A Family Affair
People often ask me if music or acting runs in my family, and the answer is no. Not even close! But as it turns out, crafting does. Not in the Home Sweet Home, “my mama taught me how to cross-stitch when I was little” way of Norman Rockwell paintings. My mother smoked two packs of cigarettes a day (as did my dad) and never taught me how to make anything, other than a beef Stroganoff using ground beef and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. (More on that later.) But I do have a very clear image of her sitting on the couch of our living rooms in both Athens and Augusta, Georgia—we moved often when I was young—smoking a Salem menthol, sipping on Pepsi, and cross-stitching. I’m not sure why my mom chose this rather old-fashioned craft as a hobby. Maybe, like getting married and having kids, it was just the thing to do. I wish I could ask her, but she died at the young age of sixty-six—eerily, the same age as her mother, Lenora, from whom I got my middle name. Lenora did intricate stitching called “tatting” on handkerchiefs and linen, and my Aunt Mary Anne, my mother’s older sister, is an incredible knitter and crocheter and cook. My mother liked to cross-stitch. I crochet.
I know this is all connected somehow. It’s why I wanted to write this book: I am looking for the common thread.
My mother, Helen Dale Jackson, grew up in a one-light town in North Carolina called Chadbourn. According to my Aunt Mary Anne, she was a social person and had a circle of friends in which, at times, she was even considered a ringleader. She could be bossy and an instigator, but there were no signs of the agoraphobia that so incapacitated her later in life. Her dad, an intimidating man whom we called Dada, was once the mayor of Chadbourn. He also owned the local department store, Jackson’s, which sold everything from clothing to housewares to furniture and fabric. Dada was known to be downright mean—and he was a millionaire! That was how my parents described him, and how I remember him. We visited him every summer during my childhood at one of his many houses (lake, river, and beach). When I close my eyes, I see him in his light-yellow Cadillac, wearing multiple gold chains. He was not warm and fuzzy. He believed children should be seen and not heard. My Aunt Mary Anne told me that growing up in Dada’s house, his children knew to do what he told them to do. He had a temper. In short, he lived up to his reputation.
My mother was nineteen years old when she told Dada that she wanted to move to New York to become a model. She was rail thin, like Twiggy, and would accompany her father when he traveled through the South to meet with dress manufacturers. Sometimes, they would go to fashion shows together. As she watched those women strut down the runway, a seed was planted in her that Dada squelched immediately, saying, “Absolutely not.” Instead, she went to community college, where she met my father. They fell in love, and when my mother told her father she wanted to marry him, Dada forbade that as well. That was too much. My mother clearly wanted control of her life, so she eloped. The story goes that when my mother shared the news with her father, his response was, “Are there any more surprises?” (Hunter, my brother, arrived a year and a half later, by the way.)
Marrying my father set my mother apart from her tight-knit family. She defied Dada, which no one else dared to do, first by eloping, then by being the only family member to leave her home state. After Hunter was born in Lumberton, North Carolina, my dad, a regional car salesman, was transferred to Statesboro, Georgia, where I was born six years later. We moved to Athens when I was five, and I have two distinct memories of that house: that our backyard had honeysuckle and blackberry bushes, and that our street was called Knob Lick Drive, which I still find hilarious. (I mean, come on.) I also remember riding my Big Wheel up and down the street until my mom made me sell it at our garage sale. She said I had outgrown it—I disagreed and was furious. She won, as would be the pattern for most of my young life.
My mom could be harsh, but she was also very funny, often both at once. She’s the source of the family legend that said I was bought at Kmart sitting between Godzilla and King Kong. Any time I misbehaved, my mom would threaten to send me back to the store. It worked, because I believed her. She also told me she had lizards in her purse to keep me from going near it. And that if I ate a grape seed, a plant would grow inside my stomach and out of my nose. I accidentally swallowed a seed one afternoon at school and panicked. I was so upset that the nurse sent me home, and I was too ashamed to tell my mother what had happened. I waited for days and weeks for that tree to grow! (I’m happy to report that it’s been over forty years since this incident and I am still tree-free.)
