Gender roles have long been very definite features of Southern culture, though the rules of those roles are not always clearly or overtly stated. As times have changed, so have these beliefs and myths, but slowly. In this essay, the writer recounts her experiences growing up in Alabama where the closed-off world of boys and men differed markedly from the more visible world of women.
My Apprenticeship in The Shed Society
by Cesca Janece Waterfield
My stint among men in the shed society was short-lived. If I’d known which afternoon would be my last as an honorary member, maybe I could have mastered one more survival tip for navigating what was to come.
I was a girl in South Alabama where I’d been brought as an infant in the 1970s, and where Daddy was a flight instructor at Ft. Rucker, the Army Aviation Center. He’d been stationed there longer than any other duty station. On Friday evenings, he pointed the Pontiac sedan northeast, and my mom, older sister, and I counted hills until we saw the red dirt driveway of my godparents’ farm in Abbeville, Alabama.
The soil there is sandy loam with clay, and the color ranges from rust-colored to nearly crimson. It’s a composition known as “Bama Soil,” the official state soil of Alabama. The Jones’ driveway wrapped a brick rambler and was surrounded by a working ranch with cattle and horses, and it was often sticky with that clay in spite of being hardscaped with crushed Apalachicola oyster shells.
As our car rolled to a stop, the Jones family was out the door and down the steps to greet us, each one pressing us into a hug. Jim worked at the Army base full time but also ran the farm with the help of a farmhand who lived on the property and his teenage sons Jimmy, or “Jimbo,” and Bill. They usually updated my father on issues handled since last weekend: an ailing bull or a broken fence.
Bill would inevitably quiz me on an item from The Farmer’s Almanac I’d been taught the previous weekend. What kind of moons bode well for Bass fishing? How do you hand a pocket knife to someone who needs to cut a tackle line? How do you check for ticks after being out in the woods and what’s the proper way to pick one off?
I looked forward to his questions and practiced their answers. I was eager to prove myself as a capable outdoor adventurer.
But before Emily would turn me loose from her soft-armed clutch to run into the stables to see the horses or into the hen house to visit the chickens, she’d ask, “Have you been a sweet girl this week?”
Sometimes my mother Janet reported on my behavior the previous week: I’d broken my Nestle Crunch bar into thirds to share with my neighborhood buddies Eric and Pids, that was “sweet.” I’d made Jane, my babysitter, hunt me down hiding behind the Pink-a-Boo camellias at bedtime, that was not. When I brought my sister Sayna a blanket to the bed where she was recovering from sickness, that was some redemption.
I was learning that sweetness was mostly about minding your manners, finding ways to help out, and paying attention to the feelings and moods of others nearby. I also noted it was not limited to human girls. Abbeville has a resident ghost, the legend of “Huggin’ Molly” who is cherished as a unique bit of local folklore, and who is also feared. Today she graces a large sign at the west entrance of town. Her arms are raised, setting a frightened boy in chase. There’s a local restaurant named for her, and they serve an appetizer made of her “fingers.”
But in the 1970s, Molly was just the subject of heart-racing stories swapped around town, often in the dark, and in Abbeville’s countryside around a fire. Seven feet tall, wearing a long dress black as spider legs, and the broad-brimmed, pointed black hat of a witch. As she does today, Huggin’ Molly roamed town swishing her voluminous skirts about her legs as if she was burning up to snatch a dawdling child. If she spied one out after dark, she wrapped her substantial arms around him in a prolonged hug. Back then, like today, she may let out a shriek before sending him off, ears ringing with the memory.
The hug is central to any encounter with Molly. The hug is who she is, it bestows her very name. It’s insistent and uncomprehending, enough to send anyone running for shelter. Huggin’ Molly won’t hurt you. In the late 1970s South where we grew up, girls and women, even if they’re legends, better be sweet as the tea they brew.
For me, “Be sweet!” was a salutation as well as a loving send-off from the cashier at Piggly Wiggly, from the gas man, from family and their friends. It was rarely advised to males over age ten, while adult women were still reminded to “be sweet.” I confess: Though I’m old enough to remember Alabama Crimson Tide crush the Arkansas Razorbacks in the 1980 Sugar Bowl, I occasionally recommend a mutual friend by saying, “You’ll love her. She’s so sweet!”
Every sweet girl has a story. Legend says Molly suffered the agonizing loss of an infant, so now she hugs fellow citizens for comfort, but also to remind them to scoot home. Others say she’s a former agriculture professor who wanted to scare students lollygagging at night into getting back to their rooms. Whatever hearth they hurried to, they no doubt had a woman to thank for its warmth.
So it was at the Jones farm, where all things domestic – the house and kitchen and their duties – were the responsibilities of Emily and the two girls, Emily Jean and Vi, and when we visited, also my mother and older sister. I was still too young to be entrusted with much more than collecting eggs from the hens some mornings. It was in the house where the Jones women cooked, baked, sewed, studied, played piano, and celebrated holidays and birthdays. Although Jim and the two boys hung prize largemouth bass and bucks on the paneled walls, the women produced and were products of the home’s neat order. A good Baptist home, propriety and decorum was its dual code. The excitement of a TV wrestling match could ignite hollering and footstomps, but such behavior, if prolonged, drew rebuke from Mama.
