Epiphany: Stand-Ins for Innocence

IMG_8752Every Christmas these little guys and their compadres make the trek downstairs and settle in under the black Labrador retriever angel-topped tree to observe our comings and goings, to be among us for awhile,  and to serve as stand-ins for the innocence in the world that is so often wounded, unprotected, and has such a soft, small voice.

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Oh sure. On a conscious level I understand they are only bits of fabric and fluff. But just try to handle one of them roughly, or to  keep from smiling when you hold the stuffed bear with his beer gut wearing a “Hug Freely” t-shirt. Can’t do it. They call forth tenderness.

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And every year I wonder, “Oh little guys, where will we gather next year? Will it be here in this edenic wood?  Or will we be portable, off on some exploratory archipelago-hopping adventure?

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Keep your Snoopy-in-the-sky heart sunshades on, sweetness. Dishes, tables, beds, desks, lamps and chairs may go into cold storage, but not you, not your friends.

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You will travel with us wherever we go; reminders of home’s core, children we love (of all ages, for are we not all children?), the evergreen innocence of love,  and our own inner child which must be protected so we can continue to grow.

Dedicated to my beloved sister, Flo, on her birthday. She inspires me with her dedication to her family and her art, her gift for loving, and her wisdom. She is ageless.

Nettie’s Patterns

Self portrait 9-20-2013 trying to figure out how the webcam on Buck’s laptop works. What does she see in there?

A memory shard poked me today. Something I had forgotten. My late mother, Nettie Moore Phillips Jones, was a fine seamstress before the accursed spiderwebs set up housekeeping in her mind. She had an artist’s eye for pattern, a sculptor’s appreciation for the feel of various fabrics. She could take a Simplicity, McCall’s or Butterick pattern, unfold its tissue-thin paper, and know just what to do to turn it into a pretty dress.

1-scan0037-1My child’s eyes saw her pleasure in the project, from an idea in her mind and the study of patterns that would accomplish her goal, to the excitement of going to a fabric store to select her materials. I remember the raw smell of dyes in the rows upon rows of heavy bolts of brocade, cotton prints, Peau de Soie, eyelet. She pored over a city of buttons, yards of colorful rickrack, acres of bright thread.

When Mother began a new sewing project,  she took on an air both serious and deeply joyful that I cannot recall sensing from her in any other setting. It strikes me hard this morning to realize this was a playing out of her artistic dreams and longings in the only way available to her.

Early onset organic brain syndromes produced seizures, dementia and personality changes that took away her ability to sew. Our Mother was gone long before her death in 1989 at age 73.

I recognize that deeply joyous, intense state of mind in myself when I’m “in the zone” with writing, when I feel a feather of an idea and proceed to write an entire bird on the page. Some days it’s a scrawny chicken-like bird, ugly and ill-tempered. Some nights it is dressed in peacock feathers and breaks your heart with the song of a lone mockingbird on a fence post.  But whatever it is, however it looks or sounds, it is my joy.

I hear the same ripple in the voice of my artist sister, speaking of her work, and in the voice of my birder/photographer/writer brother as he anticipates his next adventure in the natural world, and in the low voice of my younger brother whose near-death experience with bladder cancer brought him a poet’s love and a survivor’s need for daily sunrise walks on the river and bays where he lives. Our older sister found creative expression later in life through singing in her church choir, but a traumatic brain injury two years ago was an avalanche and whatever might have been on the other side is now a slow scraping process to a new path, like building a highway with a metal spoon.

The house is quiet this morning. I’ve been working upstairs at my desk since 6:30, rewriting the synopsis for my novel-in-progress. The original synopsis was written ages ago. Strangely, it was an encouraging project, because I realize I’ve come a good distance down the road, and there is much more “there” there now than before. The characters and I are soul mates, and I hope to bring them through their travails as tenderly as a mother would shepherd her flock through a treacherous midnight wood. It has become a labor of love, not a notch on the belt.

The room has darkened while I write. It is truly darkness at noon. I am surrounded by three windows and a set of sliding glass doors that look out over the forest. The giant old Longleaf pines sway. A moaning wind slips in through an opening in one of the double-hung wood windows near my desk. Thunder rumbles grow louder and a jagged streak of lightning tells me the generator may be called to duty soon. Just now, a heavy curtain of rain falls, quickly making a waterfall from the second story roof onto the concrete below.

And you know what? It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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Even when you have picked over the family bones for every scrap of meat, every scent like a starving hound, something in the marrow waits to tell you more.

“A bunny & a wild turkey walk into a bar. . .”

The children burst through the front door, running to tell me, “Coming up the driveway, we saw a bunny and a wild turkey!”

“Reminds me of a joke,” I said. “A bunny and a wild turkey walk into a bar. . .” The 11 year old girl cocked her head, waiting, but the 14 year old boy started to chuckle, and his newly deep voice rumbled all the way out to the pool.

Store-Bought Teeth

Have you ever looked through a raggedy old family photo album that’s been dragged from pillar to post and wondered if you are descended from the Tribe of People with Huge Teeth? It took me a few minutes to figure out why my handsome Daddy’s smile looks so strange in some of the pictures. It’s the false teeth. He had to have been young when he got them. I see the same thing in some of the smeary black and white snapshots of his brothers.

My Daddy grew up near Jay, Florida, on a farm in a wide spot in the road known as Dixonville — so close to the state line that a crooked crayon line of overzealous gerrymandering would create new Alabama voters. W. T. had nine brothers and one poor girl sister.

In 1991, a year after selling Aladdin Communications, I registered at the University of West Florida in Pensacola and finished the degree in psychology that I had started 24 years earlier and left a third incomplete.  What a blast. I was an “old lady” of 40, hanging out with a bunch of 18-25 year old kids. The learning was one hundred percent mind candy. I loved walking the rangy campus, using my library card, buying supplies, sitting in the cafeteria with my stack of books, drinking coffee, writing and immersing myself in the buzz of life finding itself.

There was a blind girl from Jay in one of my classes. It was an organizational development class. We formed small groups to work on a project. That gave us a chance to get to know one another. When this young woman found out I came from the Jones family in Jay, she wanted to know “which” Joneses. When she found out, she said, “Your Uncle Gordon was the sweetest man in the world. He came over all the time to cut my mama’s grass.” She went on to tell me what “everybody” said: “Those Jones boys were sweet as sugar, but they sure were a wild bunch.”

I think of that when I see those faded photos of those good men, holding up a line of fresh caught shellcrackers , or dressed up for Easter church and striking a pose, smiling big to show off their store bought teeth.

 

Mother and Daddy in front of our home in Miami Springs (1954).
Mother (Nettie) and Daddy (W. T.) in front of our home in Miami Springs, Florida, 1954.

W. T. and Nettie Jones, Miami Springs, Florida 1954

Memory Fish

It was 7:30 straight up when the phone rang. I was peeling a large red papaya, thin skin curling back over itself as I drew the short paring knife’s blade slowly down, imagining a bow drawn over a violin. Music was in the air, and the ringing phone a discordant intrusion.

“Miss Beth, you got some coffee?” Harold’s voice boomed out from the speaker of the phone, which I had punched with a papaya juice-stained finger.

“Nope, not yet,” I said. “I meant to, but I’ve been writing.”

“Running? You say you been running?” Harold sounded stunned.

“No,” I said. “Writing. Like a book. Writing.”

“Well,” he continued, “I got a little care package for you, if you and that old man are going to be around.”

“Come on,” I said. “I need some coffee, too. It’ll be ready when you get here.”

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Harold came in with several plastic grocery store bags and a tightly capped plastic bowl.  He grew the onions, squash and cucumbers in his garden. His wife, Louise, grew the tomatoes and bell peppers in flower pots in their yard. As we drank our coffee and talked, a pungent raw onion smell began to permeate the kitchen.

Harold had not made a move to open the plastic bowl. I’m sure he knew he could outlast my curiosity. He was right.

I pulled the bowl toward me, and asked, “What’s in here?”

“I don’t know if you two eat these,” Harold said coyly. “My boy and me caught them in Miflin Lake over in Baldwin County. Them’s Alabama fish.”

By this time, I had pulled the top off the bowl. Ten pretty little bluegills (bream) sprinkled with ice chips nestled inside. I pulled out three of them to make a picture.

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When my brother, Wally, and sister, Flo, see this photo, I know it will take them back to central Florida, cane pole fishing, and neighborhood cats circling the backyard table where Daddy cleaned his catch. I smell the not unpleasant fresh fish smell, remember the click sound of scales, and hear water running from a garden hose.

Tonight, we’ll dredge the bluegill in cornmeal and fry them in peanut oil. Buck hired himself out as a ten-year old fishing guide on the Escambia River long years ago. He and I will chew our memories slowly tonight, savoring every bite.

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Late at night, I read tomorrow’s headlines from The New York Times by the light of my Blackberry. When I’m driving in the car during the day, I listen to National Public Radio for the news. But when I want to plug into the visceral interpretations of rural everyman, there’s no source like Harold. If the NYT is the brain, he is the guts, and his opinions hold equal weight with me.