Sensations Summer Reads

As it appears on Mary Helen Sheriff’s July, 19 Blog

by maryhelensheriff | Jul 19, 2021 | Book Lists

It won’t surprise you to learn that the author of Boop and Eve’s Road (that’s me for the uninitiated) loves herself a smashing southern story.  I’ve put together a refreshingly diverse list here–all southern, all sensational, but so very, very different.  Do yourself a favor and pick up one (or heck y’all, all three of these reads).

Purple Lotus by Veena Rao is the story of Tara who immigrates from India to Atlanta, Georgia to be with her husband Sanjay. Theirs is a horribly ill-suited arranged marriage. Tara finds herself lost in a new country with an abusive husband and an unfortunate lack of self confidence. Eventually, she makes friends in her new community giving her the courage to leave her husband and make her own life in her new country.  Some might argue that Purple Lotus is more of an immigrant story than a southern story, but I’d point out that Rao beautifully captures the experience of someone fresh to the South, that the south is more than its traditions, that the South with its world renown hospitality has room for all.  Tara’s story of empowerment will steal your heart.  Don’t miss it.

Sharp as a Serpent’s Tooths the best collection of short stories I have ever read.  The characters, like June Bug and Eva, are delightful, quirky, and engaging.  The plots are mesmerizing, unique, and page-turning. The southern country setting adds texture and delight with its Pentecostal Preachers, snakes, and speaking in tongues. Mandy Haynes has put together a beautiful collection with a southern voice that drawls off the page. 

Little Tea by Claire Fullerton explores some of the more traditional southern motifs, complete with plantation homes and racial tension. Three childhood friends come together at a lake in Arkansas where an old boyfriend forces them to face the past. Through the voice of the main character, Celia Wakefield, Fullerton explores the evolution of racial relations in Mississippi. White daughter of a wealthy old southern family, Celia befriends the daughter of the black couple who runs her family’s plantation.  Tucked away in the country in 1980s, their friendship flourishes. However, once the friends leave the plantation behind it becomes more difficult to navigate a mixed-race friendship in a world not quite ready for such things. 

If you are a fan of all things Southern, you might also enjoy these posts:

Book Clubs that Travel: Boop and Eve’s Road Trip

A Literary Care Package for Southern Mamas

Where to Eat on Your Road Trip Through the South

Join us via Facebook here:

WEDNESDAY, JULY 21, 2021 AT 4 PM PDT

Author Road Show “Southern Fiction: There’s No Place Like Home”

The aforementioned authors will talk about the South, and what makes Southern fiction!

Free  · Online Event

The Original Post by Mary Helen Sheriff

https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

Mourning Dove

 

I want to share my latest news with you about my third traditionally published novel,  Mourning Dove, whose release date was June 29, 2018.  I am happy to share the news that just yesterday, Mourning Dove won its 7th book award. Above is a Mourning Dove video to show you sliding images of those 7 awards.

I went into the writing of Mourning Dove wanting to write about two subjects: the social mores of the Deep South as exemplified in the setting of the old guard, as its known, and the dynamic between siblings. What fascinates me the most about siblings is the idea that they come from the same history, are cut from the same cloth, yet often turn out differently. The question of why this is led me through the writing of Mourning Dove, and although I have never said this publically ( and probably never will) I wrote down three themes to guide me through the book, otherwise written without an outline. The themes were this: the search for home, the search for identity, and, very loosely, the search for God, as in finding some semblance of understanding as to who’s really in charge, along with the question of what it is that shapes a person; whether it’s nature or nurture?

And with regard to the South with all its traditions, history, and rife population of characters peacock proud to call themselves “Southern,” I thought it best to show the South through the eyes of two siblings named Millie and Finley Crossan, who were born in the North, and come to the South as outsiders during the formative stage of adolescence so they could view their environment without a filter while trying to fit into  the culture.

The sibling dynamic is a significant one to those of us lucky enough to be born to it. We learn who we are in relation to those closest to us, and when it comes to siblings, I believe there is a certain type of mirror imaging at play that helps to define us. I’ll say this about siblings: they never let you forget where you came from.

