Monday, December 28, 2015

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep ...

 I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray my soul a book to take.

I don't want to take along just any old book. I want it to be the one with an ending so strong that it stopped my ticker for good. The book would have to tell a story compelling enough that I couldn’t put it down until I'd read the last page, especially if I even had an inkling that I was about to journey to the great beyond. I want to see the words, “The End,” and then close the book and do a bad imitation of Porky Pig saying, “Ebity ebity … that’s All, Folks!
Reading in bed has been a nocturnal habit of mine since the day I learned to make sense out of sentences. When Mama threw away my pacifier, I latched onto a soon-to-become dog-eared Golden Book, The Pokey Little Puppy. Mama read it aloud until I fell asleep and that's the reason substituting a book for a pacifier became a lifelong habit. When I was younger, I would read until two or three o’clock in the morning and still wake up at seven fully charged and ready to take on a busy schedule. Since age has begun to creep up on me, however, I consider it a major achievement to knock out two or three chapters before fading into the abyss of sleep.
Many of my After Fifty friends, have developed sleep issues over the years. They often complain to me that they either cannot get to sleep or they wake up in the middle of the night and find it impossible to get back to sleep. When this happens, they slip out of bed and stumble around in the dark so as not to disturb the one snoring next to them. We all know the one in question: the one that always makes it to Slumberland in record time. No doubt there have been moments with strong desires to murder the one in question, but on advice of counsel, I respectively take the Fifth.
I am not an insomniac, but if I were and if I did not keep a tall stack of books on my bedside table awaiting my nocturnal pacification, I might choose to grab my Bible and open it to the book of Genesis where the history of mankind has been duly documented. Adam begat Seth, who begat Enos, who begat Cainan, and on and on in an exhaustive account of who gave birth to whom and who ended up being kin to whom. If I find myself fighting insomnia, and if reading the long list of begats fails to put me in a coma, I hope somebody will just shoot me.
But I hope to meet my maker just after finishing a great novel. I will willingly exchange my earthly bed for an eternal four-poster after reading a work of Nora Ephron. With her humorous words floating just outside the brink of my brain, how could I not go happily to that Big Humor Writer’s Conference in the Sky?
I could also be content to make my exit holding onto the words of Rick Bragg. I am okay making the trip way up North while hanging onto words from a good ol’ boy because I am Southern to the bone. I could easily drift off to Forever Land with Bragg’s sentences rebounding on the walls of my mind. I just hope and pray I won’t be going too far South to that other place even hotter than Dixie. 
“My people tell their stories of vast red fields and bitter turnip greens and harsh white whiskey like they are rocking in some invisible chair, smooth and easy even in the terrible parts, because the past has already done its worst. The joys of this Southern life, we polish like old silver. If words more precious to any Southerner have ever been written, I have yet to read them. Thank you, Rick Bragg.
At this point in my life, I have no immediate plans to read myself into the Big Sleep, but one of these nights I suspect I will finally climb Jacob’s Ladder with the words of Nora Ephron, Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty giving me the boost I will most likely need. I hope to arrive grinning like the humorist I strive to be while clutching a much loved, dog-eared Golden Book in my hands.
“Hey,” I plan to say to my three treasured muses. “Have y’all ever read, The Pokey Little Puppy?”

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Wrap It Up!

“The best gifts are wrapped in love and tied with heartstrings.”

On this Christmas Eve day,  I invite you to join me in creating a living symbol of what Christmas is all about
By pulling together, we can build a huge Christmas tree designed and adorned by the power of love. We can trim it with people of all sizes and colors, and then light it with the brilliance of their imaginative ideas.
The gifts underneath the tree are plentiful because there is more than enough to go around.
Peace of Mind is in the large white box and Health is wrapped up in pink.
Talent is bursting from its confined package like multicolored confetti!
Faith, Hope and Love all bask in the glow of gold and silver, while a bright yellow box of Enlightenment opens up right before our eyes.
Contentment? It is packaged in many different colors and designs.
At the top of our tree, a brightly shining star illumines each gift, each life and each open door. That star is called free will.
The largest gift of all is an unfilled box of Christmas Spirit. If we put ourselves inside that box, we can fill it with food for hungry people, solutions for drug and ecology issues and freedom for those living behind walls of fear, hate, and ignorance.
Charles Dickens wrote, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
Let’s do it! Let’s wrap up that thought with love, tie it with heartstrings and place it under our tree so that everyone in the world can always have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Got Milk?

