I was just a little girl when I walked with my daddy to the far back of the yard where the rose bushes were then. They were his rose bushes. He wanted them only for one reason. Because of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. If your mother was living, you wore a red rose pinned to your collar to Sunday School on Mother’s Day. Same with fathers.
The grass was wet, the air had a May chill to it, and the warmth of sun melted in on top of it. I remember Dad’s crisp, polished suit and wingtips. I remember my flowered dress and scratchy petticoat and the dew on my white patent shoes. I wore white silky socks then with my dressy shoes. The skin of my legs showing between the socks and the cotton flowers of my dress was scarred, bruised, and scabbed because I was a tomboy. Dad clipped a rose for my dress, and that silky fresh bud seemed foreign to those skinned up legs.
But I knew what red was back then. I never thought there’d be a day when I wouldn’t wear red. Red meant love and life and taught me what family was. Red was safety and security and somebody who would always be there to love me. Red was a father who thought red was important. Red was a mother who was dearly loved and who gave in sacrifice to her loved ones. Red was the best color ever.
Now there is no red.
This is why I’ve got rotator cuff issues and impingement and bursitis and eight weeks of physical therapy.
From Resting Place: A Memoir of Grief and Healing:
“July 29, 2012
The back yard was stone-solid sienna clay when I bought this house in December, seven months ago. Fescue seeds had been scattered on top of it and covered with straw. Spring rains wet the clay and pounded the straw into it to mesh as part of the earth’s hardscape, and now the summer sun has baked it. Pottery, that’s what it is.”
In one year, I made this out of that:
I came away from the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference with two words I heard in Sunday’s panel. Sacrifice and persistence.
I know them well. They are what we do as writers.
We sacrifice doing things with friends or spending time with family, all of us to different degrees, but yet, there is always sacrifice of some sort. We may sacrifice a clean house, ample groceries, clean clothes, a mowed yard, or needed exercise. Or sleep. Sacrifice — giving up something in order to have something else with a higher value.
Persistence. Continuing steadfastly in some course of action even though there is opposition. We writers have persistence through shitty rough drafts, rejections, dejection, put downs, red marks, interruptions, pulls on our time. Even if we don’t have editor or publisher deadlines, we make our own goals and set our own deadlines and hold ourselves to them.
We are determined to carve out our time, leave the dirty dishes in the sink, turn off the phone, apply the butt glue, focus on the project, and keep the end product in the forefront of our minds.
Remember. Sacrifice and persistence.
Tears pushed against the backs of my eyes, bumping into the laughter. It hit me that this was more than just another writers conference where you go and sit for a long time and listen to speakers and then go home and try to apply what you learned. I felt a sense of community here. I sat on the couch in Room 203, drank a glass of wine, held a napkin with a W on it for Wessman (NancyKay), and picked out the cashews from the jar of assorted nuts. I shared, and I listened to the stories of others, and I heard us all saying the same thing. We have a fire in our guts to write our stories and publish our books.
This core group gathered in #203 has come together more than once. We have lifted glasses of wine not only in Oxford, but at other similar creative nonfiction events in towns nearby.
The 2013 conference was the third one in Oxford headed up by Neil White, the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction in the South, I guess. In 2008 Neil brought some of the biggest names in the genre to lead workshops and panels in the quaint and charming Mississippi town of Oxford, and Susan Cushman of Memphis and I were both there. Susan and I had met five months earlier at a Saturday workshop Neil put together. He’d invited Lee Gutkind, the so-called Godfather behind the genre, to speak. Lee, a charismatic man with tousled white hair, white scruffy beard, and a tiny round turquoise earring in his left lobe, told us he wanted to bring creative nonfiction to the South because it was the most widely published genre in the world—everywhere, but in the South. Lee has been to all the conferences.
The second Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference was in 2010, and Susan and I went back as co-directors, assisting Neil. Susan then hosted a creative nonfiction workshop in Memphis, and last fall I led a workshop in Clarksdale at the Shack Up Inn.
A handful or two of writers have been to two or three or more of these events all connected to Neil White. We have come from coastal Alabama; Georgia; Mississippi—Meridian, Jackson, Madison; Tennessee—Memphis and Nashville. Deep South writers. We have shared stories, both written and personal, because our written stories are personal. And we will come back to the table for more sustenance and inspiration. We are the core of the community of Creative Nonfiction in the South. And we are community. And we are at the center of something big.
We’re calling ourselves a tribe.
Room 203, after the final party
Tribe: an aggregate of people united by community of customs and traditions and adherence to the same leaders.
Dan, Emily, me
And this year there were new friends and new faces from all over: California, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Kansas, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Coast to coast, top to bottom, writers made their way to a little Mississippi town with a great big voice and a tribe. I talked to many writers, and they have that same earlier-mentioned passion for their work — deep, significant, intimate stories — true stories. The tent is now wider; the tribe is bigger!
Harrison Scott Key, winner of Creative Nonfiction’s Southern Sin contest says, “Neil White has put on maybe the Greatest Writing Conference in the History of Events Planning.”
We all left Oxford-town knowing it takes sacrifice and persistence to get where we want to go. We left saying stuff like “better than ever,” “does anyone want to be an accountability partner?”, “can’t we do it every year instead of every other year?”, and “sure I’ll give Clarksdale (CNF workshop) another go.”
