Thursday, January 2, 2014

Angels and Oranges

He stood just outside the church door as the congregation left the Christmas Eve services, a bean pole in a clean white shirt and bow tie, overalls, and brushed brogans, waiting for the Angel of the Lord. In his long, bony hands, he held a lumpy brown paper sack. He seemed old enough, surely, to have known God’s favorite uncle in the first grade.
The Angel of the Lord had finished her work and was ready to go home and wait for Santa Claus. It had been a big night, and she had done all that was asked of her.
She had not panicked upon first realizing that most all of the lights in the church would be turned off for the nativity play, and she had stayed calm throughout the performance in the near-dark. She had remembered to step, pause, step, as she’d been shown, and had arrived at almost the right time to meet the shepherds in front of the pulpit.
While she waited in the dim candlelight for them to emerge from behind the choir, she swished the skirt of her white gown back and forth and admired her hands, wishing she had a ring with a sparkly stone in it. But she didn’t wander off to talk to her friends in the front pew, or wave at the preacher.
She remembered everything she was supposed to say and did not lapse into one word of Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, though she was sorely tested in a long pause after “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy . . .” before someone finally gave her a prompt. She remembered not to shift and scratch at her itchy panty lace, no matter how much it ate into the soft skin of her bottom.
After the Baby Jesus had been born and the Wise Men had ponied up their gifts and the choir had sung, and there had been a general approving outbreak across the pews of, “Amen, Amen, AAAAA-men,” (after all, it was just not considered seemly to clap hands in the house of the Lord Jesus Christ), the preacher’s wife fumbled the lights back on.
 As the Angel of the Lord blinked in the sudden brightness, it seemed to her like everyone in the church was smiling at her angelic nature. Or at least her blue eyes and blonde hair and snub little nose.
Leaving the church, the Angel spotted the old man waiting for her and hugged his legs. He patted her hair without a word and gave her the lumpy brown sack.
The two were each other’s favorites. Most Sundays, he’d wait outside by his truck so she could watch him roll his after-service cigarette. She loved to watch him blow floating little o’s that grew bigger the higher they went, and he loved to watch her eyes watch the smoke. His hands were as hard as cow horn and he was still strong enough hold her up above his head in just one of them.
The Angel knew there would surely be something wonderful in the bag, because everything he did was wonderful. So she took it and thanked him. She gave him a glancing kiss when he bent down for it, and sang Merry Christmas at him and followed her mother to the warm, idling car where her father waited.
Unrolling the open end of the sack, she peered inside and stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the warming lines of cars. Her mouth dropped open and her tiny voice pealed through the night air on the piney hill-top.
 “Well, there ain’t nothing in this whole bag but oranges and pecans with the shells still on. There ain’t one piece of chocolate candy in it. It ain’t nothing Christmasy at all. Just everyday stuff.”
The look of puzzled indignant shock appeared simultaneously on the faces of mother and child. The girl’s slid off as the mother shushed her violently and lifted her into the waiting car like a bag of rotten potatoes.  The mother's stayed on her face. The usually calm woman slammed the door behind them as the Impala nosed down the gravel drive.
“Did you hear what your daughter just said?” The mother asked.
“I do believe we all did,” answered the man behind the wheel.
“Thank God Hiram Bynum is as deaf as a post,” the mother said.“ Do you remember how happy we were when she started to talk so early?”
The paper sack crinkled in the girl’s hands.
“Stop rustling that sack,” she said to the girl. “And not another word out of you until we get home, Miss Rooty-Toot-Toot.” The trip was long and silent.
Now across the kitchen table that night, the little girl regards her mother sleepily. The brown paper sack rests on the table between them. They are Having a Talk, which the girl knows means that the mother will talk and she will listen. The girl also knows she must remember not to let her mind wander, or hum, or swing her legs; not to ask for anything, or try to talk about things that have Nothing To Do With The Subject At Hand. Like chickens.
The girl is tired. She has been listening a long time now. Her back itches from the angel wings. She has a headache from wearing the halo all night. One of her socks has lost its grip completely and has collapsed around her left ankle. She has a tangle of over-hair where she has scratched at the bobby pins that support the halo that has given her the headache. She would much rather be watching McHale’s Navy and drinking a Coca-cola.
In the middle of a long chain of talk, some words jump out at her.
“Mr. Bynum used to be a little boy a long time ago. Just like you are a little girl now.”
This catches her imagination. The girl begins to listen in earnest.
