And the moon…

I was one lonely pre-teen when we arrived at seminary housing in Mill Valley, California. We had taken Route 66, pulling a U-haul trailer behind our big old white Dodge with no air conditioner. Actually, I loved the trip to California. It was the settling in that caused my grief. It was late July, but San Francisco Bay seemed to fog in whatever the season. I lay in my twin bed in the living room of our two-bedroom apartment and soaked in the sadness of foghorn warnings wafting across the water from The City.

A song, “Stranger on the Shore,” was popular on the radio at the time. I identified with it, but if I sang it at all, it was very quiet or only to myself.

Here I stand, watching the tide go out, 
So all alone and blue, just dreaming dreams of you. 
I watched your ship as it sailed out to sea 
Taking all my dreams and taking all of me.

By the time I reached the ending question of the lyrics, I usually wept.

Why, oh why, must I go on like this? 
Shall I just be a lonely 
Stranger on the shore?"

I hear my mother singing a Hank Williams song in her apartment above the study where I write.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly.
That midnight train is whining low.
I'm so lonesome I could cry. 

Mom can sing a sad song and not sound sorrowful. That’s because she never gets lonely, she told me. Mercy. I could cry right now just thinking of the rest of the lyrics.

I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by.
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.

I’m sure Mom would be surprised if I told her now the depth of my sadness when I walked in to my first seventh-grade classroom. When all the students were seated, the teacher asked some personal questions like, “What elementary school did you attend?,” and “Is your father the ‘Doctor’ Fields?” The one directed to me was, “Where are you from?”

“Lebanon, Tennessee,” I said, “about thirty miles northeast of Nashville.”

She smiled, kids snickered, some even mimicking. I sank. After that moment, my conversation was limited to required responses for the four months I attended Mill Valley Junior High.

I remember talking to only one other student, a girl who ate lunch with me. Everyone brought lunch from home. We sat on benches in a courtyard outside unless it was raining, and then we ate in our classrooms. To this day, I wonder why that particular girl chose me. I don’t remember her name.

Teachers seemed unapproachable. When my math teacher found out I was leaving for another school during the Christmas break, she said, “That’s why I don’t like you seminary kids. You’re always leaving.”

***

Lately the moon has been spectacular. The December moon phases were brighter than usual, placed against that backdrop of a shade slightly deeper and more shimmering than Sherwin Williams’ Moscow Night.

One late December night, Dixie and I took to the front yard for the last potty opportunity before bed. The moon was full and far away. My pup padded around as far as the leash and a few of my steps would take her. I watched the moon.

A few lonesome spells always seem to hit me around the holidays. For some reason, I started humming Stranger on the Shore. I remembered that feeling of being disconnected and unwanted, a totally invalid emotion for all the joy and family around me.

Then I remembered a song the Mill Valley Junior High Chorus sang that December, one day before my last day at Mill Valley Junior High. We walked, in a group, from hall to hall. Our school had no cafeteria and no auditorium of any kind.

I loved chorus. No one talked about my Southern accent there. We just sang. Mr. Stahlmann, our director, asked me to sing one verse of our selection alone–a solo, a capella. My heart beat almost out of my chest as I wondered why he chose me for this part, but I knew I could sing well.

This song, No Candle Was There and No Fire, was old and strange. I researched two of the antique words of the song. Between kine and effulgence, effulgence was my favorite.

We hadn’t practiced in the halls and I was mesmerized by the echo of my own voice filling one long, lonely space.

But the moon gave a radiance divine, 
And the stars an effulgence bright. 
And the only sound to be heard 
Was the lowing of kine in the night 
And the sighing of wind in the trees, and the flapping of angel wings.

The next day, that last day before we moved from Mill Valley, kids in my home room whispered and looked at me. Finally, one boy asked from across several rows of desks, “Was that you, you know, singing real high?”

“Yes,” I said, not daring to meet his eyes for long.

“Well, it was real good,” he said.

One by one, ten or so of the other classmates joined in. “That was so pretty,” “I wish I could sing like that,” and “Man, you sounded like you were far away.”

The last girl to comment said, “But I could still hear your accent.”

I thought, “Yeah, and I was far away, but you can’t take this away from me– I was effulgence bright.”

Day 18–Granny Ada’s Birthday!

My tiny great-grandmother, Ada Shoemake, was a hoss.
Her husband Johnny died young, and she remarried a man from the community. But she decided right away that she’d made a mistake and she didn’t live with him. I really don’t know if she ever got a divorce. She raised her kids by herself. She never had a haircut, wore a gingham-checked bonnet and a hand-sewn, button-front long-sleeved dress, and laced-up leather shoes. “Hand-sewn” means the whole dress was made with a needle and thread. She had one pattern. She kept her own garden and animals, and she slept with a shotgun beside her bed.

She was born on August 18, 1891. 2014-08-19 07.16.33

August 18 has always been something of a seminal date for me. I can always count on August 18 for an extra dose of quirkiness during my birthday month, and it’s always been a good day to make a decision or start a project. I always notice that date when it comes up in a novel. The first book that comes to mind is The Bridges of Madison County. I don’t remember what happened on that date, but there was somethingm important. Every person I’ve ever known who was born on Granny Ada’s birthday has been a bit, well, wild. I must not name names.

