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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MAMA’S CORNBREAD DRESSING

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

Mama liked cornbread dressing (sometimes called “stuffing” by folks who don’t know better), and she made it often.  Where she got her recipe, I’m unsure.  The one thing I’m certain of–it called for sage, and plenty of it.  That herb was so overpowering in the finished product that you could feel the fumes in your nose.  Normally a big eater, I always got light helpings of that dish.

Mama herself was never fully satisfied, and always seemed surprised when her dressing didn’t measure up.  She would taste and sniff and poke.  Finally, she would declare, “It needs more sage.”

I don’t recall anybody complaining.  Daddy got an A for cheerfully eating whatever you put before him.  And one thing us Junkins kids learned early was to refrain from badmouthing the food on the table.  Any griping was sure to be met with the advice, “Don’t eat, if you don’t like it. You might like it better next meal.”  This was a pretty good bet since there was no junk food or snack items in our house.  Not ever. You’d be amazed what you can eat when you are REALLY hungry.

So next time Mama made dressing, she would dip more heavily into the sage box.  Finally, I think she pretty much poured in the entire box.  You could SEE the sage flecks in the mix.  It grew so strong that our dog Brownie, who until sixteen or so survived off leftovers supplemented with whatever wildlife he could run down, would turn up his nose at the chunks of dressing.  

Fortunately, Mama usually assigned throwing out scraps to one of us kids, so she probably never saw the growing pile of dressing down the hill from the outhouse.  She never learned of Brown’s betrayal.

Years passed.  I married a man whose mother was one of the South’s great cooks. You name it–that woman could cook it.  Chicken pie, fresh coconut cake, corn pudding, squash casserole.  To be fair, she had been able to be a stay-at-home wife, and all her married life she had owned a mixer, measuring cups and spoons, baking pans, casserole dishes and all the other necessities for the kitchen.  But, then, dressing didn’t require any of these, and hers was the best I’d ever put in my mouth.  I didn’t pass along my opinion to my mother, who would have resented the implied comparison.

Then one year Mama and Daddy came for Thanksgiving and Mama Gibbons prepared the dressing with giblet gravy.  Mama served herself a generous helping of dressing and gravy and then went back for seconds.  At last she turned to my mother-n-law and asked, “How do you make your dressing?”  

Mama Gibbons was happy to oblige, listing the amount of crumbled cornbread, biscuit, and white bread slices she used, the amount of chopped celery, green onions, pimento, eggs, and broth needed, the amount of garlic salt, pepper needed for seasoning.  

It was only after the meal when we were alone in the kitchen that Mama looked at the scant remains in the dressing pan and sniffed.    “I think it could use some sage.”

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MUCH OF A MAN

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

My father didn’t have a lot of humility.  In my day–and even more so in his–you were expected to be humble if you were poor.  Daddy didn’t buy that.  Even when he was a farm worker earning a dollar a day on a big north Georgia cotton farm, he thought he was as good as anyone.  Or maybe better.  “Owning stuff don’t make nobody better’n me,” he always said. 

Because Daddy had charm and was a great storyteller, his boss began inviting him to dinner in the dining room of the big house.  Years later, Daddy still talked about the fine grub served.  And Daddy, though he was so tall and lean that he was always called “Slim,” could chow down with the best of them.  Ham, fried chicken, roast beef, sweet potatoes, fancy breads, and, sometimes oysters.  He never cared much for sweets, and maybe that is the reason he made it to fifty-five before having his first cavity.

When Daddy told of the elegance and riches of that dining room, my mother was always amazed.  “Wasn’t you nervous, eating at that fancy table?” she would ask, horrified at the thought of herself in a situation “above herself.”

“Hell, no,” Daddy would say.  “I’m George Junkins. I’m good as anybody.”  Sometimes he added, “I’m much of a man,”

And he was.  Though he only had a second grade education, Daddy was intelligent.  He had a mechanical mind and could figure out how practically any machine worked.  During World War II he became a precision welder in the Savannah ship yards, despite having no concept of fractions or higher mathematics.  The mills in and around Dalton had discovered Daddy’s talents when he and my mother moved there in 1940.  Despite the alcoholism that began soon after the move, he nearly always found work.  During the times when his drinking became a problem on the job, he could always dry out and then hire on at the same mills.  He was that good.

Drunk or sober, he didn’t have much tolerance for fools, even when one happened to be his boss.  If one asked a numbskull question, Daddy never felt compelled to pretend otherwise.  Once when he got an injury working on a lathe, the supervisor asked, “Oh, did you cut your finger?”

“No,” Daddy replied with heavy sarcasm.  “I just thought I’d bleed a while.  Now wasn’t that a stupid question?”  

I suppose because Daddy was so very good with machines, most supervisors accepted such bluntness with at least the appearance of good will.  One who didn’t was fired by his superior, who then promptly rehired my father.

Daddy liked having his talents acknowledged.  If praise wasn’t forthcoming, he took the job into his own hands and told his bosses how lucky they were to have him.  Most agreed.

One machine shop where Daddy worked ordered him to weld a leak in a huge propane tank.  “No way,” he said.  “It may be empty, but if there are any fumes, that’s all she wrote.”

