It’s hard to believe that I have been without my soul mate for six months. Six months ago today, my husband died. I can still see those black curls, I can still smell him, I still have one saved message from him on my cell phone, not that I need it to remember his deep soothing voice. All the firsts are coming quickly back-to-back this season: Thanksgiving, his birthday, the dog’s birthday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, our anniversary, New Year’s Eve — a new year that I will enter without him.
Of all the things I miss, I guess what I miss the most are the early mornings. He’d be working — as Winston — on his blog, and I’d be in my upstairs office writing or revising an essay. Occasionally, I’d venture downstairs and plop down in the wicker chair beside his desk. He’d look up at me, take his hands off the keyboard, and say, “I guess you want to talk.” Sometimes I did. Sometimes I’d say, “No, I just want to be close to you.” Sometimes I’d ask him to brainstorm with me, if I needed an opinion, or if I needed a particular word to fit a particular situation, or if I needed to come up with a creative phrase or title. It was he who came up with the name for the journal Muscadine Lines.
The dog misses his presence, too. She hates to be away from home, but was obviously happy to be in a house with lots of people and noise for Christmas. She even lay at my son’s feet and rolled over on her back, as if to say, “You can be my new Alpha. I need somebody.” Lord knows I can’t be the Alpha. I get her butt-end — not her face — snuggled up close to me at night. Once a litter mate, always a litter mate.
It’s too quiet and lonely at home.
Six months. Seems like this should be a significant milestone. But…
There aren’t too many people more cleverly brilliant than Sherry over at Ink Tarsia — my wonderful friend from Colorado Springs whom I met at the Midsouth Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi earlier this year.
I should take her lead, based on her comment to my previous post, and title Outhouse Theology [below] “The Night the Churchmen Came Out of the Water Closet.”
Is that not just great? Doesn’t that grab you and draw you in and supply the perfect setup for a funny anecdote? Dadgummit, why can’t I be that smart? This goes to show that Mac Hubbell and I could have flushed a lot more of our own creativity and cleverness into our tales.
So, read the story below.
THE NIGHT THE CHURCHMEN CAME OUT OF THE WATER CLOSET…
My sister gave me Outhouse Theology for Christmas, and I read it last night before going to sleep. It’s a book by Macklyn Hubbell who was our preacher when we were growing up. He has written a collection of funny stories that have happened over the years to him, as he has interacted with people in his congregations. “The minister, handler of the holy, will experience the humorously unholy in pursuit of the holy.”
Dr. Hubbell, who was also a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, served six churches in all as pastor. Some of the book’s stories happened in my hometown Baptist church. Some of them I remember from the 1960s, like the earthquake that shook the sanctuary during the Sunday morning service when he was preaching about the Second Coming, and like the man who came forward during a Sunday evening invitation hymn and asked to deliver a word to the congregation. He told us when the world would end … around 1970, I think.
My favorite story in the book involves Brother Hubbell, as we called him back then in the Sixties, and Brother Burd, the Minister of Music and Education, who is still involved in the work of the church after forty-five years. The two were agitated because someone was messing with the Coke machine every Monday during afternoon and evening children and youth activities: choirs, Sunbeams, GA’s, RA’s, and Boy Scouts. The pranksters were puncturing a hole in the caps of the bottles that lay sideways in the machine and drinking all the liquid out of those bottles available for purchase. To catch the Coke thief, Brother Hubbell and Brother Burd decided to play detective and hide in the tiny ladies’ restroom that had a good view of the machine. Hubbell sat in a chair and Burd peeked through a crack in the door.
You’ve got to get this image right for the story to be funny — two respected and dignified holy men of the cloth, leaders of the biggest church in town, pillars of the community … hiding in a small women’s bathroom — together — with the lights off, in a pitch black church.
Someone appeared with a flashlight. They thought they’d caught him.
“To our surprise,” Hubbell says, “the thief was not the thief — it was [science] Professor Henry Lutrick of Delta State University looking for his daughters’ school day pictures. His daughters had participated in the church choir program on Monday and had left their pictures somewhere in the building — Henry thought.”
The two Coke detectives thought their cover was safe, as surely Henry would not check the bathroom … but he did, shining the flashlight first in Burd’s face, then in Hubbell’s. “Startled, he backed out of the restroom and disappeared.”
I would give a chunk of money, a gold Krugerrand, and an old diamond engagement ring to know the thoughts that went through Henry Lutrick’s head at that moment. Two ministers. After hours in a dark church. Together, in the ladies’ restroom, lights off. No excuses offered when the light hit them.
Come to find out — as Hubbell found out ten years later at a dinner party — that it was Franklin Nored who punctured the Coke caps and sucked out the Coke with a straw. Franklin was two years younger than I, and we went on many of the same church outings … and if memory serves correctly, I was in on pranks with and to him.
After the visual of the faces of these two holy men shining in the beam of a flashlight, it took an episode of “Andy Griffith” and two episodes of “I Love Lucy” before I could go to sleep.
I keep an old black-and-white photograph from December 1955 displayed on a tall black bookcase in my family room. It’s a reprint that came from my own Epson, 4 x 5, in a white mat, under glass, inside a silver frame Made in China. It’s a picture of a dark-haired man of thirty-two with two little girls under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. The girls are looking at all the toys. The man is playing with them. He is squatting, barefooted, leaning on one hand, his other hand pushing a train. His lips are parted and he is probably saying something like “Choo choo! Look what Santa Claus brought!”
This was a man who only got firecrackers and oranges for Christmas — maybe an occasional wooden truck — as a boy growing up in backwoods Mississippi in the 1920s and 30s during Depression years. Times were “depressed” all the time for his daddy, a poor dirt farmer with a small plot of 80 acres. He graduated from high school in ’41 and then the war came. He’d gone to Mobile with a cousin to work in a lumber mill, and they decided they’d work a little longer, earn some money, and then join up. But a telegram came from his daddy in Kemper County, saying to come home immediately, he had to report to the draft board the following morning. He rode the bus all night and his daddy met him at the bus station and took him to report to the Army. He spent one Christmas at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge and the following Christmas at Garmish-Partenkirchen serving as a lifeguard in the beautiful mountains during occupation before coming back home, going to trade school, and putting a life together. At the opening of the next decade, the first little girl was born. Four years later, the second came along. Christmases during the 1950s were fun for him. He was living the American dream.
In the snapshot, a white circle of flash from the Kodak sits on the dark screen of the tabletop Philco TV, two big round knobs for On/Off and Volume under its face. A vase shaped like a giraffe sits on top of the television and next to it on the same wall is a blond cedar chest that holds the sparse three-foot Christmas tree, full of strung lights that are red and blue and yellow and green. The tree is doubled because it is sitting in front of a big mirror with palm fronds and flamingos on it. There’s a white sheet wrapped around the base of the tree — pretend snow — covered with packages wrapped in two or three holiday designs of paper.
The baby girl stands barefooted on the polished hardwood floor, looking down at all the toys. In her right arm she is holding a cloth doll in a bonnet, half as big as she is. Her white nightgown hangs to her ankles and her brown curls are tight to her head, the white lines of her scalp showing, where sleep has parted her hair. Her white blanket lies in a heap on the floor, the stiff edge she holds in a tight fist, sticking up. To her left, the big sister sits Indian style, her flannel print gown wrapped tightly around her bare legs, cold against the floor. A doll with a bonnet and white shoes lies upside down on her lap, and she is looking at a big blackboard, about three feet long, propped up against the Philco. Her mama has written MERRY CHRISTMAS on it, and she knows she will erase that and fill it with letters and words and pictures. Baby dolls — maybe a half dozen of them — sit up against the blackboard and the cedar chest, looking back at the family. The girl’s blond hair is curled only on the ends where her mama had rolled it to make it that way. Her hair is not naturally curly like the baby sister’s.
The baby sister has gotten a little wooden workbench with pegs in holes and a little hammer to pound them in farther. She has also gotten a train, the one toy the daddy takes over. The girls are slow to pick up the toys because the daddy makes such a racket laughing and saying HO! HO! HO! and LOOK AT ALL THESE TOYS!, then pretend-fussing about Santa sneaking in the front door unannounced.
Rolling the train across the wood grain of the floor, the daddy surely remembers the firecrackers and oranges of his boyhood Christmases on the farm. Or maybe he remembers coming home from the war when he was put in charge of all the Mississippi soldiers on the train ride home from New York after arriving in the States by ship.
The daddy always overdoes it in the mornings — laughing and singing (“I’ll get a line and you get a pole, and we’ll go down to the crawdad hole…”) and teasing — whether he is frying bacon and eggs on a workday morning or rolling a train on Christmas morning.
On Christmas morning, the daddy springs to life like a Jack-in-the-Box: wind it up, around and around, and when the time is right, a clown pops out the top, all smiles and lively and animated. The daddy is the first one up, he turns on the tree lights, and when the two little girls walk into the living room, he bounces and hops and yells, ME-E-E-ERRY CHRISTMAS!”
Bon Natale, y’all!
The mobile pet grooming van visits Wimbledon Circle and parks curbside. The dog is inside getting all soaped up and rinsed off and squeaky clean. She’s getting her holiday ‘do.
Now she’s clean and cute … and soft and shiny … and ready for Santa!
Yesterday at noon I went to a booksigning at Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin. It wasn’t the only event going on. Yesterday was also Dickens of a Christmas, a street festival featuring more than 200 costumed characters re-enacting scenes from A Christmas Carol and other stories by Charles Dickens.
Luke’s childhood came along three decades after the Victorian Period.
Most people in Williamson County know Dr. Lucas G. Boyd [the Ph. D. kind of doctor] as the former principal of Battle Ground Academy, with a tenure of nineteen years at the elite private school in Franklin. I have an interest in him because he comes from the same neck of the woods — or should I say flatland — as I do: the Mississippi Delta. His book is titled Coon Dogs and Outhouses Volume 2: Tall Tales from the Mississippi Delta, and many of the stories therein are based on real people and true happenings from his early years, tales he heard his daddy relate as they sat on the front porch or around the dinner table.
Luke was born in a three-room shotgun house on Jabe Dunaway’s place near Anguilla, Mississippi, during the depths of the Depression. His father had attended two years at Mississippi A&M [Mississippi State University], quit to manage one of the school’s experimental farms, then took a job with the Wrought Iron Range Company, and lost everything when the Depression hit. He was forced to return to the land to provide for his family and started out as a sharecropper before he managed a plantation. The plantation culture left an indelible mark on Luke, who grew up immersed in it in the 1930s, south of Hollandale [Anguilla, Percy, Panther Burn], which is southeast of Greenville.
In fact, there’s a story in the book titled “Plantation.” I started reading it about five thirty this morning. I grew up an hour’s drive north [Cleveland] from where Luke did, but my daddy owned a barber shop, and I was a town girl. However, I had an innate understanding of the mystery and pull of the land — all of us did who grew up in the Delta — even though I didn’t live directly in the cotton and work it. I knew enough about the life of planters and plantations, but found it really interesting to read a firsthand account. As Luke points out, these were not farms and farmers. They were plantations and planters. My granddaddy was a farmer on an 80-farm in the Mississippi Hill Country, but these were all just poor, hick, redneck dirt farmers. The Delta had the cream of the crop with rich planters owning a couple thousand acres. I somehow just knew this as a child. I didn’t have to read it anywhere or hear it from anybody. I also knew there was sort of a caste system, and Luke describes it in his story. I don’t think things had changed much by the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up close by.
“The land was cultivated by black labor using hoes and mule-drawn plows. There were two tractors which were used primarily to work the large block of the plantation reserved for the owners — the medieval demesne. Because of the plantation’s dependence upon the labor of the black tenants, a good manager had to be able to attract and keep good workers. That’s probably why my brother and I were instructed never to call one of the tenants “nigger” to his face. … In December and January after the crops had been sold and farm work was minimal, my father began to “trade” with the tenants for the next crop year. On the designated days, they would gather in the back yard, come in the back door (never the front) one by one, and stand with hats in hand before my father who sat at the kitchen table with the account book. It was the day of economic reckoning. They were told what they had been “furnished” (advanced in money and goods against their crop) and what their crop (always cotton) had sold for. They were paid any profit in cash. A negative balance meant that they started the next year in the hole — if my father decided to “trade” with them for another year. If not or if they wanted to go to another plantation, the debt had to be paid by the other plantation before they could leave. The sheriff was sent after those who left with debts on the books. Also, there were few managers who would take a tenant without checking out his status with his previous manager. This union of the law and the dominant economic class kept the black laborers in a state of peonage. It was not legal or right but it was the way the system worked. … A plantation manager, with the backing of local authorities, had a great deal of power over his tenants.”
These tenants, the black laborers, put the crop in and picked it in the fall. They were the backbone of the Delta economy. Without them, the whole system would fall, and there would be nothing. This is the system that fed the fight against civil rights in the Sixties. When people from other places try to write about and make movies about Mississippi during this era, they don’t see the whole picture; they don’t have the foundation for understanding a People and a Place. They paint a picture of dumb people with a backward mentality [which in some cases…], when in reality, these landowners knew exactly what they were doing — they were trying to hold on to their way of life that had existed forever in this Place, and that meant keeping the majority “in their place” while preserving the power of a few and pulling along by fear the middle class. [I could comment here, but won’t.] This is not a justification; it is just the way it was. Without the black farm laborers, there would have been no “Cotton is King” and wealth and power for the few rich landowners. In fact, one hundred years earlier, without slaves, there would have been no Delta. It was the slaves sent by rich landowners to occupy Delta jungleland, to cut the virgin forests, to drain the swamps, to endure mosquitoes and malaria, to plant a cotton crop, who developed this land and who are responsible for its existence. It is a rich legacy for them, and they endured much before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965 … and much after that.
