Friday, September 10, 2010

The White Magnolia by Donna Marie Miller


Brenda was a tall girl with curly, black hair and large green eyes that changed with what she wore. Sometimes her eyes were very light green, and sometimes almost blue, and sometimes, grey, but they were always large and sparkling and clear and beautiful. She had fragile, thin skin, so fine and clear that her delicate veins showed through here and there, but it was the skin of a very fine, but fragile and delicate nature. She had skin like a magnolia blossom, lemony fragrant, very lightly freckled, that didn’t tan, so she had to keep out of the sun, and that kept her looks delicate and winsome for a long time.

As a little girl, Brenda would sit on a swing in her front yard and watch the passersby in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Sundays or on weekends. She would put on her prettiest clothes, nice fluffy dresses with shiny shoes and pretty delicate stockings, and she would sit on the swing and look at people passing and they would look at her. She liked to be all dressed up like that, sitting on the swing and let people look at her. She wanted people to think she was pretty.

Brenda’s father was a preacher and her mother a fundamentalist Baptist, and so Brenda’s life was sometimes curtailed and hampered by the rigidness and lack of understanding in her families views. Her mother referred to her often as “the original rebel without a cause” but Brenda’s rebellion took the mildest forms, and was in no way calculated to make her seem openly rebellious at all. She wore lots of makeup, carefully applied, like most Mississippi girls did, and she did as her parents told her, cooking dinners for the family at an early age, and dating at 13 as most of the girls in Tupelo did. So she really didn’t rebel in very obvious or public ways.

She had a sarcastic way of representing things, and she thought for herself. She rejected racism at an early age, as something that just seemed to her sensitive nature as ungodly. She rejected church at a rather early age, too, not because she disliked or didn’t believe in God or in Jesus, but because she didn’t believe in hypocrisy, and that is mostly what she felt in the local churches, not Jesus’ love. She believed in freedom, but she didn’t really know how to go about getting it, except by opening her home to those who needed friends and a haven from injustice, sort of an underground railroad for local women.

She married younger than most girls in her generation, at 18, right out of high school. Her wedding was the day after her graduation, and she married her girlhood sweetheart, a young man named Bill, whom she had dated from the age of 14, and according to Brenda, was her best friend from the age of 15.

Brenda wanted to stay home and be a classic homemaker, but circumstances forced her to work all of her life at various jobs. She worked at a Sears coffee shop for years, and then at the Book Nook, where she was a popular public person whom people came to for conversation, food, coffee and her fun and sparkling personality and wit. She had many girlfriends, most of whom were professional women, but Brenda longed for no profession, just wanted to be a stay at home mom, and was unhappy that she had never really been able to afford to be that. She used to tell me about that and I found it hard to believe, but it was true for her.

Brenda was a public wit, a private humanitarian, and a personal splendor. She was not a “Steel Magnolia” like the women in the movies had portrayed southern women, she was a white magnolia, lovely, fragrant, resilient, but fragile, as the large, pale magnolia blossoms for which her state was famous. She was a real magnolia, without any steel.

God had sent Brenda to a little town that was awash with racism and sexism. Brenda tried to practice what she preached, which meant that she was at outs with the fundamentalists churches, most of which practiced a mean narrow-minded form of small town judgementalism rather than Christianity. At any rate, they didn’t appreciate Brenda, except for what she tithed, or whatever she did for the as she so succinctly put it “ their dreary little bake sales and cookbook sales and especially their way of trying to sell Jesus like he was some sort of insurance policy for health, wealth and success. You don’t have to sell Jesus. He is there all the time, in good times and in bad, but life is still going to happen, you know.” So she had written to her dear friend Sugar Magee, stuck up in horrible upstate New York, where she had been lured by a handful of painting sales, got stuck there, and the damn sexist small town Yankees had robbed her of her car, her savings of $7000, any job she managed to get that was decent, and finally, were trying to rob her kids of any chance of a decent life.

All this was because Sugar had protested sexism in the arts in that community, and had objected to being sexually harassed by hideously ugly sexist old men who were old enough to be her father, Ugh. Sugar was too pretty and too smart to want to hang around with men that much older than she was, and she certainly didn’t have to date them. She had plenty of chances to date with men her own age or younger, and she didn’t need nor want the attentions of elderly sexists, so for that reason, the old buzzards had blacklisted beautiful Sugar and her entire family of brilliant, gifted sons, and they were nearly down to nothing, without even enough money to pay the gas bill, and behind on rent, too. And Sugar was a genius if anything. Poor Brenda tried to advise her, but what could she say. Sugar certainly didn’t want to come back to Tupelo, where it was even worse, if anything.

