Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Quare Jean

"Jean, are you quare like Miss Alice?" asked my cousin Joe some years back. Joe was a trucker from North Carolina, a genial, knobby-knuckled connection to my mother's generation. Joe and his wife Genevieve (pronounced Genevee) had driven (of course!) cross-country as retirees to sightsee and visit a few of us western kin.

His question took me aback. Miss Alice was my beloved granny, born in 1889 up over the border in Virginia. She spent most of her life in a small burg in the North Carolina Sandhills, Aberdeen. Joe and Genevee had not only known Miss Alice for decades; they even knew Miss Emma, our granny's mother who died in 1952! This family history sped through my mind like a reliable dsl connection. Yes, I remembered both those ladies were quare, and today I can say that I am probably quare too.

What is quareness, Californians may ask? To me it means being a bit eccentric, independent-minded without the stridency, maybe even a little offbeat or unusual. In Miss Alice's case, I can think back to a few particulars. If she prepared a fried chicken supper, she would always, always serve herself the back. Not the thigh, not the drumstick, never the breast: only the back. Now you may feel this was her sacrifice borne of surviving the Depression. But habit it became, and only much later on did another cousin explain to me that there on the chicken back lay the two finest, tiniest filets for the most discriminating of diners. I also recall that Miss Alice was an inveterate walker. She never learned to drive. But she liked to go to town regularly for her groceries, and she hoofed it at least three miles well into her seventies. She'd loop her black pocketbook over her forearm and cross her arms for the walk. Trotting alongside her, we children would bat at our heads, complaining that the sucker bugs (deerflies) were biting us viciously. She'd just nod left to right and observe, "Y'all must be too sweet because they don't bother me at'all." Miss Alice had a neighbor across Bethesda Road who mowed her yard. Yankees believed his name to be Garfield, but Miss Alice pronounced it, "Gaw-field Wilson." Some child had the bright idea, "Granny, why don't you marry Gaw-field Wilson? He seems very useful." Her reply? "Now what would I do with a man?" Even though we did not understand rhetorical questions, we knew it best not to prod further. And Miss Alice could twine her legs around each other when she sat down to fan herself, remarking, "Ooo-ee, it's hot'here!" I admired that odd compact way of sitting a spell.

If you want to learn more about being quare, I recommend the essay, "The Quare Gene," from the book Somehow Form a Family by Tony Earley. Mr. Earley grew up in North Carolina. His deceptively simple, lambent writing style carries me back to the place and time of grannies and deerflies and country cooking. "The Quare Gene" explores the meaning and emotion of similar archaic terms, like peaked (peak-ed, meaning ill) or pallet (bedding arranged on the floor for sleeping), words once naturally woven into our Southern lives. Little by little these words are becoming display case curios. As our nation is changed by mass media and technology, words like poke ( a sack) or even pocketbook become consigned to increasingly ironic use. Mr. Earley believes, "...that each individual word functions as a type of gene, bearing with it a small piece of the specific information that makes us who we are, and tells us where we have been..." If this can be so, that language connects us to our personal history, then cousin Joe was actually a messenger delivering a reminder to me. I had almost forgotten that I was right quare until he pointed it out.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely and lively. This essay was a walk through a piney woods, and reminds me how great it is to be quare. Quares unite!