My friends in Charleston, South Carolina, are wandering huge Magnolia cemetery with me, pausing at my parents’ grave on “Green Isle” where the magnolia my mother planted soon after my father died in the early 90s has grown high as a roof. Its glossy, dark green stateliness expresses all that my Northern mother yearned for and sometimes found in Charleston.
Nearby we visit one of my favorite grave “ornaments”: a marble seated dog, the foxy kind. And near that another grave nicknamed “Bubba.” “Every Charleston family has a Bubba,” comments the mother of my friendly mother/daughter combo. She should know, having been born in Charleston and rarely left except for trips to the mountains, and several times to England and once with me, her daughter and Northern friends to Paris, Chartres, Giverny.
Bubba: nickname for brother, a nonexistent commodity in our small Northern family, since my father was the only male. Yet, he himself was a brother three times over, and, now that I think of it, occasionally acted like a Bubba.
Bubba: etymology: derived from “brother.” The Southern U.S. slur of consonants and emphasis on softening the final “er.” A diminutive which over time fulfills its prophecy, i. e. a grown man who occasionally acts like a spoiled child, tantrums and all.
And how are the women implicated: It’s true that some Southern women, in their stylized helplessness, can give the impression that they’re weak and fluttery, easy prey for the grand-standing tantrums of a Bubba. It’s a gender stereotype that we in the upper Midwest do not understand. I joke to my friends: “In northern Minnesota they like to brag, “The men are men and the women are men too.'” We laugh.
We skirt politics most of the time, though over the years of our friendship, we’ve learned that we share many of the same values–education, home and family, beauty in nature and civilization, and yes, even equality, though here, without being brazen and nasty about it, my friends evince preference for old-fashioned establishments which for years were “whites only.” They are a little embarrassed when I head off to the Charleston Free Public Library to do research on Civil Rights agitation in Charleston.
Yet, when we tour Middleton Plantation with a soft-spoken Southern guide of our largely Northern batch of visitors, the guide describes the Civil War as it’s designated in Charleston: “the War of Northern Aggression, or the War Between the States, or The Late Unpleasantness.” My friends and I laugh at that last one. We nod knowingly: it’s that soft gliding over what is difficult and strange which is the essence of Southern gentility.
Yet, as we stroll the beautiful sloping grounds down to the Ashley River, and enter a small brick house which was once a “slave chapel,” the daughter portion of my friends whispers to me: “They were strapped onto pallets and slid in tiers on those slave ships.” I gasp: this is worse than I’d thought. A little later, she adds in a low voice, “On a slave register at another plantation, the listed causes of death were ‘suicide, snake bite, suicide, suicide.’ But,” she pauses and takes my arm, “the owner hired workers for the rice fields. He didn’t want his valuable slaves being bitten by snakes.” We look at each other with distress in our eyes.
We do talk politics though no mention of Santorum who won the Republican primary in South Carolina, a man who intended to remove women’s reproductive rights and maybe their right to vote. “We have an excellent mayor,” say my friends. “Joe Riley. He’s for open, equal treatment of all kinds of people. But this is his last term.” They shake their heads. “We afraid the next mayor is not going to be like that.”
As we sit over dessert and the restaurant empties out, the lights begin to glimmer across the Ashley River in the city proper. We’re high above the river in the roof-top glassed restaurant of the Holiday Inn. It’s a wonderful prospect for adoring this so beautiful city which has never allowed skyscrapers to ruin its skyline dominated by church spires.
“We have young men with families in our lives,” my friends lean close, “who are often nasty to us about politics. They even attack the older generation. Angry young white men, is what we call them.”
I draw in my breath, concerned for their peace of mind. “I don’t understand it,” I say, “but I remember my father doing the same to me, during the ‘more recent unpleasantness,'” I add, meaning the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 60s and 70s. “He became furious, and he wasn’t even Southern. It’s as if a toy were being taken away from him, or his manhood besmirched.”
They nod. It’s the Bubba phenomenon. “We don’t let them talk to us in their angry voices,” say my friends. I know exactly what they mean. The women become the verbal whipping posts for this anger which is so misplaced, yet so virulent. And though I don’t say this outloud, I think of countries where outraged men repress women to the point of invisibility. It’s a scary prospect. And for an instant I flash on all three of us in head scarves with veils over our faces.