My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Absolute Joy - My Top Twenty List

As I'm getting older and realizing my days here are numbered, I do try to seize the day, to be in the moment. Usually it doesn’t work, but occasionally it does. Being here in Portland with my grandchildren, holding them, and actually being able to feel their chubby feet and their very busy little vibes, make me want to stop time in order to frame the feeling, to be acutely present in the absolute joy I'm experiencing.

All of this thinking and feeling leads me to the notion of documenting, in some way, memories of great happiness I've felt throughout my life. I worked diligently to narrow them down; most are generic, a few specific. The majority are from recent years, but not all. And please know that I realize how self serving this is, how all about me it is, and why on earth would anyone else want to read it? If you decide to pass this one by, I won't blame you. However, I do wonder if my list will encourage you to contemplate
your list.

Here is my Absolute Joy Top 20 List at this particular moment in no particular order:
  1. Certain songs and singers - Fly Like a Bird by Boz Skaggs, Wayfaring Stranger by Johnny Cash, almost anything by Van Morrison or Lucinda Williams or Tracy Chapman ( I just added this one) or Neil Young (I've got to turn off KPIG)
  2. Holding my babies and grandbabies for the first time
  3. Sunrises and sunsets - I know this one is sappy and probably a cliche, but it's true
  4. My birthday dinner at Tierra with Molly, when we talked about her dreams for her future and I drank too much wine and she drove me home
  5. A Gospel Christmas each year at Atlanta Symphony Hall
  6. Sitting at a tiny Italian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, eating lunch, while my dissertation was being printed
  7. Watching my grandkids dance
  8. Barack Obama winning the presidency
  9. Finding my copy of Arizona Highways with the article I'd written in my mailbox
  10. When Allison preached my mother’s funeral at the edge of Oak Creek
  11. Many Christmas mornings, especially one at Tybee some time around 1995
  12. The beach in winter
  13. When someone likes my writing
  14. Being with my kids
  15. When I create something new and I'm happy with it
  16. The first time I saw Michael Jackson moonwalk
  17. The beginning of Lonesome Dove and the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany
  18. Most cats
  19. Christmas lights, especially the colored ones, especially when they are in bars
  20. My solo weekend trip to Paris
I thought hard about this list and it feels right. People who know me well will say, "There's Marcia going on again about such and such," but that's a good thing because, if I blab about it to the point of embarrassing myself, then I probably love it, and what I love defines me.

In addition, with the exception of being with my family, almost everything on my list happened when I was by myself, and I don't know if that means I'm ultimately happiest with just me, or, if it could be that, without the distraction of others, I'm better able to stop and appreciate the wonderfulness of a particular moment.

So, I guess supreme happiness for me would be to meet up with a cat at a beach-side bar at sunset on Christmas with Van Morrison on the jukebox. I could show the cat pictures of my grandkids dancing and, perhaps, something I've written. I just hope he'd like it.

A Place Called Grammyville

Grammyville is where I live, not just when I’m within physical proximity to my grandchildren, but all the time.

Grammyville is difficult to describe. It's a fine place, but its skyline is changeable and directions there are tricky. I can tell you it not only offers some sweet spaces and a few social graces, but also busy intersections and noisy neighborhoods.

I have to admit I didn't feel like a grandmother right away. It wasn't the same as when my own serial litter began arriving thirty-five years ago. Because it doesn’t involve hormonal changes or an alien body invasion, I think becoming a grandmother is more like being a father, or, perhaps, an adoptive mother. All of a sudden there is this new person in the world, a person you didn’t have nine months to get to know.

A blogger friend recently posted something about how, as soon as someone becomes a grandmother, that’s the way she’s defined. While that may be true for marketing directed at me and people like me, I don’t think I’m particularly bound by my grandparenthood. Besides being a Grammy, I am also a teacher and a reader and a writer and a friend and a Democrat and a lapsed Methodist and a Diet Coke drinker and all the other good and bad and so-so things I am. In addition, I don’t own any t-shirts with pictures of my grandkids on them and my internet username doesn’t include precious references to them. That said, I did iron their photos on my little hand-made wallet, but that’s obviously more about creativity than progeny.

I do know, as soon as the grandchildren started arriving(and kept arriving) in Portland, Oregon, my living in Atlanta, Georgia became more problematic. Having my two oldest children live on the west coast for almost a decade hadn’t affected me all that much until they started having children of their own. Until then, the twice yearly quick-trips seemed to suffice quite nicely as we all went on living our lives.

I was in the room when Miles was born and what a memory that is. But I have to say my joy was more for Melissa and Trevor and for our family as a whole than it was for me personally. I was certainly excited, but I hadn’t quite landed in Grammyville yet. I held the little critter and thought he was mighty cute, but, at that point, I was more focused on how Melissa, my own baby, was doing. The bonding began to happen the more I was around Miles, especially when I had him to myself. I remember when Melissa and Trevor came to Georgia to attend the Master’s Golf Tournament and I kept Miles overnight, letting him sleep with me for a little while when he woke up in the middle of the night. I still recall the feel of his baby skin and the rhythm of his heart as he slept next to me.

When Cami came along, I made it to Portland when she was just a couple of days old. Again, I was happy for Billy and Mary and for all of us, and she was an adorable little nugget too. But it was months later, when I took her for her first walk in her stroller with her little red sunhat and we stopped and looked at the flowers and listened to the birds, that I began to see the two of us as an item.

Georgia, my newest grandchild, while a cutie pie herself, still isn’t too sure about me. In fact, she tends to cry as soon as I walk into a room. However, I’m confident we will become friends as soon as we can get rid of her mama for a couple of hours. She already thinks I’m pretty funny when I make my stupid noises and that’s an important first step in learning to love me.

I believe good communities are based on mutual affection and shared experiences, and that's certainly true for Grammyville. When Miles grins and says "Hi Grammy" in his gravelly boy voice and then does his special burlesque act for me, my heart expands with real joy. When Cami lets me hold her hand as we take a walk and when she sits in my lap for a story, it feels like the old ticker is going to burst. And I'm thinking the first time Georgia picks me over everyone else in the room (and she will), I just might explode with happiness.

And so, if I had to pinpoint Grammyville's whereabouts, I'd have to say it's located somewhere near the center of my heart. I just hope that having it take up residence there doesn't cause me to go into cardiac arrest, or, worse yet, to change my email address to something like, or, worst-case scenario, to become so delusional as to believe there's a place called Grammyville.

The Little Man

This past Mother’s Day, I decided to re-read some letters my mother wrote to my father during the summer of 1952. Daddy was recalled to active duty by the Army during the Korean War and we were living at Fort Benning, Georgia. At some point, he had been sent to California for a few months and Mama was having to defend the home front all by herself, caring for my brother Sandy, who must have been about five, and two-year-old me. The letters are affirmations of my mother’s devotion to my father and her dedication to post-WWII family life. Here’s an excerpt from one of them:

I made an unauthorized $10 expenditure today. However, it will come out of my usual $30 per week household expense account. I bought the children a wading pool.

Apparently, the summer was hot and the post pool didn't offer enough relief, so Mama had taken matters in her own capable hands. What I can't help but ponder is that the kind of frugality mentioned in the letter would be unfathomable today, as would be even considering having the husband “authorize” the purchase of a wading pool from twenty five hundred miles away (especially without the ability to text).

The letters are, indeed, sweet and evocative of the time; however; in re-reading them, I was struck by the theme that runs through them all, a theme as disconcerting with this latest reading as with former perusals.

And that theme is The Little Man and what a gem he was, the little man being my brother, Sandy. Now, you're probably thinking I'm making too much of the sibling rivalry thing here, but I'm not. Read below for evidence of my assertion:

On Sandy’s teeth pulling:

He had two teeth pulled this afternoon without a whimper. I was so proud of him and everyone made over him which pleased him no end..... Back to Sandy and the way he took this today. I really believe he is beginning to grow up and lose some of those vague fears he has always had.

Okay, maybe he was a suck-up little scaredy cat with delusional tendencies but she was still so proud of him.

Then there’s this about what a perfect little student he was at the age of five:

Did I tell you about Sandy’s report card? The comments were to the effect that Sandy is a quiet, mannerly child who is cooperative and well adjusted.

