The Last Resort

The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure

Norma Watkins
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv82m
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  • Book Info
    The Last Resort
    Book Description:

    Raised under the racial segregation that kept her family's southern country hotel afloat, Norma Watkins grows up listening at doors, trying to penetrate the secrets and silences of the black help and of her parents' marriage. Groomed to be an ornament to white patriarchy, she sees herself failing at the ideal of becoming a southern lady.

    The Last Resort, her compelling memoir, begins in childhood at Allison's Wells, a popular Mississippi spa for proper white people, run by her aunt. Life at the rambling hotel seems like paradise. Yet young Norma wonders at a caste system that has colored people cooking every meal while forbidding their sitting with whites to eat.

    Once integration is court-mandated, her beloved father becomes a stalwart captain in defense of Jim Crow as a counselor to fiery, segregationist Governor Ross Barnett. His daughter flounders, looking for escape. A fine house, wonderful children, and a successful husband do not compensate for the shock of Mississippi's brutal response to change, daily made manifest by the men in her home. A sexually bleak marriage only emphasizes a growing emotional emptiness. When a civil rights lawyer offers love and escape, does a good southern lady dare leave her home state and closed society behind? With humor and heartbreak,The Last Resortconveys at once the idyllic charm and the impossible compromises of a lost way of life.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-978-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Part One: 1943–1945

    • 1
      (pp. 3-16)

      We felt diminished before he left. Mama, my sister, and I bunched on the station platform with Daddy above us in the open door of the train car. His navy dress uniform glittered white and brass, the officer’s hat cocked on his blonde hair. He was leaving us to go to war. The train jerked to a start. We cried. He smiled and waved. It was a lesson: leaving was better than being left.

      The train disappeared and the platform emptied. “That’s enough of that.” Mother took a handkerchief from her purse, patted away her tears, then ours, giving a...

    • 2
      (pp. 17-24)

      In my memory, we arrived at Allison’s Wells in late fall, with gray skies, trees swept bare by cold winds, and the ground as sodden as my hopes. This can’t be right because it was September. School hadn’t started, and the weather never turns cold in Mississippi before late October. It was only gray in my head. If I got that wrong, what else have I misremembered? In the photographs my father sent, he was always in khaki. I don’t think navy officers traveled in their dress white uniforms, but that’s how I saw him when I was a child:...

    • 3
      (pp. 25-36)

      “You will like this school and they will like you,” Miss Hosford said. We were in Mama’s room the night before I started. I turned in a slow circle while Mama marked the hem of the brown and green plaid dress I’d wear the first day. “It will be a treat for them to have a little girl from the city,” Miss Hosford said. Mama smiled in a way that was meant to be reassuring. I didn’t feel reassured.

      The school was called Pickens Consolidated and I would go into third grade in a room with one teacher and three...

    • 4
      (pp. 37-46)

      I figured the bad times were over, until Mother called me into her room. “I got a wire from your father today.”

      It seemed like a miracle that Daddy could reach out and find the hotel from across the Pacific. My chest filled with happiness. I waited for Mama to tell me how much he missed and loved me.

      “He’s got a leave. I’m going out to California to meet him.”

      I came down with a thud. “You’re leaving?” This was it. I was losing my last person.

      “It’ll just be a couple of weeks. I’ll be back before Easter.”...

    • 5
      (pp. 47-59)

      It was summer and I forgot all my reasons for hating the hotel. Summer at Allison’s Wells was paradise.

      The season began on Memorial Day. In the weeks before, we did housecleaning. The worst of the furniture got hauled outside to be scrubbed and painted. Iron bedsteads, dressers, four-drawer chests, bedside tables, and chairs were deposited on the front lawn. I considered myself artistic, so Miss Hosford made me a painter. Ora Dee, Preston, and I dutifully slapped two coats on each piece, aqua, pale yellow, or off-white. At first, I loved it, the smell of the oil paint when...

    • 6
      (pp. 60-69)

      For days, I watched Rosalie. Wherever I caught sight of her, working in the kitchen or helping Savannah with the rooms, I tried to read her face. Had she told anyone? Was she going to tell? Did she hate me? I didn’t dare ask. Asking would re-create the event. If I kept quiet, maybe she’d keep quiet. Maybe we’d both forget.

      I didn’t worry so much about Mary Elizabeth. She was only five and she forgot a lot. She was also terrified of me. Guilt hung like a cloud over every day. The bad thing had happened. I couldn’t wish...

    • 7
      (pp. 70-75)

      After Labor Day, we closed the place down, washed the linens and stored them for the winter, latched the windows, and unplugged the lamps in the unused wings. The halls of the Cold Part and the Annex echoed under my feet and even the air smelled forgotten. Alan emptied the pool for the last time and dead leaves began to fill the diving well. Preston went back to his family; Ora Dee and Ellis came only on weekends. Bee-Bee, the bartender, left, putting the chairs upside down on the tables and locking the Fishes Club until next summer. Rosalie went...

    • 8
      (pp. 76-91)

      Even when I was impatient for the war to be over, so Daddy would come home and my real life could begin, there were time-outs, stretches that felt open and inviting.

      Canton Elementary was like that. It was everything Pickens Consolidated hadn’t been. The building was two stories of time-softened red brick with an impressive white marble entrance, and it sat on a grassy lawn shaded by enormous oaks. When Mama went there, it had twelve grades, but the big kids had moved to a new school near the Piggly Wiggly. Eight grades now filled the old, high-ceilinged classrooms. At...

    • 9
      (pp. 92-99)

      One rainy morning during late spring in 1944, when Alan took me to catch the bus, I tried a trick. We went out early as usual. I left my raincoat open and stomped around in puddles until I was thoroughly soaked. Alan told me to button up, but I had a plan. When the bus pulled into Canton, I went up to the driver. “Could you drop me by my aunt, Mrs. Latimer’s, house? I’m too wet to go to school.”

      It worked. I showed Momae my sodden clothes. She called the school and I got to spend the day...

    • 10
      (pp. 100-113)

      Fourth grade was almost finished and summer was on the way. Germany surrendered. Miss Hosford held a celebration in the kitchen with little juice glasses of champagne for all, including servants and children. With V-E Day behind us and only the Japs to go, everyone said the war was all but over. That meant Daddy would come back. It looked like downhill coasting to me. I hadn’t quite got the concept of home ownership. I thought we’d go back in our house on Monroe Street, and I’d be with my old friends, as if two years hadn’t slipped by underneath...

    • 11
      (pp. 114-124)

      In the middle of August 1945, we celebrated V-J Day. The Japanese had finally surrendered. I heard talk of a terrible bomb, but our side won and everybody acted happy. My happiness felt purely selfish. The thing I’d been wishing for was finally going to happen: Daddy would come home. Life could resume its proper shape and I’d be free to go on with the business of growing up.

      I waited. Mama said he might be home next week; then it was the next. He was sticking around for a buddy so they could travel together. I literally itched with...

  5. Part Two: 1945–1955

    • 12
      (pp. 127-130)

      At Allison’s Wells the summer I turned twelve, Parthenia, Ellis, and Ora Dee started calling me Miss Norma. I told them to stop. They smiled and went right on. I had crossed over or passed through some invisible boundary. I was no longer a child and the barrier between the races had been raised. More accurately, the barrier had always been there, but now I was allowed to see it and forced to acknowledge it.

      The new formality killed me. It felt like a withdrawal of love. Miss Hosford said they were only doing what was proper. She even started....

    • 13
      (pp. 131-136)

      Marie started calling me Miss Norma and that was the last straw. I had been cast out of childhood and into the realm of master and servant. I’d wanted to grow up and have more power, but this was not what I meant.

      More things were changing than I knew. I wasn’t privy to the conversation Mama had with Marie, though I saw signs of trouble. At the dinner table one night, Mother mentioned she needed someone who knew how to cook. “Marie refuses to be taught,” she said. Sliced, boiled carrots in butter was still the beginning and end...

    • 14
      (pp. 137-147)

      It came on me like the Call of the Wild, except it was the Call of Sex. At nine going on ten, in fifth grade, too early for puberty, boys set up residence in my head and cleaned out what little sense I had. Which one did I like? Did he like me? Was there anything I could do to make him like me? That first year back in Jackson, I got caught carving John Lee Gainey’s name on my desktop. What was I thinking, that the teacher wouldn’t notice? A hopeless gesture as it turned out. He never gave...

    • 15
      (pp. 148-163)

      I wasn’t pregnant. Proof of divine intervention.

      My personal problems made me miss the other signs of trouble in our house. Aside from being boy crazy, I considered myself a noticing kind of person. I noticed when Mother closed in the screened front porch, turning it into a sunroom like the one I admired at Momae’s. The new porch had big glass windows, sisal carpet, and bamboo furniture covered in flamboyantly flowered cotton. We had built-in shelves for the record player, where I played my new favorite,South Pacific, on the new long-play record. I sang loudly along: “You’ve got...

    • 16
      (pp. 164-170)

      I kept what Daddy told me a secret and carried it around inside like a stone. I thought my father was the brightest, most handsome man in the entire world. Unlike my friends’ fathers, he weighed exactly what he had in college as a cross-country runner. He had a full head of hair and flashing blue eyes. He could make anything funny. People said he was one of the best lawyers in the state of Mississippi.

      If he didn’t love Mother, it must be her fault. I observed her with a critical eye. She could do much better with herself....

    • 17
      (pp. 171-188)

      I went back to my quest: looking for the man who would make me whole. After my fling with sex in high school, I revirginalized myself. I went out with a lot of boys at Ole Miss and put out for none. As far as I knew, every girl in my sorority remained a virgin. Certainly, nobody admitted to anything else. Girls shook their heads in mock dismay after a night of drinking: “I can’t remember a thing. I hope nothing happened.” Voices rising with laughter. One girl in engineering school got pregnant and had to leave school. At the...

  6. Part Three: 1955–1966

    • 18
      (pp. 191-208)

      The honeymoon was brief—in more ways than one. We’d gotten married Wednesday night and both of us had to be at work by Monday morning. We flew from New Orleans back to our apartment—the first place I would call mine.

      We had rented the top floor of a frame house near the Pearl River. The landlady, a small, bent woman, lived below and left us entirely alone. The railroad ran nearby and I couldn’t sleep the first few nights for the freight trains. The house was old and slanted toward the river. A can dropped in the kitchen...

    • 19
      (pp. 209-214)

      While I ran the baby farm, my family was falling apart. I could lie and say I was too busy to notice, but every single thing broke my heart.

      Uncle Sam and Momae were still up in Canton. I only saw them at Christmas or for family weddings. I loved them exactly the way I had as a child; but I had drifted from their small world into what I considered my much larger one. I hardly thought of them, but I knew I could go back if I chose. They would always be there in the dark, cool house,...

    • 20
      (pp. 215-221)

      Misfortunes aside, in 1960 the family received a promotion. Daddy became Governor Ross Barnett’s personal lawyer. The glory trickled down to Mother, to my sister Mary Elizabeth, who appreciated status, and to me, though I pretended to disdain it.

      Daddy got me a job working for the governor for a few weeks the summer after he was elected. A staunch segregationist, Barnett had been handpicked to run by the Citizens’ Council. He was a tall, hawk-faced man, who dressed in black suits and went around bowing and nodding like a courtly undertaker. Along with many southern men, he claimed to...

