Everyday Life

A professional photographer with a high quality camera and lens and the knowledge to use it would have a field day around here. These hens were moving from the oak tree out back to one on the side of the house when Buck and I saw them. I decided to try the video cam function on his little Nikon to see if it was possible to capture the alpha gobbler all fanned out, keeping the younger one away from his hens. The window screen is a major impediment. Nonetheless, I love this grainy little video, more for what it captures of the tenderness inherent in the conversation and manner of the humans than what it shows of the turkeys. Doesn’t Buck sound just the way you thought he would?

Store-Bought Teeth

Have you ever looked through a raggedy old family photo album that’s been dragged from pillar to post and wondered if you are descended from the Tribe of People with Huge Teeth? It took me a few minutes to figure out why my handsome Daddy’s smile looks so strange in some of the pictures. It’s the false teeth. He had to have been young when he got them. I see the same thing in some of the smeary black and white snapshots of his brothers.

My Daddy grew up near Jay, Florida, on a farm in a wide spot in the road known as Dixonville — so close to the state line that a crooked crayon line of overzealous gerrymandering would create new Alabama voters. W. T. had nine brothers and one poor girl sister.

In 1991, a year after selling Aladdin Communications, I registered at the University of West Florida in Pensacola and finished the degree in psychology that I had started 24 years earlier and left a third incomplete.  What a blast. I was an “old lady” of 40, hanging out with a bunch of 18-25 year old kids. The learning was one hundred percent mind candy. I loved walking the rangy campus, using my library card, buying supplies, sitting in the cafeteria with my stack of books, drinking coffee, writing and immersing myself in the buzz of life finding itself.

There was a blind girl from Jay in one of my classes. It was an organizational development class. We formed small groups to work on a project. That gave us a chance to get to know one another. When this young woman found out I came from the Jones family in Jay, she wanted to know “which” Joneses. When she found out, she said, “Your Uncle Gordon was the sweetest man in the world. He came over all the time to cut my mama’s grass.” She went on to tell me what “everybody” said: “Those Jones boys were sweet as sugar, but they sure were a wild bunch.”

I think of that when I see those faded photos of those good men, holding up a line of fresh caught shellcrackers , or dressed up for Easter church and striking a pose, smiling big to show off their store bought teeth.

 

Mother and Daddy in front of our home in Miami Springs (1954).
Mother (Nettie) and Daddy (W. T.) in front of our home in Miami Springs, Florida, 1954.

W. T. and Nettie Jones, Miami Springs, Florida 1954

Missing W. T.

The distance that the dead have gone

Does not at first appear;

Their coming back seems possible

For many an ardent year.

 

And then, that we have followed them,

We more than half suspect,

So intimate have we become

With their dear retrospect.

             1781, by Emily Dickinson, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, reading edition, edited by R. W. Franklin 

 

(Thanks to Whiskey River for recommending the R. W. Franklin edition.)

 

What I know about the details of my father’s life wouldn’t fill a small notebook. What I feel about his essence overflows and breaks the dam.

As a child of twelve, the type of sharp-edged grief I would feel now at the death of a person I love was then more of a numbed shock, a two by four between the eyes. An unthinkable, unimaginable, unexpected loss. A permanent power outage in the soul of our family.

November reeks with the pungency of farewell. Dead leaf lookers congregate to admire its colors. Dead wood smokes in fragrant immolation. Dead parents populate my thoughts even more than usual:  Daddy gone since November 6, 1963; Mother since November 14, 1989 — although in truth, Mother shattered and left us in 1963, too.

Some folks are orphans from birth. For most of the rest of us, it comes later, the timing and circumstances as myriad as the permutations of our loss. Something happens to a person at the moment of consciousness of one’s own “orphanhood” — for me it was an audible sound like a row of ivory dominoes falling against one another — and then a silence inside my own head that taught me what silence means.

My Daddy’s skin was deeply tanned from the many years he worked in Florida’s searing sun, rising from laborer to carpenter to licensed home building contractor. I remember sitting beside him on Sundays at the Brandon Baptist church, fascinated by the network of weathered lines on the back of his neck, dress shirt so white against his brown skin.

I remember:

  • How he loved singing the old tent-revival style hymns. . .. The Old Rugged Cross, Sweet Hour of Prayer, Trust and Obey, and that Billy Graham crusades perennial closer, Just As I Am.
  • The faint smell of Zest soap and Old Spice aftershave.
  • The Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller sing-along, and polka music albums he bought home and played, bringing music, fun and oh my dear lord even dancing into our home for a brief spell.
  • Backyard family gatherings, where he proudly presided over the home-made brick barbeque grill, as extended family members and friends sat like beached whales in webbed lawn chairs under the spreading oak tree, swilling sweet tea.
  • The Tennessee Ernie Ford record album he loved to play. Clicking my fingers the way Ernie Ford did, I can hear “Sixteen Tons” playing through the great turntable of time. . .
“Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you, then the left one will

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.”

          ( Lyrics by Merle Travis. Click here for this song’s interesting background.)

 

 

Sitting out on the screened porch this afternoon, the bright sun is lowering to eye level and will force me to move my chair or move in soon. It’s about 65 degrees. I hear a small plane buzzing way off in the distance. A mockingbird hops around in the clearing. The air seems thick with dragonflies. Needles from the hurricane-downed pines have all turned a dark brown, just waiting for a stiff breeze or the passage of time to shed off into the waiting soft black earth. The air is very still.

Time seems frozen. Or maybe it has collapsed on itself, reshaping, re-expanding.

I see a hologram through the sun’s glare: sitting by my Daddy, my small hand in his larger one, I look up and find him smiling warmly down into my eyes. I feel his hand squeeze mine.

Forty one years ago. Or was it only one minute?

Dreaming Girl

“If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.” Author: Marcel Proust

beth_at_8
Looking at this old photograph I found of myself while packing up the picture albums, I am struck by this young girl’s clear-eyed serenity. She is me. I am she. What did she know, I wonder, and when did she know it?

I believe she knew, even then, that the best imaginary places are to be found by staying fully awake to possibility in this transitory, sweet, unimaginably life-like existence. Thanks to her imagination, I have lived, am living, and shall continue to live my dreams as I am dreaming them.

I come from a birth-well of dreamers. My mother’s imaginary places were dreamed while leaning on the handle of a hoe in the sweltering Mississippi sun, or while washing dishes in the chaotic night, babies clinging to hip and leg, waiting for the screen door to slam, lower lip caught between teeth. Hers were all escape scenarios. By the time my father came along with his passel of dreams, taking her faraway to the sun-drenched shore of her imagination, to Miami Beach, long gone from the cotton fields, Mother’s wounded psyche had fermented behind her grateful smile.

As for me, the only stick I was ever hit with was a lucky stick.

From birth, my older sisters and others coddled me, spoiled me, and took care of me; teachers encouraged me up and away from the dark tides of tragic events, floating me into a slipstream of possibility, of “I can,” of a life lived in the best imaginary places.

As a young classical piano student, learning Broadway show tunes became my reward for long hours of practice and memorization. That engendered a love of singing, my thin, reedy, quavering voice notwithstanding. The show tunes opened worlds within words, and taught me a new, expressive language, a language with an emotional range unknown in my otherwise narrow, repressed life, a life bound and circumscribed by the strictures of regular doses of Sunday School, Training Union, Prayer Meeting and G.A.’s (Girl’s Ambassadors) at the Brandon Baptist Church.

One of my favorites, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for the television production of Cinderella, was “In My Own Little Corner.” I would play it at the piano, or walk around singing it. Sometimes I would pass by a mirror, catch my own eye looking at myself, and know that, unlike the girl in the song, I could indeed venture forth into the world and be whatever I wanted to be.

“I’m as mild and as meek as a mouse
When I hear a command I obey.
But I know of a spot in my house
where no one can stand in my way.
In my own little corner in my own little chair
I can be whatever I want to be.
On the wings of my fancy I can fly anywhere
and the world will open its arms to me.
I’m a young Norwegian princess or a milkmaid
I’m the greatest prima donna in Milan
I’m an heiress who has always had her silk made
By her own flock of silkworms in Japan
I’m a girl men go mad for love’s a game I can play with
a cool and confident kind of air.
Just as long as I stay in my own little corner
All alone in my own little chair. . .”

from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version of Cinderella

 

Night of the Harmonicas

Easter Sunday morning looked a lot like Ash Wednesday: sideways rain, deep rumbling thunder and those vertical flashes of lightning that make your old dental fillings buzz.

Buck and I had a case of the mulligrubs on Saturday night and declared we were good and tired of all the publicity Jesus was getting this year, and we didn’t want to fight our way through a bunch of overheated Episcopalians fresh from viewing Passion of The Christ.

But by morning those declarations seemed a bit harsh, so when Buck greeted me and said, “Do you want to go to church?” I said, “Sure!” Stepping into the shower, I peeked back around the curtain and said, “I don’t think we ought to let that Jesus guy get in the way of our worshipping God!” I could hear Buck laughing out loud as he brushed his teeth.

The high point of Sunday’s service was when the choir sang a portion of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. The sopranos continued to kick it up another notch until I felt like a stringed instrument myself, whose key had been turned until it was just barely under the breaking point.

When we left, it was still raining, but by late afternoon, having washed everything clean and settled the dust, the front had moved on through, leaving us with a perfect April evening for the Birthday Party. I spent the afternoon making preparations for dinner on the porch:

 

Broiled shrimp in rosemary, jalapeno and mint pesto
White bean and sun-dried tomato dip with pita toasts
Roasted red pepper and spinach gratin
Mediterranean Chicken with wild mushrooms and capers on linguini
Chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream

 

We lit yellow candles and basked in the lingering sunset. The children ran around outside, down to the spring to chunk pebbles, and back, pink-cheeked. “Are you done yet?”

Two of the children, April and Alex, had birthdays on Easter Sunday. Cousins. “Can we open our presents now?”

“And eat the cake,” piped up one whose birthday it wasn’t.

Later, as the adults were sated with wine and the children saturated with chocolate cake and ice cream, some of us stayed on the porch talking, while several of the children wrapped themselves in fleece afghans laid out like cord wood on the living room sofas.

I heard soft, disjointed musical sounds coming from a corner of the darkened porch. A harmonica. Alex, the birthday boy, was slumped down in a green Adirondack style chair, breathing into the mouth harp. His mother told me he had found it today when — at her persistent insistence — he had finally made a start at cleaning his room.

I slipped inside, careful not to awaken his cousin (the birthday girl) or his sisters, opened the piano bench and found my own half-forgotten harmonica. Sliding down into a green chair beside Alex, I breathed into the Hohner Blues Harp. He jumped with surprise. “Yours has a case,” he said, eyeing the royal blue plastic case laying on the arm rest.

We had a contest to see who could hold a note the longest. I used to play the flute and know tricks about breathing, so Alex didn’t stand a chance. He was impressed.

I motioned for him to follow me, and we eased out the screen door, onto the dark sidewalk, out into the starry night. Joy! I hop-scotched up and down the sidewalk, playing my harmonica badly and loud. He followed suit. We hooted, hollered, jumped and danced. We started laughing and couldn’t stop.

 

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

(from Mr. Tambourine Man, by Bob Dylan)

 

A cloud passed over. Light rain began to fall. And this newly minted eight year old and I held our faces up to catch the drops.

 

 

The Secret Ingredient

Fruit Compote with a Secret Ingredient
Fruit Compote with a Secret Ingredient

About twelve years ago, the last of my father’s brothers died, and the impetus for the annual early November family reunion was buried with them. It was always held near Jay, Florida, a wide spot in the road close to the Alabama border, at my Uncle Gordon’s house.

