Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Aurora Nibley: Smyly darn ya, Smyly

I got a series of emails this past week from my grandfather in Alabama. Really it was just one email, but I received a series because it took him about six tries to fail to attach a file and then just copy and paste it into the body of an email for us to see, and this email (the one he wanted us to get) contained a copy of a list of farm chores. The only reason I can think of that I got this thing is that I must just be on Pappy (yes, Pappy)'s email list for his kids and grandkids and he sent the list out to everyone. What I really can't figure out is why he sent the thing out at all. He does have a farm, or at least a plot of land that he calls a farm, but he doesn't grow anything there. The list seems like actual chores that need to be done (there are items on the list like “insecticide on trees” and “weed old dogs' graves”), so I don't think this is just some old guy email gag. But I've only been to Alabama twice in my life and I have no intention of going now, so those chores are going to have to get done without me.

My mother's parents and all of their other children, and their children, live in Huntsville, Alabama, where Pappy is not in fact a farmer by trade. He worked for NASA all through the 1960's and 70's (he worked on the Apollo Program, as a matter of fact), he did well enough to retire early, and from what little contact I've had he seems to have spent the bulk of my lifetime just buying toys for himself. The “farm” was bought as a playground for his RVs, his tractor, his ATVs, and a Miata that he had for a while, until I came out to visit and told him it was a woman's car. (He sold it quietly, a few months later. I felt bad because I knew he loved that car, but I didn't make the rules—Miatas are for ladies.)

As for me and my Southern roots, I will happily exploit them for social purposes (“You're from Birmingham? No way! My family's all in Huntsville!”), but my father's family is based in the West and I was raised in Southern California, and I imprinted early. Alabama makes no sense to me. No sense. Pappy took me down the river one day on his boat (his boat! He has it for fishing! FISHING!!), and as we zoomed down the river (because fish apparently do not mind outboard motors), he pointed out lighter patches of rock on the cliffs above us. “See thar, hunny? That's whar the Yankees shot thar guns for practiss whal they was cummin down the river.” For a confused moment or two I thought he was talking about the baseball team.

Really, the only time I have ever been identified by anyone at all as Southern was when I was doing the most Californian thing ever: making movies. In a past life, I worked quite a bit as a movie extra and slightly less as a production assistant, and it's true what they say: Hollywood is a small town. Even as a “Background Actor” (read: “extra”: read: “human set dressing”), you see the same faces over and over again. That winter, I had stolen a University of Alabama sweatshirt from my mother, and was known for wearing it around set when the cameras weren't on. Since remembering people's names can be such a chore, there were several people who took to calling me “Alabama,” which was written in huge letters on my sweatshirt and was a cute thing to be called, so I went with it. I was confused the first couple of times people came up to me and said “Roll tide,” but who wouldn't be? I mean, that's a crappy fight call. What kind of school has a mascot that a person can't dress up as?

Pappy and the rest of the Smyly crew had their annual family reunion about a month ago. I wasn't there, but I have seen videos of previous Smyly reunions. They involve lots of campfire songs and wearing the same t-shirts and running around in the Alabama woods. I guess that since they comprise a large clan themselves, they aren't afraid of being attacked by any potential background artists from, say, Deliverance.

The high point of the Smyly reunion is the yearly game of Undertaker. Pappy and the two of his sons-in-law who are in attendance find a person who has not been to the reunion before. I'm not really clear on how they do this; I'm sure that by now they've been reduced to using my cousins' junior high school sweethearts. Anyway, they take this poor victim, blindfold him or her, and instruct them to behave as though they were a corpse being measured for a coffin. Pappy and my two evil uncles then use a tape measure to measure the length of the “body.” They lift the head, to measure it for a “hat,” they lift the arm and measure that, and finally, they lift one of the person's legs up into the air and pour a glass of ice water down their pant leg, to the delight of all. I'm heartbroken to have missed it.

I guess my point is that I am in the Smyly family, but not of it. And I for one am all right with that. I am grateful for the genetic material and all, but no matter how much money Pappy may have (and he has a lot), I just can't get on board with the cruel practical jokes, and the hard-core right-wing values, and the offensive pretend racism (I like my pretend racism to actually have a punchline, at least). So even though I like the idea of having a large tribe to be a part of and I sometimes am sad that I don't live near any of my family, I think I can get by in my little apartment with my husband and my cat and the name that I got from my father (I don't get along with him either, but that's another story for another day).

The family I've got is small, but I picked it out myself.


  1. Aurora, this is fantastic. Such good writing and oh, help me. Undertaker. I boggle. Ultra-vivid and charming portrait, here.

  2. Whoever you guys are, I love you.

    This was so easy and delightful to read. It made me want to know you. That always happens with my favorite books too. I'm reading Huck Finn now - so, no chance there.

    "Miatas are for ladies"

  3. Great article Aurora.

    At least you had an activity to do when you were there. The first time I was there for a reunion, everyone was prepared for me to be hyperactive!

    Mac had told me the main activity would be watching the river. I said, "For what, like 5 minutes right? And then we're going to do something?"

  4. So, I guess the REAL theme this week was "people who are a part of but are also alienated from their families yet still retain just enough pieces to make things interesting".

    Well done! I really enjoyed this!


  5. Miatas ARE for girls! I know this because I had one. And I am a girl.

    There's so much great color here. I wonder if it reads [to me] like it would make a GREAT movie because of your background in film? Maybe? I don't know, but I would buy a ticket. "The Undertaker" deserves screen-time.

  6. You all have to understand, Undertaker is a cruel, cruel game. There is no fun for the victim. Nobody apologizes for ANYTHING, even through tears of mirth. They just laugh harder and tell you to stop being a pussy.