The shower is over, and so is the weekend; the tiny clothes are washed…all the towels — many hand-made with initials or names embroidered on them — gowns, receiving blankets, pink and blue outfits, books, a pair of red patent shoes for Jillie…lovely things, tucked away in drawers, ready and waiting…
There are more stars in the Mississippi Delta sky than any other place. And they are closer to the earth. It’s usually comforting to stand under those stars. This trip, they sting.
It’s a long way home. I took my mother to see her “brick” at the clock tower on the Delta State University campus, and we put flowers and a bird statue on my father’s grave.
Tomorrow brings another long trip to The Big Baby Shower in Brandon, and I will make that trip alone. Mom has decided she can’t go.
I sit deep into the night in the room where I grew up. Sleep won’t come.
“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” [Hal Borland]
My first daffodil bloomed early last week. Now the whole clump is bursting forth — downy yellow heads, delicate on hard cold ground. Spring comes softly.
It sneaks up on me, everywhere I turn, trees budding, birches tasseling, dogwoods getting ready to open their tiny white balls filled with crunched up blooms. I’m not ready for it. In the world I live in, it is hard to see life coming forth all around me. I am cocooned in death, loss, grief, a world that has changed forever and turned harsh and hateful. I feel like the fragile flower sitting in the middle of it all. I am the dogwood flower crunched up like a tight fist inside its cover — it gets glimpses of warm sunshine, but it stays put for now.
When I do stick a petal out to test this new world, I get ambushed every time.
Last Friday night I went to “A Black Tie Affair” presented by the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County at the Embassy Suites. Their mission is to preserve their culture and foster understanding and appreciation of their heritage. The night’s theme was “Change Gonna Come” and honoring those civil rights activists who helped break the barriers of racial and social injustice. One of the most powerful moments was Bro. Ralph Thompson’s reading of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King said back in 1963, “I have a dream that … the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” And we did. Change does come. It was a nice evening, and I was proud of myself for taking this big step of going out alone. As I drove away at eleven o’clock, I found myself sitting at the intersection of Carothers and Cool Springs Boulevard, and I was ambushed then and there. This was the spot ten or so years ago that my husband and I parked his Rodeo and loaded up big fieldstones that were being uncovered by new construction — stones to place around our backyard pond and flowerbeds. It was barren then — no road, no buildings, no nothing — just a gravel inlet off the boulevard, weeds, dirt, scraped earth, rocks upturned. We’d built a life together. And on a few Sunday afternoons we’d gathered stones on the same spot where I now sat in a long velvet dress, wearing the silver bracelet he bought me at Jerrod’s. Change does come.
I thought about how he should have been there. For years he was Manager, Corporate Minority Business Development at Alcoa Aluminum Company. He worked with Minority and Women’s Business on a national and state level. He was in the White House during the Reagan and Bush #1 years and met Governor Clinton at a trade show he did in Arkansas. There are plaques and awards in the home we built that show all the good he did. Change does come.
In an otherwise yellow daffodil world, I’ve been buried in taxes this week — not the normal package I prepare every year for our accountant, but two business tax versions this year — one for January 1 – June 28 when my husband was owner/operator of the computer networking business and one for June 29 – December 31 when I became owner by default after he died. It was bad enough last summer to have to move all the furniture, inventory, supplies, and peripherals collected over the years out of the office, hauling many of them to the dumpster on the grounds and slamming them hard against its metal sides, but now I have to physically type up and look at the list of dispositions — all his things I’ve had to write off, sell, store, throw away. After taxes, I must fill out another form for the State of Tennessee — all the assets and liabilities he left me, not that it’s any of their business. Someone might as well take a knife and slide it down my forearm and let it bleed out all this data in a red stream across the floor.
And then came Valentine’s Day and the reality that there will never again in my life be red roses or the three blessed words — “I love you.” I saw men in Publix buying bouquets, women perusing the card rack, and every red heart was an ambush, an arrow piercing my heart. Change does come.
This year, I have daffodils. Damn daffodils that I would like to stomp back in the earth. And I just want to know how there can be all this new and fresh life everywhere around me? Because my world is of Winter and death and loss and grief. And I want Spring to just skip this one year and give me some time to catch up. Damn it all.
“You only need two dresses.” He held up two fingers. The shape of a V. Victory. That gave an implied impetus to his words. He knew what he was talking about.
“One to wear, while you wash out the other,” he continued.
“Aw, Dad. That might’ve been the way y’all did it out in the sticks back during the Depression, but it’s not that way any more.”
Every girl had to have at least 5 dresses — one for each school day of the week — and then appropriate Sunday clothes on top of that. No girl would be caught dead wearing the same dress twice in one week. Actually, no girl would be caught dead wearing the same dress twice in two weeks, unless she really, really liked it, and then she might. So here was the need for at least 10 school dresses and at least 4 Sunday dresses to cover a month’s worth of holy days.
Clothes were expensive, and we all know what happened to the world in 1964. The Beatles came to America and butch hair cuts and crew cuts and short hair became like that 2-dress rule of the 1930’s. Out! My dad owned a barber shop and with all the boys wearing their hair longer and even the men not getting their customary haircut a week, the City Barber Shop fell into a slump. Dad had two daughters and could not afford the obligatory 28 dresses. And Kamien’s — Your Favorite Store since 1904 — out-priced my mama’s pocketbook on a teacher’s pay.
It was a real dilemma because we had to have the dresses and on top of that we needed piccolinos, penny loafers and Weejuns, padded bras, panty girdles, and stockings six days a week. Plus, hats and gloves for Sunday School. Needs were great and times were hard.
Mama’s Singer came to the rescue. She bought a brand new sewing machine in a sleek blond cabinet. She’d sewed for us all our lives — pretty polished cotton dresses with sashes and puffed sleeves, shorts and matching tops, and sequined costumes for our dancing recitals. You could buy a pattern for under a dollar and material, thread, zipper, and buttons for about five. Mama and I figured out real quick that we could stretch the clothing budget with the Singer.
Mama gave me a monthly allowance of $50. I could buy ten new dresses a month with that! Yet reality was that after buying stockings, cherry Cokes at Bob’s, fake earrings, Chantilly cologne, and Cover Girl and Maybelline makeup, I could only buy one or two.
So at least once a month, the Hardy Girls — Lucille, Kathy, Judi — would head south down Highway 61 to Leland in Mama’s turquoise Ford, then turn west toward the river on 82 to Greenville. Our first stop was Bev-Mar, a huge material warehouse, filled with all kinds, naps, and colors of cloth, with all the peripherals and patterns. We’d spend the first hour sitting on tall stools looking through pattern books and the next two hours picking out material. My sister was still a preteen, not quite ready for the fashion scene, and this was misery to her. After quickly agreeing to what pattern and material she wanted, she was ready to go. She’d fold over backward on columns of bolts, throw her arms out in despair, cry, and beg Mama to go home. “Kathy’s never going to get finished. She’ll take all day!” We were there at store opening and by lunch we had sacks full of new-smelling fabric to stick in the trunk. We’d eat at Pasquale’s and then head downtown to Washington Avenue where Sam Stein’s shoe store and Stein Mart stood at the foot of the levee.
Sam Stein helped keep us dressed and well-heeled. He was a Russian immigrant who came to America in 1900, to Memphis in 1901, where he sold jewelry up and down the Mississippi River before deciding Greenville was the place he wanted to settle. He peddled his jewelry in a horse and buggy between Greenville and Vicksburg and then started his business in 1902 in the front of Finlay’s Drug Store on the corner of Washington and Walnut. Later he opened his first location on Washington Avenue, selling shoes and fabrics, towels and wash rags, dishes, and other sundries. Sam Stein was the granddaddy of all the Marts; he was a mass merchandiser before K-Mart and Wal-Mart were ever a seed in anyone’s imagination. Sam helped mamas and daughters stay in style in a time of long bangs and collar-length hair, when daddies needed burr cuts to make a living.
The Hardy Girls had to stealthily slip their packages into the house in front of their daddy sitting in the living room in front of the TV. It was like one at a time. We didn’t want to stress him out about money and such, so we tried to protect him by letting him believe in his V and the two-dress rule.
“What’ve you got?”
“Nothin.” I clutched the sack between the cups of my padded bra.
He’d look at us sideways in our new clothes and shoes, but he never asked.
He was afraid of knowing. And besides, he liked seeing us all dressed up in fancy new clothes on a front pew at the First Baptist Church and it was fine as long as he didn’t have to know how much or how little money we spent.
I opened the back door yesterday morning to a white stiff yard — grass frozen, the dregs of fall leaves frosted, the air biting. It was so cold I blew white smoke. Movement caught my eye. A mockingbird stood on the ice-covered pond beside the patio. There was a silver-dollar-sized hole in the middle where the fountain runs continuously. The little bird was drinking water. He turned to look at me. He wasn’t afraid … took another sip … turned to look again … slid sideways so he could keep one eye on me, while quenching his thirst. I stood for a moment and watched. I didn’t want to scare him off. I worried about how cold his little feet were on the ice.
I feel like it is the middle of summer. You know, after the fields are plowed, the seeds are put in, the crops come up in neat green rows of cultivated dirt and work to produce the fruit of their purpose.
Then hot sun beats down and showers fall and all the care that was exercised to give the plant health goes to waste and the weeds come. They fill in all the empty spaces between the plants and grow higher and keep crowding until they push the plant down, block its nourishment, stunt it, kill it.
This is a picture of my life. Is it summer?
I look outside my window and I see no green. The calendar now says February. I know winter lingers.
The week pressed down. The “weeds” came and crowded out the joys. They got so thick that one night — as a hard icy rain fell — I put on my running shoes at 10:30 p.m., left the warmth, and ran as big drops pelted me … had to run it off … get it out … summer … winter … didn’t matter. Snow fell the next morning and blocked my vision as I drove across Manley Lane and Murray Lane to work.
Now it’s the weeds still demanding time and attention. And it’s the anthology that I want to work on. We’ve got a title! We’ve got a cover idea! The stories are in process of being approved by the writers, following edits. It’s all coming together … and close!
But today, I’ve got to attend to weeds. I’ve got to establish priorities. I’ve got to get some order back in the fields of this cold and harsh world.