Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Lydia Ross McGee is the main character in my new book, She Left The Babies in the Bed. She and I were born about 100 years apart in the same county in rural central Kentucky.  As my father would want me to quickly point out, we are not mountain people, and I suppose I should add that we were not horse people either. Our forebears were decent God fearing, hard-working Scottish farmers that traveled down the Wilderness Road not long after Daniel Boone. They first came with mule and ox through the Cumberland Gap, then the rest of the family a bit later by flatboat down the Ohio. The land was a Paradise flowing with milk and honey, husbanded for thousands of years by primitives that the invaders gave no thought to arrogantly brushing aside. My Scottish forebears were what the Bible refers to as “a stiff necked people”. That is a term I always associated in a literal way with my father who suffered from a type of arthritis that made it difficult for him to move his head easily. When I was older and realized the phrase was meant in a figurative way, I found it still worked for my father.

The first of our kin to travel down the Ohio River from Virginia brought slaves with them. I know the slaves were later freed, but I do not surmise it was from any high mindedness, but rather they based the decision solely on economics. In my story I try to put the very human face on how slavery warped our country, especially during the aftermath of the civil war. You may have heard that in Kentucky it was called “the war of brother’s blood”. This is not a book about that but neither does it turn away from the issue.

One thing I know about my family from the earliest days is they put a high value on education, and with education often comes enlightenment. Unfortunately enlightenment usually walks hand in hand with alienation, like Adam and Eva discovered in the Garden. During my first semester in College I made the decision to take a bite of the apple rather than living my life naked and ignorant. I have no regrets. Far from being man’s downfall, I realized that Eve was actually the vehicle God used to make us fully human.

It has been observed that every book an author writes is more or less autobiographical. Lydia is not me of course, but at the same time I do believe if I had lived in her age and had her challenges, I might well have reacted in the same way. I love her passion, her ability to look beyond appearances, and her constant desire to do what is right, to make an impact on the world. Most of all though I love her strength in the face of adversity, and the fearlessness that it took to walk away from what her friends and family believed was a perfect life.

We often read stories about people who conquered impossible odds to achieve great things. This is not that story. Lydia is a woman who faced those impossible odds and ultimately failed to realize her dreams. Despite missing that mark, do not think for a minute that she wants your pity. Her story is about what she gained along the way and the example she left for all women who came after her. One thing for sure that Lydia and I have in common is living a life filled to the brim with joy and laughter, pain and sorrow. A life well lived is after all the best revenge.  

Spellbound

I ran again in dreams last night,

My bare feet skimming the ground

Across the clover field that lay

Between the house where my grandmother lived and my own.

I was the light princess,

The one in my storybook,

Equally free from care and gravity,

A time traveler headed for the marvels of tomorrow.

Waking alone to a nightmare

In a world most dreadful dark

I scream

But the howling wind smothers the sound

As I cling to a string, so thin and worn

That any minute it may break

Severing all ties with earth

And I will be sport for the tempest.

Again today I take precautions

So the wind will not take me

I’ve gathered many sweet and madding weights

and glued them fast onto my frame

Even while my voice protests confinement

I’ve sealed all possible escapes.

Trapped by my own hand’s protection

I cannot float away

Or even move.

Fall 1990

Tomorrow

The wagons are almost loaded
I point my heart to the west
The hands that pull on my clothing fall away
As we start to roll.
The road lengthens behind me,
The shadows of forty years
Dance behind me in the dark woods
Right beyond the ring
Of the campfire light

“Twenty six inches from elbow to elbow”, said the funeral director, and we searched with a yardstick tucked against the padded coffin walls, for one that would hold a man who was larger than life to me. I thought of all the foolish risks he had taken in his life, like dodging the railroad cops when he rode the boxcars in his teens, traveling to the 1933 Chicago World’s fair penniless, in a car with no brakes, and piloting a new $100,000 boat over the Rodchester Dam in high water. I am astounded that my father had just slipped away quietly, in his sleep.

Before he married Mother he had been a desperado, a fatherless child during the great depression. She gave her heart to this handsome, slightly dangerous, young man in 1936, and worked her whole life to domesticate him. She was so successful we never knew his weaknesses until she died in 1994, after a romance of fifty eight years. Even considering the foibles of his youth, and his anchorless old age, I believe when he is weighed on the scales of justice, good will overbalance iniquity by an easy margin. In his eulogy, the minister he had know for 40 years, made it clear that the moral sanction for that judgment was not in mortal hands. I only know that if God loves him half as much as Mother did, he will be received with open arms.

I will always remember him sitting quiet in the early dawn, watching the mist rise off the river. I loved to sit beside him, and in those moments, the conversation connecting us did not require words. I reach out into the silence between us now, and try to recapture the unspoken understanding we always shared, but I am here alone. I touch his manicured hands, now icy with death, and remember the many times I slipped my childish hand into his. I would marvel at the tattoo of grease, permanently ground into the life and heart lines of his palms. I am told that these are the hands that held me first, even before my mother touched me, tenderly cleaning and dressing his newborn daughter. My gender role was predetermined from that day on, yet my father could be counted on to let me do dangerous things forbidden by my mother. Because of him I stood on many a rocky precipice, gazing downward, and grew up fearless, with a love of all things wild.

I stand now in my mind on that cliff, and see him in his boat, floating into the distant mist. He has his fishing pole in hand, and is casting expertly into likely spots. I am too far away for him to hear, but even if he could, I know that noise is not the fisherman’s friend. I smile and wave, and I think I see him lift his hand to me, or maybe he is adjusting the oar. I don’t know where that stream runs, but I am content that he is at peace with where ever the river takes him.

Magic is Afoot

My grandson talks to me in his native tongue, telling me stories from foreign lands. He snuggles close beside my ear to speak sometimes, others he paces back and forth across the room waving his tiny arms in the air, clapping with delight at his own jokes. I laugh, although I do not understand a word he says, but somehow the gist of what he means comes through. I think perhaps I have some ghostly memory of that place from a visit long ago. The words all sound familiar but sit just beyond my grasp. He speaks of rainbows in colors unknown to human eyes after storms made of cotton candy.  Other things he tries to explain are much more complicated, things so big I have lost the ability to comprehend them because I have been too long in this solid, almost unwavering world.  It is enough that he still knows.  Someday soon he will learn how humans speak. Of course, a lot of the magic will be gone by then, but not all. I whisper to him as I rock him to sleep, beg him not to forget entirely. Hold it in your heart sweet baby I say, don’t ever let it go. Just before his eyes close he sighs a baby sigh that sounds very like, “I’ll try”. I kiss his tiny forehead and sing him softly off to his baby dreams.

Dec 2010

Her tiny house was built of an odd red block I’ve never seen used since. When it was constructed in 1945 it was the only material available, due to post war shortages. We lived next door, close enough that my dad’s powerful arm could have thrown a stick the distance. Both houses sat on a tranquil cul de sac in the quiet town of Beaver Dam, Kentucky. I was born at home in November of 1945, the third and last living child of my parents. Until the age of five I shared a bedroom with my brother and sister in our modest white frame house. Mom and Dad slept on a fold out sofa in the living room. After the war, my Dad used the welding skills he honed building battleships to start an auto body repair business. His work place was in a large cinder block building separated from our back door by a circle of grass and a gravel parking lot. Most of the money he earned was put back into the business until the summer of 1950, when construction started on a two-bedroom addition to our home. Mom indulged in a king size bed for her new room and for the first time since their 1936 marriage they had a comfortable bed with room enough for her 6’3’ husband to stretch out and leave a space for her too. I remember all her 6 brothers and sisters, the in laws, and their children being taken for a tour of the room to see a bed that was the first of its’ kind in the area.

Mother was up with the sun making mouth watering biscuits, eggs, bacon or sausage, or sometimes fried county ham. Gravy almost always accompanied the meal, cream gravy or the red eye variety served with ham. In the summer, when blackberries were ripe, mother would occasionally make cobbler for breakfast. Served with top cream from the bottles left on the doorstep by Westerfield’s dairy, it was a treat beyond belief for all of us; dessert for breakfast! Even on days when we were conserving, and mother made a pot of oatmeal, we still had those lighter than air biscuits dabbed with country butter and homemade jam. So what did this deprived child do immediately after eating a farm hand breakfast? Well, when my chores were done, I ran to my grandmother’s little red block house, sat down on one of the ice cream parlor chairs around the oak pedestal table and had a second breakfast! Usually it was another biscuit, this one made with lard, smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar from her cut glass bowl. After I could eat no more, we started our day’s routine.

In my memory it was summer much of the time and the chores of summer were a delight to me. I would pester my grandmother relentlessly, “Mamaw, when are we going to check the garden?” She would laugh while she put on one of the stiff, starched, bonnets she made from calico feed sacks, because I slammed out the back door as soon as I saw her take the bonnet off the nail. We walked the path beside the house checking each lovely rose and shrub for damage or insects, smelling the wonderful smells and perhaps picking a few to grace the table. We checked the vegetable garden, vines, and brambles for the fruits of the earth and her toil, picking the ripest and deciding what should wait for another day. We “stole” eggs the hens had lain overnight, ignoring their squawking indignation. Silence and twitching noses greeted us through the wire of the rabbit cage, then the chewing sound of tiny rodent teeth as they munched the special fresh leaves I poked through the hextangle holes. After, we would sit on the front porch swing and wile away the hours, talking about anything and everything. Dad’s old black and tan hound sometimes tried to join us on the tiny porch, wagging his enormous tail in great whooshing arches, hitting a flowerpot or tender plant with each swipe. She would jump up and fetch her broom, threatening the exuberant dog, but never actually hitting him. Shamed, he sat on the step and looked at us with those sad eyes, till I relented and joined him for a smelly hug and gave his head a scratch.