Mourning Dove’s book description says this:

“An accurate and heart-wrenching picture of the sensibilities of the American South.” Kirkus Book Reviews

The heart has a home when it has an ally.
If Millie Crossan doesn’t know anything else, she knows this one truth simply because her brother Finley grew up beside her. Charismatic Finley, eighteen months her senior, becomes Millie’s guide when their mother Posey leaves their father and moves her children from Minnesota to Memphis shortly after Millie’s tenth birthday.

Memphis is a world foreign to Millie and Finley. This is the 1970s Memphis, the genteel world of their mother’s upbringing and vastly different from anything they’ve ever known. Here they are the outsiders. Here, they only have each other. And here, as the years fold over themselves, they mature in a manicured Southern culture where they learn firsthand that much of what glitters isn’t gold. Nuance, tradition, and Southern eccentrics flavor Millie and Finley’s world as they find their way to belonging.

But what hidden variables take their shared history to leave both brother and sister at such disparate ends?

Here is one poignant reader review of Mourning Dove:

“Style and substance are the two necessary ingredients any book must have. This book exemplifies both. I was charmed and delighted by the author’s descriptive abilities. Her use of language, metaphors, turns of phrase kept me turning each page. She can make a table sound interesting.

 

I made this book trailer to give the reader an idea of the setting of Mourning Dove.

I hope you enjoy watching the Deep South as I know it!

 

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

 

 

 

 

 

Little Tea Reader and Book Club Questions.

Little Tea Reader and Book Club Questions

An author’s intention is telling, when they reach out to readers with questions to consider after reading their book. Because my 4th novel, Little Tea’s, themes are universal– the strong ties of long lasting female friendship, the search for home, and the power of resiliency after weathering family tragedy, my hope is the reader will view these topics through their own lens. And because Little Tea explores the racial divide in the 1980’s Deep South and packs a surprise ending, there is is much for readers and book clubs to discuss!

Here are 12 topics for readers and book clubs to discuss, as they appear on the last page of Little Tea:

1. Celia, Renny, and Ava have a friendship that spans decades. What is it that keeps their friendship thriving? Do you have similar ties with your childhood friends?

2. Ava’s marriage hangs in the balance at the center of this story. Do you find Ava’s reasoning understandable?

3. Can you discuss how it might be that Celia and Renny have different views of Ava’s marital predicament? What is it about their personalities and life experiences that shape their opinion?

4. What do you think about the appearance of Ava’s ex-boyfriend, Mark Clayton in the story? Is Ava trying to avoid her marriage by revisiting her lost youth? Can you relate?

5. What are Celia’s feelings for Tate Foley during this story? Does she experience resolution at the end?

6. Discuss Celia and Little Tea’s relationship. What are their differences? What is their common ground?

7. Celia has left the South to start anew in California. Do you find this reasonable? Can anyone ever outrun their past?

8. Celia’s backstory is set in the 1980’s South. What were the racial attitudes in the 1980’s? How have they changed now?

9. Discuss the nuances of the relationship between Hayward and Little Tea? What draws them together? Why, do you suppose, did they keep their relationship under wraps from Celia and others?

10. How do the members of Celia’s family shape the dynamic to this story?

11. Were you surprised by the ending?

12. What do you consider to be the point of the ending?

Little Tea without preorder

Southern Heat and the Making of a Book Trailer

While I researched my novel, Little Tea, I visited three locations in the Deep South: Greer’s Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennesse, where I grew up; and Como, Mississippi, which is 45 miles south of Memphis. It was the month of July, in the high heat of summer, and if you’ve ever been to the Deep South in the month of July, you know the gauze-like, humidity is part and parcel to the experience.

I embraced it all from the second my plane from Southern California landed. Through the automatic, sliding glass doors, the humidity hit me with the life force of a raging inferno and followed me all the way to my friend’s waiting car.

In the Deep South, much thought goes into escaping the heat. People live in air-conditioned wind tunnels that drown out all sound and wear cotton sweaters inside, which seems, to me, utterly ironic, but there you have it.

There’s a specific character to the Deep South in the summertime that has much to do with the climate, a weighted sultriness that eases on the skin and slows everything down to the point that most things seem nice and easy. Nobody complains about the heat because it’s a regional given. Southerners live in harmony with the heat, build their houses with verandahs, put ceiling fans above, screens before their front doors, and rocking chairs out front because channeling the slightest of breeze is a cultural pastime.

