The Christmas Pageant

 

christmas-554720__180I tried to tell Miss Julianne it wouldn’t work. Jimmy don’t have the sense God gave a billygoat. But he begged and whined and went on until she let him try it out at the  rehearsal.

Jimmy are y’all SURE this will work?” she asked, her hands on her hips, looking up into the loft where Jimmy squatted, dangling a rope swing. Miss Julianne is the prettiest lady I ever saw. And just as sweet as she is pretty. She’s got naturally blonde hair which curls all by itself, images-9 she doesn’t even have to use a perm.   She was wearing blue jeans and her husband Ronnie’s old work shirt.  Anyone else would have looked like a hobo, but she looked beautiful.

Jimmy put on that stupid grin of his that makes all the girls swoon, I don’t see why.

“Yes Ma’m” he said, sugar sweet. Don’t you worry a bit. Suellen  is just a little bit of a thing – we’ll just lower her down on this swing, me and  Buddy, when Brother Paul reads the part about the angels coming down and then haul her back up after we sing  Hark the Herod Angels.”

Herald, you idiot, ” I thought.

“You know I  wouldn’t never do nothing to hurt her.  It’ll be great, it’ll imagesbe the best part of the pageant.  You’ll see!”

“Well, Miss Julianne said.  “I still think it worked just fine last year, with us just dimming the lights and the angel climbing a ladder behind the manger. What do  y’all think?” She turned to the rest of us sitting in the pews waiting to practice our parts.

I could tell she was weakening. That’s the only thing about Miss Julianne. Sometimes she can be too nice.

No one said anything.  “Ya’ll, what do you think? “Still nothing.   No one wanted to get into it with Jimmy.

” Well, ” she finally said,  ” We got to make up our mind pretty soon so we can help the Ladies Aid with the decorating. We got a lot to do, we got to decorate the big tree outside, tie bows on all the pews, and clean up before we go. Remember, ice cream at the house for everyone when we get done. “

Wally  was scribbling in his little black notebook which he carries with him  everywhere  and writes down what happens and what he thinks and I don’t know what all. He has a whole shelf in his bedroom full of his crazy notebooks. His mama gets them for him  every Christmas over in Shreveport at Marshalls.  She gets them wholesale  since she owns Portia’s  Blossom Shop.

This year Wally’s a wise man instead of a shepherd like last year. I should of got  Mary, because why?  Because I wouldn’t forget my lines is why.  Last year Miss Julianne had to whisper almost every line to Georgia. At least I thought I should of  got  wise man like Wally. Instead, I had to be a shepherd again and wear a costume made out of a scratchy croaker sack with holes cut out  for the arms.

Miss Julianne doesn’t get to say who gets the parts. The Sunday School teachers all meet and decide the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in secret, so no one can get mad because they don’t like their part. But except for Miss Lavinia, who’s real old and pretty much deaf, they’re all men, so they always pick the prettiest girl, even if she’s dumber than a stump. Which Georgia was. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s true.  She’s just pure D dumb.

So when  Georgia  graduated Junior High last year, which is the oldest you can be and still be in the pageant, I thought sure I had a chance, but this year Betsy got the part. At least Betsy isn’t dumb, but she’s not all that pretty either. I guess the best I can hope for is to make it to wise man next year. I don’t think the Sunday School teachers like me much. They say I ask too many questions, like the time I asked what a virgin is.  Mr Grady got real mad and said I shouldn’t talk like that in Church, and I had to get Wally to tell me.

“Jimmy’s up to something,” I whispered to Wally. ” I can tell by the
way Buddy is squirming around. He never could stand up to Jimmy. Lets him boss him around like he was his daddy or something instead of just his cousin.”

“Afraid of getting beat up, more like, if he won’t do what Jimmy tells him to.”

“But what if  they drop her and she gets hurt?  And who knows what else they’ll drop down out of the loft?  You know rats get up there. ”

He just shrugged. “Everyone knows Jimmy’s got a crush on Suellen. He’s just trying to impress her. But anyhow, it’s none of my never-mind,” he said making that pruney  little face of his.

“O Wally, you make me want to scream.” I hate how uppity he gets sometimes.  I decided if no one else was going to say anything, I ‘d have to. I walked over to where Miss Julianne was standing.

Miss Julianne? I said sweetly.

“Yes, Sugar, what is it?” she said, smiling and putting her arm around my shoulders.

