Decoration Day

No Telling

Out in the counties, Decoration Day is a pre-Memorial Day sacrament. Families drive in from all over to tidy-up plots, to place flowers both real and otherwise, and to remember. On Saturday, I rode with my friend Melinda to Canaan Cemetery in Marshall, Arkansas for “Decoration.” Kids running through rows of headstones, old women teetering under enormous floral sprays, young mothers manicuring grass with garden shears. Busy, somber, reflective.

I’ve lived in the South all my life and this was the first Decoration I’ve ever seen. No one in my family is comfortable with grief, I suspect. We have always avoided sadness and the places that remind us of it. I think we’ve missed out on an important part of the cycle, though. There is a healing that comes from housekeeping a grave. There is also the idea of communal permission to accept – however tragic or timely – that we die.

For folks in Marshall, Canaan is the hard evidence of who they are. Men walked the stone rows swapping stories and connections because Canaan is their ancestral record. The oral tradition of Decoration was around long before the internet let us find history in a couple of clicks. Here, a woman can touch the weathered letters of her great-great grandmother’s name and count the tiny stones around it to connect to her maternal losses.  

We stayed long enough for an unanticipated light rain that reminded me of the day Melinda buried her husband. Although it was scorching Arkansas August, the wind blew suddenly cool at Canaan that day and carried the stark notes of Taps into the hills.

There are two hundred years of open arms in that place. A gesture like that is bound to create its own weather.

The Crescent Hotel: Ghosts and Debutantes

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Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, AR c. 1890s (Wikimedia Commons)

Had a marvelous getaway this summer – shopping, knitting, scribbling, eating, ghost touring – up in the Ozark Mountains where a Very Big Outstreched Jesus looks unsmiling on all of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He turns most of his stern gaze across the mountain toward the Crescent Hotel. After what I discovered, he probably should.

A Little Background Music

The Crescent Hotel was built in 1886 and spent its first fifteen years as a year-round hotspot for the ridiculously rich. To the hounds, and all that. It appears the rich nouveaued elsewhere after a while and owners needed to keep the place running for the eight or nine months their clientele were otherwise entertained. In 1908 the Crescent Hotel opened the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women that catered to wealthy men’s daughters and kept the place financially afloat.

In 1937, a charlatan and failed magician named Norman Baker bought the hotel after he was run out of Iowa on a rail for practicing medicine without a license. He immediately turned the Crescent into a homeopathic cancer hospital and pulled in over 500k a year watching people die while he gave them his own special watermelon seed and carbolic acid elixir. By 1940, he was convicted of mail fraud and spent his final days in Leavenworth dying of cancer. Karma.

The Hauntings

The Crescent Hotel is famous for its ghosts, and there are plenty. A lusty stone mason named Michael tends to be inappropriate with women who stay in room 218. Theodora is a cancer patient who regularly moves in and out of room 419, although she sometimes forgets her key. A nurse rattles a gurney down the second floor hall at all times of night. Dancer Irene Castle twirls around here and there as a celebrity spirit. Even Dr. Baker himself has been seen roaming the basement that was once his autopsy room.

The one I’m most interested in is an unnamed Woman in White, a student of the Conservatory for Women who either threw herself or was pushed from the third floor balcony. She was “with child” and rumored to be in love with a local boy. Although I didn’t see her, it’s said she often tends to float upward from the place she fell.

The Best Stories begin with Questions

And I have plenty. While I find the good doctor’s story intriguing, tales of chicanery and confidence men in Arkansas are fairly commonplace. The handsy stone mason ghost is more of an anecdotal punchline. For true story power, it’s the Conservatory for Women and that young thing tumbling over the balcony.

A nine-month finishing school for wealthy young women. What rich man sends his precious daughter in the best marriageable years of her life to such a remote location? I didn’t buy this initially, and for a day or so assumed these were Working Girls housed at the Crescent Hotel for the convenience of wealthy male visitors. It’s still a possibility.

One of the few pictures of the girls at the Conservatory. They’re bowling.

If the Conservatory was truly the school it purported to be, there should be attendance records, and those easy enough to research. It’s the “why” that’s compelling. Were these girls troublesome enough at home to require shipping off? Or were they In Trouble, and the Crescent Hotel a lying-in hospital for unwed mothers? The historical and physical juxtaposition of St. Elizabeth’s Church, with it’s odd bell tower entry yards from the hotel’s front door is curious. The sisters of St. Elizabeth’s operated a small hospital and girls’ school at the same time, although probably for a less moneyed clientele. Was there an orphanage? Makes me wonder.

