June 15, 2011
I let my Southern accent go in college. In truth, I deliberately un-cultivated it. A few weeks of “Where are you from?” and “What kind of accent is that?” and I was ready to un-mark myself, strip my voice of what had begun to feel like a flashing neon sign of embarrassing otherness. My accent wasn’t the right kind of different, wasn’t the kind one can parade flirtatiously at a dorm room party; “I’m from Tennessee” hardly connotes sexy or exotic.
You wouldn’t think they’d have much room to talk about funny accents in Houston, Texas, where I received my undergraduate education, but an ivory tower is an ivory tower no matter where it’s built and I still felt self-conscious about whether or not I “sounded smart” in class, to my professors or to my peers. So I changed my voice. I watched my modulation, caught myself when vowels threatened to elongate of their own accord. After a while, people could no longer guess where I was from, and I liked that. I thought it made me cosmopolitan, as if I might be from anywhere, unable to be push-pinned on any mental map, mysterious brown girl of indeterminate origin.
Of course, I could hide in ambiguity only so long. We have a saying where I’m from, about the resurgence of native accents—if you’re “drinkin’, cheatin’, lyin’, or cryin’,” it will come back with a vengeance. Or, in my case: “if you’re on the phone in your dorm room, talking to your high school friends.” My roommates were forever trying to imitate the drawl of my “Love you! Bye!” which came out more like “Luvvvv yewww! Baiiiiii!” Resistance, it seemed, was futile.
And really, the glamour of anonymity was short-lived, transforming instead into a kind of sadness at having lost a distinguishing characteristic. Maybe I sounded like a hick, but at least I sounded like I was from somewhere. By the time college graduation rolled around, I was moving linguistically in the reverse, attempting to bring back what I had purposely lost. Because, the reality is, I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. I am a Southern girl: wholly so, fully so, undeniably so, and I won’t ever be anything else.
When you meet someone for the first time, it’s customary to inquire, “Where are you from?” I, of course, answer “Memphis,” which is the truth, but it confuses people. They usually have something else in mind when they ask “Where are you from?” of me. Memphis is not the answer people want, or at least, it is not the answer they expect. Their faces betray quizzical expressions, which in turn confuses me until I remember what they see when they look at me. Oh right, I remember, I’m brown.
See, what most people are actually asking me when they politely inquire “Where are you from?” is “What kind of brown are you?” So when I respond “Memphis,” they think I must be slow-witted or disingenuous; at times, they even laugh. “No, no, where is your family from?” they’ll continue kindly, leaning in, emphasizing the word “family” in the hopes I’ll be clued into what they really want to know. By this time, I’ve figured out what they’re asking, but depending on the obnoxiousness of the asker, I’ll either let them squirm or rescue them with an interruption—“My family’s from India, but I was born in the States.” And so this answer will satisfy the curiosity about my color, much like we insist upon finding out the gender of the fat-and-bald baby in the stroller before us.
Generally, this doesn’t bother me; there truly is no good way to ask about someone’s skin color, and people mostly mean well. But there are times when I wish my initial answer were answer enough, because Memphis is where I’m from, where my family is, the place my mother has lived longer than any other place, where my father would still be living were he alive, the place I am referring to when I use the word “home.”
I’m visiting my mom in the days between Christmas and New Year’s. She is so happy I am here; she started cooking for this visit weeks ago. It is customary for me to tease her whenever I’m here by peeking into her not one, but two! refrigerators and giving her a hard time about the unbelievable wealth of food she has acquired and prepared for my stay.
“How much do you think I can eat, woman?”
“Hush up,” she’ll say, but she likes it.
When I return one morning from the gym, mom reports that our next-door neighbor Meredith called while I was away. Meredith and her husband Tom have lived next door since my parents moved into this house; they have known me since I was eighteen months old, and they are more like my family than next-door neighbors. I call them “Uncle Tom” and “Meredith Aunty,” the way my parents taught me, I consider their children my older siblings, and their grandchildren my nieces and nephew. In elementary school, when it was grandparents’ day and mine were all dead or in India, Meredith’s parents came as my surrogates. Tom sent me a dozen roses for my sixteenth birthday and always kisses me on the cheek when I see him. He checks in continuously on my mother; she has lived alone since my father’s death four-and-a-half years ago, and so Tom helps with her taxes, invites her out for dinner with the family, calls if he sees a strange car in the driveway, or if Mom’s garage is open for what seems an unusual length of time.