And athletic and brilliant, although a bit odd and perhaps a voyeur:

Wish you could see Sandy in the water. He’s a funny child. He learns more by watching than any other way. He was watching the life guards fooling around in the water and I looked up and there he was doing the breast stroke and not badly either. Last week he watched some boys for a while and then walked over to the edge of the pool and dived in – no preliminaries, no announcements or anything. I guess he figured it out in his head and then went and did it. Some child!

And did I mention good with money?

Sandy made a purchase today. He’s saved his allowance for 4 weeks plus his silver dollar for an inflated raft. He’s thrilled to death. By the way, he has 2 loose teeth – front bottom. One is awfully loose but he’s trying to save them till you get home so you can help him get them out. Of course, the whole idea is based on the return that the fairy is supposed to give him. I believe he'd swap every tooth in his head for suitable financial remuneration. He’s a money conscious little fellow – do you suppose he’ll be a tycoon?

It’s not that she never mentioned me, but notice how quickly she changed the subject.

We were in the water only about a short time and Marcia got mighty red. I was afraid last night that she would have blisters – but seems to be okay today. You should see Sandy. I took him out in water over his head and taught him to tread water. He did very well and would swim 3 or 4 feet out there.

Okay, the only mention of me was that I was too stupid to get out of the sun, but, at least I wasn't much trouble. See below for another example of my stupidity, but also a rather exceptional tolerance for pain.

That night she pulled the fire extinguisher over on her bare foot and I just knew I’d have to take her up for an x-ray – but apparently after the initial fright there was no damage except for white stuff being sprayed everywhere.

It was only after my mother's death that my brother owned up to being the one who dropped the fire extinguisher on my foot, the injured foot that caused me to be crippled and "different" for my entire life, having the fourth toe on my left foot be shorter than my pinkie toe.

I did, however, excel in one important way.

Wish you had seen Marcia eat tonight. She ate 2 and ½ pieces of chicken, 2 helpings of rice and gravy, English peas, cantaloupe, milk and then went over to the Olson’s and ate a piece of cake, 3 pieces of cheese, 3 carrot sticks, came back here and ate 2 graham crackers, small glass of milk and 3 mints. She probably won’t need to eat again for a week.

A great ending to this sad story would undoubtedly include additional evidence of my abuse and anecdotes about what an entitled ass my brother grew up to be. However, I must tell you that Mama was a wonderful mother to both my brother and me, and The Little Man grew into a big man and a good man, turning out to be all the things Mama predicted he would be when he was just five. I'm not sure one would call him a tycoon, but he did well in all the ways that are important, and he's my brother and I love him.

As for my tiny toe injury, I now believe Sandy told me it was his fault to make me feel better about being such an idiot when I was two. However, what would really make me feel better would be
2 and ½ pieces of chicken, 2 helpings of rice and gravy, English peas, cantaloupe, milk, a piece of cake, 3 pieces of cheese, 3 carrot sticks, 2 graham crackers, small glass of milk, and 3 mints.

Well, maybe not the English peas.

The Little Man and me. It's a wonder I could stand what with my injury.

Good Golly

Miss Molly

What a week this has been for you. After making the ridiculous decision to take four teacher-certification tests in one day, having had a total of eight weeks of education courses, you managed to pass all of them, getting your results a few days ago. And then there was the going to class and finding out you are now highly qualified (a No Child Left Behind leftover term) to teach either Special Ed or English or some kind of crazy combination of both.

But let’s go back about 25 years.

You were my late-in-life baby, a surprise but never a mistake. On the day you were born, as I put you to my shoulder to smell your sweetness, you patted me on my close-to -middle-aged back with your little hand, as if to say everything would be all right.

There were times during your teenage years when I questioned your commitment to that promise.

Although we had picked out Emily for you, you were a Molly from the first time I saw you. Whenever you complained about being named after a Little Richard song, your daddy told you to be grateful it wasn’t Tutti Frutti.

You didn’t have an easy childhood with your father and me divorcing when you were six, with your anxiety causing you to throw-up into Barbara’s kitty litter box each morning on your way to school, and with your sorry eyesight requiring your little pink glasses.

Barbara’s house was your safe haven while I traveled with work and other things. She did your hair, bought your clothes, packed your lunch, and was generally your mother while I climbed my ladder and followed my bliss. You were so good at school and so worried about it that I promised you a party if you’d just get into some kind of trouble.

That was a mistake. You later got into all kinds trouble and had your own parties. When you were in Middle School, I remember you drawing body parts in class and then proudly wearing the shameful orange vest with the other “misunderstood” miscreants.

And then there was high school and your first love, which could and probably should have done you in, but didn’t. I’ll never forget that day in July of 2004 when you told me you wished we could look ahead a few years so you could surprise me with how you would turn things around. Well, almost six years later, you’ve gotten your wish. However, even though I’ve been amazed by your intelligence, commitment, and stamina, and delighted with your success, I’m no longer surprised by the adult you’ve become.

The rest of that tough summer, you and I spent a lot of time together, getting to know each other all over again, reading good books and watching bad television. You began to make new friends while holding on to the old ones, who, like you, decided it was time to grow up.

I knew you were going to be fine when you got to college and started actually liking your professors, and when you changed your major from practical Computer Sciences to totally impractical English "because you loved it". At that point, those bits and pieces of earlier hard times managed to make you strong enough to take on the world, while also helping you to understand and accept the frailties of others, characteristics that will make you a wonderful teacher.

And so, my youngest child, friend to brilliant odd balls, old souls, and facile survivors, I predict you will continue to find your own way in this crazy world on whatever paths you decide to follow. In addition, it seems you have managed to keep that very first promise you made to me when you were just a few hours old. Everything is, indeed, all right.

No Spring Chicken

My father, George Washington Mayo, was a good man who loved people. While I got my creativity and general oddness and orneriness from my mother, my rather silly sense of humor came straight from my father. I guess, with a name like George Washington Mayo, the ability to laugh was most likely a necessity.

Daddy had these great sayings. Whether you would call them axioms or idioms or perhaps just George-isms, they were most likely representative of the time, and some would certainly be thought of as sexist and politically incorrect these days. All of them appeared to be based on what he considered to be both hilarious and of great value to the younger generation. Now that he's gone, I love it when one of my father's sayings pops into my head at just the right moment to remind me of him and to keep me as close to the straight and narrow as my mama's inherited zigzaggedness allows.

Here are the George-isms I remember:

If my brother or I came between my father and the television set, he would say, “Your daddy wasn’t a glassblower." This, we surmised after a while, meant we weren’t transparent and he couldn’t see where Chester was headed in the midst of a
Gunsmoke episode, in spite of the fact that Chester was always headed down to Miss Kitty's Saloon.

If we were doing something stupidly dangerous, Daddy would say, “You’re going to bust your contract.” We took that to mean we were going to fall down, hit our heads, and end up in the hospital with a bandage tied around our noggins. Daddy used the same term later with my kids, and Melissa, just recently, tried researching the meaning of the phrase and couldn’t find anything on it, other than references to breaking a legal contract. Apparently, Daddy just made that one up.

We always had a cat or two around the house because my mother loved them. Daddy, on the other hand, opined that "the only good cat was a dead cat." However, he was known to pet one from time to time when no one was looking.

Again, if any of us got in Daddy’s way, when he wasn’t mentioning the lack of a glassblowing father, he would say, “I’m slow because I’m old. What’s your excuse?”

The worst thing Daddy ever called anyone was jackass. He called my brother and me that from time to time and he also used it to describe his grandkids, my children. As far as I can tell, he was right on with that one, especially when it came to my children who inherited their jackassedness from their father.

When I was a teenager and wanted to listen to the radio while my daddy was driving, he'd put up with the din for a while, even pretending to enjoy it by doing that finger-jive thing that cartoon characters used to do back in the day. However, if we got into heavy traffic, he would tell me to turn off the radio because he was getting ready to do some "fancy driving." I always envisioned fancy driving as involving a car-chase scene like in the movies, but all I got was Daddy scrunched over the steering wheel trying to change lanes and complaining about jackasses.

