In the 60s and 70s, as a young girl, I ran barefoot through the hot soil of plowed fields and along dirt roads that led to blackberries. At the end of the day, darkness settled and fireflies came out of hiding to dance and put on a show. Life was simple and beautiful and carried the many scents of the South.
Although I grew up exploring the countryside and the woods, often with brothers and sisters, I never snooped around cemeteries. There were no graveyards nearby, so I seldom walked among headstones and slabs.
Years passed. I grew up. Moved from Georgia. And my father died.
I tried to seize every memory I had of the man I called Daddy, of the two of us together, of our drives down dirt roads, stories he told me, tried to snare the strength and beauty of my brothers and sisters, to recreate meals from my mother’s kitchen. Local and family history seduced me one memory, one secret, one taste, one scent, one moment at a time.
I still enjoy the country, sunsets, fireflies, watching birds, picking berries, reading on a quilt under a tree. The music of the river and the solace of hidden places entice me. Often, I can be found traipsing through cemeteries and abandoned houses. When not seeking my own history, I hunt for lost graves, for the graves of slaves, people who worked this southern land, people buried without slabs or headstones, forgotten people.
Several weeks ago, my adult children and I gallivanted through several counties, history whispering in our ears. I showed them the grave of Samuel Story, their 5th great grandfather, at Story-Odom Cemetery. We traveled down dirt roads, county roads, and state roads. I showed them how I dig through history, chasing clues that might lead me to who-knows-what.
The day ended with a magnificent sunset, liquid gold, shimmering on the present, shimmering on the past.
I wrote this post about a year before my mother died.
My mother has lived under a cloud of bad luck lately. Presently, she’s recovering from a broken hip and a fractured pelvis.
“First I got stuck in the elevator,” Mama said, “then I broke my hip.” She giggled like a school girl. “I think I gave Carlton and Rhonda (my brother and his wife) a good laugh when I got stuck.”
For several weeks she had been visiting Carlton, Rhonda, and their children in Macon. They put her in the guest bedroom on the second floor. The main staircase in the house is grand and curving, with so many steps it frightens even me. And the back staircase is nearly as big as the main one. Mama used the elevator.
One afternoon, as my brother, his wife, and their three daughters were gathered in the kitchen, Caylee, a tall redhead with a dry sense of humor, stated matter-of-factly, “Grandmother is stuck in the elevator.”
Rhonda, said, “What!”
“Grandmother is stuck in the elevator.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard her beating on the walls.”
They rushed to the elevator. The contraption that my mother had never trusted had indeed stalled between floors; she was stuck inside.
Somebody called the elevator repairman, but he wasn’t answering the phone. A wave of hysteria filled the house and their phone calls continued to go unanswered. The details told to me are fuzzy from this point on, but I know my brother removed the elevator’s door, and his wife climbed down into what my mother probably thought was the pit of hell. Rhonda carried with her a folding beach chair for my mother. She wouldn’t be able to stand for long. At some point, as hysteria mounted, my brother lowered a ladder to them, and my mother, pushed by my sister-in-law, climbed to the top where Carlton and the children pulled her out. The bunch of Suttons fell in a heap to the floor, laughing until their stomachs hurt.
My mother told me she had never been through anything like that in her life. She said, “We don’t have elevators in Nashville, Georgia.” She thought for several moments. “I think I gave them all a good laugh.” She seemed proud of herself, as if she’d presented to my brother and his wife a unique gift.
“You sure did.”
Not many days after being trapped in the elevator, standing in the kitchen and dining area of my brother’s house, Mama leaned over to look at her feet. She either lost her balance or her hip simply broke as it often does in the elderly. In any event, she toppled over. She told me, “I was nowhere near the stairs or the elevator, but I broke my hip and fractured my pelvis.”
“You’ve had a lot of mishaps.”
“I’d rather be stuck in that elevator than stuck in a wheelchair.”
“They need to get the elevator fixed.” She paused, sighed. “There’s not even a television in that thing.”
