The Road Ends

I wonder if anyone really truly believes this.   So easy to buy into the lie that life is like a racetrack, a seemingly endless series of laps, a delusion
fueled by a culture that worships youth and marginalizes its elders.

 

I remember rolling my eyes when my mother and her friends launched into a  litany of aches, pains and  funeral reviews. I vowed I would never allow my world to shrink so small, become so focused on myself.  I would be involved with life – would have far more important things to think about.

But to my chagrin, I find myself actively participating in these conversations with my friends nowadays. It is, after all, what is happening to us.  One more thing to add to my list of things I vowed I would never do.

What I hadn’t counted on about growing old is that nothing  stays the
same for very long.  Some days are full of hope and good fortune.  I am brimming over with gratitude for my friends, my family, my reasonably good health.  Other days it takes all the strength I can summon to put one foot in front of the other, to stay the course.

If we haven’t learned life lessons along the way, if we don’t have friends and loved ones around us, if we don’t have creative outlets that give us joy, God help us.  Because the older we get, the larger the challenges, the bigger the losses, the less we control.

Living a successful old age is hard work, in my opinion.  I need all the resources I can muster.   But no matter what my situation,  I am in charge of the path I take.  I always have choices.

And in the final analysis, it’s  not that the road ends, it’s where it ends that matters.

 

 

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death

Lately I find myself thinking about death a lot.  Not in a morbid sense, just reflecting on the reality of it.  The necessity of death for the rebirth of spring.  The triumph of spring over the desolation of winter.

I’m not afraid of death, exactly. I’m not eager for it, but it’s harder to “fit in” to the world around me now and I don’t want to outlive my expiration date.   I’m just not finished yet, there is still more to do, more to be.

This surprises me.  By now I expected to  be wise, surefooted and  content to sit placidly with a cat or two, awash in memories of a life well lived.

Guess not.  Maybe in a year or two.

 

Image by joangonzalez from Pixabay

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A SOUTHERN WOMAN?

 

A question I’ve been asking my entire life and I’m not alone.  A Google search will return over 175,000 hits.  Sadly, while they promise to dispel  the myth of the Southern Belle,  most characterizations eventually come down to  sweet tea, southern accents, good manners, football and looking pretty with little attention to intellect.  In other words, the Southern Belle.

I never bought this, and though I tried to be a southern belle in my teens, I could never quite make it work.  And frankly, I don’t know that many southern belles.  In my experience, the Southern Belle is just someone we made up to avoid the southern reality.

I always knew there was something else, something achingly beautiful and tragic that southern souls are compelled to share in spite of their differences.  An elusive fragrance in the air, a whisper in the trees, a ghostly sprit in the bayous.  Ingrained in childhood, handed down through generations, clinging to us tighter than skin.    An elaborately crafted mantle designed to hide something dangerous.  Something I couldn’t name.

But I think I  know what it is now.  It’s our heritage;  the legacy of the Civil War.  A war predicted to last a few months, that raged on for four years, taking the lives of 620,000 American men, more than all the wars to follow combined; approximately 20% of them under the age of 18.

 And at the end,  for the South, there was bitter defeat and a legacy of shame, poverty and rage

Atlanta in ruins

Wounded and weary, fathers, sons and husbands, reviled and shunned,straggled home to homes and crops devastated in the path of the war, while northern soldiers returned to a hero’s welcome to homes untouched by war for the most part, with fanfare.

Salt in wounds already festering.  And yes, the slaves were freed, but with no support, no access to the tools they needed to prosper.  Free,  but not equal.  And so the war ended long ago but the struggle continues. No wonder there is such free-floating rage in Southerners. It is rage born of grief that has nowhere to go but inside.

State sovereignty is sometimes offered as a righteous rationale for the war, and it’s tempting to cling to this slender reed.  But the Civil War was about slavery and all of us bear the responsibility for it.  Slavery existed in all 13 colonies prior to the Civil War. My ancestors owned slaves.  Black people owned slaves as did American Indians.   But none of this matters.  Slavery is wrong. Just wrong.

