These people live down the way from me. They’re from California. They have a pond in their front yard, and every once in a while a commotion breaks out because they’ve seen a snake around the pond. “It’s a cottonmouth!” they yell, eyes bright.
They wouldn’t know a cottonmouth if it jumped up and bit them on the be-hind.
I admit it: I’m a snake snob.
I know cottonmouths from fishing on the big lake at Mamo’s farm. Cottonmouths, what we also called a water moccasin, would lie in wait on the bank. Dark colored like the muddy shore, they hid. Or else they’d hang from the trees, thick bodies swaying in the breeze, mouths open, tongues darting.
Okay, that last part might be an exaggeration. The point being, I was taught as a child to recognize a cottonmouth, so named because its mouth, when opened, looked as soft and fluffy as a pad of cotton.
Deceptive, that snake.
In a triage that is necessary when you spend long, slow hours wandering in the fields, I knew the copperhead too. Orange and dusty brown, laying perfectly still it could be mistaken for a vine—that was a copperhead. We knew the drill: when near the water, look for the cottonmouth. In the fields, keep your eye out for the copperhead.
The thing was, the copperhead was pretty tame, not bothering you unless you bothered it. The cottonmouth was a mean snake (don’t believe the Wiki article I cited above when it says their aggression is overstated—that snake is mean.) The snake—a viper—didn’t like us, would bite in an instant, and that bite was the real-deal, deadly poisonous. We’d see the menacing snake out in the lake, swimming with its head held high above the water, the snaky body zig-zagging across the lake’s surface.
That part’s not an exaggeration.
The point is: if you see a nonpoisonous water snake or a king snake or a common garter snake, don’t come hollering and jumping around me. You live on an island. In the Mississippi. That’s where the snakes live. You best learn to tell them apart.
(I’m sparing y’all’s sensibilities and not including a photo of a snake. Here’s a photo of Chompers the alligator instead.)
Two weeks ago, this bed was fill dirt. Before that, it was a driveway, a leftover scar from Hurricane Katrina.
The storm, which hit in 2005, decimated the community where we built our beach house (yeah, I know—it’s a calculated risk.) Waveland, Mississippi was “Ground Zero” where the Category 5 hurricane made landfall. We’ve been here for two years and recently bought the lot next door on the beach side of the house (we’re about 800 yards from the water—I was willing to take a risk but unwilling to build right on the Gulf.)
I used an old Coleman cot as the trellis for this vining plant. Only after I placed it inside the cot did I realize it was a Passion flower. 🙂 They say it’s heavenly to butterflies. If so, that will make me happy.
Here’s a close up of the Dragon’s Blood ground cover I’m using in the bed. It did well for me in Memphis so I’m trying it here.
When the temperature drops in the fall, I will transplant some Asiatic and Oriental lilies into the bed; I was using them to demarcate the lots, which doesn’t make sense now. We’ll put sod around the bed where the driveway and former house foundation were. That is, if the grass doesn’t grow into the bare spots all on its own—it’s trying. The soil here is TERRIBLE. Not as bad as the red clay that I encountered in the hills of North Alabama, but pretty bad. Heavy white clay. The plants I used in the bed are said to live in clay. As always, we will see.
Oh, and the bed has advanced my being in community. As I was working, my down-the-street neighbor came by. He stopped to talk. I wound up with an offer of three new plants I’ll pick up tomorrow. This winter, I’ll give him a cutting from my fig, which I’d already bragged to him about (from my Morris family’s State Championship Fig Tree, which I’m sure I’ve also bragged to you about—I’m a braggart). He requested a cutting, thankfully—sharing only works if it goes both ways. He said, post-Katrina, he could stand at his house at the far end of the street and see all the way to the beach, not a tree in sight. The devastation is hard to imagine.
Still to do in the bed: mulch around the recently planted day lilies and liriope and put up an iron gate that I’ll be buying in New Orleans. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Mr. Potato Head taking on the chickens. Story to be continued.
At the end of the dock on Ocean Isle Beach, three ladies sit.
They are waiting on the moon.
Together in their small southern town, they were high school friends, skinny as bean poles all. Waved and curled in the 1940’s style, their group was “It.” Now they’ve spread. Not spread as in, “You gaining weight, or are you just starting to spread?” Spread as in across the years, over the miles, through the landscape of their lives. Into and out of time, like waves upon the beach, like the moon rising in the sky.
At the beginning of the ladies’ beach week, the moon rose quickly. The first evening, at six o’clock, hardly allowing the sun to set, the ready moon showed its shiny face.
But each day thereafter, it lagged.
The women waited impatiently—there wasn’t enough time left to waste. Just one week together, just one life. The unheeding moon took its own sweet time.
