At my grandmother’s funeral in western Kentucky, near where, three thousand years ago, the Mississippian culture built their earthwork mounds to rise up their dead, there were five kinds of banana pudding. There was what I’d call the post-WWII American, with Cool Whip, Jell-O Pudding, and crushed Nabisco wafers. There was a triflish one, layered with real cream, and what might have been a dousing of Maker’s, and a pie version with meringue, and a peanut and banana pudding in an old Pyrex casserole dish. But my favorite had a sticky-sweet caramel sauce that frankly, my tradition-rich, time-starved, convenience-loving Grandmaw never would have attempted. On this day, in the church basement of St. Augustine’s, in the parish where my great-great-grandparents began the tradition of the barbecue picnic before the twentieth century, only the sweetest pudding would do. A half-dozen women in aprons ran around serving us, making sure the grieving family had enough to eat from the groaning folding tables covered over with vinyl flowered cloths. The women wouldn’t eat until everything had been cleaned up. Like the people who’d been hunting and growing here along the Ohio River for centuries, they thought there was always work to be done.
I’ve spent a few years trying to replicate that flavor. It wasn’t until today that I gave up the old-fashioned style, and went all Elvis on it, that I realized what I’ve been missing: distance.
This is because you’ve got to forget the part where you’re sitting there with five kinds of banana pudding on your paper plate and laughing with the most sacred woman you know, your only living grandparent, a graceful, gentle woman who you named Mimoo when you were a baby. You’ve got to disappear the part where Monseigneur Powers, (the former from the Italian, meaning “my lord,” the latter from those he took for himself) leans over the closest thing you have to the holy spirit and says in sermonic syllables, “Miz Hardesty, when are you going to give your home to the church?” You have to overlook the way Mimoo’s hand shakes so forcefully that she has to put her plastic fork down, take a napkin to her rose-colored lips, how she’s shocked into silence by his audacity, as if it isn’t enough that she’s given up saying how many babies her body should have, and whether she can risk being sexual, and if she has a right not to have her own financial choices chastised in front of her family. This is a woman who has attended a Catholic Mass every day of her life, you want to yell to the collared paleneck. You have to absent what you know, in the same way that women have had to disremember all of the things they can’t actually hide, so that men in authority might not publicly humiliate them. Or cause their bodies harm. Or limit their movements. Or kill them.
Butter four slices of a very good bread. Southerners will insist the bread is white, soft, crusts removed. But any kind of bread you like will do. Being raised in Canada, far from my Kentucky home, I like a crusty pain au levain, or rich sourdough, or tender challah, something with decent water and salt and yeast, which is saying something these days, our food sources not being so pure. Slice two bananas on the thin side. Lay these slices over the buttered bread. Spread the other four slices of the bread with one-half cup creamy peanut butter, and press on the tops of bananas, making a PB&B.
To be a woman, in the last century or in this one, is to have your body controlled. Today, whether through Internet trolls, or governments, or religions, an unprecedented zone of surveillance seeks to pass judgment on women’s behavior. As another Kentucky woman, Jennifer Lawrence, recently discovered, even the invisible male authority in the form of anonymous hacksterism wants to corral headstrong, sexually-empowered women by threatening humiliation. Under the premise made possible by legislation like the Patriot Act—only people engaged in bad acts have a reason to hide—privacy is being eroded as a social norm. And, whether it’s a government exerting capitalistic aims to enact war, or a manchild seeking pleasure through punishment, compliance with social orthodoxy is the ultimate aim, especially where women and the powerless are concerned. Obedience and compliance are managed through observation, or even the threat to observe (the haunting of 100,000 of Snapchat’s teens, half its database, being the most recent example of threat by image exposure.)
But even ordinary women know that agreeing to make ourselves harmless and unthreatening does not succeed in halting violence against us. Lawrence called out the stealing of private nude photos as sexual violation without a bow to victim-blaming (oops, I’m a bad girl!), and in doing so, helped reveal a method that has too often used a woman’s sexual history not only to shame and discredit her, but as a justification for not protecting her from harm. See how she deserves it? the naysayers say, and their words aren’t even necessary because the implication happens through the criminal’s choice to expose a celebrity. If it can happen to her…
In America we say that we do not want to worry about whether our mother can be free. And yet, we forget the nightmare enacted upon us, her children, when our mother’s choices are not protected.
Both sides of my family were modest Celtic farmers, rednecks. My maternal and paternal grandmothers grew up on farms within a few miles of each other. Their farms grew corn for food, livestock, and whiskey. From the mid-1800s, eighteen legal distillers, and who knows how many moonshiners, ran prosperous bourbon, brandy, and even medicinal whisky businesses—hooch was called ‘medicinal’ during Prohibition—in that region. They required corn mash from those glorious, verdant cornfields that grew in neat, corn-silked rectangles along what the Seneca called the Good River, (Ohi:yó) up into the fertile, rolling hills of western Kentucky (kẽtaʔkeh, for ‘at the field’.)
The colonialists also required the land, and the Shawnee, who had inhabited western Kentucky from the time of the moundbuilder cultures, were destroyed through epidemics, and then finally displaced through dishonored treaties. The last battles at the end of the eighteenth century happened about the time my Irish ancestors jumped ship, bound for America. We grew up learning of Daniel Boone as hero, not oppressor.
Both my grandmothers told me stories of how their farms sustained many generations of families, of having enough to eat during the Depression, and of their fields feeding wanderers, usually people from the city, who had nothing. Redneck didn’t always mean loutish or conservative or racist. They were European immigrants who worked getting in the crops, or coal men, who appropriated the term from the cherry-red bandanas the union miners wore.
Lesser known meanings of redneck included Depression-era sufferers of a disease caused from niacin deficiency, pellagra, a condition that makes the neck and hands and feet develop terrible blood-red scales when out in the sun. Pellagra was once endemic in the poor states of the South, in its prisons and mental institutions and orphanages. Women were twice as likely to have it. If you want to find chronic malnutrition, look no further than mothers. Men, as wage-earners, were given preference at the dinner table. Mothers do for the children. They tell them stories about never being hungry, when we can see them walking around, their eyes sunken, serving the grief-stricken their funeral meal.
It’s easy to have power over mothers. You threaten them with something they want to protect. This is how my grandmother and mother ended up being pregnant at the same time, when the priest—the man they called Father—forbade them birth control. This is how two children, my aunt and uncle, the ninth and tenth children in that family, die on the days they are born: one on my birthday the year prior to my appearance, one a few months after my birth. This is how my Grandmaw, in pleading with the priest to have her tubes tied, ends up instead sleeping in a twin bed. The cost of your pleasure is a sentence.
Whisk two large eggs with a half cup of white sugar and two good tablespoons of brown sugar. Whisk in 1 ¾ cup whipping cream.
Thank goodness for Margaret Sanger, and that time you fought your father on the steps of the Catholic church, and won, which led you to sexual autonomy, and a kind of good-shaped godlessness. It’s easy to think you’re finished with all that when you live in progressive cities in Canada and America, far from banana pudding. Then you realize that the patriarchy has shifted from priests to prosecutors. That there has come a time in which a woman in Pennsylvania asking for an abortion pill for her daughter brings her imprisonment. That in this post-modern (New Sincere?) era, governments want something from women, and it looks oddly like the same thing that made Mother Theresa a saint: “opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”1 You can’t put all that religion behind you when you read in the New York Times how the mother’s nature was used against her: I just wanted to protect my girl.2
Recent mass crimes have been called the Fappening, the Snappening: What cute name will we invent for the mothers we throw into prison for allowing their teenage daughter the choice to become a woman before birthing a child?
The good news about being a redneck is that no one expected you to aspire to anything. There’s no one patrolling your body, or your ambitions, your choices. But you still want to make another kind of world for your daughter. You still want to talk about how the status quo damages your son, how it is to be male in a culture in which most of the violence—the police brutality, the rape threats, the imprisoning legislation—happens through misogyny and antipathy toward women. You want to find a way to speak of the hating of women that happens because men see women as imperfect males, or because men love their women too much, or it happens because they are women. It turns out you don’t have to look far for chances to discuss these things with your children.
On a trip to Ireland with your daughter to trace your matrilineal lineage to a 12th century Catholic church, and a spiritual grounds that extended to the Neolithic era, you watch women cry near the abbey’s stone gate. It isn’t until later that week, when you hear a poet speak in Gaeilge, her recovered native tongue, that you learn that stillborn babies, not considered births in Ireland until 1995, were also not allowed into the Catholic cemeteries, for the church’s blessed ground must remain uncorrupted by the unbaptized children. Mothers buried their dead babies by the stone walls, as close to the hallowed land as they dared, in ditches and in hedges, in the cover of night. A woman from Cork translates the poem for you. She whispers the English translation in your ear while you hold her shaking hand.
Or it comes on a trip to visit a family friend, to record the stories you missed hearing when you moved away. There is your adult daughter queuing up the voice recording on her iPhone when, across the room you hear your elder speak of the time she was assaulted at six years old by a boy, how she returned to the house to her terrified mother asking what did you do, child? That must be the female, the mother, you think, speaking its fear of being prey.
In the Kentucky homes of my childhood, over the table where everyone ate their meals, there were three objects of art: a crucifix at the center, bordered by a portrait of John F. Kennedy on the right and Pope John Paul on the left. No statement of feminism, nor any object showing love for women, had a place there. Except for the food on the table. Except for the Virgin Mary, hiding out on the lawn, happily unsullied of the desire for sex.
Pour the cream mixture over the PB&B sandwiches. Top with a half cup of chopped peanuts. Cover and chill anywhere from a few hours to overnight.
In 2003, my husband lost his memory of his life. He no longer had an intimate, personal connection to his stories, including those stories about my grandmothers. When Mimoo was dying, I lived with her in her little apartment down the street from where the Church finally pestered her for the right to plow her home into a parking lot. A few months after her funeral, my husband participated in a ceremony where he had a vision of Mimoo swinging on the front porch of her home in western Kentucky. He had no connection to my childhood reminiscence of spending every day on that porch swing when I visited. He didn’t even remember there was a porch swing. In his mind, Mimoo was sitting there, in the marigold light, the chain links of her porch swing unconnected to her former home. He recollected the story of my grandmother just as she is in my child-memory. To me, this was a sign of a kind of collective love, a demonstration of his brilliance and agency, language dreaming through him. My man changes my definition of human nature, and of men.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the banana soufflé pudding 20-30 minutes until golden brown.
Church-goers forget that at the apex of the entry to the abbey was a juicy cunt. The allusion is not indiscriminate. Sheelagh-Na-Gig is a pagan image, co-opted to bring early Christians into the hierarchy. But the word ‘cunt’ is also used as a demeaning term, for a woman who is unapologetically sexual or powerful. You can go along thinking the modern patriarchy, with its internalized religion, and its disregard for free expression, and its fear of a woman’s pleasure, is the same as it ever was. But today’s societal guardians can’t know that the poem that makes the mamas rise up is the self-pleasuring cunt. Or maybe they do. For if women are smarter and braver than our need for a godhead, perhaps we will go around satisfying ourselves rather than serving others.
I’ve wondered if the most effective political act is to have your own orgasm. My grandmothers, with their bodies tied to marriage, property, and child-making, had neither the freedom to choose, nor the sovereignty to act upon their erotic imaginings. In their generation, and in my mother’s, the threat of being a ‘slut’ kept most women compliant. Since feminists have taken back that word in Slut Walks, and in transparent essay writing that includes our sexual lives, we’ve made a more egalitarian existence. Still, though women are collectively speaking and being heard, the fundamental rights of abortion are fading, especially for poor Southern women. The Supreme Court in its ruling brought by Hobby Lobby (led by an evangelist) has made it legitimate for any corporation to ignore women’s reproductive health needs. Now antifeminist crusaders of the Men’s Rights groups are shutting down female speakers with a dangerous cocktail of rape/death threats and open carry laws. The threat to feminist-gamer Anita Sarkeesian’s recent appearance at a university states that she “is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU.” In the vigilant manosphere, the ‘whore’ is a common signifier; the feminist ones become the symbols of the ruination of the life. The Southern Poverty Law Center now tracks hundreds of sites that are dedicated to savaging feminists, and the targets are American women in particular.
This has to me the same ring of what it’s like to be amongst the clan of the unalterable misfits of this nation. The woman redneck can be the aging mama (Mammy Yokum) or the sexy whore (Daisy Duke.) The hillbilly female is always barefoot and pregnant, or trying to be. The story goes, if you can dehumanize a population with a stereotype, there’s no need to share their fate. But in breaking out of a role in which you’re desired or you’re pitied, in refusing to limit the feminine forms of sexuality—no matter what gender expresses them, (and god knows there are far more interesting ones than of our mother’s era,)—you are finally free to invent, and thus to exchange with another. And I think this is why feminism is prevailing, because it is based on the conversation that arises out of the lack of pretense. The mire of derision against another happens largely by keeping secret, by hateful voices, cowering behind the Internet’s sneaky ease to make (mostly) men invisible. The women, once cowed by repercussions, are speaking out. And the men who are feminists are breaking the false notion of the tormented male, even the false idea that we create in a vacuum of genius. The artists and writers of the New Sincerity boldly state the need for brilliance on both sides of the creative gift. The end of Dave Egger’s What Is the What acknowledges the reader: “All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”
My grandmothers had to survive by living inside the boundary of compliance. The truth, more important than any definition or role, must lie outside pretense, where we can satisfy ourselves without harm to another. Indeed, where we might recognize our genius.
Mix one cup sugar with ¼ cup water in a small saucepan, and let simmer over medium heat until it turns a light amber color. You don’t need to stir it much. Reduce the heat to low, and carefully pour in ½ cup heavy cream, taking care to avoid splatters. Stir until smooth, then add one tablespoon of butter, the seeds of one vanilla bean, and one tablespoon of a good Kentucky bourbon. Mix until it’s melted and combined. Serve the bourbon caramel sauce warm with the banana pudding, straight out of the oven. I recommend taking it to bed.
Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.