Friday, August 26, 2011

In the Summer, Mary Came

My paternal grandmother had four grandchildren, but I missed out on grandparents as a child. My maternal grandmother died when I was seven. Most of my memories of her center around her illness. She was soft spoken and gentle natured, but she had little strength for dealing with grandchildren. My grandfathers had both died before I was born. The only one left was Grandmother, the woman who was the mother in our household. She could not afford to indulge us as I do my grandchildren whom I can return to waiting parents full of sugar, gifts, and broken rules regarding bedtime and breakfast food. Lest you think I am whining about this, let me assure you I am not. These are simply the facts. My widowed father turned to his mother for help in raising his children, and she turned to him for help running her farm. Theirs was an unusually good relationship based on clear communication and respect. If they ever did disagree about how we should be treated, we never knew about it. They presented a united front.

The only grandchild my grandmother could indulge was our cousin, Mary. She was Irish and Catholic thanks to her father. She lived in North Little Rock and attended her local parish school. Her tales of the teaching nuns scared us, Methodists, half to death. My brother Luther was 14 months older than I, and Mary was six months older than he. The two of them had a tight bond that continues to today. Since Mary wasn’t there a good portion of the year, Luther and I were playmates. Our sister was several years younger and usually played alone or with Jackie, a black child of one of the sharecropping families.

In the summer, Mary came to stay most weeks. She came on Sunday afternoon and stayed until Saturday morning when she had to be home in time to go to confession and attend Mass on Sunday. Her family came for Sunday dinner or supper and the cycle began again. When Mary came, she and Luther paired up, and I found myself left out. I didn’t like that one bit. Mary shared my room and my big double bed when she was there but little else. When we were together, we argued, mostly about God. We’d been arguing, discussing, pondering God since we could both say the word. Otherwise, we didn’t spend much time together.

She and Luther had much more in common. They both loved sports. Mary’s dad had been a professional baseball catcher, even playing for the Cardinals for a season in the early 1930. She had inherited his natural athleticism. My brother excelled at individual sports such as bowling and golf. While he could shoot perfect basket after basket in our backyard and hit a mean long drive of a baseball, he seemed to have trouble coordinating his actions to those of a team. He and Mary spent hours playing flies and skinners, shooting baskets and pitching horseshoes.

It was a horseshoe game that changed Mary’s and my relationship forever. Luther and Mary had been playing for some time. It was not unusual for them to be neck and neck in any game with a score involved, and such was the case that hot July afternoon. Luther is pretty laid back by nature while Mary is passionate about…well, about just about everything she has any interest in at all. She doesn’t do anything half way. So, when Luther’s score topped hers, she wanted a chance to get even or better yet, to pull ahead. Luther, however, had had enough. Like I said, he’s laid back; but he is also stubborn. He decided to quit on his win, and Mary argued with him. His mind was made up so he walked away leaving her fuming. He hadn’t gotten far when a horseshoe whizzed past his head, and he did the sensible thing. He ran. The chase was on. Luther was just trying to get away. Mary, on the other hand, was bent on murder. The harder she ran, the madder she got. Not only had she lost the game, she was losing the race as well. She chased him across a cotton field where he lost a shoe. He didn't think it prudent to stop and pick it up. They ran through Grandmother’s vegetable garden, Mary crying hysterically and yelling, “I’m gonna kill you!”

Grandmother, Jane, and I heard the commotion and ran to the back porch. Grandmother called to Luther to get in the house. As he ran in, she directed him to his room and told him to stay there until she called him to come out. He didn’t have to be told twice. Grandmother turned just in time to block Mary’s entrance. Mary adored our grandmother above all other human kind including her own parents so there was no way she would do any harm to her. She stopped dead in her tracks. Grandmother led her to the kitchen and sat her down in a chair. She was still crying and muttering threats and her anger was high. Grandmother did what seemed to her to be the most dramatic way to put a stop to an uncontrolled outburst. She threw a cup of cold water in her face. As Jane and I gasped in astonishment, Mary’s tantrum came to an abrupt halt.

Grandmother drew up a chair opposite Mary and gently wiped her dripping, flushed and feverish face with a cool washcloth as she calmly talked her through all that had happened. Then she did the strangest thing. She assigned Mary and me to an afternoon together. I thought she had lost her mind. We had almost no similar interests except our religious arguments, but here we were, having to seek some common ground. And we did.

