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.

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Just Wondering

 

My grandfather, Joseph Bezzel Coates, b. 05/21/1895

My grampa was a fiend for learning.
Immediately he knew
radio’s potential
for education,
calling his boys
from their play
when “Music Appreciation Hour” aired.

Grampa was a fiend for hard work, too.
Too little of it
and the devil might
set up his workshop—
that’s the way Grampa saw it. Besides,
too much work needed doing
to trifle with idleness.

Hard work was like play for him
so he was known to say,
during an afternoon break from working in tobacco
or cotton or corn and the heat from the sun
blew the top off thermometers,
“Boys, while you’re resting,
let’s go shuck some corn.”

So, I wonder how Grampa would handle
the age of social media.
Surely he’d see the potential for good,
the opportunity for learning.
But day after day, hour upon hour
playing games on smartphones, scouring Facebook, or texting friends?
Would Grampa put up with that?

WWGD?
(What would Grampa do?)

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up on Parts I and II of The List. You can find them here and here.)

Actually, I had written a hundred and one items on my hundred-things-I-want-to-do-when-I-retire list. One, though, was something I simply didn’t feel comfortable broadcasting to professional colleagues. Yet, if my list had been in priority order, this one item would have been at the very top. The number one thing I wanted to do when I retired was to take off my bra.

It was the number one thing I did, too. For awhile. Then I remembered something Maya Angelou once said about her aging experience: “My breasts are in a race to see which one gets to my bellybutton first.” I’d seen that effect first hand at Asheville’s Go Topless Day, and I really didn’t want to speed things up for myself.

Funny thing about bras. Back in the sixth grade, we girls could barely wait to get our first bras, whether we needed them or not. (We didn’t.) We huddled together during recess whispering about them—who had one, who needed one, how embarrassing it would be wearing one to school for the first time. My two best friends and I coordinated our bra-buying plans so we’d arrive at school wearing our first bra on the same day. We reasoned no one of us would feel quite so conspicuous that way. Proud and conspiratorial, maybe, but inconspicuous.

Pretty sure my first bra was this very style! (But smaller—much, much smaller) 

 

At a church youth retreat a few years later, my friend George said to a bunch of us girls that he couldn’t comprehend how we could bear to be so confined. He thought wearing a bra would feel incredibly constricting, like being in a straitjacket. We were a tad scandalized by his brazen discussion of such an intimate subject, but we tried not to show it. We assured him it wasn’t like that at all, that bras were perfectly comfortable. Frankly, we couldn’t imagine life without a bra.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a bra. The more I’ve needed one, the less comfortable I’ve been wearing one. George had it right, after all. Constricting is exactly the right word.

In the end, my bra and I came to a compromise. That is to say, I compromised. Pretty soon I started wearing my bra again. Still do. These days, I free my breasts from their bra prison a little earlier in the evenings, though, hoping my body doesn’t notice I’m cheating.

Bras—there’s the Double Support, the Sexy Plunge, the Elegant Lift, the Magic Lift, the Convertible, the Vacationer, the Glamorise, the Wonderwire. Seamed, seamless, lined, unlined, foam lined. Sheer, padded, molded. Strapless, t-strap, gel strap. Wirefree or underwire. Front closure, back closure, pullover. Leisure, sports, nursing, active lifestyle. Extra lift, minimizer, slimming, back smoothing. Push-up, shelf, bandeau, bustier, demi-cup, long line. Cotton, nylon, silk, microfiber, jersey knit, lace, satin.

The most common theme in bra advertising is comfort: original comfort, smooth comfort, pure comfort, moving comfort, 18-hour comfort, super cool comfort, comfort flex, comfort revolution, passion for comfort. HA!

I have a passion for comfort. It’s why I wanted to dispense with my bra in the first place. But gravity is a law. And I’m a law abider, so I’m sticking with my bra.

(Photo images in this post are public domain photos via Creative Commons.)

The List, Part II: Priorities

THE LIST, Part II: Priorities

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up. You can find Part I here.)

Right up near the top of my “One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire” list was to make baskets. I had first learned how as a child from my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother: high school graduation photo

My grandparents, W. G. and Georgia Stillwell Dillard, on their fiftieth anniversary

Grandmother always had craft activities ready and waiting whenever we went for a visit, and she and I made baskets on more than one occasion. Basket making with Grandmother is one of my fondest memories.

An early basket weaving exercise under Grandmother’s tutelage

But I’d long since forgotten that skill. When I saw an ad for a basket-making class as part of Appalachian State University’s Craft Enrichment Program about three years before I retired, I jumped at it.

In those days I regularly worked until seven or eight o’clock at night and too often as late as ten or eleven. I took work home on the weekends. I dreamed about work. I woke up in a 3:00 a.m. work-related panic almost nightly. My job involved overnight travel, too, sometimes a couple of trips a week. I hadn’t had time for just-for-me activities for years. But I wasn’t about to let anything interfere with my basket-making sessions. In three years of classes, I missed only one because of work.

Making baskets was good for my spirit; it relaxed me; it gave my overworked mind a break from all the work-related issues that were swirling around in it. I really loved making those baskets, and I was eager to delve into my newfound hobby in a big way once I retired. In anticipation of that day, I bought my own basket-making supplies and four big boxes of reed and other materials.

Just a few of the many baskets I made in my basket-making workshops

A few things happened to change all that. No studio space for making baskets magically appeared. Nor did our small house with its open design lend itself to leaving materials all over the place between sessions. Just pulling out all those boxes and supplies, then putting them all away and sweeping up the debris after a basket-making session was time-consuming, so much so that it was only worth doing if I was going to make a day of it. But a full day of hand weaving, of pushing and pulling, of holding ornery pieces in place with one hand while forcing a reed through a too-small space with the other is hard on fingers, especially arthritic ones.

And I was running out of ways to use those baskets. Our house was overrun with them, and I’d given away more than people really wanted to receive. My skill hadn’t developed enough to sell my baskets and I wasn’t really interested in marketing them, anyway—too much like work.

Most of all, I began to realize that baskets had been my very important respite from the daily grind of my work life but now things were different. My needs had changed. Basket-making, it turned out, had served its purpose.

Besides, other interests had begun to take on more importance, like gardening and food preservation. Both of these activities had been on my list, too. At the time, my goal was simply to re-learn those skills from my childhood. I wanted to be competent at them, enough so that if, say, climate change challenged our food distribution system (as it has now begun to do), I’d be able to take care of my own food needs. In other words, I wanted to move towards more self-reliance.

But even I had no idea how these two activities would begin to take over my life. I didn’t expect to get so passionate about them. Why, last year the Gnome and I grew more than twelve hundred pounds of vegetables in our garden, far more than enough for the annual food needs of two people.

One day’s harvest from our garden

I looked back at my list recently and discovered I’d made a pretty good dent in it. What I hadn’t expected though, was to discover a few more items that had lost their importance as new interests—gardening and food preservation, for instance—emerged to take their place. Interests that sometimes have taken me by complete surprise. Like writing. Writing didn’t earn a single mention on my list. Yet, here I am with two books to my name (and hopefully more on the way), a couple of blogs, daily dedicated writing time, and participation in various writers’ groups. Who saw that coming? Not I! That’s the way it is with plans. Priorities change.

It’s one of my favorite things about retirement. I can be flexible. And I don’t need to make any more lists. Which was, as it happens, item 100 on my list.

(Won’t you come back next week for Part III of The List?)

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Little Deeds, Big Impact

Some occupations will get you daily thanks for doing a good job. Many more rarely result in expressions of appreciation. Sanitation workers, for instance. Custodians. Government professionals who collect taxes, process unemployment benefits, and so on.

Teachers rarely get a “Thank you” from their students, either. And if they do, it may be years later. It’s hard to stay positive, to believe you’re accomplishing something important when it’s not acknowledged by the very people on whom you focus your professional passion.

But I’m here to tell you that your influence spreads like ripples in a pond when skipping stones. Whether it’s positive or negative. Whether it’s part of your job or a kindness to a stranger. It may be something truly magnanimous or seemingly insignificant. And it may make a difference in ways you’d never imagine. Let me give you some random (and in no way equal) real-life examples.

The first is a story about Fred. Fred came into our family by marriage to a cousin more than forty years ago. In all that time, I’d never met him. But I heard a lot about him over the years from my mom. She’d heard about him from her sister, his mother-in-law. Sometimes, she was in his presence and picked up a bit of his philosophy in person. A long time ago, she shared a tidbit with me. Fred held a strong position on the use of brand names as generic, she said. You know, the way people used to refer to all refrigerators as Frigidaires. Unless you’re of a certain age, you may not remember that example, but what about Kleenex for tissue?

It’s a real marketing coup when a brand becomes so iconic that it becomes part of the lexicon—you want a cola type soda and without thinking you ask  for a Coke, you’ll get a Coke instead of a Pepsi or an RC.

It’s not so great, though, if you’re a small business owner like Fred was. It’s hard enough to break into the public’s attention without having a built-in bias all because some multi-national corporation managed to hire a particularly clever PR person. Small businesses need a fair shot. So Fred thought people should say “tissue” or “cola” or “refrigerator.” Period.

Like I said, I’d never met the guy, but I took that lesson to heart. It made sense to me. Overnight, I changed my vocabulary. Never again did I use the word Kleenex unless I was talking specifically about that brand of tissue. I began asking  for “diet soda” in restaurants, which caused me no end of grief. Almost inevitably, my request got this response from the waitstaff: “Is diet Coke (or whatever brand they happened to sell) okay?” They just didn’t get it. But I persisted. When I had business lunches with colleagues, they learned to anticipate the scene and started chuckling at me before the word cola was out of my mouth. They thought I should just give up and go with the flow.

I finally met Fred. Thought I’d tell him how much he’d influenced me even though we’d never before laid eyes on each other. His response was a surprised, “I said that?”. It took his wife, her mother, and my mother simultaneously exclaiming things like, “You sure did,” or “Yes, there was a time . . . ”.

I thought it was hilarious. Decades ago, Fred expressed an opinion. Over the years, his memory of that principle dimmed to the point of nothingness. But someone—me—heard the message loud and clear (even though second-hand). And I not only put it into practice but passed on the sentiment with a kind of missionary zeal.

* * *

Kirk is a friend from way back in college days. After graduation, our families lived in the same town and socialized regularly. Then his family moved to another state. Fate brought us together sporadically and rarely after that. About five years ago, our paths crossed again. It had been more than thirty years since we’d last spent time together. Kirk told the Gnome and me that our names had come up in a sermon he’d recently preached. It had something to do with what he remembered as all our furniture-building back when we were newlyweds—the creativity, necessity mothering invention, that sort of thing.

The Gnome and I looked at each other in bewilderment. We’d sold weaving and macramé items at craft fairs and street festivals for a time in those days, but furniture-building? We were stumped. As we drove home, we puzzled over the discrepancy between Kirk’s memory and ours. Finally, we remembered that when we’d lived in a small World War II-era apartment with one lilliputian closet, we’d built a wardrobe of plywood with pine molding. We painted it a memorable aqua and yellow—it was psychedelic 1969, after all.

That must have been what Kirk remembered. But in his imagination, our one-time building experience had mushroomed. So much so that our “ingenuity” became the substance of a lesson used in a sermon more than four decades later.

* * *

Many years before either of these events, a different kind of moment occurred. I must have been in my early teens the day Mrs. Truluck, a volunteer youth leader in our church, stopped me in the aisle after one Sunday service to compliment me on something she had observed. I don’t remember what exactly, maybe for sitting next to another girl who might otherwise have been ignored. Whatever it was, I didn’t think it was a big deal. However, Mrs. Truluck taking about sixty seconds to tell me she’d noticed was a very big deal. A big deal that’s stayed with me for close to sixty years now.

Mrs. Truluck no doubt knew the importance of offering a pat of congratulations or a word of encouragement to young people. But I’ll bet she fairly quickly forgot that particular exchange. I never did. I learned two important lessons that day. One, that people notice what you do, even things that seem insignificant. I also learned how far a thoughtful comment can go. For the decades since that Sunday afternoon, I’ve tried to make it a point to let people know when I notice the nice things they do.

So, to all the Mrs. Trulucks out there, thank you—you make a difference.

And so do you.  

By Ashashyou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My maternal grandmother, like most rural mountain women of her generation, was a prolific quilter. Her quilting frame was hung from the dining room ceiling where it could be raised and lowered by pulleys. It made her home the perfect place for a quilt-making gathering, but she would have been worried to pieces having outsiders in the way, so quilting bees were limited to family members.

When I was about nine years old, I was the recipient of one of those quilts. It featured the Little Dutch Girl pattern: a little girl in profile with her flared dress, a big sunbonnet hiding her face from view, and equally big shoes—wooden clogs, no doubt. In each square, the girl’s outfit was multi-hued, each square’s color combination different from the ones around it.

The colorful quilt served as my bedspread for several years, on the same antique cherry bed that had been my mother’s. She had restored it when she was a teen as part of a 4-H Room Improvement project which earned her a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair. That same bed was used by my daughter when she was a girl and then by her own daughter.

Unfortunately, the quilt was not quite so long-lived as the bed, now more than 150 years old. While not exactly ephemera, quilts were made to be used. My Little Dutch Girl quilt was well-used, first by me and later by my daughter. It wore out.

By the time I learned to appreciate my quilt for both its personal and cultural heritage, it was too threadbare, stained, and torn to save it. But I couldn’t toss it. A few years ago, I cut the quilt into its squares and framed the few that weren’t too stained or frayed. One I gave to my mother, one I kept for myself; others I stashed away for children and grandchildren.

Now I’ve inherited a few more of Grandmother’s quilts. Unlike my girlhood quilt, I treat these with great respect. I don’t tuck them away where they can’t be appreciated, but I’ve learned not to expose them to daily use and abuse atop beds, either. These quilts hang side by side over a bedroom railing. Like MaMa’s Civil War bedspread, they are always on view and always available to provide extra cover on chilly nights—when they warm both body and soul.

I love these old quilts made by my grandmother, and I’m fascinated by the study of them. Her stitches were exquisite and her squares, large or tiny, were precise. But Grandmother didn’t exercise the same kind of care in other aspects of her quilt making. (Mother was right.)

Precision was not what you’d expect to find within Grandmother’s squares. One little Dutch girl’s profile, for instance, might vary from those around it. One’s shoes may be a little larger or smaller, while another’s might drop off the square entirely. Grandmother carelessly arranged colors. With Grandmother’s quilts, it’s not unusual to spot an aqua square somewhere in a row of royal blue ones. Or, you may find a wool or satin piece of fabric mixed in a row of cotton squares.

This quilt contains 148 border squares. 146 of them are black. The other two look like this.

Notice the random color placement of the “petals” in this quilt square. Can you spot the petal that was pieced together?

Whether it was plain old sloppiness, a preference for form over function, poor planning, or the “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” philosophy stated on one of her many cross-stitched pieces, these little details simply didn’t seem to matter to Grandmother. And one thing’s for sure—her quilts are unique; they’ll never be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Among other fabrics, Grandmother used a red-checkered tablecloth, printed flour sacks, and old children’s pajamas to make this quilt.

Grandmother was a giggler and she kept me in stitches. Even now, looking at her quilts makes me chuckle. I think she’d have wanted it that way.