It’d been a long time since I’d been to the South in the dead of summer, but I wanted to photograph Little Tea’s setting in the region’s full, resplendent nuance. I wanted the setting of the Little Tea to depict the South as character, and for that, I needed the trees in their fullness, the flowers in bloom, the sun’s glaring halo over Greer’s Ferry Lake, and the dirt roads fully shaded yet dry as a bone.

Photographing the setting of Little Tea, I knew, would anchor me to the South as I wrote the story, back home at my desk in California, but what I had in mind all along was a series of moving images with which I could gift the reader. After all, a picture tells a thousand words when it comes to a lasting impression. Included, here, is the book trailer of Little Tea I created. My hope is it will give Little Tea’s readers a good sense of place.

 

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

Southern Family Saga, Mourning Dove

As I count the days to the release of Little Tea, lo and behold, this review of my last novel, Mourning Dove was just sent to me by the Chanticleer Reviews. Thought I’d share it here.

Chanticleer Book Reviews & Media

Camille Crossan appears to be living an idyllic life in Claire Fullerton poignant, evocative novel, MOURNING DOVE. Living in a superbly appointed mansion in “magnolia-lined and manicured” Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s, Camille’s family life shimmers with Southern charm. Beautifully penned #SouthernNovels with all the trimmings. One of our favorites. Highly recommended. #SouthernLiterature #PulpwoodQueens #CIBAs

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Review:

Camille Crossan appears to be living an idyllic life in Claire Fullerton’s poignant, evocative novel, Mourning Dove. Living in a superbly appointed mansion in “magnolia-lined and manicured” Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s, Camille’s family life shimmers with Southern charm. Her mother, Posey, usually outfitted in a Lily Pulitzer shift, Pappagallo shoes, and a signature shade of pink lipstick, is a beauty with the wryest sense of humor and steel determination.
As a young girl, Camille, known as Millie, sees how those in her mother’s social orbit are captivated by her aura, how men are easily seduced by her flirtatious charm. Society is a game played by those who know its rules, and Posey means to win. Every time. She, however, isn’t even the charismatic one in the family – that’s Finley, Millie’s older brother, who brims with intelligence, startling good looks, and messianic magnetism. A peek beneath the shiny surface of gracious Southern living, however, reveals enormous cracks in the foundation of the Crossan family. One of the first things the adult Millie tells us about her brother is that he is dead. She takes the reader back, though, to their childhood and coming of age, a tumultuous journey that both binds and separates the siblings.
During her first decade, Millie’s family was living in Minneapolis with her tender-hearted, intellectual father who succumbed to alcoholism. Loss of money and, worse, the accompanying loss of social status, motivates Posey to uproot her children and move them to her childhood home in Memphis, a palatial mansion filled with antiques and portraits of forebears. It’s a volatile time, inside and outside the house, as centuries-old Southern traditions clash with the youth counterculture.
Millie watches as her mother holds court during daily cocktail hours, a prospective second husband soon on the reel, and Finley, a gifted guitarist, plunges into the local music scene. But what role will she play? It’s difficult for her to see herself entirely separate from her brother for whom she has, “…a love devoid of envy, tied up in shared survival and my inability to see myself as anything more than the larger-than-life Finley’s little sister.” Millie will grapple with her identity and question her destiny, whether she’ll be a bride in the Southern belle mode of her mother or if she’ll be the blossom that falls far from the magnolia tree. Meanwhile, Finley’s charisma both explodes and implodes in shocking and dangerous ways as he becomes revered by a group of people with no connection to the gentrified life. Like Millie, the reader is transfixed and apprehensive about where this less-traveled road will take Finley. Although the reader knows his grim fate from the outset of the book, his storyline is so engrossing that no drama is lost.
Author, Claire Fullerton, is an enchantress with prose. The writing in this novel will cause you to stop, reread sentences, savor them, and note their architecture. Scenes sparkle as she masterfully summons moods and atmosphere. The reader can see Millie’s lovely but haunting home, and smell the rich fragrance of dogwood on a soft spring day. Fullerton has a keen ear for witty, authentic dialogue, and she deftly reveals much about personalities via conversation. It’s difficult to take leave of such a vivid, fully realized world. Fortunately for readers, Fullerton has written several books, opportunities to spend more time in her richly crafted worlds.