I did not choose the eighteenth day of my birthday month to plant one hundred fifty iris roots. The date chose me. Mom and I planned to make a jaunt to an orchard about an hour away to bring back Gala and Granny Smith apples.

Dad took the fifty-foot line of bearded varieties out of the ground last week. I convinced him to leave the clumps just a foot from where they were planted so that we could keep the colors half-way straight. I thought my job was to divide the clumps and drop the new plantings where they were to be seated, something I could do a little at a time over the next three or four days.

Dad divided them before I could get there. I sorted through the piles for the best roots and started dropping them. We reviewed the pattern of planting.

“See how I’ve got these laid out in triangles?” I asked.

He nodded, just about half-way. “You better stay out here with me. I won’t do it right if you don’t. I’ll make a big mess.”

“Dad, I can’t stay here all day,” I said. “I’ve got so much to do on the butterfly bed. I’ll cut the flags back and place them where you need to plant.”

“When I get this done, I’m going to put those red hot poker plants into that bed.” He nodded at a twelve by five-foot plowed and bordered spot where he’d had cosmos, zinnias, and marigolds this year.

He planted the first six iris bulbs, which are technically not bulbs at all but rhizomes. Long, thin roots stuck up in the air, a couple were too deep in the ground, and some weren’t in the ground at all.

“Uh, Dad,” I said, “I think maybe you should start cutting the flags back and I’ll plant.”

“Good idea.” He sat on the bank edge of the bed and tried to get his big fingers into my scissors handles. “This won’t work. I’ve got to go get something I can cut with.” He ambled down to his garage and came back with some huge bolt cutters.

“That ought to do it,” I said.

He picked up one rhizome at a time and cut the blades back, letting the long leaves fall back into the bed. I kept poking irises into the ground and tamping them down with my spade. The ground was too well-tilled for me to scoot across it on the ground, so I stood and bent. When I mopped sweat from my eyes for about the tenth time, I excused myself to get a headband and a drink. I called Mom and told her we’d plan to go to the apple orchard after her orthopedist appointment Tuesday. She thought that was a good idea.

I came back to the iris bed with a sweatband under my visor, a jug of iced tea with a straw, and a bandanna tucked into my left pocket.

“Dad, you know, it’s going to be difficult to pick up all these blades if you cut them into the bed.”

“Yeah, but it’s a lot easier for me to cut them and let them fall there.”

“Well, somebody is going to have to get into the bed with a wheelbarrow, and then pick them out of the loose dirt.”

When he didn’t answer, I said, “You know what? I think you should go ahead and work on those poker plants, and I’ll just work on these as much as possible today. I’ll just let this be my project.”

“Okay.” I took note of the delight in his voice.

About noon, I went inside to my couch recliner in The Cellar and flopped out in front of the fan. “Gotta rest,” I told Dave. He was working on some shelves for the pantry area. “Gotta cool off. Then I’m going back outside.”

“You better stay in for a couple hours. It’s too hot for you to be out there.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, “I guess you’re right. I’ll throw some lunch together.”

“What are you cooking?”

“There’s some fajita meat in the refrigerator. I thought I could fry up some of those sweet green peppers and some onions and we could eat it rolled up in a tortilla with some fresh tomato on it.”

“That sounds good. You want me to go upstairs and get the meat?”

“Oh, the meat’s down here in this frig, but you could bring down some shredded cheese and an onion. And a couple tortillas.”

The aroma of that cooking mixture was divine, and Dave said so.

“Hey,” I said, “would you call Mom and ask her if they want some of this? It’s late, they’ve probably already eaten, but let’s ask anyway.”

They did, so Dave ran over to the apartment with a small casserole dish and more tortillas.

My courage returned when I had eaten, so I headed back outside and finished the row. I packaged up the remaining tubors, more than I’d just planted, and numbered them as they’d been dug up. At least we’ll have some shot at identifying the color and name. There’s a guy two streets over who wants irises! I cleaned up the piles of trimmings, dumped it all, and gathered up tools.

“I can’t sit down anywhere,” I told Dave. “I’m too dirty. I have to get in the shower.”

Yep, I was dirty, and I was tired. In the South, we call that kind of tired, “tard.”

Everyone who knows my mother and knew Granny Ada says Ethel Shoemake Blair is just like her Granny Ada. The word they generally use is “feisty.” My great-niece, Everley Diane Drew, was born on August 18th.Everley's FirstDayK She turned five this year, the fiery little redhead, and she started kindergarten on her birthday. The people who might be inclined to include “feisty” in their vocabulary would say Everley is feisty.

No one has ever said I’m like my great-Granny Ada, and when I finished that line of irises, I wasn’t feeling anything like feisty. But I knew I’d picked a good day to start–and finish–a project. And I was pretty sure I exhibited strong signs of hoss-dom, even if I could barely walk to the bathroom.