My Mother’s Flowers

We  have a way of finding beauty, even if it runs from us.  There is a radar in our souls that seeks it out–the haunting song, a painting that will not let us go,a novel that changes our lives forever.  We travel miles to view an ocean sunset, then we go in the opposite direction to see the leaves blaze in fall.  We are refreshed and renewed.  After these trysts we can go back to our 9 to 5’s, at least for a while.

My mother found her beauty in flowers. Year after year she begged and cajoled trees and shrubs, annuals and perennials,native and exotics to live in her yard.  Sweat pouring down her face, strong arms gripping her hoe, in a frenzy of activity, she chanted to herself and to anyone else who would listen, ” I’ve got to have a few flowers, if I can just have a few flowers, I can make it.” She propped up flagging Dahlias,carried buckets of sand from a pit near our home,all the while praying over stunted evergreens.  She dug beds for Iris and Tulips, fortifying the land with river stone. After reading her bible,The Progressive Farmer,she scattered Petunia and Marigold seed. She whispered to me,conspiratorially,that these flowers tolerated heat well. Cold rain and late springs ruined her ornamental plums, undaunted she planted again. She refused to be defeated by such a small glitch in her quest for beauty. Between working in her vegetable garden and picking cotton, my mother worked constantly in her yard.

One hot summer night, after the dew had fallen and the stifling air had cooled enough so that we could move inside, we watched a television special on Appalachia. The rutted out coal fields, the weathered silver houses standing abjectly, held my mother’s attention.  She must have been surprised and maybe just a little comforted that there were  people poorer than she. The commentator masterfully showcased a poor Appalachian  family, ending the frame with a shot of a barren desolate yard. The woman of the house had given up all hopes of flower’s, he said,for none would grow in this wasted soil. My mother turned her face from us and lowered her head. “I been there, she said. “I  been right there where that woman is.”

I knew it was true.  My mother had very few options. Poor,uneducated, a woman in a man’s world, she had little choice but to survive.  She tried working in a factory. She couldn’t take it.  She had no self confidence and the fine motor skills that the sewing required, she did not possess. So she went back to the farm and worked like a man.  She fed her children, and went to church, and when she had a spare moment, she plowed beauty out of a sterile protesting earth. She once told me that she tried to plant lilacs in our yard. ” They wouldn’t grow”, she said. They do better up North. They are not made for down here.” Years later I thought of the phrase “Bloom where you are planted.”  My mother didn’t always bloom, where she was planted, but she stayed, and she dug in her roots like kudzu.  My mother defied poverty and depression, want and disappointment to define her own beauty.

Sometimes now,in my home in the West, I look at the flowers that are so different from flowers in the South. Purple Salvia, Coral Belles, Devil’s Nettles, all bloom in lovely profusion.  It requires a great deal of care to make them thrive in the high desert.  But then,I see a woman, trowel in hand, water hose hoisted above her head, and I think of my mother, and I hear her say, “If I can just have a few flowers….” Beauty we will find, wherever we live.




Two Thanksgivings

Thanksgiving season 2015 in the United States is not a happy time.  There is great division in a country that should  now be readying for a holiday that in a large way defines us.  I hear myself humming the old Bee Gees lyrics “The world is a bad place, a bad place, a terrible place, but I don’t want to die.” We are a frightened and fragmented people, all looking for hope and standards to hook our life onto.

And so I retreat as many older people do. I go back to a different time, and recall, as Herman Raucher wrote so beautifully in Summer of 42, “we were different then, kids were different.  It took us longer to understand the things we felt.” I  flash back to the  photo shop of Thanksgiving dinner with my mother’s family, the Smiths, and, on alternate years, my father’s family, the Ledbetters.

Oh, those Smiths! Large, gregarious, combative; a gathering of Smiths was not for the meek or easily offended.  But the  sisters were masterly cooks. Ham, cornbread dressing, turnip greens, five layer cakes covered  with coconut cream or German Chocolate, one could never do justice to the Thanksgiving offering prepared by the Smiths.  And as if the  temporal presents of the family  were not substantive enough, the philosophical remained.  My grandfather served as county supervisor for four terms in Tippah County.  In hindsight, I believe he must have imbued his sons and, to a large extent, his daughters with a love of politics. Thus, after the sedating, sleep – inducing meal, one room in the house was relegated to a fiery discussion of politics and often polemics. To enter this room a soul needed to be very tough and not easily daunted.  As with most people in Mississippi in the nineteen fifties and early sixties, the Smiths were largely Democrats.  If you were Republican or hybrid, beware. Nevertheless, the Smiths valued dissent.  One did not win their approval by meekly submitting.  No, they liked fighters!

Toward the end of the day, as ice cream and cake were served, politics was shelved for religion.  This branch of the Smiths identified as Southern Baptist with a few Presbyterians and Methodists scattered in.  And so, predestination, security of the believer, back sliding and prevenient grace were trotted out, and defended or refuted.  Faces grew red, voices were raised, the faith was vindicated.  My gentle father, the son of a Methodist preacher, often retreated to the front porch swing.  My mother, though, joined in the fray, full tilt.

It may appear that this was a full and exhausting day and in truth it was, but one could not close this event without a discussion of football; this rivalry was just as heated as those that preceded.  Most Smiths were Ole Miss devotees, but of course being as divergent as they were known to be, rivalries from Mississippi State and Memphis State, now The University of Memphis, surfaced.  One brave soul even championed The University of Arkansas.

I usually left the Smith reunions in tears.  The Smiths had little sympathy for overly sensitive cry babies, and they would find a way to point out my failings and short comings as well as everyone else’s in attendance.  They were no easier on themselves than they were on the most befuddled child. “You better dry it up and go on,” my mother told me.  But I longed to go back .  There was life there, and challenges, and bedrock honesty and endurance.  And they were mine, those opinionated Smiths.  They were mine.

If the Smith Thanksgiving was a seminar of assertion and dogma, the Ledbetter gatherings were a study in laid-back affability.  The Ledbetters were good cooks too, but in a more move-the-paper-off-the-table-so -there-is-room-to eat kind of way.  But the food was wonderful: fried potatoes, pinto beans, turkey, every now and then squirrel and gravy, casual dining at its best. My father’s only sister, Aunt Lee, who was the spirit of goodness, mothered us all.  She filled tea glasses and plates, hugged and loved us.  She  soothed everyone.  If your soul was sore, she made it better.  Aunt Lee had room for everyone in the large spaces of her heart.

In the afternoons we didn’t talk politics or religion.  We danced.  At least my teenage cousins did.  Elvis was beginning to steal our hearts, so furniture was moved and anyone who could be persuaded took the floor. Dancing was a prompt for my cousin Ann to bring out her movie camera and preserve for posterity our coaxed smiles and fifties gingham dresses.  After this marathon of dancing and photography, we ambled into the yard to check out our Memphis cousins’ new Caddy.  They  had found the American Dream and we were glad for them.  Around five o’clock we packed up our baskets and drove the short distance to our homes.  Most of the Ledbetter kin lived in a little half mile enclave near Dunnam’s store.  We didn’t have far to go.

In retrospect, I understand what great times those were.  The Smiths toughened me up and the Ledbetters  validated me.   I came to identify with both families, with the great pride and tenacity and the fierce work ethic of the Smiths, and with the gentle loving kindness, tolerance and stoic endurance of the Ledbetters.  I miss them, and I love those who remain.

 In this time of weary sorrow, of fear and uncertainty, whatever I say would be trite, and formulaic.  Much greater thinkers than I have analyzed families and nations, greed and hatred, altruism, and nationalism.  In this autumn of my days, I choose to remember the good, the defining mementos of an ordinary life, lives where people struggled but never gave up, and chose to celebrate when they could.    I wish that in this Thanksgiving time, the season could be a prelude to peace on earth.  I wish, but I have doubts.

A Tennessee Rose

Miss Clement was an ungathered rose, an unclaimed blessing, a spinster lady; or as the junior high boys classified her—an old maid.  A cousin of Governor Frank Clement of Tennessee, Miss Ima came into our lives as easily and unobtrusively as the Little Hatchie flows into it’s sister, the Big. We knew that she moved to Northeast Mississippi to teach school.  Why, was harder to fathom.

There had been a sweetheart, we were told.  Early on, Miss Ima, daughter of a well connected family from west Tennessee, had been engaged to be married to a young man, an attorney, our mothers thought. Something happened, some dishonor, or mutual disagreement; some tarnished promise. The engagement was broken and Miss Ima spent time in a rest home, or as the more callous might say, a mental institution. After her recovery, she drifted through several jobs, never quite finding her anchor, never getting her feet solidly on the ground. At the onset of World War ll, with help from family, she obtained a government position in Washington D.C.  We  didn’t know much about that time; there we hints of friendships, of matinees and operas, but for whatever reasons,after the war ended, Miss Clement came to Mississippi to teach,securing for  herself a place in our community, and in our lives.

As was the custom of that time, Miss Clement boarded with neighborhood families. She must have found the barnlike, unheated houses, the constant diet of peas and cornbread, the larvae infested cistern water distressing, but she adapted. She took her daily baths, perfumed and cold creamed her Magnolia skin and attempted to bring civility to the natives. Whatever small cobbled room she was assigned, she decorated.  Using magazine cutouts, she framed and pasted.  She painted tables and windowsills, wrapped gauzy tulle from her long ago ball gowns around metal beds and unpainted dressers. On Sundays, she dressed in her gray or blue teacher suits, pinned a corsage of flowers to her lapel and went to church.  Never, never, did she succumb to the style of that region and wear rolled up cotton stockings.  Although her shoes were sensible, only silk adorned her legs.

With school and church and community Miss Clement settled in.  She was different, yes. But rather than being classified as “not our kind of people” as so many northerners or foreigners were designated, Miss Clement was afforded respect.  Respect as an eccentric, true, but also as a refined and courteous lady of virtue and learning. She was welcomed and honored in our little plot of the earth.  But life never ambles along as it should, never gentles out into a stream, but rather becomes a rushing river;and so it was with our friend’s life. In the early nineteen-fifties, Miss Clement began to lose her hearing. Her elegant refined voice became softer as she leaned in to hear our mothers’ conversations over a communal quilt rack.  Her A’s became kinder, her consonants less distinct.  She could no longer hear well enough to teach in public school.  Genteel poverty in the hardscrabble rural South might have been the hardest kind. “Pore  thing”, our mothers whispered behind their hands. “What will happen to her now”?  Our fathers said she might as well go back to her people, there was nothing left for her here.  But Miss Clement stayed. She had found a camaraderie with the rough handed farm women, the yearning children, and the hard spoken men.  With the help of a small legacy she continued to board with families.  It was not always easy.  Miss Clement could be high handed.  She wanted her daily bath, no matter that the Cistern was dry, and water must be hauled from deep in the bottom.  She wanted the gravy bowl placed just so, and the dishtowels folded right. She often left in a huff with many a farmer’s “good riddance” echoing in her ear.

But she endured.  She became a Sunday School teacher in her local church.  She attended board meetings and voted in elections. She sat up with families who had lost loved ones.  An inheritance enabled her to buy a small neat house, with a fenced in yard where Crepe Myrtle and Weigela thrived. Devotedly, she visited her friends who had seen her through the winters of her life. Always stylish, always proper, she sat with her back straight and her finger out, as she drank our strong coffee and absorbed our gossip.

Mrs Ima died in her nineties, alert and functional to the end. She has been mourned and missed.  She takes her place in the annuals of legends, along with the man who roamed the woods and slept in cars, along with the savant who knew the exact day of every community member’s birth, but also in league with the preachers and judges and teachers who made our lives deeper and more thoughtful and complete.

We tell our children about Miss Clement, a stranger in a strange land. A society woman from a prominent family who never thought she was better that we were. She chose us.  She taught us in school and in Sunday church, she wept with our widows and helped us bury our dead.  She is a folk hero to me, not for any great legislation, or literary work, or even, feat of strength.  She simply exercised common humanity in a world in which that trait is sometimes begging.  G. K. Chesterton wrote “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

If I Could go back in Time, I would be Kinder to Nerds

It is no great secret, no great revolution in thought, that time changes one’s perspective.  Parents who were once thought of as autocratic appear to us in our mature days as profoundly wise. In the same vein, those contemporaries who once were god-like in our eyes now are mere mortals or less.  Life experience whittles things down, one hopes, clarifies, mellows, and enlightens our view.

Reflection sets me to thinking about how I would live my life differently if given the chance. I would try to be a better mom, a better wife, a better daughter, and a better friend, and unequivocally, I would be kinder to nerds. Now before you think that I am being unkind or superior, I assure you, I am not. While Webster’s Dictionary defines a nerd as “one who lacks social skills or is boringly studious,” the Urban Dictionary gives what I regard as the true definition:  “Nerds are clearly superior to us in every way.  We should worship them.”  Webster has this to say about “geeks,” the nerd’s first cousin– Geeks are “unfashionable or socially inept.”  To strongly refute this definition, Urban calls it right, I think, when it says  that “a geek is the person you pick on in high school and end up working for as an adult.”  One might reasonably argue that there are famous nerds who prove this point.  Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Madeline L’Engle,  Mayim Bialik and Gillian Anderson may have all had their share of ribbing in high school, but look who is calling the shots now. Even Elvis was considered somewhat of an outsider when he first moved from Tupelo to Memphis.  Neighbors were heard to say, “who is that country boy and why does he play that guitar all the time?”  Bill Clinton was sometimes considered nerdy: along with his wearing high-water pants, he was a prolific book reader, and music lover.

Material wealth, fame, recognition, all are fine, but not the true measure of a successful life.  I think one of the best nerd stories that I have witnessed is that of a  woman I met in college years ago.  Brilliant, eccentric, committed to her own beliefs, she lived outside the magic circle of acceptance.  While most of us attended dances, she studied Kant.  It was a lonely life. Today she is comfortable financially, but more importantly, she has raised a beautiful family, all of whom are good citizens of this earth.  My friend has established numerous charitable organizations, fed the homeless, found jobs for the unemployed and secured musical instruments for young artists who don’t have funds. She knows who she is.  She always has.

I see them now, in my memory, young girls in thick glasses, boys with wrong clothes, sitting at the library or math lab.  We passed by them, laughing,busy with our social lives.  They were invisible to most of us, and that makes me ashamed.  I am glad now that they have proved us wrong. Among other things, they have nice houses and good jobs, and friends who understand them.

So I am for the idea of starting a nerd day,a day when we salute the best and brightest among us; a day when we recognize that different  can be good; A holiday to celebrate those from whom we could have learned so much had we only listened.  Perhaps we still can.

Heroes, Now and Then

My father died twenty three years ago, shortly before his eighty fourth birthday.  He was, of course to me, a remarkable man. Remarkable, not in that he was rich or famous, or well known, but that he was the kindest, most decent man that I have ever known.

Born out of time and place in rural northeast Mississippi, he was a poet philosopher in a land that did not welcome gentle, introspective people. There was too much Scots-Irish poverty and a woman and children to feed. He managed to graduate from high school in a time when that was a rare accomplishment, and for a while he taught school. When teaching did not provide enough money or stability, he farmed. He was not very good at it.  His fences broke, a mule kicked him in the side, weeds and boll weevils overtook his cotton. He must have wanted to give up.  He never did.

He read to me from Shelly and Keats, told me the story of  Evangeline, and succeeded in convincing me that there was a world of ideas and views outside our small and sometimes limited world. He was a star athlete, a  natural lefty who nevertheless threw with his strong right arm .Offered an athletic scholarship to a state college, he turned it down.  I once asked him if he regretted it. His answer betrayed his usual modesty. He simply said, “It might be better that I didn’t accept the offer.” It might have been his way of dealing with regret.  He never evidenced self pity or despair.

Every Sunday my dad took us to church, where he served as Steward and Sunday School Superintendent.  He was a rock and a pillar in that small congregation, welcoming pastors, inviting new members, and unfailingly reaching out to the young, restless, troubled souls who didn’t quite fit in. My dad could put anyone at ease, and bring out the hidden best in darker natures.

He eventually found his niche in the insurance business.   He traveled all over North Mississippi and delighted in seeing the Delta and south Mississippi,where business trips were a feast to him.  He saw the ocean, ate in a Greek restaurant; and listened to the blues; all marvelous experiences to file in his memory.  For all his days he would love the insurance business and revel in telling tales about his travels and experiences. He could tell a story with the best of them.

My father was mortal, and he would have been the first to say that he had  faults.  As I approached my years of rebellion, as all ungrateful children do, I faulted my father a great deal.  I wished he had been home more; wished we had shared more heart-to-hearts, wished he had stopped me as my life careened into chaos and destruction. Sorrowful years later, with some acquired wisdom, I remembered how he had driven me to work, paid for braces on my teeth, helped me with my kids and never once turned his back on me or evidenced disappointment in my life style. A thousand kindnesses my father did, without once expecting any gratitude.

Now, as I am old and my steps are slower, I remember, as Dylan Thomas so beautifully phrased it, “the lamb white days”- the days of youth.  I recollect a trip to Memphis to visit family. The big supermarkets, the lights, the tall buildings, all assaulted my senses in the most thrilling way. My mom and dad had gone into a market to shop, where somehow I strayed away and could not find them. To this day I remember terror of the most gripping kind. Then, from the corner of my eye I spotted a tall familiar figure. Wearing his ever-present hat and good work pants, my dad was looking for me. I ran faster than I had ever run before and threw my arms around his legs. He was my anchor- the  standard and  the calm.   I was lucky to have had such a dad.

When I am weary and critical, hard to please and cynical, I remember my dad; his words, his mantra, repeated  so often to his family, “There is so much bad in the best of us, and so much good in the worst of us, it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.”  He was my hero then; he is my hero now.

A Fifties Kind of Dream

My summers in the 1950’s were a country girl’s summer.  We worked in the garden, early on, pulling the deep rose radishes out of the ground, then graduating to the tomatoes and the protesting purple hull peas.  If we were lucky, maybe one time, in the three month summer, we went to Dumas Lake.  Wearing old shorts and tee shirts, we swam in that warm fish scented water, floating endlessly in the soothing milk coffee waves. It was miles from the cotton we would pick that fall, and from the winter when we would not really be warm until we were in bed at night, covered by heavy quilts made of our cast off clothes.

In the late fifties, providence smiled on me and changed my summers, for my mother had family who lived in Memphis.  Barely an hour and half away from my home, the River City might as well have been a planet away, so different was it from my normal existence.  My brother would drive me to the city for my two week visit, and he would say as we were nearing Memphis, “watch out for the power lines; that will mean we are getting close.” Power lines, high rise apartments, escalators, department stores, they were bounty for my hungry mind.  I couldn’t take it in.  My cousins with whom I visited, considered it common place, and I am sure thought me to be beyond ignorant.  They were kind, though, and shared their home and lives with me.

My mother’s youngest sister, Aunt Martha, was the spirit of kindness to me.  She was, I think a prototype of the fifties housewife. Wearing capri’s, or pedal pushers, as we called them then, she kept her home clean, baked casseroles, and, most wonderful of all, took my cousins Becky and Jan, and me to the department stores and swimming pools. She taught me to iron, and just how to wash dishes so that all the spots were off, and the glasses were brilliantly shined. She taught me love and peace and kindness, all tied to an honesty and fairness, that spoke the truth in love.

In the evenings, after a day of play, when the merri-mobile had made it’s happy way throughout the community, we played in the back yard. A chain length fence kept in my uncle Jay’s neat lawn,and the family’s Boston Terriers. My cousins and I told each other our dreams and secrets and ambitions, as little girls are apt to do. When the ochre sky turned into velvet, this signaled that it was time to go in and clean up in the blue ceramic bathroom. These were the sweetest of times for me.

