It’s that time of year again — the last day of the old, ticking toward the first day of the new. A new chance. Tabula rasa. Blank slate. I can start afresh. What I didn’t do last year, I can strive for this year. Or I can simply build on things that I started in previous years.
I admit I do make New Year’s Resolutions. Sometimes. I didn’t last year. The year 2007 was the first year my father didn’t cross over into, and my mind wasn’t on setting goals for myself. So if I accomplished anything in 2007, I don’t know what it was.
If I do make resolutions, I do tend to keep them, for the most part.
This is where my husband and two sons will roar, “Of course, you do. You are perfect!”
I open my old, tan leather journal to its first gilded page: Jan. 1, 2005. My eyes move to the end of the entry for that day, where it says “New Year’s Resolutions,” underlined. I’d listed seven and then commented, “I do not want to let anything get in the way of my goals.” I kept them all that year. Number One catches my eye.
1. Write a column/essay [creative nonfiction] each week for Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal.
Check! Did that. In fact, I did it all of 2005, 2006, and 2007 and have about 135 essays archived.
I skip down to the entry for Jan. 12, 2005. “I ran across Brevity on the Creative Nonfiction website — ‘extremely brief literary nonfiction of a crisp, concise 750 words or less, focusing on detail and scene over thought and opinion.’ That’s what I wanted to write this year [in the weekly MLASJ essay] without knowing it existed anywhere else.”
In 2008, this new blog will take the place of the essays written under unCorked! in MLASJ. (A-ha! That’s one thing I achieved during 2007. I started a blog!)
In 2008, I will attend two workshops led by Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore, during the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference: “Manuscript Workshop with Dinty W. Moore” and “The Art and Craft of Characterization in Memoir.”
I’m already marking on my slate for 2008 — pictured in my mind as the kind of toy slate I used to get in elementary school as a Christmas present from teachers or as a birthday party favor. It had colorful cartoon pictures around the cardboard edges, a thin red wooden pencil, and a clear plastic sheet to lift away from the black base and erase the words I’d written or the pictures I’d drawn. I like to think I’ve slowly pulled up that sheet, hearing the crackle of plastic, and made all the old markings disappear, and maybe I can do better with what I draw or write next.
[Continued from previous post, 12/27/2007 about my first memories…]
Three months after the thermometer incident and shortly after my fourth birthday, Judith Ann was born.
My broken left arm had been in a cast for six weeks, all during the month of hot August, and I couldn’t get it wet. I couldn’t play in the wading pool, and I couldn’t take a bath. The stink inside the cast was building. Because of my predicament, I’d gotten a lot of attention from Mama. I didn’t want a baby sister or brother to horn in on all that. I wanted to keep on being an only child, didn’t want anyone in my spotlight.
Mama told Dr. Ringold about my snotty attitude. “Tell her you’re pregnant,” he said, “that there’s a baby in your stomach, and there’s not a thing she can do about it.” I got Mama back by announcing to everyone I encountered on the main street of downtown as the two of us shopped, “My mama is thirty-three and she’s pragnant.” It sounded like a short “a” to me, and I spewed it back that way and even pronounced it that way for the next ten years. Then I spent the remaining months of Mama’s pregnancy worrying about that baby in her stomach gettin’ food on it. I watched Mama chew her meals comprised of every food group. I wished she’d just stop eating. Every bite Mama swallowed dropped on that baby. Green beans. White sticky mashed potatoes. Meat loaf with a red pasty tomato topping. All splattering on the baby’s head and dripping to its shoulders and sliding down its body. And the baby would be sitting in a mixed up mush of grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, meat. It was quite a nasty arrangement in there, and I felt sorry for the poor child.
Then there was the whole issue of how Mama got pregnant in the first place. When I asked how that baby got in there, she told me she prayed for a baby and God gave it to her. For a long while, I was afraid to pray at all. I didn’t want anything showing up in my stomach.
