Monday, September 2, 2013

My Ancestor's Voice

I have been told that as we age, we become our parents.  We take on their mannerisms, habits, and gestures, and before we know it, we're staring into the mirror, exclaiming, "Oh no, you sound just like your mother!"  I will escape such a fate.  Instead, I am becoming my grandmother.

Sue Lou Harwell Miles was my mother's mother.  She was an Atlanta girl whose family home was in Inman Park.  (That means something to old Atlantans.)  She was a Southern Belle, a Steel Magnolia, a homemaker, a hostess, a seamstress, and a housekeeper.  She emphasized substance over style and recognized the advantage of "refined and nice" over flashy.  I inherited some of the stereotypes, none of the practical skills, and every last one of her truisms.  When it came to situational wisdom, Sue Lou had a saying for any occasion.

I should be more respectful, I admit.  My grandmother was Mrs. Miles until the day she died, and she would be horrified to discover me calling her Sue Lou in a public forum.  As a matter of fact, she would be horrified by public forums in general.  "Fools' names and fools' faces are always seen in public places," she would chide when some one's name appeared in the wet cement of a new sidewalk. Oh dear.  Didn't I say the very same thing to my naive son who thought it would be a great idea to publish all his weekend pranks on a social network?

While I am not the thriftiest person in the world, I catch myself muttering my grandmother's script every time I shop.  "You get what you pay for,"  says Sue Lou as I contemplate the cheap sneakers.  "If you see something you want, get it when you see it, if you can afford it," she says, and I conclude that I can have the good sneakers, but only if I am willing to pay with cash rather than plastic.

But it isn't only the shopping that causes Sue Lou to tap me on the shoulder with her reminders.  I recently had some furniture re-upholstered--a Sue Louism if ever there was one--and the upholsterer returned a roll of fabric remnants to me.  I noted that the remnants would not cover anything I had left in the house, and I started to throw them out.  Then there came the voice, my own voice of course, but HER words:  "Waste not, want not!"  There are two rolls of fabric scraps in my spare room.

I find that I order my life and surroundings the way that she would have. I freshen up before leaving the house, even if it is just to go to the store.  If I am hungry when I get home from work, I have a bite to eat, just to tide me over.   I want to go on a 3-day beach trip when I have work to do at home?  "You're old enough for your wants not to hurt you."  Mr. Powers wants chocolate pie for dessert when all we have is ice cream and cookies?  "Beggars can't be choosers."  And "of all things," "good grief'" and "O my soul!" we wish there were a grocery store a little closer to the house!  "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."  So much for my grandmother's thoughts (now mine) about instant gratification.

Not long ago, during the Summer of the Upholstery, my #1 son came home on leave from the Navy.  I was proud of my "new" old furniture, and I had worked very hard to get my living room into what I thought was a semblance of shabby-chic cottage- style comfort.  My kiddo looked around and said it looked nice.  OK, Jonathan, tell me what you really think.  "Well," he confessed, "it kinda looks like a waiting room . . . with no TV . . . from the '40's."  Exactly when Sue Lou decorated the living room of the Homewood, Alabama house where I was raised!  I look around the room, and the echoes of her influence are everywhere--furniture is trimmed in dark mahogany, mirrors with heavy frames accent my walls, alabaster grapes are in a flea-market pedestal bowl.  I am not afraid of color, but I suppose I believe at some level that splashy reds and oranges are "plum tacky," because my beautiful colors are soft neutrals, whispers of lavender and coral, and woodsy green.  Refined and nice.

It's time I ended this reminiscence.  My grandmother was never one to call attention to herself.  If there were merchandise to be returned, she took it back.  If there were a button to be sewn, she sewed it; a meal to be cooked, she cooked it; a chair broken, she repaired it.  She was no doubt Martha to my Mary.  I only learned to sit and learn, while she set the example of everything that a Southern lady, no matter how refined and nice, could do.  She would never have put up with this kind of self-disclosure.  She was much too busy.  If you could get her to stop taking care of the business of living, if you did ask her how she felt about so-and-so or what she remembered about such-and-such, or when she married, or why she never went to work outside her home, she would give you the briefest of smiles.  Then she would say, "Ask me no questions; I'll tell you no lies."