Sunday, November 29, 2015

5488


On the way home a couple of nights ago, I drove by our first house. I make a point to drive down our old street every few weeks to keep an eye on things. The modest neighborhood has held up well.

The trees are way bigger. The oak our neighbor dug up as a weed from her flower bed and helped me plant in our front yard is now at least two stories tall.

It was in this house that three of our four children were conceived. I was folding laundry there the afternoon the call came that Mother had finally succumbed to cancer. It was in this house that we sat around the dining table one Christmas Eve to write my mother’s-in-law obituary and plan her funeral.

In that back yard, we staged countless Easter egg hunts and one first communion. I pulled toddlers up and down that street in a wagon trick or treating with our cat shadowing us by moving from bush to bush to stay hidden and still be close by in case the children might need her.

It was at this house that I had the mail box moved away from the drive before the children started school in anticipation of the young drivers they would become. It was from this house the girls left on their first dates.

Time has faded the names one of our children wrote in crayon on the brick by the kitchen door. The horrific ice storm of the 1990’s felled the huge magnolia in the front yard.

The majority of the street is now Orthodox Jewish as was the last resident of our former home. Their lifestyle is not conducive to home maintenance. Built in 1958, the house is beginning to show its age and require special attention they couldn’t provide. The landscaping is pretty much gone as well as the "in the ground" swimming pool.

I was able to visit the property recently while the house was empty and undergoing repair. The rooms are smaller than our current home; the ceilings a bit lower. The yard seems greatly diminished without the pool but feels cozy. It could be a gardener’s paradise.

Intellectually, I know you can’t go home again; emotionally I’ve never left. There’s as big a chunk of my heart remaining at 5488 as there was on the Holcomb Place back in Bastrop County, Texas, where I spent the first eleven years of my life. But it seems to me, the more of my heart I leave in the places I share with family, the bigger my heart becomes; the more love I have to give.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why Do You Ask?


 

She wrinkled up her nose, gave me a disdainful up and down look and asked, “Jackie, why don’t you lose all that weight?”

Her words took my breath away. I was too startled to think. I barely knew this woman; had only been in her house for group functions with New Comers. I gave her a forced smile. “Bless your heart.” I murmured and slipped away to another part of the room. That Southern response can express anything from an outright insult; i.e., her grandma kept a house of prostitution where her momma was the star attraction, and she’s following the family tradition. Bless her heart; to a genuine blessing.

I wasn’t ready to share the story of my early childhood. Gays aren’t the only ones who keep a part of their real identity carefully tucked away in a secluded place. I think most of us clutch an extremely private background behind a carefully constructed personal fa├žade. But this sudden invasion of my privacy may have unconsciously influenced my decision to write Raiders and Horse Thieves, Memoir of a Central Texas Baby Boomer.

All my adult life has been spent sharing stories of my Texas family with family, friends and neighbors. These stories were carefully constructed to conceal dire poverty and regrettable behavior. During my early childhood my family lived in a hand hewn log cabin. We never went hungry, but oh, what a monotonous diet.  Most every meal was one form or another of fried meat and pinto beans.

Our father raised hogs during the earliest years and had a contract with a local independent baker to buy his stale pastries to feed the hogs. Baked goods would be piled on the dirt floor of the barn storage room in a mound higher than my head. The jellied centers of the sweet rolls gleamed like jewels in the half-light. The sight and aroma made my mouth water. We would go weeks without anything sweet. And there were all those goodies; so close at hand but forbidden. Mother threatened us with dire illness and possible hospitalization to keep us away from the spoiled food. It was probably no exaggeration.

Food plays a much greater role in all our lives than merely fuel to run our bodies. Cooking and baking provides a satisfying creative outlet. Eating can be a solace for a variety of emotions including grief, frustration, weariness, boredom, and loneliness.

What a pleasure it is to create and serve food to those you care about. Sitting at a dining table and sharing food initiates a bond, an intimacy. I’ve always loved to try new recipes and entertain.

Yes, I’m over weight, but the doctor assures me that when I’m truly elderly and need to go to a home, the staff will not need a forklift to get me in and out of the bathtub.

I’m indebted to that gal for her bold question. It made me seriously consider my lifestyle and values. But I do wonder what possessed her to ask. Was it intended as a moot question? How would she have reacted if I’d taken that opportunity to spill my guts and give her the long, honest recital of my childhood? Whatever her intentions, I suspect they originated in her childhood story.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Southern Fairy Tale


I am indebted to Go Set a Watchman for providing insight into one of the greatest works of twentieth century fiction.  Written by an author with obvious potential, it’s an honest portrayal of the 1950’s South.

Every novel is a journey. In Watchman, the main character, Jean Louise Finch, is faced with the challenge of an internal journey that starts with her arrival back home after an extended absence. She views the people there through almost adult eyes and compares the life she’s currently living in New York City with the lives of her contemporaries in Maycomb.