    • 21
      (pp. 222-228)

      In the coldest part of January 1963, the winter after Uncle John died, Mother called, practically screaming into the phone.“Allison’s Wells is on fire. I have to get Hosford off the train.”

      That morning, Ellis had taken my aunt to catch the train to New Orleans. When the hotel closed for the season, she liked to take a break and go visit friends. We used to joke that she spent the winter staying free with people who paid to stay with her during the summer.

      I sincerely believe if she had been at the hotel, things would have turned...

    • 22
      (pp. 229-244)

      Braver people than I took to the streets in 1963. Black college students held sit-ins at the all-white lunch counters of Woolworth’s and McLellan’s. A crowd gathered. People poured coffee on them and put cigarettes out on their backs. I read the papers and shuddered.

      The Junior League called off our planned project to teach literacy when they realized that most of the people who needed to learn to read and write were colored. I hated my town, my state, and the entire South. I longed to do something to make things better, but I felt helpless. Plus, I was...

    • 23
      (pp. 245-254)

      In the spring of 1966, we’d been married for almost ten years. Every working day of that time Fred lived his life by a precise schedule. Up and out to check the construction jobs by seven. Home at nine for a breakfast of orange juice, cereal, two fried eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. The same breakfast every morning. Home for a sandwich at twelve-thirty. Dinner by six or he got a stomachache, and into bed and asleep by nine. His ideas were just as fixed. He knew exactly how he felt about everything from integration—he was against it—to...

    • 24
      (pp. 255-266)

      On Friday night I found myself dressing with special care for the stranger. I imagined his eyes examining the red silk as I smoothed it over my hips. He watched me brush my hair into brown waves, and smiled knowingly at the places I stroked with perfume. I dismissed him and looked at myself critically as I put on rouge. I was almost pretty when I got it right. I had moments when my eyes looked big and I didn’t have circles under them. I could tilt my head and smile and be twenty again, well, twenty-five. At other times,...

    • 25
      (pp. 267-270)

      During April and May, I saw Bruce as often as I could get away. He never came to the house, never saw Fred again, and never met my children. I drove across town to his place when I was supposed to be doing research at the library.

      The experience was enormously exciting. Making love, I’d think, maybe that was an orgasm. I couldn’t be sure and, to be truthful, I didn’t care. After years of my not being looked at, his attention was so penetrating, his touch so ecstatic, the question had fled my mind.

      There was no particular moment...

    • 26
      (pp. 271-277)

      Bruce planned to leave town on Friday. This was Monday, and if I were truly going, I had to tell Fred. And not just Fred. I wouldn’t sneak away. I wanted to do my dishonorable deed in an honorable way. I had this crazy idea that, if I did it right and explained my reasons for going, the family wouldn’t mind as much. Another example of my misplaced belief in the power of reason.

      Fred was first, and fear over what was to come made my stomach hurt. I fed the children breakfast, rehearsing silently. I would say nothing about...

    • 27
      (pp. 278-284)

      On Friday afternoon, July 1, 1966, I left. I put my suitcase in the trunk of the car that morning before Marie arrived. Thomas was down for his nap. I looked in on him, blonde curls damp against the pillow. I tried to swallow, but regret was a knot that wouldn’t go down. I walked out of the house and my marriage with only a purse, as if I were going for a loaf of bread. I saw Marie watching from the kitchen window.

      The plan was to meet Bruce on South State Street in front of the Pontiac dealership....

  7. Epilogue: 1970
    (pp. 285-290)

    My father called. Mother was in the hospital. She’d been in twice before for an intestinal blockage. Each time, they’d cut out the blocked portion, got things working, and sent her home. Each time, it collapsed again and now, after a third surgery, she was very weak. I flew to Jackson.

    I went back with fewer qualms than in the past. Bruce and I had been married for three years. I did not get my children; Fred was right about that, but Clay came to live with us when he was thirteen. The other three visited Florida twice a year...

  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-292)
  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 293-294)