Monday, September 29, 2008

Movin' On

She didn't begin first grade with us, but somewhere along the line Bobbie Jean appeared in our class. Slim, with deep brown hair that matched her impish eyes, she had a tiny black dot smack in the center of her bottom lip.
"I did it when I was little," she told us, "I just kept sharpening a pencil and sticking it there every day 'til it stayed."
We didn't know what to think; you never knew about Bobbie Jean.
Though she was only 11 or 12, she wore deep red lipstick and matching nail polish. I'm sure she wore a dress on occasion, but I can't remember seeing her in one. In my memories, she wears a checked shirt, tucked into blue jeans rolled to her knees, a scarf around her neck. Scuffed Penny Loafers on her small feet.
Bobbie Jean rarely got her lessons; she sat in class doodling or gazing out the window. When the teacher called on her, she acted as if she hadn't heard a thing. She just didn't answer. But as soon as the teacher turned her back, she smirked. And we snickered.
I admired her fun-loving ways, her spontaneity, devil-may-care attitude. Sarah Mae and I were fascinated, and we hung out with her for a time in fifth grade. Or maybe it was sixth grade.
Bobbie Jean was a year or two older than us and wise beyond her years. She knew about things. Like sex. She filled us in on the sordid details one afternoon during recess down in the bowels of Bardwell School. It was the day the circus came to town, and we were all excited, planned to go as a group the following Saturday.
But this news put the circus on the back-burner.
"Come on," she said, "I got something to tell y'all."
We all followed her down to the washroom, a dank, dark place where all the kids washed their hands before marching single file to the cafeteria for lunch. It seemed strange down there at that time of day, no other kids around. The only sounds were pots and pans clanging, low murmurings of the cooks as they cleaned up for the day. Hank Snow's I'm Movin' On was playing on a radio far away. Probably in the janitor's tiny apartment, down one of the shadowy corridors of the basement.
"My mother and daddy don't do that!" I said.
"Mine don't either!" Susie Jane said.
Sarah Mae and Mignon were frozen, apparently unable to respond to this ridiculous revelation.
"Well, pray tell," Bobbie Jean said, "How do y'all think you got here?"
She reached into her jeans' pocket, removing a crooked cigarette and a book of matches. "Well," she said, "All I can say is y'all got a lot to learn." She clenched the cigarette between her teeth and struck a match on the concrete floor.
"Where'd you get that?" Mignon said.
"Mom's purse," she said, twin spirals of smoke rolling from her nose, "She'll never miss it." She tossed the match into a corner and leaned against the wall. "Besides, I'm thinking about running away with the circus."
We looked at her in disbelief.
"I met the cutest boy helping put up the tents, and he said he'll get me a job and I can go with them when they leave town."
"What kind of job?" Susie Jane said.
"Oh, maybe feeding the elephant, cleaning out the monkey's cage. Or something like that."
We were speechless. Sarah Mae shook her head.
"Well, y'all can believe it or not," Bobbie Jean said, "But I'm movin' on."
As we got up and headed toward the door, she flipped her cigarette to the floor and ground it flat with the heel of her loafer. "Y'all are a lost cause!" she laughed.
Bobbie Jean didn't run away with the circus, of course. And not long thereafter, Willie Mae appeared in our class, just as Bobbie Jean had. She didn't much care about schoolwork either, so she and Bobbie Jean became good friends.
Sarah Mae developed asthma and had to miss the rest of the school year. Karen also arrived that year, so she and I immediately became best friends. She was as ignorant as I about the facts of life and boys, so we were a good match.
Willie Mae and Bobbie Jean drifted along together after that, always laughing and having a big time. We often saw them leaving school early, oblivious to Mr. Petrie's office which faced the street. He could have glanced out the window at any time and seen them leaving. But they never looked back. Both quit school after we finished eighth grade and got married.
I never knew who Bobbie Jean married or what happened to her. Until yesterday.
Pitty Pat called to tell me she passed away a few days ago in a town out west somewhere, over a thousand miles from Western Kentucky.
I was surprised how hard it hit me; I've been thinking about Bobbie Jean all day, hoping she was surrounded by family and friends; that life had been good to her.
Farewell, my old friend. May you rest in peace.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman: A True Gentleman

I was saddened to learn of the death of actor Paul Newman. He passed away yesterday at his farmhouse near Westport, Connecticut.

Newman was not only a great actor, he was one of the most handsome men I have ever seen. I first saw him on the big screen in The Long, Hot Summer, and when I glimpsed those bright blue eyes, I felt I just might melt and run down into the sticky, Coke-spilled crevices of the unpadded seat at Milwain's.
Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, co-starred with him in the Tennessee Williams classic, and although she was a great actress and had already received an academy award for The Three Faces of Eve, I couldn't understand why he married her.

