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You Never Know When the Last Time Is

Mama died 30 years ago on June 10, 1987. From the time of her diagnosis to her dying was 31 days. The doctor predicted she had months to live, but once she knew it was over, she gave in to the process.

She gave me many gifts. The last gift she gave me was during that last month, in the early days when she could still talk. She said, ‘I want you to know I’ve had a happy life. I’ve been happy.’ And she had — in spite of all the reasons I felt she had not to be happy. She was a happy person, she was born happy, she lived happy. In my mind’s eye, she’s always laughing. Whenever she appears in my dreams, she’s laughing and telling me what a good time she’s having.

I spent her last month with her. That, too, was a gift — just the two of us most of the time in that house on Jackson Street. The day lilies in the back yard were blooming. Green had taken over our neighborhood. Everything outside was trying to live, bloom, grow. Inside, Mama was dying.

I wrote the following poem about the last Saturday of her life, June 6, 1987. I didn’t know it was the last Saturday. I learned then and I learn over and over that you never know when the last time is.

Soppy Biscuits

She had a brain tumor but was lucid
She could speak only with her eyes
but they could express what there was
left to express

It was her last Saturday morning
but I didn’t know it.
To surprise her
I made soppy biscuits —
biscuits crumbled into sweet, milky coffee —
something her father made for her
when she was an adored, black-haired child
in a family of red-headed Irish.
He took her on his lap
spoon fed her soppy biscuits,
her reward
for being his favorite.

I made the biscuits, sweetened the coffee,
poured in some heavy cream.
When I said, ‘Mama,
I made you soppy biscuits’
her eyes let me know
she remembered her own story
and was grateful I’d remembered.
I crumbled those biscuits
into the caramel-colored coffee
held her up off the bed
moved a spoonful to her mouth
She took one bite
let it linger in her mouth
swallowed
lay back on the bed
closed her eyes.
Were those tears?
Did she know?

Did she know
I was the living daughter and
the dead father at once
joining her two worlds:
The one she was about to leave
And the one she was soon to join.

© 2017 Dorothy Kirk

 

 

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Why Do I Tell So Many Stories About Dead People?

People ask why I tell so many stories about dead people. I realize that in excavating my past, I uncover stories about those I’ve loved, even those I didn’t know but who were loved by the people I love. I have a story about my grandmother, Cornelia, who died when my mother was ten. I didn’t know her but my mother did and grieved all her life over the loss of her mother.

I tell stories about the dead people because they live in my memory. I think of them every day. They’re no longer physically here but they live in my stories.

Through my stories, I am connected to them, all of them: Mama, Daddy, my brother Sonny, Lelia Butcher, her sister Lousie, my grandmother Nanny Kirk, Virgie, Bill, Cornelia, Obediah, ….. the list grows longer.

Last night I listened to an interview with Krista Tippet and Pauline Boss. Dr. Boss, a psychologist, believes there’s no such thing as ‘closure’ when it comes to connections between people. Nor should there be. Dr. Boss said, ‘keeping deceased loved ones in your heart and mind, like a sword of psychological family, can be rich in meaning.’

She goes on to articulate what is true for me: ‘Once you have had an attachment, you cannot cut it off entirely. It is part of your being. It is part of who you are.’

This is why.

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Chestnut Hill Contemplations

Last week a friend mentioned that her book club had been discussing Lee Smith’s memoir Dimestore, a Writer’s Life. She recommended Dimestore to me knowing I’m writing a book, Chestnut Hill Stories, about my life growing up in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Salisbury, NC, in the 40’s and 50’s .

Lee Smith grew up Southern, a contemporary of mine having been born in 1944, one year later than I. She grew up in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia. I grew up a couple of hundred miles south of Grundy in Salisbury, North Carolina, a small town dominated by mills and agriculture. Salisbury was bigger than Grundy and we always had the sun in our yard in the early morning. The high mountains ringing Grundy meant the sun didn’t reach her family’s yard until 11 in the morning and disappeared long before sunset. Salisbury had the sun all day.

Dimestore is a collection of personal stories, loosely strung together. The connection between some of the stories is weak and I ask ‘why did she include this one?’ The only answer I can come up with is that she had it. It was a ready-made story. In chemistry, there is the concept of a ‘weak bond’ between molecules. Smith’s stories had weak bonds between them.

I hoped I could learn from Lee Smith, a successful writer. I’ve been reading memoirs and other books of collected personal stories to learn the best way to organize and connect my stories. I don’t want Chestnut Hill Stories to be book of standalone, unrelated stories. I want the book to be an integrated whole, the stories connected as though by an invisible thread. The connection needs to be organic, natural, unforced. If my reader asks, ‘why did she include this story,’ then I’ve failed even though the story may be a good and enjoyable one.