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

 

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Universal link for Little Tea:  https://books2read.com/u/3nvz0R

 

 

When an Author Narrates their Book’s Audiobook.

I have always loved the solitary act of reading a good book. When I read, I want to be captivated. I want to immerse myself in the language and craft of a story. As a writer, part of me studies word choice and turn of a phrase as I read, but even as I do, I stay involved in the story. And I like the feel of a book: its tactile size and anchoring weight; the entire solidity of the reading experience. So, when my husband suggested I narrate the audiobook of my Southern family saga set in Memphis, Mourning Dove, I didn’t immediately jump. I had to think about it. I had to be convinced it would be worthwhile, shown the current marketplace of audiobooks, and basically set my book bias aside and expand my horizons.
Having grown up in Memphis, where Delta music is a religion, I know my way around many musical genres from the blues to rock-a-billy, to current day rock-n-roll. I had a brother who played the guitar and was as passionate as anyone I’d ever met about music as a language. Growing up with my brother, Haines, was like attending school in all things musical. When he wasn’t playing music, Haines was talking about it, and the very foundation of my teenage years were spent under Haines’s tutelage.
From my early twenties to my early thirties, I was on the radio. I began my disc-jockey career on a whim. I attended college at The University of Denver. There was a control room next to the cafeteria in my dorm’s building, and students could sign up for school credit to spin their favorite records over a building-wide PA system, on a schedule that worked with their classes. As a communications and fine arts major, I jumped when I heard I could do this. It seemed as natural to me as walking. After college, I returned to Memphis and embarked on what became a nine-year, on-air career in radio, beginning as a producer at WHBQ Talk Radio, and ending at the album-oriented rock station: WEGR, Rock-103, on Memphis’s infamous Beale Street. I loved every minute of it, but I got out of radio when I moved to California. I’d been offered a job in the L.A. music business as an A&R representative. Summarily, I took up-and-coming bands to record companies, looking for a record deal. I had luck with a band out of Louisiana named Better Than Ezra. While I was in Los Angeles’ music business, I never once pursued music radio, being, as it was and is that I’m possessed of a southern accent.
After four years, I left the music business, when it occurred to me that the music business wasn’t the profession I envisioned for myself in the long haul. I’d been writing poetry by then and arrived at the conclusion that I had wings because I was young and untethered. I thought long and hard about it, and decided, were I to have my druthers, I’d move to pastoral Ireland and become a writer. Far-fetched, I know, but the thing is I actually did this. I spent a year on the western coast of Ireland. I’ve been writing ever since.
As I prepared for the release of my third novel, Mourning Dove, it was my husband who asked if I would be recording the audiobook. At the time, there had been no mention of an audiobook of Mourning Dove from my publisher. I went to my computer and sent an e-mail asking my publisher if there were plans for a Mourning Dove audiobook in the works. The reply came quickly: there were no such plans. When I told this to my husband, he produced the statistics of audiobooks’ popularity in the current marketplace, then simply said, “Alright, let’s record it.” I sent an audition tape to my publisher. I was given the green light.
What I should say here is that my husband is “a sound guy.” What this means is he’s a composer and an audio engineer. He has a recording studio behind our house in Malibu, and when he’s in it, he’s like a pig in mud.
I spent close to a month in my husband’s recording studio; six hours a day, five days a week. The second I put on the headphones to read my work, every minute of my radio career flooded over me in full force. It was as comforting to me as putting on a forgotten favorite coat, and the sheer act of it felt somehow fated. I had a blast reading the 233 pages of Mourning Dove’s manuscript. It gave me the opportunity to read the lines in the exact voice I had in mind as I wrote the book, and the best part of it was acting out the southern characters. There’s something I call “the Southern sigh,” which can only be completely understood for its dramatic emphasis if you hear it. To write it, it comes across as, “Well,” she waved her hand and sighed, “I just don’t understand where Finley came from.” That’s one thing. I’ll tell you now that it’s better to hear it. To hear the Southern sigh in all its breathy concession sounds a lot like a balloon deflating. How it’s executed, quite frankly, says it all.
When an author narrates their own audiobook, they gift the reader with their full intention. They give the reader the mood and cadence in their narration, and when it comes to dialogue, they are able to share speech patterns, inflections, and accents. I think this gifts the reader with something the written word does not. Mourning Dove has been out in the world for two months, and I am happy to report that many who have read the book have written to me to say they also bought the audiobook on Audible.
I’m couldn’t be happier that the audiobook of Mourning Dove is out in the world.
From September 16-22, I’ll be doing an audiobook tour with this wonderful outfit: https://audiobookwormpromotions.com/mourning-dove/ I believe, if you’re so inclined, you can sign up for the tour. The tour includes a giveaway of Mourning Dove’s audiobook.