Last week, as a soft rain pattered outside my windows, I opened an email from Alexander Weinstein, Director of Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. “I am happy to let you know that Robert James Russell has chosen your story, Samuel’s Wife, as the second-place winner of the 2017 MVICW Fiction Contest. Congratulations! The story is beautiful, and I was thrilled to see he chose your work. There were over 100 entries this year in fiction, so my congratulations on this honor!”
These first three sentences of his email lit my insides like a slug of moonshine. After squealing a few times, I pulled up the website to plunder through the MVICW’s class descriptions. I read them silently.
Jennifer Tseng, one of the instructors, describes a lesson overcast with danger. In this class you will work to produce a piece of forbidden writing, using the form of your choice. Whatever your forbidden territory is, I encourage you to visit it with curiosity and attention. We will proceed as a group of risk-takers together, none of us traveling to precisely the same place, but all of us keeping one another company on the journey. I will emphasize intuitive methods and ask you to cleave to what makes your secret heart beat faster.
I read Tseng’s description again, this time in a sibilating whisper. In the moments that followed, I remained still, a scattering of illegitimate words filling my mouth and wetting my lips, the scent of rain in the air.
In May, I’ll be at Martha’s Vineyard. I hope this introverted writer will dare to explore the forbidden.
Years ago, after my husband’s granddaughter was born, we went shopping for a gift. My husband, knowing little about baby clothes, stayed in Books-A-Million while I went to look at baby clothes.
In Baby Gap, I heard a small voice say, “Mama, I want a Harry Potter wand that really works.” Following the sound of the voice, I spotted a little tow-headed boy, approximately five or six years old. He pulled on his mother’s loose-fitting smock-type dress. “Mama. Mama. I want a Harry Potter wand that really works.”
While waiting to pay for my purchases, the mother and son were in line in front of me. The mother was lovely. Tall. Long honey-colored hair. Tanned legs. Slim. From the style of her dress, I thought she might be pregnant. Her little boy continued to tug on her dress and plead, “Mama, I want a Harry Potter wand that really works.”
She looked down at him and explained in a calm, patient voice. “The wands are pretend. They don’t really work. You have to make believe they are real.”
I knew many children, some very young, were watching the Harry Potter movies, and this little boy was one of them.
The child ignored his mother’s explanations, as though she had not spoken. He continued to pull on her dress and plead in the same sweet tone. “Mama, I want a Harry Potter wand that really works.”
I left Baby Gap with a few dainty baby clothes and, for no particular reason, went into Old Navy. I didn’t need anything else. After looking at some clothes, I prepared to leave. My husband would be waiting for me in the bookstore. As I strolled down an aisle near the exit/entrance of Old Navy, I heard the same little boy. “Mama, I want a Harry Potter wand that really works.”
Knowing no toy can replicate the magic of Harry Potter’s wand, a wave of sadness swept over me. The child firmly believed what he saw in the theater. To him, wands were magical. He’d been a good boy and he wanted a Harry Potter wand.
I remember when my children discovered Santa wasn’t real. It hurt us all. But, in time, they learned about a different kind of magic, a magic that lives inside them and inside the hearts of other good people.
One of the best places to sit and rest and think about life is in the heart of the woods.
While I was in Illinois, my sister Lynn took me up one of the many hills in Springdale Cemetery, a magnificent place encompassing 255 rolling acres. From the green slopes, crowded with headstones and weather-beaten statuary, stained with age and covered with lichens, from grassy slopes lifting up pedestal monuments, broken columns, pilaster columns topped with urns, and obelisks, Lynn and I sifted through our hearts and confided our thoughts of life and death, aware we were in a sacrosanct and enchanting place. “Death is beautiful when it merges with nature,” we said several times. “I could spend the night here in this tranquil place.” We both felt a spirit of peace surrounding us.
The cemetery was crowded with silence and beauty.
Lynn has a more professional eye for photography than I do. Her natural gift for capturing mood results in some extraordinary photos of people, landscapes, wildlife, and flowers. With a sharp and creative aim, she snaps scenes that whisper of untold stories. I, myself, take the random good picture. But I’m better at writing than I am at shooting poetic pictures.
One day, Lynn and I got up early, and she took me to an obscure spot, a small valley. The place made me imagine a luscious green crater inside a volcano, something from a story of magical realism. Beneath a soft rain, my sister and I climbed down a slope to reach our destination. Empty-handed, I had left my camera in the car. Lynn was eager to take pictures, so she protected her camera from the rain by tucking it under her shirt.
On this particular outing, I realized I had more stamina than I had exhibited just a few days earlier when Lynn had first led me up the hills. In the mountains of North Georgia, when I’m not confined inside a cabin at Blood Mountain or at Blue Ridge, when I’m not trying to complete a writing project, I take leisurely walks. Avoiding steep inclines, I never hike straight up. I couldn’t if I tried. The prednisone I take has caused me to gain weight. My North Georgia strolls lead me along gently winding paths, trails that are easy on my arthritic joints. In Illinois, though, Lynn introduced me to her more difficult mode of walking. I call her gallivanting style, “Straight up.”
As it drizzled, Lynn took photos of honeysuckle, trees, greenery, bushes, plants, and flowers, capturing the ethereal grace of the landscape. Damp, we laughed and talked and revered the cleansing of nature, a deep green sparkling caused by rain’s bath. I believe we both felt unblemished after walking in the soft rainfall in the heart of the Illinois landscape.
There is a connection between the soul and nature. I grew up planting, harvesting, digging my hands in the soil. Now, as a middle-aged woman, I spend a lot of time walking so deep in the woods that I can’t hear the noise of the city. Nature fills me and heals me and inspires me. Nature soothes me.
Nature fills me.
Nature soothes me.
In Georgia, I walk flat land, through fields, around ponds, and along the banks of rivers. I climb through barbed wire fences and head deep into the woods. I walk through abandoned houses, but South Georgia’s landscape is different from that of Peoria’s. Here, in this part of Illinois, the flat land of cornfields will betray you. Don’t trust it for a minute. The next thing you know the fields will be far behind you, and you’ll be climbing to magnificent views overlooking the Illinois River. You’ll be ascending ancient hills where the dead of Peoria are buried.
My younger sister’s name is Lynn. Nearly seven years separate us. Yesterday, Lynn took me up slopes so steep I thought I might collapse from a stroke or heart attack before I reached the top, but I had come a thousand miles from South Georgia for her to show me where she walks and meditates and captures mysterious and beautiful photos with her camera, and this southern girl was determined to make the journey, even if my sister and my husband had to drag my sweat-covered corpse from the mountaintop. Come to think of it, they wouldn’t need to worry about removing my dead body; we were in a cemetery. They could simply leave me there, in the beauty of that magnificent place of a thousand souls.
My rheumatoid arthritis joints screamed, but we kept moving, up, up, up. We didn’t take the gently sloping paths. I headed up the side of the hill, straight up, and felt the torture and the foolishness of my actions. My sister took the same hill like a mountain climber. Piece of cake. Nothing to it. Of course, she didn’t say those things; I looked at her limber movements and thought those things.
We both have Nikon cameras. Lynn has the latest version. We took photos, dirtying our knees, getting on our bellies and aiming our cameras at various angles. We laughed and hummed and walked in awe. We talked about spiritual things, about the beauty of others, about the beauty of the cemetery, and came home with a gazillion photos.
Our time gallivanting lifted my spirits and reminded me of the connection between the soul and nature.
I placed a jug of water and a bowl in the car and loaded Ahab in the backseat. My dog and I were going gallivanting. On this day, we headed to Arabi to find my 4th great-grandfather’s grave. Samuel Story.
The drive, at times beautiful, at times heartbreaking, took us past dogwoods in full bloom, white petals shimmying on layered branches, past trees of all kinds dressed in green after standing bare throughout the winter. I stopped and we walked around trees slaughtered by tornadoes, trees beheaded by tornadoes. One house was nothing but a rubble of crippled wood, broken furniture, a foundation. A blanket drooped from the top of a decapitated tree.
Ahab, pit bull and lab and God-knows-what-else, decided to climb into the front seat. Once he settled there, his seventy-five pounds triggered the seatbelt alarm. Buzzzzzzzzzzz! Buzzzzzzzzzzzz! Ahab stared at me. He cocked his head this way and that. He turned, stood, settled down again, curled on the seat. The alarm went off again. He stood again and licked my face, then he climbed over the arm rest and CD compartment and settled in the back seat.
In Arabi, Ahab and I walked through the cemetery, up and down every path. Back and forth. Back and forth. But Samuel Story was not there. Ahab peed on a couple of headstones, and I told him, “We might both go to hell for your disrespect of the dead.” He placed his front legs on my chest and licked my face. Threats of hell didn’t seem to bother him.
Back in the car, I ran a quick search on the ancestry site and discovered I had searched the wrong cemetery. With the correct information, I entered the name of the cemetery in my GPS and headed to Worth County, not far from Arabi. At the Odum-Story cemetery I removed Ahab’s leash, so he could run free in the area enclosed by a fence. He raced this way and that, eventually stopping at a grave. He positioned himself there, waiting for me.
Light blazed from all directions, reflecting off the white rock covering the ground, reflecting off the marble headstones. A brilliant sunlight radiated from overhead. The combination of it all was blinding. Ahab continued to hover near the grave, so I went to him with my camera. He put his head on the headstone as if posing, and I snapped a picture. When my eyes recovered enough to read, I discovered that Ahab had posed at the grave of Samuel Story, my 4th great grandfather, born in 1795.
Before leaving, I gave Ahab water from the bowl I’d brought. He guzzled it down, then hopped in the car. And off we went, once again passing the destruction of angry tornadoes and the greenery and blooms of a new Spring.
We stopped for a quick visit with my husband’s lovely sister, and Ahab gave her a good licking. When we got home, we were both tired and satisfied. I couldn’t stop wondering about the life of Samuel Story.
I’m a loner. At times, I find myself apologizing for it, but I shouldn’t. I enjoy my simple life, my dogs, my husband and children. I love to explore the countryside. And on this particular day, Ahab and I found what we were searching for. Life is beautiful.
I’m going out with one my dog’s today. Ahab. He’s the big one. A mixture of this and that: Lab and Pit and perhaps something else. He came from the homeless shelter for dogs. That’s what I call it. The homeless shelter. The official name to the place that cared for Ahab for so long is Tift County Animal Shelter.
Ahab is big and sly. My husband, son, and I saw him in the kennel at the shelter, crouched in the corner, looking to be about fifty pounds, a medium-sized dog. He licked our hands, still slouched, crouched, crunched up, and we decided he was the perfect dog, the perfect weight, the perfect everything for us. That scoundrel. Attached to a leash, he hunched low to ground, minimizing his size, and came toward us pulling the homeless attendant down the hall, to the office where we had just paid our fees and signed the papers. We didn’t realize that Chance, the dog that we would rename and call Ahab, was a big beast until we got him home. None of us would say anything at first. We stared at him. We looked at each other. We commented on his huge paws and his amazing strength.
Let me say it again: we have a big dog. Instead of fifty pounds, our beloved Ahab weighs seventy-three pounds. He licks. I suspect his tongue weighs at least ten pounds. He slobbers like a leaking faucet. He sits and waits for his treats; his favorite treat is a hot dog. If he’s outside in the backyard, and the sliding glass door isn’t locked, he opens it and lets himself in, leaving the door wide open, the outside air rushing in. I need to teach him to shut the door.
Brody, a fifty-pound pit bull mix, was my gallivanting partner for years. After he died, I didn’t have a dog to tag along with me. We’ve had Ahab about nine months now, and I’m breaking him into the world of dirt roads and abandoned houses. We ramble the countryside looking for interesting things. That’s what we plan to do today after my daughter whacks my hair off. I want it shorter for the summer. Ahab and I will load up and head wherever the road takes us. I’ll have one of the CDs that my children made for me turned up loud, burned with my favorite songs.
