Growing up in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business can be trying to a girl with dreams of visiting the world. Hillary Buchanan sensed this, even if she didn’t quite know it. Small minds with families tied to the Klan, southern Protestants of the worst kind, Hillary was told with whom she could and couldn’t be friends.
“Racism was never outright in our house. They were somewhat educated and considered themselves enlightened but they were still bigots. And it wasn’t tolerated or chuckled at like Archie Bunker. He was understood, even nodded to.”
Hillary wonders if any of her extended family members were involved in any lynchings. They never talked about it (at least while she was in earshot) but there were rumors. Hillary didn’t know any black people. In fact she never saw an African American person until the family took a trip to Raleigh, and her first eye witness account was a little old lady, laden with packages, trying to flag down a cab, and each one would slow down, see her, and then speed off.
“I saw the Negros, or Colored, and White signs for things. It was crazy. I didn’t understand it, but my outlook started to change. Along with the heat, I started to feel suffocated in South Carolina. Even though I didn’t know it, I was looking for a way out, any excuse.”
Hillary recalls going to see a play with her mama, who liked the arts. There was a lady with a huge blonde wig, red, red lips and blue eye shadow. Hillary thought she was the most glamorous woman she’d ever seen. The actress sang and her voice seemed to fill the little theatre with the voice of an angel. Afterwards she asked her mother if they could meet the actress and her mother, with an appalled look, grabbed her daughter and pulled her out of the theatre house so quickly she almost fell trying to keep up.
She would see the woman around town. Without her hair teased up and make-up, she looked much like any other young woman, but one who wore her clothes too right and provocatively for the town’s busy bodies.
“Once I saw her in the library. She was reading a magazine and the light from the tall windows was falling on her, and she looked like an angel. She took my breath away.”
The woman’s name was Shondra, a stage name she’d picked up when cocktail waitressing in New York City. Shyly, Hillary asked if she could sit by her and hear stories. Her lust for travel and escape deepened.
“[Shonra’s purse was] a treasure chest! All things that, like Shondra herself, were considered ‘flouncy’ and ‘floozy’ by the good, moral, church going folks where Hillary lived.”
Shondra let the younger girl go through her pocketbook. What a treasure chest! Red lipstick, coins, a gemstone studded cigarette case. All things that, like Shondra herself, were considered “flouncy” and “floozy” by the good, moral, church going folks where Hillary lived.
It became painfully obvious to Hillary that the people in town didn’t treat Shondra right. The men would leer covertly, and the women would arch their backs and either toss daggers of sneering looks or cast their aspersions down their noses at her.
“Why does everyone treat you so mean, Shondra?” asked a still innocent Hillary.
“They don’t child. Some of the people here, they treat me REAL nice,” Shondra chuckled.
It wasn’t until years later that Hillary figured out what she’d meant by that, and why Shondra stayed so long in their small town even after the theatre troupe had left for the next venue. Shondra rented a small room behind one of the stores, a kindly old, half blind gentleman. Hillary was forbidden to visit her, but she still tried to meet her as often as she could in the library. Shondra liked to look at the fashion magazines and sigh her dreams of going to Paris and Milan, further stoking young Hillary’s dreams of a world beyond the South.
And then one day Shondra was simply gone. No more secret forays into the mysteries contained in her small purse, no more dreams of Europe wearing gorgeous gowns, no more beautiful singing, and no more late night visits from men. The town was relieved, and like the undercurrent of racism that tinged the streets, the tawdry woman was never again spoken of.
Hillary got her own chance to escape when a handsome young sales man by the name of Ben Buchanan wandered down, a “Yankee in Southern territory,” to expand his sales region to include South Carolina. Hillary didn’t think many folks in the tobacco town had much use for his gadgets, but his effervescent charm wooed many of the ladies into giving up their precious pennies for a potato peeler, or a woolen mitt guaranteed never to burn, or whatever other invention he could get his hands on to sell. He could sell ice to Eskimos, he’d like to boast. His dimples didn’t hurt either.
He was from New York state, and to Hillary, that was good enough. On his third trip down South, they made plans to elope. She saved her money and he sent her a train ticket. In two weeks, she had left her hometown and married her love Ben in Albany. The family was appropriately aghast – marrying a Yankee! But secretly they sent her money and long letters. It was in those letters that Hillary finally understood that many of the women in town were longing for more out of life too. She’d been the one who actually did it.
Hillary and Ben remained married until 1999 when her beloved husband passed away. They have three children and now seven grandchildren.
Hillary and Ben on their 50th wedding anniversary
Thank you Hillary, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life