Category Archives: Memoir

Thanksgiving Memories

My mother always began preparations on Wednesday for our abundant home-cooked Thanksgiving feast with the main dish of turkey, ham, chicken, duck, or goose–sometimes more than one. Deviled eggs, black olives, pickles and cranberry sauce nestled among bowls brimming with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes or potato salad, and green beans. Mincemeat, apple, and sweet potato pies covered the kitchen counter. Occasionally, a fresh coconut cake towered over the pies, giving it bragging rights. Mama made room for other side dishes brought by my married siblings just before noon. Papa was serious about the precise time. We ate at noon by his pocket watch—not one minute earlier or later.

The adults sat with Papa around the food-laden table in the dining room. Mama seated the younger children at the square drop-leaf table in the kitchen. I ate in the living room with my twin sister and nieces and nephews our age, balancing our plates on our knees. Mama served everyone first and ate later. After lunch, the women washed and dried dishes. Children played on the covered porch. Men gathered in the tiny living room to talk. A couple of my brothers drifted outside for an afternoon smoke, forbidden inside our home.

The night before Thanksgiving, the smell of chicken frying in a cast-iron skillet wafted from the kitchen. The sweet smell of fried apple turnovers replaced the aroma of baking pies. I listened from the open doorway as my parents talked about working on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, no! It can’t be! 

The next morning after breakfast, Mama packed the refrigerated chicken and turnovers in a sturdy cardboard box with eating utensils. She covered it with a tablecloth just as Frank, my oldest brother, arrived to take us to work.

I stepped down from the old Model A Ford running board. On the ground, I pulled the strap of my cotton sack over my head and under my left arm and shook eight feet of canvas between two rows of late-blooming white cotton basking in the early morning sun.

Five minutes before twelve, Mama stopped picking and spread the tablecloth on a patch of flat ground. Papa removed his hat, wiped his perspiring forehead with a handkerchief and checked his pocket watch. At noon he nodded to Frank to say a blessing for the food.

“Thank you, Lord, for family gathered here on this Thanksgiving Day. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies so we can finish this field before dark. Bless the farmer who allowed us to work today. Prosper him abundantly for his kindness. Amen.”

Bless the farmer? Without him we’d be home heaping our plates with turkey and dressing and eyeing the tantalizing desserts, not eating cold fried chicken in a cotton field. My complaining thoughts were interrupted by my nephew’s voice.

“Please pass another piece of Grandma’s fried chicken,” he said. “It’s the best I ever ate. And, could you hand me a couple more fried apple pies. Grandma knows how to make them just right.”

The next year, the Wednesday cooking rituals returned to our home. About thirty of us gathered around the dining room at five minutes before twelve. My father checked his pocket watch. At precisely noon, he bowed his head and gave thanks for the abundant meal. While children waited for their plates to be filled before moving to the kitchen to eat, adult talk turned to the previous Thanksgiving meal in the cotton field. One of my brothers mentioned Frank’s prayer.

“No more picking cotton for that farmer. He did so well after that prayer, he bought a cotton-picking machine and put all of us out of work.”

 

 

Posted at 12 noon, Pacific Standard Time, Thanksgiving Day, in honor of my father’s pocket watch time.

Disclosure: Revised third annual post, my Thanksgiving tradition, adapted from my original story in Double Take (Carr Twins & Co., 2014).

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Apparitions – Ghost Riders or Ghostwriters

“Riders in the Sky” was written and recorded by Stan Jones accompanied by the Death Valley Rangers  (Mercury 1949). Jones, the composer, drifted away, shrouded by ghostly cowboys floating into obscurity when Vaughn Monroe’s RCA recording became more popular.

Ghostwriters (GW) are another secret veiled by the clouds. Their roles vary. Sometimes a GW  interviews a person about specific events and shapes them into a blob of words that eventually becomes an inspirational book. Sometimes the ghostwriter begins with another person’s notes or ideas and whittles them into a memoir or self-help book. Sometimes a ghostwriter cuts and clips a poorly written fiction manuscript and embellishes it until it gleams like a cowboy’s silver belt buckle. That—and payment—are his reward because the published book wears the name of the fictitious writer.

“But that’s cheating,” you say.

The ghostwriter says it’s payment for work similar to writing a technical report, or create advertising copy while freelancing or salaried by a company. I say it’s like picking cotton.

 

Property of Violet Carr Moore

My father approved of producing without bragging rights. We picked cotton for pennies per pound. Father carried the stuffed ten-foot canvas cotton sacks over his shoulder to the hanging scales. He penciled the weight in a notebook, deposited it back into the pocket of his work shirt, and hoisted the bag onto his shoulder again. He climbed a wooden ladder resting against a wire-sided trailer and emptied the sack onto puffy fiber from other laborers. The owner towed the overstuffed trailer to a gin where it was baled with cotton from other farmers. The gin sold the bales to a textile maker which produced bolts of fabric with their brand printed in the selvage (My father would have said selvedge, the  British spelling, but he had no interest in sewing—that was woman’s work.) My mother bought yardage from the local Five and Dime and made my clothes. From the remnants, she pieced quilts. The cotton we picked in it’s refined stage clothed and warmed us.

Today, I salute Donald Bain (March 6, 1935 – October 26, 2017), the ghostwriter of the “Murder She Wrote” novels accredited to Jessica Fletcher, the Margaret Truman Capital Crime series, and many other ghostwritten books. In 2003, he published Lights Out with his name embellished above the title on the front cover. That brought Mr. Bain out of anonymity into the spotlight. Now he receives recognition as the original books are republished with his name on the covers, but there may be a few still clothed in secrecy, like the cotton my family picked that wore another name.

Yi-pi-yi-ay, yi-pi-yi-o!

 

 

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Safest Place to Live away from Natural Disasters-by an information junkie

Julie commented about the safest place away from natural disasters in my September 4 blog, “Riding out the storm-don’t try this at home.” That post focused on surviving natural disasters include earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires. The top three states for hurricanes are Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, but hurricane damage has extended past the Carolinas up the eastern coast to New Jersey.

Let’s look at the states most known for tornadoes. Stay away from Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado, Iowa, Alabama, Missouri, and Mississippi.

You read about my brush with the California 1970 Laguna Wildfire. Raging infernos like that seem common in the West, but Fire Science shows Alaska as the leader with more than 19 million acres burned since 2002. Texas is second, Idaho third, followed by California in fourth place. Safe states now down to 29 (Texas is already on the hurricane and tornado list).  I witnessed an Arizona wildfire from the safety of Tucson. Even that had a touch of humor.

The mountain view was spectacular through a floor-to-ceiling wall of bronzed glass windows behind the pulpit and choir area. I was frequently distracted by a climber picking his way to the top on Sunday mornings. One evening, a blazing fire lit the hill. Apparently I wasn’t the only one distracted by the flames. About ten minutes into the sermon, the minister turned to face the fire. “Since all of you are watching the fire, I will too,” he said. We stared at his back until he finished his topic.

Statistically, every one of the 50 states has been touched by wildfires since 2002. Even Hawaii has a tiny count of 29 acres. Most of these natural disasters occur in the summer, so that might still give you a peaceful winter. Depends on where you choose to live.

My mother told me about inching her way along a rope tied from the house to the barn to feed the animals during a Oklahoma blizzard years ago. They’re part of winter the Midwest and Great Plains. If you don’t like whiteouts, scratch all those states.

Flood records are not as reliable because they’re often associated with other disasters.  I survived the 1983 flood in Livingston Parish, Louisiana—alone again through most of the rising waters. But that’s another stormy weather story.

More than 8,000 earthquakes have shifted California in the last year, many so insignificant they don’t make the news like Sylmar in my previous post.

Where or where can we hide? One website has narrowed the safest place from natural disasters in the US to a single city. Syracuse, New York. But I don’t like heavy rain—more than 40 inches a year there—and I don’t like cold weather—only four months with temps above 70.

 

I’ll take my chances here in California.

 

 

 

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Riding out the storm-don’t try this at home

I moved from sunny Southern California to Louisiana the first time in 1962 when my husband—I’ll call him Bill for privacy reasons—was discharged from the military. I disliked the year-round rains. My first brush with a hurricane three years later churned deeper emotions of fear and hate.

We lived about 300 miles north of the predicted landfall location of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, so I expected heavy rains. I could get through it with Bill’s help. But he was sent to the devastated coastal area to restore electrical utilities. I was home alone. I mopped up water from incessant rain that oozed in around the windows, ran down the walls, and puddled on the floor.

I breathed easy when we moved back to California in the late sixties —nothing to fear but wildfires winds and earthquakes. The Santa Ana winds dropped ashes from the 1970 Laguna Fire in our yard in Irvine, but no sparks. The Sylmar quake the next year shook me out of bed, but no major damage. One evening two years later, Bill said, “It’s getting too crowded here—too many people—we’re going home.”

“Home” was a disappointment. Low-paying jobs, heat, humidity, and unending rains filled my days. We moved to Southeast Louisiana where the pay was better but the rains were worse. Then we met Hurricane Andrew, a projected Category 5 hurricane in 1992. “Don’t worry,” Bill said, “it’ll slow down once it hits Florida. All we’ll get is  rain.”  Andrew swept westward. We were in the direct path.

Andrew strengthened back to a Category 5, then downgraded as he stormed our way. The voluntary evacuation order came to our parish (county to all you who aren’t familiar with Louisiana vocabulary). I left work in Baton Rouge and crept toward home in the outbound traffic. Bill was nailing sheets of plywood over the windows. “Are you almost ready to go?” I asked. “If I don’t stay looters will take all my shop tools. Gonna ride it out,” he said.

I would have felt safer in the truck high above flooded streets, but I tossed my tote and a bag of snacks in my sedan. In case Mississippi hotels were full, I added a sleeping bag, a pillow, and bottled water for shelter survival. Weather news said Andrew had slowed to a Category 4 when it hit the Bahamas. “No sense paying an extra hotel night,” Bill said. “Wait till tomorrow and see what happens.” The next morning, voluntary evacuation was replaced by a shelter-in-place order.

I peeked through silver duct tape crisscrossed on the kitchen door window panes. A neighboring pine bent double in obeisance to Andrew, the 80-foot tall branches touching our gravel driveway before returning upright, only to repeat the same bow. My view of the front yard through the kitchen window showed the ancient oak standing its ground. Between peeks outside, I hovered near the television watching the devastation Andrew had left in his path—until the lights flickered and we were left in the dark.

Without electricity we had no water from the subdivision well. We were campers, so we had prepared. We brought in buckets of rainwater from the wooden barrel for the bathrooms. We turned on the portable radio. We set up the Coleman camp stove. That evening we ate by light of the Coleman lantern. Sleeping in the heat of a boarded-up home was impossible. We soon used the last of the dozen radio batteries and the propane canisters. Then the phone died. We were cut off from everybody—our wise neighbors had evacuated.

The morning after Andrew moved on, we stood on the front porch, sheltered from the heavy rain, accessing the damage. A downed power line entangled in a massive limb severed from the strong oak sprawled across our driveway near the street. Bordered by a deep drainage ditch, we were still captives.

After a frustrating week, the rain stopped, and a utility crew arrived on our street. Their small gas-powered saw was no match for the oak limb. The saw stalled, then the chain broke. They borrowed our chain saw. My husband offered to do the first cuts. “That oak is tough,” he said. They refused citing insurance liability. He stepped back while they powered up his replacement. They made a few cuts before they broke his saw.

There were no looters in our country neighborhood. The chain saw was the only loss.

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July 4 Celebration

My mother was afraid of deep water, a fear she transmitted to me early on. In spite of that, my married siblings insisted on celebrating Independence Day fishing from the banks of the San Joaquin River or picnicking beside a clear stream in the foothills. It was a break for adults to escape a mundane workday and for kids to have fun splashing in the water. Mama kept a watchful eye on me. If I ventured into water above my knees, she waded beside me and kept a firm grip on the back of my clothes. All that changed on July 4, 1954.

That morning, we dressed in our finest, buckled our polished shoes, and walked to church. My brother, Frank, and his family were there when we arrived. His youngest son, James Henry, sat in a far corner, arms folded across his chest, head down.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked Homer, his teen brother.

“He wanted to go to the river today, but Dad made us come to church.”

“Same for us,” I said. “Church comes first on Sundays. James should know that.”

“We always go to the river on his birthday, so coming to church today was bad enough. Then things got worse.” Homer looked toward James. “He’s nine today and he just found out that all this time we’ve been celebrating Independence Day on July 4, not his birthday.”

 

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Type-ins for Writers

Type-ins are the newest writing frenzy according to Associated Press News (AP) . Writers, poets, and typewriter enthusiasts gather to click keys and roll out paper originals. Could this no-screen craze be the next eye-saver?

Mr. Clyde Quick, my high school typing teacher, agreed. He insisted that his students focus on an oversized keyboard poster centered above the chalkboard to learn touch typing. “Look up,” was his first mantra. His second was, “Keep your hands on the home row.”

My hands hovered above the keyboard of a manual Underwood desk typewriter, left index fingertip touching the “F” key and right index finger on “J,” ready for “Begin.” Later, when the tests were timed for Word per Minute (WPM) achievement awards, Mr. Quick held his stopwatch high and added a little frenzy to the race with “Go!”

Now and then I was fortunate enough to grab a seat behind a manual Royal —much smoother touch than the Underwood.  One morning, two new typewriters, one Royal and one Underwood, shined atop the table in the last row, strategically placed to avoid tripping over the cords plugged into a nearby electrical wall socket. The typewriters weren’t assigned, so the athletic sprinters beat me to those seats most of the time. One day, with an admonition from Mr. Quick to let every student have a chance, it was my turn on the Royal with green keys. No extra pressure for the pinkies to produce a clean, even text. The short return carriage lever made right margin end-of-the-line faster. I fell in love with my first taste of technology. Returning to the stiff manual typewriter was difficult, but it had a side benefit. The electric typewriters were off-limits for achievement tests. I was one of the few who received the coveted 60 WPM level with no errors on a manual Underwood.

Long after my school days, I bought a portable Smith Corona, then upgraded to a full-size IBM Selectric. I was fascinated with the interchangeable typeball fonts and added several to my collection. The Selectric self-correcting feature was fabulous. I pressed a special backspace key, and the letter lifted off the printed page, ready for the correct keystroke.

Thanks to Mr. Quick’s fairness and my few sessions on that electric Royal typewriter, I embraced technology. Now, decades later, I’ve abandoned paper markups to edit on screen with Microsoft Word tracking feature. I delete, insert, or move text and add side comments to the author with soft clicks.

I still follow Mr. Quick’s advice and keep my fingers on the home row of my Dell laptop. His advice to “Look Up” means keep my eyes on the screen.

 

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A Different Kind of Mayday

Mayday is the universal emergency distress signal. Every pilot or captain knows the word but hopes to never have to utter Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Long ago, or as some fairy tales begin, once upon a time, May Day was a happy occasion. Near the end of April, Mrs. Buffington, my first-grade teacher, distributed construction paper, scissors, and glue. She showed us how to fold the paper into a triangle or a diagonal shape, somewhat like a flattened ice cream cone. When the glue dried, she punched a hole on either side with an awl. If the hole wasn’t large enough for the ribbon pieces she had cut for handles, she pushed a sharpened #2 lead pencil point up to the yellow paint. When the dismissal bell rang, I took my basket home, eager to surprise an unsuspecting neighbor on May Day—sometimes called May Basket Day.

Early on the morning of May 1, my mother gathered a few spring flowers still wet with dew, cut the stems the right length to stand up in my basket, and arranged them so the paper wouldn’t tear when I hung the basket.  Off I went, skipping diagonally across the street where an elderly lady lived. My goal was to make a clean getaway and peek around our front boxed hedges to see her delight. I hung the basket on the uncooperative screen door handle and pressed the doorbell. I pivoted, hopped down the steps, and ran like a wild banshee—a term one of my nephews assigned to my gallop—arms flapping like a baby bird trying to get airborne.

Before I reached the street, a voice behind me stopped me. (Who knew old people could get to the door that quick?) I turned back. She stood in the doorway without noticing the basket dangling sideways on the screen door. “I caught you,” she said. “Why are you ringing my doorbell so early and running away?” I had to go back, take the basket off the door, and hold it up where she could see the flowers.

The next May Day, a wise second-grader, I chose our next door neighbor as my target. I hung the flower-filled paper basket, hit the doorbell, and high-tailed it across the wet grass home. Mission accomplished.

I never knew if they found the basket before the flowers wilted from the heat because I couldn’t see their front door from my safe hiding place on our front porch.

 

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