Meredith and Tom were there for my college graduation, flew down to Texas even though their second grandchild had just been born. I sat them down as an early twenty-something and came out to them, nearly as terrifying as the same conversation with my own parents. They have seen me through practically every stage of my life and yet still, on this morning, when Meredith has called for me to come over and say hi and grab my Christmas present (which I can guarantee will be an obscenely generous gift card to a high-end women’s clothing store, since they insist on spoiling me even though I am no longer a kid and actually pushing thirty), my Mom eyes me in my sweaty gym clothes, cocks her head and says “You’re not going like that, are you?”
I laugh. “No, mom, don’t worry. I’ll shower and change.”
“Okay, good. Because you know what they say—” She grins and I know exactly what’s coming, and I chime in so we can recite my hometown’s unspoken rule in unison: “Smart is good, but smart and pretty is better.”
I was raised in an upper-middle class family below the Mason-Dixon line, which means I have very pointed opinions about very particular things: a woman’s toenails should always be painted, thank-you notes should always be sent and handwritten on monogrammed stationery, buttermilk should be used where biscuits, pancakes, and cornbread are concerned, and clucking your tongue and adding “Bless his/her heart!” to the end of any piece of gossip keeps it from actually being gossip.
Often, I forget how peculiar and distinctive my little set of social norms can seem to others; not everyone was raised this way. My partner Jill, for instance, was also raised in the South, but in a decidedly blue-collar household, which means her rules pertain more to hunting and fishing and canning and self-sufficiency than gentility. Food is our common ground—cornbread, fried okra, grits—but we run into little gaps in our other behaviors, have learned to compromise and shift, self-identify snobbery or disdain. She’ll sign the tasteful, green-ink-customized “Jill & Nishta” thank-you notes if I write them, and I’ve learned not to throw anything, no matter how worthless it seems to me, away without asking.
Jill is at least familiar with the quirks of my upbringing; they are not new to her, even if she doesn’t share them. But for those who are strangers to the South, it can all seem overwhelming, even insane. Not long ago, I astonished the heck out of my friend Benjamin—he’s a Yankee, bless his heart—when I tried to explain the necessity of and principles behind the host/hostess gift.
“You can’t go over to someone’s home for the first time empty-handed,” I insisted. “A nice bottle of wine is standard, or the host’s liquor of choice, if you know it. Should you be unable to match in expenditure the quality to which your host is likely accustomed, an edible gift will work: a bag of spiced nuts, a tin of cookies, preferably homemade, but only if you are good at these kinds of things. If all else fails, spring for some nice flowers—never roses—and have them wrapped in paper, it’s classier than plastic.”
It isn’t as if these things are written down, although I imagine Emily Post has them covered in a chapter or two, and it isn’t as if anyone ever sat me down and taught me these things, though there are Junior Cotillions that exist for the sole purpose of grooming young ladies and gentlemen. In my case, these codes of behavior were simply the water I grew up swimming in; resist them though I may (and as I did, for a time), the genteel trappings of my native land are mine. I believe in them, even though I know they are ridiculous. For years, I bucked against the fact that I couldn’t seem to quit them, until I finally realized that I wouldn’t want to. They are my birthright, my ritual, my tradition.
I tried to explain all of this to Ben. He just shook his head and said, “You Southern women sure are complex.”
St. Mary’s Episcopal School for girls was founded in 1847, an academically rigorous prep school steeped in pomp and circumstance, which the outsider may judge but the insider understands. We graduated in white dresses, carrying bouquets of flowers and wearing circlets of matching roses and baby’s breath on our heads, kindergarten flower girls marching in front of us, just forty-something grooms shy of a wedding. Of course, these graduation dresses, though they look a lot like dresses someone might get married in, cannot be recycled for one’s actual wedding, because that would just be tacky. One of my close friends graduated in a dress made—honest to goodness—from her grandmother’s old lace curtains.
