DO YOU KNOW THIS WOMAN?

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Santa Barbara’s trees, like its oceans and mountains, are one thing she says she never tires of here.”I feel very fortunate to have my car,” she says. “It’s a little cramped, but it’s softer than cement.” For Some Seniors Without Housing: A Parking Lot Is Home; NPR, Sept 18, 2016

My stomach lurches every time I look at this photo.    How can this be happening in upscale Santa Barbara?  This woman  could be my neighbor, the grandmother in the  pew next to mine at church, she  could be that woman struggling along with me at  Pilates class.   She probably  went to college, paid her bills on time, baked cookies for the PTO, raised a family.  Or so it would seem.

Maybe not.  Maybe she lived wildly beyond her means, enrolling her kids in expensive private schools, indulging in spas and Mediterranean cruises, driving a Lexus. Rotating credit cards for payment, betting on the return of the pre-recession economy.  Or maybe  she was forced out of a longterm marriage by a deluded husband frantically trying to recapture his youth.  Or maybe she’s a widow  bankrupted by overwhelming medical bills.

Maybe.  But is  something more fundamental in play?   In our frenzied rush to achieve “success,” have  we have forgotten our need for each other?  Have we  lost our communities?

I grew up in a tight community.  And I hated it.  Everyone knew everything you did, and worse, attributed it to your genetics.  If your family was properous, that predestined your success, despite all distressing evidence to the contrary.  If as in my case, your familymain-street
were not  wealthy landowners, city fathers or otherwise distinguished, you were not expected to rise above your family’s  social standing.  No credential, diploma or bank statement could refute  this.    That was the down side, the only side, I saw growing up.

But no one, no matter what color or family circumstances.  NO ONE lived in a car or wanted for food or clean clothes.   This was not because were endowed with unnatural virtue or were a microcosm of  Christian charity.  Far from it.  We were mean-spirited, kind, quilting-bgenerous, greedy,  intellectually gifted and psychotic, industrious, and lazy; like people everywhere.  With one major exception: We needed each other.  No one had to tell us that.   We knew it by birth;  we were a poor farming community; if we were to survive, it meant cooperation.  It meant community.  In our case, a community formed around a church.

The little community still exists; thrives, in fact,  and its people are still just as flawed and nosy.  Inevitably, though, time has brought  change. Its members are more diverse, better educated, more tolerant now.  But  community foundation  never changed.  If a neighbor’s house is damaged by flood or fire, the community rebuilds the house and supplies food and clothes.  A  member’s bad medical diagnosis country-church1triggers a  rotation of members to supply food and housekeeping.   Extra rows are planted in  gardens for needy members.  The list goes on.   And this is why such a photo could never have been, never will be,  taken in that community.

So I wonder.  Why have our larger urban communities failed this woman?  Does she not meet some tedious beaurocratic requirement?  Is she in need of psychiatric help?  Are there so many like her that community organizations are overwhelmed?  Is it even possible for government to organize community?   Or can lasting  community be forged only on the anvil of  fundamental interdependence?    Is her plight, then, simply the logical outcome of a society who has forgotten this  fundamental truth?

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Southern Writers: Sally Whitney

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many benefits to me of this blog is the opportunity it provides me to  celebrate  the successes of fellow southern women writers.   I am delighted to  showcase  Sally Whitney’s  latest book, Surface and Shadow, just released today.

A few weeks ago, I asked  Sally to share some of her thoughts about being a southern writer and in particular, what inspired her latest book.

What gave you the idea for this novel?

 I can’t say that anything gave me the idea for this novel. The idea just seemed to grow. Strong women have always been my favorite characters in novels, so I knew my novel would have a woman as the protagonist. I think women have a hard time being strong because for many years, expectations and requirements have been set against them. Too often, women have to show strength in defying cultural norms before they can be strong anywhere else. I wanted to show this personal battle within my protagonist. I’m also interested in North Carolina cotton-mill towns, partly because very few of them still exist. I put the woman in the cotton-mill town and asked “What if?” And the story grew from there.

 Why did you choose to write about the South?

 The South chose me. Place is very important to my fiction. Often with short stories I get a sense of place before anything else. I see a backyard vegetable garden baking in the mid-summer sun. Or a front porch sagging under the weight of family generations who have traipsed across it. With Surface and Shadow, I saw the narrow main street of a small town with its decades-old store fronts and a mysterious aging farmhouse partly obscured by trees and flowers.
Always the places I see are in the South, usually in North Carolina. And it’s not just the physical places that draw my thoughts in that direction. It’s a sense of mystery and wonder, history and hope, darkness mixed with light. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I tried to write about a woman living in New Jersey, but my professor told me to “get that woman back down south where she belongs.” He knew where my imagination lives.

 What do you think are the greatest pitfalls to writing about southern women?

 Number one is falling prey to stereotypes. We all know them. Southern women have been caricatured in books and movies and jokes since such means of communication began. But avoiding stereotypes and still conveying some of southern women’s significant characteristics can be tricky. Stereotypes, like caricatures, have some basis in truth. While southern women are not as hung up on social niceties and proper etiquette as they’re often portrayed, we do expect people to be kind to each other. Good manners are nothing more than being considerate of other people. We are not simpering, obedient belles trying to please the men in our lives. We do not go to college just to find a husband. We are independent women, but we often find ways of exerting that independence that are more persuasive than combative. We like men, and generally love a few of them, but they aren’t required to help us lead fully developed lives.

 What do you think defines a “southern writer?”

 Although southern writers are often defined by where they live, I think they’re more accurately defined by the books they write. My favorite contemporary southern authors, including Lee Smith, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, and Fannie Flagg, tell stories of passionate people caught in difficult circumstances, not necessarily unique to the South, but certainly influenced by southern culture, climate, and geography. In Jackson’s gods in Alabama, for example, the great respect many Alabamans hold for football plays an important role. In Franklin’s The Tilted World, which he wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, the roaring force of the southern Mississippi River is a major character. Heat is often one of my favorite characters in stories by southern writers. Although other parts of the United States can be hot, there’s no heat like southern heat. And heat can make people do crazy things. Southern writers understand the South and its people with all their beauty and their flaws. They know the strong ties between the people and the land and the climate. Their stories could not take place anywhere else.

For more about Sally Whitney and her work, see this blog, May 1, 2015.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silent Healing

 

In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)
In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)

In the haggard silence, there can be no words

A  merciless anguish falls on the sodden bodies

But comforting too, the  bodies close

Pressed, crushed together

They are a single throbbing wound

That can only heal as one.


Of all the heartbreaking photos of the flooding disaster in Louisiana, last weekend (and there were so many),  this one cries to me the loudest.  The faces register shock, disbelief, loss, pain.   And yet there are no tears.   Old and young stand together, defiant,   facing ahead  in  a solid show of will.   Their common  suffering has become the bond that will unite them to survive

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SOMEDAY

“That ship sailed.” I say that a lot these days. So many things now, that I won’t or can’t do again. I will not, for example, be partying allimages-3 night, taking the “red-eye” cross country, wearing sequined jeans, images-3getting a tattoo, signing up to run a 10K or any other kind of “K”, or tottering around in shoes with spiky 4″ heels. And I’m OK with all of that.

If we’re lucky, we all grow old. And I’m OK with that too. But I never noticed it happening to me as I navigated life’s passages; graduation, career, marriage, parenting, the AARP card, grandchildren, downsizing and finally retirement.

But I didn’t feel old! OK, maybe I was starting to get arthritis, maybe it did take longer to “bounce back” from winter colds, perhaps I did need those “readers” more now. So I did give up running for walking, and power aerobics for yoga. And could it be true that our children were receiving their AARP cards? Unsettling, but… I still had time, plenty of time – to take that trip, to be with family and friends, brush up my piano technique and attend concerts, to visit that lonely person, to read books, to write books. Those were my dreams. And I’d get around to them. Someday.

I don’t know the exact moment when I knew life actually had changed. Was it a day when someone opened a door I didn’t need opened – or ran to pick up the sunglasses I dropped, was it my sharp images-1intake of breath at my reflection under the harsh lights of the beautyimages-1 shop, or (please, God, no), when someone called me “cute?” No matter. It’s true. Things have changed, they have really changed. And while I haven’t experienced substantial losses, yet, praise God, a thousand “little sailings” unnoticeable at the time, have manifested in sea changes in my life over the years. Life was never, after all, endless journeys to far horizons, but a voyage through tributaries, narrowing to one. I am at that tributary.

And that was not OK with me. Not at all.

I have always worked toward goals that catapulted me toward new ones. That made sense in my 40s, but it was foolish now. My fear of aging would not let me see that I was no longer sailing toward a destination, but had arrived. So I continued to postpone my dreams as I always had – to Someday. When I was older. Not now. Not yet.

But as I watched friends battling terrifying chronic diseases, becoming incapacitated, losing spouses with fat bank accounts still intact, I had to admit that in fact, Someday was here. Time to face my fear of growing old. I didn’t enjoy that at first. But this foolish denial was costing me my dreams. Time to get busy. Things to do. Time to welcome Someday.

So I’ll be scheduling that trip, spending time with the grandkids, going to those concerts, writing, reading, hanging out with my friends and family. It’s Someday. And my ship is safely anchored in port.

WHAT THE LITTLE DOG KNEW

Looking towards the lightIn a wheelchair beside the nurses’ station, a tiny old woman sits, eyes closed, lips parted, hands folded in her lap. Her head droops to one side. Ragged wisps of white hair stray across her forehead. Her nightgown is rumpled, one slipper has dropped to the floor exposing a pale bare foot.  She could be asleep, perhaps even comatose.  Visitors pass, a nurse rushes by and jostles her wheelchair but offers no apology.  No one notices.  It’s  as if she’s invisible.

As nursing homes go, it’s a good one.  It’s so  clean it’s almost unsettling,, the furnishings  expensive and inoffensive,  the staff’s crisp white uniforms fairly rustle as they pass.    Vivaldi plays  softly in the background. They try hard.  But it is still a nursing home.  Where no one wants to be.

A  small dog being led by a visitor trots by, then  suddenly pulls at his IMG_1147lead, resisting  his owner’s attempts to move forward.  The visitor tugs at the lead, averting her eyes from the woman in the wheelchair.   But the little dog is determined.  He sits  down by the woman’s wheelchair as if he has reached his destination.    After a few seconds, the woman opens her eyes and raises her head.  A smile spreads slowly across her weathered face at the sight of the little dog.  Her watery eyes twinkle. A soft voice breaks the silence.  It has a characteristic honeyed lilt, a pattern of speech once cultivated in finishing schools for proper southern ladies.

“Well, hello there!  And aren’t you a pretty little thing?” A bony finger reaches down and strokes the little dog’s ear. He stands, reciprocates with a swift lick of her finger, then sits again,  tongue hanging  sidewise, looking up at her expectantly. They regard each other silently.  She reaches down and gently strokes his back.

She turns to the visitor, “Do you take good care of him?”

“Yes, I do, ” the visitor says.

“Well, make sure you do, now, ” she admonishes. “He needs a lot of care.”

“Don’t worry,” the visitor assures her, “I take good care of him, I promise.” A few minutes pass as the woman talks softly to the little dog.

Finally, she looks up at the visitor, as if to dismiss her. Thank you.” she says, smiling, returning her hands to her lap.  “Can he come back sometime?”

“You’re welcome, “ says the visitor. “And of course! I’ll bring him to see you again.”

The woman smiles as the visitor and the little dog walk away down the hall.

We tend to avoid  people who seem needy,  especially the elderly.  Perhaps we are afraid we can’t help, that we  will become  entangled in their problems, that it will take too much of our time.  But as the little dog knew, people are not always what they seem.  And our gifts do not have to be big ones.  The little dog gave the only thing he had to give, his attention and his love, and it was enough.   In the words of  Mother Teresa, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

 

 

A REQUIUM FOR MY FATHER

Eight days before my 18th birthday, my father took his own life with a pistol to his head.

I was visiting a friend a few miles away.  Around the time
the  event occurred, I experienced a sudden mental shock, something like what you feel when you see an oncoming car in your lane.  We didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call, but when I saw my uncle’s car turn into my friend’s driveway, I knew what had happened.  My father and I were that close.  I walked out, got in the car, and  my uncle and I drove in solemn silence the few miles to our house.

By the time we reached home, the casseroles were already flooding
Country roadin,  dusty pickups crowding the driveway. The ladies of the local Methodist Church were there in force, wielding mops, brooms, and feather dusters.  I knew they came out of love, that someone had to do what they were
doing, but I wanted them all to go home.

Someone had brought my mother a glass of iced tea.  She sat on the porch, motionless,  the glass in her hand, oblivious to  anything around her.  It was she that found my dad.   I gave her a hug; I’m not sure she noticed.

My grandfather was sitting on the front steps talking with some of the men that accompanied the casserole/cleaning women.  He didn’t seem very upset.  I wanted someone to blame, so I blamed him.  It was the first time I saw my mother cry.

The night before,  Nana  had one of her “dreams,images-8” I was told later.  Her “dreams” were always the same.  My grandfather  Robert would come to her in the dream and say one word, only one – the name of one of her sons.  That night it had been my father’s.

It wasn’t until nine years later when I was about to undergo major surgery that I learned my father’s death was suicide.  In our family, if we didn’t talk about it, it didn’t exist.  But now my mother worried that I needed the facts about my medical history.  She had told me it was a heart attack and in fact, had maintained the “heart disease” fiction for years.  It turned out that the “heart disease”  was mostly caused by Old Grandad and Southern Comfort.

After that I slowly began to lose touch with my father’s memories.  It wasn’t a conscious intent.  He was my hero, my cheerleader.  I adored him.  But over the years, I lost his face in the family tableaus.  I see us Mother, Grampa and me, seated at the kitchen table with its worn oilcloth covering, its centerpiece of pepper sauce, tobasco, salt and pepper.  I see Grampa  seated at the head of the table in his caned ladder-back chair.  I hear him mumble the blessing, “Heavenly father, we humbly thank thee for these and all thy blessings.  Humbly beg for Christ’s sake.”   I see us turn our plates over and put our napkins in our laps.  But my father is missing.

I see the church pew on Sunday morning –  Grampa sits next to the window overlooking the picnic grounds.  My mother is in the second row on the other side of the church overlooking the graveyard where she and my father rest side by side now.    I see my cousins in the third row, the crying babies in the back pew, the preacher’s wife in the  center row in front of the alter with its  velveteen kneeler.    But my father is missing.

I see the church socials, the barn dances.  I am there with my friends.  My mother is talking with the community ladies. But my father is missing. He is missing from the Christmas pageant,  my high school graduation,   holiday dinners, my piano recitals.

images-7A few snippets remain; I hear him telling me he loves me more than all the windows in the Sears Tower.  I remember that he always brought me some tiny gift when he came home from work.  Every day. A lollypop, a pretty stone, a flower, always something.  I couldn’t wait for him to come
home.

I want those memories again.  I want to remember all the things people say they loved about him, his humor, his kindness, his creativity.  I wish he had stayed to attend my college graduation, to walk me down the aisle, to know his wonderful son-in-law, to meet his grandchildren.  I grieve for all the Fathers Days we missed. I wish it had been otherwise.  I wish my mother had not been so crushed by the boulders of the fallout, that  her dreams for her future  had not been so cruelly snatched away from her in midlife.

What I feel isn’t forgiveness, exactly.   I don’t know the reasons for his overwhelming despair, the tragic sequence of events that sealed his fate,  the twisted thought process that convinced him that this, his  final act on earth, was the best, the only thing to do.  But  I don’t judge him.  I want him to know that.

And so this is a requiem for my father.  A dirge.  A lament images-4for what might have been.   A plea for his soul, a prayer for his redemption.  A testament of the unconditional love between father and daughter.

 

 

 

 

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