Thanksgiving 2008 is now but a memory. All the shopping, planning, preparing, and cooking got consumed in an hour, even though the conversation around the table lingered. And the Carving of the Turkey went off without a hitch.
Currie Alexander Powers contributed to our dessert offerings by bringing over the World’s Most Beautiful & Delicious Pumpkin Pie. She used all Canadian ingredients, except for the can of pumpkin. Her filling has a hint of orange zest and is not nearly as spicy with cloves and cinnamon as mine. It’s just perfect, that’s what it is. Even hubby Colin Linden (who plays with Emmylou Harris and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) was bragging on the marvelous job she did.
The meal consisted of turkey, squash dressing, garlic mashed potatoes, oven-roasted sweet potatoes and Vidalia onions, traditional green bean casserole, and Bing Cherry salad. Desserts included pumpkin pie, hummingbird cake, and pecan pie. This year, it was just three: me, Corey, Leah. Nobody sat in Charlie’s place. I turned a wine glass upside down there, among the flowers Currie had brought, gathered from her backyard. We had a toast to the One no longer with us, then clinked our glasses to his and went on with our meal.
Then Friday, we put up the Christmas tree.
Moppy has been shopping!
Thanksgiving Eve, after eating at PFChang’s, we stopped in at Sports Seasons, so Son #2 could look at Colts gear. That’s when I ran across some little orange outfits, baby-sized … on clearance. Jillian Autumn, “Jilly,” will have the white one, complete with puffed sleeves and a puppy Smokey on front. Winston Hardy, “Hardy,” will have the orange one, complete with GO VOLS on his little butt. Moppy couldn’t resist, especially on the day we learned the sexes of the twin babies. Next football season, they will be wearing orange in Ole Miss/ Miss State territory. In honor of Poppy. It’s just right.
Now, it’s Thanksgiving morning at 6:30 and the turkey is in, all swathed in a mixture of orange juice, orange marmalade, Jack Daniels whiskey, and fresh garlic, with lots of rosemary/garlic blend sprinkled on top. And I just thought of something. I have no clue how to carve a turkey! In four hours I will pull that fourteen-pounder out of the oven and stare it down.
In the past when it was time to carve, Charlie, or Winston — I was married to two men at the same time — would pour himself a glass of wine, roll up his sleeves, and tell everybody to get out of his way. He meant it, too. The whole family would disperse to the living room and give him plenty of elbow room. Except the dog, of course. Chaeli sat by his right leg, in hopes of getting a bite. And Son #2, who stood at his right shoulder, crowding him, watching, waiting for some dark meat, giving unsolicited advice.
So now, Son #2, you’ve got to step up to the plate and punt if we’re going to have slices of turkey with our dressing and sweet potatoes!
It is five months today, Thanksgiving Day, that Charlie, or Winston, had his aortic dissection, and five months ago tomorrow, Black Friday, that he died.
The little orange outfits show the cycle of life…life moves forward. Birth, death, it’s all a natural part of life Charlie, or Winston, would say. I’d just as soon have the birth part, by itself.
“We” just finished an ultrasound on this the day before Thanksgiving. I say “we” because I got to be there via conference call and witness the event with my son and daughter-in-law.
Baby A is a girl…no doubt about it. Baby B is a boy. “Unmistakable” came the comment from the one holding the wand. Baby B was kicking Baby A, and she was swatting him back. Reflex, I’m sure.
So now we can buy pink…I already have…last April or May, I bought a precious pink outfit, when in vitro was first discussed. And now I can pull out those tiny blue and white oxfords!
We can call them by name. Winston Hardy. Jillian Autumn. I have a little blue suit my mother-in-law made 65 years ago for her son — Charlie, or Winston, his alias — so I will pull it out and wash it by hand and get it ready for a picture!
A boy, a girl. It’s Thanksgiving!
Yesterday Son #1 — the “pregnant” son — and I were talking about old hand-me-down family stuff we have for the twin babies after their arrivals next spring.
“I have Papaw’s old baseball glove,” he said. “It has his name written on it. Hardy.”
“How’d you get that?” It’s a neat thing to have, because if one of the babies is a boy, he will be named Hardy, and he will already have a glove with his name on it.
“He gave it to me. I also have his bat. I keep it at the office. I carry it around when I’m thinking and trying to be creative.”
“Hmph. He varnished my bat…”
“This one’s varnished, too!” my son said. And we both had a good long laugh, and it spurred me to write an essay about my dad and his quirky ways.
Dad varnishes my bat. He uses a glossy brown walnut varnish stain. He applies it thickly so that the blond flat dry texture of the brand new stick of wood turns slick and has lines where an overabundance of the medium globs and runs.
I am not aware he has done this. I go to get it to take it across the street to play baseball, and there it is, all dark and shiny, and I wrap my hand around its neck and my skin sort of sticks there.
“Hey, what happened to my bat?”
He hasn’t asked me if I want it varnished. He just takes it upon himself to do it for me, and he’s proud of it, too.
“I put a coupla coats of varnish on it, ’cause you’ll forget and leave it outside, and the rain’ll ruin it.”
He pronounces it “rern.”
I just stand there and hold it and look at it. A mosquito swarms close and I swat at it, then wipe the sweat from my upper lip.
“It’ll protect it,” he says sensing my uncertainty. One side of his mouth curls up in a smile. He knows I look up to him, and when I was younger, I even wanted to marry him when I grew up, because no other man was as good as he was.
My shoulders slump, and I breathe out hard. I like it the way it was, just like it came from the store. He says it’ll rot if it gets wet. I’m thinking a few showers won’t hurt it.
Flashes of other escapades pop up in my mind, as I pause there, thinking about what I have to live with. He has plenty of stuff to do on Mondays, his day off, but Mama says he walks around the yard looking for things to get in to. This time, he found my new bat lying in the dewy grass. Some Mondays, he changes the oil in the car or cleans some parts, like spark plugs, he has unscrewed from under the hood of the Ford in Clorox in the kitchen sink. Or he builds yet another storage hut in the backyard to hold his tools and all the old lawnmowers he collects for cheap or free, so when one breaks he can take a part off another one and fix it and always keep a good running mower.
Every Monday, it takes him half a day to trim the tall hedgerow that surrounds our house on three sides and the bushes along the front white wall. Mama says he cuts hair all week, and he likes to have something to trim on his day off.
When a fix-it job comes up, he always says to Mama, “Now you don’t have to call anybody. It’s a simple job. I can do it and we won’t have to pay.” Once on a Monday, he fixed the light switch in the bathroom. Now we have to push the switch down instead of up to turn on the light, opposite of what it’s supposed to be. Once on a Monday, he fixed something in the electric switch box, and when Howard Robinson, the electrician, came to re-fix it for real — and for pay — he said, “Mrs. Hardy, you tell Hardy that I won’t cut hair if he won’t fool around with electricity.” Once on a Monday, he poured creosote and old car oil around the crawl space under the house to chase away any termites that thought about taking up residence at 807 Deering. Three weeks later they swarmed in the dining room, and one landed on his shoulder, as he sat at the yellow Formica table and drank a glass of buttermilk and cornbread.
On rainy days when he can’t go outside and look for trouble, he finds it inside. He shells pecans that have fallen from the two trees in the backyard and gets their litter all over the floor, or he roasts peanuts on a cookie sheet in Mama’s oven, then cracks them and makes a mess with their hulls. Or if he gets a yearning, he might cook up a big mess of greens and eat them with a jar of hot peppers in vinegar a customer has given him.
Always on Mondays he mows the yard with his quietly purring electric mower. Once he let me take a few sweeps out back. I ran over the cord. That was the last time I got to help with that job.
Now the varnished bat is what I’m left holding, and I have to run with what I’ve got. I am the only kid in town with a shiny brown bat. I am the only kid on the block with a big real bat, so we have to use it. All the other kids have learned what my dad is like, though, so we all shrug and go on with our game.
Our baseball field is a grassy lot across the street between 808 and 812. A man named Floyd has a wide green house at the very back of that lot. It is far from the street and has a long gravel drive partially covered with Bermuda that has woven itself over and under the chunks of rocks. Third base butts up against that drive about midway, home plate is about thirty feet from Floyd’s front windows, first base is next to a hedge bush with purple berries on it in the Swindoll’s yard, and second base is an outfield away from the street. We have a big fat softball, but we like using a baseball better because it cracks louder and goes farther. We are serious about baseball. We play to win. Varnished bat and all.
The varnish on the bat is just one of the many things my dad does to preserve stuff, to keep it in good shape, make it last longer, save money. Mama says he is this way because he has lived through the Great Depression when things were hard to come by, and he wants to make everything last.
Me, I just want a normal bat. And if it rots, I want to go to Ben Franklin’s and buy a new one. One day I intend to marry a man who will let me do that.
“A man really writes for an audience of about ten persons. Of course if others like it, that is clear gain. But if those ten are satisfied, he is content.”
— Alfred North Whitehead, 1861-1947
I stand by the tree. I listen to her. I understand what she feels as her season is now over, and the pieces of her life are pulled away, beyond her control, and she watches them float and fall and go, and she cannot do anything about it. What she once had now lies at her feet. She cannot reach for them, she cannot pick them up, she cannot put them back where they were. They sink into the ground and are trod upon and pushed under the dirt, or the winds blow them down the street and away and they dry up and disintegrate and they are gone. She stands bare and naked and exposed and stripped and robbed, and she calls for them to come back to her. And they cannot and do not.
Soon she will get new ones, though, exactly like the old ones, and no one can tell the difference, and she will stand proud and happy once again.
I wish I were her.
“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.”
— Josh Billings [Henry Wheeler Shaw], 1818-1885
On an endcap at Publix yesterday, I saw a display of Bruce’s Yams. I stopped, picked up a can, growled a bit, and put it back. It culminated a week of uproar over a short fiction story I was reading that was set in Mississippi in the 1930s…by a writer who is not from the South. In the story the main character, a sharecropper’s son, says his family grew, among other things, yams. I bristled.
“They don’t grow yams in Mississippi,” I said out loud and struck a line through that word. “They grow sweet potatoes.” Growing up there and living there a total of 37 years out of my undisclosed total of years, I know full well what the locals call that orange casserole topped with lightly toasted marshmallows they make on Thanksgiving Day. My grandmother grew sweet potatoes. I remember them well. They were smaller than the ones in the grocery store, more yellow in color, and she stored them, along with her Irish potatoes, in a small low-slung potato hut out back between the smokehouse and the outhouse.
We did not call them yams in Mississippi. I think they call them YAMS on grocery store cans because SWEET POTATOES doesn’t fit, or to read the two words, you’d have to roll the can around.
This all brings a good point home. Writers are told to write what they know. But how do you write what you don’t know? To research a Place and Time, do you Google? Do you open an encyclopedia? Do you read Faulkner and Welty and pull from their vocabularies and story themes if you’re writing about Mississippi? Do you have this whole collection of scenes in your head from movies you’ve watched — which by the way do a sucky job of describing and defining Mississippi? Author Suzanne Kingsbury from Vermont moved to Oxford, Mississippi, and worked in a cafe for a year before she wrote The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me, set there, and she got most of it right. You just can’t beat first-hand experience for a real taste of Place and Time.
The short story in question also mentions “breaking beans.” Breaking beans? That’s the same thing, I assume, as when I sat with my grandmother on her front porch and snapped beans. In fact, back then, in Mississippi, we had snap beans, not green beans. I remember as a child, I matched the picture of GREEN BEANS on the cans in the grocery store to what I knew as SNAP BEANS and feared I sounded backwoodsy for calling them that. Were we in Mississippi inferior and uninformed? I eventually changed my vocabulary so I could be smart, uppity, and in-the-know like the rest of the country. Now, I don’t mind at all saying I grew up eating snap beans.
Another term the story used is “vitlins.” That’s a new one to me. So I asked some fellow Mississippians what that word means and all of them suggested the writer either meant vittles or chitlins. In that vein, Eileen remembered a funny story: “Mr. Thweatt who was Sue King’s dad used to go to fried chitlin parties. Well, one time he ate awhile, then spit out a piece of corn, and said, ‘Guess they missed one!’ He was insinuating that the corn was left in the intestines when they cleaned them for cooking!” Google research can’t give you such a dramatic visual and memorable detail as this!
First-hand experience is best when writing about a particular Place or Time. If that is not possible, then we writers should try to find someone who lived in that Place and Time, or someone who came along a bit later, but has a good idea from stories passed down, generation to generation, what it was like.
To prove my point, it makes a nice scene in a movie, but I can tell you — with my lips curled up in disdain — that there ain’t no wealthy lawyer’s family in 1960s Mississippi that’s gonna sit outside at midday in the sun in the middle of summertime all dressed up in suits and starchy ironed Sunday dresses and strings of pearls at a table with a white cloth on it, drinking lemonade. Just boils my blood.
So I say, if you can’t get it right, don’t write it!
“Something I didn’t know was broken has started to heal and it hurts,” Sarah over at Hill Trash says. She cries.
I understand. I grew up in a broken world, only I didn’t know it was broken at the time. Nor did I know that the sense of unfairness I felt in the midst of a common climate of acceptance of moral injustice would linger well into my adulthood.
