I know grocery stores are loaded with pre-mixed cookie doughs these days. Heck, Pillsbury and Hershey's both have those chocolate-chip-cookie dough blocks you can just cut into chunks and there you have 2 dozen cookies in 10 minutes - and they are 3 for 6 bucks right now. But there's nothing like the real thing, made from scratch. These oatmeal cookies are my favorite.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2 sticks butter or margarine, softened 1 cup packed brown sugar 1/2 cup granulated sugar 2 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups quick or old fashioned oats 1 cup raisins
1. cream butter and sugars in a large mixer bowl 2. add eggs and vanilla and mix well 3. add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt to the mixture in the bowl and blend well. 4. stir in oats and raisins 5. drop teaspoons full on an ungreased cookie sheet. 6. bake 10 to 12 minutes until golden brown 7. cool on the cookie sheet before removing to a cooling rack.
One Sunday in November, Momma, Marion Ann, Mary, and I took a ride up to Henderson County to see the fall foliage. MA drove. We went up highway 14 and got on I-26 at Landrum, with plans to come home via Highway 25.
I love the way you can plainly see fall coming down the mountain in certain spots in that loop. One of the prettiest sights was from the base of White Oak Mountain at Columbus. You have such a good view from the interstate. The top was ablaze and the bottom was mostly green. The day was clear and golden. It probably would have been better if it hadn’t rained so hard that Friday, knocking off some leaves. I get a good dose of fall shades in my own neighborhood off Gap Creek Road from the woods that lead down to the South Tyger River right across the street (if anybody develops that, it’ll kill me.) But it’s nothing compared to the rumpled-quilt effect you get on the Saluda grade or in the Green River Valley.
When we were outside Columbus, Momma thought we were on Highway 25. She asked several times, “Are we on 25?”
“No, Momma, we’re on the interstate,” I said. I thought she just didn’t hear the first time. After she asked the third time, MA and I gave each other silent, side-ways “uh-oh” look- raised brows, eyes wide.
The amazing thing is that she, at eighty-years-old, can still recount all kinds of stories about her great-aunts, the Ward girls, and their families. She told me something that day that I didn’t know (or maybe didn’t remember) while we stood in the middle of the Ward Cemetery at Double Springs Baptist where Gap Creek Road meets Old Highway 25 near Tuxedo, North Carolina. My great-great-grandpa, Calvin Ward, a Civil War veteran, had 17 children. Only one of them did not live to adulthood. This girl, Fanny, died at age twelve of pernicious anemia. Momma said the child still didn’t have a marker on her grave, over a hundred years later, but most all of her generation, only a handful left, can pick out the location of the little girl’s grave.
Now how do they know that? Is it because their parents told them? “This is my Aunt Fanny’s grave. She died of pernicious anemia when she was just twelve-years-old.”
Or is it because our great-grandparents told their children? “I had a sister who died when she was twelve. It was the awfulest thing. We buried her here, right beside Grandpa. She was such a sweet girl, but always frail. One of us always had to stay home with her. She couldn’t stand to ride in the wagon and was always out of breath.”
When I was little I was drawn to the tiny headstones, the ones shaped like hearts and lambs and angels. Sara likes to visit real old graveyards with me. But she says it breaks her heart to see the baby graves.
“That used to happen a lot back then, before antibiotics and vaccinations,” I told her one day when we were in the Woods Chapel Methodist Cemetery near Greer. Those are my daddy’s people out there. “Some families lost several children. Remember when you had Strep throat?" I reminded her. " Back then, that would develop into more serious diseases like rheumatic fever which can cause permanent damage to the heart, or scarlet fever, or blood infections, or kidney disease.”
“How do you know all that, Momma?” Sara asked (she’s thirteen).
“I’m old… plus my momma used to tell me that stuff. One of her friends had scarlet fever when she was young and ended up having to get a new heart valve when she was about forty because of it. Had to go to Texas to get it done back then. It was mechanical and clicked loud enough to hear.”
I guess you can count the family of Calvin Ward as very fortunate.
We had lunch that day at the Double Olive on Main Street in Hendersonville. Every time I go up there, that restaurant has a different name. Just about everyone that worked in there sounded like a Yankee. I think we kept the waitress entertained drawling out our orders. It sounded to me like she was trying cover up her own native sound. As a matter of fact, I didn’t hear anybody all day that sounded like us – in the restaurant, at the gas station, on the sidewalks, even at the apple stand on the down side of Flat Rock. The woman checking us out sounded like New Jersey. It made me feel like the Henderson County winesaps or the Blue Ridge sourwood honey she was selling me weren’t genuine.
Once, a few years back, Greenville Technical College offered a business class called “Get the South Out of Your Mouth” to help native business people cultivate a way of speaking devoid of culture and heritage. I was insulted just reading the description in the course catalog. I distinctly remember there being something about us sounding uneducated. The class was discussed on one of the morning country radio shows. Most of the listeners who called in were as appalled as I was. I doubt if the class ever made. I never saw it offered in subsequent catalogs either.
Sara and I enjoyed a late October stroll on Myrtle Beach between working the BookNook and sessions with the faculty at the South Carolina Writers Workshop 2007 Conference. We belong at the beach in fall, don't you think? Her hair is the color of the sea oats and mine the sand's. ha.
During the Poetry and a Sense of Place session at the 2007 SC Writers Workshop at Myrtle Beach, Robert Morgan read his poem "Mowing", about his daddy mowing grass.
Selling books at the SCWW Book Nook was a pretty good gig.
For someone like me who has recently discovered the joys of genealogy, I was pleased to read the title of Diana Gabaldon’s seventh book in the Outlander Series, An Echo in the Bone. How about it, folks-who-like-to-chase-dead-people, don’t you like that one? Read about how she came up with that title here.
While driving home from the SCWW Conference Sunday, it echoed around in my cranium. I am the family face… I am the family face… What is that? Where have I heard that? Then I could see myself in Dr. Stevenson’s poetry class at Converse 33 years ago. That’s all I could remember. I googled that phrase when I got home. It’s Thomas Hardy’s poem, Heredity. Yeah, yeah. I remember now.
And what fanned this spark? At the conference I met a distant relative who shares several physical traits to those in my Kuykendall/Ward line - my brother's chin and eye-tooth gap, the head shape of my best fishing buddy, Papa, my uncle's eyelids, our long slender fingers, broad shoulders, good cheek bones.
I have a picture of my grandpa sitting in his momma’s lap and his brothers are standing between her and my great-grandpa. All those children look like we did when we were tiny and they look like my babies too. Momma said that we all look alike when we are babies, then we individualize, then we favor again when we get old. Daddy said we looked like Winston Churchill. They Law!
I am the family face; Flesh perishes, I live on, Projecting trait and trace Through time to times anon, And leaping from place to place Over oblivion.
The years-heired feature that can In curve and voice and eye Despise the human span Of durance--that is I; The eternal thing in man, That heeds no call to die.
My high school chemistry teacher dropped by my classroom to see me yesterday. We called him Coach, not Mr. Collins. He's been retired a good while now - was it back in '94? Anyway, he was here to mentor one of our students. It was after 1st lunch, and the students were rounding the corner at the end of the hall to come back to class, catching us in a reunion hug. You should have seen the jaws drop. Ha! I introduced him, patting his back. "This is my chemistry teacher!" I said to each student as they entered. "This is the feller that got me started in chemistry." A long time ago.
I was happy to see how the society has grown by leaps and bounds when I visited the web site today. Here are the people and places that trigger so many memories that end up on a jump drive. Hopefully there will be a collection worth publication someday. http://www.startex.org/index.htm
No, I'm not counting the days till school lets out in May. I'll start that after Spring break. I'm counting the days until I hit the highway for Myrtle Beach and the 2007 South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference on October 25. I've volunteered to help this time, attending half the sessions for free and working the other half. I just hope that my schedule allows me to attend most of Robert Morgan's workshops. Many of you know he is one of my favorites because he writes about my people. Well, Ron Rash does, too, but I found Morgan first.
That Boone book
Earlier this month I drove up to Hendersonville to hear Robert Morgan speak about his latest book, Boone: A Biography. The passages he chose to read were interesting and quite delightful. It will be published in a few weeks. I plan on getting a copy at the conference. There were a few advanced copies at the lecture at the Henderson County Library. A tall, thin, white-headed man sitting beside me had a copy in his hand. I asked him to let me look at it. The bulk of the thing surprised me – like a Gabaldon it was. I didn’t think that poets were so long-winded. But Daniel Boone is an awful big subject, just like the song says.
