There stands, on my dining room server shelf, an empty decanter, in the likeness of the Civil War General Robert E. Lee. It is Georges Boyer Porcelain – Limoges, France. It is marked on the bottom and around the base it says SOUTHERN COMFORT. It has a removable hat (with a cork stopper.) Today, this decanter would probably not sell for very much, since it was broken and I had to “crazy glue” the General Lee’s head and right shoulder, into a seamless recovery. I would not sell it, anyway. It is priceless, in spite of fine cracks in the surface. This 11-inch-tall General Robert E. Lee stands quietly, stoically, with dignity, in spite of the fact that he was the son of dysfunctional parent, Major General and Former Virginia Governor, Henry “Lighthorse Harry,” who was eventually put into debtor’s prison for his alcoholism. “Lighthorse Harry” albeit a Revolutionary War hero, is remembered for writing George Washington a bad check. Lee grew up in a family of “overachievers”. Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy” to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870. He remains one of the most revered, iconic figures of American military leadership, I am told.
I moved to Richmond, VA on a rainy April Fools Day, 1989; very uncomfortable and ambivalent about moving into the South, but did, since I hoped to save my first marriage. My first husband, Tom’s only successful job was as a liquor salesman. I made the most of that success by hanging out, increasing my alcohol consumption, trying to immerse myself in my new life by spending too much time at a local spot named, Southern Culture, while Tom was working out of town, increasing his integration into the Virginia Wine Business and winning the Governor’s Cup Award for Virginia Wine Sales. Tom and I were the perfect “carpet baggers.” Richmond, Virginia was, on first impression, overly patristic, entrenched in traditions and past resentment and segregation. I cannot count the number of times I was complimented for my perfect pronunciation of the English language, but when I spoke in my bluntest NJ feminist assertiveness, I was told, “Bless your heart, dear! You might want to put a little honey with that vinegar!” Drinking Southern Comfort and Mint Juleps and Bourbon helped me squelch what perceived as another form of endless “isms” of the South.
By 1997, I was diagnosed as chronically depressed with a major “Adjustment Reaction” at the dissolution of my marriage: my own “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” Not unlike General Lee’s father, “Light Horse Harry” I feared I’d never climb out of debt and despair. My historical significance with Southern Comfort relates to my own personal civil war and “personal reconstruction” with an increasing descent into resentment of the Very Richmond, and eventual alcoholism.
On May 3, 2003, a day of Nascar Races and more unending rain, and most notably, my second wedding to my “very Richmond” husband, Jim Woody, Jr. Mom gave the Southern Comfort Decanter of General Robert E. Lee, to Jim as our wedding gift. She was so happy that I met and married a man who was born and bred in the Capitol of the Confederacy, a true Southern Gentleman, like General Robert E. Lee was. I received a Korean Doll made of silk, with a hand-painted face, given to her by Bertha and Harry Holt, who pioneered International Adoption, by adopting 8 Korean War Orphans, in 1955. It was my mother’s first acknowledgement that I was a Korean-American.
In retrospect, I remember thinking that this particular decanter was of great interest to me, since I remember my proud “Daughter of the American Revolution” mother used to brag to us children that she was a direct descendent of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who is known for his harshness in his “scorched earth” military strategies, which led to the destruction of much of the South, during the Civil War. I often wondered why she did keep that very decanter in our NJ home.
I always marveled at the smooth Limoges figure, as a child. I liked the soft bluish grey color of his uniform. His dignified expression on his face and the calmness in his demeanor were a comfort to me, as I gazed up at him through the shiny, clear glass of my mother’s china cabinet. I always liked General Lee, standing tall, erect, calming my childish imaginings and eventual losses and disappointments.
The story my mother told us on our wedding day was that my German American Immigrant father, Kurt Emil Lerke, was a 10-year-old boy, who suffered greatly from WW1, as a German who lost the war. He came to the United States, through Ellis Island, on my mother’s birthday, September 9, 1922. He so wanted to assimilate, to become an American Citizen. As a boy, he collected coins and stamps and as a young man, he collected decanters and some of the decanters were over 100 Southern Comfort Decanters of American Figures produced by Limoges, France. He never spoke German, again. He met my mother at a USO dance in Kalamazoo, Michigan, an All American Girl.
After the Korean War, my mother and father took pity on the ostracized Korean orphans, abandoned before and after the war. So, they asked for “the children who need us, the most.” In order to purchase a 3-acre plot and goats and chickens, to be able to feed and raise their malnourished adopted babies, they sold all of my father’s collectibles. The man, who bought the Southern Comfort decanter figures, forgot to take the General Robert E. Lee and so they kept the decanter in the china cabinet, to remind them of the time they adopted my brother, Charles and me. It is a Southern Comfort to me, now.
Korean-American adoptee, from New Jersey, finding comfort in the south with memories of childhood.