Daddy had a great way to meet new people and he would use this greeting when he met my friends (much to my humiliation). He would offer his hand and shake theirs sideways as opposed to up and down until their entire bodies would appear be be afflicted with some kind of palsy. When they were all shook up and as least somewhat discombobulated, he would offer, “I know my name. What’s yours?” You can see why my social circle was somewhat small.

In spite of his obnoxious greetings, Daddy was very kind and would never hurt anyone’s feelings, but he did call the very few divorced women he knew “grass widows,” not to their faces, of course. I looked up that term, and unlike "bust your contract", there's an actual history to it. The “grass” comes from being “out to pasture” or no longer viable. No wonder Daddy was so mad at me when I got divorced. There he was suddenly saddled with a daughter who was no longer viable enough to entice another man into taking care of her.

And when Daddy would notice I was putting on weight, he would offer that I was becoming “broad across the beam." So I guess that meant I was not only out to pasture but was also hauling a heavy load.

Continuing with the no-longer-viable theme, Daddy had a couple of zingers on the topic of old age, especially when it afflicted humans of the female persuasion. Occasionally, when Mama entered the room, he would warble, in what was actually a pretty good singing voice, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” If that ever bothered my mother, she was smart enough not to let on. He would also point out that she was no longer a “spring chicken”, and as I got older, he tossed that term at me also.

But, in spite of his lack of fine tuning in the area of gender relations, my father had a good heart and a commitment to doing the right thing for people, no matter the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, the country of their origin, the construction of their genetic makeup, or the breadth of their beam.

A final word on my father: Because Daddy stayed very busy with work and church and doing things for other people, when
we wanted him to do something for us, he would say he'd do it when he “got caught up”. We joked that we would have “He finally got caught up!” engraved on his headstone when he died, but we never had the chance, as my wonderful, funny, sexist father gave his body to the Medical College of Georgia, an act so giving, so zany, I’m pretty sure he’s still chuckling about it up there somewhere. That's because, if there is a heaven, Daddy is sure to be at the Pearly Gates, greeting newcomers with his signature handshake and helping St. Peter check off his list by saying, "I know my name. What's yours?"

As for me, I'm still a grass widow, still broad across the beam, and am now less of a spring chicken than even the old gray mare who ain't what she used to be.

Preface to Chickie Ling

I haven't written much about my mother for this blog because there’s so much to tell and it will take a while to do her story justice. But, in honor of the 50th posting from dabbler me, I’ve decided to get started with it, especially since I can imagine her looking over my shoulder and admonishing me with “What are you afraid of? Just get started. It can’t be that hard.”

I do want to begin by saying my mother was, by far, the most important influence in my life. Most of the good habits I have are from her, as are the majority of the bad ones. Mama wasn’t perfect and wasn’t the least bit interested in
being perfect. I can just hear her say how boring perfection would be.

My mother smoked and drank and had a very exciting life until she gave it all up (all except the smoking and drinking part) to marry my daddy and to birth and care for, and about, my brother and me. She was a good wife and a good mother, while also managing to stay true to herself for her entire life. She was a painter and a sewer and a crabber and a knitter and a fisherwoman and an organist (not a very good one) and a furniture refinisher and an upholsterer and a shrimp net tie-er and a crochet-er and a jewelry maker. She was also a physical therapist and One Tough Cookie.

I have, however, documented my mother's life in other ways. A story I wrote for Arizona Highways was about Mama's childhood summers spent in what is now the Sedona area of Arizona.

And after my mother’s death, I did name a character after her in my last book,
Westward Ho, a decision that truly horrified some of my friends. Their trepidation most likely came from the fact that the so-named character was a prostitute. In fact, Mama's namesake was the Ho in Westward Ho. This characterization wasn’t based on my mother’s history (as exciting as it was) but on the fact that her nickname, Chickie Ling, had always sounded like an Asian call girl to me. Although Mama wasn’t Asian and she was never (as far as I know) a call girl, I believe she would have loved being made a prostitute in her daughter’s book. In fact, I know this for certain.

In addition, my crazy idea of naming a character after my mother was based on my desire to use her home town of Jerome, Arizona as the prototype for the town where the fictional Chickie Ling had, at one time, plied her charms. I called my made-up town the silly name of Fred, Arizona, but the descriptions were based on my memories of current-day Jerome.

Here are a few:

The town of Fred looked, to Annabelle, like Arizona’s answer to Lost Horizon, with the illusion of being caught up and then left behind in an early daguerreotype print.

For better or worse, Fred du jour still brought to mind rowdy bars and musty-smelling whores. Annabelle half expected to see a drunken scalawag being dragged out feet first from one of the still-solvent watering holes. However, instead of tethered horses from an earlier time, new and expensive Harleys were resplendent, parked and chained in a shiny row on Main Street.

‘Next street down’ described it perfectly, as blocks were connected by steps instead of sidewalks. You could get a nosebleed just going to the drugstore (not that there was a drugstore in Fred).

Annabelle and J.B. each decided to order a glass of wine so that they could watch the sun set from the deck of The Haunted Hamburger. There was certainly something magical about the view, the striations of vibrant sun-streaked sky hues meeting in some kind of strange juxtaposition with the dun-colored earth, kind of like tutti-frutti topping off caramel crunch.

The above fictional descriptions are really, truly what Jerome, Arizona looks like now, at least to me. It’s on the side of a mountain and was, at one point, a ghost town. Now a funky artists’ colony, it does indeed, have a restaurant called The Haunted Hamburger and another called Belgian Jenny's Bordello, so named after the houses of ill repute that flourished during its mining heyday. The town of Jerome, when my mother was a child, was a bustling place with a productive copper mine and schools and businesses, but it was still enough of a departure from my childhood in Savannah, Georgia to seem different and romantic to me. I think I now see writing a book with my mother as a fictional character was just a way to put myself in the midst of a town that holds a special place in my heart.

And so, I will go from here to tell my mother's tale, whenever my memories, or Mama herself, nudge me. I won't try to tell it all at once, but in small stories, stories that made up the life of a remarkable woman, a woman who was thoughtful enough to detour her journey and change her dreams in order to have me and guide me and love me - a woman who still lives with me every day of my own life.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Shadow Playground: Childhood Memories of Wormsloe Plantation in the 1950’s and 60’s

This story will be published in the September issue of Georgia Backroads magazine.

I just recently read in The University of Georgia Graduate School Magazine about research UGA is conducting on what life was like in the 1700’s on Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah, a reading which brought back a flood of memories for me personally. I grew up on the Isle of Hope in the 1950’s and 60’s in the shadow of Wormsloe, before it became a National Historic Site.

Even without Wormsloe, the Isle of Hope, on the marshy outer edges of Savannah, would have been a magical place to be a child. Because it’s an island, although with a narrow causeway connecting it to the mainland, and because it was a more trusting, more innocent time, we children had a great deal of freedom to explore all it had to offer. Within barefoot walking distance were the bluff with its antebellum houses and pristine cottages, with its docks and boats; Barbee’s Pavilion with its famous terrapins; and Blissett’s Store with a selection of pickled pigs feet and briny eggs, grotesque treats our mothers would never have fed us and most likely never knew about. Kinsey’s was near our school, with penny candy and a screen door that closed with a tap instead of a bang as we exited on summer days with our banana popsicles. Then there were the marshes all around us with fiddler crabs and the smell of river mud. Out back was a forest where we kids discovered an abandoned still, the fecund smell of which I still remember. Some of the neighborhood boys later used the still as a fort, described by one of its builders as “the finest clubhouse ever constructed on the Isle of Hope”.

I remember Halloweens when we trick-or-treated anywhere and everywhere, without our parents who simply cautioned us to “stay on the island”, and, in the summer, playing Sardines at dusk and catching fireflies in a jar later in the evening. I remember swimming at the optimistically-named Wymberly Yacht Club where the only watercraft leaving the rickety dock were the kids doing cannonballs trying to escape the biting gnats known as sandflies. Then there was the day we went sauntering into the marsh, happily exploring, only to be nearly marooned on a tiny sandbar when time and tide got away from us.