I know this world. I spent twelve mostly happy years at St. Mary’s; I graduated with honors, was active in community service, Mock Trial, the student-led Honor Council, the Fine Arts Club. My senior yearbook superlative was “All American Ethnic Girl.” I know which polo shirts to buy, the way one’s hair should be carefully pulled back into a ponytail but not completely smoothed, which nail polish colors are acceptable for toes, and which for fingernails, how to assemble the proper William Sonoma registry roster, the proper Sunday brunch spread, what constitutes acceptable topics for cocktail party chit-chat, and how to tie a birthday present bow.
My mother calls me “white girl” when she wants to get my goat.
“Honey, are you mixed?”
It was a question I had never been asked before, let alone in a drive-through line by a complete stranger holding out the change for my and my mother’s order. Backyard Burger is Memphis’ homegrown hamburger franchise, and they make a pretty decent drive-through burger for the money. One taste of their thick-cut waffle fries takes me right back to the feeling of a new driver’s license and Saturday afternoons. My mom, the vegetarian, loves them for the flavorful vegetarian patties which they cook, considerately, on a separate grill.
At first I thought the drive-through attendant had asked “Do you want ketchup with that?” because her tone was so glib, as if she questioned each customer about the origins of their skin color, as if it were company policy, like saying “Have a nice day!” even when you don’t really mean it. I don’t think I even understood her question at first, let alone comprehended that I could be legitimately offended or flabbergasted or indignant. Instead, I looked up at her full, dark-skinned face, said “What?” and heard her repeat the question.
“Oh…um, no. I’m Indian,” I answered finally, too well-trained to blow her off (one does not match rudeness with rudeness), but utterly unable to compose an appropriate response. What is the appropriate response in a situation like that, anyway? To turn snobby or cold would reify the very social color strata that likely led to this awkward question-and-answer session in the first place.
I continued out of habit, to clarify that I didn’t mean the kind of Indian kids stereotypically pantomime for backyard play: “I mean, my family’s from India. My parents are.” I saw her glance at my mother, who has been mistaken for or assumed to be all of the following ethnicities at least once: Greek, Russian, Italian, Korean, Native American, Chinese, Mexican, Caucasian. I, on the other hand, have my father’s unmistakably dark brown skin, made browner by my penchant for the sunshine. My skin is as dark or darker than several African-American friends of mine. I understood what this woman was seeing: in the world of Memphis, where there is black and white, I looked like the daughter of a white mother and a black father.
And interestingly enough, when I counteracted that assumption, when I proved myself to be something else, outside the categories of Memphis black or white, the woman’s demeanor changed. Her body language, which had been imposing and superior, softened, and her tone became deferential.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. ‘Cause you sure do have the prettiest skin.”
I have always felt nervous around black women, the ones my mother works with, the young extra-fashionable ones I knew in school, the older ones behind the counters of the barbecue joints I favor. Partly this has to do with the fact that, for as long as I can remember, I have attracted black male attention. Without trying. A noticeable amount. And I can never shake the feeling I’m being eyed with suspicion by black women, because clearly, I am not from their world. I may put pepper sauce in my greens, and be able to keep up with the bantering talk, but no matter how dark my skin gets, it’s clear to them and me both: I have come from the white world.
Growing up, Memphis was two distinct worlds, a shockingly segregated relic, a step back in time. By now, the city has found its way to Farmers Markets, school reform, inventive cuisine, even a Whole Foods, but most neighborhoods, schools, churches, parks, even barbecue joints remain split, black or white. Political votes are, with rare and only very recent exception, made on the basis of race. As a friend of mine recently put it “We may work together, but we don’t have each other over for dinner.” The city is only just beginning to have conversations about its separateness—very hard, very tricky conversations that are made even more difficult by the Southern penchant for dodging the speaking of unpleasant things.
When I return for weddings, holidays, and the like, I rediscover a curious phenomenon: I will, at some point in my visit to Memphis, be the only non-white person in the room. Or rather, the only non-white guest, as dark faces at country clubs and restaurants tend to be employees.
