the philanthropist, has given big bucks for a community art project
and has blown into town for the opening. We have supper and swap stories.
We mention the birthday party the next day for a friend who has turned
70. We laugh remembering in 1956 when this birthday girl was the most
sophisticated, magical creature that we had ever laid eyes on.
summer we swam at her familys country place where she resplendent
would appear. She was twenty-two and we were just barely an awkward
twelve. She dazzled our adolescent world. We were smitten by her fairy
tale life. She was our idol. We were agog. Downright slack jawed. Thrown
into this heady mix was her 13-year-old brother, who had his very own
soda fountain. We giggled, flirted with the brother, and drank all the
soda-jerked cherry coke we could work down without becoming sick, hoping
to remain forever in this magic kingdom.
she really be seventy? This idol of ours. And how did we get to be almost
sixty ourselves? Sixty! Sweet Jesus. Sixty!
is our deadline decade. I tell Susu, quoting from Gail Sheehey.
No, says Susu that was from 40 to 50.
no matter. We reassure ourselves that we wont go quietly into
old age, like obedient children. We are going to skid into it sideways,
banging and bumping along the whole way. Kicking up dust like a batter
sliding into first base. Well go to Nepal and Tibet,
I offer. Thinking that ought to do it, keep us moving along.
written your book, Susu? I ask. Chagrined and not to be outdone
she fixes me with a look, then says, Where are your poems?
were classmates together at a small womens college. There, as
English majors we were caught in a thrilling academic cocoon with a
young liberal teaching staff strong on the creative writing side. Intense
thinkers, we wanted to be writers more than anything we could image.
In the dives around Spartanburg, Colt-45 and diet pills fueled our heavy-duty
late night conversations. We were positively moving to New York after
graduation where we would write or at least read manuscripts for a living.
intervened. A dream deferred. Somehow I went to graduate school in Atlanta,
and Susu on to be an activist, and politico. We both continued to write.
Well, after a fashion. We wrote marketing, volunteer, public relations
pieces. But no book and no poetry volumes.
it wasnt that I didnt try. That was the problem. I tried
too hard. My words were sphincter tight, pinched, and stiff.
visiting at a mental institution, I asked an agitated patient what he
was going to do when he arrived home. Get me a cigar, and a woman
and talk big was the reply. I didnt know about the cigar
or the woman. But talking big, now that was right up my alley, just
what I was after. Maybe if I found the right words then I could talk
big. Get it said just right.
Tony Abbotts doctor friend once told him how patients miss medical
terms. Fibroids of the uterus were transformed into fireballs of the
Eucharist and spinal meningitis into smiling mighty Jesus. Now there
are some talking big words for you! Thats it; I wanted to fireball
somebody with my words, smiling mighty Jesus them with my brilliance.
what I wrote had no real solidarity about it. Writers seek to find their
voice; it was clear that I hadnt found mine. Mine was everybody
elses. I wanted a not-from-around here, big-city sophisticated
voice. I wasnt comfortable in my own skin. I cranked out stilted
lukewarm stuff. My very own children, flesh of my flesh
my bone, accused me of using high blown, haughty language. Your
full-of-it voice, they said, not to put too fine a point on it.
But I kept on with the big talk. So much so that I couldnt see
what was under my feet, all around me and written in my bones. That
is, not until the Mission Station articles.
The Mission Station, a non-profit group, asked if I would handle their
fund raising PR (for free of course) I said no. They insisted. Finally
I agreed thinking only to write a few press releases and be done with
it. Out of the blue, the editor of the local paper offered to publish
a feature story about the project every Friday for five months. I could
choose what to write and he would put it all in untouched, he promised.
It was a poetic license to steal. So I plunged right in.
first my stories were still dangerously full of those fireball words,
crisp and distant from my heart. But gradually a sea change was taking
place. I was beginning to just plain run out of bombastic steam.There
was no room for arrogance in the stories that were bubbling up in this
project. I left the world of what I thought was proper journalism behind.
Reported honestly on the beautiful simple stories that were being told
to me of lives being touched, kindness
There was no room for arrogance in the stories that were bubbling up
in this project. I left the world of what I thought was proper journalism
behind. Reported honestly on the beautiful simple stories that were
being told to me of lives being touched, kindness being
done, sacrifices being made. The accounts that I heard were heartbreakingly
poignant. Sometimes when I wrote them I cried. And they all took place
on the ground of my home, in my mountains, and in my little town. I
just wrote and wrote, the stories came and came, and the project continued.
was breathtaking for me. People came forward in drug stores, at local
restaurants, once even over a contract signing in my husbands
office. You need to write they would say to me, often wriggling a finger
in my face. Sometimes the compliments were a bit backhanded, as in I
knew that you could write, but I didnt know that you could really
write. How had I overlooked for so long the lushness of my own
story, the power that writing about this place, my hometown gave to
has a long and proud history of storytelling and no place was that tradition
more alive than in my mothers family. My Mother, Grandmother,
and Aunt were storytellers and teachers. They passed stories around
a widow, lived with my mothers only other sibling, my unmarried
Aunt in a white rambling front porch house in town out on Avery Avenue.
Every afternoon of the school week my mother would go, usually with
me in tow, out home to Avery Avenue to visit Mama and Sister.
and working there with them was their housekeeper, a no-nonsense, superstitious,
yarn swapping mountain woman from Jonas Ridge. Rounding out this cast
of characters was the gentle, long-legged cook with big feet who was
part Cherokee-part African American. All were women, all were seriously
outspoken, and all could get you told in a second. It was The Waltons,
Roots, and Driving Ms. Daisy all rolled into one.
On a hundred
afternoons in the front room, or in the gathering dusk, or on the side
porch in the summer out on Avery Avenue, the full exotic mix of their
expressions surrounded me. I heard the rhythm of their language, listened
to their laughter and their endless stream of recollections and stories.I
had thought that their stories werent the real stuff of writing.
That I needed to go far a field to find what I was looking for. This
rich woven tapestry of strong womensvoices seemed somehow insignificant
to me. I had intended to outgrow them all.
We do go
to the birthday party, Susu and I. A tented afternoon lawn party just
a few blocks over from Avery Avenue. It has rained hard all day, but
right before the party the sun comes out. The rain has washed all the
pollen from the air and the day has a wonderful brilliant clearness
about it. Our idol is as elegant as ever. In a lilac linen dress and
straw hat with flowers she poses for a picture with her ten grandchildren,
beaming down at the newest one that she holds in her arms.
taken me fifty years to get back to this place. Back where I began.
Miraculously, somehow I have found my way home. Back to this place where
our stories matter
where our little human lives have meaning.
I am standing
on hallowed ground.