The barn my great, great grandfather built in 1860 without using any nails
It's strange the way memory works. How the landscape can bring back another time and allow us to see people we believed lost forever. To hear the sound of their voices mingle with the sounds of our own childhoods. And there are times when it feels as if the very ground under our feet remembers, too. In an earlier post, after my aunt's funeral, I wrote about the way the dead are alive when you think of them. I had no idea how soon I'd experience that phenomenon again.
I have just returned from a trip with my mother's brother, my son, my niece and my nephew. We visited my mother's birthplace on the banks of Lick Creek in the western toe of Virginia near the West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky borders. The house that still stands there is believed to have been built by my great, great grandfather, Elijah Shelby Counts in 1863. Though I have never visited this place before, I am no stranger to it. My mother never saw another spot she believed as beautiful as Lick Creek, Virginia. And she told me dozens of stories about growing up there.
On the mountainside above the house, a family cemetery holds the remains of three of my mother's siblings, dead before the age of three. My mother was a little girl when Virginia Alice, Elsie Ruth and Henry Grady died, but she talked about them so much that I didn't need to read the stones. I have always known their names.
I had no idea how emotional I would feel when I stepped out of the van and stood on the ground where my mother had played as a child. Where my parents had walked together along the creek during their courtship. The place she returned to during WWII when a grenade blew up in my father's hand. She brought my older brother, an infant, to Lick Creek to stay with her parents while she sat by my father's bedside at Fort Jackson Army Hospital.
My grandparents moved away from Lick Creek, Virginia before I was born and we never made our way back. But my mother took me there in her memory many times. I knew about the creek and the swinging bridge they'd used to cross it. About the wildflowers that grew on its banks, the barn her great grandfather had constructed without using any nails. The root cellar built into the hillside that housed their canned goods and the smokehouse where they'd hung meat to cure. During this trip, I met two of her first cousins I'd never seen before and it was like staring into the dark eyes of my mother again.
The house is now owned by my mother's first cousin, Ira. He, his wife and sister made lunch for us--cornbread in a cast iron skillet from corn they'd grown and had milled. Pinto beans. Strawberry pie and chocolate cake with cooked frosting. Sweet tea. Though they'd never met us before, they opened their home and their hearts to us--because we were kin and they were rediscovering, through our eyes, the magic of Lick Creek and their memories of my mother. If you'd like to see them, I've posted some photos on my facebook page.
After Lick Creek, we travelled to Elizabethan, Tennessee and the Powder Branch tobacco farm where my grandparents moved after leaving Virginia. Don't you love those names? Lick Creek and Powder Branch.
That tobacco farm was the destination for many childhood vacations. Back then, the house had no running water and was heated by a wood burning stove. On it, my grandmother, Dixie Hay Counts, made applesauce pies and the best buttermilk biscuits anyone ever tasted. She churned her own butter. Slaughtered her own chickens. And made colorful patch-work quilts from the clothes her grandchildren outgrew.
While visiting there as children, my brothers and I took our baths in a big washtub placed in the center of the kitchen floor and filled with water drawn up in a galvanized bucket from the cistern on the side of the house. Ma maw heated the bath water on the wood burning stove. The cleanest kid got to bathe first. Luckily, I was the only girl in a family of four boys, so most of time it was me. We used an outhouse during the day and at night, a chamber pot my grandmother had slipped under the feather bed I shared with my younger brothers.
As we drove down the lane to the Powder Branch farm, I saw my grandfather, Henry Grady Counts, sitting on the edge of his cane rocking chair. He wore a pair of bibbed denim overalls and a straw hat. The plaid sleeves of his cotton shirt were rolled over his elbows. His muddy black boots were planted on the plank floor of the porch and a bucket wedged between his calves. My grandfather peeled apples that way--in thin, unbroken spirals, their red and yellow skins dropping into a bucket to "slop the hogs." I always wanted to help him, but my spirals were too thick. "You waste to much," he said, taking the knife from my small hands.
Once there was commotion in my grandfather's house, summers filled with tobacco harvest and reunion. I frolicked with my cousins outside, where lamplight fell upon the ground and the talk and laughter of the adults rose around us and drifted into the darkness.
The last time I saw my grandfather alive he was standing on the July green hillside behind his farmhouse. I snapped his picture with his three sons and my mother, his only daughter. My mother was in the advanced stages of terminal cancer and I knew it was the last time they'd stand together in this life. The sun danced off my grandfather's silver hair as he was placed, like a child, between his own children. And in that strange reversion that comes upon the very old, his skin was as soft as the skin of a baby. It was all there that day--the journey, the mystery, the cyclic nature of all life, or so it seems to be now, as I am transported back into the shimmering light among the shadows of the summer oaks.