One July afternoon, Jim turned off Highway 10, the bed of his red Chevy pickup loaded with sheets of corrugated steel and lumber. He pulled his large frame from behind the wheel and into the humidity, rearranged the wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, and announced to the oldest, “Jimbo, we got some work to do.”
All day the men measured, sawed, and hammered until a timber frame stood across the driveway between the house and the backfields. When the shed was complete the following weekend, real windows gave it a touch of hominess, views of the stable and backfields, and a western view of the henhouse and cattle ranch.
The floor was plywood and timber except beneath the wood stove, which was also covered in concrete backer board. One wall was lined with a built-in workbench. Tools hung from wooden ceiling beams, though the larger farm implements were stored in a barn connected to the hen house. In the center of the floor stood a white formica and aluminum table, since even in a space meant for working, conversation and company were essential. Concrete was poured at the western side of the shed to affect a patio. In winter, they would shuck Apalachicola oysters out here. In warmer months, they fried catfish here in a propane-powered deep fryer that we still use and call “the Alabama cooker.”
Not all activities in the shed were suitable for those back at the house. A sudden interloper would occasionally arouse the flash-quick yet unruffled reflex of hiding a bottle or a magazine. And this is where for a while, I listened in on crude jokes. I didn’t understand them, but I recognized that they could never be told around the dinner table. I stepped into the shed once to see Bill toss a magazine onto my father’s lap. My father’s embarrassed grin gave way to a timid page-turning exploration to everyone’s laughter, which brought forth my own, though I was too young to understand the humor. I promptly reported back to the women who initially found the picture of my father unexpectedly confronted with such images amusing. After a good laugh, modesty led Emily to cluck her tongue.
The shed served to shield the girls Jim loved from these feasts for the unrefined. It was no mistake that reaching the shed door from the house required a symbolic crossing. It was an easily trod driveway that was often mushy with clay, but it was meaningful just the same. Looking back, I can see that the perceived need to shelter women substantiates a man’s importance and strength. As such, it’s a shelter of its own.
Emily, my mother, and we girls passed many visits on the porch outside even in summer. We sat at a picnic table, going inside to check on a steaming pot of okra or stewed tomatoes, and to fetch sweet iced tea. The image of the steel magnolia or the “magnolia grandiflora” is clichéd. Nothing in the men’s language or entertainment was unknown to the adult women who sat inside the porch. Yet something within each of them recognized their need to safeguard her “sweetness,” and to the extent she had absorbed a life of such lessons, she humored him. In that environment, being able to project reliance while sustaining quiet strength afforded some autonomy and a parcel of freedom. A woman who openly admitted or revealed her force alienated herself among men who took shelter in her dependency on them. A wise woman recognized that to achieve her own goals, both traditional and pioneering, she needed men, especially at that time.
My mother and Emily did not harbor unspoken opinions for long, and most of the time, all of us were together. But the women showed their strength most clearly among each other as their sharp wit ricocheted around the porch. There was no reason to mince words, to smile when she didn’t feel like smiling, or to pale the intensity of her feelings or goals. As a small girl who was an eager audience for fishing tips and pocket knife superstitions, I felt lucky to observe both worlds.
One summer after my seventh birthday, I was watching moths dither around the porch light with Mom, my sister, Emily, Jean, and Vi. The sun was setting, and it was cooling off a little. Emily Jean lifted a single leg to rest on the bench where she sat. “What do you think they do in there?” she asked.
We listened to the low roll of male voices inside, picking up a syllable here or there. Suddenly the hum erupted into laughter. The surprise jolted free our own delighted laughter. I tiptoed across the driveway and inside.
At my entrance, Bill stood up from his chair and crept dramatically around the table to challenge me with a wilderness survival lesson: “When you’re out on Ghost Bridge, how you gonna know how much daylight’s left for you to git home before Molly gets ya?”
I remembered this one. It wasn’t from The Farmer’s Almanac but from Bill’s own instruction one day when we’d all gone in the back of the pickup into the most distant pasture of the ranch. I faced the western window, arm out, and arranged my right-hand fingers flat and closed to the sun. Bill leaned down, his breath tickling the crown of my head as he reminded me, “Rest your pointing finger just under the sun and your pinky at the horizon.”
I closed one eye, perched between the radiance of the sun sinking somewhere over the water we’d fished in Pensacola or Orange Beach, and the shadow swelling in the east bay of the back stable. I counted three fingers: not quite an hour. Bill nodded as the shed door opened wide enough to slide a can of RC Cola. It was Vi peeking in with a message: “Your mama wants you to set the table.”
I’d finally been granted a role as in the choreographed dance of preparing three hearty meals a day. For ten people, it was a responsibility and welcome recognition. I raced out of the shed, in a hurry to prove myself useful. The trove of lessons I collected back there, like which moons are favorable to bass fishing and to always pair a pocket knife with a coin to give as a gift so as not to cut the friendship, I sometime later wrapped in Silvercloth and stowed in the sideboard to pull out as memories of the handful of years I was apprentice to the shed society.
Cesca Janece Waterfield is the author of poetry collections Conspiracy Cherry (Ludic Arts, 2021), The Oyster Garden (Selene Pressworks, 2020), and the forthcoming memoir Cicada Acre. Her writing has been nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has appeared in Scalawag Magazine, Writers Resist, Deep South, and other publications. Cesca completed her MFA at McNeese State University in Louisiana and lives in a 100-year-old cabin on the Rappahannock River of Virginia.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF Lesson Plan Personal Narrative