Women’s Wear

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I love reading other people’s blogs. There’s always something out there that trips a writing or remembering switch in me. These little moments from other posts would be my antidote to writer’s block – if I believed in it. I don’t, you know, and neither should you. I have a whole litany of blog subscriptions that I read every single day. One of these is The New Charm School: Jennifer Warwick’s Blog for Recovering Type A Types. The latest blog post on her grandmother’s dresses inspired me. And that’s a good thing, because this is the last official day for NaFloScribMo.

I’ve spent the last hour or so writing about my Grandma Monda’s dresses and the woman who wore them. Such a woman. And such dresses. As a little girl I spent hours trying on her clothes over and over again, hoping they would someday fit me so I could become her. She was a tiny slip of a woman, under five feet tall and weighing in the double digits. I was busy growing into a body much taller and larger, so I do remember a summer or a Christmas or both when the clothes almost fit. I was eight.

Grandma Monda had a signature color – kelly green. She had many fine things in her closets, but I’ve imprinted forever on a kelly green rayon dress with white polkadots. She always left a few dresses hanging in a closet at their old family house in Stamps, Arkansas and that green dress was among them. Since my grandparents lived in San Francisco, there were times that our little family spent time in Stamps without them. One of the first things I’d do is run to the closet to make sure the green dress still hung there, still smelled like her, and that the rayon still fell from my fingers like mercury. Grandma Monda was my light – was everyone’s light – and the reassurance of that closeted dress was all I needed. I could wait, then, for the next poem, the next letter, the next visit.

When my daughter was a very little thing climbing in my lap, a little of the same happened for her. I had three waffle-weave cotton dresses – all the same style but different colors. These were the go-tos, the things I wore when I wanted the most comfort and the late 80s version, I guess, of the 50s “house dress.” At one of my infamous yard sales I finally gave up the ghost of those dresses and hung them on strung clothesline in the yard.

Emily was beside herself. A school-girl by then, she whipped those dresses off the clothesline slinging hangers and sale tags. Her tears were furious. These are the dresses I love, she said, you can’t sell them. I was struck dumb and then apologetic first because I had no idea, and then because I perfectly understood what she meant. Those dresses were hours and hours of snuggling on the couch, hems used to wipe tears. The face of her babyhood rested against that cotton and those dresses were not for sale.

There’s powerful love in the clothes of our mothers, our grandmothers. I suspect it’s the hand-me-down loving easing its way into the warp and weft of our DNA. I think of all the women who painstakingly cut up old dresses into tiny pieces to refabric the geometry of their love by making quilts. Born-again comfort objects. Mama’s blue print dress scattered across it like stars.

NaFloScribMo and Technological Time Travel

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I’ve been NaFloScribMo-ing this evening on my refurbed 1934/35 Underwood Noiseless. I’ve named her Zelda, because as stalwart and chunky as she is, Zelda still types a little crazy. Like Zelda Fitzgerald I believe she’s a frustrated ballerina. Aren’t we all?

At any rate, I’m giving my fingers a break at the moment to show her off a bit and to figure out my next sentence. For before and after pictures (just like Jenny Craig!) of Zelda’s transformation, visit here.

Just so you know, the writing is more purposeful on these old machines. On a laptop I can type at the speed of light and write just about anything while simultaneously editing it. The whole laptop experience borders on psychosis, over- and under-lapping the words like that. With Zelda – or any of the other typewriters littering my house – the sentences are slower, but they follow a forward-moving path. That recursive business is exhausting.

And when I’m finished, there’s all this ink on paper and a handful of completed pages to walk around with. Heaven.

From the Porch

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Little rogue storms keep popping up in that rumbly way tonight. If you look closely, you can see the sun behind it all. The temperature has dropped fifteen degrees from the stuffy 87-feels-like-94 that it was an hour ago. I know these things are dangerous and I know I should be planning and such, but these minutes before the storm are my favorite. Before the rain. Before the ugly.
As I write this, the rain is beginning the tapdance on my windows. It’s time for coffee and scribbling.

Worshipping at the Outlet Malls. Can I have an Amen?

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We’re back and we’re broke and it was a marvelous Outlet Mall Getaway. I could have put up photographs of the gorgeous Marriott where we lounged like excommunicated queens, or shown you proof of the tornado devastation we saw along Hwy 65. I might have even posted a picture or two of the several large-as-small-cities outlet malls where we pounded pavement and spend our unearned Dubya money, but I didn’t. The fact is I only took three pictures on the entire trip and one of those was so awful I just deleted it forever. This one, taken on our way back at a roadside flea market stop, is my favorite anyway.

I hate people who are so busy immortalizing their good times on film that they forget to actually have a good time. At least that’s my excuse.

Ah, Branson. What an interesting place. The whole town exists for tourism and it does a pretty good job. Take Nashville, clean its face of the arty coolness factor, add some old Vegas neon, and set the whole thing to music with a steel guitar. Sprinkle in some high-end swanky hotels and townhouses, then pepper the whole city with red-roofed outlet shop promise. That’s Branson, Missouri. Like Disney World, it has several different themes. I imagine an extended Branson experience would be much like visiting The Magical Kingdom, actually – except you’d have to section out the experiences yourself because Branson isn’t about to put it in neat little excursion piles for you. It’s charming.

I bought a lot less than I thought I would and my feet hurt a great deal more than I expected. It was a serious shopping trip. The Perfect Grandson is well-dressed for a least a month now and I found shoes that are actually made for walking. Although I don’t think we ever saw a bookstore, I still found goodies elsewhere. The only real defeat was my unsuccessful quest for the Perfect Bag. If you can’t buy it in Branson, it’s possible it simply doesn’t exist. It may take me a week or so to make peace with that.

The best part of the trip was the easy, no timetable, sauntering nature of this Gal Trip. We told stories and laughed and finally just exhaled after nine months of students (except for someone who’s been on sabbatical for a whole semester, bless her heart).

I’d like to go back, next time with a different entertainment focus. Kind of the Campy Branson Tour so I could include a stop at the wax museum, take the ghost tour, spend an afternoon at the Monster Asylum, and hit all those marvelous miniature golf courses. I live to people-watch. In the South, we can be eccentric like that and no one cares.

I’ll leave you with the only other picture I took. It’s from some gas station in Clinton, so it’s more of an “en route” kind of thing. You know, I do weddings as well.

I think she’s headed for Chesaleen’s

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(A snippet of first-draft fiction for NaFloScribMo)

When I was twelve everything became too small and familiar. My mama’s house, my classroom at school, my little circle of friends I’d known everyday of my life, even my blue jeans suddenly became snug in places snug never landed before. And then I got The Visit.

I was completely unprepared for The Visit. I mean, there’d been talk at school and I’d heard mama whisper things about it, but it was a hazy something that never seemed important enough to ask about until I was Visited.

I was dying, knew that for certain. The pull at my belly was too painful for it to be just another sour stomach from too many radishes for lunch. I saw the blood when I went to the bathroom, so I knew I had a cancer or TB or something I’d never recover from, but I kept quiet because it was clear to me I’d have to die a private death. I was never going to let anyone look at my gunny to find the problem. So I sat there at dinner with mama and daddy and my two stupid brothers with a wad of tissue shoved between my legs.

Mama said grace. I couldn’t even consider thanking God for food when there I sat dying on a wad of toilet paper right there in front of my family, so I prayed extra hard instead so I could be strong for my dying moments and not be angry at God for the timing. Teetering on the razor edge of death is no time to start up something with God you can’t take back.

“Sister, I said ‘Pass them greens.’” I’d been praying so hard that when I looked up the whole mess of my family was staring at me like I’d just spilled kool-aid on the rug. I opened my mouth to tell them but all that came out was a wail I didn’t know I owned that lasted from the table clean into my bedroom behind a slammed door.

When mama came in she was mad as hell, hands on hips like one of them Amazon women. I could hear daddy’s boots shifting one foot to the other just outside the door, but I knew he’d stay out there and not come in to see my shame and dying because he couldn’t bear a crying woman.

“Explain yourself.” Mama’s plaid housedress towered over me on the bed and I was afraid, but not nearly as afraid of her as I was this dying.

“I’ve got the cancer, mama,” I wept through a whisper, “Don’t ask me to tell you where because I won’t.”

So mama just stood there and I just cried into my bed quilt for the longest time. I wanted hugging, but I wasn’t sure if I could give someone else the cancer and I just couldn’t be responsible for spreading dread disease. When Scrap Wilson got the fever, the health department man came out and put a quarantine sign over the door and everyone whispered hot and fierce about how wrong it was to subject a whole family to one man’s dying germs. I’d have to move out, I guessed, live in a tent all alone by the pond and wait it out until they found my body.

“You ain’t dying, Sister.”

Mama was unmoved and all I could hear was the muffling shuffle of daddy’s boots making their way back the kitchen. Ill as I was, there was only one thing to do.

Summoning the last of my living strength, I leapt past mama, slung open the door, stopped off quick in the bathroom to resupply, then ran through the kitchen and out the back door into the mosquito dusk. It was a long way to the road, but I ran it all with a half-roll of flowered toilet paper in my fist, and it wasn’t until I hit the gate that I looked back. No one was coming after me.

(This is another crooked piece of the Chesaleen stories. It’s NaFloScribMo rough, but there it is. I resisted the urge to write two pages on mama standing there hovering over the bed, which was the image I started with. We’ll see what happens when our new little woman makes it over to Chesaleen’s house and find out the real scoop.)

Slight Savagery

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I just spent a few minutes howling at Candace’s latest blog post, and noticed she had this quote posted:

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking. -Jessamyn West

Well, that’s an understatement. I know there are those who subscribe to the “grab fifteen minutes wherever you are” writing philosophy, and I’m sure it works for several of them. Kind of like knitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office – sooner or later you have a whole sweater. It’s not working for me, though. That fifteen minutes only whets my appetite for a throw-down, pot-of-coffee, tweaking-the-infinite kind of writing session. It’s the whole reason I write at all. The joy is in total ink immersion.

There’s also the undiagnosed ADD thing I’ve got going on. Every little shiny thing distracts me, so it’s a much better plan for me to schedule uninterrupted alone time if I’m ever going to finish something longer than a poem. Hmmmm. That may be the reason I’ve always written poetry.

The thing is, I don’t really want to become the savage, slight or otherwise, I’d have to be to family, friends, students – anyone – just to get the writing done. There’s entirely too much Southern, 1960s upbringing in the way and I’ll never make enough money to have that therapeutically extricated from my DNA. I’m not sure it’s possible, anyway. I was bred to be cheerfully interrupted.

Years of single-parenthood didn’t help. When you’re the only grown-up in the house, there’s no such thing as Time Alone unless you lose a lot of sleep. I did, in fact, almost never sleep. For years. I wrote a great deal, but always with one ear listening for midnight bad dreams. that’s as close as it gets for many women and it only gets worse when you’re watching the clock on prom night.

Why, even Jessamyn West only began writing when she was recovering from tuberculosis. I’m not ready to contract an extended and dread disease to get that writing time I crave. And she was from Indiana. I’m not sure how that figures in, really, but I imagine it has something to do with a Northern ability to set personal boundaries. I may be making that part up.

Even as I write this I can hear The Perfect Grandson squealing and slamming toys and such in the next room. This wreaks havoc on that “sustain and complete” business. Not because he’s an annoying distraction, though – it’s because I want to be in there, delighting in his every moment. In a minute or two the phone will ring or the dryer will buzz and I’ll wander away. Happens every time.

NaFloScribMo and the Incredible, Levitating Draft

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Here’s the problem. I’m writing diligently on Chesaleen and getting into the wicked flow of the moment, angels dancing on heads of pins and the typewriter muse singing to me in Olivetti and such, and I suddenly realize there’s no story. None. The whole thing is going nowhere and seems to be mysteriously levitating, waiting for something to actually happen.

It’s possible to write seven pages of a story and find out it isn’t a story at all. It’s a prose poem or an articulated photograph or something. People talk and there’s insight and self-delusion enough to go around, but the action of getting from Point A to Point B just never materializes.

It’s entirely possible I’m writing outside my genre – not that I chose one in the first place. It chose me when I was a little girl. It’s frustrating to be labeled and even more so when it’s self-labeling, but it appears that at least for tonight, I’m a poet. Or a memoirist. Or a blogger. Dammit. Tonight I wanted to be a novelist.

So I have seven pages of Chesaleen sitting in the dark and listening to trains. I could cheat and call it backstory, but that’s just semantics. I’m going to put these pages away for National Rewrite Month and maybe they’ll look different then, but I doubt it. I like it too much to wad it up, although if I had a fire going I might consider throwing all seven pages into the flames, just for effect.

Maybe I’ll just have Chesaleen set something on fire.

Mothering

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My daughter had her very first Mother’s Day yesterday, and it was powerful. I watched her all day basking in new motherhood, remembering the instant when he was pulled from her under all that sterile white surgery light, and looking forward to the mysterious string of years ahead with her son.

Her son. She spent every waking moment yesterday delighting in the gift of him and wondering how, years and years from now when he’s all hairy and mannish and wearing his cap backwards, how she’ll ever be able to let him go into his life without her. She talked about first days at school and terrible girls gathering, and how the hugs will be fewer.

He is a baby. Levi cruises around testing his periphery, his abilities, his almost-walking-alone freedom, and he falls down. A lot. As a spectator yesterday I watched my own daughter mothering, and what she didn’t know – what it’s so hard to explain – is that it happens by degrees. Levi took three fast steps yesterday, tottering and grinning and breathing hard, his fat fists in the air balancing like an infant tightrope walker. Three fast steps away from Mom and toward a footstool. That’s how it begins.

It’s easier to see the milestones when you’re not the mother and that is not your child. There he goes, I wanted to tell her, and he’ll never come back to you exactly the same boy who left. That’s the whole delight and ache of mothering, because at the same time there is my own baby, the one pulled from me in the white light of another room almost 22 years ago, and she’s having her turn now. A woman.

As a grandmother and a mother, I’m hoarding these moments.

Consignment Shop (NaFloScribMo)

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The mother/daughter team drags a torn black trashbag full of baby items and I suspect nothing in there ever belonged to either of them. Mama has an odor, wheezes, gave her front teeth to meth and is still high enough to think she’s pulling off normal. Mama’s insistent, though, hand on hips she wants top dollar, many dollars, any dollars.

No one else in the store. Just Mama, Daughter, store owner, me.

The daughter is a youngish thing, belly slack from teen pregnancies, sporting an unapologetic black eye. A catfight, a man, a door, something. Lots of reasons to have a shiner and no real reason to cover it up. While I wait in line she steals a toy and sees me watching as she sticks it under her shirt. She doesn’t care. This is what we do. So what.

The store owner lady takes a step back from Mama and toward her cash register. She’s got Christmas light earrings shaking slightly below permed hair and her sweatshirt has a Jesus fish pinned next to silver baby feet. They both float just above her heart. This isn’t the kind of customer she thought about when she dreamed the baby consignment shop with its plush infant baubles and tiny Easter dresses hanging just so on the racks. Like a year-round church-basement baby shower. Not today.

Mama’s tired of waiting so she heaves the lawn-and-leaf bag on the counter and dumps it out fast. A small mountain of dusty baby clothes, and from the middle an unopened can of powdered baby formula falls out and rolls against the daughter’s foot. When the girl and her black eye bend down to get it, she pulls the stolen baby toy out of her pocket and places both on top of the clothes. Here, mama. These fell out.

Mama is tweaking and and scratching her arms and looks ready to get loud when the bell over the shop door tinkles a bit. They all turn and look at me, but I’m still there.