“I can see that your daddy and I have not given you nearly enough opportunities to feel hungry, child. The things you call regular aren’t. Or they weren’t always. Times were hard when I was a little girl, myself, and especially when Mr. Bynum was a boy.”
“There was no fresh fruit in winter, or nuts either, if you didn’t gather them and store them in the fall time. And oranges. Well. Oranges were something that came on the train at Christmas from way down in Florida. And expensive? Law! One year my daddy took the wagon all the way to the depot in town in a bad storm to meet the train when it came in, just so we could taste one.”
“And that’s what I got that year. Two whole oranges, a piece of stick candy and some green wool cloth for my mother to make me a winter coat.”
“We all shared the one orange at home between us. I took the other one to school. At recess, I peeled it and passed it around in sections. When those were gone, I tore up the peel and passed that around. That was all I got of that second orange. A piece of the peel. Those were the best oranges I ever ate.”
“All you got was a piece of the peel?” The girl asks.
“Yes, and it was wonderful.” The mother turns her head slightly and looks at the girl hard. “Sometimes in life, you get the orange and sometimes you get the peel. The trick is to learn to enjoy everwhich one you’ve got at the time. But that’s a lesson for another day. Sit up and pay attention.”
The girl adjusts her spine in what she hopes is a listening attitude.
“Now the things in that sack might not seem like much to a little girl who gets rocking horses and doll babies, and all such kinds of play-pretties, but they were the kind of things that made Mr. Bynum happy. The kind of things he liked to get for Christmas when he was a boy. Or maybe even they were the kind of things he wanted to get and didn’t. Either way, he has given you something special, and not a bit everyday. Ain’t nothing about a gift that’s everyday. Especially when somebody’s trying to give you their Christmas feeling.”
“And when somebody gives you a gift of everwhat kind, what you do is feel thankful for it. And I don’t mean just to be thankful to the person that gave it to you to their face. That goes without saying, whether you like what they gave or not. I mean for you to be thankful inside your own self, down in your heart. Thankful that the world has people in it who will go to the trouble of giving things to other people. And that one of the people that is loved enough to get given to is you.”
“You need to learn a new word tonight, child. The word is, grateful. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
The little girl blinks a long blink. She scratches at the bobby pins in her hair with one hand. The halo slides to rest over her right ear. She blinks another long blink.
“Because if you are going to amount to a hill of beans in this world, child,” the mother continues, “you’ll need to start understanding this before you get too much older.”
The girl shifts on her seat and scratches at her panty lace with the other hand. She fluffs out her white cotton angel gown and pulls up her left sock.
“I think I do,” she says. “I think what you mean is that Mr. Bynum didn’t give me just any old oranges and pecans. He gave me his oranges and pecans. That he loved. And because I love him and he loves me, they are special. More special than Almond Joys even.”
“That’s close enough for now,” her mother says. “Come here.”
The little girl scrambles down from the kitchen chair and moves into the waiting circle of her mother’s arms.
“I will need to tell Mr. Bynum thank you next Sunday, for my paper sack.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Do you think that Santa Claus will still come even though I have acted ugly?”
“Yes. I think he will still come. Especially if you go to bed right quick.”
“Will I have time to watch McHale’s Navy first?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Can I have a co-cola to drink?”
“Do I have to brush my teeth and wash my face?”
 “You don’t have to check behind my ears. I’m very clean back there.”
“I’ll look anyway, just be on the safe side.”
“Will you read me three stories?”
“I’ll read you one.”
“How about two?”
“How about one?”
“How about one book-story, and one story about you and the orange peel and your green coat your mama made you when you were little?”
“Can I bring my paper sack to bed with me?”
 The girl steps back and regards her mother evenly. Her face takes on a speculative look.
 “Do you think that there is the least little chance in the world that Santa Claus will bring me a monkey this year?”
“No, child. I don’t think there is the least, littlest, tee-niniest chance in all the whole wide world that Santa Claus will bring you a monkey this year. Or next year, either.”
The girl pulls the halo away from her head and lets it drop on the floor. She reaches behind her with both hands and lets loose a frenzy of uninhibited bottom-scratching.
“Oh, well,” she says. “There ain’t no bananas in my sack anyway. Maybe he’ll bring me a pony instead.”
Eventually gets a pony
Happy New Year.  Here's hoping you recognize the gifts this year brings you for what they really are. 
Thanks for coming. Come again soon.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Coming