I hope to find an interesting place to explore and get some good pictures.
A few months after the release of Dogwood Blues, a book club connected to a Friends of the Library group from a county a few hours from my hometown asked me to speak at their July meeting. The president of the group had started reading my book and was thrilled. Even though he hadn’t finished reading Dogwood Blues, as he read, he emailed me numerous times, praising my writing style, expressing his love of the characters. I agreed to speak to his group, marked the date off my calendar, and spread the word. Days later, I received an email from him, telling me he had no choice but to cancel my visit. While reading Dogwood Blues, he had come across some scenes that were disturbing. The content was offensive to him, and he could not support me in any way.
I moved on, let it go, but first, I made sure the library in his county received a free copy of Dogwood Blues. Others might not find it offensive.
In the months to come, a steady trickle of invitations arrived, invitations to speak at book clubs, to speak to readers who enjoyed the story I had told, to answer questions about motifs and symbolism and themes, to sit among those who had questions about my writing process, to speak to those who wanted to share the book with others. Readers were eager to talk about music in Dogwood Blues, about the blues and old spirituals. They brought up themes of birth and rebirth. We examined themes of betrayal and forgiveness. Talks centered around homosexuality and prejudice. Bridge players wanted to discuss the bridge game where Trampus plays with the women. Conversations dealt with reliable and unreliable narrators. Many took the Alapaha River to be its own character. The beauty of the South, the love of land and soil and nature, found its way into every discussion. And the topic of gossip, the nastiness of gossip, the fury and pain behind gossip brought out many emotions.
My schedule tightened to the point that I could slip in little time for writing my next novel. I taught workshops, signed books, discussed my novel, read my poetry, talked about my short fiction and nonfiction. I gave radio and television interviews, participated in online interviews, sat on panels at writing workshops. I gave readings. My life sailed through a storm, a strange and overwhelming storm, taking this woman who tends to be an introvert into deep water.
And here I am today. Book clubs continue to ask me to visit and speak. I’m publishing short works in online journals. And I’m trying to write my second novel.
I was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year; I didn’t win.
I was nominated for a Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction; I didn’t win.
I didn’t deserve to win either award, yet I was thrilled to be nominated.
Yesterday, I received three emails from readers praising Dogwood Blues. It amazes me that two years after its publication, people are still reading the story of Dogwood, Georgia. The book hasn’t sold millions, but it continues to find its way into the hands of new readers.
I want to thank those of you who have told others about Dogwood Blues and those who have written reviews and sent me emails. Thank you. Thank you.
Who cares that I was fired from speaking to a book club associated with the Friends of the Library in a county far from where I live? Not me. I feel loved.
I am grateful for readers, for my husband, for my children, my family and friends.
I’m thankful for the friendship and support of Janisse Ray, an acclaimed poet, author, activist, and environmentalist. In the middle of a busy schedule, Janisse came to my aid. After recognizing my love of place, she gave me some words of praise to use on my book cover. Everybody knows that Janisse loves this southern land like a baby loves her mother’s milk. She wasn’t about to support writing without depth. If she couldn’t detect the scent of soil and pines and river in my words, she wouldn’t put her name on my book. Thank God, she inhaled when the magnolias were blooming in Dogwood and when Boone smelled of an acre of soil.
Elizabeth Jennings, author of The Button Collector, offered words of praise. I had read her book and loved it. She is a talented and kind woman.
I’m grateful to Janice Daugharty. Her writing captures the ways of the South in intimate detail. A bestselling author, she has written and published numerous novels and short stories.
I’m grateful to Barbara Lipe and Cheryl Hilderbrand, who corrected mistakes and were brave enough to tell me when something didn’t work. I’m grateful to my writing group: Women’s Words on Record.
Now back to my husband. He encouraged me. He let me work long hours. He took me to the woods in the mountains for solitude. He listened. He is the love of my life.
And my children? They never stepped back from their support.
When my two children were young, my husband would often leave for 3-month deployments aboard a nuclear submarine. During his absence, my children and I enjoyed the live theater, symphonies, and ballet. We read poetry, books, and attended museums. We planted flowers and had sleep-overs.
When their father and I separated, my children and I moved here and there, eventually landing near my sister in central Illinois. I went to work at Bradley University to supplement our income. Money was tight, and I no longer could stay home with my children. I had to work. We survived with determination, budgets, and with the generosity of my sister and brother-in-law. Because we loved the arts, I took advantage of the perks of working at Bradley and took my children to free and affordable events on campus. The university’s arts and music departments were top notch.
And then one day I read in the newspaper that The Phantom of the Opera was coming to Peoria, Illinois. There would be no reduced tickets; it wasn’t a Bradley event. And on my budget, I couldn’t afford three tickets. I had an idea though. If I put aside a specific amount of money from my next two paychecks, I’d have enough to purchase two good seats for Phantom. And I wanted excellent seats.
The night of the performance, excitement swelled like musical crescendo in my son and daughter. They showered and dressed in their best clothes while I stood outside, wrapped in a quilt, watching fat snowflakes leak from the sky. The snowfall had just begun. After the cold had chilled me to the bone and the shivering wouldn’t stop, I went inside, turned on a stove-top burner, and put on the tea kettle.
My children were as beautiful to me that night as they would ever be. Their excitement created magic, and that magic swelled around me and wrapped me in its arms. My son and daughter glowed from the inside out. It was a snowy night. The flakes were fat and fell slowly from the sky. I felt like we moving around inside a snow globe that night in early March.
My children rushed downstairs and waited for me to finish my tea. Anticipation filled our house. None of us had seen Phantom. I handed my daughter, the oldest, their tickets and asked them to sit on the sofa for instructions. Don’t talk to strangers. Meet me after the performance at the exact location where I drop you off. Don’t separate from each other no matter what. If one of you must go to the bathroom, the other will wait outside the door.
During the drive to the civic center, I again reminded them of the rules. They laughed at me for worrying. Having been to many performances over the years, they reminded me they knew how to behave. We were all giddy. Their hands floated before them as they talked, as though they were catching melodies in the air. Several years had passed since my husband and I separated. The children were older, but still children. Their voices were poetry to me.
The snow was still coming down when we reached the civic center. I pulled the car close to the building and watched my children grab hands and run straight to the entrance. Before they reached the doors, they turned and waved to me. My daughter, her red hair falling over her face, blew me a kiss. My son waved, his hand high in the air. I laughed out loud, and smiled all the way home.
I went back to get them early and parked as close to the entrance as I could get. When the performance ended, snow flurries were coming down fast all over the city. Trees, shrubs, cars, and homes wore fresh white blankets. Trailing behind a large crowd, my children exited the civic center. They spotted the car. I watched them, magic still wrapped around me. Virgin snow caressed their hair, melted on their flushed faces. They slid into the car squealing, talking at once, sizzling with excitement.
I took the long way home, so I could listen to Alyson and Patrick describe the performance: the music, the soloists, the costumes, the set, the actors, and the chandelier. Their words were damp with the wonder and awe found only in children. And though their hair, faces, and shoulders were dusted in snow, a light burned in their eyes.
To this day, I’ve never seen The Phantom of the Opera except through the eyes of my children. And that’s the best way to see some things–through the eyes of children.
Years have passed. My children are now grown. They travel to faraway places without me and have seen Phantom a few times. They still love the theatre and have been to more Broadway shows than I will ever see. My birthday present from my children and my husband this year: four tickets with excellent seats to The Phantom of the Opera at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We’ll be there in a few days. I will see Phantom for the first time, and I’ll see it with my family. My children never forgot the snowy night I stayed home. Their gift to me, along with a note reminding me of that special night so many years ago, made me cry and swell with excitement.