Friday, October 23, 1964. No football game that night — it was an open date. So the Baptist church planned a youth retreat over at Benoit Lake at someone’s lake house with a fluff of activities appropriate for a fall evening.
But I had something important to do before I climbed aboard that old green-and-white church bus waiting on North Bolivar Avenue with a wild and rowdy bunch of teenagers to head west toward the Mississippi River and its oxbow lakes. My mother was taking me downtown to the police station. I was scared. My heart pounded, my hands trembled, my head was so full of anticipation that it was about to explode. All I could think of was that it would be over soon. And I would have bragging rights to a tiny slip of paper that said I could operate a motor vehicle.
I had turned 15 six weeks earlier, and for a birthday gift, Dad bought me a red, padded key case with brand new shiny keys to the green, long-finned Ford Fairline 500. He had even taken me out on trials runs. I did good most of the time, until the outing when I tried to copy Karen’s mama who had a new sleek Olds with power steering, which I did not have. She’d open and straighten out her hand, rest her palm against the steering wheel, and push it around in a circle to make the car turn. When I tried that in the Ford at the corner of Leflore and College, I ran upon the curb on the opposite side of College Street. Boy, was Dad mad! He made me get out of the car right then and there and trade places with him. He drove the rest of the way home and fussed the whole time. I had knocked his tires out of line; he was sure of it. I didn’t try the power steering light touch any more.
The real test came when an officer of the law was sitting in the seat where Dad usually sat. He was full of badges and patches and flags and a leather gun belt that creaked and moaned when he moved, and he carried a book and pad to write on. He was a big man and he kept shifting around to get comfortable. I made a point to check my rearview mirror, to pump the pedal to get the gas where it needed to be, and to ignite the car in one smooth turn of the key. My key. I put the gear in R and backed out of the parking spot on the little spur street that ran off Cotton Row next to the railroad track.
“Turn left,” he said. I put on my blinker, stopped completely, and followed directions.
“Go left, then left on Court and over the tracks, then left again.”
I rolled past Walt’s Gulf, braked at the Stop sign, looked up Court Street to the right beyond the Ellis Theater marquee, then looked left over the railroad tracks at the old Grover Hotel on the main street. I’d been in this spot millions of times, but it all looked different now. It was different. I was in control of this machine, and I had a man in uniform sitting next to me, judging me. I had to do everything right, and if I blew it, I really blew it. I was under the gun. I kept both hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, turned left, went up over the railroad tracks past the old depot, and turned left onto Sharpe Avenue. I proceeded past the light at North Street and drove past Owen’s Drugstore, Jay’s, Kamien’s — stores I shopped for dresses in on Saturdays with my friends — Cleveland State Bank, Fred’s Dollar Store, Barbati’s Shoe Shop. And this very pavement I was moving over, with my foot on the accelerator and my hands guiding the wheel, was the same concrete I marched on with the Pep Squad in parades before Friday football home games. I wore a short black felt circular skirt, white blouse, black felt vest with a big wildcat on front, and white gloves. My dad would be standing against the light pole in front of Owen’s, watching. I knew he’d go back to his shop and brag to customers that he had to go see his daughter march in the parade behind the band.
At the end of the main drag, West Implement Company on the opposite side of the intersecting highway, I turned left, then left again on Cotton Row, and drove back to the police station and parked in the same spot. One square route over white concrete and my test was completed.
“Good job, young lady.”
“Did I pass?”
A surge of pride came and covered me when he handed over the tiny white cardstock square with an ID number, name, address, eyes green, hair blond, height, weight. I had succeeded. I became an adult. With this came freedom. I had only told one little white lie — I listed my weight as five pounds under what it really was. Well, maybe ten.
From the police station, Mama let me drive to the church. I leapt from the car, squealing and jumping up and down, with the white square in hand. “Look, y’all! Look what I got!” I held it out, close to the eyes of each person there, including Brother Burd. It was nothing impressive to my friends, as I was one of the youngest in the class, and most already had their licenses. But to me, it was everything.
And so that night on a crisp cool hayride along the levee under autumn stars, I thought about one thing. It was tucked away inside a tiny zipped front pocket of my navy blue parka. In front of a bonfire, its warmth soaking in my cheeks and its glow lighting the ragged circle of my friends gathered with hot dogs and marshmallows, I thought about one thing. On a sliver-of-a-moon walk through the woods with Jim and Jerry and Gerri, crunching leaves underfoot, laughing, getting lost, the girls getting tired and riding piggyback, I thought about one thing. In the cabin where the girls were in one room and the boys were in the next, separated by two inches of closed door, and we girls were plastered to it trying to listen under the crack at the bottom to what the boys were saying and doing (and our whispered laughter at what one of the boys had done that made all the others die out laughing), I thought about one thing.
I got my drivers license!
“Let’s play like we’re dead,” I say to my little sister. “Like somebody broke into the house and murdered us.”
We both open our eyes wide and our mouths wide and suck in air, all at the same time, to demonstrate that this is a good idea. She is game.
“We’ll give Mama and Dad a real bad scare.”
Our mother has gone to get our dad from work. It is six o’clock and dark outside, and she has left us alone for the fifteen minutes it takes her to drive downtown to the shop on North Street, pick up our father, then drive back up Court Street and First Avenue to Deering. They have to make do with one car because that’s all we have — one car and one car salesman. Bennie.
Every four years Bennie drives a new Ford to the barbershop and sidles up to our dad and tells him it’s about time for him to trade the old clunker in on a new one. The old one is a 1956 flesh-and-white Ford Fairlane that we have named Elizabeth. Bennie hands our dad the keys to a brand spanking new one — a 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 that is green with long sleek fins. I think it is a good thing our family has Bennie to keep us updated. I am ten and old enough to care that we drive a new car so everybody will think we are rich.
Mama drives Dad to work every morning about six-thirty and then drives seventeen miles to Drew where she teaches first grade. In the evening when she goes back to get him, my sister and I find things to get into that we would never think of doing while she is home. Most of the time it involves trying to make fudge that we end up getting fussed at about and eating out of the pan with a spoon. Now, though, we are upping the ante and will create a crime scene.
I take the bottle of catsup out of the refrigerator.
“Hold out your arms.”
“Just do it.” I shake out thick red goop on her forearm and spread it around and pat a little on her cheeks and forehead. She is stunned and silent. “It looks like blood. You know, like we have been murdered.” I do the same to myself. “Let’s pretend somebody broke in the back bedroom window and beat us up, maybe with an ax.”
“And Mama and Dad will be sad because their little girls are dead.”
“Yeah, they’ll be sorry they ever left us alone.”
We lie down on the floor in the living room in a death position, careful not to get the catsup, uh, blood, on the rug. We twist our legs and arms into awful positions so it will look like we have struggled and suffered. We close our eyes and open our mouths and wait for Mama and Dad to drive up in the carport.
“Whassat noise?” my sister asks.
My eyes open wide. “What noise?”
“I heard something. In the back bedroom.”
“What’d it sound like?”
“Somebody opening the window? And coming in?”
The living room is dark and she keeps telling me she is scared and I’m thinking our plan could be coming true. “Let’s get outta this house before we get killed!”
We tiptoe out the kitchen door, through the carport, and hide in the front of the house behind a big bush. The front lawn is gently lighted by the streetlight in the Richardson’s yard. We squat and tell each other to shh.
The new Ford’s headlights approach slowly, Mama and Dad pull into the gravel driveway, and we slink out of the bush. With catsup all over us showing up like reddish-brown streaks in the dim light. Like Indian war paint. We stand there and look vulnerable.
“What are y’all doing outside?” Mama shuts the car door.
“We’re scared,” we say. “Somebody was breaking in and they were going to get us.”
“Nobody was breaking in and if they did, they wouldn’t take you, and if they did, they’d bring you back,” she says.
“It’s cold out here and y’all don’t even have coats on. You’re going to get sick. Get in the house,” our dad says.
We all walk into the light of the kitchen together. Mama is getting her supper out of the oven and putting forks and knives on the table and fixing Dad a glass of tea. She doesn’t even look at us. He is washing his hands in the kitchen sink which nobody is supposed to do and doesn’t look at us either. We are covered in blood.
“Hey. Can y’all not see that we are hurt and bloody?” I do a sideways ta-da! hop in their line of vision, and my sister copies it. “For all you know, somebody did break into the house and attacked us and tried to kill us. Just look at us, just look at the blood.” I spread my arms. My sister spreads her arms, too, and says yeah.
“Mm hm,” our mama says, spooning a pile of mashed potatoes on my sister’s plate and mashing a hole on top with the back of the spoon so she can pour gravy in it.
“Y’all shouldn’t be wasting the catsup like that,” our dad says.
The keynote speaker for the 2008 Tennessee Writers Alliance conference last weekend was Estelle Condra. Not only did she give a dramatic and inspirational talk, she did something I’ve not seen anyone else do at a conference. She brought a big box of used books to pass forward. They were old, she didn’t need them any more, so she invited everyone to go through the box and get what they wanted. I couldn’t pass it up and picked out Writing from Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing. In a quick read-through I found a statement I thought helpful in deciding where to begin a memoir. “A good method is to establish what the climax of the story is, and then begin just a little before the climax.” It’s about the defining moments of life.
I go to kindergarten at Hill Demonstration School on the college campus five blocks from my house. It’s an old tall and wide building that faces Court Street and is supposed to be a good school because it is where up and coming teachers are taught how to teach. The other boys and girls are in my Sunday School class or they live nearby, and I’m invited to their birthday parties and to play at their houses where there are carports and yards full of toys.
Then when it is time for me to go to first grade, Mama gets a new teaching job in Skene, six miles south of town, so I will be going with her instead of starting elementary school with the friends I’ve already made. Skene has a country store, a Baptist church, a post office, a schoolhouse, and cotton farmers that plant the fields and take their crop to the gin. There are rich planters’ kids and poor white trash who live along the bogue in shacks with wood stoves and no running water. I walk into my first grade classroom and sit at a little round table with Jacqueline and Mary Sue, who wear pretty dresses with sashes and have Shirley Temple curls down their backs. I do not like being the new girl. I ask Jacqueline and Mary Sue if they want to look at my Lady and the Tramp book, and they say no, they do not. But we become best friends anyway. At recess we play jump rope on the sidewalk or jacks on the steps to the boiler room. We take tap dancing and Expression class and play Red Rover and Simon Says.
“Let’s ‘tend we are keeping house,” I say after the mower has cut high grass on the playground.
We make a square outline a few inches high with the grass cuttings, then we outline each room. We have wild onions and clover for our food, one of us gets to be the child, and we make the boys go to work to earn a living.
Jacqueline’s mother is a teacher like mine, but Mary Sue’s mother stays at home all day, so I am invited to her house for playtime and spend-the-nights a lot. Her daddy plants cotton and she has a big house and yard. We go in the side door at the back where there is a tiny room with a small table and chairs by a window for all her games, stacked in towers on shelves, and paper and crayons for her art work. We sit at the table and design clothes for Lennon Sisters paper dolls. Across from the table are three stairs that are used like shelves with stuff stacked on them and then a closed door. On the other side of that door are the rest of the steps to an attic, which is huge and filled with old toys, like baby dolls, a hobby horse, a trike, and also old end tables and knick knacks no longer used.
In fourth grade I have to start all over. Mama gets a new teaching job seventeen miles away, and again, I go with her. The Drew school is two stories and old, located in a neighborhood of old white houses with front porches and tall shade trees and cracked sidewalks. The classroom is big and my feet echo on the hardwood as I walk in, alone, everybody else already seated, looking at me, as I walk to the fourth desk in the fourth row from the right. There’s a cloakroom across the hall, and each student has a cubbyhole to store his stuff. I have never heard of these things before.
The kids are friendly, but they already have close pals to be with at recess. I am the new girl, a teacher’s daughter, so they think I must be smart. They look at me like they don’t know what to do with me. I can hover with this little clique or eat ice cream bars with that one. I can join in the recess games and fads. I take my hula hoop to school like the other girls do, and my autograph dog so I can collect signatures of classmates. But I live too far away to have spend-the-nights or arranged play dates. It’s long distance, so there’s no chatting on the telephone. I am solely a classroom presence, and I slide into that groove where I will stay.
I go inside my own self. I am content watching the others play. I am happy listening to their conversations, the in-things they talk about, the words they choose. I am like the fringe on a rug, and the others are acting out life in the middle of it. My imagination is my best friend. I pretend, I make up stories, I play-like. I live in a world that I create for myself. My mind is never idle. There are always thoughts skittering through it. I can see images of me on a horse, but it’s really a bike, as a majorette in a parade, but it’s really my Ben Franklin Five and Dime baton on my sidewalk, having the starring role and a solo in the school play, but I’m really only a gypsy and Beverly gets to be the princess.
At home I have plenty of time to sit alone behind a hydrangea bush or on the dirt floor of a dark clubhouse or in the walk-in closet of my bedroom and order my thoughts. I think about what it’s like to live in a rich planter’s house with a big attic full of old toys and dolls I’ve outgrown and boxes of ladies’ fine gowns to play dress-up in — a house that has a living room with lots of breakable things, a living room, dark and silent, that we don’t ever go in. I think about what it’s like to live in a shanty on the other side of the tracks in what folks call Colored Town. I am drawn to the latter because it requires more planning for how to get the basic necessities of life, because people are packed in close together so there must always be something to do and someone to do it with, because it takes more of a mind to make a life. Because a person has substance when he has to work and fight for what he needs, rather than if he is handed it on a silver platter.
I gave them names. Buttons and marbles. All of them. I must’ve been a really strange child.
I rolled marbles across my hardwood bedroom floor. I had boy marbles and girl marbles and gave them names accordingly. I don’t know how I knew the difference, except for one of them. He was a little bigger than all the rest, a handsome aquamarine color, and his name was Ben. I’d make up stories about the boys and girls.
I did it with buttons, too. I had a lot of buttons to play with because my mama did a lot of sewing. She made most of my dresses. She sewed matching outfits for my sister and me.
She made coats and jackets and jumpers and shorts sets, and she even made clothes for herself. She kept all the extra buttons in an old teakwood box.
I loved that box. It held all colors, shapes, and sizes of buttons. Pink with fluted edges, pink with smooth rims, yellow rounds with square grooves cut in them, brown leathers, white pearl squares, orange smooths, green shiny, tiny white ones, big red ones, big black ones that might have gone on a coat. There were also fabric buttons she made herself out of tweeds, silks, and polyesters. There were used buttons, with thread wrapped through the center holes, cut off of dresses too worn to give as hand-me-downs. There were glass buttons with facets and they were beautiful and my favorites.
Those buttons bring to mind the process I followed my mama through, from concept to finished product.
We go downtown to the department store with its own little sewing nook tucked away in a front corner. I sit at the counter on a tall stool with a round red naugehyde seat and look through big books of Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall’s patterns — pictures of models wearing the styles. When I find one I like, I go to the tall filing cabinet and match the number from the page to the number range on the label of the file drawer. I open the drawer and see if it is available in my size. I have learned to do this by watching Mama.
Then I walk the aisles of fabric, looking through bolt after bolt of material, picking out just the right print and color. Sometimes Mama takes us to Bev-Mar’s in Greenville for patterns and material, and we spend so much time browsing the store end to end that my little sister is reduced to tears, or she just falls out backwards crying and stomps off to the car to sit alone. She can select her pattern and material quickly. I cannot.
At home, Mama spreads out the material on the kitchen table and pins the pattern pieces to it. Then she cuts on the lines. I like to hear the crunch of scissors clamping down on heavy cotton and crinkling the thin tissue of the pattern. Mama sits at the Singer, and we listen to the whir of the machine stitching the pieces together. I sit at her feet and play with the button box, running my fingers through the buttons, listening to the rattle of them, finding the oldest, the prettiest, the most fashionable, the one I’d pick to hold in my hand over all the rest.
I watch her fit in a zipper or make buttonholes and then sew by hand the pretty buttons we selected together that matched the material perfectly. The last step is the hem. I put on the dress, stand on a stool, and Mama kneels beside me with her pin cushion and a few pins stuck between her lips for easy access. She puts the yardstick beside me and begins to pin up the hem by a mark on the stick that is the same height as the top of my knee. I have to stand still, and this is not easy for me. Something always itches, or a leg needs stretching. Or I have to turn to see what my sister is doing. Or slump when I get tired. After the hem is pinned, Mama sits on the couch and sews the last few stitches by hand.
She holds it up to me, and I breathe in the smell of new.
I learned more math with patterns and sewing than in all twelve years of primary and secondary education — numbers and order, fractions, adding whole numbers and fractions, charts. I learned to be precise and accurate and stay on the line. I learned to match colors — zippers and thread and ric rac and piping. And buttons. I spent a lot of time with my mama, doing these things.
When I left home, I asked Mama if I could have that old button box, its lid gone, a lot of its buttons gone. I still like to run my hand through the ones that remain. Some are over fifty years old. I don’t remember their names.
I got pushed. Pushed into doing something I was skeptical of. I’d held back, acted with reason and practicality. Then I succumbed, and it was my mother who made me do it.
It’s not the first time she pushed me. I recall the summer Ronald Reagan was running for president. My whole family was spending the day at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Reagan was scheduled to fly in by helicopter and make a speech. The area was cordoned off by big 18-wheeler trailers, presumably for crowd control and protection. As we leisurely strolled by, my mother apparently recognized what was going to happen on the other side of those trailers and pointed to the space about four feet high under one. The next thing I knew, two hands landed on my back and pushed — shoved hard! — along with a guttural command, “Go Kathy. Go under.” She pushed me under the trailer … and followed. We were in. My two tiny kids were out. I’d abandoned them, leaving their grandfather with a stroller and a little hand to hold. Mom and I watched the presidential candidate land, waved flags, clapped and cheered with the crowd, snapped pictures, and listened to the speech. After it was over, she said, “Aren’t you glad I pushed you?”
This time, the mighty push had to do with a book purchase. I don’t usually need a push; I buy books all the time. But this one was expensive. There was only ONE left in the whole wide world. I’d wanted it for years as a resource for my writing, at times when several copies were available at used bookstores. I almost put it on my Christmas list last year as a suggestion for my husband, but it cost $54 then, and I didn’t want to ask for a book with that steep of a price. The title kept coming up in my research, though, so I searched for it online again. ONE COPY AVAILABLE. $100.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not that much money for a used book. Ne-ver.
I mentioned it to my mother during a phone conversation, for shock effect. She grew up during the Great Depression.
“Do it,” she said. “Get it! Buy it! Order it! I’ll even send you the money.” She sounded like one of the creatures in “Goblin Market.” Come buy, come buy. I stretched my gleaming neck. I felt her hands pushing against my back, clawing, scratching — even though she is 400 miles away — moving me up the stairs, to the mouse, to the bookseller, to the cart … and click, it was done. I bought it — Where I Was Born and Raised by David L. Cohn.
Page 12. “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” This quote I have used in essays and in my novel — this book, containing the earlier published God Shakes Creation, is the source.