So Brenda comforted her by phone and by letter and Sugar comforted her back. But this wasn’t unusual for Brenda, she did this for everyone. She was the town confidant, that is, the confidant of decent, good women and many girls, too, and she had done her best to make that little town a good place to live. She had done a good job of it, like many Southern women, she had created or helped create a subculture that was true to decent human nature if it wasn’t true to the overriding bullying and violence that the more ignorant of the men tried to play out against the rest of the population. The southern women just looked at men like that as “stupid”, this was the universal word for them, and they just outmaneuvered them and avoided them, didn’t tell them anything at all of any value or worth, and finally, lied to them if necessary to keep on keeping on. They didn’t have scruples about this; if you are a Jew you cannot tell the Nazis the truth and aren’t under any obligation to tell where your friends and relatives are hiding in the walls, nor when they are going to escape, nor anything at all. You out smart them, and the Southern women did the same to the Southern men, that is, to the worthless kind who bullied and tried to domineer by meanness and brute strength. That was all, and they succeeded at this sort of thing rather well.

Southern women were very good at rolling their mascaraed eyes at such men, behind their backs of course, direct confrontation wasn’t their style, unless it was in the form of sarcasm that was sure to be waaaay over the heads of those at whom it was aimed. Or they would lift their delicately plucked and shaped eyebrows at such or other such methods of expressing disapproval without expressing it. Brenda was a master at such, and this is how she handled everything from sexual harassers in the grocery store, to ignorant and over made up librarians who were jealous of Brenda for reading so much and being much smarter than the school teachers. But as before mentioned, Brenda didn’t want a career, so she didn’t work at making one, she just took the jobs she had to get to help her family survive, and to help her skin flint husband make ends meet.

In high school Brenda was both popular and a misfit. She was pretty, that helped, she was middle class, that was ok, upper class would have been better though in small town Mississippi, she was smart, but she may have had an undiagnosed learning disability in math, though she was certainly good in English and an excellent and avid reader. She was kind and outgoing, and she had lots of girlfriends and dated a lot, but she also had a very introverted and spiritual side that was constantly questioning hypocrisy, and meanness of all kinds. She gave up racism long before it was popular to do so in Mississippi, and did her best to treat all blacks with respect, though she was prevented by local customs and her family from inviting them to her inner circle of friends. This would have raised hackles in her family and her neighborhood and Brenda was not the type to raise hackles. As before mentioned, she didn’t mind raising eyebrows, but like most all Southern women, her rebellion was of a behind the back eyes rolling, telling secrets and keeping all important information away from men who were the “stupid” kind and the like. Outward rebellion wasn’t her style, and didn’t have to be. She didn’t want to be an activist; she just wanted a life.

Brenda's First Adventure

Brenda’s first adventure came long after she was married and had kids. Her best friend Sugar was running into all kinds of weird trouble up in the Carolinas where she went to school, and up in Chautauqua, New York where she had moved to try to make a living and was not making it, quite.

Brenda stood up for Sugar, of course, over the phone, but she didn’t know that Sugar’s issues were going to hit her right in Mississippi, for Sugar’s enemies were afraid, now this is funny, but they were actually afraid that she might become president or something, a president who would actually fully intend to free women, not some token like the Clintons or the like, but a real bonified women leader who planned on eliminating sexism in the United States. Why this scared people, who knows, but it did. Mainly old men who made their living oppressing women, and who didn’t want to give that wickedness up, unless forced to do so by God. Now why would this effect Brenda?

Those wicked men sent one of their whores to seduce Brenda’s husband. Now Bill wasn’t really an oversexed guy, so this was a hard task. In fact he had terrible back trouble which had interfered with his sex life for years, and seemed likely to end it completely, so it wasn’t needing sex that caused Bill to fail. It was a power struggle.

Bill was a person who rarely said a word in company. He would sit and watch TV and let Brenda do all the talking. Even Sugar, who had known the family for years, since Brenda and Bill were dating, had never heard Bill say anything at all, except one sentence that she remembered. When she and Brenda had been talking politics, and George Bush, the elder, was running for office again, he had said, “Bush’ll be hard to beat.” That was truly the only thing she had ever heard him say that indicated that he had a thought in his head about anything but the motorcycles which he fixed and sold for a living.

