WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS?

 

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1964 with Faye in her homemade black dress 

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

It’s been at least twenty years since I owned a real dress.  I quit buying dresses when the local tall girl shop went out of business and the one line of nice dresses with a waist long enough to hit my middle in the right place disappeared from the department store racks.  The other day, for the umpteenth time, my wonderful husband mentioned how stunning I always was in the black dress I was wearing the night he met me fifty-five years ago this past January 21, and he asked for the umpteenth time, “Why don’t you wear that dress anymore?”

There are a number of reasons, but let’s just say the answer is complicated.  Number one, that dress would be rotten with old age if it still hung in my closet.  Secondly, the waist would never, ever accommodate my present circumference.  Though I weigh approximately the same amount in actual pounds, my flesh has decidedly expanded and more of it hangs around my middle.  So as the years have gone on, I’ve found a new look—mix and match “separates.”

I didn’t actually purchase that dress my sweetie loved, by the way.  What with a beginning teacher’s pay and student loans to pay off, I couldn’t afford store bought clothing.  So after college, I took up sewing.  I’d never had lessons—had even refused several opportunities for sewing classes.  Who needs a class, I thought.  I can read patterns.  Well, yes, but I didn’t always understand them.  Why worry about the “ease” designed into a sleeve, when it was much quicker to simply cut off the extra fabric after sewing it into the armhole?  Then there was the option of just going sleeveless.  Back then, I had trim, firm upper arms, and I wasn’t bothered by chilly air.  Many of my dresses were sleeveless.  Ain’t youth grand!

Another saving—I never needed as much fabric as the pattern called for.  Simply by ignoring the silly part of the instructions about cutting on the straight of the fabric, and going with the “nap,” I turned those patterns this way and that to best save on yardage.  Then there were zippers.  I had trouble sewing a straight line, and so my stitching meandered from the standard required half inch from the zipper teeth to so far off that I drifted past the seam allowance entirely.  Or, other times got so close to the teeth that the zipper had to be tugged repeatedly past those areas.  No problem—if you had matched your thread properly, you simply resewed in the proper place and frequently you didn’t even have to pull out the meandering seam.  Who would notice?

My future mother-in-law, for one—and on our first meeting!  A decade later, after I’d had taken sewing lessons and learned all kinds of things, Mama Gibbons said one day, “Faye, you’ve learned so much since you married.  Now you make drapery, your sons’ jeans, and nice clothes for yourself.  Before you and Benjie married…” She shook her head. “Well, you could cover yourself.”

For a few years, there was a golden time when I was actually able to make a few acceptable dresses for myself and a still better time when it was possible for me to shop the tall girl shop earlier mentioned, and the department store’s Liz Cleiburne dress line.  At one point I likely had four or five flattering dresses all at one time.  No more.  Today stores don’t have what I need, though I have looked and even tried on.  Some dresses have the waist up under my armpits.  Others strive for the casual A line, reminiscent of maternity attire.  None tempted me to pull out my checkbook.  So I returned to the fabric stores.  Lord, do you realize what good cloth costs these days?  Fifteen to twenty dollars per yard and more.  Then there are patterns.  They run from ten to thirty dollars.  And none of them promise to be very flattering.  I don’t care for the “cold shoulder” look or the asymmetrical, look and I no longer want to display my knees or my bosom.  Oh, and although my legs are one of the better preserved parts of my anatomy, I don’t want to wear skin tight leggings or skinny pants which reveal any cellulite or body hair that happens to be present.  I hope the public appreciates this.   Not every woman my age is this considerate.  Just go to any Sprawl-Mart and see for yourself.

So I am still left with the problem of finding that little black dress my husband is longing to see.  Hmmmmm.  Maybe the answer is to hire a hypnotist to convince Benjamin to “see” me in that black outfit from 1964.  His fee is almost sure to be less than I’d pay for an actual dress, and I don’t have to dig my sewing machine out of storage!

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IF YOU’RE LOOKING AT ME, YOU’RE LOOKING AT MUSICALLY DISABLED COUNTRY

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Faye at the time of the great PTA musical 1967-68

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

Loretta Lynn said in a recent interview that mountain people didn’t need music lessons.  Just hand them an instrument and they’d fool with it a while and then start playing music.  Apparently this applies to song writing too, in her opinion.

Well, this mountain girl didn’t get any of that talent.  I took piano lessons for two years as an adult and then naively asked my teacher how long it would take for me to just sit down and play without having to plod along note by note by note.  Honest man that he was, he didn’t sugar coat his reply. “You’ll never be able to do that,” he answered.  “Why not? “ I asked.  “Because you don’t have any talent,” he said.

That finished my music career! But I really should have figured it out for myself.  One time, back in the Sixties when I was teaching 5th grade in Huntsville, Alabama, the Huntsville School System music coordinator came to our school  to prepare our students for a PTA program in which each grade would perform one song.  She asked all us fifth grade teachers to practice our assigned song with our students until her return.  On the appointed day she had each grade level perform, making suggestions for improvements for each group.  When the three fifth grades took their turn, she began to frown.  “You,” she said pointing to a student of mine in the first row, “Come stand by me.”  The song continued and she pointed to another kid, and another, and another.  Before the song was finished, she had practically every student in my class crowded around her.  She chose several of my students after listening to them sing a few lines.

“Mrs. Gibbons,” she said, “I don’t want you singing with your class anymore.  I’m going to choose one of your students with a good ear to lead singing from now until the PTA program.”  She didn’t say my musical skills sucked, but I got the message.

I know who’s to blame for my missing musical talent—my mother.  When in a very good mood, Mama would sing around the house.  It was maddening to hear her slaughter a perfectly good song, sometimes getting almost on the right tune, but never quite making it.  None of us kids had the nerve to tell her, but somebody else must have, because occasionally she would say after one of our father’s musically talented relatives performed, “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”  And nobody argued with her.

After I became a regular at the little Methodist church we moved close to when I was fifteen, one of the church leaders asked me to sing a solo some Sunday.  He said he’d noticed my singing talent and thought I should share it!  I wanted to believe him, but in my heart I knew it was just his way of drawing me closer to the church.  I’d heard some of the other “talented” girls he’d found.  Some were good, but some were embarrassingly awful.  Thank goodness, in the end I let my common sense overrule my ego.

The man would have been wiser to ask my brothers.  John, Jerry, and Mike inherited Daddy’s musical talent—and his confidence.  No doubt that self assurance is a part of it.  I once heard an expert say that even when he’d lost a lot of quality from his voice, Frank Sinatra was still worth listening to because he could “deliver a song better than anyone.”  The Junkins men had the voice and the delivery.

Now I confine my singing mostly to church services.  And then I take pains to sit near a very good singer, whom I can follow and sort of blend with. I learned never to sit near another person as bad or worse at carrying a tune than myself.  One fellow church member years ago was so bad and so loud that I didn’t sing at all until I changed to another pew well across the sanctuary.  I learned from experience that if I were close, I’d follow wherever she led.  Cain’s Chapel United Methodist ChurMW is two hundred years old, but that woman and I might have closed down the church long before now if we’d tried to harmonize.

So Loretta, I hate to tell you, but not all of us mountain people are as talented musically as you.   However, you still ain’t woman enough to take my man!

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THE BIRDS AND THE BEES

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Me at fourteen and a half, shortly after my big talk with Mama.  Mama (lower right corner of photo) hadn’t yet recovered from the BIG TALK.

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

Back in the stone age, when I was a kid, parents seemed to assume that any information a girl got about S-E-X should come as a divine revelation, hopefully just before she got married. I didn’t know what caused babies until I was fourteen and a half. I don’t recommend such ignorance. You’d think observation would have provided me some clues. We didn’t live on a farm with breeding animals, but we frequently visited relatives who did. And even in the mill towns where we lived there were stray cats and dogs about. However, I’m sure Mama had Daddy get rid of any females that began attracting admirers. Perhaps I didn’t want to know any facts. I’ll bet my younger sister had things figured out long before I stumbled over the information one evening at Aunt Hilde’s house.

While the adults lingered at the supper table and the younger kids watched a snowy program on a black and white television as big as a small refrigerator, I looked through a large stack of Reader’s Digest magazines. The title on one cover arrested my attention at once: “How to Tell Your Child the Facts of Life.” I knew where babies came from, thanks to having asked my mother at a crowded family reunion eight years before. What I lacked was the essential information about what started the baby. Now at last maybe I had all the other facts here in my sweaty hands. I furtively turned to the article and began reading—ovaries, hormones, periods, “intercourse”….what the heck? My parents? My grandparents, Aunt Murdess and Uncle Jim Bob? Impossible! There had to be an alternative method, and I was going to have to get up the nerve to ask Mama what it was.

It took several days. It was summer and my mother wasn’t working at the mill. Because of a nervous breakdown several months before, she was home recuperating with lots of help from Miles Nervine. I finally got up courage to broach the big question. Better not tell her about the article—and risk never being allowed to read anything at Aunt Hilde’s house.

“What causes babies?” I asked.

“What?” Mama said, clutching her broom.

I managed to choke out the question again.

Mama snatched the bottle of Miles Nervine from her pocket with shaking hands. She took a swig and then muttered, “Later. Can’t you see I’m busy now?” She began sweeping vigorously. Her face was scarlet.

It must have been two hours before she finished in the house and came outside to sit beside me on the front steps. “Y’all go on,” she told my younger siblings. “Play somewhere else.”

They didn’t need the house to fall on them—they figured out something was going on and drew closer. They weren’t about to miss any excitement.

Mama came up with plan two. “Ya’ll can go to the store and buy some candy,” she said and dug in her pocket for change. That did the trick. We rarely went to the little store down the highway, and we almost never had candy.

When the kids were out of hearing, Mama began telling me about the ovaries, but she called them ‘egg sacks.’ At some point in her 29 years she must have read an article similar to the one in the Digest, because the information agreed so far. Once a month, she said, one egg was released. The body got ready to grow a baby. Only most of the time that didn’t happen, so all the materials were dumped, and that was what a period was. Now she sidetracked on to the subject of periods, which I didn’t need, because I’d been having them for a year.

Mama took another drink of Nervine and dropped her eyes. “Well, anyway, sometimes, ever now and then, something happens to the egg and it starts to grow into a baby. Well what happens….It takes something from a, uh, man. Well, and, well, I think I better tell you more about the egg.”

She did. She went over every excruciating detail and then all the information about the period, even getting into sanitary pads and sanitary belts, and the importance of bathing “privates.”

Just then my sister and my brothers reappeared in our driveway and Mama said, “I’m no good at explaining stuff like this. Do you reckon you could take everything I’ve told you so far and figure out the rest?”

I leaped to my feet, relieved. “Yes!”

And I did, thanks to Reader’s Digest. A good thing too—this was the nearest approach Mama made to discussing sex with me until well after I was married and had a child on my own.

By then, folks, it was too late—one of those eggs had had something happen to it!

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THE MOTHER OF INVENTION

 

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                                        My Creative Siblings in 1958

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

(Author note: This blog was originally written in early October. Just when it was ready to post my computer crashed, and this was one of the files that could not be recovered. Though my new computer has been in operation for a couple of weeks, I couldn’t get motivated to reconstruct the original. Since all evidence is gone, I’m going to claim that the original was ten times as funny and interesting as this version.)

In his book, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, Jared Diamond argues that native children are likely much more innovative and creative than modern day American kids, because they have to devise their own entertainments, instead of having everything handed to them ready to use with no effort required. My own childhood seems to confirm this. Growing up in poverty in the Georgia mountains, we Junkins kids had few toys. We had to devise our own diversions or do without. We owned no books beyond the Bible and the Sears Catalog. This was before TV. And radio was a sometime thing with us. When no books were available, I made up stories to entertain my four younger siblings. And I’m still making up stories, but otherwise I don’t seem to have struck the motherlode of creativity.

My brothers were another story. While many kids were riding tricycles or pedal cars, they built their own vehicles out of scrap wood and stray wheels from junk yards. Sometimes they made their own wheels by sawing small tree trunks into rough circles. They built multi storied tree houses so lofty that it made me dizzy to look at them. My sister was no slouch herself. Before her teens she began designing and making clothing for herself. No tools were ever denied us. Knives, saws, scissors, and axes were all permissible as soon as we could walk. You just better return them to their proper places afterwards.

Maybe my creative gene was damaged at three and a half when I was trying to cut wood with Daddy’s axe and chopped my left leg instead. I screamed in terror as the blood flowed. Daddy laughed and told me that would learn me to leave the axe alone until I was old enough to use it. It did. I’m still not old enough.

Once my sister fainted while using lighter fluid to take a spot out of her coat. “Better go outside next time,” my mother told her when she cleaned the gash on Jean’s head. “And set down so you won’t fall so far.”

My father, who had only a second grade education, was very creative. He devised all kinds of inventions which made the big textile machines at our hometown mills work far better and more cheaply. He took pride in the innovations but never received extra money or the patents for these. His brothers showed the same skills, which had been developed and honed on the mountain farm where they grew up.

As adults that creativity paid off. It paid off for my brothers too—all three have taken on successful building projects for which they had no formal training—bricklaying, deck building, even constructing sheds, sunrooms and porches. My sister was one of the best teachers I ever knew.

Of course, as an adult I saw all the dangers my siblings and I had miraculously survived and determined that MY boys were going to have safe childhoods. No knives, sharp scissors, or dangerous tools for them. Santa brought them safe plastic toys with no sharp edges. But I noticed that before the wrappings had even been gathered on Christmas morning Ben and David were playing with the BOXES that the gifts came in. Stacking them, rearranging them into cities, and using the larger ones for caves and hideouts.

Fortunately, there came a point where my husband had enough of my safety rules. “A boy needs to learn to use a knife,” he decreed when they were maybe ten and twelve. And so they did, probably just in time to save their creativity! They both became engineers and can tackle just about any job Lowe’s sells tools for.

And then there are my grandchildren—geniuses, every one! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Jared Diamond.

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I AM WOMAN, HEAR ME WHINE

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Me with the man who made me as liberated as I wanted to be.

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

 
Maybe I was a before-my-time feminist because I saw all the disadvantages of being female way before Gloria Steinem discovered women needed liberation. It started with household chores—my parents gave out work assignments based on gender. Cooking, cleaning up after meals, housekeeping, and baby-tending were all girls’ jobs. So were washing and ironing, and that was back when laundry was done in a wash tub and scrub-board and ironing was done with cast iron “sad irons” heated on a stovetop. In farm families, this probably worked a little more equitably with men being assigned plowing, land clearing, and wood cutting. Town dwellers on the other hand had few jobs in the boy category. We never had more than a small garden and we burned coal for fuel. We didn’t have a house with a lawn until I was nearly old enough to leave for college, so no mowing. Mama wasn’t going to allow my three brothers to be made into sissies by doing women’s jobs.

Of course, jobs were only the beginning. It was also a girl’s obligation to behave so morally that no one could ever besmirch her reputation or that of her family. Mama made sure my sister and I were very clear on that. “A boy can do about any sorry thing and, if he straightens out, everybody forgets it,” she told us over and over. “But if a girl does one thing that gets her talked about, she can’t rise above it no matter how long she lives.” And, of course, I saw examples of this all around. I remember tenth grade when a high school drop-out would cruise onto school property several afternoons a week and chat with an eleventh grade girl who was waiting for the same school bus I rode. Eventually, the boy began giving her a lift home. Then he stopped coming by the school, and as we waited for the bus week after week I watched her become quieter and quieter. Then I noticed that she was gaining bulk around the middle, and hugging her books closer to hide it. I felt sorry for her, but dared not associate with her. She toughed out that school year, but after that I never saw her again.

My goal by this time was to get a good job, move away from home, and to live an independent single life. I looked at all the marriages I knew and decided none of them would make me happy. I wasn’t going to do “woman’s work” for a whole family. I wasn’t going to take orders from any man either. At that point, I had not seen a marriage where the woman had any say, except for two in which the poor man was totally hen-pecked. I sure didn’t want to order any spineless man around. Yessir, the single life was the life for me.

There were two women in the family who gave me a glimpse of hope. One of my mother’s sisters, “Marie,” was married to an alcoholic who didn’t provide for his family. She decided early on that she would take some control of her own future. Leaving her children in the care of relatives, she went to work at a mill. She saved and eventually bought a house in her own name. Then she began accumulating land and started raising chickens with the help of her children. Eventually, she kicked her husband out of the house and got a divorce. It was a revelation to me that a woman could declare her independence and live her own life if her husband mistreated her.

My Aunt Hilde was another inspiration. She came from Germany as a war bride after World War II. Her husband, My Uncle William, was one of the sweetest men I have ever known, but he was an alcoholic and he wasn’t especially ambitious. Hilde decided if she was ever going to have the life she wanted, she was going to have to have a career. In Dalton, Georgia, and later in Atlanta, that is what she did. She rose to being a vice president of a large company in Atlanta. She had contempt for many of the women libbers of the seventies and eighties. “Work like a man, demand to be paid like a man, and you’ll get it.” She worked late many, many days while her child waited with babysitters for her to get home and cook supper. She worked on weekends if the company needed her. The job was her first priority.

She admitted in the last years of her life that this was not good for her only son, who got little attention from either parent. “My son paid for my big career,” she said after he was killed in Viet Nam. “A woman who wants the big career shouldn’t have children.” I couldn’t see neither of her options as being totally satisfactory and I wasn’t sure just any woman would get paid like a man if she worked like a man, but I did see that it was possible for a woman to be self- supporting and independent.

I had that life for several years (barely supporting myself on a teacher’s pay), but then I had the good fortune to meet a man who was raised in a family where jobs were’t divided by gender. Benjamin knew how to cook, thanks to his mother, and he wasn’t above vacuuming and mopping. So after all that preparation for an independent life, I found out with the right partner in life, it didn’t have to be my way or the highway.

So it came down to this, Gloria: I’m as liberated as I want to be. And a woman who wears a 36D can’t afford to burn any bras!

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MA LONG KEPT ON THE SUNNY SIDE

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MA Long at my wedding in August 1964.

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

During the Depression the Carter Family had a big radio hit with “Keep On The Sunny Side.” The upbeat gospel song spoke of making the best of what life dealt you—making lemonade out of lemons. My mother’s mother was way ahead in that game. She always found something to do and something to be happy about. Frequently those two things were the same. In my childhood, I did not understand this. I knew I’d be miserable in her place.

Florence Fields was probably destined (at least by her parents) to be a spinster—the child who would take care of them in their old age. In a day and place where girls were considered marriageable at fifteen, she was twenty-five when she married Jim Searcy, who was twenty-one. When she chose him, she had to defy her parents’ judgement. Pa Fields was a fundamentalist backwoods preacher who considered the educated, book-reading Searcy clan far too educated for its own good. Their religion was suspect too. Any church that accepted sprinkling for baptism instead of full immersion down at the river was doing the devil’s work as far as they were concerned.

None of the arguments swayed my grandmother. She married Jim and he gave her a good life. Searcy men did not expect their wives to work crops. She had enough to do with keeping house, canning garden produce, and having babies. With all this, she never sat down without work in her hands—snapping beans, mending, knitting, crocheting. She had three children by the time my grandfather took desperately ill. When he began “talking out of his head” she went against her parents, who declared him to just be “sin-sick,” and took him to a hospital. Too late. His appendix had ruptured, and in 1930, before antibiotics, that was a death sentence.

Right after the funeral, the Fields swooped in and took over. A daughter of theirs was not going to become the talk of the community by living “alone.” So Ma Long sold out and moved in with her parents. With her usual industry she took on the goal of paying her own way. She hired out to pick cotton and do other work for neighboring farmers. Eventually she got a job at a cotton mill, but, dutiful daughter that she was, she handed all the money over to her father. She expected her children to pitch in when they could and to cause as little trouble and expense as possible.

The Depression deepened, and, even though she had a job, my grandmother looked for ways to better her situation. Back then, marriage was the only way for a woman. In my childhood, my mother convinced me that Ma Long had chosen to marry Bud Long, a share cropper whose wife had died and left him with seven children, because he had misrepresented himself somehow. He had happened along when her parents had become unreasonably demanding of her and her children. I have long since decided that there was a very real attraction between them. Ma Long herself admitted that she loved him better than she had Jim Searcy. This galled my mother. “Loving that tobacco-spitting, illiterate clodhopper over my father!” she would often hiss after we had visited the Longs.

But what my mother refused to see was that my grandmother LIKED “outside work.” She eventually shifted housework to the children so she could devote full time to the work she liked. And in a few years the land they worked was their own. Ma Long put all her energy and managing skills toward that goal. Pa Long gave her full credit for this miracle. “If it hadn’t been for the Old Lady I’d still be share cropping,” he would say.

Pa Long died in the early fifties and Ma Long went through the process of selling out once again. By then all the Long and Searcy kids were grown and gone, and she knew she could not run the farm or the chicken houses she had taken on. Being Ma Long, she kept busy. She worked as a paid housekeeper for one of her daughters for several years. Then she worked as an unpaid housekeeper for a son who was down on his luck. All these years she kept busy knitting and crocheting to sell to the public. To my mother’s horror, she also updated her looks. In 1964 when she attended my wedding she wore her first bra—only she called it a “brar,” pronounced to rhyme with “far.” She also wore a wig, which my mother privately declared looked like a dead animal perched on her head. Mama was relieved that Ma Long thought the occasion called for a hat. When my father teased Ma Long about “husband-hunting,” she said, “Well, now, I might just do that if I see a chance to better myself.”

Apparently, the right man did not show up. When she visited me and my husband in the late seventies, she was still single. She wore my husband out walking the “home place” which we had bought from my husband’s father, and laid out plans for making the land pay. She had no interest in the 1888 farm house we had restored. “A house is a house,” she said.

At about 85 my grandmother decided to go to the nursing home. “I wouldn’t get along with none of my young’uns,” she explained to one and all. “I’d have my say in whatever was going on, and it would make trouble. Besides, in the nursing home I’d be able to help a lot of old folks and still have time for knitting.”

She did. And when you visited her you’d better be ready to buy at least one of her finished pieces—whether you needed it or not. And you’d also be well advised to arrive in a good mood.

At nearly a hundred, Ma Long still walked on the sunny side.

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON MY WAY TO EVEREST

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

The first picture is of the whole gang posed in front of the dining hall at LeConte Lodge. The second picture is Faye on the trail. The third picture is Faye at Alum Cave Bluff which is the 2 mile mark with 3 and 3/4 more miles to go.

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Ever noticed how easy it is to resume a strenuous activity after several years of sedentary living?

Neither have I!

My husband and I began hiking soon after marriage. Not the whole Appalachian Trail, mind you, though we did sections of it. We always found trails near wherever home was and vacation usually involved hiking in the Smokies. When our sons were born we introduced them to backpacking early. We were a physically fit family. You might say we had a “healthier than thou” attitude.

Years passed. Benjamin and I thought we would be one of those couples who could still hike the 5 and 3/4 miles to LeConte Lodge when we were 90. The plan was working for a while. In 2011 we trekked the 9 miles down into the Grand Canyon and spent two nights at Phantom Ranch. All the way down we had seen signs warning to allow twice as long to make the return trip. Forewarned, we started right after breakfast on departure day. As we passed people decades younger than ourselves we almost pounded our chests. The return took us only fifteen minutes longer than the trip down. Yep, we were still tough. We still had it.

Confession: if we had been on that trail 30 minutes longer, we probably have collapsed and died. Confession Number Two: We had the advantage of an overcast day. Once or twice we even had a fine mist of rain. If the sun had been out full force we would have been slowed to a creep. But still…

Fast forward to 2018. For my birthday I planned a family hike—including sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren—to LeConte Lodge. The reservation was July 13. “Better get in shape” I warned everyone. As for Benjamin and me, we were going to put in extra time at the gym and begin doing local hikes as soon as the weather warmed. But you know about best laid plans. Of course senior “Patch-and-Mend” kicked in. I had my left big toe operated on in February. In March I tore the meniscus in my left knee and had to have repair work in April. Then there was physical therapy. Then Benjamin tore his meniscus and went through the same routine of surgery and therapy in July.

“Well, so what if we don’t make our record time of two and a half hours to LeConte,” I told Benjamin. “Our average time of 4 hours wouldn’t be bad,” he agreed.

If only!

We arrived at the Alum Cave Trailhead nice and early on July 13. We saw our son David’s SUV in the parking area, so we figured we’d pass them soon, pounding our chests as we did so. We did not see Ben’s vehicle. “At least we won’t be last ones up,” I said. Little did we know! Ben had parked hours before in the overflow parking area down the road.

So we started out at a brisk pace. I was barely out of the parking lot when my steps began to falter. Just hadn’t caught my wind, I told myself, sitting down on a handy log. Thirty minutes later I was still gasping and resting, gasping and resting…

By the time we reached the halfway mark—where the real climb begins—Benjamin was offering to carry my small pack, even though he already wore a thirty pound pack on his back.

I was tempted, but I had my pride.

Then he suggested I might want to turn back.

“And let the kids and grandkids know I gave up!” I wheezed. “No way!”

So we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. Over rocks, through streams, up log stairways, clutching safety cables for dear life.

Finally, finally, I recognized the last uphill stretch just ahead. Unbelievably, we had only about 100 yards between us and the almost level boulevard that would take us to the log cabin Lodge.

Only a couple more rests and the climbing would be over. It had taken us only seven hours.

Maybe next year I’ll do Everest!

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BILE THEM HOE CAKES DOWN, BOYS

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Daddy holding John in Savannah, GA about 1943. John was perhaps 6 months old.

 

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

I’m a southern girl, and I’ve heard of hoe cake all my life.  And I thought I knew what it was—cornbread baked in a large skillet, right?  Wrong!  It took my Yankee daughter-in-law to set me straight.

It all started in early January when I decided to cook a special meal for our son David, his wife, Aca, and their three boys ages 4-7.  Since they’d all been sick with first one bug and another the entire month of December, I decided to make a good basic beef stew with potatoes and other vegetables and serve it with some of my late mother-in-law’s fried cornbread.  The recipe is strange.  It calls for boiling water over plain ground cornmeal.  It has no egg and no milk and very little oil (or bacon drippings).  The batter is fried in a slight amount of fat.

My meal was a hit, and Aca asked for the recipe for the stew and the “hoe cake.”  I of course told her that this wasn’t hoe cake—it was fried cornbread.  When I told her how it was made, she said, “But isn’t that hoe cake?”

When I looked it up, guess what?  It was hoe cake!  Google said the legend passed down is that it sometimes was fried on a hoe when no other utensil was available, but that most people think this is just a made-up folktale.  I myself doubt that you could keep the grease on a hoe long enough to cook a corn pancake. But what do I know?  I only just now learned what hoe cake is!

I recall another simple bread from my childhood.  We only got this when my mother was sick or just recovering from childbirth so that she was too disabled to drag herself to the kitchen stove.  On these occasions Daddy would say, “Well, I reckon I can cook.  They learned me in the army.”  They didn’t “learn” him much else—Daddy did a lot of KP duty because of his refusal to conform to military discipline.  Probably only VE day saved him from a dishonorable discharge. If Daddy had any money in his pocket on those days when he took over Mama’s job, he would go to the nearest store and buy a couple pounds of bacon.  He would throw all of it in the largest iron skillet Mama had and rev up the fire in the stove.  While this cooked (stirring with a fork every now and then) he would mix a batter of flour, melted lard, and a can of evaporated milk.  There was no recipe, as far as I knew.  Then he would pour this into another iron skillet with about a half inch of lard—or bacon grease, if there was enough cooked out of the tangle of bacon slices—and put it on the stove to cook (or “fry” might be a more apt word).  To complete the meal, he would break a dozen eggs or more into a bowl and whip them up to scramble in bacon fat.  The meal was always good, and, though I’m sure his fried bread wouldn’t hold a shuck to my mother’s biscuits (which were the best bread ever) it tasted mighty good to us kids.  But what wouldn’t taste wonderful with four or five slices of crisp bacon?

Another bread from my childhood did not leave such pleasant memories—crackling bread.  Cracklins were the crispy bits of pork skin and fat which was cooked down in a wash pot until the fat was rendered.  You might not believe it, but fresh, hot, and crispy right out of the pot, a cracklin was a delight better than fried chicken, potato chips, or any other crunchy, fatty junk food you could think of.  But, when packed in grease to be stored and later cooked in cornbread through the winter, they were definitely not good.  I always liked plain cornbread fine, but when my grandmothers poured in a generous handful of cracklins, the resulting “bread” was heavy, greasy, and, as the winter dragged on,  increasingly rancid.  I had a stomach of iron in those days, but I drew the line at cracklin bread and the heartburn I knew would follow.

So if you’re having me for a meal, pass the hoe cakes and the bacon—you can keep the cracklins!

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LIVING DANGEROUSLY

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

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MY SECOND DATE—WHERE’S THAT GLASS SLIPPER?

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MY FIRST DATE

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

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Here I am in 1958 with folded arms prepared for any undergarment failure

I reached my teens in the 1950’s—the age of can-can petticoats, Elvis, rolled bobby socks, and drive-ins. However, I never experienced any of those. Daddy didn’t allow me to date, and if he had given permission, I was too timid to go. So  there I was, nearing seventeen without ever having dated.  Then a friend stepped in.  Maureen Pratt was the envy of almost every other girl in school, because she was a magnet for every good-looking boy on campus.  However, her parents were strict Baptists, and unless the date was a church event, they allowed only double-dates.  She didn’t reveal any of this when she invited me to spend the night.  But on the bus after school, she confided,  “We’re going on a double-date tonight. Johnny, my new boyfriend, is bringing his cousin for you.”

My heart sank.  I had not worn my best bra or my best dress and , maybe worst of all, I had on my mother’s good shoes, which were a size too small.  My feet were screaming for release.

“You’ll like Ronnie,” she assured me.  “He’s cute.”

When Johnny arrived in a 1950 Chevy with a coon tail on the radio antenna, his cousin was  just another skinny, pimply-faced teenage boy with a drake tail haircut.  Ronnie’s limp hair was swept back in waves—Jerry Lee Lewis style. 

“Hi,” I said when introduced, and then wondered what on earth else I could say.  

Then we were in the car, bumping along River Bend Road—the roughest road in the entire county.  “Be careful of all these pot holes,” Maureen said to Johnny.  “Some are ‘bout big enough to swallow the car.”  

Both boys laughed.  “You telling me,” Johnny said.  “These holes are beating the alignment right out of my front end.”

“Pro’bly the rear end too,”  Ronnie said, laughing.

Maureen giggled.  “Naughty!  Isn’t he naughty, Faye?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, trying to think of something cool to add, but before my tongue hooked up with my brain the sparkling date talk went on without me.  More jokes, the last basketball game, who was dating who and which couples had broken up. Maybe I could mention the weather.  We went around a curve and I slid toward Ronnie before I could stop myself.  Grabbing the door handle I pulled myself back in place.

Johnny swerved to miss a pot hole.  I bounced up and down and slid toward Ronnie again.  As I pulled back I felt my right breast bounce free.  A broken bra strap!  I had a safety pin in my purse for this very disaster, but no way I could use it now.  Crossing my arms across my chest, I tried to stop the bounce.  With my luck, it might burst out of my dress and give me a right to the chin.

“Finally,” said Johnny when we turned onto the Chatsworth Highway.  “Good pavement.”  Ronnie agreed that it was good hard-d-d pavement.  Giggles all around.  It seemed hours before we reached the drive-in. 

“West of Laramie!”  cooed Maureen, leaning toward the lit up marquee.  “Don’t you just love westerns!”

As soon as we pulled into a parking spot on one of the back rows and got the speaker attached, Maureen turned to me.  “Want to go to the little girl’s room?”

Did I!  I clamped my left arm over the runaway titty and threw open the door with the other.  

“When we get back Johnny and me are going to take the back seat,” she whispered on the way to the concession stand.   “I think he’s going to propose tonight!”

We pushed ahead of a half dozen girls going in to the tiny bathroom. Doris took one stall and I took the other. Girls began pounding on my door almost immediately while I shucked off my dress and and the age-yellowed bra that Mama had bought when I was thirteen and wore a B cup.  Now I needed a D cup but Mama said new underwear was way down her list.  Not that I minded the size— the B cup acted as a girdle.  I had learned the art of distributing some bust below the cup and still more under each arm.  That still left a goodly amount to squeeze together in the middle.  By pulling the straps as tight as possible, I could mold the remainder into what I hoped was a semblance of a normal bosom.

Fishing my emergency safety pin out of my purse, I began looking for a sound area of fabric in back to pin the strap to. The commode in the next stall flushed. “You ready to go?” Maureen called.

“I’ll come later, “ I said.  “Go on.”  The rusted pin refused to pierce the fabric.  I scrubbed it against the metal lock on the door until I got some rust off. Finally, the bra strap was pinned and my breasts distributed.  I tried to breathe shallow in order to avoid another rupture.

Outside, I realized another problem.  Where was the car?  Dang!  Somewhere in back—but which row?  And what color was Johnny’s car?  Grey?  Blue?

Finally, I saw a familiar car off to the right, and headed toward it .  But just as I reached for the door handle a big dog lunged halfway out the window, barking furiously.  

Retreating, I slammed into someone with a soft drink, which dropped and immediately soaked my skirt and and my right shoe.  Now the shoe squished with each move.

“Sorry,” I said and sloshed off toward a coon tail I’d just spotted two rows away.  The car was vibrating, and as I got closer I saw a leg with a rolled sock dangling out of a back window.

“You got here in time for the round-up,” Ronnie said, nodding toward the screen.

“Goody,” I replied, dropping myself onto the seat. Squish went my right shoe. Bounce went my  breasts. Sproing-g-g-g went the seat.

“Uh, you might want to move over this way,” Ronnie said.  “Bad springs on that side.”

“Seat’s fine,” I said, folding my arms tightly over my chest.  

From the back seat came the sound of murmuring and heavy breathing. On the huge screen thousands of cows thundered across the prairie, and from somewhere across the lines of cars came the barking of a dog. Time stood still.  It was only a hundred and sixteen hours until  we were back at Maureen’s house and Johnny and Ronnie were backing down the driveway to River Bend Road.  

“Did Johnny propose?” I asked as the car drove away.

“Nearly,” said Maureen.  “Did Ronnie ask you for another date?”

“Nearly,” I answered.

I had survived my first date.

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PURSUING THE WRITE STUFF

 
 

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My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

If you’ve never been to John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, you need to remedy this void in your life as soon as possible.  Taking classes  in basketweaving, blacksmithing, weaving, or any one of dozens of other old time crafts classes will make your life more creative and fun.  But if you can possibly manage it, teach a writing class.  This summer I taught my eighth class in writing for children, and I had more fun than is probably legal.  After every JCC class, I say, “It was the best group I’ve ever had” and every time I mean it.  Maybe especially this one in August, 2017 deserves this praise.  We had seven people, including one man ( a “real man” we called him), and during five days of writing, reading, critiquing, and revising, we got to know each other well.  The main thrust of the course was using real experience to make fiction more real.  This group got that right away.  

And they also got that the real events and the real people are only a beginning point for the stories we want to write.  We laughed and cried, and just about everything in between over the course of the week.  One woman had us all on the edge of our seats every time she read.  I don’t think I’ve met anyone who can create such tight suspense even in a scene when nothing is happening except waiting for a traffic light to turn green.  One of our students (a retired science teacher) modestly mentioned the goal of writing about science in such an involving way that kids would have fun reading and learning.  Easier said than done, of course, but this writer did exactly that.  

Another writer had us laughing until we cried with different witty essays, and yet each piece had us thinking about serious matters such as faith and who should be trusted to rule the world.  In this last piece she eventually concluded that kindergarten teachers should take over from the politicians, who could then take the vacant teaching jobs!  Poor kids!

Another woman used a mouse as a main character who explores the Folk School.  Like me, this mouse didn’t look in on any class he didn’t want to take.  The enthusiasm of the mouse was contagious.  All of us were soon thinking of possible ways to expand his adventure.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  This was a talented group and I probably learned more from them than they did from me.  So it was no great surprise when we had a full and enthusiastic audience for our reading on Thursday afternoon.   I thank each of you for a great week at John C. Campbell!  I’ll be looking for your books on the library shelves.

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AN UNCOMMON YOUNG MAN

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Roy Oliver (Senior Picture) 1957

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My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

 

As kids these days might say, many of my memories of my school days suck.  Being one of the biggest and oldest in my class, because my parents didn’t bother to put me in school until I was well past eight, didn’t help.  Neither did being poor and barefoot until 6th grade.  Extreme shyness added to my problems.  With all that, however, there were bright spots—a few teachers who took an interest, books which I soon found provided a world of adventure I could share with siblings, and several amazingly wonderful kids who took the trouble to be my friends.  


First among these would have to be Hazel Brooks.  Hazel was so well liked by everyone that just being her friend guaranteed me a certain degree of acceptance,  Miss Albertson (Later, Mrs. Brackett) and Mr. Benson were two of the East Side School teachers who encouraged and praised me.  Then, much later, there was Roy Oliver.  I didn’t know Roy until 10th grade, when four Whitfield County Schools formed a consolidated high school.  My school, East Side, was the poorest of the county.  One of the high school teachers told me much later that East Side kids either sank or swam in that new school, and that it seemed sometimes more were sinking than swimming.  In everything but math, I guess I was swimming, though only by great effort.  Roy Oliver was from the far more prosperous and scholastic Pleasant Grove School community.  He was involved in sports—lettering in football—and he was popular with both students and faculty.  Every year he was one of the class leaders.  This is a lifetime responsibility, by the way, Every reunion we’ve ever had, Roy was there to call us to order.  In addition to all this, Roy was intelligent.  He was the valedictorian of our class.

With all this going for him, you’d think Roy would have been stuck on himself, but he wasn’t.  He was nice to everyone.  He was gentlemanly.  One big proof of this (for me) was something that happened senior year.  Back then, each homeroom was responsible for cleaning the room.  This meant sweeping, emptying trash cans and pencil sharpeners, and cleaning chalkboards.  The janitor took care of halls and restrooms.  I don’t think this was a bad system, by the way.  Students were included in the responsibility for maintaining the appearance of the school.  The chores were rotated among homeroom students, two of us each day.  Somehow, on one of my days, my assigned partner was absent, and that suited me fine.  I didn’t have to make small talk with anyone.  At recess, I got the broom and waited for the room to clear so I could begin work.  

Suddenly, there was Roy, moving desks for me voluntarily.  “Two people can work faster than one,” he said.  “Be there in a minute,” he called to his friends.

