Archives for category: history

This Brain Pickings article reminds me how much I love Rainer Maria Rilke. Not only for his formal works, with their distinct rhythms and striking imagery, but also his deep and still timely thoughts on creativity. I read Letters To A Young Poet when I was first learning the ways of my own creative life. It’s different for everyone, but Rilke’s wisdom is timeless and universal.

I struggled to make my way through a maze of combined exhilaration and self doubt, and found the passage quoted here about patience and “ripening like the tree which does not force its sap” more helpful, comforting, and reassuring than anything I’d encountered in the modern world. I have to think. Written words rarely come, until I’ve thought long enough. Sometimes it’s a conscious thinking process, but often it’s spontaneous and lives in the back of my head until it’s ready to become fiction. Poems are different. They tend to burst forth and free, before I even know I’ll be writing a poem. Fiction stays inside my brain, quietly building and forming, and then when it’s ready it commences to be written. This is my way, but when it first started to develop it felt weird and wrong. As if there was a way the words were supposed to come out and I had never been given the key to that way. 

It took me a long time to understand that writers I’d read about had their process and it was perfectly alright that mine was different. As I read Rilke’s letters to that enviable young poet, I felt a calm settle over me. I began to understand that finding and accepting my own, individual creative path would be the start of something wonderful. And it was. Once I became one with Rilke’s concept of the nature and exquisite timing of a tree, its indelible patience and unknowing wisdom, writing became a joy that has sustained me ever since.

Through those letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke became my mentor across time. In answer to the ubiquitous question about what one would wish to do if time travel were possible, I always think traveling to sun dappled, long ago Paris to sit beside Rilke in Rodin’s garden, absorbing the glorious light of his thoughtful words, would be a glimmering treasure captured by time itself. If only….

Until time travel becomes reality, his letters will suffice.

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This is the family and some friends, gathered for an afternoon of croquet. I can imagine them going enmass, dressed like this, to the medicine show. My mom and Uncle Billy look like they walked straight out of The Little Rascals, which is extremely cool.

Like the last one about Honest John the traveling salesman, my mom’s memories of a traveling medicine show move past quaint right on into historical. Such experiences were certainly long gone by the time I was a child. My mom was born in 1919 and since the area where she grew up was extremely rural, it makes sense that there were still medicine shows in her early lifetime. I imagine they began to fade as more and more people bought Model Ts and did more of their own shopping, with newfound ease. 

She didn’t have a specific story about the medicine show, like the experience with Honest John. She just told me as much as she remembered. I can imagine a little girl, wide eyed with excitement and wonder, going with her entire family to see the show. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment in those days, so it would be thrilling for them all to have an opportunity to gather with their family and friends to find out what the medicine show brought to town.

It was set up in the grassy area beside the railroad tracks at the edge of town. There was the medicine wagon, where the showman would set up his displays. An acompanying Native American performer came out first, to dance to the beat of a drum. This would have been a unique and exciting way to warm up the crowd.

Then the medicine seller extraordanaire would begin his oration that probably somewhat resembled an old time fire and brimstone preacher trying to win reluctant souls, only this fist popper was intent on winning money from reluctant pockets. 

I don’t know everything he said. My mom couldn’t remember after many decades. She did retain one line that I too have never forgotten. The man with what he promised was intense healing elixer, proclaimed at the top of his lungs: 

“It’s good for your blood, liver, and bladder. If you don’t buy some now, you’re gonna wish you hadder!”

I can’t help but wonder how many of the area’s little old ladies didn’t want to wish they hadder and ended up gathered around a piano singing China Town at the top of their tipsy lungs, like Aunt Bea and the teatotaling Mayberry church auxillary ladies, when the Colonel and his elixer paid the quiet little town a visit. My mom didn’t know how much the medicine show man sold, but it seemed he didn’t linger in any one place for long. Of course, one might be able to consult any remaining records of suddenly cured blood, liver and bladder ailments….

Stories like this are priceless to me. They’re part of the history of the time, the community, and connect a thread through both to my family. I suspect that my mom was the last person I’ll ever know with such an experience in their past. So many people nearing a hundred years of age either don’t think anyone would be interested in such memories or they have succumbed to Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, and these kinds of stories are lost forever.

