“Why’re you getting all dolled up? You going out somewhere?” he asks.
“I get all dolled up every day,” I say, smearing in Nude Beige and brushing Tender Rose on my cheeks. “I may not look like it by the time you get home in the evening, but I do it just the same. Besides, I haven’t been anywhere in three weeks, so why would you think I’m going somewhere now?” I throw a little powder on top of everything and reach for my flat iron before I feel like I’ve sat too long and need to go lie down. Again.
Tomorrow will mark three weeks since I had surgery, an LAVH. The three incisions are for the most part healed, but I still have pain on the inside. My schedule still includes a lot of resting and reclining. I miss being able to bend over and pick up things; I’m tired of picking up things I drop with my toes. I miss being able to lift more than five pounds — like my dog, for example, and a gallon of milk even pulls at the abdominal muscles. I miss my walks. I miss putting the dog on her leash and taking her around the neighborhood — she pulls and the resistance is more than I need. I miss my yard work. I’m at the average halfway recovery point now. I’m ready to be there.
Sometimes I catch myself dancing to the Weather Channel music. That’s pretty sad. I want to do a cartwheel in the fresh grass. I’m getting somewhat impatient. I want to do something.
I have cabin fever. I want to get out and go…somewhere, anywhere. I stand in the driveway and look down the sidewalk and wish to follow it. I want to go to Home Depot or Betty Reed’s Produce and buy flowers and plant them in pots for the patio and front porch, and I need ferns for either side of the front door. I want to go to the Main Street Festival in downtown Franklin this weekend. It’s the first one I’ve missed. I’ll miss the birdhouse exhibit — I buy a new one every spring.
Oh, I’ve had a few outings. I’ve been to Publix twice, tagging along while my husband does all the buying. I drove to the board meeting of the Council for the Written Word, then rushed home to the couch. My husband drove me to Barnes and Noble for Susan Gregg Gilmore‘s signing, and again, I was glad to get back to the couch.
The couch has been my place of comfort over the three-week period. My pillow has become a fixture there, along with a soft silky throw, and I lie there with the dog cuddled at my feet and read. If I weren’t so addicted to my former life of activity, I might be content to just stay there. Truly, I’m thrilled with the reading time. I’ve gone through four books so far: Even Mississippi by Melany Nielson, She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel, The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, and Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore. I speed-read/skimmed one: Away Down South by James C. Cobb, author of my favorite Mississippi Delta resource, The Most Southern Place on Earth. I’ve kept the Amazon packers busy. Three more books arrived a few days ago (thanks, Sarah!) — all about the Mississippi Delta by Delta authors: Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy, The Celestial Jukebox by Cynthia Shearer (a novel), and From the Mississippi Delta, A Memoir by Endesha Ida Mae Holland. I’m halfway through the latter, the story of a girl raised in the black community of Greenwood during the late forties, fifties, and sixties during the civil rights struggle. It’s a coming-of-age story, very raw and real — astonishing honesty and candor — enough to break your heart and make your blood boil to see in black and white what it was like for some to grow up there, as some of the rest of us lived there in it all, but didn’t know the full story of the differences between white and black.
For now, I must settle for going to faraway times and places only in the pages I read. I will be a good patient (fingers crossed behind my back) and when it’s all over, I will put on a pair of tight jeans (which won’t be a problem by then) and run across a meadow full of wildflowers, the sun on my face, the wind in my hair. Or at least walk around the block.
Susan Gregg Gilmore, author of Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, shared her writing and publishing experience with local writers gathered at Barnes & Noble Wednesday night. I’d just finished her novel about Catherine Grace, whose only objective was to turn 18 and leave the small town of Ringgold, Georgia, where her daddy was a preacher and her mama had drowned years earlier. “Every Saturday afternoon, she sits at the Dairy Queen, eating Dilly Bars and plotting her getaway to Atlanta.”
The book is written much like a memoir, which was good for me, as that’s what I’m working on in my personal writing. One of the book’s layers deals with small town/small church people and issues, which was also good for me, as that brings reminiscences of my novel in progress…before I set it aside briefly to write creative nonfiction. Church members are good folks, but they tend to be gossipy and judgmental. And preachers are just regular people and face the same problems and struggles as those on the church rolls, and sometimes they are wrong in their actions and choices.
And then there’s Gloria Jean. You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture of this wonderfully complex character. “One Fourth of July, she stuck real-live lightning bugs inside her hair and then covered it all with netting. Her head glowed like some kind of fancy firecracker till all the lightning bugs choked on her hairspray and died. She paid [sister] Martha Ann and me fifty cents apiece to pick all those poor little bugs from her hair. Nope, nothing about Gloria Jean was ever simple or plain.” Now, is that memorable, or what?
As Lee Smith — who happened to be Susan’s seventh grade English teacher — says in her cover rave: “This is an unusually engaging novel by a very fine writer who knows exactly what she’s doing.”
“You’ve got a woman outside your window, I see.”
“What?” He looked baffled.
I smiled and pointed to the robin sitting on a nest about two feet from our bedroom window. My husband’s desk sits on the wall beside that same window. He sits there often and reads and blogs.
On the western corner of the house, where two windows engage in perpendicular union, we placed a bird feeder next to a forsythia, mainly so our dog, when she was a puppy, could watch the birds gather and nibble on seeds. We placed her crate in the corner so she could look out both windows and become absorbed in the activities of squirrels and cardinals and blue jays and robins and be happily occupied while we were away at work. We strategically placed a squirrel trapeze, a bird bath, a squirrel porch on a tree trunk, and a host of bird feeders in our yard to hold our young one’s attention. Once a teacher, always a teacher, and I’m a firm believer in providing educational opportunities for my kids … and dogs.
The years have gone by and the crate has long since been stored and I have neglected filling the feeder. So this one particular robin thinks it is fair game to build her house here, where she can look in our window and have company while she hatches her young. She has chosen my husband as her protector and overseer. She doesn’t know he doesn’t notice such things until they are pointed out to him. But she is wise, as he is quiet and tolerant and doesn’t meddle. Unlike me, for I am nosy and tend to want to know about everybody else’s business.
The robin, long known as the harbinger of spring, is one of the first bird species to lay eggs and usually prefers a large shade tree on a lawn. She is also among the first to sing at dawn — a song that says, “Cheer up, cheer up!” Mornings, I’ve seen her foraging in my grass, doing her running and stopping and pulling-up-worm motions her species is noted for.
I bounced with excitement the day I saw her clutch of three tiny blue eggs inside the nest, cuddled up together like you’d see in a storybook picture. She can produce up to three broods a year, but builds a different nest for each one.
I missed the hatching, and I really wanted to be there for the births. Yesterday, I saw the naked babies for the first time. Tiny ones. Sticking their little beaks up in the air. Statistics tell me that only 25% of young robins survive the first year. A lucky robin can live 14 years, but the average lifespan is two.
I try to take a picture out the window of the tiny things flailing about, waiting for fresh worms, but the shots are complicated by the flash on glass, the mesh of the screen, the blue and white stripes of my pajamas, my hand sticking out from under a hot pink robe. So I walk outside and sneak around to the corner, hold my camera up and snap. The dog walks with me and goes under the forsythia from which the bird feeder and nest arise. The robin flies away, shrieks at us, dive bombs, but not too close, sits in a branch of a nearby tree and sounds an alarm. She is frantic, trying to protect her babies. I tell her, “It’s okay, I’m done, I’m done. Just wanted a picture of them.” I leave quickly.
Soon, I’ll get to see the juveniles learn to fly and prepare to leave their home and go out on their own. Like my own kids have done … or are still doing.
The first personal essays I ever wrote were about going to my grandparents’ farm when I was a child. One was published in a nationally distributed magazine, and a few were published in a local literary anthology. It dawned on me one day that my experiences in the country were all I was writing about, yet I’d only been there maybe twice a year during my growing up era. There was much more to my life than those summer and holiday trips to Kemper County. But the farm had so much to write about and was decidedly the source of my voice.
After reading Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth [post of 3/15], I decided to try my hand at a segmented essay about time spent on the farm atop Hardy Hill: an introduction and a few stand-out memories.
