Tag Archives: Stories

If You Tell A Town A Story…

mouseHave you ever read the book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie?” It’s all about cause and effect and how one thing leads to another. If you give a mouse a cookie, then he’ll want some milk…and so on. That’s how Wednesday unfolded for me, all because I told that story about spending summers watching Grandmama Eunice write the “News In Gay.”

If you tell a town a story…you wake up to a message from DeeAnn saying that her mama found some of your grandmama’s old columns and has already passed them along to your mama (who calls later to say that she has them set aside and will visit soon–they’re too fragile to mail). Because our mamas have been friends since the late 1940s and our grandmamas were friends too. Miss Ruby and Mr. Hoke lived right down the road from Grandmama Eunice and DeeAnn said she used to HATE it when her Mimi got on the phone with Miss Eunice because it meant they were going to talk for a WHILE and DeeAnn was going to have to cool her jets.

If you tell a town a story…the boy you had a crush on since before you could remember–yes, Jeffrey from last summer’s story about peaches–who also happens to be DeeAnn’s baby  brother, has sent you an email to say that he remembers the exact sound that old metal drink box at Jack Findley’s made. He says he’ll pass the article along to the Findleys’ daughter, Alice, so she can read it too. And then your friend, Lynn, from back in elementary school writes to say that she is all teary with sweet memories because Jack was her Daddy’s brother and that was her Uncle Jack and Aunt Bessie and she loved them so. And I tell her how it was at Jack Findley’s store that I first learned how to whistle, sitting there on the upturned apple crate at the end of the counter while Miss Bessie talked to Grandmama and Grandmama enjoyed an Eskimo Pie from the freezer chest. Then Joe Nash, whose mama taught me at Vacation Bible School for many summers, says he remembers going to Jack’s to buy Chef Boyardee. Joe just opened The Fat Chihuahua restaurant in that little town and it sure ain’t Chef Boyardee!

If you tell a town a story….Lori Lee calls her mama from Florida to tell her about the story about Miss Eunice and before Miss Susie has even had time to finish her breakfast, the two of them are crying and laughing over the good times that Lori Lee had with her Nannie on those summer days long ago. How Lori Lee ate great big bowls of fresh peas right after swimming lessons and before the soaps. Before she hangs up, Lori Lee tells Miss Susie how she understands that it’s important for her own Max and Morgan to get time with their grandmama.

If you tell a town a story…Miss Susie shares that story on Facebook and one of her friends, Carol, says how she remembers my grandparents so fondly because she spent a lot of time at that very house while she and “Sammy” were dating. And I squawk, “You’re THE LEGENDARY CAROL?” The one Daddy still mentions now and then as he clutches at his heart while Big Gay rolls her eyes. And then Carol subscribes to Baddest Mother Ever and now I’m Facebook friends with my Daddy’s prom date.

letter-447577_1280If you tell a town a story….Sonya, who just last year married the boy that SHE had had a crush on since the 1970s, reports that she was going through some old papers at the bank and remembers seeing some of Grandmama Eunice’s columns. She promises to take another look and let me know what she finds. In the meantime, Stephanie, a Wesleyan sister, sends me a tip about a project via the UGA library where they’ve preserved small town newspapers on microfilm and I might want to check it out, seeing as that’s about two miles from my house.

If you tell a town a story…you find out that your VP at work knows that town because her husband was roommates with Willis, a boy from right up the road. Instead of talking about work, you end up talking about shelling purple hull peas and how to make that sweet tomato relish and how it was good to be the girl baby in the family because it meant your grandaddy let you stay in the air-conditioned office at the packing shed while your brothers had to pick peaches. Even the SharePoint developer who was there to talk about site design and governance starts hankering for a big bowl of peas and a glass of tea.

If you tell a town a story…you hear from Mrs. Love, the wife of your elementary school principal and she says she read the story to him and he says hello. My cousin, Greta, who was one of two guests at my first birthday party, says it brought back so many memories of Aunt Eunice’s house. My cousin, Annette, who’s 92 (but you didn’t hear that from me) and still the life of any party, remembers how kind Aunt Eunice was to her after her parents died when she was still a teenager.