“Miss Julianne, I just think .. “

Jimmy glared down at me from the loft where he squatted dangling the rope.

“I just think you’re right about last year, it was real pretty.  Why do we need to do anything different?”

Jimmy hopped down from the loft and began winding up the rope swing. “What do you know about it, four eyes?” I was the only girl with glasses and all the boys teased me about it. They were pink plastic and  ugly, and I hated wearing them,  but I couldn’t see past my nose without them.

“Now, Jimmy, stop talking like that and let her have her say, too!” Miss Julianne said, the way she can always make us mind without yelling.

Everyone stared at me. I felt like I had forgot to put on my clothes or something. “Well, I mumbled, “I just think it’s dangerous is all.”

Jimmy curled up his lip at me. “You’re just mad cause you have to be a shepherd. You ought to be glad you don’t have to be a sheep no more.”

I wouldn’t admit it, but he was right about the shepherd thing.

“Please, please, please, Miss Julianne,” Jimmy crooned, getting down on his knees and making his hands like he was praying.

“Now, Jimmy,” Miss Julianne said, laughing. Am I gonna have to paddle you again?

He gave her a big hug.

I was sunk.

country churchThe night of the pageant it was cold and sleeting. I had prayed for snow, but just like when I prayed my dog Pepper would get well, it didn’t happen. Mama says the Bible tells us “Ask and ye shall receive,” but so far that’s not working for me. I must be doing something wrong. One day I’ll ask Miss Julianne about it.

The church was full up. People like the Banks who never go to church except on Christmas were there with their whole raggedy family taking up the front pew where my Grampaw always sits. This happens to him every year. He just walked over real slow to where they were sitting and stood there, thumping his cane on the floor.

Pretty soon, Miz Banks looked up and said, “Why hello, Mr. Henry? Would you like to sit here? Betty Sue and Darrell, y’all go sit in the back. Just you set down right here, Mr. Henry. So nice to have you with us.”

Grampaw acted like he never heard a thing she said.  Just walked over to  the window where he always sat and waited for them to make room for him.   He sat down,  wedged his cane between him and Mr. Banks, looked at the Banks bunch like they had cooties (which they probably did) and  stared out the window. I think he sits here so he can see Gramma’s grave, but he’d never say that.

Mama and Daddy couldn’t get to their usual place, so they sat in back by the heater, which was actually better since it was cold in the church.  I ran downstairs to the Sunday School room where everyone was putting on their costumes, carrying a dishtowel and one of Grampaw’s old canes. Mama said she’d make me a costume, so I didn’t have to wear the croaker sack and she can sew anything, but  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

Suellen was prancing around the room in her angel costume, everyone going on about suellenhow pretty she looked. She had on a  white dress with lace ruffles on the bottom lace on the sleeves with white satin slippers to match and was carrying a stupid wand, like she was a fairy godmother instead of an angel, going around tapping everyone on the head and cooing, “Bless you, bless you.” I thought I would throw up. I pushed my way  over to the corner where Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie was images-5helping the little kids into their sheep costumes. The sheep part is the worst because you have to crawl around in a boiling hot costume.  They always give that to the little kids.    They think it’s fun, they don’t know everyone’s laughing at them.

“Hi,” Wally, said, adjusting his turban and brushing his robe.” Want

some help with your costume?”

“I don’t need help, thank you very much,” I grumbled, tying a dishcloth around my head.

“That’s looks real nice” he giggled.

“Shut up,” I said, sticking my arms through the croaker sack. “Shit, his damn thing  scatches!  I said under my breath.

“Cricket!” Wally said, putting his hand over his mouth and giggling. “In the Lord’s House! You’ll go to hell.”

‘Well, if I do, I guess I’ll see you there, Mr. Smarty Pants.”

Mr Ronnie whistled and yelled, “Y’all be quiet, Miss Julienne needs to say something. ”

“I’m so proud of y’all! Miss Julianne said, smiling.  “And I know you’re going to do great.“ Now lets go over the program  just one more time so we’ll be sure.  Everyone get your song sheets. ” Mr. Ronnie was passing out blue mimeograph copies that smelled like vinegar and the purple ink images-4rubbed off on your hands.

“The first one is Silent Night. Now remember everyone sings this one. Then everyone goes behind the curtain except Mary and Joseph.  Betsy, did you bring your doll?”

“Yes’m.  I brought my nicest one, with the China head that I got  last year for Christmas.”

“Oh, Betsy!  You brought you very BEST doll,” Miss Julianne said. Isn’t that NICE, y’all?”

“Next the the wise men sing  We Three Kings of Orient Are and then the shepherds  sing  While Shepherds Watched Their Sheep By Night”  And  I need ALL the wise men and ALL the shepherds singing, not just Wally and Cricket.

“No, you don’t, I thought. Wayne sounds like a dying horse, and Marvin’s tone deaf.”

“Then the congregation will stand and we’ll  all sing the final song Hark the Herald Angels Sing,  while Jimmy and Buddy let Suellen down from the loft.  Just one verse now, of all the songs.  Miss Martha will signal to you when to start and when to stop.”

Miss Martha  smiled and waved her pudgy finger in the air.  Miss Julianne put her hand over her heart. “Now Buddy and Jimmy, ya’ll be real, REAL careful with Suellen. Let’s pray before we go.”

“Good idea, I thought.”

We made a circle, joined our sweaty hands and chanted the Youth Fellowship prayer, “Lord, teach us to so number our days that we might apply unto wisdom.”

“And bless us as we carry thy message though this Christmas Pageant,” Miss Julianne  added. Amen. “

“Amen,” we chorused.

We tromped up the stairs in a line and walked behind the curtain. The church was full and kids was sitting on pallets on the floor, mamas standing holding babies. The church was so pretty;  there was flowers, candles, and big red bows everywhere and it smelled like pine and candle wax.  Buddy and Suellen climbed up the stairs into the loft,  Jimmy behind them. I thought I heard him say to Suellen, “I’ll show you a thing or two, you little tease.”  She hissed something at him, but I couldn’t hear what she said.

“I knew it.!  Why doesn’t anyone believe a thing I say?” I hissed to Wally.

He gave me one of his looks over his glasses. “What’s the matter with you?  Are you still mad about the shepherd thing?”

Before I could answer,  the curtain opened and Miss Martha plopped down on the piano bench. She’s so fat, we always think she’s going to break it  and we all got out our song sheets.  She held up her finger and started playing Silent Night while we all sang. Everyone in the

Chris Phillips, Flickr, Oxford, UK
Chris Phillips, Flickr, Oxford, UK

audience oohed and ahhed over the little kids.  When the wise men came out, Wally was the only one singing, the other two just hanging their heads and sorta mumbling. Wally didn’t seem to notice. When he’s on a stage, Wally’s  in hog heaven.  Next it was our turn, and not only was I the only singing shepherd,  Marvin and Wayne didn’t even know the words.

“This is the LAST time, the VERY LAST time I do this, I thought to myself. It’s hot and I itch all over; besides it’s embarrassing. I’m too old for this.”

And then it was time for the big finish. I felt a lump in my stomach. I knew something was going to go wrong, real wrong, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop it. Mr. Ronnie shined the spotlight up onto the loft where Suellen stood in her angel get-up.  In spite of her stupid wand, she looked look real nice, standing there in her white dress, holding out her arms, her clothes-hanger halo sparkling.

Miss Martha started up Hark the Herald Angels Sing and everyone in the church stood up to sing with us. While we sang, Suellen started to come down from the ceiling on the rope swing – almost like she was floating. Everyone in the church looked up at her like they could hardly believe it. The whole church was quiet.  Miss Julianne was standing off by the curtain, her hand over her heart. I think she was praying. I thought for a minute I may have been wrong. It really was pretty.  But then some of  the boys started giggling. That’s when I knew.

I looked up just in time to see Suellen fall out of the loft into the manger, landing with a big crash right on top of the Baby Jesus doll. Everyone started yelling and going on and Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie went running over to see if Suellen was OK. She was, all except for being fighting mad, scratched up and the sleeve of her angel dress tore plumb off from where she caught it on the manger.   She was sitting up, picking hay from the manger out of her halo and yelling at Jimmy  that she’d get him back for this and he was laughing his head off.   And Betsy was fit to be tied.  “Git off my Doll, “she yelled.

