I picked out my armageddon hiding place early on. I was a girl of twelve.
On my grandpa’s farm, a gully cut thirty or more feet deep into the red earth of family land. A natural spring bubbled out of the ground there and ran through woods with trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back. Plenty of pines, chinquapin, hickory, hackberry, and oaks, all canopied under a sun that never got through, laying down centuries of seasonal leaves and needles to pad the hard clay.
I hiked into the gully via the stream banks, my shoes sinking into the soft wet sands, stepping over wild ferns and other woodsy plants, climbing over fallen tree trunks, watching out for bad snakes. Country noises sounded all around me: bird alerts, the whippoorwill’s forlorn song, a trembling of leaves in a summer breeze, a cow groan in the distant pasture, a low trickling of water. I stuck my fingernails into the red clay canyon sides for support, dug in with my Keds, balanced, climbed over vertical ruts and rocks, and sat on a hard-dirt outjutting of the earthen gully wall in the cool August ground hole and did some pondering.
I knew war would come. I had seen TV repeats of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desktop, screaming that Russia would bury America. I feared the H-bomb and waited for it to be dropped on one of our cities. I read Alas, Babylon, when that really happened. I knew we were preparing weaponry for war. I heard sonic booms of new jets as they flew over my backyard.
Sitting deep at the bottom of that gully the summer before seventh grade, I knew war would come. I looked way up at blue skies filtered through the lace of leaves above, pale green, fluttering peacefully. I was hidden here. I felt safe. No one could find me. After Russia dropped the bomb and then sent their armies marching in through Mexico—that’s how I imagined it happening—I could live here without being exposed to the enemy. There was water to drink. There were nuts and greens in the forest. There were fruit trees nearby. I could live.
A lot of years have passed. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. I still worry about armageddon. I still believe war will come.
I own that gully now.
When I was a little girl, the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalogue came every October. That’s how I knew Christmas was getting close. It was a shiny, red, magical book, with Christmas tree lights, maybe a rosy-cheeked Santa, and little boys and girls in warm PJs on the cover. I’d sit on the couch and turn the pages through this “wish book” and dream of all the toys, from sleds and ice skates and bicycles and dolls—all sizes, all kinds—and doll wardrobe cases and dress-up cowboy and Indian outfits. There were microscopes, rock polishing kits, toy pianos, teddy bears, and train sets. There was much to pick from.
On Christmas morning, at barely light, the living room would be full of toys under the tree. Its red, blue, green, and yellow lights made all the presents sparkle and shine. My little sister and I, awakened by our father, barely had our eyes open, were shy at first, just standing there and looking at all Santa brought.
Oh! It was a wonderland of new perfect and pristine toys! My daddy would dive right in, laughing and picking up each toy, playing with it first. He had more fun than we did. I remember a blue bicycle the year I was seven. One Christmas, we got a merry-go-round. A pogo stick was one of my favorites. We got dolls—lots of dolls. There was the Bannister Baby, the Madame Alexander, the 36-inch doll, Chatty Cathy, and then the Barbies came along. There were pop beads, jewelry boxes (I still have mine!), pearls, roller skates, and boxed games. In our stockings were candy canes, chocolate Christmas candies, and oranges. To this day, when I see a lighted Christmas tree, I still remember those long ago Christmas mornings in my little house on Deering Street, with my mama and daddy and sister, and I still get that funny-happy feeling in my tummy.
When I got a little older, my daddy told me that when he was a little boy growing up on the family farm at Hardy Hill in Kemper County, Mississippi, all he got for Christmas every year was a toy wooden car, a handful of firecrackers, and a couple of oranges. My daddy and mama grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when people didn’t have any money, some didn’t have any food, and they certainly couldn’t afford Christmas presents. Dad seemed happy, though, remembering what he got. I could picture those bright-colored oranges down in his soft red-felt stocking hanging from the fireplace mantel. Maybe oranges were rare and special back then, and it was a treat to get one, all sweet and juicy and colorful. So I carried forward the tradition. When I grew up and had two little boys, I always put an orange in their stockings.
