Ellen Morris Prewitt’s debut novel TRACKING HAPPINESS is the exuberant story of a young woman’s cross-country journey to exonerate her dad from an exploding drug scandal, while hopefully figuring out the secret to happiness along the way.
The quirky characters in Cain’t Do Nothing with Love get themselves in the worst pickles, thanks to love. Can love get them out? Join these men and women, dogs and the Devil, as they travel the wandering, unpredictable path of love.
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The summer I went to camp, it rained every day for eight weeks. I was in the eighth grade. It was my first major camp experience. I’d been to church camp (Baptist and Episcopalian) and Girl Scout camp (in Brandon, Mississippi, where we chased a greased watermelon around the lake), but not to a camp where girls traveled from Puerto Rico to attend. We were in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, me and all the rich kids. And every day, it rained on our heads.
I was at the camp on sort of a scholarship. My grandfather had left me and my two sisters trust fund money. Yeah, you might think that made me one of the rich kids, but it didn’t. Our trust fund money was largely unavailable, to the extent I told one of my friends that I had money in the bank, I just could never get to it. My parents couldn’t have afforded to send three girls into the mountains at hundreds of dollars a week for no reason other than to have a good time. “The trust includes education funds,” Mother said. I guess learning to live in the pouring rain was an education.
At the last minute, Mother had gone to Sears and bought ponchos for us to take with us, because ponchos were on the list of required clothing (any hints there?). The other girls’ ponchos were daisy-flowered in soft baby blues and spring greens. The Morris sisters’ ponchos were fluorescent orange like highway workers wear. Every day, head down and trudging to lunch, I could pick us out of the sea of ponchos: me; my one-year older sister; and baby Bettie, bright orange flames in the wavering line of little girl ponchos.
The spots of orange were about it for my interaction with my siblings. Summer camp is segmented: first by age group and then by cabin and finally by bunk bed. I had a great cabin, I remember that. But at the foot of my bunk bed, in the locker we’d bought for the camp experience, my clothes grew moldy from all the rain.
It did not rain the entire day, only every day. Spurts of sunshine appeared, but even then, when your horse passed beneath a low branch, droplets showered you. The tennis courts carried puddles. When you held the bow taut on the archery range, wetness tickled your ankles. We wrote home: “It’s raining.” Back in Charlotte, Mother moaned: “All that money!”
But in the snatched sunshine, on the steeply sloped hills, along the dirt paths, I learned to run. Up and down, swerving to miss grabbing roots, feet pounding—I ran. Looking back, my body may have been overwrought with the need for physical activity. In summers past, I’d spent my time on the tennis courts, every day, all day, smacking the tennis ball. The inactivity of rainy camp chaffed, and my need burst through.
So I ran. This was long before “jogging” was an activity. And I wasn’t jogging. I was full-tilt running, pausing only when I had to choose a fork in the path. If you say to me today, “Camp Ton-A-Wandah,” this is the memory that rises to the surface: me on the paths, running. At the time, it was the purest form of physical activity I’d ever experienced. Later, I would recognize that physical immersion in sex, but that was a long, long way off.
No, the summer of the eighth grade, my camp nickname was “Stick.” I had yet to get my period. I can’t remember if I even wore a bra. Stuck in a place between childhood and teenage-dom, I was loath to take the next step. I rightly surmised it meant swapping the joy in my body for angst. Too soon, freckles would become blemishes, the smooth front of my soft tennis shirt a defect. Teenage girls, in those days, frequently did not appreciate the way we were built.
But that summer, on the pine straw paths of the North Carolina mountains, before I began worrying about whether my hair looked stupid or my poncho was something a construction worker would wear, I waited for a break in the rain and, when the sun appeared, I ran for dear life.
On the flight to Jerusalem, I watched my Israeli seat mate, a seasoned traveler, do a nifty trick with her contacts, using no water. I followed suit, and two days later I couldn’t see out of my right eye. Of all things, one of the priests on our trip had been an ophthalmologist before taking his orders. “The human eye,” he said, “is the fastest healing organ in the body. But it needs to be covered up.”
Again, in a tumble of coincidence, one of the other priests in our group was blind, the result of a high school accident that severed his optic nerve. He produced a black eye patch. I put it on. Moshe Dyan was reborn.
Of all the sights in Jerusalem—a city filled with extreme costumers—apparently nothing was as odd as a white woman wearing an eye patch. Crowds parted at my approach. Staring abounded, as did laughter. At age forty-eight, I learned what it felt like to be made fun of for a physical difference. A schoolboy spied me in the window of the tour bus and pointed, doubling over with laughter. Then he poked his friends so they, too, could howl. “You look like a model,” one of the women in my group said, because I had cut my hair so very short for the trip. Not to the little boys, I didn’t.
Most surprising, though, was the effect the patch produced on the notorious groupings that make up Jerusalem’s Old City. The city is visually divided into tribes. You can tell who belongs to which tribe immediately based on their clothing. The Palestinian women wore monochromatic pantsuits. Orthodox Jewish men were draped in black with their distinctive beards. Armenians tended toward traditional dress that complemented their blue eyes. We Americans were well-recognizable in our typical tourist attire. My black eye patch acted as a talisman of acceptance, or at least tolerance.
When I misstepped (literally) and bumped into someone, the automatic gesture of annoyance interrupted itself mid-expression and became a hand blessing. Jew, Muslim, Armenian concentrated to figure me out. Who was I? Why was I wearing a patch? I was no longer a Christian, American, Westerner. I was a chick in an eye patch. I will not forget the bright eyes of the Muslim boy who wanted to sit beside me on the stone steps to find out who I was, discover what this new and strange thing might be.
Within my own group, I shunned the obligatory souvenir photographs. Why did I want a reminder of this? But my friends clamored, “We need you in the picture!” and I relented. Now I have a photo of myself in a limestone café at the top of a hill in the Old City. A pensive look bathes my face, as if I were listening to the far-off call of the city. In the background, the Dome of the Rock gleams in the sun. It is, for me, the image of Jerusalem: a place where God was rendered human.
Last week, I drove through my old Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, taking photos of the houses I’ve lived in. I spent two periods of my life in the neighborhood: from age 3 years to 12; and again through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s.
My life in Belhaven began in a duplex my mother rented when we moved back from Denver, Colorado, after Daddy Joe died. On this street, we ran behind the fog machine that sprayed for mosquitos and lived to tell the tale. (The house doesn’t tilt; that’s me tilting the phone as I took a photo through the car window.)
When I was in the 5th grade, Mother bought a house (!—a single mom with 3 little girls: the older I get, the more I’m impressed with that feat). We adored the Arlington Street house. It had 7 levels (if you counted landings) and 2 balconies. As you can tell, the balcony over the front porch where we used to sleep under the stars has been removed. Who knows if they still use those French doors to go out on what is now basically a roof. The house is also painted blue where it was white then. And you can’t see the little house in the back which, though it was a real house, we used as a playhouse and where Cheep-Cheep the duck lived for a while.
We left this house when Mother married, and we moved to North Carolina. I moved back to Jackson in 1982 to practice law and returned to my old neighborhood, kicking it off with another duplex. My unit was the downstairs screen door on the left of this yellow house.
I didn’t last long here before I moved to the Arcadia. I loved this four-plex (that’s my unit with the upstairs porch on the right), but I left it when I married. Doing my drive-by, I noticed it still has window units.
We (actually me, though I was married) bought this wonderful little house that we extensively renovated. It’s on Pinehurst Street, right down from Eudora Welty’s house. Miss Welty is a famous short story writer. You can hardly see the house up the hill. The sign indicates it’s for sale again.
For a brief period, I lived in exile from Belhaven. When I got divorced, I returned to the neighborhood and bought my very own house which I loved dearly. The trees around it have gotten so overgrown it, too, is almost hidden. It had a magnolia, fig, redbud, and an oak. When I married again, I commuted a while between Jackson and Memphis. I sold my house (marriage was not good for my house tenures) and rented the Love Shack behind this pink house in Belhaven. That’s an orange trailer of some sort in the driveway. You can’t see the Love Shack, but I didn’t want to leave it out of the chronology. It was tiny. It had 3 patio areas. The heating was terrible in the winter. I adored it.
When I look at these collection of houses, I see how similar they are. My taste did not change much. As you can tell, the Belhaven neighborhood is lodged in my heart. It formed me. It might be why I’m a writer. I dream of it at night. It’s now a historic district.
Oh, and just for fun, here’s the ditch area where we kids told each other a crazy horse with red eyes reared and stamped in the darkness. We never saw the horse.
At the foot of the Mud Island bridge runs a trolley. The trolley is painted a happy yellow and green. It toots across the street like a toy. But every day, when the trolley is approaching and the caution arm descending, people veer around the arm and scoot cross the track. This is the level of our collective sophistication: trying to “beat the trolley.”
In 1960, on a cold December night in Colorado Springs, my father was killed trying to beat the train. He was in a hurry, he had places to go. Only a short time before, the Western Slope of Colorado had been working alive with the uranium boom. That time had passed, but my dad still pursued uranium business on the Slope, still worked uranium leases. So when the red lights flashed, telling him to wait, he sped up instead.
Three years old at the time, crazy about my Daddy Joe, I was traumatized by his death. The experts actually call it “traumatic bereavement.” When death is sudden and violent, the horror of it all trumps the grief. The little girl is afraid to think about her Daddy Joe – hit by a train! – just as sure as she’s drawn to the lonesome whistle whine.
Before I understood the effects of traumatic grief, I would feel guilty when I reacted in kinship with the passing train. How could I love this roaring monster that killed my dad? Now I know: we love that which is left for us to love. So I wrote a novel, TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE, where the protagonist is a young women on a cross-country train trip coming to terms with the grief of losing her dad. It’s funny, this novel. But most things serious are.
So when folks look left and right, then scoot around the trolley arm, I wonder: what would your family think if you didn’t make it across? What if their grief was symbolized by a yellow and green toy trolley? Hit by the trolley! You can’t get much sillier than that.
Slow down. Wait. Lose your impatience. Don’t let death laugh at your passing.
In this delightfully simple book, discover the odd new prayer practice of using broken and found objects to get closer to God.
7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. The story of an extraordinary group of men and women who wrote their way out of homelessness. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt.
Word and photo images reflecting the life I’ve lived — so far. Some of it I had control over, some of it I didn’t. I’m glad for all of it. Click Achievements if you want to see it formally presented. View Me to see my life in all its incarnations. Read Stories and Essays for the truth told as well as I can do it. Keep up with my happenings by following the swirling synthesis of my Blog. Settle in with one of my Books—Cain’t Do Nothing with Love to hear my voice reading stories about the
unpredictable path of love; Writing Our Way Home, A Group Journey Out of Homelessness to learn how a writing group of men and women who know homelessness wrote their own book; and, Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God to discover how a non-artist wrote a book about an artistic prayer practice. Reading, listening, doing. Enjoy what you can; let the rest float away. Thanks so much for stopping by.