"She's not pretty enough for him," I told Patsy, "He should've married someone beautiful."
Patsy agreed, "Like Elizabeth Taylor. She'd be perfect for him."
When we saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I agreed.
But as it turned out, Joanne was the perfect match. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in January of this year.
When asked the secret to their long marriage, Joanne said, "Sexiness wears thin after a while and beauty fades, but to be married to a man who is considerate and romantic, who makes you laugh every day, ah, now that's a real treat."
And Newman's response to Playboy magazine when asked if he were ever tempted to stray? "I have steak at home," he said, "Why go out for hamburger?"
Now that, I think, is just about the nicest thing a man could say about his wife. He was a true gentleman.
My heart goes out to the Newman family during this sad and difficult time. He will be missed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Anne of Green Gables

My favorite book when I was a child was Anne of Green Gables. I discovered it when I was eight years old, and I read it over and over for years, lolling in the swing during warm summer days; curled up in a chair next to the stove during those cold winter nights, munching on a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. And in the bed at night, until Daddy made us turn off the lights.

The last time I saw the book, one of my younger sisters was reading it. Dog-eared and battered by then, most pages had been scribbled upon by our youngest siblings. And the peanut butter & jelly smudges were still there.

Wish I still had that original copy.

The book was about Anne Shirley, the orphan girl who comes to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, middle-aged siblings who live at Green Gables, a farm in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. The Cuthberts had decided to adopt a boy to help on the farm, but due to a mix-up at the orphanage, they send eleven-year-old Anne Shirley instead.

Anne is bright and quick, with a vivid imagination. But she is dissatisfied with her name, her pale skin, freckles, and bright red hair. She takes much joy in life, though, and adapts to living on Prince Edward Island in no time at all.

She soon meets Diana Barry, who becomes her best friend, and Jane Andrews and Ruby Gillis. When classmate Gilbert Blythe teases her about her carrot-red hair, she turns on him with a vengeance, and although he apologizes many times, she refuses to forgive him. Both very competitive, they continually spar back and forth in class, one trying to outdo the other. And then one day, Anne suddenly realizes she no longer hates Gilbert. But she will not admit it. (That drove me crazy; I desperately wanted Anne to go ahead and be friends with him!)

The book also follows Anne’s adventures in Avonlea, her games with Diana, Jane and Ruby, her rivalries with the Pye sisters, and her mistakes, such as dyeing her hair green and baking a cake using salt instead of sugar.

One of my favorite parts is when Anne pleads with Marilla to buy her a dress with puffed sleeves. Marilla refuses, saying her homemade dresses will do just fine. But soft-hearted Matthew sneaks off to town one day and buys the prettiest puff-sleeved dress in the store. (That brought tears to my eyes when I was eight, and it brought tears to my eyes when I saw it in the movie, many years later!)

Anne, Gilbert, and a few other classmates eventually go to the Queen's Academy where Anne obtains a teaching license in one year. She also wins the Avery Prize in English, which allows her to pursue a B.A. at Redmond College. The book ends with Matthew's death, after which Anne shows her devotion to Marilla and Green Gables by giving up the Avery Prize. Since Marilla's eyesight is failing, Anne decides to look for a teaching position at a school nearby to help her. Gilbert has secured a teaching position at the Avonlea School but gives it up so Anne can take the position, enabling her to teach at Avonlea and stay at Green Gables. Because of Gilbert’s generosity, Anne fully forgives him and they become best friends. (Finally!)

Anne of Green Gables was written by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who drew upon her own childhood experiences in rural Prince Edward Island for this wonderful book. It has sold more than 50 million copies and translated into many languages.

Montgomery was born November 30, 1874, and died April 24, 1942. At the time of her death, it was reported that Montgomery died of congestive heart failure; however, her granddaughter has just revealed that she suffered from depression and took her own life with a drug overdose.

There has been much speculation about this latest discovery, some people saying Montgomery’s image has been tarnished because she committed suicide. I disagree. In my opinion, Anne of Green Gables is one of the greatest children’s books ever written; it continues to enthrall young people to this day. And the fact that she wrote 20 novels (including Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea and other sequels), over 500 short stories, an autobiography, and a book of poetry while suffering from deep bouts of depression, just shows what a dedicated writer she was.

Anne of Green Gables was written in 1908, and events are planned all over Canada this year to celebrate the centennial. I’m sure Lucy Maud Montgomery would be thrilled and honored to know her outstanding book is still being read one hundred years later.

