He Said, She Said by Ann Walling
“It’s the roof,” said the architect. “During a rain, there is way too much water coming off the roof for the gutter to handle.” And suddenly, the heavens opened up, and the spirit of truth and joy descended into my kitchen.
The architect’s words ended a three-week argument with the foreman of a construction crew that was, and still is, renovating my house. It was a pitched battle of fact vs. misogyny that began soon after my foreman installed a doggie door in my kitchen door. The pups and I were delighted—until the first rain. I watched the water pour down the roof, cascade over the gutter, splash onto the nice new porch the framer had just built, and flow into the kitchen through the doggie door.
The foreman listened as carefully as he could to my description of the problem, then promptly ripped out the old doggie door and had the framer rebuild the porch.
“It’s the roof, not the porch,” I protested.
“No! It’s the porch and the doggie door,” he replied, ignoring me completely. He installed a newer and bigger doggie door and a new porch. Soon, it rained. I watched the water pour down the roof, cascade over the gutter, splash onto the nice new porch the framer had just built again, and flow into the kitchen through the newer, bigger, water proof doggie door.
New plan. He would hire the framer again to lower the porch. That would surely solve the problem.
“Are you positive it’s the porch and not the roof?” I asked.
“Ma’am, I am positive.” He’d thought about it, and he agreed with himself.
“Let’s ask the architect,” I said.
“Ma’am, we don’t need an architect.” The foreman was certain.
I grew up in the South in an era of men who were often wrong, but never in doubt. In the 1940s and 50s, it seemed, a fact posited by a woman had no chance whatsoever of becoming true until it was reiterated by a man—a white man of social standing, ideally. This was all part of a “right order” I was taught from childhood. “Right order” was a system that indoctrinated each person in how to behave in society appropriate to his or her bloodline, race, gender, wealth, and religion.
I may have been born to an upper-crust family, but I also belonged to the second-class gender, a fact my father never let me forget.
In Southern society, white men were (and still often see themselves) at the top. Their position was especially secure if they were Protestant, straight, and wealthy. My father thought I fit very nicely into the perfect-lady mold. He told me I was cute and pretty (as opposed to my brother, who was handsome and brilliant). According to his plan for me, I would marry well and remain untarnished by worldly activities such as politics, business, and government. I would find my place in a man’s home and fulfill my purpose as wife, mother, and homemaker.
In my world, women’s voices carried some weight in the home, but we were never the final authority in anything. If you wanted to get the “real” answer to a question, you would ask a man. It didn’t matter whether the question was about the pain in your back, the water-damaged couch, the overdraft in your checking account, or the date of the Christmas tea at church: Ask a man. By way of explanation, my father once told me that men were more important than women, and that I would have to get used to it. I never did.
As it happens, the foreman on my project is a man, and a Texan to his core—which I presume makes him extra important. He is big and tall and speaks with a deep drawl. He loves Texas-land, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz. And he loves firearms of any kind—so much, that when the NRA convened in Nashville, he took a day off from work to attend.
This man is a Southerner, like me, and knows all about “right order.” He grew up knowing that he was in charge of any space occupied chiefly by women. He always addresses me as “ma’am,” even though we are about the same age. Once, he told me I reminded him of his mother. He said he wanted me to know that because he had so much respect for me. But he never listened to a single word I said.
Our uneasy stalemate stretched from days into weeks. Water kept flowing into my kitchen through the second and third doggie doors. The conversation never changed, except that my contractor started to sprinkle one additional “fact” into our discussions: “I never tell a lie,” he told me several times. And maybe it was true. After all, lie and self-delusion are two different things.
About three weeks later, the architect dropped by. He took one look at the situation and declared, “It’s the roof. During a rain, there is way too much water coming off the roof for the gutter to handle.”
“Of course it’s the roof,” the foreman echoed. “We need to fix those gutters.”
Ann Boult Walling is the author of Sunday Dinner; Coming of Age in the Segregated South. The book is available to purchase on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites. Read more about Ann and the book at http://sundaydinnerbook.com/.
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