Tag Archives: my kin

chain

Today, I’m linking up with the voice of southern exposure, Amber Haines  for her Concrete to Abstraction series. My friend, Ashley Markin is hosting today in Amber’s absence. The piece she offers is pristinely powerful. Read it. This is not the me I usually traipse about as here. These girls push me to reveal one of my more interesting, if not beautiful, personas.

“Chain” –  I see the semi-rectangular links that held my swing at Nana’s under me and to the strong, iron cross-bar. Great heavy links which my Daddy used to pull down oaks follow. I see the charm bracelets which anyone who had the word mama in a name I called wore about their wrist. And then they are the hanging baskets suspended by a bit of chain in our backyard. Chain was not a dark or dreary word in my vocabulary. Chains held and did good work. Until…

Now the word makes me think of a song, a band whose rise to destruction also began by their testimony, in Birmingham. Now, the word “chain” gives rise in me to Stevie’s tortured vocals and Lindsay’s torturing ones. Now it’s all I hear, think about at the word.

I am secured to this place with chains of DNA and debts yet paid and some other oil and exhaust covered thing that feels the way my Daddy’s heavy pulls looked, but I never noticed, as they brought me near to him and warmth into my home. Here it leaves me cold and marred and broken by its weight, though the soul separating power no longer employs it to stretch my frame in twain.

We hammer steel here, no longer under big smokestacks, but in small artisan studios. The big dangers like the old gargantuan iron workings of Birmingham have largely moved abroad to torture elsewhere: racism and class warfare. But, tiny cauldrons still fume and ours was one of them.

The church we so very hesitantly planted was supposed to be a small work of grace. I know now it was neither in his mind – ever. It was to his thinking all his and nothing if it did not grow large and powerful and connected to everyone else so. Our leader was family, by marriage, and he was nearly my death, if not all of ours. I worked for him, wrote some of his stuff. I thought I liked those handling the oversight of our work. Until they didn’t.

It was a classic case of egomania which moved on to more…a deadly infection which cost him his life and all of us everything but ours. It’s been a long time; he has long been as cold in the ground as that chain.

But, when you learn to shoulder such a weight and know its oily feel upon your skin that stains into the mind’s every crevice and all cracking places of your soul… When the smell of such is no secret but a like sentry sound, it is easy to know a brother, another so inclined.  Just such and I have recently locked eyes. And I am wondering is freedom mine to force anew?

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Circling round

We set out under quiet clouds, the rain light – gentle, a sacred circuit before us. We drove the carless roads, not alone. And all  seemed slow and sweet and suspended. We moved down the mountain and worshipped awhile before the ancient and true…watching fins swim and whispering of earlier walks aside the water.

Littles climbed and squealed on rails while mammas held shirts fast, as our mammas had held ours, and we our children’s. This secret space we had found separately spread out before us, its stump buildings and signs government green, the most comforting color. It meant my Daddy was home, with me.

I stared at that space my little eyes had longed for, my older eyes still held as dear, and wondered that my friend, who never knew me little, had come to love this nearly unnamed place, 100 miles away, as well.

We turned south and rolled toward banks which built me, formed much of what named me, proper. The White house, not Little, or so colored, sat abreast the property.  No one ruled from it, but its place was surely preeminent. I searched the gray ground for things I had unknowingly offered to St. Augustine and for my lure that fell into the concrete cracked across the spillway. I saw no mark of me, for the million miles I walked round and round, my rod in my hand. All left now were the memories I had sloughed off, like sunburned skin, hoping in vain, for no scarring.

As we started to leave, I saw my baby sister rubbing enchanting chub fingers over her “hand warmers.” We collected hundreds but forgot most of the smooth, pocket-sized alluvial stones. I leapt from the car to where she often sat gathering, and I stood scattering them against the smooth surface of our shallow pond. I bent down and put one in my pocket. I would not leave this one behind.

We turned west past all that had been my Pop’s land, the railway now a road-race practice place, and the neighborhood of my friend Stacey, whose pre-wedding antics still bring us great glee.

One more turn and we were headed  back north to our temporary tabernacle. On my right lay the low smooth rocks and fat leeches of Flat Rock Park, where we played with underwear-only clad little crackers like us. We drove on, willing the wheels slower and slower, Quiet our companion. As we climbed, the music of our journey, seemingly made before the foundation…, softly speaking all into being, played soft. I reminded her of a drive we took, twenty-five years ago…and of songs she sang for me.

I could not stop the sun, I would have stilled it in such a moment forever…left my portion of more willingly. We sat silent as the engine ran against the now breaking sun, listening to music that sang my sufferings. She listened hard as the beauty blended with imagery of binds and blood. My shoulders and heart open to her…my tears sliding free, I let her look on, catch and chronicle each one.

The circle we traveled was like so many circles that had come to be in our lives. How many times had we returned to just where we started, the same and not so. All good stories circle back on themselves…

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Generosity

I have always eaten off of your table, chips and Cokes you never drank, before – but kept for me. I drove your car for us, kept mine gassed. I slept sound in your bed, mine settled across the road, in a crypt, where ghosts shook my sleep.

From day one, you took me up…an orphan. yours.

I  stepped under shelter, you just before me, holding a door…tables turned back on me – the now mama to so many – back again – under your name, fed at your table, come to slumber aside you.

What little I know of this grace, I gained from you.

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the staircase

I’m linking up today with Amber Haines and her “Concrete” Series. Be sure to check out her post. It is an inspiration as always.

We are ranch people…Not a house in my family had stairs, an indoor staircase. We had functional steps that went down to a basement, out the screen porch  into the yard, but no living space stairs. I remember my mama saying she always wanted a set of beautiful stairs and a two-story house. But, my Daddy was a builder’s child from south of the fall-line; folks down there have cheap land and no worry of frost. Ranch houses are the tried and true way to go. His Daddy built sprawling country club ranch numbers and tiny cheap cinder block squares that made most of his money. So, as I grew, we just kept getting bigger and bigger, more and more spread out ranches.

The only staircase that stands out in my memory was in the Sunday School of my childhood church, Young Harris UMC in Athens, Georgia. The SS building was actually an ante-bellum beauty and Young Harris’ former home. Intricate New Orleans style iron work, stand in the sill, running glass-paned windows and ceilings that soared 20 feet or better made the once ballroom, we five-year olds somehow warranted, a lavish place for felt boards and finger painting. I loved the sound of my Mary Jane’s on the checker board floor where ladies once twirled.

But, the center, the core of that house, was the staircase.  Sleek and perfectly polished wood, it snaked from the second story and came to a stop just outside our k-5 door. We dreamed of a ride down, aware that every old woman about us was wary of just such occurring. I remember longing for the day I would be unchaperoned and left to it. As my sister and I got older, occasionally, we road a rung or two, undetected.

My Nana is the one who let me do everything my mama dared not, or cared not to watch with my baby sister ever clasped to her to side to keep her from crying. My sister’s colic grounded me. The phrase, “I’ll watch you. Go!” summarizes who my Nana is to me.

When Nana died and we had the funeral, all my children and their cousins, who had also long been seduced by those stairs, asked but two things: to ring the great bell in the courtyard and to ride those stairs. We rung that huge bell loud, it pealed across the city block grounds, down the avenue and into town center. Then they raced toward the great staircase, ties and matching dress sashes working free. My sister stood guard for blue-haired wardens. At her “the coast is clear” sign, I told them each, “I’ll watch you. Go!”

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Pop

I remember him in that chair, some long cracked naugahyde number. His cream-colored, gold knobbed radio on the book shelf above him, tuned to WPCH or the swing station that grew progressively louder as the years moved along. He watched the ball games in that chair, nursed a before dinner Rum Dum (rum and Fresca)  in that chair, and just a few months before they rolled him out and my grandmother’s new carpet in; he held my son, whom he always called Jesse, “Double Breasted Jesse,” in that chair. That chair is where I remember him, but its imagery is counter to everything that he was. He was a wanderer, a wayfarer, a maneuverer, and a mover if not a Shaker. He had read up on them: Shakers, they and their pentecostal cousins made him nearly as nervous as did those Mormons – he maintained that the latter were pure crooks and murderers.

Leaving was always his idea; he crossed the river and the region in search of adventure and opportunity. His climb was always upward and away. He left the life of the juke joints, the mill town folks and the military men. He left the red light district for the pink polo shirts of the country club set. A phenomenal athlete, he was wooed across the river to play every sport in their high school and on the weekends he entertained his moneyed new friends at the club, instantly excelling in golf and tennis as well. I have a picture of him, it’s 1920 something and he is driving a cut down Ford to Texas to play semi-pro baseball. He looks absolutely himself. I remember him on the periphery of my life. He’d come down to the lake on his property where all the grandkids were fishing or building dams in the creek, but I never remember him joining in.  He’d just drive by on his tractor or in his  truck and wave. My grandmother signed his name on my cards and even my birthday checks were from her meager household account.