And here’s a sample of Mourning Dove’s audiobook.

I’ve recently become a fan of audiobooks. My hope is you are, too!

 

http://www.clairefullerton.com

The New Southern Fugitives Review of Mourning Dove

Book review
Mourning Dove
Claire Fullerton
Forthcoming June 29, 2018
Firefly Southern Fiction, 234 pp., $9.95
Parallel universes exist all around us. One person chucks trash for another to call a treasure. Claire Fullerton’s novel Mourning Dove explores this concept with indulgent detail through a cast of characters manifesting such existences like fraternal twins. North meets South. Gritty, lower-income streets cross into rich, well-to-do avenues. The old gives way to youth in an almost forgotten silence. The harsh reality of here and now crashes unforgivingly into wistful nostalgic ideations of what might have been. Fullerton delivers a punch that impacts the reader in a vein similar to To Kill a Mockingbird—even the coming-of-age protagonists and titles align to a degree.
Told through the perspective of Millie, the younger child between she and her wunderkind brother Finley, the novel oscillates between worlds of breathless memory and the tattered edges of the present. Fullerton plops Millie into uptown Memphis, Tennessee during the 60s and 70s. It’s a world away from her native Minnesota and the divorce between Posey, her well-heeled mother, and Sean, her wayward alcoholic father. From there, Millie and Finley are lurched into maturity all too soon, with their environment ever shifting between hopeful wishes and severe thoughts grounded in a cold reality.
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Mourning Dove examines the social mores of masculinity versus. femininity, rich versus poor, life versus death, and maturity versus youth. Unlike Lee’s classic, Fullerton uses these themes in a painfully intimate way with her central characters unapologetically tasked with navigating between these worlds. Where Scout and Jem experience these from a protected and privileged distance in To Kill a Mockingbird, Millie and Finley are more often than not left to their own devices. The siblings maneuver across both literal and figurative borders with no guidance from the adults in their lives—who admittedly seem less prepared or willing to manage these borders for themselves.
Posey, living the life typical of Southern elites, flits in and out the scene with an elegant remoteness similar to that of a wild bird, present yet untouchable. Sean’s exits and entrances come with a stronger weight until his untimely and lonely death, hermited away in his lower-income apartment. Even Gaga, Millie’s fragile grandmother, exists on her own, separate plane of reality until death. While all characters inhabit the same stage, their performances create a collage of alternate spaces, with each operating in entire separation from the others. The chilled distance between child and adult creates an unnerving atmosphere for the audience watching the protagonists grow up with little guidance.
More to the point, Millie and Finley act more as spectators in their own show. They observe from a distance, save for the here-and-there snippets of conversation with their family members. Their existence is an insular one where their presence is solely delegated by beck and call for strictly Norman Rockwell purposes of creating the perfect, Southern gatherings of “knee-high to a grasshopper” conversations with adults that Posey wishes to impress. As children, they are often the perfect picture of “seen and not heard”conversation starters over cocktails in the card room. The closest, warmest relationship in the book is between Millie and Finley alone.
But even this relationship meets an unfortunate end, and everything the now adult Millie thought was set in stone is turned upside down. Players in the dramatic tragedy switch roles faster than your favorite daytime soap opera. Fullerton beautifully sums up the lessons from this novel with a single line: “Perhaps we’ll discover great meaning as we look back and realize we handled the same history in two different ways.” The single grain of hopeful truth Mourning Dove offers at its bitter end is this: the truth is multidimensional. Even two people with twin experiences will come to forks in the road and separate into paralleled experiences.
Fullerton’s novel will transcend generations for this reason. It speaks to readers across different barriers in the same way that her novel oscillates. North to South. Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial. The hard-learned lessons she captures know no boundaries and have no mercies. Mourning Dove is a novel we not only read, but listen to as we would a teacher filled hard won wisdom.

