Red-clay mud

When we moved here, I felt guilty for putting a house on what had recently been part of a sprawling farm. I am  a preservationist, loving old houses, original paintings, wide-open fields and close family roots. My roots are deep in Carolina red-clay mud. It’s not the fancy pluff mud of the haunted Lowcountry. It’s not the rare blackjack soil that my grandma relishes for its minerals and its richness. It’s tough, unyielding, sticky and blobbish dirt, iron-rich but stubborn – it does what it wants, when it wants, and however it wants – or not. It breaks new shovels. It traps cars. It shuns anything but the hardiest weeds.

I wanted to stay in the small town that we first moved to, but a big country club sprang up, knocking house prices out of reach for us. We drove around all summer, looking at places, until the hubs said “let’s go north.” North of uptown was foreign land to me. But north we went, and I fell in love.

This part of town was Mayberry, only with diversity. On national holidays, the local veterans of all hues lined the streets with American flags. My neighbors occasionally run up and down the street with home-baked pies and fresh tomatoes. My kids, even, will bake a batch of muffins and take them to somebody, just because. The trains run at 7 am and 7 pm. On the main drag, the kids still wave to the conductor.

The post office smells like the dust of times past, and was slated for closure a few years ago, but we managed to save it. It is dated but lovely, with gilded windows on the boxes and a plaque that reads “1962.”

There’s a bar here that used to be a tractor parts store, and they still have the tractor parts in it and a ubiquitous, necessary hound that chases flies in the summer. The bar has the best acoustics in town for live music. We were there one night and I was dancing with a guy who sang, quite well, into my ear. At this place, if you don’t drink your beer fast enough, a man in overalls buses your table and tosses the bottle.

The farm, diminished somewhat because of our subdivision, butted up against our back yard. We picked this lot for that reason. We still have cows to feed, if they’ll come to us. We watch yearly for the new calves and lambs; this year, we actually have a black lamb. The roosters occasionally prance past us. The coyotes dwell in the woods that hide a bubbling creek and all sorts of snakes.

One spring, my little sister got my kids a gigantic airplane kite; it was too big to fly without a huge amount of space. We asked the farmer if we could use the big field, and he graciously said yes. One day, a day like today when the wind was just right, the grass only about knee-high and the cows were in another field, we took the kite down the dirt path and into the meadow. We tipped around cow patties. I got my older daughter to hold the roll of string, and I went running through the field with the biggest kite you’ve ever seen. It took about five tries, but the wind finally caught it.

I kept running, back and forth over the red clay and the grass that would eventually become food for the cows, until the kite became steady in the wind and my daughter needed help holding the roll of string.

I watched the kite rise and dip, rise and dip.

My children laughed and laughed.

I wanted to cry.


The room with the dying fan

The office at the kids’ school is an old house with yellow aluminum siding, a real front porch and gleaming hardwood floors that announce one’s every step. Recently, when I popped in, it was pleasant to stomp along on the woods and inhale old-house scent. But I had a surprise.

There were fans everywhere, pushing the heavy morning air around in warm waves.

“The air is broken,” the office manager said, fanning herself with a folder. “We hope to have it fixed soon.”

I stood there with a grin on my face, feeling oddly at peace with the breeze and the warmth.

The house sounded, smelled and felt like summertime at my great-grandmother’s house.

In the summer, Mama’s house was cool and comfortable from maybe 10, 11 p.m. until about 9 a.m. We didn’t have central air. Many of our friends didn’t, either, but at least their air conditioners worked. Our pitiful window unit didn’t do anything but run up the electric bill, so it hung quietly in the dining room window and we sweltered, leaving damp spots where ever we perched for more than five minutes.

And the window fan ran constantly.

The fan in my bedroom was a 1950s-era window-mounted metal clunker that began losing steam somewhere around the Summer of Love and slowed yearly through the straggling end of Vietnam and Watergate, disco and Marvin Gaye’s shooting, until finally, around the time my mom gave up her green satin disco pants, it refused to do anything but hum.

Every summer, my great-grandmother would debate getting the fan serviced. “It WORKS,” she’d say, watching the blades as though staring them down would convince them to work. “But perhaps we could get Old Man Barber up here to look at it.” Old Man Barber, the local cross between Fred Sanford and your friendly handyman, told us to ditch it between disco and Marvin Gaye. But we didn’t.

As a semi-responsible mom, this fan was not a fan I’d allow into my house. The plug was worn from more than 30 years of use, and the wires would give a shock if you touched them with sweaty fingers. The motor, a daunting, cup-sized collection of fraying wires and mesh, began to spark upon occasion, which didn’t worry Mama nearly as much as it did me. If the fan eventually cranked, it had to be OK. I’d lie awake nights, worrying that the sparks would torch the curtains, figuring the amount of time it would take to gather my clarinet and chihuahua and get out in case of fire. I’d listen to the strobed night sounds. If you’ve never heard outside through the filter of a window fan, you’re missing out. The blades distort the sounds, giving noisy cars and crickets and feisty birds a steady, mechanical sputter. Back in the day, when we didn’t have major electronic distraction, sitting in front of the fan and talking through the strobe was simple fun.

The fan, however, didn’t help anything in the worst heat and humidity of summer. It pushed hot air into the house or pulled it from the front of the house, leaving us miserable and moist and cranky, twisting in damp bed linens. Outside felt better than inside. My mom and great-grandmom argued more than usual on those days, hurling slurs and insults back and forth until my mom would get into the equally hot purple Toyota and leave or my great-grandmother would pound the table or pull at her damp gray hair and break dishes.

But on the nights that the temperatures and mugginess dropped, the reluctant old fan worked magic, cooling our house gradually until it hit a delicious chill, making it necessary for me to sleep with a blanket. On those following mornings, my bare feet hit cold wood  floors instead of warm and we rushed to finish chores in the cool: we swept, made our tea for the day, gathered whatever vegetables were ripe in the garden, mopped and dusted and waited for the sun to again turn the cottage on Miller Street into a brick oven. We talked. We listened to the old radio. We prayed for cooling storms.

We eventually bought dime-store floor units, positioned to work best with the flow of air from the window fan and screened doors, and we held our breath yearly when we cranked the old unit. One year, it took about five minutes to get the weakened fan to spin, but close to the end, we waited and watched the clock for a few hours, hoping the dirty blades and the sparking motor would get the idea. Finally, my mom sadly gave permission to dismantle the fan and replace it with a bright new unit, $10 at the dime store. I spent a long while trying to unscrew the myriad parts of the fan: the blades, wire frame and wall mounts all had been in the same place since mom’s childhood, and they weren’t ready, it seemed, to go. But we got it out and put it on the trash pile. The romantic in me hopes Old Man Barber found it and restored it to its pre-disco ability.

My children do not remember life sans air conditioning. They believe freon and ceiling vents are among inalienable constitutional rights.

To this day – much as I am thankful for the hum of the central air  – I cannot sleep without a fan going. I love the slight sound and the breeze, even if it competes with the heat in the winter, and I’ll occasionally open the windows in the mornings, let the house warm up a touch and give our ceiling-mounted fans a moment in the spotlight. It makes me feel honest, this ritual. Because as far as I hope to go and as much as I want to be, bottom line is I’m a girl from Rock Hill, and I used to sleep in the room with the dying fan.

I’m talking ’bout the bad girls

My mom, a classic hoarder, kept all my elementary, middle and high school report cards in a big binder. She also kept my shots records, my ballet recital programs, a few pictures of the embarrassing ballet costumes and some of the napkins that Billy Dee Williams used to wipe his mouth during the filming of some movie down in Chester.

“One day,” she said with a deep, prophetic, Moses-bringing-down-the-commandments voice, “you can show these to your children.”

A couple of weekends ago, I hauled out the book and presented it to the kids (mistake 1), certain they’d be honored to be offspring of a musician/ballerina/scout/French-speaking Baptist (mistake 2). They laughed at my first ballet photos (awkward with nasty shoes) and ooohed over my last ones (graceful with feathers and nice slippers). But they ignored the other good stuff and honed in on my report cards. They noted I made A’s in everything but math. Then they focused on the behavior part.

Back then, report cards had a grading system of A, S and U. A – prepare for sorority parties. S – prepare for shop classes, which was an insult back then, and U – Who the hell are you kidding? Go home and start over, girl. There also was a grid with boxes for behavior in general, attitude, cooperation, courtesy, self-control and study habits, which also used the A/S/U scale along with a system of checks. A – teacher’s pet. S – get some bail money ready because the teenage years will be rough. U – hellbent for jail and starring roles in Britney Spears songs about criminals.

When I was kid, I thought I had done a stellar job because a lot of my boxes were checked, but Mom finally set me straight. If nothing was checked, you didn’t have a problem. If the teacher checked a slot, then you needed to work on that area.


I had not been a courteous, respectful, quiet little self-starter. I was a lippy, out-of-control hell-raiser who cheerfully, effectively, promptly and readily fought authority and rules at every turn and at the top of my voice.

Some of the comments: “needs to keep her mind on her seatwork.” “she still talks too much.” “she still needs to work on her behavior.” “sure to make a U in conduct.” Making a U meant you failed; an S meant you were just  doing ok. That teacher, 3rd grade, Ms. Daisy McDuffie, gave me an S—-. She had hope, bless her heart.

After all the time I’d spent in the Catholic School naughty corner staring at the crucifix, after the times I’d been sent to find my own switch, after all the welts from the belt strap – why was anybody surprised about my school behavior?

“What was wrong with you?” my younger kid asked. “That was just sad. Why couldn’t you just pay attention?”

I thought about it. What WAS wrong? Was I bored? Confused? Starved for attention? Just plain BAD? Face it. I was bad. I was the kid that very few parents wanted to see coming. I wasn’t horrible, just defiant. Always asking WHY? Didn’t care who I offended. At church meeting, I interrupted once to ask “WHY?” and got nasty stares and a pinch from my great-grandma for being insubordinate. After I wrecked my car with a friend in it (in high school), I told the friend’s dad, an Army officer, to step up and get his own son from band practice. When another friend’s parents told me my skirt was too short, I asked them why they were looking. I played with firearms. I raced cars. I cut class.

I worried every year up until college that THIS YEAR would be the one Santa threw in the towel.

The kids are still laughing, and it’s actually nice to have this part of my past in the open, even if it’s cold revenge for my Mom. We can discuss it with logic – when they stop laughing. And when they get lippy/resentful/defiant/bad/etc, I’ll add notes to their permanent records and patiently wait for grandchildren.