The women whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong, and they handled it. They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it.
–“Wisdom & Age & Women,” Elizabeth Gilbert
I respect people who handle “shit.” The experience is never pleasant, for sure, but I admire those who handle life’s messes stoically and continue on their path.
At an early age, I learned that my maternal aunts could handle shit literally. Great Aunt Louise and Great Aunt Ella both worked second shift at the Olympia Textile Mill, and they lived together in a small house a few blocks from my parents. While Aunt Ella was short and round, Louise was taller and thin. Louise’s black and gray hair formed stiff waves around her head, and her face, naturally dark from what my mother said was a splash of native-American blood, bore deep set wrinkles and a leathery texture from lifelong smoking.
One Friday evening when I was about eight, having grown bored with whatever was on TV, I played in my bedroom with my younger brother. We heard a strange gurgling noise coming from the nearby bathroom, and, hearing it a second time, we rushed to the den to tell my parents.
“Jiggle the handle on the commode,” my mother instructed from the couch.
“It’s not running,” I said. “It sounds like it’s bubbling up.”
Deciding to investigate, my father walked to the bathroom and switched on the light in time to see brown waste rising in the toilet bowl. As it neared the crest, he grabbed the plush pink bathmat and shoved it down into the opening, hoping to stop the flow, but soon sewage overflowed onto the tile floor.
“Go get Mama,” Dad yelled, nearly elbow deep in the toilet bowl.
Mom came and quickly spread dirty towels from the hamper to keep the mess confined to one room. Excited by the drama rising from a previously dull Friday night, I ran to check the second bathroom.
“It’s coming out of the commode and up through the bathtub drain!” I reported.
And it kept coming. Despite my parents’ efforts, the wood floors and area rugs in most of the house were soon coated with a layer of sludgy brown liquid. My brother’s favorite toy, a large black and white stuffed horse, soaked in the mess. The odor of diluted human waste was surprisingly mild, like being downwind of a sewer rather than in one.
“Don’t stand in that!” my father shouted. Bewildered, I looked unsuccessfully for a place to stand that was not “in that.” My parents were horrified, but I, understanding little about bacteria or the labor and expense of cleanup, was mostly just intrigued.
After futile efforts with mops and buckets and after several phone calls, my parents learned that a malfunction with the city’s sewer system, combined with paved-over manhole covers on our street, had caused the backup into the house. Then they placed a call to my aunts up the road, who were just getting home from their shift at the mill.
Aunt Louise drove down to collect us children around 11 p.m. We were to spend the night at her house so my parents could sort things out at home.
We probably stank and we were certainly disoriented and tired. Rather than insisting that we take baths, my two aunts invited us to sit on their mostly white sofas, drink cokes with them, and watch a black and white war movie on TV. Their white miniature French poodles, Gigi and Don Juan, knowing small people to be unpredictable, eyed us suspiciously from the kitchen.
I’d never stayed up to watch the late show before. I don’t remember the title, but the movie’s plot involved a young, orphaned Asian boy, maybe my age, who was offered protection by some American troops during World War II. As it turned out, though, the brave young boy was as much help to the troops as they were to him.
“There’s nothing sissy about him, is there!” Aunt Louise said to us, admiringly.
Undisturbed by our late-night presence in her childless home, Aunt Louise smoked her cigarettes and unwound from her shift until the movie ended. Then she packed us off to share one bed, while she and Aunt Ella shared the other.
In retrospect, I realize that sugary, caffeinated beverages and a war movie are not the best things to offer a displaced child at midnight, and a bath would certainly have been sensible. But at the time, I found no fault with my aunts’ hospitality.
Much later, I learned that as a younger woman, Aunt Louise had handled figurative shit equally in stride. My mother often shared stories about her family, and I admired the closeness of the women, always in each other’s business and always having each other’s backs. Mom’s mother, aunts, and grandmother lived near one another, often next door, in a series of rented houses; to the frequent annoyance of their husbands, they came and went without knocking and frequently advised one another about childrearing. This closeness extended into my mother’s generation. My grandmother and her two unmarried daughters shared a house, and Mom talked to them daily by phone.
