It is six thirty in the morning and I’m sitting in my burgundy leather chair at my desk, fingers on the keyboard. I roll the tips in tiny circles over the ASDF and JKL; and think how good it feels. I finally got around to clipping my fingernails last night; I cannot stand to type with with a nail, and I had let them go too long.
Above me warm air rushes out of the vent, purring, lulling. I do not want to be lulled. I want to write an essay for my memoir, but I cannot think of anything to write about. The air stops abruptly.
I go downstairs for more coffee. The Cuisinart is set to go off automatically, and it is OFF. I stick my refill in the microwave for twenty seconds.
Is that it? Is my life over in 45,000 words? There’s not much to read about within that count. I did not have a colorful life. I didn’t lie much. I didn’t do too much that was illegal. Who wants to read about the adventures of a nice girl? I remember the words of the New York literary agent who looked me in the eye and said, “You must either have a platform … or it’s about the writing. You better have some damn good writing.”
I think back to my early years in the Mississippi Delta. My only “platform” is the Time and Place where I grew up. What’s left for me to write about? Dress fashions and stretching the clothes budget by buying patterns and material? Entertainment in a small Delta town? Looking for UFOs? Playing in a cotton trailer on a moonlit night with my boyfriend?
Or maybe the Sunday afternoon my best friend Gerri and I took her daddy’s 1949 truck for a spin up Highway 61. Her mama and daddy had gone to Winona to visit her grandparents. We were sixteen and out of things to do. I had Maybelline, my 1960 green Ford Fairlane 500, but then I had her all the time. No, we needed a little excitement, something different, a new look, and besides, the keys were in the old beige jalopy-like, barely-sputtering machine. There was just one challenge.
“It doesn’t have a second gear,” she said.
“Your dad gets to work in it.”
This was an old timey straight-shift vehicle that looked like a cockroach, only lighter in color.
Before we headed out of her driveway and down Memorial Drive and Boyle’s main street to the highway, we tested one of her daddy’s cigars from the glove compartment. We held it between our fingers, sniffed it, lighted it, took a puff. One was enough.
We bounced and lurched to the highway, and then as we built speed, Gerri had to pull over to the gravel shoulder to force the gear from first to third. In those days before seat belts, I rolled around on the padded and torn vinyl, laughing at her efforts. She had one hand on the steering wheel, one on the feeble gear shift, left foot on the clutch, right foot working the brake and accelerator, and she somehow punched the radio buttons, and she never stopped talking herself through the shifting and clutching. She never faltered as we hopped up 61 on a stretch between Boyle and Cleveland, cut back to Memorial Drive on a gravel road over the railroad track, kicking up dust behind us, windows down, static radio competing with our laughter.
Or maybe I should write about the day she got a speeding ticket on Memorial Drive in her Plymouth on the way to Youth Choir at the Baptist Church.
Alas. I should stop writing now. I’m meeting two friends for coffee at the Henpeck Market this morning — one friend at ten, the other at eleven. I should put some polish on my fingernails before I go. And stick my jeans in the dryer. And make my bed and scour out the kitchen sink. And I should go for a walk and eat some Cheerios and an orange. And empty the wastebasket that I didn’t have time to take out on trash day yesterday. My, how life gets in the way of writing.
I have a renewed appreciation for the life of a writer/editor. Of recent, it’s been life editing someone else’s stuff. My own writing has been put on the back burner for a brief season while I get this Book of the voices of Williamson County shaped into form: an anthology of the Council for the Written Word.
I was up this morning at 4:30 and buried my nose in the computer and didn’t look away until almost noon. I drank the obligatory pot of coffee like all writers and editors are supposed to do, and I even ate an unhealthy Apple Danish bakery roll…okay, fine, I ate two. I’m wearing the Franklin Jazz Festival T-shirt I slept in under a green Delta State sweatshirt, and I have white socks on that have brown bottoms because my floors are dirty. I have mascara flakes from the night pasted to my cheeks, and my hair is turning out on the ends and sticking up on top.
My furniture is dusty, the dog has tracked leaves in from the backyard, and the breakfast table is covered with yellow file folders: To Edit, Rejections, Problem Stories, Final Revisions. There is a publishing contract, an author’s contract, a Chicago Manual of Style, a calculator (not sure why), 20 colored pencils, Susie Sims Irvin’s book of poetry, cookie crumbs on the placemats, Robert Hicks’ story about a booksigning, and my mother’s discharge papers from the Army (not sure why).
All my energy and efforts have been pushed toward editing 45 stories of 33 writers, including our Williamson County Hall of Famers: Madison Smartt Bell, Robert Hicks, Paula Wall, Rick Warwick, Madison Jones, Susie Sims Irvin, Bill Peach, James Crutchfield, and Tom T. Hall.
I have worked cheek to cheek with my friend Currie Alexander Powers for the past two months, as the two of us have poured all our days into pulling all the details and straggling ends together in the creation of a BOOK. Now she has gone on a Blues Cruise and left it all with me.
Do I sound like I am complaining?
I am in my element. I am having a ball. I’m hungry, I need a shower, I need to brush and bathe the dog, I need to wash clothes and vacuum, but there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing than what I’m doing. Making a book.
It flurried today and is going down to 22 tonight and will snow tomorrow, and the dog feels it in her bones. She’s got her spot all staked out — on the couch, hand, uh, paw on the remote (No, I did not put it there!), and snuggling on the electric afghan turned on HIGH.
I think a blanket tug-of-war is in order.
I recently received a letter from Judy King — the Vietnam Wall poet. The letter also went to Oprah, Barnes & Noble, Thomas Nelson Inc., the Bill Gates Foundation, and the Michael Dell Foundation. I’m up there with the big ones, and being in their company made me perk up and take notice. Accompanying the letter was a newspaper article from the Westview paper: “Mayor calls for establishment of city library, seeks book donations.”
Judy said in her letter about the town of White Bluff, “We need a library. … I am writing to unofficially ask for your help. … If you can donate a book, several books…”
“Mayor Linda Hayes says she would still welcome county help in opening a public library in White Bluff, but due to a number of obstacles, including the economic downturn, that help may not be available anytime soon. … Hayes announced plans to plunge ahead on a library for the town anyway, setting a target date of February 1 for the opening of a facility that would essentially serve as a city-run … public library — equipped with books, computers, and high speed internet service.
Several private donors have pledged funds for remodeling the building. … The mayor is also in negotiations with private individuals and a local business for donations of computers. … But there are also ways the general public may pitch in to help make the dream become a reality as well.”
First is by donating books: gently used children’s books and adult books — fiction, nonfiction, historical, etc.
The Williamson County Council for the Written Word is collecting from our members who are doing some spring cleaning a little early, and we hope to stock a few shelves ourselves. I volunteered to stack the boxes and books in my foyer until the end of the month. So far we’ve got 14 boxes of books from just two people and more on the way, and I’ve still got to rake through my own supply.
If you have any books that are in good shape and would like to donate them, the small rural Tennessee town of White Bluff would love to have them on the new shelves of their library, set to open in February. I’ll be glad to give you a shipping address.
I’ve let it be known that I do not wish to be called Grandma. Or Mamaw or Granny or MiMi or any such. I’d thought about Grand Mom — the words run together really fast. I sort of liked the idea of the “grand” part.
But then after losing Poppy, the idea of incorporating his nickname into mine came, and all I could think of was Moppy. Everybody hated it. But it has become increasingly familiar, and it is different, and it will be easy for tiny children to say.
And then came Christmas when it was set in stone:
… a gift from my son and daughter-in-law who had it specially made for me.
Growing up, I sat beside a floor furnace to get warm. It was a big square grid — about 36″ x 36″ — that filled the tiny hallway in the middle of the square house, joining the living room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. Before Mama and Dad built an addition on the back, the furnace had to heat the entire house.
In summertime it was no big deal. It was just there — a big hole in the floor with a heavy metal grate over it. Mama would cover it up with a rug. But in wintertime, it gave us heat on cold wet days, and we all lingered near it, especially as we were getting ready for bed. It was at the center of our house, and it centered our family. It brought us together.
I sat in the doorway to the living room and placed my feet on its edges, and when the metal got too hot, I’d move them off. I liked the feel of the hot tic tac toe squares that remained on the soles of my feet. The furnace would make a loud clicking sound, then the heat would come on and gush upwards making my nightgown balloon, blowing my hair, warming and drying my eyes and the skin on my face.
Mama had a wooden clothes drying rack that she’d place on the furnace and hang towels on after she washed them. The heat would blow against them, waving them like flags, and dry them in no time.
My sister and I could sit quietly there and let the hot air wrap around us. Then our mother would walk over the hot grid between her bedroom and the bathroom, and her gown would blow out, and my sister would groan and fuss because our mother did not always have underwear on.
“There’s only one … and it’s in Mis’sippi!”
The Delta. The Most Southern Place on Earth, James Cobb says. It stretches out one hundred fifty miles north to south, like a fat, naked lady — ripe and pulsing. The Delta starts at the Peabody, a man named Cohn said, and comes to an end in Vicksburg on a street called Catfish Row.
The Delta. Home.
My sister gave me the T-shirt for Christmas. I’d wanted a reminder of “home.” I really wanted some earrings I saw in Delta Magazine — page 39 (November/December issue) the Mississippi River earrings by Christine Schultz, a hammered sterling silver wire triangle with a squiggly line hanging down the middle of it — a representation of the Delta and the river that runs through it, the Mississippi. (My sister also gave me a subscription to Delta Magazine.) But they were sold out.
The hot pink shirt reminds me of gliding down Highway 61 through cotton fields … goin’ home. The hot pink shirt reminds me that I need to get busy and finish my memoir of my early years growing up in this Place.
2009 will be the year to do that.