27.2.10

Tate's Hell Part 5

Tate's Hell Continued (Part 5)
(This is a fictional account of a folk story from my native Florida and (c) 2009 to me.
Read part 1 here; 2 here; 3 here; and 4 here.


Life tending to Aunt Magdalene's dying days became a bit easier with Uncle Sam home. Euphemia found she had less to do with two other able hands around and was contented. Uncle Sam chopped and carried in the wood and at night he would pick out a few hymns and we would sing them together in harmony. Time passed quickly for me, but I think slow for Aunt Magdalene. She prayed and moaned until I couldn't tell the difference anymore. My first visit to her in the mornings made me struggle not to gag or cover my nose from the smell. Her bedside confessions became less frequent. I couldn't tell if she was saving up for the part of the story she thought would kill her, or maybe had lost her resolve. But one morning when I brought in her tonic and her coffee, she was already up straight in bed, like a steel poker.
"This affliction has made me a more humble servant" Aunt Magdalene said, but I saw a slight grimace of disgust as she swallowed her tonic and the sour taste reached her bowels. She had started talking like that after Preacher Jim stopped by the other Monday to tell her that her illness was a sure sign of God's promise of her final reward of heaven. So the more she suffered now, the less she'd have to suffer in purgatory before she could join the angels.
I shouldn't say that I think Aunt Magdalene didn't believe a word of it. I really shouldn't, but I have the feeling that maybe for her, saying the words was as much believing as fully embodying the holy spirit when one is grievously anointed.

Uncle Sam poked his head in the door and brought in some fresh wood for the fire.
"I don't know why you stay Samuel," Aunt Magdalene said. "Your pagan wife needs you as do all those beasts and creatures you study. We can get along just fine without you sticking your high nose into everything."

I often wondered and even asked Uncle Sam why he came to see Magdalen off,
but as we both stood there watching her cheeks sink in her eyes pop out farther and farther
each day. I knew. Either Magdalene had truly been a kind sister to him as he grew up, or
Uncle Sam was a Saint. Perhaps it was a little bit of both. Either way, with Sam around,
even when he got that twinkle in his eye riling her up, I began to see Aunt Magdalene in a
different light. No matter how difficult she was, she had won love from at least one a good man.
And I began to feel a little more sheepish about my own feelings toward her.
"Last I heard, Catholicism isn't paganism. But let's you and me just be friends - after all, I came all the way here by train, boat, and horse just to sit with you and enjoy your company sister dear. And after three months of traveling, I'm quite happy to stick around for a little while longer." He took out his pipe, but with dramatic gasp from Aunt Magdalene didn't light it - only stuck it in his mouth contemplatively.

"You always were drawn to the Devil's ways - you and Jeremiah skipping around happy as larks in the swamp where none of the rest of us God-fearing folks would trespass. And you picked up that nasty habit from him too."
"Now, now Maggie. Let's put all that behind us. I just wanted to listen to your story a bit and I promise I'll keep quiet." Uncle Sam leaned back and even put his pipe in his pocket, looking like the most obedient schoolboy.
" Well, as I said, Jeremiah started to make more and more money and wore newer and nicer clothes straight from Liberty. Some people began to whisper that the Devil was leaving coin on Jeremiah's doorstep, in return for Jeremiah keeping the swamp for him to come claim one day."
"HA! You believed that claptrap?" Uncle Sam said.
"And you didn't and that's why your soul is in grave danger Samuel...." Uncle Sam realised he was dangerously close to getting a lecture instead of a story so he eased on his most humoring smile and patted Magdalene's hand.
"That's alright now, you just go on. I'm sorry for interrupting you." There was something deep and sad in his bright blue eyes that made my heart sink a little for not understanding it. It almost seemed that he was there watching - keeping record of what Aunt Magdalene said.
"Well, Samuel, you know as well as I what happened that day. Jeremiah came to town on his new horse and new saddle -- so new it squeaked. His hair was all greased up and he had a flower in his jacket's front pocket. Well, I was in the storeroom..."
"You were hiding from him like you did every time he came by!" Uncle Sam seemed so tense he was ready to spring up and yell something. I could already feel like we were at the edge of a cliff and I wasn't sure I wanted to be taken over the edge with the two of them.
"I was in the storeroom counting out the flour and I heard the scream. Mary Beth Sanderson screamed and didn't stop screaming for two days. They had to keep her at home for nearly a week all she did was shake and close her eyes and beg the Good Lord to make her stop seeing that poor baby boy get trampled by Jeremiah's horse. Trampled till Jimmy's skull was crushed and bloody and his poor parents were only inside the church talking to the preacher." Aunt Magdalen's eyes were covered in glassy tears that fell in fat drops down her yellow, shriveled skin. She wrung her bony wrists and searched wildly in her bedclothes for her handkerchief.
"You see, Clara, the boys had been throwing rocks at the horse. They were calling Jeremiah names..'son of the devil,' 'lucifer,' you name it. Jeremiah tried to calm the horse, but Jimmy got in the way. Jeremiah was knocked flat on his back in the road and no one could get to Jimmy in time." Uncle Sam looked close to tears himself and Aunt Magadalene weeped weakly into her pink quilt.
Uncle Sam cleared his throat and put his fingers to his closed eyelids. I reached toward Aunt Magdalene and held her hand. She grabbed it, wetly. This, was what she had wanted to tell me, or some part of it. One of the hard awful parts that I always skip in the Bible like when they crucify Jesus or the whole book of Job.
"They beat him, Clara. They beat Jeremiah senseless," Uncle Sam said. His elbows on his knees and hands covering his face. His back, curved in an arch of grief. "As soon as they took Jimmy's body away, one of the older boys who had thrown the rocks told Curtis, Clarence, and Obediah that Jeremiah just walked over Jimmy, smiling like it was Christmas. They didn't stop to think why Jeremiah was out of his wits on the road. They were always thugs those three boys. They spent their Sundays after church drinking moonshine and huntin' raccoons. And they, all three of them, had the worst, ugliest taste for violence."
"Where were you? Why didn't you help him?" Aunt Magdalene wailed, sobbing dreadfully now.
"I saw them coming at Jeremiah with shovels and a pistol...I swear to God Maggie, I tried to stop them and they pushed me out of the way. I tried to go get Pa at the house, but when I got back it was over. They'd stop just short of killing Jeremiah because the preacher told them that enough was enough and maybe Jeremiah will repent of his sins now that he's been brought so low."
Euphemia hollered from down the hall that lunch was ready. But I couldn't eat. I felt that empty ache when Grandpa died and my brother died. All I wanted was to sleep the world away and I told Uncle Sam as much so. He took my hand tenderly and said, "There's more Clara, and we need you to hear it. And soon," he said as he looked at Aunt Magdalene staring out the window, as if she saw and heard but didn't or couldn't or wouldn't.

22.12.09

Tate's Hell Part 4

Tate's Hell Continued (Part 4)

Read part 1 here; 2 here; and 3 here.

(This is a fictional account of a folk story from my native Florida and (c) 2009 to me.)

Aunt Magdalen was weakening every day. She no longer smelled of violets and lye--and I pitied the odors that she either bore with fortitude or forgot after being so long exposed to them. Her hands were so delicate now, like little birds, shaky and unsure of their use, and she could no longer feed herself. But her voice had lost no strength, only gained it - as if leeching up the sinews and muscles of the rest of her body for a singular purpose. Salvation through confession.

"Jeremiah was a young boy at the time, nearly a man at 12 years. So when he was orphaned to live alone in the swamp, the rest of us thought that if the fevers didn't harm him, he would make out fine for himself. Of course, none of us could risk traveling the five miles out to him. There were more snakes and beasts than you could ever imagine traveling towards Jeremiah's homestead. Tis why no one ever found Old Jack for two years."

Aunt Magdalen motioned for some medicine which had been set aside in a glass for her on the bedside table along with a white powdery substance she was supposed to put on her tongue and drink together. I handed her the packet first and tried to gently tip some of the powder on to her outstretched, pink, dry tongue. Most of it ended up on her lace nightgown and I got a terrible scowl for it. Then her hand impatiently reached for the glass on the table, nearly spilling it until I could bring it to her mouth.

This new intimacy made me so uncomfortable. Would I one day be an invalid? Would someone who didn't like me very much be my caretaker?

"There, that's better. Now, as I say, Jeremiah was left to his own devices for a month or two and no one even saw him at church. But then, again, what could we have expected given his rude behavior at his family's funeral. Surely he didn't have a taste for salvation. What we didn't know until one day when the Wickermans were traveling down the post road, was that Jeremiah had been spending his Sundays with John Fletcher and his friend Josiah Polchowsky. We all knew Josiah and John were very close indeed, some day unnaturally so. And we supposed that it was to be pitied but only fitting that Jeremiah would fall in with those two good for nothing men and their leaning log cabins and dirty rags for clothes.

Josiah mentioned at the general store one day that he had been teaching Jeremiah how to trap birds for feathers to sell in Tallahassee and here in Liberty. He said that Jeremiah was getting awfully good at it and would be able to make a fine living for himself if he kept to it.

Of course my Pa couldn't be ready to get rid of Josiah whenever he visited. He always smelled like a barnyard and flies buzzed around him like he was crock of butter. He frightened the ladies in the store away. And the old gentleman would fidget in their seats on the porch and hold on to their tobacco like they got a gold mine in their cheeks.

Jeremiah must have been doing well for himself because he would come into the store on his own and pay cash, never credit, for his flour and coffee and salt pork. He was a good looking lad with red hair that hung over his eyes. A brown beard was beginning to conquer his cheekbones, and his eyes were so blue they were better than the sky on a summer evening. I am ashamed of how I thought of him then, but that was the truth. I hoped I could bring him back to the Lord and every time he came into the shop, I would ask him whether he was going to go to Church the next Sunday. He would always reply, "I'm sorry Maggie," that's what he called me in that familiar way of his that I was so sinful to be proud of. "I just can't," he says. "I got too much trappin' to do to keep me fed."

Of course we all knew that he was really going to loiter and smoke with John and Josiah. A few months after Jeremiah's parents had died Mary Beth Sanderson saw the three of them on John's front porch when she had to go home early from Church because her stomach had gotten the flux after eating too many red beans the night before. Of course Mary Beth didn't say anything to them and they didn't say anything to her. But we all knew then how things stood. Of course, back then, I was just too naive to believe that once gone bad, someone stays bad."

Aunt Magdalen shooed me away to get some rest and we had a visit from my Uncle Sam who was back from being in the Navy. He had just returned from South America when he got word of "Maggie" he said when he shrugged under the doorway and dropped his heavy coat and carpet bag in the hallway. Of course he dropped himself into the "best" chair and Euphemia's lips disappeared into a thin line of blue when she saw him kick his muddy boots onto the hearth. She mumbled some excuse to get coffee, wringing her hands and wrinkling her nose at Sam's stocking feet. But Sam and I were very good friends. He wrote to me in South America about the steam that rises from the trees and ground like the whole forest is one big tea kettle, and the snakes and lizards are red and yellow and green like colors from a fairy land. And the people, Sam had said, "are the very best kind who will give you their last helping like any of your neighbors here would to a stranger, Clara."

I was the one who had told Sam about Aunt Magdalen, but he and I had agreed to keep that a secret. We were pretty sure she didn't want Sam here at all, since his skin had turned the color of burnt leather and he'd been "living with those heathens and got himsself a heathen wife and might as well be goin' to hell." But he was here now, and after coming all this way, we knew Aunt Magdalen wouldn't turn him away.

"Aunt was telling me about Jeremiah Nabors," I began, carefully putting the tin coffee cup down on the table. It was still too hot to drink and Euphemia had hoarded all the sugar near her tray. She looked up from her sewing then, clearly interested in what her mother had been saying to me all this time. I figured, this was one way to appease her curiosity and end some of that bitterness between us and another way to find out more from Sam.

"Ah," Sam said carefully. "Well, Maggie and I don't agree about poor Jeremiah." I'd only met Sam once when I was five before he wrote to me, being his first niece or nephew of any kind. I thought I knew him so well from his letters though and it was strange to see him so reserved now in person.

"You see, our Pa thought Jeremiah was a bad soul and Maggie and he disagreed a lot on whether Jeremiah could be salvaged into something they thought resembled a Christian. Of course, Jeremiah and I were friends for a little while before my Pa found out and forbid me to see him. But every once in a while Jeremiah would leave me a feather or a rock or a seashell on my windowsill and I would leave him some rock candy or something else we liked as children from the store. Eventually, we stopped exchanging presents and I got caught up with helping my Pa run the store and Jeremiah got caught up with his trapping and John and Josiah. I only saw Jeremiah rarely and we would just say hello to each other on the street like everybody else does." I could tell there was something more Sam wanted to say, but he spent a lot of time packing his pipe, lit it, and began smoking as if his story naturally should end right where it did.

Fortunately, Euphemia didn't like the smell of the smoke and made some excuse to go check on Aunt Magdalen. When she was gone Sam popped out his pipe and leaned in toward me.

"As we got older though, around 16, Maggie got more and more impatient to change Jeremiah. She even gussied herself up one day in this yellow dress and hat. She marched up to Jeremiah in the middle of the street and said 'You gotta marry me Jeremiah for your soul to be saved!' And well, Jeremiah everyone knew was only interested in birds and feathres and snakes and smoking on his pipe. He couldn't have wanted a wife and Maggie is about as sweet on the inside as she is on the outside. He said something like 'I'm sorry Miss Maggie, but I really can't afford a wife. But if I could, that would be a real generous offer indeed.' Well, Maggie threw the wildflowers she'd been clutching, near wilted now, right at Jeremiah. and ran away crying.

Everyone saw it. I still never know what possessed her to make such a public fuss about it. Maybe she thought she could pressure him into it, with everyone else looking on like getting married was the right thing to do--" Sam sat bck in his chair and only moments later Euphemia came bustling back into the room and sat down at her sewing.

She eyed us for a bit to see if she'd missed something, but Sam just started humming "Amazing Grace" and I smiled and sang along.


15.11.09

Tate's Hell Part 3

Tate's Hell Continued (Part 3)

Read part 1 here and 2 here.

(This is a fictional account of a folk story from my native Florida and (c) 2009 to me.)


Aunt Maggie had gotten very upset by this time. Coughing and sputtering and she had to take a rest. I knew how the story ended, but I hadn't been ready for how it began. My insides felt a little sick thinking about how only Providence kept Aunt Magdalen and my Pa from sharing Jeremiah's fate. Losing parents too soon can turn anyone wrong. Baby James, my two year old brother was taken by the very same sickness that came here to Liberty one summer when it was too hot and too wet. The fever came up that morning and he was gone by nighttime.

I closed the door quietly on Aunt Magdalen as she settled into snoring and wheezing. Cousin Euphemia glared at me. I'd never been close with Aunt Maggie and Euphemia couldn't figure out why I should be the one to receive the death bed confession. I had no idea myself. Aunt Magdalen was always yelling at me as a child. I wasn't to share candy with that lowlife's son Joe. I wasn't to bother with that sparrow that had fallen out of the tree. No sense in getting in God's way since he was taking the bird up to heaven anyway. My braid was always too ragged and my apron never white enough.

"What are you doing gawking around," Euphemia growled as she stitched some lace on Aunt Magdalen's burial dress. "Here," she said as she thrust some red and blue linen scraps in my hands. "Make some flowers for the bouquet." I set to work with scissors and thread, showing Euphemia every once in a while what I was doing so she could either nod at me or tell me what I did was all wrong. She didn't look much like her mother. Aunt Magdalen had fine bones and must have been beautiful when she was my age. Euphemia had never had any suitors, but she had plenty of character and backbone to make up for what she lacked in a high forehead and button nose. Back when Uncle Tom was alive, he had tried to send Euphemia off with a logger who was a bit long in the tooth, but a very kind man who liked the fact that Euphemia never smiled at him or gave him a kind word.

I was visiting when he called and gave her some rock candy one Sunday afternoon around Easter. He stroked his beard smiling and said it was "as sweet as I know your kisses will be if I'm a lucky man." Euphemia looked at the candy like it was water and she'd been wandering in the desert. She surely did like rock candy, I'd seen her buy some slyly when Aunt Magdalen wasn't looking or around. She'd always threatened to whoop me if I ever said a word. Aunt Magdalen used to yell at Euphemia for eating too much candy and told her she'd break her stays if she wasn't careful.

A few hours later, as Euphemia and I ate biscuits and chicken for dinner, Aunt Magdalen started calling for me. Euphemia pretended not to hear my name and went bursting into Aunt Magdalen's room like a runaway bull.

"I said I wanted Clara, not you!" Aunt Magdalen's gaze was blazing fire and brimstone now.

"But Mama, she ain't your daughter. I'm supposed to care for you as you die, not some half relative who can't even sew in a straight line. You never even liked her when she was young! You used to say she was "half ruined before she was even born!"Now you can't stop talking to her and I'm you're flesh and blood!" Euphemia whined, dropping herself into the chair next to the bed. It strained and creaked under her weight.

"What I have to say to Clara doesn't concern you and if you have a Christian bone in your body you'll let me finish my purpose and then you can tend to me all you want," Aunt Magdalen leaned back onto her pillow and looked weary from the effort.

"I don't understand why this story about Cebe Tate and Jeremiah Nabors is so important anyway," Euphemia muttered and she picked at a loose thread in Aunt Magdalen's yellow quilt, pulling up bit by bit from a an embroidered rose.