In all my 52 years I've never seen a summer where kudzu stopped growing until this year.
My newly-wed house out in the country, which I still own, and where my oldest daughter lives, borders an abandoned kudzu-covered pasture. We battled that stuff the whole time we lived there. If the summer was wet, it'd grow 2 feet a day - at least. But this year, the tips are absolutely desiccated.
But the real kicker is the story I heard yesterday about the Rock Springs Community in Cherokee County, SC, just up the road. The Baptist Church has cancelled baptisms. Now, that's dry!
I saw a recipe for buttermilk biscuits in the June issue of Southern Living that looks almost identical to mine. The thing that makes mine (and theirs) different from most all other biscuit recipes is the extra amount of kneading. As a matter of fact, I read the recipes on the flour bags in the grocery store yesterday. Most will caution against kneading very much, recommending only 3 or 4 times. But the method I use, that I learned as a girl from Momma, is to knead about 20 or more times, working in some more flour every time I fold the dough over. You know it’s ready to roll out when the dough springs back when poked. I cook in an oven set higher than normal, and even though I use self-rising flour, I still add some more baking powder, resulting in fluffier, higher rising biscuits.
This is my version of buttermilk biscuits, perfected for my oven and my family’s taste. 3 ½ cups self rising flour 1 tablespoon baking powder ¼ teaspoon baking soda ½ cup butter flavor shortening 1 ½ cup whole buttermilk 1 cup flour set aside for rolling and kneading
Roll to a rectangular shape roughly 8 by 12 inches. Use a pizza cutter to cut 2 inch squares. Separate by about a half inch on the baking sheet. Place in an oven preheated to 500 degrees and bake for 10 or 11 minutes. Makes two dozen.
I met a handsome feller while weeding the comfrey patch today. He watched me work for a while and listened to me tell about the red tailed hawk that dropped a snake behind center field during a 14u softball game last month. It must have upset him because he left me pulling up poke sprouts and yanking Virginia Creeper off the fence. I hope he comes back. He was very good looking. Kinda like this.
Well, I made it to USC-Aiken in a little less than two hours today. The last time I was in this town was about thirty years ago. Sure has changed. I don't remember it being as hilly though, almost as hilly as it is at home. For some reason I was thinking the topography was more like that around Orangeburg.
I haven't been in a dorm room since brother Keith was at Clemson twenty years ago. The dorm I'm staying in is called Pacer Commons. It's only about two years old and very nice. Now let's go check out that single dorm bed. Oh, joy.
My papa, Charles P. Kuykendall, told me his daddy had “poplar legs.” I thought he meant “popular legs” – an awful weird thing to say about your daddy.
One spring day, Papa and I were walking through the woods to go trout fishing and came up on a yellow and orange, tulip-like blossom in the path. I picked it up and took a whiff. It smelled sweet. I thought about touching my tongue to it to see if it was sweet tasting, like honeysuckle, but it was loaded with little black bugs and I thought better of it.
“That came from this poplar tree,” he said and patted the rough, dark gray, straight trunk. I just about fell backwards straining to see the blossoms silhouetted against the blue beyond the canopy way above my head.
“Oh! Legs like a poplar tree!” I said. “I get it now. Your daddy had very long legs, right?”
“Right.” Papa smiled, nodded, and we kept walking.
Robert Valentine Kuykendall lived in Hendersonville and was about 6-feet 5-inches tall. And that’s where I got my long legs, everybody tells me. Great Granddaddy’s parents were Henry Pinkney Kuykendall and Cynthia Carolyn Capps Kuykendall. He was from a long line of Kuykendalls who settled in Carolina backwoods when it was still wilderness, about twenty years before the American Revolution.
I had seen a couple of pictures of my great grandfather as an old man when I was little. In one, he was sitting on an apple crate with my then six-year-old Uncle Johnny in his lap. He could have gotten three more younguns in that lap. In the other picture, he was standing in front of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Greenville, near Parris Mountain, wearing overalls. His plow mule was behind him, all hitched up. I swear he made that mule look like a pony.
At one point, he delivered mail in the mountains. I recently acquired a picture of him sitting in his mail wagon. He really fills it up, too. I wonder if I got my wild imagination from him. Papa said he was a real storyteller, and he sang little songs he made up all the time. I wonder if the brain in that big Kuykendall head was just clicking away with stories, poems, and lyrics while he was riding those mountain roads. Mine goes into overload when I’m driving alone or on the tractor cutting the grass.