My grandfather seemed old and young at the same instant--somehow beyond the reach of time. It was an illusion, of course, and I thought I'd never see him again. But it turned out, I was wrong. The dead really are alive when you allow the ground where they trod to remember them.
Lick Creek, Virginia
The Swinging Bridge over Lick Creek
Happy Mother's Day
Even though my mother died from metastatic breast cancer just days after my 30th birthday, I still think of her on this day. At the beginning of her battle, I gave her a journal because I wanted her to have a safe place to put her feelings. She was always more concerned with the welfare of others, especially her five children, and, more than anything, I wanted to crawl inside her and know what she was really feeling.
When she died, I took the journal from her nightstand. I couldn't read it for a long time, but I knew it was the one most valuable possession she'd left for me. And all these years later, I take it out on Mother's Day and for a few moments, she is back in my life. Alive and speaking of her love for me through the words she recorded. It always thrills me to see her handwriting.
And though it is a heartbreaking experience to go back, it is heart warming at the same time. In the front of the journal, she wrote these words: "This was given to me by my daughter. I feel sorry for a mother who's never had a daughter. She has missed so much. Sons are nice, but a daughter is something special."
I once read that when you gaze into the face of your infant daughter, you are looking at the person most likely to hold your hand when you die. It seems fitting, doesn't it? We usher her into life. She ushers us out.
In my mother's final entry in her journal, she expresses her concern for me. Though I didn't tell her, somehow she knew it had been a bad year. Besides finding out she was dying in October, one month later I was diagnosed with cancer. In December I learned that my husband was having an affair and our marriage was likely over. Our children were three and five years old. It was the darkest time in my life. But even in that darkness, her strength and her faith in me provided a light that shines still.
This is my mother's last entry in her journal. "I can't believe it has been so long since I have written in my book. I couldn't do anything while my daughter was in the hospital and I worry about her losing so much weight. You know, mothers are like that."
Yes, my mother was like that. And all these years later, I am happy for the words she left me--for the reminder of her love. The first time I had a poem published, it was on the back of a church bulletin. I sent it to my mother. She called the next day, "I couldn't sleep all night because I was thinking about my famous daughter." I am a writer because of her encouragement.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom. And thanks for believing in me.
All of us meet people in our lives who are unforgettable. Some are family members. Others may be friends, acquaintances, or just someone we see on the street and can't get out of our minds. In my last post, I mentioned Paulann Peterson's poetry workshop. In addition to having us remember a place where we'd felt safe, she had us make a list of the flamboyant and truly unforgettable people we'd known. My list held twelve names. Out of the twelve, I chose one. And then, just like with the safe place exercise, Paulann prompted us through the process of remembering. We made a list of everything we could recall about this one person. How she smelled. The sound of her voice. The way her body moved. The way she dressed. Her surroundings. What was happening in the room. The way she interacted with others. We kept adding to our lists. I didn't do anything with mine for a few days and then I came back to it and wrote a poem about a remarkable woman I love. But I also realized this technique could be helpful to fiction writers. We want to create extreme characters--not the ones who land in the center of the bell curve. Readers want heroes--characters who will do and say things others won't. Obsessed characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
In this exercise, I wrote about my aunt--a truly outrageous and wonderful woman. I'm not sure she'd approve of my memory, but she's too old to be reading blogs and I'll just have to trust my cousins to keep their mouths shut.
In my favorite Easter memory of Lillian Nel
I am ten years old and she, perhaps thirty,
Chanel Number Five and whiskey.
She leans against the basement pool table,
Strikes a sultry pose, like Lauren Bacall,
Cigarette balanced in her right hand.
Her long and autumn-leafed hair brushes
Against the collar of her yellow, shirtwaist,
Cinched in with a grass-colored belt,
Matching stiletto heels,
A purse the size of Portugal.
Lillian Nel inhales. Her cigarette
Glows ruby-colored gems,
Birthstone rings on every finger.
My brother's dazzling smile,
Humphrey Bogart eyes, lures her into his game.
As white smoke curls into the light,
Hovers above her, a vaporous halo,
She takes her cue, looks up at me through
Spider-leg lashes and shoots—the white ball
Clacks against a triangle
Bright as Easter eggs dyed last night
Because Jesus rose from the dead.
As balls dart out, sink into felted pockets
And disappear; my brother raises a toast to
Our favorite aunt, for whom no rules apply.
Behind the bar, Patsy Cline falls to pieces,
And my father, with his Hamm’s Beer sign flashing
Blue neon on his hair, pours his sister another.
Upstairs, my mother, who doesn’t approve of women
Who smoke, play pool, and drink whiskey sours,
Fries our aunt's favorite buttermilk-battered chicken
In a cast iron skillet. Though she longs for glamour,
Lillian Nel can’t escape the Appalachian past
Any more than my brother, his school photos
Still smiling above the knots in the pine paneling,
Will dodge a future where the god of heroin waits--
A gaping black pocket
Where brightness disappears.
Giant Saguaro in the foothills of Mt. Lemmon
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop at the Josephine County Library put on by Paulann Peterson, Oregon's poet laureate. I'd been concentrating on fiction and hadn't written a poem in over a year. She had us do two exercises that I believe would work well for fiction writers as well as poets. In one we made a list of places where we'd felt safe. From that list, we chose one specific place. Paulann prompted us to remember as many details as we possibly could--what it looked like, how it smelled. What we saw when we looked straight ahead or to the right or left. What sounds did we hear? How did the sky look? I chose Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona. My family once had a small cabin there. Though it has been many years since I've visited that cabin, I was amazed by the details I remembered and the way the poem took a strange and unexpected turn. Rereading it, I felt as if I held a gift in the palm of my hands--a memory I could return to the father who'd lost it to Alzheimer's Disease. The magic of words.
In another exercise, we made a list of flamboyant people we'd know, chose one and wrote down (with some prompting from Paulann) all the details we could remember about that person. It was magical. A great way to create extreme or "off the bell curve" characters. I plan to use this technique again--both in poetry and fiction. Try it. I think you'll be surprised how well it works. Thank you, Paulann.
There are places that reach out,
beat in the soft wrist where pulse lies.
Pine-sapped places where shadows lengthen at dusk
and remain after others shorten and disappear.
Nestled in a campfire and honeysuckle clearing,
atop the Santa Catalina Mountains,
a one-room cabin with eight shuttered windows
and a field stone fireplace waits
forty years to find us—ours for a decade.
Escape from Tucson valley where two hundred
and eighty days of sun bake
river beds and wither even young Saguaros.
Two children ride a rope swing into the treetops
through a narrow slice of sky that bursts forth
into constellations so bright their eyes glitter
until morning. Monopoly and Scrabble by firelight.
Aspens painted with ladybugs. A skunk caught
in a light beam on the dirt-worn path to the outhouse.
From a cane-seated porch rocker, I watch
my four-year-old weave through clumps of Douglas fir
and ponderosa pine—her arms stretched out like wings.
Nearby, my son digs rocks from the moist earth.
A swish of wind releases pine-needled showers
onto their sun-bleached hair and shoulders.
They fling them off, then bend to gather
indian paintbrush and mountain lupine—poking
red and purple heads through a quilt of coral bells. The sky,
a blue cotton bowl, holds the scene like a snow globe.
Now, thirty-five years later, I seize that globe
and shake myself back into that brief moment of pine needles,
wildflowers and lives that were never mine for the keeping.
Their father has lost this memory to Alzheimer’s and I
understand lives speed by if we don’t brake to slow them down.
Defying time, I return to that place where the sky is big
and the children are small, and their father smiles
as he captures them on film.
Today, I reach out and trap the wind--
hold that globe steady enough to feel
its pulse beat against my fingers.
And for one, breathless moment, memory restores and
pine needles still hang, suspended, before they fall.
Sabino Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains
The theme of this blog is writing and life. And how the two often intersect. It's hard for me to remember a time when I didn't write. When I was seven, my father won a Smith Corona portable typewriter in a poker game. It came with 45 rpm records that taught typing skills. I sat at the kitchen table, found the home keys and began to practice. And I've been writing stories and poems ever since.
Last weekend I attended my aunt's funeral in Delaware. It was an emotional time for my family, especially my cousins. There are not many passages as painful as losing a mother. And one grief has a way of bringing up all the other losses we've experienced. As I gave my eulogy for my aunt, I mourned my own dead parents and brothers again. But I also realized how fortunate we writers are to be able to put thoughts and feelings into words. Stories have a way of sustaining us through the difficult times in our lives. This much I know to be true. The dead are alive when we think of them. And grief is the price we pay for love. A steep price, but well worth it.