New York City: A Southern Family Visits
Published: May 2009
By Kevin Sessums
A New Yorker shows his Southern family how life in the city is meant to be lived.
I'm not taking down any of my art," I nervously warned my little brother, Dr. J. Kim Sessums, an ob-gyn from Brookhaven, Mississippi. He had just phoned to tell me that he and his wife, Kristy, were bringing their four children—sons Jake, 15; Stewart, 11; Price, 9; and daughter Joey, 13—to stay with me in my TriBeCa loft during Easter break from their school, a private Christian academy of the kind that, county by county, with the zealotry of kudzu, continues to sprout across the stubborn landscape of the American South. Though Kim and Kristy had often come to New York City for the U.S. Open tennis tournament, they had yet to let their offspring bask in the pleasures of the spiffed-up city's still slightly dirty boulevards, much less those of its spiffier, dirtier boulevardiers, the latter being a rather apt description of the uncle they were about to visit. Considering our history together, I was quite moved by the gesture.
"This is my last chance to give us some memories of family vacations," Kristy said. She had already surprised her children with a weeklong Christmas jaunt to St. John in the Caribbean, and news of an upcoming summer trek to the national parks out West. "In another year Jake will be that age when taking a trip with the rest of us won't interest him at all. His own life will start getting in the way."
When they arrived on my doorstep, they were already in the throes of the trip's first crisis. Kim, a painter and sculptor as well as a doctor (Andrew Wyeth, Eudora Welty, and Billy Graham have all patiently sat for one of his finely rendered busts), had left a portrait of Chuck Close, which he had hoped to get to the artist while in Manhattan, on the luggage carousel at Kennedy airport. Though I had managed to snare seven coveted tickets to a Knicks game against the Miami Heat that started in a couple of hours, Kim hopped back into his waiting cab, promising to meet us at Madison Square Garden after a harried rush-hour trip back to Queens.
Kristy rolled her eyes. The kids widened theirs and tried, as they had no doubt been warned, not to notice my art collection, a landscape as stubborn as any to be found in our native South. Across from the couch, a couple of images by Robert Mapplethorpe dared them to look away. In one, a view of an African-American male's backside seemed suddenly to hum inside the room, like a splotch of heat, deep in August, hovering just ahead on a Mississippi blacktop. The other offered a crouching figure completely encased in rubber, with a hose, longer than any serpent's tongue they had read about in Sunday school, slithering from a slit in the place usually occupied by the human mouth.
"Hungry?" Kristy quickly inquired.
Our history together: Kim and I—along with our sister, Karole—were orphaned early in life. Our father was killed in an automobile accident when I was seven, Kim five, and Karole three. Our mother died the next year of esophageal cancer. Her parents, already collecting social security, took us in and raised us in the backwoods of Mississippi. Our 1960's childhoods were filled with Southern diversions: baiting hooks for reeling in catfish right in our back-yard pond, picking ripe butter beans, and, most important, listening to our grandparents bellow on about the evils of the Civil Rights movement roiling around us. Our own eyes widened back then at the fervor of their racism, which was belligerent and righteous, "backed up by the Bible, boy." Our parents' deaths having matured us beyond our years, this deciphering of human emotions gave us yet another nascent bit of wisdom, not the usual sort uttered from the mouths of babes, but the rarer kind held silently inside our already seasoned hearts. How were we to resist recruitment into a way of life that troubled us so, and at the same time discover the safety we so desperately needed in these two people so dangerously wrong? Simple. Family, we realized much too early on, is not about loving those who are, in some profound way, the same as you. Family is about loving those who are fervently, profoundly different.
