Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas, dear friends...


Somehow, not only for Christmas,
But all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others,
Is the joy that comes back to you.
And the more you spend in blessing,
The poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart's possessing,
Returns to you glad.

~John Greenleaf Whittier~

Monday, December 17, 2007

In the Bedroom with George Hamilton

Several readers have commented on Number Five of my “Weird and Random Facts" post.

“Scandalous!” said Chris F. Holm. (Chris meant it in a good way, of course.) Others? Well, I'm not so sure. Several people asked if I had an affair with him, and one asked if I had even met him!

Well, it did happen (not an affair, of course, but the meeting). I can’t remember the year, but I think it was sometime in 1983.

Costa and I had just relocated to Michigan, when we got a call from his father, who was in the real estate business. “Come on over,” he said, “Thought you might like to see a commercial in the making. Right here at the house.”

I didn’t really want to go; I had a million things to do. I was busy getting our apartment in order, grocery shopping, and planning a practice drive to Dearborn, where I would begin my job within the walls of the intimidating Bingham Office Center the following Monday morning.

Nevertheless, early that afternoon we headed over to Bloomfield Hills.

We were shocked when we arrived at my in-laws' home. Cars were parked up and down the street, neighbors stood in clutches in their yards and in the middle of the street, all gazing at a helicopter which was setting down in their yard.

Since Costa was in such a hurry to get there, I hadn’t gone to the bathroom before I left home. So as soon as we got out of the car, I beat a path through the door and down the hall. That bathroom was occupied, so I hurried farther down the hall to my in-laws’ bedroom.

As soon as I entered the room I stopped. I was not alone. A tall, elegant man was standing at the dresser, knotting his tie.

He turned and smiled. “Well," he said, "Hello!”

The man was actor George Hamilton.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” I said, feeling the blood rush to my face, “I was just…just going to the bathroom.”

He laughed. “Go ahead; be my guest!”

“Ah, no, I’ll do it somewhere else.”

My face got even redder when I realized what I had just said, so I rushed to the living room and collapsed on the sofa.

“Oh, dear,” my mother-in-law said, “I should have warned you George was in there.”

After the commercial was made, my in-laws introduced us to George, and we had a very nice conversation. Although he was rather stiff—like a cardboard man, in fact, and so perfect that he didn’t look real—he was friendly and eloquent. I had a difficult time concentrating on what he was saying, though; my eyes were drawn to his perfect teeth, blindingly white against his dark tan.

By the time we were preparing to leave, I had regained my composure and was beginning to feel like my old self again: He probably thought I would want to take a picture of him, like any other star-struck fan. Well, I showed him!

My voice was calm as I smiled and shook his hand, “It was so nice to meet you, George.”

And then my father-in-law grabbed his camera. “George,” he said, “Come on over here!”

George, like a school boy summoned by the principal, complied.

“Let my son take a picture of you and my daughter-in-law before they leave!”

My face reddened again, but George rose to the occasion, “It'll be my pleasure,” he said, placing his hand on the small of my back, “We know each other well; after all, we have been in the bedroom together!”
We were still laughing when Costa snapped this picture.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All I Ever Wanted

Since I’ve begun blogging, readers often ask how I got into writing. Well, it has been a long road, with lots of stops along the way, but here it is.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t observing people—studying their facial expressions, their mannerisms, body language—and as soon I could hold a pencil in my hand, I was drawing pictures of faces. I was off and running after I learned to read and write. To heck with arithmetic, science, geography, and all those other subjects; I had all the tools I needed.

It wasn’t long before I was sketching the faces of people I knew and jotting down what they were saying: family, friends and neighbors, even the congregation of Mississippi Baptist Church. I was a quiet and solemn child; parishioners paid little attention to me, so it was easy to wander unnoticed among them, picking up slivers of conversation here and there.

This led to my creation of a church bulletin one summer, which I distributed among my brothers and sisters. The bulletin was not your regular church news; it contained the behind-the-scenes stuff. In the form of a comic book, the dialogue hung in bubbles above their heads: Two ladies stand face-to-face after services, cardboard fans poised in the air: “I don’t why you want to get rid of Naomi,” Miss Lizzie says, “She’s a good piano player.” “Your daughter has played it long enough,” says Miss Anna, “It’s Helen Jean’s turn!”What I wasn’t putting on paper, I was filing away in my subconscious mind. Unbeknownst to me, it was settling in, making itself at home. Marinating.

A wealth of new material awaited me when I entered Bardwell Grade School. By the time I was in the early grades, I was writing stories about my classmates’ antics, sometimes adding tidbits to make it more interesting. (Now, they call it creative nonfiction!)

One day in fifth grade, during geography class (which I hated), I was trying to block out Miss Avil Witty’s voice, droning on and on about the Amazon River. I didn’t care about the widest river in the world; what was happening in our neck of the woods was much more interesting to me. So I decided to write a story.

A few days later, as I was scribbling away, Miss Avil caught me. “I've got an idea,” she said, “What do y’all say we have Brenda read one of her stories in fifth period next Wednesday?”

Fifth period, each Wednesday, was fun time; Miss Avil told us about things that had happened way back in her childhood; she had students reading the works of well-known writers and poets, and others giving talks about trips they had taken to Kentucky Lake or Mammoth Cave.

I was petrified the first time I read one of my stories in front of the class, expecting everyone to poke fun at me, especially the boys. But they seemed to enjoy it. And wanted more.

Encouraged by Miss Avil and my classmates, I soon branched out, writing plays and convincing classmates to take parts. Most were comedy, and we ad-libbed a lot, but the “reviews” were great. Everyone, including Miss Avil, clapped and cheered after our performances. (I often think of Miss Avil, and what a progressive and fun-loving teacher she was!)

By the time I was in high school, writing was second nature to me. I loved literature and English, so sentence structure and punctuation came easily. I looked forward to writing book reports, churning them out in nothing flat.

“Good job,” Mrs. Mitchell said, “Think what you could do if you really tried.”

I stiffened, deeply offended, and then I continued doodling and gazing out the window: How did she know I wasn’t trying that hard?
After graduating from high school, I had dreams. Maybe I could go to UCLA, or another well-known college and study writing, maybe go to drama school. Or something like that.

But money was short—there were no grants or college loans back then—so I attended business college in Paducah, earning an associate degree in business, got married, and began my career in Chicago.

Although I still kept journals, sporadically recording bits of our life along the way, I omitted my thoughts, my dreams. Emotions. They were pushed back, buried. All that didn’t matter now; I was a married woman, and it was time for me to get on with the business of living. That’s what adults did.

After my daughter was born, I enjoyed my time with her, determined to be the best mother possible. I played with her, read to her, and worked to instill her with good values, self confidence. Most of my journal entries were about her growth and progress, the cute comments she made, schoolwork, book satchels, new Red Ball Jets.

I must have read thousands of books during those year at home (wish I’d kept a list!), and I took Suzanne with me to the library each week. She sat on a tiny stool, thumbing through Cat in the Hat, Heidi, and The Borrowers, while I was busy checking out all the books Miss Withers, the stern librarian, would allow. And each night, after Suzanne was tucked in bed, story read, prayers said, I settled in my wing chair and got down to my favorite pastime.

One night, after finishing another book that wasn’t really that good, a thought drifted through my mind: I could do that.

As always, although she lived 300 miles away, Mother seemed to know what I was thinking. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from her: I was just thinking, Brenda, you could be a writer. A lot of the letters you write home could be made into stories.

After that, her letters often contained newspaper and magazine clippings about writing and authors, notes scribbled in the margins: Her writing reminds me of yours; Bess Streator Aldrich (or some such author) received 120 rejections before she ever got a story published!

When Suzanne started to school, I went back to work. And a few years later, I bought a secondhand IBM Selectric typewriter and reams of bond paper. I converted our third bedroom into my office, bought a desk, stocking it with plenty of typewriter ribbons, notebooks, paperclips and post-it notes. I bought new maple bookcases, placing my collections of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor stories and Eliot and Frost poetry on the pristine shelves.

After everything was in place, I stood back, admiring it. For the rest of the evening.

The next few evenings were spent in much the same way, strolling around on the green shag carpet, admiring my office and congratulating myself on a job well done.

When I finally sat down at the desk, things weren’t exactly right. So I rearranged the contents of the desk drawers and the book shelves, and then I read a few pages of one book or another, leaning against my new bookcases. I typed up famous writers’ quotes and placed them near the typewriter. I positioned a dictionary and thesaurus between two glass-tiger bookends.

And then I sat down at my desk again.

I couldn’t seem to get started; I kept thinking about things that needed to be done. Right then. And after I got everything done—including cleaning out the refrigerator and scrubbing the cat’s food and water bowls—I sat gazing off into space.

Finally, I got up, walked out of the room, and politely closed the door.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I joined Suzanne and her father in the family room: This was great, doing what normal people do; forgetting about everything else and watching television: “You dingbat!” says Archie Bunker, “I bust my bootocks, working in that rotten world out there, and you give me meatloaf for dinner?”
After a few evenings, I returned to my office, where I sat paralyzed at my typewriter, dreading the task that lay ahead. Although words and ideas were floating around in my head, it was hard as hell to harness them and wrestle them into a decent story. Even thinking about it made me tired.

Finally, after many nights of leaving and going back, starting and stopping, agonizing, and revising, revising, revising, I finished my first short story.

I was disappointed. Something was missing. But I couldn’t figure out what. So I threw it into a drawer and rushed out of the room, vowing to forget about writing altogether.

I took up jogging, rising at the crack of dawn and running two miles each day; Suzanne and I joined a health club. (Not that Suzanne’s firm little 13-year-old body needed it; I just didn’t want to be away from her three nights a week. Since I had begun night classes at Illinois state, I was already away from her one night each week.)

All the time I was running and working out and studying, I was thinking about writing. And the ideas kept coming: What a great idea for a story! A wonderful sentence! That would be an excellent first line!
As time went by, I kept writing. I was unable not to.

Then, somewhere along the way, my writing took a “turn.” I was finding myself delving deeper and deeper, examining things more closely, getting in touch with emotions and feelings. And expressing them.

By the time Suzanne’s father and I divorced, I was pouring out my feelings on page after page of three-ring notebooks, agonizing, reflecting. And when Suzanne and I moved to Kentucky, and I began dating again, remarrying, divorcing, and dating again, I was recording all that. Which kept me pretty darn busy! Brutally honest and painful, it left me feeling raw, exposed. So I placed the notebooks high on a shelf in the closet, where they gathered dust for years.

I have since learned that's something one must be willing to do if they want their work to have real substance. Not necessarily trying to publish every detail of one’s own life, but learning how to burrow in on a subject and haul it out. Writing about something to which readers can relate. And believe.

I was soon studying what well-known authors were saying and doing: why they wrote, how they wrote, when they wrote, what made them tick. Most were driven to write, but they procrastinated, agonized, revised, revised, revised. And, almost without exception, they were seldom satisfied with anything they had written.

Just like me.
It took a long time, but I finally began writing in earnest. And when I did, the dam burst, spewing out characters like crazed fans at a rock concert, all clamoring to be heard. I was no longer procrastinating, agonizing, or dreading writing. I was beating a path to the typewriter every chance I got.

My characters are still clamoring, silenced only after their stories are told. And there is no end in sight; when I’m nearing completion of a story, more appear. I’m now working on two fiction pieces, Aunt Fanny’s Drawers and The Judge and Miss Mercy, and I have just finished Dummy's Field, a nonfiction piece. And, as always, I am still working on my novel.

Other than submitting a few short stories to literary magazines years ago, which were rejected (and rightly so!), I had stopped trying to publish anything. But when I began digging deeper and deeper, it did happen. I have had more than a dozen stories published or accepted for publication, both online and in print, and a literary agent has expressed interest in my novel when it is finished.

Although it's exciting to see my work among the pages of literary magazines, I would keep writing if I knew I would never be published again. Because writing is in my blood. And it has been there from the beginning.

Sometimes it takes almost a lifetime to fulfill your dreams; circumstances, people, and self-doubt often get in the way. But if you are driven to write, persist, and work like a coalminer digging those words out with a pick, your dreams will come true. Maybe not in the way you had hoped, but oftentimes in more rewarding ways.

Other than the early years at home with my daughter, the past few years of my life have been my most rewarding. I am free to do what I love and the time to do it. I may never sell my novel, but I will finish it. I may never sell another short story, but I will keep writing them. Why? Because I love my work, and there are many more stories to be told.

My most ardent supporters are my daughter and my husband; I love and appreciate them beyond words. And when someone I’ve never met devotes a full post to me and my writing? That is just icing on the cake. I have always felt that if someone is touched, or finds a bit of themselves in one of my stories, I will feel I have accomplished my goal with the written word.

Well, it appears I have done that. And that is all I ever wanted in the first place.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Random and Weird Facts

Suzanne, the best blogger around, has tagged me to share some random facts about myself. Here are the official rules:

Link to the tagger and post these rules on your blog. Share five facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird. Tag five people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Fact #1
I hate to shop. My husband or daughter have to practically drag me to the mall to buy clothes.

Fact #2
I kissed the Blarney Stone.

Fact #3
My favorite treat is melted milk chocolate chips, mixed with marshmallow crème and smooth peanut butter. (Only during the holidays, when baking; I am, after all, a responsible adult!)

Fact #4
I was redoing our living room. Color coordinated and beautifully decorated, it was coming together nicely. There was only one problem: Although I planned to buy him a new one, my husband refused to give up his sagging, dilapidated recliner. I tried to reason with him, to no avail; I got angry, to no avail. Yelling didn’t work, either. It did, however, give him an excuse to storm out of the house again and head off to join his buddies somewhere. He never returned until late.

On one such night, as I stood watching the tail lights of the Torino disappear, I turned to the monstrous recliner. I rared back and kicked it, and then I pushed it over, kicking it again and again. It lay cockeyed and undisturbed, so I flipped it upside down and proceeded to jump up and down on it. It was still intact; not even one gouge had appeared. I started in on the upholstery, struggling to rip it to shreds, but everything stayed securely attached. It just lay, like a wimpy Hulk Hogan, waiting for my next punch.

As I was heading to the garage to get the hammer, I gave up. On the recliner and the marriage.

Fact #5
In the early eighties, actor George Hamilton and I were in the bedroom together.

* * *

I'm tagging ChristaD and Patricia Wood. I think they'll both have some interesting random facts!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Veep: Just Like Paw Paw

I was so happy to read Bill Bartleman’s piece in The Paducah Sun about possible plans in the works to properly recognize the late Vice-President Alben W. Barkley. Senator Mitch McConnell and I have had our disagreements in the past, but I applaud his decision to help do something to honor this honorable man.

As most people know, Alben W. Barkley (affectionately called "The Veep" by the press) was President Harry Truman’s vice president.

When Truman decided not to seek re-election in 1953, Barkley's supporters encouraged him to seek the democratic nomination. But that was not to be; his age and failing eyesight were against him. Delegates at the Democratic National Convention invited him to deliver a farewell address, though, and he did so with his usual grace and style.

It was late, so we were already in bed when he delivered his speech that night. But Mother and Daddy were listening to it on the radio in the living room, so we heard it all, amazed by the long ovation he was given.

"My goodness," Patsy said, "They just keep on clapping!"

“I saw him one time,” I said.

I was around five years old, and I was at a picnic with Maw Maw Wilson. I don’t remember where it was, probably somewhere in Carlisle County.

I loved picnics, and I was very excited. We strolled the grounds in the sweltering heat, Maw Maw stopping every now and then to talk with friends and neighbors. And then we headed for my favorite spot, the food stand, where Maw Maw bought me a big barbecue sandwich and an Orange Crush.

Tears gathered in my eyes as I took my first bite of the zesty, tender pork, and I was washing it down with a gulp of ice-cold Orange Crush, when everyone began hurrying toward a big flatbed farm truck.

“Let’s go,” Maw Maw said, taking my Orange Crush and grabbing my hand.

As we rushed forward, I saw a man climbing onto the bed of the truck. He was smiling and waving, and he was wearing a hat and a dark suit. He must be hot, I thought, glad I was cool in my new yellow pinafore.

It didn’t last long. As the crowd pressed closer, perspiration broke out on my face and trickled down my neck. I was squashed between Maw Maw and a fat man wearing bib overalls, who was spitting tobacco juice on the ground in front of me. But I just kept eating my hotter-than-a-firecracker barbecue and drinking my Orange Crush.

