Saturday, June 20, 2015

...a boy and his mule

He was fourteen years old the summer he left the old farmhouse each morning in the semi-darkness, before the heat had begun its rapid climb. As he hitched up Old Sam, his much-loved mule, his thoughts were of his mother. Widowed early with three young sons to raise on the small south Georgia dirt farm, she cooked and cleaned, boiled clothes in an old washtub and hung them outside to dry. She fed their meager livestock and the chickens, weeded the garden that fed them and hoed the fields, all the time caring for the two younger boys. Life was not easy in the post-reconstruction, Depression-era south.

The idea had come to him slowly. At night he had figured and planned, then chosen his words. As he told his mother, she looked deep into his eyes. Once convinced that he would not be dissuaded, she gave him her blessing. And she prayed. Without ceasing, she prayed. Each morning of her eldest son's fourteenth summer, she stood on the back porch and waved, prayed some more as he and his mule trekked across the field toward the woods.

Thin but determined, he and his mule cleared twenty-two acres of loblolly pines over the next two months. He felled the tall trees and, with Sam's help, drug them into the field. In the heat of the day, he and Sam walked to the creek where he propped against a tree and ate the cold biscuits filled with sorghum syrup she'd wrapped after breakfast. After a quick dip in the cold creek water, he returned to work.

For sixty sweltering south Georgia days, days filled with mosquitoes and rattlers, moccasins and gnats, he cut and drug and cut some more. When the trees were down and the wood cut into logs and stacked for cooking and heating, he and Sam pulled the stumps, every last one, the mule straining   while the boy tugged with all his might. As if the days weren't hot enough, he then burned the stumps in a field, away from grass that might catch fire...never on a windy day, only on the still, hot ones. Once the ground was free of roots, he hooked Sam up to a plow and they tilled the twenty-two acres. He hoed and planted cotton, a later crop than usual, and returned each day to weed. As the plants grew, like his mother, he prayed: for the crop to grow and for the weather to nourish, not destroy. But mostly he prayed for her. He never heard his mother complain but sometimes when he stole quietly to her room, he glimpsed the fatigue, the furrowed brow.

The weeks turned into months. He ran into the field after August hail storms. Watched the sky for rain clouds. Finally, in the fall he picked the prickly bolls, crawling through the rows with a burlap sack hitched around his neck. He and Sam hauled the cotton to the gin.  In quiet triumph, he had brought his first cash crop to harvest. The cotton yielded enough to pay bills and plant the winter garden. The next year's early planting yielded a bumper crop. For five more years, he and Sam planted and picked and hauled their way through the seasons.

He reached manhood - quiet, still wiry but now strong, as kind and loving as his mother - just in time for WWII. All three of her boys were drafted but he was the first to leave English Crossing, their small Georgia community. After basic training in Nebraska, he embarked from New York City. Another English crossing would follow the next summer, this one to Omaha Beach. Across different fields, to the hell of the Ardennes and other places that would live only in his memory, he marched. And all the while he read and re-read her letters. He wrote to her that all was well with him. "Somewhere in England, May 1944" became "Somewhere in France, June 1944", then Germany and, somewhere in the mix, Holland.

Back in Georgia, alone on the small dirt farm, she fought her own battle...her diagnosis, breast cancer. Discharged on Christmas Day 1945, he got home in early 1946, in time to be with her before she died. For the rest of his life, her name was was Old Sam's. She would have liked that.

His battles were never discussed, neither those of boyhood nor any that followed. He told the odd funny story, occasionally recalled an old Army buddy. Sam often came up in conversation, always with a twinkle and a laugh. "Yesiree, I wish I could see Old Sam one more time. He was a special mule." But never a word about that long-ago transforming summer, about D-Day, about the Battle of the Bulge.

He bonded deeply twice in his life, both times in a battle for survival. Whatever pain or fear he knew going forward belonged only to him and to God. He found great peace in books and loved his neighbor. Some prosperity followed but, in his last years, new management cut the sales territories of all who neared retirement to cut expenses. Salesman of the Year many times over, he became a study in solitude as he struggled once again. It is his spirit, though, that is remembered by those who knew him...loving, beloved, so deeply missed.

One brother survives. Before he slipped into the fog of age, one evening atop Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, he recounted memories at the dinner table. As he spoke of the big brother he yet loves, tears spilled onto his face. Outside in the deep darkness of the Blue Ridge, stars gathered overhead and blessed the words he legacy, my father's fourteenth summer.

Sugar Mountain, NC

With Uncle George, the morning after
Sugar Mountain, NC

John W. Strickland, 1922-1995

He remains, always, my Daddy.
Photo: Vestavia Hills, AL, 1990

Sunday, May 31, 2015

...where the journey leads

She is to the magnolia born, my friend, Jane-Anything-But-Plain. A Southern beauty, lover of hats, well-schooled in manners, terrifying at times. Holly Golightly as written by Louise Erdrich. Loves the lush green of Ireland. Lives, sometimes, in the red-dusted New Mexico land known as Ghost Ranch where she received the phone call every mother dreads. Her daughter had died and her own heart was not so much broken as shredded. She returned to this landscape to mourn. And has returned again, and yet again, to the land where she ruminates and sheds a layer or two.

Mentor, friend, bossy pants, she drug me to Ireland, then across the landscape in her VW Beetle to New Mexico...Tucumcari, Las Vegas (not that one), Taos, Abiquiu, Chama, Trampas, Chimayo, Espanola, Santa Fe. And Ghost Ranch. Where Georgia O'Keefe, another bossy pants, had lived and painted. Where, the day after we left, Don, a Presbyterian minister/volunteer at the ranch, fell to his death hiking Kitchen Mesa. Not a place for sissies. During a subsequent six-month volunteer stint, her emails described a sidewinder that crossed her path and the afternoon the Coca-Cola man removed the machine on the porch of the Trading Post because a six-foot bull snake had taken up residence in its innards. Then there's the October tarantula migration. I offer Exhibit A which crawled up the wall where I had stood the day before. Multiply five-inch long "A" by thousands and then picture the creepy-crawly horde pouring across the land and roads in search of a date.