When I was in my twenties, I discovered a snapshot of Hunter as a child, dressed up in a housecoat, wearing a wig and glasses. He called this character “Bobo.” I asked my mom about it, and she clarified that it was in fact her costume.
“I would dress up in disguise when you were a toddler,” she explained in a matter-of-fact way.
“Why?” I asked.
“So you wouldn’t recognize me,” she said.
“What?” I was dumbfounded.
“I was stuck at home with two kids,” she said. “And you wouldn’t leave me alone. You were annoying.”
I was a toddler and have no memory of this at all, but it definitely tracks.
My mother enrolled me in ballet class at age four. She had taken dance lessons as a child as well, so she thought it was the right thing to do. But she also believed that it would help focus me, my dad recently explained. Apparently, I was “too energetic,” he said. And I ran into things.
According to him, I almost missed out on my first brush with musical theater because of this boundless childhood energy. Hunter had gotten the part of Linus in a local production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown being performed at our church in Statesboro. My parents were nervous about bringing me to the rehearsal since I had such a hard time sitting still. I’m grateful they took the chance, because I will never forget seeing my big brother up there on that small stage, singing his heart out. I was so mesmerized—I wanted to do that. The pull was magnetic. It looked fun.
The story goes that I didn’t move for the entire run-through, and this left such an impression on my parents—especially my mother—that, soon after, she started looking for similar opportunities for me. This was the beginning of my mother living her own unrealized dreams through her children.
In Augusta, she found a local theater company, the Augusta Players, for both me and Hunter. My first time onstage was in their production of A Christmas Carol. My mom also found the Augusta West Dance Studio, where I started taking jazz and tap in addition to ballet. I was very good at following directions and wanted to do everything right, so my teacher put me front and center for our first performance. It was the first time in my life I received applause, and it will not surprise you to hear that was a standout moment for me: I was like, What is this fabulousness? I was hooked. And my parents were, too. They were always in the audience with flowers or a balloon, so proud.
I started experimenting with humor on the stage from the start. My dance studio did a holiday show where I was cast as an elf. I wore a green-and-red suit and curly-toed shoes that had bells on them. My job was to open a giant box that released toy soldiers. The first time I did it in front of the audience, I fell down when I opened the box—on a whim. The audience gasped, and then erupted in laughter when they realized that I had done it on purpose. I credit Carol Burnett for inspiring me with her physical comedy—my family watched her variety show religiously, and I identified with her. I was the tallest girl in my dance class, and she was a goofy, funny, tall clown! In another performance of that pageant, I pretended to struggle to get the lid off, which got a lot of laughs as well. I soaked it up! These were my first memories of cause and effect. I do this, and the audience responds. I have been using humor in my performances ever since.
My mother saw how comfortable I was on the stage and continued to seek out more ways to support the spark she saw. I was ten years old when she spotted the flyer for a production of Annie at the Augusta Players. They were casting the orphans and looking for child actors who could dance and sing. The auditions were that same day.
“I think you should try out,” my mother suggested.
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
“Just go sing a song,” my mother said.
I had never sung in public before, but music had always been a huge part of my life. There was always a record spinning or an eight-track playing in my household: John Denver, the Bee Gees, the Beach Boys, James Taylor, and Dan Fogelberg were in constant rotation. Hunter, who was sixteen, took it further by forming a parody band called Hunter Jackson and the Knights of Jam, inspired by Weird Al Yankovic. (He loved Michael Jackson, so it was only fitting that he used our mother’s maiden name, Jackson, for his rock ’n’ roll persona.) So I was exposed to music, but I had no training whatsoever. That said, I had seen the Annie movie, with Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. I knew and loved all the songs, and would sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” in the tub, using a hairbrush as my microphone while I belted at the top of my lungs.
I was torn, though: my friend Bethany had just come over for a playdate.
“Bethany can audition, too,” my mother suggested.
It was late summer, and I was dressed accordingly in cutoff jean shorts, jelly shoes, and a fringed T-shirt with Myrtle Beach spray-painted on it in neon colors. Bethany said she thought it sounded fun, so we all piled into the car.
The theater looked more like a barn. There was a small stage at the bottom of two sets of risers. After my mother signed us in, Bethany and I followed her toward the top tier.
There were roughly eighty girls auditioning that day. A man called out names from a clipboard and I watched as one girl after the next walked down to a spot near the piano. The director asked each girl to sing a few bars of “Maybe.” I knew the song from the movie but had not prepared it. Still, as I listened to each girl sing, I thought, I can do that.
The director called my name. As I got up from my seat, my mother said, “Sutton, when you’re down there on the stage, make sure to sing up to me, so I can hear you.”
I didn’t know she sat in the back row on purpose—my Aunt Mary Anne told me this years later.
“And don’t forget to smile,” she said. This was something both my parents often reminded me to do.
“Yes, ma’am!” I may have said, and then walked down the risers and took my place by the piano. I wasn’t nervous at all—it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
The pianist played the intro chords and nodded at me when it was time for me to sing: “Maybe far away! Or maybe real nearby.”
I noticed that all the chatter stopped and the room got really quiet—and remained so as I sang through the entire song. When it was over, the silence followed me back up the risers. Everyone was just staring at me, including my mother. She looked pleasantly surprised, not by my performance but by the room’s response.
As I took my seat next to Bethany, I asked, “How did I do?”
Her eyes were wide as she squealed, “You were amazing! I had no idea you could sing!”
Bethany auditioned as well but did not get a callback.
Later that evening, my mom told me that I had—for the role of Annie. I knew I should have been excited, but when I first heard the news I was disappointed, because I’d had my heart set on playing Pepper, the tough, sassy orphan. I wasn’t sure I wanted to play the lead role.
She said they wanted me to sing “Tomorrow” at the callback.
“You need to practice, Sutton,” she said.
Over the next few days, I sang along with the soundtrack, in our living room, standing on the cheese crate on which my father’s mother, Maw Maw, had lovingly stenciled the word Mommy, her gift to my parents when Hunter was born. (See? I told you crafting ran in the family!) That cheese crate became a de facto stage for so many of my childhood performances. I loved hitting the high notes and belting: “To-MOR-row, to-MOR-row! I love ya, tomorrow!”
My mom sat on the couch and gave notes:
“Sing to the back row.”
“Make sure to smile.”
“Raise your right arm up on the last note.”
She also made me sing it over and over until I got it just right.
It worked. I got the part—and wound up being interviewed on local TV as a result.
“Have you any plans to go into the theater as a profession later on?” the reporter asked me.
“Maybe just a little,” I replied.
I had no idea that being onstage and singing could be a profession. I just thought it was something you did for fun.
That was when the musical theater seed took root. Not just for me, but for my entire family. It was something we all loved, and it brought us together. Hunter had natural talent too. He was cast in Godspell and then did Bye Bye Birdie at his high school, followed by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We both auditioned for the Augusta Players’ The Sound of Music: I played Brigitta and he played Rolf. My dad bought a giant video recorder to film our performances. (He still has all the VHS tapes.) We would host cast parties at our house, eating pizza and drinking Pepsi, those grainy tapes playing in the background. My parents enjoyed it as much as Hunter and I did.
When the director of the Augusta Players asked for help building the set for a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, my father volunteered. He was incredibly handy and was always fixing something around the house and in our garage. For the play, he fashioned a twenty-foot vine the width of a fat tree trunk out of chicken wire and green fabric, complete with offshoots. In the production of Grease, Hunter was cast as Danny Zuko and I played Patty Simcox, the obnoxious cheerleader. For that, my father salvaged two fenders off a VW he found at the junkyard, and four old tires. He took it all to Milton Ruben Chevrolet, where he welded several pieces of sheet metal together to fashion a car frame that he painted cherry red and slipped on top of a golf cart. That was Greased Lightnin’.
He was very much that dad.
When I think back to my childhood, I see how theater was the happy glue that kept us connected.
But not for long.