In the fall, in the South, time stands still. In the South, in what we call fall, dust settles on the roads, climbs onto forgotten porch swings, drifts through open windows to curl on tabletops. In the evenings, the cicadas thrum the air and in the mornings the shelled bugs kick, flat on their backs, dying. The lazy days bleed yellow while the last of the tomatoes slowly rots on the vine. Stepped-on grass bends double and cannot raise its tired head.
We gather ourselves from our inertia and hit the malls. Feet that ran bare all summer squirm into penny loafers and Sunday patent leathers and tennis shoes with red flashing lights. Parents study the flimsy tops that don’t cover the bellybutton and remember when “Back To School” meant $10 dresses from Sears. In our day, notebooks were black and white, speckled and sensible, not fluorescent pink. Back then, when learning was a serious business, plastic change purses squeezed to show lunch money’s nickels and dimes, and paper towels weren’t considered a school supply. In those days, all the world lay ahead of us, burrowed inside a new school year.
Back in the quietness of our houses, we deflate beach balls, stow away rafts. We tell ourselves we’ll clean everything good on Saturday so it won’t mold in the basement dark. But by Saturday we’re checking football schedules, ready for the boys to enter the field. Ready, too, for picnic baskets that tote deviled eggs and ham biscuits and chilled white wine and sterling silver forks because who wants to eat with cheap plastic?
But Saturday is a ways away and in the meantime, we’re left restless. Too early to plant the mums, too late to do anything about the curling leaves of the Vinca. We wander the house, and in that crack in time that opens in the fall in the South, we long for clean coloring books that allowed our imagination to dream an orange bird with a sky blue beak and a red tree with polka-dotted leaves. We long for fresh notebook paper that smelled as delicious as the wrapper of an ice cream sandwich. For sidewalks that safely guided us, and plaid dresses that billowed in the morning breeze, and fallen leaves that rotted and reminded us that even though summer had been snatched from our grasp, Halloween would arrive and oh, lord, what creature would we be this year?
When we’ve gotten old and rickety in our ways, we ache for the time when life began anew just because a page had been ripped from the calendar and now the date said September. We can as our days have added upon themselves no longer see the easy way to winter, and we tumble through the hiatus in time that opens in the Southern fall, and there we spin, free-falling into the past.
(This essay first aired on WKNO-FM in Memphis, and I believe I’ve posted it here before. But each fall rolls around, and I want to read it again. It may become an annual thing. 🙂 )
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.
Luanne Castle at Writer Site is a poet and essayist working on her memoir. As she considers the best structure for her story (Scrap: Salvaging a Family—she’s the daughter of a garbage man), she’s reading memoirs by other gifted writers to see how those authors chose to organize their mini-lives between the pages. Best of all, she then turns around and offers us, her readers, thoughtful critiques of what she has read. Her own memoir is sure to be dynamite. Her writing is lovely, and she’s digging deeply into the best way for presenting her unique story.
The memoir featured on her blog this week is our very own Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. If I could, I’d reblog the whole thing because it’s just wonderful, but technical differences don’t allow me to do that (if any of you readers know who to reblog a WordPress hosted site to a self-hosted site, I’d be glad to know the secret.) So here are a few highlights:
If you have ever—even once–looked at a homeless person and forgot that he or she has a whole history of living, relations, emotions, and past belongings, as well as current needs, hop over to Amazon and pick up a copy of this book! If you want to find out if you should give a handout to someone who asks, you will find eleven answers.
Now that I’ve read Writing our Way Home and had time to let it settle into my bones, I feel it’s permanently changed me. A big thanks to Roderick Baldwin, Donna Connie, Cynthia Crawford, Jacqueline Crowder, Veyshon Hall, Tamara Hendrix, William L. Hogan, Jr., Latasha Jackson, Anthony Johnston, Robbin K., Rhonda Lay, Jockluss Thomas Payne, Leroy Scott, WJS, and Master Major Joshua Williams for inviting me into your lives.
Some blogs I’m drawn to because, like me, they are so odd. I like Luanne because she is so normal.
Luanne Castle blogs at writersite.org. Her blog has been featured on Freshly Pressed, quite an achievement. Yet she responds to every comment posted on the blog, responses that actually engage the commentator in conversation about the issue she’s chosen to write about. I truly admire that.
Luanne is working on a memoir (she’s a poet as well), and she often addresses creative nonfiction subjects, a genre I loved and wrote in for many years. Right now, she’s posting about key memoirs she’s read and learned from. The resulting conversations have been engaging. One thing I’ve noticed about Luanne’s followers: like Luanne, they are genuine people who comment because they’re interested in what she is saying. Not a snarky one in the bunch.
Luanne’s posts are primarily geared toward helping others with their memoir-writing, by sharing her own experiences, insights, etc. But I particularly loved this post that teaches by example. It’s an essay on how birds have figured into her life. It’s lovely. http://writersite.org/2014/01/03/for-the-birds-2/.
What does my liking Luanne’s blog tell you about me? Individualization—in the language of the Now, Discover Your Strengths book— is one of my strengths; I like to approach people as individuals. Thus, I would be drawn to Luanne’s particularized response to comments. Learner is also one of my strengths. So I’d also be drawn to Luanne’s teaching posts. Positivity is another of my top five strengths. So a woman who was interviewed by the Missouri Review because she wasn’t a “somebody” writer with major awards and publications (http://writersite.org/2013/12/06/she-asked-me-a-lot-of-questions/) would definitely appeal to me.
If this description makes me sound like a Pollyanna, I can’t help it—the book says your strengths are fixed in concrete. To round out the picture, see my earlier blog posts on Waiting for Satan and 300 Stories