Welcome to My Crazy Quilt! Enjoy the Story Scroll. . . .

To my readers, longtime and new, welcome!

110 West 80 St-4R, NY, NY 10024Blogging is a shared experience. On a personal level, my blog delves into self-discovery and stitches together a story in time. It is my verbal crazy quilt. With you, it is my joy of connecting.

No crazy quilt is the same. Textile artists toss aside perfection for small, unpredictably shaped patterns. My grandmother, in the tradition of mountain mothers before, created free-flowing art that warmed her family on winter nights.

She patched together scraps of twill, denim, corduroy, children’s outgrown clothes, men’s shirttails, worn-out dresses, and cotton sacking into the “memory gems” of life. There is a story for every patch.

cropped ptg Hen Party 10-31-04_peKeep scrolling or check out the category buttons: Characters, Creatives, Musings, Places, and The Good Stuff on the sidebar. Or for a quick read, visit my portfolio.

The Garden of Perfect Moments

“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

That was Leonard Nimoy’s last message. It resonated. Just in time.

Until then, I lamented my slow arrival as a writer. Why had I not produced anything seminal? Where was my worth? What would I leave behind?

Now I ask . . . does it matter?

Three decades ago, I would have spurned Mr. Nimoy’s comment about “perfect moments.” I was in thrall to the existential belief that perfect moments do not exist.

The_Sun_in_extreme_autobrightenAs humans, we constantly rewrite history. Our lens changes as we witness birth, life, death. My father’s death last September brought me to a garden of perfect moments. And so began my family stories, not the artful fiction I desired. I am but a small speck.

Perhaps I now see the world as I once did as a child. Memory calls up a moment in time.

My sister Mary and I sat in a window seat in Mama Hattie’s rambling house. Was there really a window seat? It does not matter. What matters is the morning light making a big square on the floor, inches from our bare feet. We slid our toes into the warmth. The floor creaked. Tiny particles seemed to swarm in the sunlight, like thin layers of stirring gold dust. Our fingers chased each other in and out of the rays, whirling them into scattered sparkles.

I squinted into that light. The chairs and table receded and became shadowy as I focused on a photograph of Mama Hattie. She stood strong, slender, and young behind the smudged glass, her hair long and black. The baby boy on her hip held the dark tresses while she smiled gently.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. To my way of thinking, Mama Hattie always had gray hair. Only her eyes were black.

But some time she was not old. There were the stories she told after we had bathed, put on our airy nightgowns, climbed on her heavy oak bed, and bounced on the mattress.

We sat on either side of Mama Hattie while she told of school days, cotton picking, and corn shucking. Her stories wandered around and never really ended; they just ran into each other. She paused frequently, and her voice was whispery, like the velveteen dresses that Mom sewed every Christmas.

After a while, I would lay my head against her shoulder and feel her jaw moving as her voice rolled and slurred and drifted into the past.

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“Well, we’d go to this country school part of the year, but they’d turn out for the students to help their parents on the farm, if they needed hit. When we was in school, teacher called roll, and we had to answer with a little memory gem. I still recollect those memory gems.

“Let me see. . . .

“Be kind and gentle to those who are old; kindness is better and dearer than gold. . . .

“And, um, hit’s a-comin’ to me. . . . If you’ve work to do, do hit with a will. Those who stands at the bottom never climbs the hill. . . .

“Them cotton pickin’s?  Now those was a sight. Long about the end of pickin’ time, the bolls wouldn’t open real wide. Hit’d be so cold and bad weather that we’d just run and pick the bolls and then pick the cotton inside the house. . . .

“Then we’d have a candy pullin’! Boys and girls would gather ’round, and we’d pull that candy made from syrup. Hit would turn plum white we’d pull it so. . . .

“They’d have big corn shuckin’s, too! And the gal and boy that was a-settin’ next to each other, if they come to a red ear, he got to kiss her. . . .

“Nope, I never did have to kiss a single fellah. . . .”320px-Vegetable.garden_pe

Her shoulders shook, and we drowsily joined in her laughter. . . .

That world already had disappeared. But she spun those memories into perfect moments.

Will anyone know or care in a generation or two? It does not matter. That golden time is enough for the present.

On language: when “whales” become “wells”

Fb789It’s a moment when you reach back. Far back. You can’t reason why you do it. You’re jolted though, in the same way that you jump when thunder cuts the quiet of a mountain lake, until then almost still, except for fish running slight currents and heat lightning flirting with low clouds.

“Whale.” Soft as that word is, it firecrackered in my brain this morning. Random.

Mama Hattie sternly warned us never to touch the graying, splintered “whale-house” just steps outside her kitchen. Not even 6 years old, my sister Mary and I stood many hours before its boarded-up door.  We speculated on how often Pawie changed the whale’s water and marveled that its tail did not lash the walls of rotting wood. It never slapped water through the cracks.

Sometime that mysterious creature sank below memory glimmer. Maybe in the summer I noticed that Mama Hattie’s voice crawled through words—”hit’s” for “it’s” and “yeller” for “yellow” and “aigs” for “eggs.”  And “whale” for “well.”

That summer I wrapped an egg, fresh from the chicken house, in a red bandana.  I crouched near the whale-house and clasped the egg in warming desperation. Then I knew. My chick was gone. It had never been. It had never slept, tucked inside the shell, waiting to pick that brittle wall and pop out wet.

The whale had never been.

ContourBottleConceptSketch_peNothing else changed. Pawie rocked on the gray-painted porch of the white gabled, green shuttered house, never talking but always watching for trucks headed to Atlanta. They rumbled on Highway 53, honking until he shot up his long right arm—in salute to a world bypassing his. A small braided rug hung on a side balcony, waiting for a beating.

The day dimmed. We chased fireflies on the front lawn, more like a strip of pasture, and trapped them in Coca-Cola bottles. They glowed until smothered under greenish glass.  Our faint torches of summer.

Credit:

Wood shed courtesy of Fb789, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Fb78, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benutzer:Fb78

You say “ca-MEE-lia”; I say ”ca-MELL-ia.”

C T Johansson 320px-Camellia_japonica-IMG_2051The camellia, the Deep South’s winter belle, freshly accents the dormant garden. Its Asian invasion long forgotten, the camellia japonica is Sweet Home Alabama’s beloved state flower.  No matter how you drawl it, this flower is a cold-weather keeper.

Speaking of pretty blooms and soon-to-be spring . . . now is the time to think of planting season. The New Southern Living Garden Book (2015)—updated for the first time in 10 years—awaits your fingertips. In an almost a half-century tradition, Mom’s eager hands wore down her own copy.

The goldenrod, once Alabama’s state flower, was shunned  as a roadside weed. “Ah-Choo!”

The goldenrod, once Alabama’s state flower, was shunned as a roadside weed. “Ah-Choo!”

Credits:

Camellias courtesy of C. T.  Johansson

Goldenrod courtesy of Frank Mayfield, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gmayfield10/5306901503/

Good Night, Mama Hattie

400 px-Fall_colors_from_the_Blue_Ridge_Parkway_just_south_of_AshvilleMy 94-year-old grandmother, Mama Hattie, died in January almost 20 years ago. She slipped away while astronauts stepped from the space shuttle, and the blizzard of the century blew through the East. The Pickens County Progress ran an obituary—read faithfully by neighbors in North Georgia.

Her family and friends crowded in the Hinton Community United Methodist Church, just across the road from her resting place and a pasture of grazing cattle. Sprays of flowers propped up on stands, and two sisters from my aunt’s Baptist church twanged “Amazing Grace” in the old style. A portrait of Jesus gazed kindly upon the congregation. The right words were said.  And that was that.

That was that and so much more.

Sometimes my funny bone gets tickled during a funeral. This time, I thought, the jokes were on the politicians, who had just missed the chance to sound bite, photo op, and extol “family values” and “virtues.” Had they discovered her, they would have clamored to sit in her living room, hoping for a down-home TV endorsement.

Mama Hattie stood a scant 5 feet. She never learned to drive. She didn’t  go to college. She stuck around the community—a cluster of houses, a gas station, a general store, a dry goods store, and an old hatchery alongside a bend in the road.

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Mama Hattie was “big” on family. She and Pawie married almost a century ago. They had five children in rapid succession, while their life, until the 1930s, plodded along at a horse-and-buggy pace. A car passing on the yet-to-be-paved road was the event of the week. If the folks in nearby Fairmount spotted a car, they phoned the general store in Hinton to announce its imminent arrival. Then a crowd gathered by the side of the road to watch it jounce by.  Old Doc Weeks owned the only radio (powered by Delco batteries) in the county. He set it in the window on Saturdays so men could gather in his yard to listen to baseball games and prizefights.

