Monday, May 31, 2010

Have a blessed Memorial Day.

The dead soldier's silence sings our national anthem.

~Rev. Aaron Kilbourn~

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goodnight Irene

When I was ten years old, I traveled to Detroit with Maw Maw George on a Greyhound bus to visit my uncle and aunt.  I took a school tablet along to record the events of my big trip.

I felt all grown up, sitting next to Maw Maw, the big bus roaring through town after town on our way to the big city. Two fat ladies in the seat in front of us talked non-stop; behind us, a baby whined and pulled at his mother's polka-dot blouse. A chubby man with a handlebar mustache, head back, mouth open, snored peacefully across the aisle.

We rode for miles and miles; the humming of the engine almost putting me to sleep. But I was wide awake when we wheezed to a stop at a roadside diner.

The top song that summer was Goodnight Irene, and it was whining from the jukebox as we entered.  Several men were propped on stools at the counter, eating, smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers. 

Maw Maw and I ordered the blue plate special:  ham, mashed potatoes and green beans.  Unlike Mother's tasty fried ham, crisp and lacy around the edges, ours was ice-cold. And the lumps in my mashed potatoes were as big as my fists.

“They mashed these with water,” Maw Maw said, “And not a bit of butter in them!”

All of the food was strange and foreign, like the Greyhound we had just rolled in on. 

Excerpt from my diary:  The food is awful.  There is not a bit of butter in the mashed potatoes.

It was dark by the time we finished eating, and as we boarded the bus I wondered what everyone at home was doing. Probably having supper, I surmised, picturing everyone around the big dining table.  Suddenly, I wished I were there, among familiar things, eating Mother's good food.

“Time will pass faster if you go to sleep,” Maw Maw said, giving me a sympathetic look, “Why don't you lie down here in the seat?”

I put my head in her soft, cushy lap, waist-length hair hanging over the side of the seat. It was nearly touching the aisle, and I drifted to sleep hoping no one tripped on it on their way to the bathroom.

I was jerked awake by loud voices and smacking noises. The two fat ladies were eating fried chicken. “Gimme that leg,” one said. Across the aisle, Mustache was wide awake and talking to Polka-Dot. “Deetroit City has been mighty good to me,” he said, “I'm makin' real good money up there!” 

Excerpt:  People make real good money in Detroit.

After a while, the fried-chicken women began bumping and rustling as they packed up their leftovers and Mustache was snoring again. I wasn't accustomed to sitting in one place so long, and I was bored:  Would we ever get there?

Miles later, the bus began slowing. “Benton Harbor, Michigan!” called the driver as we groaned to a stop, “We'll be here forty-five minutes.” He cranked the door open and scrambled out of his seat.

A thrill rushed through my body as I gazed at the clock on the wall of the diner. Three o'clock! I had never been up at three o'clock in the morning in my whole life! I felt I was in on something. Something only adults knew about.

The diner was crowded and thick with cigarette smoke, food smells drifting through the air.  Hamburgers sizzled, milkshakes whirred, and the jukebox played non-stop. Goodnight Irene was playing when we got there, and it was playing when we left.

Excerpt:  I hate HATE Goodnight Irene!!!  It is corney!!!

Maw Maw smiled and patted my head. “Won't be long until we're there.”  She took a sip of her soup and immediately put down her spoon.  "There's not a bit of beef in this soup!" 

“I'll second that!

Startled, we looked around. Mustache was sitting at a table nearby, eating beef soup and smoking a cigarette at the same time. He grinned and waved his spoon at us.

Maw Maw and I began giggling. We were still giggling when we boarded the bus, and we giggled on and off the rest of the way to Detroit.

Excerpt:  There is a man on this bus that is real funny.  He has a great big mustache like Wiat Urp.

We had a wonderful time in the big city. We picnicked in the biggest park I had ever seen, and we shopped at Hudson's, the biggest department store I had ever seen. We went to the gigantic Fox Theater, which had the highest ceilings I had ever seen, and I had my first banana split.  I rode an escalator for the first time.

But what was most exciting was spending the week at Uncle Tom and Aunt Vi's boarding house. I enjoyed being around the boarders.  One in particular.

Art wore white T-shirts and tight Levis and smoked Camel cigarettes. There was a tattoo of a woman's face on one hairy arm; "Darla" on the other. He had a great personality, kidded me constantly, and was always humming Goodnight Irene.  He had taps on his big work boots, and my heart thumped each time he came clicking down the stairs.   