I wonder now if my daddy’s parents, my grandma and grandpa, were so old that they were close to the old traditions and grew up with legends that I didn’t know about.
The Legend of the Oranges
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
“A Visit from Saint Nicholas”
Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a man named Nicholas, born in a village on the Mediterranean seashore in the country we now call Turkey, 270 years after Jesus lived not too far away. Nicholas inherited a large sum of money, but spent his life giving it away to help the poor and the persecuted, and eventually became a bishop in the Christian church and a saint.
One day Saint Nicholas heard the villagers talking about a poor, widowed man who had three beautiful daughters but was having a tough time making ends meet. The father worried that he wouldn’t be able to find suitors, or husbands, for his daughters because he didn’t have money for a dowry. It was a custom in days of old for girls to give money, called a dowry, to their husbands upon their marriages. Saint Nicholas wanted to help, but he imagined the man might be too proud to accept charity. One night, he went to their house, climbed up on the roof, and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney while the family was sleeping. One of the bags of round gold coins landed in the toe of a stocking that was hanging from the mantel. The girls had washed their stockings and hung them up by the fire to dry.
When the family awakened in the morning, they found the gold, including the bag in the sock which had turned into a ball overnight—a shiny bright golden ball. Because of Saint Nicholas’s generosity, the daughters were now eligible to wed, and their father was happy.
So, Hardy and Jillie, the bright-colored oranges your great grandfather, your grandmother, and your father got in their little-boy-and-girl stockings were a symbol of the shiny bright gold left by Saint Nicholas in those long-ago stockings hanging by the fire. Giving the orange is a way to celebrate generosity and caring for others, without thinking about a gift in return.
Today, maybe there’s a lesson for you. If you get an orange in your stocking, remember Saint Nick, the poor father, and the three beautiful girls. Remember the gold. Believe. Believe in the random kindness of others. And believe enough to let yourself be moved to show kindness to those in need. Give a hug to your grandma; give a kiss to your mama and daddy; give a smile and nice word to your friends. When you share the sections of an orange with someone, you are sharing the gift of you, sharing what you have and giving from your heart. For giving is the true Christmas spirit.
I shared this on Facebook because I thought it was powerful. This is someone else’s story – not mine – but in 7th grade, I would have never spoken up at all. Would you have? Would you now?
“A few of us choked out some words . . . but were immediately squashed.”
Everybody I know has basically told me to shut up. Some of them hate what is happening in our country and are hurting and disturbed, too. Some are loving it. Some just plain have no clue and are happy to have a new Savior that can heal everything from a headache to lack of a job. Some just vote for the R Party no matter who’s running.
I keep telling them that I can’t be quiet and I can’t not say anything if I see something distressing. Something wrong. Something completely against the Bible I grew up with and the teachings of my parents and church and school. Something that makes a mockery of the way I raised my children and the stands I took as a classroom teacher.
I believe SILENCE IS ACCEPTANCE.
One little thing happens. One lie is told. You sit back and let it go. Another lie, another ill-meant action, and you turn your head and pretend not to see. Another and another. It becomes easy to slide into a pattern of silence, of closing your eyes, of ignoring wrongs, of taking the position, “It doesn’t do any good to say anything.” It becomes easy to just smile and sit back and let your character melt at your feet.
I read Anne Frank’s diary several times in junior high and high school. Every time I read it, I thought: How could people let this happen? How could they hate this one group known as Jews? How could the rantings of one madman lead to so much destruction and death, when there are so many good people out there?
Now I know.
I also thought: This kind of thing could never happen in my country.
Now it is.
SILENCE IS ACCEPTANCE.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that what you see with your own eyes isn’t happening.”
I’ve climbed those narrow steps behind the swinging bookcase up to the secret annex in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. I looked out the window at a tall church steeple nearby. I refuse to go back again to a place created by hate, fear, and silence, so near to God.
Sometimes you come upon priceless little treasures you tucked away years ago for safekeeping. And you find them later and melt like chocolate on a warm spring day. It happened to me last week, a week before Valentine’s Day.
I was cleaning out some boxes and bins in an upstairs closet, organizing and throwing the old out. In a folder I found a card Charlie had made for me one February 14. I think it was the same Valentines he bought a life-sized card, three feet tall, and so how do you top that with something personal? You draw a card. You make it yourself.
And so the engineer drew a heart with a red magic marker. Note that the low point at the top of the heart where the lines meet is exactly above the bottom meeting point. Because that’s what engineers do. And note that the sides are exact, too. I’m sure he folded it or something to get it right. Because that’s what engineers do. It can’t be off. And I don’t know if there’s a compass thingy for a Valentine.
The always-working engineer found time to make a heart.
In black ink he wrote:
The three magic words
A qualifier to the three magic words
The signature that you can barely make out to say “Charlie”…
I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I practiced signing his name. He always laughed and told me I’d never be able to do it like him. And he was right.
He cut out the heart. Lord help us all, the engineer did not stay on the line!
Charlie’s “I Love You” came to me ten, maybe fifteen years ago, inside this red heart. And it was endearing to know that a busy man would take the time to create something so simple, so personal, so heartfelt, rather than just stopping by the Hallmark store.
I didn’t know then that it would be a heart – his own real heart – that would take him away from me. But it was, and he is gone, and now I have this paper heart and the two red lines that touch in the middles and the magic words inside. And for the moment it is enough.
I set the clocks forward last night before I went to bed, all except the clock in the bedroom, which I never changed last fall when we were supposed to fall back an hour. So now, it’s right.
Just as now, the world is right because it’s warming up after a brutal winter, the most brutal I can ever remember in my long, long life. Plants in my yard that are supposed to make it through the cold months are burned brown. The lenten rose, for example. It sits in wet dirt with scattered and faded mulch around it left over from a year ago, and its leaves are dried and toasted . . . and yet there are new fresh blooms, winter white, tender, vulnerable. I feel like that, too.
As the world grows ever toward the newness of spring, I feel a surge in my spirit. I cleaned up my deck yesterday. My favorite things to do this time of year are: eat breakfast on the deck, eat lunch on the deck, eat supper on the deck, build a fire in the chimenea on the deck, read on the deck, take my laptop outside and work on the deck, sit on the deck and look at the yard and figure what else I can plant out there, look at the Medicine Wheel herb garden and feel a need to go out there when the sun is warm enough and refresh it to look like the first chapter of my book, Remember the Dragonflies.
As the world grows ever toward the newness of spring, I want to get my pink fingernails in the dirt. I want to plant tomatoes. I want to plant more vegetables, berries, and flowers. I want to plant. Period.
I want to spring forward in the newness of spring.
This is the big day!
This is the big weekend! The book’s debut! I have two signing events for Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing. Friends and local writer colleagues, please come say hello! They are both come-and-go events; just stop in, shake my hand, look at my book, buy it if you want, or buy something else, or buy nothing. I’d just love to have your warm friendly smile and your presence and your support!
Tonight — Nov. 22, Barnes and Noble Cool Springs, 5:30-6:30, as part of Discovery Friday.
Tomorrow — Nov. 23, Brentwood Library, 10:00-3:00, as part of the annual Author Fair, 8109 Concord Road in Brentwood.
I hope to see you there on this, the weekend before Thanksgiving. I am grateful to be able to share my journey with you and to share a bit about the man who was my husband.
What does a girl do when she’s had a blog for six years and now she has a hard time being regular with it? Well, she gets another blog.
It’s kinda not working out so well yet, but I hope to change that. So in the coming days, if you see I’m still not doing well with it, drop me an email and tell me to get my act together. I don’t mind at all.
I hope to do one or two posts a week on my blogs — this one and rememberthedragonflies.wordpress.com. Come follow! Come push me along! Come and criticize. I don’t mind.
Here’s the dragonfly post: http://rememberthedragonflies.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/please-come-with-me/
Now, the best I can do today for Kathy Rhodes at WordPress is a guest blog I recently did for my friend Tracy Lucas and her Writing for Your Supper. It’s a blog on writing, titled “Yanking the Door Open.”
I’ll be headed out later this week to the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. This is the third conference I’ve attended, and there was also a creative nonfiction workshop in 2007, and this is the second conference I’ve co-directed with Neil White and Susan Cushman. I’m familiar with the returning faces–Dinty W. Moore, Lee Gutkind, Michael Rosenwald, Jessica Handler–and I’ve known River Jordan, who’s new this year, since she came to Tennessee and read from the galley of her first novel at the Barnes and Noble Writers Night prior to the Southern Festival of Books where she was to be on a panel. And Lee Martin is new this year. I haven’t met him yet, but I like what I hear.
Lee’s blog today is titled “Teaching at Writers’ Conferences” and gives a glimpse of what we can expect this weekend in Oxford. He writes:
“At the end of this week, I’ll be in Oxford, Mississippi, teaching a memoir workshop preceding the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and then sticking around to be on a panel during the conference proper. Thus begins the season of writers’ conference teaching with other visits to Rowe, Massachusetts; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Montpelier, Vermont, to come. I love teaching at these conferences where folks are generally passionate about their craft and eager to pick up some little tidbit to help them along their writers’ journeys. I also love meeting folks I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to know, and getting to have some small part in the work that they’re doing. If I can share what I know in a way that will be helpful, maybe I can save someone a bit of time in the development of his or her craft. By so doing, I can pay back all the wonderful teachers who did the same for me. Like the handyman character, Red Green, used to say on his television show, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”
I was first drawn to creative nonfiction by memoir. I was a fiction writer who decided to turn his skills with narrative into storytelling about the self. I quickly learned that I loved being able to dramatize moments from my life and arrange them in a narrative thread of cause and effect. I also loved being able to reflect upon those moments, interrogate them, use them to think more deeply about the person I was/am and the people around me. This is all to say that I’m very much looking forward to my trip to Oxford, and the conversation I’ll have about memoir with the folks in my workshop…” Read more:
It’s not too late to register! Join us for a full and inspiring weekend on the Ole Miss campus. The creative nonfiction community in the South is growing. Come join us!
I read my essay “A Whole New Life” (previously posted) in critique group last week, and Susie said, “What’s a medicine wheel?”
I had looked it up a few months ago before my trip to Wyoming because there’s a medicine wheel in the Big Horn Mountains. It’s at a height of about ten thousand feet and only without snow two months out of the year. I got that it was like a Native American Stonehenge. Its rocks were aligned such that during summer solstice, one can sit in an accurately placed cairn and see spokes of rocks that point to the rising and setting places of the sun. This was exciting to me because I was going to be there the day before summer solstice. I really wanted to see it. My sister and I tried to hike the two miles to the wheel, but alas, it was not to be, for snow still covered the trail. One slip, and I’d be at the bottom of the mountain, dead.
After Susie’s comment, I did some research. One of the three R’s of creative nonfiction is Research. Information is the reason for the genre, the reason for the story. Teaching the reader. And I discovered information that contains implied Reflection (another R) and takes the story to a whole new level.
So in first-step revision my medicine wheel paragraph has evolved into this:
“Then there’s a circular herb garden, fifteen feet in diameter, outlined with stones, with a square-stone pathway inside it running one side to the other and top to bottom, forming a cross, plentiful with parsley, sage, rosemary, sweet mint, and thyme. It’s made like a medicine wheel, an ancient Native American stone formation, laid out in a circular pattern that looks like a wagon wheel, its arrangement of rocks and cairns pointing to the rising and setting places of the sun at summer solstice. Early on, Native Americans observed that there are no straight lines in nature. Nature expresses herself in circular patterns, from a bird’s nest to the cycle of seasons or the cycle of life—birth, death, rebirth. Thus the wheel represents the universe and also one’s own personal space or personal universe. It’s a mirror that lets one see what is going on within, how to realize and reach her potential, how to heal. The word “medicine” refers to the power or force inherent in nature and to the personal power within oneself that can enable her to become more whole or complete. The wheel symbolizes harmony, connections, and peaceful interaction among all living beings on Earth. A medicine wheel is a sacred space, a place for meditation, a centering device for one’s consciousness. I tried to hike to the Big Horn wheel in Wyoming on summer solstice this year, but the trail across the forty-five-degree, steep mountain slope was covered feet-deep in snow, and treacherous. I couldn’t make it. I was afraid and turned back.
Turning north, the stone pathway I just completed passes a bed of plants I’ve mostly begged off my sister and friends—Siberian irises, black and blue salvia, coreopsis, cannas, creeping jenny, Carolina jasmine, ajuga, nandinas, forsythias, and other things I don’t remember the names of. North on the medicine wheel represents coming to my time of winter. North is wisdom, healing, a time to be grounded within myself, a time to rest and contemplate this wisdom I’ve been given.”
This is way too long for a blog post, but it sums up all I’ve tried to say, didn’t say, said in other words over the past months. So here goes anyway, and if it’s too long, just don’t read it, and it’s a rough draft so the opening isn’t very compelling, and it’s not at its best, but it’s out there. In more ways than one.
July 29, 2012. Four years, one month, one day after Charlie died. Today, I have worked in the backyard of my brand new house for nine hours, taking short breaks to get out of the over-one-hundred-degree heat index, guzzle water, and let my heart rate slow. When I bought in December, the backyard was stone-solid sienna clay with red strains running through it. Fescue seeds had been scattered on top of it and covered with straw. Spring rainwater wet the clay and pounded the straw in to mesh as part of the earth’s hardscape, and now the summer sun has baked it. Pottery, that’s what it is.
Lord, I think, this is going to kill me.
The yard is wide and shallow—room enough for two maples, a crape myrtle, a hemlock, and a tulip poplar, once they reach full stature. I did the landscaping myself. I was working with that god-awful, slippery, rubbery clay-dirt, and rainwater would not soak in, but just sit on top of it, and what little finally did settle in stayed four inches beneath the surface, so the roots of my plants were sitting in stale, stinky water. It’s like this, they told me at Riverbend Nursery: When you dig a hole for a tree, you create a bowl, like a hard clay pot. Picture it. When it rains, water sits in the bottom of that bowl, like milk after you eat your cereal. You’ve got to amend the soil. Mix in soil conditioner, new dirt, and native soil. Tamp it in tightly around the tree roots to keep it from having the bowl effect. At the Home Extension office they told me: Don’t make a perfect hole. Use your shovel to break up the sides, leave little clods in the bottom, make it jagged.
I’ve just finished the last segment of a stone path that runs from my deck to the little vegetable garden at the back fence, where I can eat warm-off-the-vine tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, cucumbers, and cantaloupes.
I overdid it, I ache all over, and I’m stiff from carrying rocks, bending, squatting, digging, pulling weeds. I can barely lift a foot to walk up the four steps to the deck. I stand and lean on the railing and look out over my handiwork. A dragonfly zooms by close to my head. There are lots of them, all abuzz. Seem desperate, in search of something. They sparkle in the sun.
Dragonflies have iridescent wings and bodies. Iridescence is the property of an object to show itself in different colors depending on the angle and polarization of light falling on it. The magical property of iridescence is associated with the discovery of one’s own abilities by unmasking the real self and removing the doubts one casts on her own sense of identity. Self-discovery.
For me, the last four years have been a period of self-discovery. When your spouse dies, your life stops. You don’t know it at that moment, but everything that was, is no more. Each moment of every day finds a way to remind you that you are alone, things are different, and life will never be the same. You scramble blindly in a flood of adrenaline to pull together a new life within your new reality. You learn who you are and what you’re made of.
Some say dragonflies are the souls of the dead. Some say the deceased send us dragonflies to give us reassurance.
First, off the deck, aiming west, there’s a brick-lined, mulched walkway with six round stepping stones in it—three had belonged to my mother. She walked on them to go from her back door to an enclosed patio. The walkway goes to a concrete-stone pad with a fire-pit and passes a semicircle flower bed with a cobalt-blue bottle tree, a birdhouse-on-a-pole from the Franklin Main Street Festival, a pot with tall, ornamental grass, a cobalt-blue sea ball from Oregon, and assorted blooming perennials.
Then there’s a circular herb garden, made like a medicine wheel, outlined with stones, with a square-stone pathway inside it running one side to the other and top to bottom, forming a cross, plentiful with parsley, sage, rosemary, sweet mint, and thyme. I planted a hibiscus bush there, too, to give shade protection to the tender plants. I thought it was going to be like the one my mother had on the side of the house I grew up in, but it is a Rose of Sharon variety with a pink carnation-like flower.
Turning north, the stone pathway I just completed passes a bed of plants I’ve mostly begged off my sister and friends—Siberian irises, black and blue salvia, coreopsis, cannas, creeping jenny, Carolina jasmine, ajuga, nandinas, forsythias, and other things I don’t remember the names of.
I’ve placed decorative items out there, too, among the plants to add meaning: a piece of the original tombstone of my Revolutionary fourth great-grandfather Mahaffey; a flat rock from Three Mile Creek in Ohio on land that once belonged to another Revolutionary ancestor, Jacob Boone, cousin of Daniel; and a block of a pecan tree my father planted in our backyard on Deering Street when I was seven, felled by the Great Ice Storm of ’94. These represent the substance I’m made of. Also, there are two statues of little girls I took from my mother’s garden after she died, and a bird bath that belonged to her. There are my husband’s collected arrowheads from boyhood sitting in a pottery dish. There’s a painted wooden gull I bought on the Oregon coast last year, two tall handcrafted birdhouses, and a cobalt-blue gazing ball.
I built all of this. I planted every tree, bush, and flower in a desperate attempt to give life, to have life around me, to give something a chance to grow and bloom. I amended the fretfully annoying clay-soil, added nutrients, and watered diligently to make it all healthy, make it last, because life is fragile, life is fleeting, and everyone needs a chance at life.
I sit down in the Adirondack and look at the bright yellow sky with gray clouds, back-lighted, gathering at the horizon to crown the setting sun. Dragonflies are still zooming above. They’re fast, their life span is short, they spend most of their lives in the larva stage, and when they fly, it means they are near the end. Their winged stage lasts only a few weeks. When you see a winged dragonfly, you know death is near. Right now, they are getting all the life in they can before they die.
Four hours after Charlie died, my sister arrived from Memphis and said, “You’ve got to build a whole new life.” It didn’t sit well. I wasn’t yet used to the fact that I’d lost my life. I didn’t want a new life. I just wanted the old life. I scrambled to pull every thread of him back.
Tears roll down my stinging-hot cheeks. Yes, I did all of this. All by myself. I wheel-barrowed in a hundred or more bags of topsoil and mulch, then spread it all with my bare hands. I hauled in all of these stones, four hundred three of them, and set them in place. Some of the rocks and stones, I brought from my old house, the one my husband and I built in 1994. Twelve, I brought back to Tennessee from New Mexico in 1992. Some came from my grandparents’ farm, family land since 1850. Most, I bought.
The neighborhood grows still and quiet. It comes to me that this is my home. I have built a whole new life. I cry harder. Out of pain, out of pride.
My fingers are tight in the joints. Brown is worn in around the nails, dirt under them. The nails are jagged and broken. A mulch splinter is stuck down in the quick under the nail of the ring finger, left hand, the one where my wedding ring used to be.
I lean my head against the back of the wooden chair. My hair at the roots is soaked with sweat. I hear the hum of traffic on the interstate a half-mile beyond the woods and creek in the distance. I think I need to stain and seal the deck. Need to paint the Adirondack chairs a sea green as a contrast color to the cobalt. Dragonflies keep buzzing and darting.
The dragonfly symbolizes new beginnings. As a creature of the wind, it represents change—change in the perspective of self-realization and the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life.
Change is all about the dragonfly’s ability to fly and the way it is comfortable on water, on land, and in the air. The dragonfly’s agile flight and its ability to move in all six directions exude a sense of power and poise—something that comes only with age and maturity. The dragonfly can go forty-five miles an hour, hover like a helicopter, fly backwards like a hummingbird, fly straight up, down, and to either side.
When your spouse dies, your feet are knocked out from under you, you are slammed to the ground, your face mashed in the dirt. The loss of a spouse begins a chain reaction of layers of losses—companionship, possessions, activities, income, future hopes and dreams—until everything is gone. Everything. Even the home you built together.
I look around. Yes. I have built a whole new life.