As promised, below is an excerpt from the ending essay in my book Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother. The essay is titled “Star-Crossed,” and focuses on my relationship with my daughter and our differing approaches to religion, country music, and the South.
In the two years I contemplated silently my daughter’s cross, I began wondering whether I could learn to love the Christ-haunted landscape of my home region. After all, my own father did. He and his Jewish cousins worked their lives in a wholesale jewelry store. How many times did he praise to me, as if I truly cared about the merchandise I had to box up during my years of summer employment there, the store’s best-selling items?
Crosses and crucifixes.
“We have to please the customers. They’re always right,” he’d say.
Neither did it seem to bother him that I was raised in my mother’s church, with the sacred icons and portraits of a smiling, bearded savior.
But a part of me wished it had.
Can I find the peace of my convictions? Can I accept what I don’t understand?
Can I be a Jew and raise a Christian daughter?
These were the questions haunting me after I thought I had accepted my wife’s version of my daughter’s cross. But there I sat one Thursday night in family therapy staring at the symbol of my heartache. In my wonder and confusion, I heard myself blurt out:
“Could you tell me, sweetie, why you wear that cross, what it means to you?”
She grinned, a bit sheepishly I thought, but looked at me squarely and said, “Do you want to know the real story?”
And from the twinkle in her eyes and the lightness of her smile, I knew that I did–that I’d always want to know her truth.
“Actually, I just told my boyfriend too. He kept wondering why I wore it since he knew that none of us was religious. It kind of worried him. Well…it’s all because of that Brad Paisley song.”
“That Brad Paisley song, ‘She’s Everything.'”
I knew who Brad Paisley was. He was part of that genre of Southern music that I refuse to listen to and that I lament that both of my daughters love, New Country. The affected nasal twang, the purported love of God and Country, the gushing, maudlin sentimentality in every song. The utter simplicity in a world that is anything but simple.
I’m sure Flannery O’Connor would have hated this gushy crap too.
Maybe it’s simply that, as my Dad used to say about my music, “It all sounds the same to me.” But I hate it. I really do. I hate George Strait, Tricia Yearwood, Toby Keith, Trace Atkins, Rascal Flatts. Perhaps my hatred started the day that my favorite Birmingham FM underground rock station–where, by the way, I had first heard Neil Young’s soothing falsetto–changed to a “New Country” format. New Country, to me, is nothing but simplistic, Redneck Southern songs for like-minded listeners, representative of the worst of Southern culture. I can’t stand that my daughters like this stuff; I can’t stand for anyone to think that my girls are simple, or rednecks. I think I’ve somehow failed them if I haven’t been able to instill in them the knowledge that music, culture, literature, the South itself, are complex, and often dark, realities. That they need to appreciate the reality, the darkness, and the beauty in the midst of it all.
And then it hit me: Have I ever really appreciated the complexities of my Southern home?
So I asked my lovely daughter, “What’s so great about that song?”
“Well, in it he mentions ‘the church girl” who wears ‘a cross around her neck,’ and I love that song. When I first heard it, I wanted to be that girl. So I asked Mommy to buy a cross for me. It’s a silly high school thing, I know, but that’s why I wanted it and why I still like it. I want to be someone’s ‘Everything.'”
Icons resonate in so many ways. I had made my daughter’s gesture so complex, but to her, it was a very simple thing.
She laughed then, and her mother, sister, and I joined in. Our therapist said, as he regularly does, “Y’all are a beautiful family. I love you guys.”
And I ask you, how could he not?
Later that night I Googled the complete lyrics to the song:
“She’s a warm conversation
That I wouldn’t miss for nothing
She’s a fighter when she’s mad
And she’s a lover when she’s loving
And she’s everything I ever wanted
And everything I need…”
She is my daughter, and, as I learned for the millionth time deep in my soul, she is someone’s “Everything.”
I just hope she knows it.
Six years ago, the autumn of 2009, I took Pari to her first Alabama football game, a tradition that my Southern Jewish father held more dearly than any religious holiday. Not an outstanding matchup–Bama versus Tennessee-Chattanooga–but the atmosphere was electric, and she was thrilled to be there–as much to be there with me, I believe, as to see the Tide Roll. Maybe ten, or a hundred times that afternoon, the stadium DJ piped “Sweet Home Alabama” over the Jumbotron airwaves. The first time or two Pari saw me wince.
“What’s the matter Dad, don’t you love that song?”
I tried telling her about Skynyrd and Neil Young, about Crosses and Stars.
About being a boy raised in the South, scared of shadowy icons he didn’t understand.
She just rolled her eyes at me: “Oh Daddy, who cares about that anymore? Nothing can hurt us. It’s all fun now!” And she kept on dancing in her place.
And that December, we sat in our den watching Alabama annihilate Florida and Christian star Tim Tebow for the SEC championship: Pari, my youngest daughter Layla, my wife Nilly, our great Bama friend John–a man my age–and me. As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, Pari jumped up, hooked her iPod to its docking station, and cranked up Skynyrd.
“Turn it up louder,” John said.
So she did. “C’mon Daddy, let’s dance!”
Forgive me Neil, I couldn’t help it. We danced, all of us, as hard as we could. When “Sweet Home” ended, we played it again, louder, and danced even harder. Again and again.
Thanks to my cross-wearing daughter, I’ve finally seen that not all signs are meant for me, that crosses are not always red, and the my stars will always be there, scattered in the night sky and glittering over me in Bessemer or Greenville. Or wherever I am.