I grew up in a provincial, small rural town in the USA: Ashland, Virginia. Our town is otherwise known to its 5,000 inhabitants as ‘The Center of the Universe’, and it’s only now that the irony of this is not lost on me.
My parents weren’t particularly religious or spiritual, and in fact, we started attending Church on Sundays only because of a pact I made with God one night: at 7 years old, and after having recently had the vomiting flu alongside my whole family, I was in bed feeling incredibly ill and nauseous. I begged God for mercy and told him that if he insured I didn’t throw up, I would take my entire family to Church the next Sunday. And so it happened that a little bit of indigestion from roast beef lead my family to start attending a small Methodist church in the countryside. At best, we ‘attended’, but it didn’t go much further than that and after a while we stopped. My parents lacked the passion of faith to encourage our involvement at the church, and we exploited this more and more as we got older to get out of going. When I attended Youth Church Group, I essentially did so in order to flirt with boys. Of lofty spiritual intentions, I had none. I figured I had already made good on my pact.
My mom had a small but undeveloped interest in spiritual practice, having studied tarot and astrology when she was in her 20’s. I still remember finding her Tarot books tucked away in a drawer and knowing I had found something interesting (possibly even forbidden). Later she took me to look at my birth chart in an unkempt house with a wild-haired astrologer named Jill who told me I was a psychic sponge and I needed to protect myself, as well as that I had been burned at the stake as a witch in a past life. She said if I washed my hands and saw grey running off in the sink, it was a sure sign of all the energy I had soaked up.
Our family barbecued, went to Friday night football games at the local high school, ate steamed blue crabs (never the females), and went down to ‘The River’, our dilapidated low-budget version of a holiday home, nestled in the Chesapeake Bay. At The River we didn’t even have beds to sleep in: as kids, we were put into two open sofas pushed together, which created a kind of bed/pit, circled by large standing fans. I hated the fans, but they blocked the noise of the adults downstairs.
I still retain a hardcore adoration for Old Bay seasoning, and a repulsion for fans; ceiling, standing, oscillating or otherwise. Yes, we were unsophisticated and maybe even a bit more backwoods than I’d like to admit. But we had fun, and life was easy, certain. Friendships were fluid, and family was strong, if not always simple. This is perhaps the hardest thing to get across now when I talk about the USA. That easy feel-good feeling. It’s now been over 10 years since I left to live abroad and I have no plans to return, but I also know that there is no replacing that feeling. I’d like to think it can be conjured, but I’m no longer sure.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is just honour what it was you had.
The rest of my family was typical for the South, which means to say they were hilarious, broad characters full of verve. I believe it was Flannery O’Connor who had said something to the effect that the South loves its freaks, and it’s true – we absolutely do. We embrace them. Every small town in my area is full of its own special brand of eccentrics, and we let them be; maybe because we embrace the freak within us, or just know we are all one bourbon away ourselves.
My grandfather Tom Jones was a highly functioning, hard-working alcoholic who drank V8’s mixed with High-life all day long when he was not too busy siphoning off surreptitious mouthfuls of Jack Daniels; there were bottles all over the house lazily half-hidden in plain sight for those of us that had not already agreed to stop seeing. The result of his daytime activities meant that he would cut a terrifying figure in the middle of the night, his wiry 6-foot frame shuffling towards the fridge to down baking soda straight out of the box by the spoonfuls. During his time in the Navy, he had women tattooed on his forearms which at one point were naked but were later clothed (most relationships tending to progress this way, of course), and he would make them ‘dance’ for me by twisting his arms about. He had me hooked from an early age to ‘cherries’ – rolls of Life Savers that he’d keep all over the house and in every pocket, so he could act as head dispensary.
Every family has one, and Aunt Mandy is ours. I’ve known her to be: a cook, catering staff, a retail worker, a singer, an aspiring masseur, an aspiring postal service worker, a vegan, a vegetarian, a born again Christian, an addict, an alcoholic, sober, a perfume thief, a rescue dog worker, a farmer, fresh young poultry. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list. One year for Christmas she gave us a book full of photos of ugly babies. Another year when I was just shy of puberty, she gave me my very own period starter kit; the canvas tampon case opened to reveal a handy chart to help map your cycles, and a cartoon figure that pronounced in red glitter: ‘KNOW YOUR FLOW’. She does not often disappoint.
After getting divorced for the second time, Aunt Lynda bought a hot tub, a water-bed, a Camaro convertible and a tanning bed – perhaps in that order. She dyed her hair platinum blonde, dated men half her age, put on long fake acrylic nails, leather mini skirts and basically did whatever the fuck she wanted. She had aquariums full of exotic fish all over her small suburban house, and a penchant for collecting dogs that would have otherwise been turned away by sane people. Going down to The River with Aunt Lynda meant sneaking unnoticed unlimited quantities of Zima’s , riding illegally in the back of a pickup truck and singing Garth Brooks songs.
Grandma Ann was a special case, even by my family’s standards, and its hard to find a way to describe her in full. She was fierce – dead fierce in the manner of a proper Southern woman. She was an obstinate pain in the ass and voiced her opinions and demands loudly, repeatedly and with a certainty that no one should disagree. Her husband Tom Jones was deaf in the end, but no one could be certain when it had really set in, but it sure as shit didn’t have that much relation to the increasingly frantic timbre of Grandma Ann’s voice. All of that he had blocked out a long time ago. Dressed predominately in faded muumuu’s, later in life she became obese and addicted to pain pills, permanently leaned into a La-Z-boy with C-SPAN blasting 24/7, but in her youth she was known for being wild, free and beautiful. My parents likened spending time at Grandma Ann’s to ‘Donkey Island’ in Pinocchio: we would gorge on bulk-size bags of popcorn and candy picked up from the local Texaco, and rent 10 movies at a time from Blockbuster. She never even looked at what we rented, which is how we came to watch the movie 9 and 1/2 weeks when were about 8 years old.
Much later in my life, I was working with an NLP practitioner, and as part of the hypnosis she told me to go back to the very first memory I held about being totally and completely happy. Through my tears, all I could see was Grandma Ann driving her wood-panelled minivan into the Virginia mountains so we could go apple-picking. I was 3.
If someone had told me years ago that I would eventually be living in Dubai, singing a Shaman’s song to myself while sage-ing the house, I would have bet my entire (non-existent) life’s savings against it.
But here I am. A long way from ‘The Center of the Universe’.