Sure enough the doll’s face was cracked where Suellen fell on top of her and her wand was stuck into the doll’s stomach. The boys was all snickering, Betsy was crying and Miss Julianne was walking around making sure no one was hurt. The people in the church was real quiet.  But then there was another big thunk and  Miss Bernice had fainted dead away in the third pew.  She’s real  bad to take fainting spells if she gets over-excited except Mama thinks she’s just putting on for attention.  Miss Lavinia was fanning Miss Bernice with her handkerchief and Vonda Fay was waving smelling salts over her face,  She uses them in her beauty shop for ladies who fall out from the permanent wave fumes.

Mr. Ronnie came running up onto the stage. “Which one of you knuckleheads done this?” he yelled, looking straight at Jimmy.   Mr. Ronnie is a real nice man as long as you don’t do nothing to make Miss Julianne unhappy. I seen him grab Wilbur Spivey by the neck and throw him out the door of Vickers Newsstand just for cussing where Miss Julianne could hear. I  remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy right now.

Brother Paul was trying to get everyone to be quiet. “Quiet, Brothers and Sisters,” he kept saying. “Be still.   This is the Lord’s house. There is no harm done. Let’s all be seated and have a word of prayer.”

Miss Lavinia and Vonda Faye got Miss Bernice back up on her feet and helped her out on the porch to get some air.  Miss Julianne closed the curtains on the stage. We all looked at her. She looked so sad. I thought sure she was going to fuss at us which I can’t stand. But she  looked back at us for what seemed a long time. Finally   she sorta smiled.  And then she began to laugh. At first we thought she was crying. But when we saw she was laughing, one by one we all started laughing.  She opened the curtains and walked out onto the stage.

“Y’all, she said, still laughing. “I don’t know when I’ve seen such aimages-12
Christmas pageant to beat this one.“ The whole church began to laugh, even Brother Paul. Even Grampaw, who hardly ever laughs. Everyone except for Mr. Ronnie  who was standing in the back of the church with his arms folded over his chest.   After all the laughing died down,  Brother Paul walked up behind the pulpit.

“Brothers and Sisters, “ he said, real serious-like.  “Some of us here tonight have not understood what Christmas is all about and  could have ruined it  for the rest of us with their foolish prank.  Luckily no real harm was done and I am quite sure that those responsible will be held accountable.  Jimmy’s face was redder than Santa’s cap.  But no one can ruin the Christmas story; it’s too powerful.  It’s about turning sadness into joy.  It’s about the love and forgiveness this community have for each other.  Nothing can take the joy of Christmas from us.  And we’ve had plenty of that tonight. Let us pray,” he said. “Let us give thanks to the Lord for a joyful Christmas.”

Death of a Hero

On November 22,  fifty three years ago, our 35th President, John J. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 Dallas time.    If you are over 65, you remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, how you felt, how it affected you.  This was a major even in our nation’s history.   

Lesser known are the effects of  JFK’s assassination on our personal lives.   The story below recounts how the events of that day dramatically changed a young woman’s life.  The photos roughly chronicle the events as they unfolded. 


  “Need these by five,”  my boss mumbled, scattering a stack of files on my desk and lumbering  off, tie askew, trailing a cloud of pipe 3998d8221f810b61e6595d1c4dab8afcsmoke.  I glanced at office clock on the wall above me. It read 12:18 PM.

I nodded; more resigned than annoyed. I had an ambivalent relationship with my boss. He was a great untidy bear of a man, prone to harmless bluster and the sort of absentminded foibles and miscalculations that bring out the maternal instinct in women.  A kind and generous man, he was unfailingly optimistic, well-read and surprisingly intelligent, given his mind-numbing job as Lead Patent Attorney.  I enjoyed long philosophical conversations with him and was flattered that he valued my opinion.  I liked him. I liked working for him.  In fact, I probably had a crush on him.

But Frank Bluxom was not an easy boss. He was hopelessly disorganized and an inveterate procrastinator.  Much of my day was spent looking for things he had misplaced; a file, his pipe, his stapler, even his telephone, which sometimes could only be found by following the cord to where it was hiding beneath a conglomeration of files, crumpled notes, paper clips, pipe tobacco, sometimes even his hat.