So some company whore seduced Bill, mainly to make him keep Brenda in her place, and she succeeded, by persistence, in breaking up the marriage. This just about killed Brenda, who truly loved the silent Bill, even though he wasn’t much of a lover, and never hardly said a word even to her. They had been best friends, as she told Sugar, since she was 14 years old, and it was hard. But Brenda saw the woman once, and as she stated, she wasn’t pretty at all. But that wasn’t the point, the point was to injure Brenda, and stupid Bill succeeded in that so well that it almost killed her, but not quite.

The adventure was that Brenda survived. She survived to become the biggest flirt in town, and she actually had fun flirting around her small community, cute as she was and full of life as she was, and she found that suddenly, she felt not only more alive, but free. She went to a community college and went back to school to study, of all things, nursing. And she had fun. She made good grades for the first time in her life, and sold her little house, renting an apartment on the IJC side of town, near the community college which she attended, and she started to live a life that was unknown to her. She even considered running for public office and finding a better community to live in.

And she found, suddenly that life without stupid, silent old Bill was pretty good. She bought a little trailer instead of the house, put the money from the sale of her old house into savings, and she had a royal blast with going to different churches and checking out different belief systems from her old fundamentalist stuff and nonsense. She even attended the Catholic church once, sort of a mission church it was out in Bible thumping Mississippi, and she found that she could make friends anywhere, just by being herself.

That was part of the adventure, but the real part was that Brenda started taking her car out and just driving places. She had never gone much of anywhere without Bill and now she just got in and drove for no real reason but to get moving and go somewhere. It was fun. She liked it immensely, and soon she started taking her girlfriends with her and sometimes her daughters, even though they had gone to live with their father (he had bribed them by offering them cars if they did, which they promptly totaled) and she started exploring.

One thing she found out is that not only could she live without a man in the house, but she liked it. She did what she wanted to do when she wanted to, and she didn’t do dishes at all if she didn’t want to , or cook, but went out to eat at the old Sears coffee shop where she used to cook. There was a new woman, one who wasn’t nearly as friendly or as nice as she had been, but she liked going for the French fries and hamburgers. She liked having the girls gone from the house, and she felt healthier than she had ever been in her life.

As a girl, and young woman, she had always been somewhat sickly, subject to anxiety attacks and other ailments that were mysterious and almost impossible to diagnose, but she got healthier and healthier and all her ailments seemed to vanish in the exhaust fumes of her car as she explored farther and farther. Finally she did something really extraordinary, that is, extraordinary for a woman born and raised in Mississippi. She decided after her first year working as a nurse in the local hospital for women’s health, she decided to take a yoga vacation with her friend Sugar, who wanted to get certified as a yoga instructor.

So Brenda’s adventure was to go on a yoga retreat in Hawaii, with Sugar Magee, the artist who was starting, finally to get a name for herself in some of the more progressive galleries and museums out west, and see what it was like to become a yogini.

Brenda The Yogini

Brenda liked it at once. She liked getting on the plane and meeting Sugar in Los Angeles, and she liked getting on the other plane and going to Hawaii. She even liked going out to dinner at the yoga center and all the vegetarian food, though Brenda had never gone vegetarian in her life, and was used to breakfasts of fried pork chops, fried potatoes, eggs, biscuits and the works. She liked it. She sat with Sugar and they giggled and laughed at the cute Hawaiian men who were young and tanned and looked like they lived to surf. She liked being a pale southern white women trying as hard as she could to be flexible. And she found that after two days of trying, she actually became flexible, or at any rate, flexible enough to do at least the beginner stuff without looking like an idiot.

Her friend Sugar had been doing yoga for more than twenty years so she was busy trying to learn handstand, and do a more advanced form of backbend. She was taking a more intense form of classes meant to earn her teaching certification so that she could start up a little studio out in Colorado, or join one to teach there. They all did their asanas out on the beach, so she and Brenda could see each other from far way, and they would wave and laugh at each other trying new things. Their instructors were both brilliant suntanned experts, good at being humble and great at the same time. That alone was a yoga experience.

Then it happened; Brenda fell in love with an adorable teacher, not hers but the one who was teaching Sugar’s class. He was really good, really vital and he just loved Brenda, in spite of her lifelong avoidance of physical exercise of any but the lightest kind. It was a case of opposites attracting.

Whereas Brenda liked making new men friends, Sugar did not. She was involved in too many theoretical works to have much time to be involved with men, anyway, and besides, she was having fun just being herself, something that she had not found much time to be during the years of her marriage, and the years that she was in school. It was an adventure to become herself, and required all of her time. And besides, her work on color and light theory was achieving national prominence and seemed to indicate that she would be developing this theoretical work to its full potential in order to protect the security of the country, which was in jeopardy because of the stultification that sexism had imposed on cultural and scientific works.

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