Southern discomfort

Author Frances Mayes couldn't wait to escape the southern US town where she grew up. Her new memoir reveals her dysfunctional family.

When I arrive at Chatwood, the mayes' home on the outskirts of the artsy town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, Frances Mayes' husband, Ed, greets me in the driveway on his way back from taking out the compost. He takes me inside the house, a plain-fronted, pale-yellow, two-storey structure dating from 1806, where Mayes welcomes me. She and Ed have similar-coloured blue eyes, but where he is tall and lanky, a Midwesterner with a shock of white hair, she is small and self-contained, with a direct gaze. Just a week before my visit it was snowing, but today it's sunny and warm, and down by the River Eno at the property's edge, tree frogs croak noisily. "It's the sound of spring," says Mayes, 74, in her clearly articulated, Southern accent.

In 1990, Mayes travelled to Italy with Ed, whom she met through the San Francisco Bay Area poetry scene, and fell in love with a dilapidated villa in Tuscany called "Bramasole", which translates as "longing for the sun". She spent everything she had - all the money from the divorce from her first husband, Frank - on buying and restoring the house. The book she wrote about that experience, Under The Tuscan Sun, was one of a handful of memoirs in the mid-1990s that inaugurated what became a recognisable genre, the story of a middle-aged woman's renewal in a rustic, Mediterranean setting. Diane Lane starred in the Hollywood film version, which was tweaked to incorporate an invented romance with a handsome Italian man. More books about life in Tuscany followed to sate the appetite of readers hungry for a vicarious slice of Italian sunshine, enchanted by Mayes' richly detailed, poetic writing and her focus on the sensual pleasures of gardening, cooking and eating.

The Mayes' kitchen is filled with the smell of roasted tomatoes and a spectacular cheese soufflé prepared by Ed, 63, who is a poet and an excellent cook (he co-authored one of Mayes' recent publications, The Tuscan Sun Cookbook). The soufflé is served with asparagus dressed with oil made from olives grown on the grounds of Bramasole. Mayes pours me a glass of pale-yellow pinot grigio from their new "Tuscan Sun Wines" venture, a selection of wines sourced from Italian vineyards.

Mayes' huge readership has translated into a market for more than just books. Lunch is served on plates decorated with painted leaves and pictures of an Italian villa: her "Vietri Bramasole" dinnerware. After lunch we retire to the living room, where we sit on sofas and rest cups on side tables from Mayes' "At Home in Tuscany" line of furniture and homewares, inspired by Italian antiques. It is hard to escape the sense of having stepped inside a beautifully realised catalogue for the brand that "Tuscan Sun" has become.

But now, after years of drawing inspiration from Italy, Mayes has turned back to the South, the place she was born and raised, and the place she has made her home in the United States. Her new memoir, Under Magnolia (published in Australia later this month), revisits her childhood and coming of age in Fitzgerald, a small town in Georgia. In 2007, after decades of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she and Ed moved to North Carolina with Mayes' daughter Ashley, who had just had a baby and at the same time was getting divorced.

It wasn't the same place that Mayes had fled all those years ago, she says, where "the good ol' boys" networks limited opportunities for women, and racism dominated everyday life. And despite the love she and Ed have for the city of San Francisco, their lives there had been disrupted by violence. Where they lived in the wealthy Pacific Heights area, Ed was brutally mugged, and Mayes tells me that the man who ran their local corner shop was "beaten with a crowbar" in a robbery. "You get freaked," she says with a shrug and a shudder.

The move to North Carolina brought a sense of homecoming and a new source of inspiration. "Moving back here was so intense, it was almost like moving to Italy, almost like moving to a foreign country, but it was at the same time deeply familiar," Mayes says. "So many things came back to me from childhood, particularly scents, those beautiful, narcotising smells of the South, the magnolia trees, the flowers in spring. That made me feel like I'm home."

Their house is mostly unpainted wood inside, with wide, dark old planks on the floor, walls and ceiling, giving the impression of being inside a ship. There are photographs of Mayes' adored grandson, Willie, in almost every room. Richly coloured rugs cover the floors, and the walls, window sills and shelves hold an eclectic collection of objects: seashells, fossils, painted wooden puppets, candles, miniature leather-bound volumes. A small human skull rests on a pile of books in the living room. Mayes points out that it still has teeth, and comments on the zig-zag line of the joins between the plates that are not quite fused: it is a child's skull. She found it in Mexico, she says with a smile, and took it from a group of children who were "kicking it around", using it as a football.

When I visit, Ed is about to travel to Italy. Mayes will join him later in the week to oversee renovations on their beloved house in Tuscany, including replacing the 300-year-old terracotta tile roof, which has started to leak. They are also about to undertake major renovations on Chatwood. Their plans seem limited only by the fact the house is heritage-protected; they aren't able to change the lines of the oldest part of the house, Mayes explains, or add windows.

When I admire the kitchen, with its wide, burnished copper sink and a tap that pours pure, sweet well water, Mayes sighs and explains that they are just about to tear it all out. I am to stay in the guest house, a pretty cottage with one room given over to toys, food trays and litter boxes for the two resident cats, Hawthorn and Sonny. There are plans for this cottage, as well; Mayes is not happy with the size of the bathroom, she tells me, and intends to make it bigger.

It's hard to tell whether the seemingly endless plans for renovations are a distraction from the work of writing or a spur to the imagination: Mayes likes to write with the sounds of hammering and sawing in the house, she says, enjoying the idea of different kinds of work going on side by side.

Her novel, Swan, published in 2002, is set in the South, and she says writing it was in some ways a preparation for Under Magnolia. She believes both "come out of the same ground ... a primordial sense of place I absorbed when I was growing up".

But Swan is a work of fiction. Most of the pieces in Under Magnolia are revised versions of autobiographical stories she wrote years ago; when she moved back to the South she discovered them in a box and decided to bring them back to life. Mayes' two older sisters, Nancy and Barbara, have been critical of her writing about their family, she says. "Their philosophy is that you should appear in the paper when you're born, when you make your debut, when you're married, and when you die. Four times, max," she says. "Otherwise it's unseemly." Their way of dealing with the past, and anything unpleasant, is to avoid discussing it. "I understand it, but I don't happen to feel that way," Mayes says.

She hasn't told them that the book is coming out. "I don't expect them to like it at all. But I hope that they will come to terms with it."

Mayes' new book is an intimate portrait of a very dysfunctional family. "At his worst," Mayes writes, "my father ripped open his white shirt, buttons popping off, and carried his loaded rifle through the house aiming at lamps or windows. 'Not a one of you appreciates me,' he shouted." When she was a small child, Mayes took to hiding at night in the hallway closet where "my row of shirts and dresses and pile of shoes were squeezed in with the linen, my father's hunting guns, a shelf of medicines [and] boxes of Mother's old love letters up top." There, she would crawl inside a drawstring rag-bag. "I settled in the corner and turned on my flashlight to read while my parents in the kitchen ... broke glasses. At some hour, one of them would weep." She avoided having friends over because she didn't want them to witness her parents' regular violent arguments.

Mayes' parents, Garbert and Frankye, were unaware of the impact their chaotic family life had on their daughter, and were "too busy between themselves to notice what I did", Mayes writes. "I began to drive the car at nine and they never knew. Once, I ran away. I stayed in a culvert all night, just a block from home." When she returned the next morning, she writes, "I felt grimly triumphant. I expected the state patrol, my mother properly distraught, my father taking vows never to act up again." But their reaction confirmed her own sense of powerlessness. "No one had noticed I was missing."

Mayes found an "ally" in Willie Bell, the African-American woman who had worked as a housekeeper for the family since before Mayes was born. Mayes recalls her telling her to, "Just run out and play, try not to pay them any mind, they all crazy," and offering comfort when her parents' anger turned violent, and they would punish infractions with strokes of a privet switch that left her legs bleeding. But "it was not a cosy, member-of-the-family, Aunt Jemima, Gone with the Wind Mammy thing," she writes. "She and I simply knew we were in it together."

Mayes grew up a with sense that her family was different to other families around her, which seemed to be living happy lives. "We were not normal. We lived next door to normal people, so I knew what normal was," she writes. These "normal" families had fathers who built swing sets and mothers who "laughed and had fun" as they gave their daughters perms at home and baked brilliantly. But as Mayes grew older, she began to see the desperation and violence that lay under the surface in this apparently harmonious town, "where your neighbour knows what you're going to do even before you do," and secrecy was a way of life.

The father of a friend who seemed to have a "perfect family" shot himself at his office, she writes; another friend "came home from school to discover his mother in the kitchen, bullet through the mouth. Gingerbread on the counter and teeth stuck in the ceiling. There were other suicides, among them my other best friend's mother - another gun to the head out on the patio. My mother claimed that Fitzgerald had the highest suicide rate in the country."

After Garbert's death from cancer, when Mayes was just 14, her mother drank more and directed her anger at Mayes. She remembers Frankye standing at the door of her room every night, berating her "for causing the 'ruination' of her life," saying that "if it were not for you I would not be stuck in this hell hole". College presented an opportunity for escape, but Mayes' grandfather, who controlled the family's finances after her father's death, refused to pay for any college north of the Mason-Dixon line, saying, "I'm not paying a dime for you to go off and marry some Yankee two-by-four, much less mix with nigras not three generations removed from cannibalism."

She chose, "the farthest point north I could", she writes, and wound up at Randolph-Macon in Lynchburg, Virginia, a conservative women's college. There she defined her ambition to become a writer, met Frank, her first husband, and found a way out of the South and away from her family.

"My parents were alcoholics," Mayes tells me. "They were wild, they had parties all the time, they were quite out of control. But I've never felt that was anything to be ashamed of, particularly. It's just too bad, but that's the way they were. I was embarrassed about it then, but as an adult - it's just the past. It's no longer a live kind of shame to me, but to other people in my family it still is." She attributes this to a particular kind of Southern concern for appearances and "how things seem. On the outside our family was very respected, and that's what people in my family like to emphasise, not that there was mayhem and chaos associated with it." This idea is crystallised in Mayes' memoir when her grandfather's house burns down in a fire that killed him. Her aunt Hazel decided to restore the exterior of the house, but left the interior just as it was: a perfect facade fronting a wreck. "It stayed that way for years," Mayes says. "I'd go home and people would say to me, 'The house is looking good, Frances!' "

Mayes is now accepting of her parents. "They did have some marvellous qualities," she says. "They were both amazingly generous people." But what happened to produce Mayes' unique outlook, I ask, which is so different from her family's: her mistrust of beautiful false appearances, and a desire to tell uncomfortable truths? "The only thing I can put my finger on is reading," she says. "It was a passion from the time I could turn a page." Her parents were not readers, apart from Reader's Digest and magazines, and "there wasn't a bookstore within 180 miles of us", but there was a library. From books such as The Bobbsey Twins and the Nancy Drew series, "I got the idea that if you could write a book, that would really be something."

Mayes also believes in the force of personality. "I like very much the idea that your own will can create you. Some little steel rod down my spine was going to matter." That inner steel gave her the strength to leave Fitzgerald, and now she has come home on her own terms. But home, she says, is "a concept I've always struggled with because I'm a deeply domestic person, but I have this kind of equal compulsion to go, not to be domesticated but to leave, to travel.

"Even now, sitting in this house every day, thinking about spending the rest of my life here, I'm almost always thinking, 'Hmm. Maybe not. Maybe something else'. " She and Ed have owned Bramasole for 24 years, so "it's another deep sense of home, and yet you're in a foreign country, so you're not ever really at home". Even so, she says, "Italy used to be foreign enough for me, but now I'm thinking, 'Hmm. Istanbul?' "

The story Southern discomfort first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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