Cohn goes on to explain that, of course, the Delta doesn’t begin at the Peabody. It does begin at a point south of Memphis and end at a point north of Vicksburg. The Peabody symbolized the wealth and culture of Delta white folks who used to go to Memphis to eat, shop, rub shoulders in the Peabody lobby with the rich and famous. Catfish Row “is a typical gathering-place of Negroes. Here are no marble fountains, no orchestras playing at dinner, no movement of bell-boys in bright uniforms. Tumble-down shacks lean crazily over the Mississippi River far below. Inside them are … the music of guitars, the aroma of love, and the soul-satisfying scent of catfish frying to luscious gold-brown in sizzling skillets.”
The book is old; its two parts were written in 1935 and 1947 by one who grew up in the Delta and left, then returned to offer an adult re-evaluation of Southern life — there in that place like no other, a place of complexities and contradictions and a history the rest of the country never understood, a history its own people didn’t understand and were/are slow to grow out of. The most southern place on earth.
I got my hands on it. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it.
The first personal essays I ever wrote were about going to my grandparents’ farm when I was a child. One was published in a nationally distributed magazine, and a few were published in a local literary anthology. It dawned on me one day that my experiences in the country were all I was writing about, yet I’d only been there maybe twice a year during my growing up era. There was much more to my life than those summer and holiday trips to Kemper County. But the farm had so much to write about and was decidedly the source of my voice.
After reading Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth [post of 3/15], I decided to try my hand at a segmented essay about time spent on the farm atop Hardy Hill: an introduction and a few stand-out memories.
Two brothers, dressed in gray pleated trousers and ironed white shirts with cuff links, mill about and kick the dirt around the patchy grass of the front yard of the farmhouse. It is Sunday, and you dress up on Sunday even if you don’t go to Sunday School. They are salt and pepper. Ray: light hair, pink skin, short and stocky like the Neal side of the family. Roland: black curly hair, olive skin, tall like the Abercrombies. A film of yellow dust settles on their shiny Wingtips. When they were just boys and lining up to take a picture, Roland made sure Dad stood in a low spot, so he’d appear even shorter, and it set Dad off. He used to beat Roland up because Roland was lazy and wouldn’t do any of the farm chores. They they’d go stand at the edge of the gully and see who could pee the furthest and laugh about it.
No one can get the kids — Roland’s three and Dad’s two — to line up and stand still so a picture can be taken. Dad is waving his arms, like he is directing traffic, motioning us to come and scrooch together in front of the rose bush. We younguns need to stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians, and I need to stop that high-pitched squealing.
I am at my grandma’s house for the drop-off. Dad drove four hours to get me here so I could spend a week in the country with my cousins and my grandparents. Barbara Ann and Michael have already been here all summer because Uncle Roland and Aunt Joyce work all day. He drives a laundry truck and she fixes hair. I am wearing shorts because it is expected that I will get dirty the minute I hop out of the car and start playing with Barbara Ann. We are like stair steps. Barbara Ann is fourteen months older than I am, and I am four months older than Michael. Judi and Theresa Lynn came along four and six years later. There are four girl grandchildren and one boy. The boy is the favored one, and the girls don’t like it one bit.
As soon as the camera snaps, Dad says, Behave, and gets in the car. I watch the tail-end of his Ford Fairlane 500 disappear in a cloud of yellow, long fins swimming in the dust. A catch in my chest tells me I’m all alone. Here. Way out in the country. Far from home. For a week. I couldn’t wait for this. Now I’m not so sure.
Let’s go pick some flowers to put on our dresser, Barbara Ann says, and I skip behind her to the yard. She knows everything about the country. I will copy her when she says dadburnit and Get your butt outta here, which she yells to Michael when he comes in our room. These are not appropriate things to say in town.