I was at Aunt Dean’s on November 15, the day Judith Ann was born. Aunt Dean wasn’t really my aunt, but I stayed at her house on Victoria Avenue while Dad worked and Mama went to classes at Delta State College on the GI Bill. That day, Dad came to get me.
“You have a new baby sister,” he said after he picked me up. I pushed away, pushed to get down, not because I was angry about having a new baby sister, but because I didn’t like to be held or managed or stopped from moving at my own time and speed. I ran ahead of him down Aunt Dean’s three concrete front steps, with the brick and concrete sides, and down the sidewalk to the car parked at the curb. The sun was higher than the trees in the yard, and it warmed my face.
I was a big sister.
When she was still brand new, Mama let me hold her and feed her a bottle. She was a tiny mass of warm softness and hard bones that moved and poked against her gown. She had a sour smell about her, especially her breath, yet mixed in was a sweet smell of baby oil and baby powder. She wore layers of cotton. Her head was bare save a few dark brown strands, and she had a sunken soft spot on top that Mama said not to touch or my finger might poke through it. Her forehead fit around her eyes like she was wearing a mask. Her mouth looked funny, too. She had no teeth, and it appeared that someone had stitched a seam along her gumline where her bottom front teeth were supposed to be. “Her teeth are all sewed up,” I said. I got a laugh out of Mama, who thought that was a cute thing to say, so I repeated that line a lot, at least until Judith Ann got her first teeth.
This was not a still child. Unlike the dolls I’d had and fed, this one moved against me, as I sat like an Indian chief and tried to support her head so it wouldn’t flop backward and break her neck, while I held the bottle up so the Carnation milk would be at the bottom and the baby wouldn’t drink air and get gas. She kicked and waved her arms and even looked up at me while she sucked.
It was hard work, being a big sister.
The best part about it was that right there at first, Mama sometimes slept in the room with the new baby. When she did, I got to sleep in the bed with Dad. Every time, he’d lay his arm across the pillow and rub my head until I fell asleep.
I guess that to keep balance in the world, when a new person enters it, an old person must be taken away. So three months after Judith Ann was born, Great Grandma Lee Ora George Neal passed on to glory. She was the first dead person I ever saw. Dad took me to the funeral. Just the two of us went because Mama had the newborn baby to take care of. Dad and I drove four hours to get there — Dockery, Ruleville, Doddsville, Schlater, Greenwood, Winona, Kosciusko, Philadelphia.
There was a long line of people at the funeral home, filing by the coffin to look at the sixty-eight-year-old woman, still, silent, dead, but appearing to sleep. When it was our turn, Dad picked me up so I could see, above the heavy velvet material of the drape that covered the bier. His handprints under my arms are still there.
The birth of a sister I’d have for the rest of my life, the death of an ancestor plucked from the world like an old brown pecan that dropped from its branch — both changing the landscape of family — struck me as events that would change my world, instinctively let me know that life is dynamic, that life begins … and piercingly, life ends.
My first memory is in black and white — flashes in light and dark and gray shadows of moments that lifted me to a new level of being and understanding.
“Turn over,” the bulky nurse said and pulled the covers back with the callousness of one who had stared down military inductees and told them, with an attitude of cold conviction that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, to drop their pants. I didn’t want anyone to see my butt.
At three years, eleven months, I broke my left arm in the elbow when I fell off the crossbars of the swing set, doing fancy tricks because I was good at hanging, flipping, and acrobatics. Dr. Ringold wouldn’t set it. He sent me to Campbell’s Clinic in Memphis to an orthopedist. He’d only attempted to fix one other similar break during all his years of practice, and that woman could not straighten her arm for the rest of her life.
Nurses pushed me down a long hallway on a gurney. There were toys on a high shelf along the way — stuffed bears and ten-inch rigid dolls, cheap items to take the focus off my pain and fear. They told me I could pick any toy I wanted. I made a quick choice because I was afraid — one of those hard plastic dolls — and regretted it because I really wanted something else that appeared to have more value.