That ended the Delta I knew growing up. When I was a little girl, making the three-hour drive up Highway 61 to Memphis was like skiing on thin tracks on a flat slope, only it wasn’t snow and cold, it was cotton and hot. Cotton fields came almost right up to the concrete of 61 and went to the horizon on both sides of the road. As far as you could see. But it all changed. The system and the crop.
In “Plantation” Luke alludes to this. “During the time I lived on plantations, ‘cotton was king.’ Of course, my father had to raise enough corn, oats and hay to feed the livestock but the owner always wanted every other acre planted in cotton. My father wanted to diversify, especially with soybeans. He argued that soybean prices were always good and could help with the profit margin in years when cotton prices were down as they generally were in the 30s. It was a hard sell. The owners had grown up with cotton, their fathers and grandfathers had built both their plantations and social position on cotton. No need to change a good horse. However, he did manage to get some soybean acreage — until cotton prices began to rise. He, and those few like him, were voices of the future for now soybean acreage in the Delta probably outstrips that of cotton. And diversification has gone to the absurd with catfish farms and gambling casinos.”
I married in 1970, moved to Texas, and then returned three years later. I had a friend whose husband was a landowner, and she talked about him being busy “cuttin’ beans” and I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. Come to find out it was harvesting soybeans. Soybeans had become a strong crop.
For anyone who wants to write about Mississippi and learn what it was really like in the early and mid-1900s, Luke’s book would be a good reference. Landmark Booksellers can get you a copy of it. For those who have already written about it and didn’t get it right, PLEASE BUY THE BOOK!
During Luke’s booksigning, Dave and Sharon Stewart came by, dressed in their Victorian costumes. They were Dickens characters. Dave is the vice-president of the Council for the Written Word, and Sharon knows Luke from Rotary. Both heard him read one of his stories at a Tennessee-Read-Around, sponsored by the Tennessee Writers Alliance. Both — as rings true for the rest of us locals — are fascinated by Luke’s storytelling ability. Luke’s book is not just a good reference … it’s good entertainment.
And I might add, it was just as entertaining to watch how he interacted with all his friends who stopped by Landmark to get a signed book. I could picture them all telling tales early mornings with cups of coffee over a red-checkered tablecloth at Merridees.
That was the subject of an email I got December 3.
“In July 2009, W. W. Norton will publish the first edition of The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3, edited by Lee Gutkind. This collection will showcase new voices, ideas, forms, and approaches in creative nonfiction and will be published simultaneously as a trade paperback and an issue of the groundbreaking journal Creative Nonfiction.
“We’d very much like to include your blog entry titled “An Open Letter,” which was nominated by Sarah Einstein…”
I am honored, humbled, ecstatic. I’ve read and studied Lee Gutkind for years and subscribed to the journal, considering it the Bible of creative nonfiction. It is THE journal of the genre. And Lee Gutkind is the Godfather of the genre. And to have my work published there is the ultimate. I am honored, humbled, ecstatic.
Thank you, Sarah!
And thanks to my husband, always my biggest supporter, who literally laid down his life for this and goes with me once again into a publishing experience.
So … subscribe to the journal!
“What in the world is wrong with Mamaw, and why is she sending everybody a one or two-word email every day that doesn’t make sense?” Son #1’s faith in his grandmother’s sanity was wavering, as he displayed loud drama over the phone. “Today it was ‘Fig Newtons.’ What is wrong with her?”
“Yesterday it was ‘Rice Cakes.’ The day before it was ‘Flashlight.’ I never know what to expect when I open my email.”
“What about the day it was ‘TRESemme Ultra Fine Mist’?”
“Or ‘Bird Seed.’ What has gotten into her?”
“You mean you really don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know. A few days ago it was ‘Pizza Cutter.’ What is wrong with her?”
“Your mamaw put up her little Christmas tree the day before Thanksgiving. She even bought new lights and strung them around it. She moved a rocking chair in the living room and she sits there and looks at the tree lights. Your Aunt Judi went to visit, hauling in upwards of twenty wrapped presents — just little things. She arranged them all around the tree, and every day until Christmas, Mamaw is supposed to open one. Just one gift. And she is supposed to email us and tell us what she got. And even though we are all far away, we can celebrate with her every single day.”
“Well, for crying out loud, I thought she had lost her mind.”
“Nope, she’s just including us all in her daily surprise. It’s the neatest thing I’ve ever heard of. I could never think to do anything like that.”
“Yeah, pizza cutter … really nice … rice cakes … a good thing …”
“Makes Christmas fun for everybody.”
“I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.”
— Norman Mailer