These are my grandchildren-to-be. One baby is on his/her head, and the other is lying flat on his/her back. “One is looking at the other’s butt,” my son said. They are three inches long. I’m pretending one’s a boy — Winston Hardy — and one’s a girl — Jillian Autumn. Winston and Jill. We won’t know for sure until the next ultrasound, the day after Thanksgiving.
Nicole has just completed her first trimester. Her birthday is Election Day, and she is getting maternity clothes — and she already needs them.
Amazing how these tiny things can bring such hope, in a time when hope has not been my partner.
Yes, it was four months. Yesterday. And I would not let myself go there. But today I will.
I will not bury it. I’ve buried too much.
I’m talking about my grief.
Anyone who has read my blog consistently in the last four months since my husband died has witnessed the ups and downs — the depths of guilt and despair, the joys of new life in the twelve-week-old twin fetuses that are my grandchildren, and the normal, everyday things of life, including the writer within that is trying to pen a memoir, as well as a novel. That’s the way my life is. I’m going to write it as I feel it because I have a need to get it out. I don’t want it bottled up, stuffed down. I don’t think that’s healthy. I went to my doctor a few weeks ago and asked him what I should do to combat the harmful hormones that grief causes and how I can stop the damage they are doing to my body. “Exercise,” he said. So early mornings I walk and I walk hard and with purpose and with command and I lecture the evils that are trying to fill and consume me. “Go away, I will fight you, you cannot have me, you will not bring me down.”
A Grief Letter to my friends:
I never thought I would be at this point in my life in my fifties.
I remember I never knew what to say to other women who had lost a spouse. Should I just be quiet and back away and give her time to heal and then I will come around and be her friend again when she’s okay? Now I see it in a few of you. You don’t know what to say either. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you have to stop being my friend, though. Unless seeing me is a too-painful reminder of what could happen to you.
You will be here one day, too. And then you will know how it feels when a ‘friend’ is too busy with her full and happy life to take a moment to say “Hi!” to you, after you have just lost your full and happy life. You will know what it is like to come home to a dark and quiet house and to an oven with no warm smells coming from it and to a dog who doesn’t yip and yap with glee any more. You will learn what it is like to eat dinner alone every night. You will know what it is like to be afraid to open each piece of mail because it might be yet another company closing this account or sending you to the estate settlement department and you know you will have to call and cuss them out and get upset all over again. You will know what it is like to live with pounding heart in dread and fear of the next bad thing that is going to happen and by God, you know it is going to happen. You will know what it is like to be ambushed by a memory, a song, a place.
And you know, because you have been to GriefShare, that all this is normal.
And you know that you will let some friends go, because they are no longer comfortable with you.
And there are some you will gravitate to.
I thank the stars above that I am surrounded by many strong and powerful people. Many of you have been through much worse than I and pass on your might and determination and encouragement to me, and others. What would the world be without folks like you? I am blessed to know you. You are real and deep and made of substance I want for my own. You are open, you share, you talk, you ask, you live fully. I want to be like you, I want to see my struggle through to the top, I want desperately to be whole again.
And so I fight. Right now, for me.
Friday, October 23, 1964. No football game that night — it was an open date. So the Baptist church planned a youth retreat over at Benoit Lake at someone’s lake house with a fluff of activities appropriate for a fall evening.
But I had something important to do before I climbed aboard that old green-and-white church bus waiting on North Bolivar Avenue with a wild and rowdy bunch of teenagers to head west toward the Mississippi River and its oxbow lakes. My mother was taking me downtown to the police station. I was scared. My heart pounded, my hands trembled, my head was so full of anticipation that it was about to explode. All I could think of was that it would be over soon. And I would have bragging rights to a tiny slip of paper that said I could operate a motor vehicle.
I had turned 15 six weeks earlier, and for a birthday gift, Dad bought me a red, padded key case with brand new shiny keys to the green, long-finned Ford Fairline 500. He had even taken me out on trials runs. I did good most of the time, until the outing when I tried to copy Karen’s mama who had a new sleek Olds with power steering, which I did not have. She’d open and straighten out her hand, rest her palm against the steering wheel, and push it around in a circle to make the car turn. When I tried that in the Ford at the corner of Leflore and College, I ran upon the curb on the opposite side of College Street. Boy, was Dad mad! He made me get out of the car right then and there and trade places with him. He drove the rest of the way home and fussed the whole time. I had knocked his tires out of line; he was sure of it. I didn’t try the power steering light touch any more.
The real test came when an officer of the law was sitting in the seat where Dad usually sat. He was full of badges and patches and flags and a leather gun belt that creaked and moaned when he moved, and he carried a book and pad to write on. He was a big man and he kept shifting around to get comfortable. I made a point to check my rearview mirror, to pump the pedal to get the gas where it needed to be, and to ignite the car in one smooth turn of the key. My key. I put the gear in R and backed out of the parking spot on the little spur street that ran off Cotton Row next to the railroad track.
“Turn left,” he said. I put on my blinker, stopped completely, and followed directions.
“Go left, then left on Court and over the tracks, then left again.”
I rolled past Walt’s Gulf, braked at the Stop sign, looked up Court Street to the right beyond the Ellis Theater marquee, then looked left over the railroad tracks at the old Grover Hotel on the main street. I’d been in this spot millions of times, but it all looked different now. It was different. I was in control of this machine, and I had a man in uniform sitting next to me, judging me. I had to do everything right, and if I blew it, I really blew it. I was under the gun. I kept both hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, turned left, went up over the railroad tracks past the old depot, and turned left onto Sharpe Avenue. I proceeded past the light at North Street and drove past Owen’s Drugstore, Jay’s, Kamien’s — stores I shopped for dresses in on Saturdays with my friends — Cleveland State Bank, Fred’s Dollar Store, Barbati’s Shoe Shop. And this very pavement I was moving over, with my foot on the accelerator and my hands guiding the wheel, was the same concrete I marched on with the Pep Squad in parades before Friday football home games. I wore a short black felt circular skirt, white blouse, black felt vest with a big wildcat on front, and white gloves. My dad would be standing against the light pole in front of Owen’s, watching. I knew he’d go back to his shop and brag to customers that he had to go see his daughter march in the parade behind the band.
At the end of the main drag, West Implement Company on the opposite side of the intersecting highway, I turned left, then left again on Cotton Row, and drove back to the police station and parked in the same spot. One square route over white concrete and my test was completed.
“Good job, young lady.”
“Did I pass?”
A surge of pride came and covered me when he handed over the tiny white cardstock square with an ID number, name, address, eyes green, hair blond, height, weight. I had succeeded. I became an adult. With this came freedom. I had only told one little white lie — I listed my weight as five pounds under what it really was. Well, maybe ten.
From the police station, Mama let me drive to the church. I leapt from the car, squealing and jumping up and down, with the white square in hand. “Look, y’all! Look what I got!” I held it out, close to the eyes of each person there, including Brother Burd. It was nothing impressive to my friends, as I was one of the youngest in the class, and most already had their licenses. But to me, it was everything.
And so that night on a crisp cool hayride along the levee under autumn stars, I thought about one thing. It was tucked away inside a tiny zipped front pocket of my navy blue parka. In front of a bonfire, its warmth soaking in my cheeks and its glow lighting the ragged circle of my friends gathered with hot dogs and marshmallows, I thought about one thing. On a sliver-of-a-moon walk through the woods with Jim and Jerry and Gerri, crunching leaves underfoot, laughing, getting lost, the girls getting tired and riding piggyback, I thought about one thing. In the cabin where the girls were in one room and the boys were in the next, separated by two inches of closed door, and we girls were plastered to it trying to listen under the crack at the bottom to what the boys were saying and doing (and our whispered laughter at what one of the boys had done that made all the others die out laughing), I thought about one thing.
I got my drivers license!
This is the first birthday for “First Draft: Laying Down the Words.”
One year … of writing about writing. Of writing about creative nonfiction. Of writing journal entries … and occasionally sticking in a picture of my beautiful dog.
Why did I begin a blog? I became intrigued with blogging because my husband was a blogger. It gave him a venue to write, and I watched him become deeply absorbed in it, and he loved the community of people he built around him, as he read and shared ideas with them. He used an alias and could be who he really was without worrying about what people would think of him. He was truly his on-the-edge self.
