Thanks to everyone, particularly Gillian, for the condolences and kind words about my grandmother.
DH and I were talking about her yesterday and he said something to the effect that the thing he found fascinating about her is that she was the most influential person he'd ever met and yet, she wasn't rich or famous and she never gave unsolicited advice or instructions. She was, he said, a person for whom people wanted to care without any prompting, and that was down to nothing more than who she was: a model of the best sort of person anyone could hope to be. (I knew there was a reason I love this guy!)
I was thinking about DH's words in the shower this morning and it occurred to me that while I agree with him absolutely, there was a lot more to my grandmother than merely being a "good" person. I mean … of course she was good, but there are a number of simplistic stereotypes about what constitutes "goodness" – e.g., words like vapid, inane, and judgmental come to mind – yet nothing could be further from her essence than words like those. The fact is, my grandmother wasn't cast in the mold of anyone's sweet little old granny.
I relate this not because it will be important to anyone else, but because as a writer, creating realistic characters is important to me, and I feel my grandmother's personality gave me significant insight into complex characters. For instance, she told me once that when she was young, she really had a temper and that she'd worked hard to overcome it. I don't recall exactly why she mentioned this, but I suspect it was because I'd told her something I'd done in a fit of my own horrible temper – like the time I stove a hole in the wall by hurling an iron at it. She said not a word of censure about me behaving like a giant's horse's arse (although I did), she just casually mentioned her own temper. She wasn't being facile though; in 44 years of knowing her, I saw her get truly angry exactly one time and I can only thank Christ it wasn't me she was mad at me cos I'm pretty sure that incident gave me a better understanding of the phrase "scorched earth." That was 30 years ago, and though I spent a lot of time with her in the intervening years, she never did it again. She won the battle to conquer her temper completely.
The funny thing is, I don't think she was trying to live up to idealistic notions of being "good;" I think she just didn't want to be a person who acted like a horse's arse. And she wasn't; not to mention the importance of showing me that it could be done (I still haven't attained it, but I live in hope!).
The reason this is relevant is because if I were to try to write about a character like my grandmother, it would be difficult to avoid the pitfall of assigning her behaviour to the influence of cultural stereotypes of womanhood in the patriarchal South. Of course we are all going to be affected by cultural influences somewhat, but there is a big difference between wanting to be a perfect lady and not wanting to be an equine posterior.
To me, this is important because even though I, too, am a daughter of the South and I'm well aware that there's more to it, I also see how easy it is to fall into defining complex behaviour as either conforming or subversive. However, this is not only simplistic; it's just plain wrong. All I need to do to convince myself of this is to look at the other women in my family. I suppose one might define them as "ladies," but I doubt very seriously that one could make a case for any of them fitting the cultural stereotype of Southern women (otherwise known as "doormat"). For example, Auntie, who has recently started her own blog, left Arkansas for Washington DC when she was a young woman and forged a brilliant career in the US Foreign Service. She may have defied cultural stereotypes of the 1950s, but she didn't defy her parents – they were proud of her, always. One of my female cousins is a rising star at a major corporation and the other is a Math teacher. I can't speak for them, but I can't relate to that stereotype because I've always done what I wanted with the encouragement of my dad, my grandfather, and my husband. That specific patriarchy was never anything but beneficial to me.
My grandmother vanquished her temper because she wanted to be a better person, illustrating a multifaceted character, and inspiring me to work on my own temper in the process. She also showed me that curbing one's temper does not a doormat make. Useful stuff!
Beware scorched earth.