The following pieces were two of my entries into the Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium writing contest.
Lena Bell’s Baby Boy was recognized with the Mark and Trish Estep Third Place Award for Essays.
This Old House was presented with the Darrell and Kathy Fleming First Place Award for Essays.
These are the first awards that I have received for work in my new life endeavor…and it’s kind of a big deal for me.
As always, thank you for your support of my work, but most of all, thank you for reading.
Lena Bell’s Baby Boy
My grandmother’s name was Lena Bell. My favorite photograph of her was taken in 1934, when she was just 17 years old. What I love most about this faded image is the smile behind her eyes and the mischievous way her lips are pursed, so evidently red, even in black and white. She knew a naughty joke or two did Miss Lena Bell. From stories that I have been told, and from my own experiences, I can assure you that my Gran was the epitome of a great Southern lady. She would never leave the.house without a girdle, a pair of heels, or a handkerchief. As she got older, and her diabetes worsened, she had to forego the heels, but illness never stopped her from being immaculately put together.
I can remember sitting on a swivel stool, watching while she styled her hair for church. She would stand in front of her favorite mirror, attaching a hair “rat” to the back of her head. The rat was a styling tool, a structured ring whose texture had softened and thickened as loose strands of her own hair were taken from her hairbrush, and over time, repeatedly wrapped around it. Her snow white hair would then be swept back over the rat, bobby pinned into a signature coiffure, and sprayed within an inch of its life. The effect was quite impressive.
I write about my family so frequently because it is only recently that I have come to recognize what a huge part they have played in the person that I have become. I loved my grandmother dearly, and I miss her terribly. I was Granny’s boy, and she went nowhere without me. My auntie likes to joke that, had my grandmother been alive when it was time for me to go away to college, she would not have allowed it. Or if she had, she would have enrolled herself at the same school, making sure to be assigned to a dorm room within spitting distance of wherever I happened to be living.
My favorite place to be, when I was very small, was sitting on the living room floor, right at her feet, in front of her blue rocking chair. I ate snacks there, I watched television there, and it was there that I felt the safest. Nothing could harm me when my grandmother was that near. I think that my need to stay so close to her had much to do with both of my parents leaving. When they divorced, and then both remarried, there was never a discussion of where I was to live. To this day, I am unsure whether my parents chose to leave me, or whether my grandparents wouldn’t allow them to take me. I like to think that Granny and Papa wanted me so badly that they couldn’t bear to part with me; however, as time goes on, I grow more certain that it was the former.
I attached myself to my grandmother and grandfather with a hopeless desperation that only an abandoned child can feel. If I sat on the sofa, instead of at Granny’s feet where I could wrap one arm around her leg, then I was too far away, and I couldn’t prevent her from leaving. If I slept in the same bed as my grandparents, then I would be able to reach out for them in the night, should I wake up frightened and unsure of
where I was. It was only then that I could be certain they would still be there in the morning. Surely, I would hear them during the night should they get up to leave. Often, my grandfather would lift me out
and return me to my own bed, but I always found my way back, snuggling.between them, with my little shoulders pressed against my grandmother’s back.
I think that children, on the whole, are underestimated. They are often described as resilient when talking about issues of divorce, loss, or death; however, too often they are discounted, or left out of the
conversation entirely. Profound damage can be inflicted upon children that are excluded from trying to understand changes that affect them. Children are so much more aware than they are given credit for.
As an adult, I see many of my own childhood fears returning. I tend to be clingy, and as time passes, my comfort level with change lessens. I have found a rhythm in how my life works now, and it has become very important for me to have that constant. When I was in my early twenties and thirties, working in professional theatre full-time, I would go almost anywhere they would take me. I worked from Vegas to Vero Beach, from Maine to Idaho, and I loved every minute. I have come to realize that my constant moving around was a defense mechanism created through losses in my childhood – the divorce of my parents, and the eventual deaths of my grandparents. You see, as an adult, if I kept moving, then I controlled who was allowed to get close. I controlled when it was time to leave. It became my game to win or lose, my choice to stay or go.
As a child, when things are taken away, and no explanation is given, a germ of doubt begins to grow, a small, dark tinge of uncertainty pokes through. Children ask so many questions, that after a time, the answers become automatic for the adults around them. “Why is water wet,Daddy?” “Where do flowers go in winter, Mommy?” “If Uncle Jeff can see me from heaven, why can’t I see him?” Those annoying little questions, asked over and over, “But why?” “But why?” I think it is simply an attempt to remove doubt, to quash the tinge of uncertainty. Children don’t understand, until they are taught to. If no time is taken, if no real answers are given, before you know it, they have grown into the restricted reality of, “That’s just the way it is. Stop asking so many questions.” But how magnificent it is to ask questions! I want to know about things all the time, new things, fun things, things I didn’t know I wanted to know! I read constantly, books, magazines, pickle jars, it doesn’t matter. I am constantly looking for something that I didn’t know before. Yesterday, I learned that there are 25,000 species of orchids found in the wild. 25,000! I also learned that there is a 40-foot stretch of Route 66 on permanent display in the Smithsonian. I am not sure how my new found knowledge will benefit me, but that doesn’t make me cherish it any less.
My own inquisitiveness comes from my grandmother. I think that for her, raising me, was on many levels, a house divided. She was torn between having me know the truth about my parents, and maintaining what was in the best interest of my scared little mind. I know that I asked an endless number of questions, about everything. I don’t necessarily remember, but I have been told. I also know what a pushy bastard I am today, so it leaves little doubt in my mind that my grandparents and my auntie spent much of their time breathless from how much I demanded to know.
I still demand answers constantly. The vast majority of the time, I don’t get them, but it sure as hell doesn’t stop me from asking. And I am never afraid to admit that I don’t have the answer. My grandmother when faced with question number 3,008 from her little boy, once said, “I don’t know the answers, but if we ask enough people, surely someone must know!” It was her way of telling cme to never stop asking, to never stop searching. Truth is universal, how we each arrive at its door is not.
This year I turned forty years old, but no matter how much time passes, or in what part of the world I find myself, I will always be that little boy sitting on a swivel stool; the cotton-haired, trembling child who held so tightly to Miss Lena Bell.
This Old House
The house that I live in is ninety years old. The original structure
was built in 1923, and my grandparents moved in after the end of World War II. My mother was born here in 1949, and died, in the same house, in 2008. This is where I grew up, raised by my grandparents and later my aunt, following my parents’ divorce. In his will, my grandfather left the house to her, and eventually, as part of an heirship it will belong to my older sister and to me. The building, of course, has seen numerous additions and improvements over the years. The kitchen was expanded, the wide front porch enclosed, a portion of which became part of the living room. One bedroom was converted into a dining room, two additional bedrooms
were added after my sister and I were born, and many years later, a wheelchair ramp was built when my auntie got sick. I have wonderful memories of this house, and I have a few terrible ones, as well.
Over the years it has been not just a home, but the white
clapboard, silent patriarch to several generations of my family. No matter where I have travelled, or in which of the eighteen different states I have resided, this house was here, waiting. I think, somehow, I knew, have always known, that I would come back. When I
graduated high school, knowing everything and absolutely nothing, I left for college – to study Theatre, to become an actor, to live a life in the arts! I was off to bigger, brighter, bolder things. I was ecstatic, I was pretentious, and I was oh so terribly young. I didn’t become a professional actor, primarily because I couldn’t really act.
Oh, I found work as an actor, on many occasions, but my heart wasn’t in it. Not really. Ultimately, I think I was just chasing an escape. Doing something for the wrong reasons is nearly as tragic as having never done them at all. I discovered other talents, though; other things that I have enjoyed, and in which I have succeeded.
As I get older, I am becoming more settled. The word comfort has become increasingly more important to me. A comfort in things, and in people. In memories. In home. Sometimes I touch things
around my house that remind me of my grandmother, standing places where she stood, remembered mostly through old photographs that I have inherited. I have her rolling pin, her cast iron skillet. Our kitchen has the same china cabinet with glass doors, where she hung
her mops and brooms from side clamps made of metal. The top-center flour bin pulls down, and still has a working, crank-sifter. At the foot of my bed sits her cedar chest, where I keep my great-grandmother’s quilts and it is my most prized possession.
This morning, I stood outside at about 5:30 am, smoking a
cigarette, waiting for my coffee to cool. Snow had fallen overnight, but the air had become warmer as dawn approached, and the snow from
the rooftop was beginning to melt. It was absolutely quiet, save the whirring central air unit of the duplex across the street, and a gentle, beating tattoo as the snow became water, and dripped into the gutter’s drain. I wondered what would become of the old house after I too, am
gone. Will my niece or nephew live here? They are twenty and twenty-three now; I still struggle to comprehend that. Perhaps it will be one of their children. They may choose to sell, or to tear down in order to build something new, more modern. I hope not. I hope that they will
return, as well. I wonder what stories they will tell, what dreams they will remember. What photographs will they cherish? Will they still know that the best cornbread in the world comes baked in my grandmother’s skillet? I wonder if they will teach one of their children to roll biscuits with her one-handled rolling pin. Will they one day find stacks of paper stashed away with the quilts? Discovering words that their odd uncle had written, on mornings like this when he couldn’t sleep, and would sit in a dim room, typing away, as he so often did, with only the house as company. I like to think so.
In the 1960s, several years before I was born, Dionne Warwick sang “A House is not a Home.” Luther Vandross shared the sentiment two decade later. But it is really, it certainly is a beginning. Pop-song sentiments
aside, this house is the place to which my grandparents lashed their dreams. My grandfather was 30 years-old when they moved here. Nearly a decade
younger than I am now. My auntie is now 76, but she was just a girl of ten when they began living here. I see her now, in the big comfy chair we bought
her, a chair I like to call “The Throne”, and I try to imagine her at that age. At ten years old, at Christmas or her birthday, on a Sunday morning, getting ready for church, helping to care for my infant mother.
These are the things that make a home, surrounded by white clapboard, and held together with the presence of terrible and wonderful things to come.