The angry customer took the tank to another shop, where the welder wasn’t as smart as my father.  The tank exploded and caused injuries.  Daddy got a lot of mileage out of that story.

Daddy passed on his mechanical skills, wit, and sharp intelligence to all three of his sons.  My sister and I missed out on the first two, but we got enough of the last to do the things we wanted to do.

It has been a good legacy.

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STROLLICKING

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

In the Georgia mountains of my childhood strollicking was frowned upon. The only excuses for idleness were illness, like double pneumonia or paralysis, extreme youth (younger than five) or tottery old age. Of course, there was Sunday, a day of rest sanctioned by scripture, but even on that day farm animals had to be fed, milked, and tended. Meals had to be cooked, dishes washed, and water drawn from the well. Most of these jobs fell into the category of “women’s work.” and by the time all chores were finished, most women didn’t feel like strollicking. Sometimes men like my Grandfather Junkins did. Dad got it down to a fine art.

On Sunday, children could play–as long as they didn’t become irreverent. To my stern Grandmother Junkins, running, loud laughter, or yelling all crossed the line into irreverence.

Me, I longed to strollick, and at home I was sometimes allowed to. However, when we visited Grandmother Junkins, my mother followed Maw’s standards. My solution, once I learned to read, was to make sure I took along a book from school. Reading, I could do quietly, and I could read stories to younger siblings and cousins. However, books like Tom Sawyer could reduce a huge bunch of kids to irreverent laughter, which was sure to alert Maw. Such books weren’t true, she pointed out, so I was reading plain out lies Her solution to this was Bible reading. When I got older, I wondered if Jesus’ parables didn’t count as stories. And didn’t they tell the truth? I dared not ask.

By my teens, Maw was herself doing a version of strollicking, though she would never have owned it. She and Dad broke up housekeeping and lived with different ones of their nine children a week or two at a stretch. Seldom did they both stay with the same children at the same time, so they saw each other only in passing, and I think they liked it that way.

My other grandmother outlived two husbands and had many other hardships over her near-century of living, but Ma Long always had fun too. That woman knew how to strollick. In her eighties she, too, broke up housekeeping and visited about with different children. Sometimes her visit coincided with that of Maw Junkins.

One particular time stands out in memory. My sister was dating and had managed to borrow a gown to wear to the prom. Though modest by modern standards, it exposed too much skin in Maw’s opinion, and she said so. Ma Long declared that Jean was “pretty as a picture.” The appointed time passed and Jean impatiently tapped her satin shod toes. Mama was frazzled with trying to calm Maw while watching the road. Ma Long undoubtedly picked up on the tension . She finally looked out at the muddy yard (it had been raining all afternoon) and said to Jean, “The boy’s just running late is all. Why don’t you strollick up the road. I bet you meet him on the way.”

Yessiree, that woman knew how to strollick!

 

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FAYE GIBBONS GONE STROLLICKING

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

Walter Johnson Strikes Again

Walter Johnson was the kind of boy who would pull legs off daddy longlegs just to see them suffer–or that was the way I saw him in third grade. He wasn’t especially bright–he never fully did what the teacher assigned. Maybe that is why he had so much time to torture kids like me, who were poorly dressed and had no lunch money.

My earliest memory of Walter is on my first day at East Side School. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, and this was back when classrooms celebrated the holiday in a big way. I didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day, and if I had, my parents would not have wasted money on buying cards for me to exchange. This was our third move for this school year, and my mother had just given birth to her fourth baby. Money was even more scarce than usual.

Right after lunch (which I did not have) cards were distributed from the large decorated box on the teacher’s desk. It had to contain well over a thousand cards, since there were 40 kids in the class. As expected, the popular kids received mounds of cards, many with movable parts, glitter and felted patches. Our teacher even received a box of chocolate covered cherries. Everybody had something. Everybody but me.

Folding my arms across my desk to hide its vacancy, I waited for three o’clock and tried to think of the pot of beans Mama was sure to have simmering on the wood-burning stove when I got home.

Then Walter noticed my empty desk and began pointing and laughing. “She didn’t get no valentines.”

Everyone laughed, and I began to cry.

I’m sure the teacher shushed them. She was a kindly lady, though harried and disorganized, but the damage had been done. Walter Johnson had become one of the villains of my childhood.

Flash forward 66 years. I am at a book festival in my hometown, promoting my latest book. Sales are slow. Suddenly a man stops in front of me and stares. Older than me, I think, by at least ten years (I usually think this about people who turn out to be my age). A long lost relative, I wonder. No, there is nothing familiar.

“You don’t know me, do you?” he says.

“No,” I admit.

He laughs and the sound is vaguely familiar. “I went to East Side School with you. I’m Walter Johnson.”

“Walter Johnson?”

He leans close. “You know, I remember a little girl who got no cards on Valentine’s Day. My heart just broke for that little girl.”

“Mine too,” I say.

“Hope you do good on your books,” he says, turning to leave. “Don’t look like you done much so far.”

“You haven’t changed a bit, Walter,” I call after him. And he hadn’t.

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