But when I graduated from college, something he asked of all of us;  he never had the money to go himself, (though I know that he paid all his younger siblings way) the check was large and signed by him.

He was a bit of a ghost. Always taking off, going somewhere, anywhere. I don’t really know him that well. I read his books to try to know some of his mind, lots of southern histories and westerns – something I care little for. I have some of his stuff in my house. He saved all matter of junk and that too shows me a little of what he valued. I do remember once when I was about ten, it was July 4th. We shot fireworks in his driveway. He had bought them or swapped someone for them. He even shot some. He loved it, the sparkle and flash. He seemed more delighted than us kids.

Once we cooked out on this huge brick and mortar grill he had built on his spacious patio. It’s the only time I ever remember using it.

There are many fabulous and hilarious stories I could tell you about him. He was a character and charmer who achieved remarkable things. He was somebody, in so many circles. But he only walked the circumference of ours.

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Beatrice

Beatrice Ferrell, my great aunt

The house sat on a rectangle of sand and St. Augustine grass.  A huge oak swallowed all the ground between the street and the sidewalk. It was a Craftsman cottage, a solid square with a big beamed roof over a cool, concrete porch. When we made the tight turn into her double tracked cement driveway, she was sitting on her steps flicking the ashes off her Camels. She pulled herself up the plumbing pipe rail and shuffled towards the car. “Hey, y’all!” she growled, “Come give Bebe a hug!” She was a bit frightening. A not too large woman, she wore her hair piled high on her head in a swooped up bun, dyed bright red, not a lovely auburn, a bright orange, red. She wore cherry red knee socks and a MuuMuu. It must have been “cold,” under 70 degrees, because she invited us back to the “living room.” That was not the large drawing-room at he front of house that was filled with family antiques and old stuff. The “living room” was the back bedroom where her mother had once lived out the last ten of her 93 years. The family: her brother who also lived and died in the house and her mother and Bea, had lived together the last thirty years since her father had died; mainly in that little, hot as hell room. They were, and Bea still was – old and obviously cold. I will say, that  little, high ceiling cottage did its job in that never truly cold climate of Columbus, Georgia. Even in summer, it was unusually chilly in that house, but unbearably hot and humid in that converted bedroom. You could grow orchids in there.

Once we were settled, that is perched on a bed or sunk down deep in a spring worn chair, she offered, “ Want a ‘Co-Cola?’ I got some in the kitchen.” I remember rushing to be the one to help her get them. The cooling sensation of the tiny, nearly all white porcelain kitchen was a welcomed reward. I remember the sink, deep, deeper than I could reach and slightly rectangular. There were tomatoes on the window sill and a knife worn away from sharpening nearby. From that window, I could see the neighbors porch and a little child playing there. Bea’s house was in a new hot spot for young doctors, lawyers and bankers in Columbus. People paid up to half a million for the little bungalows that they quickly tripled in size off the back.

We opened the bottle caps and poured the “Co-Colas” into jelly jar glasses and added a little of her too white ice.  When we returned to the rain forest, I noticed glorious camellia blooms, saucer sized, in vibrant pinks and reds pressed against the black streaked double window.

Just through a space in the overgrown shrubs, I could see the stand-alone garage and through its glass window the old Buick or Dodge, I can’t remember, which  Bea’s father had last driven in the late fifties. She had a little t.v. which squawked in the corner until she turned it off. Bea’s books, mostly borrowed, were everywhere.  They were soft covered and in grocery bags on the floor. Pointing to them all she told us, “They’re mainly just trash, but some of Shirl’s are good, and Sonny let’s me have his when he’s done with ‘em. They’re good.” Sonny, my eldest cousin, was hardly a collegiate scholar but Bea made sure that I knew that her benefactor, Huel III, Sonny, had become a reader.  It seemed a quiet, sedate life; her Daddy and then her Mama and then her Brother gone on. She never married, “Couldn’t find one good-looking enough for me,” she once teased some cousin of mine when she  was asked about it. I thought then of her of hair and socks, and wondered if that had truly been the problem. When I was grown, I finally saw some pictures of Bea in her prime. My grandmother, a beautiful woman by anyone’s standards, and even my grandfather – Bea’s personal nemesis, who often argued he was most beautiful of all my kin, agreed. “Beatrice is an a…” He stopped short for my benefit, I think… “But she was a beauty.” “You should have seen her, and those clothes she wore, she was lovely,” my grandmother added. When Bea died a few years back, my aunt cleaned out the old home that my Grandaddy, Huel Sr., had bought out of foreclosure thirty years before without Bea’s knowledge. Bea cussed Mule- her name for Huel, my grandfather, every time I was around her.  I think he secretly adored her spunk.

My aunt found the old photos and articles about Bea from when she was young. She was style personified, a beauty that burned into you. Her suitors, I learned from my aunt who had pulled everything she could out of my great-aunt as Bea began to go downhill, had been not been so daring as Bea. In her prime, two eligible young men pursued her: a wealthy young major from New York and the heir to most of Columbus, Georgia. While visiting the young major’s family, and being entertained at grand parties in her honor, Bea had received a long distance phone call from Columbus, “Come marry me, I’ll leave it all, if necessary.” She returned. Thinking about that living room of hers, I imagine that the warmer clime might have influenced her decision. But Mr. Jordan- pronounced Jurden- the 4th or 5th or whatever crumbled under motherly pressure and failed to follow through with his proposal. Perhaps, that is the unspoken reason why none of us ever even thought to matriculate upon those “hallowed plains,” to cheer beneath those huge letters. It was not done. Not in our family…I think I now know why.

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Dada

Before I donned the signature plaid of St. Joseph’s Catholic School, I studied on his lap in a dingy green and cream plaid patterned, wood and fabric rocking number that didn’t recline anymore.  The right arm was loosened a little from my weight against it.

As soon as my eyes opened good, we started. He read; I listened or followed along. Before Spot and Dick and Jane, I knew Blondie and Dennis and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown. He read me the front page and the sports page and the vocabulary words from Readers’ Digest. Sometimes we read his Farm Report, though I never knew him to garden, much less farm. You might think that he had been a teacher or a professor, this man who had me reading at three and who taught me math with Chinese Checkers and Canasta and Poker. He was – in his way. He trained hundreds, maybe thousands of men in what they needed to stay alive on the beaches of the Philippines, in the bogs of Guam and in the open sea. He was an enlisted man, a career soldier who spent most of his army years in the field with his men – at war.

I really had no idea what his life was like before me. I imagined that he grew up on a farm, he did tell me that he was from way down in South Georgia. He never said much else about it to me. I knew that he was in the army. There was a pecan wood box on his dresser, it had a little lock suspended from it; the lock was just for show. Inside were bright-colored, grosgrain ribbons attached to heavy medallions. I would sneak and run my fingers through them like a button collection. My Nana ran me out of the box occasionally but my Dada always told her, “That Doll-baby can’t hurt ‘em.” He brought me home surprises, the days he left a little while for work, Wrigley’s gum or the boxes of little Butter Fingers. He brought home pads of paper for us to cipher on when we played cards and good sharp pencils. I can’t remember him in anything but a short sleeve dress shirt, the material kind of thin and smooth, with an undershirt. He wore Dickies pants or the like, always with a belt, and Hush Puppy shoes. I never saw him in anything else. He owned a suit and his closet had lots of tan, pressed uniforms in it, but I never saw him wear those either. He was retired from the army but he worked a few hours a week at the “Navy School” that was a few blocks up the street, as an accountant. When I was a little older, he worked for a food supply company, it had a candy distributorship as well, so my daily take got even sweeter. Sometimes I got to go to his work with him. Everyone on base called him, “Sarge.” At his other job it was, “Chief.” When we went up to Normaltown, all the men would make sure to speak to him, “Morning, Sarge.” I remember wondering, Why does everyone call him that? and Why do they all stand when he walks in?

I can’t think of him without thinking of cigar boxes.  When I found something of value: wooden spools, sea shells, or tiny pine cones, I rushed them to my Nana, my eyes wide with delight. “Go get a “Seegar” box,” she’d coach. Dada kept the empty boxes stacked beside his dresser. Beautiful, in manly reds, blues, golds and blacks, with King Edward’s picture, it seemed a strong and safe defense.  After he lost a lung, Dada only chewed on the cigars. I kept the boxes, full with treasures: marbles, rocks, my dominos, my knife and tools that Nana let me have. I kept the boxes… long after my treasures within. They still smell of him, of unlit cigars and the faintest hint of Old Spice. My closet at home , in Athens, has them all along the shelves. I haven’t moved them here, I can’t bear to.

There is a book or better to be written in honor of this man, who more than anyone, seemed to know who I was – seemed to know what I needed to  become myself. My Dada was the man who secured my world – and my place in it.

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