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Shady Acres (Part I)
Sunday Stories from the South
It may surprise you to learn that old women like me are still capable of life. More surprising still is the uncomfortable fact that pacemakers do not necessarily stifle the natural yearnings of the heart. Of course you’d rather not know that. This knowledge is probably upsetting to you, as it is upsetting to my sons, who do not want to hear, for instance, about my relationship with Dr. Isaac Lieberman. "Please, Mother," my son Alex said, rolling his eyes. "Come on, Mama," my son Johnny said. "Where’s your dignity?" Dignity, said Johnny, who makes his living selling used cars!
"You may have locked me away in this infernal home, but there’s still life left in these old bones," I told them. This remained true even after my last surgery left me in this chair. It remained true until Isaac's most recent stroke, five weeks ago. He is paralyzed below the waist now, and he cannot always remember things, or the words for things. But he is a survivor himself. He has numbers tattooed on his arm. His professional life was spent traveling the world, speaking about life in the camps. Now he just touches the fading numbers on his forearm and tries to remember where they came from. As bad as it sounds, I hope he never does. Even though in the end our memories are all we've got.
It’s always nouns that escape his grasp.
"My dear," he said to me recently, when they had wheeled him out into the day room, "what did you say your name was?" He knew it, of course, somewhere deep in his heart where memories often hide.
"Myra Bowen," I said.
Now we play a little game to help him remember nouns. Whenever they bring him out, I go over to him and clasp my hands together as if I were hiding something in my palms. "If you can guess what I've got here," I say, "I'll give you a kiss."
He squints in concentration, fishing for nouns.
Some days are better than others.
I reckon this is true for all of us here. Our lives have been long, and many scenes from the past are nothing more than wisps in time. Skinless things that we just can’t grab onto anymore. I count myself lucky since I have been able to retain more than my fair share.
In my life I was a teacher, and a good one. I taught English for forty years at the Randolph High School, in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I lived with my husband, Harold Bowen, and raised four sons, three of them Harold's. Harold owned and ran the First Street Pharmacy until the day he dropped dead in his drugstore counting out antibiotics for a Episcopalian priest. His mouth and his eyes were wide open, as if whatever he found on the other side surprised him mightily.
I was sorry to see this, since Harold was not a man who liked surprises. I must say I gave him none. I was a good wife to Harold, and a faithful caregiver to his parents. They both lived long lives, and though his mother went blind at the end she never complained. Neither did I. I never would have dreamed of shipping them off to a place like this one.
Anyway, I loved teaching. I loved to diagram sentences on the board, precisely separating the subject from the predicate with a vertical line, the linking verb from the predicate adjective with a slanted line, and so forth. My students used to try to stump me by making up long sentences they thought I couldn't diagram, sentences so complex that my final diagram on the board looked like a blueprint for a cathedral, with flying buttresses everywhere.
I loved geography as well–tracing roads, tracing rivers. I told them the story of that bumbling fool Zebulon Pike, who set out in 1805 to find the source of the Mississippi River and ended up a year later at the glorious peak they named for him, Pike's Peak, which my sister, Rose, and I visited in 1926 on our cross-country trip with my brother John and his wife. In the photograph taken at Pike's Peak, I am seated astride a donkey, wearing a polka-dot dress and a floppy hat, while the western sky stretched behind me like an unending sea of blue.
I taught my students that the first airplane flight was made by Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903; Louisiana is the "Pelican State"; the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape tribe for $24 in 1626; and that you can't sink in the Great Salt Lake. Now these facts ricochet in my head like pinballs.
I was known as a hard teacher but a fair one, and many of my students came back in later years to tell me how much they had learned.
Here at Shady Acres they want us all to become children again, forgoing intelligence, eschewing independence. So I was quite pleased when the announcement went up on the bulletin board about a month ago:
WRITERS GROUP TO MEET
FRIDAY, 2:00 P.M.
Ah, that promising infinitive "to meet” seemed full of possibilities. I had thought that someday I might like "to write." Now there seemed to be little reason not to try.
That Friday, I motored over to the library (a euphemism, since the room contains mostly well-worn paperbacks by Danielle Steel and Louis L'Amour). I was disheartened to find Mary Margaret Murphy already in charge. The idea had been hers, I learned; I should have known. She's the type who tries to run everything. Mary Margaret has never liked me. I hear she had her eye on Isaac for years before my arrival. But he was never interested in her, often referring to her as “Mother Superior” when she came into a room clutching her rosary and barking orders.
"As I was just saying, Myra, several of us have discovered in mealtime conversation that in fact we've been writing for years, poetry and letters and whatnot, and so I said to myself, 'Mary Margaret, why not form a writing group? And voilà."
"Voilà," I said, edging my wheelchair into the circle.
Besides Mary Margaret and myself, there was Joy Bloom, a Baptist minister's widow with a preference for poetry; Miss Evelyn Hightower, who taught Shakespeare for years and years at an all girls school in Cookeville, Tennessee; Francis Appleton, whose husband lay in a coma over at the Health Center (another euphemism); Shirley Davenport, who had buried three husbands and still thought of herself as a catch; and James Hofstetter, a retired lawyer, deaf as a post. We agreed to meet again in the library one week later. Each of us should bring some writing to share with the others.
"Say what?" James Hofstetter said. We wrote the time and place down on a little piece of paper and gave it to him. He folded the paper carefully, placing it in his pocket. "Could you make copies of the writing, please?" he asked. He inclined his silver head and tapped his ear significantly.
“There’s a Xerox machine in the main office,” I said. “I’m sure they won’t mind.”
