By Melissa Delbridge
University of Iowa Press, 168 pp.
For local archivist and author Melissa Delbridge, growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is not a story of Southern belles and gentility, but one of skin-scraped knees and avoiding getting kidnapped by hobos.
Her recent memoir, Family Bible, is a Southern story of sex, drugs and spelling bees. We witness cutting observations of life in the South, where people's "words can make abrupt shifts from precious to obscene in the span of a sentence or two," and get to know the real-life characters who weaved in and out of her life. The stories are at times salacious and full of secrets, and at other times historically important—Delbridge was part of the first generation of integrated schools and swimming pools—and they are always thoroughly entertaining.
Delbridge grew up with a mother who was "pretty much on a steady rolling boil," a woman embarrassed to take her kids to the local free clinic to get their shots because having a private doctor was a kind of dignity. In her parents, we find the nexus between the roughneck and the would-be genteel. After she greets her Daddy home from hunting, her mother would quickly drive her off to ballet class—as Delbridge describes it, "perfecting my arabesque to Tchaikovsky, red-palmed and sporting a bloody hoof print on my pink tights." Delbridge takes what we think we know of the South, but goes deeper, real and raw into the details.
Family Bible's story and description captures a region, brushing off the kissing cousins cliché because in a small Southern town "you can't swing a cat without hitting a cousin" (though she does recount kissing her green-eyed female cousin). But she also captures a moment in time: "At this point in the early 1970s, there was a whole lot of high-level gourmet screwing around going on in the heart of Dixie." The time period described was also one during which race issues were hushed and hidden, something each school child knew but wouldn't say. A particularly poignant point of description in the narrative happens when Delbridge recounts finding and trying on a Klan outfit that was hidden in her best friend's attic: "I shuddered and took a deep breath in. ... You'd think it might hold the scent of smoke, or an atticky perfume of mouse and motherwing. But it carried the odor of old sweat, folded-up-dirty and stashed-in-a-hurry sweat, and not the kind men shed from any honest work. The robe stunk the way fear stinks, embarrassing, sharp, and sour."
In the last chapter of the book, Delbridge describes her adult life working with children, in a kind of denouement that drifts away from the drama of her own life; with this ending, Delbridge attempts to put her own story in the greater context of women's history, saying "Each girl's tale has its own power, its own parable to ponder." Each life that walks in and out of Delbridge's coming-of-age tale is laced with its own little tragedy. For Delbridge, it's not about overcoming hardship, but about spitting hardship in the eye.
Melissa Delbridge appears at McIntyre's Fine Books in Fearrington Village Friday, May 30, at 2 p.m.