But before I get too sanctimonious I realize I cannot know what I would have believed, or what I would have done, in a time when slavery was the acceptable norm.  I can only hope I would have had the clear-minded courage to speak my truth.

I take some solace in the knowledge that not all legacies of the Civil War were bad. The southern woman rose from its ashes.   Left with farms and businesses to run and  children to raise, they had to be strong to survive.  They  relied on each other;  they formed strong  communities.  Their faith was their only source of  hope through terrible loss and deprivation.  They had to be resourceful to provide for their  basic needs; they made clothing and quilts from draperies, feed sacks, scraps from worn out clothing. Together they birthed their children and buried their dead.   Food was scarce, they had to raise their own; they became expert gardeners and didn’t flinch at killing a chicken or butchering a hog.  They were recyclers before there were recycling bins. The land and its creatures provided their needs and so were respected;  they were environmentalists before Greenpeace.  They found beauty to ease their harsh lives in the things they had;  a rose, a treasured teacup, a button from a favorite dress.

So it’s not surprising that southern women are strong, that they are passionate about family and community.  That they are unapologetic about their religious faith and famous for their elegant quilts, their welcoming homes, their sumptuous recipes and lush gardens.  That they value hard work and frugality.

These are the Southern women I know.

It’s true, you’ll know a Southern woman by her accent and colorful turn of phrase.  She has good manners and  she won’t leave home without her makeup.   But she is made of stronger stuff.  Much stronger.

 

 

 

Who’s Yo GrandMama?

Visiting Grandma by Felix Schlesinger

Lately I have  become obsessed with my maternal ancestors.  Not in a genealogical sense – I really don’t care whether I am related to anyone famous or have royal blood,  and the proportion of my DNA originating in Scotland, Italy or England  is of no interest to me. So I won’t be ordering the kit

It’s not the DNA, but the lives of these women that fascinate me.   Since there was no birth control  and children were valued as workers, it was not uncommon for women to have 10 or more surviving children; most lost at least one to sickness. Moreover,  because of the physical demands on their bodies and lack of access to medical care, death in childbirth was common.  Surviving husbands in need of help with their households remarried as quickly as they could, bringing their children with them, creating small communities.   All of this in an environment facing epidemics of Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever without antibiotics, immunizations or dentists.  And don’t forget wars.  One of my grandmothers (3rd great 1775-1824)  lost a father and brother in a Tory raid and grandsons to the Civil War.

Life was tough.  But they rose to the challenge, there was no other choice.

 

 

As I sit here in my air-conditioned living room, typing on my wireless laptop, drinking coffee from Columbia, it is almost impossible to imagine how my great grandmothers began their days.   At my age, if she lived that long, she was likely living with a daughter and her family and if healthy enough, charged with the care of the smallest children and the family mending. Breakfast would have consisted of food raised on their farm or bartered with neighbors, and depending on their economic situation, could have ranged from sausage and eggs to corn mash. There was no  radio, tv, household appliances or indoor plumbing.  Access to books was limited, often to a worn copy of The Bible  and most women never completed high school. Nearest neighbors were miles away and a letter could take a month to arrive.

Last week I had a melt-down over the internet service.  Admittedly, it was stressful, maddening, and ate up most of the day.  But really?  Internet?  This is a  problem my grandmother could only have dreamed about.

My grandmothers were hardly saints, as I well know from family stories.   I’m sure they complained about their hard lives. I could never agree with some of their beliefs, but  they were women of strong convictions and the determination and courage to stand by them.  The more  I learn more about them, the more grateful I am for their examples and humbled by the grace with which they lived their difficult lives.

So the next time I’m tempted to go rogue over some minor discomfort, I plan to stop and consider what my grandmothers’ response might be.

I hope it’s in the genes.

 

 

 

You Know You’re in the South When….

 

 You order iced tea and your server responds, “Sweet or unsweet?

A stranger strikes up a conversation with you at the produce counter and you don’t look for the manager.

It’s hard to find parking in the church parking lot on Sunday.

The ONLY dressing is cornbread dressing.

 

The  “ballgame” means football.

 

 

Mama is a force to be reckoned with.

 

Men look forward all year to a weekend on a freezing lake in an outrageous contraption hoping to bag a duck or two.

If you visit, you have to eat.

 

And family is forever.

 

 

 

 

Storytellers

I come from a long line of Storytellers.  If I asked my mother what day of the week Christmas fell on this year,  her answer might take a few minutes as she reckoned it against the events of  last year.

“It was on a Wednesday last year, I know that, because  I remember thinking I wouldn’t have to iron that week, Wednesday being my ironing day.  And I know it was last year because that’s when  Emma’s grandbabby was born.  Poor little tyke  had to have an operation of some kind.  I forget now.  Had to be in the hospital for several daysstoryteller and Emma was just beside herself.  I had to go over and help her with the housecleaning, she was so upset.  She had all that company, all the way from Oklahoma, you know.  Her two brothers, Pete and Buddy, and their wives and five kids, the oldest only seven,  her great Aunt Mary,  in a wheelchair, and Aunt Mary’s lapdog.  Meanest little cuss you ever saw.    All of them there to see the baby.   It was a crowd, I’ll tell you that.  Poor little tyke.  But  he’s OK now, you’d never know anything happened. Such a pretty baby.  And smart as a whip.   Emma’s so proud.

So since it was Wednesday last year, it must be on a Thursday this year.”

If all of that sounds a little convoluted and tedious, you don’t come from a family of Storytellers.    Nothing happens in isolation to a Storyteller.

“The Wreck At Sugarmill Junction”  is inspired by an accident that happened in a small town near my home in Louisiana. The accident itself was unremarkable. Nothing much more than a slightly damaged squad car.  What interested me was that no one who witnessed the accident saw the same thing. Not even close.   But even more intriguing was the Storytellers’  strong sense of place.  Each identified themselves in unique relationship to their community, relating the story in the context of the place and people they knew.  The Storytellers  savored, almost seemed to taste, each detail in their narrative.  In the long years away from home, I had forgotten about the Storytellers’ version of the news.   I was spellbound,  a child again, for a moment in time,  hypnotized by the lyrical cadence of the speech, the escalating excitement as the story approached its apogee,  the dramatic conclusion, the inevitable coda, “Oh, and another thing…”

Storytellers cannot be rushed.  They require a peaceful setting.  A porch swing accompanied by mending and fresh lemonade is ideal, but a vegetable garden or a kitchen will do.   Storytellers do not frequent Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The story is based on fact,  but details can be altered if need be to make the point.   Truth, not fact,  is what Storytellers are about.

And my mother’s storytelling; while mixing biscuit dough, hanging clothes on the clothesline, sewing, picking peas from the garden;  in the midst of life is where I learned our family history.  Here is where I met my ancestral heroes and villains (in Mother’s opinion), learned about my grandmother’s struggles in the Great Depression, and her mother’s difficult life in the “War Between the States.”  Here is where I formed my concept of right and wrong, good and bad, what is acceptable behavior and what is definitely not.

My mother worked hard.  There were no vacuum cleaners, automatic dryers, microwaves or air conditioners.  Our food came mostly  from our gardens and stockyards, not the local A&P.    My clothing did not come from Neiman Marcus, my mother sewed it on a vintage Singer sewing machine.   She did not have the luxury of sitting down every morning with a Moleskin journal and a pretty pen to write her memoirs.  Her stories were her memoir.

I am afraid we’ve lost the art of storytelling.   At the least, it’s a dying art. In our large cities, the people, places and things around  us  provide little more than a backdrop for our busy lives. We rush past traffic accidents with no thought for the victims, more than a little annoyed that we’ll be late for whatever seems crucial at the time.  We read in “bytes.”  I wonder how War And Peace  would make it in our “Haiku world”.  But there’s no chance of turning back the clock, and the idea of that is no doubt better that the reality.  But, every now and then, I just need to listen to a Storyteller.

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Look for The News from Sugarmill Junction, Chapter 3, coming soon.