I had a difficult time enjoying it, though. Each time I tried to eat or drink, I was jostled on all sides by warm, sweaty bodies. My bottle tipped, spewing orange soda over my hands, and I wiped them on my pinafore as I stood on my tiptoes, stretching my neck. Everyone was so tall!

They clapped, cheered, yelled and even stomped the ground. I had never seen a crowd this excited, even at Mississippi Baptist Church during revival time.

I breathed a sigh of relief when his speech was finally over, and as the crowd broke up, I could already taste that bag of popcorn Maw Maw had promised me.

But she had other plans. “Let’s wait a minute,” she said.


“We’re going over and say something to him.”

I looked at the man, talking with a clutch of people, and Maw Ma, again talking with friends and neighbors. “How you doing, Miss Muriel?” Thomas Bishop said. “Fair and a-middling,” said Maw Maw, “How’s Hannah Lee?” “I see you’ve got a little helper today,” trilled Miss Belle Terry, squatting and patting my cheek.

I knew I was in for a long wait.

After what seemed like an eternity, the crowd thinned out and the man headed toward a big black car with a bunch of other men, all wearing suits and hats.  Just before he got into the car, Maw Maw walked over and touched his arm.

The man turned. “Well, I’ll be,” he said, a big smile lighting up his face, “Miss Muriel!”

They talked for a while, but I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying. My hands were sticky, and I had just noticed my new sandals were getting dirty, my toes dusty. I heard the familiar shrill of a mosquito, and I kept swatting at it as it hovered around my ear. Why didn’t Maw Maw hurry up?

And then I heard Paw Paw Wilson’s name mentioned. He had died a couple of years before, and I missed him. Each time I saw Paw Paw, he knelt and patted my head. He often walked the mile to our house and we walked back to their house together, my hand holding tightly to his little finger. He bought me ice cream cones. And he called me “Gailie.”

“I thought a lot of Pat,” he was saying, “He was always a good friend to me.”

“And you were always a good friend to him,” Maw Maw said, tears forming in her eyes.

I gazed up at him, watching the perspiration running down his face and dripping from his chin. Why didn't he take off his coat?

Suddenly, he looked down at me. “Well, hello there, little gal,” he said, kneeling and patting my head. He started to say something else, but more people had gathered, so he got to his feet and headed toward the car, shaking hands along the way.

As we watched the big black car bump across the grounds and pull onto the highway, I turned to Maw Maw. "He's just like Paw Paw," I said.

Maw Maw stood quietly for a moment, looking down at me, and then she wiped her eyes and took my hand. "Yes, he is,” she said, “Now, let’s go get us that big bag of popcorn!”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

The year has turned its circle,
The seasons come and go.
The harvest all is gathered in,
And chilly north winds blow.

Orchards have shared their treasures,
The fields, their yellow grain.
So open wide the doorway,
Thanksgiving comes again!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I would do the same.

My contributor's copies of Existere Journal of Arts and Literature, containing my nonfiction piece, "A Black Panther's Hearse," arrived in the mail today. Although I've had several short stories published, I am always thrilled beyond words to see one in print.

Through the years I've seen countless interviews with writers, actors, and others, and they always say, "It's great to get paid for something I would do for free."

"Yeah, sure," I thought, "Tell me another one."

But now I know I would do the same.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Song in October

Clouds gather, treetops toss and sway;
But pour us wine, an old one!
That we may turn this dreary day
To golden, yes, to golden!

Autumn has come, but never fear,
Wait but a little while yet,
Spring will be here, the skies will clear,
And fields stand deep in violets.

The heavenly blue of fresh new days
Oh, friend, you must employ them
Before they pass away. Be brave!
Enjoy them; oh, enjoy them!

~Theodor Storm~

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Luvean's Leavin'

Years ago on a Sunday afternoon, Luvean, a neighbor, stopped by my parents’ house to ask if we planned to go to an upcoming revival at the local church.  Brother Joe would be preaching, she said.

“Brother Joe is really a nice man,” Patsy said.

Luvean reared back in her chair and folded her arms across her ample stomach.  “You know what I hard?” she said, “I hard he was fixin’ to leave.”

“What?” Patsy said, “He’s leaving the church?”

She cocked her head, chin at an angle. “Yeah, that’s what I hard,” she said, “I hard he’s fixin’ to leave.”

We all kept our composure while she was there, but when she finally left, we burst into laughter.

“You know what I hard?” I said, giggling.

My sisters chimed in. “I heard he's fixin’ to leave!”

Soon, the whole family was using Luvean’s phrases. Even Suzanne, who was no more than six or seven at the time. “I’m fixin’ to leave,” she yelled as she ran out to play with her friends.

This went on for years.

And then one day, as Mother and I were discussing some of the silly country songs that were popular, we decided to write one about Luvean.

“What about this?” Mother said, “I had a true love, her name was Luvean...”

“The prettiest woman that I’ve ever seen...,” I added.

We threw in more lyrics from time to time, and soon we almost had a song. We titled it "Luvean's Leavin'."

There was only one problem: we were unable to come up with a tune. That’s when my brother, Tim, stepped up to the plate. Mother and I were newcomers to the business of songwriting, but Tim and my oldest brother, Terry, had been writing and singing songs for years; every family gathering included singing and guitar and banjo picking. Daddy sometimes joined them on the piano.

Tim strummed along with us for a while, quickly coming up with an original melody, and we were off and running. Mother and I sang, other family members—even Daddy—joining in every now and then, and we all laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks.

After that, we tucked the song away and thought no more about it until one night in 1983 when Mother and I were having a singing session. She has a beautiful voice, and I had talked her into letting me record her singing some of the popular songs of the day.

After we finished and I was fiddling with the tape recorder, I thought about “Luvean’s Leavin'.  "Why don’t we finish that song,” I said, “And record it for laughs?”

So we dug up the words, added a few more lyrics, deciding Mother would sing lead and I would join her on the chorus. To add a little zip, I would call out, “I’m fixin’ to leave!” in the background at the end of each chorus.

Our recording session began.

It was much more difficult than we thought. We turned on the tape player, began singing, and I started giggling. We turned it off, back on, and Mother started giggling. This did not set too well with Daddy, who was trying to watch the evening news on television.

“What in the hell are y'all doing?” he said.

Since other family members were watching television in the family room downstairs, there was no place to go but one of the bathrooms. So we scurried down the hall like two naughty children, closed the door and perched, side-by-side, on the edge of the bath tub.

There was only one problem. We could not keep our composure. Between each botched recording, we laughed hysterically.

“Well,” Mother said, blotting her eyes with a piece of tissue from the nearby roll, “Are we ever going to get this on tape?”

After many more attempts, we finally got the job done.

“We’ve worked so hard on this” Mother said, “Why don’t we do something with it, like send it to a country music singer?”

“Or singers,” I said, giggling, “Since it requires at least two to sing it.”

Our brainstorming session began. The Statler Brothers? Ray “squirrel-in-the-church” Stevens? Just then, the Oak Ridge Boys belted out the first words of “Elvira” on the radio, and our decision was made.

My sisters and I often spent weekends in Nashville. We loved Music City USA, dining at different restaurants, going to Tootsie’s and other places of interest. The year before, Mary Ellen had interviewed the Hee Haw cast for her weekly newspaper, The Carlisle County Courier, and we ended up on stage at the Grand Old Opry, in the circle where so many country music legends had performed.

Since no one was there, other than the janitors, we decided to take some pictures. (This one of Gina, Patsy and me is faded now, but it was the one I could find!)

One fall weekend as we were leaving for Nashville, I tucked the tape in my purse. “I think I’ll try to find the Oak Ridge Boys’ office,” I said, half joking, “And ask them to listen to the tape.”

Everyone thought that was an excellent idea, and as we were heading down I-24, one of my sisters yelled, “I’m fixin’ to leave!” We sang “Luvean’s Leavin’” on and off, all the way.

It was surprisingly easy to find the Oak Ridge Boys’ record company (can’t remember the name, now). I dropped the tape off with the studio’s receptionist, a thin, bored girl, who said she would give it to them.

“Will they listen to it?” I said.

“People drop off hundreds every year,” she said.

“Will they listen to it?”

She examined her nails and looked up at me, “Well, I guess.”

Mission accomplished, we headed over to the Nashville Palace, which was near our motel. We always had dinner there, watching the dancing couples and wannabees on stage, singing, picking their banjos, and yodeling.

“I guess we’ll see that strutting, catfish-frying singer prancing across the stage again,” I said.

He was the cook there, dashing from the kitchen to the stage, pulling his apron off along the way. We all agreed he would never make it in the music business.

The singer's name was Randy Travis.

In February of the following year, Mother and I were working in Daddy’s office at the courthouse, when my niece called from home.

“A woman from the Oak Ridge Boys’ office called!” Mary shouted, “She asked me when y’all would be home and I told her 4:00!”

We rushed home and eagerly awaited the call.

The Oak Ridge Boys’ secretary called on the dot of four. “I’m calling y’all about your song,” Connie said, “The Oaks dragged box after box of tapes in here and listened to them all. Yours is the only song they’re interested in.”

“Luvean’s Leavin’?” I said, thinking she must have made a mistake.

“Yes, Duane just loved “Luvean’s Leavin’,” she said, “He’s been listening to it in his SUV everywhere he drives. He had me make tapes for all the Oaks.”

She went on to say they wanted us to come down to their office in Hendersonville so they could meet us.

“I can’t believe this,” Mother said.

No one could believe it. But a few days later, Mary Ellen, Mother and I drove to the Oak Ridge Boys’ office in Hendersonville, where Connie introduced us to their lead singer, Duane Allen.

“That’s the funniest song I’ve ever heard,” Duane said, “I’m trying to talk everybody into recording it.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

“I have never been more serious in my life, Brenda.”

He showed us around their large offices and loaded us down with tee shirts and their latest albums.

“We’ll be in touch,” he said when we left, “Joe really likes it. All we need to do is convince Richard and our producer.”

Nothing was said about William Lee Golden, the Oaks’ fourth member, a tall fellow with a long beard and waist-length hair.

We left with high hopes.  But months passed before we got a call from Connie.

“The Oaks are having a rehearsal, like they do every year before they go out on the road,” Connie said, “And they want y’all to come.”

After several more phone calls from Connie, we were all set. Reservations had been made at a motel near the hall where they would be performing, and our tickets would be waiting for us at the door. The Oaks would pick up the tab for our motel.

“Bring your guitars,” Connie said, “They might want y’all to sing ‘Luvean’s Leavin'."

Mother and I looked at each other. Guitars? We didn’t know the first thing about playing guitars!

We enjoyed a great show that night. Thankfully, we were not called up to the stage, guitarless, to sing. But we were invited back stage after the show, where Connie introduced us to cute, curly-haired Joe Bonsall, who was very friendly, and a neat, stiff Richard Sterban, who barely said hello. William Lee Golden, apparently, had left the building.

Duane, as always, was friendly. “We’ll be in touch,” he said as we left.

More months passed. I relocated to Michigan, and had just gotten settled in an apartment in Royal Oak, when I received a phone call from Mother.

“Brenda! Do you still have that tape of ‘Luvean’s Leavin'?"

“Yes, I think it’s here somewhere.”

“Connie just called and wants us to play it over the phone!”

“Over the phone?” I said, “I don’t know how it would come out! Besides, Connie has the original tape.”

“She wants it right away.”

Connie was breathless when she answered the phone. “Duane’s wife just called from ‘Hee Haw,’ and wants me to take ‘Luvean’s Leavin’ over there,” she said, “Could you play it over the phone for me?”

I wondered where her copy of the tape was, and I wondered how well it would record over the phone. “I don’t know if it’ll come out very well,” I said, “Couldn’t I just overnight the tape to you?”

“Duane’s wife wants it now,” she said, “Just go ahead and play it!”

I held the receiver close to the mouthpiece and played the tape. I had not played it in months, so when I heard our voices, I had to grit my teeth to keep from laughing hysterically.

“Got it!” she said, “I’m taking it over there right now.”

“Maybe you should play it back, to be sure,” I said.

“No, I got it okay,” she said, her voice fading, as if she were already departing, “I’ll be in touch.”

I didn’t hear from her that night. Or the next. Finally, I called her.

“There was so much static that you could hardly hear it,” she said, “They couldn’t use it.”

That was the only explanation we got. And we never heard from them again.

It has been over 20 years since it all happened, but every once in a while, we still wonder about it.

“Do you suppose Connie blew it for us?” I say.

“I’ll bet you anything she lost the tape.” Mother says, “She had the original!”

Whatever happened, they never got back in touch.

We had a great time, though, and the experience has neither lessened our enthusiasm nor squelched our creativity. When a particularly funny subject comes up, we’re at it again. A few years ago, when someone mentioned a woman named “Omeda,” Mother and I jumped on it.

“Meet me at midnight, Omeda...” I began.

“Down by the garden gate...” Mother added.

We never finished that one. But we did finish “Mistake.” (I won’t even go into the history of that one!) I sang the chorus (disguising my voice as a man's), and Mother and I sang duo on the rest of the song. It goes something like this:

Marvin and Mabel were sweethearts,
They dated for many a year,
Then one day he surprised her,
And said ‘will you marry me dear’…

Here’s a bit of the chorus:

I made a HELL of a mistake,
Oh, god, what have I done…

We never peddled any more songs in Music City, although we have several more on tape. But none of them came close to being as much fun as the making of “Luvean’s Leavin'."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Song of Years

When I was sixteen, I read Bess Streeter Aldrich’s book, Song of Years. It was about an 1860’s Iowa family who had seven daughters and two sons. The story centered on Jeremiah Martin, a politician who helped settle the Iowa plains, but I centered on Suzanne, the Martins’ teenage daughter, who fell for Wayne Lockwood, a handsome young neighbor.

I quickly identified with Suzanne. She was a girl of few words, deep thoughts, and a vivid imagination. She dreamed the dreams I dreamed, and longed for the things for which I longed. I admired her integrity, strength and character. But most of all, I admired her spirit.

After reading the book for the third or fourth time, I made an announcement, “When I have my first daughter,” I said, “I’m going to name her Suzanne.”

The family was used to my proclamations. That same summer, I had also announced I would be going to UCLA when I graduated from high school.

I didn’t go to UCLA, of course, but seven years later I had my first and only child, a daughter. And I named her Suzanne.

In February, 1963, Suzanne’s father and I moved into our brand new home at 416 Sunset Drive in LeRoy, Illinois. Carroll and I had been married almost four years, and my dream was finally a reality. I was pregnant.

As soon as we settled into our new home, I began buying the layette: Curity diapers, tiny undershirts, one-piece stretch outfits, two-piece outfits, and booties in all colors. We painted the nursery a soft periwinkle blue and hung white Cape Cod curtains. We bought a white bassinet, complete with ruffles and a bow, a new maple crib and matching chest, and crib sheets in every color in the rainbow. After Carroll assembled the bathinett (a gift from my co-workers), the room was ready.

We had just bought a new washer and dryer, so I stocked up on Ivory Snow detergent (gentle enough for a baby’s skin, they said). I bought soft, fluffy towels and washcloths, and I washed everything in Ivory Snow, rinsing them twice so the soap would not irritate my baby’s tender skin.

I spent the rest of the summer decorating our house and keeping it spic and span, trying new recipes, and learning to make pie crust with a new yellow shortening called Fluffo. I washed clothes and hung them in the sunshine to dry, ironed everything, and organized the kitchen cabinets, linen closet and dresser drawers. My free time was spent reading Dr. Spock, magazines, and books from the library.

I loved being a homemaker, and soon I would be a mother. I was happy.

On September 22, 1963, I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by my first labor pain. I was ecstatic, but petrified. Would my baby be healthy? Have 10 fingers and toes? Both arms and both legs? (It was only a year after the thalidomide scare.)

And then I rushed to my journal:

2:45 a.m.

This is IT! I think I’m in labor! I haven’t woke up Carroll yet. Better let him sleep as long as he can, because this will probably be a long day for him. I’m timing the pains now and it’s kind of strange. Sometimes they’re 10 minutes apart and sometimes they’re three minutes apart.

I can’t believe it’s finally going to happen! I’m kind of scared…

5:10 a.m.

The pains are no different, sometimes 15 minutes apart, and sometimes four minutes apart. Could this be false labor?

7:00 a.m.

Guess I’ll wake Carroll up now. The pains are a little closer, but not much. I just don’t want to be one of those women who goes to the hospital and has to come back home. It would be SO embarrassing!

That was my last journal entry for months.

When I awakened him, Carroll sat up in bed, a look of panic on his face. “No s***?” he said.

Four days later, he pulled up to the entrance of Brokaw Hospital in Bloomington, and the nurse helped me out of the wheelchair and into our red-and-white ’59 Plymouth. Our family is complete, I thought, cuddling our blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter.

“Now the hard part begins,” the nurse called as we drove away.

I smiled and waved. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I thought, gazing at my sleeping daughter and settling back in the seat. I felt confident, grown up. Ready to rise to the challenge of motherhood.

Or so I thought.

While Mother was with me that week, everything was fine. But things changed the night Carroll drove her to Champaign to catch a bus back to Kentucky.

Sheer terror galloped through my body as I watched the tail lights of the Plymouth disappear in the gathering darkness, the early autumn wind whispering through the trees, dry leaves flitting across the driveway. I was away from my family and friends; I lived in a strange little town where I knew no one and no one knew me. And winter would soon be here.

I had cared for all of my younger brothers and sisters, and done a good job, everyone said, but this was different. I now had no backup; Mother was not here. How on earth could I do this by myself? This little creature was depending on me.

Sleepless nights followed. I never seemed to catch up, and I couldn’t relax. I had to be wired, ready for any emergency. Carroll tried to help, but I felt it was my job and my job alone. That’s what mothers did; they took care of everything at home, and fathers supported their families.

Our new neat, orderly home was soon in disarray. Tiny outfits, sheets and towels littered my perfect nursery, lying in various piles. The new bathinett stood unused, Johnson’s Baby shampoo, lotions and oils littering its surface and the tray beneath. When I bathed her in it for the first time, Suzanne let out a high squeal, her tiny face beet red. She screamed through the whole thing. So I began bathing her in the bathroom sink. It was too much trouble to run the hose from the sink to the bathinett anyway.

During the day, I knew I should sleep when Suzanne slept, but I roamed the house, waiting for her to wake up. If she awakened too soon, I wondered if she was sleeping enough. If she slept too long, alarm set in: Was she breathing? Would she die of Infant Death Syndrome? If she cried for any length of time, I panicked. Was her formula too strong? Not strong enough? Was she having colic? Or was it something fatal?

And then, Carroll and I took her to Dr. Nelson for her six-week check-up.

“She’s a strong, healthy baby,” my pediatrician said, smiling at Suzanne, who was merrily waving her arms and legs, eyes fixed on his face.

He suddenly held out two fingers, and she grabbed them. I gasped as he lifted her and swung her back and forth. She held on for dear life, but I cringed, afraid her fingers would let go, already seeing her tiny body lying on the floor, neck broken.

I jumped up, ready to lunge for her, but Dr. Nelson walked over and placed her in my arms. “You’re doing a great job with her,” he said.

Ping! The expert had spoken.

I finally relaxed. Suzanne began sleeping through the night and growing into a cooing, happy baby. She rolled where she wanted to go before she crawled. She crawled before she sat up. She spoke her first word at eight months; took her first step at nine months. She grew into a happy little girl, with no repercussions from those first harried weeks with her anxious mother.

I admit I am an overprotective mother; always have been; always will be. But Suzanne understands me and handles it well. She is a daughter of whom any mother would be proud.

I tried to buy Song of Years for her when she was just about Suzanne Martin’s age at the beginning of the book. Written in 1939, it was out of print, so I had a book searcher find a copy and I gave it to her on her birthday. Before I presented it to her, I copied a quote from the book:

Song of Years, it warned your heart…filled it too, with melody that would last forever.

So, happy birthday to my lovely daughter, who warms my heart and fills it with melody each time I look at her.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Road Less Traveled

Through the years I have had many discussions about life with many people: my daughter, sisters, mother, my husband and friends. What is it all about? Are we here for a reason? Do we have control of our destiny, or does our destiny control us?

"It's like you're trying to climb a mountain," one sister said, "You're making some progress and feeling good about it, but you lose your footing and fall back." She stopped for a minute, a thoughtful look on her face, "And then you start climbing again."

I thought that was a very good way to put it. Me? I liken life to an Interstate highway.

But I have not always felt that way.

In the 1970's, I woke up one morning and realized I had no control over my life. I was living a life mapped out by someone else, and there was no veering off the designated path.

And then. Something happened. My anesthetized senses began rising to the surface, and a picture slowly emerged: an Interstate highway. When you're driving down the Interstate, you usually have a destination in mind. You can drive straight to that destination and never veer off the path, sticking to the written-in-stone directions. Or you can take an exit every now and then, driving down unknown roads, discovering new places, meeting new people, and learning things about yourself you never would have known.

But first, you have to take the wheel.

After much soul searching, I finally got off that Interstate. I explored. I took this path and that; I drove down gravel roads, dirt roads, back roads. A few times, I thought I had come to the end of the road. But I just got right back on the Interstate and kept going.

And that, for me, has made all the difference.

The Road Less Traveled

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Meeting Eldridge Cleaver

I just received word my short nonfiction piece, A Black Panther’s Hearse, has been accepted for publication in Canada. Editors at Existere, A Journal of Arts and Literature, tell me it should be out the first week in October.
The story is about Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, whom I met during a visit to Berkeley, California in the spring of 1988.
I read Cleaver’s shocking book, Soul on Ice, in 1969, and if someone had told me I would someday meet the author, break bread with him, talk about his prison days and discuss writing with him, I would have told them they were crazy. And if they had told me he would offer to edit my stories, I would have told them they were stark raving crazy.
But that is what happened.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Feminine Mystique

From My Journal, September 2, 1967
LeRoy, Illinois

I’ve been thinking seriously of going back to work. I saw an ad in last Sunday’s Pantagraph for an office manager with a minimum of two years’ experience. The salary is $98.00 a week! I called, and the man told me I would be in charge of the whole office…payroll, bookkeeping, everything, plus I would be taking dictation from him. He said a man had the job before, but he needed a secretary, so he decided to combine the two jobs and hire a woman. He wanted me to come for an interview right then. But I chickened out and told him I’d call him back.

At times, I feel it’s the thing to do, that a nursery would be just the thing for Suzanne, then, when she skins her knee or something, I wonder what would happen if I weren't there to comfort her!

I finished The Feminine Mystique yesterday, and it really set me to thinking. Betty Friedan says housework is something that should be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and no one should make a career of it. I agree about the housework, but what about the children? I’m responsible for my precious little girl and feel that I should be home with her. I'm not wild about housework, but it has to be done. I do love fixing nice meals, baking, and decorating the house, but even with cooking and baking and decorating and cleaning the whole house, I still have time on my hands! Sometimes, when I’m watching Suzanne playing with her dolls, I wonder if I’m doing right by her. She would probably love being at the nursery, with all kinds of playmates.
It’s so confusing! Sometimes I feel like Gloria Steinem living in June Cleaver's body!
The man called again just now! I’m surprised he would call on a Saturday! He asked me if I could come in for an interview Monday morning at 10. Seems like I’m just being pulled along on this…like getting out in the water, then the tide pulling me on out. In a way I want to get the job, and in a way I don’t.

Carroll dictated some letters to me and I practiced on my shorthand. I was pretty rusty, but the more I take things down in shorthand, the better I get. They’ll probably give me a timed writing, too. Wish I had a typewriter to practice on!

I’m getting ready to press my brown and beige suit. I plan to wear it with my new gold necklace and button earrings. Thank heavens I just bought a matching purse to go with my beige heels! My white gloves are still in good shape, so I don’t have to worry about buying another pair.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dr. Smelly

While shopping the other day, I overheard a woman say, “I need candles; my house is smelly,” and it brought back a memory of Lorene so vivid that I almost burst out laughing. And then, I felt sad.

Lorene was Bill’s stepmother and in her eighties. Although she was financially secure, and could have done just about anything she wanted, she never went anywhere. Her friend, Mary, handled her finances and chauffeured her around; other friends mowed her lawn and did odd jobs around her house, offering to take her to church and out to lunch or dinner. But she spent most days in her blue recliner, her Chihuahua perched in her lap, gazing out the window.

We visited her two or three times a year, and when we arrived at her house just about this time last year, she met us at the door in her pajamas.

"I thought y’all would be here sooner!” she said, “I was getting ready to just lock up the house and go ahead on to bed!"

She dropped her long, thin body into her recliner and pulled the lever, sending her feet high in the air. "Bella’s walking funny,” she said, “Y’all have got to take us to the vet."

I looked at Bella, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes at me. The dog had been taken to the vet so many times in her 11 years that her tiny body quivered and quaked at the mention of “The Vet.”

“Y’all have got to take me to Dr. Smelly tomorrow, too,” she said.

“Smelly?” I said, trying to stifle a giggle, “Did you say ‘Dr. Smelly’?”

She pulled the lever again and slid to the edge of the chair. “Yes, her name is Dr. Smelly,” she said, “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” I said, “With a name like Wooley, I can’t talk. But you should not be going to a smelly doctor.”

She jumped up, glowering at me, and I broke into a torrent of giggles. We always tried to deal with Lorene’s crankiness with humor, but I knew I was carrying it a bit too far.

"I don't believe in making fun of nobody," she said, "Dr. Smelly can't help what her name is!"

"Does she stink?" Bill quipped.

"Y’all ought to be ashamed of yourselves," Lorene replied, "Dr. Smelly is a very nice doctor!" She got up, stormed to her bedroom and slammed the door.

The next day, we drove her to Dr. Smelly’s office and the pharmacy.

"Y'all are gonna have to take me to Wal-Mart," she said, after we picked up her prescriptions.

We accompanied her up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart, looking for batteries, denture adhesive, a special unscented hand lotion, and hot chili peppers. She mixed them with everything she ate—from beans to scrambled eggs.

As we were heading toward the check-out, Lorene stopped, “I need rubber gloves.”

I volunteered to get the gloves for her, since they were on the other side of the store, but when I handed them to her, you would have thought I had presented her with a dead rat.

“They ain’t the right kind,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “These ain’t worth a toot!”

The following day, we took Bella to the vet. The diagnosis was arthritis, so we went back to the pharmacy for dog medication and back to Wal-Mart for dog food.

When Bill said he would wait in the car, I made a face at him.

I thought things were going well. We strolled along, laughing and talking, filling the cart with everything she wanted, and I was congratulating myself on being such a congenial companion. But something changed on our way back to the car.

“She run off and left me," she told Bill, “She run clear off!”

Actually, I had stepped over to the next aisle for Pepto Bismol. For some reason, my stomach was upset.

Evenings, after dinner, Bill and I usually retired to the front porch. Lorene couldn’t join us, she said, because she was allergic to mold.

We enjoyed those times; being back home put Bill in a reflective mood. He talked about growing up in the Deep South, running around in the hills and hollows of Alabama, the church where he was subjected to hellfire and damnation sermons each Sunday, and being pushed out of his home when he was only 15.

“I had to leave,” he said, “I tried to get along with Lorene, but she lied to Dad, telling him I wouldn't do my chores and causing all kinds of trouble.”

“I’m surprised you even want to visit her now,” I said.

“She’s just an old, lonely woman, now,” he said, “With nobody, really.”

“Well,” I said, feeling guilty, “I guess you’re right.”

Suddenly, Lorene appeared. “Y’all are sitting out here because y’all don’t want to be around me!” She placed her hands on her hips and gazed at her neighbor’s neat little house, “Has Buford been over here?”

Buford was in his eighties and a very nice man; Bill had known him all his life. He sometimes stood at the fence, talking to us, when Lorene was not around.

“His granddaddy was his daddy, you know,” she said, “And I don’t want to have nothing to do with people like them.”

"I don't know how much more we can take," Bill said as we were preparing for bed that night.

Lorene burst into our bedroom the next morning, Bella at her heels. “Y’all have got to take us to The Vet,” she said, “One of Bella’s eyes don't look right.”

Bill and I looked at each other, and Bella looked up at us. Her body began to quiver and quake, and I could have sworn she rolled her eyes at me again. Was there actually something wrong with her eyes, or was she the most intuitive pooch on the planet?

“You’re gonna have to take me back to Dr. Smelly, too,” she said, “My sinuses are acting up worse than ever.”

We made another trip to Dr. Smelly’s office, then on to The Vet’s office, where he determined there was nothing wrong with Bella’s eye.

"We're going home tomorrow," Bill said that night, "And I don't know if we'll ever be back."

The next morning I found Bill and Lorene drinking coffee at the kitchen table. “I just don’t know what I’d do without Dr. Smelly,” she was saying, “I dearly love Dr. Smelly.”

I burst out giggling. "I smelled a foul odor in Dr. Smelly's waiting room," I said.

"It was Dr. Smelly," Bill said.

Lorene grabbed a bag of Doritos and a jar of chili peppers, stormed into the living room and reared back in her recliner. She pulled the handle, feet flying into the air, and turned the television to the Andy Griffith Show. She hardly spoke to us the rest of the day.

As we were preparing to leave the next morning, the pharmacy called to tell Lorene she had forgotten a prescription, so we headed to Tuscaloosa again. On our way home, Lorene started to cry.

“I wish y’all would move in with me,” she said, “Then you could take me everywhere and I wouldn’t have to pay Mary to take me around.”

“Lorene, we’ve told you before,” I said, “You could move to Kentucky.”

She cocked her grey head, “Now, what would I do up there?”

“The same thing you do down here,” Bill said.

She burst into tears again as Bill was loading our luggage. “I ain’t no good to nobody,” she said.

“Oh, Lorene,” Bill said, patting her shoulder, “Don’t talk like that.”

We both hugged her, and I hooked my arm through hers as we walked to the car. “I bet I never see y’all again,” she said, wiping her tears with a crumpled tissue, “Never.”

“You say that every time we visit,” Bill said, “You know we’ll be back, maybe Christmas.”

“Nobody cares nothing about me,” she said, “And I always treated folks real good.”

“I know,” Bill said.

“I always treated you real good, didn’t I, Billy?”

“Yes, Lorene, you did.”

As we drove away, Lorene stood in the yard, Bella in her arms, waving until we were out of sight.

Bill sighed as we pulled out on the highway, “Maybe we will come back around Christmas time,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “Maybe we will.”

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis: He gave us all he had.

As most everyone knows, today is the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, but since we still hear his songs often, it is hard to believe he’s gone.
It was January, 1956, when I laid eyes on Elvis for the first time. I was 15 years old. Mother had just finished hemming a dress she had made for me—green-and-white checked, with a dropped waist and square neck—and I was pressing it on the ironing board in the living room. The rest of the family was back in the family room, watching the Jimmy Dorsey Show.

I had just tried on the dress, and Mother was checking the hem, when all of a sudden we heard clapping and screaming coming from the television. We rushed out to the family room, where we saw a handsome, young, greasy-haired guy jumping around and swiveling his hips. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” he squalled, “cryin’ all the time...”

“What on earth?” Mother said.

“Good god!” Daddy said.

Terry, Patsy, Mary Ellen and I were spellbound, and our little brothers and sisters didn't know what to think. Terry looked at us and raised his eyebrows, and we all burst into laughter. I wanted to start jitterbugging, which I had never been able to do every well, and I knew my sisters wanted to do the same. But we knew better; Daddy would never stand for that.

My mother, siblings and I stood in amazement. Daddy? He was tapping his foot, a look of disgust on his face.

The next day at school, everyone was talking about “that swinging singer from down in Memphis.” My friend, Sarah Mae, talked about him all day long and confided that she had a sexy dream about him that night after the show.

Elvis appeared on the Dorsey Show several more times, and we never missed it. By the time he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, on September 9 of that year, every teenager I knew watched it. (I later learned that an estimated 52 million people—one out of three Americans—tuned in.) He did not disappoint us, singing Don’t be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and Hound Dog.

Church people all over the country were outraged, some ministers ordering teenagers to destroy their Elvis records. “We are not going to stand for this,” one said, “This is the work of the devil!”

“The world's going to hell in a hand basket,” a neighbor said.

In November, Elvis’s first movie premiered. Patsy and I went to Memphis with Maw Maw Wilson to spend Thanksgiving with Aunt Mora and family, and cousin Clydeane took us to see Love Me Tender.

“He can’t act very good,” I said.

“Yes, especially when he died,” Patsy said.

The next night, we were in for a surprise. “Do y’all want to go see Elvis's house?” cousin Joe said.
We were beside ourselves. Here is my journal entry from November 22, 1956:

Joe took us to Elvis’s house! When he pulled up in front, we saw a pink Cadillac and another Cadillac in the driveway. There were two or three motorcycles, too. Joe said Elvis must be home. THEN, all of a sudden we saw somebody in the living room looking out the blinds. Joe said it looked like ELVIS! And it DID look like Elvis! I kept wishing he would come OUT! THEN a police car drove up and we had to go!!! There were music notes on the FENCE, and it looked just like it did in the movie magazines!!!

(Before Graceland, it was the first home Elvis bought for Gladys, a ranch-style house on Audubon Street.)

I saw Love Me Tender again, with Sarah Mae, when it came to Bardwell. She was mesmerized. I kept punching her arm to get her attention, but it did no good. She simply did not hear me.

“I love him,” she said as we walked out of the theatre, “I absolutely love him.”

The following year, word went around school that Elvis was coming to Paducah.

“When he comes to Paducah,” classmate Joyce Gail said, “My daddy said I could go.”

I knew I didn’t have a chance in the world of going. Someone said the tickets would be $6.50.

As it turned out, Elvis never came to Paducah. But he and a bunch of friends came through Bardwell in his pink Cadillac one night in 1957. They stopped at the D-X Station on Highway 51, and, according to the little man who owned the place and several lucky customers, he bought gas, RC colas, Moon Pies and candy bars. Patsy and I never forgave ourselves for not being there for the big event, since we often stopped at the D-X for Cokes.
The years slipped by. I graduated from high school and business college, got married and moved to Chicago, then Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, where Suzanne was born.
In the early fall of 1976, I learned that Elvis would be performing live at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

“We’re going,” I said.

“We’d never get in,” Carroll said, “There'd be such a crowd.”

“We’re going.”

“I don’t want to go,” Suzanne said, “He’s a has-been.”

Suzanne had been forced to listen to my music—Elvis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and other fifties singers—while she was growing up, but now she was becoming her own person. She was into Captain & Tennille and Abba, Elton John and Kiki Dee, and TV shows like Cher and Charlie's Angels.

Nevertheless, on Friday, October 22, 1976, we rushed home from work, changed, and after a quick supper, drove to the University of Illinois in Champaign. The show would not begin until 8:30, but Carroll wanted to get a good parking place.

We were in for a shock, totally unprepared for what we saw when we got to the Assembly Hall. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace, policemen were everywhere, and cars were lined up as far as the eye could see.

“I knew it would be this way,” muttered Carroll.

Still, I knew he was excited. He kept putting the back of his hand to his mouth as we eased along, which he did only when he was nervous. Suzanne, an astonished look on her face, sat perched on the edge of her seat.

After finally finding a parking place, we joined thousands of people in the long trek across the parking lot, fighting hundreds more to get inside.

“I’ll give you $200 for every ticket you got,” yelled a man in a wide-brimmed hat.

“I’ll give you $250,” yelled another.

“We should sell these tickets,” Carroll said, “That’s a profit of about $700!”

“I’ll sell mine,” Suzanne said, “If I can keep the money.”

By the time we got in and seated, excitement was accelerating. The place was packed, and it’s no wonder; I later learned 17,000 people attended the concert. There were young couples, mothers with babies, elderly people (some in wheelchairs), teenagers, people dressed in jeans, others dressed in formal clothes, and one woman wearing a sequined shirt, Elvis’s face splashed across her breasts.

When they began playing C C Rider, a hush swept over the audience. The music got louder, the lights flashed on, and there he was. The King. In person!
He was heavy and looked uncomfortable in his glittery white suit and cape, but he gave the audience his beautiful smile and immediately belted out the first words of Jail House Rock.
Everyone jumped to their feet. I don’t even remember jumping up; all of a sudden I was up. Along with Carroll and Suzanne. The roar of the crowd was deafening, the air filled with electricity; the excitement palpable.

He sang many songs, including You Gave Me A Mountain, All Shook Up, Hound Dog, and three of my early-Elvis favorites, Don’t be Cruel, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, and I Was the One. His last song was Dixie, and he sang it with such passion that I thought my heart would break. Although he was heavy, and not as handsome as he once was, his voice was still the same.

The crowd couldn’t quit clapping and cheering. He came back several times, waving and bowing, and, despite never wanting him to leave the stage, I knew he should. He looked exhausted, spent, his face wet with perspiration. He gave us all he had.
When the announcer said, “Elvis has left the building,” there was almost total silence, and then we quietly and solemnly filed out of the auditorium.
On August 16, 1977, I turned on the radio as I was heading home from work. The first words I heard were, "Elvis Presley...dead at 42.”

Elvis? Gone? Was this a joke?

Sadly, it was not a joke, and I spent the rest of the evening in shock.
“Thank heavens we went to see him when we did,” I said.

This time, Suzanne and her father agreed.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Especially Mother

Last Sunday was my birthday, so Bill and I drove to Bardwell to celebrate at one of my favorite places: Mother’s house. Suzanne joined us, as well as sisters Patsy, Mary Ellen and Eva, and brother, Tom, Aunt Mona and cousin Dennis.

We enjoyed birthday cake (made by Mother, of course) and chocolate ice cream (my favorite), then we sat at the dining table, sipping coffee, catching up on the latest happenings in Bardwell, and bragging about our grandchildren, and in some cases, great-grandchildren. (Mary Ellen has a new great-granddaughter, and Patsy is eagerly anticipating the arrival of her first great-grandchild, a boy, in October).

After all my gifts were unwrapped, cards read, and everyone thanked and hugged, we reminisced about my 15th birthday, when three of us--and Mother--almost drowned in Maw Maw Wilson’s pond. We also talked about the cold February night when Maw Maw and Paw Paw George’s house burned, and, as she does every year on each child’s birthday, Mother reminisced about the night I was born.

Mother was 19 when she gave birth to me at home on that hot and muggy night in August. The family doctor came as soon as he was called and stayed throughout the night, delivering me at 11:59 p.m. on August 5th. My 23-year-old father and both grandmothers were there, as well as 20-month-old Terry, who slept through it all. Maw Maw Wilson and Maw Maw George gave me my first bath by the light of the kerosene lamps. Electricity had not yet come to our part of the world; we would not have electric lights until we moved to the big brick house Daddy built when I was seven years old.

Since that August night so many years ago, Mother has given birth to nine more children. We lost Terry when he was 37, and Tim, when he was 28. Another brother, Tommy, lived only five days.

Despite the heartache and grief of losing three sons, two grandchildren, as well as Daddy (the love of her life), and many other loved ones, Mother just keeps on keeping on.

“I had to,” she says, “for you kids.”

Eighty-six, and looking a good 10 years younger, she is truly the heart of our family. Selfless, devoted, loving and always there for us, I really don’t know what we would do without her. (The photo above captures her essence; it was taken by my lovely niece, Christa.)

Mother and I are night owls, so we have long, late-night phone conversations at least four or five times a week.

“Hello, Brenda Gail,” she says, “How are y’all?”

Mother and I are alike in many other ways; we love poetry, good books, antiques, old family pictures, comfortable, worn furniture and cozy rooms with crackling fires. We enjoy thunderstorms, foggy nights, frogs croaking, the Katydids’ song, and the scent of fresh-cut grass. We love the silence of new-fallen snow on cold winter nights, the scent of beef stew or hearty soups simmering on the stove, and curling up in our warm robes, writing in our journals or reading. And we love tear-jerker movies, such as “Trip to Bountiful,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “The Whales of August,”

We also read The National Enquirer. Why? Because inquiring minds want to know!

“Mary Tyler Moore looks like a caricature,” I say, “She’s all mouth.”

“If Barbara Walters has another facelift, she won’t be able to open her mouth,” says Mother, giggling.

We have read every book written about the Kennedys and thirst for more.

“Did you see on Larry King where somebody has written another one?” Mother says, “We’ve just got to get that.”

“Is it the one about Jackie and Bobby?” I say, “There’s no telling what we’ll find out.”

And the Royals:

“I don’t care what they say,” Mother says, “Princess Di was murdered!”

“Yes," I say, “Common sense tells you that!”

Mother and I often have the same ideas at the same time. When she began reading Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life,” at our literary meeting last month, I was amazed. No more than a week before, I had copied the poem and put it into my “Favorite Poems” folder. Mother had no idea I copied the poem, and I had no idea she was going to read it. We had never even talked about liking the poem. And she read it from a book of poetry I had given her in 1974. One of many synchronous moments!

Late that night, after my very enjoyable day, I sat in quiet contemplation, giving thanks for all the people in my life: my husband, daughter, grandson, and my large, supportive family whose unconditional love is always there. Especially Mother. Who, whether she knows it or not, is still achieving and still pursuing.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Friday, July 27, 2007

From My Journal: July 28, 1965

LeRoy, Illinois

I’m watching a special report on Vietnam by President Johnson. Things sound bad. They’re going to double the draft call and are sending 50,000 more men over there. It’s terrible…every day at least two or three American boys are killed. It scares me. They aren’t calling reserves yet, but if they do, Terry might have to go because I think he’ll be in the reserves for another year. And if there is war, there’s a chance Ted might go. In the Korean War, 18-year-olds were called.

President Johnson just said, “This is the most sorrowful and agonizing decision your president has ever made.”

I hear my sweet little girl waking up. She slept a long time today. She talks so much now. I can't believe she'll be two years old in September! The other day she toddled around the side of the house to get her ball, turned to me and said, “See you later, Mommie.”

Didn’t do much today. This morning, I washed two loads of clothes and hung them out on the line (I love that fresh-air scent that you don’t get when they come out of the dryer), did the dishes, straightened the house and dusted, and watched “As the World Turns.” After lunch, when Suzanne was taking her nap, I washed my hair and ironed while I was watching “The Guiding Light,” then I cleaned the bathroom.

It’s about time to start fixing supper. I’m not having much. I’ve got a beef roast in the oven, and I’m just going to have potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, and sliced tomatoes to go along with it. (I’m not going to make a dessert. I’m still trying to lose weight…I now weigh 120 pounds!!!)

I just don’t have enough to do, and at times I get bored, but I will not leave my precious baby and go back to work. No one can take care of a baby like her own mother!

Twila Olsen called this morning and invited me to a Tupperware party tomorrow night. Don’t know if I’ll go or not. I’m kind of sick of Tupperware parties. Went to one at Irma’s last week.

Mike and Janet are coming Friday night for a cook-out.

I’m about to run out of books to read. Need to go to the library tomorrow. I’ve read just about every magazine on the news stands, and I know I shouldn’t spend so much money on them. I’ve read this month’s Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle and many movie magazines. I also joined the Doubleday Book Club. Can’t wait for my first books to come! Two of them are “Kennedy,” by Theodore C. Sorensen, and “A Gift of Prophecy,” by that psychic, Ruth Montgomery. I just love books about spirits and the hereafter.

Simon and Garfunkel’s song, "The Sound of Silence,” is playing on the radio. I LOVE that song, and I’m going to buy the album, no matter how much it costs. Another one I really like is “Mr. Tambourine Man,” by Bob Dylan. The Byrds also have it out now, but I like Dylan’s version better. There’s just something about his voice.

We’re going to New Orleans in August. Suzanne will stay with Mother and Daddy. This will be the first time I’ve been away from her overnight, and I know I’ll miss her. But she’ll be in good hands.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bob Seger: Never give up!

(Edited: I've had such a great response to this post that I've dug up a couple more pictures.)

At any time, day or night, you can turn your radio on, flip through the stations, and almost always come upon a Bob Seger song. Much of his music exudes deep loneliness and nostalgia, but it is also affirming, celebratory and uplifting. At the end of a Bob Seger song, you feel there is hope.

Although I had always enjoyed his music, the first time I was stopped in my tracks by one of his songs was in 1980. My daughter and I had moved back to Kentucky, and I was depressed and overwhelmed about starting over. Suzanne, like most teenagers, loved her music and spent most of her allowance on albums. One day she burst into the house.

“I got it,” she yelled, sprinting up the stairs to her bedroom, “I got the album!”

Loud, uplifting music burst from her stereo, followed by a familiar, soulful voice; a voice that articulated exactly what I was feeling. Against the Wind is still my favorite Bob Seger song.

Years later, my husband, Costa, and I often visited his family in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. And in August, 1990, we were there when my birthday rolled around, so my sister-in-law, Rita, decided to take us out for drinks and dinner to celebrate. She said her friend, Nita, and her boyfriend and another couple would be joining us.

“I have a surprise for you,” Rita said.

“What kind of a surprise,” I said, picturing a testosterone-pumped guy in a thong, thrusting and bumping around me to Play that Funky Music.

“You’ll find out when we get there!”

When we got to the restaurant, the other couple was there, but Nita and her boyfriend had not arrived. A short time later, people around us began whispering and looking toward the entrance, where Nita and her boyfriend were coming through the door.

When they reached our table, Rita jumped up, “This is my friend, Nita, and her boyfriend, Bob Seger.”

Before I could say anything, Bob grabbed my hand. “Happy birthday!” he said, smiling, “Set everyone up at this table with drinks,” he said, “It’s Brenda’s birthday!”

Bob was down-to-earth and very friendly, and when he smiled, his whole face lit up. He was a very good conversationalist and listened intently when others spoke. Several people around us asked to join our group, and Bob graciously invited them over. Rita rushed out to her car, bringing back party hats and favors for everyone, and the party accelerated.

When we finally decided to have dinner, it was past closing time, but the restaurant was still full. After dinner, Bob bought a round of drinks and made a toast to me, and then he led the group in singing happy birthday. By the time the song was over, everyone in the restaurant was singing along.

As we were preparing to leave, Bob invited us to his house for a swim, so we piled into our cars and followed Bob’s Mercedes out to the suburbs. We were all pretty well loaded, but Rita rose to the occasion and drove our car, and we hung on for dear life as we careened down Telegraph Road.

At Bob’s house, Nita took us out back to the bath house and gave us swimsuits, and then we all cavorted in the kidney-shaped pool. Later, we gathered in his family room, where we talked and listened to music, and in the early morning hours, Bob asked us if we would like to listen to a tape of songs that would be coming out on his next album. Two of them were Real Love and The Long Way Home, which I really liked. I was struck by Bob’s face as he watched our reactions, and I realized that no matter how successful entertainers have become, they are still vulnerable to the opinions of others.

Later, Rita, Nita and I went into the family room and plopped down on the carpet in a circle so we could talk privately. Nita was very nice and unaffected. She reminded me of Suzanne, in her honest, straight-forward approach to life. Bob later joined us, his cat at his heels. The cat was black, with a strange shock of yellow over one eye. I tried to pet him, but he backed away and curled up close to Bob, looking at me suspiciously.

We talked about all kinds of things, and in the course of the conversation Rita mentioned that I wrote short stories. Bob asked if I had published anything. I told him I had only published a few human interest newspaper stories and one poem.

“It’s hard to get anything published,” I said.

“Just keep on,” he said, petting his cat and scratching him behind his ears, “If you keep on, you will get your stories published. That’s the way I was with my music. Never give up.”

Bob went on to say that he almost gave up in 1969, to go to college, but he decided to give his music one more chance. That’s when all of his hard work began paying off.

It was around 4 a.m. when we began running out of steam, so Bob insisted we spend the night. And it was around noon the next day before we began meandering downstairs. We were all suffering from hangovers, so after consuming gallons of coffee we headed home.
"Have a safe trip back to Kentucky!" Bob called as we drove away.
We visited with Bob and Nita again a couple of years later, and Bob asked if I was still writing. “Remember,” he said, “Just keep on writing; never give up!”

I lost touch with them after Costa and I went our separate ways. Through the years, though, I’ve kept up with them through the tabloids and television. He and Nita had a baby boy, Cole, and when he was a toddler, they got married. They had a daughter, Samatha, a few years later. I was thrilled when Bob was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, and his song, Old Time Rock and Roll was named one of the Songs of the Century in 2001. I felt the accolades were long overdue, since he more than paid his dues by selling 50 million albums and writing songs, singing, recording and touring for over 40 years.

Nowadays, as I write, I listen to all kinds of music—oldies, classical, blues, country—but sometimes I get stuck on a particular story, and that proverbial little voice whispers, Why are you doing this? That’s when I put on a Bob Seger CD, fast-forward it to Against the Wind, turn the volume up and get a great big dose of inspiration.

Never give up, I tell myself, never give up!

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley