Inspired by Jo Ann Beard’s work, I started an essay titled “Cousins” in an April 17 blog entry. It’s about visits to my grandparents’ farm when I was a child and experiences with my cousins — how children play, fight, play some more, and grow up. I kept on writing segments under this same title until I had 25 pages, over 7,000 words. So I went to work revising and cutting and somehow ended up with 9,000 words. I was never good at math.
Then it dawned on me that I should write a similar piece about my town life, my life at home. I call it “Sisters.”
Two sisters are watching TV in the living room. It is Sunday night, and Bonanza is on. We like the burning map showing the Ponderosa Ranch at the beginning of the show, and we like the snappy music. I am sitting in the rocking chair that has tweed fabric and wooden arms. She is sitting on the green couch with big flowers on it. We will watch Ben Cartwright and his three dissimilar sons look out for one another and defend their land. “There’s Hoss,” I say, when his picture flashes on the screen during the opening credits.
Hoss is my boyfriend, and Adam is hers. Hoss is giant-sized, wears a brown suede vest, white shirt, and white ten-gallon hat and is funny, vulnerable, and soft-hearted. I like that in a man. Adam wears a black shirt, black pants, and black hat. He is quiet and intellectual. We have different tastes in men.
We are light and dark like Hoss and Adam. Me: short with blond hair and blue eyes like the Hardy/Neal side of the family. Her: tall with brown hair and brown eyes like the Mahaffey/Boone side of the family. We fuss and fight like the Cartwright brothers, but we also take up for each other when it counts.
We have already gotten in trouble today for running and jumping and screaming and disobeying, and we got spanked with the pancake turner. Our mother does not like to spank us, but she will if we push her enough. I hop and dance around as she hits me and try to jump over her arm like I am jumping rope. I am not successful. I do not like to watch her hit my sister.
After it is over, our mother stews about it. My sister and I rally and become best friends and allies. We sneak into the darkened living room and sit on either side of the kitchen door and peek at our mother’s back as she is standing over the kitchen sink banging dishes and glasses in the soapy water and saying, I told them and told them not to do it, and they did it anyway. We look at each other and cover our mouths with our hands and stifle the giggles. We do this every time we get spanked. Our mother always talks out loud to herself, defending why she had to whip us, and we think it is funny.
This morning before we ate roast beef and mashed potatoes with brown gravy at dinnertime, and before we got spanked, we went to Sunday School at the Baptist church. I am in the Junior Department and we sing the junior song: “Out of James one twenty-two comes a call for juniors true, Who will live for Christ the risen Lord.” The call is for us to “Be ye doers of the Word.”
The two sisters wear dresses alike to Sunday School. Our mother has made them and they are polished cotton. They are of purple and green flowers, with puffed sleeves, square neckline, a skirt of three ruffled tiers, and a sash in the back. They have that new-material smell.
We don’t dress alike most of the time. Sometimes we wear layers of stiff white scratchy petticoats that make our dresses stand way out. You can see the bottom of the netted layers as we walk. Sometimes we wear hats and gloves and carry little white purses with our offering envelopes inside.
After Bonanza, the sisters take a bath together. Our father monitors the amount of water we can have in the tub. He does this every time we take a bath. He thinks four inches is liberal. That’s because he grew up on a farm, where they had to draw water from a well to bathe in, so he is not wasteful. I am also thinking he is still afraid the well will dry up. If we want to rile him, all we have to do is turn on the faucet. He will hear it and come running. We have already been spanked once this day, so we settle for the four.
Our mother buys Ivory soap, so that is what we wash with. I make up an advertising jingle that I hope to sell one day to Proctor & Gamble and that my sister and I are destined to remember when we are old ladies: “Floats on water, won’t burn eyes; It’s the best soap Mommy buys.” We sing this to the tune of the ABC song.