The Inspiration For Mourning Dove

I’m taking the opportunity to share why I wrote Mourning Dove. Plain and simply, I grew up in Memphis, in an era that I think was run by the last of the great Southern belles. Most of them are gone from the South, now, as am I, for I now live in Malibu, California. I have a conflicted relationship with the South. It’s a strange mixture of gratitude for having outgrown it and weepy nostalgia for the place in which I came of age. I can’t say if I’m nostalgic for the actual place or if it’s nostalgia for the innocence and endless possibilities that one carries in youth, but emotionally, I think they’re tied together. It’s the people of Memphis I miss the most, and when I think of Memphis, I think of its women. Never was there a cast of more glittering woman than those who populated my youth. They were fun, dynamic, refined, and rarely serious. They walked like queens and spoke in lyrical tones so compelling that I’m offended by other accents to this day. I set Mourning Dove in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis because, back then, the particular Southern, social milieu was rife with nuance and tradition anchored by southern matriarchs who ran the social strata. I did not write about the side of the South where people drive pick-up trucks down dirt roads to the family farm while dodging a coon dog or two, I wanted to write about that side of the South that was coiffed and manicured; where people had an innate elegance that mattered. There is much to be drawn in a setting such as this, and what fascinated me most growing up was the cultural way of denial. In the Memphis I knew, they kept things light and airy. If something was unpleasant or unseemly, it simply wasn’t discussed. But what of two siblings born up north who come to the Deep South as outsiders? And how can they share the same history yet come to disparate ends? What unhinging happens in the delicate wiring of one but somehow misses the other? Is it nature or nurture, and how are we to ever know? In the end, all one is left with is the story. This was my aim in writing Mourning Dove. Always and forever, it will all come down to the story.

Roundabout way to Publication: Gratitude to Chris, The Story Reading Ape for this!

Like a sailboat tacking obliquely through opaque mists with little to guide the course beyond hope and blind faith, my third novel,Mourning Dove, will be released at the end of June. It has been unequivocally the most roundabout way to publication I’ve ever heard of, and therefore I want to share my story. Let this […]

via Mourning Dove – Guest Post by Claire Fullerton… — Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog

First Chapter of Mourning Dove

I used to go home every Christmas to the house I grew up in, and Finley would be there—eventually, anyway. He’d come swaggering in, all blue-eyed, gray three-quarter coat swinging. In from Virginia. The educated man. All beaming, charismatic six-foot-two of him, setting the stage in that rambling Southern house, simply by virtue of his presence. It was that way every year because Finley was the kind of guy who could enter a room and take over completely. My brother was that magnetic. Finley was born eighteen months ahead of me, so I came into the world following his lead. Mom told me, in one of her rare confessional moments, that Finley was an accidental pregnancy, but that I had been planned. I remember furrowing my brow and thinking it odd. If anybody has a God-given, significant purpose for being on earth, it’s Finley. Compared to him, everyone else is a random afterthought. Including me. Finley fascinated me. I used to study him—the way he walked, the way he talked, the way the air changed around him. He was absolutely something. But here’s what bothers me—Finley’s in heaven, and I don’t know why. When we were young, people thought Finley and I were twins. We were both delicately built, with that streaky red-blond hair genetically bestowed upon the Scots-Irish, and we both had huge, light-colored eyes that were disproportionate in scale to the size of our heads. Finley’s eyes were a hypnotic blue, mine are a serious green. Beyond that, few people could tell us apart. When Mom moved us without warning from Minnesota to the Deep South— the summer she decided she’d had enough of my father’s alcoholism and was going back home—I didn’t mind because Finley was beside me. His presence was one-part security blanket, one part safety net, and two parts old familiar coat conformed to fit my size after years of wear.
My love for Finley was complicated—a love devoid of envy, tied up in shared survival and my inability to see myself as anything more than the larger than-life Finley’s little sister. I’m thirty-six now and still feel this way. Finley was easy to admire, for he excelled at everything he did, and the template of this pattern was evident from the time he was in kindergarten. His reading skills were fully realized, his teachers claimed he had a photographic memory, and the sum of the variables that made up the young Finley was such a quandary that his primary school teacher arrived at the exhaustive conclusion he should skip grades one and two altogether and enter the third. After we moved down South, the issue of Finley’s education continued to stymie everybody. For at the precarious age of twelve, Finley was in a scholastic league of his own. My mother’s response to Finley’s brilliance was feigned resignation. She’d wave her graceful hand and sigh. “Well, I just don’t know where he came from,” she’d say, as if she’d woken up one morning to the great surprise of Finley at the breakfast table in the stone-floored kitchen of the house she’d grown up in in midtown Memphis’ Kensington Park and subsequently inherited. By anybody’s standards, 79 Kensington Park was not a kid-friendly house. Fashioned in the style of a stucco French chateau, it was sprawling, it was formal, and most everything in it was breakable. It was the antithesis of the bucolic comfort we’d left behind in Minnesota and being dropped into its clutching embrace felt like being jolted from a dream into disparate circumstances. But my genteel mother was back where she belonged. It was only Finley and me who had to get used to the idea of being displaced Yankee children deposited into a culture whose history and social mores don’t take kindly to outsiders. We were suspects from the very start. We had Minnesota accents, we were white as the driven snow, and we both had a painfully difficult time deciphering the Southern dialect, which operates at lightning speed and doesn’t feel the need for enunciation. Instead, it trips along the lines of implication. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my mother’s plan was pin-point specific. She simply picked up in Memphis where she’d left off before marrying my father, as if she’d changed her mind over which cocktail dress to wear to a party. The dress would look good on her, she’d make sure of it, and it’d show off her curves and float lightly above her delicate knees with airborne fragility from every step of her enviable narrow, size-seven feet.
My mother didn’t walk into a room, she sashayed, borne from the swivel of her twenty-four-inch waist. Her name was Posey, and although there was a lot more to her than she ever let on, by all appearances, the name suited her perfectly. At the end of the summer of 1970, when my mother reconciled herself to the idea of divorcing my father, she needed to devise a long-range plan. She wanted to keep up appearances, my father had lost all our money, which left her with four years until she could access the money her father left her in trust. After uncharacteristically humbling herself for financial assistance from my father’s wealthy relatives, she packed Finley and me in the car and drove with steel determination to Memphis. She’d left my father standing drunk and hopeless in the driveway, watching his family evaporate in the distance, wondering how his life had come to this. Her mother, senile and incapacitated in Memphis’ Rosewood Nursing Home, barely clung to life. Although the house at 79 Kensington Park was in Gaga’s name, my mother had power of attorney. So, first things first, my mother moved her mother from Rosewood to the guest house in Kensington Park and solicited the services of one Rosa Mae Jones to tend to her needs. After moving all of us into the big house, Mom set about the business of doing the two most important things: invigorating her social standing in Memphis and finding an escort, preferably a rich one looking for marriage. She set those wheels in motion after she tackled the problem of where to send Finley and me to school. According to the dictum of Memphis society, there was only one acceptable answer to the question of where to educate a girl—the private Miss Hutchison School for Girls, and it had been that way since 1902. My mother told me she’d made no leeway from calling the school’s administrator, so without skipping a beat, she slid on her stockings, zipped up her Lilly Pulitzer dress, stepped into her Pappagallo shoes, and—because a lady never steps a toe in public without it—smoothed on her pale-pink lipstick, and drove to East Memphis, where Hutchison sat regal and tree-lined, overlooking a serene lake. She marched the two of us unannounced and entitled into the ground-floor office of the school’s headmistress and seated herself cross-legged upon an upholstered chair while I found a seat on a chintz-covered sofa and wondered what to do with my hands.
When Miss Millicent Mycroft appeared, my mother stood and welcomed her into her own office, disarming her with her cultured charm and spilling forth from her cup of Southern gentility. “Miss Mycroft, I hope you don’t mind our dropping in like this,” Mom lilted, “it’s just so wonderful to see the school grounds. You know, when I went to Miss Hutchison, back when it was on Union Avenue, it was never as grand as all this. I’m Posey Crossan.” She offered her slender hand. “I’m a good friend of Mrs. Winston Phillips and Mrs. John Turner. We all went to Hutchison together. I believe you have both of their girls here now.” “Yes, I have both girls,” Miss Mycroft answered. Miss Mycroft, practiced at the art of quick discernment, sat behind her desk and studied my mother, arriving at the accurate conclusion that she was society-born and wanted something from her. “Please sit down. What can I do for you, Mrs. Crossan?” she asked. Mom perched lightly and launched her campaign. “I just don’t know how I could have missed the enrollment deadline for my daughter, who’ll be going into the fifth grade this year. I can’t tell you how much I apologize for this, but you see, there simply is no other school I would consider sending her to. I’m hoping you’ll make an exception and let her attend?” “Mrs. Crossan, not only have you missed the deadline, the first trimester began last week,” Miss Mycroft remonstrated, giving me a slight glance. “We’ve already been through orientation.” “Miss Mycroft, now I realize school has started, but what’s a week to a fifth grader? My daughter, Camille, is bright. She belongs in the same school I attended. I want her in an environment that’ll give her advantages and would hate to see her compromised because of my bad timing. But you see, none of it could be helped, so here we are. Since I won’t change my mind, what can I do to persuade you to make an exception?” After achieving her objective, my mother and I got back in her car and drove two miles to the neighboring campus of Memphis University School, where she waged a similar performance on Finley’s behalf, tailor-made to accommodate the fact that her audience was now a man. With iron conviction, she first stepped—heels clicking through the white marble foyer—and entered the boys’ lounge, where a handful of students draped languidly in overstuffed chairs, waiting for their next class to begin.
Uncertain of the way to the headmaster’s office, my mother leaned down to a conservatively dressed boy and asked for directions. With the facts in hand, she crossed the lounge and made it all the way to the hallway, before a thought came to her that wheeled her around and nearly into me. Retracing her steps, she marched into the middle of the lounge and raised her voice to a pitch accessible to all. “Boys, a lady has just entered this room,” she announced. “Where are your manners? I expect every one of you to leap to your feet.” My mother was a woman who knew the game rules of life, and she wielded them to expert proportion. The Memphis Finley and I landed in was my mother’s Memphis. It was magnolia-lined and manicured, black-tailed and bow-tied. It glittered in illusory gold and tinkled in sing-song voices. It was cloistered, segregated, and well-appointed, the kind of place where everyone monogrammed their initials on everything from hand towels to silver because nothing mattered more than one’s family and to whom they were connected by lineage that traced through the fertile fields of the Mississippi Delta. My mother’s friends had known each other from birth and coexisted like threads in a fabric. They started families together, sent their children to the same schools they attended, and set up their cloisonné lives in congruent patterns of neat inclusivity. They threw dinner parties in stately homes, on tables set with inherited Francis I, polished to a shine by the help. In my mother’s Memphis, the conversation stayed pleasant and light over lingering cocktails, until dinner was served by a staff that dropped their own lives in deference to their employers. At an age where many women have seen their crescendo, my mother had only started to come into her beauty. She had the kind of looks that waited in arrested development during her youth, then pounced like a cat around the time she turned forty. With the passage of time followed by motherhood, her long limbs, flat chest, and slightly recessive chin filled out to capacity. Her face displayed sharp cheekbones that balanced her chin to a perfect heart-shape and earned her a self-confidence she wore with sparkling alacrity. But a woman in possession of unique beauty and charm was in a precarious predicament in 1970s Memphis. There was always the dilemma of where to seat her at a dinner party, and without an escort to take the edge off of feminine rivalry, she was easily held in contempt.
No, that position was not for her, and my mother—as a master of networking—knew exactly what to do. She acclimated herself to the women in town, joined the Garden Club and the Junior League, lunched at the Memphis Country Club, played bridge, and hosted sip-n-sees. It wasn’t long before the dates started rolling in, though she should have issued a red-flag warning that read: Ladies, hide your husbands. Posey’s back in town.

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