So do the stories about laundry being lowered up and down via pullies and a large basket. And there’s that Woman in White plunging over the third floor railing.

Bottom line, at the turn of the last century wealthy girls in their late teens and early twenties were busy making their debuts and finding husbands, they were not lingering most of a year far away from home in the Arkansas Ozarks. There were reasons girls were sent away like that, and none of them were flattering. 

There’s the story.

And the Very Big Jesus? No connection. It turns out the 65 1/2 foot statue was the centerpiece of a late-60s religious themepark that never quite materialized. God I love Arkansas.

For the curious:

Links to videos from visitors, including my favorite series featuring some charming kids who do a great job narrating their investigation. In addition, a few ghostly photos taken by hotel guests and visitors.

The Sky is Falling and That’s Just Fine

No Telling

“A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.”  ~James Dickey

Rain. I don’t know where you live, but here in bellybutton of Arkansas it’s been the broken promise of rain for two months now.

Two dry months in the middle of an Arkansas summer. The only thing worse is finally getting rain and living in a 115-degree steam bath the next day. I’ll care about that tomorrow, but for now it’s pit-patting on the roof. An old friend.

I could go on and on about this drought’s  devastating toll on farm and field around here, but I’m sure some of you are just as dust-covered as I am. Leaves crackled off the trees weeks ago here and everyone house is sporting patchy-dead grass. Watering doesn’t really help and they’ll stop that soon enough. I imagine a few boil-orders here and there as well.

My only comfort is that I never planted those early tomatoes.The grief would have been too much to bear.

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I vacationed Up North. Eureka Springs is in the Ozarks Proper, which means it has it own climate. A self-important mist comes rolling off those mountains every single morning and the whole world is so green it hurts your eyes. It even rained one afternoon, hard. Great sheets of rain blowing sideways, ancient trees flailing branches, thunder, lightning, like that. We sheltered in a local establishment and knit in front of a big leaky window and did not care how long the wait.

It felt almost pagan watching that much rain, which might explain most of the fine people we met in Eureka Springs. Later, I watched quite a few more file oddly through the bell tower of  St. Elizabeth’s Church to, I assume, pray for more of the same.

Only a refined sense of familial and educational duty made me come down out of those mountains and back home. One time I’m going to make the trip to Eureka and never come back. Watch me.

Ah, a lull. More on the way soon, though. The rain’s a small gift from Texas for which I’d like to say a big Thank You Very Much. In the morning, the whole world will smell inexplicably like a catfish, but that’s not their fault. 

Be Careful What You Wish For

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It’s been the hottest summer I can remember. Day after day with a heat index of 110+ and the whole world feeling like it’s on fire. Not a drop of rain in weeks, no matter who’s doing the rain dance or how fancy. Those liars on the Weather Channel had promised rain for days. Yes, Jim, even you. Still nothing.

This afternoon the lie became the truth and in less than half an hour Em was outside sweeping water furiously away from the back door.

We needed sandbags, but sandbags are an emergency purchase that seems all-important when you can’t drive through flooded streets to buy them. To make matters worse, the place selling bags doesn’t have sand, and vice-versa. Somehow, I always put those on the to-do list after a hard rain and then forget about them entirely. It might be time to break that cycle.

Better yet, we might want to put in a french drain so we’ll need neither sandbags nor spare flood brooms. There’s an idea.

I’m So Vain

No Telling
The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.
(Clairee from Steel Magnolias)

Well, this should be interesting. I had a little surgery (nothing serious) to smooth out my lumpy head. Fifty stitches later, my head has been slap-dash shaved and I look like a cur dog with the mange. That’s nothing. When Tina sees this, I’m pretty sure she’ll go after the surgeon with a pair of clippers set on zero.

I’m hiding out for now wearing various loud scrub caps, but in a couple of weeks I’ll be back in the classroom looking like this. It’s time for some creative solutions. Unless anyone out there has another alternative, it looks like I’m sentenced to hats or fake hair for at least four months. Lindsay Lohan will be back on the street and re-incarcerated before I can use a teasing comb again.

I know this is whiny, but hair is a Big Deal here in the South. This is mysterious and (for some reason) irritating to Those Who Aren’t From Around Here, especially the academics I share the halls with. It’s as if big hair and intelligence were an either/or proposition. Well-educated Southern women find this amusing, because we’ve always known that real power down here requires both. Just ask Blanche Lincoln whose local senatorial approval ratings rise and fall with the flick of a teasing comb.

For now, I’m in loose caps. While I’ve always enjoyed a nice hat, wearing anything on my head in 110+ degree weather makes me want to burst into tears. Besides, they don’t make hats like they used to. I’ll compromise, of course, and find a nice cotton or linen something-or-other. Accessorizing is next to Godliness and all that. Any suggestions are welcome.

Em found a little something at the local beauty supply, but it may be a few weeks before I can test drive it. Maybe by then my vanity can overcome the idea of wearing Paris Hilton fake-hair-on-a-headband. I don’t know.

I’ll think about that tomorrow.

Relax! You can’t screw up her hair. Just tease it and make it look like a brown football helmet. (Shelby, from Steel Magnolias)

This is Not a Book Review: John Fergus Ryan and The Redneck Bride

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I‘m sorry. I really am. I’m about to tell you not to live another hour without reading this novel, and you’re never going to find it. The Redneck Bride by John Fergus Ryan is pure southern Gothic, out of print and mighty scarce.

I got lucky. This book (literally) lept off the shelf and into my hands in the used book basement at the Cox Creative Center the other day. I caught it before it hit the floor and – call me crazy – I’m convinced Ryan’s rapscallion ghost was responsible. Probably smoking contraband cigars in the afterlife, right there in the basement. I don’t blame the haint – the book was misshelved in with the general fiction population rather than the special “Southern Lit” or “Arkansas” shelves. Five dollars later, I had a first edition hardback filled with illustrations and wearing a pristine dust jacket.

Don’t look for this to be Faulknerian. The Redneck Bride‘s narrator has poetic Attention Deficit Disorder, with a healthy dose of descriptive OCD – that’s part of its charm. But the one-liners hit hard. Sometimes hard enough to put the book down and walk away for a minute just to catch your breath.

Some years ago, Billy Bob Thornton attempted to produce a movie based on the book. No amount of research has turned up what happened to the project, and Billy Bob hasn’t yet returned my call/tweet. Ryan’s novel The Little Brothers of St. Mortimer did make it, but straight to DVD. It’s called The White River Kid and has quite a cast of stars. His novel Watching came out in 1998 and it looks like I’m going to have one hell of a time finding any copies of that one.

Sadly, John Fergus Ryan died in 2003. His obituary in the Memphis Flyer, eloquently written by Jackson Baker, is worth reading start to finish, especially the section on his writing process. In fact, someone out there needs to write Ryan’s life. His son, John Jr., illustrated The Redneck Bride, and I understand makes his living as an artist. Strangely enough, both father and son appeared in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Ryan Sr. was a firecracker for sure.

You know, I might just head to President Clinton Avenue and crawl back down into the used book basement again. Maybe ol’ John will sling another one out of the shelf for me. It could happen.

This Rant’s Been Coming for a While

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There’s been too much tragedy around here without reasonable explanation, and I think it’s time for a few answers. In the stages of grieving this would be #3 – Anger and Bargaining. Clearly I’m on the upper end of of it and a good four stages away from anything close to Acceptance or Hope.

I guess the horror of Thursday’s campground flood here in Arkansas is the last straw for me. If I were a church-going woman there might be words to comfort during such an event. Here in the South we’ve been inundated by disasters natural and unnatural, and I refuse to believe it’s part of some plan, punishment, or reward orchestrated by a God arranging and rearranging our fates like a macabre puppet master. If That Televangelist (he knows who he is) chimes in to blame us all for homosexuality, Obama, or using the wrong dinner fork, my head will explode. Better yet, I’ll go fetch him so he can dig barehanded in the muddy bank of the Little Missouri River for other people’s children.

The tornadoes, the oil, the flooding. Hurricane season just began and we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it probably will. When Katrina turned New Orleans into a scene from Dante, we pushed the boundaries of English attempting to create language to describe it. Tragedy, disaster, catastrophe – these won’t be enough to describe what could happen when hurricane meets oil, two, three, maybe four times. People will leave the coast forever.

My heart hurts and I’m angry. The Southern religious litany that makes reasons for unreasonable tragedies is too much for me to hear right now. All that “God’s plan” and “gone to a better place” business only makes it worse. I need to avoid all my Fundamentalist friends for a while – at least until I get to one of those other stages of grief.

The Novelty Has Worn Off

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Be careful what you wish for, is all I’m saying. This snow experience came without much warning. No one, in fact, had time to clean the shelves out at Kroger before it became too tricky to get there. So I guess we’re all stuck inside eating bread-heels and watching the news.

Five more inches tonight, they say. Clearly this is some sort of Superbowl/Saints overflow miracle. That, or the eighty or so students who had a paper due in my class today gathered together some powerful mojo to buy themselves some time. It could happen.

What do y’all up North find to pass the time during such a snow? I’m at a loss, dahlings. Bread-heels and bad daytime TV are about to do us all in.

UPDATE: A couple of fast shots taken from the warmth of an open doorway.

Housewives of Faulkner County

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Just received a notice that my 30th high school reunion will be in the fall. Octoberish. Plenty of advance notice to . . . what? Have extensive plastic surgery, lose forty pounds, have my teeth whitened, and find the perfect spray-tan, I guess. I say this because now through the Miracle of Facebook there are women I went to school with suddenly sporting all of the above modifications. And they’re wearing a lot of strappy tank tops, even in this chilly weather.

Not all of these women have lost their minds, but the numbers of those who have are shocking. I’ve noticed a correlation between the numbers of newly-divorced and party pictures showing tanned decolletage. It’s like Orange-County-meets-Cougar out there. These are women with grown children – did I miss a memo or something?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for looking your best and such, but I find it unnecessary to recreate my 18 year-old self this late in the game. Aside from appearing entirely too desperate, it’s fairly impossible to actually roll back the clock and make us the dewy teens we were. Even with quality cosmetic surgery we’ll still look better in low lighting.

The main reason I won’t be playing this round has to do with the degree of panic on all their Facebook faces. High school was an uncomfortable time for most young women – we set impossibly high standards of physical perfection even then (thank you Vogue and Seventeen). No need to pull that level of discomfort back out and wear it again just because it fits. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

As much as I hate Facebook, I may have to post something on there about how beautiful they all are, but not because of any recent alterations. The women I went to high school with thirty years ago have always been beautiful. All they need to do is exhale a little and find weather-appropriate clothing.

Photo: an untitled, unnumbered piece in William Eggleston’s Los Alamos

Don’t Count Your Snow Days Before Checking Outside

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It’s been a while since we had one of these ice storms, so I guess we’re due. The weather map is all over pink with it right now I can hear it falling on the metal chimney top. Not like hail at all, which always sounds like a great fist is hurling it. Sleet is skittery and indifferent.

School is already closed for tomorrow because that’s how we do things. The closing was announced long before the first drop fell and while the temperature was certainly above freezing. It was a good call this time. No one needs to be driving around in the Armageddon we’ll have tomorrow morning, especially since no one around here knows how to drive in winter weather. We’re generally experts at driving muddy dirt roads, though. We also think we’re experts at driving on ice, but it’s never true.

In college, we used to put on golf shoes and walk to the corner of Donaghey and Bruce, lugging green-and-white folding lawn chairs. We found that if we positioned ourselves carefully, we could see two, maybe three fender-benders an hour as we nipped judiciously at a shared bottle of peppermint schnapps. Occasionally we’d hold up signs to “score” each driver’s attempt or failure. If I remember correctly, it took a good 360-degree spin to earn anything higher than an “8”.

No one was ever hurt, by the way. Cars had real metal fenders back then and didn’t crush like cheap Coke cans.

But that’s not my favorite winter-weather story. The best one I heard second-hand at a year-end teacher party some years ago when I was still teaching high school English. Many of the schoolmarms I taught with had been my teachers back in the 70s, and they told a Snow-Day Cautionary Tale to end all tales.

No one remembered exactly what year it happened, but seems the weathermen were all convinced the entire state would be buried under 12-18 inches of snow by the next morning. it had been an especially tense and arduous school year, so a good number of teachers plotted to ride the snow storm out at one house – the plan was a dusk to dawn Snow Day celebration.

At the final bell, everyone scurried to gather food and liquor. These were the lean years, mind you, when a good teacher might have made $9,000 a year or so. Add that to the insult of living in a dry county, and it was no wonder these otherwise staid educators needed a throw-down.

And throw-down they did. As the marms told it, the liquor and food held out until dawn when one young teacher stumbled out to retrieve the morning paper and found it hadn’t snowed at all.

No snow, no Snow Day. No one had slept a minute all night, most were still under the influence, and they were now due in their classrooms in a little over an hour.

They all made it in, by the way, mainlining coffee and propping each other up for the duration. I can tell this story only because all the suspects have since retired, but I do wonder if I might have been a student sitting in one of their classrooms that hangover day. If I was, I never suspected a thing and none of my friends did either. None of us would ever have dreamed such a thing could happen, really. Teachers partying all night? Naw.

So even though I hear the sleet beating hearty rumba on the neighbor lady’s wind chimes right now, I’m setting an alarm. You never know.