memoir

Verticality

We were sold on this house the moment we saw the old oak tree that had gracefully welcomed the house to be planted around it.  It had bubbled up from the ground more than 60 years ago, and the roots still roiled the soil around the massive base of the trunk.  It tapered slightly to the right, giving it the appearance of a much taller tree. The canopy spread as far as the boundary of our yard. All manner of suburban wildlife lived in the tree, and now in our quiet life, Tom and I delighted in our outdoor classroom —  squirrels on the prowl for mates, the mockingbird ‘s officious patrols; the rabbits and their new families; the mangy doe and her twin fawns in the early mornings when the acorns are plenty. A fox and a hawk circled occasionally, looking for baby bunnies and chipmunks.

The tree’s roots became soft and a hole grew at the very base, large enough for small animals to burrow in. We  weren’t worried knowing that the tree generously made space for so many living things, including our children and our funny little dog, and also for inanimate things like swings and Christmas lights. Finally that hole caused branches to die, giving themselves over to insects, which in turn became food for the woodpeckers, the brightly colored ghouls.

Had the tree fallen in a storm, it would have destroyed the back of our neighbor’s house and the evergreens along her fence. We made a painful decision to have it removed. I wonder if it was painful because of our older age, or because of these strange times we now live in. Would I have mourned the tree when I was a 35 year old mother of young children who could finally use the yard for pick-up softball games? I didn’t have the time for quiet watching back then. Now I have solitude and the daily lesson of impermanence. I am so thankful for the sustenance and protection this tree gave me and my family.

Seems cruel to mourn a tree when there is so much human suffering now. Perhaps my grief is displaced. Looking at the arbor of our communal life, I see vulnerability for the first time.  I wonder if we can count on the harvest of goodwill, common good or democracy.

I’m working with verticality in my teaching practice this week. Stand tall, witness from the root of your being. Rise to give sustenance, protection, especially in a storm. Live for others. Think long term, like the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lost Your Pride

My grandmother had a saying that she used when the piteous “bless her heart,” was too mild a sting. “She’s lost her pride,” indicated a slip down the human food chain to the level of under-rock dweller.

Let me unpack this saying just a bit for those who are unfamiliar with Appalachian people from Eastern Kentucky, which was where I was schooled by my Nanny every summer of my childhood. Pride was all some folks could claim as their own. You might make the wrong assumption, as you whizzed by on Route 25 from Johnson City into the dark hollers of Harlan, that a family with that many broken appliances in the front yard had no pride to begin with. But that was all they had – pride of family legacy, pride in their ability to scrape by, proud of their kids, proud of the little bit they owned, though it may be washed away in the creek in the next flood.

So saying “she’s lost her pride,” was a warning, a prayer for sanity offered silently for a friend or neighbor who was experiencing slippage of dignity. Generally, this option was reserved for older people who were making a spectacle of themselves –women who were using too much makeup or showing too much cleavage. Men who had taken up with a much younger woman, or were drunk in public. Younger women got a pass, somewhat. “Two cats fighting in a bag,” was something I heard Nanny chuckle under her breath as the beautiful girls passed the porch in their cut-offs, long hair rhythmically grazing their butts. Seeing me dazzled by their effortless sexiness she would remind, “Pretty is as pretty does.” Let your inner dignity shine forth. My first yoga guru in some sense – don’t be fooled by the surface, since it is here today and gone tomorrow. Concentrate on the interior, and the hard work knowing who you are.

My initiation into Southern womanhood was conducted as Mom and Nanny canned beans in mid-August, the kitchen windows opened, but no help against the Amazonian humidity created by Ball jars boiling on the stove. As a child, I was spared these working conditions – but I hung out in the kitchen anyway, watching them move from stove to kitchen table for breaks of iced tea and Kent cigarettes. Both wore housecoats with snap buttons up the front, sweetened their tea with Sweet n’ low and traded advice, funny stories, hard feelings, compliments and resentments, recipes and suggestions — the teeming, seething perfumed ecstasy of mother-daughter relationships.

After the morning of work and a hearty lunch, we all bathed and dressed up for a walk to downtown Harlan to the dress store that my grandmother worked in when they were poorer. Horton’s was the best dress store in town. My grandmother, voted the most beautiful woman in Harlan Kentucky in the early 60s, kept up with fashion and beauty, but it was always reflective of her inner decorum — modest, elegant. By the 1970s, when she was in her 50s, fashion for her was polyester pantsuits. As she grew older, her beauty shined through though her beautiful legs were hidden in two ply poly.

Mom and Nanny both died in their mid-sixties, at the height of their older woman beauty, where a lifetime of hard and joyful work and love for family and neighbor burnished their inner dignity to a rare shine. I am now 56. My hair is gray and it is long enough now to wear in pigtails, which I do when I need to wear my bike helmet. I live in yoga pants and now have a YouTube channel. Sometimes I worry I’m making a spectacle of myself. I wonder what they would say about their legacy. Have I lost my pride?

I feel their gaze from the front porch of the hereafter. There they snap their beans from MacDaddy’s garden into the newspaper on their laps, iced tea glasses sweating in the first glimmer of sun that burns off the fog in the holler. They wouldn’t want me getting a big head, so they aren’t going to give me complete blanket assurance, especially on the social media front. And they want me to buy tops that cover up my boobs and that butt of mine. Dangerously close to two cats in a bag.

-o-

Epilogue: This story started out from a place of truth — I could heard Nanny say “you’ve lost your pride” as I was braiding my hair. It made me smile at myself in the mirror. But like all writers of memoir, I’ve found that in the putting words around my experience, the truth gets further away from me. There are empty spaces in memory that we fill up with imagination or we insert short hand place holders, like the still pictures we use on Zoom calls. This has meant that every time I conjure up my grandmother, I experience the same day. It is always August, always bean shelling and canning day, and always ends with the trip to Horton’s Dress Shoppe. I wear terrycloth shorts and white sandals, my long hair in a ponytail, my pre-adolescent belly straining at my sleeveless white cotton blouse. I can smell the garden, feel the heat from the carport and the cool of the coal house as I played Starship Enterprise with Ed, Feller, Kathy and Mac. But the soundtrack is off. I hear the rustle of the newspaper, the pop of the beans, doors opening and closing, the Ball jars clinking the in the pot, the mumbles of adult speech, the heavy footfalls of children running but these sounds are not synched with the action..  

In our backward glances, we lose a bit of present-moment truth, so we embellish, sometimes for ourselves, sometimes to entertain ourselves and others, like I’ve done here. Our lives are stories with beginnings, middles and ends, meant to be told and heard — consumed. Like these quarantine doodles of my Nanny, nothing can quite capture her spirit, her beauty, that time, my family, that love.