A lyrical and evocative memoir from Frances Mayes, the Bard of Tuscany, about coming of age in the Deep South and the region’s powerful influence on her life.
The author of three beloved books about her life in Italy, including Under the Tuscan Sun and Every Day in Tuscany, Frances Mayes revisits the turning points that defined her early years in Fitzgerald, Georgia. With her signature style and grace, Mayes explores the power of landscape, the idea of home, and the lasting force of a chaotic and loving family.
From her years as a spirited, secretive child, through her university studies—a period of exquisite freedom that imbued her with a profound appreciation of friendship and a love of travel—to her escape to a new life in California, Mayes exuberantly recreates the intense relationships of her past, recounting the bitter and sweet stories of her complicated family: her beautiful yet fragile mother, Frankye; her unpredictable father, Garbert; Daddy Jack, whose life Garbert saved; grandmother Mother Mayes; and the family maid, Frances’s confidant Willie Bell.
Under Magnolia is a searingly honest, humorous, and moving ode to family and place, and a thoughtful meditation on the ways they define us, or cause us to define ourselves. With acute sensory language, Mayes relishes the sweetness of the South, the smells and tastes at her family table, the fragrance of her hometown trees, and writes an unforgettable story of a girl whose perspicacity and dawning self-knowledge lead her out of the South and into the rest of the world, and then to a profound return home.
A SILVER GLOBE IN THE GARDEN
As I open a book that I once pulled from the ashes of my grandparents’ house, the dusty, mildewed scent catapults me to their back hallway.
Through the double door, made of tiny mullioned panes, I see the entrance hall waver, a quivering of claret and sunlight from the front door. Wafting from the kitchen, the smell of chicken smothered in cream and pepper until it’s falling off the bone. I’m playing an ancient wind-up record left over from when my father was a boy; “K-K-K-Katy” crackles in my ear. Through my grandmother’s open bedroom door, I glimpse chintz dust ruffles, hatboxes, the slender oval mirror over the dressing table, where she leans, and I see her dab the fluffy puff between her legs.
That’s it: brief cloud of bath powder, grinding consonant K-K-K-Katy (I’ ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door), warped light throwing rainbows back through the door. And I wonder, always, why do such fragments remain forever engraved, when, surely, significant ones are lost? The kitchen fragrance, no mystery. For who, ever, could forget Fanny’s smothered chicken?
An early memory of my father: He opens his buff hunting coat, and in all the small interior pockets, doves’ heads droop. He and his friends Bascom and Royce break out the bourbon. From my room in the back of the house, right off the kitchen, I see through the keyhole (keyholes are a large part of childhood) the doves he’s killed piled on the counter, and someone’s hand cleaning a shotgun barrel with a dishrag. The terrible plop-ploop sound of feathers being plucked makes me bury my face under the pillow. When his friends go, my father stays at the table with his tumbler of bourbon. I’m reading with a flashlight under the covers. My specialty is orphans on islands where houses have trapdoors into secret passageways that lead to the sea. Rowboats, menace, treasure, and no parents in the story. As the water darkens and danger grows, I hear my father talking to himself. When I quietly crack the door, I see his head in his hands, his bloodstained coat hung on a hook. Very late, he hits the wall with his fist, and says over and over, “Beastly, Christly, beastly, Christly.” I put the palm of my hand over the spot where he is pounding with his fist and feel the vibration all the way up my arm. I press my nose to the window screen and look out at the still backyard.
A tea olive tree grows outside my bedroom window, its scent airy, spicy, and I prefer it to the dizzy perfume of the gardenias and magnolias that rule the neighborhood. Tough ovoid leaves scrape the screen; the tiny flower clusters are fit only for dollhouse bouquets. Then the back door slams and the car screeches out the driveway.
My father’s parents live two blocks away. I like to gaze into the silver globe under the giant oak in their backyard. My face looks distorted and moony, especially when I cross my eyes and stick out my tongue. In the mirrored sphere, the yard curves back, foregrounded with oak branches like enormous claws. On the latticed back porch, my grandmother Mayes washes a bowl of peaches with her maid, Fanny Brown. Mother Mayes’s hair is as silvery as the garden globe, and her crepey skin so white she’s almost blue. She looks as though she might dissolve or disappear—her pale eyes always seem fixed on somewhere just beyond me.
