One of my favorite quotes from the TV series, Designing Women, is spoken by Julia Sugarbaker in an episode in which her brother (who has some issues) comes to visit. She says,
“I’m saying this is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off. See, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”
Julia was played by the epitome of Southern grace and grit, Dixie Carter.
Though I didn’t know Dixie personally, we both grew up in the same area of the South and during the same era so I wouldn’t be surprised if her character spoke truth from the actress’ own personal experience.
Growing up, I visited an older relative of my dad’s in a Memphis “rest home” where she lived for a few months while receiving treatments for mental illness, and after her treatments she came to live with us for a while.
She was a lovely woman and the only disconcerting memory I have of this time was getting ready for school one morning and not being able to locate an essential piece of clothing.
I asked Mother if she knew what happened to said garment and upon investigating found that our guest was wearing it.
Her decision to share my clothes made no sense, and actually that’s one definition of insane “utterly senseless” behavior.
Fortunately, her treatments and a caring family enabled her to return home and live out the rest of her life in safety.
Many of you reading this blog could share your own family stories that relate to loving your folks no matter the state of their mental soundness.
As a sophomore in high school I was a member of a service club whose sponsor was the English and French teacher. Young and kind, he arranged for one of our community projects to benefit the nearby mental institution.
One Saturday we met at the high school where we boarded buses for the forty minute ride to the front doors of the enormous gothic building that housed the recipients of our good intentions.
We followed our leader through creaking doors and down dimly lit hallways until we reached a community room with large windows and shiny hardwood flooring. A stately upright piano stood on one side of the room while residents sat in chairs on the opposite wall eager to visit.
It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon that was repeated several more Saturdays.
This memory surfaced when my book club selected The Western Way by R. F. Stewart to read in September. It is basically a love story set in the facility our high school group visited.
While there is a is a story of strange behavior for every brick in that imposing building, Stewart spins one with a surprising twist.. Many of the characters are people who have been dealt a bad hand in life, but the author presents their strengths as well as their often senseless and harmful behaviors.
As we discussed The Western Way Monday night, many remembered when Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee teemed with patients and staff, and a common response to a friend’s silly behavior was, “Stop or you’ll have to go to Bolivar!”
Stewart’s book took us back to a time and place full of broken minds and spirits, and developed a story with acts of touching kindness.
Mother wrote in her journal, “ I have learned to love the darkness of sorrow, for it is there I see the brightness of God’s face.”
The thing is, we are all broken and sometimes that’s the only way The Light gets in.