As fickle as a sprite, the lure of a run with the dog would overwhelm me, and I would leave mamaw lonely on the porch, with hardly a backward glance. There was just too much to do to sit for long. In early spring the persimmon trees that covered the acre lot across the street were in bloom and tiny perfect yellow flowers fell like fairy teardrops from on high. My sister and I sat for hours making chains of them to wear like gypsy jewels, piercing the tiny hole nature supplied with the darning needle and crochet thread mamaw had loaned us. When the miniature yellow flowers were gone, there were clover blossoms all summer long, requiring only the manual dexterity to tie the stems together for fairy crowns, necklaces or bracelets. When these innocent pleasures lost their charm and I tired of my sand box, I checked to see if there was any excitement in my daddy’s garage. It smelled of grease, gasoline, acids and solvents, and always, the burning odor and flying sparks of the welder’s torch, which I learned early to avoid. When Dad’s work crew had enough of me, I was off again, perhaps to the barn behind the business where a sealed room was set up for painting, free from dust. I was forbidden to be in the paint room, but the blotches of colored enamel were too intriguing to leave untouched, so I headed back to mamaw’s porch. She used the kerosene from her stove and a piece of worn cloth to scrub the tell tale paint from my fingers and clothing. Then I would linger on the porch till the fumes of the coal oil evaporated, fearing Mother’s reprisal if the smell betrayed where I had been. Mamaw and I were great conspirators.

Summer evenings after supper were the best of all. As light faded, the catalpa tree on the far end of mamaw’s lot was full of lightening bugs, heavy with their little blinkers attached, they were easy prey even for tiny hands. Shut up in a jar for the balance of the night, thwarted in their mating rituals, they entertained us by the hour. We were supposed to release them unhurt, but my brother delighted in smearing one across his white tee shirt, where their illuminated intestines would glow for hours. As a bonus, he got to hear the grossed out squeals of his two younger sisters, who were not brave or cruel enough to do the same. Not far after sundown, we were in bed. Our first TV was not purchased until 1956, so the only entertainment, after the lightening bugs were released, was ghost story told by my sister, or the radio my brother was allowed to listen to via headphones, long after we were required to be asleep. Closing my eyes today, I can still see the glow from the tubes across the room and smell the honeysuckle perfume that wafted in through the open window. We had no fear of intruders with our faithful Joe on guard on the back doorstep. Occasionally he would mistake the incautious raccoon or possum for an actual threat and let out an enormous series of musical whoops, but he was soon hushed. Whatever fears and dangers that lay outside our small town were unimaginable to us.

When my grandmother was in her declining years she fell outside her back door and broke her hip. In the pain and confusion afterwards, she traveled in her mind back to the world of her childhood, making trips to the spring to fetch water and climbing apple trees in the summer. All her visitors in the nursing home she was sent to became, not her living children and grandchildren, but her brothers, sisters and parents, long dead. I think the small and comfortable world of our childhood is always the safest and most treasured place of our heart. If my mind should ever fail me, I pray that it takes me to that primal refuge of my childhood in Kentucky. Thought I have traveled far from home, there is a thread that ever ties me to the feel of sweet clover under my bare feet, the whoop of the hounds in the still night, and most of all, the enduring bond of kinship to its land and people.

Promises of Paris

It’s almost 2 AM, too early to wake, but Paris and hunger has roused me from a restless four hour nap. I recall very few times in my life that I have been too excited to eat, but the last few days before my trip have been so packed with preparations and anticipation I have lost track of even meal times. Now with my suitcase ready for zipping, my traveling outfit selected and my job put to bed for the month, my stomach wakes me complaining. I cannot decide it it is too later or too early to eat, but after months of being too bound by responsibilities to take time for myself I find that more than food, more than sleep, I need to write. So, let me tell you about Paris.

In Kentucky where I was reared, many early pioneers left a stamp of incongruent place names across the young wilderness, names that were doomed to be twisted into unrecognizable pronunciations by the uneducated tongues that followed them into that dark and bloody land. My high school French teacher did nothing to dispel the ignorance in myself or my classmates concerning the butchered names. The rules of pronunciation that I learned in class were not applied locally. It was my first husband that made me aware that the Versailles Highway and the palace of the Sun King were spelled exactly the same way, but that Louis would have gone into the French equivalent of a hissy fit if he heard the locals speak the word. We even named the largest city in the state after him, Louisville, but I can almost see his sneer if he heard it spoken. Hopefully, I will not see the same sneer Sunday morning when I arrive in his native land and open my mouth.

In an effort not to rise above my raising I have diligently fallen asleep for weeks with the headset Rosetta Stone sent me wrapped around my head whispering barely remembered words from long ago. The only thing I have learned for certain is how to ask politely for the toilet and a translator to understand the directions to same. Last night I admitted to a bit of terror along with my excitement. Come what may however I will be on the airplane in six hours, ready or not.

I wish I could say I yearned for Paris as I sat eagerly on the front row of Mrs. Render’s French class but truthfully I just wanted to be anywhere but in Beaver Dam Ky. It was later that Paris assaulted me, so deftly I am uncertain of when the blow was struck. I do know the longing is there and a bit of it seems to be in many of my friends and acquaintances, for when I tell them about Paris they get a dreamy look in their eyes. Some say, well, the people are rude I hear, or the city is dirty, but under it all they know romance waits there in the air, in the water, in the food, and especially in the language. La ville éternelle m’appelle, et je vais…

To be continued…

Older Posts »