If you tell a town a story…you get more stories in return and your heart opens up and you learn things you never knew about people you’ve known all your life.

book-748904_1280

Wordless Wednesday — Time to Grow

Thoughts on growing from three wise men who always maintained a connection to childhood:

 

I’m youth, I’m joy, I’m a little bird  that has broken out of the egg.
James M. Barrie 

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

C. S. Lewis 

Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg.
Hans Christian Andersen 

Newly hatched baby gecko

Newly hatched baby gecko

 

I hope you grow today.  

 

The Teacher and the Professor

Virginia Bowman Wilcox, PhD

Dr. Virginia Bowman Wilcox

I am tickled pink for my Wesleyan College sister, Virginia Bowman Wilcox, who was just named one of the 20 best education professors in the state of Georgia!  She’s come home to Wesleyan and currently serves as the head of our Education department, where she funnels all her genius and passion for teaching into the next generations of classroom leaders.

Well.

Let me tell you a story about Virginia’s early years in school and a teacher who made a deep impact on her for years.  Names have been changed because…well, the usual reason.

Virginia was in first grade, Mrs. Fineman’s class, when she made the magical connection between the words printed on the page and the story they were telling–she discovered that she could READ.  She was ecstatic!  But there weren’t many books in Virginia’s house.  Just two–the phone book and her mother’s Bible.  Virginia hungered for books.

Mrs. Fineman had a shelf filled with books in her first grade classroom.  She told the children, “These are my books.  I bought them with my own money.  You are never to touch them without my permission and they will never leave this room.”  In the way of small children, Virginia knew the difference between right and wrong…but she wanted to read more than anything.  Each afternoon, she found a way to sneak two of Mrs. Fineman’s books into her bookbag.  She carried them carefully back to her bookless house and told her mother that reading them was part of her homework.  The next day, she brought them back to Mrs. Fineman’s book shelf without a scratch or a smudge.  From September to January, Virginia and her mother spent each evening snuggled close together over the purloined books.

But in January….

This is the part of the story where I interrupted Virginia and squealed, “Mrs. Fineman knew all along, didn’t she?  She was LETTING you sneak those books home!”  Shush, shush, Ashley….let the story unfold.  

One afternoon, Virginia had two books in her book bag and was headed towards the bus.  Mrs. Fineman ran after her with a permission slip that had to be signed and returned the next day.  Virginia held out her hand for the paper, but Mrs. Fineman insisted on putting it directly in the book bag so it wouldn’t be lost.  That’s when she discovered the books, HER BOOKS.  She snatched them out of Virginia’s hands and stormed off.  She didn’t need to ask any questions.  This child was stealing.

By the time broken-hearted Virginia got to her house, her mother had already been called by the school principal and had left work early to deal with her daughter.  Even after she understood that Virginia had never intended to steal the books, she punished her daughter anyway for breaking the rule and lying to her mother about homework.  There were no books to read that night.  The next day at school, Mrs. Fineman chastised Virginia in front of the whole first grade then made her move her desk into a corner of the room so she could be ostracized from the group for her crime.

Virginia stopped reading.  She didn’t read another book until she was in sixth grade.  She faked her way through book reports and did the bare minimum on assigned reading.  Mrs. Fineman’s punishment still stung.  Luckily for all of us, Virginia slipped back into reading when she found a book on the school bus and couldn’t resist it anymore.

Obviously, the story didn’t end there.  Virginia went on to be the first person in her family to graduate from college, Wesleyan College.  She excelled in school and got her degree in Early Childhood Education.  While teaching for her day job and starting her family, she finished her Master’s and her PhD at Auburn University.  Virginia landed her dream job–professor of Education–then worked her way up to department chair.  She’s boundless.

And this next part of the story is why I love and respect her so very much.  Back in May, Virginia wanted to do a Kentucky Derby themed fundraiser at the business that she and her husband own, North Macon Crossfit.  She contacted the director of the equestrian center at Wesleyan to see if there was some project that could be funded with a couple hundred dollars.  The director came up with a perfect idea!  There was a young girl who hung out at the stable and helped care for the horses.  She wanted to attend the equestrian summer camp but her family didn’t have the money.  Enter Virginia and her generous friends and her giving heart.  They raised the money and made arrangements to surprise the girl with a scholarship to the summer camp she yearned for.

That little girl’s last name?  Fineman, of course.  Granddaughter of the first grade teacher who hadn’t taken the time to find out why Virginia had “stolen” all those books and returned them without a trace.  A teacher who couldn’t bend her rule to help a child who needed a little boost.  But Dr. Virginia Bowman Wilcox, Professor of Education, gave a little girl a leg up towards reaching her dream.  I asked her what she felt when she discovered the connection, if she wanted to wreak any kind of vengeance on Mrs. Fineman.  Nope, not a bit.  

Nothing stops Virginia.  She’s just that kind of kind.  

My Stars

Virgo.  And probably going to stay that way for a while.

Virgo.
And probably going to stay that way for a while

My girlfriends and I spent this rainy weekend in the mountains talking trash and drinking wine while someone else took care of our responsibilities.  That is my little black and twisted heart’s definition of HEAVEN.  At one point in the revelry, we were talking about nature, camping and orienteering and I mentioned wanting to know my constellations.  Just saying the word “constellation” brought back a story from college that made me snort a little pinot right up into my sinuses.  On a side note, that is really good for clearing out the pollen!

In my sophomore year, I dated a darling Southern gentleman.  He was a mature and worldly 24 yr old.  To me, he was an ADULT.  He owned a house, had a job that required a tie and wingtips, played golf and could buy beer whenever he felt like it without giggling.  Grown up stuff.  One Sunday afternoon, I was hanging out at his house–STUDYING, ahem–when three of his friends dropped by to watch a basketball game.  I wandered off to the bedroom to read my book so they could have some Testosterone Time.  Luckily, I left the door cracked.

During a commercial break, one of the guys picked up a GQ Magazine and flipped to the quiz:  “How Much Of a Ladies’ Man ARE YOU?”  These four guys started giving each other grief about who’s going to score the highest and before you know it, they’re writing out their answers and the basketball game had been forgotten.

The questions were pretty typical stuff like “How many sexual partners have you had?”  Their answers ranged from 4 (my boyfriend) to 6 to 10 to 100+ (which caused some coughs that sounded a lot like “bullshit!”).  But that guy WAS a major hound dog.  

All four of them are pretty much tied coming into the final question–“What are the labia minora?”

{{{crickets}}}

There’s some hemming.  And some hawing.  Mr. 100+ says, “I know what they ARE but I’m not going to say because y’all don’t know.”  My boyfriend pipes up, “I know what they are too!”  The other two chime in but it’s a standoff–no one wants to answer the question and reveal the answer to the others.  Or worse, reveal that he has no earthly idea.  

Finally, my boyfriend stammers, “It’s a constellation….right?”

And the others answered, “YES!”

If you don’t understand why this story is funny, Google it, but not while you are at work.

Eight Million to One

Yesterday, I told the story of the chalk portrait of Spencer Cox, drawn with such skill and love by Jose Luis Silva.  I’d tell you where to find it so you can see for yourself, but it’s already gone.

Why sweat over art that will be washed away before you lie down to sleep that night?  Why write stories and fling them into the digital winds?  What remains of the work we do?

I am a storyteller (genetically, historically, unabashedly) so I tend to attach roles to the people in my life.  (You’ve met Fartbuster, right?)  Spencer was “the AIDS activist.”  I know other people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS, but Spencer was “my friend who lives with AIDS.”  I remember where I was sitting back in the early 1990’s when I heard the news that he had the virus.  I was sitting in a dainty mahogany armchair with Queen Anne legs, mother of pearl accents and a pink taffeta seat that my mother had covered with scraps for my graduate school apartment.  That was the same year that Arthur Ashe revealed he had AIDS.  So Spencer was dying, then.   I filed that away.  I hadn’t seen him since college.  I didn’t see him again for years.

Then came the 20th year since we all met at the Governor’s Honors Program in 1985.  We had email by now and a reason to get back together.  I had a freshly broken heart from the death of my husband from leukemia.  Spencer knew a lot about watching people die, so we began to talk about grief and surviving and getting back to living.  I remember a time when he compared grief to the silt at the bottom of a lake–sit still and it will clear, let it sift down and you will see the glints of gold.  Grief will rest after a while.  Mud distills into gold.  He didn’t make it back to Georgia for the 20th reunion, but we were connected again and I was grateful for his wisdom about dying.  And I was grateful that he was still alive.  I had no concept of how much he had done to make life available to people living with HIV.  Really, no idea.  I thought he was a fundraiser or something in New York and wore an ACT UP t-shirt on weekends.

