Lunch guest

We usually have a huge swarm called, benignly, our “annual ladybug invasion” – but this year was different because of early spring and late cold snaps. This little gal (or guy) stuck around, however. It’s nice to see them come out. They’re cheerful.

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Toying with images

 

So I’m a writer by nature, right?

Let the jury know that I’m also a repressed photographer.

I spent more than 20 years in journalism, on various parts of copy desks and design desks. I edited a lot of pictures for content and style, color and fit. I wrote a lot of headlines (and can still count a headline in the old-school way) and a few stories. Laid out thousands of pages. Won a prize along the way.

But before much of that, I learned how to shoot. I learned a little about processing film and framing shots. Learned to look for odd angles and different colors. Photography fed my need to find out what was at the end of a dirt road, over the next hill, beyond the curve. I love to look back on a road we’ve traveled and see the ribbon of asphalt. It hurts not to know, not to see. If I don’t take a picture of it, I file it away  for a future story or I wonder what became of the people who used to be here.

Lately, I’ve been trying to take pictures of places that, to me, are home. Dirt roads. Gritty houses. Fields of wheat and corn.  Chevy trucks and shiny Mustangs. I’m not the best, but going off the grid is what my friend Raven says I do well and often.

It scares my family when I go off the grid.

It delights me to no end.

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.

Reposting in honor of the anniversary of the crash. It was such a sad day, and freezing, freezing cold.

mcconnellsgurl

“Those people went up,” Mama said, “but they didn’t come down.”

I heard my great-grandmother speak but didn’t really pay attention. The night before, a freezing January wind had blown through and had chilled our house to around 40 degrees inside; I was busy trying to find warmth for my bedridden great-grandmother. When my mom had left for work, she’d called me from college across town to come and sit with Mama. The heat wasn’t working because the oil had run out the night before, Mother had to work – of course I would stay.

“Maybe stay just until the oil man comes,” Mother said. “If you get the fire going, Mama might stay in bed until I get home.”

We didn’t have central heat; that was something that had come along after our house had been built and we couldn’t afford to add it, so we used an old…

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The people went up

“Those people went up,” Mama said, “but they didn’t come down.”

I heard my great-grandmother speak but didn’t really pay attention. The night before, a freezing January wind had blown through and had chilled our house to around 40 degrees inside; I was busy trying to find warmth for my bedridden great-grandmother. When my mom had left for work, she’d called me from college across town to come and sit with Mama. The heat wasn’t working because the oil had run out the night before, Mother had to work – of course I would stay.

“Maybe stay just until the oil man comes,” Mother said. “If you get the fire going, Mama might stay in bed until I get home.”

We didn’t have central heat; that was something that had come along after our house had been built and we couldn’t afford to add it, so we used an old oil heater that stood guard in the middle of the house. The unit, with a metal top that burned you and  mesh work on the front to keep fingers away from the even more dangerous middle, had a knob at the bottom to open the flow of oil from the tank and a lever at the top to control the speed of the flow to the stove’s inside. On the side, a mesh door with a latch opened to the middle well, which had yet another door that hid the vat of oozing oil, soot and flames. A wide, corrugated pipe connected to the chimney, taking smoke outside.

We lit it by hand. Mama would  roll a long stretch of yesterday’s newspaper, scratch wooden matches against a box and ignite the paper. The tighter the roll, the slower the burn, and the more time for lighting the oozing oil rivulets. She would drop it into the vat. Five, ten minutes later, when we were sure the fire had caught, we plugged in the blower. The area around the stove grew toasty; the bedrooms, farther away, kept a chill. The floors of the uninsulated house never warmed; if you dared to walk in bare feet, you tempted cold the way Medusa tempted a glimpse.

My feet hit the hardwoods a few times each winter and the cold gnawed all the way to my knees.

I didn’t know any better, when I was small. Cold hardwoods and freezing feet were part of life in the winter.

“They went up, but they didn’t come down.” Mama gave me a child’s gaze. Damn Alzheimer’s.

I continued to tuck covers around her. The wind had subsided. The floors creaked, the only sound besides my steps, her words,  our breathing.

“You know it,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” We had learned to agree as much as possible; it avoided temper tantrums.

But her insistence nagged. What was she talking about? No telling. Alzheimer’s had settled into her brain and had begun its suction of logic, memory, reason. I thought about the first time we realized there was a problem. I was 15, and she had gotten lost on her way home. She’d walked everywhere, all the time. The supermarket, post office and her senior center were within two miles, and she visited each daily until that day – equally cold and unforgiving – a kind woman brought her home.

“She was at the mall,” the woman had said. Six miles away.

I heard the bump and gong-like sound of the oil tanker filling the drums outside.

“The oil men are here,” I told Mama. She nodded, blinked. Again, the child’s stare.

Minutes later, I turned the stove lever to high let the oil flow quickly. I rolled and lit newspaper, and dropped it into the well, praying it would catch. It did.

I returned to the kitchen, flipped the oven to “broil,” put a pot of soup on the stovetop and turned on a game show. As the soup warmed and the oven fought to heat the room, I realized CBS news had cut in with a breaking report.

The space shuttle Challenger had gone up, a beautiful arch into a crystalline blue sky.

And something went wrong.

January 28, 1986, and weeks before the house felt warm again.

The difference in your life and mine

Call me a voyeur.

I spend a lot of time watching people and trying to figure them out. For years, I sat in a newsroom and watched. I didn’t write full time for money back then, but I paid attention to nuance. The hubs watches doors and scans for shady characters, hidden weapons, undercover cops and escape routes. I study and stare and try to figure what’s going on behind the scenes.

So it’s a small jump to see I’ve always been somewhat on the fringe of things, a wallflower, and as I age, it’s become a good place to live, but it wasn’t always such. For a long time, I stayed over to the side because I was unhappy and figured everybody else was happier. My friends who had married parents and not a procession of boyfriends for mom, happier. The people who went out for brunch on Sundays, happier. The girls who could get their hair to feather just so, happier.

I drove the streets of my town, looking at houses and at the seemingly warm lighting behind the windows, wondering what went on in the homes. They all appeared cozy and safe. I learned then to distinguish between cool lighting and warm lighting, something that drives me to this day to test and replace with OCD lightbulbs and light fixtures. The warmer the lighting in the house, the happier the inhabitants, right?

I figured then that if we lived in one of those homes with the warm lighting, everything would be better. We would have heat that came from vents in the floors, and not from an oil-laden contraption that died once a winter and left us in the cold and that worked only in the immediate area and not in my back bedroom. We would laugh at dinner, tossing our heads back to roar with laughter, rather than eyeing each other with distrust and anger, or burying ourselves in books so we didn’t have to talk.

If we lived in those homes, I would have the perfect little tush because that’s what those houses made – not the derierre that I tried for years to eliminate.

People in those homes didn’t spend a summer reading headlines about Grandma’s manslaughter charges, or Thanksgiving and Christmas at the state prison. Their grandparents lived in a cottage that had the perfect amount of snow in the yard, the right types of chairs, a perpetual plate of non-caloric cookies on the table.

They didn’t hide from their great-grandma’s tirades, didn’t cringe and bury themselves in the back of the closets and listen to her plan, out loud, a fitting punishment, or beg her to stay when she threatened to die or simply leave home. They didn’t call the police on their family because the arguing had gotten so bad.

But now, more than ever, I realize that theory was so, so wrong, that the perfection was often my misinterpretation of fact, that because humans lived in those houses, and not iRobots, they, too, lay open to life and its unpredictable ways.

They, too, struggled with fears of abandonment. They, too, hid from parents and their fury. They, too, wished for a hug that was meaningful and not for show. They binged and purged. They shot up. Had sex too soon. Fought. Abused pills. They were beaten, bullied.  They wanted different bodies. Better skin. Or they really did have great lives and homes, made good decisions, lived in the glow. Or somewhere, usually, between the extremes. The difference in their lives and mine was only in the details.

In retrospect, what would I have changed?

I had it better than many and realize that now. A mom who, between bipolar episodes, saw to it that I became bilingual in French and English, had ballet lessons, music lessons, summer trips to see relatives. She let me, as a fourth-grade kid, drive the car when we visited cousins in the country. She encouraged questions about faith and didn’t judge anybody else. Eventually, there was a Grandpa who loved me and Grandma; he married her the day she got out of prison and they stayed married for almost 20 years. I had godparents and aunts, real uncles and cousins, and immense freedom, and a family that loved to tell me how cute my shape was and didn’t I want another slice of pie? And I know I don’t want to go to prison.

It’s not to say that everybody was unhappy. But it is worth saying that many people struggled through much and lived to tell the story. The difference in their lives and mine – in the details.

 

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.