Her widower father and uncle have reared her with the highest morals, but on her return, she sees her father participate in a racist organization.  Jean Louise is impetuous; quick to pass judgment and the least likeable character in the book. She throws one heck of a temper tantrum. Her father and uncle respond with love and restraint.

They beg her to move back home; not because her father’s health is failing, but because they feel she could make a difference in the community. They believe only those who live in a society can change it.

Three distinct social groups comprised the segregated society of the South in the 1950’s: African Americans who had been brought to this country as slaves, Caucasians who had insight and believed a community is no better than its weakest resident, and Caucasian segregationists.

A major percentage of the Southern Caucasians are descended from the Scots-Irish who have failed to succeed on every level of society since the time of King James of England and Scotland. In the 1950’s, the majority of them were as bad off as the poorest former slaves. The only point of pride these people had was the color of their skin. These were the proponents of segregation.   

Go Set a Watchman was factual. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful bigger than life fairy tale. That’s the only logical explanation. No white attorney practicing in the 1950’s could make a mockery of Jim Crow law like Atticus Finch did without expecting serious consequences to himself as well as his family.

If the reader assumes life goes on with the Finch family after Mocking Bird ends, the potential reactions of the community must be considered. It would not be pleasant. All or some of the following suggested events could take place shortly thereafter in no set order.  The day after the trail, the White Citizens’ Council would call for a boycott on the Finch Law Firm; effectively ending his practice. Calpurnia would be abducted by a group of men, gang raped and seriously injured. For the rest of her life, she would never have a moment free of the memory of that day. The Ku Klux Klan would burn a cross in the Finch’s front yard. It might catch the house on fire. The children would be taunted and bullied at school. If they had a pet, it would be stolen and killed; its body left artfully displayed in a place the children would be the first to see.

The Atticus Finch in both novels was a devoted father. In Go Set a Watchman, he was working quietly within the framework of local society to integrate African Americans into the community. That’s the way things get done, but a plodding, methodical character is pretty dull.

The Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was a knight in shining armor with no fear of repercussions from his actions. The book is totally oblivious to the complexity of segregation in 1950’s Southern society. It’s a beautiful fairy tale that would never have happened at that time in that place.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Down and Dirty and To the Nitty Gritty


In 1990, my husband’s department was moved from Memphis to the home office in the north east. This uprooting our family was one of the hardest times in our collective lives. It meant leaving the two eldest girls in Tennessee for college while the rest of us re-located to the wilds of north central New Jersey.

Change is never easy, but much good did come from it. It broadened all of our horizons. We passed through the Newark airport terminal so often the baggage handlers knew us by name and inquired about family members who weren’t present. We learned people are the same all over; they just sound different.

It may have been the transfer or it may have been my age or a combination of the two, but I became more grounded in my identity and comfortable with who I am. The farther away from my origins I lived, the greater my realization of how much I enjoy being a Southerner and a Texan became.

Fishing in the Dark by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was popular about this time. I played a tape of their greatest hits continuously while chauffeuring the children, a third grader and freshman in high school.

Up until our move, the children had always gone to parochial schools, but now we had to attend religious classes once a week after the public school adjourned. It would be after 5 pm and dark as pitch when they were dismissed. It would also be incredibly cold. The carpool line filled the church parking lot and lined the street for blocks. Did I mention how cold it was?

My children are sociable souls. When CCD was dismissed, the high schooler chatted with friends and the third grader played a quick game of gotcha’ before looking me up in the carpool line. Late afternoon on a school day is not the time to dawdle. There's limited time in the evening to do homework, eat dinner, and have some down time before bed. It was like Antarctica out in that parking lot. The car pool line moved with all the speed of a glacier.

The solution was simple. Once I was in the middle of the parking lot in full view of everyone, I turned on the lights inside the car, rolled down the windows and turned up the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. “You and me goin’ fishin’ in the dark. Lyin’ on our backs and watchin’ the stars while the cool grass grows” blared across the parking lot and shook the stained glass windows of the church. There was an immediate stampede of two. From then on, my children met me down the street and around the corner from church the very minute classes were dismissed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Voice from the Past


The last of my parent’s generation died this summer. Her husband had been my father’s first cousin. She'd been the head of the cafeteria in my high school. I’ll never forget the five dollars she sent me as a high school graduation present. Back in 1964, that was a significant sum.

She had a long and productive life. Her services were truly a celebration of life. One of the morticians assisting in the arrangements asked if the deceased was related to my father. His father had been my father’s banker.

Bankers today are an anonymous lot who frequently change institutions and job titles, but in central Texas of the 1950’s, they reached out to their clients and worked hard to develop a relationship with the entire family. This particular banker drove all the way out from Austin to Cedar Creek one afternoon to visit our general store. He was there when I stepped off the school bus and was effusive in his praise of my report card.