But I became a blogger because in a creative nonfiction workshop I attended in September 2007 in Oxford, Mississippi, Lee Gutkind said that blogging is creative nonfiction. It’s an extension of the genre, and if you are blogging, you are writing creative nonfiction. That being the case, I was on board. I thought it would aid my writing by allowing me a venue to jumpstart some of my true to life stories, thus the name First Draft.
So, happy birthday First Draft! It’s been a helluva year, but you and I have made it through. I should have popped the cork on that dusty bottle of champagne at the bottom of the wine rack, but instead I drank hot chocolate with a big fat marshmallow on top. More my style — curling up with a fuzzy dog, a warm blanket, and a cup of cocoa, along with the satisfaction that I completed the cycle of something I started.
Shall we go for two?
Rain and cool fall weather arrived this afternoon in Middle Tennessee. Clouds were low hung and a white foggy mist draped the hills. Leaves are faded yellow, orange, brown and crispy, blowing around on the ground. I’m afraid the color this autumn is not going to be spectacular.
This is still my favorite season — when the colors are usually showy, meriting a ride through the country or down the Trace. Brilliant yellow and red and orange still me, make me silent and reflective, make me want to go inward, slowing down for cold barren winter, a time to curl up under a warm blanket and take stock of life.
The first cool fall day, I always fondly remember my favorite scene of the season. I experienced it ten years ago when I worked in Nashville and drove across Page Road through Percy Warner Park on my way to work. One October day, the trees lining Page were a brilliant yellow and formed a canopy over and on each side of the street. It was rainy and the asphalt was black and there was a striped yellow line down the middle of it. In my line of vision there were only two colors. Two. Yellow and black. I was inching along on a black strip following the yellow line into a tunnel of yellow. And it absolutely took my breath away.
It was hot!
This is the twentieth year for the Southern Festival of Books, when Legislative Plaza comes alive with more than 200 authors and their new books. The crowd swells as people walk from booth to booth browsing books, to sessions led by authors, to the food tents where the smell of fish and chips rises and hangs. A popular place on a hot Saturday was the fresh icy lemonade booth.
Kristin O’Donnell Tubb led a session Saturday afternoon about her new Young Adult novel Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different — a lovely little hardback with the coolest cover ever. Her release date is days away and she was not expecting to have her books at the festival…but she was ecstatically surprised to see a stack of them at the signing colonnade and went into a photographing frenzy, snapping pictures of Autumn on the tables among thousands of others at this, the biggest book event in the South. Maybe the world. Currie, Chance, and I took a moment to share the excitement with her, to buy a book, to have it signed. She was gracious to put our names in the Acknowledgments as being in the first critique group to lay eyes on the manuscript.
One of the biggest hits at this year’s festival is the T-shirt booth: It’s All About Books — novelty items for book lovers. Star and her friends, understanding what this event is all about, displayed stylish and colorful shirts printed with the most apropros sayings: LIT HAPPENS, BOOK SLUT, REAL DIVAS READ, and several others. Below, Barbara is holding the blue shirt and Andrea has the book slut one. I wanted one of those so bad, but chickened out and bought a Lit Happens. So did Currie and Chance.
This is the second year the Council for the Written Word has had an exhibition tent. We are a nonprofit group that promotes writers and the art of writing in Williamson County and beyond. We hold two workshops a year and a critique group and we maintain a Bibliography of every writer who has ever lived in Williamson County and published a book, and we are the only county in the state of Tennessee to do this. Our members have an opportunity to display and sell their published works. I sold eight Pink Butterbeans on Saturday. It was fun to spend the day in the tent with Bill Peach, who knows everybody and everything, and if it ever gets dull, he can keep us entertained with his stories. And he’s got stories. He wore his “O” button yesterday. Can you guess what that stands for? Mm-hm, Obama.
One of my biggest delights was having Franklin’s beloved poet Susie Sims Irvin, a Council for the Written Word Hall of Fame honoree, sign her new children’s book Too Tall Alice…to save for the grandchildren now “in production.”