My uncles told me he once knocked out Jack Dempsey cold when Dempsey came to Hendersonville to train. It seems they needed a big fella for him to punch on. After that, they told Gramps to go home; they didn’t need him any more.
All those Kuykendalls are naturally strong, big size or not, even Momma. When we were almost grown, she could still scoop us up and throw us over her shoulder like we were small sacks of chicken scratch. She’s pushing eighty now and still strong.
My favorite of all the Kuykendall pictures is one I found in a box of genealogy stuff I inherited from Momma’s Aunt Helen. I calculate it to be about 110-years-old. Robert Valentine is sitting in a chair in a photographer’s studio with two toddlers in his lap. I think they are his first two tow-headed sons, Rufus and Roy, and I figure Robert is about twenty-six-years-old in this picture.
Knowing that back in those days you had to sit still a while to have your picture made, I’m absolutely fascinated by this picture. First of all, there are two toddler BOYS in his lap who had to sit still for about ten seconds. How the heck did he accomplish that? His lips are parted under a (I imagine copper and gold) handle-bar mustache. I bet he is whispering, “Be still. Be still,” to them. I think the older boy, Rufus, was able to comply, but not the least one — his little feet and face are blurry.
When I was making out the invitation list for my wedding, I sat in Papa’s kitchen going over it with him to see if I left anybody off. He was stirring his coffee with annoying clinks and staring at me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You know, you favor my daddy more than any of us.”
Well, that just threw me for a loop. I had only seen the pictures of him with the mule and the one with Uncle Johnny before then. He was a bald, pot-bellied old man. I teared-up a little. How could Papa say such a thing? And how can looks skip three generations, anyway? That hurt my feelings. But I didn’t let him know. Papa died of a stroke a couple of weeks after that. He never got the chance to show me the other pictures he had of his parents when they were young. My wedding day, one month later, was bitter-sweet.
I never saw those pictures till last year when I got the box of stuff that belonged to Aunt Helen, and there was the 110-year old picture. Those cheekbones, that nose, that forehead, and lips – all mine (and my brother’s) sans mustache. And I’ll be darned if looks can’t skip down three generations.
I enjoyed the rain today. I sat in the rocking chair on the porch and watched the early evening storms while eating cantaloupe wedges from a Tupperware bowl. They weren’t bad storms, the wind wasn’t even blowing hard. The porch hardly got wet. The lightening streaks seemed to just jump from cloud to cloud. I think we got a half inch yesterday and an inch today. It rained steady for about two hours tonight. You could almost see the grass stretching and greening up. And just in time for the new flower pots I put out last night.
She asked for my senior citizen’s card that Wednesday morning. I had run by the bakery at the Bilo in Lyman to get some muffins for my department meeting that afternoon. What prompted her request, I have no clue. Except, perhaps, it was because I had pulled my shoulder-brushing bob cut back and pinned it on the top, exposing the newly emerging silver at my temples. She didn’t look any older than the 9th graders I’d been teaching that semester. When I said, “What?” she promptly explained that seniors get a 5% discount on Wednesdays.
“How old do you have to be to get a senior citizen’s card?” I asked.
“How old do you think I am?”
“Sorry, hon, but I have nine more years to go to be considered a senior citizen at the Bilo.”
“Sorry.” She looked at the register screen. “That’ll be $12.60.”
I scanned the store. At 7:00 am, it was deserted. “Wait just a minute, okay? I’ll be right back.” The checkout was right in front of the pharmacy, and the Clairol Natural Instincts boxes were
only a few steps away. I pulled a strand of still wren-brown hair from over my ear and held it in front of my eyes while comparing it to the pictures of luxurious locks on boxes. Toasted almond appeared to be the closest to my natural color.
The box sat on the counter in my bathroom for about six weeks before I got the nerve to do the deed. By then, school was out for the summer. I was right about the color, it was a near perfect match the natural shade of my youth, which still ruled the back of my head.
