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Painting by Charlie Baird

The story’s not in what people say — it’s in what they don’t say. That’s what you listen for and write.former editor

My mother left Memphis in 1988 to be near my brother’s family in Austin. She was 60 at the time and had lived in Memphis her whole life. She wanted a new identity after my father’s death the year before.

I’ve often wondered how much money she had after she sold the house she and Dad lived in for 30 years. I do know the car she arrived in, a mid-80s Oldsmobile Cutlass, was the same car she was driving 15 years later when she died. She prayed the car would last one day longer than she did, and the night before she died my niece saw the car abandoned on the side of the road, left by whomever mom sold it to. Realizing what that meant, I rushed back to my mother’s apartment, finding the hospice nurse already there.

Mom at age 46

I see now the move my mom made to a new city at that stage in her life was a journey of faith. She left friends, neighbors and the church community she’d help create to start over again. Whenever I need to move forward to some new place in my life, either geographically or emotionally, I remember this. My mother didn’t know what words to use to encourage me along the paths I needed to take, but her endurance and perseverance remain with me.

After she moved, she lived in a duplex a few streets from my brother and sister-in-law, who had two daughters ages five and nine at the time. In some ways, it worked well. She became part of the girls’ lives, started a new job and developed new friends. But she missed the friends she’d made as a hairdresser in Memphis.

The rituals of hairdressers die hard, and these women had worked in the same shop 35 years, raised children together, helped each other through disabilities, diseases, accidents and widowhood. I don’t believe any of them divorced. This was characteristic of women in my mom’s generation but was also due to lunches the women held at each others houses.

The lunch bunch reupholstered living room furniture, painted walls, shampooed carpets, polished silver, mowed and edged lawns before the lunches began. From inside my treehouse, I could hear them giggling and clinking glasses in the house as they ate the deviled eggs, sliced cheeses and scooped honeydew and watermelon balls my mother and I prepared before they arrived.

Georgia, Dot, Oresa, Mozelle, Mary Francis, Roxie, Rosie and Helen — I’m reminded of the honeysuckle vines that grew along a fence behind our house. The smell of the ladies’ hugs remained on me for hours after they left, as mom and I carefully washed the crystal and china and slipped the silver forks, knives and spoons back into their special compartments inside the velvet box.

On Wednesdays as mom and I drove home from Oresa’s pool, still in our swimming suits and still smelling of chlorine, she was always relaxed and happier.The women took from each other what they needed to move on, my mother’s determination, Oresa’s business savvy, Mozelle’s humor, Roxie’s candor, Mary Francis’ tact, the divinity in Dot’s face and the grace in Helen’s.

I don’t know what they talked about when the children were sent away, but I do know as the women sat beneath the table umbrellas, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, they began to resemble each other. Through the bawdy jokes and tears and baskets of flowers, they’d learned to listen to each other, not only what was said but what wasn’t said and what needed to be heard in the silence. Mom never found that again after she left Memphis.

Three of the women drove to Austin to visit mom after she moved away. Standing in her driveway, they noticed fig trees overloaded with ripe figs in a neighbor’s yard. Early the next morning, they woke, slipped into the yard, stole the figs and carefully returned to my mom’s house, stifling laughter all the way. In her kitchen, they meticulously sorted the figs into four sacks and tried not to eat any. Fig preserves were a specialty among the lunch bunch — figs, a fruit that symbolize fertility and the feminine world, women both as goddess and mother.

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Swiss colonists at Die Kolony Bernstadt

In discussions with my brother this morning, I discovered our great great grandparents immigrated from Switzerland in 1885 to help establish a Swiss farming community in Kentucky called Bernstadt.

In the 1880s, the Kentucky Bureau of Immigration sent agents to Europe with pamphlets touting Kentucky’s bright future, and many Swiss farmers immigrated in response. Three hundred and thirty six families bought property on 40,000 acres of land in Kentucky. Die Kolony Bernstadt was the largest of four Swiss colonies in the region. Many of these German-speaking immigrants were from the canton of Bern in west-central Switzerland. They wanted to immigrate because high land prices caused a farming crisis in their own country.

The following excerpt about these Swiss colonists is from Harper’s Magazine, volume 78, published in 1889: 

“Kentucky has gone to work in a very sensible way to induce immigration and to attract settlers of the right sort. The Bureau of Immigration was established in 1880. It began to publish facts about the State, in regard to the geologic formation, the soils, the price of lands, both the uncleared and the lands injured by slovenly culture, the kind and amount of products that might be expected by thrifty farming, and the climate; not exaggerated general proclamations promising sudden wealth with little labor, but facts such as would attract the attention of men willing to work in order to obtain for themselves and their children comfortable homes and modest independence.

Invitations were made for a thorough examination of lands — of the different sorts of soils in different counties — before purchase and settlement. The leading idea was to induce industrious farmers who were poor, or had not money enough to purchase high-priced improved lands, to settle upon lands that the majority of Kentuckians considered scarcely worth cultivating, and the belief was that good farming would show that these neglected lands were capable of becoming very productive.

Canton Bern in Switzerland

Eight years’ experience has fully justified all these expectations. Colonies of Swiss, Germans, Austrians, have come, and Swedes also, and these have attracted many from the North and Northwest. In this period I suppose as many as ten thousand immigrants of this class, thrifty cultivators of the soil, have come into the State, many of whom are scattered about the State, unconnected with the so-called colonies.

These colonies are not organized communities in any way separated from the general inhabitants of the State. They have merely settled together for companionship and social reasons, where a sufficiently large tract of cheap land was found to accommodate them. Each family owns its own farm, and is perfectly independent. An indiscriminate immigration has not been desired or encouraged, but the better class of laboring agriculturists, grape-growers, and stockraisers.