The bouncy redhead of the group, the one with the gangly young-girl limbs: she lives in Boston now. Married to a doctor who works at a university, she’s in academia. Sophisticated, you know. Still, her whole face erupts when she smiles, and when she says “Hello, darling,” she swallows her vowels like any woman of the South.
Which she is.
Not even up North for fifty years can erase that.
Her first marriage still intact, all her children alive, when the moon arrives, she might look at it and slowly say, “Hello, darling.” Sophisticated even with the moon.
The night is May, the ocean air cool. When the moon drags its feet, the women drag blankets from the beds. In their rockers on the dock—each has her own by now—they wrap themselves warm.
Eleven o’clock, the moon deigns to rise.
The lithe brunette with the big brown eyes, she has survived three marriages, and she’s never going to do it again. “Lord, no,” she’ll say if you ask. “I tell them right up front”—she points a shaky finger —“Friends. That’s all.”
But she has family and fests and luncheons she beautifully readies, and sometimes a man friend is at the table. When he tells a joke, she just laughs. Because without the softening glow of the moon what is the night but endless?
The women have talked all week, catching up. They’ve giggled themselves back into the group they once were. But when they sit on the end of the dock, waiting, they are quiet.
The third and final lady—the auburn beauty who is now my white-headed mother—she is the hostess of the group. Early on, right out of college, she married the brunette’s brother. “People think we’re sisters, not sisters-in-law,” the two brag. But the brother died, the auburn beauty remarried. Her new husband brought her to Ocean Isle Beach where she fell in love with the pounding surf (“We don’t have a surf on the Gulf Coast.”) Now she’s brought her high school friends to her beloved beach so they, too, can fall in love. Who knew it would be the moon that stole their hearts?
It’s the last night of the trip. At two o’clock the stubborn moon rises. “We set our alarms,” they proudly tell us afterwards. In the darkness, at the time when the sea oats wave alone, when only the phosphorescent waves lick the shore, the moon appears.
Cold. White. Haughty moon.
Trailing into the sky like a queen ascending her throne.
Down below, on the dock, the shimmering light catches on weathered boards. The moon’s attendants gaze into the distance. Their upturned faces shine silver, bathed in the coveted glow.
As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “It is proving VERY popular.” Y’all are buying and reading and sharing photos of your very own copies of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. That tickles me to no end. Your smiling faces, your wonderful support—thank you, thank you!
In 1969, in Jackson, Mississippi, the summer before I entered junior high, I played tennis. I played under the boiling sun. No cloud drifted overhead, no shade cut the heat. In the afternoons, the temperature on the courts hit 110 degrees.
I could’ve chosen the cooler Rubico courts where the adults played, but the hard courts with their slick, green-painted surface favored power and speed. I chose the heat, the power, the speed.
I did not come to the courts alone—I’d followed my mother onto their demanding surface. Mother began playing tennis soon after she turned thirty. She started me in lessons when I was seven, because she wanted me to learn along with my older sister. The pro’s rule: you had to be eight years old to begin lessons. Marcee turned eight, and the pro made an exception for me. Turns out, I had “natural talent,” “a perfect swing.” By the summer of ’69, I knocked the cover off the ball and aced grown men. I weighed less than eighty pounds.
Every day I was on the courts. So I was probably there—my shoes squeaking as I pounded and hustled—the moment Mother decided to re-marry. Maybe I was resting between games, my muscular, trophy-wise legs stilled, my hip leaning against the cording of the net, when Mother concluded that widowed ten years was long enough. As I filled the tennis ball can and drank the metallic water, she put an end forever to the four of us. A man would join the mother and her three girls.
That November, during Thanksgiving week, in the middle of our living room, Mother married. Her friends from her single days—tennis buddies, all of them—clustered on the front porch, peering through the picture window, because the wedding was family-only.
What the tennis buddies saw was not Mother in her tennis whites, but Mother wearing a dazzling suit of formal, distancing beauty. As she exchanged vows with my new father, I fell in love with the suit.
The suit was blue watered silk. Jeweled buttons closed the jacket. A matching hat, small and round, perched on her head. A hip-fitting skirt with the hem cut high showed her legs. On her legs: nylons.
The stockings bent and shaped the light. Their swishing texture gave Mother a shimmering calf, a sparkling thigh, so different from the bare leg under the tennis skirt. Only once before—when she wore a Flapper costume to a party at the tennis club, a make-believe outfit—had I seen Mother dressed beautiful. But the wedding suit wasn’t a costume. It was the real thing.
Several years later Mother would pull the wedding skirt from the closet and whoop and holler at its short length. Dated, she’d say. Much later, when she was handing down vintage clothes, I got the suit. It hangs in my closet. I wear the jacket all the time, with my torn and patched jeans, in an ironic way. It is gorgeous.
