Flying Toward Forever by Marla Cantrell

Eunice Iola Mondier was my grandmother. Small and short and black-headed, with crystal blue eyes, she attended the Second Baptist Church. She sold Beauty
A person sitting on the ground in front of water.Counselor makeup. Even then, when I was a girl, I felt as if she should have attended the much bigger First Baptist Church, as if she should have sold Avon cosmetics. Those were names a person could get behind; they were A-list material. At least that’s what I thought when I was all of nine years old.
Which is a nice way to say that my family was very nearly poor and not well connected, which seemed at the time to
matter more than almost anything else.
Not that she ever said that to me. Her life suited her just fine. She wore old clothes and drove quick new cars in bright colors with wide racing stripes. She wore big straw hats and spent afternoons fishing. She got her hair done on Fridays and spent the rest of the week sleeping with a pair of satin panties on her head to keep her up-do up.
My best friend’s grandmother wore a bun, made her own clothes, and baked like she was getting graded on it. What she talked about, when I sat at her cozy kitchen table, was the weather.
My own grandmother defied storms, standing in front of her picture window as lightning struck, as hail pelted the catalpa tree, as thunder shook her little house.
You don’t learn to crochet from a grandmother like mine. You don’t learn to bake, or clean, or do cross stitch.
I did learn from her, though. She taught me the books of the Bible when I was in her Junior Sunday school class and gave me a religious charm bracelet as a reward. She picked up a raft of kids on her way to church, from places that made our trailer, that we’d parked right behind Grandma’s house, look palatial. She sang in the choir, her alto voice so low that it verged on being bass.
At home, she talked back to soap operas and indulged in a little gossip, both things my parents disapproved of. But she also took in her full-grown nephew after he suffered a brain injury that made living alone impossible. What I remember most was how she seemed to delight in him, and in doing so he got a lot better than anyone expected him to.
When I got engaged at a ridiculously young age, she kept her mouth shut and bought me a can opener. “Man’s gotta eat,” she said, and that’s all she said. Later, when the marriage failed, she told me about her first love, Alonzo Willett. I had seldom heard his name, even though he was my grandfather. The story of his treatment of my mother and grandmother was cautionary and filled with so much pain it rarely got told. But on this day she said, “There’s no love like your first love, and he was mine.”
The statement solidified everything I knew to be true about my grandmother. She was not easy to pigeonhole. She taught Sunday school, but smoked clandestinely, a big no-no in the Baptist faith. She shunned divorce but had gotten one from Alonzo in the 1930s when her community considered it treachery to do so. She remarried a saint of a man soon after, someone she loved dearly, and when he died, she went out and found a third husband. “If something happens to him,” she said, once, her head held high, “I’ll go get me another one. I can’t live without a man.”
As far as I know my grandmother never wrote anything other than a few letters, so I don’t get my writing gene from her. And she didn’t read excessively. A few magazines, the Bible, her Sunday school lesson. She had a collection of Reader’s Digest condensed books that did little more than frustrate me, so I didn’t get my incessant need for stories from her either. I don’t think I got my brains from her either. She was a dozen times smarter than I will ever be.
I like to believe I got a dose of kindness from her, but I might be flattering myself. I do know that I’m glad she wasn’t the pie-baking, hand-sewing, fairy tale-reading grandmother I thought I wanted when I was younger. She was tough like cowboys are tough, and soft they way women whose hearts are broken early sometimes are. When I think of her now, it is always when she is behind the wheel, her foot hard on the gas pedal, her eyes just barely scaling the top of the steering wheel. I want her to slow down, but she can’t, and so keeps going, until the road turns to silver beneath her and the sky opens up and takes her away.

On Being a Southern Writer by Marla Cantrell

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.
I was born in Phoenix on a day so hot even the desert sighed. It feels like a small misstep, this beginning in Arizona, so far from
my parents’ people in the hills of Arkansas. They had moved to Phoenix a few years before so my daddy could find work, because times were hard in the South at that time. And they did prosper, but they did not thrive.
It was made right the year I turned six, when we moved home. By then my mama, an only child, was aching for her own mama, was overcome by the promise of snow in winter, blackberries in spring, and thunderstorms that blew up an afternoon, that punctuated a solitary night that had been unremarkable until the first round of thunder drove her from her bed, caused her to bound to the porch where she watched the lightning battle an invisible army in the inky, rumbling sky.