When our visit was over, I had mixed feelings.  I was anxious to get home, but I hated to leave.  The trip went much faster, though; I slept a lot, did a lot of thinking, and wrote in my diary:

I had a real real good time in Detroit.  We went to lots of places and saw lots of things and had lots of fun.  Uncle Tom & Aunt Vi & Art are real nice and Goodnight Irene is my verry favorite song. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Uncle Noel's Story

The spring issue of Up The Staircase Literary Review, containing my  story, Noel's Pictures, is up. 

It is thrilling to see my uncle's story in print.  He was very dear to me.  And although I had to fill in the blanks in some areas of his life, I like to think he would be pleased.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Leave Something Behind

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,
my grandfather said. A child or a book
or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair
of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something
your hand touched some way so your soul has
somewhere to go when you die, and when
people look at that tree or that flower you
planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what
you do, he said, so long as you change
something from the way it was before you
touched it into something that's like you after
you take your hand away.

-~Ray Bradbury~

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Miss Golda's Words

My contributor's copy of  The Mayo Review arrived today.  It contains my fiction piece, Boxed Up, Put Away. 

The Mayo Review is published annually by Texas A&M University-Commerce Department of Literature and Languages.

As I look at my work alongside those of PhD candidates and English professors who teach creative writing, I am reminded of a statement my high school English teacher once made:
"Boys and girls, if you have talent, and you work at it hard enough, anything is possible."
I paid little attention to Miss Golda's words back then.  But they ring loud and clear to me today.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Men We Became

I have discovered yet another book about John F. Kennedy, Jr., The Men We Became , by Robert Littell.  They met at Brown, and their friendship continued for the rest of John's life.     
I skimmed over the parts about football and other sports, but I read with great interest Littell's accounts of John's family, especially Jackie:

Mrs. Onassis moved with incredible grace, every movement graceful and smooth, like a ballerina.
Her apartment was grand, but a home, a place where a family lived.  The decor felt strong and timeless, paintings and family pictures covering the walls, the library filled with books.  Everything was beautiful in a quiet, serious way.  I was impressed by the sheer quality of it all.
Littell was not around John's sister, Caroline, very often (she often rolled her eyes at his and John's antics), but she graciously invited him and his wife to her wedding.  At the buffet line, he found himself behind Lee Radziwill, Jackie's sister:

When John introduced us, Lee gave me a "steely once-over" and then basically dismissed me with a sneer. 

That is not surprising to me; I've read she is a real snob!
Littell writes about the summer he and John spent bumming around Europe, retreats at Jackie's estate in Martha's Vineyard, and an unexpected invitation to a Christmas dinner at her New York apartment where she made him feel like family.  (She had the cook prepare the meal Littell always ate:  a burned-to-a-crisp hamburger and Minute Rice!?)
He reveals who John originally intended to marry; that he would eventually run for the White House; how he wanted desperately to have children, and how he dealt with his legacy:  I am not my father! he once said. 
John was kind and caring, going to great lengths to make people feel comfortable around him.  He was loyal to his friends and wanted to be "just one of the guys" at Brown.  He and Littell were roommates, and some of the things they did were hilarious.  Like the smell.

Their dorm room was always a mess, especially Littell's closet, where he stuffed everything:  clean clothes, dirty clothes, sports gear, balled-up sweat socks.  One day, they began noticing a terrible smell.  They tore up the room, searching for the source, but they couldn't figure out where it was coming from.  It got so bad that their dorm mates would not come closer than six feet from their door and their girlfriends refused to set foot in the room. 

Soon, the smell was permeating the whole floor.

Jackie stopped by unexpectedly one day, so John sent Littell down to entertain her while he changed to the pressed white shirt he always kept for her visits.  She was waiting on the porch, and it was a very cold day, so Littell invited her inside.

I'll wait here," she said, "I know about the smell."

(They finally found the source:  a full cup of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.  It had been there for months!)

Littell paints Carolyn Bessette as a kind, unbelievably beautiful woman who occasionally smoked pot and did lines of coke every now and then.

I know she was beautiful, and she was probably kind, but I feel much was left out.  Like the extent of her drug habit and her "weeding out" of John's friends.  She put them in categories: those she felt were his true friends and those she felt were there because of who he was.  If they were in the latter group, they were excluded.  (I couldn't help wondering if she might have been excluded, if someone else were doing the weeding out.  Would she have married him if he had been a plumber, for instance?)

I like to think she was deeply in love with John, though, and married him because of the kind and compassionate human being he obviously was. 

The book is unique and revealing, and very poignant, knowing at the beginning what the ending will be.  But if you enjoy books about the Kennedys, you will not be disappointed.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Chances Are

Not long ago Pitty Pat and I were discussing our favorite songs, and she mentioned how much she loves Chances Are, by Bob Seger and Martina McBride.  It's the theme song from Hope Floats, starring Sandra Bullock.
I'm with you, Pitty.  It's one of the most beautiful love songs ever.     

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shopping With Miss Muriel

Patsy, Mary Ellen and I went to town with Maw Maw Wilson many Saturday afternoons as we were growing up.  And we were thrilled when she took us to Stockton's Drygoods Store.
Stockton's had been there for as long as I could remember.  I loved the jingle of the cowbell above the door signaling our arrival, the familiar creaking sounds the old wood floors made with each step we took. 

To the left of the store were bolts of fabric stacked high on shelves; to the right was the men & boys department, where the sharp smell of denim filled the air.  As we moved deeper into the store we were met by the overwhelming scent of new leather.  It was coming from the "foot attire" department, where Mother took us each fall to buy school shoes.

By the time we entered our teens, they had opened a "women & young ladies" department.  They had all the latest styles, and we could hardly wait to get there.
Bonnie, the sales clerk, greeted us with a smile.  "Hello, Miss Muriel," she said in her soft, pleasant voice, "Your granddaughters sure are getting big."  
"How you doin,' Miss Muriel?" called Wilbur, "Pretty day, isn't it?" 
Wilbur was Bonnie's husband.  He stood, arms folded across his thrust-out chest, gazing around the store like a security guard.  He seldom moved from his position, and I often wondered if there was a worn spot there, like the faded-out linoleum in front of my great-grandmother's gigantic cook stove.
Maw Maw usually stopped to chat with Bonnie and Wilbur, and any other customers who happened to be hanging around, and then she arranged herself in a straight-back chair just outside the dressing room door.

My sisters and I attacked the clothes racks like cops searching for criminals among the poodle skirts and crinoline petticoats, trying on one outfit after another, darting in and out of the dressing room, gazing in the mirror, turning from side to side, discussing in great depth which outfit we should choose.  Maw Maw never questioned our choices.  Unless she thought a skirt was too tight.
After we made our selections and Bonnie began ringing them up, we stood in awkward silence, dreading what was to come.
"Maybe she won't do it this time," I whispered.
Patsy rolled her eyes, "You know she will."
Maw Maw cleared her throat.  "I'm buying a lot here, Bonnie," she said, "An awful lot."
Bonnie's right eye began to twitch. 
"That adds up to quite a bit."
Bonnie hesitated, eye twitching faster.
"Quite a bit."
Both of Bonnie's eyes were twitching, now, and she looked as if she were ready to take flight.  
"Do you think you could come down a little?"
Bonnie stopped, fingers poised in mid-air.  "Well, Miss Muriel, I don't know..." 
Maw Maw stared at her, eyebrows raised. 
"Miss Muriel," she said, rubbing her eyes, "We just got these things in..."
Maw Maw lifted the price tag of one of the skirts and stared at it. 
Bonnie sighed.  "Well...I'll have to talk to Wilbur." 
She hurried to Wilbur, where they talked in hushed tones, casting furtive looks in Maw Maw's direction.  Finally, she dissolved into the recesses of the store and Wilbur moved forward.
His face looked as though it had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad and there were comb marks in his thick, wavy hair.  He stuck his forefinger between his neck and stiff shirt collar and began working it back and forth.  "Now, Miss Muriel," he said, "These things are new arrivals."
"Yes, Wilbur, I know they are." 
"So, naturally, they would be a little higher..."
"I've been buying things here a long, long time, Wilbur."
"I know you have, Miss Muriel, I know you have..."
He lifted a sleeve of one of the blouses and rubbed his finger back and forth across the fabric as if judging its worth.  "I just don't see how we can come down on these things, Miss Muriel," he said, shaking his head, "Since we just got them in."
"Is Irby here?" 
Irby was the owner.  Maw Maw knew him well.
Wilbur hesitated, then he pulled a large white handkerchief from his back pocket.  "Yes, Miss Muriel," he said, mopping his brow, "Irby is here."
Nothing was said for a few seconds, and the silence was very uncomfortable.  My sisters and I gave each other guarded looks.  
He took a deep breath.  "Well, Miss Muriel, I think we might could do a little something."
As we walked out the door with our marked-down purchases, I heard Bonnie call out to Wilbur:  "Does Miss Muriel need anything else?"
"No," said Wilbur, "She got everything she wanted."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day, dear friends.

~Auguste Rodin~
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley