One of my favorite childhood memories is the day in early fall when Dad took me and my brothers to the woods to get firewood. We didn’t have land, ourselves, but Dad, being the unofficial community pastor for our rural farming county, had no shortage of farmer friends who had offered this or that grove of trees for our use, any time we had the need.

What we did have was a plain potbelly wood stove, protruding from the fireplace in the tongue-and-groove paneled den, and providing the primary source of heat for our 2,000-square-foot home. Mom and Dad had it installed a few years after we moved to Ehrhardt, when it was still just me and one brother.

That stove heated the combination den and kitchen, and while some of its heat drifted down the long hardwood hallway and through the doorways to the four bedrooms, one bathroom, and library – it was not enough to take the chill off the “back of the house,” where the thermostat for the central heat and air unit was set at a budget-friendly 65 degrees. The upshot was our family spent most of the winter evenings together in the den, as the alternative was to more or less bundle up in a bedroom. I see the beauty in this now, of course, all that family time together, luxuriating in the warm room, sans television most years. We talked or read books or folded laundry or listened to music or traipsed around the kitchen cooking, eating, cleaning, or scavenging, in vain, for snacks.

And that stove required a lot of wood. Dad would get the fire in it going about the time it got dark, and it would burn through the evening and simmer all night, stoked one more time before the last person went to bed, and in the morning he’d shovel out the ashes, stir the coals so they’d keep just a little warm during the day, and then leave it till dark again. In the South Carolina Low Country, even the coldest winter days didn’t require a full-blown fire till late afternoon.

But when suppertime rolled around, from the built-in half-oval kitchen table, Dad would look over at that stove, turn back to his plate, and say, calmly, every night of the winter, the words that my brother Garren dreaded, silently, every night of the winter:

“Son,” a pause to take a sip of sweet tea, “git wood.”

My brother swears that was his name those four months out of the school year: “Gitwood.”

Of course, he didn’t show any resistance or attitude toward Dad. He just grimaced to himself, nodded, and grudgingly went outside after supper to “git wood” from the wall of logs installed along the walkway between the back porch and the carport. He’d haul in two large or three medium logs, lay them like an offering on the hearth, and then venture back into the dimming winter evening for a handful of smaller logs and maybe one or two pieces of kindling (fat-lighter, y’all), if Dad required it or, in later years, as Garren learned the art himself, if he discerned the need for it.

He brought the wood for the altar – I mean, stove – with some resentment (the task was his alone, it seemed, and every single night) and with some trepidation: if his selection was not the right size, or not brought in a timely enough manner, or brought with a “sorry attitude,” Dad would deliver one of his characteristic stern looks or reprimands, and the simple “git wood” task would turn from merely annoying to possibly nerve-racking.

But before all the nights of “git wood,” we had to go “git wood” the first time. Dad, myself, my brother Garren, and my brother Seth. What Mom did while we were gone those three or so hours, I didn’t know, never occurred to me to wonder. She probably enjoyed the peace and quiet of the house.

We crammed, seat belts loose, into the truck – a Ford F150 with no such thought as an extended cab – and drove out to whoever’s field Dad had determined would provide us with this year’s haul. Somehow my brother Garren always seemed to know whose property we were on, and I never did – all those fields and clumps of trees and farm roads and even small creeks all looked the same to me. Heck, except for the pines, all the trees looked the same to me. But even at a young age Garren had paid more attention than me, and knew an oak from a maple from a sweet gum.

The truck careened painfully along the rutted farm road at the edge of the field. We rode in silence, mostly, as one always did with Dad at the wheel. Why fill the air with words when the dusty aroma of a Southern fall could suffice? Finally Dad would see what he wanted, some fallen tree that might as well have called his name for all I understood the draw, and he’d park the truck, get the chainsaw out of the bed of it, and begin walking, with never a word to the three of us. It was assumed – correctly – we’d just follow.

Follow we did – only to find ourselves soon bored, looking for a marginally comfortable place to plant ourselves while Dad applied his chainsaw to the branches and then trunk of the chosen arboreal fuel. Garren and Seth entertained themselves in the woods the way only boys seemed to know how to do, with sticks and pine cones and piles of leaves; I mostly sat and watched, waiting for my favorite part.

Which came soon enough. A nod and some pointing from Dad, and we three kids jumped to the task of loading all those logs into the bed of the F150. We worked more or less assembly style, accounting for Seth, the youngest, needing to take smaller logs, and Dad, obviously, hefting the heaviest. Though I never verbalized it, each year I inevitably silently competed with Garren to see who could lift the heaviest chunks of wood for the longest time. Something within me refused to admit that he was stronger simply because he was a boy. After all, he was my junior by two and a half years, and I was not going to be outmaneuvered by my punk brother. Even though, before too many winters of this chore passed, I assuredly was.

We worked with few words and a lot of grunts and not a few cries of pain as the rough bark scratched and splinters lodged and fingers got jammed. The air was cool, and we had inevitably started later in the day than we should have, and so dusk began tiptoeing out of the edge of the woods, shadowing the field, lending just a smidgeon of urgency to our task. We knew loading this truck was only the first step.

Back home, the cab quiet now with the satisfaction of hard work and the anticipation of round two.

Once home, we set up our assembly line again, two of us in the truck bed, two on the ground, steadily building a wall of firewood, each log placed just so, a good five feet high and 10 or 12 feet long. It was a wall of provision, quite literally. A wall of sacrifice for the well-being of our family. A wall of hard work, team work, bruised fingers and aching arms and deep, almost primeval satisfaction at the handiwork now bounding the side of the walkway.

We would be warm, again, this winter, our little tribe in our cozy den with the thin dark-red carpet and the books crammed onto the built-in shelves and the yellow glow of the table lamps.


Published in: on November 15, 2017 at 2:06 am  Leave a Comment  

School lunch

Every once in a while someone will labor one of the double doors open, and in the few squeaky seconds before it latches shut she can hear a snippet of the lunch crowd aimless at the back side of the school grounds. Voices, sometimes yells, cars in the distance, other exterior doors crashing shut, the screech of a trash bin gorging on uneaten cafeteria food. There’s a whiff of French fries, the dry smell of scuffed dirt, wisps of smoke from the other end of the school, where all the cool kids and teachers are smoking under the end zone bleachers. Heat waves in, too, disturbing the stale cool of the short hallway.

Whoever has opened the door takes a glance at her and breezes on, unconcerned and uncurious. They clang through another set of interior doors, and she can hear their footsteps echo away down the bare floor of the main hallway.

The girl cross-legged alone on the wafer-thin carpet doesn’t even lift her eyes off the book in her lap.

Her rectangular, divided, green cafeteria tray cradles food mostly untouched, the fork forlorn to the side, though a wadded plastic wrapper that once held peanut butter crackers is lying across the top like a shroud. A nearly empty can of Coke presides over the tray.

All the other juniors – and seniors, and sophomores, and freshmen, and teachers, and staff – are scattered with their mini-tribes around the campus. And she knows them.

She knows the inside of the teachers’ lounge, its mimeograph table commanding one entire corner, its vending machine, its mail cubbies, the nose-wrinkling testimony of burned popcorn from the microwave, the teachers and staff in their grownup versions of cliques.

Outside, boys, lurching their way to being men, sit man-spreaded on picnic tables, girlfriends locked and leaning in on them. She has a loose idea who is paired with whom, but neither can nor wishes to follow the daily, overly dramatic musical chairs of that game.

She knows the numbing din of the cafeteria, the gaggle of girls that gathers beneath the big oak tree on the front lawn, the motley crew of bad kids that lingers around the door to the shop class, which Coke machine is most likely to eat your quarters, which sidewalks have the biggest fire ant beds.

She knows the noise, the warm sun, the rank smell at the cafeteria loading dock, the sharp splinters of the picnic tables, the bounded sets of every high school there ever was.

She also knows the price of getting inside one of those bounded sets. And is unwilling to pay it.

Besides – there are books, which have all the friends, the drama, the romance, the strivings, the agony and glory that are all in the hungry eyes of the teenagers and adults all around her.

There is the heart-soothing, soul quiet of this hallway during the lunch hour.

She leans against the hard library door – locked during lunch, tragic – and closes her eyes, mulling the novel, feeling the carbonated burn of the digesting Coke and the beginnings of a cramp in her bent left leg.

volkwagen rabbit

In the afternoon, the hot May sun of South Carolina will pour out like warm syrup through the rattling windows of the 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit. Her mother, in the passenger seat now that the reading girl can drive, will query in a fake-casual voice, “Honey is there anybody at Barnwell High School you would…date?” The girl will devote several minutes of thought to the question (she is her deliberate thinking father’s daughter) while the mother waits. “No ma’am,” she will finally say, and no more.

Right now, though, she is alone but not a whit lonely. She’s outcast by her own choosing, content enough in her own skin, aware of her world but engaged only on her own terms.

Which, right now, these noon hours, these last two years of high school, are exactly this scene.

Published in: on September 27, 2017 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  

The Addams Family Mortuary experience

I’d previously lived in Asheville for nearly two years and so was familiar with the street where this mortuary and crematory were located: a narrow road along the unkempt banks of the Swannanoa River, one of those side alleys locals use to circumnavigate the hordes of tourists on Broadway Street. Under an appropriately glowering late September sky, Mom and I pulled up to a nondescript, white, concrete-block building that looked more like the meat processing plant from my hometown than any funerary facility I’d ever encountered. Where were the white Corinthian columns, the sturdy red brick, the perfectly-clipped shrubbery, the discreet covered drive-through on the side of the building, the men in suits and solemn faces? Why did I feel like I was entering the Twilight Zone as we walked to the heavy unmarked door with the steel kick-guard?

Holding my breath, I opened the door to a small room with a low ceiling and coffin samples lying hither and yon like so many piles of stained lumber. There were indentations in the cheap sheetrock walls, and a couple of curtains draped suspiciously over doorways that looked like they led to Madame Rue’s Palm Reading station. At one end was a window cut-out with a counter, complete with sliding glass window, like the sign-in station at a medical clinic.

There was no one there.

Mom and I looked at each other but said nothing, as if commentary might jolt the creepy-weird factor to an unbearable level. Better to pretend everything’s normal.

At last a young man with 7 o’clock shadow and not-quite-ironed khakis appeared, and after a mildly awkward conversation about who we were and when our appointment was (no standard expression of condolences included), ushered us into a conference room where the director would join us shortly. He motioned us to two sturdy office armchairs, managed a surprisingly agreeable smile, and left.

Mom and I were still committed to the little game of pretend. If we just kept mum, the Twilight Zone might go away. As if the passing of Dad a mere 18 hours ago weren’t surreal enough.

After several minutes a door on the other side opened – there was enough warren of rooms to make M.C. Escher’s head swim – and a tall, suited figure strode in.

“Dear Jesus,” I thought to myself. “We’re at the Addams Family Mortuary.”

He was at least six feet tall (yes, six feet), dressed in a suit that J.R. Ewing would have worn in his startup years, complete with a bolo tie. His dark hair was slick and greying in inconvenient patterns, and combed over to one side as though anticipating the eventual thinning. I glanced around the room expecting to see a half-drunk tumbler of Scotch on a shelf somewhere.

Surely this wasn’t happening. Surely this man was not in charge of the disposal of my father’s earthly body.

In my head I could hear the harpsichord and the snap-snapping of fingers.

Things improved as we discussed the details of Dad’s cremation with the director, who turned out to be a nice man, if a bit lacking in the social graces you’d expect from a mortuary and crematory director. Apparently that certification doesn’t require any coursework in funerary courtliness.

Exhibit A: “Does your husband have a pacemaker or anything similar?”

Mom: “No, nothing.”

Uncle Fester/Director: “Okay that’s good.” Pause. “I have to ask because we don’t want anything unexpected to explode, you know.”

Me, in my head: “You did NOT just say that.” Then, also to myself: “You mean there are some things you EXPECT to explode? What the –?” I glanced at the walls to see if there were any framed things that looked like a degree…a diploma…a certification….a license…Lord help us, anything that indicated some reliable external source had vouched for this outfit.

Exhibit B: “Now, did you want to look at an urn to select?”
Mom: “No, no, we don’t want the…we don’t want anything.” Pause as she collected herself a little to say the next words, hand to her heart in the most heartbreaking earnestness: “I have everything I need right here.”

Even Uncle Fester/Director felt the weight of the moment, the depth and tenderness and pain of it, and simply nodded, said nothing. I was torn between relief and my own momentary fighting of tears.

But it couldn’t possibly last, that tender moment. “Well not everybody wants the remains, I understand that.”

I cringed. Had no one told Mr. Bolo Tie not to refer to the dearly departed as “the remains,” like the potluck leftovers? It got better:

“Now, my wife and me, we got our urns all selected. They up on top of the TV stand, lined up.” He gestured as he explained. “You got her dad here, then the cat here, then a urn for her, then one for me. Yep, all lined up and ready. Everybody gets a turn. ‘Course, it’s kind of a pain, having to move all those containers every time we dust.”

We couldn’t help it. Mom and I glanced at each other. The snap-snapping fingers of the Addams Family theme song notched up a decibel in my head.

“Just out of curiosity,” Mom asked a few minutes later, as Uncle Fester/Director continued filling out his paperwork, “what do you do with the ashes?”

“Oh, well, once we have a few of them – you know, several families who ask us to handle everything and they don’t take the ashes, like you all – we have a place up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we’ve gotten permission from the Parkway people, and that’s where we scatter them. It’s a real pretty place.”

This was a definite improvement, Mom and I agreed. Mom and Dad had always enjoyed drives on that scenic parkway, and in the last year that Dad had been at the nursing home the parkway was their standard excursion. Just a 30-minute drive, out of the nursing home, was a lift to both of their spirits.

Except Mom seemed to get into the creep-o mood of this place and launched into an entertaining tale of some friend of a friend of a friend who took a helicopter ride over the Charleston Harbor to scatter someone’s ashes, and ended up with ash blown into their face thanks to the chopper and ocean winds. We all laughed, because it was a funny story, but also because it was just a relief to laugh. Also it felt better than crying.

Finally we escaped. I mean, left. The snap-snapping fingers in my head stopped, I let out the breath I’d apparently been holding the whole time we were there, Mom and I never really talked about Uncle Fester/Director (too much else to do, as anyone who’s planned a memorial service can tell you), and my wonderful dear Dad – well, his earthly remains are now no doubt scattered into the soil and roots and moss and exquisitely complex and rich compost of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while his soul is, finally, Fully Free.

Published in: on May 2, 2017 at 2:08 am  Leave a Comment  

A tree grows in…

The magnolia tree in the corner of the side yard, right at the intersection of two wide quiet streets. Lowest limbs a convenient three feet off the ground, all others alternating in perfect rhythm on either side of the tough leathery trunk. Large green oval leaves – fuzzy brown on their backsides – year round.

So you could hide in any season.magnolia-tree

You could feel the stretching of your own limbs as you monkeyed to the slender limbs near the top, in the thickest refuge of branches. The big sturdy leaves, pointy at the ends, bent but didn’t break when you brushed against them. They sat spaced apart enough for you to follow the world below, but not enough for you to be viewed by any but those on a quest. The bark was rough, sometimes you scraped your palm against it and the redness lingered for hours. But the rough was reassuring, like Grandpa’s jaws before he shaved in the morning. The limbs were perfectly splayed for climbing, but unfriendly to sprawling. You sat in them for hours anyway. You were a kid, looked down on or looked over, but in here, among the impartial fractals of limb and leaf and fist-sized seeds, you were a powerful kind of near-invisible.

Because grownups never looked up.

In late spring – early May, here – the decadent, intense, sweet smell of the blooms was overwhelming, you were dizzy with their fecundity. Those massive pearly white petals were an exultation of overpowering beauty and delicacy; they exclaimed glory even as they wilted, browned, collapsed at the finest brush of your fingers. Forever and mortality lived in the curves of every brilliant bloom.

From here you could see the remains of the house across the corner, burned years ago, dusty black sentinel towers of char, random, defiant pillars of red brick, here and there some stubborn shrubbery: Burn all you want, here I stay planted, here I will bloom red berries every December.

Here on the caddy-corner sat the two-story wood frame house, a bona fide Sears & Roebuck catalog home. Your knowing eyes inevitably drawn to the second-story, on the right, above the double front screened door – and what you see is that humming, droning, terrifying, fascinating swarm of bees electrifying the air, the air alive and winged, the bees as furious and frantic in their efforts to save their home, long in the uninsulated wall of that room, as those firefighters were across the street those years ago.

It was all years ago, really. These always solitary and sometimes lonely hours up in the rough green refuge…They were before the church people installed the green-astroturf-carpeted ramp at the front door of the church across the street (the last corner left to see from your leafy, limby perch). They were before that unmentionable happened at the neighbor’s. They were before the Great Christmas Snow – or were they?

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway. Visits back home spur shock at places that seem to have shrunk in size even while they magnified in significance, as if time were some magical two-sided lens. Here, on this street, me and my friends and our bikes and our dogs, with our squeals and our youth-sure immortality, and on the heels of it, Surely this driveway was longer?

Too many people have died too many years after you knew what they really meant. So much loss, beyond bricks and mortar and honeycombs. And yet too much has stayed the same. Why does change thaw with the speed of a glacier here?

Yet you see the steadfastness of a pilgrim too, in the committed rhythms of church and home and work. You see the freedom of a child who climbs trees and sits in them for hours, unmolested by adult worry or interference. You see the seasons observed and accepted and fully lived – sowing, harvesting, lying fallow…sunrise, sunset, moonrise.

Now, solitary hours are harder to find; lonely ones are infrequent, but sting deeper. Life hasn’t gotten easier. It’s richer with strength and peace, poorer with worry and loss. There are mountains to climb now, not trees: higher, more treacherous, some of them oxygen-deficient, but grand and expansive.

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway – until you close your eyes. Close your eyes, take a breath, feel the bark and the leaves and the velvet petals, see the corners, your own brick home behind you, the world below you, the promise ahead of you…the Home that calls you in for supper.



Published in: on January 27, 2017 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Phifer vacuum

A couple of weekends ago my husband Daniel and I removed the last of his parents’ worldly belongings out of the small storage unit where they had been kept for three and half years. It took all of one hour, involved multiple trips to the dumpster across the parking lot, and all fit in our minivan. Forget antiques and memorabilia and photo albums. The storage unit consisted almost exclusively of large plastic bins filled with CDs, old tools, and random pieces of electronic equipment.