I don’t remember what all we talked about that afternoon aside from sharing our negative experiences of dealing with my brother. I do remember sitting for hours on the front porch swing, drinking lemony, sweet iced tea and talking and talking. It was a significant turning point for both of us—the beginning of a close and loving friendship and sisterhood that is still an important part of both of our lives. Mary eventually forgave Luther, but I have been eternally grateful for their battle of titanic proportion. It brought Mary and I together in a way neither of us would have ever guessed that it could. It made us sisters more than cousins. We still argue, discuss, ponder our varied takes on God, but we do it with love and connection, more than either of us would have ever imagined that July day. I can’t imagine my life without her.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Strippers and Southern Gentlemen

I was raised in the South, Arkansas to be precise. I grew up with people who believed in Southern hospitality and good manners. There were ways of saying things that got the message across without doing harm to someone else’s psyche. Those good manners were mandated in homes, churches, and schools and seemed to have little to do with economic status. Every boy I knew shot to his feet when a lady (we never used the word, “woman”) entered the room. All adults were answered with a “sir” or “ma’am” tacked on to the end. We also had that strange custom of addressing the adults of our acquaintance by their first name with a Miss or Mister precursor. My father was never Mr. Roberts but Mr. Luther. My grandmother was Miss Wessie. It was perfectly acceptable to have nicknames and hers was short for the middle name, Westfall. And on more formal occasions, children were addressed in the same manner.

I look back on those days with longing because I feel we have let things drift so far from good manners that it is now perfectly ordinary for adults and children to treat each other rudely without even causing that slight lift of the eyebrow that use to say, “Dear child, who is raising you, and why are they neglecting their duty?”

The boys I knew might tease a girl, but it was never suggestive or improper in any way. They could disagree vehemently with a girl’s take on things; but in discussing it, gentlemen used a moderated tone and listened politely. At home, my brother might tell me that one of my friends was as crazy as a Betsy-bug; but when he was around her, he treated her as if she were perfectly sane and had every right to her opinion. I have to say, I miss this.

The summer I was 17, I witnessed this form of chivalry applied to me. It is a thing I have remembered fondly since. I knew then that I would forever adore those young men I grew up with and hold them up as examples of what young men can aspire to.

One of my childhood friends lived in one of those old southern mansions that are sometimes referred to as working plantation homes. While they are huge and graciously appointed, they are comfortable and have an easy lived in look. This big house was on the banks of Old River Lake. The front door faced the lake, which meant that the driveway from the road branched off to go around to the front while the main drive went to the back. Like most working farms and plantations, the back of the house also had access to barns, tool shops, and multi-vehicle garages. Hers had a wide circular drive in the back with spoke going to the house and various buildings. The house was two stories with deep two story screened back porches. The top one was outfitted as a sleeping porch for those hot Southern nights in the days before air-conditioning.

My friend liked to throw a party each summer and the summer of 1957, was no different. This was a significant time for all of us as we were all students of the Little Rock School system by choice and the fact that our parents paid tuition. We were all college bound kids whose parents wanted us to have the advantages that a large school could give. That included foreign languages, arts, and music as well as advanced placement classes in all of the regular subjects. Most of my hometown friends qualified for those. If you remember your history, you know that that was the year Little Rock Central High School would become the most famous or infamous high school in the world. We all knew what lay ahead and most of us were being instructed to keep our heads down and mind our own business which was getting an education not a reputation.

Everybody I knew was at this party. We danced to Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. We were having a great time, and there was a new boy in town to make things more interesting. He was a distant cousin of one of the girls and was visiting from out of state. When he heard one of my girl friends mention that she was nervous about school, he joined the conversation. As always, I took the most liberal view of things and said I had no problem with the upcoming changes. After all, we had been playing with “colored” kids all of our lives, and we knew that some of them were plenty smart. In those days, “colored” was an acceptable word. This boy turned on me with, “So that makes you a N----- lover.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Then in one swift move, every one of my childhood male friends circled this kid and hustled him out of the room. He was back within five minutes, untouched but humbled and apologized in front of everyone there for his behavior. I could not have been prouder of those boys who came to my defense even those that I knew were probably as prejudiced as he was.