Two weeks after the wedding, while Mother and my new father were away on their honeymoon, I sat in the bathtub at my grandmother’s house on the farm. The tub was low on the ground, without feet, and its sloshing well water slid brown and slippery between my fingers. My curved back was cold, my skinny bottom hard against the ridges that kept old people from slipping. Beside the tub, Mamo’s yellowing galoshes bent against a galvanized washtub. A slightly dirty smell lifted from the galoshes.
It was my birthday. I had just turned twelve, the age Mother said I could start shaving, so I scraped a razor up and down my legs. The razor was my birthday gift from Mother. She’d left the razor with Mamo who’d handed it to me—not even wrapped—and left the room. I’d punched a hole in the cardboard backing and lifted the razor from its plastic case. I puzzled over the mechanics of the blades, maybe even shaved bladeless for a while, but now I was going steady.
The door to the bathroom stood open. Mamo was twenty steps away in the kitchen, complaining. What was someone my age doing shaving, she queried my two sisters, my absent mother. I was using only soap—no shaving cream came with the gift, no instructions for the ignorant—and I sliced the blade up my shin. A long white streak appeared over the bone, and, slowly, as the skin recovered from the shock, blood filled in. I kept that scar for a long time.
By the eleventh grade, I’d given up tennis. I wasn’t the best anymore, my stride no longer the swiftest. I had changed from the girl with the strong legs who could best teenage boys on the courts to the one they called “Stick” in honor of my long, thin body. Eventually, my legs would return as an asset. But even so, by college, and ever after, I engaged in battle with those legs.
The razor touches the skin. The burning inside my legs ignites.
Or I shave and all is fine, until the next time I step into the shower. The water hits the smoothed legs, and the pain—like ants burrowed below the covering skin—stings afresh.
“Does it burn right after you shave or two to three days later?” one dermatologist asks.
“Both,” I say, seated on the end of his examining table, my bare leg dangling under review.
The doctor waits, staring at the leg. He suggests an experiment: leave one leg unshaven, shave the other. I do as he suggests, and the unshaved leg rests sanguine for weeks. We conclude it is indeed the shaving, but remedy doesn’t follow diagnosis.
Another dermatologist lectures: “If you lived in France, you wouldn’t have this problem. Women in France don’t shave their legs. It’s a cultural problem, not a medical one.” I pay him for the office visit anyway.
Finally, a new doctor prescribes hydrocortisone. I slide the white cream onto my newly shaven legs.
All is quiet.
But I pity the skin, for consistent use of the cream will leave it thin and vulnerable, the very thing that made the legs angry in the first place.
We are doing fine, my legs and me, but the legs envy my mother, who at eighty-nine, still stands on the baseline, racket in hand, waiting for the ball to come her way so she can knock the hell out of it.
I’m in a really good place right now, professionally. I have four projects going on.
First, I’m continuing to get the word out on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. It’s available in print and e-book now, shortly in podcast and audiobook. Soon, I’ll be agonizing and biting my nails over not having enough reviews on Amazon and how on earth am I going to get the word out about this hilarious book with a heart for chickens, but I’m copacetic for now.
Second, I’m working through a (hopefully) final edit on MODEL FOR DECEPTION: A VANGIE STREET MYSTERY. The cover is done for this cozy mystery (with my own peculiar brand of humor), and it is a show-stopper. My goal is to get the book formatted and audio completed while all the team members (cover + formatting; sound engineering; and podcast production) remember how to do what we are doing. 🙂
Third—and most exciting—I’ve begun reading for the new novel, tentatively titled Moses in the Gulf. The story will take place in Mississippi; it will involve a quest to “let my people go;” and it will be funny. In preparation, I’m reading A New History of Mississippi(lord, I’ve read lots of old histories, and they are SO terrible, I petitioned the Memphis Public Library to remove one or shelve it wherever they offered propaganda, and they removed it). I’m still forming an opinion of this book; it tends toward a traditional telling interspersed with more honesty than was previously found in Mississippi histories. On my bedside table are two biographies of Moses and one each of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, which I can’t wait to get into. Many of my books (surprisingly enough) are heavily researched. For me, facts are keys that unlock the imagination, and the resulting stories are my attitude about those facts.
Fourth, and final, I’m waiting to hear back from an agent who is reading JAZZY AND THE PIRATES. Have I even told y’all I finished the rewrite of the manuscript, got good reader feedback, and sent out a query letter? The agent was “very intrigued,” and it’s in her hands now. Steps 1-3 are keeping me distracted from the nerve-racking hope that I get an agent for this story who can sell it and release Jazzy’s rambunctious spirit into the world. But anticipation is not a negative for me; it’s part of the fun.
I needed a place to read my Walter Mosley mystery so I put together the porch cot.
The last two years, I’ve put together lots of furniture in this house. Some of it was easier than others, like these pieces:
Others were harder, like these sets of shelves:
I guess I technically put this side table together, but it was more of a design: add a tray to a discarded garden table:
And here is my piece de resistance:
I’m getting out the bookplates on TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. If you want one, use the Contact form, and I’ll mail it to you. As they said in the 1950s when twin beds gave way to the double, “They are VERY popular.” As Lucinda says, “I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Speaking of beds, I’m now off to the garden to add stepping-stones to the soon-to-be flower/crops bed. Being productive makes me feel so good!
Have I told you about the time I was at a book launch for my beloved mentor Rebecca McClanahan where I found myself seated on a sofa and a woman with the most pronounced South Carolina low country drawl I’d ever heard leaned over and said, “My huzzzz-band wrote Riiiiising Tide,” and I realized the man seated next to me was John Barry, the author of the book that was at that moment my most favorite book ever? I was not cool. I erupted into a fit of hero-worship. John graciously offered to sign my book if I mailed it to him, which I did, and he did, and I have loved him even more ever since.
Now I’m the one who’s published a book that’s calling for me to sign it for all the lovely people who are buying it. I refuse to be daunted by the geographical distance that separates us. Blame it on my peripatetic life or relationships born on the Internet, but we’re miles apart. You couldn’t sling the book at me if you had the world’s strongest arm. And I WANT to sign it.
If you click here and send me your address using this website’s contact form, I’ll send you a bookplate, a little sticker you can put in the front of your book. I’ll sign it. With my name. And inscribe it to whomever you want (you or a person receiving the book as a gift.) It’s specially designed for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE and features a shot of the book cover. I’ll send it to you FOR FREE (I mean, it’s an envelope and stamp 🙂 ). It’s cute as all get out.
To make this work, put Sign My Book! in the Subject box of the Contact form and in the Message box tell me:
* how many you need—I’ll send you one for each book you’ve bought
* who you want (each) inscribed to or if you simply want me to sign (them)
* the address where you want me to send it
Then hit Submit. In a few days, you’ll have a book signed by me, the author. It’ll be magic.
Lord, why do I want you to buy my book? What’s so important within the (amazingly awesome) covers that justifies your spending $13.99 for a printbook or $3.99 for an ebook? I mean, why does this book matter, other than the fact that it’s mine?
Top Ten Reasons to Buy TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE (From Worst to Best)
10. You feel sorry for me and want to make me feel better by liking my book
9.You need to money launder $13.99, and no one can trace your money to my book
8. You want to see if I can spell “sashayed”
7. You’d given up on my ever publishing a novel, and now you’re old as Methuselah, and you can’t afford to wait for the next novel to come out to see if you like it better
6. You are my mother, my husband, or my dog
5.I bought your book
4. You want to find out how an entire novel can be set on a train without being boring as dirt
3. You’re headed to the beach and need a really good escapism read
2. You want to read about sex in a treehouse
1. You love chickens and want to see them passionately defended in a novel
1 +You’ve heard my short stories and know my novel will be funny as hell with a good message
1 ++You think the cover is really funny and promises a good read
Final 1 (I promise) The jacket blurb caught your attention and wont’ let go:
Okay, there were 13 reasons. I tend to share Lucinda’s exuberance. And 13 is an unlucky number, so I had to lie.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you’re not gonna be nice to them.” Lucinda Mae Watkins
Single-again Lucinda Mae Watkins—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace fried chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.
When I left Mississippi, I lost the Midnight Gardner.
In the middle of the night, he would arrive. The next morning, on my way to work, when I locked the door behind me, a small brown paper bag with a crumpled neck waited on the hood of my car. Inside the bag tumbled tomatoes. The tomatoes might be a little wormy or spotted with yellow patches, but they were homegrown. They were delicious. I would eat so many my tongue broke out in hives.
The Midnight Gardner did not confine himself to tomatoes. Sometimes a round cantaloupe would bulge the bag. The Midnight Gardener was known to prefer the Ambrosia Hybrid melon whose meat was so smooth it would melt under the knife, the knife slicing through the orange, the slice curving onto the plate.
I knew the bag was from the Midnight Gardener and not some bomb-wielding terrorist because the M.G. always used Ace Hardware bags. How he got such a large cache of these bags, I don’t know. Sometimes, when special instructions were needed, a typed note would be stapled to the bag and, in a spidery hand, would be the valediction: “Signed, the Midnight Gardener.” Standing in the morning air of my stoop, spying the bag’s brown striped visage, my mouth watered. Jumbled inside would be pods of homegrown okra aching for an iron skillet, calling for buttermilk and cornmeal, eager to be fried in hot oil.
Or—oh, my goodness—the figs. Purple skinned, shaped like the ball on a court jester’s hat, the figs would be stuffed into a plastic baggie. The baggie steamed from the breathing life of the figs. Rescue the caught figs quickly, or they liquefied. Don’t bother with peeling, wash them off, sink your teeth into their seeded insides. Gulp them down—plenty more where that came from.
How did I know about the unlimited quantity of figs? Because the figs came from my family’s tree, the officially-certified State Champion Fig Tree of Mississippi. That means it’s the largest fig tree in the state. The gargantuan tree produced enough figs to make fig preserves, fig tarts, fig whatever. But because my family is a family of fig purists, mostly just plain, raw figs. Summer rolled around, the tree did its job, and the figs flowed.
Until I moved away, and it all stopped.
Not right away. For a while the Midnight Gardener took to the post. He couriered the produce between my old law firm in Jackson and my new law firm in Memphis.
But that didn’t last.
Law firms aren’t big on couriered produce.
Soon enough, I lost it all. Figs, Ambrosia melon. Silver Queen corn. Banana peppers. The food of the gods offered like manna in fistfuls, sufficient only for a couple of days. More than sustenance, it was essence. The essence of what it meant to live in the South in the summer. To be fed with the land’s bounty, not from a tilled field but from a plot of earth you could identify. Shared produce, gifted from a generosity of seeding and weeding and watering and hoeing and picking before the pods got too large, the worms too destructive, the birds too greedy. Then slipped into a crumpled brown bag by my Uncle Hebron who donned his magical cape and became, for the night, the Midnight Gardener.
Stepping into my drive, he settled his bounty on the hood of my car. He is still with us, my uncle, but not the produce he produced.
For all of you who’ve been following my tortuous path to publishing a novel, I am pleased to announce that TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE will be released this coming Tuesday, June 26. Full and exciting instructions on how to purchase it will be posted right here on this very blog on Monday. Love to you all, ellen
When Mississippi was dry, my mother drove across the bridge to buy liquor. The bridge was concrete, pockmarked and moss-covered. Below meandered the muddy Pearl, a brown sludge of a river that lazed along until the spring rains came and flooded its banks, a rising loaf of a river that spread through unprotected Jackson.
Jackson was the law-abiding capital of the state. Semi-law-abiding. Its citizens, like my mother, bought black market liquor. They didn’t buy it in law-abiding Jackson. Yes, they drank it in Hinds County, even at the Jackson Country Club, where in 1966 the raid by the Sheriff’s Department during the revelry of the Carnival Ball—the deputy sheriffs with raised axes surprising the tuxedoed men and perfumed women, ruining the biggest social event of the year—belatedly put an end to Mississippi’s Prohibition.
Yes, you read that correctly: Mississippi did not allow the legal sale of liquor until 1966. Before that, the good—but thirsty—citizens of Jackson drove across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and entered Rankin County’s Gold Coast to buy their liquor. The liquor was bootleg. Sort of. Mississippi might have been officially dry, but it also officially collected sales tax on the liquor. The black market tax was collected by the State Treasurer who would later become Governor of Mississippi. No one held the man’s black market tax collections against him. How could they? They were the ones paying the tax.
Only on special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, would Mother cross the bridge, and only once do I remember her including us, her children, in these trips. Deep into the curve of Jefferson Street, we turned left instead of taking a right to Battlefield Park where we usually played. The car bumped onto the bridge, the joints of the bridge clicking under our tires. Nose pressed to the window, I watched the overhanging vines squirm in the breeze, flicking their dragon tongues.
We crunch into the gravel parking lot. Mother disappears inside. I gaze at all the lawbreakers, men in cowboy boots, and wait for Mother to emerge with a brown bag. We drive away.Back across the bridge, back into the normal world where we played tennis and swam in swimming pools and didn’t undertake illegal activity unless it was to snake our arms inside the vending machine to snag a free Zero candy bar and, even then, sooner or later, we confessed.
Last week I learned the iron stool that stood in my grandmother’s kitchen throughout my childhood then moved to Mother’s kitchen after Mamo died; later, it would make its way to my sister’s kitchen—the stool was from the Gold Coast. It was confiscated in a raid by a deputy sheriff who donated the doubly illegal stool to his family friends.
Now a family heirloom.
Hard stool under my butt, foot propped, sipping a beer: I’m Gold Coast dreaming in Mother’s kitchen. Where, I want to know, does a Mississippi girl buy her illegal booze today?
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.
I have been grappling with—what the hell, that makes it sound so sophisticated; I’ve been moping around the house wondering—the “Why?” question. Actually, it’s a “What?” question. What am I doing with my life right now that matters?
When I was facilitating the Door of HopeWriting Group, the answer to this question was easy: I’m bringing to a group of folks who might not otherwise have it a tool to understand and speak their truth into the world.
Even earlier, when Paraclete Press published Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God, and I conducted ALL THOSE WORKSHOPS, I could tangibly see what I was doing: giving a tool to folks for them to better understand their relationship with God.
So, okay—maybe the problem is my history of “purpose” sets the bar kind of high.
Be that as it may, even when I was recording my short story collection, I knew exactly why I was doing it: to transition from everyone knowing me as “the cross lady” to seeing me as a fiction writer. And I paired the stories with charitable contributions, so all was good.
And—here’s the important part—that venture was laying the foundation for Something Big. For my novel. Which would be Full of Importance. Even if the Importance was wrapped in words and plot that were funny as hell. It would Matter.
But as my telescope narrows to focus on my own writing career, I’m getting lost. Yeah, TRACKING HAPPINESS has as a major theme being nice to chickens. Raise them humanely. Treat them like living animals sharing the planet with us. But still. It’s mostly funny. And fun. It’s not earth-shattering. Where is the “What?” of it?
Then I read this article entitled Teaching and Purpose by Jon Chopan on the Glimmertrain website sent to me by the Jane Friedman emails (total aside: her emails are great; if you’re a writer and don’t already get them, you should sign up.) Mr. Chopan said a lot of things (though the essay is mercifully short), but he quotes Tim Seibles as saying, “I certainly don’t want my poems to be in cahoots with the nightmare.”
I read this and thought, ahhh, that’s it: my purpose is to not be in cahoots with the nightmare. And it’s enough. (Are poets the smartest ones among us?) I can go with that. To gently ask us to be kind to chickens. To explicate grief rather than shoving it aside. To offer folks an escape, if just for a moment, from the grind of our lives. This I can do. Thank you, Jon Chopan and Tim Seibles. Thank you.
The smell of a Mississippi summer is a dirt and weed smell, hot and bitter and full of insect noises and blaring sunlight and popping grass seeds that scent the air black and loamy so that your mind wanders to your toes and the dirt below and the small things that crawl inside the cool dark earth. But, in a flash, the blazing sun will bring you back to your world, the human world above, where the heat churns the growing smell, packing it into layers that fill the spaces between the draping honeysuckle and the broad-leafed hydrangea, the needly pines and the big-headed poison oak. Acrid, stringent, porous—the smell comforts like a green stem broken, weeping into my fingers.
Rain won’t make the smell bow out. Heavy clouds only re-form the scent into an uplifted storm, flooded grass waving in clear water, backyard mounds of rain-slicked clay.
Or steam rising from baked concrete.
Or magnolia blossoms ringing through the newly-drenched night.
A smell that dense, you’d think it could never be lost, but you’d be wrong. Its stamp is easily washed away by years of moderate lands, civilized places, articulated loves. And even if it lingers and is remembered, too often the mind will interrupt, the curtain of smell will part, the knowledge of the Mississippi past will invade and the sweet, dirty perfume of my home state will evaporate into righteousness, severity and decay.
If I’m blessed by its return, it arrives, patient but thickening, to round and throb the air until it hovers like a Genie just outside my stretching fist, grasped and released, grasped and released. And when it is finally grasped, I’m called back again, into the pine trees of Sunday afternoon, thick old pines whose branches begin at scrambling height and whose trunks are scarred with rutted sap—hardened, milky, streaked with reality.
Up in the covering scent of the tree, I bend the rubbery branches until I can peer inside the green cones flowering with yellow pollen, then sit back into the vee and pick the layers of bark—crumpled and pleated on top, smooth as gray slate beneath—and drop them through the branches to the lacerated ground below.
Hot pine straw. Heated brambles. Lightly fluttering mimosa gowns.
Mississippi, come back to me, quickly, this summer.
(I’m gonna credit WKNO-Memphis for first airing this essay, though for the life of me I can’t remember if they did or not. Happy Summer!)
So, I’m working on an essay about my escaping to the family farm in response to Mississippi’s racial mores that constricted behavior in the 1960s, and I’m using a bull (yep) as the central metaphor, and I’m afraid folks might not get it because the bull is incredibly destructive and he’s the POSITIVE metaphor, so I’m adding a summary sentence, and I’m looking for a word that means someone who refuses to submit to forcible attempts to control behavior, and I’m thinking iconoclast, but that’s too close to idol (which I’ve already used) and it’s not quite right anyway, so I go to the thesaurus (I’m not ashamed to admit it: I use the thesaurus) and I’m scrolling when I land on a word that I don’t know, and I look it up (in the online dictionary) and it is PERFECT: recusant: “one who refuses to accept or obey established authority.”
It’s not that I’m a word freak, not exactly. It’s that discovering the precise word I need to describe a phenomenon makes me sigh, ahhhhh. What I’m struggling to express is real. Someone else experienced it. They came up with a word for it. I have tapped into a vein of the shared human condition that is Life and, through that, I connect with the Communion of Saints (read that: humans) who have gone before me and will come after me, and we are all brothers and sisters, and that miracle happens thanks to a bull. And a word. My new favorite word: recusant.
