Vive La Différence

“The different people are not like other people, but being different is nothing to be ashamed of. Because other people are not such wonderful people.”

Story Adele Elliot

In “The Glass Menagerie” Tennessee Williams grasped one of the true meanings of being “southern.” We are not like “other” people — and heaven knows we’re proud of it! In this part of the country we have elevated eccentricity to a sacrament. Move over, Catholic Church. We can absolve any sin, as long as the “offense” was committed by someone in our family. Oh, I’m not talking about real crime, just those quirky little things that can be easily tolerated. It also helps if the offenders are usually not someone we see every day.

My mother was the queen of rationalization. When one of my cousins, a married man in his mid-thirties, began drinking “too much” and hitting on younger women, she knew why. “It was that terrible accident when he was in junior high,” she explained. No matter that he only broke his leg in the wreck. Surely there must be residual effects.

Mother’s Uncle Otis was (allegedly) a cross-dresser. This was discovered after he died. Relatives cleaning out his closet found an entire wardrobe of women’s clothes. No one actually saw him in his (presumed) alter-ego. However, there were clues that dated back several decades. Mother believed that this slight glitch was the result of a very high fever he had in infancy. The story was legendary, part of family lore. Surely it must have damaged his brain.

Uncle Otis lived to be almost 80. He married, had two brilliant children, and divorced. Evidently, the effects of that fever did not kick in for about half a century. (At one time, he lived with a colony of squatters camped on a levee of the Mississippi in New Orleans, where St. Charles and Carrollton Avenues intersect.)

Almost any transgression can be pardoned if the perpetrator is related, even in the most distant way. Anyone in town falls under this umbrella, unless, of course, there are still hard feelings about something that happened between your grandmother and that person’s great-aunt before World War II, or they have a Yankee in their family tree. Being a “Yankee” is pretty much unforgivable.

Please do not scoff at memories that go back to the 1940s. (Note how useful they are in excusing indiscretion.) Here, we are still smoldering about The “War of Northern Aggression.” Wars, both those with the title of “World War” and those between your kin and mine, have equal importance, and deserve our elephantine memory.

Our world is filled with Boo Radleys, who leave odd gifts in the crook of a tree, but can save the life of a small child when danger lurks. We know our peculiar relatives are not only harmless, but also transform into Superman, sans cape, when necessary. (Well, I believe Uncle Otis had a cape, but for different reasons.)

This sort of protection has a catch. The rule is that we can say anything about our relatives, but no one else can. Mother spent her life speculating about her aunt, who died under mysterious circumstances while a nun in a convent. In a southern family we do not commit suicide. That would mean burial in unconsecrated ground. However, it is not uncommon to pass from some weird “accident” – when alone.

“Insane” may not be part of a southern vocabulary (unless, of course, we are speaking of a Yankee), but “different” – now there’s a handy word.

Tennessee Williams knew what he was talking about when he said, “… other people are not such wonderful people.” Thank heavens we have each other! (Now, don’t you forget it.)