Late in the afternoon, she puts up her bare feet on an ottoman. With the lamp haloing her hair, she’s ethereal, but then I see crude, tough yellow corns on the last two toes of each foot. They’re translucent in the lamp’s glow, as she relaxes with The Upper Room, a church book of devotional reading, open on her lap.
Dove heads, tea olive, silver globe, bowl of peaches, church books. Images are the pegs holding down memory’s billowing tent. From them, I try to figure out who my people were and where we lived, what they did and what they could have done.
South Georgia, where I was born, may look to a stranger speeding down I-75 like lonesome country where you can drive for miles without seeing more than a canebrake rattlesnake cross the road. At the city limits of our town a sign said if you lived here you’d be home now. The logic is irrefutable. Thin roads shimmering in the heat lead into Fitzgerald from Ocilla, Mystic, Lulaville, Osierfield, Pinetta, Waterloo, Land’s Crossing, Bowen’s Mill, and Irwinville, where Jefferson Davis was captured by the Yankees. Then, no I-75 existed.
To those whose ribs were formed from red clay, the place is complex, exhilarating, charged, various: mighty brown rivers to float along, horizons drawn with an indigo pen, impossibly tall longleaf pines, virulent racism (then, and not all erased now), the heat that makes your heart beat thickly against your chest, the self-satisfaction of those of us who have always lived there, tornadoes twirling in a purple sky, the word “repent” nailed to trees. A place of continuous contradiction, a box with a false bottom. A black rag doll becomes a white doll when I turn her upside down. I jump onto soft green moss behind the cotton mill and sink into sewage. Daddy in his white suit fishes me out, shouting curses. I’m born knowing that the place itself runs through me like rain soaking into sand.
We are fabric people, as others are the Miwok people, circus people, lost people. In the cotton mill—my father’s business—the light is gray because lint catches in the screened windows. Oily black machines, gigantic strung looms as beautiful as harps, their shuttles pulled by lean women. Bins to climb and then dive from into piled raw cotton. In the tin cup of the scale over the bin I ride, the needle jerking between fifty and fifty-five pounds, then fly out, the landing not as gentle as I expect. Rayon is softer, and squeaks as I fall in. But to fly, actually, as in dreams. A natural act, as later I would swing out over the spring on vines at night, dropping into cold black water below, crawl up the slippery bank, grabbing roots, then swing out again and again for that moment of falling. Water moccasins, thick as my leg, thirty-pound rockfish with primitive snouts, even crocodiles lived in these deep streams I dove into, pushing my fist into the icy “boils,” that bubbling force at the bottom.
While my father ran the cotton mill and hunted birds, my mother gathered, and created perfect bridge luncheons, with the aid of our cook Willie Bell. The house pulsated with cleanliness. My two sisters were both in college by the time I was eight, but I stayed in my room at the back of the house instead of moving into theirs. Often I riffled through their scrapbooks and high school notebooks in their closet, and tried on their left-behind dresses that had more flounces than mine, and the flowery scent of White Shoulders lingering in the tucks and pleats.
I loved the square brick Carnegie library, the quiet that engulfs you as you gently close the door, the globe to spin and stop, with a finger on Brazil or China, the cold light in the high windows in winter, the way the bookcases jut out to make little rooms, my yellow card with due-date stamps, the brass return slot, the desk where presides the librarian, who looks like a large squirrel. Before
kindergarten, my sisters showed me the low bookcase
age. I moved year by year to a different section of the back room.
So much later, I may cross the threshold into the main library
where I can check out only two, then four books.
Other literature was mail order. I never had seen a real book-
store. We had Book of the Month. We subscribed to Harper’s
Bazaar, for copying dresses, Reader’s Digest, required for school,
and, for some reason, Arizona Highways.
Fitzgerald, where I might have lived forever, was as rigidly hierarchical as England. We had our aristocracy, with dukes, bar sinisters, jokers, local duchesses in black Cadillacs, many earls, and, of course, ladies, ladies, ladies, many of them always in waiting. Everything and everyone had a place and everything and everyone was in it. It was a cloying, marvelous, mysterious, and obnoxious world, as I later came to know, but fate placed me there and, although the house was not lilting, I was happy as the grass was green.
We were not normal. We lived next door to normal people, so I knew what normal was. The father worked for the state agriculture department, the mother gave a perm called a “Toni” to her sisters and friends, and they laughed and had fun as they breathed in ammonia fumes. Their boy sang in the choir, and the daughter, Jeannie, with wild hair, was my playmate.
We found house-paint cans in the barn and brushed black and white enamel over each other. Our irate mothers scoured us with kerosene, and Jeannie seemed to be lifted in the jaws of her mother like a kitten and taken home. Her father built a swing set with a pair of rings that we learned to grip, push off into a somersault, vault up on our feet, and hang upside down. On the swings we could pump so high we’d almost flip over the top. He took us to farms in his truck and we sat in back eating raw peanuts we’d pulled from the ground. They tasted like dirt. Jeannie and I made hideouts in the vacant lot next to her house, elaborate setups of pallets and cardboard boxes, with tin doll dishes and stolen kitchen knives. We sat on a pile of sour grass weed poring over the Sears, Roebuck catalog. What would you choose if you could choose anything on this page? After pelting rains, our walls sagged. On Christmas mornings, she and I ran back and forth between our houses, looking at what Santa left, long before anyone awoke. We strung tin cans with string between our bedrooms, but never could hear a thing. Her mother, Matrel, had lively sisters named Pearl, Ruby, and Jewel. Her uncle always called us “Coosaster Jane,” which we thought was German he’d learned in the war. She called her daddy “Pappy.” He was strong, redheaded, and sweet. I wonder why I did not envy them. I think small children may have no imagination for a life that is not their own lot.
Other families were happy, too. “The Greeks” were happy even though their daughter Calliope had polio and had to walk with crutches and go to Warm Springs and lie in an iron lung, that awful water heater turned on its side. The Lanes were happy even though the father drove a potato chip truck for endless hours and the delicate mother had a problem so that their bathroom was stacked to the ceiling with sanitary napkin boxes. I was in awe over how they pampered Rose Ann. My best friend, Edna Lula, was the only child in the perfect family. She was doted on and prettily plump; their house had beds with warm dips in the middle like nests, and French doors that opened onto a long porch with a swing. Happy mother and daddy who called her by a nickname left over from baby talk. I could not be at her house enough. There, I fell under their bountiful love. They thought I was funny. They called me by my family nickname, Bud. There was no chink. Ribbon candy always filled the same dish on the sideboard. We licked peach ice cream off the wooden beater, loved pouring the rock salt slush out of the churn. They were admiring, told jokes, hugged; their garden fish pool had a statue of a naked boy, clean water coming out of his thing, landing on the old goldfish in the murk. There was a baby grand piano. My friend plunked out “Song of the Volga Boatman,” and “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Church not only Sunday morning but the evening service, too. (I drew the line at that.)
My mother and her friends laid swatches of fabric over sofas. They carried samples of peach, ivory, teal, and cream paint in their purses. They contemplated the recovered wing chair with the attention surgeons give to incisions. Pale peach is a good color, a lasting color; it never looks as if the chair has just been done. You never want the chair to appear just done. There are fine points: double welting, never tacks except on leather. The act of attention was intense and disciplined. The house must have a sense of itself. Greens and blues will fool you; you don’t remember shades as well as you think.
My mother wants color and polish and devotion. She wants the linens ironed and the windows clean. Fabric, stitching, tatting, piecing into designs, interfacing for durability and form. Her friend Grace can see a dress on someone in Atlanta, go home, and cut the pattern out of newspaper. The methods are sound: hem by picking up the stitch, doubling back for it then going forward, around a circle, as in writing—the piercing bright words, the tension of the thread.