Then came Facebook.  The years collapsed into nothing and we were all back together again.  My Vivi stories convinced Spencer that they were soul mates and he looked forward to serving as her Auntie Mame.  We got together a few times and I joked that he was the only friend of mine who doesn’t get a lecture about quitting smoking.  He barked out a sooty laugh and said, “The cigarettes will NEVER have time to catch me!”  Oh, how we laughed.  Twenty years and he was still here.  I told him that he was the most interesting person I knew and he snarled, “Jesus, I’m a 40 yr old man who lives with my mother.”  He was 43, by the way.  What a luxury, to outrun AIDS long enough to lie about your age!

Spencer cox ACT UP marchWe did get to praise Spencer’s work before he died–there was the movie, the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”  We who had loved him at 16 began to learn what a giant contribution he had made to the fight against the plague of AIDS.  Spencer had always been larger than life and now he was getting to tell his story on the big screen.  He changed his Facebook name to “Spencer Squeaky Cox” after meeting Sarah Jessica Parker at a showing of the film and deciding that he needed a catchier triple moniker.  He was so alive in those heady days of interviews and panels and premieres.

I knew it was bad when I didn’t hear back from him for a week.  Then I got two phone calls at work within minutes–Bryn and Debra.  I answered the second one because I knew.  He was gone.  I didn’t have a “friend with AIDS” anymore.

At the memorial in New York, the eulogists spoke in chronological order:  his brother, his GHP friends, a college buddy, early NYC friend, ACT UP comrades, his ex, his broken-hearted and furious apologist.  Spencer’s magnificent work unfolded before us.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  The video tributes from Anthony Fauci, Anderson Cooper, Larry Kramer–talking about that boy I met in Valdosta.  Tony-winning composer Tom Kitt played the piano as his sister, Katherine, sang “I Miss the Mountains” and I sobbed.

It began to sink in that even as Spencer was gone, there were people in that theater who were alive today because of him.  The face of AIDS that I had attached to one person in my life was all around me.  Many men who sat there in the light from the stage and nodded with an understanding that glowed from their sharp cheekbones and careful eyes.  Spencer’s drive.  His passion.  His pig-headed genius.  He did it.  He got protease inhibitors pushed through.  He found a way to fight the plague.

I heard the eulogists say “eight million people are alive because of Spencer,” several times but that number is so large that it is impossible to envision.  Then the man sitting beside us turned and said, “I’m one of them.”  Eight million people living.  One man, living.  I could touch this man.  I did.  Not a handshake or even a hug.  With some reflex that came from deep in my heart and overrode all my polite training, I reached out and stroked his fine cheekbone.  I cupped his aging face like I was his mother.  I wanted him to know I was happy he was here.  Eight million….to one.

I Look Like Myself!

via Creative Commons free license

via Creative Commons free license

It’s Fartbuster week here on Baddest Mother Ever, folks!  Today’s story is about the weekend after I found out my husband had a pregnant girlfriend.  I fled to the coast to get a hug from my friend, Brantley.  We’ve been friends since 1985.  He took me  to the SCAD Sidewalk Chalk festival for diversion and to meet his new love, Luis.  That was 11 years ago and they’re still together.  I’m on marriage #3, but those two crazy kids still are not allowed to get married because they might threaten the sanctity of marriage…but anywho, back to my husband and his pregnant girlfriend, AHEM.

People knew that Fartbuster and I were separated, but Brantley was the first person who heard the real reason, face to face.  Telling him the truth was me taking the first step back into my own life.  As we were wandering around the festival–each artist is given a square of sidewalk, a few sticks of chalk and a couple of hours to make magic–I spotted a drawing done by a child.  I wish I still had a photo of it, but that has been lost in the shuffle.  The sidewalk square was filled with red chalk background.  In the foreground, two dark gray mirror image profiles faced each other, smiling.  The words said, “I LOOK LIKE MYSELF!”

I can’t remember any of the winning artistry from that weekend.  I can’t remember Luis’ third place drawing.  But I remember that little kid’s square because it rang true with me.  I look like myself.  I am me.  I am here.  I am OK.  I spoke the truth to my friend and life went on.  This next few months might be painful, but I was going to make it out the other side.

The second person I told was my friend, Mike, another kindred spirit from that magical summer of 1985.  After we talked and sang some Trisha Yearwood songs, I said, “I feel like a new woman!”  He chuckled and said, “Nooooo, honey, you seem like your old self again.  I’ve missed you.”  He was right.  I had spent 10 uncomfortable years auditioning for the role of wife.  Trying to measure up to whatever it was Fartbuster judged lacking in me.  Once I stepped aside from that, I found space for myself again.  I looked like myself.

The Sidewalk Chalk Festival is this weekend in Savannah.  I’m taking my little girl to meet Luis because I think they are kindred spirits.  My daughter, who never could have been born if I hadn’t lived that broken-hearted life a decade ago.  She’s here now and she looks like me, and she looks like her father, and she looks like herself.  

This story of the sidewalk chalk came back to me tonight when my friend, Katie, shared a poem by Derek Walcott:

Love After Love

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
 
and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 
 
all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.
 

Thank you to Katie, to Brantley, to Mike, to Luis, to Derek Walcott, to the little girl who drew on the sidewalk.  Even a little to Fartbuster for finally hurting me enough to get me to let go.  I am so glad to be this person, in this place, on this day.  I am grateful to be able to say, “I look like myself.”

Most Like an Arch This Marriage

Tintern Abbey, East End Columns via Wikimedia Commons

Tintern Abbey, East End Columns
via Wikimedia Commons

This is the poem that Fartbuster selected for our wedding ceremony.  I remember when he read it to me the first time, as we sat on a purple velvet settee in The Bookmonger, in Montgomery, Alabama (one of those treasure trove used books stores that has gone the way of the dinosaur).  He read it to me, sotto voce, from a book of John Ciardi poems and I felt honored to be marrying a man who was so wise and sensitive.

Most Like an Arch This Marriage

BY JOHN CIARDI

Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.
Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.
Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss
I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.

Oh, twenty-six year old me…honey, honey, honey.  Bless your heart.  Or to quote Jake’s last line to Brett from The Sun Also Rises:  “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

It was pretty to think so, to think that ours would be the kind of marriage like an arch, leaning in to the point of falling, but catching each other in the all-bearing point.  Raised by our own weight.  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Wellllll…What words did this young poet have for me when we were finally alone together after the wedding?  Granted, we had been living together for a couple of years, so it’s not as if I was expecting a pulse-quickening night of romantic discovery.  And we were staying in a local chain hotel before driving to Charleston the next day for the real honeymoon.  But this is what I got from my new husband, the erstwhile poet.  

He flopped out on the bed with the basket of snacks sent by the caterer and started grazing.  I shimmied out of my wedding dress then went to the bathroom to pry off my foundation undergarments.  I wasn’t feeling shy–it’s just that my cousin, Shannon, had poured about 2 pounds of birdseed down my back as we left the reception and most of it was valiantly contained by my foundation undergarment.  I figured it would be a kindness to the maid if I unleashed all that birdseed on the tile floor instead of the carpet.  So off I went to the bathroom.  When I came back out, shed of the birdseed and my single girl inhibitions (as IF), Fartbuster was still snacking and had turned on the television.  To Beavis and Butthead.  beavis and butthead

BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD.  

I looked at him.  I looked at the TV.  I looked back at him and he finally noticed me standing there.  I said, “REALLY? Beavis and Butthead?”  And this was his reply, gentle reader:

“C’mon!  It’s a NEW ONE.”

Poems are pretty.  John Ciardi’s vision of marriage is a lovely one.  Marriage does require bending towards each other, trusting that the other half of the arch will meet you in the middle.  The trust that grounds marriage is a falling towards, leaning over, reaching out.  If your partner isn’t there when you do that…you fall flat on your face.

But to tell the god’s honest truth?  Falling on your face isn’t the worst thing that can happen.  As the old Japanese saying goes:  “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”