Thanks, Neil White and Susan Cushman, and Carroll (wow!), Maggie, and Genie, and to everyone — attendees, speakers, workshop leaders, panelists, River Jordan for her fabulous historical rant — “go to sleep, baby, Nana’s got a deadline,” scorpions on the manuscript and pillow, and completing a book before a sure-death within six months after a mammogram (oh yes, it’s true, men, and I don’t open my results for three days after I get them in the mail and one time it was three months!) — photographers, shuttle drivers, Inn at Ole Miss staff, everybody, and the tribe. I love you all!
I’ll be headed out later this week to the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. This is the third conference I’ve attended, and there was also a creative nonfiction workshop in 2007, and this is the second conference I’ve co-directed with Neil White and Susan Cushman. I’m familiar with the returning faces–Dinty W. Moore, Lee Gutkind, Michael Rosenwald, Jessica Handler–and I’ve known River Jordan, who’s new this year, since she came to Tennessee and read from the galley of her first novel at the Barnes and Noble Writers Night prior to the Southern Festival of Books where she was to be on a panel. And Lee Martin is new this year. I haven’t met him yet, but I like what I hear.
Lee’s blog today is titled “Teaching at Writers’ Conferences” and gives a glimpse of what we can expect this weekend in Oxford. He writes:
“At the end of this week, I’ll be in Oxford, Mississippi, teaching a memoir workshop preceding the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and then sticking around to be on a panel during the conference proper. Thus begins the season of writers’ conference teaching with other visits to Rowe, Massachusetts; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Montpelier, Vermont, to come. I love teaching at these conferences where folks are generally passionate about their craft and eager to pick up some little tidbit to help them along their writers’ journeys. I also love meeting folks I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to know, and getting to have some small part in the work that they’re doing. If I can share what I know in a way that will be helpful, maybe I can save someone a bit of time in the development of his or her craft. By so doing, I can pay back all the wonderful teachers who did the same for me. Like the handyman character, Red Green, used to say on his television show, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”
I was first drawn to creative nonfiction by memoir. I was a fiction writer who decided to turn his skills with narrative into storytelling about the self. I quickly learned that I loved being able to dramatize moments from my life and arrange them in a narrative thread of cause and effect. I also loved being able to reflect upon those moments, interrogate them, use them to think more deeply about the person I was/am and the people around me. This is all to say that I’m very much looking forward to my trip to Oxford, and the conversation I’ll have about memoir with the folks in my workshop…” Read more:
It’s not too late to register! Join us for a full and inspiring weekend on the Ole Miss campus. The creative nonfiction community in the South is growing. Come join us!
Seven years ago, at about this same hour, eight in the morning, I sat on the couch at home at 807 Deering beside a hospice nurse who told me my daddy wouldn’t make it through the day. Then she called the family doctor and told him. “Let it happen,” he said. Dad had end-stage dementia and was a DNR.
We’d gathered to be with him, knowing the time was near — my sister, my older son, and of course, my mother was there. I hung Dad’s flag in front of the house. Dad was a veteran and hung that flag on every war holiday. This day, it was for him. He got a Bronze Star with Valor in the big war, but this day, he’d fight his last one.
He didn’t want to go. We kept telling him it was okay, he could go in peace. He didn’t want to leave life, he didn’t want to leave my mother. Sixty-one years they were together.
My sister got his tape recorder out and put in the tape of “Rise Again,” a powerful song of the Lord’s resurrection on the third day. “I’ll rise again; death can’t keep me in the ground.” Then she went to check on our mother.
Mama was outside planting flowers, knees down in the dirt, hands in the dirt, trying to avoid what was imminent inside the house. My son went to take a shower.
I was alone with Dad. He was holding on. “Dad,” I said, “You’ve got to do this first. You’ve got to show us how to do it and then come back and get us when it’s our turn.” His younger brother had died a few years back and it greatly bothered Dad, because he thought he should have gone first, because he was older. I knew he wouldn’t want to outlive any of us.
I saw the blood stop in the veins in his arms. Then it moved again. I knew what was happening. I ran outside to get my mother and sister and beat on the bathroom door for my son. We all stood there around our husband and father and grandfather as he went.
I don’t want to remember that day. I want to remember all the life in him. The fun times, the funny times, the man that he was, the lessons he taught and stood for. Maybe today, Easter Sunday, a day of life and rising again, I’ll plant a tree for him, a weeping cherry, to remember how blessed and fortunate I am to have had a good father. He wasn’t perfect, but he was good and he gave me something solid to be grounded on, and so today, I remember that man.
Sometimes I remember things and then try to re-live them. Like Mama’s brown sugar toast.
Brown sugar toast was special because we didn’t have it often. I don’t know if other mothers made it or if my mother was the only one and it really doesn’t matter because the taste of brown sugar covers up every other thought.
You take a slice of white bread and smear a thick coating of margarine over it and then you sprinkle a bunch of brown sugar on top and then you sprinkle water over it all to make the brown sugar stick and sink into the margarine. Then you put it in the oven under the broiler.
[I did update and use a five-grain bread and butter instead of margarine. ]
Some of the brown sugar melts into the butter and some of it just gets toasted. Not much is better than brown sugar.
It’s hard to re-create it exactly because everything tasted better coming out of Mama’s big white Sears oven . . . but it did bring back a memory and a time that can’t be matched and a taste that is the same in every generation.