The network of women existed in a world as private as purdah. Among themselves, my mother’s friends were brutally frank, raucous, and never oblivious to compromise. Talk was of should, of standards, local gossip, and, at least five times a day, of how each person looked. Judging every nuance of appearance was part of our chromosomal makeup. They went out as if disguised by veils. Appearance. And feigned innocence, the vise that keeps women “girls” well into their sixties.
A generality may have a use, as does a bludgeon, but it obliterates what is of particular use by oversimplifying. Nothing has been dealt this blow so much as the southern woman, black and white. The power behind the throne, iron hand in velvet glove, she endured (what else could she do?), belle of three counties, a little vixen, she’s like a member of the family, a great lady, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, and all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Every mother I knew could cook like the devil. There’s their jouissance, that fine, forgotten-in-English word. Pressed chicken, brown sugar muffins, quail (smothered), Sally Lunn bread, grits with cheese, a spectrum of pies with lemon meringue as the lowest, and black bottom as the epitome. Lane Cake (which no Northerner could ever hope to emulate in this life or the next), and key lime when Mr. Bernhardt got in the Key West limes at his fruit stand. No matter what. Unconditionally, we will cook, from restorative broths to nutmeg custards to grand heroic meals.
The splendid matriarchs with power in the open were rare birds. And always endangered. More common is the third-rate power, manipulation. We learned it as we learned cartwheels and the multiplication table. I had my daddy wrapped around my little finger when I was five because I was “a pistol,” his “sweetheart and buddy.” We knew Scarlett could get Rhett back. “Blink your eyes slowly as you look up at a boy,” my mother instructs. “Don’t swim so much. You’ll get ugly muscles.” “Let him win the match.”
Excerpted from Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes. Copyright © 2014 by Frances Mayes. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Frances Mayes begins Under Magnolia by recalling a chance weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, where she stood “on the X, not knowing it’s time to leap, when, really, I’d only meant to pause.” When have you experienced a similar crossroad? What did it take to make you leap?
2. As Mayes describes surreptitiously touring William Faulkner's house, what truths emerge about the humanity of great writers? Why has the South produced so much enduring literature?
3. How did Willie Bell help Mayes master the art of endurance? What prevented Mayes’s mother, Frankye, from being more self-sufficient? What did both women teach Mayes about her role in the world?
4. As Mayes describes attending college both at Randolph-Macon and the University of Florida, before the easy availability of the Pill, what can we discover about the impact of the 1960s on young women in America? How does Mayes's college experience compare to yours?
5. Mayes describes her young self as a free spirit with an independent mind, transfixed by literature and disinterested in other subjects in school. How did these attributes feed her highly successful career, first as a professor and then as a bestselling author? What does her story tell us about the keys to success and fulfillment?
6. From reading this background story, what future would you have predicted for this child?
7. What does Under Magnolia tell us about Mayes' early perceptions of home? What spurred her to move to California? What called her home to the South so many years later?
8. Discuss the freedoms and restrictions Mayes experienced throughout her youth. How did her family manage resources, particularly Daddy Jack’s assistance? How did Mayes define "fortunate"?
9. How did the presence and absence of Mayes's father influence her life? How did she heal the scars of his anger, and the trauma of his early death?
10. Discuss the similarities Mayes observes between Tuscany and the South, both her native Georgia and her current homeland of North Carolina. What draws her to these locales? Is the sense of community so strong in these places because of history and landscape, or are there other factors?
11. How has Mayes’s experience of love and relationships evolved since she was a young woman? How did her experiences with Paul and Frank shape her sense of self? How did her parents' marriage affect her expectations for happiness in a relationship?
12. What did you discover about Mayes's literary approach as you read her descriptions of her earliest memories? If you’ve read other works by Frances Mayes, how does Under Magnolia enrich your experience of them, including her fiction and poetry?
13. What are the defining traits of the town where you were raised, especially the food and the customs as well as architecture, history, or even special words or phrases? Would you like to return to your birthplace?
14. Southern writers are especially strong on conveying a sense of place. In Under Magnolia, how is Mayes shaped by the landscape?