At bedtime we snuggle in twin beds on opposite walls of a room we share. Sometimes in the silent darkness my sister throws things at me from her bed, like bobby pins or pink foam rubber hair curlers. I laugh and then I fall asleep looking at the stars. Our mother has stuck glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling and they shine down on us.
The day lilies are back. Honeysuckle and morning glories and pretty roses climb fences and trellises. Impatiens and begonias border sidewalks. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the yard. It’s time for the first watermelon cutting, time to toast marshmallows, time to slap some burgers on the grill.
It’s Memorial Day.
Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.
I have three 4th-great grandfathers who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, placed in a mulched bed of creeping Jenny in the backyard.
Dad served in World War II and rode with the Third Army under George Patton. He was a sergeant, a front-line medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor. “War is hell,” he said.
“War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!” Patton said.
No soldier is ever one hundred percent sane after the initial indoctrination of war. No soldier is ever free from emotional scars related to perpetual exposure to imminent danger. “The first exposure, whether from being wounded, the scream of an artillery projectile, a buddy with a gaping wound exposing his guts, cries of pain, stench of blood, decaying body parts, the odor from a flame thrower producing that of roast meat, your buddy blown to bits, missing a limb or two, the realization that he’ll never walk or talk, a pig devouring the guts of an enemy, are forever etched into the brain matter. Unlike a lost limb or a wound from injured tissues, cerebral scars cannot be seen. But they are there.” (Dr. Harold Rosenberg, WWII veteran)
War is hell. Soldiers die. Soldiers come home from the battlefront to live among innocents who stick SUPPORT YOUR TROOPS ribbons on their cars, and they try to resume normal lives after what they’ve seen and where they’ve been and what they’ve been baptized in.
So when you fly your flag today and think of the war dead, remember those at battle now. We’ve had over 4 thousand deaths and 30,000 wounded. We’ve got 150,000 men in boots on the ground. Thirty percent of them will develop mental problems within three or four months after they come home. That’s 45,000 boys the ages of my sons who are coming back to mamas and daddies and wives and babies and in dire need of help.
Folks, it’s gonna take a whole lot more than those damn yellow stickers on your SUV’s to take care of these boys!
I’m sitting here at my laptop beside the bay window eating granola and revising the opening of my novel. I’m wishing for fresh peaches to go on my cereal. I bought some at Betty Reed’s Produce a week ago, but they’re gone. I should scoot down there this morning and get some more, along with chives for the twirling herb pots on the patio.
I planted a little garden this spring. I plant tomatoes every year, sometimes peppers, and I have a garlic plant that grows every summer, but I don’t ever harvest the garlic. This year, fearing empty store aisles because the truckers can’t afford the high diesel costs and go on strike, refusing to deliver food, thus famine — and above all, high prices — I planted not only tomatoes, but bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, and okra. If the sky falls, I will have cabbage salad to eat over the summer. And fried okra. Besides, okra is the tongue-in-cheek mascot of my college alma mater — the Fighting Okra. That, and the more impressive Statesman.
I hope the squirrels and I don’t have to fight over the garden vegetables or the patio plants this year when summer brings heat and drought. Hands down, they win.
I’m tightening the prologue and first chapter of my novel. I’m struggling to get the narrator’s voice exactly as I want it. Claire is vulnerable and likable right off the bat, a little over the edge in her thinking, a mix of giving up and getcha back. There are other strong characters. I’ll see what they do over the summer. I already know what’s going to happen in the end. I hope the characters know how to hold their own and get there.
The Writers In CAPS critique group met last night in the Barnes & Noble Cafe to pore over two pieces of fiction by Neil and Chance. CAPS has met twice a month for five years. Quite a feat! A few have come and gone, and we’ve added a few. We started as a group of all women and are currently mixed, half and half, which makes for a good balance in perspective.
“We are writers based in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. We write fiction and creative nonfiction. We are a highly motivated support group, naming ourselves Writers In CAPS. ‘CAPS’ is an acronym for Critiquing, Authoring, Publishing and Supporting.”