This is a feat that it would be impossible to imagine in Houston, where I live now, but it’s entirely possible to spend your whole Memphis life inside of one color circle or the other. I’d have to go all the way to India to do that myself, yet in my hometown it isn’t unusual, it isn’t even noticed. White people hang out with white people, black people with black people. The self-segregation takes itself right down to the debutante balls—which still exist, by the way, as the means by which one is “officially introduced to society,” while wearing a virginal white dress, of course. There’s a ball for the black girls and a ball for the white girls. So, then, where does the brown girl go?
Because I grew up outside the city proper, I learned, as a teenager, to travel back in towards town to shop for makeup. In lily-white suburbia, the darkest shade my Target carried was “suntan”—not so helpful to me. As a kid, I attended many an elementary-school birthday party at country club pools, the only non-Caucasian classmate invited and the only non-white guest in sight. I could see the African-Ameican women folding towels and cleaning chairs eyeing me as if to say, “Child, what are you doing here?” An English teacher in present-day, my first exposure to irony was at those very parties, watching dozens of white men and women lying on their towels in the sun, soaking in the full power of their privilege while trying their hardest to make their skin as dark as mine.
Please note: the same companies (L’Oreal, etc.) that sell self-tanning lotions and bronzers here in America sell “whitening” or “lightening” creams and face-washes in India. My mother, who is very fair-skinned, grew up being teased mercilessly out of jealousy over her complexion. The older girls at her parochial school called her “Macbeth,” strange insult they had conjured with the only Western name they knew.
To this day, if my mother sent a photograph to certain relatives in India, a comment would be made about “how dark” I’ve gotten, tsk tsk, my mother shouldn’t let me run around so much outside in the sun, how will she ever find someone for me to marry? But that’s a whole other kettle of fish besides.
Somewhere around the time I turned sixteen, I discovered that “Steel Magnolias revisited” was not the only way to live (the film was standard weekend sleepover fare, I can probably still recite most of it from heart, in the proper accent, and I even graduated with a girl who used one of Shelby’s lines as her senior quote). I started hanging out with the “theatre kids,” and through them, I met and hung out with kids who went to public school—scandalous! I cut my hair short; I wore jeans with holes in them. Not the strategically placed and mechanically formed tears that high-end boutiques seem to think they can charge more for, but the kind I frayed myself. With scissors. While listening to the Indigo Girls. I went to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at midnight.
And then I kissed a girl. This was not at all a part of a measured rebellion, in fact it caught me completely off guard. I honestly fell in love, first love like a lot of other people have their senior year of high school. It was glorious, confusing, wonderful, and not without its fair share of drama. I had found the other side of things, across the railroad tracks (literally, I had to cross them to get to my girlfriend’s house), the rebellious anti-Memphis, which stuck its middle finger out at the plaid and the argyle, which drank lots of coffee and put bumper stickers on its car, something WASPs never do.
Surprisingly enough, becoming a lesbian was the best thing I ever did for my popularity; my girlfriend and I were invited to every weekend party, and I got to know classmates who had previously seemed way too intimidating. I suppose nothing was as intimidating anymore as my having abandoned ship, forgoing social graces and doing my own thing.
It’s freeing at first for a former perfectionist to suddenly have little expected of her, or rather for your hometown to see you as a terrible, uncouth heathen, because that means you can shock them with your ability to slip back into their world undetected. A cultural double agent, as it were.
As time passed and my parents moved through various stages of “our daughter is gay” freaking out, Memphis-as-I-had -known-it began to grow farther and farther away, like a life I was leaving behind, deliberately waving farewell to, all white-picket-fenced and proper, thick, ecru stationery, babies in smocked jumpers at brunch. On visits home from college, I somewhat obnoxiously reveled in having found a world away from Southern puppet strings, showing up with dangerously short hair and an attitude to match. Performing the obligatory dress-and-pony show, one-third resenting it, another third making fun of it, and the final third actually enjoying it, though I never would have admitted to it.