I spoke to his son, the mortician, this afternoon. He recalled all the names of my brothers and sister and spoke warmly of my mother. He still has the pillow she gave him for graduation from high school and has fond memories of the time he and his family visited the Cedar Creek Homecoming.

He reminded me of the time our father gave Mother a registered Hereford bull for Christmas. Immediately after the holidays, Mother stopped in to visit the banker. She said she appreciated the bull but really needed a new washing machine and asked him to help arrange the purchase.

The man I talked to today was an only child while there were four of us. My sister and I were reminiscing recently about the time our family was invited to dinner with the banker and his family. All the toy soldiers at their house looked brand new while the same ones at our house had obviously seen repeated serious combat.

I go back to central Texas at least once every year to visit family and friends and always stay at the same hotel by the airport where they allow me to hold informal gatherings in the lobby. The banker’s son will be the star of the next such get-together. I can hardly wait to hear the stories he has to share of my family. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Too Much Information


Our youngest child and only son was in third grade when my husband’s job took us to Basking Ridge, New Jersey, a small Colonial circa village and the home of A T &T until sometime in the 1990’s.

The school system there proved to be a challenge or rather I should say some of the assignments were a challenge to our entire family. I suspect these were developed by enthusiastic young teachers who had no idea what they were asking of working parents with more than one child. 

The record must reflect that neither my husband nor I ever participated in the preparation of science projects or any other special assignments up until our move; however, when each child in our son’s grade school science class had to boil a chicken, remove all the meat, and glue the bones back together, our attitudes did an about face. As old parents, that exceeded our limits of reasonable expectations. Or as my husband put it, “Please don’t ask me to do that. I’ll never be able to eat chicken again.”  

There was an easy solution. Our youngest daughter’s boyfriend did it easily in no time and thought it was fun.

Another year there was an ancestry unit in social studies. Every child had to prepare and present a report on their family heritage with visual aids. It doesn’t sound too hard, but wait. Our son decided to talk about his grandfather the Texas rancher.

New Jersey is the heart of political correctness. The children there live incredibly sheltered lives. So our son proposed to tell these youngsters who probably thought chocolate milk came from brown cows about what ranchers did to raise cows back in the time of his grandfather. That would include branding, de-horning, de-worming, castration, and taking calves away from their mothers to wean them.

It couldn’t be done. Every child in the class would have nightmares. The school psychologist would have to bring in reinforcements. A social worker would be ringing my doorbell.

When in doubt, take food. The butcher at Shop Rite special ordered round steak that I chicken fried. I served the meat in bite sized pieces from a cast iron skillet with a red bandana tied around the handle.

 North easterners are incredibly diet conscious. There are no fast food restaurants in Basking Ridge. Fried foods are verboten. The chicken fried steak disappeared in a flash. The skillet looked as though it might have been licked clean. Our son made an excellent grade.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pushy Characters


I finished writing the rough draft of a novel a couple of months ago and have set it aside for a while to give the characters time to settle down. I made up a small social structure of personalities with a specific aim for their performances, but as the story progressed, they took over. I would sit down at the computer with the goal to create one scene only to have another entirely different event evolve.

I’m lucky enough to have an editor who is concerned with the story as well as grammar and punctuation. Most Saturday afternoons this past spring and summer found us at a local coffee shop pouring over my rough draft. As the story progressed, we debated the behavior of my characters. “Don’t re-write,” she would urge. “Just keep writing.” The characters developed as the story played out. The personalities who started with me were more complex and talkative and opinionated by the end of the story.

The characters I’ve created are constantly on my mind. As I walk the dog in the park, my thoughts are with the piece of fiction I’m working to create. My main goal is to match the personalities with the action.

One of the women in my short story discussion group grew up in William Faulkner’s neighborhood. She and all the other children disliked the man in the white suit who walked down the street as though he was in another world. They didn’t realize he was creating another world. Faulkner was preoccupied with organizing the plots in a series of books while the real children around him were scheming how to splash him with mud.

Another lesser known author had a remarkable experience with an insistent character. Alan Bradley was writing a piece in which the main character was driving an open car down a narrow English lane. He or she rounded a curve to find a small girl seated on a stool at the side of the road.

In a swirl of dust, the driver pulled up alongside the child. “What are you doing, little girl?”

She looked up from the pad on her lap, “I’m making note of the license tags of all the cars passing by.”

“That’s silly,” replied the driver. “No one drives down this way.”

The child smiled. “I have your number.”

That was Bradley’s introduction to Flavia de Luce and the beginning of a mystery series with her as the central character. According to the author, he put aside whatever he was working on at the time to write The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

While I struggle to make my characters fit the plot, I highly recommend you acquaint yourself with Flavia. She’s a walking definition of assertive.