True to form, he’d received these patents for review three days ago but had only begun reviewing them this morning.  In retrospect, this should have enraged rather than simply annoyed me.  Reviewing the applications consisted mostly of scrawling comments on the forms, occasionally fortressed with a few hours’ research in the law library.   Completing them on the typewriter, however, was a nerve-wracking challenge in the pre-Xerox, pre-Microsoft world.   For each page, legal sized forms with seven slippery, inky carbon copies had to be assembled into a sandwich, coaxed into the carriage of an electric typewriter and aligned.  Inevitably this precarious assemblage slowly began to separate, breath-holding by heart-sinking bit as it neared the bottom of the page.  Once this happened, erasing was impossible and a single error meant retyping the entire page…. with its copies.I never made it through all the forms without retyping at least one.

My heart sank.  All week I had been looking forward to my Friday shopping trip with my friend Katie. But now it wasn’t going to be possible to finish these files without skipping  lunch and working late.  But far worse, when I arrived home late, I risked  confronting an unpredictable and volatile husband,  angry and suspicious because I was late, his suspicion fueled  by the fact that I received no extra compensation for overtime.   I dreaded the long ride home, standing on the crowded city bus, nauseated by the its jerking motion, enveloped in a cloud of sweat and exhaust fumes.  I obsessively rehearsed in my head my what I would say as I walked in the door, a futile exercise since his  reaction was impossible to predict.  In fact, sometimes  I would be met with a cheery “Hi, Honey, how was your day?”

But not usually.  He could be silent for hours, refusing to eat the dinner I prepared.  It was not uncommon for him to hurl a random object around the room, an ashtray, a book, or worse, if I were late more than an hour, pin me against the wall,  screaming at me for being unfaithful.

I should have been angry. No, I should have quit.  The job AND the images-3marriage.  But I was young and naive.  I didn’t know that I deserved respect.  In my warped perspective, I saw all the abuse in my life as a challenge.  I fancied myself some kind of superwoman.

  I was lost in thought, still hoping  to somehow squeeze in my shopping trip  when Lawler Stevens, the Senior images-2
Partner, suddenly burst through his door, two offices down and declared loudly “The President’s been shot,” in a tone more appropriate to the announcement of a football score.

  The typewriters slowly fell silent as his words sank in.  We sat stunned,  faces frozen inunknown-5 disbelief, the only sound the click of the second hand on the office clock.  Suzanne, at the desk ahead finally broke the silence in a quavering voice, “Mr. Stevens, are you sure? I mean…Shot?!”

Ignoring her, he said tersely, “Everyone in my office.”  

We entered tentatively, like stray dogs sneaking into a house while
the owners were away.  Only Evelyn, his private secretary and the attorneys ever crossed that hallowed threshold. I silently prayed no one would notice my  spike heels, badly in need of caps,  snagging the plush gold  carpet at every step.

Degrees from prestigious universities, awards from prominent legal organizations and commendations from community groups were tastefully framed on the paneled wall behind  Mr. Steven’s enormous mahogany desk, his high-backed leather chair slightly askew where he had hastily abandoned it.

On the credenza behind his desk, a  stereo set was tuned to the local public radio station. Incredibly, it was true. Walter Cronkite was detailing the events in familiar paternal tones as they unfolded.  unknown-9  Drawn by the excitement, people from nearby offices crowded the door, anxious whispers of “What’s going on? What? What happened?” mingled with sobs and murmurs of those inside.  I stood in stunned silence.  My hand went to my mouth to stifle a scream too deep to surface.  Suzanne began to weep.  Evelyn warily observed Lawler Stevens’ increasing discomfort with the show of emotion. A blush of red began spreading over his face. He motioned Evelyn over.

“Get them out of here,” I heard him whisper to her.  “I thought I was doing them a favor, asking them in to hear the news, but I was expecting them to act like adults, for crissake. Bunch of crybabies.  What the hell do they expect, the Kennedys have always been corrupt. Bound to have enemies.”

“But Lawler, I thought you wanted – I mean, the President’s just…”

“I said, “he hissed, “Get. Them. Out. Of. HERE!”

“Oh, Will,” please. “Will,” short for William, Lawler Stevens’ middle name, was Evelyn’s pet name for him. He glowered at her. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of her disobedience or her careless allusion to their poorly kept secret.

She acquiesced. “Hey, everyone,” Evelyn announced in a loud and cheery voice. “This is awful, I know, but Mr. Stevens would like some time by himself right now, it’s been such a shock and all, so if we could just go on back…”

“But the radio.” I began timidly.  Personal radios were not allowed at
our work stations.