There were things we longed for then. Longed for them all the year round. Things we wouldn’t buy for ourselves, but hoped someone else might. That was back in the day when Coca Cola was something bought at a store to drink on the spot. For twenty-five cents. A treat. Like ice cream and candy bars.
There were so many things we didn’t have, that we were rich in longing. In looking forward to things. And there were a fair few number of things we didn’t know we didn’t have. And we didn’t miss them.
There is a little girl back there in that time. She’s standing on a front porch in the chill of an Alabama winter night. The porch floor is painted red, the last of multi-generations of paint layers. The pictures those imperfectly scraped old layers make are more noticeable in the shift of shadows and light from the windows of the house.
She is waiting in a plaid coat and a red velvet dress, the Christmas dress that her mother has made this year. Church services are over now, but she is allowed to leave it on, because it’s Christmas Eve.
They have moved. To a little house on a little lot, on a road between hills, in town. Even the horizon is snubbed here, and the girl is lonely.  There are no animals, except a few impersonal dogs and cats. No horses, no chickens, no cows, no quail, no rabbits.
The neighbors are different here. She can’t figure out what they do all day or where they go. But there is nobody around and nothing much interesting happens. Even her father goes off to work each morning.
There are no farmers in this neighborhood. No farriers. No orchard men. No mechanics. Everybody buys everything. Even their clothes come from the stores.
There are children, but they are afraid of her. Or of her dog, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.  The girl feels mean and ugly trying to chase him home so they won’t run away from her again. And she’s not sure exactly how to play with these town kids, anyway.
Her church, and all the people in it, are miles down the long highway.
She goes to school now. The first thing they taught her was the Itsy Bitsy Spider which she thought humiliating and a waste of time. Now, at least, she can read, which is her most prized skill.
Her father opens the door to ask if she wouldn’t rather come inside where it’s warm, and she says, no, she’ll wait here. He hesitates, then steps outside to stand with her.
Darlene did not move to town with them. The girl misses her, but she does not blame her imaginary friend. She wouldn’t have moved, either, if she hadn’t had to. She wonders if Darlene misses her, too. Here in town, she can’t even manage to pretend up Elvis anymore.
The worst part is that one by one, her sisters have married, and her brother as well,  and they’ve moved into their own homes. So now, it is just herself and her mother and father. In this town. Where nothing interesting ever happens, and where she finds it hard to even make up anything interesting.
            This night, the sky over the little valley is like the lining of a blue/black satin hat, and there are stars like the glisten of tears. It is sharp cold for Alabama. Cold enough for a plaid jacket. Cold enough to make the girl’s nose run.
            The scent of the cedar Christmas tree in the house is so strong it wafts onto the porch. That heavenly smell is a good repayment for the rash the tree left on her hands when she decorated it. Inside the house is as layered with smells as the porch is with paint; coffee and chocolate, coconut, sweet potato pie, warm pecans, and chili.
            The living room is small. The tree fills up a good eighth of the space. The lights are big bulbs of wild colors that were bought in the late 1950s but somehow manage to keep going year after year. All the ornaments on the tree have histories that the girl never tires of hearing.
Inside the house her mother moves around the kitchen singing along with Bing Crosby on the radio, just a few snatches of words here and there, and just off-key. The chili in the large pot bubbles. The mother stirs it, then moves to the counter to finish icing a cake. The kitchen is small, too, and as bright and happy as this woman.
The little girl hears snatches of her mother’s singing and catches the lilt of happiness in it. She reaches up for her father’s hand. He squeezes it, jingles the change in his pocket, and smiles down at her.
They are coming.
All at once, all together, the older children are coming home, bringing their own young families. The house will be full. The girl craves the sight of them like salt.
She stands on tiptoe and lifts her chin to look further down the road. Her father says it won’t be long now. They’ll be here soon.
The girl knows that when they arrive, there will be food and presents and laughter and teasing. There will be a long chain of hugging bodies. Children will be lifted up into loving arms and admired and tickled, and sometimes tossed around the room like acrobats while their uncles and fathers and the children themselves laugh, and their mothers and aunts turn their faces away in horror.
There will be bowls of chili passed from hand to hand and crisp grilled cheese sandwiches passed along as fast as they come off the griddle. There will be a river of iced tea and hot coffee.
There will be a confusion of presents and a riot of opening them. The children, including the girl, will joyfully wade through a crinkling sea of ripped, shredded wrapping paper, lifting and throwing it, draping it over the heads of annoyed adults before it is finally snatched up and tidied away.  Then the children, her included, will play with the empty boxes while the grown-ups tease more, and laugh more and talk longer.
After awhile they will all grow quieter and calmer for the last, sweet course. Everyone will crowd into the tiny kitchen and wriggle and jam themselves around the table for more coffee and cake and pie and cookies.
In that warm kitchen, the womb of the world, they will tell stories. Of their ancestors. Grandparents and aunts and uncles who died before the girl was born, and other people she can just remember. About the childhoods of her brother and sisters, or the courting days of her father and mother. Of the animals they knew and loved, and the people they knew and didn’t. Some of the stories are funny, some are sad. Listening to them, the girl will sometimes forget to breathe.
When the youngest children begin to fall asleep, the brother and sisters and their families will pack into the cars and drive into the sweet, sharp silence of midnight.
But right now, in the house, the mother and father and the girl wait. Wait for the ones they love, and Christmas, to come to them. What there is now, is longing. Longing, and looking forward. Christmas coming.
There will be many other Christmases for the girl. Some of them will bring complete happiness; a few will bring complete devastation. Years later, when she is a woman, when she has lived through Christmases in too many places to remember them all, this is what she will remember of the childhood ones. This is what she will see, and smell, and feel when she closes her eyes and casts herself back.
The waiting. The watching in the night. The sweet expectation. The view of the soft sky cut through with gemstone stars. The smell of her mother’s cooking and the sound of her singing voice. The feel of her father’s hard hand holding hers. Look up, he’d say, let’s us look for the Star of Bethlehem.
But the only stars the girl wants to see are twin headlights turning down the long, dark road,  toward the little house. They are coming. Surely they’ll be here soon. Surely by now, they are almost home.
Will make peace with the wing and the wheel.
 Merry Christmas. Thanks for coming. Come again, soon.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Happy Birthday To Me

I’m sending this out to the universe this morning with deepest gratitude for all the things my life has been made of so far.
            For being born into a family of people who welcomed and celebrated me from the very beginning. Who taught me and tolerated me and loved me no matter what.
For my parents’ wisdom, integrity, sense of humor, and stories. For my brother’s and sisters’ patience, indulgence, and examples.
            For my earliest friends, young and old. For my first church and community in Glencoe, Alabama,  and everyone there, who put up with me, and showed me love beyond any reason I ever gave them to.
           For all my teachers from first grade onward. Thinking of them and the good things they brought into my life still lifts my heart.
            For finding the young man I would marry far too young and still making a go of it for thirty years and counting. Such dumb luck. I had a strong feeling he was special from the beginning, but I had no notion of how deep and wide a river he is. I am thankful every day.
            For my children. My greatest teachers after my mother and father, the loves of my life after my husband. For the second childhood they brought with them. For the adults they have become. They are good people. Kind-hearted. It’s like I won the lottery.
            For the greatest gift my husband gave me; time with them. Their whole childhood to enjoy. He worked long hours, and agreed to do without many things in our early years so that I could spend my creative energy and attention on our children while they were very young. For me, that is a pearl beyond price. Bergman and Bogart will always have Paris. My children and I will always have San Pedro.
For everyone’s children, everywhere. They wake up a tired world. Seeing things through their eyes keeps my heart young. I’m grateful for time spent with them, grateful to share the world with such people.
For all the animals I've had the privilege to know, beginning with Lady,  all the way to Scout and Jackie Chan and The Devil Herself; from the ones who took care of me to the ones I've taken care of. Animals are such wonderful creatures. I have been lucky to have almost always had pets and access to the natural world.
            For the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met there, the stories I have to tell. If you are one of those people and you’re reading this, thank you for being a part of my story, and for letting me be a part of yours.
            The universe is filled with wonder, and I’m glad that I was born into it, if for no other reason than so I can wonder at it. I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have been born, and to have lived so far in a world so wondrous.
            I may not have loved every single minute of it. There have been moments of dental work and a few other trying times. But overall I just have to be one of the luckiest little so-and-so’s in all of creation.
            Life is so sweet. And so short. And so precious. And I have known such sweetness, and been shown much kindness. More, I think than others who may be far more deserving. I often have a vague feeling that I am getting away with something. If I die today, just this, so far, just all of this, will have been enough. Anything else from here on out is icing on the cake. Happy Birthday to me.

Has had her cake and eaten it, too

        Thanks for coming. Come again soon.   

Friday, December 6, 2013

How to Tell It's Christmas

 Is it Christmas today?” I ask again.
It was hard to tell then. There was no snow in Alabama like on the cards and in the movies. No mittens and hats and snowballs fights. No horse-drawn sleighs.
Winter comes to Alabama in damp browns and blacks and grays. It was hard for a young child to tell when Christmas is coming in 1966.
            But this is the year I have just learned that Christmas can't come until after Thanksgiving. The turkey that has lurked around the chicken yard all summer, terrorizing me, has disappeared suddenly. Something else to be thankful for.
            And my mother and sisters and I have been to Mama Clark’s to buy fabric and trim for Christmas dresses. My sisters take a long time to pick out fabric. They like new clothes. I don’t like  the the feel of new clothes. I like old clothes. Mama picks out my fabric.
That day, my mother and my sisters and Mama Clark spend a long, boring time considering ways to adjust last year’s patterns for this year’s fashions and so save us the cost of buying new ones. I pretend up Darlene and Elvis, and we play together awhile.Then I fall asleep on Mama Clark's back porch swing.
            My mother is spending more time than usual at her sewing machine. Its whir is a background noise in the house, even as I fall asleep at night. And I spend time every day before my afternoon nap, spilling my mother’s full button jar onto the table, raking through the contents for buttons to set off the red or gold or russet cloth of our new clothes for when they are finished.
            My mother spends more time than usual in the kitchen, too. The heat has been turned off in the spare room to store the extra food. That room is filling up with fruit cakes, tea cakes, tipple cakes, and all kinds of good things to eat, along with the supplies for baking to come that has overflowed the kitchen cupboards. The black walnuts we picked up in the fall or the pecans my grandfather brought us, or the apples my mother has dried. When I follow her in there, it smells like a gingerbread house. We cannot have any of it until Christmas.
            Lately, in the middle of sending me to fetch something for her, my mother will stop herself.
 Mama needs her house shoes” she’ll begin, or “sweater” or “scissors. Will you run go look under my bed,” or  “in the hall closet,” or  “in the spare room . . .”
 Then she’ll stop and put a finger to her mouth.“Oh, never mind, honey,” she’ll say, “No. No, don’t you go. Mama will get them herself.” 
It will take me years, slow child that I am, to properly understand this one.
            Sunday a while back, just before the service was over, the deacons passed the plates around a second time, and everyone in the church, young and old, drew out a name to buy a gift to put under the tree for the Christmas Eve service. My mother says I can have three whole dollars to spend on a present, and that I can’t tell anyone but her that it’s for little Bette Griffin.
My Sunday school teacher has taken me aside and measured me for a set of wings, a gown, and a halo. She has showed me how to walk down the middle aisle of the church sanctuary; step, pause, step, pause, looking very serious, as The Angel of the Lord should do. I have to learn a new Bible verse.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
It’s a lot of words to remember. Instead of learning my nursery rhymes, I practice it with my mother every day. I tell her, “This is a lot of words. I would rather just say, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater.”
 My mother says. “This is not that hard. You already know all your nursery rhymes. If you can learn all that, you can remember this.”
But they rhyme,” I say. 
 “Nevertheless,” she says, “you can do it.” She turns her chin down and looks right in my eyes.  “And if you stand up in the church on Christmas Eve with those wings and that halo and say Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater to the Shepherds, there will be a spanking waiting for you when we get home. Do you understand?”
Yes, ma’am,” I say.
 Now,” she says, “say it again from the beginning.”
So I have to remember all the words. And I have to remember to walk slowly. And I have to remember not to say Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater. And not to reach back and scratch at my wings. Or to bend over. Because then the halo falls off. Every time.
One day, my daddy and I go into the woods and pick out a tree. We find it in just a few minutes. He lifts me way up to tie an old rag around the top of it so we can spot it when we come back for it later. My daddy sets me back on the ground and looks down at me. He is very, very tall.
He teases, “Look at those long arms and legs sticking out from your coat, girl. I’m going to have to put a brick on your head to keep you from growing so quick.”
Then we take a walk in the woods and call to the birds there. My daddy can call just like a bird and you can’t tell the difference. We hunt mistletoe. We go to the lake and skip rocks. We row around the lake. When we get home, Daddy tells Mama that it took so long because cedars are getting hard to find. And he winks at me.
One morning, Mama tells me in a couple of weeks on Christmas Eve, Santa will visit our church and I can tell him what I’d like for Christmas. I can ask for one thing, politely. One thing only. Because it is not good to be greedy. Greediness will make children grow up crooked.
Can I ask him to turn me into a horse?” I ask.
No,” she says.
Can I ask him for a monkey?”
Absolutely not.
            Then what is the point? I think this to myself, but say nothing. I look out the window at the damp, black and gray landscape. It looks just like the pictures on the tv set.
            Can I ask him for snow?" Mama thinks about this.
            Yes,” she says, “but don’t be surprised if he can’t work it out for you this year. He’s very busy.” She looks out the window, too. “You should probably ask him for a new coat.”
Oh,” I say. “Yes, ma’am.”
I would much rather have a monkey than a new coat.
Would you like some coffee?” she asks, “and a piece of pie?”
Yes, ma’am,” I say.
My mother pours a dollop of coffee into my cup of milk and cuts off a nice chunk of sweet potato pie for each of us. I know that I’m getting pie for breakfast to make up for the fact that she won’t let Santa Claus bring me a monkey or turn me into a horse. There is no question about it, now.  I am completely certain that my mother runs everything. Even Santa Claus.
After pie and coffee, we sit at the kitchen table with construction paper, scissors, and a rubber-tipped bottle of mucilage. I love the way it smells in here. Coffee, cinnamon, lemon cleaner, and glue. My mother cuts longs strips of red and green paper and shows me how to make them into a chain. At first I count them, but when we get past ten, my mother helps. There are twelve. We hang them on a nail in the kitchen.
Mama says I can take one chain off every night before I go to bed, and count them every day.
You mean after all this work we’re only going to tear it up?” I say.
Yes,” she says, “and when we get to the last chain, you’ll know that it’s Christmas Eve.”
I think about that for a minute. I have an idea. “If we take a bunch of them off every day, will Christmas come sooner?”
No,” she says.
So Christmas is coming in that many days no matter what I do?”
It’s a lot.” I say.
We have a lot to do,” my mother said then. “The days will go by quickly.”

And she was right again.
Still waits all year for German Chocolate Cake
Thanks for coming. Come again soon.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

You Never Know

When I was a very young child, I believed that leaves turned into birds and flew south for the winter. Back in those days, when I was trying to figure out how the world works, I got a lot of convoluted ideas about life.
Surrounded by mostly adults out on our farm, I listened to and interpreted their conversations the best I could. My parents and siblings often talked about seasonal changes, of the birds flying south for the winter in autumn, and of the leaves falling. Those two things especially got mixed together in my mind. The next step in belief only required a bit of magic.
And the world then was full of magic, it seemed to me.
 One autumn morning in about the third year of my life, I sat on the front step of our house while my mother sat on the porch shelling corn.
I should have been helping her with the shelling, but mostly I sat there with an ear of dried corn on my lap and an empty bucket at my feet, watching the wind blow. A strong blast shook the oak tree in the front yard. That tree was a close and favorite friend of mine. A couple bales of leaves drifted down to the ground below.
But as I watched, it appeared to me that instead of all drifting down, some leaves drifted up and sailed over the cornfields and the trees, with beaks and wings silhouetted against the wide, gray sky.
 So I thought that special leaves, maybe the most colorful ones, get to turn into birds and then fly south for the winter. Kind of like going to heaven. It made perfect sense to me at the time.
When I told my mother what I had discovered,  she smiled and continued with her corn.
A year or so later on the same porch, again shelling corn, this time with one of my big sisters, I watched the scenario play out with the oak tree in much the same way I remembered from before. Sitting there idly with ear of corn in my lap, I told my sister about how leaves turn into birds and fly south for the winter.
My sister put down her ear of corn, sucked the blister on her thumb, and regarded me with a scowl.
“That’s the craziest thing I ever heard a four-year-old come up with,” she said. “There must have already been some birds roosting in that tree and they flew away when the wind got sharp. You’re too dreamy. Everybody with any kind of sense knows that leaves are leaves and birds are birds.”
“And you need to get busy,” she added, indicating the empty bucket at my feet. “You’re old enough to shell more corn than that.” She grudgingly went back to her work.
I looked down at the empty bucket as devastation washed over me. My sister was a senior in high school. She could tie her own shoes. She could read a book to herself. She knew just about everything there was to know about everything.
I looked back up at the oak and wondered, if leaves don’t turn into birds and fly south for the winter, how could I even be sure that the stories that old tree had told me all summer were true? Or that the tooth fairy could find my house? Or that someday, if I worked at it hard enough, I could grow up to be a horse? And marry Elvis Presley?
I figured it would be better not to mention things like that anymore. And so I haven’t. Mostly.

Fall is and always has been my favorite season. As an adult, and a homeowner, I’m now almost completely certain that the leaves on our trees don’t turn into birds and fly south for the winter. Or at least, the majority of them don’t.
The majority of the leaves from our trees, after a great deal of effort on the part of myself and my husband, spend the winter at the bottom of the garden, turning into homemade dirt.
Which is not a bad end for a leaf. It’s a nice spot down there, surrounded by hickory trees and oaks. I go down there myself to sit in a little patch of sun that finds its way in, Scout and I, and the Devil Herself of a morning sometimes.
Cup of coffee. Toast and jam. It’s a nice place to sit and watch the wind blow when I should otherwise be working. I can listen to any stories the trees might care to tell. And its a good place to keep watch in case any of the leaves get enough gumption to magic themselves into birds and fly south for the winter. You never know.
Any excuse will do.

 Happy Thanksgiving.  Watch the leaves.


Monday, August 26, 2013

The Carpets of Hartsfield

Saying goodbye to my grown child was one of the most disorienting experiences I've ever lived through. Talk about cognitive dissonance. This was written after the exit of my youngest child and only son. I'm posting it today in sympathy with a great, life-long friend, Jackie, who just delivered  her only girl, our Kristin, to a university several states from home. 

A million miles of carpet covers the floor at the Atlanta airport, and the walls are lined with art. Time expands and contracts here.  All around us people hurry along wishing for more of it, or sit and wait, wishing for less.
In an invisible cone of privacy I say goodbye to my child, my last one, my boy.  Touching his forehead at the hairline, I smooth back thick strands. I can’t help it.

I have to reach up so far to touch his head now. There, just there, is a small whorl of hair, like the eye of a storm.  The first time I saw it was the day I gave birth to him.

Photo by Chelsea Lindsey
For him, the word is a portal, an opening, the beginning of his new life at university, out in the world on his own.  For me it is the closing door of a house that I don’t live in anymore. I lower my hand and take a step back. I think of all the things he doesn’t know yet. I breathe in. I breathe out.
The walls of the airport in Atlanta are lined with art, and a million miles of carpet cover the floor. In an invisible cone of privacy I stand on one small square, alone, an island in the great ocean of people all around me.
Goodbye I say, goodbye, goodbye, as nineteen years and most of my life turns.  He smiles and waves. Then he faces forward and dives headlong into the tide.

Our boy.

Knows now there's never an end to it.
 Thanks for coming. Come again soon.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

For All the World (at 31 years, today)

We wait for a cloud to cross the road--stand and watch it wisp toward us as if it was an ordinary thing.
Inches from our feet, the land drops away into trees so darkly green they glow blue.
Serrated tops fold ridge over ridge far away into the west.
It looks for all the world as if we could step off.
Just step off and walk back across them to that day on the divide 
when we were going places we'd never been.
On the continent's backbone we'd imagined melted snow flowing down either side beneath us toward opposite ocean, walked through congregated mist into the clear horizon of countless, rolling, smoky miles.

White particles of moisture catch my thoughts and carry them back, a warning, a blessing for us, standing there on that other mountain then.

Be careful, I think. But be unafraid. Some of what comes next will be hard. Hold hands. Don't let go.

The cloud moves through us, moves beyond, exploring treetops, sinking onto sharp branches, seeping into stony ground.
In a long, slow caress the westward sun turns you to gold. Your freckles are gone now, I know, and time has touched your hair, but I can't see you as other might.

The sun is always in my eyes when I look at you.

Facing north we drive the spine of the mountains; sunset gilds us on one side and limns the darkness on the other. The space between us shifts with golden shadows.
You open a hand, I fill it with my own. The rain begins.
Drops spatter, flatten, and lengthen across the windscreen, joining, clinging, sliding like lovers in sinuous patterns across the glass.
They dance for a moment in the fractured, fleeting illumination of headlamps, then fling themselves headlong into the deep and velvet dark.

Will ride out on the same clown she rode in on.

Thanks for visiting. Come again soon.