"And that's exactly why I'm tellin' Clara and not you. Now go make me some coffee with a little bit of sugar in it. And you mind how much sugar you put in." Euphemia grudgingly rose up and walked out of the room, leaving the door open. Aunt Magdalen asked me to close it and we began again.

"That girl will be an even sooner death of me. Now. I told you how Jeremiah's parent's all died from a fever and he was left alone and ungrateful for any help...."


To be continued

6.9.09

Tate's Hell Part 2

Tate's Hell Continued (Part 2)

Read part 1 here.

(This is a fictional account of a folk story from my native Florida and (c) 2009 to me.)

"Well, I should start from the beginning," Aunt Magdalen said, interrupting herself with a coughing fit. We had to adjust her pillows and Lizzie brought in some tincture of steaming water that made Aunt's face look like she'd eaten a lemon. Aunt stopped wheezing and hacking very suddenly, placing her right hand on her chest and taking a deep breath, almost like she was ready to walk outside or get up from her knees after prayer. It was hard for me to think of this as a deathbed confession, which is what it certainly was. All I really wanted to do was put her hair up. It was grey and black and oily and hung tiredly around her shoulders. Aunt Maggie and her hair used to have more discipline than that. But at least her pale blue eyes were clear, keeping me serious,--and scared.

"When we first met the Nabors, they had rolled into town on a wagon, just like everybody else. You see the Governor had offered up land in Sumatra for 1 penny an acre. It was almost too good to pass up, unless you were no fool. And the truth of it was, all of us were foolish back then. We all thought the wilderness was something you could just take and make it as good as any other town, maybe even better. We didn't think about the swamps, the mud, the fevers - or why the Indians didn't bother to settle in some of these places. They knew better.

Your grandpa came down from Charleston. He was a shipbuilder, but that was a tricky job. Lots of folks got crushed under heavy timber or burned by the tar. Once he had your daddy, he decided he wanted something safer, where if he were killed, wouldn't be nobody's fault but his own. So he and Momma saved up some money and he went looking around for land. I heard he went to Alabama and Georgia and finally found something down in Sumatra. I would have liked to see all those places I think.

Me and your pa and uncle Sam were all learning our letters and psalms when he sent for us and down we went in a mail coach with Momma to Tallahassee where your grandpa met us and we took a wagon load of supplies with us from there.

I was surely an ungrateful child--and God forgive me now--but I'd never go through that journey again if I had to. The sun punished our skin and turned it red and sore and insects buzzed in our ears and ate at all our bits and pieces. I had bruises all over my body from bouncing around in the coach and wagon. And it was hot. Good lord it was the hottest I'd ever felt in my whole life. I even asked my momma if Hell felt as hot as Sumatra did. She gave me a good slap for that.

Well, you know how we settled in and Pa, your granpa, had already figured out the place weren't good for farming. So we started a store. A few families in the area started to buy things from us and soon we were doin' just fine. But, we'd see family after family coming in and you could tell right away that they hadn't even seen the land they was buyin' --just read some flyer at the post office. Some poor folks even wore wool clothes and came from as far away as Boston. By the third month, they were all thin and raggedy and Pa had to start charging things for them on account.

Some of them scratched a living through by hunting and trapping. And we were close to the ones that did and even built up a church. Folks got married and buried and babies were born. We prided ourselves on the fact that God must have given us a purpose for being in this harsh place, and doesn't the Bible say, "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

Well, I remember the day the Nabors came into town. They had one skeleton of a horse foaming at the mouth. Their boy, Jeremiah, was my age. He was dirtier than sin. His clothes could barely be called that - there was more holes in 'em than cotton. The mother looked like she was going to collapse any minute in the wagon and her face was an awful white and green color. Her baby was just crying and crying and she didn't even look at it.

We hadn't seen anyone come in looking so pitiful from the start. Pa gave them some corn meal on account and showed them how to get to the plot of land they were looking for. When he came back inside, he shook his head and said, "That family ain't gonna make it a week, or I'm Rutherford Hayes."

Pa told us that the Nabor's place happened to be Old Jack's cabin right on the swamp. Old Jack had drunk himself to death two years before, and his brother Thomas, coming for a visit found him the next year, a skeleton with a bottle in his bony hand. Nobody had known all that time and we only really guessed he'd been gone three years, since that was the last time anybody remembered seeing him.

Living that close to all those wild things and animals of the devil was bound to kill you one way or the other, if the drink didn't anyhow. Thomas had cleaned out the cabin, but how he sold it was a mystery. I think Joe Nabors told Pa once that he had thought the house was a mile outside Liberty not in the middle of the swamp. And they paid dollars for it too.

Well, none of us went to school then, we worked. But I got to know Jeremiah on Sundays when the family would come in to church. He was a sweet boy even if he was always dirty with this clothes hangin' off his bony elbows. Jeremiah came by the store one day and told us the baby had died and his ma and pa were also sick. He was fidgety and his stomach growled. Pa gave him some more cornmeal and told him to come by if he needed help.

Two nights later, we heard a knock at the door. I'd been fast asleep until I heard the house stirring. I looked out our window, my hair all in curlers, and Jeremiah was standing there without even a torch. He must have walked all the way to our house alone in the dark! It must have been five miles.

He said his ma and pa were real sick, maybe dying and he didn't know what more to do. They didn't want water or food. One minute they were deathly cold and the next sweating buckets of water they were so hot. Pa put his hand on Jeremiah's shoulders and said, "I'm sorry son, but we can't help. I've seen those fevers before and they are catching. You best go home and care for your folks."

Jeremiah's shoulders sagged. He looked so small and so tired. I felt badly for him, but I was glad Pa didn't want any of us to catch the fevers. Jeremiah didn't say anything to Pa. Just turned his back and walked back into the woods. I watched him until the darkness swallowed up. I didn't sleep well that night and neither did Pa. He stayed up and finished a whistle he was making for your Pa.

The next morning, Jeremiah walked into town and bold as brass asked Pa for two coffins for his ma and pa, please. The other customers in the store were shocked how rude the child was. Pa said he wouldn't take Jeremiah's money. He said it was the only Christian thing to do.

The whole town came to the funeral. We still don't know where Jeremiah got the money for it. Maybe his folks weren't as poor as we all thought. Anyway, Jeremiah didn't say a single word the whole time. Just stood next to the graves and looked down at the coffins the whole time. He didn't even cry. When it was over everyone in town wanted to have Jeremiah over for dinner, but he walked away from everyone. Apparently, he was too good for charity kindly given.

We heard from the Wickermens, though, that Jeremiah had gone to them for help the night his parents died. They had turned him away too because they already had lost one baby to a fever and had two small ones to care for. The Ericsson's heard from Jeremiah close to dawn, but Mrs. Ericsson felt ill herself and Mr. Ericsson had to stay to care for her. But it was Jenny Salso who told me that she heard Jeremiah's parents had died while he was out wandering in the night. He came home without even having been there for them in their final suffering.


To be continued.....


10.7.09

Tate's Hell - A Short Story by Me

(This is a fictional account of a folk story from my native Florida and (c) 2009 to me.)

Sumatra is a dying memory. Homesteads built by grandfathers, faint paths to neighbors’ houses, even the plywood-covered Sumatra Baptist Church, are all of little value now. Every last, living inhabitant of Sumatra has packed up and gone, headed out like the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Those that aren't living probably would have wanted to come too. They wouldn't have wanted to be left all alone in the swamp, with its vapors and miasmas, and animals screeching devil songs. But there was no hope for it.

The townspeople had been stubborn for 60 years. After that, the hunger gets to you and maybe so does the dirt, and the poverty, and the hardwork that never seems to go anywhere. Then, there were the fevers, and the storms. It was always hard to believe anyone wanted to live there. But wanting to leave was another thing entirely.

Tallahassee is much nicer even if we have the fevers and sometimes the storms. At least we also have the dripping spanish moss, and the cool breezes, and very refined people coming through with new clothes and hats and songs to sing. And we don't have gators either.

My great aunt Magdalen remembers Sumatra the way it was before. But she never finished that sentence when I was a little girl.

"Before what?" I'd crinkle my skirts in my sweaty palms and look up at her hoping maybe this time she would tell me. Maybe I could go to school the next day and tell all the children about the place where my family came from and how come we decided we liked Tallahassee better. I remember I hoped I could wear my hair in two braids and my green apron and go skipping over to Jamie and say, "You know what? You ain't never been anywhere else, but my family has. And we CHOSE to live here. You just got born here." I suppose I thought that would be a pretty fine thing to do to Jamie, since he always teased me about my green eyes and puffed chalk dust in my face.

"Before things changed," Aunt Magdalen snapped at me. But I didn't pick up on her meaning. Instead, I had a dozen questions about what things, and why did they change, and Aunt Magdalen would start wringing her hands and tell me to hush up before she whopped me one good and then I would learn why children shouldn't speak until they are spoken too.

That was so many years ago. It was only this year, now that I'm a grown woman, that Aunt Magdalen called me to her side before she passed. She said, "You had better learn the story of why we left Sumatra, because after I go to Jesus, no one else will know. And we wouldn't have just given up our land for no reason. No one gives up their land for nothing. But it was the devil, I tell you, he drove us out. And you mark his name in case you ever run by him. His name is Jeremiah Nabors. And he wanted to marry this innocent young girl named Mary Tate."

To be continued....

26.4.09

George Clooney Can Make Anything Better

I once had a discussion with a friend about how peanut butter goes with just about anything. Go on, try to think of a food plus peanut butter that doesn't sound feasible. Barring any peanut allergy, you'll likely find that the endeavor is as intellectually rigorous as attempting to identify the complete value of Pi. It cannot be done. And perhaps if it could, the very fabric of our universe would unravel. 

Similarly, George Clooney goes with just about anything--unspeakably bad Batman interpretations, B-movie horror flick sequels, football comedy romances, southern prison gothic--he is as unoffensive as he is, well just awfully suave. And when he cries while watching Oprah in Oceans 13, I'm still attracted to him. 

So, a few weeks ago, when I had to take my mother to the emergency room on a Friday night per her doctor's anxious urging, I tried to think calming thoughts of George, who even made ER more tolerable. 

I've seen my fair share of emergency rooms, with a stepfather who had heart disease, and my own rather clumsy tendencies. But they never fail to haunt me for days after a visit.

I should be more used to human suffering. I worked in a hospital's Coronary Care Unit for several years in high school. It was in CCU, among the many wonderful nurses who took the time to explain what medicines did and what x-rays said, where one room suffered a patient death and another celebrated a new heart, that I fostered a lifelong devotion to public health. 

Even today, I can visit the very unit, with its white floors and green moulding, where I volunteered hundreds of hours on summer breaks and during the school year. Where I answered phones and brought wheelchairs round. It was the same unit that last cared for my stepfather before he passed away. I remember the nurses who whispered among each other that Mr. H was my stepfather. I remember for the first time being a family member of an ill loved one, and how empty and frightening it felt. I remember overwhelming gratitude for their clear-eyed promises to take good care of him. As awful as it was, I remember the comfort to be had in knowing there was order to his bathings and IV drippings and bleeping machines. 

There is no order in an emergency room. People groan with pain and complain and yell. They bleed and vomit and cough...always cough. There is a television blaring with something totally inappropriate like Larry King Live or an Ace of Cakes marathon, and a clock that makes a habit of turning time slowly. 

The seats are never comfortable. They always have arm rests that are too small or part of the upholstery torn and spikey. You are afraid to touch the Reader's Digest on the chair next to you as you suspect it hides a biohazard. Cafeteria grease wafts through the air (I begin to pity the green-looking patient a few feet away) and intermingles with Virex disinfectant (a smell I know well from years at the hospital). 

It is easy to imagine it is any time of day or night, and even easier to imagine this is really pergatory. None of us feel human. We feel like ghosts waiting for entry into the next circle of hell.

You may find a friend or two as the hours tick by and your eyes grow red from flourescent lights and lack of sleep. You latch on to a commiserating soul who looks as brow beaten as you feel, and with whom you will share all the grisly details of your condition. He or she (usually its a she) will guard your seat for you while you go to the bathroom, or tell you where the coffee machine is. That is until it is her time to go and you feel her loss deep in your bones. You are reminded that you are so terribly alone on this scary journey. Until your name is called for triage. 

Then, sick as you may feel, you are barraged with questions, your blood pressure and temperature are swiped. Before you have time to make eye contact, you're tossed back into the pond--a fish off a hook. I keep thinking of the location chips they give to fish to identify their swimming patterns during the seasons. You, too, are tagged with a little plastic bracelet that will tell them everything they care to know about you. 

After three hours in pain, my mother ended up on a stretcher in her own clothes in the hallway of an emergency unit. We were both cold although she at least had a sheet. Of course, my mother's stretcher was next to a clock, a painful reminder that my guess of being out of the emergency room in 5 hours was woefully inadequate

We waved to our friend from the waiting room and her family member. She chatted with us, in between bites of fries and chicken she cradled in a styrofoam container. She quickly moved to the side, as some paramedics wheeled an accident victim past us. Our friend kept talking like we'd met at the grocery store. 

I took pity on a young woman, college age, who lay across the hall on a stretcher. "Tiffany" had been there since early afternoon complaining of chest pain. She was overweight, clammy, and terrified. She hadn't seen a doctor at all. I told her to ask for the head nurse.  She did and was seen by a doctor soon after. 

I overheard the doctor explaining to Tiffany that she was sorry for the wait, but that they had had a lot of people very ill, likely dying that night in the ER. They have to see patients in critical condition first. Poor Tiffany resigned herself to accepting a cup of water and having her IV fiddled with. She still didn't know whether her condition was life-threatening. 

I kept checking on Tiffany throughout the night. I would want someone to do that for me. 

Another nurse came by with sodas and other drinks for those who were allowed them. She was the "patient comfort specialist." Imelda wanted to be helpful, but she couldn't provide the one comfort anyone wanted--to know whether they or their loved ones would be alright. 

It is rare for me to ever turn down free Diet Coke, but I couldn't stomach  drinking anything while a woman nearby moaned into her bucket, "oh jesus." 

By 3am, I noticed some semblance of calm take over the place. The most serious patients had either died or been moved elsewhere. My mother was seen by a physican. We began to get more test results back. I gossiped with her nurse, "Tom"during his downtime. Tom used to work at the hospital where I had been a volunteer. 

Tom, a middle-aged, former firefighter told me of his dream of working in Africa one day. His teenage daughter was about to start nursing school. He and his wife just bought a craftsman house, for a very good deal. He was so normal, cheerful even. He was trying to find out where the pizza had been delivered for the staff. I watched a doctor blow him off as Tom checked to make sure the doctor knew where his patient was. I told Tom I thought the man was an a$$. He smiled at me.

And when my mother's results came back normal, and we were cleared to go home, Tom seemed as happy as we were. I hugged him.  He didn't look like George Clooney, but he did make everything better. 



16.3.09

Whisky Dreams


I am a lucky American. My mother owns a home in Ireland, although my Irish heritage comes from my father. Mom spends most of her time there with her partner Donal. Our 18th century home is on the main street facing a public beach and the town hall. We're also next to a funeral parlor. 

Things can get a little interesting when everybody and their cousin twice removed comes to pray the rosary next door. And let's face it, in Ireland, if you even nodded to a person on the street and they died, you're expected to attend the funeral. So, some days, it gets a little awkward leaving our house when there's a hearse next door, or a bunch of praying, smoking people leaning on our windows. 

But in exchange for a few moments of morbidity, I get to watch rainbows grow across the bay, children catch crabs on the beach, and feel the warmth of a blazing wood fire on my cheeks after a long walk to the lighthouse. 

There's whisky and Bulmer's cider  and gossip--the kind that only a small town in a nation of story tellers could come up with. Although I haven't been back for a year, I know everything that's going on thanks to Mom and her network of information. 

For example, there's something wrong with the neighbor's dog. She's a big black lab who used to be a bit high strung but friendly. She had 1500 Euro surgery on her back and since then she's been really nasty. And Connor farther down the street is becoming quite the boran player. He's also a charmer. I swear he's gotten more cookies out of my mom than I ever did as her own daughter!

And recently my mom's friend Joan was harassed on a bus by a drunk tramp. She described the man to her husband, Colin. Colin recently went to the pub with Donal and based on Joan's description of the tramp identified him at a local pub. Oxford-educated, former financier Colin, is sophisticated, incredibly soft-spoken, and has a wicked dry wit. But Donal said once Colin saw his wife's attacker, he went ballistic. Donal said he'd never seen him so mad. "Colin's built like a rugby player, if he'd have hit him, he'd have broken his jaw!"

And of course all of this has happened in the last week or so....Enough to make anyone need a stiff drink

Even with all this "intelligence," it can be easy to feel an outsider amongst people who have lived in the same place for generations, who can all tell you about Cuchulan or the "wee folk" as naturally as they can tell you about the Duke of Devonshire owning the riverbed and the new menu additions at Pak Fuk (no joke) Chinese restaurant. 

But whenever I come to visit, I'm always asked "how long are you home for?" I always assumed the question was simply part of the generous hospitality of the Irish, who never let me pay for a meal or a drink and tsk pitifully when I tell them how many vacation days I get in the States.

But the moment I step off the plane in Shannon, I feel something different. Maybe it's the smell of sweet grass that's so pungent even in the airport parking lot or the Sean Nos singing on the radio as we drive through miles and miles of small towns and sloping farmland. I'm home. 

Erin go Bragh, and Up Cork!