The Southern Tragedy

Author: Catherine Truluck ’20

I should be thankful we can’t visit that old house anymore. The one buried away in the greens of rural South Carolina, framed by trees that weep, imbued with memories of regret. It’s a square-shaped house, with a gray roof and white walls and gray window shutters and a white porch banister. The brown brick of the chimney stands aloft the dreary clouds of the house’s color scheme, an earthen obelisk protruding above the approaching storm. It is level with the rooster weathervane perched above the backyard pool. The bird screams with every swing of the nearly nonexistent wind. Crunchy, dead leaves toss around with each shrill squeak, only to quietly drop back down to the earth in moments.

Every Thanksgiving, despite the surrounding bare trees and brittle grass, the house would sing with the warm smell of sweet potato while conversations bubbled around our heads. It was one of the only times of year I would see my uncle, my dad’s younger stepbrother. We didn’t really talk much, him being 10 years my senior and me being one of his 20 or so nieces and nephews. He was cool, from what I remember. He liked art and music, and he was gay. The latter I didn’t hear about until later, until too late. I never remember him drinking, either. But I must’ve been too young to notice that too. It wasn’t really the kind of thing you talked about while eating Southern candied sweet potatoes. Drinking, or being gay.

My grandfather’s birthday was in February, which is the only other time of year we would visit the house. While Gran would unwrap presents, making jokes that made all the kids belly-laugh and his second wife shake her head, I was perched on the back corner of the couch. It wasn’t a comfortable couch. It was white with gray stripes, two stiff, mismatched cushions lying on its arms. The room itself had wide windows that looked out at the pool and the weathervane. Sun would filter through and create the perfect conditions for a nap. But only when I was alone. When the whole family crowded into the room, I sat on the edge, making sure my stomach was hidden well from sight. I was always wary of relatives I could never remember. Those are the ones that will tell you things about yourself you already know, in an effort to help. Or to drag out the insecurities they themselves have harbored for most of their lives. Is there a difference, in their withered eyes?

I don’t remember my grandmother ever saying as much, but I wonder if she was always just holding back. She seemed constantly exasperated by her second husband and the playful mischievousness of my siblings. Her homemade cakes were the best, though. There was one, a vanilla cake spliced and coated with hardened caramel icing. We had it every time we came, even during those few months where my uncle was hidden away in his room. Those cakes were sickly sweet, but when you’re a kid, anything sweet is the best in the world. Sweet cake with sweet tea and cold ice clinking and clacking like the sound of empty bottles rattling against each other, in heaps and piles on the floor. I would eat the cake precariously on the couch, my belly bulging with protest but my tongue craving the taste of more. It’s a wonder I never got sick.

The last time I ever visited the house, the couch was gone, along with Gran’s witticisms and the smooth brown recliner from where they would always come. They thought his chair would make him feel more at home at the House, and then when it didn’t, they got rid of the whole home anyway. Would it be fair to say my grandmother gave up? That she gave up her son and her husband, and herself? Or is that simply the Southern way, to neglect your problems and refuse necessary help at the expense of souring the food?

She gave up the old house, too. Now there’s no reason for those two-hour drives on a hot holiday, all 10 of us crammed in a car. Instead, we stay in our own house for Thanksgiving. The big trees in the front yard drop pines on our heads. I drink sweet tea from a yellow paper cup with a lid and straw and eat homemade pumpkin pie. I sit on the porch, trying not to reminisce.

In June, I think of my uncle, and the conversations we would’ve had, the connection we could’ve had. And when I look at my dad, I think of Gran, and how he held his hand up to my face in unfamiliar familiarity the last time I saw him. But everything reminds me of that house, how the rooster swings and screams with no one to hear, how the trees drape their moss over trampled leaves that will eventually fly away and die in some forgotten place. Just like these thoughts of mine, never spoken in fear of blanketing the memories of these people, of this place, in something unsavory.

Catherine Truluck’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2022 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She studied English and creative writing at Notre Dame. Her most recent work was published in the anthology Through the darkness, I will love myself