Of course, things didn’t stay so simple. My rebellion came with a cost, a portion of fear. Though I had left it, Memphis was still the place where I learned everything first, always echoing in the background of my life, a life I felt certain would never measure up. I hadn’t done what was expected; I didn’t have little girls to send to St. Mary’s, or a husband who wears Madras plaid shorts in the summer and obsessive college football loyalties in the fall. That life, so stereotypical, so droll as it seemed on the one hand, was somehow intoxicatingly compelling as I felt it become inaccessible to me. I visited Memphis and the happiness of my “other” life, queer and as multi-colored as a Benetton ad, would dwarf under the weight of what I did not have. Of what I thought it would be easier if I did have, even though I did not want it. A split, crack and fissure, two different selves.
I have biracial friends whose features are such that they can “pass” as white. Now I may be “the whitest brown girl” that anyone has ever met, but the body I’m housed in is still undeniably brown. When I pass, it goes something like this: I am back in town and at the bookstore, dressed in appropriately cute clothes, with my hair styled and make up on and I run into an acquaintance who hasn’t yet heard it through the grapevine and I don’t have energy nor do I want to risk the potential horror of really answering the question “How have you been?,” so I let myself lie, or at least leave certain things out, and find that I pass respectably for the happy, heterosexual hometown girl, a different kind of play-pretend.
My friends Kate and Stephen are the quintessential Memphis couple. They have the big, beautiful house with a giant fig tree in the backyard, the two beautiful blond-haired and blue-eyed children, the predictably preppy wardrobe and the very Southern accents I tried to rid myself of in college. They are the imagined life I have finally learned to let go of. They are, and I say this with the utmost love and respect, the whitest people I know.
We are sort of sideways friends, our closeness having developed over a long time (I first met Kate when she was a camp counselor and I, a second-grade camper) and strange terrain (long-distance, big age differences, the fact that Kate was later one of my high school teachers). A fact I love: there are people in Memphis who know us both, separately, but are surprised to discover that Katherine and I know each other, let alone that I lived with her and her husband Stephen for a month when their twin boys were first born.
They needed an extra pair of hands so that Stephen could go back to work without Kate going crazy. I had the summer free, sandwiched between two years of my master’s program, plus the requisite love for my friends and for babies. So the three of us, plus twins and a speckled dog, became a family for a little while, cooking dinner, doing dishes, managing feedings and diaper changes, celebrating little victories—mustering the mental wherewithal to play a game of Scrabble, discovering a new favorite bottle of red wine under $12, John’s heat rash dissipating, Stephen’s backyard figs ripening, and Katherine being able to fit into pre-pregnancy pants.
During the fall that followed, I remember a phone conversation with Kate as the boys were approaching their baptism date. There was some fear on the part of the boys’ grandmothers that the strapping young infants might grow too quickly, making it impossible for them to wear the family baptismal gowns. Luckily, John and Henry held back just enough to allow them to be squeezed into their lacy heirlooms—John into the same gown that his father, aunts, & uncles had worn; Henry into one in which he was preceded by his mother, aunt, and cousin. I don’t think anyone is clear on how or why frilly white dresses and knit, beribboned booties became requisite for entering the communion of Christians, but you just don’t argue about these things, not where I’m from.
I am the twins’ unofficial godmother. Unofficial because, in the Episcopalian church, you have to be a baptized Christian to qualify for the role of godparent, which makes sense. Still, it would have been pretty great to stand up there on the altar with Katherine and Stephen while Stephen’s father (also a priest) commended his grandsons into the care of their godparents, the community of the faithful, and Jesus. But I am used to these limits of belonging and not belonging. Twelve years as a Hindu in an Episcopalian school creates a complicated matrix.
My parents sent me to St. Mary’s because it promised a great education; they were undeterred by the school’s religious affiliation, my mother herself having been educated by Roman Catholic nuns in India. And while the household I was raised in was clearly Hindu, my interest in the world of Anglicanism was never discouraged. I made an eager Bible class student, crowding the felt board where Mrs. Williams would reenact stories from Jesus’ life, but I was also attentive to the stories of my traditions, reading from our holy books on weekends. When the houses in my neighborhood began to sprout Halloween décor, I learned to wait until the holiday of Diwali had passed before we would cobweb our front porch. I learned also to explain the intention of fasting when I skipped lunch during Hindu holy weeks, and I gave up chocolate and Diet Coke with my Christian friends for Lent.