Two brothers, dressed in gray pleated trousers and ironed white shirts with cuff links, mill about and kick the dirt around the patchy grass of the front yard of the farmhouse. It is Sunday, and you dress up on Sunday even if you don’t go to Sunday School. They are salt and pepper. Ray: light hair, pink skin, short and stocky like the Neal side of the family. Roland: black curly hair, olive skin, tall like the Abercrombies. A film of yellow dust settles on their shiny Wingtips. When they were just boys and lining up to take a picture, Roland made sure Dad stood in a low spot, so he’d appear even shorter, and it set Dad off. He used to beat Roland up because Roland was lazy and wouldn’t do any of the farm chores. They they’d go stand at the edge of the gully and see who could pee the furthest and laugh about it.
No one can get the kids — Roland’s three and Dad’s two — to line up and stand still so a picture can be taken. Dad is waving his arms, like he is directing traffic, motioning us to come and scrooch together in front of the rose bush. We younguns need to stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians, and I need to stop that high-pitched squealing.
I am at my grandma’s house for the drop-off. Dad drove four hours to get me here so I could spend a week in the country with my cousins and my grandparents. Barbara Ann and Michael have already been here all summer because Uncle Roland and Aunt Joyce work all day. He drives a laundry truck and she fixes hair. I am wearing shorts because it is expected that I will get dirty the minute I hop out of the car and start playing with Barbara Ann. We are like stair steps. Barbara Ann is fourteen months older than I am, and I am four months older than Michael. Judi and Theresa Lynn came along four and six years later. There are four girl grandchildren and one boy. The boy is the favored one, and the girls don’t like it one bit.
As soon as the camera snaps, Dad says, Behave, and gets in the car. I watch the tail-end of his Ford Fairlane 500 disappear in a cloud of yellow, long fins swimming in the dust. A catch in my chest tells me I’m all alone. Here. Way out in the country. Far from home. For a week. I couldn’t wait for this. Now I’m not so sure.
Let’s go pick some flowers to put on our dresser, Barbara Ann says, and I skip behind her to the yard. She knows everything about the country. I will copy her when she says dadburnit and Get your butt outta here, which she yells to Michael when he comes in our room. These are not appropriate things to say in town.
We get to stay in the front bedroom, which has a door to the porch. It’s got five big windows that stay open, an antique dresser, an old train trunk, a foot-pedal Singer, a quilting frame on the ceiling, and two double beds with white Chenille spreads. In the mornings when we wake, we will jump up and down on the white tufts of the spreads and recite the verse our grandma has framed on the wall: Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above. Then we will drag homemade lard biscuits through Blackburn’s molasses. Mornings, we will sit on the front porch with our grandma and shell peas for dinner. After dinner, we will watch our grandpa turn a straight chair upside down on the porch, lean against it, and nap, and we will tickle his nose with a piece of straw. We will fix ourselves cups of Maxwell House with four teaspoons of sugar and four ounces of milk and take them to our treehouse, and we will not bother our grandma while she is watching her show, “The Edge of Night.” Before supper, we will walk with our grandpa to bring the cows in from the pasture. After supper, we will play Rook on the dimly lit porch. Tucked in between all these things we will romp and roam the woods and do whatever we please, and it will be a wonder we don’t get ourselves killed.
Then I will write about the cottonmouth moccasin coiled up two inches from my calf, the murky-bottomed pond we swam in, the thirty-foot-deep gully we played in when we weren’t supposed to, the time we ran away, the time we tried to dig up a grave, the bad fights we had and the fingers that got cut off my doll’s hand, the old well covered up with boards…yes, it’s a wonder I’m here to write these things down.
We had our favorite Sunday evening meal: baked brie, fruit — apple slices, strawberries, purple grapes, pineapple chunks — French sourdough bread, and an Australian wine. My first bite was a piece of fresh sweet pineapple. I’ve always hated pineapple, never eat it, it makes me shiver. My husband gets the pineapple for himself and the strawberries for me. But this time, I wanted to be different … because after surgery a week ago, I feel different. Everything has changed. True to my expectations the pineapple was delicious, and I didn’t shiver. Not one teensy little bit.
Also, I wanted to force something different. I’m trying to build up my nerve. I’m trying to take my writing to the next level. I’ve been reading The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, thanks to Sarah Einstein at Hilltrash who pointed me in that direction. I keep shaking my head and asking myself Why can’t I write like her. I want to do a piece in that style, her style — employing the specific, though perhaps reconstructed memory, the incredible details, the stunning laying down of the words. All day Sunday I planned to write an essay out of my past. I never had the nerve to bring my fingers to the keyboard.
The pineapple would help. If I could eat that, I could do anything.
It’s not the best piece in the book, but it’s one of my favorites. A segment from Beard’s essay “Cousins” begins as such:
“The sisters are making deviled eggs. They have on dark blue dresses with aprons and are walking around in nyloned feet. No one can find the red stuff that gets sprinkled on top of the eggs. They’re tearing the cupboards apart right now, swearing to each other and shaking their heads. We all know enough to stay out of the kitchen.”
Five short sentences let me picture this entire scene as though I’m right there looking in the kitchen door. I can take on the mood of something important going on. I can feel the vibes, the angst, of the sisters, transferring the problem to where it doesn’t belong. Beard told me enough without telling me everything. I know how this family is like mine and not like mine.
Second paragraph: “We’re at my grandma’s house in our best dresses with towels pinned to the collars. Our older sisters are walking around with theatrical, mournful faces, bossing us like crazy, in loud disgusted whispers. They have their pockets loaded with Kleenex in preparation for making a scene. We’re all going to our grandfather’s funeral in fifteen minutes, as soon as the paprika gets found.”
In my family the women work like mad in a crisis and assume greater responsibilities and threateningly throw down the rules, which might be accompanied by looks that kill or pinches. I love Beard’s next lines: “Wendell and I get to go only because we promised to act decent. No more running and sliding on the funeral-home rug. Someone has died, and there’s a time and a place for everything. We’ll both get spanked in front of everyone and put in chairs if we’re not careful. And if we can’t keep our gum in our mouths, then we don’t need it….” I have heard this and said it. And pinched a lot, too.
Monday, I started laying down the words in an essay about being at my grandma’s house. Maybe, just maybe, I can pull together enough details to create a scene that will stay with the reader, much like the taste of the pineapple that sat fresh against my tongue.
From Melany Neilson’s Even Mississippi (received a Pulitzer Prize nomination) — a strong and evocative narrative of a young white woman coming of age in Mississippi and encountering the real world of class and prejudice: “I should go somewhere else, far away. This land was too troubled, excesses and poverty mingled here, and time moved slowly. Life here was too close to the land, too hard, with folks, black and white, sharing experiences but always at a distance, separate in a way you had to live through to understand.”
It was the way it was, the way it always had been. Keep ’em in their place. Separate but equal. (Equal, my foot.) Neilson’s book reminds me that though the Sixties were fraught with racial strife, equal rights didn’t come with the passage of federal laws. I lived in a rural Delta town during the early Eighties, the time frame of Neilson’s book. That’s when I met Old Henry.
He was old, all right. Nobody knew how old. Not even Henry, himself. They said he had scars made by shackles from when he was a slave. I tried to subtract and arrive at a meaningfully accurate age, and I ended up with 115. Could that be? Or did someone keep him shackled when he should have been free?
By 1980 Henry was too old to work, but he’d earned his own little spot near a corner of the plantation, close to a bayou, just off Highway 61. He had a house — a raw cypress two-room shanty with cracks between the boards clumsily patched with tar paper, no running water, junk scattered about, the common abode to black folks even then. He also had a little spot beside the shack for a garden, a garden he played and strummed like a well-tuned guitar. He’d grown up on that plantation, close to the land, knew how to bring things up out of the rich loam, and his garden told the story of his diligence and obedience to the cyclical experience of growth.
The landowner offered us a spot between Henry’s shanty and the bayou to plant a garden of our own — tomatoes, squash, eggplant, green beans, cucumbers, a few stalks of corn. I was into the “natural” movement. I’d just had a baby, delivered by a certified nurse midwife. Accompanying the stark Delta poverty was a high infant mortality rate among the poor and black population, prompting a midwifery program to provide adequate care to mothers and babies. I had good insurance and the means to afford an obstetrician in Greenville, but chose this method of delivery. Then my child drank only breast milk and ate pureed pears from a tree down the street and vegetables from the garden in front of Old Henry’s shack.
