Lee-Jackson Day

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.



20 thoughts on “Lee-Jackson Day

  1. I appreciate your description of the local restaurant and its regulars. You capture what it feels like to be a visitor (i.e., an outsider or Yankee) even after living in the South for many years. I think the essay reads like the opening chapter of a book, using a visitor to the South as a narrator, like ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.’ Reconstruction was eviscerated when political compromises allowed Jim Crow to return blacks to second class citizenship for the next 85 years. Lee/Jackson Day is a vestige of Jim Crow consciousness.

    • Thanks, Bill, I have a series of essays about being from the North and living in the semi-rural South…one should need, as Reese Weatherspoon says, in Sweet Home Alabama, a passport to come down here.

      I have thought about a book collecting this series of essays.

  2. Lol, great story Mel. To me, the South is such a different world to the Pacific Northwest. I was tempted to say, “move to Seattle”, but I’ve only ever been to Louisiana and North Carolina so can’t have a very well formed opinion, and I love the idea of neighbourly love, three hitchhikers and three fingers left over. Seems like my kind of place to live…except for the Cream of Wheat…hate that too. But then, in Scotland, you get chips with everything. You get to learn to like chips after a while and even eat them with your pizza. (Chips are fries, crisps are chips…you learn that too) Oh, and now the Federal gov has decided on a new bank holiday, Family Day, Feb 11th this year. Only for about 5 out of the 13 provinces, one province will have Louis Real Day and one will have Islander Day. Who thinks this stuff up?

  3. Great piece! Well written and evocative. I, too, am a transplanted Yankee, living in Charleston, SC, a good bit more cosmopolitan than the scene you describe. Yet after more than forty years in this place, I’m still considered “from off.”
    I believe it’s almost always the defeated who don’t want to acknowledge that a war is over, who keep fighting the war and denying the defeat in their songs and in their myths, who make a religion of the “way things were.” Could this be why Judaism has persisted for millennia? I spent a couple of months in Kosovo a few years back, and came to realize that the whole war of the Serbs against the Kosovars (in which the U.S. intervened) was a rematch of a five-century-old war that the Serbs lost to the Turks. The defeat still stuck in their collective craws and they wanted to reclaim “their territory.”
    I fear our children will continue to live with this barely disguised animosity against Northerners and the “Northern aggression” long after we are gone. When she was in middle school, my daughter once asked me, “Which side were we on in the Civil War?” I could only answer, “I wasn’t there, Dear.” But the kids are still fighting that war in the schools because their parents still fight it in their minds and in their words.

    • Oh, absolutely! My family was still in Ireland while the Civil War (that some people I know call the War of Northern Aggression–seriously!). I tell my children, we weren’t here — and it is a war that ended over a hundred years ago, let’s move on.

      I agree that the losers create mythology — thank you so much for your thought provoking response!

  4. Mel, Your descriptions of the visual aspects of the southern culture which are still apparent in some parts of Virginia are vivid and to a large degree very accurate. Your writing (as usual) is superior. As a fifteenth generation Virginian and a “Living Historian”, however, I must say that transplants from places such as Boston may not have a full and accurate vision of Virginia history. There are factually correct foundations for the reference to the War of Northern Aggression, for instance – although they are only part of the story – just like the factual aspects of your essay. As in most wars, however, the victors write the history of them. Please consider though – when one suggests, for example, that the ‘war is over’, please let me remind everyone that the ‘battle over states’ rights’ continues. One might look at the Mid-West political situation of today also. Red-state governors and legislatures promoting a decrease in Federal influence are acceptable there. Even New Jersey (never a member of the CSA) has a Republican governor. VA is not alone in having a lot of “right–wingers”.

    I do not agree with “the Cause” of states’ rights (I happen to be a devoted, card carrying DEMOCRAT) but I am a VIRGINIAN and thereby identified by many as a Southerner. My education has been in VA schools including two respected Universities (W&M and GMU). Because I have written about VA history, I’ve been called a racist (as you know) and because I’m a Democrat, I’ve been called (on the campaign trial) such things as baby-killer (which you may not know) and for my political beliefs I have received bomb threats from fanatics (Yes, really.). I’m still proud of VA’s history, just as I am proud of being a citizen of the USA although neither municipality has been, nor are they now, perfect.

    In closing, let me also point out that neither of those two dead generals (Jackson/Lee) actually owned slaves in their own right so the idea that honoring their memory perpetuates Jim Crow does not really fly (pun intended). Stonewall Jackson taught a black Sunday school class (and supposedly taught his black students to read ALTHOUGH it was illegal at the time) and Robert E. Lee spent his non-military time freeing the slaves under his wife’s ownership in accordance with his father-in-law’s will and his wife’s approval. I feel sure that more Southerners are aware of these historical facts than Northerners are. And, as to Reconstruction, President Lincoln surely would not have approved of the way it was handled by the Federal legislatures. Its methodologies probably encouraged Jim Crow laws rather than diminished their popularity among Virginians.

    In your restaurant watching, you might keep tabs also on the percentage of multiracial couples and/or families that you encounter in VA compared to those in the rest of the mid-Atlantic region. I daresay the rate of increase in this trend in greater in the South and not all of the participants are transplants from the North – tho’ it started earlier in the North.