To cap the day, Currie and I went on River Jordan‘s radio show to talk about our books and writing groups. River’s BACKSTORY RADIO, 98.9 WRFN-LPFM, Radio Free Nashville, broadcasted live from the midst of the signing colonnade. I’m not a great one to do an interview, but it was fun. Thanks, River, for the opportunity! I first met River several years ago the week before a Southern Festival. Her first novel The Gin Girl was just being released and she’d be doing a reading at the festival. She wanted a practice run-through so, having just moved to Nashville, she brought her galley to our Barnes & Noble writers reading night and read from it. It was a delight to meet her then and is always a delight to see her at writerly events now and then, as we all write, read, teach, and lead.
This is how Lit Happens.
It’s already Thursday. Where has the week gone. Monday came after a “chilled” weekend. Friday night I met Nancy at Mellow Mushroom in downtown Franklin for a white pizza and a spinach salad (with hot freshly-sizzled bacon!), and then we sat on a bench in front of the old courthouse on the Square and caught up with all our writing projects. It was a cool fall evening and the Autumn banners on the lightposts added color to the bricked sidewalk. Downtown was alive with people moving about, talking, laughing. A guitarist named Daniel sat with his guitar five feet behind us and sang songs like Amazing Grace, Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone, and Leavin’ on a Jet Plane. Nancy and I tried to sing along and keep our minds on our conversation at the same time. We talked of our writing of true stories about our ancestors — and writing honest to include the harsh details of the times in which we grew up. Nancy was a small child during WWII and remembers when her father was off at sea as part of the fighting effort. I am a baby boomer, born several years after the war ended and my coming of age aligned with the struggles of the Sixties.
Saturday morning I drove into Nashville for a full-body massage. It was a birthday gift from my sons, and it was a first for me. I had visions of getting my upper back worked on for a whole hour, but this included everything down to the fingers and toes. And face. Why did I put make-up on? She smoothed oil onto my cheeks and massaged it in. I was so mellow that I got lost driving home. Missed Franklin Road, missed Granny White Pike. I spent the rest of the day drinking water and resting and moving slowly, a smile across my face.
Wednesday brought rain — much needed rain to Middle Tennessee. Looking out the glass wall of my third-floor office building at the hills of Brentwood, I saw fall taking shape. Clouds hung low and mist covered the patchwork of color as the trees begin their annual process of going from green to yellow and orange. It’s my favorite time of year, but it is bittersweet this year, as the world of coolness and the lulling of yellow drifting leaves makes me think of curling up close to someone and drinking apple cider or taking a long romantic drive through the countryside. But that won’t be happening.
So it’s onward and forward to the Southern Festival of Books. You know October has sunken in good when downtown Nashville comes alive with hundreds of authors and thousands of books in Legislative Plaza. I’ll be there in Booth #2. Stop by!
I suspect I’ll be going from mellowed out to fired up. I hope so.
Now, people, c’mon. Really. Put your “thinking caps” on, as my fourth grade teacher used to say. Take a look around. Note the new jobless figures. Note the declining value of your home. Note the bank failures. Note Wall Street and what our lawmakers in Washington just had to do — a shameful $700 billion bailout in the biggest government intervention in the financial system since the Great Depression. We’re in dire shape, the president said, pushing this passage from his position in a party that promotes less government. He’s in the last of his 96 months in office.
All these failures and depressing signs and fears come to us now after a $600 stimulus check went to every citizen in the country who paid or didn’t pay taxes last year. (Yes, my mother got one, and she is 87 and hasn’t paid taxes in twenty years…so if that thang had anything to do with taxes, I’ll eat my hat.)
And people, c’mon now, what about those supposed tax refunds doled out over the past several years to put money back into the economy to keep it strong? Did that work? Huh, did it? Or did you even get one? I got one the first year, but after that, nada. “Where’s my tax refund that the president keeps talking about?” I asked my accountant, who instantly replied, “Those tax refunds were not intended for people who have to work for a living, like you and me.” So the refunds went out, I assume, to people who did not have to work, and my original question…did they work? Duh. Obviously not. I say again, LOOK AROUND. Look at the shape we’re in.
Our country is sick and broken and needs to be fixed.
That’s why I proudly support Barack Obama. He’s the man for the job, the man who shares my values, and the one I trust my country to.
Besides, now that I am going to be a grandmother, for the sake of little Jillian Autumn or Lucy Channing or Axle Hardy or Winston Jagger, I want hope, I want there to be a solid USA in 2012. We have one chance for that.
Let’s don’t blow it.