Category Archives: Monroe County

Of Love’s Comprehension

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Nothing is entirely real, not even much of our memory. We revisit the places of our past and often find our footing slightly unfamiliar.

Emotion and bias tinge everything, a spreading patina of ink from a single drop. The more desperately we cling to our version of events, the less firm is our ability to live a life worthy enough to satisfy us. The emotional context which surrounds us shapes our ability to recall objectively what precedes us.

My parents were a volatile mix of temper and tantrum and no one could be an innocent bystander. To be a witness meant participation was mandatory and choosing sides wasn’t optional. There was no Switzerland in the households of my youth.

Yet, my parents chose to marry each other again, despite their long and violent history and while ignoring incredulous scrutiny from friends and family. Both had married other people during their marital hiatus and neither found adversaries willing to suffer and share their scarring.

I’m guilty of allowing my own history with them to cloud my ability to see that somewhere out of my reach, they shared a connection with one another. While it was forged in years of anger, it was real to them. Alcohol, jealousy, and unhappiness were the fuels of their mutual fire. Both of them were adept at stockpiling these lesser tendencies for the upcoming fires that would rage. None of us was equipped with the right tools to combat their wildfires. Each of us tried and failed.

Mom and dad married on Feb. 12th, 1964 and again on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 9 months later, once again with mom in his life and while trying to make his dream work, in a rural little gas station on the edge of highway 49. The gas station is gone and a field has enveloped even its memory. If my father has a ghost, these greening acres along a nondescript highway are one of its homes. Most of these stretches of rural America certainly feel as if they are inhabited by lost souls.

This picture is of us in 1993, at a small Lutheran church that still manages to survive today. Mom and Dad had just exchanged vows for the second time. Although Dad was visibly uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing, he was at home with mom once again in his corner. Twenty-five long years have intervened. The church sits defiantly and almost directly across the road from the gas station dad attempted to make successful during two tries in his lifetime. Small communities need churches to bond them, serving both spiritual and mundane connections. Many of us in this world converged upon that small church in different stages of our lives; most of us have at least a few memories that are rendered opaque and wistful by having done so.

None of the facts has changed, but I have. I’m a stranger in the lands of my memories and I take comfort in my distorted reflection.

Somehow, experience has wrapped me in its strange embrace and violently shaken me. Not only is the sum of my parts now more than whole, but things I knew and things in my field or ignorance have exchanged residency.

I’m not certain of anything anymore.

Yet, paradoxically, I think that it might bring me greater happiness to see a fuzzy world instead of one sharply focused by my own opinions and experience.

The gas station and church both left footprints somewhere inside me, just as my parents did. I struggle with the same forces now that tormented me when I was younger. I learned ways to mitigate the disaster of my upbringing. There was no easy road or prolonged escape from the lessons I learned involuntarily.

I can see immeasurable violence in those whispering the word ‘love’ openly in the world and compassion in the eyes of someone with snarled lip and ready fist. I saw both in Carolyn and in Bobby Dean, the people who played the roles of my parents.

Love’s mystery is that it flourishes at all, as we teeter on the edge of loss at every moment.

Love, X
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It’s A Place Which We Never Leave

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On the way back home from Texas, I turned off the discolored and uneven blacktop highway and drove through a small farming town in Arkansas. It was almost 7 p.m. on a windless Sunday evening. My windshield was a graveyard of hundreds of insects. The richness of the delta has its gifts.

I had lost all sense of urgency and time. Because I knew I wouldn’t drive all the way home that evening, I chose the blue highways to take me across part of my journey. These highways were once the only way to traverse the country and each one of them pierced rural communities, loosely connecting them to the outside world. As interstates rose to meet the demands of speed and commerce, the blue highways remained, like half-forgotten pictures tucked away in the top drawer of a dresser in one’s extra bedroom.

Downtown was a disintegrating and deceitful testament to the past. The solitary water tower still stood, rusting, and even the town’s name, once proudly emblazoned there, was long erased. The youthful graffiti always found on such a tower was illegible. The few young people who might live nearby attended school in another town, their own hometown mascot supplanted with another. Each of them quietly reminded themselves that they’d leave as soon as graduation came.

The jolt of crossing a desolate set of railroad tracks caused me to reach over and turn off the radio. A town’s railroad crossing conveys a clear message: a smooth transition indicates a thriving economy and nicer vehicles, while an uneven and poorly maintained one usually means that people live lives filled with less. People with money and separated from their agricultural roots clamor for better roads, ones devoid of historical reminders of commerce and transport.

History accompanied me as I made my way slowly across the brick-paved street. Without any evidence, I knew that several years ago, some well-meaning resident with a little money had vainly attempted to rejuvenate the corpse of this place, one founded on the backs of farmers. With his passing, the enthusiasm for saving the heritage of the place no longer loomed large on the psyche of the town. His tombstone, larger than those surrounding his resting place, is easily found in the cemetery not too far from the train tracks. In a generation, most of the cemeteries would be overgrown and many of these buildings would fall in on themselves, a gradual shattering and splintering of history. If I were to look, somewhere in the juncture of the small side streets would be a shuttered museum; its existence once contained within but with time, opened to spread out and include the entire town. My own hometown shares a similar and degenerative trajectory; the fiercely loyal will stay until nothing remains. They are the geographical observations points for entropy. Death need not make haste in these places.

Somewhere within the 4 blocks traversing west to east, I noticed a particular vacant storefront, displaying a single white rocking chair perched haphazardly up front, undoubtedly home to the bones of a once-thriving furniture store. The setting sun illuminated the faces of a hundred stacked cardboard boxes near the front windows. As carefully as the boxes were stacked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had been packed in haste and then abandoned, much like the store and probably like the town in general. I was certain that human hands hadn’t touched the boxes in years and that no one had relaxed in the rocking chair since its placement there. People were choosing to leave with as small a burden as possible.

Something about this store spoke to me. I pulled unevenly toward the broken curb and hesitated as I shut off the engine. The brick pavers had ended with the last block, probably as fund-raising dried up and people chose to leave instead. Every few feet a clump of grass was triumphantly sprouting from the untarred cracks in the road. I sat there, hands on the wheel, watching. Nothing moved around me. Maybe nothing had moved in the last hour, day, or week. A block ahead, the only traffic light in town blinked a dull red, casting a strange pall on an approaching evening. The light wasn’t blinking to any certain tempo and its arrhythmia went unheeded.

Looking at the sun reflected in the terrible facade of that building, I felt a creeping sadness wash over me. It seemed like I could feel the glances of the thousands of inhabitants who had passed here, reluctant to leave their hometown, but certain that they must. Brake lights always yield to a foot on the gas as nostalgia loses inevitably to hope. The fondness we so often feel for the places in our rearview mirrors softens our doubts about leaving yet rarely detains us.

The sun gave me its warmth as I sat in my car. Though the air was still and uncomfortable, I couldn’t break the silence by starting my car. The heat seemed to stir the ghosts of this place. I could hear their whispered names: Robert, Henry, Thomas, Samuel, Maggie and Jane Elvira. It was both melodious and cacophonous, like a choir warming up to an unspecified crescendo that would never quite arrive.

I could picture a shotgun house not too far from here, its ancient inhabitant eating cold cereal or buttermilk-soaked bread from a chipped white bowl. The metal fan nearby would be loudly alternating air through the cramped room. Around the person would be dozens of pictures, spanning generations, each of them revealing the face of someone long departed or of one who visits with less frequency. Next to the stubborn resident was a small wooden table. It was adorned with dozens of pill bottles, knick-knacks, and an older telephone, one wired to the world. In the rare event of a call, I could hear the fizzled and tired ring and recite almost every word that would ensue in the phone call, one measured by regret, loss, and small details.

I imagined the smell of cornbread, mustard greens, and fish quickly fried under the shade of any available tree. This place, once dominated by the sounds of screen doors casually slammed, pitchers of iced tea, and enthusiastic summer baseball games, was losing its voice. It seemed that even the echoes of lives once lived were fading now, departing with their particular smells and customs.

Before leaving town, I turned on the radio again. I pressed the ‘next station’ button and to my surprise, Merle Travis was singing “No Vacancy.” I smiled, pressed the gas pedal with enthusiasm, and took one last glance in the driver side mirror.

As I passed over the railroad tracks, I didn’t even notice the jolt.

I would wake up in another town tomorrow morning and this haunted place would fade to become an uncertain memory. All who had departed this place would unknowingly share this in common with me.

I, too, am from such a town. It is with me, always, in my quiet moments.

 

 

Charlotte’s Hope

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Charlotte once resided in a modest house on the corner of Lilly Street and Shumer Way, nestled inside one of the many decaying towns in the delta area of Arkansas. While she hadn’t stepped foot inside the family home in decades, it was still an infrequent and lingering beacon, a place that once defined her. Her mom had departed this world unexpectedly just as Charlotte hit her stride as an adult. Though her own life was full, a little air exited her soul with her mother’s passing. She not only had buried her mother but a sliver of her own life as well. It remained in her hometown, cloistered and protected from the world.

The promise of life blossomed before her, of course, but the loss of the person closest to her heart would always be one characterized by that uneasy and painful feeling one experiences after swallowing too big of a bite. In Charlotte’s case, the bubble of discomfort failed to fade completely. Each new experience, every shared story, and all moments of clarity occurred with an invisible and almost indiscernible hand on her shoulder. As time marched forward, the hand would feel lighter even as the bruise on her soul deepened. If a kind soul such as her mother could find herself so ingloriously subjected to the injustice of unearned disease, it could writhe toward anyone, despite nobility, intention, or merit. It was a hard lesson to accept but her mother taught it with unimaginable and sublime beauty.

She’d find herself in her hometown, often without remembering the interstate or the quaint highways that brought her there, the same byways once traveled by her mother. The engine of her car would be thunderously ticking, even as the beads of sweat rolled down her forehead. After untold minutes, she’d lower the driver window. Her eyes would devour the familiar details of the small covered rear porch and door, the one almost everyone used. The front door was almost ornamental; someone announcing himself there invariably identified as strangers. She knew without looking that there were 18 rows of white clapboard ascending the side of the house, culminating in exposed painted soffits. Some nights she would slowly emerge from a dream and could still feel the rough sensation of those painted boards as she leaned against the house of her youth. In the summer, one could feel the heat from several feet away.

The cacophony of the summer insects would reach her ears, the hum of mosquitoes would play its summertime melody, and she would cry. In her hometown, most memories anchored in the perennial summertime of her youth. Her mother was so close and the echo of her voice was a lingering presence in the humid air. Whispers, languid syllables of laughter and love, all these intertwined and coalesced in the way that only occurs in Southern towns infected by the paradoxical need to move away.

The peeling paint of the place she once called home still called her name. The four side windows once adorned with light and familiar faces now blankly stared outward without regard. The lawn now screamed for someone to show it the attention it once took for granted. No children would dance in its hidden garden again and it was likely that no family would claim it as an anchor before the structure yielded to the inevitable neglect and gravity. This town and all other places like it are the observable results of entropy; all slide toward darkness and disorder without a guiding force to sustain them. She felt sometimes that her mother was the same dynamic demonstration of physics and that her growing absence was slowly accumulating in her own body as a void with a widening precipice.

The apparition of her mom walked the streets next to the house, idly chiding an unseen canine companion as it wandered in exploration. That her mother might indeed be slightly beyond the unseen membrane between this place of the here and now and the unknown seemed plausible. It was a spell without resolution, though. Hours of fondly wishing it to be so proved the fruitlessness of the endeavor.
“Claire,” Charlotte would cautiously whisper, her mother’s name a secret she dared not say aloud, all these years later. The name, once fallen from her lips, would unleash something primal inside her.

The expectation of her mother’s return was the closest thing to an afterlife that Charlotte could anticipate. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a decade, she would also yield to this world’s demands and sleep one last time, to awaken in the place wherein her mother now resided. It was promise enough for her, beyond even the lofty covenants given to her in church.

Mother and daughter would join one another in raucous laughter, undoubtedly in the unassuming kitchen of her youth. Love would be on the menu, forever, accompanied by the foods with which her mother had so gracefully adorned the family dinner table.

For now, though, Charlotte experienced the heat, the buzz of insects, and the observance of the disintegration of the cradle and crucible of her innermost heart. She could feel the fingers of time furtively clawing their way up her spine, just as they were doing to the integrity of the house she once called home. Both she and the house would inevitably succumb.

As a bead of sweat coalesced against her neck, those same fateful fingers chilled her and she smiled the most secret and indecipherable of smiles that puzzled everyone who knew her.

Not everyone holds onto life with desperation. For some, hope lies beyond, away, and in lingering embraces.

Meanwhile, some of us, like her, sit in the gathering dark in our versions of curious little hometowns and wait. All of this, each detail, is temporary on a sufficiently long enough timeline.

Memories abide and love resists the void.

Celery Is The Cure For Happiness – An Autobiographical Anecdote

 

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The beet chip story from a few days ago forces my hand toward another story. It’s not one which ends with a grand moral observation, though, unless it’s a reminder for everyone to avoid being ‘food stupid,’ as I call it.

To assist you to better understand my youth, you can observe through the picture that while food scarcity was sometimes a problem for me, starvation was the least of my worries. It wasn’t until the end of my 9th grade year that I managed to break away from my intense infatuation with food. I probably should say ‘temporarily breakup’ given my adulthood. That’s my mom with her arms over my shoulders. She’d been drinking when my Aunt Ardith snapped this picture.

I wish I had been drinking heavily, especially if I had known I’d be writing about the herpes of the vegetable world: raw celery.

I mean no disrespect toward the current food waste programs. Teachers do difficult jobs and those involved in USDA-related food programs emphasize giving students control and also encourage eating what’s taken and taking only what one plans to eat. I went to elementary school 40 years ago, about the time that fire was discovered. What’s true now was definitely not true then.

Today, I listened to a story about food waste in schools. Most of the arguments were well reasoned and supported. They were so proud of the food waste reduction and that kids were now squirreling away leftover food instead of throwing it away at school. I knew immediately that at least one school kid was going to get his revenge on these well-intentioned people as they patted themselves on the back for reducing food waste. We not only don’t learn from history, but we also tend to amplify our egregiousness with even greater folly. I laughed as I imagined that imaginary and gleeful child puking all over the high heels of his well-intentioned teacher.

Thanks to my grandma, I was spoiled by food. Even though her type of cuisine leaned toward the basic, there was nothing as delicious in my mind as elbow macaroni soup, collard and mustard greens, green beans, corn in any form, tomatoes, okra, or potatoes. Unlike my parents, my grandparents were compassionate about food, even though they were children of the Great Depression. Both money and food were always held in high esteem. In my case, they didn’t care what I put on my plate as long as I ate it all. Wasting food was simply not something one could do. On the other hand, they didn’t threaten me for disliking food or force me to eat something for my own good. They weren’t “food stupid” as so many modern people are. They asked me to try everything before deciding whether I liked it or not. And I did, even things such as sardines and salt pork. I never rejected a food without trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get much more than I needed, especially since I was known to eat more vegetables than any other 5 kids combined. I don’t know how harsh grandma was to other grandkids (because I was her favorite) but I do know that she would never have forced me to eat something I clearly indicated I didn’t like. In my defense, it would have never occurred to me to lie to her about it, either. I found out at a young age that I didn’t like beets, which puzzled my grandma.

At home, my parents were tyrants about food. I ate some of the worst, most ill-prepared foods known to man, many times under the guise of not being wasteful. This particular line of logic confused me, given that dollar for dollar, most of their money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, or replacing broken furniture each time they decided to practice their ever-widening domestic violence reactions. Wherever we lived, most evenings threatened to turn into WWE nights, without referee or ropes. Never mind that because mom chain-smoked her entire life I had never eaten potatoes at home that didn’t look peppered already. Mom also put onions in everything. I mean that literally. I kept expecting to find several peeled onions in her bathwater. Because of dad, mom would often prepare the nastiest meats; large slabs of beef nonsense, barely cooked, smelling of old paper and blood. When she could, mom would buy large volumes of sliced ham, the kind that reminded of what a toilet smells like when seldom flushed. It’s one of the reasons to do this day that I dislike ham, and more so when it is sliced into slivers of hell like deli meat. Mom also made me eat potted meat and Vienna sausages, which as we learned from Karl in “Sling Blade”, is nothing more than brains and beef peckers.

I was content with noodles, soup, or vegetables. I was a simple kid and easily satisfied. Give me a soda, basic food, a book – and stop beating on me, and I could make a good day out it. As I’ve written about before, I also acquired an intense LIKE for over-cooked and burned food.

Even though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without eating much meat voluntarily. I wasn’t sure that meat could be prepared in an appetizing manner, so I’d eat salads, bread, and vegetables – or the tablecloth if it kept me from getting ill or having to force down food better suited to be thrown from a moving car at one’s enemies. Forays to other people’s houses showed me that the food at home versus out in the world were wildly different animals and that I was trapped in a culinary hell from which there would be no escape. It should be noted that no green leafy vegetables, much less lettuce, were kept at my house growing up. It was when I was older and had access to an unlimited amount of salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.

Since I grew up in small-town Arkansas, I heard the phrase, “Boy, you don’t know what’s good” with such regularity that it lost all meaning. This phrase was considered to be the height of culinary comparative arguments. On one occasion, my Uncle Harold was chiding me for not wanting to eat any of whatever dead carcass flesh was being offered and proudly yelled, “Boy, you don’t what’s good!” Uncle Harold was one of the good guys, too. My grandma laughed and said, “Harold, why are you sitting there picking on the boy when you know darn well you wouldn’t eat a lot of things growing up?”

As for retaliation, for each gesture of love and kindness from my grandma, my dad would be capable of the most brutal reprisals for not wanting to eat whatever he wanted me to. I took beatings night and day. If I told him I didn’t want fried chicken or a slab of whatever animal carcass of the day he had, I would get hit by a fist, belt, spatula, or item he found nearby. He was like the Wile E. Coyote of food beatings. His creativity toward brutality was endless. To him, eating, especially meat eating was a characteristic of all real men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he dictated. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, and squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t eat them willingly today. His cruelty expanded to other areas, too. Once, he forced me to try raw forest-gathered mushrooms at my Uncle Buck’s house. They tasted like a deer’s anus. When I started to throw up, he punched me. He then forced more of them into my mouth. Crying, I forced what I could down. He made me agree that I loved them. As soon as possible, I went outside and threw it all up on the next-door neighbor’s side of the house. This same scenario was re-enacted many times in my youth. (I often think I could have painted the house with vomit with sufficient time to do so.)

It is strange looking back, because despite having been in prison and falsely claiming he could eat anything, the truth is that my dad hated a lot of food, especially the healthy stuff. I’m not sure why food granted him such an expansive outlook on cruelty towards me. He never missed a chance, though, and I got it much, much worse than my siblings did. I often daydreamed of sautéing him a skillet full of wild mushrooms and steak – and then bashing him over the head with it.

In school, I learned that people would willingly barter with me, and happily, for my dessert or milk in exchange for whatever concoction of vegetables the school was inflicting on us that day. One of the most common was peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the industrial stoves. Countless times, I would press my tray against that of a schoolmate and swap for something better. At home, I would eat green beans, corn, and tomatoes directly from the can – something I often do even now. While I looked like I traded for desserts, the opposite was usually true.

One day during elementary school, our teacher proudly explained that we would be graded on what we ate. “What fresh hell was this?” I asked myself. I figured there was some kind of error or that all the teachers had lost their minds. Unlike my fellow classmates, my world viewpoint didn’t preclude adults acting as if they had lost their minds at any given moment. At that school, we didn’t choose what we wanted. The school workers plopped, flung and threw whatever the next item was more or less into the segregated concavities of our food trays. There were things I simply couldn’t eat. Make no mistake, unlike most of my schoolmates; I overall REALLY enjoyed school lunches. They simply were miles above the consistency and content of what I could expect at home. Just like at home, I couldn’t always determine what the food was supposed to be. Unlike home, however, I could be reasonably certain it wasn’t poisonous, given the likelihood of dead children all over the concrete block cafeteria if things went terribly awry.

In those days, it was almost impossible to explain to your teachers that you were accustomed to being tortured by your dad if you said you didn’t like something. They didn’t know that if I wet the bed, I’d have stripes across my back and legs for a week if my dad had a hangover or was simply bored. I knew that with time, the school’s ill-advised plan to judge what I chose to eat or didn’t eat would cause a problem.

It was the same week that the food grading system started that I met my lifelong nemesis: Raw Celery. On a dozen previous occasions, I had attempted to eat this abomination without throwing up. I was scoreless against the impulse. It was puzzling, given my love of all things vegetable. If given a choice between licking the under-rim of a bus station bathroom toilet and eating celery, I would unflinchingly opt for the toilet, even if someone was sitting on it at the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I will demonstrate this if ever given the choice between death and celery. If foreign terrorists ever capture me, all they’ll need to do is force me to eat celery in order to get a confession from me.

I don’t remember a lot about the lunch grading starting, honestly, other than dreading it. When I went up to put my tray on the conveyor, the teacher told me to eat my celery or get a reduced grade. As I was fearful of almost all teachers when controversy arose, I told her that I was fine with that. She got mad at me and reversed course. She insisted that I eat it – a reduced grade was no longer at stake. A paddle was in my future. I told her that I would get sick if I tried to eat the celery. She forced me to take a bite anyway and I spit it back out immediately. She let me go, through a clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines were drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.

A few days later, celery once again made its disgusting appearance on the menu. They must have purchased a truckload of it from the local Satanic Distributor. I traded my celery and dessert for another boy’s mixed vegetables. He ate the celery with glee, as I did his vegetables. Soon enough, the Gestapo teacher doing lunch duty came over and told us we were forbidden to trade food. Therefore, I got another reduced grade, even though I had eaten more vegetables by trading for a serving of mixed vegetables compared to a slice of celery stalk.

How much later it was, I’m not sure, but the day came when celery was once again served. Except another horrific layer was added: they put peanut butter on the stalk. While I was okay with peanut butter, the only thing worse than a celery stalk with peanut butter on it would be if a large diseased bird pooped on it first. The teacher didn’t even wait for my reaction this time. She insisted I eat it, that everyone liked peanut butter and celery. Having forgotten the exact words, I’m sure she ranted off a list of reasons why I was being a little jerk for not wanting to eat the celery. Since I wasn’t getting out alive, she also insisted that I drink my carton of milk, something that I often didn’t touch. However, I held my nose and drank the milk quickly.

“Now eat the celery. You and I both know you are pretending you don’t like it.” The teacher glared at me. Having been shamed and beaten by experts way beyond her level of cruelty, I didn’t really care about getting a paddling. A paddling from someone at school was comparable to a pat on the back from Attila the Hun at home. The teacher, seeing my reluctance, came around next to me, picked up the celery stalk, and put it in my hand, then dragging my hand holding the celery toward my face. I unwillingly took a bite, immediately feeling the urge to vomit. “Keep going. You’ll see it won’t kill you.” The teacher stepped away at the end of the table. I took another bite – and that’s when the universe shifted.

The mix of peanut butter and raw celery triggered something in my mind. It might have been the last time my dad held my face into my plate and forced me to get a mouthful of whatever man-making garbage he wanted me to eat. Whatever it was, it was powerful. From my nose and mouth came a simultaneous torrent of milk and lunch remnants. It went across the table and onto the floor, splashing across to the table on the next aisle of seating. I flooded my plate with it, knocking over my milk carton. I heaved and expelled everything I had eaten for the last 10 meals, or so it seemed. Moreover, I then put my head down into the mess, feeling a massive wave of nausea and dizziness. Keeping my head up wasn’t an option.

This story would be much better if I remembered what sort of shocked reaction the teacher had on her face after seeing me projectile vomit. However, I don’t know. I was too sick.

Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up. I enjoyed several exceptional teachers. Like so many others growing up, I also had a few who somehow seemed to know that I was an easy victim. My secret shame from my tortured home life must have registered in some instinctive corner of their brains.

We didn’t do lunch grading for very long. I don’t remember why that it ended but I do know that my fantasy is that the teacher who was so intent on being totalitarian in regard to what I ate or didn’t eat was so sickened by my volcanic eruption of vomit that she insisted that the program be abandoned. While I don’t remember exactly which teacher was the mean one, I could figure it out, if I really wanted to. I won’t though because I might be tempted to go to her house with an array or reprehensible food and force her to eat them all, one by one until vomit ejects from her ear canals. I’ll start with beet chips and celery filled with tripe and livers.

She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or at least tolerate, raw celery to me is no better than raw sewage – and I’d drink a cup of the latter before I’d ever eat a stalk of celery.

 

If I every develop super-villain powers just spray me down with raw celery.

There’s Always Time For Underwear

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Note: this anecdote is from my favorite cousin Lynette. She grew up in Brinkley, Arkansas, a quintessential small agricultural town in the South, one preoccupied with tornados.
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A bad weather post a friend made earlier reminded me of a tornado experience from my youth.

We lived a block from a tornado siren. If you have never experienced one of these at that range, you should. A resident of my hometown likened it to the sound of the angel Gabriel blowing the final trumpet.

Anyway, one evening I was in the shower, and the alarm sounded. The sudden firing up of the siren alone was enough to cause cardiac arrest even for a teenager. Add to that the thought of being hit by a tornado nude, and the panic was real.

My mother runs into the bathroom throwing clothes at me. I catch the underwear and throw it to the floor.
She yells, “Put on your underwear!”
I scream, “There’s no time for underwear!”
She shouts back, “If the house is destroyed by a tornado, that is the only pair of underwear you will have!”

It’s Mom for the win!
Remember – There’s always time for underwear.

Another Nostalgic Surprise

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Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.

A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.

My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.

As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.

The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…

P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.
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An Imperfect Expression of Memory

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It’s strange that jadeite glass and kitchenware was created to brighten people’s day in the early part of the 20th century. The idea that the glassware was made without any real focus toward consistency of color and defects makes it more interesting to me. If I were in charge of the world, every cup, plate, spoon, and fork would be distinct, both in style and color. Consistency for appearance is one of the biggest constrictive forces in our lives.

When I was young, my grandpa often drank from a jadeite coffee mug. There’s so much I don’t remember or remembered wrong. A few years ago, I thought I had it figured out but as if often the case, my certainty evaporated into 100% confusion. I find it hard to reconcile that I remember so many distinct moments so vividly, but yet somehow have lost 99% of the memories around them. My grandparents were magical to me, in part to their living at the edge of a cotton field, and in part to my youth, one punctuated by upheaval and anger. If I had to define an anchor point of my young childhood, it would be the simple house along highway 39, where I learned to love salt pork, mustard sandwiches, and coffee. I once tried to enumerate the number of places I had lived in my youth and it exceeds 20 and almost certainly reaches 30. I would consider the place in City View to be another defining place for me, one completely dissimilar in geography and content than the one in Monroe County, but one which shared the connection of people.

I had my first cup of coffee when I was very young. I remember my grandpa shushing my grandma Nellie. He was a big proponent of letting people try things, even if they shouted in surprise or pain as they did so. It’s part of the reason I learned to wince when I hit my fingers with a hammer, instead of screaming in pain. I sat at the table, trying not to burn my fingers on the hot glass of the coffee cup. Grandpa made me that cup of coffee in a green jadeite coffee cup. He put a dollop of evaporated milk in mine, mainly because he thought I’d like it better that way. Given that I once loved eating ashes and cinders, he should have assumed that I would prefer it black and bitter. (I still prefer coffee to be black – and I still can’t resist the taste of a burned match tip and the much-maligned flavor of a lot of burned foods.)

It’s very likely that grandma and grandpa got their jadeite with promotional items. It was included in sacks of flour, at giveaways at grocery stores and with ‘green stamp’ promotions. Grandma always had several glasses that were, in reality, empty snuff jars. Most were W.E. Garrett snuff jars. Like most people of her time, she also had an extensive collection of butter bowls and other assorted kitchen items which served other purposes in their previous lives. Grandma also saved anything interesting so that I could bury it in my ongoing excavation project next to highway 39. Both grandparents lived through the Great Depression and it molded much of their attitudes about things. Because of nostalgia, mason jars for drinking are in vogue. I’m waiting for snuff jars to get their turn in the sun again. Jadeite made a resurgence a few years ago thanks to Martha Stewart and a few ardent aficionados. It’s also weird to think that jadeite was widely used in diners and cafeterias, an almost valueless item back then.

I also know that my grandparent’s glassware was by Fire-King because grandpa would often set his coffee cup directly on the wood stove in the living room. I learned to read a few words ahead of my time, as life was slower in that part of Monroe County. Sitting on the floor, idly tracing words and letters was a great way to pass the simmering days, or poking myself with a sewing needle as grandma patiently showed me to sew without a thimble. I’ve never used one, despite discovering that I could stick one into my finger fairly deeply when distracted.

It turns out that cups made from original jadeite glass aren’t supposed to go in a microwave. (I also find it incredible to think that residential countertop microwaves first appeared in 1967, the year I was born.) One of the things I learned is that a couple of the companies making jadeite glass used glass that contained uranium. They did so up until WWII. Like all things, jadeite has a wider history than I would initially believe. To learn one thing without learning a spider web of interconnected details is impossible.

Even though I’m a minimalist, I ordered a green jadeite coffee mug from a collector on Etsy. The one I ordered is similar than the one I recall. As a nostalgia item, it serves its purpose despite not being quite right. If my grandpa could see that I had not only figured out what type of cup it was but also buy one online, he would shake his head in wonder at the crazy things that people do, especially for dishes. Like me, he would think anyone wanting matching plates and cups had lost his or her mind.

After years of wondering and searching for the green coffee cup I remembered so well, a friend of mine on social media unexpectedly posted a link to the exact brand I was looking for. I can’t completely explain why figuring out the origin of the green coffee cup was so satisfying for me, but it was. A few years ago, I asked my mom about the green coffee cup. She remembered a couple of them but since her memory wasn’t tied to anything personal, it didn’t have the same power of imagination and recollection attached to it. Grandma had some blue cups made by the same company, too.

Holding this touchstone from decades ago, I can imagine my grandpa, sitting in his chair, watching me as I sat on the wooden floor in front of the stove. He gave me the gift of coffee and the effervescent joy of running carelessly in the mud which inevitably curves its way around the fields.

 

A Rusty Nail Is All I Need

As strange as it sounds, one of my most prized possessions is most of a rusty nail. Seriously.

Years ago, before it was torn down, I visited the last house my maternal grandparents lived in together. I went on the property at great risk, as it looked like it had been abandoned and infiltrated by wasps, weeds, and rain through the old metal roof and tar paper siding. Before moving to this house, they lived to the south, still off highway 39, on the opposite side, near White Cemetery. They had an outhouse at the previous house.

I have an incredible number of memories about that old “house on the hill” as I call it. It was in Rich, Arkansas; not much of a place, really, even its heyday if it ever truly had one.  It was on Highway 39, on the west side of the road. Cook Road was slightly to the south of the old house. Most of the time cotton seemed to be the crop surrounding it in every direction.

I remember when grandma and grandpa moved in. One of the first things done was to hang a porch swing on the south end of the full-length wooden slat board porch. In that day, one didn’t use complicated screw hooks – a long nail would be hammered in and bent around to hold the chain linked through it. This isn’t the safest of ways to do it, not by today’s standards. Yet I can’t remember seeing one fall when I was young. (The second thing done was to build Grandma Nellie a storm shelter. She was deathly afraid of any weather, having survived the stories of the tornado in 1909 that leveled the town of Brinkley.)

Either Uncle Raymond or Uncle Harold picked me up and held me up high toward the roof of the porch. I held the nail more or less straight while grandpa hammered it in. Once we nailed the two nails, we hung the swing and sat in it, enjoying the simple fun and relaxation of it. I spent a lot of hours on that swing with grandpa. On some level, it is partially to blame for my extreme views on simplicity and comfort. Adding 44 uses and extras to things mostly ruins them.

To this day, when it rains sometimes I can smell the dirt and cotton blowing across the porch toward grandpa and me, sitting on the porch. If weather was coming, we’d usually be listening to grandma cajole grandpa into coming into the house or getting to the storm shelter.

The only thing I was really interested in salvaging that day in the 90s was the swing nail closest to the house, the one I remember “helping” put in. Honestly, I can’t say with 100% certainty that it’s the same nail, although I believe that it is. I’m humbled to think that the first swing installed at that house was balanced there almost 1/2 a century ago. I managed to extract some of the long bent nail from the upper wooden beam above the porch. Everything was caving in as I struggled to use it for footing.

Sidenote: one branch of the Pledger family was the last to live in the house. Their stuff, including pictures, were scattered all around inside. I learned later in life that my grandpa Willie supposedly had an illegitimate child with one of the Pledgers. At the time, he was working for the original Pledger patriarch at a sawmill in Clarendon. My mom didn’t know anything about her half-sister until after the half-sister died. The story is that she and mom looked a lot alike. Although I have delved fairly extensively into the Pledgers, I have avoided any direct linking to their trees or stories.

 

 

This picture is of the old house on the hill. (The aforementioned porch swing is on the left in the background.) Grandpa Willie is seated center. They are sitting on the porch steps, a series of piled railroad logs. I nailed at least 1,000 nails into those logs. These logs were one of the many reasons that I still love the smell of creosote of all kinds.