Friday, October 1, 2010

"Big Bang Theory": Sheldon Has Cholera, and I Reminisce about Growing Up Southern

Tiny interval after a gruesome workout on my treadmill, and before we take the sister-aunts to Hot Springs to fill bottles with water and see the resort town.  As I treaded, I watched the latest episodes of "Big Bang Theory" and "Modern Family."

And I'm still laughing at Sheldon's latest antics on "Big Bang."  I recently read a posting at some food blog by a native Southerner who said that he has no ethnic roots, is just a vanilla American, and grew up in a family with no history beyond 1920.  And as I read, I thought, "Lucky him."  

My experience of growing up Southern couldn't have been more different.  It's impossible to grow up knowing nothing of your family's past beyond 1920 when you grow up among grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles who tell and retell stories told to them by their grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles.  Which automatically means that, simply by listening to the elders of your own family, you're accessing memories that go back a number of generations beyond them, which were handed down to them as memories from their own elders.

And, in venerable Southern fashion, many of those memories are memories of death--of how people died.  Gruesome accounts in lurid detail of how Aunt Delilah lingered for months with breast cancer, moaning in pain as she was "just eaten up" by the cancer, but never letting a complaint pass her lips.  

For years, I've been haunted by stories about my grandmother's uncle Ed--and so my great-great uncle--who died of dropsy, after having become so large he had to wear dresses that belonged to his niece Alice and sister Minerva.  And who dropped dead four days before Christmas as Minerva called the family to dinner, falling into the arms of his nephew as he turned from the fireplace to go to the table.

Death was a visitor at all of our tables, as I grew up.  And the deaths about which we heard stories like this weren't deaths of people we knew, but of people long since dead.

And so I completely understand why, when Sheldon has a stomach ache running through the lower right side of his abdomen, he might go online, look for the likeliest illness to match his gastric upset, and leap to the conclusion that he has cholera.  People die of cholera, or used to do so.  My 3-times great grandfather died of cholera in December 1849 in Louisiana, as an epidemic of that illness traveled up and down the riverways of the mid-section of the country, eventually reaching his household on the Red River.

And since this episode of "Big Bang Theory" opens with Sheldon creating a chart of the cause of death of all of his ancestors, and when they died, the joke is obviously how that long memory of some Southern families (Sheldon's from east Texas in the show, as is the actor who plays him, Jim Parsons)--your great-great uncle Ed dropped dead in the arms of his nephew Richard after suffering from dropsy for months--translates into absurd, but compelling assumptions that a stomach ache might be cholera.

Or I may have eaten chrysanthemum buds while sleep-walking in a nature center that grows rare, toxic mums.  Stranger things have been known to happen.

I find Sheldon highly amusing, because I know that, in watching him, I'm watching some part of myself--an exaggerated, non-vanilla part that has, for years, amused Steve.  Who grew up in a family far less prone to self-diagnosis and hypochondria, without a heritage of one tale after another about how aunt and uncle so and so died.

I can well imagine myself announcing one morning down the road that I have--I don't know how, but it's happened--contracted cholera, and am not long for the world.  The internet tells me so.  And my ancestor James G. Birdwell died of these precise symptoms in 1849, when it turned out he had drunk contaminated water and had cholera.

And I can well imagine Steve laughing uproariously, suggesting that googling might not be the best way to determine if one has a fatal illness, and informing me that, as far as he knows, cholera is no longer stalking the land.  How different, still, the way we approach the world, given our upbringings, North and South.

And of course people still die of cholera.  Or of chrysanthemum blossoms consumed during a sleep-walk jaunt through an arboretum at night.  For years, I tried to convince Steve that buildings might fall down, all of their own accord.  Just because.  Because nothing is made to last forever, and people make horrible mistakes when they make anything, out of stupidity or laziness or sheer malice.

And then didn't it happen, when we were living in New Orleans: a building simply collapsed in the French Quarter.  For no reason at all.  Just the entropy built into all that is made, the chthonic descent of all of us to dust.

Which is why we very much need St. Francis instructing the geese and ducks not to fly into the airplane motor.

And why we need to remember not to forget, because we forget what is possible to our own great peril.

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