I only used the color about every four months until the rate of white hair growth increased. I began to get what I have always referred to as “skunk head syndrome”. That’s the white streak you get at your part when the color grows out. It wasn’t so bad when the white was just in the front. Then I increased the coloring rate to once every six weeks. I quit using it the summer I turned 51 years old. Right after my husband told me the gray shone like polished silver in the moonlight spreading slats through the mini-blinds in our bedroom. Let it go, he said, let it go. So I have for the past year. But I’m not ready for that senior citizen’s card yet.
Great-grandma Johnson was a Westmoreland before she married. And her mother was a Wood, the great-great-granddaughter of Rev. William Henry Wood, an American Revolutionary War Patriot and pioneer Methodist minister in the South Carolina backcountry. Last month the Mecklenburg Chapter, (NCSSAR) of the Sons of the American Revolution honored his memory with a marker ceremony at the Wood’s Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery on Brown Wood Road, Greer, SC. That’s right near the intersection of Interstate-85 and Highway-101, practically across the street from the BMW plant entrance. (Yes, they build German cars on top of my ancestral stomping grounds.)
Born December 16 (same as brother, Keith), 1756, in what is now Warren County, NC, he served in the struggle for American freedom as a member of the Third Division of N.C. Militia under Lieutenant Henry Shurrin and Colonel Hebert Haynes. He participated at the battle of Guilford Court House and other engagements during his service in the Revolution.
He married Elizabeth Mayfield in July 1777 in Warren County, N.C. She died soon after the marriage and he remarried Nancy Burns. He and his second wife moved to the Spartan District in South Carolina after the Revolution where he started a Methodist meeting house near the Greer area which is now called Wood’s Chapel United Methodist Church.
In 1803 during a trip through South Carolina, Bishop Francis Asbury wrote in his journal that on Nov. 1 he rode to the Reverend’s home and preached there the next day. William Henry Wood lived in the same home until his death on June 12, 1843.
All my life, I’ve lived within 8 miles of Wood’s Chapel but have not attended services there. I’ve been a member at Startex United Methodist, now First United Methodist Church – Startex. I’ve visited the Wood's Chapel graveyard several times, especially when I lived in Greer. I told my children the same thing my Papa Kuykendall used to tell me whenever we visited the graveyards at Mud Creek Baptist in Flat Rock, NC or Double Springs Baptist down the road from there. “You’re blood kin to most of these bones under your feet.” The exception being that these bones are on my Johnson side, not the Kuykendall side.
My former 11th grade American Lit. teacher won an award for her YA historical fiction novel about local Revolutionary War heroine, Kate Berry. Sheila Collins, now Sheila Ingle, was fresh out of college when she taught English at James F. Byrnes High School back in 1970. I loved her class.
When I read about the traumatic birth of McLean in The Bed She Was Born In, I knew what was going to happen to that little child. See, I had a palsied second cousin about four years younger than me. We lost him at the age of forty – pneumonia claimed his precious heart. With Board's story taking place about 100 years ago, I knew they would lose McLean early. I knew before I read it that pneumonia or the influenza outbreak during World War I would take him.
We have similar family stories about influenza. At the age of 19, my grandpa’s older brother, Roy, went to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg for basic training and contracted influenza within two weeks. His headstone in the Mud Creek Baptist Cemetery in Flat Rock, North Carolina is bigger than his parents’ and grandparents’ headstones.
My second cousin, Ray, who had cerebral palsy, was my grandpa’s baby sister’s first grandson. Her son-in-law’s family had a huge truck farm near Holly Hill, South Carolina. When I was about twelve or thirteen, they had another baby, Darrell. I started going down there in the summers when Darrell was a toddler to help my great-aunt, Helen, tend to the boys while all the packing was going on. Their mother, Momma’s double-first cousin, Lois, was needed in the packing house (guess that made Ray and Darrell my double-second cousins.) She had been a home-economics major at Winthrop and a Clemson Extension agent before marrying Raymond West in 1958, and he took her down to his family’s farm in the steamy, hot Low Country.
Boy, did I ever get a crash course in canning tomatoes and green beans that first summer. By that time, Ray was spending the weeks at the Coastal Center for the handicapped in Summerville and coming home on the weekends. During the height of packing season, there was no day off for the packing house, not even Sundays. I learned how to tend to a severely handicapped boy while I kept the canner boiling all day.
