XIII. Song of the South

Unlike Her, my circle of friends had closed. It had been such a gradual process over the years that I hadn’t even felt the loss. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention.

When I married my husband I thought him a very social person. He was embraced by the fold of his Southern Baptist heritage and had a church family with a busy social calendar. We attended pot luck’s and Wednesday night dinners, catfish fry’s, barbeque picnics and fireworks displays, always surrounded by plenty of smiling faces. I was the new girl in town; the divorced Catholic Yankee come to turn the head of their Rebel son. I was warmly welcomed for the most part, even if they did occasionally insist on trying to save me. Word had not reached South Georgia that Catholicism was, in fact, a Christian religion. I managed to stay out of their pond and firmly in the Baptismal fount of my infancy while making friends along the way.

We also had a circle of friends from work that had a not-so-heavy social calendar but a ready supply of alcohol and fun evenings around a crackling bonfire. Both groups encouraged our union, as unlikely as it was. On a late September morning , when asked how our date had gone the evening before, that Rebel son threw me over his arm and kissed me soundly in front of a hundred employees on the sewing room floor where we worked, to wild screams and applause. We were married in early December.

I attended a miniscule Catholic church with a priest we shared with two other counties. Yes, counties. St. Williams gave me a family outside of the Baptist house I was living in. There was a dear nurse from Ireland with a brood of freckled children and a ready cup of coffee, another from England that shared my maiden name and families from the North and the Midwest that didn’t think I had an accent. It was a refuge of sorts for me and the place through which we found Nicole.

I didn’t notice when family events replaced those friends, and I can’t say I minded, but those happy dating days were gone. My friends from school had scattered to the corners of the world and I heard from them less and less. The eclectic group of Lebanese, Polish and French Canadian friends from New Hampshire seemed a million miles from South Georgia. I missed the ethnicity of the food and the varied cultures, all foreign to the part of the world I had married into. I missed the connection to people who had known me when.

What I hadn’t realized was that The Husband not only didn’t miss the friends, he didn’t want them and would spend years sabotaging any friendship I made. It wasn’t until seventeen years later that he would articulate to me, during a flood of tears, that he was a loner. He wanted nothing more than for our world to include only the two of us. It would have been fine if we had been the kind of inseparable couple that shared their every like and dislike. We did not.

I recall my parish priest telling us during pre-marriage counseling to embrace our differences, to share our religions. In retrospect, this is the kind of advice only a man who’s never married could give out with a straight face. My husband was a redneck blue collar Southern Baptist Democrat raised in a town with a high school that still had two proms; one black, one white. It still had two proms when we left in the spring of 2000. I was a red headed Catholic Yankee Republican from Buffalo, New York. We couldn’t have been more different unless I had been black. But then we would have had to attend separate proms!

When I read her story about not liking the holidays except for Halloween I knew it was more than just the absent Grandparents. The cultural clash that was our marriage had destroyed both Thanksgiving and Christmas for her and me. I don’t know that she’s consciously aware of that, but I read it in her face at the time.

I was taught to cook by my Italian mother and grandmother, with a little help from Julia Child. I was quite accomplished, mainly because I was good at following a recipe. When I moved to Georgia the food was markedly different and I had to learn how to cook southern style. Our first Thanksgiving I knew I would have to make two dressings; a cornbread dressing with chicken, celery and onion baked in a Pyrex alongside the bird and my mother’s recipe of day old bread with sausage and white raisin stuffed inside the seasoned cavity. I would cook the sweet potatoes in a casserole with marshmallows, rather than halved and glazed with butter and brown sugar. What I didn’t know was that they didn’t eat winter squash in South Georgia and that if the cranberry relish didn’t come out of a can, they would consider it inedible. I found those two things out when I sat down at the table and saw the faces of my guests contorted and grimacing. A lively, unfriendly conversation ensued about the tartness of my cranberry Grand Marnier sauce. My only champion: my eight year old daughter.

In our family we celebrated Christmas Eve Italian style, with the feast of seven fishes. Onion pie with anchovies and chilled shrimp cocktail as appetizer, then shrimp again floured and lightly fried along with smelts; purchased live and swimming around a bucket in my grandmother's basement. Next came breaded oysters, stuffed calamari, eel and finally spaghetti topped with octopus in red sauce. We had that every year of my life until Uncle Dominic died and we didn’t have to have the eel any more. I knew I wouldn’t be making that for my hostile thanksgiving crowd, instead we bowed to their Christmas Eve traditions and I planned dinner for Christmas Day, Prime Rib and Yorkshire Pudding. Who wouldn’t like that?

As I mentioned earlier, we had one priest for three counties so there was only one mass said a week. We alternated times between the parishes. That year Christmas mass would be celebrated on Christmas Eve at five o’clock. My husband’s extended family had gathered at his mother’s house with armloads of gifts and covered dishes. I was told dinner was at six o’clock, which would give me enough time to get to church and back without missing the festivities.

An hour or so later we walked hand in hand into my mother in laws house to a sea of torn gift wrap, dirty dishes and bodies sprawled out in front of the television. They had eaten dinner and unwrapped gifts without us. I was angry, then angrier still when I saw the crestfallen look on Her face. As bad as that was, one of her new step cousins began to show her the gifts Santa had brought. In my family we only opened gifts on Christmas morning but they opened all of their gifts Christmas Eve. Any illusion of Santa and Christmas magic my sweet eight year old held onto was soundly shattered. I remember her tucking herself under my arm and burying her face in my bosom. I knew her well enough to know she was choking back tears.

That’s what really happened to the holidays for Her. After that year we made the six hour trek to my parents whenever we could and she rebuilt her memories of holidays around those beautiful times. Until Diabetes and Alzheimer’s snatched that away too, way before it was time.

I was arrogant enough back then to think I could make this marriage work. So what if I didn’t have any friends? So what if I would never fit in in the South? So what if we couldn’t agree on anything? I loved my husband. I loved his family. I could make this work. Looking back, a network of friends might have helped along the way. If I’d had a best friend to confide in the day I fell in love with The Boy, someone who knew me and my life, maybe I wouldn’t have lost him and everything else.

The Boy:
Italian Catholic Yankee Republican. Only one prom.
Perfect for me. ~DazzledGirl

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