Mama was about seven months pregnant then and when the subject comes up about my broken arm and a night in the hospital, all she remembers is that it was hot in Memphis in August and the air conditioning went out. She spent the night sleeping on the cool tile floor under my bed, and Dad slept in the car in the parking lot and got eaten up by mosquitoes. Besides the rocky ride down the hall and the toys on the wall, all I remember is the nurse who came into my room the next morning and told me to turn over on my side. I didn’t know why, but as I eased away from her, I saw her whip out a thermometer and give it a few shakes. It worried me what she was going to do with it, but I was just a kid, and I was supposed to obey what a grownup told me.
Instead of sticking that thing in my mouth under my tongue like she was supposed to, she inserted it in the other end. A wave of sick humiliation came and went over me and sank in deep to my core. I closed my eyes and held them tight and scrunched up my face, mashing it into the pillow. After it was over, I pulled the covers close to me and held them there with my fists and wanted to cry. I did, silently, inside. I looked around the room and out the door at the nurse’s station to see who all saw that incident. Then I settled into a feeling that I had been invaded, violated.
I learned right then and there that things could happen to me — things I didn’t even know about. I’d have to watch out for myself. Because I was small and adults were big, they could do whatever they wanted to me, even put things into my body, whether a rectal thermometer, or anything else of their choosing. It wasn’t fair, or right.
One image always comes to mind as Christmas arrives, and there are snapshots in albums and lying loose in The Big Cardboard Picture Box that document it. The main actor in this image appears first as a handsome dark-haired twenty-something and later as a white-haired grandpa.
Dad, at Christmastime.
Ten years after he was a little boy on the farm during the Great Depression, sitting in front of a hot fireplace with oranges and firecrackers and a gun or toy truck from Santa, he spent Christmas in snowy, frozen Bastogne in the worst of the war — trapped in a barn with frozen toes, gripped with fear and unable to speak. Ten years later, he was a father with two daughters, enjoying Christmas in a little white house on Deering Street.
We didn’t hear much out of Dad leading up to Christmas. He kept the same routine of work, eat, sleep. Drudgery, perhaps. But on Christmas morning, he sprang to life, much like a Jack-in-the-Box, as you’d wind it up, around and around, and when the time was right, a clown would pop out the top, all smiles, lively and colorful.
Dad was the first one up on Christmas morning, and when my sister and I entered the living room, he’d bounce and hop and laugh and yell, “Ho, ho, ho! Me-e-erry Christmas! Look at all this!” He’d point to the tree. “Look at all the toys! How’d they get here? I don’t know how all these toys got here.” I can still remember the tingle in my stomach, catching his excitement. And then, he was under the tree, playing with each toy. Bikes and trikes and wagons and trains and merry-go-rounds. Dollhouses and pogo sticks and pop beads and Barbies and baby dolls. In our household, it was never two children under the tree. It was three.
Dad mellowed out a bit when Santa started bringing manicure sets and hair dryers and sweaters and jewelry boxes and leather jackets, but he occasionally found delight in a basketball or a transistor radio.
Ten years later, the cycle started all over again when the grandchildren began coming along. It was Dad under the tree with babies and toddlers and preschoolers, trying out Tonkas and Matchboxes and Star Wars spaceships and Lincoln Logs and Legos. One year, a kid got a plastic segmented Winnie the Pooh tunnel to crawl through. Dad was the first one in it, and a snapshot records his backside in the opening, with a toddler behind him, patiently waiting to play with his own toy.
I knew Christmas before last would be Dad’s last Christmas, when the jar of scuppernong jelly my sister wrapped barely brought a smile to his face. The same with the Whoopie Cushion I took.
I remember the life, the liveliness, the laughter, the wonder of all those Christmases I had him, a half century of holidays, and my heart is glad, because those memories won’t ever go away.