I always loved hearing my mom talk about anything she could think of. Sometimes, when we were under tornado watches, veering toward warnings, we would sit together with the radio volume low so we could know when to dash for her big walkin closet. I would shove back my dread and fear with the words that I knew would begin the process of shunting aside my interior little girl who had always been afraid of tornadoes. “Tell me about a long time ago.”

She would smile away the worst of our fears and tell me her wonderful memories, until a night of danger was turned into a vehicle into her past. A place and time where there was no electricity, the phone on the wall had to be cranked, and a man with a mission to sell a miracle elixer enthralled the entire countryside with a little hope, a little dream, and a bottle full of promises.

Before we stray too far from the holidays, here’s an article about Dickens and food. Not just the Cratchit Christmas table, Oliver asking for more, or how Magwich’s hunger may have influenced his temperament, but also bits about the life of the author after his father was sent to debtor’s prison when Charles Dickens was only twelve years old. No wonder his writings about poverty were so authentic feeling. He was an ultimate example of the words that have long urged writers to write what we know. Though that idea is debated as much as it’s​ adhered to, Dickens is an alarming example of where such practice may lead. 

His type of experiences were common in harder times even in our own century, and even still in the small dark corners of modern day poverty. When my grandfather was killed in a car crash in a time when cars themselves were in their adolescence, my father had to leave school at twelve years old and shoulder responsibility for his mother, sister, and young niece. His sacrifice made it possible for his family to carry on much as they had before. Without a father to run the farm, but left with a man grown up out of time to provide for them. Hardship​ was and is common in the rural south, though lacking in one thing that made Victorian England stand out as a stark example of poverty​ and injustice…the class system.

While there will always be harsh instances of have and have not, the Victorians across the pond made a life’s work of it. Many of the very wealthy would have stepped over a starving child lying in the gutter…if they ever stepped close to a gutter in their entire life. Even in their own insulated world of high society, they lived lives of pampered excess. To the starving guttersnipe the clean, beautifully dressed people who lived physically nearby would have been as alien to them as if they’d landed from Mars. 

Food was a vivid demarcation line between classes. This wonderful Guardian article gives intriguing examples, the very reading of which leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those fortunate to be only reading about such a harsh way of life.

One for the Lord Byron fans, myself included. Anyone interested in his poetry, his life, and his reputation as a bit of a madman will love this article about his family’s estate. There’s an abbey turned country house, a pair of follies, a duel, mock battles, and much more. I was really into the romantics as a teen, until I fell in love with the Victorians when I got older. I still like Byron and Shelley, but Matthew Arnold’s and William Wordsworth’s dramatic, lyrically descriptive poems overtook their longheld place in my heart. Still, I’ve kept imagery conjured by Byron’s Sonnet on Chillon and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage tucked away in its corner of my mind, and still have a big beautiful  framed seascape poster with his “I love not Man the less, but Nature more…” quote at the bottom. A girl’s first poet love lingers for the rest of her life, it seems.

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/newstead-abbey?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=atlas-page

My mom died a year ago today. I’ve been trying to think of how to best mark this sad anniversary here. It’s tempting to devote this post to how wonderful she was. Remarkably. How much I miss her. Terribly. How there’s a hole in my life that will be with me forever. How I’ve managed to stumble and stagger my way back into my writing life, eventually writing every day for  almost three months to finish a brand new novella. How proud she’d be of me for that and for intending to live the best life I can in honor of her steadfast faith in my dreams and ambitions, and the unconditional love she gave me every day of my life.

So, in that brief paragraph, I gave in to the temptation. And now I’m going to tell a story that incorporates several she told me many times. Some of her favorite memories that show just how cool she was.

I’ve written about her older brother Earl here before. When she was a young woman, he would find her jobs in Memphis and take her there to live with his family while she worked, until the needs of her parents or just plain homesickness would pull her back to the family farm. Before that she would go for extended visits, so as they all grew up his children felt almost like siblings. 

She was especially close with her oldest nephew, Paige. Having grown up very near the airport (You can see the airport behind his back yard in the picture below), he loved planes. One might say he had flying in his blood. As soon as he was old enough, he took lessons and then took to the skies. 

Since one of her jobs was as a waitress at a little restaurant at the airport, my mom was very familiar with and comfortable around airplanes, especially as part of her job was loading meals into the galleys in preflight prep. Uncle Earl arranged for her to go up with his pilot friends on occasion, and she loved it. She leapt at every opportunity to leave the ground and soar over the Mississippi Delta.

Her favorite pilot was, of course, Paige. When she was living back at home, on occasion she would be awakened in the early morning by the roaring engine of a small plane coming in for a landing in the pasture behind the house. She would hurry to get dressed and join her parents in the rush outside to greet their visiting pilot. 

“Sarah! I have to go get refueled. Wanna come?” She was always eager to climb aboard and join him. They would fly away to the nearest town that had the fuel he needed, enjoying their time together in the early morning sky. She took great pleasure in his willingness to fly low and buzz the homes of her girlfriends. I always wondered if those girls were envious and/or a little in awe of their friend zooming over their heads, waving to them when they went outside to look up. I also wonder if it registered with them how brave and cool she was.

One particular flight must have tested her bravery, though when she spoke about it there was no trace of lingering fear. Just the thrill of adventure and faith in her pilot. As they neared their landing field that was literally a field, Paige took his attention briefly from the controls. “Sarah, I don’t want you to be scared, but I have to tell you there’s a problem with the plane. I’ve got to bring us down anyway. We’ll be okay. I promise.” She must have been scared, but she was also too courageous to fall apart as many people would. “I know we will!” And   they ended up safely back on the ground, just as she knew they would. My mom had an amazing capacity for rock solid faith in the people she loved during treacherous times. It was not only his tremendous piloting skills that brought them down safely that day, but that he also flew on the faith in him radiating from his passenger. I know, because I flew through every day of my life on the wings of that same unshakeable faith.

When I call his piloting skills tremendous, it’s not merely as a cousin who has always hero worshipped Paige, though we never met. He never, ever lost his love of flying, went on to become an Air Force jet fighter pilot, and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was critically burned in 1956, when the flaming F-89D Scorpion he was piloting crashed into the same Mississippi River he’d flown near as a young man, though his final flight was over Minnesota. One of his two engines exploded. He died from his injuries the next day. There was nothing he could have done…but he did anyway. He stayed with his fighter to guide it away from a densely populated residential area. I grew up so very proud to have such a hero in my family. Some say that as we die we see our life flash before our eyes. If that’s true, among the memories of his wife and young son, parents, siblings, and extended family, there was his whole great flying life before him, like a cherished dream. Among the wings and clouds and blue skies, was the green grass of a pasture landing field and the echoing words “We’ll be okay. I promise.” “I know we will.”

(Photograph that ran with his obituary)

I honestly don’t know what exactly comes after death. But for right this moment I know what I want it to be for my mom and her beloved Paige. So I’m imagining them sitting together on the highest cloud, swinging their feet as I’m sure they did fishing with Grandaddy as children, then a smile, a nod, a whisper of wings, as they take flight together once again.

When she told Paige that she worried about the danger he was in as a fighter jet pilot, his answer told its own story of the kind of man he’d grown up to become.

“Don’t worry about me, Sarah. If I die flying, I’ll have died doing what I love to do.”

​I should know by now that something amazing may be encountered at any time. Shopping is a particular activity that provides opportunities for random fascinating conversations. Once, among the treasures of a Macy’s purse sale, a woman noticed my subtle Phantom of the Opera T-shirt and struck up a conversation about the musical, different versions, Michael Crawford, Broadway in general, and eventually my obsession with all things Wicked. Best Buy was host to a chance conversation with a young army veteran who worked there. We both enjoyed exchanging tales of foreign travel and historical landmarks so much that he would subsequently spot me across the store and come over to resume our conversation, as if it hadn’t been weeks since our last encounter. And a handicapped man at Walmart once told me about his sad, courageous life, obviously a very rare occurrence, spurred into an unfamiliar need for a sympathetic ear after a car almost ran him down in the parking lot. A simple shopping trip can lead to memories that become woven into the fabric of daily life.

Yesterday, I stumbled into a conversation with a sales girl at Pier 1, while lamp shopping. As random discussion will, it started simply, with my love of art glass. Eventually it wound around to some of the cool glass I’m finding among my mother’s things, from Depression Glass, to antiques, to very old photographs. My century old badly faded image of my maternal grandmother, in Edwardian attire complete with a giant hat similar to the awesome ones I was dazzled by in the movie Howards End, tends to trump anything most people have in their family collections. Many modern families don’t even have more than a handful of old pictures, if that. The woman I met had what will probably be the greatest antique photograph story I’ll ever hear.

I mentioned that many people find my mom’s stories of her life fascinating, since she lived through so much history. When I said she was born just a few years after the Titanic sank, this articulate and intelligent young woman quietly stated that more than one of her ancestors were on the Titanic. One of them was a member of the orchestra that famously accompanied the doomed ship on her tragic swansong. A particularly poignant event that’s become a point of consternation among those deeply interested in the fated first and last voyage of the most famous ship in history was that the orchestra member’s wife was charged for his lost uniform. Imagine being informed that your beloved lost spouse’s company uniform must be paid for…as it was lost to the depths of the sea. These are parts of the story I’ve heard about in countless TV documentaries. It was breathtaking to talk about them as someone’s family memories.

People Who Died on the Titanic

​Even in the rural south a long time ago, some people just weren’t satisfied to be like most others. When my mom told me about her oldest brother, there was always a thread of pride running through her voice. Uncle George was a true Renaissance Man, though I doubt he ever knew it. 

My mom and her brother George.

His love of music was the paramount focus of his long life. The family had a piano at home and he took great advantage of its presence. His mother played. Maybe he inherited his musical inclination from her. I don’t know how old he was when he learned, but my mom said he would play that piano long into the night, with her at his side, as they sang, and sang, and sang. Their parents must have enjoyed listening to them enough to tolerate the long hours, or perhaps they merely learned to sleep through the impromptu concerts. This was during the historical period we can barely imagine now, when people made their own entertainment at home. Until the advent of a radio in every home, at least. Even listening to duets when you’re usually asleep could very well have been a real treat. At some point Uncle George wanted to branch out, so he saved his money until he could buy a guitar. He took mail order lessons and became quite good. 

Uncle George at the piano, with  Aunt Ruby’s eternal support.

My childhood memories include gathering around his piano to sing. He had married Aunt Ruby along the way and acquired a collection of instruments that hung on the wall or rested in cases near the piano. I heard him play piano and guitar, while she would occasionally take down the violin for a brief demonstration. I remember seeing her play her trumpet a time or two. I say I saw instead of heard, because in true Satchmo style, her cheeks puffed up as her eyes practically bugged out of her head. I was fascinated to the point of not even paying attention to her music. Just wondering if her head might soon explode!

Blessed with a deep, resonate bass singing voice, Uncle George sang in a gospel quartet for many years. It was always a bit of a thrill to turn on the radio at the designated hour and wait for my very locally famous uncle’s voice to boom out into the living room from afar. 

The mail order guitar lessons were such a success that when Uncle George became interested in learning to type, he bought a typewriter and ordered lessons in that as well. Those too were a success. My mom never said whether he used that skill for anything beyond writing letters, but it was another nice self-taught ability under his belt. I’m sure she would have been glad to have him take over the dictation chore that fell to her, when their father wanted to write to his brother John in California. She said Granddaddy would go on and on, for many handwritten pages, while she grew weary and wondered if he would ever sign off. She taught herself to type a little, hunt and peck style, but that would never have kept up with the loquacious dictation fed by brotherly affection.

Uncle George and his Model T.

As times changed and technological wonders appeared, Uncle George was the first person in the community to buy a car. Not only did he drive it hither and yon for his own pleasure, he also chauffeured his family anywhere they wanted to go, thus breaking the lifelong dependence on horses for travel. Until the arrival of that Model T, they had walked to church, gone shopping and visiting horse and buggy style, and my mom and her closest in age brother Uncle Billy rode horseback to school together on “Old Charlie”. Uncle George’s fascination with his car wasn’t restricted to driving it. He would periodically take the motor apart, laying each piece out in order, clean it all, then put it back together. Apparently with no pieces left over. The Model T changed all of their lives, and he made sure it was up to the challenge at all times.

Uncle George and Aunt Ruby, happy at home.

Uncle George even spent some time using the mail to search for love. He corresponded with several young ladies, probably found through newspaper ads. Newspapers and the mail were as close to the Internet as they got back then, and he took full advantage of the opportunities they afforded. A longtime bachelor, he eventually found the love of his life closer to home. Uncle George and Aunt Ruby farmed and fished together, moved to town together, and spent their final years together sharing a nursing home room after she broke her hip. They were sweet and loving, always with candy for nieces and nephews, smiles for everyone, and always, always, a song in their shared heart.

There’s no telling what Uncle George might have done with all of his interests and skills in a different place and time. The unwitting Renaissance Man certainly knew how to make the best of every opportunity and live a full and varied life.