Visiting home still requires a good deal of prep work. Going back means shaving legs, painting toenails, packing skirts and high heels, tying on the bows and jewelry. Standard Memphis procedure. What’s “dressed-up” for my laid-back crew of Houston friends would barely pass for appropriate grocery store attire in my hometown. Worse was graduate school in Tucson, desert hippie capital of the Southwest; I wanted to hand out gift certificates for pedicures and hair cuts everywhere I went.
“Do I contradict myself?,” as Whitman would ask. Memphis’ by-all-appearances culture is no longer my only measurement for how things work, but I cannot unhook myself from it either. I moved away at least in part so I that I could leave the house in shlubby jeans without worrying that I would run into someone I know, who would then recount the experience to a mutual acquaintance, “It’s a shame, she’s really let herself go. Her poor mother!” But I still feel compelled, even enjoy playing the game when I’m in town. Out to lunch in pressed black cotton shorts, patent leather sandals, a silk blouse. Jewelry. Lipstick. Ladies who lunch.
Here is the thing that people (and by people I mean Yankees) often do not get: yes, there are some of us who are faking it, who will turn around and stab you in the back after smiling at you sweetly from ear to ear, who could not care less about the family they’ve just enquired after, who participate only in the smallest of talk. But the convention and ritual of dress and behavior, proper codes of conduct and decorum, are not simply a cover for wholesale bitchiness. We hold onto all of this in part because it’s tradition, but also because we think it makes life better. Writing a thank-you note when receiving a gift. Baking a casserole when someone dies. Opening the door for a lady, or offering her your seat, or paying for the tab of the young man in fatigues at the airport bar. Saying “Y’all come back now, you hear?” and meaning it. Smiling at babies and striking up conversation with lonely-looking strangers. There isn’t some complex ulterior motive. It’s just what we do.
I attended the twins’ baptism, dressed up for church in Ann Taylor-approved attire, posing for pictures afterward with my boys at the front of the church, their sweet heads popping out from all of that fabric like ghosts. From the side of my ear, I could hear Kate mother explain to puzzled onlookers just who I was and why I was there (only brown person, remember?). After the service, we all made our way to Kate’s parents grand and stately house for brunch.
Once inside, I headed straight for the master bedroom to stash my coat and purse with the others. Kate stood over the newly baptized, who were smiling and wiggling on the bed. A pile of pastel-colored gift bags mushroomed up from one of the straight-backed chairs in the corner—monogrammed silver things, most likely.
Perhaps it should be noted here that among the first presents John and Henry received was a package of printed calling cards, with their full names and a sweet watercolor picture of a green-and-blue train.
“You know, I’m so relieved,” Kate said when she showed them to me, tilting her head to the side a little to indicate sarcasm. “I thought we had gotten all of the essentials, but we didn’t even think about what the boys would do if they needed to give someone a present.”
“Could have been a disastrous start to their social careers,” I added solemnly.
It is customary, at least where I am from, for children to have their own calling cards made for the purpose of taping to birthday presents, so as to make the task of keeping up with “who-gave-what-to-whom” much easier. Calling cards are not like junior business cards; they contain only a name, and perhaps some decoration. I still have extra cards leftover from my childhood, stenciled with pretty pink ballet slippers and flowers. Adults utilize more austere versions (ivory cardstock with embossed black ink) to attach their giver-status to casseroles, lasagnas, and other items gifted upon, say, the parents of newborn twins. I didn’t realize that not everyone did this until I moved away from Memphis.
After we changed the boys out of their dresses and into much less fussy attire, I walked into the dining room, holding Henry, to check out the spread. Stephen and I had tried to predict the offerings, basing our guesses on the dozens of other receptions, teas, brunches, open houses, and fêtes that come standard with Southern life. Cheese biscuits, fresh fruit, mini-quiche, bite-sized brownies and lemon squares, vegetable crudités and dip, and Parker house rolls with ham and spicy mustard. Most importantly, between the dining room and the kitchen, a short hallway lined on one side by a counter served that morning as the bar.
