Thursday, July 10, 2014

Coachwhips and Peacocks

I felt the familiar prickle on the back of my neck as the wriggling blades of grass marked a trail through the foliage. Surely it was a lizard, maybe a rat, I told myself as I dismissed the shiver. I was decked out in my yard work best: jeans, a Lucy Buffet t-shirt and a straw hat. Sweat was already dripping into my eyes as the summer temperature soared into the 90s well before noon.

I was on a mission. Three giant fig trees were beginning to drop leaves just days before their glorious fruit would ripen due to a lack of water and oppressive heat. My sister and I dragged up a hose and left the water running the evening before. Now it was time to move it to the next tree. That was the task I was completing as peacocks and a peahen with three babies honked, cheeped and hummed their usual broken nasally tone all around me. A day earlier, there had been four young chicks. For a while now, the babies had been disappearing one by one. Every year since my parents died leaving us a yard filled with chickens, guinea hens and peacocks, we have cared for them, fed them and watched them disappear. It is heartbreaking to invest time and emotion into creatures to see them vanish.

Back when my mother was at her sickest, the fowl about us brought distraction, sometimes easing a restless, sleepless night with a rooster's crowing at midnight just outside the back door. Then there was the night the guineas were attacked on their pecan limb perch by an owl who roosted next to them. The raptor pushed them closer and closer until one flew down to become the owl's dinner. Hawks sometimes come in the daylight, and all morning I heard and saw an eagle flying all around the farm, but never directly overhead. Its screams sent the peacocks running to shelter under the lush green leaves of the fig trees. Reaching deep into the center of the tree with the hose, I drank in the cool air. As a child, I would play on the trunks of the trees and loved the fresh smell of the wide leaves. Those triggers of childhood memories are around every corner here. Gardens, apple trees, peach trees--all planted by a poor family intent on surviving--take me right back to hot days spent outside working with a hoe, five gallon bucket or on a tractor. The crisp smell of dog fennel will always conjure the image of a tractor and bush hog as Daddy cleared the pasture for the next cutting of hay.

All those memories make me smile now, and yet bring tears to my eyes. No matter where I seek those loving hearts on this farm, they are gone. I linger over tools they touched, walk through rooms in which they built a life and raised four girls and then seven granddaughters. I sit on the bed where both took their last breaths a little more than a year apart and I grieve a little more. It is a pattern I repeat hoping the loss will ease with time, but it doesn't. The pain becomes more familiar, but never truly lessens.

I recall working through relentless heat and pushing to complete my task before resting. I am older now, and frequent resting is non-negotiable. I worked this week in short bursts clearing privet hedge from blueberry bushes, stopping to pick a few sweet berries now and then. Soon I headed back to the house to get some water and cool a while. Opening the front door and back door created a great breeze, and I enjoyed the call of cicadas, mockingbirds and the drone of Navy training planes overhead. I picked up a red bandanna my mother wore as a headband. It was still tied as she left it. I put it on my head and walked back to my labor. A jungle can take over a place in a few months if no one works to stop it. It's my way of honoring my mother and grandmother who loved nothing more than cleaning the yards.

I soon headed back to check on the water hose and froze at the sight. There where I had been struggling with the hose lay a six-foot-long serpent. Black at the head and fading to light brown at the tail, the coachwhip was stalking the baby peacocks. I solved a mystery but watched helplessly as he turned and slipped into the grass and disappeared under the old back porch. I looked for the snake afterward with no luck, but I know he waits there. And I remember what my mother said about coachwhips: there are always two.

I fed the ornate birds, even tempting one to eat from my hand before I left. The peacocks are
 extraordinary  creatures. They appear to be constructed from the leftovers of five or six beautiful birds: brilliant green and blue, speckled brown and white, black and tan. Their feathers shed this time of year after the brilliant mating ritual of spring is done. And so life goes on at the farm. Spring yields to summer, to fall and winter until green leaves sprout again. There is joyful fruit borne of the land as hawks and eagles wait to snatch smaller creatures away. And there are snakes in the grass, as there have always been. Yet we fight on, daring the jungle to take back the land and holding it at bay with our blood, sweat and tears. It is as it was in my childhood, and as time allows, I will see it repeated to my old age.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Under the chestnut tree

On perfect fall days in southwest Alabama, just the feeling of warm sun on my back can resurrect long-dormant memories of my childhood. Bright blue skies and spiny green chestnuts just beginning to dive for fertile ground below take me to one afternoon when I learned about how prickly and precious life can be.

My mother was easily excited by the regular events of the fall when her white cotton work shirt of summer could finally be retired for the duration of gentler temperatures. She and her Aunt Verlie, who was close in age and heart to my mother and all of us, would come by often in those days to visit. We would work in the garden, walk in the woods picking flowers or even make a pilgrimage to the Wiregrass to buy laying hens. It was a common part of life to share work and fellowship.

This particular day was different from those others. We packed up a blanket and my younger sister and headed down the dirt road a short distance to the Long Place. Now, by this time, about 1970 or so, the abandoned Long Plantation house had already been torn down for its lumber, but a large chestnut tree remained at the edge of the yard. My parents owned the land adjacent, and my mother had spied the tree and its bounty of spiny produce from our hay field and made plans for a visit.

She brought a large basket, a quilt, water, some buckets and two pairs of mismatched Mule brand work gloves, and we boarded our trusty pickup truck and soon arrived at the tree. Aunt Verlie and my mother donned the gloves and began picking up the nuts. These were unlike anything I had ever seen, looking more like "porcupine seeds" than anything edible. I reached for one and soon let it go and straightaway stepped on another with my bare feet, learning my first lesson about this nut with a natural defense mechanism. Pecans were much more loving, I decided, and certainly less work.

My mother explained that the tree was a treasure, as was its fruit. Once plentiful, most of the country's chestnut trees died in the early part of the 1900s due to a blight. Only a few in remote places survived. And the fruit of the nut was delightful, she explained. So I sat on the quilt lamenting my bare feet as I watched them work. I marveled at the smooth, beautifully colored nuts revealed when a few of the husks were removed, not unlike the prickly exterior of some people I knew. Things are often different on the inside if you are willing to work to see it.

They were able to gather a considerable haul that day and divided their bounty later as they often did in all things from troubles to potted plants and fruit trees.

In the years that followed the nut gathering, the ancient tree did succumb. Decades later, my Aunt Verlie passed from this life, and my mother followed her and my Granny to the great reunion in the hereafter. Today, I looked up and saw a chestnut tree looking tired like the hundreds of nuts on its branches had exhausted the leaves already beginning to brown and shed anticipating the coming change in seasons.

I had to touch one nut I found lying underneath the tree and I was immediately back on that quilt many years back. I hope God has chestnut trees in heaven.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Healing Power of a Spiderman Tattoo

When I was growing up, the only people with tattoos were old Navy men--the common anchor, an occassional hula girl--and always done in a fading shade of blue displayed in a fleshy sea of wrinkled skin. Because I seldom had a chance to really look at one, I was maddeningly curious about them. But never was I tempted to get one myself. My mother didn't like them, and I suppose I took up her distaste as time went by, sometimes silently judging those around me who wore permanent artwork displayed on their bodies. I even read an article once that suggested people with body art were somehow a little bit "off" psychologically. I let that information reinforce my prejudice. But last week, something happened to change all that.

I meet all kinds of people as I work, some community leaders, some defendants in criminal cases and some just plain salt of the earth kind of folks. A little more than a year ago, I met Stephen Pryor who runs the Constituent Services offices for the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation. Now, Stephen is very bright with a rapier wit and wonderful sense of humor, so we get along famously. He is a devout Catholic and has six beautiful children and an amazing wife. He daringly shaved his head months ago, but other than that, he doesn't seem like a mysterious, live-on-the-edge kind of guy. More white bread than any exotic multigrain on the breadscale of life.

Last week, he was returning a call about a legislative matter and I noticed the image of Spiderman on my caller id. Being a curious soul, I asked him about it.

     "Oh, that's my tattoo," he explained.
     "Get out of town," I answered. "Seriously?"

And he told me a story that changed my mind.

     "It's for Father Ernie," he said. Father Ernest Hyndman Jr. was the priest who ministered to the faithful at St. Agatha Catholic Church in Bay Minette. The 46-year-old beloved man of God was found dead in the church rectory early on Aug. 2 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death left hundreds of people who knew and loved him stunned and emotionally distraught. He was a man tortured by mental illness, bi-polar disorder. He often masked the emotional ravages of the disease through humor, telling Cajun jokes or extolling the power of the mightly LSU teams. And there was his affection for Spiderman. Stephen said Father Ernie had a Fathead poster of the superhero on the wall in his "man cave" at home. He laughed and talked about getting a tattoo.

Father Ernie was the kind of minister who loved unconditionally. Stephen's youngest son Phillip has Down Syndrome and made a habit of slipping out of the pew at the end of the service at St Agatha's and running to jump in Father Ernie's arms. The priest never missed a beat and the ritual was a regular part of the service as he dismissed the congregation. Stephen said his son loved Father Ernie, just as the priest loved the little boy.

But then, Father Ernie's illness overcame his will to fight it. He visited with friends at dinner, went home, and took his life.

     "He was my friend. I was devastated," Stephen told me. "I couldn't eat, and at night I couldn't sleep. I finally had to go to get a sleep aid from my doctor. I was just shattered in my grief for two weeks."

Then, a group of people from St. Agatha's decided to go to Gulf Shores and get temporary tattoos  commemorating LSU and Spiderman in honor of Father Ernie. Stephen went along. As he watched, he said, an idea came to him.

     "I asked the woman if they did real tattoos, and she said no but the shop down the street did," Stephen said. "I told my wife I was going down there. She looked a little shocked, but said 'okay.'"

    "I walked in and told them I wanted a Spiderman tattoo," Stephen said. "They pointed me to a guy in the shop, and he said I came to the right place as he pointed to a Spiderman figurine on a shelf. I told him about Father Ernie, and we looked at some internet images and there was the same one from the Fathead in Father Ernie's house. So I got it. It hurt like Hell, but I kept thinking this was nothing compared to the pain Father Ernie suffered every day from his mental illness. When the artist was finished, it was the best work he had ever done. He wanted to take a picture to use in his catalog. I told him that was fine, as long as he named it 'Father Ernie's Spiderman.'"

And the process was more than just a symbol of a great friendship, Stephen said.

     "I walked out of there a healed man," Stephen said. "They say whenever something bad happens, you should take something good from it. I realized I had not been grateful, or had not been verbally grateful to people who made a difference in my life. I was the leader for Bible School this summer and had been nervous about the kids playing volleyball and the chance that ball would roll into the street and someone could get hurt. I mentioned it to Father Ernie, and the next day, he had put up a little picket fence along the street. I appreciated it, but never said 'Thank you.' He touched so many lives, and he touched mine."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

From Boulder to Birmingham

All it takes is a familiar tune or the scent of sun-warmed pine straw on a summer breeze and I am right back huddled in my loss. That's the price I pay for the blessing of knowing and loving an amazing mother. Two years have come and gone since she slipped into God's presence and out of mine, but I miss her no less.

Not a day goes by that I don't shed tears borne of my longing to feel her hand in mine, to see her smile or hear her amply-shared wisdom. Like no other in my life, she believed in me. No matter my endeavor, she was first in line with praise and encouragement. She wanted nothing more than my happiness. I pray nearly every day for a sign from her, and I have taken to collecting pennies cast off by strangers as reminders of her love for me. It makes no sense, I know, but it brings me comfort.

I keep her words in mind knowing the daunting obstacles she faced throughout her life--polio, gender bias, poverty and her confining role as a pastor's wife. I have little holding me back.

As I pondered those very issues, recounting conversations with my mother a few weeks ago, the phone rang. It was a lady in Clarke County who was passionate about a pear tree near her home place. It was in full bloom, she told me, and she wanted the world to see it, old and gnarled and beautiful as it was. I explained to her that the column I wrote for years had been discontinued, but I would love to see it. After a few phone calls back and forth, we did make the journey.

The tree was spectacular with hollows and twists and turns earned in a century of growth. For a pear tree, it has lived an amazing life. I photographed it from every angle, appreciated the petals covering the ground in a blanket of white. Watching my new friend caressing the trunk lovingly, I marked another sign.

You see, my mother loved trees too, particularly a pear tree growing at the house where she grew up, where I later picked soft juicy pears. I remember how sad she was when the tree died years ago. In my springtime journey to rural Clarke County, I felt her love and her support all around me. I am still learning to live without her physically here to guide me, to call me at odd times and tell me to gather my strength and forge ahead. Hit the floor running, she would often say.

In each day I count since her exit, I am learning to see her face in other ways. Sunsets, blooming gardenias, pennies on the ground and the smiles of my children bring her close to me, just like that twisted old glorious hollow pear tree.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Contradiction in Rome

Traveling always brings adventure, and to be sure adventure always involves obstacles to be overcome. I kept that in mind as I gathered all the clothing and comforts of home that a medium-sized suitcase and carry-on bag could accommodate. I could hardly believe it. I was heading to Italy. And not some tiny Alabama town that had borrowed a European name as post offices appeared on the frontier like Troy or Rome, London or Andalusia. No this road less traveled would take me across an ocean and two countries.

Hours after a long cramped overnight flight where sleep was a hollow cruel fantasy, we landed in a different world. There is a feeling that takes over in places where history can be traced not hundreds but thousands of years. In Alabama, I am one of those peculiar folk who can get all tingly walking over the ground described in history books. Setting foot in Rome was almost sensory overload. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Trees lined the cobblestone streets. Public fountains for drinking flowed from ornately carved stone works as they have for centuries. I was giddy.

I am always taking in the big picture, and then focusing on the smaller details. So it was in Rome. I adored the sights and views of those seven hills and the umbrella pines. Streets paved with stones and travertine covered buildings everywhere were beautiful. But then there were the cigarettes. Coming from a country where the dangers of smoking come in advertising in every medium as well as school curriculum, it was odd to see a large number of people smoking in public places everywhere. As we walked, the most common items seen in the crevices among the cobblestones were cigarette butts. Millions of them. The next most common item: wine corks. A distant third would have to be the more recent addition of earbuds from thousands upon thousands of iPods and radios used by the millions of tourists there.

One of the first places we visited was the Coliseum. It was a massive venue created from the most exquisite materials nearly 20,000 years ago. I tried to drink in the vistas, absorb all the grandeur that it had been in those days when 50,000 or more spectators crammed inside to see the events on display. As we walked through the place, I couldn't help comparing it to the large stadiums of today where football or concerts take place. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear the roar of a crowd anticipating a great competition. Today's spectators, though, wouldn't be walking on white marble or enjoying ornate frescoes and carvings on every surface. It made me wonder what will remain of our culture a thousand years hence. Will there be anything left to inspire awe and wonder among people who walk through the ruins of our civilization?

Then there is the contradiction of the ancient place. The structure itself demonstrates the best in human engineering and artistry, the heights people can achieve given the opportunity. Underground passages, ingenious machinations and the capability to flood the arena to hold water sports and competitions. Designers from all those centuries ago were great thinkers and planners and always used every opportunity to make public places beautiful as well as highly functional.

 But then one must consider the attractions held there. Christians were slaughtered there by the thousands for the sake of sport. Captives from foreign lands were torn apart by exotic animals all to please the crowds there. We noted the view from the corridor where victims would soon taste death before a cheering crowd. Imposing to say the least. We saw the places where gladiators would prepare for battle in a desperate struggle to survive and ultimately pursue the possibility of freedom. The blood ran from this place like a river with alarming frequency. How can people join  in a cheer at the sight of such carnage? We are strange creatures indeed.

I bowed my head and said a prayer, hoping that such stories will one day be told to disbelieving children with no frame of reference for such violence. I have to pray the world will one day be a better place than people all too often make it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Conversations with a dancer

There are a few people I meet in life that can enter conversation from the first greeting like old friends. They  remain on my mind and in my heart. Judith Adams is one of those.

I met Judith years ago as a I worked on a story about this woman whose talent took her to the big stage and city lights. Her life led her to Mobile and eventually to Atmore where she taught ballet. But as sure as life hands out quick and drastic turns, a car crash altered Judith's future.

A spinal cord injury left the exacting teacher a quadriplegic--but that challenge was no match for Judith. It would have been easy to be bitter and defeated, and Judith readily admits she has her moments of those emotions. The difference is she doesn't remain in that mindset. She once escaped being the victim of a purse-snatcher by running him over with her chair. Judith Adams is still a force to be reckoned with, her heavy chair notwithstanding.

 She still holds herself like a dancer, angular cheekbones harkening to endless hours spent on hardwood floors before the truth reflected in a wall of mirrors. She travels along now by motorized wheelchair, usually with a blanket draped across her lap to keep her warm.

Likely the most striking things about talking with Judith are her intense passion for the arts, her dedication to her students and her lack of patience for those who don't share her belief in the value of dance. She teaches with the help of her daughter Reed Adams Bartlett and has led classes privately, in public schools and now is leading a new program for the Poarch Band of Creeks.

She looks at her situation realistically, but the obstacles that would crush a lesser person serve only as additional motivators for Judith. She tells me she is lonely at times to speak with someone else who loves the arts, and sometimes she becomes an absolute hermit. But her whole demeanor shifts when children come into the room eager to learn. Her focus hasn't waivered over the years. She could feel self-pity, but she doesn't.  At least not beyond a well-timed joke at her own expense. Even so, her attention is never far from her young students.

I was fortunate to get to spend a little time with Judith and Reed recently, and as usual left in awe of these women, humbled by all they do and the energy they bring to their mission. Just a few minutes with Judith and I am seeing potential in every difficult situation, and learning to dismiss adversity that visits from time to time. She is a treasure.

 I'll be writing more soon about them and their new program among a people familiar with tribal dancing and eager to expand their horizons in a classic art form.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pear trees and plunderers

After a year away from rambling and writing on the backroads I am gladly back doing what I most love: meeting the people who make this a wonderful world.

Out of the blue, I got a call from Betty Jo Lambard, a kindred soul in Clarke County with a story to share. She told me about a remarkable tree at the house where she grew up near Thomasville. While on the trip we met some remarkable people that made me feel humbled at the blessings I sometimes forget to acknowledge in my daily life. I need those "wake up call" trips often. Before we could go see the remarkable tree, we got permission from the owners of the old home place.

Two older men greeted us at a their home, both holding pipes with lit tobacco. Both had telltale holes burned into their threadbare shirts where cinders landed over time. They were brothers, and one drifted in and out of the nonsensical conversation of dementia. The other looked at me with eyes filled with nothing but weariness. He spent his time caring for his brother, and for another relative. A woman inside the older mobile home was confined to her bed having suffered a stroke years before. Diane Walker was quite lucid, but helpless.
"I've been taking care of them," the man said, with no sign of hope in his voice. "It's been a long time."

After we talked for a while, we headed on to the old house, permission generously granted.
And we got the chance to do some plundering. The old house was abandoned a few years back, with clothes and papers and beds still intact. It was haunting walking through the rooms listening to the silence where sounds of living once filled this home.

In the yard, flowers and trees were blooming. I couldn't help wondering whose hands planted all these, and if gardens were as close to their hearts as they are to mine. I think of my grandmother who had a lifelong love of plants, and of the roses she enjoyed.

And the fruit trees all around the old home place take me back to my own childhood. We enjoyed summertime figs, peaches, apples, plums and blueberries. We picked dewberries in the spring from overgrown fence rows. And in late summer there were pears. Tender, juicy pears. I loved the twisted hollow tree and eating the first yellow fruit of the year. A week into the season, and several would litter the ground attracting hornets and wasps making the pickings treacherous-- but worth it.

There are a few trees that I hold close to my heart, and that pear tree was one of them. The tree at my home place died a few years back.There's nothing left but a low place in the ground and a heart filled with memories. I miss it when I go back, walking across the ground that would have been littered with blooms by now. So I understood the excitement surrounding the Clarke County tree. Once I saw it, I understood the adoration.

Few things in life endure like trees towering above us, lending shade, hiding places and fruit in season. And it is always a blessing to find friends with kindred hearts.

Stay tuned for the upcoming column and let me know if you know of any unusual out-of-the-way places with great stories. I'd love to write about them.