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My Storytelling Quilt

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Welcome to my storytelling quilt (click to catch my Alabama sound).

In mountain tradition, my Southern grandmother created free-flowing art that warmed her family on winter nights. She pieced scraps of twill, denim, corduroy, children’s outgrown clothes, men’s shirttails, worn-out dresses, and cotton sacking into the “memory gems” of life. Like her, I toss aside perfection for small, unpredictably shaped patterns. This blog is my verbal crazy quilt—the color and richness, my garden of perfect moments.

For more Deep South voices, read the story of a North Georgia whale or the tale of a suburban funny farm.

You’ll find my random world on the sidebar: Characters, Creatives, Humor, Places, Poems, Skipping through Gardens, Southern Crazy Quilt, Southern Women, and On Writers & Writing. If you’re a writer, scroll down the sidebar for helpful publishing links. To read tidbits on Southern lifestyle and culture, drop by the Random Storyteller Facebook Page.

4 hens sport funny hats in the acrylic painting Hen Party by Catherine Hamrick

Longing for a Southern Spring

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British novels fed my student imagination. I longed to wander the moors in a black dress or watch waves pound a rocky shore in Cornwall. I went to England and raced from castles to cathedrals, taking copious notes on period architecture and stained glass.

After several weeks, my dog-eared, pen-scrawled journal did not satisfy. Something was missing. On a whim, I traveled to the Lake District and took a ferry across Lake Windermere so I could backpack through fields of sheep and clamber over stonewalls. I arrived one afternoon when the sun broke through a mist and the trees stood damp and glistening.  A few hundred yards from the train station, a woman lined potted plants along the gravel path that led to her porch.

The scene reminded me of a March day when spring, having struggled against winter, sent the sap rising. My mother hung her ferns on the porch. Swinging in the warm light, they shed the fronds that browned in February.

Suddenly, I knew what I had missed: a southern spring. Images sunk dormant now rose vividly.

I gazed at the Englishwoman’s modest containers of primroses and trailing ivy and rediscovered a season and a people thousands of miles away.

My parents shook off winter sluggishness with dreams of garden bounty. They pored over gardening magazines and seed catalogs. My father inspected the compost, a rich heap of leaves rotting since autumn.

Before Valentine’s Day, Dad began sowing seeds in his early planting zone: the playroom. He outfitted several tiered rolling racks with “grow” lights. Then he planted tomato seeds in small plastic containers and placed them on the rack shelves. A trowel, a watering can, stacks of leftover containers, and small bags of potting soil lay ready on a worn-out gurney he had carted home from the hospital.

With all that rolling stock, the playroom truly was his private playground, not ours.

When dogwoods burst open in snowy four-petal blossoms tipped with tiny red stains, my sisters, brother, and I rushed outdoors to test the water. Ritually, we kicked off our shoes and hosed one another before wading in the rocky creek running shallow in the woods behind our house. Soon we battle-splashed, and at our joyful shrieks, the neighborhood children came running, their abandoned shoes leaving a trail.

By early April, Dad worked feverishly. He cleared his garden space by burning off last year’s dried stalks. To his way of thinking, gardening was the most pleasurable and economical way to expend energy. The country club held little interest. Dad preferred hoeing five rows of beans to playing tennis on a sedate court.

My father’s compulsion to dig and dirty his fingernails stemmed from his childhood. For almost two centuries, his family farmed hilly North Georgia soil, which, once turned, spilled clay red in its furrows. If a man worked that land hard enough, it ground into his skin. As a child, I shook hands with men who worked fields in the Great Depression and noticed fine lines running reddish-brown on their palms.

Aging hands—freckled and knotted with bluish veins—hold the past. When I looked at my grandmother’s hands, I wondered how many times they pressed a child to her body or husked corn and stripped silk from the ears. Her knuckles grew stiff and her fingertips dry. Under a burning sun, she pulled cotton from stubborn bolls, with spring only a sweet, fleeting memory.

Looking back on the Great Depression, Mama Hattie once said they never considered themselves poor. “We had land, a house, a garden, a cow, a mule, a hog or two, and church. Most of all, we had each other.”

Living close to the land, Mama Hattie never forgot Appalachian folklore. “Plant your beans on Good Friday. . . . My daddy always said if you plant corn on Wednesday, the birds won’t take it up. . . . Don’t kill a hog unless the moon is shrinking in the last quarter. Otherwise, your bacon will curl in the pan when you fry it. . . .”

Her words drawl in my memory, turning over like long ropes of homemade pull candy that children twist, shape, and wear down white with buttered fingers.

As a boy, my father milked the cow at dawn and again at dusk and drew water from a 40-foot well. He and his brothers cut firewood from blackjack oak and knotty pine. They took turns riding the mule to Jim Dean’s Mill where their wheat and corn were ground into flour.

Today we buy bed linens online and complain about the power bill. We grab milk cartons at the supermarket and absently turn on the faucet when brushing our teeth. Specialty organic stores abound.

Few people rebuff modern conveniences. Nonetheless, they seek, in small ways, solidarity with the earth. They savor spring onions and just-picked lettuce from the farmers market. Some grow planters of cherry tomatoes on their patios or hover over a modest row or two of beans, squash, and herbs bedded in the backyard.

Everyone has a zucchini recipe to swap with a neighbor. Urban gardens flourish across America—new life in a concrete-steel jungle.  Flowers in mason jars and bottles sit in windowsills. Everywhere people grope for the comfort of a rural past.

My father left home at 16, carrying little but his love of the land.  This spring, John and I will study color-rich gardening images on tablets. The old hardware store down the street still sells seed packets.

John will turn up a small strip of ground and build a crude chicken wire fence to protect tender, young tomato plants from deer. We will snip herbs from the container garden on the patio.

From our tiny patch of the South, green will grow. And if nostalgia grips the next generation, I will tell them to plant beans on Good Friday.

 

2015 Reader Favorites: A Genre Medley

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I threw a lot of spaghetti at my blog wall this year. Here’s what stuck—a mix of garden musings, essays, poetry, humor, and Southern stuff.

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  1. Autumn Skylights: I fled outdoors as the season’s colors flared and yielded to muted textures.
  2. Honesty—Brutal Is a Relative Term: A writer with a Teflon psyche? Now that’s a good thing.
  3. Thank You to My Followers: Blogging enriches my life with generous friends worldwide.
  4. daylily spectacle #haiku: The humble daylily speaks a universal truth.
  5. Apple Chill: Syllabic poetry, whether fixed or constrained, liberates everyday objects.
  6. Southern Comfort: A funky flea-market find redefines “sitting pretty.”
  7. I Was a Mannequin in a Cannonball-Bed Window Display: There was no escape from Southern crazy or the burning question: “Who are your people?”
  8. #WordlessWednesday Winter White: Light and shadow dazzle in this origami chandelier at the Delaware Museum of Art.
  9. Leaders: Who Plays in the Sandbox? In 2015, most officials are too small-minded to think big.
  10. Where Does God Live? His true home has to be the North Georgia Mountains.

I appreciate your stopping by in 2015. Good words to you in the New Year!

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The Daily Post Prompt: Earworm

“Sharing Christmas Love” by Mom

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Several years before she died, my mother wrote this Advent devotional. Sublime simplicity about the deep complexity between the best of our humanity and God. She lived the message every day of her life. Caritas.

What is the true meaning of Christmas? Is it decorations, gifts, parties, family gatherings, Santa Claus? As delightful as these traditions are, they can easily put us on a secular path that may lead us unaware to a love of things rather than people and blindness to the real meaning of Christmas.

Years ago, the commercial world did not bombard us with messages to buy, buy, buy. Now it assaults us via television, radio, the Internet, magazines, and newspapers.

Today we must take the time to stop . . . pause . . . read . . . pray . . . alone with our family and remember what Christmas means: the beginning of Christianity, the way of the One who was born in the manger, and the hope of the world for peace and love among all people.

Remember Christina Rosetti’s hymn “Love Came Down at Christmas”?

Love came down at Christmas,

Love all lovely, Love Divine;

Love was born at Christmas;

Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,

Love Incarnate, Love Divine;

Worship we our Jesus,

But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,

Love shall be yours and love be mine,

Love to God and all men,

Love for plea and gift and sign.

Love came down at Christmas. Indeed, it did! We need to share that love, not only with family and friends but also with strangers who need our help at Christmas and throughout the year . . . our own small acts of love . . . smiling at a stressed store clerk, visiting a shut-in, phoning a sick friend, being a good listener. In effect, gifts of our time.

May our celebration of the baby born in the manger inspire us to follow the way of Christ more closely.

As we grow and change, the term family redefines itself. Today I think fondly of friends around the world. Many have sent holiday wishes winging my way.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts my parents bestowed was an interest in people from other places, including colleagues who emigrated to the States with their families. My dad, in particular, loved traveling to other countries. When touring, Mom said he sometimes wandered off for hours to engage the locals. While in China, he delighted in people eager to practice English in public parks. My parents encouraged my study of foreign language and travel abroad.

At age 14, I unwrapped a powerful Christmas gift—The Family of Man—the book based on the landmark photography exhibition that opened at The Museum of Modern Art in 1955. More than 500 photographs told the human story of all cultures, finding common ground in themes such as love, children, youth, middle age, old age, and death.  The collection toured the world for eight years.

Now I understand that my parents left me an enduring greeting card, which I now share with my family of humankind.

The Daily Post

 

 

 

Alabama’s Friday Night Lights & the Coordinated Nerd

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Ah, Friday football.

The scent of just-mown grass, half-beaten yellow under the late-August sun, prickled my nose and mingled with the acrid smell of the stadium cinder track. Chalk lines crisply cut the field. Drums rolled. The batons of white-booted majorettes flashed silver. The band, smothered in dark green uniforms, marched. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. Into the stadium. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. Up the cement steps. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. To their 50-yardline seats. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. The dance team pranced behind, yellow capes jauntily flung back. Gold sequins glittered on top hats and sparkled on clover leotards. Sweeping arms to the left and then to the right, they snapped a salute.

Sweet September.

Was this heaven? No, it was Alabama—the holy ground of football, where Paul “Bear” Bryant eternally walked on water, where Auburn played out miracle seasons, where Protestants celebrated Hail Marys, where five Birmingham radio sports channels simultaneously obsessed over pigskin picks, points, and past seasons 365 days a year.

Ah, Friday night glare. High school. Under harsh white lights, the aromas of blown-out popcorn, sizzling hot dogs, and greasy hamburgers hung in the air. The crowd buzzed while the genteel bass of the local news anchor—the dear dad of a football player-cheerleader-dance-team family—rolled through the snack menu, PTA thank yous, and a list of sponsors.

Perspiration beaded on my forehead. I plucked at the hem of my cheerleader uniform, shorter by 2 inches after a careless toss in a high-heat dryer cycle, dreading the fulfillment of my weekly Thursday nightmare: the football team bunches restlessly behind the banner of the school mascot (Spartans) sagging between the goalposts. The cheerleaders hop up and down in front, shaking pompons frenziedly, waiting to rush them down the field. Then the boys tear through the paper curtain in mad glory, overrunning their peppy escorts in a cleat-stampede—

That’s when I always woke up.

On entering high school, my friends and I hatched a plan to escape social obscurity: we would try out for cheerleading. My family’s risk factor for uncoordinated offspring was decidedly low. Surely my jackrabbit legs would catapult me to new heights. My picture in the yearbook! Flippy little skirts to wear! And dates, dates, dates!

Genetics laid out another destiny. On making the squad, I became the lower half of daredevil stunts—The Base. I and my Herculean counterparts lifted, carried, and acted as human springboards for 80-pound Tinkerbells (we were typically 35 to 50 pounds heavier). Before each kickoff, a teen angel clambered onto my shoulders, popped up to a standing position, and waved fervently to the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy. Her weight shifted constantly, so I smiled gamely and swayed, much like the Transamerica Building during a seismic catastrophe. About then, the school photographer strolled up for a few shots, zeroing in on the beauty above. Several sooty footprints decorated my uniform by the end of the game.

I cast aside my glasses—thick lenses squeezed into hippie wireframes—to cheer in squinty-eyed vanity. Not once did I suffer performance anxiety; the crowd was little more than a roaring blur. I rarely glanced at the football field because the action was so hazy I couldn’t tell whether our team was making or stopping a first down.

A couple of times, I stared into my myopic fog, hallucinated that the boys were on the verge of a first down, and began yelling, “First and 10, do it again! First and 10, do it again!”

My Tinkerbell partner wheeled around, got in my face,  and boomed, ” DE-fense, DE-fense! HIT-em a lick. HIT-em a lick. Har-DER! Har-DER!”

My perspective was always a little off, from football to current culture. I never gushed about Robert Redford’s face, Paul Newman’s eyes, or Warren Beatty’s mane. I had a crush on Richard Harris’s pained visage (Camelot) and adored Henry David Thoreau, Chief Joseph, and John Keats. My preferences puzzled Mary, my older sister and cheerleader co-captain: “But, Cathy, those men are so-o-o dead.”

Maybe dead men were easier to dream about. Live ones required much analyzing during lunch, gym class, and breaks at our lockers.  At night, the phone lines crackled with speculation.

“Will he ask me out? He’s gotta. He’s just gotta.”

“His sister told his best friend who told his next-to-best friend that you thought he was cute—and he smiled.”

“Was it a big smile?”

“His sister said, well, sort of, kind of. She counted about 10 teeth.”

If nobody asked us out by Wednesday night, we turned to other activities until a fresh week rolled around. Never dating steadily, I expended great energy painting spirit posters and banners. I tried to raise football slogans to lofty alliterative heights: “Eradicate Eagles.” “Conquer Cougars.” “Vanquish Volunteers.”

However, my scribblings fell flat before critics who weilded power megaphones:

“Give me a break. Those posters look like an anti-roach campaign.”

“Yeah, what’s wrong with ‘Pluck Eagles’ or ‘Crush Cougars’? ”

“Get to the point. How about ‘Bash Volunteers’?”

(In retrospect, their corrections proved an early writing lesson: use concrete verbs.)

Deep down, I was a coordinated nerd. I lauded Jethro Tull, David Bowie, and other select musicians because they penned artful, somewhat grammatical lyrics. Editing double negatives in rock ‘n’ roll lyrics and re-counting the beats became a one-week obsession until Mary told me to shut up. A random encounter with Aristotle’s Poetics in the library resulted in a much-belabored term paper: “The Development of Aesthetics in Classical Greece.” When I eagerly turned in the assignment, my besieged English teacher scanned the first page, looked up wild-eyed, grabbed a red marker, marked a huge “A” by the title, and handed back my paper. Smart woman. Why ruin her weekend suffering through Greece’s literary golden age crammed into 16 ink-spotted pages?

Journaling became my passion. Pathetic fallacy littered any expression of my interior landscape. Trees and stones wept when a running back broke my heart. Skylarks soared when the quarterback asked me out—once.  A park bench and a lamppost, dimmed by fog and drizzle, symbolized my parents’ lack of understanding.

Looking back, I would say my mother was rather kind. When I thrilled to Robinson Jeffers after reading “Hurt Hawks,” Mom scoured Birmingham for his works. No such luck. There was not a particular fan base for a dead-language-scholar-poet who scribbled tragic happenings while shut away in a lonely, hand-built stone tower in Carmel, California. The poor woman called two dozen bookstores in New York before locating my Christmas present—Jeffers’ collected poems—which she dutifully handed over, drily commenting, “Tennyson, anyone, next year?”

One lazy afternoon, I stopped by the library and spotted a tome lying abandoned on a table: The Feminine Mystique. I grabbed the book, concluding it was a how-to beauty guide. Whoa! The content was rather dizzying for my vapid teen mind, so I dispatched it to the return-to-library stack on my dresser.

Ms. Betty Friedan, however, got me to thinking on one point. Why were boys always stuck with the dating tab? It seemed a fair question. So on my next social outing, I proffered money at my date when he stepped up to buy two movie tickets. His face telegraphed disdain; I stuffed the bill in my purse and took the free ride until college.

Fandom

Although I retired my cheerleader letter sweater at 17, I casually roll with the Crimson Tide in deference to Deep South religion. But during basketball season, the Tar Heel nation requires worship.

A Writer Color-Pops My Walls in 2016

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Once in a rare blog, I come across a writer with the gift to tell a story in two sentences. Stopping by words on a snowy evening last January, I ran into Brenda Keesal’s tale of “Deer Peeple” and fell in love with the powerful simplicity and rich images of her prose. A year later, she throws me a curve: this author and indie filmmaker creates art possessed with the eyes, flashes, and patterns of a peacock in full bloom. Brenda’s illustrations reach beyond feminine flourishes; they’re organic, in the moment of flying-fingers motion. My eyes train on two prizes: “Flare”  and “I Can See You”—the perfect vertical-and-horizontal combination to wake up a tired wall.

400px Art by Brenda Keesal @ burnsthefire Flare and Nicola copyright 2015 final (6)

There’s always a story-behind-the-story when it comes to art. Brenda often pairs words with images—in effect, a lively mind-walk: “Art Is Love” (or “Flare”) and “I Can See You.”

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I felt rather profound when asking the question “What is the germ of your art?” Brenda, always in tune with the truthful universe, gave a forthright reply (above) with a nod to the illustration “RISE.”

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Of course, I do not always need background. Sometimes it’s amusing to leave something to the imagination. “Nicola” and “Rashmi” remain delicious mystery—for now.

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Sweet dreams are made of this: it’s simple—embrace all that it is to be human, whether holding on to 1 year or 99.

#ArtIsLove

Drop by Brenda’s blog Burns the Fire, and she’ll send an art piece of your choice for $30.

In my final posts before Christmas, I will share a remarkable book for all ages written by two brother-artists and the tomes topping my reading list in early 2016.