Yesterday started as any normal day; my daughter Jaime and I took the boys to school, as always. My grandson Ryan, ten, goes all day and my son Ian, fourteen, only part. The remainder of the day he is home-schooled. So, we dropped the boys off and then we took the trash to the local transfer station, did our recycling, and went to the library. I go to the library every school day. It is not economically—or environmentally—feasible to drive fifteen miles to drop Ian off, fifteen miles home, then back two hours later to pick him up. It was raining, so I broke from my normal routine and did not walk laps.
At 9 AM, another patron, a woman, who had gotten out of a four-wheel-drive pick-up truck, beat us to the automatic doors – that did not open. We all stood there rather puzzled.
“Ain’t open,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “Why?” We, all three of us, continued to stare at the locked door. I was running through scenarios in my head: Gerald Ford? No, dead too long—even though, locally, flags were still at half-mast. Perhaps the librarians were going to the planned war protest? I thought about the women who worked in the library; they all sported right-wing political bumper stickers on their SUVs. Confrontational sorts of stickers: Work harder millions on Welfare depend on you, Welcome to America, Now Speak English, Bush/Cheney 04, and my personal favorite, Insured by Glock. Frankly, I could not see any of them at a non-violent protest against a war—no matter how unconstitutional or morally corrupt this war happened to be.
We had driven kids to school, we had passed banks, and county offices—everything was open. The dump, well the county’s equivalent of a dump, the Transfer Station, was open. We stared at the door.
The pick-up truck woman looked at us, and, with a completely straight face, replied, “It’s Lee-Jackson Day.”
Of course it is. Now, there are those of you who may reside in more cosmopolitan, or rather, less…Southern places who, for years, have missed Lee-Jackson Day, and perhaps don’t even know its rich history, let me enlighten you.
Lee-Jackson Day is the memorial day for Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson, Confederate, Civil War generals. You know that war the South lost. That’s not to say they weren’t great men. They were. Both of them had great, perhaps genius, military minds, even if Stonewall was a little eccentric. But, come on now, a holiday? Public buildings closed? They lost the war – in my mind it borders on disrespect to the Union—the nation of which the South was and is now a part. How did this holiday make it beyond Reconstruction? Do the liberal-ass Yankees in Washington know this is going on here?
There was a big to-do some years ago when the federal government made Martin Luther King Day an official federal holiday. People in the South were up in arms. State governments refused to acknowledge it – particularly since it fell on, or close to, Lee-Jackson Day. Couldn’t have that. It seemed poetic to me: let’s pair up two men who fought to keep the institution of slavery intact (although historians agree Lee was not pro-slavery) with the leader—icon—of the Civil Rights movement. Southerners were outraged. Federal funds were denied to states that refused to accept the holiday.
But there is still a Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia and libraries are apparently closed to honor this obscure and fading Southern tradition. After all, who better than book-geeks would venerate old dead generals who had lost a war?
I was annoyed.
Jamie and I decided we would go out for breakfast; after all we had to wait for Ian anyway. It didn’t make sense to go home. We had two choices: McDonalds or the little local place that was rumored to have good breakfasts that we never went to. Neither of us are fans of McDonalds, besides this McDonalds never—ever got an order right. We opted for the local place.
This was a mistake.
We pulled into the parking lot full of over-sized pick-up trucks. I began to feel conspicuous in my fade-into-the-crowd gray Mercury Sable. Of course, my bumper sticker betrays my politics too. Would everyone here be celebrating Lee-Jackson Day? Was there, perhaps, some sort of obligatory confederate bandana we were supposed to be wearing? An official button of some sort? Jamie said I was being silly and I reluctantly parked the car.
We entered a room filled with men in flannel shirts and cowboy hats. The few women patrons were dressed in a similar way. I felt out of place in my black mid-calf knit skirt, wool blazer and linen scarf; a work-day sort of outfit. It didn’t help matters when it seemed that everyone stopped to look at us when we came in. The waitresses looked like roller derby queens, all four of them. I would be afraid for my life if I were to meet them in a dark alley. I think one of them may have had a pistol in her belt. But I can’t be sure; I didn’t want to stare. We sat in the farthest corner of the place and were brought menus by a beached-blond-gum-chewing (or was it tobacco?)-bomber in jeans two sizes too small and a sweatshirt that read “The one and only” (to which I thought, oh thank you God for that!).
Everything on the menu came with grits. Everything. There was toast and grits; eggs, toast, and grits; bacon, eggs, toast, and grits. “Y’all kin replace yer grits with taters, iffen ya have a mind.”
Having minds, that we tried to use on a regular basis, we did just that. We had taters with our eggs. The waitress rolled her eyes at us and snapped her gum as she wrote down our order. It’s not that I have anything against grits. I don’t like Cream of Wheat either. And no restaurant, back home in Boston, would ever serve Cream of Wheat with everything on the menu. But we smiled politely and thanked the waitress anyway.
The food actually wasn’t bad, but we ate quickly and like Lee to Appomattox, we made a hasty retreat. It was not a comfortable meal; I kept waiting for Granny Clampett, or Bo and Luke Duke. Yes, I could easily see this as Boss Hogg’s place. Perhaps it was the ‘holiday’ that created the Southern-country-aura in the place. Perhaps I was reading more into it than was there. But I don’t think so. Two older gentlemen, in Bib overalls, stood up and tipped their hats as we walked out. I’m not sure what they were saying with the gesture. I thought hat-tipping was a dead tradition.
I have lived in the South for twenty years and, in general, politics aside, I love it here. I love that my neighbors take care of each other; that forgetting to lock my doors does not bring me out of bed in the middle of the night in a panic; that I can stop and pick up a hitch-hiker if I feel inclined; the county has three of them, Harold, Butch, and Elton’s no-account-son-who-refuses-to-get-a-goddamned-job, Preston. Harold and Butch always get rides. Preston usually walks. I like the fact that in the last decade I can count on one hand the murders county wide—and I have three fingers left over. I like having a small farm. It’s considered a “leisure farm” which means the animals have a cushy life with nothing taxing or farm-like to do and the humans work their butts off. But I like it. I like having deer and foxes, coyotes, and bears wander through. I like the fresh eggs and the wild blackberries—even if I do have to occasionally share them with bear cubs. But there are moments when I feel like I have stepped into another dimension and I am not quite sure how to get back.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, a Dodge Charger screamed by us—the driver blew the horn. It played Dixie. Jamie laughed and said, “Well, it is Lee-Jackson Day.”
Postscript: This essay was written six years ago…only the political names have changed. All government offices in the county planned to be closed today, and the library too.