That scene in The Bed She Was Born In where McLean had his accident was like looking at a rerun of the summer Ray hit puberty. It took both Aunt Helen and me to clean him up from an accident that was completely my fault. In this case the culprit was fresh Georgia Belle peaches I had brought down from Robinson’s peach shed in Greer. His momma warned me not let him have too much. But he loved them so much. I mashed a thin sliver of peach with a fork and spooned them in. After a few bites, I said, “Okay, that’s enough.” But he went, “Mmmmmm,” meaning he wanted more. So I stuffed him.
His humiliation was evident by his teary eyes and that strangled “uhh” sound he made for no when we heaved him off his pallet. It just broke my heart. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry. But you can’t stay in this mess till your momma gets home,” was all I could think to say.
On better days, he was fond of Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour novels. His daddy had a bookshelf that sagged with western novels and short story collections. It was a great gig for me. I got to read westerns out loud as Mason jar lids sealed with pops and pings, cooling in the pantry and kitchen.
I guess the worst part of being down there was the fire ants. It was easy to spot a mound in that Bermuda grass. They rose overnight in the black, loamy soil, little grey mountains springing up. Lois poured boiling water on them when she cut the grass. Sometimes she would burn one out, but they popped back up somewhere else the next day. What worked best was a 50/50 mixture of Borax and powdered sugar. They stayed gone for a few weeks after that treatment .
After living down there a couple of weeks, I started to pick up their almost-Geechee sound. And it took me about two weeks to sound “right” after I got back home. ("Right" being western Spartangburg County mill village.) Some of their words were indistinguishable to me and I had to hear them in context to figure out what they were talking about. One example was paper and pepper. They both sounded like pehpah. I made up a story about a little boy going to the store for his mother and told it to Ray and Darrell all the time. It went something like this.
Once there was a little boy who lived on big truck farm. One day his mother asked him to ride his bike down the road to the country store and get a few things. So he rode his bike with a list in his hand and went up to the counter and read the list to the clerk. “My momma sent me after some boottermilk, some beking soda, and some pehpah.” “Well, what kind of pehpah is it yo momma want?” asked the clerk. “Retpehpah? Black pehpah? Green pehpah? Banana pehpah?” The little boy thought and thought and finally said, “Toilet pehpah.”
That used to crack Ray up so, he’d almost strangle, laughing. When the natives weren’t around, I would imitate them, and Ray loved it.
Sometimes I’d drive their daddy’s Deville over to the uncle’s house in Providence, 5 miles away. Raymond’s brother ran the country store at the crossroads next to his house. You could find or order just about anything you could get in all of Greenville or Spartanburg in approximately 2000 square feet.
Those other cousins had an in-ground pool that Ray loved to get in. I tied him to me with an old robe sash and eased down into the water. I’d inch in the cool water and he’d gasp, inch and gasp, inch and gasp, until the water was to his armpits. At first, I swam with him facing me, but I got the feeling he was enjoying that too much and I turned him around. He was so stiff and dense, he’d slide down, and I’d have to hitch him up by his cocked elbows every now and then. “Boy, if I turned you loose, you’d sink like a cinder block,” I said.
“Uh huh," he agreed.
Once it got over 100 degrees for about a week while I was having to can tomatoes and beans. The blue, speckled canner jumped and bumped, and the pressure canner hissed and blew steam. There was only one window air conditioner in the whole house – in the master bedroom. The rest of use had to do with fans. I had them all going. Ray was on his pallet in the den watching an old cowboy movie. He glistened with sweat, so I stripped him down to his diaper and rubber pants, thinking he would be more comfortable. And you know what? He fussed at me, grunting and growling, until I put his cotton/poly blend, plaid, button-up shirt and elastic-waist, jersey-knit shorts back on.
I didn’t like the way his shirts got twisted around when he wallowed on his pallet, trying keep up with the goings-on in the rest of the house. Sometimes the buttons on his shirt dug into his tender, transparent skin. But it was too difficult to get his stiff arms into a pull-over t-shirt. I often gave his shirt collar a tug and a twist to straighten it so the buttons lined up down his front.
From the nose up, he looked normal, even handsome. If he had been born right, I’m convinced he would have been the tallest, prettiest, smartest one of us. Actually, I think he was the smartest one of us; he just couldn’t get it out. Ray’s eyes were the blue-grey of Carolina granite. His hair was the same color as the sable collar on Momma’s red coat. It would have been wavy if his daddy didn’t take him to the barber shop every two weeks.
