An inheritance is what you leave with people.
A legacy is what you leave in them.
As a child, I remember thinking it was weird that the Easter Bunny brought eggs. And exasperating that no one else thought that was a bit strange. Being the person in the family responsible for snatching
eggs from beneath cranky setting hens, I knew for sure where eggs came from.
Turns out, though, there really is a logical explanation for the egg-bearing bunny. According to Wikipedia, German Lutherans apparently established the tradition of the “Easter Hare.”
But far from the cuddly bunny with big pink ears, the original Easter bunny (after all these were not only Lutherans, but GERMAN Lutherans) was actually a stern judge-bunny, dispensing his coveted eggs only to those children who had been good over the Lenten season.
And as for the eggs, early churches abstained from them during Lent. And lacking refrigeration, the only way to keep them from spoiling was to boil them so they could eat them after the fast was ended. And they probably decorated them as part of the celebration. So that explains a lot.
But I still find an Easter bunny (especially a chocolate one) distracting to the Easter message of resurrection and hope. I don’t think the idea of the Easter bunny is harmful to children; I just think it shortchanges them because it misses the life-giving Easter message of hope; the gift of new beginnings,
I don’t have fond memories of the annual Easter egg hunt, where my basket always needed help from the Sunday School teacher. In retrospect, I know this was because of my uncorrected myopia, but still, I think I would have preferred to learn about the Easter Lily.
I 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, 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 be 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.
The 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 how 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 helping 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 rubbed 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
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 a
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.”
It is early morning and I watch the sun rise over the lake from a sagging settee on the sleeping porch. Our Boston Terrier, Jake
peacefully naps at my feet. As I sip my morning coffee, I watch his rhythmic breathing punctuated now and then by a twitch of his ears, a muffled yip or a brief pummeling of his legs. Maybe he dreams of chasing a squirrel or a cat. Maybe he doesn’t dream at all. I wish I knew. I wish he could tell me.
Our house is on a cove. which this morning I share only with nature’s creatures, or more accurately, they share with me. A great white heron perches on a rock, his large round body impossibly balanced on one long thin leg. A school of ducks fat from the bread we feed them paddle languidly by and assorted songbirds compete for air space. An occasional bird of prey soars overhead in search of food. Today there are only buzzards and hawks but on rare occasions, we see golden eagles. I wonder why we revere hawks and eagles, and find their buzzard relatives disgusting. I wonder if buzzards know this. I wonder if Eagles do.
The loblolly pines on the distant banks are a blue-green blur in the morning light. One by one, lights appear in houses along the shore as daybreak approaches. A lone fishing boat advances slowly from the far side of the lake, the sounds of its outboard motor growing louder as it nears. I watch it come closer, its metal hull slapping on the waves, a flag of Louisiana fluttering from a standard. It is a bass boat, rigged out for serious fisherman. Its occupants are visible now, two young men in camouflage hats and gear. Seeing me, they wave, and I wave back as they veer into the main channel of the lake, headed for the fishing grounds.
The statue-still heron on the rock cocks his head sidewise, and although I cannot see it, I know that his steely, menacing eye is intently following the movement of an unsuspecting fish below the water’s surface. He holds his preposterous pose perfectly still, patiently waiting for the right time to strike. Suddenly, and with lightning speed, his long pointed beak jabs into the water. His ambush is successful; he emerges with his prey in his beak, lifts into the sky and soars above the lake, his long neck curved backwards towards his body, legs straight behind. I watch his great wings
gracefully folding and unfolding, embracing the morning air as he glides away.
It is perfectly still in the aftermath of the kill. The only sounds are the waves lapping at the wooden bulkheads below and the chirping of a small martin warily eyeing the bird feeder in our crepe myrtle tree. The rising sun glittering on the undulating waves creates the illusion of tinsel blanketing the lake. Only the slowly escalating motion of the waves foreshadow a storm brewing in the south.
A squirrel hops effortlessly between the limbs of the sugar maples bordering the lake and disappears into the high branches of a nearby elm tree. The creatures, sensing Mother Nature’s mood about to change, disappear into their nests or hiding places. Blue-grey clouds slide in front of the sun and jagged lines of lightning, white against the darkening clouds light up the sky, followed by thunder claps, getting louder as the storm nears. Jake is suddenly on his feet and into my lap, ears back, trembling, his nap destroyed. His big brown sad eyes seem to plead with me to make it go away. I wonder why he is so afraid, and I wish I could make him understand that he’s safe.
Curtains of rain advance across the lake minutes later as the storm gathers force. The first raindrops hit the tin roof of the sleeping porch in single sharp pings. Slowly they intensify into a steady rumble. The wind has picked up now, and the lake is choppy. The rain slices at the side of the house and the wind drives it into the porch. I watch the rain pounding on the lake and wonder about the young men and their ill-fated fishing trip.
I revel in Mother Nature’s operatic performance and am loathe to give up my front row seat. I hold Jake tightly to calm him but the thunder is getting louder and he is increasingly more anxious. I cannot stay. But for this moment, I am at peace with myself, the lake and its creatures.
I come from tears, I come from joy
I come from pain, I come from ease
From time-infested lies and truth that will not die
I come from Louisiana
I come from scoundrels and from saints
From mothers old with toil and moneyed indolents
I come from Jesus and from Rex
I come from Louisiana
I come from backwoods berry trails and morning jasmine dew
From summer firefly nights and crashing thunder-rain
From mist of bayous’s breath and windy forest sighs
I come from Louisiana
I come from running away and yearning for home
Once I was old, now I am young
Once I was there, now I am here
What I really want to say is—
I come from Louisiana
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
There are many reasons I should not write. It is hard work and it takes a lot of my time. Closeted in my “woman-cave” bent over my computer, I become unavailable to friends and family, my exercise program crumbles, meals are hastily thrown together, my sleep is interrupted. And worse, I willingly put myself in the path of constant rejection. So why write?
I write because I love to write and I love to read. I love everything about books: the covers that promise hours of enchantment, their heft in my hands, the sweetly musky smell. I love rows of
books stacked neatly on bookshelves. I love remembering first book, its colorful pictures, the delight of learning to translate the symbols on the page into words that conjured fantastical thoughts, faraway places, exciting ideas. I find comfort in bookshops and libraries. I love being surrounded by books and by people who love books.
I learned to love writing from my heroes; Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stegner, Maya Angelou, Anias Nin, Jon Hassler, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Berg, Richard Russo, Barbara Kingsolver…and so many others. Their words drew me in, not moralizing, prideful words, but awkward stumbling words, anguished, hurting words that gave voice to my feelings. Thrilling words, words pulsing with danger. Angry words, hateful words. And words pregnant with joy, melodic with peace and love. I loved them all. Their words opened new worlds to me, urged me to revisit old ones, challenged my beliefs, made me laugh and sent tears streaming down my face; told me who I was and showed me who I wanted to be.
I love everything about the “Worddom” and I want to be a part of it. I want to provide a link in the wordchain to our children’s children and their children’ children. I want them to know my stories and my truths. It is why I compulsively, painstakingly, rummage through dictionaries, thesauri and lexicons for that one word that compels the reader to feel the emotion, see the landscape, love the character, believe in her. And once retrieved, it is why I must measure its texture and its heft in my mind, imagine its hue, hear its sound. It must tell the truth.
This kind of writing does not come easy for me. By nature, a curious soul, I am easily distracted by the “busy-ness” and business of writing; intimidated by the daily deluge of blogs, posts and tweets, hawking elite and pricey workshops, conferences and retreats where I am sure to optimize my platform and craft a best-seller. And above all, I am admonished to devote large blocks of time daily to write, regardless of how inappropriate, to write anything at all, no matter how nonsensical and vapid, in order to attain my daily “word count”. Oddly, there is little in this daily digital tirade about the art of reading or the craft of writing. I wonder what Mark Twain’s reaction would be. Somehow I don’t see him worrying about his Twitter account.
But, this is the digital age, after all, and I acknowledge its importance as well as the need for marketing. I maintain a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I read blogs. I subscribe to writers magazines and attend a few workshops. All of this is helpful and entertaining. But I have decided to spend what time I have to reading and word-smithing. If this brings my truth to the written page, and if my words touch the hearts of a reader or two, it will be enough.