CURRIE, NEIL, CHANCE
We are currently writing: two novels, one memoir, one collection of short stories, and short fiction. Currie, an award-winning songwriter, is working on her second novel. She’s a transplanted Canadian who uses a serviette when she has her latte and cookie. Neil is writing embellished boyhood stories based on some real-life incidences of a bunch of mischievous kids in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas in the 50’s and 60’s. Chance puts out some contest-winning short fiction, some springing from a recent trip to Vietnam and some coming from his experiences in Nashville with music, ethnic restaurants, and other cultures. I am trying to balance a memoir and a novel, both evolving out of the Mississippi Delta.
CURRIE, NEIL, KATHY
Last night’s work had a lot to do with a high school graduation that almost didn’t happen, a science test with a grade of “G,” a sushi restaurant, a homeless veteran who didn’t ask for a handout, and those annoying orange cones they use to mark lanes for church traffic on Franklin Road. (I was left with the impression there might be a few less of them one day real soon.)
When it is my turn, I find it amazingly helpful to have those six other eyes on my work. It’s helpful to discuss techniques that will take the writing to the next level. There’s nothing more valuable to a writer than a critique group.
I’m lucky. I have two — one here in town and one online (born out of the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference) that focuses on creative nonfiction.
I gave them names. Buttons and marbles. All of them. I must’ve been a really strange child.
I rolled marbles across my hardwood bedroom floor. I had boy marbles and girl marbles and gave them names accordingly. I don’t know how I knew the difference, except for one of them. He was a little bigger than all the rest, a handsome aquamarine color, and his name was Ben. I’d make up stories about the boys and girls.
I did it with buttons, too. I had a lot of buttons to play with because my mama did a lot of sewing. She made most of my dresses. She sewed matching outfits for my sister and me.
She made coats and jackets and jumpers and shorts sets, and she even made clothes for herself. She kept all the extra buttons in an old teakwood box.
I loved that box. It held all colors, shapes, and sizes of buttons. Pink with fluted edges, pink with smooth rims, yellow rounds with square grooves cut in them, brown leathers, white pearl squares, orange smooths, green shiny, tiny white ones, big red ones, big black ones that might have gone on a coat. There were also fabric buttons she made herself out of tweeds, silks, and polyesters. There were used buttons, with thread wrapped through the center holes, cut off of dresses too worn to give as hand-me-downs. There were glass buttons with facets and they were beautiful and my favorites.
Those buttons bring to mind the process I followed my mama through, from concept to finished product.
We go downtown to the department store with its own little sewing nook tucked away in a front corner. I sit at the counter on a tall stool with a round red naugehyde seat and look through big books of Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall’s patterns — pictures of models wearing the styles. When I find one I like, I go to the tall filing cabinet and match the number from the page to the number range on the label of the file drawer. I open the drawer and see if it is available in my size. I have learned to do this by watching Mama.
Then I walk the aisles of fabric, looking through bolt after bolt of material, picking out just the right print and color. Sometimes Mama takes us to Bev-Mar’s in Greenville for patterns and material, and we spend so much time browsing the store end to end that my little sister is reduced to tears, or she just falls out backwards crying and stomps off to the car to sit alone. She can select her pattern and material quickly. I cannot.
At home, Mama spreads out the material on the kitchen table and pins the pattern pieces to it. Then she cuts on the lines. I like to hear the crunch of scissors clamping down on heavy cotton and crinkling the thin tissue of the pattern. Mama sits at the Singer, and we listen to the whir of the machine stitching the pieces together. I sit at her feet and play with the button box, running my fingers through the buttons, listening to the rattle of them, finding the oldest, the prettiest, the most fashionable, the one I’d pick to hold in my hand over all the rest.
I watch her fit in a zipper or make buttonholes and then sew by hand the pretty buttons we selected together that matched the material perfectly. The last step is the hem. I put on the dress, stand on a stool, and Mama kneels beside me with her pin cushion and a few pins stuck between her lips for easy access. She puts the yardstick beside me and begins to pin up the hem by a mark on the stick that is the same height as the top of my knee. I have to stand still, and this is not easy for me. Something always itches, or a leg needs stretching. Or I have to turn to see what my sister is doing. Or slump when I get tired. After the hem is pinned, Mama sits on the couch and sews the last few stitches by hand.
She holds it up to me, and I breathe in the smell of new.
I learned more math with patterns and sewing than in all twelve years of primary and secondary education — numbers and order, fractions, adding whole numbers and fractions, charts. I learned to be precise and accurate and stay on the line. I learned to match colors — zippers and thread and ric rac and piping. And buttons. I spent a lot of time with my mama, doing these things.
When I left home, I asked Mama if I could have that old button box, its lid gone, a lot of its buttons gone. I still like to run my hand through the ones that remain. Some are over fifty years old. I don’t remember their names.
This was a front page headline in yesterday’s [Nashville] The Tennessean. The author of the article is Jonathan Marx, whom I will quote below.
The book is A Guitar and a Pen, a collection of stories by Music Row songwriters. Robert Hicks is a co-editor.
“The book has raised questions about its accuracy and authorship in a town [Nashville] where people pay close attention to writing credits.”
One of the stories, “He Always Knew Who He Was,” was attributed to music business veteran Hazel Smith.
“‘I did not write that,’ said Smith…”
“Presented as a real-life first-person narrative, the piece describes Smith accompanying bluegrass legend Bill Monroe on a trip to Washington, D. C., where he performed at the White House and received an honor from then-President Clinton.”
She did not go on the trip, and it turns out that the trip happened when Reagan was president.
Hicks has admitted to writing the story himself and is apologizing for some apparent inaccuracies. “His desire was to include Smith as part of A Guitar and a Pen … rather than having Smith write a story, however, he chose instead to ghost-write the anecdote…”
Hicks says, “The biggest problem, it seems, is a huge communication gap that occurred between Hazel and me. I thought she was aware which story (I was ghostwriting). Clearly, in hindsight, I find out she wasn’t.”
Robert Hicks is the author of the best-selling novel The Widow of the South. This is a poignant rendering of the Battle of Franklin [Tennessee]; the story is fictional, but based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, whose home, Carnton Mansion, was taken over by the Confederate army and made into a hospital during the battle.
I don’t know the inner workings or the inside story or the full story of what went on with A Guitar and a Pen. I just know what the newspaper printed. Even so, this is yet another reminder of how careful we writers have to be to get the nonfiction true and accurate and to get the fiction as far away from the truth as we can, so that not even one reader can recognize the characters in our stories. And we must make every effort to tie up all the loose ends.
[Quotations are from the above-mentioned article in The Tennessean, May 13, 2008]
Son #2 came from North Carolina for a Mother’s Day visit. That and to connect with a friend from high school who was home from Missouri to see his mom. “I probably won’t ever get to come again,” he said, “with gas prices being so high.” “We’d better do it up right then,” I said. Friday, we ate dinner at Brick’s; Saturday, we grilled flank steak; Sunday morning, we made waffles served with real maple syrup.
We did a few odd jobs in the yard together. Or he did a few tasks, and I supervised. He cleared some of the weeds that were blanketing my flowerbeds and choking out my perennials. In doing so, he pulled one of the invasive culprits and threw it at me. It stuck to my clothes. “It’s like velcro,” he said. His girlfriend told him that. We spent a few minutes throwing weeds at each other. Then he planted a camellia japonica, which was my Mother’s Day gift, in place of the holly that died in last summer’s drought. He owns climbing gear and used it to cut a few dead limbs from one of the old pasture trees — cows grazed on this land before I did.
This is the baby who climbed out of his crib way before he was one; climbed bookshelves in the den at ten months, fell and hit his head on a sharp corner of the coffee table and had to go to the emergency room; scaled the kitchen cabinets at two, sat on the countertop, and sneaked a cookie; started climbing an old TV antennae when he was three and got to the height of the house before I could get a scream out of my mouth … and then in eighth grade refused to go to the top of the Washington Monument because it was too high.
“Two hundred pounds is a lot to haul up this tree,” he said. I laughed and thought of the two pieces of pecan-encrusted tilapia and red mashed potatoes he’d eaten the evening before.
I was glad when he had both feet back on the ground.
Sunday morning, he took off for home in the mountains. Son #1 called; I’d gotten a pretty card from him. My husband left to go visit his mother. And now, peace.
You’ve heard the term “flat as a pancake.” Well, that was the landscape I was born to. The flat Mississippi Delta.
First of all, the Delta is a confusing term to some. When you think of the word delta, you think of alluvial deposits at the mouth of a river. I’m sure there is a delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but that’s not the delta I’m talking about. I’m talking about the blues-famous and capitalized Delta that stretches a span of one hundred fifty miles south of Memphis. A more accurate term would be the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the flat plain formed between the Yazoo River — born of the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha near Greenwood — and the Mississippi River.
If you look at a map of the state of Mississippi and put your thumb on Vicksburg and middle finger on Memphis, halfway in between, just a smidgen east of the Old Man River, a red dot marks a town called Cleveland where Highway 8 crosses Highway 61.
Here’s how flat it is there: the only hill in Cleveland is the railroad track, that being a very slight incline, running along the main street across from two blocks of storefronts. As a little girl, I got a thrill every time Mama drove up, over, and down the “little hill.” When I took drivers training in high school — in a straight shift car, one with a clutch and gears you had to change as you built speed — one of things Coach McCaleb made me do was to stop on the incline of the railroad track and start again without sliding backwards. If memory serves me correctly, I probably wasn’t successful at that, like I wasn’t successful at remembering to use the clutch or at parallel parking. Also, if memory serves me correctly, they have removed some of that downtown track.
If my street flooded during spring rains, there was nowhere for the water to go. It couldn’t just “run off.” It grew higher, crested, crept up over the curbs and into front yards, and stayed for hours. The neighborhood children had about six to eight inches of water to splash and wade in. I loved the flooded streets because after the rain stopped, I put on my swimsuit and got smack dab in the middle of it. Once, someone paddled a little fishing boat down Deering Street.
If it snowed during the winter months — and it rarely did, except an inch or two every three or four years — there was no such thing as sledding. You can’t sled on a flat surface, although some kids did go to the railroad track. We threw snowballs or built snowmen or made hot chocolate and looked at the white frosty stuff out the window.
If we seriously had the urge to slide down anything, we’d have to go to the levee. To anyone who doesn’t know anything about the Delta, there’s a system of levees on either side of the Mississippi River, built to hold floodwaters. Now, folks, the levee is a high hill and steep! Picture an upside down V. A narrow gravel road runs atop it, and grass grows on its sides. The river town of Rosedale is ten miles from Cleveland, the hamlets of Beulah and Benoit just south of Rosedale, all with easy levee access.
I can’t write a memoir without thinking about sliding down the levee.
As high school juniors and seniors, once we all got our drivers licenses, we gained a little freedom and could sneak off to places like Benoit and the levee. I couldn’t drive my car over there because “them tires are thin as tissue paper,” my dad would say; “they’ll blow out.” That was his plan to keep me off the highway and thus safe. A few times when a bunch of girls got bored in town with nothing to do but go “ridin’ around,” swing through Bob’s Drive-In to get a lemon-vanilla Dr Pepper or a real cherry Coke, go to Simmons Drugs and try out all the perfumes, or make prank phone calls, we went to the levee, especially on a spring or fall day when we were itchin’ to get outdoors and in the sunshine. Seven or eight of us would go together, as many as could squeeze into somebody’s Chevy or Plymouth. We’d roll the windows down and crank the radio up. We’d pack big sheets of cardboard in the trunk, flattened out from big boxes.