It was representative of Gary, Daniel’s Dad, if not of Jo, his mother. And it reminded me of a story….dscn0335

Daniel’s childhood home included an unfinished basement, with the stairs to it branching off the ground floor’s main hallway. The vacuum cleaner lived in this basement along with the usual accomplices: washer, dryer, drill press, shelves and cabinets and worktables of assorted tools, power tools, and spare parts to untold numbers of appliances.

Jo was weary of hauling said vacuum cleaner (which she complained didn’t work that great anyway) up and down the basement stairs, and finally Gary had had enough of the moaning about it.

Now, Gary was an outstanding engineer of just about any type. But the man had no eye or thought for aesthetics. So here was his solution:

Go to Sears. Buy an industrial wet-dry “shop” vac. Clear three square feet out of the hall coat closet and ensconce said shop vac in it. Run the cord under the hall rug, under the door to the basement, plug it into an orange extension cord, and wrap the extension cord around the stair banister, all the way down to an outlet in the basement. Last, but not least, distribute industrial quality headphones to each member of the family.

To handle the industrial-sized roar of the shop vac.

“Gary!! This thing is TOO LOUD!!”

“Well, you said you wanted a vacuum that works.”

“But it’s too LOUD!!! And it takes up the WHOLE CLOSET!!”

“Well, you said you were tired of carrying it up and down the stairs. Now you don’t have to.”

Well what could anybody say to this?

Never mind that now there’s a lump in the hall rug. Or that the basement door won’t fully shut. Or that in reaching for the stair banister you wrap your hands around a power cord. Or that you had to wear headphones when the vacuum cleaner was running – no matter who was pushing it. Or that Hunter the cat, who fearlessly stalked possums and raccoons, ran fleeing in feline terror when the Beast was fetched from the coat closet. Or that the vacuum is so powerful all loose textiles within a six-foot radius must be secured before flipping the “on” button.

The important thing was, the thing worked, and nobody had to haul it up or down any stairs.

Y’all. This was life in Gary Phifer’s household.

You ask for a solution, and you’re likely to get it. But you’ll get what you get, and you don’t pitch a fit.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 3:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Carter v Reagan (aka The Spin of Shame)

My first presidential election. 1979. Carter vs. Reagan. God bless him, how could Carter possibly have won re-election when dozens of Americans remained hostages in Iran?

Whatever that meant.merry-go-round

Here’s what the 1980 (1979) presidential election meant to me: Getting to ride the merry-go-round, and realizing you can’t spin fast enough to shake shame.

I was a young seven years old. I was a runt. I was shy. I was one of 10 white children at an elementary school with just over 100 students. I had no real friends to speak of, just one or two peers who condescended to pity me enough to occasionally invite me into playground games. (Cue “Rudolph” here.) To all the rest, I was invisible.

Except the day after the election results were announced. That day, some of the children – the big ones everybody listened to-slash-were scared of – made it clear that only dummies (pretty sure that was their word choice) had voted for Carter. Reagan won, so Reagan was the Man of the Hour, and everybody affiliated with poor Mr. Carter was a loser. Never mind that the oldest child on the playground was still a decade from voting age and not one of us could tell you what the Electoral College was. Maybe not even Reagan’s first name.

Didn’t matter. No losers were allowed on the merry-go-round.

Well I’d heard these two names – Carter and Reagan – bandied around at the dinner table at my house, part of that baffling other-worldly conversation that floated between adults, mysterious to a child like clouds: you knew more or less what they were made of, but had no hope of touching them yourself.

Still, I’d caught enough of the drift (if you’ll pardon the pun) to know my parents had voted Carter.

But that merry-go-round called like a slot machine to a gambler. Each board of its floor was a different color – or at least had been during the first Roosevelt administration, judging by the fade and peel of the paint. When you rode, holding on to one L-shaped bar in each hand, and leaned back, the G-force pinned you in place and it felt like you were blasting off into space. It was speed, freedom, immersion in adrenalin.

Was I going to miss this just because of some thing called an election? Was I going to spend another recess on the weedy, anthill-infested, gravelly, lonely edge of the school yard, tapping the little puffball fungi to watch their clouds of brown smoke?

By Jimmy, no. And so, for the first time in my young life, I broke rank.

Not only did I lie through my baby teeth and declare that of course my parents had voted Reagan, only dummies voted for Carter. I clinched my betrayal by then declaring, loud as my runt voice would carry, that, like the big cool scary kids, I wouldn’t share the merry-go-round with kids with loser parents, either. The kids who’d shown me pity, those poor among them whose parents were now determined to be “losers,” looked at me like I’d just sprouted blue hair. I turned from them with such snobbery I’m pretty sure my nose could have caught any rain.

As the equipment spun and my hair flew and my pulse raced with the thrill of the ride, even as I laughed at the wind and daredevil speed, my little heart was shrinking in shame.

I knew I didn’t even know Jack about that election. I knew I was siding with the mean kids. I knew, oh, how I knew I was lying, and I was just sure it was written all over my shamed face. I adored my mother and had unwavering respect for my father; to me, they still knew everything about right and wrong and were to be utterly trusted in their judgments. I had no reason to doubt them.

And yet I’d just denied the truth. I half-expected to hear a rooster crow from the edge of the school yard.

I spun like a wild child, but the moment had no shine.

I’ve given in to the suction of peer pressure since, and I’ve stood wavering against it, and I’ve stood firm against it. I’ve voted for poor candidates, and I’ve voted for some good ones; doubtless I’ll do both again. Either way I owned my choice, maybe even a little bit learned from it.

But I will never forget the shame I felt that day, spinning around with the wrong crowd, at my own cowardice and disloyalty. Better to scuff my secondhand shoes on the gravel at the edge of the school yard, alone but true. Better to hang out with the puffball mushroom clouds than be untrue or unkind.

Talk about spin.


Published in: on November 8, 2016 at 2:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Air conducting


It’s a Sunday night in the spring, about 8 p.m. My two younger brothers are off who-knows-where. (This was a rural town in the mid 1980s, back when 12- and 9-year-old boys could wander freely about town on their bikes like real Goonies, and nobody thought twice about it so long as they were home by dark.) Mom is still at church, across the street, talking to the choir members who are still there.

I’ve left the church – I sang in the choir, too, though not as well as the kindly adults assured me I did and certainly not nearly as well as I thought I did, but that’s neither here nor there for this vignette.

I take the covered walkway in four strides, up the five brick steps onto the screen porch, careful not to let the screen door bang behind me, and walk through the open back door into the den.

And there’s my Dad. He’s sitting on the couch against the wall of windows that look out onto the screen porch, so he’s on my immediate right as I cross the threshold.

But he doesn’t notice me, because he’s air conducting Beethoven, and his eyes are closed.

He’s put a Beethoven Sonata CD in the CD player, turned up the speakers almost full volume, and is blissfully counting four-four time with his hands, cuing the strings, the drum, the piano, the woodwinds. He has major conductor face going on – concentrated, scowling, eyebrows raised then furrowed, head nods and expansive arms, shoulders hunched and then squared.

I would just as soon have expected to see him licking the carpet, this was so out of character.

My Dad wore pants and long-sleeves year-round, even when it was 98 degrees outside and he was working in his un-air-conditioned woodshop.

My Dad rarely showed amusement beyond a smile or a chuckle, though he wasn’t at all morose or unpleasant. Just not the guffawing type.

My Dad didn’t hurry. He didn’t yell. He didn’t leave his bedroom without being fully dressed (no lounging around the house in an undershirt). He didn’t get flustered. He was dignified but not stodgy. He wasn’t a snuggler or a hugger or a ruffle-your-head-squeeze-your-cheeks kind of guy.

He wasn’t a playmate to me or my brothers. We may or may not be welcome to tag along with whatever task he was attending at any given moment, but he was not the dad to play cards or board games, ride bikes, jump on the trampoline.

And he certainly was never silly.

This “air conducting” scenario was one of only a half dozen or so silly episodes I recall with 18 years of childhood under Gary Mullinax. (It’s probably why they stand out in such relief in my memory.)

At any rate, I get about 10 seconds of this completely unexpected amusement before I make some kind of noise that interrupts his performance. He catches me watching him in baffled delight, pauses in mid-measure, and grins like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie dish. Holding a baton, no less.

I’m so pleasantly shocked I grin back, shake my head in a careful “tsk-tsk” sort of way, and continue through the den, into the hallway, both of us silently acknowledging this little secret, the sound of his slightly-but-not-really-embarrassed chuckle – and Beethoven – following me.

People tell me I seem comfortable in my own skin.

What they don’t know is this is yet another gift from my father.

Sometimes, however undignified it looks, you just gotta do what strikes your fancy, though you may willingly tow the proper line every other minute of the day. And if you get caught in your harmless silliness? Grin, and keep going.

Be yourself. The cliché rang true in my Dad.

One of these days, if I am fortunate enough to grow up to be like him, it will ring as true in me.


Published in: on October 18, 2016 at 2:33 am  Leave a Comment  

The Dukes of Hazzard

The Dukes of Hazzard (or, Ehrhardt, 1970-something, school lunch)

It’s the late 1970s. Ehrhardt South Carolina is a teeniney town. It seemed to be some warped sense of pride to tell people I’m from a town so small its sole traffic signal is a blinking yellow light. Four hundred souls call this hamlet – settled primarily by German immigrants in the 18th century – home. Lucky me.

There was an elementary school. Kindergarten (not yet legally required) through I think 5th grade. About six blocks down, at the dead end of my street. Classic mid-60s architecture, which is to say, about as inspiring as a fashion show in the USSR. If you can even believe it – not air-conditioned. This is significant in lowcountry South Carolina – in the way breathing is significant to living. Oh dear God the heat, condensing on my neck, behind my ears, at the crook of my arm, every month but January.

Just about 100 students in these five grades. Precisely 10 of us white.

Did I mention this was the late 1970s? Did I mention this was a farming town in South Carolina? (Need I remind you my home state fired the first shots of the American Civil War? Okay then.) The civil rights movement glossed over my home state, but in a decidedly lower case sort of way. This wasn’t Atlanta, people, much less Selma; it was the stomping grounds of Strom Thurmond.

Okay. So there I am, a scrawny (skinny is too nice of a word), shy and also timid, uncertain, quiet, little white bookworm (yes, as early as first grade, when I had to prove to Mrs. Ramsey the librarian that I could read Walt Farley’s Black Stallion before she would let me check it out. I mean can you imagine? What kind of librarian tries to hold a kid back from reading the next level?). I’m surrounded by big black girls who don’t think twice about cheating in hopscotch and then looming over me when I pipsqueak in tremulous protect.

Oh dear. I mustn’t dwell on the playground scene or I will have nightmares tonight, 3- years later. Suffice it to say I shriveled into my chair so thoroughly it’s a wonder my teachers even knew I was there.

Except of course I stood out – being one of two white children in the classroom of 20-plus kids. The other was Bill. Bill Copeland. His dad was a dairy farmer. Bill was red-headed and shockingly fair-skinned – though his neck and arms were about as red from the sun as his hair.

It’s possible Bill and I would have been friends even if we hadn’t felt the need for white people solidarity. Who can say? I look back on my segregated childhood, which persisted, unquestioned by anybody, into high school, and just can’t even fathom that world anymore.

But I digress. Let’s move on to the cafeteria. Oh sweet Jesus, the noise, the echo of scraping metal chairs on red tile floor, clattering lunch trays and utensils, and 60 decibels of 100 talking children. It was too much for this mouse. I got my tray and just tried to find a seat at the end of a table, out of the thick of the terror. Head down, hope nobody speaks to me, focus on eating, get through lunch and hope I can persuade a grownup to let me escape to the quiet library. I promise I’ll put every book back exactly where I found it.

Except about half the time, when I could finangle a seat near Bill. He was my carrot top lighthouse in a sea of dark skin and kinky corn row hair. It didn’t much matter that half the time he jabbered on and on about farm life (which was foreign to me, and not nearly as interesting to me then as it is now). He wasn’t big or loud, didn’t cheat at hopscotch, looked like me, and went to a plain vanilla Methodist church, which even at that age I knew made him like a cousin, spiritually speaking, to us Baptists.

Also he also watched The Dukes of Hazzard. (If you must, look it up. And for God’s sake, don’t judge. You’ve watched your fair share of…well…) And to be honest, that was the main attraction of my main boy Bill Copeland.

See, The Dukes of Hazzard was a one-hour television show that aired on Friday nights at 8 p.m. My bedtime on Fridays was a generous 8:30 p.m. Do the math. Then try to imagine the weeping, the wailing, and the gnashing of baby teeth that ensued each Friday evening about 7:45 p.m., as I lobbied, with fervent evangelical passion, for an extension just this one time.

Mama was unmoved. Well I was nothing if not a child with an inflated sense of self-importance, and this convinced me that the best way to spite my cold-hearted Mama was to declare, with great pomp, that I “just won’t watch any of it, then!!” (Fear not. I have since learned how to hone the gift of spite well, and my nose is quite safe.)

Mama remained unmoved. In fact, if the scene played like so many from my childhood, she probably didn’t respond at all. And so, in my Tivo-deprived world, I grieved all weekend at the loss of that great joy, the potential weekly highlight of my under-stimulated little life. But, the Lord provides; there was hope.

Tuesday, Bill would tell me the whole episode. His mama let him stay up and watch the whole thing.

Not Monday at lunch, because Bill was gone to some odd thing called “Gifted and Talented,” whatever that was, and the GAT kids were spared lunch with the rest of us riffraff that day. But he was back on Tuesday, and my scrawny hands shook with anticipation as I wrangled with the cardboard milk carton. I could hardly finish my school lunch (and let’s not even talk about that semi-tragic divided plate) before corralling Bill into a detailed rendering of our mutual favorite entertainment.

And he happily indulged. Here’s how it went:

First, Bill would arrange all the containers and leftover piles of food on his tray into a facsimile of Hazzard County: the mound of mashed potatoes was the high bank of a creek; the pint-sized milk carton was the jailhouse (a key component of every episode); the sideways-laying fork was Roscoe P. Coltrane’s booby trap.

Once all the props were in place, Bill began at the beginning, and went blow, by blow, by blow, through the entire one-hour (45-minute) episode. He explained every plot point from the handsome ne’er-do-well fella who caught Daisy Duke’s eye at the beginning, to every dirt-road turnaround and cow pasture runaround Bo and Luke employed, to the details of Boss Hogg’s conniving. Bill’s fingers (the General Lee, aka the Dukes’ muscle car with the jammed door handles) moved up this ramp (potatoes), under this fork (booby trap), into and out of the milk carton (jailhouse). His 8-year-old voice moved through all its limited registers yet bounding variety, mimicking Daisy, Uncle Jesse, Roscoe, Boss, Cooter (I told you not to judge), and of course Bo and Luke Duke.

I was riveted. I couldn’t move. Forgot the decibels of overwhelming around me. Didn’t finish my milk. Didn’t even think about asking to finish my lunch period in the quiet safe library.

I had missed The Dukes of Hazzard Friday night, but thanks to Bill, I knew everything that had happened.

Folks, this was the highlight of my first three years of school. Make what you will of that – a comment on me, on my hometown, on public education in the late 1970s, even on the possibly sad state of late 70s television, I dunno.

All I know is, I waited with baited breath for lunch on Tuesday. And my friend Bill never let me down.

In fourth grade, though I stayed in Ehrhardt, I moved to a school in the next county – Mom had started teaching there and the schools were considerably better quality. I left Bill at Ehrhardt Elementary to fend for himself, which wasn’t nearly as scary a prospect for him as it would have been for me.

And about nine years later we went on a few dates.

But that’s another story.the_dukes_of_hazzard_large

Published in: on September 22, 2016 at 1:20 am  Comments (2)  

An Ode in Prose to the Southern Summer Night

Hannah with the ultimate Southern summer fruit (the BEST are from S.C.)

There is no night like a Southern summer night. It’s more a sensation than a sound: cicadas, crickets, and grasshoppers, constant as tide, webbed things in and out of the water, dusky air heavy with wetness, a cloistered heaviness that, paradoxically, calls to mind the oxygen-deprived air of higher altitudes as it greedily absorbs your warm breath.

Sometimes there are bona fide sensations that leave a proof of purchase: the no-see-um pricks of coastal pests, shallow pale welts from thirsty mosquitoes, a sheen of delicate sweat where skin folds upon skin – at the elbows, knees, neck, armpits, between your feet and your $3.99 flip-flops.

There is no night like a Southern summer night. It conjures the memory of lukewarm water flowing over pitch black dirt, weaving over bottomland and lapping witch hat cypress knees. It speaks of hot humid air made no less hot or humid by your rolled-down window going 65 miles per hour on rural blacktops. It hems you in on a front porch rocker, a paper plate with peanut butter-covered pound cake in your hand, a floor fan oscillating among the forest of woven chairs and bare legs. Its insect roar lullabies you to sleep with windows open and ceiling fans whirring.

Southern summer nights sing out the sweet strings of “Tara’s Theme.” They grate the coarse steel guitar of “Hold on Loosely.” They fiddle the quick fingers of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Then they pause in their insect chorus just long enough for you to recall your grandmother’s voice retelling the tales of your crazy Uncle Ben – mixing fact and fiction, bequeathing a tight, if not-quite-seamless, weave of family ties.

Southern summer nights are pregnant with memory – is it perhaps only here, bafflingly, that a state of expectancy is defined by what was, not what is or will be? So warm you are transported to childhood and adolescence, as though reaching back through time for the warmth of your mother when you were new to her. So warm you sit still and think, and your thoughts go not to grand plans for future days, but rather to rock in the gentle warm waters of yesterday, and yesterday’s ease and slowness, its familiar places and paces.

Summer nights are dark elsewhere, of course. Summer nights are hot and humid elsewhere, too. But they do not carry the weight, the volume, the sheer enormity of memory that a Southern summer night carries so effortlessly in its cricket arms, so buoyantly in its humid breath. They cannot compare with its dark, rich, potent sound or sensation. There just is no night like a Southern summer night.

Samuel, transferring mud from the beach to the lake; undoubtedly a brilliance to this we cannot see

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment