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Be Quiet!

I  was five years old when I started school. There was no such thing as kindergarten in rural Mississippi back then, so thanks to my December birthday I started first grade at age five. To be honest, I don’t remember much about first grade, but I do remember two things.

One, at some point I was given a printed-out copy of a drawing of a Scottie dog to color. With due diligence, I colored said Scottie perfectly, completely black … with a red collar. I recall someone – new teacher? mom? – saying something along the lines of “That’s not very cheerful.” To which I replied, more or less, “It’s a Scottie dog. They’re black.” This continued for a bit with comments about bright colors and comments about yes, but it’s a Scottie dog and they’re black.

I would not be moved.

So that’s the first thing I remember from first grade. I had a tendency to be stubborn and could be argumentative. And I knew, dang it, that Scottie dogs were black.

The second thing I remember from first grade is that I got in trouble a fair amount, and always for the same thing – talking.

Don’t talk.

Be quiet.

Stop talking.

Sit in the hall until I say you can come back in.

Give me your hand (for the ruler swat).

Always about talking. I made perfect grades, did whatever I was told, was a class leader, read all the time, but still played sports on the playground at recess. But I liked to talk, and it kept me in trouble through my whole first year’s encounter with formal education.

At some point in that first-grade year, I decided that talking just wasn’t worth the trouble, so I shut up. I didn’t really speak in school much for the next 12 years. I wrote. I talked to my cat, and to my short-term dog. I talked to myself, while wandering the fields and woods around my home. But I didn’t talk in school.

Talking has always been my Achilles’ heel. I like to talk with people. It made me a pretty decent reporter, and a more than okay teacher, but it just keeps me in trouble with people who don’t talk much.

I talk too much. I blab on. I babble.

So I’m told, even now. Guess it’s time to shut up again, and start writing it all down. And talking to the dog. Heck, I can get a fake ear-phone-thingie and talk to myself even in public, and nobody will think I’m some kind of lunatic.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Be quiet.

Thanks.

 

P.S. Scottie dogs ARE black, dang it. And I’ve colored outside the lines ever since. So there. 😀

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Early Encounters with Death

My maternal grandfather died when I was five years old. He was buried on my sixth birthday.

That was my first brush with death, other than the death of my first kitten, Smokey, who was hit by a car and killed about a year before that. I never saw Smokey’s body: My mom or dad took care of getting it out of sight before telling me what had happened. But with Pa, it was different.

I was never a huggy, kissy child, and my Pa was a very huggy, lovey grandpa, or so I was told. I never liked to sit on laps and be cuddled, so even as a small child, Pa and I had reached some sort of standoff, apparently. I’d agree to sit on his lap for a few minutes and suffer through a hug, and that’d be that. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my grandpa. I just didn’t like being held. Never did, not from the start.

So it was all good with us. Everybody enjoyed a laugh about prickly Judy, who didn’t like anybody hugging her, and that was my oddity in a large extended family that seemed to treasure oddity.

When Pa died, of heart failure on an icy December day, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Mostly, I have two memories from that time.

First, Pa was lying down in the living room. I’d never seen Pa lying down before. He was a rugged, rangy Southern dirt farmer, accustomed to hard work and hard play. He always seemed to be moving, even when sitting down. But he just laying there in the living room, inside the oddest bed. Of course now I know it was a coffin, but I didn’t really have any words or experience to account for that. The living room was full, as it almost always was, but everybody was being very quiet. And I remember it was colder than usual, that the living room fire was barely lit, and it was so very cold outside. My adult self reckons that was to hold the body off from decay for a little while, but to my child self it was just another oddity.

The second thing I remember is my mother’s sweater. I spent a lot of that time on her lap (Mama was the only person I’d voluntarily allow to hold me). She was wearing an open sweater (a cardigan) I’d never seen before, soft and solid black. It had small, domed buttons that were pearly gray-white. I sat on her lap for hours, playing with those buttons and keeping an eye on all the comings and goings between the living room and the kitchen, and in and out the front door.

My Pa had a large family – 13 children, probably half of them married and parents by then – and he was known and liked in the small rural community, so there was a lot of foot traffic.

But when push comes to shove, those are the only real memories I have of my first encounter with death: the pearly buttons on my mama’s sweater and the oddity that Pa was lying down in the living room.

Sometimes I think it was a good thing that I had that experience. I’m glad I had the chance to experience death as a natural, organic part of life, not as something that happens shut away in a special building with machinery and mysterious goings-ons. Pa was alive and then he died, and his body lay in rest in his living room, where he had so often sat and laughed and fussed and talked, and it was perfectly right that it should be so.

That was the first and last in-home “lying-in” I ever saw. But I think it might have been healthier than how we do things now.

ETA: Pa died on Dec. 13. He had 13 children at the time, and 13 grandchildren. Family legend says that he had gone out to bring in the family’s 13 head of cattle, and that the temperature had gotten down to 13 degrees the night before. I can neither confirm nor deny any of the legend, but I’ve decided to believe it. It’s a little bit of cool, no?

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Gainful Employment ‘R Us

Today’s challenge is to remember my first job, including how much I was paid. That’s a tougher question than you might think.

Was my first job when I used to iron clothes for people, mostly extended family members? If so, then I was paid between a dime and a quarter per piece, depending on size and difficulty.

Or was my first job when I went to graduate school on a teaching assistantship? Mostly I got to take classes for free, but I was paid some small pittance. I honestly can’t remember how much it was, but I remember than mac and cheese was four boxes for a dollar back then. I ate a LOT of mac and cheese in grad school.

I guess you could call selling Avon right after I finished grad school my first job, but to be honest, I was possibly the worst Avon salesperson in the history of the company. I sold plenty of Avon – don’t get me wrong. I had very good sales. Problem was, I felt bad for my customers, who were pretty much all as poor as me, so I sold it all at cost. Yep, I sold a fair amount of goods and didn’t make a penny. I suppose I should have known at that point that I was never going to be a successful capitalist.

After that, I worked the evening shift at a quickie mart for a while. Don’t remember how much I got paid there, either, although I suspect it wasn’t much. I had fun, though. You learn interesting things about your town when you’re working the night shift at (the then) only quikmart open all night.

I worked for a local school system for two years, one as a support staff person who tried to teach teachers how to incorporate new-fangled videos into their teaching. The other year was as a teacher of remedial reading to ninth-graders who had somehow gotten that far in school and never learned to read functionally. That was an educational year for me. I learned that although I love teaching, I don’t love all teaching equally. I came to understand that when I went home trembling at the end of the day and found myself actually hoping some of my students might get hurt or arrested so they wouldn’t come back to class, I was probably in the wrong place. Yep.

So then I got into the newspaper biz, by stumbling head-first into an ads sales job that I was in no way qualified for, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As for how much I was paid… Let’s call the newspaper job my first real job. As I recall, I was paid something like $150 week, more or less. That might be a little high. I was renting a small house from my great-aunt for $100/month, and rent, car upkeep, utilities, and food kept me pretty much living from check to check. Sometimes even falling behind.

Different time. Different me. The world was less complicated then, it seems in memory. But it was rich, and I was happy. What more can a person ask?

 

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Three Years Later …

Sometimes my life is like that. I wake up one day and suddenly a week is gone, or a month, or a year. What I’m left with is a vague memory of the time, like a skeleton made of smoke. Occasionally something got big enough or strong enough or loud enough to get through the fog and leave an impression, and when I wake up the smoke skeleton has developed a soggy bladder or a single clear trapezius or maybe just a radiating pain in the ankle. But all these things exist in a hazy vacuum.

It’s hard to tell what I missed. And the things that break through the fog enough to be memorable aren’t particularly good or bad or important. They’re just moments, incidents that registered for some reason when everything else vanishes silently into the fog.

I remember the day my dog died. The day my daughter graduated from college. Going to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the W. Also the young woman who played the cancer victim in that amazing small play “Wit,” also at the W. Selling “Mad Hats” like crazy at the first Windows Arts Fair.

Snow. And then another snow. And, amazingly, another snow. All last winter.

The night the oak tree fell on the back of our house and sounded like the biggest thunder ever. Seeing patches of blue sky through the ceiling (and roof) of my office/craft room. The day the tornado hit Wren and Smithville, feeling the ground tremble under my feet and understanding awe in a way I never did in any California earthquake.

I remember our new puppy throwing up – twice – on the hoodie I was holding him in on my lap on the way home. Walking through the maze of corridors at the hospital in search of Outpatient Surgery the day my daughter had her tonsils out.

These are the bits of viscera, muscle, fat and organ meat that drift around the smoke skeleton of a lost time. Maybe it’s the same way for everybody. Maybe everybody loses big chunks of daily existence and just doesn’t worry about it.

I worry.

When I am clothed and in my more-or-less right mind, I try to grab things, people, events, places, moments, and shove them into words so that when the fog descends again, I can remember. Maybe.

Maybe.

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