My single mom, Mary, was an ardent and fearless Lefty. She attended Vietnam War protests, and expressed her support for Andrew Young’s 1970 congressional bid with a campaign sign on the front lawn of our rental.
We woke up twice to find the sign broken in half by vandals. Mom was undeterred, actually emboldened. “Racist assholes,” she muttered as she replaced it each time.
(Young lost in 1970, but would win in 1972, become ambassador to the UN in 1977, and Atlanta mayor in 1981.)
This was the beginning of my ever-evolving grasp of the connections between Georgia politics and race, part and parcel of the post-Civil Rights Act era that was shaping my life as a young white male Southerner. Although the term “white privilege” had not yet been coined, I would nevertheless soon understand that I was treated differently because of my race, and that it was never okay. Whereas my grandmother – my mother’s mother – accepted it as “just the way things are,” my mom overtly railed against it.
In the South, the Sixties held on well into the Seventies, and Mom indulged in the freewheeling zeitgeist, making up for lost time spent as “a good Catholic girl.” When we were small and more portable, she took my brother Britt and me along to communes and arts events, and trusted in the universe and/or whatever community we’d temporarily joined to look after us as we roamed. This afforded us some opportunities for fun, and exhilarating feelings of independence.
I retain images of sleeping in a room carpeted with old mattresses, drinking prune juice as I sat constipated on a fetid toilet, and marveling at a massive pot of lentil soup bubbling away on a gas stove, 24/7. A couple of mustachioed men drifted in and out of our lives, but none put down roots. Two were named Jim. One gentleman caller – a bookseller, if memory serves – had been treated for depression with electroshock therapy. He and I shot hoops once. The only time I ever shot hoops with an elder.
“Mary!” I recall a hairy, skinny, and very angry man shouting. “Your goddamn boys broke my fuckin’ turntable putting their goddamn Hot Wheels cars on it!”
Indeed we had. Did you know that if you switch the speed from 33 rpm to 45 rpm the Hot Wheels cars fly across the room?
Our summer outings to Atlanta’s Piedmont Arts Festival glow now like calm-before-the-storm moments: Mom resplendent in bell bottoms and gauzy blouse, Britt and I barefoot, shaggy, and sun-browned.
Like mutts unleashed in a dog park, we were cut loose in the festival crowd. Half-pint tricksters, we climbed to the upper boughs of a tree, burrowed beneath gewgaw-strewn tables. We were a team. I idolized my older brother, and happily capitulated to his leadership.
Patchouli, incense, and pot smoke wafted as we wandered in and out of stalls stocked with leather goods, tie-dye, head-shop items. Musicians sang anthems and laments while Hare Krishnas jingle-jangled along winding paths. Grilled meat, spilled beer, oiled skin, stinky feet, cigarettes.
Mom caught up with us by dusk. Sweat trickled onto my eyeglass lenses, salty drops refracting soft lamplight, transforming it into a lightshow across my scuffed glasses, flashes dancing above the exhaling park. Somehow I knew this to be a moment I would recall in years to come.
Streetlights passed overhead, as Britt and I, filthy and happy, crumpled into each other, drifting in and out of sleep in the homebound VW. Mom puffed on a smoke, hummed along to the radio, her tipped ashes leaving orange sparks in our wake as we sped into the gathering dark, unafraid.