When I was little, Mama started baking for the holidays around the first of December. Having grown up during the Great Depression, she remained haunted by the things she’d wished for as a child. They became her two extravagances as an adult: food and shoes. Christmastime for our family meant plenty of cakes, pies, cookies and bedroom slippers.
      There was a pecan tree in our back yard, which Mama claimed to be allergic to, so my brother and I were sent to collect the nuts for her holiday baking sprees. We would pick them up off the ground, put them in paper sacks and carry them back to the house. It was our job not only to pick up the pecans but to pick them out as well. We used a hammer for cracking and an ice pick to clean out the bitter tissue hidden within the fine, ribbed folds of the pecan meat.
      Mama would bake a batch of cookies, give us two to eat, then put the rest in the freezer for later. The day our new chest-type freezer was delivered, Mama crammed everything in it but dust bunnies. 
      If there had been a contest, Mama’s fruitcake would have won. Both my brother and I loved it so. It was full of candied cherries and pineapple and the pecans we had labored so hard to pick out. No figs, dates or raisins. Nothing dark and gooey.
      On fruitcake baking day, the warm fragrance that wafted out of our old kitchen, that lingered in each room long enough to make our stomachs growl, is a memory etched on my heart. It might have been the almond flavoring that added punch to the aroma, but I suspect it was Mama’s extra helping of soul.
      The other day I came across an old cookbook that had belonged to my mother. There were pictures of pies and cakes filled in with a red Crayola, my favorite color. Gazing at the faded pages, worn now by many seasons of use, I cried a little bit.
      I saw where Mama had scribbled down some of her favorite recipes, everything from sugar cookies to rum balls. I found the Coconut Pecan Pie she had concocted herself that had once won a cooking prize. The family favorite, Chicken Perlow was written on an index card and stuck in the middle of the book. And there, next to made-up recipes and ones borrowed from magazines or good friends, was her original white fruitcake recipe.
      The smell and taste of that fruitcake snapped my synapses to attention like a rubber band. I had never baked a fruitcake, but my taste buds clambered for that long ago holiday delicacy. I decided to bake one for Babe and me. If it didn’t flop, I’d bake another for my brother. 
      Christmas music filled the house as I mixed the fruit, nuts and almond flavoring. By the time I packed it all in a tube pan, I was grinning all over myself. The sweet fragrance drifted through my own house this time, and it was almost like going back to the womb.
      I followed Mama’s directions exactly, the one exception being the use of a pressure cooker. She steamed her cake for an hour, then baked it for another two. That method will remain untried by me, since Babe is convinced that I’d blow the house to kingdom come.
      Three hours later, I took the cake out of the oven and placed it on a rack like the recipe instructed. It cooled for thirty minutes, but I could stand it no longer. Upside down it went on the cake plate, where I allowed it to rest for a bit.
      The next time I checked, it looked like the heart of the cake had been pulled up and out, as though it were a watermelon. Candied fruit and nuts decorated the kitchen counter, the floor, and eventually the bottom of my shoes. It was a mess, but the cake smelled wonderful — just like Mama’s.
      I could have cried, I could have repeated well-rehearsed expletives or pitched a fit, but I didn’t. I went instead to my bedroom where I keep a pair of old pink bedroom shoes under the bed. The heels are worn down and thin, the terry cloth has been smoothed over time. They had once belonged to Mama — a Christmas gift, no doubt. I loved having them under my bed, so that is where they lived.
      I slid the shoes out, put them on my feet and flip-flopped my way back to the mess awaiting me in the kitchen.
      What would Mama have done with this situation, I wondered. She’d have said, “Oh, for God’s sake! When life deals you crumbs, make crumb cake.”
      I grabbed a handful of the sticky mess and rolled it into balls. Then I called my grandsons in from where they were digging up all my St. Augustine grass.
      “Y’all come in here. You’re about to be the first person in the civilized world to sample a Gummy Bear Ball.”
      They gobbled them up as if they were one of the starving children in China Mama used to tell me about when she was trying to get me to eat everything on my plate. When I asked how they liked the treat, they grinned and said, “Got milk?”
      Mama would have liked that answer.

One Old Bathrobe . . . Priceless

My first thought
on this chilly anniversary
date is Mama, gone now
these 27 long years.
My eyes seek out her bathrobe
the one I keep
hanging on the bed post.
Crawling on my hands and knees
over rumpled quilts
and Downy fresh sheets I
take the robe from its resting place
and bury my face. Drawing deeply
I inhale the remaining
essence of her warmth,
breathe the last drops of
my mother.
Under my bed with the
toes peeking out are Mama’s
pink slippers.
I pull them out
and slip them on my feet.
For a very few seconds
I am part of her again, womb-like
and safe. With her robe
wrapped around my heart,
my day begins softly
with a memory.
Her life, her love
and her ability to bake
a damn good fruitcake!
Zola Sorrells Hall
September 27, 1914
December 22, 1988

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Tallest Man I Ever Knew

            With few exceptions, (i.e., Babe, who eats anything not Super Glued to the floor), Yankees will always yell "Whoa!" to boiled peanuts as a viable food source. They fail to embrace its subtle salty flavor and delicate, firm pip. They turn up their noses to the South's unofficial favorite food without even tasting it. I'll never understand that.
            Popping a warm boiled peanut in my mouth at this time of year reminds me of a very special character I used to know named Shorty.
            He was a black, mentally challenged and desperately poor dwarf. 
            No one was ever quite sure how old Shorty was, only that he had been around since the early Thirties and that he eked out a living, if you could call it that, by selling boiled peanuts for twenty-five cents a bag.
            He wore an uninterrupted smile on his face, which showed off his teeth (all different sizes and all crooked), while emphasizing gums the color of a poppy. When he talked, it was like he had a pound of sand in his mouth, but that never bothered him. Or me. I understood every word he said.
            Shorty was especially nice to my boys when they, too, wore snaggled teeth and didn't know pea turkey about bigotry, racism, riots or state flag dissension. He didn't let things like that concern him. He just wanted to make people smile.
            When he spotted us walking down the street, he would run up and turn cartwheels on the sidewalk. He flipped this way then that until we laughed and shouted, "Way to go, Shorty!"
            Then he would clap his hands and say, “Hey! Looka heah! See wha' I kin do?” He’d stand on his hands and walk up and down the street resulting in more applause and a generous tip, to boot.
            Shorty had few, if any, advantages in life. Everyone in town knew this and because he was loved, he was well taken care of by the good people of Walterboro, South Carolina. The clothes he wore were donated, but due to his size, they always needed to be altered. Still, they rarely fit, even after being cut off, stitched up, and remade. As a result, he wore wide suspenders to keep his pants from falling down, which gave him the appearance of a pygmy clown that P.T. Barnum might have snatched up in a New York minute.
            When jumbo white peanuts came in season in August, Shorty never failed to save us four bags of that first crop because he knew how much we loved them. One jumbo makes a nice mouth full, tender and sweet—it's the mother's milk of boiled peanuts.
            Shorty would say, "Dem's paper shell peanut," and for a long time I thought that's what they were called. I later discovered that paper shell belongs to the pecan family, but Shorty wouldn't have cared about that. Me, either. To this day, when I eat a jumbo, I think paper shell. It suits.
            I can't remember a time or a season when Shorty was not doing some form of business in downtown Walterboro. At summer's end, after the peanut crop was plowed under, Shorty would sweep up all the dried hulls around his stand in order to make room for other entrepreneurial endeavors—odd jobs that kept the quarters rattling in his pockets until the next peanut season. He shined shoes, raked yards, ran errands and did any kind of chore for very little money.
            Kids would pay him to stand on his very large bald head.
            "How much you gimme?" he would ask in that mouthful of grits way he had of talking.
            "A quarter," was the standard response. As soon as the top of his head hit the sidewalk, all of the coins he had collected that day would invariably spill out of the pockets of his oversized, suspendered pants. He would scramble around collecting all the loose change rolling down the sidewalk and into the street. He never stopped talking the entire time.
            Shorty remained lovable, friendly and childlike, bless his heart, despite the teasing of at least three generations of children. I cringe when I think about it now; I can only hope that the kids were never unkind. Shorty was, after all, a performer who reveled in his fifteen minutes of fame. When money spilled out of his pockets, not one child ever took a penny from him; most often they joined in to help him pick up the rolling quarters.
            A few years ago, I was leafing through a book about Colleton County, looking for faces I had known in years gone by. And there, in all his glory, smiling and grinning with a mouthful of snaggled teeth and Geranium colored gums, was Shorty. Several pages were devoted to the gentle little man who made a difference, despite his size and limited abilities. By doing the best he could with the hand of cards he was dealt, he earned a place in the town's history and in the hearts of its people.
            Today as I tell this story, I have difficulty believing that Shorty's humanness was not diminished in some way by the handstands and cartwheels he performed on command. Walterborians, both black and white, tell me that is not the case. Shorty was no victim, they say. He was that single sunbeam on an otherwise dark day.
            Shorty was the tallest man I ever met.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Just Sitting

“If you could sit on a park bench by the ocean and visit with anybody living or dead,” a friend asked me, “who would it be?”
Flannery O’Connor crossed my mind, as did Eudora Welty. I would so love to pick their brains!
But the person I would ultimately choose was never famous. He didn’t write a book or cure a disease. He didn’t do anything to distinguish himself outside of the small Southern town in which he was born. Given what he had to work with, however, he accomplished quite a lot.
That person was my father whose life ended too soon.
 “There are two things you need to remember,” he told me when I had been married for almost a month. “Number one,” he held up his index finger, “don’t buy packaged hamburger meat in the store.”
“Why is that, Daddy?”
He sighed. “Butchers grind up all the unmentionables, slap a label on it and call it hamburger. Trust me. Don’t eat it.”
When Mama and Daddy were first married, long before he got into law enforcement, Daddy was a salesman for Kingham and Co., a meat processing plant in our town. It was just after the Great Depression, long before the FDA began cracking the whip. Seeing cow parts processed for human consumption was a vision burned onto the walls of his brain. I never saw my Daddy eat a hamburger and especially not a hot dog.
 “Okay, the second thing you need to remember,” he said, “has to do with coffee. It always tastes better if you drink it in a thin cup.”
I was a young bride at the time and needed practical advice: hints on balancing the budget would have been nice, or thoughts on how to keep love alive in my new marriage. What did I get? My Daddy, serious as a heart attack, enlightened me with a list of stomach-churning ingredients in hamburger meat after which he told me to drink my coffee in a thin cup. I didn’t get it. I kept on downing Folgers Instant in thick mugs, the kind that would not shatter when thrown at my husband because Daddy didn’t tell me how to keep love alive.
So what would we talk about today if we were sitting together just visiting, as my friend suggested? What would we say to each other while sea birds skimmed over the ocean and dogs barked in the distance?
Before any conversation could begin, I would pour freshly brewed, steaming French Roast coffee into two bone china cups. I would add a splash of cream to mine while Daddy, being the coffee purist, would shake his head in disapproval.
No doubt he would admonish me. “I thought you had better sense than to mess up a good cup of Joe with milk.”
I would take Daddy’s hand in mine and hold it for a while. I’d try to memorize the shape of it while running my fingers over his knuckles, nails and his FBI Academy ring. I would examine both sides of his hands in an effort to determine whether either of my sons had inherited his bone structure.
After a few minutes of quiet time, I might say, “Hey, Daddy, what do you regret not doing while you were still alive?” Secretly, I would want him to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t hug you more often.” Most likely he would reply, “I regret not catching the SOB that robbed the First National Bank!”
I would want to tell Daddy that, in spite of the missed opportunities that lingered between us, I had loved him deeply and respected him for what he had accomplished with so little formal education. I would tell him how much I admired him for taking responsibility for our town’s safety, even if our family was too often shortchanged. I would tell him that I was proud of the difference he had made in our little town.
“You were important to me, Daddy.”
Maybe I would ask him to put his arms around me and hold me for a few precious minutes letting him be my daddy again for a while. “Let’s pretend the years have not gone by and that I’m still your little girl.”
Hoping he would laugh, I might attempt to say something humorous. If successful, I would then burn the vision of his smiling face into my brain so I could carry it with me until we meet again at the all-you-can-eat, artery-clogging hamburger joint in the sky.