Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Story

MAYERLING AT MIDNIGHT

“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.”
~ Cecil B. DeMille

I love sappy, sentimental Christmas movies. I cry as soon as a bell rings and Clarence gets his wings in It’s a Wonderful Life. When Jimmy Stewart goes all Alfred Hitchcock and frightens Donna Reed into the middle of Valentine’s Day, I get chills. That film is one of my favorites.
 And how about those big galoots in Miracle on 34th Street that were too obtuse to see that Edmund Gwynne was not playing a role? He really was Kris Kringle. Anybody with half a brain could see that.
There is another film I love, although it may not be a true Christmas film. Mayerling, the romantic portrayal of a royal love affair gone tragically awry, is a movie I always watch during the holidays.
I was reminded of it the year I went to Austria for Christmas hoping for a snowfall, something we Southerners know little about. Upon arriving in Vienna five days before Christmas, there was plenty of seriously cold weather, but not one snowflake could be found. I bundled up like an Eskimo and walked around the city shivering like a jellyfish.
I saw performances of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker and then sashayed across Philharmoniker Strasse to the Hotel Sacher for a reviving cup of hot Viennese coffee and a decadent Sacher torte. Yum.
In short, my days and nights leading up to “C” Day were pleasantly full with only one snag. Austrian merchants and hoteliers go home at mid-day to be with their families leaving skeleton crews to take care of tourists like me. Consequently, I had nothing to do on the Eve of Christmas or for “C” Day itself.
That is the reason why on Christmas Eve I wandered alone in the near-empty hotel lobby leafing through travel brochures. What to my wandering eyes should appear, but a red and green pamphlet promoting a traditional Christmas Eve dinner deep in the Vienna Woods, culminating with Midnight Mass at Mayerling.
“Mayerling,” I sighed breathlessly as I shoved the brochure toward the only employee left in the hotel. “Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in that movie. So romantic, so tragic and so...”
The hotel person raised his eyebrows and sniffed. “Bitte?”
I nodded vigorously.  “Mayerling,” I said as plainly as I could. “Ya?”
In perfect English, he told me there was one seat left on the bus for Mayerling. Could I be ready by four o’clock?
Grinning wildly, I shouted, “Ya! Ya! Mayerling. Hot diggidy dawg!”
The bus was warm and noisy and loaded with as many nationalities as a NATO Summit. We chugged along until finally arriving at a quaint restaurant steeped in old world charm that might have been decorated by Heidi herself, (played by Shirley Temple).
After a traditional Austrian Christmas Eve dinner of fried carp, roast goose, baked celery root and marzipan, we re-boarded the old bus and rode to the bottom of a hill in the thick of the Vienna Woods.
It was close to midnight when our tour guide doled out lighted “torches” to us with instructions to walk quietly, single-file up the hill to the chapel for Mass. The penitential convent, she said, had once been the site of a hunting lodge where Crown Prince Rudolf (played by Omar Sharif) and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera (played by Catherine Deneuve) sealed their fate in a murder/suicide pact.
“The altar,” she said to her captive audience, “stands over the very spot in the Prince’s bedroom where the bodies were discovered.” A chorus of expected “oohs” and “aahs” followed.

I had hiked almost to the top of the hill when the first soft snowflake danced on my nose. When I looked behind me, what I saw snatched away what was left of my breath. Dozens of flickering hand-held torches twisted, turned and meandered up the hill illuminating an otherwise black night. The only sounds to be heard came from icy footstep crunches that accompanied the gentle purr of falling snow. C. B. DeMille, uber Hollywood king of dazzling productions in the Fifties could not have staged it more beautifully.
In that moment, all romantic illusions of Rudolf and Mary and their tragic love affair vacated the premises of my conscious mind. Omar and Catherine playing a role were no longer available to cloud my vision of the sacred moment. The quiet midnight torches below etched themselves on my soul as indestructible strips of celluloid.
Eat your heart out, C.B.

I had seen unforgettable images before but none as indelible as the one stamped on my soul that Christmas Eve. I will always cherish the vision of that quiet group of people ambling up a hill at midnight to honor the Christ Child, born to bring us love, peace and hope for a better world.

I expect one day I’ll take that journey again. No, the inner etchings of that night have not faded, nor will they. That said, a remake is not out of the question. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Christmas Feeling

“Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather, Buddy.”
~ A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Our house is unusually quiet today while Babe recovers from serious but incredibly successful surgery, one that saved his life. He sleeps a lot. After a certain age recovery is no walk in the park. 

Emotionally, I swing between an overwhelming feeling of relief that he was snoring next to me when I woke up this morning, and genuine joy that we have been granted additional time together.

The antique clock on the mantle is flanked on both sides by the traditional manger scene that was carefully boxed up until earlier today. Hoping to festive things up around here, I pruned the magnolia tree down to a nub and quietly began to decorate for Christmas. That old clock seems to be ticking even louder than normal. But then, this house of ours is unusually quiet today.

I stand at the window and look out at a leafless, birdless winter morning while two words thread through my mind: Fruitcake weather. Those words naturally segue to a story written in 1963 by Truman Capote.

I have penned many Christmas stories in the past because Capote inspired me to capture my seasonal thoughts on paper. His haunting tale of baking fruitcakes with his cousin, Sook, is the story that motivated me to write my own holiday memories of growing up in the South.

Today, I look up at a gray sky and wonder if it will snow. I look at the bare trees in our yard amazed at finding things I was unable to see before winter snatched away the greeness. I gaze down at the love of my life as he sleeps and heals, and when I do I experience an overpowering need to do something that will make him smile again.
The leafless, birdless trees sway gently in the cold winter breeze as if singing: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather.”

That’s what I can do! I can buy candied cherries and pineapple and pecans and walnuts and chop, mix and bake. The fragrance of a baking fruitcake will waft through each room of this unusually quiet house of ours and while it does, maybe it will drown out time as it steadily ticks away.

Mama’s White Fruitcake

1             Cup Sugar
2             Cups Flour
5             Eggs
2             Sticks Butter
1             Teaspoon Baking Powder
½            Teaspoon Salt
1             1-ounce Bottle Vanilla
1             Teaspoon  to ½ ounce Almond Flavoring (depending on your love of Almond)
1             Pound Candied Cherries
1             Pound Candied Pineapple
4             Cups Chopped Nuts (mix walnuts and pecans if both are available)

Chop fruit and nuts and dredge with 3 Tablespoons of flour.

In a separate bowl:
Cream sugar and butter until fluffy and add well-beaten eggs, one at a time
Slowly add remaining flour, baking powder, salt, vanilla and almond flavorings.

Combine batter and fruit/nut mixture and mix it all up with your hands, squeezing to get the batter evenly distributed.
Pour into a greased tube pan and bake for three hours at 250 degrees.

If you have a big pressure cooker, steam the cake for one hour, then cook in the oven for an additional hour at 325 degrees.

If not, place a pan of water under the tube pan for the entire cooking time.


Cool on cake rack.

Friday, November 14, 2014

For Nina — Februrary 22, 1940- November 13, 2014

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I'd save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you.
                                          ~Jim Croce, Time in a Bottle

“We should write down all our information,” I told my cousin. “Just in case …”

“What information? And who’s going to read it if …”

In 1952 we were two years into the Cold War. When McCarthyism denounced Communism, Russian dominance took command of the news and scared the dickens out of us.

Better Dead Than Red, became a battle cry. Repent Now, the churches preached. The end is near!

Our public schools showed the Civil Defense film, Duck and Cover to teach us what to do when (not if) the A-bomb dropped. Duck and cover your head under your desk! Do not look up!

Scared out of our minds, my cousin and I cowered under our desks in mortal fear of the dreaded mushroom cloud. In bed at night, we held tight to our teddy bears for comfort.

Joe McCarthy easily convinced Americans that impending doom was a certainty if the country did not purge itself of Communists. His obsession was contagious and served to usher in the Cold War along with cold fear that spread like cancer throughout the body of our country.

Some people in our town built Fallout Shelters for protection. With no shelter in either of our backyards, my cousin and I figured we would no doubt be nuked into kingdom come. The Civil Defense films we had been shown in school gave us no reason to believe otherwise.

“Future generations, if there are any,” I told her in what I thought was an analytical declaration, “should know that the two of us lived and breathed.” We were so naïve but we were only twelve-years-old.

So we scribbled out our names on Blue Horse notebook paper, included what we liked to eat and the fun things we liked to do. We also wrote down our favorite movies. (Duck and Cover was not one of them.)

We wrapped our life story in tin foil because we figured radiation would not penetrate metal. Then we stuffed it inside a loose brick in my cousin’s house and there it remains to this day. When I drive through our old neighborhood, long since vacated by both our families, I always wonder if what we hid inside a brick that day was ever found. If so, did it make the finder laugh?

Our fears of gamma rays, isotopes, and alpha and beta particles occurred during a time when the A-Bomb monster threatened to put an end to all living things. In today's world, another fear eclipses the one that haunted us in the Fifties. It, too, begins with the letter A. It doesn’t break bones; it breaks hearts. It doesn’t kill people; it kills brains.

Thank God my cousin and I never experienced the first A-bomb, but a few years ago she became a victim of the other A-bomb: Alzheimer’s. When she became bedridden she seldom spoke but she clung to pieces of her past while embracing a teddy bear for comfort.

I don’t know where she went when she retreated to that solitary place in her mind, but I’d like to think she went back to a time when we were kids having fun. If she passed by her old house in her mind, I hope she remembered to laugh about the day we sealed our lives within the folds of a double thickness of tin foil before shoving it behind a loose brick on the side of her house.

Not unlike the A-Bomb, Alzheimer’s takes no prisoners. Its victims are not only the ones diagnosed, but also the families who pray for a moment or two of clarity with a loved one. That few seconds of light may be only a blip on the mind’s radar screen, but it has the power to call up the sweetest, most precious memories.

Our days are made up of events, good, bad and so-so, many of which remain locked inside our minds. Experiences become footprints and in the end eulogies verifying the fact that we stood on this earth and we mattered.

My cousin hugged her teddy bear one last time this week before leaving us for a better existence.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to save every day 'til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Two Words

I am one of the fortunate people of the world with lifelong friends. One of them, Mary Stripling, is a poet who writes from the heart ... and always with a twinkle in her eye and a delightful smile on her face. She sent me the following poem tonight that she'd written after I told her that my new address is on Memory Lane.


Two Words

We sat silently in the Pathfinder as Ted guided it along North Druid Hills Road.
The thing ought to know the route
and drive itself by now.

Mary broke the silence.
“Memory Lane.”

Ted smiled.
“I wonder if that was the name or if she bought the road and named it.”

We chuckled and sat quietly again.
The Pathfinder turned, no faster than a trot
into the Publix parking lot.

This time Ted’s gentlest voice broke the silence.
“Only Cappy.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Everlasting Last Party

My Everlasting Last Party

(The following is one of the pieces I am writing to be collected into a
book of prayers. The name of the book is “Hey God ~ Can We Talk?”)

Hey God ~ I am wondering what will happen after I die. I don't want to cash in my chips any time soon, but I'm not getting any younger. I figure it’s probably not so unusual for people of a certain age to ponder life’s mysteries.

I don't wonder specifically about the hereafter, although if there is a heaven and if there is still any credit left on my tarnished gold card, I hope it will buy me a one-way ticket. But if reincarnation is what's up for me after this life, then please let me come back as a cellist. It sure would be nice to spread Yo Yo Ma music throughout the world.

I know I have to die before anything beyond the veil takes place so before that day arrives I want to make certain of a few things. For example, those I leave behind already know what a clotheshorse I am and that my love affair with shoes is legend. My people also know that I ain’t going nowhere looking tacky, even dead. Lord, please keep one of my good friends alive long enough to fix me up properly for my extended trip to wherever.

Many people have shared space with me during my brief stay on Planet Earth. Most of them I have loved with all my heart and they have loved me back. The others have basically put up with me and vice-versa. The burning question on my mind today is this: will any of them show up at my farewell party to say a few kind words?

I went to the funeral of an acquaintance not long ago and a bunch of beautiful things were said about her. I was seriously surprised. If I had known she was such a saint, I'd have been a little nicer to her while she was stabbing me in the back.

I hope a few mourners will shed tears after I'm gone, but what if they don’t? What if they sit in the back of the room playing Angry Birds on an iPhone or worse, what if they just sit there Tweeting? 

What will people say about the kind of person I was?
          She was nice?
          She loved her family and tolerated Republicans?
          She had a soft spot for cats?
          She was a pretty good writer when she put her mind to it?
          She wrote prayers when writer’s block zapped her creativity?
          She was seriously into shoes?

Will anybody think to say that I made some hard choices in my life for which I spent years and years trying to forgive myself?

Will they mention that on days when words flowed from my brain through my fingertips and onto my keyboard, I was as One with You as a human is capable of being? Would they think to say that I loved learning but that every time I learned of man’s inhumanity to man, it broke my heart and left me bereft for days?

Please, God, don't let anyone say a bunch of ugly things about me at my last party. I hope no one will be so crass as to recall that I was selfish, pig-headed and impatient. I can think of a few girlfriends who would delight in getting in the last dig. I’m pretty sure I’d be too exhausted from climbing Jacob's ladder wearing my 5-inch high heels to respond with, Back atcha, Bitch!

Mark Twain said, Let us endeavor to live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.

Before my time comes, God, will You help me be a kinder person so that the undertaker won’t be the only person who’s sorry that I died?

Thank you for listening, God.
Amen





Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September Song for a Butterfly

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you
it’s going to be a butterfly.” — Buckminster Fuller

Not too long ago I learned that a very dear man, a poet, had left this world. I woke up thinking of him today, recalling the day we met.

He was seated with his wife at a writing workshop I was attending. I noticed them because there was a shine surrounding them both, like a patina, and I found myself staring at them until my curiosity could stand it no longer.
I turned to my friend Mary. “Tell me about those two people sitting on the front row.”
“That’s B.C. and Vida Cole.” She rolled her eyes letting me know that anybody with a lick of sense would have known. Mary’s facial expression always say a mouthful.

“They’re a fixture around here,” she added. “They drive down from North Carolina every year because they met and fell in love here. Is that the most precious thing you ever heard or what?”

B.C. went to the podium and began reading one of his poems. It was humorous and we all giggled. B.C. talked like he laughed—as if his vocal chords were constricted. He twanged his “A’s” like hill people often do. When B.C. said something that began with an “A,” it came out flat, like “that fat cat.” 
I later learned that he loved to tell tall tales on himself. I once heard him say, “Last week Vida said to me, ‘Go look at yo’sef in the mirror, B.C., ‘cause you got chocklit ice cream stuck in your mustache.’ It was dripping off my chin onto my new shirt that she had paid a whole bunch of money for. So I said, ‘That would make a right good story.’ Haw. Haw.”

B.C.’s laugh, if not always his tall tales, was infectious.
He sported thick muttonchops that curved around his long face. Those sideburns suited him because they framed a ruddy complexion that turned a deeper red by the time it reached his pencil-thin nose. Every time B.C. smiled, that nose of his joined up with his lips and crawled up his face like the two were in cahoots, as indeed they were.

Grinning, he would take an index finger and push his silver rimmed glasses back up to where they belonged. He did that a lot because he smiled so often. I never heard B.C. whistle, but I always expected him to stride unhurriedly into a room with his lips poised in whistle-mode tweeting like a canary. Happy, contented men always whistle.
B.C. didn’t wear bright pink trousers, he headlined them. His royal blue suspenders topped off a black Polo shirt that was buttoned up to his chin. The Polo shirts he wore were probably the only concession to popular trends he ever made. B.C. Cole was way past caring about fashion statements—he made his own declarations and he made no excuses.
You have to admire a man like that.
He was a born romantic with an innate sense of how to make his woman feel special. It seemed as if he wanted to touch Vida as often as possible, if only with an occasional tap. I watched him as he listened to the lyrical words read by another poet. After a bit, he leaned in close to Vida until his smiling face brushed her silver hair, just behind her ear. Pretty soon, not hurriedly or without thinking, he kissed a little section of her hair. It was so gentle that Vida, accustomed to his loving ways, barely blinked. But she noticed.
Their devotion to one another stretched beyond their years as man and wife. Like Blue Boy and Pinky, one of them was incomplete without the other.
When Vida lost her hearing, B.C.’s ears became her ears. Much like the tender kiss he often gave her, Vida scarcely noticed the transition—it’s possible that neither of them was conscious of her hearing loss. They functioned as one finely tuned, well-oiled piece of people machinery, the kind that automatically slides into place at the first sign of a glitch. B.C.’s old eyes became weaker toward the end, but even with poor vision, he saw beyond hearing loss or time ticking away.
He was a special man whose loving ways provided him with a grin that emerged from a cocoon spun of joy. That grin crawled like a caterpillar across his innocent, child-like face and morphed into a laugh that might have come from a butterfly— if butterflies could laugh. 



Monday, August 25, 2014

Nora Ephron quote

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”

― Nora Ephron, Wellesley College Commencement Speech

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow



GiGi’s husband took off and didn’t come back. She showed me his note.
     “I have fallen in love with Jolene, who cuts my hair down at The Hairem
     so I’m leaving you for good. Hasta la vista. ~ Otis out.”

I poured GiGi a large glass of wine while she cried into a ragged Kleenex. “Otis did everything for me. Washed my clothes, painted my nails, even paid the bills. I never had to lick a stamp.”
Heavy black eyeliner was missing from GiGi's puffy eyes and her hair was flat as a communion wafer. Up until today, a 747 could easily have landed on that lacquered mop of hers.
Back in the day, her sole reason for living was to enter and win the most beauty contests in pageant history. She was crowned “Miss Boiled Peanut” in Charlotte and was favored to win “Miss Outer Banks Sea Nymph,” almost a done deal until fate stepped in and pulled the proverbial plug.
GiGi’s talent presentation that auspicious day was a water ballet beginning with a swan dive. She wore a slinky black bathing suit and black patent-leather high heels. When her head popped out of the water, her teeth sparkled like a new porcelain toilet and every hair on her head was still in place.
After completing the ballet, she climbed out of the pool and shimmied over to the microphone for the next phase of her talent exhibition. She planned to sing Handel’s “Water Music,” to which she had written her own clever lyrics.
Flashing her white choppers at the judges, she grabbed the mike as if it were the Miss America scepter failing, however to notice that she was standing in a puddle of pool water. In ten seconds GiGi was boogieing with enough electricity to power a small substation. Her body shimmied and twitched but her hair didn't budge. In less time than it takes to microwave a jellybean, Miss America Wannabe morphed into Miss Southern Fried Medusa.
 “Forget about Otis,” I told her through her tears. “Get yourself a job that shows more backbone than cleavage. I'm sure there’s something you can do.”
She hiccupped. “Don’t you get it? I'm a professional beauty contestant. I can’t do anything but smile, wave and cut ribbons at mall openings. If I knew how to do anything else, don’t you think I’d do it? I told you I've never even licked a stamp.” She let out a turbo sigh. “Otis did everything for me but chew up my food.”
I looked at my pitiful friend and tried my best to feel sorry for her. How could a female in the 21st century not have as much usefulness as a plug of tofu? Today’s women are brain surgeons, nuclear physicists, astronauts. At my kitchen table sat Queen GiGi, sobbing like the tail end of a country western song: “My baby done left me for that tacky hairdresser, Jolene. I’m too dumb to live so I might as well curl up and die.”
I felt like slapping her into the middle of next week, but I snatched up a roll of stamps instead.
“Simmer down, Miss Boiled Peanut. I’m fixing to air mail you into the present century. What I am holding in front of you is known to the rest of the civilized world as a roll of self-adhesive stamps. If you’ll stop that carrying, I’ll show you how these little puppies can change your life.”
She shot me a baffled look. “Huh?”
“GiGi, peel off the sticky backing and you will take your first step in licking the entire world.”
Her baffled expression got even more baffled. “Lick the world? Why would I want to do that?”
At that moment, I realized that she would always be as dumb as a box of really big hair. Reaching across the table, I grabbed her untouched glass of wine and downed that sucker in one gulp. Some days it’s better to just go with the flow.



Monday, August 4, 2014

It Takes a Village

When I think of villages I picture country hamlets in Ireland or Swiss chalets snuggled inside a valley framed by snowcapped mountains. I love villages.

Louisiana has parishes; Pennsylvania has townships; New York may still have a few touristy type villages, but authentic ones are dwindling. That makes me sad.

I discovered the village of St. Simons Island over fifty years ago. Legend has it that if St. Simons sand gets in your shoes you will always return. For many summers my young sons and I came back to frolic on the beach and eat shellfish until our skin turned the color of cooked shrimp. We plodded the shoreline in search of non-existent shark’s teeth and, after filling our shoes with as much sand as they would hold, we hit the village to fill our tummies with homemade ice cream.

My little boys had grown into fine young men by the time I went to St. Simons to live. Like the Resurrection Fern found on the island, the village bathed and transformed my wilted spirit and quickly welcomed me home like a mother.

Some years later, as hot flashes and global warming took control of our maturing bodies, we bought a summer cottage in the mountains. It took a while to find it, but our search paid off one fine day when a North Carolina village blipped on our personal radar screen.

Saluda, North Carolina lays claim to a main thoroughfare not much longer than a football field. Shops and restaurants line one side of the street with a playground on the other. This is a village where children still play outdoors on swing sets and monkey bars, and residents enjoy hearing their squeals of laughter. I love that sound.
It is reported that Saluda is the town that time forgot, a haven for those of us wishing we were still back in the day. We were lucky to find a village so like St. Simons knowing that we would have the best of both worlds.
People don’t text in restaurants in either one of my villages. Friendly townfolk make time for chatting with each other while munching hamburgers, hot dogs and milk shakes served in metal shakers. 
Should you wander alone into one of the local cafés, someone will likely invite you to sit with them. That's when you will get news of grandbabies born the week before or an update on the Historical Society project. You will learn about the produce at the tailgate market. “The veggies are terrific this year,” you'll hear. “Best doggone corn and tomatoes since 1945.”
There could be a report on the Humane Society’s recent fundraiser when enough money was donated to build a new animal shelter. You may learn that local thespians plan to perform, “It’s a Wonderful Life” in December.
A tear or two might form in your table mate’s eyes as he tells you, “It’s official. Taps at Twilight will be held annually every Memorial Day along with a community barbeque in the park. All proceeds will go to the local chapter of the Wounded Warriors Project.”
My Georgia and North Carolina village people don’t bother to text because they prefer real conversations. They still speak and spell the language they learned in grammar school and they don’t even want to know what major innovations have taken place in the Silicon Valley.
My village people don’t give a hoot about fiber optics because electronics are not allowed to run their lives, inhibit their conversations or steal their humanity.
You won’t find my village people on Facebook or Twitter. They use Ma Bell to ask about a friend’s son serving in Afghanistan or if they just feel like saying, “Hey, how’s your mama and them.”
They support the lonely veteran struggling to adjust to a life without legs. They sit in church with the recent widow who feels abandoned since the love of life can no longer sit by her side. They attend town meetings; they donate blood to the Red Cross and they always vote.
My village people know that when you care and nurture each other it makes a difference.
After spending the last few years driving back and forth, we have decided to settle permanently in the village of Saluda. We know we will miss St. Simons Island especially on rainy days, but that's when the memories we collected through the years will resurface ~ just like Resurrection Fern.






Saturday, July 26, 2014

We All Come From Some Place

(This is a blatant plug for my book Return to Rocky Bottom. Enjoy!)

The cold, black Edisto River snakes through the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina where I grew up. A small cove called Rocky Bottom was floored with pebbles to provide a safe harbor for kids learning how to swim. I cut my teeth on those pocket-sized rocks and later when I was no longer a child, Rocky Bottom was the place to which I returned ... if only in my heart.
One of the local mothers had trained for the Summer Olympics when she was younger, so she kindly volunteered to be the town’s Red Cross Life Saving Instructor. It was a proud day when our own mothers sewed the coveted Red Cross Lifesaver patch onto our youthful bathing suits. We earned it by diving off a high platform and swimming against the strong Edisto River current without drowning. That patch represented a significant rite of passage.
I remember the day we were learning the Dead Man’s Float in the roped-off section of Rocky Bottom ~ the official dividing line between safety and peril. Beyond the division, deep water rumbled swiftly past on a fast track to the Atlantic Ocean.
My face was totally submerged when the shriek of a whistle jerked me up in time to watch our instructor plunge over the ropes and dive headfirst into deep water, slicing it with first one muscular arm and then the other.
She was clad in a Catalina swimsuit designed to make her look skinny and a black bathing cap. The spitting image of a loggerhead turtle, she cut through the water like the Gold Medalist to which she had once aspired.
She swam downriver to a young African American boy struggling to keep his head above water. When his limp hands disappeared for what could have been forever, she swam even faster in order to grab his little body before it was too late.
Just like she had taught the lifeguards, she placed the boy on the shore and began to resuscitate him. When enough water squirted out of his mouth to put out a grass fire, I let go of the breath I had been holding in.
Although it didn’t seem so at the time, the incident was over quickly. Even so, it has remained a permanent snapshot in my mind, a watershed moment. I was left with a formidable respect for the cold-hearted Edisto River when it proved itself to be a killer in disguise. On the other hand, I was fortunate enough to be there when our swim teacher fulfilled her destiny and established herself an unbiased heroine who did what she was born to do.
People like her nurtured and shaped me into the person I was born to be. Growing up in that small town meant that I experienced good times and bad, altogether creating the person I am today. My memories are what suckle me now and will do so all the days of my life. Rocky Bottom is the touchstone that takes me home again.
In writing these stories, I chose fictional characters Scrappy and Boo Sanford to be narrators. A few exploits might point to my own brother or me, but that’s for you to decide. If any of the book seems familiar, it’s only because Southern towns are almost always comprised of people in love with football, fried chicken, barbeque and ancestors.
That pretty much describes the folks of Greenburg, South Carolina, a town created for Scrappy and Boo and where they seem to always … Return to Rocky Bottom


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Waking up With Lady Liberty

We all came here from someplace else. Someone in our distant past made it possible for us to live in America enjoying the freedoms we too often take for granted. Let's never lose sight of the fact that we are here today because someone many, many years ago had the courage to leave his homeland and start a new life in America.

Today is no ordinary day. It is the last one of a transatlantic crossing and much too short a visit to England, Ireland, Iceland and Newfoundland. I had hoped to spend more time in Ireland, birthplace of my great-grandfather, so the few hours on a bus tour around the city of Dublin turned out to be not nearly enough.

It is 4:30 in the morning and as I make my way up to the open deck and worm my way over to the starboard side of the cruise ship, I am as wide awake as the city that never sleeps. I greet the new day by looking at the magnificent New York City skyline kicking up her heels with more sass and bling than a chorus line of Rockettes. "Take a look at me," she says, "Am I not the most exciting city in the world?"

I have visited New York City in the past, but never have I sailed into town at 4:30 in the morning while hanging onto the side of a ship and wondering how my great-grandfather felt when first he glimpsed, as I am doing now, the grand Lady Liberty herself.

I hope he heard the story of how the statue came to be constructed from toe to crown and how ships transported it piece by piece from France to America. He probably didn't, but I bet my great-grandpa wiped tears from his eyes while standing at a railing and allowing The Lady's glow to shine the light of freedom on him.

What might he have been thinking? What would he have said to his little brother standing next to him, both of them having recently fled the devastating potato famine in Ireland, and both of them scared out of their Irish britches?

"Look at 'er there, lad, the ol' gurl hursef. That's our noo mum. She's gon' tek' caire of us naiw, she will."

Lil' brother likely whimpered at the mention of their mother, a victim of poverty and neglect, buried mere months before the boys set sail. Perhaps he moved a wee bit closer to his big brother, the one charged with his welfare once they set foot on American soil, the one who would find work however he could in order to feed, clothe and properly school his brother in this, their new country.

My guess is they looked across the New York Harbor that day at the torch held high by The Lady and were warmed by her light just as I am today.

They came here with nothing, having left everything behind in the fallow potato fields of Ireland. In time, their losses would be replaced with fulfilled dreams made each night as they grew into men and good Americans. Like so many immigrants throughout our history, their earnest prayers were answered, their hopes rewarded.

Many Americans will never have the opportunity as I did to look upon The Statue of Liberty at daybreak. Seeing her at least once should be a requirement for every citizen of our great country, but one of the things that make us great is that we don't require it of our people. It is no surprise to me that The Lady's power too often gets lost amid the information overload that we are fed and must sift through day after day.

But she is patient. She is willing to stand her ground and remain strong for all of us. Lest we forget what she symbolizes, the poet Emma Lazarus summed it up in her work engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The Lady lifted her lamp to a homeless, tempest-tossed Irish boy and his brother and when she did, our country was made stronger. My great-grandfather became a proud citizen and later served his country. The accomplishments of his descendants would have filled him with awe: A symphony musician; NASA Engineer; lawyer; Episcopal priest; psychologist; writer; teacher; good Americans all.

Nothing can ever diminish the spark of hope woven into the fiber of the Statue of Liberty and nothing should ever diminish our humanity to those seeking a better life.

"Give me your tired, your poor."

Monday, June 9, 2014

Let's Write a Memoir!


Everybody Has a Story To tell
By Cappy Hall Rearick
Just before Mother’s Day, my brother and I went with our spouses to lunch and then spent the afternoon doing what the four of us love to do: antiquing. Quite by accident, we discovered an enormous antique mall and wore ourselves out looking at things, picking up things and trying not to break any of it.
We talked about continuing the hunt, but opted for a shot of caffeine instead. Once again quite by accident, we found a little coffee place that had everything a sagging body required for a caffeinated perker-upper, including a pianist.
She was a woman who had grown up during WW2 and she played song after song from that era, the ones she had always loved.  As it happened, what she played were also the songs my brother and I heard throughout our childhood. They had also been our mother’s favorites.
As soon as we sat down in the cozy alcove with our specialty coffees, the pianist began to play “Sentimental Journey.” It was as though Mama had requested it herself. Glancing at my brother, I felt like crying. I thought: Mama is letting us know that she's here with us today.
We lingered over our coffee listening to the tunes we have loved for years and as we got up to leave, the pianist began to play, I’ll Be Seeing You, yet another one of Mama’s much loved songs that never fails to fill my heart with memories of her.
In writing memoir, it is important that one does not overlook the five senses.
Sight: Look at those old photos and put yourself back to the time they were taken. Were you a child? Was it a school picture, a graduation, wedding? Go back to that time and allow yourself to be there, fully engaged.
Sound: Music is what does it for me. I hear a song and immediately I remember why that song is important to me. It’s the songs we heard when we were younger that can connect us with memories of special times “back in the day.”
Smell: Certain smells remind me of certain people. My mother’s fruitcakes a s they baked; my husband’s after shave lotion that made me nauseous when I was pregnant; the smell of Brasso as he polished his military brass before his 2-week after duty each summer; baby powder … no need to elaborate.
Taste: I ate some pound cake recently that tasted like my grandmother’s recipe. It brought back memories of Sunday dinners with all my aunts, uncles and cousins, many of who are gone now. When I taste fried chicken I never fail to remember Lula Mae Green who fried the best chicken on the planet.
Touch: After my mother died, I brought a lot of her good towels home with me. I can rub my hand over one of those towels and remember how she loved shopping at the towel outlets that were scattered throughout South Carolina before the textile industry moved off shore. I can pet an animal and remember the cats and dogs I’ve loved. Wearing a pair of too-tight shoes will always remind of the days I was required to wear spike heeled, pointed- toe shoes as a flight attendant.

We were given the ability to see, smell, hear, taste and feel for good reason, not the least of which is in order to recall times gone by.

“You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept.”~ Kahlil Gibran

Laughter can be cathartic, but a good cry is how I cleanse the clutter from my soul.
My penchant for sad movies began the day Mama took me with her to see the movie, Sentimental Journey. She was crazy about John Payne and I guess because she was Irish, she believed that Maureen O’Hara was her distant cousin. Mama apparently kissed the Blarney Stone at a very early age.
I was six-years-old but I clearly remember that day in the theater. Mama started to sob about five minutes into the film and I, lacking the capacity to understand her tears, cried along with her. She would pull out two Kleenex tissues at a time from her pocketbook, hand one to me and then blow her nose with the other. 
Mama loved going to the picture show and it didn’t much matter if it was a drama, comedy or musical. Whatever was showing at the Carolina Theater (with the possible exception of Roy Rogers and Trigger) was the movie she would stand in line and pay a whole quarter to see. For many years, I went with her. 
Together we saw Pinky, Johnny Belinda, Imitation of Life and Little Women, of course. Tearjerkers, every one of them. Occasionally, she took me with her to see a murder mystery. After seeing Edward G. Robinson stab a woman with scissors in the film, The Woman in the Window, I woke up screaming for weeks.
But Sentimental Journey set the emotional bar for Mama and me. For the rest of her life, anytime that movie was mentioned either in conversation, a recorded version of the song, or even if the movie was replayed on television, Mama would look over at me with a knowing smile. That long ago day in the theater with her when I was just a child continued to be our shared moment in time, one that lingered between us for nearly fifty years. 
Once when I was living in Los Angeles, she sent me a newspaper article about the movie. It was a tiny thing, not much more than a blurb, but I still have it. It’s tucked away in my memory box, yellow now with age. The day I got it, I opened the envelope and lifted out the two-inch square newspaper clipping and thought, “What in the world is this?” Then I read the heading: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY. It said that Turner Movie Channel was planning to run the movie again at such and such a time.
I skimmed it and then read the note Mama had attached which said: “I saw this in today’s paper and thought of you. How could I not?”

Oscar Wilde said, “Memory really is the diary we carry around with us.”

When writing memoir, it is so important to NOT write it as though you have cut and pasted information from Ancestors.com. Jotting down lists on a SEPARATE piece of paper will serve you well when setting your story in the correct time frame. But unless you are researching genealogy and you are the only one who will ever read what you’ve written, do not start off with dry facts. If you write I was born Mary Margaret Smith on January 1, 2014 and I went to school, blah, blah, blah, nobody will read it.
Why? Because nobody cares about those dates but you. Do you want your memoir to read like a telephone book? Of course not. Make it entertaining and readable; stay away from listing fact after fact. If certain facts have become important in writing your memoir, then get creative. Weave them into a story line that will capture the reader’s attention.
Keep in mind that a memoir is NOT an autobiography. An autobiography is the story of an entire life. If you found a cure for the common cold and were awarded the Nobel Prize, then by all means write an autobiography. If you have been elected the first female POTUS, yeah … you should write an autobiography. Why? People will want to read everything about you ~ every little detail. It will be of historical importance to document the steps you took to get to that incredible point in your life.
Chances are you are a regular person and you lead a normal life with memorable experiences that are unique to you. If that is the case, then think memoir. One thing to remember, however is that memoir, like testosterone, is best served up in small doses.
What does this mean, you ask? It means that you begin with a theme and carry it through to the end. I’m not talking about the end of your life with a reading of your Last Will and Testament. The end is where you wrap things up in an interesting and entertaining way. The end does not mean the ABSOLUTE end. You are free to write as many memoirs as you want. We don’t live in a vacuum so we have all sorts of things to write about.
By all means write them but stay within the framework of time: 
The years I spent in Africa for example. 
My life as a short order cook at Waffle House is a theme.
(Your theme may be about people you have loved or hated or murdered.)  
“Mama and Me” is the themed memoir I am currently working on.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was high school.”
“Death Row is Not for Sissies.”
“I was brought up to be a mother.”
“When I Married a Butcher, I Became a Vegetarian.”

Stick to one theme but not necessarily one subject. Once you write the first piece on your theme, you will be amazed at how quickly your memory bin will spill over. You will remember people, places and things you had long forgotten about.
And when that happens, write it. Just write it. You can edit it later, but it’s important to get it all down on paper while it’s fresh. One door unlocks another door that unlocks yet another door and before you know it, you have typed your last sentence. Before you wrap it up, however, read over it with a critical eye as though you were not the author.
Have you used appropriate humor for comic relief? You’ll need that when writing about serious illness, death or other sad things that happen in everyone’s life.
Are there enough anecdotes to make it interesting? Entertaining? Will it be difficult for the reader to put your memoir down, or while it be used as a sedative for a good night’s sleep? As an unbiased reader, what is your opinion about what you have written?
You don’t need to be a professional writer to author your own story but you owe your reader words that make it interesting. You don’t want anyone to feel they have wasted their time on your memoir.
Tell about those embarrassing moments. We all have them. Be human and above all, write honestly. Don’t be afraid to tell it like it is.
Write until it feels right to type THE END.
The following is an example of how I begin to tell MY story, the one I will probably name Mama and ‘Em, or Mama and Me.
 ***

I came into the world kicking and screaming, a rebel without a cause. While in labor, my mother asked the doctor if she was about to give birth to a kangaroo. She said I kicked my way out of the safety of her womb and I never stopped. I sassed her before I could string sentences together, she told me. She often said what a shame it was that duct tape wasn’t invented sooner.
I thought learning to walk entitled me to tie my own shoes. Mama and I fought the Shoelace War every day before she gave up and told me to just go barefooted.
That’s about the time she said to Daddy, “This kid’s gonna be a captain. We might as well call her Cappy.” Cappy was the nickname for sea captains during the war and since I was born in the early forties, I suppose it made perfect sense to them.
Mama was an excellent seamstress and haunted Belk’s Department Store in search of wartime remnants to make me girly dresses and pinafores. I preferred to wear clothes my brother had outgrown. My innate rebel tore holes in dresses so I wouldn’t have to wear them. Since that time, however, I’ve developed an incredible love for beautiful clothes.
When I was five-years-old, we moved into a rented post-war bungalow, one of six identical houses with reversed floor plans. I wandered in and out of the neighbor’s houses feeling right at home since they were so much like ours.
After finding some old whisky bottles underneath the house next door, I filled them with water, put them in a wagon and went up and down the street selling whiskey bottles of water, or trying to, for a nickel each. Mama nearly snatched me baldheaded.
In the dead of winter, I washed a neighbor boy’s hair under the outside spigot. It was so cold that day I nearly caused the poor kid to catch his death. When his sister fussed at me, I tossed my five-year-old hair and defiantly told her to keep her fat ass in her own yard. Mama used a hairbrush on my skinny ass when she heard about it.
By my sixth birthday, I had run away from home four times. I thought of my escapes as early adventures for the unexplored but looking back on it, I think it pretty much established a lifelong pattern.
Rebel or gypsy? Maybe a little of both. 
It seems to me that I have lived many lives since I kicked my way out of Mama’s safety zone. Going back over the years I have spent on this earth, I realize that I have often compartmentalized my life into relevant segments and now I ask myself why. Maybe it’s because on some level I always knew that sooner or later I would find a way to connect the dots. Or maybe it’s because I don’t want to bore my readers.
There are many things I love remembering and lots of things I wish I could forget. I am not unlike most people in that regard. In this memoir about the relationship I had with my mother for almost fifty years, I will attempt to tell it the way I remember it as honestly as I know how because I have a story to tell.