When the party was over, the girls stayed for a sleep over. We donned our baby-doll pajamas and retired to the sleeping porch. It wasn’t long before all of the boys came back for their annual drive through. They would come up the road and make a couple of turns around the circular drive and honk and wave as they yelled good-night. We girls would go to the screen and wave back. While our jammies were short, none of us was allowed to have anything immodest. This night as I waved to the boys, I bumped the wooden framework of the porch. I dislodged a wasp nest, and the wasps flew up under my little top stinging me as they fought to get free. I did the only thing I could think of while in pain and under attack. I pulled off my top. There I was with my lithe, 17 year old body displayed brazenly to all of these boys I had known for years. There was a moment of silence followed by hooting and honking such as had never been heard before. I, on the other hand, fled to the bedroom with friends who could see that I was in serious trouble. I began having an allergic reaction to the nearly 20 stings I had suffered, and after a quick phone call to my family, was transported to the hospital.

You might be asking how chivalry comes into this after those boys reaction to my strip tease. Well, the word spread quickly that I had been dangerously close to dying . To this day, not one of those young men ever mentioned to me or anyone else that I know of what happened that night. What they saw may be burned into their brains just as the experiences of that evening are burned into mine, but a true gentleman tells no tales.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Street Acting Career

Entertainment in a rural community in the forties and fifties was often a thing of creative thinking and a willingness to be the subject of ridicule. The local school had a womanless wedding with my father as the bride. There were talent shows and musical recitals, square dances and carnivals. I often wonder if today’s children or their parents could come up with some of the things we did to provide ourselves with needed breaks from the hard work of cotton farming.

In the early 1950’s, our church, All Souls Interdenominational Church, called a new pastor. He was a full blood Italian whose parents had immigrated to Philadelphia from Italy. After a very bad experience with a local priest, they left the Catholic church and joined a Southern Baptist congregation there that was a mission to Italians who were fallen away Catholics. Their son, Michael Carozza, sought out our congregation when he heard about its interdenominational status. There were so few people in Scott that they decided to worship together rather than scatter their resources among several small churches. All Souls had a fairly wealthy congregation who built a beautiful example of turn of the 20th Century architecture as their house of worship. The building is now on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.

Mike Carozza brought some new ideas about ways to entertain ourselves. For one thing, all of our church dinner for the eight years he was our minister were Italian style. Among his talents, he was an excellent cook. Lasagna, spaghetti, and chicken cacciatore became standard fare. And who would have guessed how much Arkansas farmers would come to appreciate a pancake breakfast with side orders of peppers and eggs with salsiccia.

The other thing that Mike Carozza brought with him was a love of movies. We were near enough to Little Rock that we occasionally went to movies, but it was an infrequent treat. Mike found a movie distributor and set up Friday night movies in the church hall. Because they were being served up to good Christian people, the movies we saw were the classics, family fare and good westerns and war movies. We sat in folding chairs set up in rows with an aisle down the center. Some of the ladies brought desserts and made lemonade. Sometimes there was popcorn, popped in the church kitchen. It was easy to get the treats, as most of the movies were three to five reels long. Since we had only one projector, there were breaks between reels so that the new reel could be set up for viewing.

Here, I fell in love with Mutiny on the Bounty, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Norte Dame. It was this last one that led to one of the less than stellar moments of my young life.

My grandmother was a clotheshorse and loved to shop. My father, out of appreciation for all she did for him and us, indulged her shopping by taking her to Little Rock on many Saturdays. As we got older, we were allowed to go with her. By the time I was eleven, she would let me take my little sister for an hour or so to shop by ourselves at the Woolworths while she prowled the aisles of M.M. Cohen’s, Blass (later to become the flagship of Dillards), and Pfeiffer’s, all upscale department stores. The plan was always to meet at the side door of Pfeiffer’s at the designated time. My brother went with my dad. I had no idea that she ever went near any of the dime stores or the Rexall Drug where we could get a soda and listen to the tableside jukeboxes. Because of this, I thought I was perfectly safe playing a little joke on the good shoppers of Little Rock. We had just seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I was taken with Laughton’s performance. I talked my eight-year-old sister into leading me around our usual haunts while I pretended to be mentally and physically challenged. I took my posture and movements straight from Quasimodo. Jane had nothing to do but hold my right hand and coax me down the street and I hunched over and limped and grunted along. I was getting quite a kick out of the pitying looks and comments although one woman declared that people should keep such children out of the public eye. Her companion replied that at least, I appeared to be clean and well cared for. When I wanted to go to Rexalls, I made a garbled sentence that was something like,” Woah gos geh ahh danck.” Jane had no idea what I was saying so I pretended to cry and pull her in the direction of the drugstore. To my horror and hers, my grandmother had had a yen for a cherry coke, something she sometimes allowed herself. There she was coming out of Rexalls as we were approaching. Jane saw her before I did because she suddenly dropped my hand and stepped away. It was a feeble attempt to distance herself from the titanic disaster she saw looming in my future. As I peered up from my hunched over position, I caught the full blast of my grandmother’s anger. She took one step forward and yanked me upright. Had the streets not been teeming with Saturday shoppers, I am not sure I would be here to tell this tale. She did what she always did when she was about to lose the generally well-developed control. She spoke quietly through clinched teeth. It is a trait that my children would say I inherited. I saw my life flash before me and I was certain that the future held some dire consequence if I could just live long enough to see what that would be. She informed me that I was not to leave her side and that we were going to march straight over to Allsopp and Chappel’s Bookstore where my dad was a faithful and well-loved customer.

When we got there, my father took one look at my grandmother and her hand digging into my shoulder and excused himself from his conversation with the owner. We all walked silently to the car, and silence reigned until we got home. My brother and sister peeked at me whenever they dared, but neither offered a sympathetic word of comfort. My grandmother and father conferred in the privacy of her bedroom before my father came out and told me that I was confined to my room for the week, and would miss the next month of movies at the church. He seemed to be right there with my grandmother, and I was ashamed that I had caused them so much grief. My brother and sister stayed as far away from me as they could for the rest of the day. Maybe they feared that some of my inherent evil would rub off on them. Just when I thought I would be forever a disgrace to my family, my dad came in to say goodnight. As he leaned over to plant the customary kiss on my forehead he murmured, “I would have loved to have caught your acting debut, but you’ll have to live with your grandmother’s decision.” Just before he turned out the light, he gave me a big grin and a wink while shaking his head in disbelief.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Burying Jackie

Some of my friends, especially the WSB, think this story is entertaining and asked me to send it out there on my blog. It brings up, for me, one of life’s real ponder-able qualities. Why is it that ten people or even a hundred can witness the same thing, and each one will tell a different story about what happened? My friends laugh at this childhood mischief; but my sister on reading it, said quietly, “I don’t remember it happening this way.”

The summer I was nine, I attended my first funeral. Who knew that dying could be so fascinating? The ritual was enthralling; I learned that person’s reputation could vastly improve simply because he stopped breathing. I had overheard adult conversations about this man’s behavior. I had a talent for being absorbed in my own play while actually listening intently to adults. Today, it’s called multi-tasking. Then, it was snooping in things that were none of my business.

Mr. George was a drunk who was abusive to his wife and children; yet at his funeral, he took on a mantle of respectability that no one knew he possessed. Daddy said that he almost checked to see if the man in the casket was the right one. He thought we had gotten into the wrong service by mistake. My grandmother declared that people want to remember the good in people after they die. To which Daddy commented, “I didn’t know there was any good in that one.”

At the funeral, the widow and children grieved openly and loudly. They placed mementos gently beside the body and murmured to him. At the eulogies, they all spoke of a kind loving man who would do anything for his family. Then they stumbled out of the church behind the closed casket weeping loudly and clinging to one another.

The pageantry of the graveyard scene was even more magnificent. The casket was suspended over the open grave by a shiny metal framework. A green cloth and banks of flowers covered everything. I heard Daddy say to a neighbor, “Old George would have had quite a toot on the money spent on bouquets for this turnout.” My brother and I were discussing the possibility of seeing the casket lowered so ardently that Daddy turned and gave us “The Look.”

As the service ended, we were all startled to see the widow fling herself across the swinging coffin knocking the casket spray askew and causing the framework to groan ominously. She let out a wail that raised the hair all over my body; and while I clung to my father’s hand as the terrifying drama unfolded before me, I could not turn away. Her children finally dragged her off as the preacher said the last prayer, and I was hooked on burying.

Going home, we all discussed what had happened. My grandmother was distressed and thought the whole display was undignified. Daddy said that each family has ways of dealing with grief, and no one can say which way is the right way. Their way wasn’t what he wanted. “Just drop me in a hole somewhere, preferably under a tree so I can, at least, fertilize something,” he said.