"Live! Live! Live!" I instructed my nephews and niece, ready pupils all, during halftime of the Knicks game as I capped off my recitation of their busy itinerary above the din of the hometown crowd. Kim and Kristy had already christened me "The Travel Director," and I was enjoying showing off a bit too much about what I had been able to conjure with my vaunted connections, culled from 24 years in the city. Still, I worried: Had I planned—myopically—the trip I would have wanted if I had been my own uncle during those stifling Mississippi summers?Too late. As the children's great-grandfather had so often done himself—first with a hooked-up Shetland pony, later with a secondhand apparatus he could siphon gasoline into—we did what we had always done as a family: plowed on ahead.
The next morning all awoke early and headed to Rockefeller Center to watch a taping of the Rosie O'Donnell Show. Following a tour of the offices of Vanity Fair, where I am a contributing editor, we grabbed lunch in NoHo's Time Café—not as good as the Cub Room in SoHo, where the night before, a friend of mine, chef-owner Henry Meer, had sent out a surprise assortment of desserts that sugar-rushed us through the middle of the third quarter at the Garden. After lunch, Kim dropped off the recovered portrait of Chuck Close at the artist's studio, leaving it with a feckless assistant. That night we all experienced Lion King on Broadway.
"Live! Live! . . ."
"Live!" Price finished the incantation for me as we headed for the Cirque du Soleil the next evening, after a day of F.A.O. Schwarz and the Statue of Liberty. By the end of the eerily enchanting show his nine-year-old eyes were wider—and sleepier—than I had ever seen them, which was proof of the trip's success—that first hint of irony in his own ready pupils.
On Saturday, while their father took in the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition of portraits by French sculptor Augustin Pajou, Kristy and I herded the brood to a matinée of Ragtime—not a good choice for kids. Afterward, we rendezvoused with Kim at the Official All Star Café in Times Square. We wolfed down some hamburgers before the 8 p.m. curtain for The Diary of Anne Frank, which proved to be quite a good choice—the only one, in fact, that Kristy had insisted upon, considering it something her Southern Christian children should see on the Northern eve of another Easter.
After a breakfast feast at the SoHo Grand Hotel, we made it to First Presbyterian on lower Fifth Avenue just in time for the 11 a.m. service. I thought they all would feel more comfortable here than at St. Paul Community Church on 145th Street, where I occasionally contribute my rough baritone to the rousing gospel choir. Wrong. With rare unanimity they told me they would have much preferred to head up to Harlem for some hand-clapping, foot-stomping worship instead of the austere, lilied idyll I had predestined for them. Anne Frank?Harlem?Presumptions, like defenses (especially after sharing one bathroom with six other forever-showering, toilet-happy people), were falling away.
After we all strolled up Fifth in New York's annual Easter Parade, we headed back to my loft, exhausted, for their last night in the city. Kim bought sandwiches and soft drinks at my neighborhood deli. We spread out on my floor and ended up in an impromptu urban tableau of that most pastoral of planned images: a family picnic. In another bit of avuncular predestination, I popped in a videotape of Auntie Mame. Famished, I quickly finished my sandwich, then lay on the couch to take in the film. A spring draft wafted through the loft, and I pulled an old quilt over me, the kind that's frayed with holes and family lore. "Sshshsh. . . just listen to the stitches," my grandmother had once advised when I, sad and searching for answers, curled up next to her and watched as she ran her crooked hand, crippled by a stroke, across the patches of fabric.
Price, now cold himself, climbed in beside me. Under the gaze of his parents and the gazeless Mapplethorpes, we snuggled for warmth as Rosalind Russell, in her role as Mame, cavorted, teared up a time or two, and found a way, thank God, to camp with grace.
"Live! Live! Live!" she admonished us all.
"You're Auntie Mame!" Price suddenly informed me—as well as himself. "That's awesome," he whispered.
Kim smiled, as did Kristy. "When he decides it's safe to curl up next to you, well, no sleeping pill can match it," she told me. "It's more than relaxing. It's . . ."
". . . comforting," said Kim. "Right?Y'all comfortable?"
It was my turn to smile now as we slowly fell asleep like that—their most innocent and I, the two of us quilted together, tethered by identical breaths—and dreamed different dreams.