I predict that young people all over the world, and older ones as well, will be reading it two hundred years from now. Regardless of how Montgomery died.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Brandi: A Very Odd Cat

I once had a huge calico cat with topaz eyes. When we adopted Brandi at six weeks, she was wary of everyone and would have nothing to do with anyone but Suzanne and me.

A few years later, Harry joined our family. A Chow/German Shepherd mix, he was two months old and thrilled to have a playmate. But Brandi put an end to that with a hiss and a slap of her paw. Later, as a dumbfounded Harry looked on, she sat bathing herself, shooting daggers at him each time he moved: Back off, you little toot or I’ll do it again!

Though Harry grew into a gigantic, formidable dog, the two lived in harmony the rest of her life.

Brandi had no use for small creatures. When Chase was a baby, she sat on the arm of a nearby chair, a look of disbelief on her face: What the heck is that?
Each time he visited, her big tail ballooned to twice its size and she scurried away. Then she fluctuated between hovering and recoiling, flinching each time Chase moved. When he began crawling she became even more alarmed, skulking here and there, hiding under furniture, peering around doorways.

As time went on, though, and with much work on Chase’s part (he loves animals), Brandi came around. But she was still a little guarded; lowering her head when he petted her and not completely relaxing until he was around six years old.

After much scrutiny, Brandi allowed a few more people into her circle: Gina and her husband and two daughters, Pitty Pat, Mother and Daddy. But she hid when anyone else came calling. And after our guests departed, she strolled back into the living room, ears back, looking up at me: About time they left!

Brandi hated the outdoors. When I tried to coax her out, she balked. A few times I picked her up and carried her out, but as soon as I set her down, she sprinted back to the door, looking around with apprehension: No telling what’s out there!

She was very picky. She only drank water (didn’t much care for milk), ate Purina Cat Chow, and tuna (water-packed). If I offered her anything else, she gave me a dirty look, flicked her tail and sauntered away.

She was brought to her knees a few times, though, by several catastrophic events in her long life. It’s a wonder she survived some of them.

One incident occurred when I went to Michigan for a visit.

I had left her alone many times before, with everything she needed: two big bowls of water, two big bowls of Purina Cat Chow. Litter. If I planned to be away longer than a day or two, I had someone check on her. And she always did just fine.

But after I had been in Michigan nine days, I suddenly realized I had forgotten.

I called Gina.

When she called back, Gina’s voice didn’t sound quite right. “First of all, Brenda,” she said, “Brandi is fine….she’s just fine. Now.”

My heart dropped. “What happened?”

When they got there, Gina said, Brandi was nowhere to be found. Her food and water had not been touched; her litter was unused. And from the bedroom, they could hear a faint meow.

“I was afraid to open the door,” Gina said, “I just knew she’d be nothing but skin and bones. And maybe dying.”

But when Gina peeked in, there Brandi stood, looking up at her. And none worse for the wear. “She was really glad to see us,” Gina said, “She couldn’t get enough petting!”

As it turned out, before I left for Michigan I had gone to my bedroom and grabbed a sweater, and rushed back out to the car. Apparently, Brandi had followed me and I had closed the door, not knowing she was there.

Brandi acted less haughty for several days thereafter and seemed much more appreciative when I fed her. Before long, though, she was back to her old self.

Another incident occurred when Brandi spent time in the country with Mother and Daddy. She somehow got out one night and Daddy found her on the deck the next morning, her throat almost slit in half. We determined she had gotten into a fight with a Coon or a Possum. Maybe both, knowing Brandi!

After a trip to Lone Oak Animal Clinic, she soon recovered.

Since she hated the outdoors, I never figured out why she sneaked out that night. Maybe she considered the deck just another room. Or maybe she saw a Coon and went after him. Or maybe she just stepped out to get a breath of fresh air.

As Brandi grew older, I began worrying about the inevitable. “She’s 10 years old,” I said to Suzanne, “What if she dies?”

I said the same thing the next year, the next. And the next.

And then one day I didn’t have to coax her to get into my lap. She just climbed up there and laid her big furry head on my knees. Which was unusual for her.

“What’s the matter, Brandi?”

She looked up at me and meowed, topaz eyes sad.

She was still eating well at that time, though, and acting normal. So I put it out of my mind.

A few days later, she walked up to me and meowed, and when I invited her onto my lap, she was unable to jump.

“It’s her kidneys. That’s what gets most cats when they get to be as old as Brandi,” my veterinarian said.

“What can you do for her?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “We should probably put her down.”

I refused and took her home, where she spent the next few days on my bed. She was getting worse, and I knew I would soon have to make a decision.

Suzanne and Chase came over the last night we had with her, and we all sat on the bed, holding her, petting her, and talking to her. Tears were shed.

The next morning at the Lone Oak Animal Clinic, I held her paw as she quietly slipped away. She was 17 years old.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yes, Stanley, you are remembered.

I was so happy to learn that Stanley Walker has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Adam Shull wrote a great piece in Sunday's Paducah Sun about Stanley's career, much of which I did not know. Not only did he play with country rock legends like Ray Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams, Jr., he did a two-year stint as a session musician at the Grand Ole Opry. And barely missed a chance to join Johnny Cash's band.

When I returned to this area in 1979, people often talked about a singer named Stanley Walker. So one night when he was playing at a bar in Paducah, I went along with friends. And I was glad I did. His voice was wonderful, deep and soulful, kind of a cross between George Jones and Travis Tritt. And his guitar-playing? Well, that was something else.

"He’s great!" I said, "I can't believe he isn't famous!"

In the 1980's, his band played regularly at the Executive Inn. I worked for the city then, and co-workers and I often headed there for Happy Hour on Wednesdays, sometimes staying later into the evening just to hear Stanley play.

Although I didn't know his name back then, I had already seen Stanley play. Years ago, and many times.
I was a junior at Bardwell High School when a bunch of us began going to the play-party in Wickliffe. Unbeknownst to our parents (They drink and do no telling what over there, Mother warned.), Patsy, Karen and I, along with other friends, piled into Billy Byassee's big old black car and headed to Wickliffe on Friday nights. The dances were held in the VFW hall. I think. But I don't know for sure which hall it was.

What I do know is things were really hopping in that big, smoke-filled place, people of all ages having a great time. Ray Smith was a skinny guy, enthusiastic, energetic, and singing like there was no tomorrow. It was obvious how much he loved his music.

One song he always sang was Elvis's Hard Headed Woman, and when he belted out those first few lyrics, everyone hit the dance floor, crinoline petticoats swishing, ponytails bouncing; Old Spice cologne wafting through the air, crew-cut heads bobbing to and fro, and white bucks slipping and sliding across the floor. The air seemed to snap and crackle.

Early on, Raymond Jones, a classmate of mine, played guitar in Ray's band, and when Raymond left, he was replaced with a boy who could really pick the guitar.

That boy was Stanley Walker, and he went on to play lead guitar for Ray Smith's Rockin' Little Angel, which sold several million records. It was recorded at Sun Records in 1961, and there were other songs as well. He toured with Ray Smith, appeared on Hee Haw, did solo recordings. And much more.
Not long ago, Stanley received a letter from Dr. Hank Davis, a music buff in Canada: I really love your guitar playing and think you contributed immensely to Ray’s records.

“I just can’t believe anybody would write that to me,” Stanley told Shull, “I didn’t know anybody knew me anymore.”

I agree with the good doctor; he did contribute to Ray’s records, and I, along with many people in this area and fans all over the world, certainly do remember him.

Congratulations, Stanley. No one deserves this honor more than you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What I Didn't Know About Paw Paw

Paw Paw and great-granddaughter, Suzanne

* * *
My maternal grandfather was a very tall man with a head of thick, white hair. When he got dressed up in a suit, white shirt and tie, complete with a gold watch chain dangling from his pocket, he looked like a judge. Which he was for a time.
Paw Paw George had many friends in Bardwell and surrounding areas, and when he drove through town he was always sticking his head out the window and calling out to friends along the way. And they to him. In his later years, he could often be found at Bardwell City Hall, playing checkers with many of those lifelong friends. He outlived most of them.

He had a great sense of humor, loved playing jokes, and seldom visited without a bag of candy: He kneels, all of us kids gathering around him. "Who do y'all love?" he says. "Paw Paw!" we chorus. We all give him a hug and then he opens the sack and passes Mounds candy bars around. (My first bite of the moist coconut, sheathed in rich dark chocolate, brings tears to my eyes!)

When we spent the night with him and Maw Maw (which we often did), he kept us laughing: At the supper table, Paw Paw picks up a bowl of potatoes: "Would you care for some potatoes?" he says. He sets the bowl down in front of his plate, then picks it up again, "Why, thank you; believe I will have some!"

No matter how many times he did that, it was always funny to us. (We laughed so hard one night that Terry spewed iced tea all the way across the table!)

After we lost Maw Maw, we were worried about Paw Paw. He was 80 then, and she was his rock. What would he do without her?

He stayed in his home, Mother helping out, for years thereafter. I lived out of state at the time, and I imagined him there alone, sitting in his big recliner at night, dozing, watching television. And then dozing some more.

Long after his death (when he was almost 92), Mother showed me a poem Paw Paw had written when he was 87.

"Paw Paw wrote poetry?" I said.

"Yes," said Mother, "He wrote lots of poems to Maw Maw when they were courting."

So I had to revise my mental image of Paw Paw in his last years. Now I see him at his kitchen table, pen in hand, drawing on his wealth of memories as he writes a poem. More than likely, he's enjoying a bowl of ice cream (he loved ice cream).

I like that image much better.

* * *

School Days on College Hill

Edward T. George

When I was six years old, I lived on College Hill,
Haven’t forgotten it yet, and never will.

I started to school about 10 till eight,
Had a First Reader and 10-cent slate.

Teacher rang a little bell about 10 till nine,
All the kids would run and get in line.

We marched to our room down through the hall,
In about five minutes, we had roll call.

If anybody was late or played hooky that day,
The teacher called him up front and made him pay.

He’d have to stand in the corner ‘bout an hour and a half,
When the teacher wasn’t looking, we all had to laugh.

Some walked to school, ‘bout a mile or two,
Waded water and snow, but they got through.

They got to school with a smile and no fuss,
And there wasn’t such a thing as a car or bus.

We had a good time as I recall,
Playing “Wolf Over the River,” marbles, and ball.

The girls had a good time jumping rope,
Never heard of such a thing as kids taking dope.

Most all of my school friends have gone on before,
But someday I'll meet them on the other shore.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Or Something Like That

I'll be honest with you. I haven't been working on my novel lately, nor have I been working on a short story. I'm kind of at a stand-still. Nothing serious; this happens occasionally. So I've been occupying myself with other things...housework, cleaning closets, reading Anne Rivers Siddons' Off Season, sipping Diet Coke. Thinking.

I'm also wondering what Eudora Welty did when she went through a dry spell. (That's her desk in the picture above.) Maybe she worked in her garden. Or baked a cake. Or played with her cats (don't know if she had cats, but she seems like a person who would).

As for me, after I have done everything else, I motivate myself by going through my Works-in-Progress folder, reading the first paragraphs of some of my stories:
Murder at the P. O.

C. J. Pickens loved walking to the post office. Excitement swept through his body as he awoke each morning, eagerly anticipating his two-mile trek into town to see what was going on, catch up on the latest gossip, and check his post office box. He never knew what to expect. Would it be Publishers’ Clearinghouse sweepstakes information? Entry forms for a trip to the Bahamas or Disneyworld? A letter from his cousin in Tiptonville?

* * *

Greek Grandma's Funeral
She looks peaceful, thin lips forced into a smile, white hair ratted and stiffly sprayed. Spit curls, like tiny bird nests, rest in front of her ears. Dressed in a blue satin ensemble, a brooch pinned at her squashy neck, her cheeks are covered with lipstick prints from grieving female relatives, their wails and moans echoing throughout the sanctuary of St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church.

* * *

The Rise and Fall of Boyd K. Wilkins

From the time Boyd K. Wilkins was old enough to think, he knew there were great things in store for him. He couldn't wait to get out in that great big world and experience everything life had to offer. And the quicker, the better. He had long ago decided he would not be living out his life in a tiny, dilapidated old house, wearing bib overalls and worrying about how to pay for groceries. He would not marry and have a bunch of kids he couldn't afford. And he would, by god, have the things he had always wanted.

* * *
Aunt Fanny's Drawers
Uncle Robert was old when he finally got married. Forty-six was too old to do much of anything, let alone take a wife. And it was so unlike him. The Uncle Robert I knew wore bib-overalls, farmed, milked cows, fished, and spent his evenings reading The Louisville Courier-Journal and Time Magazine. A wife just didn't fit into the picture.

* * *

The Night Has Passed

We drive into Beech Grove, Kentucky on a cold Sunday afternoon in early March, turning down the street where most of the stores are perched: the little restaurant that serves up delicious slaw burgers each day; the small dry goods store where Momma bought our shoes when we were little, and a mom & pop grocery store, the aisles so narrow you are forced to brush against familiar-looking people to get by.

* * *

Jake, Duke, Dolly and Me

Jake Turnbow was 52 years old and owned the Jiffy Mart when I met him. The clerk hired me, and I didn’t see him until I’d been working there for a good little while. He never said nothing to me when he was around the store. But that was before I jumped into the back room. I used to jump a lot. Instead of walking from one room to the next, I’d kind of hang onto the door frame and jump into the next room. Of course, I was only 17 then. I don’t jump nearly as much anymore. Anyway, I jumped into the back room and you would not believe what Jake Turnbow did.

* * *

Maybe I'll get motivated tomorrow. Or the next day. Or something like that.
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley