A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL

 

Faye and Sherry and family

Faye with Sherry and some of her family

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon

One of the joys of our recent trip out west was our side trip to visit
the artist-illustrator of three of my picture books–Sherry Meidell.
She and her family made my husband and me welcome in their home and
shared a delicious home-cooked meal–chicken soup and amazing
fresh-from-the-garden vegetables.  When we sat down at the table with
four generations of Meidells, I felt right at home.  Of course, we
talked about our sons–the Meidells have five and we have two–our
daughters-in-law, and our grandchildren.  All–ours and theirs–we
discovered, were well above average in looks and accomplishments.  Too
bad we didn’t have all those kid present when we lined up for photos.

Sherry and I compared on notes on independent bookstores.  She said
her favorite had author signings and launchings all the time.  “So
does mine,” I told her.  “Capitol Books in Montgomery, Alabama even
smells like old books and waxed wood, and leather upholstery.”

We talked about the joys of writing and illustrating books for
children–and how difficult it can be sometimes.  We compared notes on
our long term happy marriages, and our spouses’ creative pursuits.  Her
husband was a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for more than 20
years, my husband is a photographer and woodworker.  Both our husbands
fill the role of best friend and first editor.

Sherry and and her husband shared something else in common with
Benjamin and me: a visit to Peru.  They had hiked up to Machu Picchu,
instead of riding up in a bus, as we did seven or so years ago.

On parting, Sherry presented me with a valuable gift: an original,
double-spread illustration from FULL STEAM AHEAD–the second book she
and I did together.  It is especially treasured because the home in
the painting is modeled on the actual house that was my great grandparents’
home place in Murray County, Georgia.  In front of the house is a more
cheerful version of my great Grandmother and Grandfather Nolan than
anyone experienced in real life (to be fair, my great grandparents had
a lot to be grumpy about).  There are also two children, representing
my Uncle Roy Junkins and my Aunt Bert Cox.  I gave a family photograph
to Sherry to show her how houses looked in Murray County, Georgia
during the time period FULL STEAM AHEAD was set.  Little did I know
she would use more than the house!  I now have my painting framed and
hung in  an honored spot in our house.

Our journey to West Bountiful, Utah was bountiful, indeed.

Thank you, Sherry Meidell!

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A GIFT OF LOVE

 

My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley

We didn’t exchange Christmas gifts in our family.  If mill work was
good, Mama managed to buy us each one gift–a piece of needed clothing
for the three older kids and toys for the younger two–and baked
chicken for Christmas day.  That was it.  But the year I was sixteen
was different–my sister bought me a present.  How Jean managed it, I
have no idea. Maybe she was paid extra one time for babysitting the
four juvenile delinquents up the road, and then hid the surplus from
Mama.  Mama always knew exactly where every penny her kids earned
needed to go.  “That’ll help pay for them shoes you need,” she’d say,
tucking the money into her pocketbook. Or to me, “That’ll go on
getting you that new bra you claim you need.”

Boy, did I ever need a bra.  My bosom had exploded out of the B cups
she’d bought me two years before.  At this point, packing my D cup
breasts into the small cups had become a major task.  Some breast had
to hang out at the bottom.  Some had to bulge up in the middle.  That
still left a lot to bulge out at the sides and under my arms. To hide
all this bulging, I wore a corduroy jacket until hot weather forced me
out of it.  Then our dog Brownie chewed the jacket up.

Back to the gift.  I’m not even sure how Jean managed the actual
purchase.  We lived miles from the nearest store.  Maybe it was on one
of those weekends when Mama allowed her to spend a weekend with Aunt
Hilde. All I know for sure is that Jean had a present for me and she
was glowing with pride and self-satisfaction.  The box was wrapped and
had a bow.  “You’ll never guess what it is,” she said.  Tantalized, I
immediately guessed, “A bra.”

“Something better,” she said. “You’ll never, ever guess.”

My feelings were all over the map. At first, I was grateful that Jean
spent money on me. Then I felt bad because I had no gift to give her.
Then as the guessing game went on and on and on  I became resentful.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, Jean taunted me one too many times and I
snapped.

“I already figured out what it is, and I don’t like it,” I said. “It’s
a junky gift.”

Jean broke down and cried.

I was instantly repentant.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I don’t know what
it is.  I was just mad.”

“No,” Jean sobbed.  “You really don’t like it.”

“I do,” I insisted.  “I will.  I know I’ll like it.”

At last Jean quit crying, and I made up my mind that no matter what it
was, I WOULD like it.

The next morning I opened the box and swallowed hard.  It was a nylon,
see-through blouse.  A nylon, see-through blouse!  The kind that
allowed everyone to see your skin and underwear.  And bulges.  It was
the kind of blouse I had been sure I would never, ever want to wear in
a million years.

But Jean’s eyes were large and expectant as I looked at the blouse and
its rhinestone buttons. I slowly shook it out and held it up to my
bulging bosom..  I could see her clenched hands through the blouse.

“I love it,” I said.

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SEARCHING FOR BRANCHES ON THE FAMILY TREE

 

My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley
Have you noticed that most people develop an interest in family
history just after most of the older members of their family are dead
or sliding in that direction? I confess that I only had a few good
sources left when I suddenly realized that when the last of these
older relatives were gone, the history would die with them. I did
have an advantage–as a kid I loved to listen to stories, even the
ones ending with, “And what you can learn from this story is….”
Knowing enough so that you know what questions to ask helps a lot.

I began visiting and collecting family stories back when my kids were
young. I took my tape recorder and my camera for each visit.
Sometimes I visited long-time neighbors of relatives and got family
stories from them that my own relatives had forgotten, or chosen not
to tell. Most of the people I interviewed in the seventies and
eighties are gone now, and every so often I get a call or letter from
someone who has heard I had a tape of their grandparent or aunt, and
now they want a copy. I’m happy to oblige.

Besides loving stories, I have another advantage: I have two surviving
aunts. Both have always been known for having the best memories in
the family. The aunt I’m closest to–I’ll call her Mollie–is a joy to
visit and is happy to relive any of the old days I want to hear about.
Her sister “Dorilee” is another case entirely. Aunt Dorilee has a
sour disposition and is always alert for ulterior motives, so my
visits to her have been infrequent. Finally, however, I decided I had
to see what stories she could tell me. Armed with my tape recorder,
my camera, and some old family photos I showed up at her house one
day.

“What do you want?” she asked when I identified myself.

“I was hoping I could get some family stories from you,” I answered
with a smile.

She stared at my camera. “I don’t remember nothing.”

My smile began to feel forced. “Weren’t you were still living with
Maw and Dad when my parents got married?”

“Mighta been, but I don’t remember nothing.”

Uninvited, I sat down, pulled out my tape recorder, and set it on the
table next to my chair.

Dorilee’s frown deepened. “What’s that contraption?”

“A tape recorder,” I said. “I want to record every word you say
because I’m sure my memory isn’t as good as yours.”

“Yours would have to be better’n mine,” she said without taking her
eyes off the recorder.

I pushed the “on” button. “Do you remember how you felt when William
showed up with his war bride after World War II?”

“I didn’t like Hilde then, and I don’t like her now.”

“How did you meet your husband?”

“Too far back to remember, and why does that matter anyway?

This is how the entire visit went. Later, when I reported to Aunt
Mollie, she said I’d gone about it entirely wrong.

As if I didn’t know!

“Next time don’t take anything but a pocketbook and something she can
sell at the flea market,” Aunt Mollie advised. “Go in the summertime,
but before it’s too hot, and first drive by her house to see if she’s
in the yard. If she is, stop and give her whatever you brought and
just sit down and talk about the weather for a spell. After while you
start telling some family story–only make sure you tell it wrong.
Dorilee will take it from there.”

Now I’m ready. If Dorilee can just hang on until next summer!

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PRAISE THE LORD AND PASS THE COOKIES

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon

I don’t do vacation bible school anymore.  Every protestant church in
the South has VBS for one week every summer.  It’s sort of like camp,
only the kids sing hymns, do crafts, and play games, all having to do
with Jesus.  And the last day–or evening–parents are invited to see
their children on stage demonstrating what they have learned.  They
get to see what teachers learned too, because the kids won’t perform
if the teacher isn’t on stage, suffering along with them.

One year I allowed myself to be talked into teaching the kindergarten
class.  “Piece of cake,” the coordinator of bible school assured me.
“How much trouble can a handful of five-year-olds be?”

Plenty, it turns out.  First of all, there were more than a handful.
Twenty, to be exact. Twenty squirmy, talkative, rough-housing,
rock-toting kids.  Or at least one had a rock.  “Just for self
defense,” the little girl with golden curls assured me.  “Just until
I’m old enough to have a gun.”

I talked her out of the rock and then announced that we would have our
bible lesson for the day.  “I druther wrestle,” said a little boy
wearing about eight bandaids.  He threw himself on top of the boy on
his right, and the two of them went rolling across the floor. Several
other boys and Goldilocks joined the pile-up.

“Back to your circle right now!” I ordered in my most authoritative
voice.  It worked.  Our circle reformed, sort of.  “We’ll sing some
songs,” I said.  I’m sure you all know ‘Jesus Loves me.’”

If they didn’t, they knew it by the time we’d done eighteen rounds.
Then we colored pictures of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus blessing the loaves and the fishes, and Jesus blessing little
children.  Then it was time for crafts, where each child was given an
oatmeal box, a juice bottle and ten drink straws and told to construct
Noah’s Ark.  At mid-morning snack I got to see how well the other
teachers were doing with their kids.  They all had different
techniques, but they all had achieved the same result–obedient,
mannerly angels quoting scripture.

The second day was pretty much the same, and I felt pretty bad about
myself–I’d probably not instilled more than a thimbleful of scripture
in two days.  All right, I thought, tomorrow, we are going to do an
activity and bring scripture into it.  Somehow.

On Wednesday I arrived early, carrying all the cookie sheets I owned,
plus all my mother-in-law owned.  Many of those pans were older than I
was.  I also took cookie dough, a rolling pin, cookie cutters, and
tubes of decorating icing in six colors for writing verses on cookies.

Goldilocks zeroed in on the pans.  Lifting sheet after sheet with two
fingers, she inspected them and wrinkled her nose.  “I’ll not eat any
cookies baked on these,” she announced. “They’re dirty.”

“No,” I assured her. “They are just old and discolored.”

She shook her head.  “Dirty.“

“Dirty,” chorused the rest of the class.

“Okay,” I said, don’t eat them, “but we’re going to make them.”

We did. We had flour and dough all over the classroom.  Before we got
to the verses, The kids had used the icing to decorate themselves and
their clothing.  Goldilocks wiped up one dribble of icing from the
floor with one finger and licked it off.

It took me two hours after the kids left to clean the room.

Friday at the closing program, we sang eighteen rounds of “Jesus Loves
Me,” and sat down to polite applause.

Now when our church asks for volunteers for bible school, I’m the
first to raise my hand. “Put me down for brownies and Kool-Aid for
refreshments,” I say.

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DOWN TO THE BARE FACTS

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon

After I made the big decision to go to college, after I’d found a
place to borrow money to help with college expenses, after I’d talked
my father into co-signing for the education loan, I found there was an
even larger hurdle ahead.  I had to have a complete physical.  It’s so
many years ago, I’m unclear as to exactly what the pertinent letter
from Berry said, but whatever the wording, I was sure it meant I’d
have to strip and allow a man–I’d never heard of a woman doctor–to
see me naked.

No way!  I was too timid to wear a swimsuit.

I would have expected my mother to take advantage of my dilemma.
After all, she had fought me all the way on my college plans.  She had
told me how foolish It was to waste borrowed money on more education
when anybody could get a perfectly good job at the mill with less
education than I already had. Maybe she did use my hesitation, at
first, but she finally got so tired of my worrying about the physical
that she said, “Go to old Doc English.  The man must be nearly a
hundred.  He won’t have you strip, and he couldn’t see you if you
did.”

It took some convincing, but finally I went.  His office was on main
street in Dalton.  I walked in and told the nurse what I was there
for.  She motioned me to a seat next to an old woman and man I took to
be her son.  I waited and all too soon, it was my time to to be
ushered to the back room, which was the one and only exam room.  There
I saw a withered up fossil of a man who looked more than a century
old.  He wore a suit and a vest that might be even older than he was.
Here and there small moth holes dotted the fabric.

“What is your problem?” he asked.

The nurse handed him the forms from Berry.  “This is Faye Junkins and
she has to have a physical.”

The doctor looked at the papers so long, I was afraid he might have
fallen asleep.  Then the nurse spoke.  “Do we weigh and measure?”

“Yes,” he answered, and gestured toward the scales.

I stepped up on them but kept my eyes on the wall beyond while the
doctor fiddled with the weight and height mechanisms.  “One hundred
and twenty-five pounds,”  he declared and the nurse wrote it down.

A hundred twenty-five!  I had’t weighed that since fifth grade.

“Five feet, five inches,” he said.

I was five foot, eight.

“Heart,” said the doctor and lifted the cup-like device and pressed it
well above my left breast.  “Normal,” he said.  He pressed the device
above my right breast.  “Lungs, normal.”  He lifted my right arm and
then my left and bent them at the elbow.  “Reflexes, normal.”  He
stared into my eyes and asked what I saw out the window on the back
wall.

“The railroad overpass and a smokestack.”

“Vision, normal.”

The doctor turned and walked a few slow steps away.  Then, with his
back turned, he asked, in a low voice, “Can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Hearing, normal,”  he said, taking the paper and signing.  “You fill
out the rest,” he told the nurse before turning to me.  “That’ll be
$5.”

I was so relieved I practically flew home.  No more physicals, ever.

Then two weeks into my first semester at Berry College, the Dean of
Women told us that a team of interns from Emory Medical School would
be conducting full physicals on all students!

The funny thing is that I don’t even recall any details of that check-up.

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MRS. STOUDEMIRE SAVES SHAKESPEARE

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PUPPY LOVE

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon

I still recall my first love.  Just in case he reads this, I will call
him “Jeffrey,”  but every girl in my grade at East Side School would
know immediately his real name, because they all loved him too.  Or
“liked,” as we said back then.  Jeffrey was the Clark Gable of East
Side–popular with boys, girls, and teachers.  An excellent student,
he was good at sports too.  He was reserved and seemed more mature
than other boys in our class.  Though his name was frequently linked
to the popular girls like Maureen, Helen, and Alice, I don’t ever
recall him openly claiming them.  He was the strong and silent type.

Part of what made Jeffrey the prince of the class had to be the fact
that his mother always brought treats on holidays–Halloween,
Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and–of course–on Jeffrey’s
birthday.  There were bound to be cupcakes, cookies, candy, Kool-Ade,
and sometimes ice cream.  You might guess that Jeffrey was an adored
only child, and likely a surprise late child.  Fortunately, Jeffrey
didn’t act spoiled.  True, he took the class adulation as his due, but
he never seemed egotistical.

Me, I’m not positive I ever got up the nerve to speak to him.  Still,
no doubt about it–I was in love.  If he brushed my arm on a trip to
the pencil sharpener, I got chill bumps.  If his glance bounced in my
general direction, my heart pounded.  Once when in line behind him, I
noticed he even smelled good.

In eighth grade we had a teacher who was very interested in the
romantic lives of her students.  “Mrs. Brighton”  kept up with who
liked who, and who had “broken off.”  One day when it was almost time
for the dismissal bell, she said, “You know which two I think would be
a good match?”  “Who?” the class chorused.  There followed a guessing
game in which every combination of the popular kids was presented.
Mrs. Brighton answered no to each suggestion.  Then when the bell
rang, she said, “Faye and Jeffrey.”

My face reddened.  My heart raced.  As we ran for the buses, I could
hear the whispered talk around me.  “Jeffrey and Faye?”  “Faye and
Jeffrey?”  Maureen Bailey ran up by my side and asked, “Do you like
Jeffrey?”

I shrugged.  “He’s okay, I guess.”

“But do you like him for a sweetheart?”

“He’s okay,” I repeated, darting into my waiting bus.

Jeffrey was already on the bus, seated many rows back from his usual
place behind the driver.  I took the seat beside my sister, Jean, near
the front.

Life went on. After that year, Jeffrey left East Side and enrolled at
Dalton High.  I eventually went to North Whitfield High.  After
college, I taught at North Whitfield for two years.  I got a car,
gradually bought a few nice clothes, and started getting good
haircuts.  Life was definitely getting better.

One day when I was dressed for some big occasion, I stopped for gas,
and there on the other side of the pump was Jeffrey.  He looked like
he’d just stepped off the movie screen.  “Faye,” he said, smiling his
wonderful smile.  “Faye Junkins–the girl I secretly loved for years
at East Side….”

I’m lying. The truth is, Jeffrey didn’t recognize me until I told him
my name.  And maybe not even then.  But the worst part was, the grown
up Jeffry was so ordinary.  So average.  Not at all like the shining,
gallant Jeffrey of my memories.  It’s been a few decades now, and
thank goodness, I’ve managed to blot out that meeting almost entirely.

Handsome Jeffrey is restored to my memory in all his glory, and he is
still my first love.

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PEARL

My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon

It’s a wonder I even liked my cousin, Pearl when we were growing up in
the 1940s and 50s.  She was beautiful and she was good.  She was also
a hard worker.  My Grandmother Junkins, whom I know meant it for my
own good, was always comparing me to Pearl to point out precisely
where I needed improvement.  Unfortunately for Maw, I never got fired
up for self improvement.  The way I saw it, Pearl was born with
advantages I didn’t have.

She had a happier family for one thing.  Her father was a religious
man, but not a fanatic.  Her parents adored each other and their three
children.  In addition, Pearl was born beautiful.  She inherited the
dark complexion and black hair of her Cherokee blood from both
parents.  She didn’t need any cosmetics to enhance her looks and
didn’t use them.  Slender and graceful, she moved like a dancer.  She
had a beautiful smile, but if she had moments of hilarity, I never saw
it.  Dignity seemed to come to her as a birthright.

As Maw reminded me frequently, Pearl was a worker too.  Her mother
died when Pearl was a teenager, and since the older daughter was
married by this time, all the housework and cooking fell to Pearl.
Uncle Roy’s house had no electricity, so she cooked wonderful meals on
her mother’s old iron cookstove.  She milked the cow, churned butter,
took care of the chickens, fed the hog, and still looked like a
princess.

And she sang.  Uncle Roy and his children formed their own gospel
group, specializing in songs that the Chuck Wagon Gang made
famous–”Walk on the Sunny Side,” “After a While,” and “Some Glad
Morning.”

Young men around Carter’s Quarter noticed Pearl for sure, but most
were too intimidated by Uncle Roy to court her.  One boy didn’t get
scared off.  Jimmy Nolan was Pearl’s brother’s best friend, and the
friendship allowed him to see Pearl other than in church.  He took
advantage of that to try to impress her.  Perhaps because he was a
little younger than her, Pearl refused to give him any encouragement.
Jimmy finished high school and was drafted.  During eighteen months of
service, he saw a lot of the world other than the mountain of Georgia,
but he never saw another girl that interested him.  When he came home
he had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
He later said the only way he could see her was to go to every church
service in the country, and that’s just what he did.

My grandmother did not approve.  As far as I knew, she had no specific
complaints about Jimmy.  He simply wasn’t good enough for Pearl.  But
then nobody would have been good enough, in Maw’s opinion.  She called
him “that Jimmy.”  “That Jimmy was setting with Pearl in church again
last Sunday,” she would report, frowning, or “That Jimmy was at every
revival meeting last week, setting with Pearl.”  Finally, it was,
“They say that Jimmy is trying to talk Pearl into marrying.”

Marry, they did, and life changed for Pearl.  Jimmy loved boating and
hunting.  If Maw had still been living, she wouldn’t have believed her
Pearl in a swimsuit or strollicking all over the country on hunting
and boating trips, even after they had a daughter.

On one of my last visits to Uncle Roy’s house, I had a glimpse of the
new Pearl.  She and I were both wearing jeans.  Probably in response
a look or a comment from Uncle Roy, Pearl said, “Daddy doesn’t like us
wearing pants.”

“It’s not me you have to worry about,” he replied.  “Read your Bible.”

Pearl winked at me, and as Uncle Roy left the room she said,  “The old
folks won’t ever change, but I think we’re okay.”

I nodded.  I was okay.  Thanks to Maw’s comparisons, I’d improved more
than I probably ever would have done on my own. And if I never made
A+, that was all right too.

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SWASHBUCKLING BO

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A BOXER NAMED BO

My latest book, HALLEY, Awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.

I’m a dog lover, and I particularly love Boxers.  So when I found Bo
at a humane shelter about ten years ago, I was smitten right off.
Despite his claims to the contrary, he was half something other than
Boxer.  His long snout was a dead giveaway.    But he managed to charm
his way into Boxer Rescue anyway.

Bo had been surrendered by his original owner because he could leap
four-foot-fencing and had been roaming many neighborhoods at will.  To
make him ours, my husband and I had to agree to install six foot
fencing and to pay for heart worm treatments.  Bo wasn’t a cheap dog,
and if I hadn’t already been in love, I would have moved on.  But we
paid for the treatments and a six foot fence surrounding a large area
of yard and connecting to a doorway into a building we call “the
cottage.”  Inside the dogtrot hallway of the cottage, my husband,
Benjamin, built a carpeted, insulated doghouse, and he installed two
100 watt bulbs, to provide heat in winter.  A curtain over the doorway
kept out winter drafts. It had carpet.

Bo inspected everything, scent marked key landmarks and then announced
he wanted out.  He tried to leap the fence, and then he tried to climb
it.  Then he whined and whined and howled.  The second day we let him
out so he could check out the rest of the yard.  Immediately he took
off for the busy highway.  We chased and we yelled, but Bo was
oblivious. He zipped across that highway, totally ignoring honking
cars and eighteen wheelers, and raced across the cotton field on the
far side.  Back to the fence.

The next outing Benjamin led him by leash into the woods behind our
house, and then staked the leash next to a stack of concrete blocks.
“You can get acquainted with your new home while I dig the foundation
for this shed,” he said.  Bo  was sniffing the air and then he was
racing around, smelling the ground.  At that moment a mouse scurried
across the pine needles and ducked through an opening in a concrete
block.  Bo was right behind him and managed to thrust his head through
the block. When Bo tried to pull his head out, the three-layer stack
of blocks began to shake and then crashed down.  Bo wore the block he
was stuck in until Benjamin could free him.

We eventually trained Bo to know his own yard, but he “forgot” on a
regular basis, especially when chasing a stray dog or cat, a squirrel
or possom.  On those occasions he seemed to forget even where home was
and sometimes he didn’t come back until the wee hours of morning.
Occasionally he returned smelling of a dead animal he’d rolled in.

One July when I was recovering from cancer surgery he pulled one of
those disappearing acts and he didn’t come back by morning.  Benjamin
went looking for him.  None of the neighbors had seen him. He wasn’t
at the trailer park about a mile away, where one of his former cat
chases had taken him.  Another day passed and no Bo.  I pictured him
lying in a field somewhere, dying.  A third day came, and by then I
was sure Bo was gone forever.

At mid-morning a truck pulled up in the yard, and a neighbor got out.
“That dog you been looking for–is he caramel colored and about yay
tall?  I’ve been hearing noises in my barn loft for several days, but
I figured it was just squirrels.  It’s been so blamed hot I didn’t
hardly see how it could be anything else.  Then this morning I decided
to check.  Well, there he was.  He was scared of those stairs–had to
whip him with a broom to get ‘im down.  Soon as he was outside, he
drank about a gallon of water from the pond.  I ‘spect you need to
come after him.  Not sure he’s able to walk this far.”

Bo recovered, and I wish I could say he learned his lesson.  But then,
if he had, we would know it wasn’t the real Bo!

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A MOST HAPPY FELLOW

 

 

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FOLKLORE, CHARMS, AND OLD WIVES’ TALES

 

In the Georgia mountains of my childhood, there were some people who were superstitious.  Not many actually believed in ghosts, but many believed in “signs.”  If your hand inched, you were going to come into some money.  If your nose itched, you were going to have company.  Many believed that people could bring bad luck on another simply by wishing it on them.  I think practically all the women believed that a pregnant woman who got scared or had a bad experience could “mark” her baby.  When expecting me, my mother saw her pet dog run over by a car, and when I was born I had a red birthmark on the back of my head.  “It was just exactly the shape of the puddle of blood around my dog’s head,” she would say.  My grandmother Long believed she had marked her firstborn son by constantly craving strawberries while pregnant.  She wasn’t a bit surprised when he was born with a birthmark on his chest shaped like a strawberry. 

My Grandfather Long, like many other farmers of that place and time, planted and harvested by the astrological signs of the zodiac.  He was sure that his success depended on obeying these signs precisely.  Not only that, he believed that as mundane a chore as digging fence post holes had to be planned by the signs and the phases of the moon.  According to him and others, you had to dig out a lot more dirt when you didn’t go by the signs.  In addition, common illnesses could have worse consequences if they happened at an unfavorable time.

There was folklore about having your wishes granted too.  Many believed that if you wanted something very badly, you could simply name that wish and then open the bible at random.  If either of the pages contained the phrase “It came to pass,” then your wish would be granted.  I didn’t really believe this, but I did try it a few times just to be sure.  It didn’t work for me.  

Some people were reputed to have mysterious healing powers.  Some could “draw the fire” out of a burn injury, so there would supposedly be no more pain.  My great grandfather Fields was said to be gifted with the power of curing babies of  the “thrush,” by breathing in their mouths.  He dipped snuff, so the smell of tobacco spit and rotten teeth might have driven away almost anything!

A college friend of mine grew up on a Georgia farm along with four sisters.  Eleen’s father died a couple of months before the youngest girl was born.  That child never saw her father, and according to a common superstition that fact automatically gave her almost unlimited healing powers.  People would bring their loved ones from great distances to have a laying on of hands.  She did not charge–that, it was believed, would have canceled out her power–but people would give free will gifts in accordance to their means–a quarter, fifty cents–occasionally even a dollar.  Perhaps from jealousy, the older girls teased the youngest constantly about her “powers.”  The reluctant healer began hiding in the woods when she saw visitors coming.  Her mother always sent the other girls to fetch her–the family needed the money, but Mama also didn’t want to turn desperate people away.  

I remembered Eleen’s story when writing HALLEY, and I gave Opal, an African American girl, this power of healing.  But I decided I would also give her the goal of going to medical school and becoming a true healer.  Opal’s family, who all worked so one could go to school, served as a stark contrast to Halley’s family, who valued education so little.

It’s easy to laugh at superstitious beliefs from earlier times, but we have our own illogical beliefs.   If you doubt, just look at those who play the stock market. They shell out big money on “hunches” or unchecked tips.  And every time the stock market shows a long rising trend, they believe against all logic that it will last forever.

I guess each generation has to give young people something to disbelieve and laugh at!

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MOZART IN THE MOUNTAINS

 

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ELEMENTARY, MR. WATSON

“Mr. Watson” was not the kindest, most handsome, or the best teacher I had at East Side School in Dalton, Georgia.  He had a sarcastic way about him sometimes.  One of my vivid memories is the time I was marching in from recess with the rest of the class and slammed my shoulder against the classroom door frame.  “We are really going to have to widen these doorways,” he said to a teacher across the hall, and laughed.  I was mortified.  

But Mr. Watson was the teacher who told all 40 kids in our class every day that they mattered.  He told us we could do anything we wanted, if we got our education.  In fact, he would list possibilities:  doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, airline pilot, engineer, scientist or whatever else we dreamed of.  Of course, for a roomful of kids whose parents almost all worked 8-5 at the mills, except during lay-offs when nobody worked, this seemed unlikely.  But, still, there comes a time you begin to think just maybe it is possible.

Mr. Watson told us one other thing that was important.  “While you’re getting an education, make sure you learn at least one skill that involves using your hands.  It will make your life more satisfying, and it might help you make a living.”  Mr. Watson’s skill was bricklaying.  He had paid his way through college with it, and even as a teacher he took summer construction jobs to add to his income.  He had done all the brick work on the house he and his wife lived in.  It was near Mill Creek, so I saw it often on our long bus ride to and from school.  Then, when my family mainly lived in small, rundown places, his house looked fancy and large. 

Time passed.  Even though my mother couldn’t see the sense of it, I went on to high school, instead of dropping out and working at the mill as she wanted.  Often I wondered myself about the sense of it.  There were problems in our family.  It seemed like Mama had been sick forever.  For two years my sister and I took day about, missing school to stay home with her.  Some days my only relief was to head for the woods.  On our most recent move we found a house just beyond Mill Creek.  The woods behind our house were my refuge.   

One afternoon, just after several days of rain, I was walking through the woods to the creek bank. I was deep in thought.  It was getting harder and harder to stay caught up with school work.  I hardly had any clothes to wear and every few days I was having to hand stitch the soles of my shoes to keep them attached. I had untreated cavities in two molars.  Maybe Mama was right about finding a mill job.   I came to the old bridge, which had been closed to traffic for at least ten years.  I stepped on it and took several strides before I realized a man was on the bridge.  He was leaning over looking at the water.  As I retreated, he looked up.  

Mr. Watson!  I hadn’t seem him in several years, but it was him.

“You still in school?” he demanded.

I nodded, still backing up. “Yes sir,” 

“Good.  Get your education.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, turning.  “I will.”

  On the way home, I thought–hard.  Getting more schooling might or might not take me to a place I wanted to be, but it almost had to be a better place than where I was now. Mr Watson had laid one more brick to decision process.  Though I sometimes wavered, I became more and more sure that I needed all the education I could get.

Sometimes the best teacher is the one who tells you what you need to hear.

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Ya’ll Come

Southern hospitality isn’t what it used to be.  And I’m not just referring to the decline of the ritual “Ya’ll come to see us” southerners once felt compelled to say on parting.  These days, Even the most hospitable and charitable only feel required to say something like, “Come back again sometime.”  That would have been bordering on downright rudeness in my childhood.  Back then, nobody called ahead to announce a visit either–nobody had phones.  They simply drove up in your yard on Friday or Saturday. Surprise!

Even if we’d just finished a meal, Mama or Daddy would say, “Well, have you folks had anything to eat?”  The polite response was, “No, but I wouldn’t want to put you to no trouble.”  “It’s no trouble,” Mama would say, even though it meant she had to cook all over again.  If we had yard chickens, which we did in a few houses we rented, it frequently meant running down a hen and wringing its neck to become company dinner.   Or Daddy might go buy pork chops.

Whenever we had such unaccustomed items for a meal Mama would take me aside and whisper, “You kids don’t get any meat until company helps their plates.  Tell the rest.”  I didn’t have to.  They knew the protocol. When food was served, Daddy was sure to announce, “Make yourself at home.  If you ain’t at home you orta be.”  

Nighttime meant all the young’uns slept on pallets–boys on one, girls on another–so adults could have the beds.  In  cold weather we kids slept “spoon-style” and woe to you if you had a bed wetter on one–or both–sides.

There were times when visitors stayed for longer durations.  One bachelor uncle remained for nearly a year before being diagnosed with tuberculosis and put in a hospital. Why none of us caught it, I don’t know.  It wasn’t all one way.  Once when we were down on our luck, we stayed with my father’s parents for a couple of months.  My grandfather Junkins was very stingy, so he wasn’t as gracious as southern rules of hospitality required, but he never kicked us out.  

Another time we stayed with my Grandmother Long and her husband, Pa Long, for a couple of weeks..  We were very welcome there–my grandmother put us to work.  On their large farm she could always find work for every one of us.  I’ll have to say her policy motivated guests to move on as soon as possible!

When my sister and I were both out of college we took Mama to visit a distant relative who lived in a rural area.  This was in the mid-nineteen sixties, but this woman was still trying to keep up the old standards.  She absolutely would not take no for an answer when she invited us to dinner.  One of her five children was dispatched to the mom and pop store down the road and the others were set to gathering corn, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce and onions from the abundant garden.  

When dinner was spread the browned slices of Spam were on a platter in the center of the table.  All five children were eying the meat, but none took any.  Mama, Jean, and I helped ourselves to all  those fresh vegetables and assured the hostess again and again that we’d much rather have those than meat.  Only then did the kids reach for the meat platter.  It was empty in a minute or less.

When we departed, our hostess,said, “Ya’ll come back.”

“You come to see us,” Jean, Mama,  and I said together.  Back then we still practiced southern manners.

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A GOOD ARMADILLO

 

My three youngest grandchildren are the most satisfying audience in the world to read to!  They will sit and listen for as long as my voice holds out.  So far, my record is 12 picture books/easy readers at a sitting!  Since the boys range from two up to five, that is even more amazing.  But some stories they want to hear again and again.  I may keep this a secret from their grandfather, who has a grudge against a certain armadillo who is bulldozing our yard, but one of their very favorites is MERRY CHRISTMAS OLD ARMADILLO written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Dominic Catalano. 

Larry’s story opens with Old Armadillo all alone in his casita above a tiny village.  I only get through the first sentence when Isaac, the five-year-old asks, “Why is he alone?”

“Maybe he has no family,” I say, and read on.

Samuel, the three-year-old tenses up when Old Armadillo stands at his gate and listens for sounds.  “Why is he crying?” he asks on the next page when Old Armadillo sheds a tear.

Jacob, the baby, wiggles in my lap and pats the animals who are putting up decorations. “Woof-woof!” he says, obviously unsure about what sounds a roadrunner, a peccary or a coyote might make.

“Why is the armadillo sleeping?” Isaac asks as the animals keep gathering outside.

“Because he’s old,” I answer.

“Like Granddaddy?” he asked, pointing to Benjamin, who is asleep in a nearby easy chair..

“Yes,” I say.

My grandsons laugh as the animals keep knocking on Old Armadillo’s door, and then peeking through his window.

The story never fails to bring sighs of satisfaction all around every time it wraps up with a happy ending.  Even young children respond to a story of friendship and love.  And I’m sure it’s not just my grandchildren who love it–it has been in print for 20 years now!

I asked Larry how such a beloved story came about.  “Too often,” he said, “our elderly friends and family members are left on their own, forgotten during the holidays.  As a letter writing assignment I used to have my high school students ‘adopt’ an elderly person in the residential facility within walking distance of the school.  We did this in the fall and wrapped it up with a visit to the facility around the holidays when we’d have a cupcake and punch party.  Many of the elders appreciated hearing from and visiting with the young people.  And what I noticed is that many of my students kept up contact long after the assignment was over.  Quite a few went into health care after school.”

Larry went on to say that Old Armadillo was also inspired by the great relationship he had with his grandfather, who traveled often.  “We kept up that correspondence no matter where he was.  It was fun to remember him on his birthday and other important days.”

As Ernest Hemingway said, what a writer knows about his characters makes a difference even when the facts don’t actually appear in the story.  Amazingly, that also seems to apply to a story for youngsters.  

Good work, Larry! 

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The Armored Guerrilla of Pine Flat

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NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS

 My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley

My acting career seemed to go by in a flash.  Maybe that’s because the part in front of the camera only lasted one very long day.

My husband and I heard they wanted to hire “extras” for crowd scenes in BIG FISH, and we said why not?  They were shooting the funeral scene at the little church behind our house and the pay scale wasn’t bad.   

First came wardrobe approval.  I took my favorite skirt, blouse, and (since the weather was cool) a warm jacket to be approved at the assigned place in the Cloverdale area of Montgomery, Alabama.  Everything passed.  The day of the funeral scene shoot, we reported at dawn to the Pine Flat Presbyterian Church Cemetery only to find that they had changed my wardrobe.  I had to wear a skirt well above my knees and a light weight jacket too thin for March.  Furthermore, they decided that my husband did not look right for me, so I was matched with a college professor a head shorter than me.  My husband was several tombstones away with a good-looking blond.  

We rehearsed walking toward the point where the camera was set up.  Assistant directors mounted ladders to observe, and then shuffled us extras around.  They even broke couples up and repartnered them.  But I was left with the “husband” I’d been assigned and Benjamin remained with the blond.  Again we marched, and again we were shuffled.  Benjamin and the blond got further and further away.  My back began to ache. My feet were numb with cold.

It had warmed a little when the stars appeared–Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, and so on.  We had been warned not to approach or speak to them.  I really didn’t want to, except maybe to get close enough to hear DeVito.  Whatever he was saying was convulsing the crowd around him.

We extras kept on standing.  Then a murmur ran through the crowd.  “The director!”

Tim Burton had arrived, and he was every bit as weird looking as he appeared in the gossip magazines.  He took his place behind the camera.

“Finally!  The man next to me said.  “We’re going to get started.”

Dream on! Tim Burton left the camera and consulted with assistants.  “Extras back to starting positions!” one of them ordered.  We marched.  We marched again.  We stood.  My legs were numb, but my feet were screaming.  Across the cemetery, I saw Benjamin gallantly helping the blond to a tombstone just high enough to serve as a seat.

Good idea, I thought and looked around.  I found a very thin marker just behind me and plopped down–just behind the marker! My skirt fell down around my rear end and since the bend of my knee was supported by the stone, there was no dignified way of getting up. My pretend husband looked at me and then looked quickly away.  

“Benjamin!” I yelled.  “Help me.”  He came running.

“Hope they captured this on film,” he said.

After that, I stood, I marched, and I stood some more.  Except for a lunch break that is how the entire day went.  When the sun was going down an assistant asked who would like to work the next day.

“Not me,” I said, thereby dooming a promising show business career.  

Now when I watch BIG FISH, I have to slow it down to a creep and get really close to catch a glimpse of me in that minute or so of funeral footage. But in my closet hangs the leather coat I bought with my pay.  Too bad I couldn’t wear it at the funeral!

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DRIVING A BARGAIN

My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley

I didn’t learn to drive as a teenager, as normal people do.  I wouldn’t ask Daddy’s permission to use his car (the answer would have been NO), and I sure didn’t want him as a driving instructor.  Besides, I knew I couldn’t risk damaging a vehicle he drove.  Even though at this time he had owned few cars that anybody besides Daddy would notice a new scratch or dent on, his eagle eye caught any new irregularity.  And woe be to the person responsible!

So when I graduated from Berry College in 1961 with plans to teach, I had no car and no driving skills.  Furthermore, since my monthly take-home pay was to be about $235, I didn’t see how I could afford a car.  Uncle William came to the rescue.  He worked at the Hub Ford Service Department in Atlanta, and he offered to get me a new Ford Falcon “at cost.”  The total price–I think this included tax–was a little over $1900.  The monthly payment was $71 per month.  Since I had no income until my first paycheck in September, I could not get the car until the week before school started.  

Of course, I must somehow learn to drive in the meantime.  My first choice teacher was Mama.  She had learned several years before, though she still had to take her bottle of Miles Nervine along for when she got nervous.  I begged, pleaded, and even tried to make her feel guilty.  Nothing worked.  In the meantime Daddy was eagerly volunteering for the job.  Why, I have no idea.  Much later, I taught two sons to drive while going through menopausal mood swings, and, if I’d had it,  I would have needed several quarts of Miles Nervine to survive the first few drives.  Luckily, the patent medicine was no longer on the market.  As Daddy kept volunteering,  and I kept answering, “No!”  He began demanding, “Why not? 

“You’d be cursing every two minutes, and I can’t stand that,” I finally told him.

Daddy seemed genuinely astonished.  “Me?  No way.  I learned your Mama how to drive, and I didn’t cuss her.”

“Huh!” Mama said, but Daddy ignored the comment.

At last, when I had despaired of finding anyone else, I accepted Daddy’s offer.  Each afternoon for a week, he took me to a rough, narrow road winding across a field, and turned the wheel of his precious car over to me.  The experience was just as bad as I had anticipated.  At the least little mistake–like running off the road into the grass, or going into a ditch, or driving over a little-bitty pine sapling–he would swear a blue streak, and then say, “Can’t you just do what I’m telling you?”

Apparently not, but we both survived.  At the end of the week, I was driving–sort of.  To stay in my proper lane, I was sighting by the hood ornament and the right fender.  The first few weeks of driving the Falcon, I probably clutched dents into the steering wheel while navigating the 14 miles between our house to North Whitfield High School.  By Christmas, I felt like a good driver.  I guess I overestimated my skills, however. Decades later, when I met a former NWH basketball player who used to hitch a ride home with me on practice days, he confessed that he never asked me for a ride until all other possibilities had failed.

“Man, you were dangerous,” he said.  “Who taught you to drive?”

“I owe it all to Daddy,” I confessed.

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LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE

My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley

Mama wasn’t a patient woman. I think she got less patient when she learned to drive and got her first long term job at the mill. Getting a television set, a refrigerator, a Warm Morning Heater, and a washing machine all in 1955, made her restless to have the good life she thought everybody else was already enjoying.

“We’re going to have a real Christmas this year,” she announced in early December. “With all the trimmings.”

None of us five children could quite believe it. Some years there had been no presents at all, much less “trimmings.”

“With a tree?” asked my sister Jean. “And colored bulbs?”

“And icicles?” said John.

“Christmas like everybody else has,” Mama repeated.

Mike and Jerry argued about where the tree would be placed. Daddy didn’t say anything. He was headed toward a crisis with alcohol and had to save all his energy for making forty hours a week at the mill before getting fully drunk.

While Mama put presents on layaway, we kids toured the woods around our house and picked a tree.   True to her promise, Mama bought decorations a few days before Christmas and we loaded down that tree. It sagged under the load of two strings of lights, several dozen glass bulbs, and about a half dozen packages of icicles. I can still recall the crisp clean smell of those needles.Then Mama arranged the wrapped packages at the base.

“It’s beautiful,” said Jean.

Mama grunted in dissatisfaction. “Don’t look like much for all I spent.”

“It looks good,” I assured her and all three boys agreed.

Mama dropped into her rocker and stared at the tree. “Needs a skirt like the trees on TV.” She found an old chenille spread that served the purpose, and then surveyed the scene again with a dissatisfied frown.

“It’s like everybody else has,” Jean said.

Mama sniffed. “I reckon.”

Over the next two days Mama rearranged packages and ornaments a number of times. Then it was Christmas Eve and Mama could hardly stay away from the tree. Right after lunch, as if answering a request, she suddenly burst out, “I reckon I could let ya’ll open one present today.”

“Let’s wait,” Jean and John said together.

“Christmas is just another day,” Mama said.

“Christmas is the birthday of Jesus,” Jean said.

“Christmas is whenever we say it is,” Mama said, but she wouldn’t meet Jean’s eyes.

Mama won.

Everyone chose a gift and soon wrappings were flying. I opened my box and found a Ban Lon crew neck sweater. I didn’t have a skirt fit to wear it with nor did I own a pair of pants. Maybe I could wear it over a dress?

Mama smiled on all the happiness she had created. “Might as well open the second present and get it over with,” she said.

“What?” I said.

Jean began to cry.” Can’t we wait…” but the boys were already tearing into boxes. My box contained a pair of loafers, which delighted me, until I realized they were a size too small.

“They run big, the man in the Trading Post told me,” Mama said. “And they’ll stretch as you wear them.” All my shoes had to stretch as I wore them. I had big feet.

Mama stood. “Let’s get this stuff cleaned up, and I want this tree mess out of here.”

Late that afternoon while we rolled the bedraggled tree down the hill behind our house, we heard holiday carols from the little church up the road.

“Well, at least we had Christmas this year,” John said.

Jean nodded. “And we had it before everybody else.

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