For weeks afterward, we played at burying dolls and acting out the drama of grief. I got to be good at eulogizing and preaching colorful sermons. My grandmother’s cat refused to cooperate with our efforts to bury him, so we continued to look for a corpse with more warmth and credibility than a doll. Burying became the focus of pretending which we called “play lack,” as in, “Let’s play lack I’m the preacher and you’re the widow.”

If you ever visited the Arkansas River Delta, you know that the ground there is a rich sandy loam. It will grow any seed dropped into it. My grandmother’s farm had several black sharecropper families who worked that soil while Daddy oversaw the farm’s operation. During the summer months, we played in the dirt with the black children who were too young to work beside their parents. One of these children was Jackie. She was my little sister’s age and the only child and only grandchild in her family. Her mother, Melba, adored her and constantly protected her even following her to college years later so that she would escape the dangers that could befall black girls. Jackie always went to the fields with her mother and grandparents. She would play at the end of the rows her mother worked and would eat her lunch there with her family. She would even take naps curled up on a quilt at the end of a row. My sister and I often joined her in play.

During one of these play sessions, I suggested that we “play lack” burying. Jackie said that she did not like funerals much, but I explained that they were really wonderful. I told her how a preacher got to say all kinds of great things about the dead even if they weren’t true. Jackie said that dead people were “haints” and she didn’t like “haints.” I had no idea what she was talking about, and I told her that we were going to play lack burying anyway. She seemed to agree. Working together, we dug out a deep trench in that sandy loam. When the weather is dry, the soil may be two feet deep and as easy to scoop as beach sand. When wet, it can bog a car down to its axles. The weather was blessedly dry so digging a grave was easy. We told Jackie to lie down in the hole and we covered her up. We were not so dumb as to think that we could cover her whole face so we pushed the dirt up to her bottom lip and mounded it gently around her cheeks and brow. A small triangle of brown lips, nose, and two very round brown eyes was all that was left exposed.

As my sister began to “play lack” mourning, I began to preach a sermon on Jackie’s goodness. She was all virtues and no vices. I praised her family’s love for her glancing down the row where I saw her family had paused to see what was going on. Waving confidently at them, I returned to my sermon on God himself coming to take Jackie straight to His bosom.

Just then, Daddy drove up in his truck. He often drove along the ends of the fields to check on work in progress. Usually he’d pause and call from his truck, “What you kids doin’?”

This day, I answered back, “Playing lack…”
“Playing lack what?” he countered.
“Playing lack burying Jackie,” I replied.
“Where’s Jackie?” his face wrinkled into a frown.
“Right here in the ground, of course.” I was beginning to wonder why he seemed so upset.

I didn’t have long to wonder. Daddy killed the truck and was out of the cab in a second. Then he was standing over us saying, “What the Hell?”

Now, my daddy did not cuss. Ever. So right away, I knew there was real trouble.

My sister quit “playing lack” crying and started up for real. In a tight voice Daddy said, “Don’t you see how scared that child is?”

I looked at Jackie. She did not move a muscle and her eyes had grown even rounder with fear. I looked down the row and here came Melba and the grandparents running to beat sixty. Daddy was on his knees digging Jackie out of the dirt, talking softly to her just like he did to us when we were hurt or afraid. Jackie looked at him crying and said, “Mr. Luther, am I
a “haint” now?”

About that time, her family arrived looking worried and wringing their hands. Jackie came out of the ground with sandy loam clinging to her hair and body and making a dusty frame for her face. Daddy placed her gently in Melba’s arms and told them all to sit with her awhile.

Taking my sister and me by the shoulders, he marched us around to the other side of the truck. He made us sit on the running board while he paced in front of us explaining how Jackie’s family feared death and the dead. He also explained that she would do what we wanted because we were white folks, and she would think she had to cooperate even if she was afraid. He ordered us to march back around the truck and apologize to Jackie and her family.

Heads drooping in shame, we came from behind the truck and stood on the edge of Jackie’s burying hole kicking the dust and apologizing for not seeing that she was scared. We filled up the hole and rode back home with daddy in the truck. On the way, he talked about other people’s feelings and accepting that some people see thing differently. He finished by asking if we had anything to say. My sister said she was sorry that she had scared Jackie and through new sniffles, said she’d never hurt her again.

“And you, Sissy?” he asked.
“Well, Daddy,” I said, “I guess I’m sorry, too; but you know, that sure takes all the fun out of burying.”