Jane was a buyer for an upscale department store in Birmingham, a woman who made regular trips to New York City, wrapped in an ankle-length Blackgama mink coat to ward off the winter cold. She could intimidate a cabbie and collect a brilliant smile from, of all people, George Peppard in a Manhattan crosswalk...all in an afternoon's work. Or manage two chance encounters with O.J. Simpson, first on the street where he beamed at her, then an hour later at Barney's, with Nicole, when he recognized her and said, "We have to stop meeting like this." [Or did he say, "Are you following me?" Not sure. She'll set me straight.] Her appraisal of the man: spot on. She sold the mink coat to underwrite the Ireland trip. Just as well since the only time I ever saw her take it out of the closet was a frigid Birmingham night when she took the garbage out clad in her huge black-rimmed glasses and grey sweats topped with The Coat. To paraphrase Phineas Nigellus' talking portrait in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (or Kingsley Shacklebolt in the film version), "You know, you may not agree with Jane on many counts...but you cannot deny she's got style."

Style and moxie in spades she has. Enough cracks so as not to be unbearable. Some hard-earned knowledge, of which Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote: "It isn't for the moment you are struck that you need courage, but for that long, uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security." And, with this, the growing awareness that sanity and faith and security aren't formulaic goals - doctrinal and attainable - but forged by the authenticity of the journey...the grace "between the macro and the micro". I've been watching, Jane, and learning. Thanks for the ride.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

...intersections and forks in the road

ACT I - Breakfast with the lady in the pink spa robe

The beautiful young woman was clad in a thick, pink robe...not so unusual at a B&B which features a spa just up the hall. I crossed to an empty table in the corner where I hung my red jacket on the back of a chair and placed my phone by the window. Then I headed for a large cup of cappuccino. When I turned, I saw her, reading and taking notes at the corner table, leaning against my jacket.

I took a deep breath and walked over. Smiling, I said, "Excuse me, let me grab that jacket. I dared not carry it and a full cup at the same time."

"Were you sitting here? I didn't notice the coat. I'm sorry." We were both polite in that way that strangers are in awkward moments.

"No problem. Don't get up." I retrieved my jacket and phone and crossed to an empty table for two where Bill joined me for a leisurely breakfast. He returned to the room to write a progress note and I lingered over the view. Beyond the lawn and flower beds, the azure water of the Pacific sparkled in the morning light. The window frames transformed the scene into a series of pictures. I took a couple of photos, then screwed up my courage and once again walked to the corner table from where, during breakfast, the young woman had glanced at me a couple of times.

She looked up with a pleasant expression and I said, "Excuse me for this intrusion but I hope the episode of the red jacket didn't diminish your experience. Could we have a do-over? You again?"

She was beautiful, with flawless light brown skin and big dark eyes that lit up when she smiled. "Of course. I'm sorry about the mix-up. I wasn't paying attention."

Paler-Than-Ivory and More-Caramel-Than-Ebony met and quickly discovered that both of us were born in the south and now live a few miles apart by the bay. She described her birthplace in West Virginia as home to "3,500 people including those in the surrounding area. And I don't mean suburbs but the folks who live in the hills." Then she added, "From as early as I can remember, I thought the stork had dropped me in the wrong place." Now fully engaged, the minutes flew by as we connected. As I thanked her for the chat, I added, "We should've pushed two tables together." She laughed and agreed.

ACT II - Turn left at the stump with the Blessed Mother holding a bass clarinet

We headed once again to the unique home deep in the big woods. The dwelling is a series of small buildings connected with stairs and walkways, built incrementally over a number of years by its owner, Bill's patient, now unable to ride long distances due to a back damaged more by sitting (he's a master bridge player) than by the heavy lifting. This time I met his wife, same age as I am, dressed in jeans and a sweater. She moved with a natural ease. Her long, straight hair, equal parts light brown and gray, escaped from behind her ears with every breeze and whipped across her face, iconic and warm. Each time the strands were tucked once more with an unconsciously elegant gesture. Is there any better company than  a woman comfortable in her own skin?  (Or a man...but our men were nowhere to be seen at the moment...gone temporarily but not forgotten.)

We sat outside on the porch and looked out over the valley and mountains beyond, surrounded by beautiful trees and flowers...and a single, curious, eavesdropping lizard.  I confessed to having described their home - a blend of art and whimsy - as "the hobbit house". She replied that they call it "the house that acid built", adding with a smile, "That was a long time ago." 

The conversation turned substantive. For a couple of disparate women - The Art Major and The Forest Ranger - we hold similar views. Never apolitical, we have been quiet for a very long time...not so much now. The morning passed in a nanosecond but I left with a longer reading list and gratitude.

ACT III - Homecoming

The journeys of three women intersected that morning. Our roads had carried us out of West Virginia, south Georgia, and California's central valley to new vistas, not so much "away from" as "toward". More importantly, "into"...the interior journey of choices, assimilation, experience that is the road to authenticity, to a home that is not place but belonging. Along the way is a learning.  The journey is sometimes rocky, filled with chinks, slick in places. And we never know when we'll come upon some sisters (and brothers) and a few eternal moments around the next bend.

Epilogue - Musing in Gualala

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going,
for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone
for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.
But again and again we avoid the long thoughts.
We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all?
We get confused. We need such escape as we can find.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
...not all the time, surely, but from time to time...
to enter that still room within us all 
where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.
The name of the room is Remember,
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember