The Folklore Project
By Melanie Vangsnes
I am a Southerner. Moreover, I am an Alabama native living outside of the Deep South, which, in some ways, makes me even more Southern. My Southerness fills me with a desire to sit on a porch during a lightning storm, to catch twinkling fireflies in Mason jars, to wind Christmas wreaths out of kudzu vines. My Southerness causes me to mourn the past, to be loyal whether it is deserved or not, and to tally my regrets like notches on the bedpost.
I was born in a small town in the Black Belt, its slow streets lined with antebellum mansions and Victorian houses that had seen more prosperous days — as evidenced by peeling paint, added aluminum screen doors and room air conditioners jerry-rigged into floor-to-ceiling windows like beer bellies on middle-aged men. The names of these places — Magnolia Grove, Japonica Path, Glencairn — were the names of neighbors. Walking to school each morning, I would pass half a dozen of these architectural specimens, including the home of Cousin Rosabelle.
Rosabelle was a distant cousin — one of those third cousins twice removed — who lived in an enormous, ivy-covered Victorian, its stained-glass windows clouded and cracked. No longer candy-box colors, the towering home had faded into driftwood shades of gray, and the flowering shrubbery — azaleas, mostly — guarding its foundation had grown wild and unkempt. A pervading scent of mossy dampness permeated the house, both inside and out.
Rosabelle was a spinster who lived in this house with her mother, whom everyone in town called “Mama Tyler.” Rosabelle and Mama Tyler kept to themselves, content to roam the shadowy rooms, shuttered from the outside world like duplicate versions of Miss Havisham, only with sweet Southern drawls. The Tyler women didn’t even venture the three blocks to the Piggly Wiggly, but instead had all of their groceries delivered to the kitchen.
My grandfather’s sister, Amelia, had married Rosabelle’s brother, Edward. Fond of drink, Edward one night emptied a bottle of whiskey and filled his brain with a bullet. This was nothing unusual. In my family, guns were lovingly displayed as inherited family heirlooms, and melancholia coursed through our lineage like the blood in our veins. Edward Tyler’s suicide wasn’t the first to affect our family, and it wouldn’t be the last. It was noteworthy because it made the bond between my family and the Tyler family stronger. Shared sorrow has that effect.
Several times a year, Rosabelle would call my grandfather at all hours of the day or night to come and investigate a noise in the attic, in the cellar or on the back stairs. My grandmother would sigh as she watched my grandfather rise from his chair, retrieve his flashlight and his pistol, and head down the street. Once inside Rosabelle’s home, he inevitably would discover evidence of squirrels in the attic or mice in the kitchen or, once, a rattlesnake skin between the cushions of the parlor divan. Rosabelle kept that snakeskin and displayed it alongside the carnival-glass candy dish and sterling candlesticks on the mahogany mantle.
Snakeskins weren’t Cousin Rosabelle’s only saved mementos. Years later, she called Mr. Kirk, owner of the town funeral parlor, and asked him to drop by the house. Linking her arm through his, she led him up the front stair to her mother’s bedroom where there, on the neat chenille spread, lay Mama Tyler, dead for days. Ignoring the shock on Mr. Kirk’s face, Rosabelle calmly walked to the dresser, picked up a framed photograph of her mother taken in 1903, and asked Mr. Kirk to make her mother up to be just as pretty and youthful as she appeared in the faded sepia. Mama Tyler was at least 88 years old, and even the best mortician’s prized cosmetics could neither plump her sunken cheeks nor erase the wrinkles on her wizened face.
“She hasn’t worn her teeth in a decade,” Mr. Kirk protested.
My mother doesn’t claim Rosabelle as a relation — no matter how distant — and she wishes that I would forget the familial ties. She is not fond of mementos, particularly ones that remind her of things she wishes other people would forget.
There was a time when I put stock in my parents’ advice to leave the old behind. Because I wanted to succeed in the world, I diligently heeded Daddy’s suggestions to practice my elocution. I recited Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” over and over in the mirror: “Theirs not to make reply / Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die / Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred.” I successfully spit out the marbles in my mouth and, instead, adopted the nightly news reporter’s clipped, flat tones.
My practiced accent belies the genius loci of my soul, however. I belong to the South. That place of rich, black soil, of spreading oaks, of Gothic heat so hot and still and wet that I feel as if I will drown while crossing the street. And I want to drown. I want to sink in the waters of lost memories — of holding hands with Mary Harris, who fed me pats of butter rolled in sugar; of sitting on the porch, sipping Coke floats and sharing Red Hot Atomic Fireballs with my grandmother; of driving down dirt roads beneath Spanish moss-clad boughs in my yellow MGB. Of death and the family cemetery — ringed by a snaggle-toothed iron fence, but lovingly tended each Decoration Day — where every name on every headstone is a person as real to me as Santa Claus is to a 4-year-old. No matter how far I travel or where I live, my Southerness surfaces and reclaims me, like weeds stubbornly pushing through the cracks in a sidewalk.