Category Archives: Alice Miller

High time to retire the Stars and Bars

Alice in her racist bikini

Alice in her racist bikini.

Nine years ago, my daughter Alice neglected to bring a bathing suit on a beach vacation and was accordingly dispatched to the local Oak Island, North Carolina sand and surf shop to purchase same. She arrived back at the house with a confederate flag bikini which she proceeded to rock, in her inimitable fashion, the entire week. Later, when we were back in Canada and after she had shown photographs of her on vacation to her friends, she called me with a bone to pick. “Mom! Why didn’t you tell me I was wearing a racist bikini?” To which I replied, “I didn’t know it was racist. I thought it was just . . . I don’t know . . . Southern.”

And I did think that. I did. In my mental universe, it was possible to be both an American and a Southerner. I thought that the confederate flag bespoke another layer of identify, not an alternate one, that the two were not mutually exclusive. I thought that until June 17, 2015 when yet another twisted excuse of a loser gunman mowed down nine innocent people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and my mental universe shattered into pieces.

I grew up with the confederate flag. I was comfortable with it. To me it connoted mornings when nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina. It meant an actual Spring as opposed to the Canadian version of that season – i.e., that time when the snow retreats ever so slowly to reveal a winter’s accumulation of discarded cigarette butts and oddly mummified dog poop. It meant dogwoods and azaleas and blossoms blowing through the air and sun tanning in March. I’m talking principally, I realize now, about weather, specifically good weather. To me the confederate flag meant good weather, and good weather meant home.  As an ex pat who has spent the vast majority of her adult life in the True North Strong and Free, I retain considerable nostalgia for the mild climate of my native North Carolina.

My father, Bill Hardy, in the mid-sixties.  I'm not sure what he was doing in this photo.  Then again, he was an actor.

My father, Bill Hardy, mugs for the camera in Confederate regalia in the mid-sixties.

I was raised by liberal, educated parents in Chapel Hill,  a progressive college town in a deeply conservative state. I handed out fliers for LBJ in the predominantly black town of Carrboro and volunteered as a teacher’s assistant at a Head Start program held in the basement of a black church. I was that kid.

But the truth is, I was another kid as well – some screwball version of a Southern belle. I had no clue about the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jim Crow law. I had no clue about the history of slavery or, for that matter, of the United States. I bought hook, line and sinker the whole Romance of the South thing as perpetrated by Gone With the Wind. In fact, my knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction derived almost entirely from that novel, which I read not once, not twice, but five times. My favorite color is green not because I’m an environmentalist but because that was Scarlett O’Hara’s favorite color. In other words, I, like so many of my fellow Southerners, was capable of holding in my brain two dichotomies: I was a staunch supporter of civil rights and I was a true daughter of the South.

Hardy Family Home in Bertie County -- the before shot

Hardy Family Home in Bertie County, NC

The truth is that the Romance of the South was, at best, a tawdry one. There was nothing gentile about the institution of slavery. No beneficence was involved, nothing noble, or gracious, or fine. Slavers and the people who kept them in business – my ancestors among them – weren’t a whole heck of a lot different from Boko Haran, save for the fact that Boko Haran perpetrates its crimes in the name of religion and slavery was predicated on filthy lucre.

As the fallout from the Charleston massacre has demonstrated, the confederate flag is not all in good fun. Not by a long shot. As for that jumped up little cracker who took all those good peoples’ lives, I’m glad their loved ones can forgive him, because I sure as Hell can’t.  I’m having a hard enough time forgiving myself.

Harry

Harry with Sabrina.  Harry appears to be working on a shoe.

Harry with Sabrina. Harry appears to be working on a shoe.

In the dead of the winter of ‘86, when my twins were one and Brina four and a half, my ex and I decided that what we really needed was a puppy.  And not just any puppy.  A Scotch collie puppy.  This was because my ex’s thesis supervisor had owned a succession of Scotch collies and imitating him in every respect seemed to my ex a prudent course.  Accordingly, one cold and snowy night we wedged the diapered duo into their car seats, sandwiched Brina in between, and slip-slided our way down the 402  to a farm outside of Sarnia.  There, in a barn, we found a rattled looking mother collie and her litter, asleep in the hay, and returned to London with Harry zipped inside my coat.

It is hard to house train a puppy in the winter. It is even harder to house train a puppy in a house with no door opening onto a fenced in yard.  It is harder still to house train a puppy with perambulating one year olds whom you dare not leave alone while you are escorting the puppy outdoors lest they fatally injure themselves or their twin.  Because Alice and Will fought from the moment they achieved sufficient muscle tone to deliver a reasonable facsimile of a wallop and didn’t stop until they were teenagers, when they went all twin-y.    Looking back on it, I must have left them alone the occasional time, figuring that screams would alert me to any true danger.    Perhaps I instructed Sabrina to look after them, knowing full well that she was still on the fence as to whether we should keep them.

Harry was beyond long suffering.  The kids would sprawl on him, sucking their thumbs and twiddling his fur. He would lie on his side, looking put upon, but resigned.  Occasionally his lip would flicker, revealing massive fangs and he would say, without conviction, “Grrrr.”

Collies are herding dogs, which worked because my kids were a wayward flock, always trying to scatter or make a break for it. Collies are also watch dogs.   If a leaf fell in the front yard, Harry barked.  If a car drove by, Harry barked.  If, God forbid, a person should walk down the sidewalk, Armageddon!   Harry barked when he was awake and he barked when he was asleep and, if I had had a gun, that’s the way he might have gone down — barking. Only I didn’t, so he didn’t.  One more argument for gun control.