We’d park on the road atop the levee, each grab a cardboard sheet, and we’d let ‘er rip with abandon. Down we’d slide, squealing, hanging on to the edges of the sheet. I remember the bump and the bounce, the wind on my face, the speed of the ride, the screams, the camaraderie, … and the sore behind. The walk back up to the top was a little taxing and curtailed our fun somewhat, for Delta girls were never good at climbing steep hills. Besides, the ride was so tough it quickly wore out our cardboard sheets.
I’ve been to the highest point east of the Mississippi River, I’ve scaled the Rockies, I’ve been to the top of the Swiss Alps, but nothing matches the thrill of that Delta “hill.”
I got pushed. Pushed into doing something I was skeptical of. I’d held back, acted with reason and practicality. Then I succumbed, and it was my mother who made me do it.
It’s not the first time she pushed me. I recall the summer Ronald Reagan was running for president. My whole family was spending the day at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Reagan was scheduled to fly in by helicopter and make a speech. The area was cordoned off by big 18-wheeler trailers, presumably for crowd control and protection. As we leisurely strolled by, my mother apparently recognized what was going to happen on the other side of those trailers and pointed to the space about four feet high under one. The next thing I knew, two hands landed on my back and pushed — shoved hard! — along with a guttural command, “Go Kathy. Go under.” She pushed me under the trailer … and followed. We were in. My two tiny kids were out. I’d abandoned them, leaving their grandfather with a stroller and a little hand to hold. Mom and I watched the presidential candidate land, waved flags, clapped and cheered with the crowd, snapped pictures, and listened to the speech. After it was over, she said, “Aren’t you glad I pushed you?”
This time, the mighty push had to do with a book purchase. I don’t usually need a push; I buy books all the time. But this one was expensive. There was only ONE left in the whole wide world. I’d wanted it for years as a resource for my writing, at times when several copies were available at used bookstores. I almost put it on my Christmas list last year as a suggestion for my husband, but it cost $54 then, and I didn’t want to ask for a book with that steep of a price. The title kept coming up in my research, though, so I searched for it online again. ONE COPY AVAILABLE. $100.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not that much money for a used book. Ne-ver.
I mentioned it to my mother during a phone conversation, for shock effect. She grew up during the Great Depression.
“Do it,” she said. “Get it! Buy it! Order it! I’ll even send you the money.” She sounded like one of the creatures in “Goblin Market.” Come buy, come buy. I stretched my gleaming neck. I felt her hands pushing against my back, clawing, scratching — even though she is 400 miles away — moving me up the stairs, to the mouse, to the bookseller, to the cart … and click, it was done. I bought it — Where I Was Born and Raised by David L. Cohn.
Page 12. “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” This quote I have used in essays and in my novel — this book, containing the earlier published God Shakes Creation, is the source.
Cohn goes on to explain that, of course, the Delta doesn’t begin at the Peabody. It does begin at a point south of Memphis and end at a point north of Vicksburg. The Peabody symbolized the wealth and culture of Delta white folks who used to go to Memphis to eat, shop, rub shoulders in the Peabody lobby with the rich and famous. Catfish Row “is a typical gathering-place of Negroes. Here are no marble fountains, no orchestras playing at dinner, no movement of bell-boys in bright uniforms. Tumble-down shacks lean crazily over the Mississippi River far below. Inside them are … the music of guitars, the aroma of love, and the soul-satisfying scent of catfish frying to luscious gold-brown in sizzling skillets.”
The book is old; its two parts were written in 1935 and 1947 by one who grew up in the Delta and left, then returned to offer an adult re-evaluation of Southern life — there in that place like no other, a place of complexities and contradictions and a history the rest of the country never understood, a history its own people didn’t understand and were/are slow to grow out of. The most southern place on earth.
I got my hands on it. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it.
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