There are several settlements of these, chiefly Swiss, dairy-farmers, cheese-makers, and vine-growers, in Laurel County; others in Lincoln County, composed of Swiss, Germans, and Austrians; a mixed colony in Rock Castle County; a thriving settlement of Austrians in Boyle County; a temperance colony of Scandinavians in Edmonson County; another Scandinavian colony in Grayson County; and scattered settlements of Germans and Scandinavians in Christian County.

These settlements have from one hundred to over a thousand inhabitants each. The lands in Laurel and Lincoln counties, which I travelled through, are on a high plateau, with good air and temperate climate, but with a somewhat thin, loamy, and sandy soil, needing manure, and called generally in the State poor land — poor certainly compared with the blue-grass region and other extraordinarily fertile sections.

These farms, which had been more or less run over by Kentucky farming, were sold at from one to five dollars an acre. They are farms that a man cannot live on in idleness. But they respond well to thrifty tillage, and it is a sight worth a long journey to see the beautiful farms these Swiss have made out of land that the average Kentuckian thought not worth cultivating. It has not been done without hard work, and as most of the immigrants were poor, many of them have had a hard struggle in building comfortable houses, reducing the neglected land to order, and obtaining stock.

Wine vineyards in Kentucky

A great attraction to the Swiss was that this land is adapted to vine culture, and a reasonable profit was expected from selling grapes and making wine. The vineyards are still young; experiment has not yet settled what kind of grapes flourish best, but many vine-growers have realized handsome profits in the sale of fruit, and the trial is sufficient to show that good wine can be produced. The only interference thus far with the grapes has been the unprecedented late freeze last spring.

At the recent exposition in Louisville the exhibit of these Swiss colonies — the photographs showing the appearance of the unkempt land when they bought it, and the fertile fields of grain and meadow and vineyards afterward, and the neat plain farm cottages, the pretty Swiss chalet with its attendants of intelligent comely girls in native costumes offering articles illustrating the taste and the thrift of the colonies, wood-carving, the products of the dairy, and the fruit of the vine — attracted great attention.

Johann Jakob and Magdelene Siegrist family
in Bernstadt

Die Kolony Bernstadt

I cannot better convey to the reader the impression I wish to in regard to this colonization and its lesson for the country at large than by speaking more in detail of one of the Swiss settlements in Laurel County. This is Bernstadt, about six miles from Pittsburg, on the Louisville and Nashville road, a coal-mining region, and offering a good market for the produce of the Swiss farmers. We did not need to be told when we entered the colony lands; neater houses, thrifty farming, and better roads proclaimed it. It is not a garden spot; in some respects it is a poor-looking country; but it has abundant timber, good water, good air, a soil of light sandy loam, which is productive under good tillage. There are here, I suppose, some two hundred and fifty families, scattered about over a large area, each o”h its farm.

There is no collection of houses; the church (Lutheran), the school-house, the store, the post-office, the hotel, are widely separated; for the hotel-keeper, the store-keeper, the postmaster, and I believe the school-master and the parson, are all farmers to a greater or less extent. It must be understood that it is a primitive settlement, having as yet very little that is picturesque, a community of simple working people. Only one or two of the houses have any pretension to taste in architecture, but this will come in time — the vine-clad porches, the quaint gables, the home – likeness. The Kentuckian, however, will notice the barns for the stock, and a general thriftiness about the places. And the appearance of the farms is an object-lesson of the highest value.

Paul Schenk family in Bernstadt

The Settlers

The chief interest to me, however, was the character of the settlers. Most of them were poor, used to hard work and scant returns for it in Switzerland. What they have accomplished, therefore, is the result of industry, and not of capital. There are among the colonists skilled laborers in other things than vine-growing and cheese-making — watch-makers and wood-carvers and adepts in various trades. The thrifty young farmer at whose pretty house we spent the night, and who has saw-mills at Pittsburg, is of one of the best Swiss families; his father was for many years President of the republic, and he was a graduate of the university at Lucerne.

There were others of the best blood and breeding and schooling, and men of scientific attainments. But they are all at work close to the soil. As a rule, however, the colonists were men and women of small means at home. The notable thing is that they bring with them a certain old civilization, a unity of simplicity of life with real refinement, courtesy, politeness, good-humor. The girls would not be above going out to service, and they would not lose their self-respect in it.

Many of them would be described as “peasants,” but I saw some, not above the labors of the house and farm, with real grace and dignity of manner and charm of conversation. Few of them as yet speak any English, but in most houses are evidences of some German culture. Uniformly there was courtesy and frank hospitality.

Ottenheim, Lincoln County,
Kentucky, founded
in 1884

The community amuses itself rationally. It has a very good brass band, a singing club, and in the evenings and holidays it is apt to assemble at the hotel and take a little wine and sing the songs of fatherland. The hotel is indeed at present without accommodations for lodgers—nothing but a Wirthshaus, with a German garden where dancing may take place now and then.

With all the hard labor, they have an idea of the simple comforts and enjoyments of life. And they live very well, though plainly. At a house where we dined, in the colony Strasburg, near Bernstadt, we had an excellent dinner, well served, and including delicious soup. If the colony never did anything else than teach that part of the State how to make soup, its existence would be justified.

Here, in short, is an element of homely thrift, civilization on a rational basis, good-citizenship, very desirable in any State. May their vineyards nourish! When we departed early in the morning — it was not yet seven — a dozen Switzers, fresh from the dewy fields, in their working dresses, had assembled at the hotel, where the young landlady also smiled a welcome, to send us off with a song, which ended, as we drove away, in a good-by yodel.”

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Carson McCullers (1917-1967) is an
 American writer from Georgia,
who wrote the novel 
A Clock Without Hands
the title I gave this journal.

The following excerpts are from a journal written between 1986 and 1989, during the years my father died, I was first married and discovered I was a lesbian.

p. 25 (June 10, 1987)

Twenty-Three

Please bear with me
said the tree,
my leaves number only twenty-three.

p. 33

“We all of us somehow caught. We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and bust free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.” Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

p. 34

“While I am young, I will write the simple beautiful things I understand.” Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

The drawings in the post are master copies
completed for an art class during that period.
Degas, Nude Woman Combing Her Hair

p. 40

“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in time of moral dilemma.” Dante

p. 93

“Be bold, take chances.” Lillian Hellman, Julia

p. 112

My mother’s car was stolen today. I sit here waiting for the police, remembering years ago when a man broke in on her with an ax. The sun bakes the windshields and my legs. I feel guilty because in the middle of her phone call, I was thinking weekend before exams, what a great time for this to happen. We used to look at each other in the eyes when we said goodbye. Now we pull away. Something killed that in us too.

p. 117

Death is a game and marriage
is lonelier than solitude.

p. 126

Degas, Standing Female Nude

Inside my salty brain, images of us float eight feet deep. I dive into the cold where sun has not shone for months to lift the pieces of my broken identity from inside you, a drain of fouled leaves, dead spiders and rocks. Death is a game, and marriage is lonelier than solitude.

p. 135

I hit him in the head, and the blood flowed so fast, soaking everything, the sheets the corner of the bed. Why did I do it, why did I hit him so hard. Across the sink, on the bathroom floor, it’s everywhere. I hate who I am. I hate who I am so I hit him. They asked at the hospital what he’d done to make me do it. I hate who I am I hate who I am I hate who I am.

p. 138

You are my mother. You put your hand on my shoulder. I try to wash you off me like the smell of cigarettes once you’re gone.

p. 176

A cat opened me up and licked inside me until I was wet with her. Her eyes blinked the flat, blank stare of a cat. She looked up at me only once. I loved the purr from inside her flat stomach as she rubbed against me. I scratched her curved, thin back, and she gently placed her head between my breasts and stroked me.

Degas, Study of Arm

p. 177

“To believe what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men, that is genius.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

p. 178

I always think when I’m sitting in these gay bars, there’s got to be more to it than this. I don’t know what they hope for. I pick up a pool stick and wipe the white powder on my hands. In their faces are the starved eyes of children. The chalk is as white as the cocaine Charlie’s trying to give Stacy. I see him land and fall near her then fall away. She flatters him with a smile. I don’t understand why we’re here, but I stay here with her listening to Bobby. He worked for the Commercial Appeal and tells me bad jokes about the newspaper. They move like ghosts around the walls of this room or sit by themselves at dark tables. Men dressed as women, women trying to look like men, female impersonators. Everything’s opposite of what it is.

Degas, Male Nude

p. 179

Dear Robin, thank you for always being there. You’re like the sister I never had. Remember the wedding. I don’t know who else I’d talk to about this. It seems like our lives are so different. You’re married and have a child, and now I’m not. Some friendships happen so fast and then they’re over, but this one’s lasted so long.

p. 191

My mother is moving to Texas to be near my brother and his family. We pack away the house. Today we were in the attic, crawling over thick layers of insulation. We waddled from board to board, trying to keep the pink fibers from cutting into our skin. She wanted me to find a piece of marble that’s been up there for years and goes on top of a washstand my grandparents had. I passed down furniture, disassembled cribs and playpens and bed frames and old toys and boxes of Christmas and Easter decorations and barrels of Barbies. We each stepped back onto the ladder out of the dark womb into the light.

p. 192

Degas, Standing Dancer Left Arm Raised

I hang over the top bar of the swing set and can’t stop crying. No more swings or sandboxes or tree houses or play house. My mother toes the grass and walks away.

p. 200

Now I’m back with Billy I think that whole lesbian thing was just a late adolescent stage I had to go through. I’m ashamed Sharon Bryan even knows what happened.

p. 214

My mother said when I told her I didn’t want to be a poet anymore that I should just keep writing anyway. She acted like being a poet was dumb thing to want to be. I wish I could want to be something like a nurse or a teacher that’s normal. I feel like I should drop that drawing class. Staying in it will probably just drop my gpa. It’s okay to fail, but not this way, not in this.

p. 218

Tomorrow I meet Ellen Bryant Voigt. Today Billy and I went to her reading. She seems like such a warm, personable woman. I listened to her reading and kept hoping she would look at me. I wish I could just sit there and look into her eyes.

Giovanni Tiepolo, Hercules Standing

p. 220

I talked to Ellen Bryant Voigt about my poetry tonight. She told me I need to read more. Right now I’m reading through the Antaeus Anthology. She said music didn’t fulfill her need for expression for a long time but that writing did.

p. 227

I tried to kill myself last week. I opened up a vein in my arm, but it seemed hopeless and still does. I don’t know what to do. I want to believe in something but don’t know what.

p. 232

A shotgun sounds across the tracks from our house and ricochets through the neighborhood. We walked down to see if we could see anything but could only see the train cars.

p. 246

Hope, next two exits. I gave my brother a sweater for Christmas and my sister-in-law a book, the kids toys and my mother clothes. They gave us an electric blanket. Now we’re driving home, and I have to go to the bathroom again. My mother smokes cigarettes and guides the car from one lane to the other for 600 miles.

Antoine Watteau, Study of Hands

p. 260

A Clock Without Hands

When she began hanging out in malls and movie theaters, no one noticed, not even her husband. He asked her once why she wanted to go to the movies alone and she said, to think. Being around books helped, so she’d hang out in bookstores too. Christmas with her family was nice, a cocoon she received shelter and love in. But afterwards on the ride home she felt empty and lost again and tried not to believe she felt empty and lost. She stopped taking long walks. They had long sense done any good.

She tried to do a drawing of Jesus. In his eyes, she drew in the lines of sadness and despair. She wondered if holiness had anything to do with loneliness. Church people didn’t seem to be lonely. They had their socials and bowling games and basketball tournaments. She took the drawing of Jesus and nailed it to her wall. His face reminded her of the faces she saw on the big screen in the movie theater. On a piece of paper beside the face she wrote, “Remember me lonely, a clock without hands, who quit running silently, who quit running.”

p. 269

Sometimes when the old woman would walk, she would wipe the rain from the leaves on her face. She tried hard to remember what it was she loved most when she was young, but the walks made her tired and she had to return home.

Alone in her apartment, she would read her books, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master, so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost their loss is no disaster.” And as she read, she remembered.

For in the sea is both beauty and cruelty, and no one knows in his chest are the walls of salt and in his fingers the blood of salt and in his mind the thoughts of the sea.

p. 291

On the other side of the tracks lives a family of three black women in a green house. It has two stories. One day I walked over there, and they waddled out to their balcony so we could talk. Their hair was full of pink rollers, and I watched them take them out as we stood there. Billy and I were thinking about moving over there, but the roofs look crooked and the yards have no grass and people walk with golf clubs like they’re canes.

p. 292

“She saw in him the timidity that he would be in age, a man of great fear and loneliness, that he would console himself with the minutiae of scholarship, the pain-staking search for the precise fact.” Will You Wait? by Lee Martin

Portrait of my father, by my cousin

p. 295

“I don’t like to see things go good or bad. I like them in between.” From the movie Red River with John Wayne

p. 303 (January 18, 1989)

Today I discovered the computer has dropped me from all my classes at school. I drained myself on a long bike ride and could hardly walk up the steps when I got home. It’s the two-year anniversary of my father’s death. I never could stand the thought of growing up and being like him, his messiness, his obsessiveness, his habits, his Jewishness maybe, whatever that was, we never discussed it. I think he always felt isolated even when he was sitting in the same room with us. I don’t know what I wanted him to be, so how can I say I don’t want to be like him. But sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see his face.

p. 312

I did the unforgivable thing,
I imagined someone else and not him.

In the end you were there again,
your face, your smell, your hair, your skin.

In the gray room beneath the lights again,
I did the unforgivable thing.

p. 46 (lyrics written in for I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For)

“I have climbed highest mountains. I have run through the fields only to be with you. I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls only to be with you, but I haven’t still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I have kissed honey lips felt the healing fingertips, burned like fire this burning desire. I have spoke with the tongues of angels. I have held the hand of the devil. It was warm as the night. I was cold as a stone, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I believe in kingdom come when all the colors bleed into one, but yes I’m still running. You broke the bonds and loosed the chains, carried the cross, all my shame, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” U2

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Memphis City Bridge

The following excerpts are journal entries made between Dec. 1, 1981 and June 27, 1982. Most entries are about a friend Linda who married and moved away. Included here are passages about my family. On the inside cover, Linda wrote:

The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spirited inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

p. 57 (1981)

I came in from a date tonight with this guy named Kevin Daddy doesn’t particularly like. He said, “Hi Darlin, how you doing?” I thought, “He sure has cheered up a lot since the last time I saw him.” Mamma was in bed. I found a Hallmark card in my room telling me what a wonderful daughter I am. They think of me, they love me but they rarely do anything like this. I’ve given them cards like this in the past, but not like this from the heart.

When I woke Mamma up to tell her I was home, she smiled at me. I’ll keep this card forever and probably even show it at school. I think she was telling me not to stay out late just because she misses me. She tells me all the time she’s sick of me and her and Daddy going in three different directions at once. She’s always the one at home.

I wish I could be the way it says in the card, helpful and considerate and noticing little things. But that’s not me. I just turn them away. Why does this alarm go off every time one of them comes near me?

p. 74

Today Linda left.

Sometimes all I can hear outside are dogs screaming in the distance. Their garbled voices almost seem human. Then everything goes silent.   

p. 84

The most gradual thing in the world is the beginning of rain. It starts lazily in the morning like I do. Then each drop tries to fit inside every other drop until they all fit inside each other. The birds stop singing, and the rain slows down until it becomes a dull pat on the window. The birds start singing again, and each one has a new song. Everything outside seems clean with life.

p. 97

Will you always tell me how strong your mother is,
how she loved the wrong out of her daughter
and swayed away from bullet fire
in younger years. And will you ever grow
to be as stubborn as your father, will he grow
to listen, will you know or care. I wish I could
be there in later years
when all these mystical truths
are revealed and the confusion is gone.

p. 115

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught.
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. —from To A Skylark, by P. B. Shelley

p. 116

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
—John Keats

p. 125

When I was a little girl about seven, my grandmother died. Mamma came into the room. The window was open and the door was closed and there was light shining on the floor. She sat down beside me and told me angels had come during the night to take Granny to heaven. Granny had gotten sick. I remember her blue eyes and how she used to live here with us. She always wore the same blue dress. Mamma says I’m just like her. At the funeral, I can remember weaving in and out the pews. Then right before they shut the coffin, Pa cried.

p. 131 (May, 1982)

It’s my last day of high school. It seems like there needs to be something to make this day special. It’s all so quiet, but maybe I’m just being too serious again. It’s that music in my head. It makes me too intense.

This is my first great step. I didn’t really think it would ever happen. It seems great things like miracles are only just things you read about in books. Now everybody’s telling me I’m making this big step, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. When I was in my music teacher’s office today, I wanted to tell her how scared I was and ask to hold me for a minute, but we’ve never done that before.

Well, anyway, I have to go to work, but I’m afraid this day is going to end before anything really good happens.

p. 132 (May 23, 1982)

This evening John and I went down to the river and sat on top of the Shriner’s building where his father works. John said it was one of the best evenings of his whole life. We sat there and watched the river and could hear the music from Chariot’s of Fire on a radio in the distance. We must have seen that movie five times together.

The river flowed with the music. It danced when the music danced and slowed down when the music slowed down. The sun started to set and lit up the sky in orange and purple. John said it looked like the seaside of another world. The blue sky was the ocean and the clouds was the land.

This afternoon was my Baccalaureate service at school and God helped me get through the Hallelujah Chorus and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. There was this moment when everyone was singing and I was on stage. I went up to the microphone and sang the school song, On our city’s Southern border soaring in the sky stands our dear old alma mater, hail Oakhaven high. Forward ever be our watchward, conquer and prevail. Hail to thee, our alma mater, Oakhaven High all hail.

My father said he was crying like a baby, but God helped me get through without crying. Then they asked me to go back up and give the benediction. I didn’t know they were going to ask me to do that. I’ve only ever heard it in church, but as soon as I started I remembered the words, May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

I wonder if I’ll remember this day. My brother and I walked arm and arm all the way to the car after the ceremony, and he said he was so proud of me. Mamma said she was proud too. I remember looking back at the stage when it all was over and seeing the wood flats laying up there like they’ve always been. It seemed so empty. We wait all our lives for graduation. Then it happens, and it’s done.

p. 141 

Grief knits two hearts together into a stronger bond than happiness ever can.

p. 142 (May 27, 1982)

I wish I could remember what it was like when I was a little girl and used to sit with Mamma in church. I wish I could remember what thoughts I had. I wish I could remember what kind of love she had for me then, what kind of tenderness. I wonder what I thought of her.

Now that I’m older, she doesn’t treat me like that. I can’t crawl up into her lap and hold her or crawl in beside her at night when I’m sick. I wonder if one of these days when she’s no longer here, I’ll regret not being able to do that. She’s here to pass on strength now, to get me ready for the world.

When I finally found her at graduation, she had tears in her eyes and there was some weakness there I rarely see and I don’t know how to describe. We hugged each other and it seemed like she liked me and saw things in me she saw in herself, maybe even her strength.

p. 143 (May 28, 1982)

God helped me find my Scripture Memory Motivator today. He’s been taking real good care of me lately.

Memphis in May Beale St. Music Festival

p. 144 (May 29, 1982)

Tonight John and I went to the Sunset Symphony down on the river at Memphis in May. The weather was perfect, and the sunset was beautiful. I especially liked the 1812 Overture. They shot real canons, and you could hear them echo on the river.

James Hyter sang Ol’ Man River. Then they asked him to stand up and sing it again. He goes to John’s church, and he says James Hyter sits in the back row and tries to sing low but you can still hear him.

p. 150 (June 3, 1982)

Today was my first day of college. It was just like first grade. You walk into a place and can’t imagine what it’s like. The campus seemed like a bunch of old buildings. Everything seemed old. The air seemed stale inside, and the people walking through the halls and campus all seemed old too. They were all wearing old clothes and seemed like they must be in their forties or fifties. I’m taking English 1101, and John got in too.

p. 158 (June 27, 1982)

I got to sit by Maria Van Trapp tonight during a Bartlett production of the Sound of Music. She was so fully of energy. I finally got a car and could drive over there by myself.

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Jen Bervin is a poet and installation artist. When I rediscovered the letters from my mother and saw her use of the + sign and dash mark, it reminded me of Bervin’s 2006 installation piece The Dickinson Fascicles.
From 1858 to 1864, Emily Dickinson gathered 800 of her poems into 40 groups and stab-bound them into booklets, called fascicles.
Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 28. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin. 6 ft h x 8 ft w.
I wanted to see what patterns formed when all of the marks in a single fascicle, Dickinson’s grouping of poems, remained in position, isolated from the text, and were layered in one composite field of marks. — Bervin

Detail, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 19.
The fascicles from which I made composites showed clearly identifiable shifts in the size, gesture, frequency, and distribution of the marks. In contemplating such an odd physical study, one naturally forms one’s own questions about the nature and meaning of the marks; it makes their presence on the facsimile manuscript page more striking, systemic, factual—and their omission from typeset poems more evident. — Bervin

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You don’t really see the impact that an ashram has had on you until you leave the place and return to your normal life. Only then, said the former nun from South Africa, will you start to notice how your interior closets have all been rearranged.  
 — Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

I heard these lines on my iPod today as I continued to look through boxes in my closet. I opened one card and found the only lines from my father in the whole menagerie of photos, cards, trophies, report cards, certificates, newsletters, textbooks and old ESL teaching material: 

Darling, this card says a lot about the way we feel about you. You will never know how Momma and I love you. Daddy   There on the underside of a Hallmark card my mind jarred back in time as I recognized the handwriting.

Nine other letters from my mother are in the box, written when I was at summer camp in the mid-70s:

Well kid — I’m telling you — the next time you go to camp — your dog has to go too — this dog — wow — she has looked everywhere for you — she thinks we are hiding you some place + our neighbor said she keeps coming over there looking too — Last night I thought maybe she would like to sleep with me — so I took her blanket back and put it on the foot of my bed then I went in the bathroom — and I heard your daddy laughing — when I went out that dog had pulled her blanket off my bed and pulled it back to the den and was trying to get it back on the couch — it looked like she was trying to say —look if you want a blanket get one of your own — so I finally took her — the blanket and put her on my bed and she was happy — Well I have got to do the dishes so you have fun and remember you are coming home on the bus — I will meet you when you get off — Love from us — Mom

As a child, I didn’t notice my mother never used periods. In one continuous thought joined by dashes, she listed the events of her life. I’d receive several letters the week I was gone. She talked about ironing her uniforms for work, painting the house, rearranging the furniture, giving a woman a toolbox as a shower gift and all the errands she ran on her day off. She asked about my swimming lessons and gave updates on my softball team. I remember how excited I was to receive them.

