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.

Prying

Mother

I’m sure Mother thought she was protecting us by prying into our pockets, our purses, our thrown away notes. Biggest problem was she had no perspective — not a normal one, anyway. She was bent herself, by the extreme religiosity and repression of her rural Mississippi upbringing and how everything had to be suppressed, hidden, and denied, or else combined with her own urges which magnified and twisted our teenage dreams and yearnings into a fun house image of themselves — a false mirror.

In Eye of the Storm, secrets are a theme. The person who preys and pries is Rory Mathis. He believes information and family secrets will get him what he wants, which is to be the last person standing with his hands on the family business, the land, and all the money. He has no intention of sharing it with his niece, Grace, or anybody else.

Romancing the Road Trip

 On the road again, goin’ places that I’ve never been. Seein’ things that I may never see again. And I just can’t wait to get on the road again.  Willie Nelson, from On the Road Again

Sometimes you just want to get the hell out of Dodge, skedaddle, vamoose and let the Devil take the hindmost. Other times there’s something way across country that you have a burning desire to see and experience. Sometimes the muse is bored and needs stimulation. And sometimes the spaces all over the house the beloved old dog occupied get too damn empty to bear. When Buck and I hit the road a few weeks ago, it was a big, messy gumbo pot sloshing over the sides with all of these reasons and more.

I woke up this morning smelling fried chicken. Only memory, but a potent thread in the cotton quilt of childhood family road trips. Those trips were “back home” to see the folks on the farm. Daddy’s people were in Dixonville, Alabama, a spot between the small towns of Brewton, Alabama and Jay, Florida . Mother’s clan plowed and preached from Newton, Mississippi and its environs, from Meridian to Kosciusko, Hattiesburg, and all sorts of burgs in between, including Morton, Pelahatchie, Brandon, Pearl and Barefoot Springs.

Those childhood road trips were a pilgrimage from the city, either Miami or Tampa, back to the farm; a touchstone. The night before these long car rides, Mother fried great batches of chicken, deviled dozens of eggs, baked biscuits and cornbread, and brewed sweet “is there any other kind” tea. She packed her ever-present can of Lysol for her “you kids stay in the car” motel inspections. And we headed out.

For children, it’s all about the destination. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? But for those of us who have more summer days behind us than we have ahead, the in-the-moment, make-it-last-as-long-as-it-can journey is the prize.

Heading out is the celebratory opening salvo for any road trip. Whatever happens next cannot be predicted, and that is part of the shivery, little-kid excitement of the adventure.

That day came for us on a pretty morning in late April: too early to worry about a hurricane hitting while we were gone, and early enough to miss caravans of families traveling with kids on summer vacation. The car was filled with liquid black gold, rain-washed and ready to load. Despite vows that we would not, we loaded it with too much; everything but the African Violet in the kitchen, it seemed.

We turned off the water, checked the thermostat, made sure all doors were locked, and then stood silently in separate rooms of the house mentally going over the details, pondering what we might be leaving undone, pondering our ambitious agenda, pondering. One more self-appraising glance in the foyer mirror and I was out the door, into the unknown. Of course, it’s all unknown, but travel tends to focus the mind.

Wandering Jew

There is a Wandering Jew in my laundry room between the coffee machine and a lamp. It came from cuttings I took from the Sugar Shack in early autumn.

Each morning, I turn on the lamp and talk to the plant. "Good morning, my friend. Where are you wandering today?"

At first, there was only one pale purple and green tendril trailing out of the pot from the longest cutting. The others were short, with upright stems that looked as if they were settling in to the new space, sending down tiny rootlets to gain purchase in the strange, store-bought soil.

Each morning, I note how those short sprouts have grown tall in less than three months. They are spindly, almost tubular. Velvety hairs all along the stems shine ethereally through the lamp light.

The determined, anemic-looking stems will not develop their natural large-leaved, dark purple hardiness until they are reunited with the warm ground of summer, and liberated from the cramped winter quarters of a painted pot.

There were Wandering Jews in my mother's yard. That's where my attraction for them first bloomed. I knew, with a child's secret knowledge, that a wandering plant that wouldn't stay in its place, that snaked its way all over the garden, unburdened by borders or walls, and yet was tolerated by a nip-it-in-the-bud sort of woman who pulled up the innocuous, pretty, unauthorized Four O'Clocks planted almost daily by her youngest daughter who carried them around in her anarchist's small pockets, — a plant like this must be a magical plant, indeed.

I think of my inflexible, ultimately broken late mother every morning and watch my Wandering Jew as it sways first to the light, and then bends, curls and grows a little closer to the door and freedom, every day.

Swirls, Eddies and the Mudflats of Memory

Restored lost archive. Originally posted July 31, 2007.

The flat-edged stainless steel of my kitchen knife moved over the slice of whole wheat bread, making shiny swirls of creamy peanut butter.

I was time traveling, a child in my mother's kitchen before the termites got into her head. Give her a bowl of butter cream frosting and a cake and she could create a masterpiece, layer by layer, her own flat-edged knife crafting smooth architectural sides, swirls and curlicues. She wielded it like an artist's brush.

Buck called out to me, "Want some milk with that peanut butter sandwich?"

Waked up. Awake. The sandwich tastes dry in my mouth. I can't drink enough milk to choke it down.

I do not bake cakes.

Current note (from May 17, 2010): I scanned the pre-digital era photos below into my hard drive recently. They were taken around 1987, a few years before Mother died. They are painful for me to look at, not only because of her condition: Alzheimer's and other health problems; but because I was totally wrapped up in my own life and did not participate in her care as I should have, or made her life more comfortable, as I could have. No excuses. Reality bites. This is for the record.

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These Are The Boys My Mother Warned Me About

Bill, Tommy, Buck & Roy

My mother would have had a fit if these boys had lived in our neighborhood. She would have locked me in the bedroom and put bars on the windows.

Luckily for her, (not me), they were teenagers in 1953 Pensacola when I was still a curly-haired baby in Miami. 

Bill, Tommy, Buck (yes — that Buck) and Roy were hot-blooded young studs on the hunt. They pursued girls, of course, but also fast cars, faster squirrels, and contraband watermelons (so the story goes) to cool in Pensacola's Carpenter's Creek — back when it was still a sparkling spring-fed swimming hole instead of the drainage basin it got turned into.

Three of the four were in town last week for a high school reunion out on Pensacola Beach. 

A few nights before the big bash, Bill, Roy, and Roy's beautiful dynamo of a wife, Bette, came out to the woods for dinner. Roy's a helluva cook and he and I had a blast collaborating on dinner.  

. . . But that's a whole 'nother story.

The Rest Is Gravy

 

When I was a little kid, my brothers and I played hopscotch, tuned up our skates with a skate key, ate donut holes from the local bakery, and generally mixed it up with other neighborhood kids, all on the sidewalk in front of our little house in Miami Springs, Florida. Our older sisters diapered, fed and watched over us as we grew. We moved to Tampa, then nearby Brandon, and played sandlot baseball, climbed the big oak trees in our neighborhood, swung on Tarzan vines, explored the cow pastures and ponds in the great unknown behind our subdivision house, and on rainy days built forts and shuffled up the pieces of our board games to invent new ones.  I sureptitiously sucked nectar and bugs from the plucked blossoms of my mother's hibiscus. We fell off our bicycles on the gravel roads, skinned our knees, and laughed out loud. The whole family went down to the Brandon First Baptist Church on Sundays, went fishing with cane poles and Daddy with his rod and reel, middled-aged aunts and uncles sat in lawn chairs, fanned themselves in the shade of the big oak tree in the back yard, and drank sweet tea while Daddy held sway with the hand-built brick barbecue pit, fragrant smoke curling around his smile.

That free and easy time ended one November night. Our two older sisters were married by then. Wally was 15, I was 12, and Steve was 9. My last view of Daddy was the top of his unmoving head, disappearing on a gurney into an ambulance. The chest pains he periodically suffered were angina, not indigestion caused by eating too much butter pecan ice cream as he had thought.

It seems to me now that Mother, Wally, Steve and I were frozen like ancient bugs in amber that very night. Our relationships with each other and the world changed. Love remained, but it went into hiding. Things got very quiet.

I went deep inside myself and never again trusted in family, friendship or relationship until, at age 30, I met Buck. It seems to me now that I chose my first husband carefully. He was emotionally remote and demanded nothing of me save that I show up as decoration from time to time. My walled-in true self let the vines grow.

Scan0003 That September day at a business and industry meeting in Tampa, Florida, when Buck rose to make an impassioned speech about taxation, I was in the audience. If you have any questions about love at first sight experiences, write me. They are rare, but real. I began that morning as a  Matryoshka doll, multi-layered, but solid wood. By early afternoon, the Matryoshka woman was foil-wrapped chocolate, and melting fast.

  

We were never far apart after that day, and married as soon as we could. True, there was a shaky time shortly after we first met when Buck was worried that our 14 year age difference was a bridge too far. He said, "We need a history." Buck called me his hot-house flower, and it's true that my idea of roughing it when we met was room service in a five star hotel.

Scan0008 I was afraid of dogs, afraid of heights, afraid of the woods, afraid of conflict. Scan0011 He introduced me to a wonderful lifestyle of living in the woods, raising labrador retrievers, sweating to stay fit, foraging, mountain hiking, being adored in the daylight, the inestimable value of always telling the truth, and how to take care of business.Scan0009 He taught me that fear is simply paralysis at the brainstem level, and that conflict in and of itself is neutral and not something to always seek to avoid. He helped me to become comfortable in my own skin.

My walls fell. All of them.

And now, we have a history.

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I never gave birth, but thanks to Buck and his late first wife, I have children in my life: seven grandchildren who enrich and enliven my days, two sets of adult kids and their spouses who are my friends, and treasured memories of my stepson, Darryl, his tender heart failing him unexpectedly in October, 2005.

 

   

When Buck and I married on February 17, 1984, we agreed that a good twenty year run would be extraordinary. On Tuesday, we celebrated our 25th anniversary. We've aged, obviously. But we're not old; not even elderly. We run, jump, make love, play, travel, learn, write, and are eager to see what we might do with each new day.

The late psychiatrist Victor Frankl, wrote in his classic book, Man's Search For Meaning, "What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? No, thank you, he will think. Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.

Buck and I continue to weave a rich tapestry together, a life lived closely together with no walls between us, fully vulnerable to one another, our hearts forever tender. We have reality. And it is sweet.

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