Mom was a child when Great Aunt Louise was a young woman, but she nevertheless remembered the details about Louise’s ill-fated marriage, her memory heightened by sisterly gossip and repetition in the years afterwards.
In the early 1940s, at age 25, Louise married Dave Booker and soon regretted it. Unfortunately, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, South Carolina had the distinction of being the only state in which divorce was illegal. According to the South Carolina legislators of this time, even if the bed you made was physically dangerous or deserted by your spouse, you must continue to lie in it.
Before marriage, Dave and Louise enjoyed each other’s company on picnics and leisurely drives in Dave’s car. When they were married, he vowed to take care of her, and she would stay home to take care of the house. They lived in a small duplex with Louise’s mother and stepfather on the other side.
She adored Dave, a tall, burly, handsome man who loved liquor and horses. Louise savored the feel of his biceps under her hands, the smell of cigarettes on his clothes, the timbre of his voice as she rested her ear against his chest. Her father had died when she was a baby, and her mother’s second husband, who entered Louise’s life when she was about 10, had always seemed caring but distant. In the beginning with Dave, she felt at home.
Dave managed riding stables on the outskirts of Columbia and sometimes drove a taxi for additional income. Each night when the stables closed for the day, Louise counted up the money received and prepared it for deposit. Before long, however, she realized that Dave converted much of their money to whisky. He often spent evenings out with other men and returned home stumbling drunk. But his drinking wasn’t the only problem. Although Louise considered her husband irresistible, she soon recognized that he looked at her body with distaste.
Around kitchen tables or sitting on worn sofas, over coffee and cigarettes, she shared her frustrations with her female kin.
“When we’re in bed together,” Louise complained, “it’s like he’s chasing something out of reach. He’s straining for some feeling, but I don’t know what it is. Instead of making us feel closer, I end up feeling alone.”
“That’s just your imagination,” her mother advised. “It’s always better for the man.”
But Dave soon voiced his disappointment bitterly. Once, months after their marriage, they lay sweaty on top of the sheets in their dark bedroom after making love, an electric fan whirring on the dresser. For a time, each was quiet and introspective.
Then, “Cover yo’ nasty self up!” ordered Dave, before rolling over to sleep. The disgust in his voice stunned Louise out of her own thoughts, his words stinging like a slap and bringing tears to her eyes. She didn’t know how to respond, so she didn’t. She slid under the sheet and seethed with silent anger and humiliation.
She broke her silence in the company of sisters and mother, who shared her outrage.
“There’s something unnatural about that man,” Louise’s mother commiserated.
But Louise blamed herself at first, assessing her waist and breasts, reviewing her hygiene routine, hoping to find the fixable flaw. She knew she wasn’t perfect, but in the mirror she saw a trim waist, long legs, and a girl who kept herself neat and clean, even if she couldn’t afford to be fancy.
Her strongest ally was her eldest niece, Mae. Away from the other women, teasing but confident, she said, “Louise, you’re the ripest tomato on the block, and if Dave doesn’t like the flavor, we’ll find someone who does.”
At the time of Louise’s marriage, Mae was just seventeen and had recently quit school. Never a beauty, she had grown into a tall and stocky young woman with a sharp chin and a slight overbite. Her long experience helping her mother run the house and care for her younger siblings, including my mother, had made her more mature than her years. Louise thought of this opinionated, independent girl as more of a sister than a niece.
As Dave stayed away from home more and more, often overnight, Mae began to advise her aunt.
“You can’t depend on him. You better set you some money aside.” At Mae’s suggestion, Louise began taking a few crumpled bills from the riding stable’s proceeds each night and tucking them away in her pocket book.
I imagine that Dave had been running the stables haphazardly, showing up in the late morning and staying for a few hours at a time. Finally, when Louise stopped by one afternoon to collect the day’s income, the usually-absent owner told her Dave had been fired.
Her husband didn’t return home all week and the rent was due, so Louise used what she had set aside to pay the balance. He’d stayed away for a night or two before, so she was more angry than worried.
After paying the rent, she sat at the kitchen table with her mother, her sister, and Mae. They drank Coca Colas, Louise and Mae smoked, and they worked Dave into hamburger in their verbal meat grinder.
“I’ll be damned before I go huntin’ for that man in some honkytonk!” Louise fumed. “I bet he’s off with another woman.”
“Well, I don’t think so,” said her mother. “I talked to Eddie out on the sidewalk today.” Eddie was the handsome, tall sixteen-year-old boy who sometimes did yard work for the neighbors.
“He said, ‘Miz Campbell, Dave Booker is a sonofabitch, and I’m sorry Louise is married to him.’ I asked if he’d seen him, and he said, ‘I’ve seen more of him than I ever cared to, and I hope I never see him again.’ And then he just hurried off, like he knew more than he was sayin’.”
Each woman had a theory about what Dave had said or done to Eddie. But Louise wasted no more time with tears or indecision.
“We both need jobs of our own,” she told Mae as they sat at the table. Mae had worked part time and helped at home since leaving school. Her father suffered from heart problems, and Louise knew that Mae could help her parents more by earning money than by doing household chores.
The next day, Mae and Louise went to the mill where Ella already worked, and they were immediately hired on the second shift. In wartime, jobs were plentiful and wages climbed. I picture them carrying bag lunches and wearing kerchiefs around their heads as they entered the building each afternoon.
Dave was not yet gone for good, however. The details of his homecoming did not make their way into the stories my mother heard and passed on to me, but I imagine him returning wounded in spirit, sick from alcohol, meeting Louise’s tearful accusations with his own tearful, at the time sincere, apologies and promises of reform. She took him back.
He went back to driving his taxi and Louise continued her work at the mill. Then one evening, while Louise worked, her mother paused as she entered her side of the duplex. She heard Dave’s voice beyond the other door. He had not been home when she left, and she suspected he’d been drinking rather than working.
“That feels good, doesn’t it?” Dave chuckled throatily.
“You know it does,” responded another male voice. A chair in the living room banged a few times against the floor.
She only listened a minute or two before walking into her side of the duplex and slamming the door.
“I think that’s a horrible thing for a man to do to a woman,” my mother said years later as she told me about this episode, indignation in her voice even then. “He knew he was attracted to other men, but he married Louise anyway and ruined her life.”
And I can certainly see her point. In the traditional union that Louise, my mother, and—they believed—God expected, marriage consisted of financial support from the man, domestic care and comfort from the woman, sexual intimacy between them, and, eventually, children. Louise was bound until death to a partner with whom these goals were unobtainable.
But I also think about what it must have been like to be gay in the 1940s south. Like light-skinned African Americans who chose to pass as white in order to avoid the discrimination of their racist society, many gays passed as heterosexual to avoid bigotry and persecution. In that era of involuntary committal to psychiatric institutions to “cure” homosexuality, aversion therapy was often delivered via electrodes connected to the genitals. Even if the person was not locked up, he risked losing his job and bringing shame to himself and his family. As late as 1976, the attorney general of South Carolina stated that homosexuality was a legitimate reason to refuse someone employment or to fire an employee. Even in 2018, South Carolina state representatives filed a bill to make marriage available only to heterosexual couples after the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional.
And I think about my own child: smart, creative, beautiful, and pansexual. A term that didn’t even exist in the 1940s, pansexual means that one’s sexual attraction is not limited to people of a certain biological sex or gender, including transgrender. A high school senior, they identify as non-binary (neither wholly male nor female) and prefer the plural gender-neutral pronoun. Recently, they posted exuberantly on social media about the girl who asked them to the homecoming dance; later, they posted a picture of them both wearing matching bow ties, white shirts, and black sport coats. I admire my child’s openness and bravery, defiantly them self in all situations. Attitudes toward sexuality have changed for the better since Dave and Louise were married, yet my child will still need the strength to handle a larger than average share of life’s messes. Every day I worry about them being judged, condemned, even hurt.
Because Dave feared these things too, he hid his identity and drank away his pain and, if he ruined anyone’s life, it was his own. As I said, Louise could handle shit, and she refused to succumb to ruin.
By this time she hoped Dave would not come home, and she soon got her wish. The next time rent was due, Mae told her, “You’re crazy to pay rent in somebody else’s name.”
Together they stopped at the landlord’s tiny office before work. The heavy, middle-aged, balding man sat behind a small metal desk examining a newspaper. He looked up and smiled as the two women came in, but his smile fell when he heard that Louise wanted the lease in her name.
“Oh come on now!” he said, in a tone at once reassuring and dismissive. “Y’all will work things out before long. You don’t want to go to all that trouble changing things. When y’all make up, I’ll just have to change it right back.”
He met Louise’s protests with a wave of hand, and Mae had had enough. “Come on, Louise. There’s plenty of other places to rent.” She grasped her aunt by the elbow and drew her toward the door. As they turned to go, the landlord spoke.
“Wait a minute.” He swiveled his chair toward the file cabinet behind the desk, found the lease under B, and turned back to the desk as he tore the paper in half.
“Mr. Booker no longer rents from me,” he said, smiling again. “Mrs. Booker, we’ll fill out the new paperwork right now.”
Louise, Mae, and Ella continued to work at the mill, finding satisfaction in the money they earned and in the company of family. Louise, still in her twenties, knew that divorce was not an option for her. Some South Carolinians went to other states for divorces, but they had to first establish residency. It took twelve months to do this in nearby Georgia, and even if she had the money, Louise would not have wanted to leave her family. When a bill allowing divorce in South Carolina came before the legislature in 1945, it was defeated, so Louise resigned herself to a lifetime of estrangement.
But one night when she returned home from work, her mother met her at the door. “Louise, you’ve got company,” she said.
Louise opened her door and walked inside cautiously. Lying on her bed beneath the covers, she found Dave, unshaven, with bloodshot eyes, looking older and frailer than she remembered. The whole bedroom smelled of stale alcohol and sweat.
“Louise, I’m sick and I’ve come home to die.”
She hadn’t seen him in a year, and disappointment had hardened her. “You’ll have to die somewhere else,” she replied. “If you don’t get outta that bed, I’m going to call the law.”
The look in her eye, the tone of her voice, the set of her jaw: something told him she meant it. He collected his hat and shoes and crossed the porch a final time under the glowering eyes of Louise’s kin.
Fortunately for Louise, lawyers and legislators continued to lobby, and the constitutional change that would allow divorce in South Carolina for reasons of adultery, cruelty, excessive drunkenness, or desertion was finally approved in 1949.
Louise knew immediately that she wanted her legal freedom. Saving the money, filing the paperwork, and enduring the necessary waiting period took her about two years, and Louise was divorced by 1952. She never married again; her sister Ella and her niece Mae also remained single. Independent and hardworking the rest their lives, they enjoyed the constancy and companionship of family women.
Of the many types of love, I hope these women ended up with the one they wanted—that rather than silently longing for a partner, they felt happiest in their sisterly bond. I also hope Dave found a way to share lasting intimacy with a lover he desired. And in my vision of the world as it should be, a vein of shit-handling fortitude flows from Aunt Louise and Mae, through me, and straight to my child. This strength allows them to withstand adversity and discover their true love, whoever that will be.
Betina Entzminger is originally from South Carolina, and is now an English Professor in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Her creative nonfiction essays have been accepted in Switchgrass Review and Cordella Magazine Field Notes. This essay is part of a book-length collection.