Now I realize the summer camp was down the road from the facility for tuberculosis-susceptible children she was sent as a child to be fattened up. She didn’t want me to feel abandoned as she had.

Classes started this week at the community college where I teach, and my students will be doing the same timeline journal I did in Clue class in 1977. It includes: a page of failures, successes, heroes, comparisons, likes, dislikes, questions, special times, observations, emotions, opinions, feelings, a time line with photos, a collage using magazine clippings and an acrostic poem. I hope my students open a box one day and find that life, moving vans and a wet basement haven’t eaten away the words.

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I found this letter from my mother in a water-damaged box last night:

June, 1982

My Dearest —

Sitting in a quiet house, you hear lots of strange sounds, sounds you normaly wouldn’t have heard. Being alone tonight at this time, my thoughts drift back 18 years ago when I spent a day very like one, but very different too.

That quiet evening turned out to be a very special day in our lives. Tears of joy had been shead 8 months earlier when my doctor told me we were expecting another baby, our prayers had been answered. We hugged + kiss and cried and then in great panic we all tried to be first at the phone to call Nanna + Grandaddy. Of course, we let your brother win as it was really his prayers that had been answered. I had given up [because of] months and years of heartache, but he never faltered —

Someday he would have a “something”. By then no-one [missing text] we would take any thing we could get — Granny was in New Mexido at the time visiting your aunt and uncle — so in my haste to get a note to them, I misspelled the word pregnant by leaving out the “n” and a quick reply came back from your aunt saying that she knew why it took me so long to get that way … “I couldn’t even spell it.” [missing text] for many a year I heard that.

Baptismal dress in photo made by my grandmother.

During the next eight months, we could have named a [thousand] girls — but not a single boy. [Missing text] could we agreed on — some nights the decussions became quite heated, so it would be dropped until a later time — only for the same thing to happen all over again —

How lucky we were, we [missing text] only got a girl, but she was healthy as well as “Beautiful”

Some times around midnight that night, your daddy couldn’t stand it any longer — he had already called your brother and told [him] and he had proudly announced it to Nannia and Granddaddy [and] had to wake me up + bring you in so I could see you — When I first [laid] eyes on you I thought you were the most beautiful baby I had ever seen — and how happy I would be to have one that pretty — but I knew that one couldn’t be mine

I thanked the nurse + told her she could take you back. Much to my surprise they kept bringing that same beautiful baby in — they insisted you were mine + I got to bring you home — what joy — what a day — your brother and your daddy had been there every day + all the night as long as they could stay, + the day you came home was a lovely Saturday morning — the whole family was there + as I was wheeled out with you in my lap — your brother came flying across the room and we all hugged + cried, right in the middle of the hospital — what a sight we were — the nurses were laughting with tears running down their faces — they also shared our joy —

I wish you could have seen our house as we approached — there was Kathy, Nancy, Corinne, Susan, Bobby, Janet, every kid that lived on our street [missing text] wait to see their baby — of course there was Granny — she [stood] there quietly waiting her turn with all the out-stretched arms. I put you in Granny’s and she carried you in the house + laid you in your little crib — then one by one I let them all [hold] you, but your brother came first — then Nancy + so on until they had had their turn — the phone [rang] + a neighbor said “Send them out, I told them not to go to your house,” + I told her I asked them to come in and reminded her they had waited a long time too — and after assuring them they could come back they left — but you continued to be their “baby” —

We had you baptized when you were 18 days old — and continued to carry you to church and Sunday School every Sunday — you hated it and it was a real chore to bring you up as a Christian but some where along the line as the old saying goes, it took.

Thank goodness for pictures — because the years have gone by so fast —

Suddenly it was your first birthday + what a beauty you were — I went back to [work then] + we continued our [missing text] but happy lives —

At brother’s wedding

By the time you were [missing text] old you let everyone know you were old enough to go to school but your mama wouldn’t let you. Then came kindergarden and school. You loved it + throughout your school years you always did [missing text] and had many friends —

When you were 10 yrs. old, your brother  married and you were the “nothing” as we “jokeingly” called you in the wedding — you were too old for flower girl + too young for bridesmaid, but they made [a bridesmaid out of] you any way —

Soon after that the braces went on your teeth to correct the front ones from bucking out — your daddy couldn’t see any point in it because he couldn’t see the front teeth growing out. All he could see was beauty. The week the braces came off and the teeth were pretty + straight you went swimming and broke off the two front [teeth]. I don’t know who was [sadder about] that me or your dentist.

Your life in high school was a busy time — with your studies taking most of your time — but we still found time for your tennis, music, newspaper + at age 16 to start working at the grocery store — as a checker — so you’d have money to buy a car —

A few weeks ago you graduated [missing text] had + did receive many honors — you always made us very happy —

This week you started summer session at M.S.U. to get acquainted with college life where you will [missing text] as a full time student in [missing text]

Today you are “18” — [missing text] magic — now you can vote and get married — and enjoy all the priviledges of being an adult — But this priviledge comes the responsibility.

Your future is now your [missing text] the foundation has been laid — you must build on it —

Easter Sunday

Your Father and I have tried to teach you + guide you with love and not force — we have instilled values in you that you can draw on for the rest of your life — we are here when you need us — so whenever we can help you, it will be our pleasure —

The Lord has blested you in many ways — so as you mature in wisdom and years — may you remember:

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple — and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free

John 8:31-32

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Geraniums

From a journal done in my CLUE class in 1977 when I was 13:

Comparisons

Flower — The flower I compare myself to is a geranium. I compare myself to a geranium because it stays indoors all the time as I do, it has its own little place in a planter as I do in my room, and it would brighten any room.

Day — I compare myself to a fall day. Fall is a season of the year which is neutral between Spring and Winter. Fall is not Fresh and anew as Spring but it’s not as cold and hard as winter. Instead it is neutral between the two. (I know Fall comes between Summer and Winter).

Animal — I compare myself to a gorilla. A gorilla is fast learning as I am and a gorilla is gentle and funloving until someone or something makes it mad, then they are absolutely vicious. I am this way too.

Car — I compare myself to a Datsun. Both I and the Datsun are efficient and a Datsun can go a long way without much gas as I can on food.

Likes and Dislikes

I like the smell and the taste of ripe watermelon when it has just been cut open, I like the sound of celery when someone bites into it, I like pancakes when they are hot off the griddle and as big as my plate, I like a mystery I can really get involved in and cant take my eyes off of, I like being lazy, I like it when Barbara Streisand hits a high note, I like Barbara Streisand’s singing period, I like the feeling I get when I beat a person in tennis (especially pro-set), I like being alone in my room, I like being quiet, I also like laughing, I like it when people compliment me, I like having muscular legs and arms, I like when my brother and sister-in-law are here, I like doing things nice for people, I like soft rock music but I like powerful church music, I like the feel of a swimming pool on a hot summer’s day, I like getting good grades in school, I like doing good at piano practice, I like writing this paper, I like being neat, I like the taste of fattening foods.

Schedule Go to school, of course, go to Confirmation at church on Tuesday at 4:00, piano lessons on Friday at 4:00, I usually spends my nights watching T.V., listening to stereo, doing homework, doing my exercises, and getting a shower. I go to bed at 10:00.

Cecil B. Demille

All the World’s a Stage

Assignment: Pretend Cecil B. DeMille is doing an epic about your life. How would the movie go?

Act 1: Am born, go through Tom Boy stage

Act 2: Become a teenager and have regular teenage problems

Act 3: When grown — go to college, become prominent Investigative Reporter, get rich

Failures and Successes

Failures — I am a failure at being another Nancy Drew, I am a failure at being a basketball star, I am a failure at being as skinny as the girls next door, I am a failure at having a good complexion and NO freckles, I am a failure at singing as good as Barbara Streisand and Julie Andrews, I am a failure at being a naturally smart person (I’m book smart), I am a failure at playing the guitar as good as John Denver, I am a failure at having long, beautiful, thick, black hair that never gives me a problem, I am a failure at being a babysitter for brats, I am a failure at being a girlfriend (I wish I had the chance), I am a failure at keeping things short when I write (as you have just noticed), I am a failure at trying to get people to understand me, I am a failure at trying to be original when I write, I am a failure at expressing my feelings on paper, I am a failure at being me. I really am a failure at being original on paper. Some people think I really have talent in writing, well I got news for them, my writing is the pits. When I write, I don’t like to write the same old dull stuff that everyone else does. I want to write something that is new and creative that will break the monotony.

Successes — I am a success at memorizing, I am a success at playing my music right at Piano practice, I am a success at keeping on an exercising program, I’m a success at keeping a secret, I’m a success at being an alto, I am a success in most my subjects in school, I am a success at having people like me, I’m a success at being neat, I’m a success in tennis, I’m a success at making people believe I’m something I’m not, I’m a success in both making people happy and getting them depressed. I shall explain my success of making people believe I’m something I’m not. I was thinking of the people at my church when I wrote this. I was the first child born and baptized at my church and they make me feel like I’m something special. The fact that my brother has gone into the ministry has not helped this matter any. This is alright that they feel this way about me but I feel I can’t be myself around them.

Drawing by my niece

 The Thing About The World Is

From a “blog” my 12-year-old niece e-mails my family by the name, The Thing About The World Is:

MERRY CHRISTMAS !!!!!
Hello everybody and as it says above, Merry Christmas. Today isn’t going to be a blog and actually to mention it once again I am going to have to cancel the blogs do to lack of computer time. So actually I wrote out a blog for today but decided it would be better if I did a Christmas email so here is the original blog and then i will do the plan that i am going to do with the christmas blog.

BUMP,SET.SPIKE!

You run up to the net with an intimidating look on your face and spike the ball across the court. The whole team surrounds you and lefts you up in the air and chants your name. Your team just won the volleyball tournament. You look back at the other team and they are saying stuff like: We suck, we’re losers,, and it’s all your fault___ tehn someone’s name is mentioned. So, there are two things you can do, One, you could yell back,” That’s right we won!” Then walk out the door mad-mouthing the other team. Or, walk over to teh other team and say, ” You guys did a great job. Second place is better then third.” Then you walk away and go on with life. What would you do.

So that was today’s blog and i know it was boring but now i have some christmas things you can talk. When you are done reading this blog i want you to find a pen/pencil and paper and write out a christmas list and send it to me and i know i can’t do anything to make it happen but sometimes it is better to tell other people about you wishes then keep them all to yourself. Then i want you to find three things with the word christmas on it and tell me what it was..like i will give you an example fro both of them

My christmas list
– a new itouch
-a flip camera that works
-clothes
– and to hear everybody’s laughter when they open there presents tomorrow morning
and for you to smile so much that you laugh
BYEZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

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The following is from the article Busing Comes to Memphis City Schools in the Baltimore Afro American, dated Jan. 30, 1973:

Memphis, Tenn. — Twelve years after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People initially filed suit to integrate the nation’s 10th largest school system and seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed separate but equal school systems, the first massive busing plan in this city’s history went into effect this week amidst an atmosphere of quietude and high absenteeism among white pupils.

The court-ordered busing involved some 13,000 students (7,000 of them black) in 45 schools with an assigned enrollment of 34,294. A survey of the school indicated 13,657 students absent — slightly less than 40 percent — most of them white.

And, at predominantly white schools which were unaffected by the busing plan, there was a sympathy boycott, the survey revealed. . . .

According to school enrollment figures, about 47 percent of the city’s 139,000 students are black. Before the court-ordered busing, about 88 percent of the black student population attended predominately black schools despite an open enrollment policy.

Mrs. Maxine Smith, executive secretary of the local NAACP and one of the three blacks on the nine-member school board, attributed this factor to segregated housing patterns.

‘Let’s face it, she commented, ‘It may not be possible to eliminate every last all black school in Memphis. And for the first time I believe the white leadership in this city is acting in good faith.’

This good faith will be further tested in the near future, for Judge McRae has also ordered the city school board to devise a more extensive desegregation plan b next September.”

When busing went into effect in 1973, I was in third grade. Students were called into the high school auditorium. If your name were called, you were bused to a black neighborhood. If it weren’t, you were allowed to remain in your own school. I was eight years old at the time and terrified my name would be called.

The high school I attended taught first grade through 12th grade, had approximately 800 students and was 100 percent white. It became 70 percent black and 30 percent white after the busing plan went into effect. A neighborhood Baptist church opened a private school for children who didn’t want to be bused to another neighborhood, but enrollment was expensive and not everyone could afford it. White students who remained at my school were segregated academically into separate classes. With a few exceptions, I attended the same classes with the same white kids until I graduated in 1982.

The school was a block from my house, and I walked to school each day. The day busing began that September about 27,000 children were taken to 139 schools by 155 buses in Memphis. As I walked toward the school, teachers lined the sidewalks waiting. I remember the faces of the black children as they got off the bus, especially the face of one girl who was about my age. Like most children staring through the bus windows, she looked scared. She got off the bus holding her books and walked toward the building with her head down.

I listened to a cassette tape recently, made about four years after busing began there. At first, I didn’t know who was speaking and thought it was one of my black friends. Then I realized it was me. Until that moment, I hadn’t understood what effect this experience had on me. I thought I was separate from it. I thought we were separate from it. Because the white people in my class had been separated out academically, I didn’t realize how much we were part of the black culture surrounding us. I had absorbed the language of the people in my school and to some extent the views society placed on them. When I was 20, I dated a guy from east Memphis I later married, and the first thing his mother said when she found out he was dating me was, “What are you doing dating a girl from that side of town.”

Later in college at the University of Memphis, I began a master’s degree program in poetry. My accent wasn’t something I was aware of. I didn’t know how strong it was until my poetry teacher pointed it out one day. At first, I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me until she said, “Some people think people with a Southern accent sound dumb.”

Orange Mound mural

My neighborhood was located in south Memphis near another subdivision called Orange Mound. The site was originally purchased from a plantation owner in the 1890s by a developer named Elzey Eugene Meachem as a subdivision for blacks. Meachem sold lots for less than $100. Houses in the neighborhood were built as small shotgun-style houses. In the 1970s, Orange Mound had the largest concentration of blacks in the U.S. other than Harlem. Many of the children bused into my neighborhood came from Melrose High School in Orange Mound.

The journals from those years don’t chronicle any of this. I was too young. I began keeping journals at age 13 when I enrolled in a program in my school called CLUE, which stands for Creative Learning in a Unique Environment. CLUE was a federally funded program that began in the Memphis City School system in 1970 under the name Cooperative Leadership for Urban Education. Federal funding ended in 1973, and the program was transferred to state special education funding. The program is still active today.

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Charles Carroll (1789-1792) was born in Annapolis, Maryland, and
became a U.S. Senator from Maryland. He was the last
surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Carroll
family was Irish Catholic and descendants of the Lords of Ely
in County Tipperary, Ireland.

In looking through old journals, I found this letter from my grandmother’s step-mother, who claims we are descendants of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It’s hard to place much weight on something so unsubstantiated, but this story did become part of family lore. This post is the first in a series I’m calling The Journal Project, a look back into my journals from 1977 to 2010.

Feb. 13, 1977
Jellico, Tenn.

Saturday morning —

My Dear,

I was glad to hear from you honey but I am afraid I can’t be too much help to you —

Your grand-daddy’s cousin from Texas, P.H., said that he and Carroll were direct descendants of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who was [Charles] Carroll of Carrollton —

Sarah and John looked “him” up in an encyclopedia and knew that he was a very rich man. We tried in vain to get some information from P.H.’s daughter but she never answered our letter. So we will just have to think all you kids are his descendants. That relation evidently would come from your great-grandmother’s side because she was a Carroll.

All that your grandmother and I know is that her grandfather L. was born in New York — he migrated to Ga. and in Covington, Ga. her daddy was born. The grandfather was a capt. in the confederate army. But back of him unless there was something in the family Bible which your daddy has. We don’t know any others. That is too bad because Sarah would like to know more about her daddy’s side of the house too —

You write beautifully for one so young —

Did you miss any school during the snows? The kids here didn’t get [out] but about two days since Xmas [was] until last week.

The weather was terrible and people here are still thawing water pipes. I was lucky — I had no trouble. I worried about your grandmother having to be on those slick roads going to work and back home so late at night.

It is raining this morning though and maybe things will get better.

I hope you are all alright —

Love to each of you,
Grandma N.

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