Last week's digression into a Cliff Notes summary of population migration in the American South aside, faithful readers, both of you, may recall that I'm supposed to be in “Chapter Three, In Which Wallace and Irene Bear Young.”
I find I know surprisingly little about my four sisters growing up in the 1930s and 40s. I wasn't there and I now realize I just haven't heard much about it.
I know that Joyce was the bossy one because she was the oldest, and that Wylene, the youngest, was the baby of the family, which wouldn't be of note except that she still retains that title in her 60s, having solidified her claim to it in the 11 years before I was born.
I know that they sang as a quartet in church. Even after they were grown, I recall being at mountain meetings where a choir director would spot them and say “I see the Millsaps' girls out there, we'd sure appreciate it if you'uns would come up and sang us a spayshul,” and they would nail the harmony on a mountain spiritual even though they hadn't all seen each other in months, much less practiced. I recall at the age of 5 seeing Wylene sing on Atlanta television, on a local show called Stars of Tomorrow.
I also know that I had it a lot easier growing up than they, financially, of course, but also in terms of personal freedom. I know, for example, that my sister Jewel was not allowed to be the head majorette and had to settle for being a cheerleader, because majorettes marched around “half naked” at football games, and that my mother would run my sisters' suitors out of the house at 10 p.m., where they would stand on the porch and serenade her with “Good Night Irene” (“I'll see you in my dreams.”). This was partly due to their being girls, but more so because times had changed and the fact that I was spoiled rotten by my parents and four sisters who were more like doting aunts.
The one area in which things did not change that much in my parent's child rearing was discipline. My sisters say that if they misbehaved in my mother's presence, she would whip them. My father's discipline was to talk to them, and they always tried to finagle the whipping instead, because that pain soon stopped, but although my father didn't nurture grudges- there was just the one talking to and the incident was never mentioned again-- I well know the occasions when I disappointed my father still hurt to recall, and I still try to refrain from like behavior.
My mother often told me that her highest hope for me was that I become “a Christian Gentleman,” which was for her the highest praise a man could achieve. She had definite ideals about what that entailed and a hair-trigger temper when violations were observed. I don't remember her ever taking a belt or paddle to me (although I got that in school), but I vividly recall occasions when she grabbed me by the shirt front and slapped my face right and left.
One such occasion was when I was 6. A kid in Sunday School class had told me a joke which began with “Knock. Knock. Who's there? Madame,” and ended with the joke teller's foot being stuck in the door. I chose to repeat this joke for the first time to my cousin Diane while we were sitting with our legs sprawled on the front porch of her house, just outside the screen door, on the other side of which our parents were conversing.
I had led such a sheltered life that I had never heard this profanity uttered before my friend told the joke and had thought on hearing it that it was safe euphemism for “darn,” which I knew I wasn't permitted to say.
My mother, it seems, had heard this word before, and before I could get out “foot stuck in the door,” the screen door slammed and I was jerked up in bewilderment with my head being knocked from side to side in staccato rhythm to “Don't – ever – let – me --”
As long-term behavior modification, it wasn't too damn effective.