Can I talk about God for a minute? I mean the God that presents when we step out in vulnerability, trusting that the Spirit guided our first faltering step and will be there if we succeed or fail. Lord, these steps are hard. Not because they involve a dramatic climb to the mountaintop where we’ll change the world. Rather, they mock us with how very simple—and frightening—they are.
Say you’re the Dean of a big ass traditional Episcopal cathedral, and you want to open the service with a call for the congregation to take a deep breath together as we center ourselves in the Spirit—well, that’s just not done.
Or you’re African-American in a mostly white church and unfamiliar with a liturgy that confuses even cradle Episcopalians (and then you pick up the 8:00 bulletin at the 11:00 service) but you’re in the pew, determined—well, how uncomfortable is that?
Or you’re a mama with a fussy—no, screaming—baby that drowns out the guest preacher and makes all heads in the pews swivel your way—well, mortification is a real thing.
Or maybe you’re saying goodbye to a beloved staff member, and you choose to call the congregation down front so they can lay hands on her in blessing—well, only the Episcopalians in the group understand how truly odd that is.
They’re simple and easy, these steps—bringing your baby to church, worshiping in a new way, granting blessing, breathing— but those taking them make themselves vulnerable. They risk failure, ridicule, embarrassment, shame, rejection. Oh don’t exaggerate, you’re thinking, but that’s because you’re not the one taking the step. Imagine that each person is doing the one thing they wish they would never have to do—be the object of staring eyes, feel out-of-place, appear foolish, risk no one joining in. That is hard.
Becoming “that mama with the screaming baby,” showing yourself as an outsider, leading the congregation down an unfamiliar path. Each of these tiny steps in vulnerability manifests God. A spark is lit. If more than one of us is being brave and lighting sparks at the same time, the result is extraordinary. The congregation breathes deeply, calling forth the Spirit. Those in the pew who arrived as strangers leave as new friends. A baby—when he’s not screaming—bestows joy all around him. And blessing hands laid on shoulders create a bond of God.
Maybe, if we’re sure of ourselves, God struggles to be present because our focus on ourselves leaves so little room. (Don’t confuse passion with certainty—a heart fluttering like a frightened wren can beat beneath a wash of passion.) And I know—God is there, always, always there.
But God sometimes goes from unseen to seen. When we risk being real with each other, we see God’s presence in each other, in our interaction with each other, and finally in the collective infused experience that is the sum of all of our strivings to do what seems odd but is God.
I did it. I recorded the podcast that will accompany the release of TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. The podcast, which I’ve named ELLEN’S VERY SOUTHERN VOICE: NOVELS TOLD WRITE, offers an extended version of the novel. Each of the 26 chapters has accompanying commentary with Helpful Train Hints and Fun Chicken Facts. The whole thing is, as they say, “in the can.” Soon, you’ll be able to tune in and hear my fabulous fiction in my very own voice. And it scares me to death.
I considered this fear as I drove to The OAM Network studio in Crosstown Concourse to record. Something about my fear was familiar, this feeling that I was hacking a path though the jungle with a machete. Podcasts are a thing; everyone listens to podcasts; podcasts are not unusual. But I know no one personally who has created a podcast to support her novel. So, for me, this was new ground. And I realized that this is the way it’s always been. This is the way I do things.
When I was practicing law in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s, male lawyers didn’t often make room for women to succeed along traditional paths. So I made my own way—I succeed by hunting for voids. The State Bar Association didn’t have a Health Law Section, so I created one and became its first Chair. The primary health law publication was dominated by a male lawyer, so I pitched a column to a different paper, and they launched a column with me as the contributor. When I hit a ceiling with my law firm—a firm I had dearly loved—I joined a new firm and established its Jackson office with me as the Managing Partner.
These memories helped me, really. To see a bigger picture and remind myself this is nothing new. I have been here before, and by “here” I mean that point when you’re in the middle of doing something you basically made up in your head and you look up and wonder, what the hell do you think you’re doing?
Entering voids, forging new paths, going your own way. Brave sounding, but also a bit like floating in the darkness of outer space tethered to the mothership by the slimmest of cords. Wish me luck on my re-entry.
Here it is. The cover for TRACKING HAPPINESS: A SOUTHERN CHICKEN ADVENTURE. I love this cover. My sister Elli shot the photo—yep, she’s a professional photographer. That’s Goldie the Chicken as the chicken cover model. For the record, I am walking down abandoned railroad tracks. I wasn’t going to get hit by an oncoming train. The tracks run outside the Morris Ice Company in Jackson, Mississippi. As in Ellen MORRIS Prewitt. Anyway, here’s the back cover blurb. Look for a June release date.
“I personally don’t see the point of being in business with chickens if you aren’t gonna be nice to them.”
Lucinda Mae Watkins
If Fannie Flagg and Jack Kerouac had a daughter, her name would be Lucinda Mae Watkins. Single-again Lucinda—of the “Edison, Mississippi fried chicken royalty”—learns Big Doodle Dayton is blaming her dead daddy for the drug scandal exploding at the local Chicken Palace friend chicken joint. She takes off cross country on the train to clear her daddy’s name, while hopefully discovering the secret to happiness along the way.
Without him, I might have never liked eggs. That seems like such a small accomplishment, frivolous even. But I’d been forced to eat eggs almost every morning of my life. I hated eggs. My loathing of eggs exceeded the bounds of good manners—as a child, I hid my eggs wherever I could find a secretive spot: under my plate, tucked against the clapper of the dinner bell. Later, my older sister would wake in the mornings to fix our breakfast before school, but I was a kid without an ounce of gratitude. I ranted and raved against her eggs. I was incorrigible. The only way I could tolerate an egg was hardboiled with a sliver of butter on it. Even then, I wouldn’t eat the white. I especially hated scrambled eggs.
Then my new uncle came over to our duplex on Colony Road. I was in the seventh grade, and my mother had recently married “Mr. Van Hecke.” All of my dad’s extended family came to a huge gathering at our Charlotte house for brunch. My new Uncle Merwin not only cooked; he put cheese in the scrambled eggs. Miraculously, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the hated eggs tasted good.
My Uncle Merwin was a journalist and a scholar. He is in the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. He chronicled the rise of Charlotte, NC, from an awkward pro-wrestling town to a proud Southern city. He was the last living brother of the four Van Hecke boys who grew up in Chapel Hill where their dad was the Dean of the Law School and their mom a saint. He learned and taught and shared all he knew. But, for me, his impact was deep and personal in ways most people wouldn’t even credit.
At family gatherings, at some point, I would find myself seated on the sofa next to Merwin. I was not unique to this. Most family members gravitated to his side for a spell. There, he would explain to me the intricacies of North Carolina’s participation in the Revolutionary War. Or the true story behind a power play to take over the Charlotte airport. He was a man of broad knowledge.
When I was forced to have my hips replaced at a far-too-young age, Merwin took me aside and told me not to listen to negative things people might say. He had also faced hip replacement in his 50s, and he said those bad things wouldn’t happen. When deep panic set in the night before the first surgery—I was willingly allowing someone to cut me open and insert something artificial into my body—I held on to his reassurance. I told myself, Merwin did this. I can too.
I don’t know if we ever understand the impact we have on others. If we take time to think about it, surely we place odds that our mark will be left by the “big things” we’ve managed to do. If my experience is any measure, we’re probably wrong.
I spent yesterday at two different events. One was a service at Calvary Episcopal Church to dedicate a new marker on the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave market. The old marker referred to Forrest’s time in Memphis where his “business enterprises made him wealthy.” The old marker did not identify Forrest’s business as human trafficking—selling men, women, children, and babies.
The old marker went up one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine. The old marker was proud of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s time in Memphis, how wealthy the city had made him. The marker commemorated a fine, upstanding, honored Memphian . . . who specialized in selling slaves smuggled into this country illegally. So in a way, the marker did tell the truth: 100 years after all moral people had repudiated slavery, white Memphis wanted to honor a man who sold Black folk.
The service and unveiling of the new marker was extremely emotional. The emotion became palpable, causing all in the sanctuary to rise, when the names of many people sold at the site were read aloud. Calvary is a predominately white church. Both Black and white Memphians attended the service. The primary impact—in my opinion—was white people acknowledging denied truths, and Black people hearing them do it.
The afternoon I spent at the National Civil Rights Museum. When I walked into the courtyard, I expected to see a racially mixed crowd like the one I’d just left at the church. The NCRM crowd was almost all Black. I was shocked. Ignorant as always, it simply hadn’t dawned on me that white faces would be missing from those gathered at the NCRM. After all, I had set our travel schedule around being in Memphis on the anniversary. I couldn’t imagine not being at the NCRM on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.
I believe later in the day—when the Reverend Al Green performed, for example—the crowds were more mixed; I assume the same for the ticketed events with speakers and panels. But that afternoon, Black families had taken off work to be at the Museum. Parents and kids were sitting on bleachers and curbs and makeshift perches simply to be there. The feel of the gathering was one of sacred presence. Witnessing. Being with others to remember together.
When I saw the solemn gathering, I felt a wash of shame, knocked down a notch or two for my attitude—I’m going to the MLK50 celebration! Yesterday, I posted a quote from Dr. King’s last book my MLK50 posts have been based on, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The quote said white folks will never understand what it means to be Black in America. The quiet being-present of the Black families at the NCRM brought this home to me.
No matter how much I admire Dr. King, it’s different for me, and it always will be. For those gathered, this isn’t a “cause.” It is life.