Let them bury your big eyes In the secret earth securely, Your thin fingers, and your fair, Soft, indefinite-colored hair,— All of these in some way, surely, From the secret earth shall rise; Not for these I sit and stare, Broken and bereft completely; Your young flesh that sat so neatly On your little bones will sweetly Blossom in the air.
But your voice,—never the rushing Of a river underground, Not the rising of the wind In the trees before the rain, Not the woodcock’s watery call, Not the note the white-throat utters, Not the feet of children pushing Yellow leaves along the gutters In the blue and bitter fall, Shall content my musing mind For the beauty of that sound That in no new way at all Ever will be heard again.
Sweetly through the sappy stalk Of the vigorous weed, Holding all it held before, Cherished by the faithful sun, On and on eternally Shall your altered fluid run, Bud and bloom and go to seed; But your singing days are done; But the music of your talk Never shall the chemistry Of the secret earth restore. All your lovely words are spoken. Once the ivory box is broken, Beats the golden bird no more.
The Great Throwing-Away continues. I opened a bin I thought contained photographs but found more paper than photos. Cards. Letters. Newspaper clippings. Little bits of life.
And my mother’s diploma from Martindale High School in Martindale, Texas, which she received May 31, 1935. It’s signed by Chas. E. Lumpkin, Superintendent; Ruby C. Slaughter, Principal; and J. E. Carnes, Secretary of the Board of Trustees. I can’t decipher the school board president’s name.
The diploma was folded inside a little booklet embossed on the outside with the letter M.
I held one corner down with the copy of Twelfth Night she read for an English class at Mary Hardin Baylor College, and the other with a copy of Liz Carpenter’s Ruffles and Flourishes, given to her many years later by Nell Waller, a dear friend.
On the last page of the booklet, there’s a note from the superintendent.
Her interest in people and other animals was warm, personal, and friendly. She always found something to excuse, and as a rule to love, in the toughest of them–even if she had to put it there herself. She was the natural ally and friend of the friendless. It was believed that, Presbyterian as she was, she could be beguiled into saying a soft word for the devil himself, and so the experiment was tried. The abuse of Satan began; one conspirator after another added his bitter word, his malign reproach, his pitiless censure, till at last, sure enough, the unsuspecting subject of the trick walked into the trap. She admitted that the indictment was sound, that Satan was utterly wicked and abandoned, just as these people had said; but would any claim that he had been treated fairly? A sinner was but a sinner; Satan was just that, like the rest. What saves the rest?–their own efforts alone? No–or none might ever be saved. To their feeble efforts is added the mighty help of pathetic, appealing, imploring prayers that go up daily out of all the churches in Christendom and out of myriads upon myriads of pitying hearts. But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for th pelain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
This friend of Satan was a most gentle spirit and an unstudied and unconscious pathos was her native speech. When her pity or her indignation was stirred by hurt or shame inflicted upon some defenseless person or creature, she was the most eloquent person I have heard speak. It was seldom eloquence of a fiery or violent sort, but gentle, pitying, persuasive, appealing; and so genuine and so nobly and simply worded and so touchingly uttered, that many times I have seen it win the reluctant and splendid applause of tears.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider. New York: HarperPerennial, 2013.
The cover displayed above is from the Deluxe Modern Classic (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) Kindle edition, published in 2011.
Martindale High School (Martindale, Texas) girls’ basketball team, 1935. My mother, Crystal Barrow is front row, center, holding the basketball. In those days, players were allowed to dribble the ball once before handing it off.
Tennis was her game. Lucyle Dauchy Meadows, my father’s cousin, told me, “When your mother and your aunt Mary Veazey played doubles, nobody in the county could beat them.”
My father worked up to three jobs to ensure our family never missed a meal. We weren’t poor but neither were we wealthy or middle-class. Every so often my mother took a job to help make ends meet, including one at Gamma Phi Beta sorority at Northwestern University, where she worked as a cleaning woman during the Christmas holidays. She brought me along to help because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. I remember her telling me that the sorority’s chapter said no blacks or Jews would ever be admitted into its ivied halls. My mother brought home boxes of books thrown out by the sorority girls when classes ended, and in those boxes I found my first copies of Mary Shelley and Shakespeare. I read them, determined that the privileged girls of that sorority would never be able to say they knew something about the Bard that the son of their holiday cleaning woman didn’t. Decades later in 1990 Northwestern’s English department actively and generously pursued me for employment by offering me a chair in the humanities, which I declined.
— Charles Johnson, The Way of the Writer:
Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling
Today would have been my mother’s ninety-eighth birthday. On last May 1, my father would have been one hundred.
When I take the time to really think about that, it’s mind-boggling. I can’t imagine them at those ages.
Mother used to tell a story about my great-aunt Lydia’s sixtieth birthday. Lydia, her mother, her two younger sisters, and two of her nieces–my mother and her youngest sister, who was generally referred to as “that cute little Betty,”*–went to dinner to celebrate.
Back home, my great-grandmother put on her nightgown and got into the big four-poster bed in Lydia’s downstairs bedroom. The other women sat around her and did what they always did when they got together–talked and laughed. No topic was off limits and everything was funny. A quiet child could learn a lot in those sessions.
That night, my great-grandmother, whom the younger ones called Grannygirl, sat propped against her pillows, old but still the quintessential sharp-witted (and sharp-tongued) Southern belle. While the others talked, she said nothing.
Finally, looking into the distance, such as it was, she uttered a single sentence: “Lydia, you’re sixty.” Her tone was contemplative, but it also carried an undertone of surprise.
In the silence that followed, Lydia said yes, she was.
A few minutes later, still gazing somewhere above her descendants’ heads, Grannygirl broke in again. “Lydia, you’re sixty.”
Again, Lydia agreed she was.
Another few minutes passed and Grannygirl said it once more: “Lydia, you’re sixty.”
Obviously having heard enough on that topic, Lydia responded, a bit sharply, “Well, Mother what does that make you?”
End of conversation.
I thought of that story because, like Grannygirl trying to get used to having a sixty-year-old daughter, I can’t quite get used to the idea of my parents at the century mark. At the same time, I believe, were they alive today, they would not have changed. I know, however, that to them, I would be radically different.
I wish they could have attended my wedding. I wish they could know my husband. I wish they could read this blog and my fiction. I wish they could read the pieces I’ve published. I wish they could know that, though I miss them terribly, I’m secure and happy.
One thing I’m certain of: If my parents had been here to celebrate my birthday a few years ago, we would have gone out to dinner, and then we would have come home and changed into more comfortable clothes. And then, while we sat in the living room talking about anything and everything, my mother would at some point have looked into the distance and said, “Kathy, you’re sixty.”
*Betty was short, had red hair and a sweet Irish face, and was drop-dead funny. She was everybody’s favorite, her nieces and nephews adored her, and she left us much too soon.
Consequently, the average age in the coffee shop–aka my office–is considerably lower than usual. I estimate it at approximately two.
Normally I filter out noise and activity to concentrate on writing. The ability to hyperfocus is a gift.
Today, however, what’s going on around me is more interesting than the story to be revised.
Behind and to the right, a little-bitty with black eyes and a pixie cut sings, “E-I-E-I-OOOOO.” She began in atonal mode but soon picked up the melody.
Directly behind me, a little boy I imagine as blond protested. “I don’t like to sit down.” Then he shrieked and wailed.
“OoooooooooooooooooOoooooooooooooooooOooooooooooooooo.” Finally he settled down to snuffling. I assume at some point, probably while the Ooooooooos were wearing down, he sat. Now he’s either resigned to his fate or he’s left the store.
There’s been a lot of wailing today. I don’t know why, considering the petting zoo is here. Maybe it’s tension. Maybe it’s that little kids are like adults: some days you get out of bed in a snit and you just have to share it.
Mothers have changed since I was a child. In my day, a mother would have taken the child outside and given him a choice: behave or go home and not get to see the animals or have a cookie or whatever special treat has been promised. I don’t know a child who was actually hauled home, and I don’t know a parent who meant what she–or he–said, but generally things quieted down a bit.
Something similar happened to me when I was a child. But I wasn’t offered a choice. And I wasn’t hauled home. I imagine a lot of people wished I had been.
At church one Sunday, the Methodist little-bitties–or, as one of my teacher friends calls them, ankle-biters–were all decked out to stand at the front and sing a song. Our teacher, who should have known better, had seated us in a pew, side-by-side. While the adults were doing their thing, Helen Ruth and I took the opportunity to converse.
My parents sat in the pew right behind us. They disapproved of talking during the service. My father picked me up, took me out on the front porch, and gave me a swat.
Ours was a small country church, and Daddy and I were maybe twenty feet from the back pew, so the congregation got the full benefit of my caterwauling.
And when we returned to the sanctuary, I refused to perform with the rest of the class.
Have I mentioned I don’t remember any of this?
Talking in church got me in trouble, but the swat got Daddy in trouble.
Because Mother blamed him for my declining to stand in front of the communion rail and be cute–and she was right; no way would I display myself in front of a bunch of people who’d heard that swat–and she stayed righteously indignant for the rest of her life. Periodically, she would say, “I was so mad at your father. All he had to do was lean over and say, ‘Girls, stop talking.'”
What really got her goat was that I refused to perform in Sunday school programs for several years thereafter.
I can’t fault my father, however. An inexperienced parent, he was trying to do the right thing.
Knowing what I do about myself, I’m sure I was angry and embarrassed. I was an eminently embarrassable child. I was also obstinate.
I know something else, too.
Years later my parents and I were sitting in the First Methodist Church in San Marcos, waiting for the choir to perform selections from The Messiah, when Daddy said, “I haven’t been in this church since I was ten years old.” That was 1925. “I went to Sunday school with Johnny Graham [a cousin], and they made me stand up and say my name and where I was from, and I never went back again.”
So there you are. Embarrassable is hereditary. So is obstinacy.
It gives me satisfaction to know that if my father had been removed to the front porch and given a swat, he wouldn’t have just refused to sing with his Sunday school class.
My father would have waited fifty years before he darkened that Methodist door.
I started this post for the purpose of telling a personal anecdote about a petting zoo but somehow got off onto Methodists and lost my way back. Because I have much more experience with Methodists–and Presbyterians and Baptists–than I do with petting zoos, it’ll be a while before I return to the animals. But that’s okay, because the church stories are a lot more interesting. And you won’t read them anywhere else.
Mark Twain cared about words: Pa’s boot with a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end; the sow lying in the middle of the street looking as happy as if she was on salary; and Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on.
In his autobiography, he tells the story of a time his mother used the right words to teach him a lesson that lasted a lifetime.
There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing – it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—
“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”
It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last – especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.