Despite such tales, my grandparents were not rustics staring hollow-eyed at WPA cameras during the Great Depression. They were just “getting by.” When the government rolled into Appalachia to hand out food, Mama Hattie and Pawie refused. They managed.

dads-family-childrenMy grandfather taught school, farmed, and ran a general store that went bankrupt because he wouldn’t collect on his neighbors’ debts. Mama Hattie gave birth at home, did her washing on a scrub board, and stitched quilts and most of the family’s clothes. She canned, pickled, dried, or preserved whatever came from the garden. Hog killings didn’t faze her; she was grateful for the meat. My dad milked the cow, and a local gristmill ground their corn, wheat, and rye into flour. Water came from a 40-foot well and firewood from black jack oak and knotty pine.

Despite their dawn-to-dusk struggles, my grandparents found time for others. Mama Hattie sewed clothes for families that couldn’t afford it. Whenever the Friendship Church bell rang—alerting the community that someone had died—Mama Hattie comforted the family and laid out the body. Pawie and his friends dug the grave, and a neighbor, Lem Moss, made a pine coffin, which my grandmother lined with a bed sheet.

When chained convicts worked the roads, Mama Hattie worried whether they were hungry, whatever their skin color. She wrapped up biscuits and bits of food, precious packages delivered by her children.

Above all, Mama Hattie loved being a mother.  Her children learned by example, not sentimental talk. She joyfully grandmothered us, serving up fried chicken, fluffy biscuits, heaps of garden vegetables, apple turnovers, and chocolate layer cake. (No preacher ever turned down an invitation to her dinner table.) She took us fishing at the nearby muddy pond and baited our hooks with worms dug up from the yard. Not a lot of bites. We mostly dangled our lines in the water and talked.

Sometimes she had cause to fuss, her apron blowing in the wind and her calls hitting high pitches that could have broken glass. “Your mother is going to kill us for sure when she finds out what you’re up to!”

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Truth is, we almost killed ourselves. We tore over pastures in my uncle’s VW “bug,” with my 12-year-old cousin Melvina at the wheel.  My sister Martha tried to do circus tricks on a horse, including headstands at a trot. Mama Hattie screeched the loudest when we lit out on horseback during a thunderstorm.

Being from the city, we weren’t too smart.

When my grandmother took us to explore a chicken house, we swiped a few warm eggs. During Mama Hattie’s nap, we borrowed her cooking pots, lined them with freshly mown grass, and hunkered down, trying to hatch chickens. At mid-afternoon, Mama Hattie found us. She clapped her hand over her mouth and then drawled, “Y’all are a sight. I could burst from laughing, sure as the world.”

After Pawie died, Mama Hattie still showed up at church, same time, same pew, with her best friend Maggie, who came by the house so they could zip each other up in their Sunday dresses. They took off in Maggie’s monster sedan, their heads barely poking up above the dashboard.

Mam Hattie and Pawie img087_pe

Every generation gave as she did. My father, a surgeon, made house calls, with medications often tucked in his tackle box for patients out in the country. When Aunt Bonnie’s husband died of a heart attack, she turned her tragedy into a passion for fundraising for heart research and educational causes. Aunt Blanche gave heart and soul to her church. Mama Hattie’s grandchildren volunteered in church outreach, soup kitchens, 4-H clubs, AIDS education, arts programs. . . . And so it goes.

The matriarch, who gave away everything and asked for nothing, spent her last days cradling the core of her diminished identity, a doll she called “Baby.”

At her funeral, the preacher read the familiar words: “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. . . .” Mama Hattie probably asked for a modest room. “Don’t worry, Lord. I can change my own sheets and scrub the floor. And if you got any babies that need holding, I’ll keep them safe till their mamas get home.”

Credits:

Fall colors courtesy of Fran Trudeau, http://www.flickr.com/photos/papa-t/8116823983/

Quarter horse courtesy of Tierpfotografien de wikipedia, Uber de Medienbetrachter/Diese/Funktion diskutieren/Hilfe

Farmer Leon Goes Squirrely

Zea_mays_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-283My dad’s garden mania shot up about 30 years ago. He doubled the crop when the next-door neighbor gave him permission to plow through the lower end of their backyard. His children-sharecroppers (forced labor until their early teen years) had scattered—college, careers, and families. After hoeing, rowing, and picking beans, squash, tomatoes, new potatoes, lettuce, carrots, and okra, I cultivated a love for home-grown eats but an aversion to the work.

These events forced Dad to double his hours in the garden. My mother never commented, but she developed a blank stare when bushel baskets of produce started piling up on the deck. More “putting up” for the winter!

I pictured them as homesteaders planted on the Great American Prairie, squirreling away potatoes in their one-room soddie to get through seven months of blizzards. Mind you, these passionate people of the earth lived in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, on a 1 acre-lot, with the lower end turned into a farm. Their neighbors’ idea of quaint country living entailed an occasional drive to the local farmers market.

Having conquered new territory, Dad had a street light installed on a telephone pole at the edge of the easement so he could play in the dirt after supper until bedtime. Meanwhile my mother was sterilizing canning jars in four boiling pots on the stove.

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All this activity required careful timing if I wanted to drop by for a visit. Otherwise, Dad would have pressed me back into service. Scary. I did not carry a union card to protect me. Child labor laws had not protected me in my youth. As much as I loved my father, I showed up for free dinners on the nights he was on call. I gambled that he would be at the hospital operating on somebody.

Unlike many southerners, Dad did not hunt. His Scout Master once took him trekking for deer in the North Georgia Mountains. The man got a clean shot, but my father could not bear watching the animal die. That was his first and last mission to find edible wildlife, with the exception of deep-woods poke sallet and blackberries growing beside the highway. When he pulled over to pick, my mother bit her lip as traffic flew by. Fortunately, nobody slammed into the car.

Dad’s peace pact with animals ended when rabbits nibbled early spring lettuce. Then a groundhog and some squirrels chomped his young tomato plants. He acquired a 22 and became an instant hunter. To my secret amusement, I named it “Old Tick-Licker” after Daniel Boone’s legendary gun. The celebrated Kaintuck trailblazer bragged he could shoot a tick off an animal without harming it.

My homespun romance ends there. “Do no harm”? In the case of trespassing critters, Dad intended deadly harm. When he picked off a few rabbits, my mother always waited for the police to show up. It was one of her greatest fears.

Fortunately, the garden bordered a cliff dropping into deep woods. He aimed in that direction, so he would not shoot up the neighborhood. Maybe they adjusted to the crack-crack or perhaps ran indoors when they spied him garden bound.

174px-Common_SquirrelMrs. S.—the lovely lady next door and a member of my mother’s sewing club and church circle—had a penchant for rescuing creatures half-mauled by cats. She once found a half-dead squirrel and rehabilitated him. She named him George, and he lived in her screened-in back porch.

Late one Saturday afternoon, I showed up for my personal soup-kitchen moment. Oh, dear. Dad was not on call, so I had the privilege of gathering the harvest for two hours. Thank God, Mom called us into supper. Dad grabbed his 22, now his best friend, and we moseyed toward the back door.

I was chattering away about some foolish event at work. Suddenly, Dad grabbed my arm and said, “Sh-sh. Be still. Be still.” I learned early in life: one does not argue with an intense surgeon.

I froze. He trained his gun on an immediate victim. Just before Dad pulled the trigger, I spotted it: a squirrel happily dancing along the trellis overhanging the swimming pool. He had a mouthful of dripping tomato. “Old Tick-Licker” had mighty kick that day. The squirrel fell over into Mrs. S’s yard.

“S.O.B.,” Dad muttered. (My mother, Miss Bunny, was out of earshot.)

“Dad! You just dropped a carcass into Mrs. S’s yard!”Daniel_Boone_engraving

“Sh-sh. Be still. Be still.”

“She’ll find it tomorrow,” I whispered.

“No, tonight after she goes to bed, we’ll go over the fence, grab the body, and throw it over the cliff.”

Mom immediately confiscated “Old Tick-Licker” for good. No more neighbor naughtiness.

In 1968, Tony Joe White recorded “Poke Salad Annie” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  A year later, it climbed to Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. He told the story about a poor southern gal and her troubled family. She liked pickin’ that weed.

Credits:

Street light courtesy of Famartin

Squirrel courtesy of Nickomargolies at en.wikipedia

My Phone-less Day in London

Catherine Hamrick:

Reblog: “Technology has an unparalleled and unprecedented power to get in the way of every other important and precious thing around us. You just have to go to any public place and look at the sea of phones to see this.”

Originally posted on Pixelated Lifestyle:

Last year I visited London for a few days as I needed to go to the US embassy to pick up my working visa for America. Luckily I have a friend in London who kindly let me stay at her place for a few days. My interview was at 8am in the morning. If you have ever had one of these dreaded embassy interviews before you’ll know that you aren’t allowed to take anything in the building except your passport and documents.

So after my interview ended at about 10am, I was in the middle of London without any technology. No phone, iPod, camera, watch, gameboy, tamagotchi, NOTHING! I was alone with only my thoughts in one of the most exciting cities in the world. I thought I’d make the most of this rare occasion and go exploring for the day.

It felt so liberating! I felt like Neo in

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