I have heard other people’s stories of finding home. Of how, after deplaning in New York City, they were able to navigate the great city as if they’d spent their entire life there. I have a friend who moved all the way to New Zealand to find home, there by the ocean, in a place so glorious she feels as if her life has been restored twelve times over.

My parents’ decision to return to the South brought me to my own home. I remember stepping out of the station wagon at my grandma’s house after traveling more than a thousand miles. I remember taking off my shoes and feeling the dew on the thick grass, seeing the bright blue sky above me, hearing birds call out from a nearby pecan tree. I don’t know what paradise is to you, but I have never come closer than that moment.

There is music everywhere in the South. Bluegrass bands show up on town squares, unbidden, and perform for passersby. Families get together on front porches to sing country music, to sing gospel. There are harp singers who congregate in wooden buildings, using nothing but their voices in an art form older than the hills. As a child, just after arriving in Arkansas, I sat amongst pews of worshippers at a tiny Baptist church. They sang with the gliding vowels of all southerners, with the languid ending to words, dropping “g’s” as easily as dropping quarters in the collection plate.

On the stereo late at night, my parents listened to Johnny Cash and Roger Miller and Tammy Wynette. On Saturdays when my uncle visited, full of liquor, his tongue loose, he’d tell stories so rich and full they seemed to play out as cinematically as any movie. Before he’d call a cab to leave, he’d try to climb atop our gentle horse, Candy, the attempt both slap-stick funny and heartbreaking all at once.

I spent my childhood summers, beginning when I was six years old, working on farms, picking strawberries first and then tomatoes and bell peppers, as the season progressed. I hoed soybeans before any of us knew how good they were for our health. There, in the fields, I met workers from deep in the hills, whose lives depended on abundant crops and backbreaking work. They told stories of love gone wrong, time in the slammer, the inescapable pull of get-rich-quick schemes. When they talked, I felt as if I was opening other people’s mail, as if I was eavesdropping, and it thrilled me to be privy to this adult world, to these great voices of the South.

These are the people I think of today when I write. The church people in their pressed clothes, the women in tight curls, the men with hair slicked back, solemn, hopeful. My uncle, wrecked by alcohol, and fueled by stories. The field hands, tied to the earth in a way I seldom see today, betting on a better day, even though the odds were against them. I close my eyes and hear their voices, that lyrical sound that is better than any concert. I remember, and I wait for inspiration to hit. It always does. This place, my home, hasn’t failed me once. I work every day to return the favor.
Marla Cantrell is the managing editor/lead writer for Do South Magazine in Arkansas. Each month she publishes a short story in Do South, along with several other articles. She’s won several awards, including a 2014 Arkansas Arts Council Award for Short Fiction. Her fiction has been published in several magazines and anthologies. You can follow her on Twitter at @SouthernPencil.

To read a few Marla’s short southern stories, click on the links below. (Each month she publishes a new short story for Do South Magazine. Be sure to check in regularly for those.)

Carry Me Over:
As Long As You Remember:


Congratulations to Marla Cantrell, recently awarded the Arkansas Art Council’s Individual Artist Fellowship for her work in short fiction. These prestigious fellowships enable artists to devote creative time to their arts.A person sitting on the ground in front of water.

Marla grew up in the River Valley and writes about Arkansas’ people, heritage and culture. About the award, Marla says, “I am so honored to receive this fellowship and to represent Arkansas and the River Valley in our state’s artist community. Arkansas, with its beauty, culture and rich history, is the thread that runs through my fiction, and I’m so proud to be part of the art community of this great state.â€

Earlier this year, Marla also won first place in the White County Writers Contest at the 2014 Arkansas Writers’ Conference. A prolific writer, Marla has been published in Show Off Anthology,, Deep South Magazine,, Long Story Short, , Word Haus, and the Center for Writing Excellence, 3rd Annual Fiction Anthology. Marla is Managing Editor of Do South Magazine, where she is often a featured author.

Congratulations, Marla. You do Southern Women proud! Keep your great stories coming our way!

More about Marla, her work and the Individual Artist Fellowship can be found at her website, Southern Pencil