Those of you who think Florida is either South Beach or Mickey Mouse would be quite surprised to wend your way from Pensacola’s back door through Cottage Hill, down the Quintette Road, to Berrydale and onto the long country roads of Santa Rosa County, surrounded on both sides by stunningly beautiful cotton fields ready to harvest.

The Jones side of the family is a loving bunch, country to the core. I’m the only one of the cousins who graduated from college, but they seem to like me anyway.

Family reunions, at least the old style, are primarily about food. I took my first husband to a reunion of my Mississippi relatives once. His people were from Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, and all of my aunts clutching him to their ample bosoms, smelling of lavender and talcum powder, was just about enough to make that boy swoon. They were very sweet and welcoming to this formal, bookish young man. They waved him over to the picnic tables laden with bowls and platters of food.

“Go right ahead, now, honey,” they cooed, “and help your plate.”

I’ll never forget the look on his face. He motioned for me to come over; we stepped out of the line of fire for a moment. “What am I supposed to help it do?” he whispered, brow sincerely furrowed. The poor guy was buttoned up way too tight, and seemed to have no fun at all, anywhere.

I always took a fruit compote casserole to the Jones family reunions. It went well with the inevitable ham and turkey, was easy to fix, and — most importantly — it had a Secret Ingredient. The ancient, bird-like aunts, teetotalers all, loved this casserole. There was never any left to take home. In fact, the empty dish looked suspiciously like it might have been licked when no one was looking.

I think about this dish in early November, and remember the old gals fondly. A couple of neighbors are coming up the hill for supper tonight and I just finished assembling the compote to go along with the rest of dinner. The photo will tip you off to the Secret Ingredient. It elevates this otherwise plebeian recipe.

 

Fruit Compote

Serves: 12
1 dozen dried almond macaroons, crumbles (vanilla wafers and almond extract may be used)
1 can pineapple slices, drained
1 can plums, well drained
1 can apricot halves, drained
1 can pear halves, drained
1 can bing cherries, drained
1 can peach halves, drained
1/4 cup reserved liquid (not plum)
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup Kirsch cherry liqueur

Cover bottom of 9 x 13 buttered dish with crumbs. Alternate layers of fruit, sugar, crumbs, almonds, and Kirsch. Dribble melted butter over top. pour reserved liquid over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Source: Recipe by Mrs. Charlotte Swartwood, Reston, Virginia — from the VIP Holiday Cook Book, Vol.IV,
1981, American Cancer Society benefit project

 

The Tao of Closet Cleaning

When Buck and I leave the North Carolina mountains to return to northwest Florida’s pine woods for the winter, I usually throw a nightgown and my favorite kitchen knife in a bag, along with canvas satchels of books and sheet music I can’t live without, plus a few herb plants that can make the transition.

But this time, I’m cleaning closets before we go. Memories make it slow work. I am not a pack rat, except when it comes to books, magazines and journals, but neither am I one who follows the dictates of “closet planners” who decree that “if you haven’t worn a garment in more than a year, be ruthless: get rid of it.”

I could tell you that I haven’t written much in the last day or so because I have been on an archaeological dig. True, in a way. In the same way that physical or emotional scars are sometimes a badge of courage and survival, proudly worn, so I have respect for some of my old clothes. From one of the boxes, I pulled out a pair of pants with the left knee ripped. It happened on that scary July 4, 2001 when I climbed to the top of the Shining Rocks (near Cold Mountain) and then fell on my face on the way down, bashing my chin on the rocks, severely contusing ribs, tearing a rotator cuff, gouging holes in my left leg, jamming a wrist and generally scaring hell out of my hiking buddies.  The six of us finally walked out of the woods about eight o’clock  that night. No, those pants are part of my history. They stay. I need to look at them from time to time to remind myself not to sing, dance, talk and run in the rain while hiking on a steep trail with loose rocks.

There’s a stupid blue sweatshirt, the proceeds of some corporate staff meeting Buck went to years ago. It says: “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.” It just bugs me somehow. What does it mean? Why can’t I get it? Maybe someday I will. It stays.