This election wasn’t about race to me in the beginning. It was about a man — his brilliance, his stance, his voice, his charisma. I will love seeing Michelle and two little girls in the White House. And a puppy! It’s like Camelot all over again.
But this election has made history because of race. The United States of America has elected a black president. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I didn’t think my children would see it, and it brings tears to my eyes to fathom that I will have grandchildren born to a country with a black president.
In the 1860s Great-Great Grandfather Hardy owned slaves — black people he bought to work on his farm. In the 1960s I was but a kid when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed — the same year three civil rights workers were murdered, not far from the farm of Grandfather Hardy, for trying to register black voters.
When I tell my grandchildren stories of my childhood, they will not believe the world I grew up in. A world divided. A world of Black and White. A world of separate water fountains, separate restrooms, separate waiting rooms for the picture show and the doctor. Separate schools, separate churches. A world separated by the railroad tracks and a need of Whites to preserve their way of life and keep the Blacks in their place.
I was a child of the 1950s and 60s in the Mississippi Delta, when the fields were full of black hands choppin’ and pickin’ cotton and singing their Blues. And they had no rights. In my town they lived on the other side of the tracks. Many times I rode in the back seat of the Ford Fairlane east on College Street — it was a straight shot to Highway 61 — over Jones Bayou, over the railroad tracks, where College became Lee Street at the edge of Black Town, but instead of Black, people used the N word. I remember looking out the window and taking in that different world — unfit abodes, some pieced together with raw cypress, tin, and tar paper; stark poverty; shameful living conditions.
Blacks could not vote then. There was a test on the constitution (that they were certain to fail) and a poll tax (that they could not afford). Or there might’ve been a threat to the likes of “Boy, you better go on back where you belong.” They couldn’t go to school with the whites … until forced integration. A black girl came to my high school for the first time during my junior year. I wish I could say I was friendly to her, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t unfriendly. I just wasn’t friendly.
In the 70s I Iived in a small town in southern Mississippi, where blacks lived in the Bottom and walked looking down — wouldn’t meet eyes with a white — and stepped off the sidewalk into the street when a white passed by them. In the 80s I lived in a small town in the Delta where I saw a black child being denied a library book. I was looking at picture books with my two tiny sons, when a little black girl took a book to the front desk. “You know you can’t check out a book. You don’t have a library card. Now go on, get outta here,” the librarian said with disdain, shooing her away, like she was a pesty fly. I remembered when I moved there, that same librarian had handed me a card happily and told me to go get two signatures on it. My jaw froze when I heard her response to the girl. I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t think quickly enough, I couldn’t offer to sign a card. I couldn’t believe it. It bothered me so much that a week later I called the main branch of the library system and reported the incident. Within a month, the librarian in my town retired.
That little girl is probably in her late thirties now. She probably just voted for a black president.
From now on in this land, race will be understood differently.
This is a new world. The old one is gone with the wind.
And I can only hope that also gone are the attitudes that keep us divided and dysfunctional. We are not Republicans. We are not Democrats. We are not Conservatives. We are not Liberals. We are not Blacks. We are not Whites.
We are Americans.
One good thing about being alone is that you can do anything you dang well want to. You can go buy a brand new coverlet that has baby blue stitched flowers on brown and a baby blue lining, without having to consider anyone else’s tastes. You can go buy groceries on a Friday night, without having to consider anyone else’s schedule. Not that I ever minded.
This morning I made pancakes like I wanted to. I whipped up the Hungry Jack Complete and put a smidgen of olive oil on the griddle. I improvised when I realized I didn’t have enough pure maple syrup to cover three pancakes. I pulled out a jar of Jack Daniels’ Burgundy Wine Grape Jelly. The jelly is made of sugar, burgundy wine, and Black Label Whiskey.
On the steaming bottom pancake I spread butter and ample jelly. I didn’t even wipe the jelly off the knife before I put it back in the butter because I didn’t have to. I didn’t care if the butter had jelly on it. I don’t care if the butter has jelly on it tomorrow when I reach for it.
On the middle pancake, I spread butter and more dark red jelly, strong with the smell of wine and mash. Then on the top pancake, I plopped a glob of butter and poured real maple syrup and let it soak in and run down the sides.
The dog was licking her lips and hopping-up-and-down eager, but I doubt any other human soul in the world would have been enthusiastic about the wine jelly and maple syrup pancakes. I ate them heartily and followed with a swig of orange juice to kill the sugar high.
Lord, I had wine and whiskey for breakfast. I’m going to hell in a handbasket.