid my brother to do it! Her garden was big and filled with everything, from tall corn stalks to the smaller bean, and field pea patches. And the home grown tomatoes and watermelons were the best I ever had! She canned and made preserves out of figs and strawberries, and blackberries, and had a huge freezer she kept everything in for the winter. Cucumber, cantaloupes, it was all there. She could have owned a good roadside stand with all her plantings. She was efficient and hard working. We would sit for hours in the hot afternoon sun, sometimes on her porch swing, shelling peas and shucking corn. We had the picking and shucking and peeling all timed around her "stories"...her soap operas. "Y'all I ain't a gonna miss my stories now." That's where the idea that I needed to become an actress on a soap opera was born. I wanted her to be able to watch me one day, cause I sure KNEW I wasn't gonna work in a garden for a living! The very first time I was ever on a soap was when I did a bit part on her favorite show THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. She was so proud of that. And that was the best part for me. My Grandma would be able to see me on her "story"!
She had a window unit air conditioner so the "cool" was only in one room. When you left that room and walked into another, the HOT would hit you like a wet warm blanket. It sometimes made you feel like you'd pass out from the abrupt extreme change. We had to take turns standing in front of the window unit to cool off. When we all spent the night in the Summertime, we'd have to pile in the same bed, a pull out couch in the living room so we could sleep by the air conditioner. There's no sleeping in the deep South in the summertime without cool air...but to be honest, it was hard to sleep four or five of us in one bed too. When we'd fight, which my brother and I did constantly, she'd say, "Go out and cut me a hickory", which for those who never had a "Hickory" is literally going out in the yard and getting a limb off a tree or one fallen to the ground and taking it to her so she could slap your legs with it! And it STINGS!....we knew then we had stepped over the Grandma line. I would always go get the tiniest little new limb growing, flimsy and green, so it had no "STING" when she switched the backs of my legs with it. My acting skills began about then as I screamed in agony so I would not have to get another limb for her which would be stiffer and cause much more REAL pain. No the flimsy..."HURT" just enough! And I would fake cry until she thought I could not take anymore. I am sure now she knew I was "Acting." That's why she was laughing at me.
My Nanny never asked me for a switch or a hickory...but I did see her chase my uncle down the hall with a frying pan one day...all 115 pounds of her, her pearls just flying. She was tiny and sold make-up at Lewis Weasels down town, then Gayfers at the mall. She was prissy and loved perfume and nail polish. I remember her dressing table was a place of pure fascination for me when I was little girl. It was a place of magical transformations. And I cannot recall her house to this day without the fragrances she wore drifting in my head. Sometimes when I am missing her I spritz her last bottle quickly into the air. I keep that precious fragrance on my own dressing table now. She was not a country cook either. My grandfather was from NY and she learned to cook for him. Corned beef and cabbage, Salisbury steak, were the main fare when I was at her house. She was from Mississippi but a debutante type of lady. She did the make-up for the Miss Alabama contestants from Tuscaloosa when I was growing up. I loved it when the girls would come over for make-up lessons. I was really young but I sat in on the lessons and was in a heaven I cannot describe. Perfumes floating through the house, custom mixed powders, lipsticks in every shade and blush, and fluffy make-up brushes, it was just a little girls paradise. She always included me in the lessons too, saying, "Now Beth, remember whatever you do to your face do to your neck line. Blending is the secret." And my Nanny was funny too, hard working as my grandfather had taken ill in his later years and it was my tiny Nanny that ran the house and made the money, selling make-up. She was my teacher for skin care which I employ all of her lessons daily. She had wonderful parties and served lots of fascinating hors d'oeuvres , like bourbon balls and rum fudge! She also taught me the double use of a strand of pearls... beauty of course, and just in case you need to wring someone's neck you just remove and use!!
Sometimes when I visited my country side of the family there would actually be a mule in the yard, ready for plowing. I loved to ride the mule too. Couldn't do that at my city Nanny's house! But at Nanny's, I loved all the prissy evenings I spent with her painting my nails, and playing at her make-up table. There was such an extreme difference between the houses!
When I was really little my country grandma still had an outhouse! Oh Lordy, I hated that thing! Had to walk clear out to the far back yard, with a flashlight! Just to go to the bathroom at night! If you have never had privy to an outhouse, allow me clue you in. It is a big hole in the ground with a wooden seat built over it. The seat is inside a little wooden closet that sits alone outside. You open the closet door and there you are. Kind of like a wooden port-a-potty...but this potty was not going anywhere! And the hole filled up with...uh huh...just what you're thinking! That smell was straight out of hell. I was terrified to go in it, especially at night! And the splinters in you rear end...well that was just a given. You had to remember to put down the newspaper down if you didn't want splinters. Newsprint on your rear was better than splinters in it. The most horrific part was the paralyzing fear of falling in. My mother had a story from when she was a child that her aunt had slipped while helping her to the potty and dropped her in! My Nanny said when she got there to answer the screaming, all she could see were hands and tiny feet sticking out. That awful vision was burned into my poor little head as I trekked outside with my flashlight. I was rejoicing the Lord above when she finally got rid of that awful smelly thing!
Her cooking was maybe the very best I ever had, with a little chunk of fat back or lard, and a spoonful of sugar in nearly every single thing she made. Her Sunday after church dinners were the concoctions of legend. That's the kind of Southern food I love! Ham and butter beans and potatoes and onions, and corn bread and fried green tomatoes, fried okra and pecan pie! Oh I am dying here just thinking of it!
I had such an extreme dichotomy of Southern life growing up this way. And I wouldn't trade it for anything!
Both of my grandmothers were quintessential Steel Magnolias. Both were the breadwinners when I was growing up, both were hard working and they were great friends to each other. I watched them closely and modeled myself after both of them...in different ways. I hope I am doing them proud as they are both my angels now. Yes, I am truly, a little bit redneck, and a little bit debutante, and that's a true Southern Belle, wearing our pearls, but we can kick your booty if we need to. Especially if you are hurting our babies! You never saw a Belle go redneck faster than to mess with our babies!! I can just pull my pearls off and strangle somebody! Aren't all Steel Magnolias this way?