1-Cleaning Closets 003 2-Cleaning Closets

Those “dress for success” silk blouses and tailored skirts, souvenirs of a past life, will go to the local shelter for abused women. I like to think of someone wearing one of those outfits to a job interview, perhaps a new day in a new life. Pollyanna-ish, maybe, but I can dream.

The jungle green string bikini. Probably ought to put it in a glass display case for posterity. Takes me right back to sunsets on Pensacola Bay, watching pelicans feeding from the fly bridge of our old boat, the Almond Joy. That boat had a small cuddy cabin and a strong anchor.

The battered t-shirts and shorts are just what I need for gardening. They all stay, ready to go to work.

And that old button jar. Don’t we all have one? Most of the garments to which those buttons belong have long since been recycled in some form or fashion. But I can’t let go of them. They have stories to tell, and a peculiar charm.

Cleaning closets. It’s a process, not a project: a sorting and sifting to identify the useful or meaningful, and let the rest go.

 

Giant Grasshoppers Down the Back of My Shirt

So-called memories from childhood are usually one part memory and two parts the stuff of retold family stories. Colored by fear, longing and delight, they can become landmarks on the map of that place called childhood which we unexpectedly revisit throughout our lives.

I used to scare myself silly with this one.

At a certain time each summer, our small yard in tropical Miami Springs would be invaded by enormous, ugly, multicolored grasshoppers. In my 3-5 year old mind, their huge eyes, green and yellow bodies, and the rasping sounds made by their hairy legs were the penultimate in horror. My older brother was the agent of terror in this jihad. He took great delight in throwing the hideous creatures on me when I ventured into the yard.

Worse, he would sneak up on me, stuffing them down the back of my shirt, where they would writhe and hiss. My pulse quickens even now. I would shriek and run, panic-stricken.

This past summer I saw some of these critters again, my old nemeses. There were innocuous and, dare I say it? Beautiful.

easternlubbergrasshopper

 

Bust-Head and the Road to Enlightenment

About five o’clock yesterday we hopped in the old black truck to head down the mountain, past Miss Sarah’s place and the hundred year old barn, past the brown dog that lays in the middle of the road, down, down, down past the Beaverdam Methodist Church parking lot and on to the Ingles Grocery.

Grabbed up a plain pizza and enough onions, peppers, mushrooms and stuff to make it good, plus some ice cream bars and a bottle of bust-head. (I believe this was Cabernet Sauvignon bust-head rather than Chianti, Merlot or Shiraz bust-head).  

As we drove back up the mountain, I noticed the church parking lot had a few cars pulling in. Ah. Wednesday. Bible study and choir practice.

We turn on the one-track road that takes us home. A neighbor’s red mini-SUV meets us coming down. We pull over on the grass to let them by. I can’t help giggling. I know those folks, and they were on their way to join the others at the church for Bible study. Here they are, descending the mountain, going lower and lower to learn about getting higher with their higher power. Here were we, heading higher and higher to the top of the mountain, planing to get a little higher yet with our pizza and bottle of bust-head.

 

Hot Coffee and Old Spice = Daddy

Some people add an ice-cube to their coffee to cool it down before they will take a sip. Not me. The steam has stopped rising from my cup. Time to throw out the dregs and pour another one. Despite my insistence that I was switched at birth, it’s clear I am my mother’s daughter. From her nursing home bed, a tiny frail bird, hours from death, “If you can’t bring me a cup of hot coffee, don’t bother bringing one at all.” The disease that took portions of her mind left only the hard edges of her personality, and more questions than answers.

I took a bath after a short treadmill session today, and splashed enthusiastically to rinse off the ginger scented soap. Splash. Splash. My daddy loved tub baths. I never saw him in the tub, of course, but oh, the sounds. Water rushing from the full-out tap in the days before flow control governors were imposed on our homes. Lusty splashing, singing and snorting like some whale blowing air through his spout. Water draining noisily. He emerged finally, smelling of blue Zest and Old Spice, full of smiles and mischief.

God, how I miss that sweet man, gone since I was twelve.