From the archives:
A Christmas card I received from one of my Woodward cousins, and next-door neighbor, Cullen Myers Dauchy.
I believe it was my second Christmas, when I was fourteen months old. Cullen would have just turned six.
I feel lousy!
Oh so lousy!
I feel lousy, and frowzy, and a fright!
And that’s the truth.
I’ve already told my niece and my great-niece, through Facebook, what I think about a couple of things. Niece offered to buy me a drink. I suggested codeine or paregoric instead. Great-niece hasn’t responded.
At this point, even the brain is running out of steam, so, gentle readers, you will be spared the Grouse. Instead, I will post pictures of a family get-together in Houston a year–two?three?–ago.
Both of the mothers said I could post photos of their children. The children’s grandmother didn’t give permission to post a photo of her, but she doesn’t get to say. When I was sixteen and she was almost twice that, and old enough to know better, she set an ice pack on my stomach in the middle of the night, when I was sound asleep.
I have forgiven her, but I will never forget.
Anyway, here are a bunch of very bad photos of people having fun.
P. S. I’ll see how many of gentle family are aware of this blog by counting the number of comments I get from them here and on Facebook.
A brief report: I’m spending a couple of days with my cousin VZ. That’s the one who fell asleep while I was reading her the first pages of my work in progress two years ago.
I posted about the incident here even as she was snoring away in the other bed–we were sharing a hotel room after attending a bridal shower that afternoon–and I hated to do it but felt it served her right. There’s a certain deference due to writers, and that night she didn’t give me any at all.
Nonetheless, I came to officiate at VZ’s cataract surgery. Experience allows me to say things like, There’s nothing to it, and, Don’t worry, and, They’ll give you enough Valium, you won’t care what they’re doing. I’m also an expert eye drop dropper. Steady hand, good aim, all that.
Surgery took place this morning and all went well. Waiting went well, too, because the ophthalmologist’s office had Wi-Fi and I had my Chromebook. We spent the afternoon doing drops and sleeping. I was supposed to be reading a book but I suppose Valium is contagious. Fortunately, her prescription read every two hours when awake.
VZ crashed again two hours ago. It’s approaching ten o’clock, so I am waking up, as I tend to do about this time every night. I’ll read for a while but will retire in about a half-hour. It’s important that I be awake and alert in the morning. VZ wakes early and will need her eye drops, three different drugs, each with its own set of instructions.
And at present I’m the only one of us who can read.
Image: A Maid Sleeping, Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
1st row: James Burnside King IV, Stephen Marshall King, Barbara Lee King, Mary Katherine Waller
2nd row: Crystal Lynn Worden, Mary Veazey Barrow, Eugene Wray Worden, Mary Whiting Worden,
Mary Veazey Worden
I returned Sunday from four days in Higginsville, Missouri. I had accompanied my cousin Mary Veazey to see her brother, Wray, and his family. Wray has been in the hospital in Kansas City for the past couple of weeks. He’s doing much better now and will be released from captivity in another couple of weeks if he cooperates, says the physical therapist. He’s cooperating.
Before we left for the airport Sunday morning, Wray began reminiscing about the times he and Mary Veazey spent with my parents in Fentress, in the late 1940s, when the siblings were ten or eleven years old. Mary Veazey tossed in a few of her memories, too.
Note: Wray and Mary Veazey are my mother’s nephew and niece. They lived in Dallas. Fentress is my father’s hometown, and the aunts, uncles, and grandfather mentioned below are from his side of the family. Practically speaking, however, the two families sort of swamped together
Here’s an overview of the conversation:
Wray and Donnie mixed up some gunpowder and made firecrackers. There was a lot of gunpowder left over, so they poured it into a Coke bottle and made a fuse. It was a short fuse, and Wray almost didn’t make it to safety behind a tree when the bottle exploded. Donnie’s house was glass-studded ever after. (I suppose it still is.)
Mr. George Meadows wanted to show Wray what a possum looked like, so he caught a possum, hit it with a club, tied it up, and left it in the yard. Then Mr. George went into the house. Left alone, the possum stopped playing possum, chewed the string in two, and waddled back home, probably down in the pecan bottom on the river.
Wray was not allowed to go near the parrot that lived downstairs in Mrs. Bertie Smith’s house, where my parents had an apartment, because the parrot was mean. (Note: My mother went near the parrot and it caught the flesh between her thumb and index finger and clamped down and wouldn’t let go. Mother was pregnant at the time. She said she thought she would deliver before the bird finally released her.)
Mrs. Bertie’s house was right on the river. When my parents moved to a house down the street, Wray and Mary Veazey took a shortcut to the river by walking through the front door of Mr. George and Miss Minnie Meadows’ house and then out the back door. Mary Veazey said they were polite and always said Hello when they passed through. But they never bothered to knock.
They played among the cotton bales on the gin yard and, unbeknownst to anyone else, borrowed cotton from some of the bales to use in various other pursuits.
They found a mangy dog at the river bridge and coaxed it to come with them, then told my mother it had followed them home. The dog was foaming at the mouth. Moments later, it had some kind of fit. Mother hustled Wray and Mary Veazey into the house and called for my father, who ambled around from wherever he’d been and paused to size up the situation. The pause went on too long for Mother, who said, “Don’t just stand there with your teeth in your mouth. Do something.” (Note: Those encouraging words are still alive and well among certain members of the family.)
My grandfather took Wray trotline fishing once and they caught 149 pounds of catfish. A fish fry ensued. Wray described for his daughter how a catfish is prepared for the skillet. I won’t describe the process here, but I’ll add that I, too, used to help my grandfather skin catfish. (I was a cold-blooded little thing.) Wray could clean a fish in under a minute. I took a lot longer.
My Uncle Donald taught Wray to drive his 1947 Chevy pickup. When Donald was taking Aunt Ethel’s 1951 Buick roadster to Martindale, about seven miles north on Highway 80, for inspection, he told Wray to follow in the pickup. Because of a miscommunication, they were separated, and Wray had no one to follow. On the way, he discovered the pickup would go 80 miles per hour over the washboard road. By the time he arrived in Martindale, so many things had fallen off the pickup that it didn’t pass inspection. (Note: I later learned to drive in the same pickup, but if you think Donald let me out of his sight when I was behind the wheel, you have another think coming.)
One memory which wasn’t mentioned Sunday, but which I remember from before, took place several years later, after I had finally made an appearance: Mother looked out the kitchen window and saw Wray drag racing down the street with me in my stroller. She hollered at him to stop that before he killed me. He said I was having fun. I’m sure I was.
I always had fun when my cousins visited. They were considerably older than I and so were extremely interesting, and they were nice enough to pay attention to me and to behave as if they didn’t mind the fourteen-year age difference. They’re still nice to me. I appreciate that more than I can say.
I also appreciate their sharing memories of a time when Fentress was a child’s paradise. Not many remember those days, and it’s important we talk—and write—about them to keep them alive as long as possible.
Another note: Lest it be thought I have Fentress memories similar to those detailed above, I’ll clarify: I don’t. I never made gun powder, blew up Coke bottles, dismantled cotton bales, urged mad dogs to follow me home, invaded unsuspecting neighbors’ houses, or went roaring up Highway 80 in any make or model of pickup. And no one ever caught a possum for me. I was an obedient, unimaginative child, and I led a quiet, dull life of no adventure whatsoever.
And Veazey is my grandmother’s maiden name. In case anyone is wondering. Most people do.
ROW80 report: My reports for the past few weeks disappeared into a cloud of juniper pollen, but there wasn’t much to report anyway. While I was in MO, however, I began a story board, made notes, worked on organization. The next step: Take my list of scenes, pick one, and write it.
Panic. Away from home. Unable to access Internet from laptop, where e-mail password is stored in browser. Unable to access e-mail from borrowed desktop because e-mail provider will not accept passwords.
Oh, it’s not that bad. I can’t get to my e-mail from the desktop at home either. Should have done something about that ages ago but just let it ride. Will think about it tomorrow.
I’m visiting with my cousin MV. She’s the oldest of seven cousins. I’m the youngest of the bunch.
I must say she has improved with age. She’s not nearly so bossy now that we are both senior citizens.
MV’s first baby was born when I was ten years old. Six weeks later, I spent a week with her family. I wagged Baby around as if he were a doll.
I was very good at it, if I do say so myself, but it has since occurred to me that MV was either very brave or very crazy. I had neither experience nor character references.
Or maybe she was just crazy like a fox. I changed a lot of diapers that week.
The baby is now on his own way to senior citizenhood, as is his little brother, who also survived my handling.
In fact, it won’t be too long before they start getting mail from AARP. I don’t know whether they realize this. I was surprised and a bit insulted when I got my invitation to join up.
Because I’m convinced all seven of us are still as young and cute as we were the Christmas our picture was taken.
Where do you get your ideas?
According to what I’ve read, writers often hear that question. Answers are as varied as writers themselves. Don and Audrey Wood said they get their ideas from an idea box. Dr. Seuss said he got his in Switzerland. Other writers aren’t so forthcoming as Dr. Seuss and the Woods. Possibly they don’t know.
I never want to be in that position.
When my book graces the shelves–face out–at Barnes & Nobles nationwide, and I sit on stage wearing a suit purchased at Neiman’s and my Stuart Weitzman pumps, and Oprah says, “Where do you get your ideas?” I want the answer on the tip of my tongue.
To prepare, I did some research. I examined the first page of the manuscript I’m working on and identified the following sources:
1. My Aunt A, who, when she was nine, told Aunt B, who was six, to touch the electric fence to see whether it was on. (It was.)
2. Five-year-old neighbor C, who collected wiggle-tails in a jar and took them home to watch them turn into mosquitoes.
3. Mrs. D and Miss E, who, when added together, equal Miss Pinksie Craigo.
4. My mother, whose two little sisters, one a redhead, got involved with an electric fence, and who knew someone named Miss Pinksie.
5. My first dog, Stinky, who dug his way out of the yard to chase cars so many times that my father put up an electric fence to keep him confined. (After one contact, Stinky gave up digging, and my father shut off the electricity.)
6. Stories about a family named MacCaskill, who were universally loved for their humor, spontaneity, and love of life.
7. My father, who chose to settle his family in his hometown, which afforded pecan trees, mosquitoes, a beautiful river, and a passel of eccentric residents (most of them related to him), and who taught me to respect property lines.
For one page, only 216 words, not even an entire scene, that’s a lot of sources. In fact, one might think I just pulled some stories out of my head, threw in a few conjunctions, and started typing page two.
One wouldn’t be far from wrong.
When I go looking for ideas, I go no further than my own back yard, with side trips to San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Hometown and family are all I need.
My grandfather believed stop signs caused wrecks. My Great-aunt Eula said Man would never set foot on the moon because it wasn’t in the Bible. Our family doctor agreed. He also worried that people using the new dial telephone system would get the O and the zero mixed up.
When I started writing fiction, I latched on to those folks right quick. I put them on the first page. Because I’d set down their remarks almost verbatim–I was born with a tape recorder in my head–I wondered briefly about the ethics of calling it fiction. But only briefly. The conjunctions, I rationalized, were mine.
On the second page, I introduced a younger character, based on my cousin Ruth.
Ruth is eight years older than I. She spent her twelfth and thirteenth summers with my family in that little country town. Ruth was tall, which I wanted to be, and a teenager, which I wanted to be, and she wore lots of petticoats and got to ride the horse wherever she wanted without supervision and listened to “Purple People Eater” on a transistor radio, which I wanted to do, and she was my hero. She also tried to boss me around.
I was little and cute and had a pony tail and I wanted to go everywhere she did, and usually my mother made her let me tag along. I was the bane of her existence.
We got along quite well.
One summer we shared a bedroom. (I’ll admit at the outset that the two summers are jumbled in my memory.) Two green army cots were set up as bunk beds against the wall. I wanted to sleep in the top bunk. So did Ruth. I set up a howl, so I won. My mother kept saying, “You’re going to be hot up there,” but I didn’t care.
Ruth tried to talk me out of it. Her argument went something like this: “Look. If you sleep in the bottom bunk, you can kick the underside of my mattress in the middle of the night.” I was young, but I wasn’t dumb. She might kick me, but there was no way my short leg would even touch the mattress, much less give it a shove. I slept in the top bunk and, as my mother had predicted, nearly burned up. As I’d predicted, Ruth kicked me.
Ruth, an artist, decorated the wall beside her bed with crayon drawings of horses. I’m sure she drew me some, too, but they didn’t look nearly so attractive as the ones lower down that got more light.
Ruth’s main interest then was the sorrel mare, Lady, who lived up the street at my great-aunt’s. Whenever she could catch Lady and get a saddle on her, they went riding together. Lady didn’t like Ruth nearly as much as Ruth liked Lady, so catching and saddling gave both of them plenty of exercise.
When she wasn’t out on Lady, she was lying on the bed reading Gone With the Wind. Day after day after day. It wasn’t easy to get her away from that book when I wanted to play. I deduced that thirteen-year-old girls were supposed to read Gone With the Wind, so when I was thirteen, I did.
Also in town that summer–whichever it was–was a boy Ruth’s age. The boy, Jack, lived in California and was officially visiting my aunt and uncle, who lived a mile north of town. He spent most of his time, however, staying in town with my grandfather, who served canned Pillsbury biscuits and sorghum molasses three times a day and was just generally more fun to be with than people who insisted you eat vegetables and asked where you were going and when you would be back.
There being only two short blocks between our house and my grandfather’s, Ruth and Jack were inevitably thrown together. They rode horseback and worked on getting an ancient automobile of my grandfather’s to run. Jack rode Jolie Blonde, the Palomino, down to our house after everyone had gone to bed and sat in the saddle talking to Ruth through the screen of her open bedroom window. At least he did it once. I was probably asleep, but I’m sure I saw him anyway. (That was probably the second year, when she had a bedroom to herself. Or it may be that my mother got tired of our wrangling and separated us.)
The highlight of the summer was the week we spent camping at Uncle Cal’s pecan bottom. To get there we made a loop about a mile in length and ended up on the opposite side of the river, just above town. We took army cots and mosquito netting and bathing suits and cardboard boxes of food, and my fox terrier, Pat Boone, and my grandfather, and my cute, little red-headed Aunt Betty from Houston. (My father’s youngest brother, and various other adults, used to ask, “How is that cute little red-headed aunt of yours?” That’s where I got the idea for those adjectives.) We also took Jack.
We ate breakfast, swam, ate lunch, swam, ate supper, swam. Mother sat on a towel on the gravel bar and periodically shouted, “Jack, let Ruth get her head out of the water so she can breathe.” My grandfather tried to teach Jack how to saucer his coffee, but Jack had to hold the saucer with both hands. If he’d removed one, he’d have scalded himself. He never quite passed the course.
One day when we were sitting around waiting for our food to digest before we went back into the water, Mr. John Maxwell’s Santa Gertrudis bull crossed the river and wandered up the hill into camp. Everybody ran and piled into the car, except for Pat Boone, who ran around putting himself in harm’s way. Mother whistled and called, “Here, Pat, come here, Pat.” Betty said, “I hope the bull’s name isn’t Pat.” I don’t know what happened after that. I was laughing too hard to pay attention. I think the bull scratched his neck on a tree stump and then went back home.
I’m throwing all this on the page as I remember it. Ruth swears we spent only one night on the river. She says after that, we spent the nights at home and went back to camp in the morning. I say we spent every night for a week, that my father went home in the mornings to shave before going to work and came back every evening, and that it was the happiest week of my life.
When something is the happiest week of your life, you can remember it any way you want to.
When you’re writing fiction, you can remember it any way you want to as well.
Ten years ago, I took those summers, Ruth and Jack, my grandfather and Pat Boone and Lady and the rest, and put them together into a narrative.
Some of it is fact. I put in a scene where Ruth takes her statuesque leg and kicks the underside of my mattress. I put in a scene where Jack sits outside Ruth’s window at night. I put in the Santa Gertrudis and all the swimming. I put in my grandfather’s Bull Durham and saucered coffee.
Some of it is fiction. I bumped up my age from four to eleven to give more opportunity for conflict. I also added scenes that didn’t happen anywhere except inside my head. And then I added one more thing.
And I shaped it all into a true story: Stop Signs.
Later I entered Stop Signs in a fiction contest. It won first place. I was, of course, pleased, in part because who wouldn’t be, in part because the contest sponsor sent me a check, and in part because I had such fun writing it. In fact, it practically wrote itself.
But, confidentially, although I accepted the Certificate Suitable for Framing, and cashed the check, I can’t take full credit for the success of Stop Signs. I have to acknowledge the town and the people (and the animals) who comprise my Muse. Thanks to all of you.
And thanks to the person at the heart of the story.
Happy Birthday, Cousin Ruth.
Names have been changed to protect me.