Stevens, now seated at his desk, glowered at me, “It’s not the goddamn end of the world,” he growled.  “At least we didn’t lose a Republican.  Now, we have deadlines and I intend to see that we meet them. And that means YOU need to meet YOURS!”  He slammed a bulging file on his desk and began untying its leather ties.

Frank Bluxom lumbered obediently out of the office, head down, rumpled suit jacket askew,  a rag-tag parade of subdued attorneys and stunned secretaries following.   I walked slowly,  anger rising in my chest, to my scarred office desk with its rump sprung typing chair, no longer caring whether my heels snagged the expensive carpet.

The phone was ringing as I sat down. It was Katie. “Did you HEAR?” Katie worked in the Marketing Department five floors above.

“Yes.”

“Oh Annie, our poor country.” She was crying.unknown-7

“I know,” I said. “I can’t work.”

“Neither can I. Shopping is out anyway, let’s just go for a quick smoke. I have a transistor radio.”

We walked past the gleaming steel walls of the lobby, through thick glass doors, pulling our sweaters around us against the chill of the brisk November morning. The sun reflecting off the metal towers of Hammond Steel International created pools of shimmering light on the nearby lake.   We meandered through manicured rows of native wildflowers meticulously maintained by the Botanical Society to our favorite bench beside the lake.  Open to the public, Hammond Gardens was widely touted as a major cultural contribution to the community and a lavish gift to Hammond’s 3000+ employees.  However, the gardens were seldom visited by Hammond employees, a testimony to the disconnect between the Hammond Board and its employees.

The details of the conversation between Katie and me that November day are buried under decades of memories. I suspect we just sat with each other, trying to make out Walter Cronkite’s voice on Katie’s crackling transistor radio, crying and hugging each other, fearing for our country. Mourning the loss of our President, our hero, the loss of Camelot, the death of a dream.  That mourning, that morning, I do remember. Remember it well.

I lost more than a national hero that day.  My lifelong assumption that ours was a country set apart, safe and secure, immune and unconnected to war and misery in distant countries, that comforting blanket of naivety, was rudely and irretrievably ripped from me.         That day images-4represents for me the first crack in the facade of  national  innocence.    But it was only a crack. We clung to our fragile illusion; we wanted to believe it.  It was so much easier to believe that truth is either black or white than to bother with the shifting grey shades of reality.  We wanted to believe that good people who play by the rules will always win, and that bad people, and only bad people will be tracked down and punished.  We wanted; we thought we had, a “Gunsmoke” kind of world.

We clung to the hope that this horrible day was a rare anomaly, that things would soon return to “normal.”  After all, after Lincoln’s assassination, the country didn’t fall apart, did it?  But sadly and images-5soon, other wrenching losses followed on our heartbreaking journey to our national  loss of innocence.

And the terrifying events of the day jarred me into seeing my own world through different eyes.   I’d always admired the attorneys I worked for. This was my first job after high school.  could hardly believe my good fortune to work for, even to know, such important people. They led the kind of lives I’d only read about in books.  They had Ivy league educations, belonged to the Country Club, had addresses that ended in Avenue, Court, Circle, Blvd., not, as in my case, Apt No.

Until that day, Lawler Stevens, in particular, was to me the embodiment of the American Dream.  Athletic and tanned with a tumble of thick sandy hair above a high forehead, he was handsome in the casual way of those born to privilege. His suits were custom tailored, his ties silk, and he wore a Rolex.   As an undergraduate, he was a member of the prestigious Harvard rowing team.  He graduated Yale Law School at the top of his class and reportedly had a IQ in the 140s. He had a six figure income, a beautiful wife who frequented expensive spas, scorned costume jewelry and drove a red Alpha Romeo convertible.  He had two children in private school and a summer home in the Hamptons.  He drove a Jaguar.

I, on the other hand, graduated from a small rural high school in the rural South and my entry level secretarial position paid slightly over minimum wage.  My husband was a poorly educated and frequently unemployed blue collar worker.  My children-to-be would attend public schools. I took the bus to work. I had no clue what my IQ was, or really even WHAT an IQ was.

I can’t say that November 21, 1963 had an immediate effect on my world view.   But it was a crack in the facade, a rip in the fabric.  I began to see that heroes were vulnerable.  That people could hate my heroes.   And by observing their self-centered and callous reactions to a tragic event for our nation,  I began to see that all powerful people were not heroes.  Certainly Lawler Stevens was not. He was so arrogant to be oblivious of history happening in front of him.  He was a fool.

And the other attorneys had done nothing this day or any other to oppose Lawler’s outrageous demands and insensitive treatment of his employees. They colluded in covering up his affair with his secretary, which in those days could have been grounds for his dismissal and certainly hers, since Hammond’s  President and Founder, Henry Hammond was staunchly Mormon.  They gossiped about Stevens in hushed whispers behind his back and curried his favor in his presence. Given the opportunity, they would have stepped over his body without a backward glance in their race to grab power for themselves.

Even my teddy bear of a boss, I had to admit, was no friend.  He saw nothing disrespectful in delaying his work until the last minute, unfairly pressuring me to compensate for his procrastination and disorganization.  If he had any appreciation of the difficulty of my job or the stress he subjected me to, he never acknowledged it.  My completed work was usually met with a muffled “Mfffph” or no comment at all as he walked away with the files, puffing on his pipe.   When I confided in him my dream of continuing my education, he actively opposed it.

“What are you thinking?” he bellowed in disbelief. The other secretaries stopped their typing and looked up.

“You couldn’t compete with those students!  They’re 10 years younger and graduated from expensive prep schools!  Why they’d eat you alive!” Noticing my hurt and disappointment, he quickly added.  “It’s just that I’d hate to see you get hurt like that.”

Fighting back tears, I slunk back to my desk.  All eyes were on me, wide with pity.  It was mortifying, but also motivating. It was soon after that I seriously began plans to continue my education.  It would be a long, torturous path, but his callous disdain had given me the push I needed.  In retrospect, I doubt that his reaction was about me at all.  I suspect he knew his chances of replacing me with someone as competent that would also indulge his outrageous behavior were slim to none.  It took a while, but finally – I quit that job. And entered the university.

Everyone knows exactly where they were at 12:30, Dallas time, November 22, 1963.  In moments such as these we are shaken into reality, forced to evaluate our priorities.  In the view of many, that day  marks the end of our innocence as a nation.   And for me and perhaps others, in facing the loss of a true hero, we gained courage to re-evaluate our priorities and to honor our own integrity.unknown-1

Flattened

unknownBlind-sided, thunderstruck, ambushed, stunned,  floored flummoxed.  Just flattened.  By what’s just happened in our country – no, not what  just happened – what just surfaced.

As my genteel cousin put it, “Surely not?”  Exactly.  Surely we are not the people screaming racist epithets, intimidating  children, advocating jail for our  rivals.  We are not the people that believe  silencing those who don’t look like us oreuters-porland-oregon-anti-trump-protestr believe like us will solve our problems.  We are not the people who obsessed on the media’s  24/7 shouting matches, while shaking our heads about the ugly campaign.  We don’t  riot
in the streets after an election and burn the President Elect in effigy.  We can’t be those people.  And yet we are.

Until November 9, I carefully sidestepped awkward social and political conversations.  After all, everyone’s entitled to her/his own opinion, right? And what does it matter really?   Things will go on pretty much as they always have no matter what I do, right?   So why risk damaging a friendship, causing a ruckus. Why be “that” woman?  I really didn’t know what my friends, my neighbors, even some of my family, believed at a core level,  didn’t really want to know, and  didn’t  share my own opinions.   We  coexisted; polite and superficial  strangers under the skin.  So when November 8 happened, we were amazed to find out who was living next door, or even in our own house!

It’s pretty clear   we don’t understand each other.  Perhaps we don’t really understand ourselves.   Hopefully the 2016 election will inspire us to learn more about  ourselves and our government and moreover,  to become involved in our communities.   We can learn to images-1listen respectfully to each other with no other agenda.  We can  have discussions that don’t deteriorate into  shouting matches.    Ideas that challenge us are healthy precisely because they make us uncomfortable.  They stretch us and keep us growing.

On the morning of November 9, I began  a one woman listening campaign. I talked  to neighbors on my morning walk.  I listened to  members of my church, to my family, to  my Facebook and Twitter friends.  And I  heard some surprising things.  Some not easy for me to hear.   But my friendships were not threatened.  In fact, just the opposite.  After all, we all want to have our voices heard.

I  know the fluttering of the butterfly wing in my tiny corner of the ranunculus-aconitifolius-1548312__480universe cannot influence world events.  But just as one vote makes a difference, so does one honest conversation.

So let’s talk!  Leave a comment.    Tell us what the  2016 election meant for you.    Who knows?   We might not be as far apart as we thought.  At the very least, we are sure to learn more about our own beliefs.

 

 

 

 

Just Do It!

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If you’re like me, by now you’re wishing this election campaign was over, or better yet had never started in the first place.   We all have opinions and theories, disappointments, predictions and concerns around any election, but this one is different.  It would be easy to become so frustrated and confused that we consider skipping the whole thing.    But at the end of the day, the important, the crucial thing is to JUST DO IT,  in the familiar words of the Nike slogan.   Important for all of us, but especially for any of us  who have felt the pain of having our voices ignored or discounted,  in other words, for most women at some point in their lives.     Even now.    And it’s not so long ago that women’s voices were not only ignored, they were suppressed.

imagesTo put it in  perspective:

Freed male slaves were  granted the vote in 1845.*    The Nineteenth Amendment  granted women the right to  vote in 1920.

And here’s another shocker:    In 1923, the National Women’s Party proposed a Constitutional amendment, eventually known as the Equal Rights Amendment to  prohibit all discrimination on the basis of sex.

It  has Never Been Ratified.   

The women’s suffrage movement in America began in New York  in 1848,  led by well-known early pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their enormous sacrifices and their perseverance to achieve for us a right we often take for granted, if we think about it at all.

However, there is another compelling and little known tale of struggle and dedication to suffrage in Mississippi. By 1820, a  growing number of southern women in Mississippi  had mobilized to improve social and educational conditions for women and children and the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed.  In 1890,  The Mississippi Constitutional Convention seriously considered granting women the right to vote.  Sadly, the proposal died in committee by a single vote.

But it was not over.

Nellie Nugent Somerville(1863 – 1952) Courtesy Mississippi Dept of Archives and History
Nellie Nugent Somerville(1863 – 1952) Courtesy Mississippi Dept of Archives and History

In the 1890s the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association,  under the leadership of Nellie Nugget Somerville,  began efforts to gain the vote in Mississippi.  The fledgling movement floundered in spite of heroic  efforts by the suffragists.  Facing fierce opposition by the legislators,  by the 1900s they had almost given up.  In 1906, Belle Kearney,  a compelling professional speaker,  breathed life into the nearly moribund movement and gradually the suffragists regained momentum.  However, they could not win  over the
necessary majority of state legislators,  and the state suffrage campaign of 1914 failed.  Legislators declared that woman suffrage was “not in the best interest of Mississippi women, that women should remain ‘queen of the home and hearthstone.'”

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Belle Kearney (1863 – 1939) Photo from her autobiography, A Slaveholder’s Daughter.

But it was not over.

In 1918, a state suffrage amendment was once again introduced and received a tie vote, insufficient to  meet the required two-thirds majority.   In 1919  a resolution was introduced to reject the amendment as “unwarranted, unnecessary and dangerous interference with state’s rights.”  The rejection resolution was approved by a vote of 106 to 25.  At this point, many of the suffragists left the movement in despair.

But it was not over.

By now the Nineteenth Amendment  had been ratified by 35 states and some Mississippi senators felt the state must do likewise for the sake of the Democratic Party.  The bill was recalled, amended to read “ratify” rather than “reject” and the bill passed the Senate.

But it was not over

The House  rejection was swift and decisive. As one legislator put it, he would rather “die and go to hell” than vote for it.  The amendment went down  90 to 23.

But it was not over.

By 1920, Mississippi was only one of two states in the nation that had not ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.  However,  as a federal law, it superseded the state law and provided women the vote. Ironically, two years later, Mississippi’s two leading suffragists, Somerville and Kearney, were elected to the state legislature, surviving the battles and winning the war.

The State of Mississippi finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment  with no opposition on March 22, 1984. Neither  Kearney nor Somerville lived to see the ratification.

But it was over at last.

So, just in case you were thinking about giving Election Day a pass this time, please take a minute to remember the struggles of our Foremothers on our behalf.vote-661888__180

Go Vote.

Just Do It!

____________

*The bill was ratified, but not enforced until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Source:   Marjorie Julian Spruill and Jesse Spruill Wheeler, Mississippi Women and the  Woman Suffrage Amendment,  Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Historical Society 200-2015.   http://bit.ly/2fvviLw

 

 

 

 

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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