To the Old Person Who Lives in My Mirror

(The following poem first appeared in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting)

 

Who the hell are you?
Don’t think I don’t see you there,
lurking smugly,
checking me out,
searching for one more wrinkle on my face,
yet another white hair on my head,
yet more thinning of it.

Why are you gloating?

Well, you’re not getting away with it.
I can stare right back at you.
I see deep into your eyes,
and that’s where I find her—
the one more recognizable, more what I expect to see.
The one with thick black hair, smooth face,
eyes brightly lit with the anticipation of life.

What did you do with her?

I know she’s still there.
Except she’s not.
She experienced life;
she acquired wisdom.
And it only added dimension to her being.
So you can’t hide her.
She’s here, on this side of the mirror.

And she’s better than ever.

 

(Photo credit: Lip Kee from Singapore, Republic of Singapore [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lost Keys

They weren’t lost. We knew exactly where the keys were, all three sets.

As usual, mine were in my bag, in the car. I don’t like to carry baggage—of any sort. The Gnome was driving. He has pockets. He always takes his keys with him.

As we stepped into the parking lot with a full grocery cart that night, a funny look came over the Gnome’s face. “Do you have your keys?” he asked. “I must have left mine in the ignition.” Sure enough, that’s where they were.

We called the local constabulary. This was in the day when cars were equipped with a button just next to the window on the inside edge of each car door. To lock the door, all you had to do was press the button as you exited the car. All too easy to leave a key inside. It was also possible for skilled hand to pull the little button up into the open position with a coat hanger or similar device. The police carried such a device.

The black car arrived after an awkwardly long wait. The next few minutes could have been a scene from a TV sitcom.

The officer quizzed us. “Don’t you have a second set?”

“Yes sir, they’re in the car, too.” (Like we just explained,” I muttered—under my breath.)

“What about at home? Do you have an extra set there?”

“Well, yes. But our home is half an hour’s drive away. And with our keys locked inside the car, we can’t exactly drive there to get the keys to unlock the car door.” (If we could do that, I thought, we wouldn’t have needed to call you, now, would we?)

“Can’t you get someone to take you home to get your key?”

“Not exactly. Besides, that key is inside the house, and the house is locked, too. And guess where the house keys are. On the same key ring with the car keys.”

He seemed incapable of grasping our catch-22 predicament. Round and round we went. Somewhere, sometime, somebody was going to have to force some lock for us or we’d forever be out in the cold, literally.

Thankfully, the officer finally relented and with a quick flick of his wrist, we were finally on our way, groceries and all.

What about you? Do you have a lost keys story?

Creative Commons photo credit: Basile Morin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Proud Mountain Woman

(This essay was first published in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting.)

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait just a measly half-hour to divert the water supply to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cows’ water supply with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman? What is her story? Her name is Pam Dillard Coates. I know this true life episode because the four-year-old me was in the kitchen when it happened. No doubt, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper and venom was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in what has been described as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina. Even I knew it was pretty impressive encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns (not that I knew to call them that).

By contrast, our small wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, in the way of many houses of its era. The open space under the house was intended to keep things cooler in the hot southern summertime. Perhaps the nearby presence of “The Columns,” as the Harwell home was known, made our little house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to church. Mother did not like the sense she got that this matron felt sorry for us and that she looked down on us. It was a slight Mother never forgot.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the two-room unpainted wooden shanty occupied by a tenant-farming couple. I walked across the fields to visit them on occasion. It was a tiny space, even by four-year-old standards. I walked into the small area designated as a kitchen with room for a wooden counter top on one side of the door and an old-fashioned icebox on the other. An open doorway led into the combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. At least our house had electricity—and running water, sometimes.

We lived a couple hundred miles and a world apart from Mother’s hometown in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The people of sandy eastern South Carolina thought her mountain accent was quaint. By one means or another, someone was always calling attention to her differentness. She felt out of place, patronized, and she was rightly sensitive to any hint of disdain.

In the mountains, she was in her element. Her family was well-respected. Her parents were leaders in the small community. It was home.

She didn’t realize just how much. Though she was unaware of it, all of Mother’s ancestors had settled the area when it was first opened up via cession by the Cherokee. Every single one of them came to this country no later than the 1700s, some earlier. Like today’s immigrants, they were mostly poor folk who left their home countries in search of a better life. For the most part, they found it.

The Stillwells, Loves, Dillards, and Nortons were some of the first to move to western North Carolina as it opened up for settlement. The rest came not long after. Some made their way from Virginia through eastern Tennessee. A few moved from points further east in North Carolina, and more came from bordering counties in South Carolina and Georgia.

In other words, Mother’s mountain heritage included the very deepest roots among European settlers. And though she is still the sweet, gentle woman I remember from my childhood, I now understand that she is—and has always been—so much more. She shares many of the traits commonly attributed to Southern Highland mountaineers: self-reliance, persistence, and stoicism borne of necessity; reticence, independence, and individualism borne of isolation; and a hefty dose of mountain pride that demands to be treated with dignity.

Today she’s even more proud of her mountain heritage than she was as a twenty-something young mother. So am I.

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Despised Scent

Have you ever tried to describe a smell? Either a favorite one or one you detest? It’s hard. How do you describe a scent without mentioning the scent itself. That’s what you’d have to do to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it.

Because it’s such a hard thing to write about, writing instructors often require their students to do just that. Our Wednesday writing workshop leader has done it a couple of times. Most recently, I observed that the majority of us chose to write about a distasteful smell rather than one a favorite one, I guess because the power of a detestable smell evokes more powerful thoughts.

It’s what prompted me to write about a loathed aroma. At first, I tried to write about something sweet and beloved, but as I attempted to think of descriptors, I came up blank. Calling up bad smells, however, was visceral. I chose to write about—you guessed it—skunks.

* * * * *

I rather like the musky evidence of skunk—from a distance. It leaves a hint of citrusy lemon aroma in the air. A little fresher skunk scent is more that of burnt coffee—the same smell that makes me wrinkle my nose when I get to close to a coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even that doesn’t bother me too much.

But fresh skunk spray up close and personal—say on my deck—is another matter. My eyes are attacked by a burning sensation that makes them water uncontrollably. My nostrils close up from the stench. I can neither see nor breathe. I choke.

It is the smell of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, burning meat, and cat urine all rolled into one, as if all those smells are simultaneously stuffed up my nose and down my throat.

Bottle it and that scent would make as powerful and effective a weapon of war as it is a protection from skunk dangers in the wild.

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

Here’s to New Chapters

I’ve been thinking about momentous occasions lately. The end of summer brings a lot of them. One grandchild began 3K just about the time another officially became a college freshman.

Just a few boxes filled with essential items for college life

I shared some thoughts about the start of college about this time last year. You can read those here and here. It suddenly got a lot more personal this year as one of those college freshmen is my eldest grandchild. Her life is about to change in ways she nor her parents can imagine.

. . . and in a flash, the younger sister becomes an only child, so to speak.

Naturally, my mind hearkens back to my own graduation summer and college freshman fall. Letters passed between three soon-to-be roommates. Who were we? What clothes should we pack? How should we decorate our dorm room? I was nothing but ecstatic and expectant. For years, I’d spent most of my summers away at one 4-H camp or another, so the notion of homesickness never occurred to me. I was only looking forward. My mood didn’t alter all summer.

Then came the big day, our family of five and all my luggage crammed in my parents’ car for the four-hour trip to the college of my choice. I sat on the right-hand side of the back seat in the soft pink shirtwaist dress trimmed with deeper pink hand-embroidered stitching on the collar edge and both sides of the collar-to-hem button placket. All hand-made by Mother. It was one of my favorites, a dress to help me put my best foot forward as I entered my new life.

It was only when directional signs to my school appeared, just a couple of miles from our destination, that I started to freak. Totally unexpected, my tummy brimmed with butterflies. While I was still mostly excited about what the future held for me, a tiny but powerful part was ready to turn around and head back home. Had I been on my own, I might have done just that.

I’m so glad turning around wasn’t an option. Even as the heady anticipation of that summer evolved into all-night exam cramming sessions, even as the grades I was used to in high school eluded me, even as idealism turned to reality and sometimes cynicism, even as I endured the agony of heartbreak, I had found my place. Not once did I consider giving up.

At most, I traveled home for school holidays and summer breaks. On occasion, I even stayed at school during shorter breaks. I appreciated the solitude of a dorm and campus empty of the hustle-bustle of daily student life. I could read for pleasure, reflect, organize, take solitary strolls through my favorite spots, daydream. There wasn’t much time for those things the rest of the school year.

I discovered new passions during my college years. I set out on a career path, though it morphed and morphed again in my post-college years. I learned what mattered to me. I discovered independence. Ideas jelled into philosophies. I found love. I lost love. I found it again. I survived. I learned that I could.

It’s not that I think college years are the best years of one’s life, a sentiment I’ve heard so many times. How depressing to hit twenty-one and think all the best times are behind you. No, I see those college years as a unique time, a time to grow, a time to explore, a time to discover what you’re made of. If all goes reasonably well, it’s a time to look back on with fond nostalgia, not as the best time of life but as one that holds sweet memories and provided important building blocks for the life to come.

As we said I goodbyes, I wished I could find the wisdom and the words to give my granddaughter the most brilliant piece of advice, the pithiest sentiment. In the end, all I could do was give her a hug and say, “I love you.”

I wish my granddaughter and all her fellow college freshmen the very best college has to offer, hopefully with only a few disappointments, though those are important to growth, too. Sometimes it’s our mistakes that define us; hard as they are, we need a few along the way. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Here’s to you, Starshine!