I told him that he could stir up some gale force winds if he’d bat those long, thick lashes fast enough. Sometimes, I flopped in the rocking chair beside him in the den. “Whew. It’s like a sauna in that kitchen,” I said, tugging the soggy t-shirt from my chest. “Fan me, Ray.” He blinked his eyes at me and laughed when I went, “Ahhhh.” That was our private joke.
My fondness for alliteration got me in trouble that first year I taught. It was the only year they let me teach biology. I’ve been teaching physical science and chemistry ever since – 27 years. It was this time of year (maybe May) and I had taken my only biology class down the trail behind the school through the woods to the Tyger River. We were on the ridge looking down at the river when a stirring in the leaf mold drew a student’s attention. She squealed thinking the warm day had brought out the snakes. I used the fallen hickory limb I was carrying as a walking stick to lift the leaves. There before me and about a half-dozen 10th grade girls were two box turtles in a depression, the female with her head in the hole (which I think she had dug herself,) and the male playing piggy-back.
After being in the bright sun and stepping in the shadows, the students’ eyes hadn’t yet adjusted. One of the girls said, “What is that?”
“Aw, it’s just a couple of cooters copulating,” I answered.
They told me that the phone lines between members of a certain Baptist Sunday School class were burning up that evening. It wasn’t long after that that Mr. McGinnis asked me if I would just consider teaching only the physical sciences. That was fine with me.
No trip planned this time - just staying home and doing the taxes and trimming the hedges. I have six Better Boy tomato plants, two Park's Whoppers, a couple each of bell, cayenne, and Jalapeno peppers to put out, and I have to work on my SCWW anthology submissions.
For the fun it, I'm going to start rereading Darlene Marshall's novels - historical fiction and romance set in steamy hot Florida. Good stuff. Good escape.
I didn't expect to win a thing this year. I had forgotten all about the annual Hub City Writers contest. I hadn't seen anything about it on their web site. When I asked Betsy Teter if they were still having the contest, she told me that the deadline was only a few days away (the web site was being redesigned and not updated.) I didn't have time to produce something from scratch, so I pulled out an old piece I had started and tweaked it - staying up late the night before it was to be postmarked. I thought they'd throw it out. Really.
Having won first place in 2005, I got spoiled. A week in the North Carolina mountains at Wildacres retreat is a wonderful way to pamper a new writer. I wasn't allowed to enter last year. That's the rule, winners can't enter the next year. So I forked out the bucks. Both years I had to miss big softball tournaments my youngest daughter played in. I really don't want to do that again this year. The third place prize gives me a big discount to the Writing in Place conference at Wofford. Which is also enjoyable, just not a week long.
Oh, well. I'll keep trying every year for the scholarship to Wildacres.
Last month I heard an author speak about her historical fiction novel. Jeri Fitzgerald Board spoke about Picking the Bones of Historical Fiction, using her new novel, The Bed She Was Born In. Ms. Board's book has been nominated for two prestigious awards, including the Pen Faulkner Award.
It takes place in Eastern North Carolina in the time period between the Civil War and World War II and explores the lives of 5 wonderfully strong Southern women, black and white. Board illustrates, in a way I haven't seen before, the intricate relationships (that I've always know existed) between the races in the Carolina Low Country. The characters lives' weave in and out and support each other just like the cords in the intricate weave in one of my hammocks.
I was most touched by the relationships between the women and the handicapped son, McLean. More on that later.
One of the books I had anxiously awaited publication last year was Thomas Rain Crowe's Zoro's Field. I followed it a little on the Smoky Mountain News website, but that's not quite like having the whole thing in you hands in one sitting. I especially liked the Tools chapter. More thoughts on that later.
I get this all the time when I go out of town. “Are you from Texas?” people ask me. I just shake my head, “No, honey. I’m from Spartanburg, South Carolina.” I don’t even attempt to answer with Startex, or Greer, or Lyman – all of which have been home to me at one time or another and are all in Spartanburg County. One man even replied, “Are you sure?” Like I don’t know where I’m from.
You remember it. Anyone more than twenty years old must remember the hairdo. It was the late 1980’s and every teenage girl sported it at one time or another. At that time, the best stocks to own were shares of hair spray companies. The girls wore bangs, lots and lots of big bangs. Rising early every school day, young women washed their hair, blow-dried it, scorched it with a curling iron, teased it to the point of embarrassment, and made major contributions to the depletion of the ozone layer.
Being concerned with the safety and well being of my students in the science classroom, every new term I carefully and painstakingly instructed my students on the proper behavior and dress requirements in the laboratory. One of the most important rules is to tie back long hair. The bangs of this popular coiffure (which reminded me of the mushroom cloud that emerges after a nuclear explosion) sat precariously on the foreheads of countless freshmen female physical science students. Even if the student pulled her long locks back with a banana clip, the long stiff bangs were impossible to contain.
All the students awaited the physical science activity that introduces them to the Bunsen burner, some with unbridled eagerness and some with great fear and trepidation. I preferred the latter. We prepared for the event by practicing the hook up of the burners and equipment with the main gas line shut off. It took a whole class period to share the finesse involved in the art of obtaining an igniting spark from a flint striker. Before proceeding with the activity, each lab group had to obtain permission with an inspection of their set-up. We were ready.
There was Jane, one of the most academically gifted students I had in a long time. Every test and quiz paper she completed was perfect. She mastered the most complicated concepts in chemistry and physics effortlessly. However, she had no desire to master the practical application of those same concepts. Jane was perfectly content to observe her lab partners manipulate the equipment with skill and confidence. Oh, and Jane had the hairdo. Even when decked out in full lab regalia, Jane’s bangs radiated out several inches past her safety goggles. It came time for the Bunsen-Burner-Lighting Quiz. I circulated among the lab tables and checked off a student’s name when she successfully demonstrated skill in connecting the burner, lighting it, and adjusting the flame. A well maintained and adjusted burner burns cleanly and with no odor. While I observed students at one table, partners at other tables practiced and helped one another. With coaching from her partners, Jane was attempting to light the burner for the first time.
An unexpected odor caused me to look up from my clipboard with a start. "Something’s burning!" I yelled. Instinctively students stopped in their tracks and started looking for papers burning on the lab tables. Most had the presence of mind to turn off the gas. All the tables were clear of unwanted combustion. Then I heard Bill, Jane’s lab partner, scream "FIRE!" I turned to see Bill backing away from his partner and Jane yelling, "Where? Where?"
In a split second I assessed the situation and calculated steps to the fire blanket and the extinguisher. Both were too far from the action to be of any help. You see, Jane was six feet away from me and her bangs were ablaze. Apparently, after obtaining a flame on the burner, she positioned her head down to get a better look at the flame adjustment valve and got too close. Her hairdo was a Bunsen burner flame magnet. Without hesitation, I dashed to her side, ripped my papers from the clipboard and used them to beat out the flames on the cowering coed. Gritting my teeth, I went after them like an arachnophobe after a house spider. It's amazing what you can do when the adrenaline is flowing.
For the first time in her life, Jane was clueless. She stood there stunned that her teacher would repeatedly smack her in the head with a stack of lab reports. When I collected my wits, I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and explained, "Your hair was on fire, honey!" "Oh my God!" she wailed as she groped for her bangs that were no longer there. The tears began to puddle up in her safety goggles and she bolted from the lab running toward the restroom to assess the damage. Jane’s mother was at the school in no time flat to take her home.
That night I worried about Jane’s condition and state of mind but soon her mother called to thank me. "For what?" I asked.
"For acting so quickly." She explained.
She was convinced that if I had taken the time to fetch the authorized safety equipment to put out the flames, Jane would have suffered terrible burns to her scalp. The next day Jane appeared with a new, shorter hairstyle. It framed her face and drew attention to her beautiful eyes and cheekbones. Jane appeared unscathed as she accepted compliments about her new looks from her classmates.
I forgot all about it for years until this past summer when I was cleaning out a closet in the basement. I rediscovered a stack of old Souvenirs and decided to use the yearbooks to refresh my feeble memory. There I found in the pages of the old volumes, hundreds of mug shots featuring the hairdo. When I flipped back to the autograph pages, the memories began flooding back. There were several notes reflecting on the event, but the kicker was the one that read,
Dear Mrs. I., It was great having you as a teacher in physical science this year. I learned a lot. Have a good summer. Bill-Class of 1990. PS. I’ll never forget the day Jane’s hair caught on fire and you put it out. For an old lady, you really move fast.