I can always tell when Momma’s about to drop some juicy gossip. I don’t see her much now that I’m grown and am creating a home of my own, but when she visits it’s like nothing has changed.
Recently, she was in town, and we were sitting on the porch in the late afternoon. We had glasses of wine in our hands as we swapped stories we’ve told a thousand times about our hometown and the people in it.
“Remember Mrs. Dowell?” she said.
“Of course,” I replied—we talk about her every time we’re together. “How could I forget? I saw online that her oldest daughter dropped out of college.”
“Well, between you and me,” she said, lowering her voice even though it’s just the two of us. I rocked in my chair waiting for the punch line to be delivered.
“Oh no,” she feigned. “I shouldn’t.”
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Oh, come on, Momma,” I plied. “You can’t leave me hanging like that.”
She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs and took a slow sip of wine. I leaned in towards her without even realizing it.
She finally relented, letting out a deep sigh as though it pained her to let the well-known secret pass from her lips.
“Ok, I’ll tell you,” she said, “but you have to promise not to tell, and you didn’t hear it from me.”
“Of course.” I played along—because those are the rules. A good Southern woman is not supposed to spread rumors, and yet among ourselves we know it’s our favorite hobby. It’s a skill passed down by generations of Southern matriarchs: girl children playing on the kitchen floor while their mothers pass time drinking sweet tea and talking trash at the table. It’s a vice, yes, one we’d never admit to out in public, but a delicious vice, nonetheless. We lick our lips as the misfortunes of our neighbors spill from our tongues like melting blackberry jam: tart, yes, but sweet.
“Well, Mr. and Mrs. Dowell?” she continued. “They’re still married but they don’t sleep in the same bed anymore, if you know what I mean.”
We went on like this, rocking in our chairs, sipping our wine, me listening and Momma spilling forth 15 years of drama and gossip as though the dam within her that was holding back these secrets had finally broken free. That wasn’t the case, of course. We’d had this exact same conversation two weeks ago. It’s just fun to talk shit.
She finished up talking then sat in silence, rocking, letting the words sink into the grass like gathering dew. Swapping gossip is all in good fun, of course, and it’s OK to do as long as you say good things about them at the end. Those are my Momma’s unspoken rules.
“Bless their hearts,” she said. “They had a tough run of it, there. But you know what?”
“What?” I asked, waiting to see how his conversation would reach its natural conclusion.
“That family’s yard was always so well kept.”
Talking trash is to this day one of my Momma’s favorite sports, second only to holding grudges over minor slights that happened decades ago. My poor father, who had one too many concussions and can barely remember conversations we had last week, never stood a chance. Momma can remember the exact date and time of every wrong move he made, and she keeps them filed away in her mind.
Once, she and I were in the kitchen making dinner—chicken and broccoli casserole—when Dad bumbled in with a grocery bag in hand.
“I got steaks to throw on the grill,” he said excitedly, holding up the plastic bag, eager to contribute and even more eager to eat steak.
I could feel the fire in Momma’s eyes before I saw it.
“I told you a thousand times,” she said, whipping around with a wooden spoon in hand, splattering chicken goop everywhere. “We have casserole for dinner on Wednesday. You never listen to me, this happened last week and the week after that—” She trailed on and on, and you could see the joy fade from my father’s eyes and embarrassment settle in.
“Sorry, I forgot,” he said, head drooping, as he put the steaks into the refrigerator and then walked away.
From Momma’s point of view, you never know when you’ll need to hold someone accountable—or get revenge. When I was little, I thought she held grudges because she had a penchant for drama. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was a self-preservation tactic.
She told me once—and only once—that her dad used to beat my Grandma to a pulp, and then when Grandma went into hiding and left Momma behind, he beat the shit out of Momma, too. She’d tally every punch and every verbal assault. Plotting revenge gave her the fire in her belly she needed to keep going, and in order to plot revenge she had to remember the original wrongdoing which had harmed her. A Southern woman is nothing if not resilient.
Holding grudges and talking trash are part of my inheritance, some of the things she taught me to help me move through a world ready to swallow us up. Some of the things she handed down to me have served, but some haven’t. Some of these lessons I’ve had to unpack over time.
“Being nice” was one of those things that was important growing up, and over time I’ve realized how ironic that is given the drama we’d cook up behind closed doors. To Momma, being nice meant saying please and thank you, smiling at strangers, avoiding face-to-face conflict—moving through the world with a mask of deference, while keeping a knife in your pocket.
When I turned nine, for example, boys started to show interest in me.
“Mom, Jason won’t stop chasing me,” I’d say. “Why won’t he leave me alone?”
“He just likes you,” she’d say, not looking up from the sink where she was elbow deep in suds washing dishes. “Be nice.”
The next day, she’d look me in the eyes, point a finger at my face and say, “If a boy ever tries to hurt you, even if he’s playing, you kick him straight in the crotch.”
Momma taught me that sometimes a woman has to hold two disparate truths at the same time without crumbling beneath their weight. It’s a lesson that has served me. It helped me through heartbreak, through the challenge of finding my way in the world far from home. But now, I’m building my own home with a Yankee husband in a new hometown and holding grudges doesn’t seem so helpful anymore.
I don’t know if Momma believes that talking trash and holding grudges still serves her or if the habit is too deeply ingrained that it’s too late to stop, but that day on the porch when she finished her wine, she turned to me with a sad smile. I noticed the bags under her eyes, the crow’s feet deeper than I remembered from before. The Bible says that bitterness is an acid that wears down its container. I don’t know how much more of this bitterness Momma can take, but you can’t teach an old horse new tricks.
I smiled back at her, finished my own wine, and said: “Did you hear about the McCleary’s?”