Legacy Writing 365:10

Tom and I have done a lot of traveling by car, and he’d tell you that wherever we go–or any time I come home from a solo trip–at some point, I’ll say, “I could live there.” I’m always delighted by something in every city, state, or small town I visit. It may be the people who charm me, the landscape that dazzles me, or the climate that tricks me (because unless you visit a place frequently, the vagaries of its weather are a mystery). Only one time did a particularly unpleasant incident put me off a state (which I won’t name, because you can’t condemn an entire state based on the behavior of one wanker, right?). And I know Manhattan would eat me alive, so it’s better left as a place I love to visit. All in all, though, I’ve found that most places have something good to offer so I try not to judge them, particularly if I’ve never visited there. That would be like hating a book I haven’t read or a movie I haven’t seen or a musical artist I’ve never heard, and who does that?

Hmmm. Let’s shelve that question.

Anyway, as soon as I read that The Advocate magazine had named Salt Lake City the gayest city in America, I knew there’d be hue and cry. I won’t debate the merits of the judging criteria or what “gayest” can really mean. There’ll never be a more diverse and outspoken group than those individuals who get grouped in the LGBTQIA acronym; I’m pretty sure my voice won’t be needed on this one.

All I’m going to say is that these photos, taken at Salt Lake City’s Gay Pride parade in 2001, tell a wonderful story of my mother and the community who welcomed one “straight old lady named Dorothy” with love, and shared with her many, many times of laughter and a few tears. I can’t give a photo credit, because I don’t know who took the photos. My copies are not high quality because no telling how many emails and computers they went through before they made it to me.

Dorothy has been spotted along the parade route.

She gets swept off her feet.

She’s been put on the float.

If only she weren’t so shy…

That year, then-SLC Mayor Ross C. “Rocky” Anderson was the parade’s Grand Marshal. No surprise that she’d find and be photographed with the local politico–or that she’d be wearing her Alabama Crimson Tide shirt.

To that bigoted person with whom I once worked who admonished me for my passionate belief in legal and civil equality for EVERYONE by saying, “I know how you were raised. What would your parents say about this,” I answer:

My parents would say I’m the daughter they taught me to be, and they’re proud of me for speaking out about my beliefs on fairness and justice. And also, they think I should laugh more.

Legacy Writing 365:9

I think anyone who follows college football in the US will indulge me with a celebratory moment. My alma mater won the National Championship game tonight. Roll Tide!

I was just looking for a reason to use this photo I found of Denny Chimes in my mother’s photos. I assume one of my parents took it when they were living in Tuscaloosa while my father attended the University of Alabama after they married. I had several colleges/universities to select from when I left high school, but my choice was probably made the first time I listened to my parents talk about their times there. I drank the red Kool-Aid! My brother (Auburn University) and sister (University of Kentucky) did not.

There’s no city on the planet that’s home to me like Tuscaloosa. No place I feel as comfortable as the Quad on the UA campus, where I spent many hours walking, lounging, partying, reading, biking, people-watching, tossing a Frisbee or football with friends, and maybe even a little studying. Denny Chimes is on the Quad, but its music reaches the farthest corners of campus and beyond. Visitors can walk the sidewalks around its base and see the handprints and footprints of all the football team captains since 1948. My very first time there, I put my hands inside the prints of quarterback great Joe Namath.

Apparently when I took this photo my junior year, I was more dazzled by a rare snowfall than getting the top of poor Denny Chimes in the photo.

And here I am at the limestone base of the Chimes the day I graduated. I’m the short one on the right, who didn’t have a blue magna cum laude stole. At least I always dated smart boys.

Legacy Writing 365:8

“Knock the L out of Hitler”

There are so many reasons I have strong emotional reactions to this photo.

On the back, my mother has written, “WW2. Bill with his half track in Louisiana on his way to the big war.” I wish all the family photos came with such precise descriptions to help me fix them in time and circumstance. This picture was taken long before she met my father, and one thing she probably liked about it was that he actually looks like a man in his early twenties. In fact, when Tom saw this photo, he said, “He looks so young!” because usually he says, “Your father always looked old, no matter what age he was.” When I think of all the things Daddy saw and lost in that “big war” he was headed for, I understand why he aged. And why his sleep remained troubled the rest of his life. He loved the Army, just as he loved all the careers he had, but it wasn’t love without a price.

