I follow my fifth-grade classmates, single file, down several flights of narrow, wooden stairs into a dimly lit room, yellowed with age. As we crowd together, waiting for our eyes to adjust, no one speaks, but everyone is searching. And then we see it: On a small table, beneath thick protective glass, lies Jefferson Davis’ death mask.
Our teacher, Mrs. Griswold, tells us in hurried whispers to, “Line up. Pay your respects.” We take our time, merging together, until we are single file, our eyes focused on the mask. The weighted heaviness of his features is horrifying and fascinating: The large peanut-shaped nostrils and high bridge of his nose, the hollow cheeks, and long thin lips turned down at the corners. Pennies cover the eyeholes. I stare and stare at this mask until the features blur. And then right before my eyes, the beloved Confederate President transforms into the Union President. It is an optical illusion, created by the pennies. The mask now belongs to Abraham Lincoln: same nose, same cheeks, same mouth. Completely different person. It is Lincoln’s final victory over Davis. Now you see him, now you don’t.
* * * * *
At Harper McCaughan Elementary in Long Beach, Mississippi, the field trip to Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ home, was a rite of passage, our reward for completing the two-week course affectionately known as Civil War Days. Like classmates that came before me, I listened to Mrs. Griswold’s passionate, yet bitter justifications about how and why the South lost to the North, then I took (and passed) multiple tests to prove that I’d been paying attention.
The Civil War Days finale was an all-day affair. We socialized. We danced. We ate barbeque. We did no schoolwork. Most importantly, we wore period costumes. No longer would I be The Infamous Kato, a nickname given to me by a classmate because, as he put it, I was “oriental, like Green Hornet’s sidekick.” I was tired of being told to, “Get a nose job and make your lips smaller, when you have enough money,” by another classmate who believed he was offering friendly advice. Every time, I’d look away, saying nothing. I was biding my time, waiting for an opportunity to showcase the real me; I believed wearing an antebellum gown would magically transform me into the perfect southern belle. My classmates would be so blinded by my dazzling charm and grace, they would no longer see my half-breed features. The gown would bring my father’s features—my southern features—into sharp relief, and I’d be accepted by my classmates; for once, I would look just like them.
My fascination with Scarlett O’Hara began with a TV-recorded Betamax copy of Gone with the Wind. From the moment Scarlett appeared on the screen, taunting and teasing the Tarleton twins with her dimples and sparkling blue eyes, I was hooked. Scarlett did whatever she had to do to get what she wanted. I always had to do what was expected of me whether or not I wanted to, which was most of the time. Scarlett was beautiful and popular, owned an endless supply of dresses, and lived in a giant house that had its own name. I had none of those things. But I was hopeful.
Mrs. Griswold made it crystal clear that dressing up for the finale was optional. But what I heard was, “Lucy, even though your parents can’t afford it, you must rent a gigantic antebellum gown. If you don’t, everyone will think you’re too poor to be patriotic, and then you’ll never fit in.” Asking my mother for the dress was not a problem. As the daughter of a Vietnamese woman, all I had to say was: “I need a Scarlett O’Hara dress for school,” and Mom would come up with ten different ways to get the dress. She was resourceful. As a military wife, she had to be.
Mom also raised my little sister, Bensie, and two teenagers from my father’s first marriage. Since Dad was overseas, Mom took care of everything: the house, the kids, the bills, the cats, dogs, chickens, and ducks. To supplement the $800.00 military allotment, she worked at a Chinese restaurant in Gulfport. She knew she wouldn’t have enough money to pay for my dress, so she worked extra shifts at the restaurant, bussing tables, hosting, and bartending. She even resorted to food prep, which was the job she hated most.
She would come home exhausted, smelling of grease and soy sauce, and tell me how her fingers went numb as she rolled 300 egg rolls. “No heat in kitchen,” she’d say. I would make my almond-shaped eyes as wide and round possible and ask, “Why don’t you get a different job?” Her response would be a blank stare. Then she’d say, “Well, it a good job. The owner treat me okay.” Literally, that’s what she said. What she meant was, “You are my child. As the child of a Vietnamese woman, nothing is more important to me than your education. Do you understand me? Nothing. So, I will do whatever I have to do in order to make sure you get what I did not.”
Of course, I understood what she meant. I also understood that her blank stare meant I’d hurt her feelings. Instead of apologizing, I’d slip behind my own blank stare, remaining silent, refusing to acknowledge her sacrifice. I believed it was her job to provide me with whatever I needed, and what I needed was a Scarlett O’Hara dress.
* * * * *
Selecting a dress for the Civil War Days barbeque required a trip to the costume rental boutique, located in Biloxi, which was thirty minutes away. As Mom drove down Highway 90, her shoulders hunched over the steering wheel, I sat in the backseat with Bensie and gazed at the Gulf Coast, shimmering in the spring sunshine. Bensie loved road trips. Where we went didn’t matter. The anticipation of a new adventure always put her in a chatty mood. “Which dress do you want to wear, Cille? “How many colors do you think they’ll have, Cille? I hope they have pink.” “Are you gonna get a hat, Cille?” Her excitement and nonstop questions annoyed me. “Don’t know,” I’d say. “Not sure.” I felt it best to play it cool, as if this dress, this experience was no big deal. Secretly, I’d been waiting to have this experience since the third grade. I’m sure the teacher provided context for the fifth graders visiting our classroom. I’m sure she explained it was tradition to show us their Civil War costumes. But I don’t remember any of that. What I remember feels more like a dream sequence—no context, no preparation: I was sitting at my desk, mesmerized by fifth graders parading up and down the aisles in their Civil War costumes.
The boys’ costumes were identical: Confederate soldiers, some uniforms bloodier than others. Some of the them got creative with bandages—over an eye, wrapped around the head or an arm, but nearly all the bandages were ragged and dirty and bloody. Some borrowed crutches and moaned in fake pain, as they clopped up and down the aisles, bumping against desks, muttering, “Oops, sorry.”
But the girls’ costumes. It was like watching Dorothy step out of her black and white Kansas life and into Oz. I’d never seen an antebellum gown, other than on TV. There were vivid purples and greens, pastel colors of spring and summer. So lovely, so southern. Laces on bonnets, some with ruffles. White satin gloves up to the elbows. Lace fingerless gloves that ended at the wrists. Parasols draped lazily against shoulders, as hips swished back and forth like bells. The dresses were enormous, and I had to stop myself from reaching out and touching the fabric. The girls seemed so grown up and confident as they sashayed down one aisle after another, slowly, slowly allowing all of us to drink them in. So, as Conway Twitty played on the car radio and Bensie chattered on, I closed my eyes and silently prayed, “Please God, let me wear the green and white paisley gown, with the matching hat and parasol, just like Scarlett wore to the Twelve Oakes barbeque. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Unfortunately, the boutique did not carry the Twelve Oakes barbeque gown. And it didn’t have anything resembling Scarlett’s opening scene white dress with red ribbons or the green dress made out of curtains. The sales lady’s answer was always the same: “No, I’m sorry. We don’t have anything like that in children’s sizes.” The only available dress in my size was a nondescript baby blue sateen polyester blend. I knew Scarlett never wore a baby blue antebellum gown, so I consoled myself with the fact that my dress had a matching lace brimmed hat. Seeing my distress, the sales lady brought me a matching parasol. I tilted my head to the side, smiled, and murmured in my best southern drawl, “Thanks very much.”
The hoop skirt made maneuvering difficult. The costume shop had dresses with smaller, more modest hoops, but I insisted on one of the big ones because they were the kind Scarlett wore; they were also ten dollars more, a detail I’d be sure to pass on to my classmates. And even though the bodice was too big, which accented my skinny arms and flat chest, I loved the way the dress made me feel. The sales lady said she could, “Discreetly pin sections to fit me. No one needed to know the truth.” The total cost for the dress, hoop skirt, parasol, and lace gloves was eighty-five dollars. And there was no extra charge for the alterations. My mother nodded and wrote a check for the twenty-five-dollar deposit. Without complaint, she returned the next day, after work, to pick up my costume.
* * * * *
On the day of the barbeque, everyone stared at me. Like Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks barbeque, I greeted my classmates as if we were best friends, smiling, gesticulating occasionally as I talked, just in case they hadn’t already noticed my white lace gloves. They took turns playing with my parasol, opening and closing it repeatedly. Even Mrs. Griswold fawned over me, purring in her sophisticated southern way as she touched the lace on my hat and gloves and parasol and told me I looked pretty. When we paraded through the lower grade classrooms, I walked as slowly as I could, up and down the rows. I swayed my hips back and forth like a bell, listening to the swish, swish of my gown and murmurs of approval as I floated past the girls.
At lunchtime, I had plenty of friends who wanted to sit with me, but I barely ate anything, and I didn’t dare go to the bathroom. Out of all the girls in my class, only three actually rented their dresses. Even my best friend’s dress wasn’t rented. It was black with a white pinafore, a matching cap with a modest hoop skirt. Though everyone loved her and always talked about how she was darling and tiny and blond with blue eyes, it was obvious that her dress was homemade. “Oh, you look so cuuuuute,” everyone said, which was always followed by an awkward pause. My best friend would lower her lovely blue eyes and quietly accept the compliment, while I basked in the glorious warmth of my rented social elitism.
When it was time to dance the Virginia Reel, all the boys wanted to be my partner. I denied no one. I curtsied, reeled, and do-si-doed with reckless abandon, picturing Scarlett at the Atlanta Confederate Ball. She’d been sick to death of mourning her husband, wearing nothing but black, and watching from the sidelines while everyone else had fun. It was no surprise to me when she accepted Rhett Butler’s scandalous proposal, ready to “dance and dance, ‘til [she] wouldn’t mind dancing with Abe Lincoln himself.” And when she sashayed down the dancer-lined gauntlet with Rhett, her voluminous dress bobbing like a jellyfish, her smile defiant and glorious, it was clear to me that she was not sorry for her actions. Like it or not, she was ready to rejoin the living, even if it meant humiliating the hell out of Aunt Pittypat. Again.
At the end of the day, Mom picked me up from school, saving me from a nasty bus ride with Derek, the bully. He was notorious for punching classmates in the gut, if they didn’t know which side they were on: “Are you a Rebel or a Yankee?” [Pause] “Yankee?” [Punch to the gut] “WRONG!”
When I got home, reality set in.
As Mom took pictures of me in our front yard, she discovered the parasol wouldn’t stay open. Blinded by my rose-colored haze of flattery, I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, nor had any of my classmates mentioned it was broken. While fluffing my dress on the front lawn, Mom told me I was spoiled and ungrateful. Before the next shot, telling me, “Smile. Show teeth,” she cursed me for being irresponsible. As I sat, mermaid-like, trapped in a baby blue ocean of polyester ruffles and lace, unable to explain my side of the story, she told me I was careless and selfish.
After my pictures, I was ordered to, “Take off dress. Give Bensie.” My sister had been chomping at the bit to get her grubby little hands on my gown, so this hurt a thousand times more than my mother’s insults. This was my dress. My antebellum gown. My chance to finally belong. I watched my mother primp and pose my sister the way she’d done to me. She even had Bensie do additional (non) candid poses: “Tilt head to side. Yeah, like that.” “Okay, touch hat.” “Okay, touch hat with other hand.” All I could do was sulk on the porch. Their betrayal—my mom, my classmates, my sister felt heavier than the hoop skirt.
Many years later, Mom told me that because of the broken parasol, she lost half of her twenty-five-dollar deposit. “Someone break. Someone have to fix.” She looked me in the eyes when she told me. She wanted to see my reaction, wanted me to acknowledge what she’d done for me. It was clear that she was still hurt. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.” She nodded once and moved on to a new topic. But I wasn’t paying attention. Instead, I was in Biloxi, standing at the boutique’s front counter.
My mother grips the pen tightly, her body bending over the check. Quietly she asks me, “How you spell twenty-five?” She struggles, embarrassed to ask for help, not wanting to ask too many times because she knows I will not repeat myself. My voice is low and harsh and unforgiving as I pronounce each letter, slowly, more deliberately than necessary. She does her best to write the words without making a mistake. Otherwise, she will have to start all over and neither of us wants to endure the humiliation of writing the deposit check twice. This opportunity, thinly disguised as an optional school activity, is important to both of us, and so we choose to work together, our masks secure, ready for battle.