Embarrassed, I protested, “I can do it.  It’s no trouble. You don’t need to help.”

It was no use.  He refused to leave until the last of the cleaning was done.  It was a small thing, but not so small either—for one of the most popular boys in school to be so kind to someone who definitely wasn’t in the In Crowd.

The years have taken us in different directions—Roy and me—and yet Roy Oliver is still on a short list of those people I’ve most respected down through the years.  His values were in the right place in 1957, and, from what I’ve heard of him since, his values are still rock solid.  People like him are not found in great abundance.

But then, they never have been.

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LOOKING AT THE PAST

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DONKEY SEE, DONKEY DOO

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 Faye reading “DONKEYS” to Beck who seems to be enjoying the story while Rosie doesn’t seem to care.

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.




I love donkeys. Always have. I started wanting one of my very own  when I discovered BRIGHTY OF THE GRAND CANYON. That little burro was so independent, so loyal to his friends, so resourceful when difficulties arose, that I could not help loving him.  He knew how to fight off coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, and even a few bad humans who wanted to mistreat him.  Oh, I knew owning a donkey was a hopeless wish—Brighty had lived  way out West, and, as far as I knew, so did all the other donkeys.  They needed more space than a city yard afforded.

Time passed, and my husband and I moved to a rural area.   Meanwhile, coyotes began expanding their habitat, sometimes even taking to urban areas.  In our part of the country, we started hearing rumors of coyotes killing cattle.  We began to hear their howling at night.  Then about twenty years ago coyotes nearly killed our two dogs.  Jack, the older one, was so slashed across his underbelly that the vet did not think he would survive.  After that incident our dogs were fenced at night and when we were away from home. 

Farmers take coyotes seriously.  Losing cattle can put a farmer out of business pretty fast.  Cattle farmers are more than willing to shoot predators, but coyotes are not easy targets.  Poisoned bait would not only endanger other animals, such as cats and dogs, but more often than not, wouldn’t work, because coyotes are suspicious of meat with any smell of humans on or around it.    

Ta-dah!  Enter the Donkey!  Donkeys are smarter than cows, and they can kick the daylights out of anything looking or smelling like a predator.  I began seeing donkeys in among herds of cattle in our part of Alabama.  Sometimes I HEARD them, too, with their distinctive “Hee-haw, hee-haw, heehaw!”

Then last year I got my own donkey—sort of.  My husband and I rented a cabin for the week in Brasstown, North Carolina.  The owner of the cabin had a huge pasture behind the cabin, and in that pasture was a donkey.  The very first day I went out to lure him close enough to pet.  He wasn’t buying.  Undoubtedly, he had met a few humans who needed a good swift kick.  The next day after I finished my class at the nearby Folk School, I went out to the pasture with an apple in hand.  This day, Buck, as I had named him,  ambled closer, but not close enough to touch.  I waved the apple, sliced off a wedge, and tossed it in his direction.  He ate it and moved a step or two closer to the fence with each slice until the apple was gone.

The next day when I appeared at the fence with an apple, Buck ambled over close enough to take the apple from my fingers.  I managed to rub his muzzle before he retreated.  By the fourth day, he came to the fence as soon as I appeared, and on the last day, he came running as soon as he heard our car drive up, bellowing, “Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw!”

“And you want to listen to that every day at home?” My husband asked.

He had a point, but I wasn’t going to tell him so.
So now we’ve worked it out.  I have my donkey, and once or twice a year I go to North Carolina to visit him!  Last week when we were there Buck had two new friends—a shetland pony and a llama.  Now I need to take three apples when I go visiting,

As Buck Owens used to say, “Hee-haw!”

 

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WEAVING A LIFE

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THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY

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Mike with his dog Brownie.

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Mike playing in the dirt.

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

I didn’t find out what caused babies until the summer of my fourteenth year.  I happened up on a Reader’s Digest article at my Aunt Hilde’s house: “How To Tell Your Child The Facts of Life.”  It was a revelation that explained a lot of mysteries.  So when my mother got pregnant for the fifth and last time, I knew how, but I sure didn’t know why.

There were plenty of reasons for why not.  We were so poor that Mama and I only had one pair of shoes between us.  Only one of us at a time could leave the house.  Mama had only recently left the sanitarium where she had been committed because a “nervous breakdown” following my father’s alcohol-related near death experience.  We barely had anything in the way of furniture or clothing, because our previous rental house had burned to the ground, taking everything we owned except for the clothes on our backs and Daddy’s clunker car.

After reading the Digest article, I was able to figure out that Daddy wanted another baby (He enjoyed babies until they were old enough to become work).  Every time we had a visitor, he was bound to say, “I know what would take care of all the old lady’s problems—she needs another little’un.”

About like she needs a hole in the head, I would think, and Mama seemed to agree.  She would usually mutter in a sarcastic tone, “Yeah, that’s all I’d need all right.”  So I thought Mama and I were of a like mind, at least on this subject.  Then one bitterly cold day she and I were doing the weekly laundry by hand when she broke the news.  We had hand-scrubbed and rinsed and were now hanging laundry on the clothesline.  The clothes were freezing almost as fast as we could secure them with clothes pins.

“Well,” Mama said, her eyes on the ground, “I’m going to have a baby.”

I was stunned, so my words tumbled out uncensored.  “My God, Mama.  You and Daddy can’t provide for the four you already have!”

Mama never welcomed criticism—especially when it was loaded with truth.  “It’s none of your business if we have twelve,” she said.  Since I barely had a change of clothing and the elastic in all my drawers was so shot that they only stayed on thanks to safety pins taking up the slack, I felt it was my business, but I was smart enough to leave this unsaid.

I was angry and embarrassed at my parents—deliberately adding to an already too large family.  But I knew enough to nurse my anger in silence.  After a while, Mama figured out a way to reconcile me.  She told me that my sister and I could name the baby.  In spite of myself, I was drawn in.  Jean and I decided on “Elizabeth” for a girl and “Michael” for a boy.  Then, a couple of weeks short of the due date, Mama had a brainstorm.  “George would love to have one young’un named after him. ‘George Michael’ is what we’ll name a boy.”

“Mama,” I wailed, “you promised we could could call him Michael.”

“You can,” she said.  “The first name’ll just be on his birth certificate.“

I knew it couldn’t be that simple.  “Daddy will want to call him George.  We’ve already got three Georges in the family.  I don’t want ‘Little George’ added to the crowd.”

“Your daddy won’t care what the baby’s called,” Mama argued.

But, of course, he did.  “This is Little George” he would announce to everyone who came to see the baby.

“Michael,” I would hiss.  “We’re calling him Michael.”

That was the only battle with Daddy I ever won.  After about three years he quit calling his youngest “Little George.”  But, in a way, Daddy still won—he started calling him Mike, and now that is what everyone calls my youngest brother.

And when I laid eyes on Mike for the first time, I forgot that I hadn’t wanted him.  He was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen, or ever will see.  And he was infectiously  happy and charming.  Mama would get irritated at me for carrying him all the time.  “You’re going to spoil that baby, and then we’ll see if you’re willing to keep toting him around.”

She was wrong.  I don’t remember ever getting tired of it, and when I left home to go to college four years later, leaving him was the hardest thing I had to do.  Who was going to read to Mike, take him for walks in the woods, and play games with him?  For a couple of months at Berry College I cried myself to sleep every night.

Mike survived.  Against the odds, he turned out fine.  And he has a place in my heart forever.

Turns out, Mike was what the whole family needed. Perhaps me, most of all.  I still love you, baby brother.

 

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KEEP ME IN THE DARK, PLEASE!

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Let me take you back to 1964 when this southern girl didn’t have a nose full of hair and didn’t need lip liner.  But as you can see fromthe photo above, I was trying mighty hard to be alluring just the same!

 

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

 

Recently I was reading to one of my grandsons and, instead of hanging on to every word of the story, as usual, Isaac was staring up at me.  When I paused to turn a page he said, “Grandma, do you know you have hair up your nose?”

Lord!  My grandsons are joining the army of people feeding me information I don’t want!

At one time, it was mainly TV commercials pointing out that I might have unsightly, yellowing teeth and nobody has had the guts to tell me.  Or maybe I had underarm odor that I was totally unaware of (Fat chance!).  Then there were those unsightly bulges that I hadn’t noticed (Really?  How could you not notice?).  And panty lines—I never realized how repugnant these were until the commercials aired.  Silly me—I thought those lines meant my pants were too tight.  Then “senior” health bulletins joined the information overload:  “Do you notice that people seem to be mumbling more than in the past?” ”Are you having to go more frequently?”  “Do you fall more often these days?”

YES, and I can’t get up!

Then my sister joined the chorus.  “Why do you have those bags under your eyes?” she asked one day when I was showing her some knitting I was working on. “What bags?” I answered.

That’s STILL my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Then there were make-up problems I didn’t know existed until well-meaning people filled me in.  A while back a friend asked which lipliner I used.  “I don’t use lipliner,” I said.

She looked at me as she might an alien from Mars. “Then what do you do about lipstick ‘bleeds’ into the vertical lines around your mouth?”

“What lines?” I asked.  Of course, as soon as I got home, I checked.  Sure enough, there they were, like offshoots from the San Andreas Fault.  I’m certain they hadn’t existed until she mentioned them.  In fact, that is the theory I’m going with!

As if I don’t have enough real problems to deal with, people are making them up out of thin air! Hardly a day goes by that well-meaning people add to the list.

So here’s my resolution for this new year—Don’t take on problems other people create for you.  Stick to the ones you don’t need help finding.  There will be an adequate supply, trust me! For instance, what to do about hair that increasingly has a mind of its own?  Nothing—mousse, hairspray, styling brushes, or expensive styling gels—will make mine cooperate.  How to keep doctors and other health professionals from preceding or ending each statement with “at your age”  or “considering your age.”  How to avoid listening to people on the extreme left—or right—politically, and being informed of all the latest conspiracy theories going around.  Can’t we just meet in the middle for a change?

Sometimes being “in the dark” is a good place to be.  For sure, it saves me from lipliner!

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IF THE SHOE FITS…

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ROLL EAGLE—WAR TIDE!

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 THE NIGHT THAT BENJAMIN ASKED ME TO MARRY HIM

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction,  and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.  Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

Well, the event of the year is drawing near one more time—and I’m not talking about Thanksgiving or Christmas.  I’m talking about the IRON BOWL, battle of the giants, competition between Good and Evil, War of the Worlds.  Auburn versus Alabama!

I remember when I didn’t know Auburn from University of Alabama.  I didn’t know they had a football game or any other rivalry.  I got my first clue on the subject when I was passing through the teacher’s lounge at my first teaching job after graduating from Berry College.  Two of the school coaches were discussing the lawsuit of someone known as Coach Bryant and speculating that “Bear” was bound to win the suit he’d brought against a magazine that claimed he’d fixed a game.  I heard “Alabama” and said, “That’s where my brother John is going to school next year.”

“I thought John was going to Auburn,” one of the coaches answered.

I shrugged.  Auburn?  Alabama?  “What’s the difference?”

The coach laughed.  “A whole lot if you’re talking football.” 

Well, I wasn’t talking football, and I didn’t care who won or lost, or who played the game.  Little did I know how fortunate I was. 

Two years later, I was just as ignorant when my sister and I drove over to Alabama at our mother’s urging to see what kind of boys John was rooming with while working his every other quarter co-op job with NASA.  Mama was afraid that with money in his pocket  and who-knows-what-kind of boys for roommates, he might just go wild the way Daddy had in his youth.

John had not gone wild, and neither had his roommates.  In fact, the next night at an impromptu party John threw to introduce us to his friends, I saw one of his roommates doing the worst Twist in the history of dance and promptly fell in love—or at least into deep infatuation. I even loved his name: Benjamin.  No matter that back in Georgia I had a boyfriend my age with a full-time job and a car, I wanted this guy.  And I needed to impress him.  So at the first opportunity, I decided to pull out what I thought was the Auburn slogan.  “Roll Tide!”  I said with great enthusiasm.  Every person at the party froze, “No University of Alabama fans allowed!” they chorused.

To show you that my interest was fully returned, Benjamin kept on dancing with me.  I went home the next day and broke up with my boyfriend, who was suddenly as boring as dirt.  Benjamin and I began a long distance courtship.   By the time we were engaged, I knew his father was an Auburn graduate.  Eventually, we had two sons who were also Auburn grads, and the older one married an Auburn girl. Now we have an eighteen-year-old grandson who will soon be a freshman at Auburn.  I even attended Auburn myself for one quarter.  I think Auburn was mandatory if I wanted to stay in the Gibbons clan. 

Unfortunately,  membership in this select family comes with a price.   I had to start knowing and caring who wins the big game.  Though three months later I won’t recall  which school triumphed in the Iron Bowl, I root for Auburn to win every single year.  Just don’t make me watch.  I still don’t give a toot for football.  Watching grass grow is more exciting!

Sometimes—especially those years when Auburn loses—I wish I could get back to those days when I didn’t know or care. 

In this case, ignorance really was bliss!

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