    Perhaps, if transplants from the North knew and understood Southerners and their history a bit better they could stop judging them quite so harshly even if they didn’t agree with them. Perhaps then, Southerns could learn to listen to what Northerners have to say about their own history – good, bad and indifferent. Southerners are not the only ones still fighting the war. Perhaps we all should remember we are ONE NATION,INDIVISIBLE.

    • My family was also in Ireland during the Civil War. They never talk about the war between the states. I do know all about the the Finnians and Pernell and some tragic losses by the Papist Irish.

      • Bob Ritchie, please don’t stop being a well-mannered gentleman – there are too few left. As a woman I appreciate courtesy and do not feel patronized when one is polite to me. I’m sure that if you had your hands or arms full and I could open a door for you as one human person being nice to another, you would not think yourself “unmanned” either.

      • One cannot expect those from other countries to talk about the past wars in the Northern Hemisphere whether it is the War Between the States or the War of 1812 unless they simply are interested in history (for the fun of it, so to speak) … but don’t you agree that everyone should have a reasonable foundation of knowledge about the country in which they hold citizenship? If one studies U.S. history, they might see that some patriots of the American Revolution wanted independence from England because they feared they would be treated like the Irish had been – despite the fact that these revolutionaries were “transplanted” Englishmen themselves.

  5. Hmph, maybe if y’all didn’t look down your noses at us and make fun of how we dress and talk, people would be more likely to accept you. To be honest, I’ve never heard of Lee-Jackson day. I am a native Kentuckian and I still would have felt uncomfortable in your restaurant, have never even tasted grits, and would not dream of ever picking up a hitchhiker unless it was a family member….oh, wait, my family has better sense than to hitchhike in this day and age. 😉

    • Melody, Thank you so much for your response. I am a friend of Mel’s (at least, I think I still am) and she’s really a great person as well as a terrific writer. I too felt somewhat insulted though by her article and many of the responses to it. Unfortunately, she like so many “Northerners” has no appreciation for our history or the culture (hat-tipping, for instance). I do not believe it is a matter of true ill-wish but it is a matter of respect, I think. I tried to be diplomatic in my response because I value Mel’s friendship, her integrity, and her normally superior intellect. Please check out my reply to Mel’s essay to see more. I believe this is why “the battle” goes on.

      • I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I do respect Mel and her right to her opinions. I hope we are “friends” even though we’ve never actually met. I apologize if I offended you Mel. I know we disagree on many social points, but I truly believe we have more in common than not.

        I am fully aware that the prejudice extends in both directions. However, the south isn’t the only place where “outsiders” are held at arm’s length for decades. I think New England is just as bad, not to mention New York. In fact, very few cultures seem to fully embrace those from “away.” I hope we can learn to bridge the gaps instead of emphasizing them. If writers can’t find ways to communicate what hope is there for the rest of the world?

        As for me, my father was from Ohio, my mother from Kentucky. We lived in the North from the time he got out of service at the end of WWII until I was about 10 years old. It gave me a hybrid attitude. I am definitely not a “Southern Lady,” I am too outspoken and not sociable enough to ever qualify.

    • I am of an age where I still tip my hat when wearing one, open doors for ladies and those in need, and don’t think I am being patronizing. I was brought up this way, to show respect. I am a house husband and my wife works. I have no issues with equal rights. I was just taught to say please, thank you and to be respectful.

  6. People, hat tipping, as you call it, has nothing to do with north/south (my dad, from the streets of Bayonne, NJ, did it as a matter of course). Nor does iced tea. Nor do deviled eggs. Southerners just think they invented these things. It makes me laugh. No one who’s lived here as long as I have (almost 30 years) believes the stereotypes that southerners are stupid and prejudiced. Having said that, there is an arrogance that I encounter just about once a week (at least) when I meet someone who immediately pegs me as a Yankee. That is a case of the concept is stupid, not the person. Just get over YOUR prejudices about people from other areas. Don’t be so provincial. I’ve never seen such nonsense outside of the Central Virginia area.

  7. If you’re family wasn’t here during the time period, it isn’t your business anyways. I’m going to keep on celebrating Lee-Jackson Day as proud as a peacock. For God’s sake let us be proud of something instead of stripping us of what we hold dear. The war wasn’t about slavery, the war was fought over the right to secede from the Union and to gain our independence.
    P.S. You’re a very good writer. I hope my writing courses in college will help me to get the skill that you’re blessed with.

  8. In Charleston, I almost never eat grits. Don’t like either the taste or the texture. BUT, when I was on sabbatical in Switzerland, and feeling a bit homesick (the only time I’ve ever truly felt homesick while traveling or living abroad), a friend sent a care package that included a copy of the Enquirer and a box of grits. I have to say, I relished both of them!!

  9. One of my law school buddies was a native Virginian and I remember being appalled when he told me there was a “Lee-Jackson” day–and that it was celebrated in lieu of MLK day (or at least subsumed it by being on the same day). It feels like barely concealed racism.

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