Questions & Answers

First Set of Two

Q.    Why did you write this book?

A. The book is set in the past, but after half a century I still had questions. Why was I so unhappy and afraid? What made me do what I did?

Q.    What would you say is the theme of the book?

A.  When I’m being flip, I say: civil rights and women wronged. It’s about coming of age in Mississippi at the crux of two big movements: equality for African Americans and freedom for women.

Q.    Why did you leave?

A.  At the time, I thought I left to escape bigotry and find my freedom as a person. That’s true, but more selfishly, I left for love. I put my own desires ahead of my family and my marriage.

Q.    Your father is an important character in the story. When you look at the role he    played in your life, how do you see him?

A.    My father was a typical man of his era. He was willing to volunteer for the Navy, but he wanted to be an officer. He set an example for us of education and dedication to a profession, but his rightful role in the family, as he saw it, was benevolent dictator. He decided when and what car we bought, when my mother could and could not redecorate. He chose our restaurants and our vacations. He gave my mother an allowance and expected her to live within it. We were never allowed to ask what he earned, and when he said, “We cannot afford it” that was final.

       With the exception of family, he decided who could be invited to our house to dinner. My mother entertained her friends during the day, but only his colleagues, judges and lawyers (occasionally with their wives) were invited to dinner.

        My mother was an extremely talented woman, but he did not approve of women working outside the home, or of women rising at the law firm (in spite of the fact that his older sister, Elizabeth, was a partner there). When I suggested at the dinner table one night that he give his secretaries a career ladder—let them rise to be paralegals, and perhaps go to law school—he laughed at the idea. He said he didn’t want them to have a career ladder; he wanted them to stay where they were. A career ladder could cause you to lose a good secretary.

Q.     How did he feel about the race issue?

A.     My father left Mississippi for prep school in Tennessee and college in North Carolina, but he never left the South. His stint in all-white Navy did nothing to change his attitudes about separation of the races, even though in the Pacific he was exposed to non-white cultures. In his mind, Africans were primitives, and though he taught us to respect everyone and did many kindnesses for the family help, he never deviated from this belief. He treated black professionals with a kind of mock deference, as if they had dressed up in suspect credentials along with their suits and ties.

         When asked once by a journalist why he hated Negroes, he grew indignant. He didn’t hate them, he said, but he hadn’t forgotten Reconstruction (not an abandoned theory: a friend recently blamed poverty among black people in the Delta on Reconstruction). One of the few pictures in my father’s office was a photograph of the first Thomas Watkins in his uniform as a private in the Confederate Army. Everything my father believed in and did, from volunteering for the military, to his bearing, to his integrity practicing law, grew out of pride in this heritage. A man lived up to the standards set by his forebears and bore sons to do the same. In this last duty, he failed (though he blamed my mother not himself for producing three daughters).

Q.    How do you see your mother’s role?

A.    My mother was, or tried to be, the perfect 1950’s mate. She ran the house beautifully and within the budget set by my father. She cooked superbly and trained our cook to do the same. She sewed like a couturier, able to reproduce any dress I admired in a fashion magazine. She was a charming hostess and a wonderful companion to her friends.

       She was also frustrated. Growing up, she’d been able to run Allison’s Wells, a seventy-room hotel, but as Mrs. Tom Watkins, her talents were limited to our house and family. Her days were her own and she was bored. As we three grew up and needed her less, she drank more. Dinner was served precisely at six as my father required. Mother always managed to carve the meat, but after an afternoon of cards and alcohol, she often slurred her way through the meal.

       When she did not produce a son, my father left her and began an affair with his young secretary. Mother (and community pressure) forced him to return, but my father never appeared to love her again, or show her any visible affection. She traded her health and her life to remain Mrs. Tom Watkins of Jackson, Mississippi, and died at fifty-nine. She could not imagine another future, and none was available to women like her at that time.

        In the south, black people could be maids and yard men. White women could be secretaries, teachers (if they were not married), and nurses. Married white women were expected to stay home and be grateful.

Q.    How much have things changed in the last half-century?

A.    I can’t speak for Mississippi because I left, but throughout the country things have changed enormously for African Americans and women—if they are able to get an education. For the poor, things are, unfortunately, much the same. They are no longer held back because of Jim Crow or prejudice against women; they are kept down by lack of opportunity. And we as a country don’t appear to care. The hateful words I hear now in the media, words that divide and make us afraid, sound an awful lot like the hateful words I heard during the ‘50s and ‘60s in Mississippi. This makes me sad.

Q.    Why do you think you turned out different from the rest of your family?

A.    They would probably say because I insisted on being a rebel (little “r”). It’s hard to pin down the source of what you believe. I was always a demon for fairness, and the way things were for black people in the south was not fair. My friend Winifred says she believed those songs they taught us in Sunday School: “Red and yellow, black and white/ All are precious in His sight.” I believed them, too, and what I saw and heard during Civil Rights didn’t sound Christian. Growing up at the hotel probably made a difference. I was a white child surrounded by black help, people who encouraged, corrected, and treated me as a small but real person (which I didn’t get from a lot of white adults). That may have made a difference, though it didn’t to my sisters. Millsaps College got blamed:  according to my relatives, I went back to school, got over-educated, and went crazy. Certainly Millsaps encouraged independent thinking, and I met people there who supported integration as I did.

Q.    Have your children forgiven you?

A.    We are close, but there is so much that I missed by leaving, events that I can never recover—my girls becoming women, broken bones, operations, graduations. We stayed in touch as much as we could, and my older son came to live with us in Florida four years after I left. But there are gaps that can never be filled. A better question would be: have I forgiven myself? I don’t know if I could have stayed in the Mississippi of those days and remained sane, but I wish I had found another solution. Ben Franklin used to write about the great errata of his life. Leaving my children was the great error of mine.