Now families, unlike good memories are not perfect, and I’m sure this family would quickly tell you there were bad times, as well as good.  Job instability, moves, disagreements, rebellions, all happen to the best of folks.  Their life, I think they would say, was not a T.V. fantasyland.  The iconic fifties, as well, was not a time of limitless good will and harmony. Nations were made and broken, hypocrisy ran rampant, and the dishonesty of a country and a people escalated into the upheaval of the sixties.  But there remains in my past, that lovely remembrance of what was best of the fifties.  The suburbs with well kept lawns, the working man and woman succeeding in life, opportunities for children to obtain an education and a moral future. And my Memphis family, my mother’s sisters, my father’s niece, my cousins, are forever etched in my psyche.  They were representatives of the hope of our future, individually and communally. Good people, good times. I will forever be grateful to my Memphis family, for my Memphis summers, and the example and encouragement that they gave to me. Sometimes the most ordinary events are the greatest gifts.

What You Don’t Know Might Just Hurt You

If I were a betting woman I would lay odds that most of us have repeated this phrase several times in our life. ” We were poor… but we didn’t know it.”

Now this is a lovely sentiment that gives credit to parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors who made the most of their limited resources, and gave their children a better life than past generations.  In reality most baby boomers do have more assets and  opportunities than the generation before them.  Accolades must be given to hard working parents.

I am troubled, though, by the thought that being poor and not knowing it is acceptable. That it is an idea to be lauded, along with the misconception that we are a classless society. Somewhere in the framework of little children’s mind, the thought is planted that if they do not become successful, it is their fault. “Shame on you,” you threw away your chance for a big piece of the American pie.” After all, one expects our children to know the Horatio Alger story; to have been nourished on Abe Lincoln’s life, and, in our present time, to understand that a guy with Northeast Mississippi roots, and a birthplace in Hope Arkansas can climb the ladder of success quite well.  Guess again. Some of my students in a Mississippi public school in 2011 did not know how to find Arkansas on the United States map, much less did they know that a modern  president called that state his home.  And as for Abraham Lincoln, the students have a vague notion that he had something to do with the Civil War or they might say, “He freed the slaves.”.

If we don’t know our history, our geography; if we don’t know the names of Ivy League colleges that we can at least aspire to, then we are miles behind in the game of life.  If our concept of right to work versus free bargaining is skewered then we don’t know the questions to ask or the debate to challenge. I think it is fair to teach children that we are fortunate to have a Toyota plant at Blue Springs, and a Mississippi Silicon in the making at Burnsville. This is a great help to Mississippi workers.  To balance this out, I think, we should also teach children that factories often come to Mississippi because of cheaper labor. To be truthful children need to be told that Right to Work states spend $2,671 less per pupil on elementary and secondary students than Free Bargaining states. Bureau of Labor statistics reveal that the rate of work place deaths in states with Right to Work laws is 52.9 % higher than free bargaining states.

Bumper stickers in the South often admonish  ” If You Don’t Love It Leave It, or better yet, “Get the Hell Out!” Good advice, sometimes.   In reality though, it might be productive to know that in 2014 the Mississippi Department of Education reported that two-thirds of all kids who entered Mississippi public Kindergarten in the fall of that year did not have the base-level skills required for adequate learning.  And still the Pre-k program in Mississippi is limping along, with education in Mississippi underfunded more than $1.5 billion since 2008.

It is good to be content in life, to make the most of what we are given.  “Bloom where you are planted,” a phrase made popular by Mary Englebreight, conveys that satisfaction, that sense of sinking roots into the ground around us.  But poverty, lack of education, lack of leadership, and social class often make a fruitful life difficult.

Truth is a necessary tool for learning. I f we don’t know why we can’t climb out of the bottom of the barrel; why we keep getting turned down for jobs, why there are not enough jobs, and why those jobs pay so little, with so few benefits then we can’t really make informed choices.

To choose to bloom where we are planted can be laudable, if it is indeed a choice based on knowledge.  It is also commendable to say, ” I was poor and I knew it, and I found a way out.”

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