The connective tissue can be invisible to the reader just as our bodies’ connective tissue is invisible. You can’t see the bones, the tendons, the fascia but you can’t stand up or move if they’re not there. I’ve been experimenting with connective tissue in my stories. I used to depend solely on transitions but transitions can be clunky, and they’re often forced and trite as in ‘and that leads me to ….’ If it really did lead me to, then I wouldn’t have to say so.

Sometimes the arrangement of the stories is the connective tissue. If, for example, I choose a chronological presentation, the relationship of the stories in time is all the connection I need. Sometimes the theme or subject can be the connection but often that’s not enough. In my next storytelling performance, I’m telling several love stories, but as these stories span more than a century, subject alone is not enough to bind the stories into a whole.

I’m looking for something — an image, a metaphor, a conceit — something so integral to the story that my audience won’t recognize it as connective tissue. Also, I want it to be something they’ll always think of when they think of my stories.

I considered the old Chestnut Hill Cemetery where I used to play as a child. The graves, many of which are more than two-hundred years old, are sheltered and protected by some of the most massive and beautiful trees in town. These towering trees keep the rain off the graves, shade the graves from the sun, and comfort the mourners. The Chestnut Hill Cemetery looks like a park, and it functioned as a park to me when I was a child. The cemetery had a wonderful pond surrounded by big rocks I could climb on. The pond had a re-circulating fountain. I loved that pond and would pedal my bicycle to the cemetery to sit on the rocks and watch the water flow over them.

In many ways, the Chestnut Hill Cemetery is a perfect symbol for the neighborhood it gives its name to, but the Chestnut Hill Cemetery might lead me down the trite path of standing over graves and telling the stories of the people buried there. My parents, grand parents, great-grandparents are buried there as are Mrs. Butcher and Louise, their mother, Nancy Ritchie. Other neighbors and friends are buried there. I can’t walk through the cemetery without seeing the graves of people I knew, people I loved, and people about whom I could tell a story. But the Chestnut Hill Cemetery won’t be the connective tissue for my book.

One of my favorite books to which I often return for inspiration is Invisible Lines of Connection by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It’s ironic that I love this book so much because the lines of connection between his stories are so invisible that he has to take the first chapter, Stamp Collecting, to explain how the stories are all connected. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter as the stories themselves are such a pleasure that I want to quickly get to the next one. I don’t need a vine to swing on from one story to next. Meaning is the connective tissue, and meaning is the hardest connective tissue to create.

Yet, Kushner tries for what I’m looking for: a symbol, an image that provides the connection. His image comes from his uncle’s stamp collection and his boyhood surprise when he learns that an imperfect stamp his uncle prizes, a mistake, an airplane flying upside down, is worth far more money than all the perfect stamps in his uncle’s collection. It’s the stamp’s rare and unique imperfection that makes it desired and valuable. As Kushner is a rabbi, he knows that all humans are imperfect. The rare, imperfect stamp with value exceeding perfection is his connective tissue. The cover of Invisible Lines of Connection is a picture of the 24-cent stamp with the upside-down bi-plane, which is called an inverted Jenny. ______________________________________________________________

 

Footnote: One inverted Jenny stamp sold at auction in November 2007 for $977,500.

 

 

 

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Mr. Sloop and the Slop Bucket

To prepare for my show in May, I’m mining my memory for details to enrich the narrative. Sometimes I come up with funny nuggets. Here’s one from my recent exploration. Tell me if you find it as funny as I do. I giggle every time I remember this.

I grew up decades ago in the 40’s and 50’s when life was so different as to be unrecognizable today to people younger than 55. One difference is that we had a butter and egg man who delivered fresh milk, butter and eggs from his farm to our neighborhood once a week. His name was Mr. Sloop. I still remember the incredibly delicious buttermilk he delivered. It was unlike any of that slimy stuff you buy in the grocery store today. He made it from the milk his cows produced. It had bits of butter the size of rice grains all through it. I could drink an entire glass without stopping and since it wasn’t water, Mrs. Butcher thought that was fine. (See my story, Half a Glass of Water.)

Women in the neighborhood saved their food scraps and leftovers for Mr. Sloop. He fed these leftovers, which everyone called ‘slop,’ to his pigs. Mrs. Butcher had a sealed container in her outside shed that was her ‘slop bucket.’ Each week after he delivered his butter and eggs Mr. Sloop collected the slop the women saved for him wherever they kept their slop bucket. Most didn’t keep it in the house proper because of the smell.