I could stand on the turnrow that served as Henry’s drive and cup my hands in front of me in my line of vision and see the black, low-slung silhouette of his house against the golden glow of the sky and cotton fields falling away from it, the rambling ranch of the landowner in the distance with a Crow’s Nest from which the bossman could look out over his white gold. Poverty juxtaposed against mocking wealth lay in the parenthesis formed by my hands. The crusty pea-green bayou curled beside it all, cypress trees sitting in it, mingling with old hardwoods, like the meagerness and excesses of the land and its people alongside it.
In the sweltering heat late one afternoon we arrived to work in our rows and pick our yield. After depositing our tools in a heap on the ground, we noted we’d forgotten something and it would require a trip back to town. My husband called out to the old stooped man, “Hey Henry, could you please keep an eye on our tools till we get back?”
In a half hour, we drove up the turnrow toward Henry’s shack and noticed he was standing over the heap of hoes and shovels and trowels, looking down at them, not budging, not looking up at the noise of our car. Then came the sickening realization that he’d been there the whole time keeping an eye on our tools because the white man told him to.
I’m sitting here sipping Tazo Zen, a green tea blended with lemongrass and spearmint. I haven’t been to my desk in the upstairs office in three days. I haven’t worked, haven’t written, haven’t done much of anything but stand and walk slowly and then lie down again. I’m using my laptop set up on the breakfast table in front of the bay window, where I can look out over the yard and see how lovely the part of it is that I was able to finish and to see how much work there is left to be done.
My genre is creative nonfiction, the immersion genre, in which a writer “immerses” herself in an event or in nature — or a medical procedure — and then writes about it with an insider’s view. I had an opportunity to write such a piece, only I was too immersed. So immersed that I missed a three-hour surgery I could have told all about.
Monday, I arrived at Williamson Medical Center at 6 a.m. I was put in a room, given a gown, four plastic bracelets, some socks and a Fleet enema. The last time I had an enema was in Paris, France, when I was eighteen. I’d been so busy touring eight countries in twenty-one days that by the time I got to Paris, I needed one, and an old woman in my group made sure I got one. She stood at the top of a curved staircase above a hundred guests in the lobby of our hotel and held up this big red rubber gadget and said with a smile, “I got one, Kathy. C’mon.”
At 7:15 I was taken to a holding room, where a member of the anesthesia team started an IV, put a hair net on me and put stockings on my calves, as well as pads strapped tightly with velcro that would pump up and massage my legs so I wouldn’t get blood clots during surgery. Then he said he was going to give me some I don’t care medicine to relax me. It did more than relax me. The next thing I knew, a nurse in either green or blue scrubs was standing over me in a blur, saying, “Mrs. Rhodes, you can’t get out of bed.” I reached for the sidebar and pulled myself toward it. Again, she said, “You can’t get up. You’ve had surgery. You are in the hospital.” I opened my eyes and leaned up to look around. The room was bright and yellow with people moving and talking, and I kept frowning and trying to say, “No, not yet.” As well as I could tell, a big clock on the wall said 11:30.
Between Holding and Recovery, I had an LAVH. I didn’t even know what that was until about two weeks ago, and I’ve never had any kind of surgery under general anesthesia. But on March 24, my doctor and I decided that a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy was medically appropriate. More technically, the plan was a hysterectomy with salpingo-oophorectomy. That means everything goes.
Now, I have three small incisions and two bottles of pain pills, and I’m getting better each day. I’ve been blessed with supportive friends. Thanks to my new friends from the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference — Sherry and Sarah, who show up on this blog from time to time — for all your thoughts and prayers and acts of kindness. To my old friends, who have had this or a similar procedure recently and let me know that everything would be okay. To my neighbors who brought food, to Linda who stopped by the hospital, and to Deborah who wished me well all the way from France. And to my husband who is the best caregiver in the world, even though he does draw a line at polishing toenails and brushing the dog’s teeth.
I’m sort of getting anxious to get back to my desk, but in the meantime, I am enjoying some much-needed reading time. Today, I hope to finish Melany Nielson’s Even Mississippi, a memoir published in 1989. So for now, another cup of hot tea, two chocolate Chessmen cookies, and another chapter. And then maybe a Lortab.