Norma Watkins’ ‘The Last Resort’: Coming of age in Mississippi in ’50s and ’60s

July 28, 2011

This is one of those books that sail in through the mail with dozens of others — a picture on the cover of a conventionally pretty girl and a tinted photo of an old-fashioned wooden hotel, which seems, in its fragile beauty, destined to go up in flames. To say it is a glimpse of an entirely lost world is banal but true. The time and place and many of the main characters that inhabit the story are gone. This memoir of growing up in Mississippi begins in 1943 and ends in 1970; it’s a good bet that the author waited so long to publish out of politeness. Not everyone in this narrative behaves nicely.

The events described in “The Last Resort” occurred, remember, during a time not even 100 years after the Civil War. African Americans were no longer slaves, but they weren’t entirely free, either. There’s no evidence in this story that they were violently mistreated, but they were ignored, disdained, overworked, underpaid and deprived of every possible opportunity in life.

But as a child of 7, that fact never crossed Norma Watkins’s mind. Her personal drama in 1943 revolved around her handsome dad, who left, with unseemly eagerness, to join the Navy. Norma, her mother and her little sister went to live at Allison’s Wells, a spa run by her formidable Aunt Hosford. The series of events that would make up a Civil Rights Hell had yet to occur, and the spa was still a paradise for the little kids, who were forced to perform errands and chores under their aunt’s watchful eye, but they otherwise were coddled and nourished by flocks of black “help” who never spoke a harsh word to them.

The spa possessed an unending supply of mineral water and, in the summer, tourists came to take the cure — eight glasses a day. There were homey diversions such as backward dinners, where dessert was served first, artistic workshops and so on, but the high point of each day for the author’s mother came at 5 in the afternoon, when the liquor cabinet was unlocked and the sisters drank from mint julep cups beaded with moisture. (Mom drank too much, as it turned out.)

As a kid, Norma was conscious of the elaborate caste system in her world. Her father, that handsome, absent and enormously self-centered man, held himself above the rest because he was a lawyer and therefore in a profession.

But her mother’s family was far more prosperous, dealing in tobacco and oil futures. One of the aunts consoled herself after her daily afternoon naps with Coca-Cola and a teaspoonful of spirits of ammonia, but she lay on satin quilts. There were plenty of other white people around, of course, but they were hardscrabble, uneducated, aggrieved. They picked on Norma in school, and when one little girl finally made friends with her, swapping her cold sausage and a biscuit for Norma’s tuna sandwich, Nora was forbidden to play with her or eat her coarse, down-home food.

The blacks, in turn, lived by a strange hierarchy of color and secrecy, strangely unafraid of the whites they worked for because they must have known they were indispensable. For one thing, they took care of the child-rearing and freed up the mothers for endless rounds of tennis and bridge.

Watkins scorned her mother for any number of reasons. She had, for example, small feet that had been crammed for so long into very high-heeled shoes that she had trouble walking flat on the ground. She began to grow a double chin and refused to get it taken care of. By the time the war was over, she had earned the cold disdain of her husband for having had a hysterectomy; she would be unable to have a son to carry on his family name.

Meanwhile, as civil rights disturbances began to brew, Watkins developed a strong case of familial claustrophobia. Like so many almost-grown children, she found her family wanting in every respect. Her father was turning into a bigot; her mother drank too much; her sister was disturbed. In the 1950s, after two years at college, realizing she had nothing in her future except a job as a secretary, she took the classic route and married to get out of her house, finding a nice man who didn’t know how to make love and with whom she couldn’t share a thought.

Watkins was devastatingly unhappy, though her mother had spent hours making her an extravagant wedding dress and the wedding was a spectacular pageant. She managed to have four children before she was 30, employed some of the black help who had worked for her aunt, served on the Junior League and had terrible arguments with her racist dad and the rest of the family, who came to think of her as a commie pinko. (How strange that even these recent words should have faded so quickly from our language and our collective memory.)

Then a handsome civil rights lawyer sailed into town in a Triumph convertible. The story takes a dramatic twist.

“I didn’t let myself look at how bad I was,” she writes. “That’s how dumb, numb, and scared I was. I got those green velvet drapes from Tara for my wedding, and I had turned into Scarlett. I would worry about everything tomorrow.”

So this is a tale, first, of an enchanted childhood, then a murky drama of marriage and adultery, all played out against a background of bitter American struggle. I found it splendid in every way.

See regularly reviews books for The Post.

THE LAST RESORT

Taking the Mississippi Cure

By Norma Watkins

University Press of Mississippi. 290 pp. $28

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