At some point, Mr. Sloop’s wife died. He kept his farm going and continued delivering his butter and eggs and collecting slop for his pigs. One difference now was that the older widows took more interest in Mr. Sloop. Slop or no slop, he was a catch. I remember him … he was personable, nice looking, fun, and he had a very successful farm. Any number of women would have liked to be his wife. And one of them on my block of South Jackson St. snagged Mr. Sloop – Mary Hahn, my best friend Delores’s grandmother.

At some point, Mr. Sloop stopped delivering butter and eggs and women stopped saving their food scraps for the slop bucket. It was a hard habit to break for some. My aunt Dorothy kept a slop bucket for leftovers, food scraps the the like until the day she died in 2008. What did she do with it since no one like Mr. Sloop wanted the slop? She did what logic dictated: when the bucket got full, she emptied it into the garbage bin.

Hahahaha!

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You Never Change; You Always Change

I listen to Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast in which she interviews someone usually about spiritual matters. Her interviews make me think. Often I mull over what was said for a couple of days or longer. The best ones stay with me.

Recently I listened to her interview with Alain de Botton who wrote the article, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, the most popular NY Times article of 2016.

The interview and his article bring stories to mind. The first ones are of my parents. They were in love but totally unsuited. He was deeply introverted (INFP) and avoided groups while she was an extreme extrovert (ESFP) and loved parties. But they stayed together through their ups and downs. Neither ever stopped thinking the other one would one day change. Mama thought she could change Daddy into a man who loved parties, people, dancing – all the things she loved. He thought that one day she’d settle down and not need to socialize so much. They each changed, of course, but not in the way the other wanted.

When I was in my 30’s, they were having some difficulties of which I was unaware until my cousin Louella phoned and said my parents needed me. She said Mama was staying with her and didn’t want to go home. What?

I drove to Salisbury from Atlanta and talked with both of them but neither could tell me what the issue was and I didn’t press. I didn’t want to know. I wanted them to know I loved them and was there if they needed me.

I remember talking to my father …. very uncomfortably … about what was going on. He looked at me and after a pause said , ‘your mother just isn’t the same girl I married.’

I don’t know if he saw the shock on my face. I didn’t say what I was thinking which was ‘my God, did you expect her to stay a 22-year old girl forever?’

Mama came back home and life resumed. I went back to Atlanta having never learned what made Mama camp out with Louella. Maybe Mama woke up one morning and realized she’d married the wrong person. But luckily she wasn’t twenty-two years old and starry eyed. She knew they loved each other and had a life together. Still …. neither gave up on the idea the other would change.

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Upcoming Show May 20 at Tryon Fine Arts Center

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Daddy’s Birthday

daddy-10007Were he living, my father would’ve celebrated his one hundredth birthday yesterday. He was born Oct. 1, 1916 to Virley Maxwell Kirk and Arnold Burtis Clay Kirk. He was their third child and his mother was just twenty-one. She would go on to have six more children.

I celebrate his birth every day in my memory. No one had more influence on me. As a little girl, I thought he was the handsomest man in the world. Then as I grew up, I thought he was the smartest man in the world.

He didn’t care much for celebrating his birthday. He never indulged himself, didn’t splurge, seldom took a day off. But on his birthday he would allow himself one minor pleasure: he’d come home from work and watch the World Series game when one happened to fall on his birthday as it often did in the 1950’s when the World Series was played in early October during the day, not late October at night like today.

I remember walking home from Wiley school, seeing Daddy’s car outside and being so excited to see him. I’d walk in and there he’d be relaxing (something he seldom did) on the sofa, smoking a cigarette, watching the Brooklyn Dodgers/NY Yankees game. He was a Yankees fan so of course, I was, too.

On October 1, 1952, in the opening game of the series, the Dodgers beat the Yankees although the Yankees won the series. On October 1, 1953, the Yankees beat the Dodgers 4 to 2. Knowing the family love of gambling, Daddy probably had money on the Yankees. True to form, after the game was over, Daddy went back to work. It would be too indulgent to make a day of it.

Baseball and boxing were the only two sports he enjoyed watching. Live boxing was televised on Monday nights and he’d watch the matches with great concentration. Or was he pretending to watch while lost in thoughts about something else given he, too, was an INFP.

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Get On the Elevator

I was staying on the top floor of a large resort hotel on an island. I was going out for the evening as were many other guests. As I walked to the bank of elevators, I could see the area was full of guests dressed for an evening out. There was a lot of movement and as I got closer, I could see that they were all agitated and losing their patience. They were pacing and complaining about the slow elevators. Some were quite angry that they were going to miss their engagements.

This hotel had taken a novel approach with its elevators – each elevator was labeled with a specific destination. There was one elevator if you were going out for dinner, another if you were going to the theater, another if you were going to take a boat tour, and another if you were going shopping. There were many possibilities but each had its own elevator. People had to know where they were going before they chose an elevator.