And I remember Wormsloe. Wormsloe wasn’t part of our island freedom as it was off limits being private property; a beautiful, secret plot of real estate, a place of great import, although I didn’t really understand why. But Wormsloe was always there.

And so were we.

It seems that every former Isle of Hope kid has a Wormsloe story. My own recollection is of entering those iron gates with a friend and walking up the mile-long oyster-shell laden private road to the big house. I remember peeking in the windows of the somewhat frightening old building full of books, thinking what a wonder it was to be in that place, looking through those windows to a completely different time. I was a rather timid child, a real rule follower, so I can’t imagine having the nerve. I do know that I believed we’d been given some kind of tacit permission from the old lady who lived there, permission granted to children who wanted to explore as long as boys and girls didn’t go together. I’m pretty sure I never ran that invitation past my parents.

Just knowing Wormsloe was there made us feel different, lucky in some way we couldn’t explain. I have a scholarly friend who wrote, “We inhaled an air of other times. Having a real plantation next door changed things, like growing up in the back yard of Independence Hall.”

The younger brother of my best friend describes Wormsloe as his favorite playground. He was one of those unfettered boys who eschewed school in favor of the education that could be garnered from real life. While I was at home dutifully completing my Social Studies homework, he was breathing history and making friends with both the caretaker and the old lady.

His memories include:

There was an old fort there. That is where we fought off the Spanish invaders. The old fort was crumbled, covered with vines and it had saw palms growing in and all around it, but to me it was as sturdy a fortress as Pulaski. The Spanish never had a chance! I almost fell into a well one day by the old fort. It had been covered up for so long that instead of falling through, I simply started sinking. We covered it up with sticks and palm fronds trying to capture either some wild animal or some unlucky Spaniard. It never happened…… There were several oaks along the marsh that you could jump out of when the tide was high and float down to the dock.

And then:

There was an older lady who lived in the house. As far as I know she lived alone. I never saw anyone else with her. Sometimes she would sit on her front porch and enjoy her view. There were several flower gardens made into squares around the house. Some had bird baths and benches for people to sit and relax. We would try and sneak around the front of the house without her seeing us. One day in particular, she saw us and stood up waving us up to her. I was with a friend and he took off running. I, being somewhat inquisitive, not to mention caught red handed and paralyzed from fear, walked up the steps ready to meet my maker. She asked where my friend went and I said that he had to go home. She made a sound in her throat and told me that we were going to ruin her bushes by crawling through them. She then told me to follow her inside. With thoughts of ending up like someone in a horror movie, I followed her into the kitchen which was a lot bigger than ours. She had some kind of cookie that was obviously homemade and had fruit in it. I ate it and told her that we would be careful not to get in her bushes. From then on out, whenever we saw her on her porch we would walk by, wave and speak. She usually had some kind of treat for us, typically cookies or cake. Sometimes the cookies were soggy, but I never complained.

As an adult, I learned the elderly lady who lived at Wormsloe was Elfrida DeRenne Barrow, a woman not only with an impressive bloodline, but also formidable in her own right. She was a mother, a published poet, and a noted historian, and we have her to thank not only for preserving her home for all of us through the Wormsloe Foundation, but also for opening its gates so children and adults alike can visit without skulking through the bushes. The notion that she befriended scruffy little boys who trespassed on her property so they could dream about and participate in the history she sought to preserve helps to expand and illuminate my memories of growing up in the shadow of Wormsloe Plantation and makes me want to visit again, this time with actual permission

The little trespassers as their mothers saw them. There are no known photographs of them in their natural habitats.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Going Back to Oak Creek

This was written a few years ago. It's about a trip my mother, my daughter and I took in 1998. It was later published in Arizona Highways Magazine. I was actually paid $900 for it, by far the most I've ever been paid for one of my stories.
My mother is now gone and Molly is in graduate school. My friend, Allison, used part of the story at my mother's funeral, which she preached on the edge of Oak Creek where Mama's ashes were illegally scattered.

My mother as a young woman

Oak Creek Today

I always knew about Oak Creek, where my mother spent her summers as a child and where she took my daddy just after she married him, before he, in turn took her east to start their life in Georgia. For me, it had a mysterious, almost mythical allure. Of course, I knew only what I had heard from Mama and what I had seen in the sepia-tones photos stored in our attic.

In my mind, I saw Oak Creek as being from another time, a time when the west was still wild, a time when a little girl could grow up hunting, fishing and camping – real camping, not Winnebago camping. For me, a product of the 1950s, a child of the South, Mama’s stories of staying at Oak Creek in the 1930s and ‘40s were as foreign as if she had been raised by wolves. Perhaps she was. It could happen at Oak Creek.

It was not until years later that I, as the mother of a daughter myself, yet still a daughter to my own mother, made the trip to the place that was so much a part of me, even though I had never been there. Three generations of females flew west from Atlanta in the spring of 1998. Mama, my 13-year-old daughter, Molly, and I all had different agendas. My mother wanted what might very well be her last visit to her home state, and I longed to know more about her early life. I wanted to find myself somewhere in her beginnings, to know the “Arizona part” of me. Molly came only because I wouldn’t let her stay home with her friends, even though she thought she was old enough.

The three of us traversed the circuit of my mother’s childhood, starting with Prescott, where she was born. Her family’s Victorian house still stands, now listed on the historic register, but in tawdry disrepair.

Next we went to Flagstaff and visited the University of Northern Arizona, where Mama earned her teaching degree. As we neared Oak Creek, our anticipation became palpable, at least for my mother and me. Molly was busy experimenting with different makeup looks in the back seat of the rental car, a Walkman firmly affixed to her ears.

Mama had saved the best for last. We were to stay in a motel on the edge of the enigmatic Oak Creek and would visit Sedona and take a day trip to Jerome, the played-out mining town where she had grown up, living on that portion of the mountain known as Cleopatra Hill. Throughout the week, as we took in the sights and mused over almost forgotten memories, Mama kept saying, “I just hope we can find where the Oak Creek cabin used to be. That’s what I want to see most.” I hoped so, too, mostly for her, but also for me.

The Oak Creek of Mama’s childhood was very different from today’s vacation and retirement mecca of Sedona. In the old days, it was a place of hardy locals mixed with folks, like my grandparents, who camped and built summer cabins on the edge of the creek, within view of the majestic red rocks. It seemed the place that defined her most. She and her daddy had helped to build their cabin on a site so pristine and beautiful, so geographically and aesthetically desirable that few could afford it today.
Mama knew the cabin had been torn down and the land returned to the state at the end of a 99-year lease, but she hoped for some sign that her life there had really happened, perhaps some proof for me.

Mama with her parents and friends on the cabin terrace.

Descending the winding road from Flagstaff, I thought this had to be the most beautiful place in the world, this land of Oak Creek. Mama couldn’t seem to take it all in. She kept craning her neck, looking for the place where the cabin had stood. “Maybe this is it. No, it doesn’t look right.” Small access roads, leading toward the creek, all looked the same to me. For her, it had just been too long and things had changed so much. No doubt some of Mama’s memories had been distorted by time. We stopped and asked, but no one could help us. The old-timers were gone.

The next day we stopped in Clarkdale for lunch and then headed up the mountain that was, and still is, Jerome. I saw the “J” at the top. Mama had told me how painting the inscription had been a high-school freshman class rite of passage. As I peered over the dash at the steep climb up to town, I remembered why Mama never learned to ride a bike as a child, finally mastering it as an adult in the flat marshlands of South Georgia. Bike-riding in Jerome was dangerous, if not impossible. After attempting to park the rental car on a downhill slant and close its door without losing my footing, I understood.

Mama’s daddy had been the city attorney in Jerome before moving to Phoenix to become an assistant state attorney general. I recalled the story of the jailhouse sliding down the mountain and remembered how I had surmised in my egocentric child-mind that my granddaddy probably had some “worthless varmints” incarcerated in the jail as it made its way to its new address. Learning in later life that my grandparents had already moved when the jailhouse made its way down Cleopatra Hill was a little disappointing, so I chose to remember it the other way. I also, as a little girl, possessed some primal narcissistic sense that Jerome’s slow descent down the mountain and its ultimate decline in population had to be connected in some way to my grandfather’s ascent up the ladder of success elsewhere. My family’s moving on had to have been the last straw, an abandonment with which the town just couldn’t cope.

I found Jerome to be interesting, yet felt sad that it had changed so much since my mother’s day. I was glad that the artists had utilized its charm, but couldn’t get past how difficult it would be to live in Jerome, forever canting one way or another, afraid of losing one’s grip, not only on reality but also on the Earth itself. I can see why Mama holds on so tightly to life and why Oak Creek became such a compelling resting place for her.

On our last morning, we awoke to a light snowfall. Although it was pretty and its arrival in mid-April a novelty to us Southern marsh hens, it also hinted at a disappointing final search for the bygone cabin at Oak Creek. I worried that the drive back to Phoenix would be difficult in the snow. Molly was having trouble with her lip liner. Mama asked that we look one last time.

Turning back toward Flagstaff, I feared that Mama would be terribly disappointed if we couldn’t locate the site. All I could see was snow, and driving in this kind of weather makes me tense. About a mile up from the motel, Mama pointed to a side road, more like a driveway. This was one of the places we looked earlier, one of the many that seemed almost right, but not quite.

We pulled over and got out of the car. I envisioned broken hips from falling in the snow and wondered how difficult it would be to get an ambulance up this slippery road. My mother carefully made her way over to a fence. “This has to be it. I just wish I could get closer.”

As she and I gazed forlornly over the frustrating barrier, trying to see what might have been vestiges of the cabin, Molly unfolded from the back seat and out of her adolescent self long enough to check a spot where the fence had collapsed. “Why don’t we just try that hole in the fence over there?”

It took just seconds to mull the repercussions of trespassing on state land and then for all of us to transcend the broken-down fence to Mama’s childhood – and my Arizona roots.

As soon as she reached the concrete slab just a few feet from sparkling Oak Creek, Mama knew she was home. Her faced wreathed in smiles, she cried, “This was the cabin’s foundation! This was the terrace!” It even looked right to me. It looked like the photographs from the attic. All the tableau needed was for my grandmother and my grandfather and my honeymooning father to join my mother in repose as they had in those pictures taken so long ago.

From there, we walked over to the waterwheel my mother and grandfather had built to generate electricity for the cabin. That’s when I knew, for sure, we were in the right place. I had heard about that waterwheel my entire life. It was surreal, actually being there, really touching it. Mama was surprised it had survived nearly 60 years, as the snow’s melting each spring had continually kept if flooded and in disrepair. When I saw it still standing, it seemed to me that its real purpose may not have been so much pragmatic as commemorative. We had found evidence that my mother’s Oak Creek was more than just a place in time. Oak Creek was basic to the woman she had become, the woman who loved my daddy and who bore my brother and me in a very different place and time.

Just before leaving, Mama pointed out the cliff cave on the other side of the creek that she, at 13, used as a refuge from a mother and father who simply didn’t understand, just as Molly’s parents currently didn’t. With that comparison, it became clear to me that the beat of my mother’s heart and the essence of what it takes to be a woman reverberated from her, through me, to Molly, and would most likely endure through other generations.

Going back to Oak Creek that snowy spring was the right thing to do for my mother. She needed to remember all that endowed the girl she once was and the remarkable woman she grew into. The trip was, most definitely, the right thing for me. I needed to see how the creek water and the red rocks fed my Southern soul. It was also the right thing for Molly – although she doesn’t know it yet.

The intrepid travelers

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dinner on the Ground

This was written a few years ago and aired on Georgia Public Radio in 2006.

It was hot and muggy the Sunday Linda and I walked up the brick path to the old church in Savannah, Georgia. It was Homecoming and we were coming home. Our friend, Allison, had been invited to preach the sermon, and Linda and I were there to hear her. The setting held special meaning for all three of us. I had grown up in the church; Allison had arrived as a teenager and found her calling and her future husband there. When Linda was a child, her aunt had led the choir and she had memories of visiting at Easter to hear “Low in the Grave He Lay, Jesus My Savior.”

It had been close to thirty years since I’d set foot in the church, the last time being for the baptism of my eldest, now twenty nine. Sadly, the church I’d grown up in, married in, and christened my baby in had burned at some point after I left home, but a new one, larger but almost an exact replica, was now taking its place. The original building had a rich history. It had been used as a hospital during the Civil War, and what later became the choir loft had earlier been built for slaves who were invited to hear the Word of God, but not in any kind of proximity to the white folks. The current church was a testimony to what a modern church could be, open to all, at least theoretically, and filled to capacity at not one, but two, Sunday morning services each week.

I was surprised at how I felt as I took in the church and its surroundings. My chest was full of memories and my head resonated with the realization that I was stepping where I’d stepped as a little child, a young bride, and a new mother.

We were on the lookout for Allison, who had come early to preach at the nine o’clock service. We found her in the social hall, drinking a Diet Coke, and resting up for her next performance, looking not at all like our friend in her clerical garb. She also looked hot. Heat was a big issue to our mid 50’s menopausal minds and bodies, and we were worried that the stalwarts were going to win out and dinner would, indeed, be served outside, although thankfully no longer laid out, picnic fashion, on the ground, as it had for Homecomings a hundred years ago. I had already been chided by Linda for wearing stockings, something we purported to be against because of feminist issues. In actuality, our stand had more to do with queen-sized versus regular, control top as opposed to sheer, never mind how they hold in the heat.

We took a tour of the social hall where my wedding reception had been held. I couldn’t quite get my bearings until I found the large room where my new husband and I had fed each other wedding cake and considered a future that we never could have foretold. In the back, next to the bathroom, I found an old picture that captured my big brother and me sharing a crowded front pew in what must have been a contrived photo shoot since my brother never would have sat on the front pew, and definitely never would have allowed me to sit with him and his buddies; and there was my best friend, Francine, across the sanctuary, appearing forlorn without me by her side. As I looked closer, I could see my father sitting in the back, wearing a bow tie that I still remember, quietly offering support from behind the scenes. That bow tie was the only ostentatious thing about my daddy.

When I couldn’t locate my mother in the picture, I decided that it was most likely she who had coordinated the picture taking, and she who was working the shutter on the Kodak. When I was a child, ours was a family that, like so many others, virtually lived at the church. It was not only our Sunday morning, but our Wednesday night, and Saturday afternoon, too.

It was getting close to time for the eleven o’clock service so Linda and I made our way into the sanctuary in order to get good seats. Settling in, I couldn’t help but question why God had allowed the uncomfortable antebellum wooden pews to survive the fire when so little else had. Watching Linda open her fan with a flourish and produce several of her mother’s linen hankies in readiness for the heat and what we were looking to Allison to provide for us, that being a helpful sermon and a Good Cry, I was reminded of how artfully my friend had mastered the Steel Magnolia, Faded Flower of the South, persona.

While I mindlessly gazed at the other church-goers taking their seats, Linda squinted at a hand-written sign a few rows up, a sign that sat atop a pile of bulletins. “Marcia, what does that sign say?” she asked in her exceptionally Southern and somewhat loud voice. I was forced to inform her in my not as melodic but even louder voice, “It says, ‘Large Print’, the sign says ‘Large Print’.” We made good use of the hankies as we stifled the titters and snorts that came with the understanding that the “Large Print” sign needed to be printed in yet larger print in order for some of us to read it.

The service began with the preacher making announcements and asking for prayer requests. At some point before the offering plate was passed, he told the congregation that, because it was Homecoming, he was going to continue with the tradition of having folks call out the names of people, living or dead, who had been meaningful to them in some way. Linda’s mama’s handkerchief got a second round of use when I heard someone, someone I didn’t know, call out my dead daddy’s name. Chasing after my drooling eyes and nose with the scented linen, I knew I was heading toward a memorable memorial meltdown. I was a menopause-driven train careening into the station without benefit of either brakes or Arrid Extra Dry.

Just as Allison was being introduced, her many credentials touted, a little boy behind Linda began to squirm and complain, his father unable to quiet him. Before I knew it, Linda had turned around and was saying something to the poor little child, whispering from behind her fan. When I asked her later, she told me she’d promised him a cookie after the service if he’d simmer down, but his look of absolute terror during the entire sermon made me doubt her explanation.

Allison addressed the congregation and spoke from her soul, telling stories and weaving her message without really preaching. She made reference to the place and time of our childhood, a place so beautiful it flirted with magical, a time so finite, it, like my daddy’s bow tie, should have been captured in a snapshot. As she ultimately made her compelling point, sharing her personal life pain to heal others, I was reminded of how successful we three, Allison, Linda, and I, have been in life, if not in love.

Before the benediction, the preacher made the announcement that the Homecoming dinner had been moved inside to the social hall because of the rain that had started up during the service. Linda and I did a mental, hankie-embellished, high five, thankful that our hormone depleted and therefore perspiration-prone bodies would be spared the Savannah humidity as we continued to support Allison by partaking in the pot-luck delicacies provided by the church members. I was particularly impressed with myself as Friend of the Visiting Preacher, and therefore special guest, as Linda and I followed Allison to the front of the lunch line, ahead of the people who had brought the food.

In spite of my iffy emotional state, I successfully maneuvered the lunch line, basking in Allison’s and my dead daddy’s reflected auras, bypassing the lesser folks as I dipped into the macaroni and cheese, potato salad, chicken tenders, and honey mustard sauce, little of which was likely homemade for this new millennium Homecoming meal. Continuing with my all-yellow luncheon theme, I selected banana pudding for my dessert.

Keeping my eye on the clergy table where, for once, I would be sitting, I successfully traversed the crowded social hall with its portable furniture moved in from out at the last wet moment until I came upon a little boy, not the same little boy that Linda had earlier terrorized, but another little boy. This particular little boy had somehow managed to get ahead of me in the lunch line, a transgression he would live to regret. Just as he was digging in to his baked beans, his fruit salad, his spaghetti bake, my karma met his as the toe of my high-heeled shoe, sweatily sliding upon my stockinged foot, caught the leg of his hastily-placed chair, and, in slow motion, I felt myself going down in what can only be described as a noteworthy fall from grace.

I have a confession. I am a faller. I have a history of falling. It’s as if I have a life-long inner ear condition that causes ditzy dizziness at the most inopportune times. While a college freshman, I fell at the University of Georgia, attempting to cross the street from Brumby Hall to the Krystal, carrying my drawing board, a fall significant enough to make me change my major. I’ve fallen in the dark; I’ve fallen in the light. One time, I stepped in a dog dish and slid across my wet kitchen floor, pulling off an extremely painful but almost perfect split to absolutely no applause. Now, I’d fallen in a church social hall in the midst of sweet memories, gentle ghosts, and terrorized little boys.

Linda, who was behind me, says that all she saw was yellow everywhere and macaroni in the little boy’s hair. Allison, who was in front of me, says that, when she heard the commotion, she was ninety-nine percent sure it was me. What I remember is the little boy’s father trying to talk me off the floor as I attempted to clean the honey mustard sauce out of the treads of his child’s pristine sneakers. I also remember potato salad and banana pudding painting a grisly Pollock-like picture on the linoleum and people walking around it all, kindly trying to act like they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.

In retrospect, I have to say that my Homecoming visit was a good one. It gave me the opportunity to reunite with good friends, departed family, and lost childhood. It was certainly memorable, not only for me, but also for others. So what if gracefulness is not my strong suit. That’s okay. We all have something to offer and I’m glad I when I can be of help.

And what a help I was when, on that one particular Sunday in over a century of many such Sundays, I was able to contribute something that only someone with my special gifts could manage. It makes me proud that, at future Homecomings at my old church, as folks gather round the table laden with yellow food, they just might remember the stained and sweaty lady who gave her all in an attempt to bring back the tradition of dinner on the ground, and their blessing, in my honor, might include something akin to “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Knew He Had to Grow up Some Time, But Did It Have to Be Today?

I stand in the driveway as Billy departs, pulling all of his worldly goods behind him (or, at least what he perceives to be the good stuff). He is joining his older sister three thousand miles away in Oregon. Since I have already lost one child to the Pacific Northwest, this doesn't seem quite fair.

Billy calls his small caravan "The Big Lug"; an allusion to the immense, unwieldy bolt that attaches the trailer to his car, and a name that also fits his often genial, and sometimes inert, demeanor. I am sobbing and my heart is breaking. At the same time, however, I'm envisioning the cleaning and rearranging of my living room; the room that he took over for the five months that he came back home to live with me, filling it with wires and circuits, Grateful Dead bootlegged tapes, a vibrating chair, and his big old smelly shoes - items all now being precariously hauled away in "The Big Lug" (by the big lug), thank God.

How can I own two such contradictory sentiments at the same time? I think that it has to do with that parent balance thing, how much you give how much you save for yourself. Although I'll miss him greatly, my little boy in his man's body, it will be nice to have my tidy, female life back.

It's not like he had never left. He had matriculated (and I use that term loosely) at a State University a couple of hours away, but, while not being underfoot, he remained within arm's reach. However, after four years, with no degree in evidence, his father and I agreed that he needed to come home, notably to my house since my ex-husband had his new wife and his new life. I, of course, was still primarily "Mom", and therefore, always available for found kittens and lost souls.

The edict to come home was tolerated only with great angst. Billy would have liked to have stayed in his comfortable college town surroundings with his friends but without the inconvenience of having to go to class. The problem was that he couldn't do that without our support. As always, money spoke, or, in this case, the withholding of money said it all. We finally starved him out.

I thought having him move back in with me, without the pressure of both work and school, might allow him to find some academic direction at our local community college, but that was not to be. After a couple of weeks of my best not-so-subtle brainwashing techniques, he finally told me, "Mom, I wish I could make myself want to finish college but I just can't right now."

So we came to a short-term compromise. He would find a job, deliver his fourteen-year-old sister to wherever she needed to be, save us from the boogyman, if he ever showed his ugly face (perhaps tie him to the vibrating chair?), and help out around the house. I, in turn, would board and feed and put up with him for free. In addition, he was to save his money for whatever life he decided to have in the future.

I knew I was on dangerous ground. What if he became too comfortable?
He might not ever leave. My cooking is pretty foul (even when it's not chicken) but I was offering it for free.

I need not have worried. He was obviously miserable, stuck in that never-never land of hometown four years after high school. All of his close friends had moved on, and the people with whom he worked in the local factory had little to offer someone who had seen the collegiate equivalent of Pa-ree. In addition, he was once again living with his mother, who thinks a late night is staying up for Ally McBeal.

He hated the assembly-line job, which was no surprise. He is very much a social creature and, to his mother's unbiased mind, a creative genius. The tedium and the isolation wore away at him even more quickly than I thought they would. Of course, my hope had been that he would take the blue-collar experience and turn it toward some ambition to finish college. Instead, he decided to move to Oregon!

I'll never forget the call. He reached me during his break at work. "Mom, will you be real disappointed in me if I move to Oregon with Melissa?"

I first wondered what his sister would think about the idea. She had her own life and struggles. Putting those concerns aside, I responded with my best motherly advice. "Billy, I won't be disappointed in you at all." (In fact, I was a bit jealous that I didn't have the courage to do something that outrageous, but I chose not to tell him that). "However, I will be disappointed for you if you can't create a good life for yourself. I just wish you had a college degree. It would make things so much easier." I didn't think that it was a good time to remind him that his sister, with her college degree, was currently waiting tables in a Eugene restaurant. I did, however, point out to him that there are factories in Oregon too, and that a move wouldn't necessarily protect him from low paying, tedious jobs. In addition, I warned him that I wouldn't be able to bail him out financially, for his sake as much as mine.

I know it's going to be so hard for him, this child of video games and creature comforts. He will, most likely, have to hit bottom and I'll need to lend him, not money as I have in the past, but a deaf ear. Of course, a bad time is better than no time, a hard life better than no life, which is what he would have had if he had taken the easy route and stayed with me. I am proud of him for having the courage to take that long trek out of his mother's reach.

