We do not forget our kin here in the south. We know our roots run deep, and we know them each by name. Grandmothers keep family trees written in the fronts of their Bibles, and with them show their progeny exactly who they are and where they are from. We tell our children and our children’s children the stories of our ancestors’ lives as we hope they will one day tell ours. We maintain a visceral relationship with the figures of our family’s past, because we know it is because of them that we are blessed with our present. Over time, deep Southern families cultivate their own legendary figures who through years of storytelling become more than mere ancestors. They are the mythic protagonists of their surnames. These figures may not be anything spectacular to anyone who is not a “Carter” or “Bowers” or “Adams”, but in the minds of their families, they are the stuff of legend.
Phyllis Corinne Player has only ever existed, in my mind, as myth. Her life, her exploits, her trials and triumphs, are to me, only a legend. Mystery, like in all good myths, surrounds the details of her existence, and the truth of her is known and passed on only through spoken word. My mother’s mother died of pancreatic cancer when I was only two, and she was only 54. All I know of her I know through stories. Even her image is mostly a mystery to me. Due to an unfortunate house fire, only a small handful of pictures exist of my grandmother.
Although she has never lived in the homes of my childhood, her presence has always been around me. I have always taken advantage of any opportunity to hear the legend of this great, enigmatic woman who I know is somehow both a part of me, and someone I have never known. On such rare occasions, when my mother and her two sisters found themselves under one roof, the stories flowed like wine, and Phyllis would come alive. They would stay up late into the night swapping tales of their childhood, their mother, and her life. I remember being a small girl listening to the three of them laughing and crying as they wove tales of this great Southern woman. It was in these moments I first met Phyllis, my Southern grandmother, and I learned how much I loved her.
Phyllis Player was born in Awendaw, South Carolina in the 1940s. There was nothing special or out of the ordinary about her upbringing. She grew up in, what we call in polite conversations, humble circumstances. She did not go to college, and she married young. She had five children and almost as many husbands by the time she passed. The Lowcountry of South Carolina raised her, and she was as it is: hard and fierce, mysterious and beautiful.
Legend has it Phyllis was a proud and stubborn woman. She was the kind of woman who would sooner accuse Merriam-Webster of leaving a word out of the dictionary than admit to cheating at Scrabble. She was the kind of woman who would work any job she could to provide for her family, no matter how backbreaking or tedious. I remember my mother telling me that when she was a little girl, she would watch as Phyllis, after arriving home from long shifts at a fiber glass plant, sat at the kitchen table and pulled dozens and dozens of the painfully sharp thin threads of glass from the palms of her hands before making dinner.
Phyllis’s cooking, by the way, was, like the cooking of any self-respecting woman born below the Mason-Dixon, truly something to behold. Her biscuits were pillows of butter and flour that melted on the tongue. Her chicken and dumplings were always succulent and juicy, and her salmon patties were simply to die for.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman who believed a Southern lady should take pride in her appearance. I hear she never left the house without makeup and jewelry because “you just feel better when you look good”. She was the kind of woman who believed deeply in the superstitions and home remedies of her Southern ancestors. She put stock in the practices of her mother and her mother before her. My aunt told me once that Phyllis believed if a child did not fall out of the bed before it turned one year old, it was sure to die. She believed in this old wives’ tale so much that when her oldest son’s first birthday was around the corner, and he had failed to fall from the bed, she took matters into her own hands and pushed him herself (onto pillows carefully laid out beforehand, of course).
I have heard the sad stories as well. Any life cut short is sure to have its dark days and secret shames. Demons lived in the shadows of her life; that is no secret. The true beauty of myth, however, lies in its constant evolution. As the spoken word is passed on and tales are told, pieces of the story fall out, others are remembered and added, revising and refining the little details until all that’s left is the best bits, the parts that warm your soul and make you laugh so hard your sides ache no matter how many times you hear them. My grandmother’s life pushes past her death and lives on through the treasured antediluvian art of storytelling. These are the parts of her life I will remember and share with my children. Phyllis was always more than her demons. She was a woman of Southern grace who loved fiercely and believed deeply and left behind a narrative of laughter and love echoing on well past her death. Or so legend has it.