This evening none of the elevators to the popular destinations were working. My fellow guests were getting perturbed … they would be late for their engagements. I was about to panic myself when I realized something they were all missing. I tried telling them but they were so agitated that they didn’t grasp what I was saying.

An elevator came for a destination none of us wanted. It was certainly not in my plan for the evening but I jumped on and motioned for the others to join me. None of them would because it wasn’t going where they wanted to go. The elevator doors shut and in a few seconds, I arrived at the main lobby level and took off for my original destination.

What I had realized and tried to tell the others was that all elevators, regardless of their labeled destination, went non-stop to the main lobby level. It didn’t matter which elevator one took, this first part of the journey, the elevator ride, would be the same. Every elevator arrived at a common destination where people could then choose to go to the restaurant, the theater, the island, or to the shopping district. They didn’t have to decide their destination at the top floor. They could wait until one path diverged into many to decide.

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Are My Stories True?

People often ask whether my stories are true, not because they doubt my honesty but because they doubt my memory. I always respond that yes, my stories are true. But given that my stories are spun from my memory and that my memory is a mystery that seems to work independently of me, saying they’re true stories is to flex the meaning of truth.

William Maxwell, the famous editor of The New Yorker, describes this relationship between memory and truth:

‘What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.’ ~ William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

Like Maxwell, I don’t believe in ‘truth’ when it comes to narrative. Even when we profess to be ‘telling the truth’ and believe we’re telling the truth, our minds are selective. We choose, we eliminate, we trim, we enhance, we transition, we tone down, we fire up, and we fill in the gaps. Were my brother, mother, or father alive, upon hearing my stories, they’d say, ‘Oh, no, Dottie Jean, that’s not how it was. This is how it was.’

Storytelling goes on continually in my mind and has for all my life. I tell new stories that have recently gelled into narrative and I retell old stories. I take my stories out and polish them much as I’d polish cherished family silver. This polishing has given some of my stories a patina that makes my life seem more orderly and structured than it’s been. That’s because I’ve resolved the emotional conflicts in these stories.

According to Maxwell, resolving emotional conflicts is the purpose of the storyteller. I agree. Maxwell’s not saying we need to sentimentalize  the story, water it down, or turn it into a Hallmark Card. No, we need to redeem the meaning from the unacceptability of life and present this meaning in our stories. That’s my job in telling true stories.

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Will the Circle Be Unbroken

The night Mama died, she was at home. She had gone into a coma which the doctor said would be the final stage. I had been with her for the last few weeks of her life. Once she knew nothing more could be done for her, she seemed to want to get it all over. She was rushing to meet death. That night, a nurse staying at the house asked me and my cousin Jeanette to go buy aspirin suppositories because Mama had a fever. It was after 9 pm and we couldn’t find an open drugstore. Desperate, we drove to the pharmacist’s house (this was a small North Carolina town where this was possible). By the time we returned, Mama had died. 

I was upset I hadn’t been there with her when she died. Because she died so soon after we drove away, I suspected the need for aspirin suppositories was something the nurse dreamed up to get me out of the house. The nurse recognized signs I couldn’t so she knew Mama was close to death. Maybe she thought Mama wouldn’t let go if I were in the house. Maybe she was trying to spare me from seeing Mama actually die. I don’t know but I’ve never forgiven her. Had I been less stressed I would’ve refused to leave the house.

The preacher was the first person to arrive. He and I stood by Mama’s bed. I was sobbing. He told me that if I lived my life in Christ, I would see her again. Those words were no comfort to me.

Close to midnight, the funeral home people came to pick up Mama’s body. I saw them come in the front door and walk to the where I was standing. Their dark suits and somber expressions freaked me out. I said to Jeanette, “My God, they look like undertakers!” She looked at me in an odd way and said gently as though I were in need of being carefully handled, ‘well, of course, they are.’

I still didn’t understand, had not yet accepted reality. I asked the men if they could leave and come back in the morning for Mama. Did they have to take her so soon, I asked. Jeanette, the preacher, the men in the dark suits with the somber expressions seemed embarrassed for me. Then I realized that something incredibly final had happened. Of course, Mama couldn’t stay until morning.

I was unprepared for the depth and intensity of my grief after her death. It was a daily assault. I had no tools for handling it. I didn’t know how to express it, how to move beyond it, how to live with it. One song got me through this time: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I had a version by the Sisters of Glory that I love, and I played it over and over. I marched around the room singing, crying, and beating on my tambourine. I sang loudly. Maybe I even wailed. And I didn’t just do this once and my grief was gone. It became my daily ritual. Sometimes still, 29 years later, I still repeat this ritual of grief.Lois 1960