Since I was holding one of that day’s guests of honor, I immediately received a great deal of attention from people I had never before met. Lots of women, cooing and clucking and planting kisses. Henry, already overextended from the day began to squall a bit in my arms. I turned him and shushed him, the usual tricks, while one of the white-haired ladies leaned in to say, “Oh, he says he’s upset because doesn’t know your face! He doesn’t like this strange face! He says he wants his mama! Dear— ” she was addressing me now, “You’d better take him to his mother, hmm?”
Stephen jumped in, with an edge to his voice so slight that only someone who knew him well could have detected it. “Oh, he’s quite used to that face. Believe me, Nishta knows what she’s doing.” He gave me a conspiratorial smile and I blushed a little. We have had our fair share of instances of my being mistaken for the nanny (brown girl + white dad & babies = obviously) and plenty of trouble trying to explain exactly what my relationship to the twins is. Kate and Stephen have always insisted that I am family, though I’m far from related to the boys by blood. But when you’ve woken up at two in the morning to give someone a bottle, it induces a sort of claim over them.
But it would have been impolite to say all of that, because it was a lovely Sunday brunch and all, so I handed Henry off to his father while David, one of the official godparents, walked over from the bar. “Can I get you a drink?” he enquired.
“Yes, please,” I said. “Bloody Mary?”
“Ah, I didn’t take you for a fruity drink kind of girl.” A compliment in my book.
David returned with a celery-garnished highball glass, and my first sip was an eye-raiser. “Well, David, this is quite a serious cocktail you’ve made here.”
“You see, this way, you only have to drink the one,” he said. “And nobody gets suspicious.”
“You’ve been through one or two of these things before, I take it?”
“Godbless Memphis Anglicans who aren’t afraid to drink on a Sunday morning,” he said, and we clinked glasses.
To visit Memphis today is to experience an almost endless episode of déjà-vu, each place I go stirring up some nostalgia, at the same time adding to it, building the very memories that bind me to this place. It is as if I can see past incarnations of myself everywhere I go, killing time in bookstores and coffee shops, stealing daffodils out of rambling yards, combing the import stores on Summer Avenue for fake Kate Spade purses I could then never bring myself to buy, waiting for and then delighting in the autumnal color change of one particularly satisfying oak tree on the corner a few blocks from school, and many, many occasions of being driven: to piano lessons in the dark when the time had changed, to nurseries on the outskirts of the city where I learned to identify “lantana” and “coleus,” to Bojangles on Saturday mornings for biscuits, which I took with lots and lots of frighteningly sweet grape jelly.
Perhaps it’s the gravitas that comes with having lost a parent in the same place one was born, or the significance imbued by living in one place for eighteen years straight, but Memphis is not just a city to me anymore. The topography, the storefronts, the very street signs have built another kind of map, my very own version of “this is your life.” What I drive past, what I miss: the potato soup at Huey’s, where the ceiling is littered with fringed toothpick; the noise at the Rendezvous on Friday nights, with its cold pitchers of beer and shabby plates piled high with dry ribs; $1.10 worth of shaved ice from Jerry’s ice cream stand, where the prices haven’t changed since they opened in 1979. It never ceases to amaze me how I can feel so safe here and so completely trapped at the same time.
Memphis is changing, and in ways I never dared to hope it could, opening, stretching, revitalizing. I am so proud of, so delighted and often amused by this place, and yet, I cannot imagine myself living here; I never could. I like to think that Memphis always knew it would never win me. And that I can love it now precisely because I’ll never live there again.
Our hometowns hold us in a vise grip, a kind of Chinese finger-trap; the more we struggle away from them, the tighter their pull. The Mississippi River and all of its genteel trappings keep me beholden, despite a young lifetime’s worth of squirming and scraping against them. Call me on the phone now, and hear me drawl; come over, and I will smile pretty, tie on an apron and bake you up some fine buttermilk biscuits, even if you insist you aren’t hungry; I probably won’t let you help with the dishes; I’ll call you “sir” or “ma’m” regardless of how old you are.
It takes a while to claim what is ours, to allow ourselves to be claimed by it. My name is Nishta, and I am from Memphis.