We get to stay in the front bedroom, which has a door to the porch. It’s got five big windows that stay open, an antique dresser, an old train trunk, a foot-pedal Singer, a quilting frame on the ceiling, and two double beds with white Chenille spreads. In the mornings when we wake, we will jump up and down on the white tufts of the spreads and recite the verse our grandma has framed on the wall: Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above. Then we will drag homemade lard biscuits through Blackburn’s molasses. Mornings, we will sit on the front porch with our grandma and shell peas for dinner. After dinner, we will watch our grandpa turn a straight chair upside down on the porch, lean against it, and nap, and we will tickle his nose with a piece of straw. We will fix ourselves cups of Maxwell House with four teaspoons of sugar and four ounces of milk and take them to our treehouse, and we will not bother our grandma while she is watching her show, “The Edge of Night.” Before supper, we will walk with our grandpa to bring the cows in from the pasture. After supper, we will play Rook on the dimly lit porch. Tucked in between all these things we will romp and roam the woods and do whatever we please, and it will be a wonder we don’t get ourselves killed.
Then I will write about the cottonmouth moccasin coiled up two inches from my calf, the murky-bottomed pond we swam in, the thirty-foot-deep gully we played in when we weren’t supposed to, the time we ran away, the time we tried to dig up a grave, the bad fights we had and the fingers that got cut off my doll’s hand, the old well covered up with boards…yes, it’s a wonder I’m here to write these things down.
We had our favorite Sunday evening meal: baked brie, fruit — apple slices, strawberries, purple grapes, pineapple chunks — French sourdough bread, and an Australian wine. My first bite was a piece of fresh sweet pineapple. I’ve always hated pineapple, never eat it, it makes me shiver. My husband gets the pineapple for himself and the strawberries for me. But this time, I wanted to be different … because after surgery a week ago, I feel different. Everything has changed. True to my expectations the pineapple was delicious, and I didn’t shiver. Not one teensy little bit.
Also, I wanted to force something different. I’m trying to build up my nerve. I’m trying to take my writing to the next level. I’ve been reading The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, thanks to Sarah Einstein at Hilltrash who pointed me in that direction. I keep shaking my head and asking myself Why can’t I write like her. I want to do a piece in that style, her style — employing the specific, though perhaps reconstructed memory, the incredible details, the stunning laying down of the words. All day Sunday I planned to write an essay out of my past. I never had the nerve to bring my fingers to the keyboard.
The pineapple would help. If I could eat that, I could do anything.
It’s not the best piece in the book, but it’s one of my favorites. A segment from Beard’s essay “Cousins” begins as such:
“The sisters are making deviled eggs. They have on dark blue dresses with aprons and are walking around in nyloned feet. No one can find the red stuff that gets sprinkled on top of the eggs. They’re tearing the cupboards apart right now, swearing to each other and shaking their heads. We all know enough to stay out of the kitchen.”
Five short sentences let me picture this entire scene as though I’m right there looking in the kitchen door. I can take on the mood of something important going on. I can feel the vibes, the angst, of the sisters, transferring the problem to where it doesn’t belong. Beard told me enough without telling me everything. I know how this family is like mine and not like mine.
Second paragraph: “We’re at my grandma’s house in our best dresses with towels pinned to the collars. Our older sisters are walking around with theatrical, mournful faces, bossing us like crazy, in loud disgusted whispers. They have their pockets loaded with Kleenex in preparation for making a scene. We’re all going to our grandfather’s funeral in fifteen minutes, as soon as the paprika gets found.”
In my family the women work like mad in a crisis and assume greater responsibilities and threateningly throw down the rules, which might be accompanied by looks that kill or pinches. I love Beard’s next lines: “Wendell and I get to go only because we promised to act decent. No more running and sliding on the funeral-home rug. Someone has died, and there’s a time and a place for everything. We’ll both get spanked in front of everyone and put in chairs if we’re not careful. And if we can’t keep our gum in our mouths, then we don’t need it….” I have heard this and said it. And pinched a lot, too.
Monday, I started laying down the words in an essay about being at my grandma’s house. Maybe, just maybe, I can pull together enough details to create a scene that will stay with the reader, much like the taste of the pineapple that sat fresh against my tongue.