In spite of his misery, Billy was a fine companion. In fact, his company was so good that I found myself turning down social engagements to do things with him. No one is as much fun as my irreverent, quirky son is. He made me watch movies that I wouldn't have watched on my own, with American History X being my favorite. He introduced me to web sites and technical innovations I will never be able to find or resurrect now that he is gone. He even got me hooked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, something out of character for me, since I normally stay pretty much within the confines of HGTV (oh yeah, that and Ally McBeal). It got to the point where I was a little disappointed when he would set up a date with a girlfriend from college when she came through town. The least they could do would be to stay home and watch Regis with me!

Conversely, he could be a real pain. He certainly made his presence known, this male in an all-female house (even my dog and cat are girls). He belched, he slurped, he left a trail of boy trash - paper cups full of melted ice, Rolling Stone magazines, and dirty socks. At one point I told him, "Billy, I am not your maid." His droll response was, "It's a good thing because you're not very good at it."

It was, most definitely, time for him to go.

A couple of minutes after he pulls out of the driveway, my phone rings. It's Billy on his cell phone. "Well, I'm gone!" he asserts, assaulting me with the deeper meaning of that simple statement. Only two thousand, nine hundred, ninety-five miles (and his whole life) still to go. As I wipe my hand across my face to dry my tears, I keep wishing that my son were heading west with an MBA from Harvard. Instead, he is armed only with his unformed dreams and his untapped talents to face the world without his Mama. I say a prayer for his good journey and go back into the house.

As I stand looking at the mess that he left behind, I am, once again, reduced to tears with the bittersweet realization that Billy's now removed stereo equipment and entertainment center have left a big hole in my living room and in my heart.

Wait a minute! Come to think of it, I have a plant that will look great in that corner. I'll just water it and give it some fertilizer. All it needs is a little mothering. All I need is to do a little mothering. Good-bye, Billy. I love you.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

This One's for You, Billy

I couldn’t possibly be pregnant. I already had a perfectly good baby.

We were living in your grandfather’s house, sleeping in the guest room that shared a wall with Doc’s giant Magnavox TV, which he kept ratcheted up to about 1000 decibels because he was mostly deaf. On the other side of the other wall was Melissa’s crib, and outside our window was Henry, howling out his confusion and exasperation at being banned from the house. There was many a night I could be seen climbing out the window to throw something at the dog to hush him up without having to walk my nightgown-clad body past your grandfather in the den watching Johnnie Carson. Through it all, your father just continued to saw logs. To this day, I can’t for the life of me figure out how I could have possibly gotten pregnant, but pregnant I got.

Born on the thirteenth of March, exactly two years and ten days after Melissa, you were a sweet baby, cute though rather odd looking with your cone shaped head from being so big and perhaps stuck in the birth canal for a bit too long. You were also an easy baby. After just one night of sleeping in Melissa’s room (“Mama, the baby’s crying!”), we moved you into the living room of our tiny house, where you stayed until we finally enclosed the carport to accommodate Daddy’s office.

By the time we moved into the big house, you and Melissa were pretty much inseparable, going to Children’s Friend each weekday, playing outside in the afternoon and watching C.H.I.P.S. and Night Rider in the evening. I was your kindergarten teacher and it was during that time you buddied up with Chris (like a lawn) Moore and a couple more little scalawags with whom you remained friends throughout high school. I loved being your teacher and your mama at the same time. I thought you were just about the cleverest kindergartener ever to build a block tower and then knock it over.

I still remember the drawings you did as a little boy, airplanes with prodigious amounts of cloud-like smoke spewing from their innards, and little round cars, often with one flat tire, which I think had typically been shot out. I now look back and wonder if those gimpy automobiles offered a glimpse into your personality and view of life, as if you expected good things seldom to be perfect. That probably came from having Melissa as your big sister. Remember the time when you watched that scary movie and she materialized and startled you at the top of the stairs? You were so horrified that you refused to go upstairs by yourself for the longest time. Putting my picture in that locket and that locket around your grimy little neck was most likely my finest moment as a parent. No boogie people could have survived a gander at that face and you knew it.

Your earliest birthday parties were in tandem with Melissa’s, mainly because I was cheap and tired. I particularly remember those at Dry Lake Park and Burger King. However, your most memorable party, not counting those as a teenager I don’t even want to think about, had to have been the spend-the-night one when the partiers tried to turn over Dianne’s mini van just after dark and then flew the balsa wood airplanes in the front yard at four in the morning. Was that the same one where Molly sat naked on the dining table during the birthday-candle-blowing-out?

On the Molly topic, it was when Molly came along that your life changed and I began to catch a glimpse of the man (and father) you would become. After getting over your disappointment about not having a little brother, you and she developed a bond that remains to this day. Just as Melissa helped form you, you did the same for Molly.

Notice your hand here. You
are making sure Molly doesn't
fall off the porch.

Despite that good old Warner Robins tradition, you were never much interested in sports. You played Little League and were pretty good; however, soccer drove you nuts as those other little boys just ran all over everywhere and didn’t stay in their assigned positions. The idea of random shenanigans seldom got in the way of your logical thinking and that hasn’t changed.

In middle school, when you halfheartedly joined the football team, I remember going to a game and complaining to your coach that he wasn’t letting you play. He told me every time you got to the front of the line and it looked like you might actually have to go onto the field, you’d disappear to the back. Again, to your way of thinking, being on the team was enough, especially since you got to wear that great green uniform. Actually playing, on the other hand, could have lead to injury.

Speaking of uniforms and perhaps a different type of machismo, you didn't fare particularly well in the one ROTC class you took in high school either, the one you failed, partially because, on the one day you deigned to wear that uniform, you sported a t-shirt which offered the notion that one should Play Naked Lacrosse in bold letters under it.

To this day, you are one of the few heterosexual men I know who isn’t interested in sports, and, in fact, you appear to consider this to be a badge of honor. When you moved to Portland, you did join a kickball team, which you continue to enjoy, at least the beer drinking part of it. It did turn out, however, that playing in a co-ed league was mostly just a ruse for meeting women, and we have kickball (at least in part) to thank for Mary and Cami.

I recall once, when you were around fourteen, you told me that I needed to make you tougher. We were standing in the kitchen; I remember it well. I felt so sad, so insufficient, so unable to do what you'd asked of me. I couldn’t play golf or throw a ball or even pee standing up. But, you know, like most things, it turned out just the way it should. Even though neither of us had what it took to make you into the Incredible Hulk, you turned out to be tough in all the ways that are important. You are steadfast and kind and loving and funny, ready to make a joke when you sister is being wheeled into surgery, determined to be at her bedside when she returns. You are a partner to Mary and a wonderful father to Cami. You are your own person, content to be the basement guy, happy with your wires and connections, caretaker of drunks and fools. You were definitely born into the right family.

Finally, since I do usually think of you in one of those t-shirts you still wear (and wear and wear), my final word on the Billy-factor will have to be that you are like one of your shirts: typically unconventional, occasionally tacky, and often spouting something outlandish. But, oh, what a comfort you are.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Don't Move Pat. He Got Run Over by a Fire Truck

Difficulty and Delight in Soliciting Family History

This was written about ten years ago. Of all the people in the story, only three of us are still living. For those who have passed on, including the dog, their voices have been silenced and their stories are no longer available to us.

It's Thanksgiving morning and I drive the sixty miles to the retirement home where my eighty-four-year-old mother lives. We, together, then travel another one hundred forty miles to the town where she gave birth to my brother and me. We go there to share the holiday with my father's sisters and their husbands. We will retrace our steps this afternoon so that we can sleep in our own beds tonight.
This assemblage is all that is left of my parents' generation in my small family, and the planning has been fraught with angst and last minute changes of heart. My mother has been sick and has recently fallen. She commits, is then ambivalent, finally deciding to attend at the last minute, afraid that she will miss what may be her last visit with the group intact. My father had three sisters, all still going strong, the baby being a mere eighty-three. The two who married have husbands who, God willing, will soon attain the age of ninety. Although small in number and now in stature, they are intrepid souls, each placing one resolute foot before the other as another holiday season rolls around at breakneck speed. At my callow age, I am the only one who drives with any impunity so it makes sense for me to deliver my mother.

I have a hidden agenda. Although I am happy (and sad) to see my aging relatives, aware that these gatherings have a limited future, I am here for information. I want the scoop and time is of the essence.

I have only recently become interested in oral history, in family lore, too late to ask my father. Having talked my poor mother mute with requests for stories of her childhood, I am moving in for the kill on my only link to my patriarchal side. My quarry are unsuspecting as they masticate their Chex Mix and drink their Bloody Mary's, their thoughts centered on survival issues like social security, high prices and poor service.

I point to an old family portrait, hoping to spark a natural segue. As we all gather in a corner trying to look, I become confused and a bit claustrophobic. "Who is that?" "I don't know." "That's Granddaddy." "Which Granddaddy?" Adding to the befuddlement is the family penchant for reusing names. "That's Susie." "Which Susie?" "Is that me?" "No, you weren't even born yet." The people in the portrait gaze stolidly back at me, unmoved by my distress, people who, although still unnamed, look disconcertingly very much like us.
I haven't yet mentioned my objective for the day, nor have I produced the tape recorder. We have had some discussion about my digital camera, the consensus being that, with its preview and deletion capabilities, it is a good thing. That is until I mention that it works best when affiliated with a computer.

As we gather at the table, I get up the nerve to mention that I am interested in hearing the stories of my aunts' childhoods. My middle aunt, the one hosting our feast, says, with some vigor, "I have always said, if someone wanted to write stories, we have stories!" But before I can get my tape recorder out from under my chair, the talk turns to which aunt made the salad and is the meat cooked to everyone's taste. The uncles are contentedly eating, dabbing at their mouths, passing the bread. Thinking it might not be nice or smart to try to control the dinner conversation, I decide to hold off until dessert.

As we choose between rum cake and pecan pie, I lay the tape recorder on the table. It looks out of place on the snowy cloth, the black plastic defiling the aura of the autumnal centerpiece. My mother smiles encouragingly at my aunts, glad it is they for whom the recorder records and not she. They utter a collective sigh, as if steeling themselves for something they just can't seem to escape. Resorting to form, my middle aunt attempts to get things started, asserting, a bit protectively, that they had a wonderful father and a great childhood even though they were motherless and poor. My oldest aunt, the one who never married, looks vague and says that she can't remember much. The baby says that she just isn't good at telling stories. I ask specific questions, just trying to get the players straight. I learn that, after the death of their mother, an aunt and her son came to live with them. The son, their cousin, was like another brother to them and my daddy was glad to have an additional boy, a compatriot, in the house. After a few more helpful facts but no real stories, the talk turns to contemporary matters and we finish our meal by lining up to talk on the phone to my brother who is eight hundred miles away. I put away the tape recorder, pondering when I can schedule a return trip to talk to my father's sisters individually.

Making our way back to the den for coffee, I can tell my mother is tired and I think of the long drive ahead. It's time to take our leave. In gathering up my paraphernalia, I deposit the scorned tape recorder in the bottom of my bag. Before adding the digital camera, I show my youngest aunt the picture of my Labrador Retriever I'd taken just before leaving home, a practice shot to make sure the battery was charged and the disk had space for the family pictures I would surely take. As we begin heading toward the door in a sluggish throng, my aunt says, "I remember that we had animals. I had a dog named Diddiebycha (as in Did he bite ya?) and George" (her brother and my father) "had a cat named Black Cat Kitty." My middle aunt says, "I remember that too. George also had a big dog named Fritz. And Earle" (the cousin) "had a bulldog named Pat." A look of amusement settling around her eyes, she asks my other two aunts, "Do you remember the time George came home and found Pat in his bed with a note from Earl that said, 'Don't move Pat. He got run over by a fire truck.'" They nod, smiling, their faces rapt.

I perk up at the splendid story, wishing that I could dislodge the recorder from the bottom of my bag, but I'm afraid of breaking the spell. As they continue, I find that Pat survived being run over by the fire truck and my daddy endured the indignity of having a dog appropriate his bed. As if this were not enough, as if this story wasn't worth the trip and putting my poor relatives through a stressful and strange holiday get-together, my oldest aunt, the one who earlier couldn't remember, the one who never married, stands up, grasps a chair arm to gain her balance and announces with some surprise and a great deal of enthusiasm, "I had a goat!"

As we pass through the back door, sharing hugs and promises of future occasions, I am reminded why family is so important and why it's worth the time and energy to make these trips. I'm also reinforced in my sometimes misguided attempts to hear the stories of my antecedents and to share those stories with my own children. Although we have learned about the era of my father's youth in our history books, we know little about what it was like to live in that time in a family torn apart by illness and economic decline in a small town in South Georgia. We need to learn all we can about a certain motherless family, which happens to be our family, which was presided over by an overwhelmed father who loved his children and allowed them pets, including an injured bulldog in a boy's bed and a goat for a little girl who would never marry.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Melissa

On the occasion of your thirty-fifth birthday,

You were my first big hope, a miracle I couldn't engineer all by myself. After months of trying and failing, the planets aligned, the perfect swimmer met the ready egg, and you were conceived. I still have the little piece of paper that says "gravindex positive, " a folded memento your grandfather's nurse handed me the day I knew it was true. Back then, there were no magic sticks to wet on in the privacy of your own bathroom; people had to make an appointment to find out. Daddy and I were lucky your grandfather was a doctor and we could get in quickly for a test. We were living in Greenville at the time so we must have traveled back to Warner Robins, with you as our secret, to keep the process all in the family.

I still remember the peppermint flavor of that summer as peppermints were what I used to stave off the nausea. I also recall looking at myself in the full-length mirror you took to Oregon years later. I stood sideways and sucked in my stomach and saw and felt the hard knot that was you. I wonder now at not being able to foresee that the mirror which afforded me my first look at you would one day accompany you to the place that would steal you away from me.

We called you Boogie as we watched you, already a member of the Allman Brothers Fan Club, grow in my belly. We named you after the song that was a reminder of the music your daddy loved so much, and something I, in turn, loved about him .

From the very beginning, you were your own little person, often inwardly focused, occasionally cranky (if you can imagine that) . Your need to create happened early on as we all recall your waking us up in the middle of the night asking where the scissors were. You accepted your siblings with resolve and some affection, taking on the mantle of oldest while still maintaining an air of being above it all, as if the promise had been that you would be the only one.

As a child, I remember your best friends as being boys, but what I'm recalling is most likely just that one summer, the summer of Greg and Sonny. You three were like a cyclone pulsating through the neighborhood, all grime and no homework. Some days, I couldn't tell you apart. You looked and smelled exactly the same.

When you became a teenager, with the height of your cock-a-doodle bangs signifying your mood, social endeavors dictated your days and nights but you still managed to do well in school and stay out of trouble (mostly). We had some issues with the car, the curfew, and that big party, but I could still count on you to snuggle up and ask me to scratch your back, and to put your big old feet in my lap when we watched television. Because you were my first teenager, I had to try to figure out how to continue to mother you after you thought it was no longer necessary. I still remember the times you were late enough for me to be scanning the driveway, mentally writing your very sad obituary, and I certainly haven't forgotten the rope and rubber gloves you used for climbing in and out of your second-story bedroom window.

It was while you were in college I began to realize how like my mother you are: intelligent, intense, and ready to travel to places I'd be afraid to go. The summer you and Molly Mitchell spent working in Yellowstone must have been a mighty one as it ended up changing your life. When you later told me you wanted to move to Oregon, I thought of it as a great adventure, never dreaming it would become your future (and to a great extent, mine).

Now you are a wife, a mother, a worker, a driver, a sewer, a maker, a coaxer, a car-seat buckler, and a cinematographer, but, thanks to Trevor, not a cook. You are also still a daughter to your daddy and me, and a sister to Billy and Molly, and a friend to those who are worthy of the relationship. I realized a couple of Christmases ago that you'd already bypassed me to become the family matriarch, making sure events happen with all the necessary ingredients, while the rest of us stumble around mouthing exhortations about what we would have done if we'd just had the time, the money, or if you had simply reminded us.

Being a mother yourself, I know you now understand what you mean to me. I can't imagine my life without you, and Miles and Georgia would tell you the same if they just had the words. We are talking one big deal, reciprocal, co-dependent relationship here.

And so, one heart supports new hearts, life goes on, and the family endures in spite of itself.