In the coming year, I’ll probably share several photos showing signs my father painted. He learned that trade even before he went into the CCC, because there he learned the skills that would later be part of his time in the Army’s Signal Corps. But when he left the CCC, he bought an A Model Ford off a friend and refashioned it to become his mobile sign painting shop.

The year was 1938 and I felt completely free and footloose. The depression was beginning to grind down to an end, and although there was rumbling in the Far East and in Germany that hinted of a possible war to come one day, I refused to be concerned.

One of his stories, about which he says “a small part…is true but most…is fiction,” allows me to see his world through eyes that have not yet looked on war.

So here he is, young, and with the brash personality troops would need to do the job that would land them in Normandy and send them throughout Europe. He has put his sign-painting skills to use, adorning the half-track with his promise to Hitler. So many vintage war photos show shapely women painted on the machines of war, much the way pin-up photos of beauties like Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Jean Harlow were pasted inside footlockers and lockers to boost morale and symbolize the life troops were fighting to return to.

I could write reams on the way the framing of one war as heroic and the viewing of another war as horrific created the conflicted baby boom generation that I was born into. I don’t know if all the men and women who go into war have the young eyes and bold heart of this one, but I do believe when they come home, they should have all the opportunities, respect, and assistance they need to find their place in the world again. Some are stronger for the testing; some are broken. They’re all our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters.

Legacy Writing 365:7

The best times can be the ones that happen without planning. The last winter before Tom and I were married, I lived in a rural area outside his family’s city. He was visiting them from Tuscaloosa for a weekend, and–a very rare thing–none of his siblings were home. A snow storm had been forecast. Since the South doesn’t have road equipment to deal with heavy snow, it’s best for people to load up on supplies and stay home. It was decided before the snow began that it might be better if I came into town to stay with Tom and his parents.

It turned out to be the most wonderful opportunity for the four of us to get to know each other better. To enjoy a world quieted by that blanket of snow. We talked a lot, didn’t really watch TV, read, probably played a game or two, worked together to cook the meals we shared and cleaned up after. Every woman should have such a low-key few days to relax with her future family without a lot of activity and distractions.

It had been kind of a running joke that I occasionally asked Tom’s father to do stuff for me–things I could have done for myself, but I’d get all Southern belle and ask him, and he’d say, “Yes, Miss Becky, I will come check your apartment for a snake,” Or, “Yes, Miss Becky, I’ll go car shopping with you.” My father had died only a couple of years before, and though no one could ever replace him, it was nice to know that a future father-in-law would spoil me a little.

That weekend, instead of making a snow man, Tom and his parents built a Snow Belle in my honor.

Tom and his mother with their version of Miss Scarlett.

Legacy Writing 365:6

A while back, my scanner stopped getting along with my iMac, so it hooked up with its old friend the PC again. Earlier, I went into the room where the PC resides to find and scan a photo for today’s entry. But as I was looking through a stack of pictures, I glanced toward the computer table and saw this:

Sun on scarlet ribbons.

It made me think about my mother’s old Harry Belafonte album. I loved to hear her and Debby sing along to it, and my favorite from that album was “Scarlet Ribbons.”

Sound technology is a wonderful thing, but some of us of a certain age can be transported to another time just hearing the snap, crackle, and pop of a needle on vinyl.

Today you’re welcome to time travel with me to imagine my sister’s pure soprano and my mother’s deeper tones accompanying the beautiful voice of Mr. Belafonte.

P.S. to my writing partners: You see how this kind of influence in my youth led to those “saccharin” endings? And who was it who said that, anyway?

Legacy Writing 365:5

Winnie and Robert–so young here, but when I knew them, they were old. They were tall and lean, both of them, and he was only a little stooped. They both had beautiful white hair. Although they were quiet, they were favorites of mine because they both always had a smile in their eyes. Truly, though, what endeared them to me was how they were with each other. She never needed a sweater that he wasn’t there to gently drop one on her shoulders. He never wanted for something cool to drink, because she put a glass next to him before he could ask. Whenever our large extended family was together, they would laugh at all the stories with the rest of us, but sooner or later they’d go for a little walk, hand in hand, quietly continuing a conversation that had begun more than fifty years earlier.

Winnie–Winifred–was the oldest of twelve children. Fourteen, really, but one was born dead and another died in infancy. My mother was the youngest of those fourteen. When Mother saw how I watched her oldest sister and Robert, she told me their story. They fell in love, and when Winnie was eighteen, Robert asked my grandparents for her hand in marriage. But my grandmother was pregnant with Uncle John. She said Winnie couldn’t be spared; she had to take her mother’s place supervising the house and the other children until after the baby was born. Robert promised that if they were allowed to marry, he would wait as long as necessary before setting up household with her. My grandparents finally agreed; Winnie and Robert were married in June of 1921. Uncle John was born in August. I don’t know when Winnie was finally able to go home to her husband, but as promised, he waited until then for a wedding night with his bride.

When Winnie died in Tupelo on an August day at age seventy-four, we could all see that Robert had lost half of his soul. The smile was gone from his eyes. No one was surprised when he died, too, before the year was over. My mother said Robert simply had no interest in living in a world without his Winnie.

Legacy Writing 365:4

There’s no reason I should have this photo or the other four that were obviously taken the same day. I didn’t shoot them; I wasn’t there. That I do have them means I badgered someone into giving them to me: either Tim, who’s front and center in the water, or Riley, the boy closest to him, next level up. I’d be willing to bet it was Riley who reluctantly handed them over.

Even though I wasn’t friends with the other three boys in the photos (one of whom isn’t pictured here because he was obviously manning the camera), and though I haven’t seen them in more years than I wish to divulge, I can name them all immediately. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen them in all those years; they are fixed in time, always young, always long-haired, bell-bottomed, wearing illegal expressions on their achingly young faces.

I also don’t know where in North Alabama these photos were taken. I hope there are still as many remote places of natural beauty as there were then, where even a short hike would take you far from whatever troubled your spirit.

And when you’re a teenager, something is always troubling your spirit. It’s your job. You’re new on the planet, and it’s not perfect, and neither are the people trying to teach you how to be here. Everybody’s got advice and wisdom, and what they’ve forgotten is that no one older and with more experience could keep their lives perfectly on course, either, when they were young. They–we–you–everybody has to stumble over their own rocky terrain, take their own falls into cold, rushing water, get up, keep going.

It’s because of Tim and Riley, and everything we learned together and taught each other, and all the ways we betrayed each other and found our ways back those first decades of our lives, that I so easily slip into the world Stephenie Meyer created. I don’t care about the writing flaws. I can strip away the supernatural elements. What I see is three teenagers who are dealing with emotions and choices, desires and missteps, confusion and clarity, with fresh minds and untried hearts.

And this photo… One boy long out of touch; the other one dead. But here forever, in this blurry photo, are the boys who gave me music, art, poetry, laughter and tears, and my first lessons in the crazy beauty of romantic love.

Here forever in my heart, too.

Legacy Writing 365:3

Is this a leap year? Should I be saying 366:3 instead?

For a time in my twenties, Lynne and I lived together with a house full of dogs and her cat. The guy I was dating lived about two hours away. He didn’t have a car, and sometimes a friend would drive him halfway; I’d meet them and take him back to our little town for the weekend. It was on such a day that I was idly walking through a big discount store that was a forerunner of Walmart. I didn’t intend to buy anything; it was just a way to pass the time until the friend and boyfriend arrived.

I absolutely didn’t intend to buy one of the kittens who was with a group of them in the back of the store. These days, I’d never buy a dog or cat when so many need to be adopted and when irresponsible breeders shouldn’t be encouraged. But as ignorant as I was about such things then, even I knew we didn’t need another animal in the household. Still, there was one kitten I couldn’t ignore. He was talking to me, not begging, but demanding, and I held him for a bit and talked back. Finally I returned him to the enclosure and started to walk away. When I looked back, he was hanging by his paws from the top of the metal, as if trying to follow me out.

So Kess left the store with me.

He packed a ton of hilarious personality and bad behavior into his tiny body. He pooped in the plants, kept me up at night, and tried to nurse my throat, meaning I had to sleep holding the covers firmly over my head. He bossed all the other animals around. He was noisy. But all would be forgiven when he’d be adorable and affectionate. When he’d curl up with the dogs for a nap. When he’d eat without a sign of finicky behavior. When he’d chase a toy or lie on his back working a piece of yarn or a ribbon. When he’d bounce around the house en pointe, back arched, slaying imaginary enemies.

And some not so imaginary. One of the features of the wonderful old house we lived in was what we called “well crickets,” probably actually camel crickets. If you’re not familiar with these, go check out this photo at your own risk. The horror of these things is that they look like spiders and jump like crickets. Seriously? A spider that can JUMP AT YOU? And will, because the little bastards NEVER jump away from you. Nothing could send me shrieking from a room like the appearance of what I dubbed “leapers.”

Wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of prey that would fascinate an inquisitive kitten?

I was sitting on my bed one night, working on a lesson plan, when I spied movement across the room. I sucked in my breath: LEAPER! My body chose fright over flight. I sat rigid, hoping it would hop its way out of the room. Kess saw it, too, and dropped to the floor to fix his gaze on it, his dilated pupils driving the blue from his eyes. It jumped toward the door; he stared and slowly crept after it. It jumped again; same reaction. The third time it jumped, it was outside my room! I leaned over and slammed the door. Kess gave me an exasperated look, reached a paw under the door, and brought it back inside.

Stupid cat. He finally killed it when it stopped amusing him, but by then I was another few years closer to thirty-five.

When I was accepted into graduate school, I knew I could take only one animal with me, and that was going to be my dog. Lynne would have kept Kess, but we had some friends who wanted him. He enjoyed a long, happy reign over two human slaves and two Great Danes who devotedly served King Kess. Not a bad life for a discount cat.

Legacy Writing 365:2

When I was in the fifth grade, it was decided that the more musically-inclined students would put on some kind of spring concert. My sister was a singer who was always in choirs and choruses and she loved that stuff. I could think of nothing more horrifying than being on a stage in front of a bunch of people. People with eyes!* So when the music teacher came around to audition us, I had a plan. We sang as a group; she stopped in front of each of us to get a listen to our individual voices. I sang as poorly as I could; it didn’t take a whole lot of effort. And I DIDN’T GET PICKED! Success.

Only then the teachers weren’t sure what to do with us tone-deaf rejects during the times the other kids went to practice for their upcoming concert. My teacher, Mrs. Duncan, hit on a brilliant plan: Her leftovers would be in a play! How exciting! I would have lines to say in front of an auditorium of people!

Please reread my third sentence in the first paragraph.

That’s how I came to play “Dottie” in “The Picnickers.”

I still have a copy of “The Picnickers,” and I read through it before I began this post. The plot: Several girls decide to go on a picnic on a pretty day. They pack their picnic baskets and sneak off without letting the boys know, because:

Maxine: I’d like to know if they ever ask us to go on hikes with them.
Helen: I should say they don’t.


Mary Lee: We’ll show them that we can get along without them once in a while.

(Yeah, fist pump, Mrs. Duncan, if in fact you wrote this play.)

The girls get lost a few times, but finally find the spot they’re looking for. They play a few games; Mary Lee, obviously conflicted, periodically says how much more fun they’d be having if the boys were there. A few pointed comments are made about Betty’s hunger, and they won’t leave her behind when they go to the spring to get water because, as Helen says, “There wouldn’t be anything left to eat when we got back.”

(In a few decades, Mrs. Duncan, you’d be in big trouble over the whole young girl/body image/eating disorder thing.)

While they’re gone, the boys show up. Miffed about being left out, they switch out the girls’ picnic baskets for other baskets filled with turnips and carrots, raw potatoes, and stones. The boys then hide. When the girls get back and open the baskets, even Betty suffers a loss of appetite.

At this point, one of the boys emerges from the woods disguised as a gypsy. Here’s where my willing suspension of disbelief switches off. A gypsy? Because the woods outside AnySmallTown USA are crawling with gypsies in gypsy clothes. And of course a group of girls would totally talk to her and let her tell their fortunes, as well as agree to give up some of their food if she does a magic spell to get their lunch baskets returned. This shit would never fly today, when Maxine would whip out her cell phone and have the police there to arrest the pagan child predator in nothing flat.

But I digress. The gypsy taps on a tree three times, the boys appear with the good food, “Tom” is revealed to be the gypsy, everybody laughs, eats, and they live happily ever after–or so I assume, because the last page of my script is missing.

Regardless, my real issue with this play is that my character Dottie is critical, bossy, and doesn’t deserve the totally suck-up fortune she gets from the gypsy (Tom obviously has a crush on her).


Me, bottom left.

*Line stolen from Rachel on Friends.

Legacy Writing 365:1

You may have noticed that my masthead changed with the new year. Since the Magnetic Poetry project has come to an end, I wanted to take on another year-long project. My conditions: It has to be uniquely mine, and it has to involve writing. My blog readers (and I thank EVERY one of you, especially when you take the time to comment) seem to enjoy it when I dip into my past for material. Since I have about ten zillion photos in the archives that include many of my mother’s photos as well as mine, and a seemingly infinite amount of memories, I hope to combine the two on my blog each day.

My relationship with memory has a certain poignancy. I have no children who will say, “Tell me about that time…” or “Not this story again…” as I often did with my own parents. They were both storytellers, so it seemed particularly cruel that both of them suffered diseases that rob the memory: my father’s Parkinson’s disease, my mother’s Alzheimer’s. However, though both of them had moments of confusion and disorientation, they could be gently guided into sharing their long-term memories until shortly before they died.

In a way, my novels are my children. They get sprinkled with bits of stories from my own life and the lives of people I know (or have known): meshed, reassigned, shortened, made better, made worse. Whatever works to breathe life into the characters. When these stories are read, they’re filtered through everything a reader believes, likes, distrusts, yearns for, laughs about, despises–the whole gamut of that reader’s experiences are sitting in his mind and heart.

In essence, all writing is collaborative. We write everyone and everything we’ve known or wished we knew. We work with editors and friends and critical readers to shape and refine our stories. And then our readers rewrite our stories to fit into their unique perspectives.

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot about the process of memory, and its accuracies and inaccuracies. I’ll try to be accurate with both the photos and what I remember.

When I was going through pictures to create the new masthead, I found this one. I correctly identified: SOFTBALL! I don’t know how my father, a good softball player on winning teams, produced me. The Brides and Kathy S try to get me to come to their games, and I always babble things like “softball trauma,” “junior high nightmare,” or a simple shrieking, “NOOOOOOOOOO.” I’m pretty sure there was never a worse softball player than my early teen self. Even after I was finally schooled on the basics–a base? a shortstop? a strike?–I was hopelessly inept.

Keep your eye on the ball? You keep YOUR eye on the ball and make sure it doesn’t come anywhere near me. I closed my eyes when a ball came from the sky when I was practically in the next county, which is where my “team” in P.E. sent me to get me as far from the game as possible. If a ball did manage to turn itself into a rookie-seeking missile, it went through my hands, through my legs, or hell, I don’t know, through the fabric of the space-time continuum.

And batting: OMG, the nightmare that was batting. You are supposed to stand there while someone hurls a ball at you! A ball that can hurt when it hits you! I just closed my eyes and hoped it would somehow dematerialize before it came near me. Needless to say, I never heard or felt that alleged satisfying crack of bat meeting ball. Or got to run to first base–though I think I may have walked a time or two. All of this, of course, to the taunts and jeers of the opposing team. And my own team. And possibly people brought in from biology or civics just to watch me. Which, praise the spirit of whoever is the softball equivalent of Babe Ruth, my father never saw. He never had to know the shame of fathering Jacksonville High School’s WORST Softball Player.

Kathy S looked at this photo and said they don’t make bats like this anymore. They do still make great softball players…I’ve heard.