"I'll take care of it," Mary Margaret said majestically. "Thank you, Myra, for your suggestion. Thank you, everyone, for joining the group."
I had wondered if I might suffer initially from writer's block, but as soon as I picked up my pen I was flooded by memories. As I sat by the window, writing on my lap board, I wasn’t even aware of the world outside. My head was so full of the people and places of the past, rising up in my mind as they were then, in all the fullness of life, and myself as I was then, that headstrong girl longing to leave her home in east Virginia and walk in the big, wide world.
I skipped Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right and wrote. I wrote for three days, wearing out two pens. I wrote until I felt satisfied, and then I stopped. I hadn’t felt that good in years.
During that week Isaac guessed "peppermint," "ring," and "Tylenol." He was getting better. I was not. But I ignored my symptoms in order to attend the Friday meeting of the writing group.
Mary Margaret went first. Her brown eyes like huge muddy ponds behind her glasses. "They just don't make families like they used to," she began, and continued with an account of growing up on a farm in Ohio, how her parents struggled to make ends meet, how the children strung popcorn and cut out paper dolls when they had no money for Christmas, how they milked cows and churned butter, and how each older child had a little one to take care of. "We were poor but we were happy," She concluded.
"Oh, Mary Margaret," Francis Appleton said tremulously, "that was just lovely."
Too many adjectives, I thought, but I bit my tongue.
Next, Joy Bloom read a poem about seeing God in everything. Apparently she saw the Almighty in gala apples, in daffodils, in her husband's kind eyes, in the fat cheeks of her grandchildren. .
Miss Evelyn then presented a rumination on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A well-crafted appreciation for Puck, that crafty little fairy.
This was not bad, and I said so. Francis Appleton read a reminiscence about her husband's return from the Second World War. She read, with tears, of the day two soldiers showed up on her porch with bad news, having mistaken her husband for his brother who had died on the front. I admit that my appreciation for Francis increased significantly.
The martial theme was continued by James Hofstetter, who read (loudly) of his own time in Germany. Shirley Davenport read a piece of fiction evidently modeled on a Harlequin novel, for it featured a voluptuous debutante who had to choose between two wealthy men. She blushed as she told of stolen kisses and long goodbyes. But I was a bit distracted as she had a way of resting her notebook on her enormous bosom as if it were a shelf.
Then came my turn.
Like Mary Margaret, I began telling them the story of my childhood. I had grown up in the old coastal town of Portsmouth, Virginia. I was the fourth child in a family of five, with three older brothers and a baby sister. My father, who was in the oyster business, killed himself when I was six. He went out into the Chesapeake Bay in an old rowboat, chopped a hole in the bottom of it with an ax, and then shot himself in the head. He meant to finish the job. But he did not sink as planned because a fisherman saw the whole thing, and hauled his body to shore.
This left Mama with five children to raise and no means of support. She was forced to turn our home into a boardinghouse, catering mostly to traveling salesmen and two old widows, Mrs. Edith Marshall and Mrs. Delia Price, who lived with us for years.
I will forget the way Mrs. Delia played the piano. She used to play "Clair de Lune" on the old Kimball in the parlor. I'd lie there trembling in the dark, seized by feelings I couldn't name, as the notes floated up through the floor beneath the white wrought-iron bed I shared with my younger sister, Rose.
On Sundays, Mama presided over a huge breakfast of boiled fish and crisp johnnycakes before taking us all to service at St. John’s Episcopal Church. To this day, the smell of frying johnnycakes makes me think as much of robed choirs and hushed prayers as it does the crowded table in our cramped family home.
After Daddy died, my brothers went off to sea as soon as they could. Mama required me to work in the kitchen and take care of Rose.
We had a small kitchen outside, so that the house wouldn’t be too hot when we were cooking or canning. It had a kerosene stove. I remember one time when we were putting up jostaberry jam, and one of those jars simply blew up. Jostaberry mush flew all over the place. A shard from the broken jar cut the Negro girl, Livy, who mama had hired to help out. And I was surprised to see that her blood ran just as red as mine.
Mama had a sadness that grew as time went on. She became more withdrawn, sometimes barely speaking for days on end. My great joy was Rose, a vivacious child with golden curls and skin so fair it was almost transparent. Since Mama was indisposed, we had the run of the town, just like boys. We'd go clamming in the bay with an inner tube floating out behind us, tied to my waist by a rope. We'd feel the clams with our feet and rake them up, flipping them into a net attached to the inner tube. It seems that if we were always on the go.
We both developed a taste for travelling when our brother John and his wife took us on a cross country trip when I was sixteen. We saw the Rocky mountains, which sprang straight up from the desert like apparitions. I remember how Rose flung her arms out wide to the world as we stood in the cold wind on Pike's Peak. We saw the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. And I believe we could have gone on driving and driving forever. But we had to return because John could only afford to pay the girl who helped mama out for two weeks. John was our sweetest brother, but all of them are dead now, and Rose, too.
I have outlived everyone.
Only yesterday Rose and I were little girls, lying beneath the stars and talking of big dreams and far away places. Rose was always restless. She wanted to see Paris and Rome, but she never made it much farther than Akron. At 17 she ran away with a fast-talking shoe salesman who had been boarding with us. They eventually settled in Ohio where she bore the shoe man three sons, pouring all of her energy into those babies until she died of ovarian cancer at 39. In the last letter she wrote to me, she said, “Myra, I never got to see the world. But these boys became the world to me. I bet the lights of Paris don’t twinkle half as brightly as the eyes of a newborn anyway.”
*End of part one. Join me next Sunday for the final installment.