Harry liked to couple the pleasures of barking with lunging, usually at windows.   He broke through the pane glass window in the front of the house on four separate occasions and was saved from hurtling to his death from an upstairs window by a astonishingly resilient screen.  I would appear at the glass repair shop, carrying a window with a collie-shaped hole in it.    Harry was famous at the glass shop.

The first time my ex and I spent a night away from the children, we hired an older woman to babysit.  When we returned home, the kids roasted the sitter.  She was mean.  She had thrown a book at Alice.  She had locked Harry in the back room the entire time.  I didn’t believe them.  Then Harry, who was not a small dog, climbed onto my lap and leaned all of his weight against my chest, pinning me to the chair.  He lifted his fabulous needle nose to the sky and began to keen.  We never hired that sitter again.

One Canada Day, Harry was listless.  He lay on his side looking pooched.  “That dog’s sick,” my neighbour said.  “You’d better have him seen to.”  It was a national holiday; the regular vet was closed.  I took him to the emergency vet, who stuck his finger up his bum, announced, “This dog has gas,” gave me a bottle of Pepto Bismal and charged me $100.  Another time, Harry swallowed a bouncy ball, which lodged in the opening  between his stomach and his intestine.  The operation to remove it cost $800. The vet let the children in to visit Harry, who was lying on the floor of the animal hospital with IV tubes coming out of him.  They ran up to him, his flock of unruly sheep, and fell to their knees, embracing him and cooing.   Harry’s tail thumped.  “Operate,” I said.

Harry contracted Lupus at age seven and died too soon.  Writing about him, I remember him.  Remembering him, I miss him.  Harry was two good dogs ago, but I guess the pane glass window wasn’t the only thing Harry put a collie-shaped hole in.  He put one in my heart.

Oh, Paulie!

Will at about the age of his disappearance, wearing a Kermit the Frog head.  His twin Alice looks on, askance.

Will at about the age of his disappearance, wearing a Kermit the Frog head. His twin Alice looks on, askance.

When my son Will was a toddler, he was kidnapped.  Or he ran away. In any case, one sunny summer afternoon my ex and I glanced up from our work in the garden to find Will  nowhere in sight.  We panicked.  While I stayed back in the yard with the girls, breathing via a paper bag, my ex careened around the neighbourhood, flailing his arms and shrieking, our collie, confused but psyched,  in hot pursuit. Neighbours joined in, some on bicycles to broaden the search area.  I called the police.

Then, about a half an hour in, Paulie, the dozy pre-K grandson of our next door neighbour, jerked to sudden life and decided to share. “I saw where Will went,” he said.

Now Paulie was a pathetic child – strangely boneless with a thin face and lank hair. Rheumy eyed and snot encrusted, he looked like he subsisted entirely on a diet of Cheetos.  But it wasn’t just Paulie’s desperate appearance that rendered him piteous.  It was everyone’s palpably low regard for him.  My children, being children and therefore  without mercy, thought him very weak tea indeed, but so did his family.  “Oh, Paulie!” they would cry with thinly veiled contempt.  Paulie couldn’t do anything right and he knew it.

But not that day.

“Really, Paulie?  You saw where Will went?”  His mother dropped to her knees before her wretched child, seizing him by the shoulders.  A thought bubble appeared over her head:  “Is it possible that my limp rag of a loser son might actually be the one to save this day?”

“Come on, Paulie!” his grandmother  chimed in. “Tell us!  Tell us where he went!”

As if around a blazing fire on a cold night, all the grownups in the vicinity instantly gathered round.  Suddenly Paulie was the center not merely of attention, but rapt attention.  He reacted to this the way  fainting goats react to panic – he froze, agog.   I removed the paper bag from over my mouth and sobbed convulsively.  “Paulie, please!”

Emerging from his brief myotonic episode, Paulie shuddered convulsively.  Then he turned thoughtful.  “Well,” he began.  He paused and began again.  “Well, he came down those steps.”   He pointed to the front steps of our house.

“Yes,” said his mother, ”and then?”

“He came down the walk . . . .” Paulie indicated the walk the front stoop to the sidewalk.

“And then?  What did he do then?”

Paulie furrowed his brow and screwed up his mouth.  He cocked his head to one side and glanced down at his battered flip flops. His eyes widened as if he was seeing his toes for the first time.

“What did he do then, Paulie?” his mother implored him. “Do you remember what Will did then?  It’s very important!”

The grownups joined in a rousing chorus of encouragement.

“Atta boy, Paulie!”

“We believe in you, Paulie!”

“You can do it, Paulie!  You can save Will!”

Paulie sucked in air, exhaled and surveyed the adults crowded around him.  Like Obama after his second Inauguration, he was pretty certain he wasn’t going to see this again and he wanted to take it all in.  Finally, he spoke.  “Then Will split in two and half of him went this way and the other half went that way!”

“Oh, Paulie!” everyone cried, turning away in disgust.

That was when the police showed up, followed shortly thereafter by Will. He appeared in the front door, theatrically rubbing his eyes and claiming to have been asleep under a desk in his father’s office the entire time.  Years later he confessed that he had, instead, watched through an upstairs window as the drama unfolded. Which we, being not entirely stupid, always sort of suspected.

As for Paulie, he had been, however briefly, the center of attention, a shining light, a hero in the making, a human being worthy of regard and a source of pride to his family.  In a life which, I suspect, would afford Paulie few such opportunities, he saw his chance, boldly seized it and then played it for all it was worth.