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Southern Belles and Carpet Buzzers

The fearless woman who helped demolish my garage cabinets was crouched on my staircase, painting the walls when I asked if her partner, a man, might be coming over soon. “I need to find my water cut-off valve,” I said, as if all guys are born with an internal tracking system that helps them find key pieces of hardware.

Why did I assume that a man would know more about water cut-off valves than this woman, who had previously painted a whole condo for me? Her primary work involves running fishing boats – not a job for ladies in hoop skirts who faint across lace-covered day beds.

I claim to be a feminist. I should know better than to make gender-based assumptions. Yet earlier, when I watched this woman and her partner hoist a massive cabinet onto the bed of a pickup truck, I ran barefoot to find my boyfriend. He knows nothing about construction work, mind you, but hey, he’s a dude. I simply couldn’t bear to see a lady lifting such a heavy object.

Stupid? Why, yes.

I blame the buzzer hidden beneath my grandmother’s dining room carpet.

It was a sinister relic, wired to the spot where my grandmother’s right foot hit the floor whenever she was seated at her dining room table. Stomping on the buzzer triggered an ear-shattering alarm inside the kitchen. I never met Genevieve, the woman of color who cleaned my white grandmother’s house and helped raise her children. As a kid, it terrified and saddened me to think of Genevieve, startled by that buzzer, racing into the dining room with another bowl of mashed potatoes or an extra basket of biscuits.

In the Jim Crow era, my grandmother’s buzzer screamed for more racial injustice and gender inequality. I didn’t know these terms as a child. I just thought the buzzer was an awfully mean way to ask for more sweet tea, please.

My grandmother’s stone house sat high atop a hill in Donelson, Tennessee, foreboding and gray. Growing up there, my mother escaped through her books, music, dance, and artwork. She never learned to change the oil in her family’s old car, a Studebaker. She wasn’t called upon to repair leaky faucets. If a toilet wouldn’t flush, it wasn’t her job to fix it. These things were done for her by other people, often African Americans who worked for low wages.

Mom’s elopement with my father – an ambitious country boy deemed uncouth by my grandmother – was a scandal. As soon as they could, my parents hired their own housekeepers (Mildred and Alma Lee, God bless you), gardeners whose names I don’t remember, and at one humiliating point, a chauffeur (thank you, Mr. Harmon, and I’m sorry, sir – still).

I’ve never written about this ugly aspect of my family’s history. It shames me. Today, I try to be an ally. I take part in Black Lives Matter protests. I speak up for women. I donate. I vote.

Nevertheless, like my mother, I never learned to perform tasks traditionally deemed “men’s work” – a category that unfortunately included mathematics, back when I was growing up in Atlanta in the 1960s. In my sixth decade, having to deal with financial matters still causes my voice to get high and wobbly; I sound exactly like Mom whenever she was confronted by any math-related matters.

How do we rise above learned biases? I know it’s possible because my sister Carrie grew up in the same environment with me, yet she somehow mastered math – and now earns a good living at it. My daughter Caroline is a hell-on-wheels champion for change.

To be fair, Mom had competence in many other areas. After her divorce, she worked hard to become a Licensed Professional Counselor, and a damned good one, but she invariably had to “call the man” (like Aunt Bea in that great episode of The Andy Griffith Show) anytime she needed to hang a curtain rod. And as for me, I couldn’t even figure out how to change Mom’s broken toilet seat cover, last time I saw her, right before she died.

After asking my handywoman friend if her man could find my water cut-off valve, I caught myself and apologized. “I keep doing that to you,” I said, shocked to see my own bias so clearly. “I’m sorry. I’m old and I’m from the South.”

My friend smiled, taking it in stride. “I’m from the North,” she said, heading back down the stairs with her paintbrush. “Women can do stuff.”

Ginger Pinholster’s first novel, City in a Forest, focuses on a fictional Atlanta wilderness threatened by eminent-domain seizure. It won a gold award in the 2020 Florida Writers Association Royal Palm Literary Awards competition. Her next novel, Seeing Gethin, awaits its fate. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte M.F.A. program, her essays and short stories have appeared in the Eckerd Review, Northern Virginia Review, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She works as a writer for a university in Daytona Beach, Florida and she serves on the Volusia-Flagler Turtle Patrol.

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