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Valley Resettlement Project

When choosing a setting for their fiction novels, many writers immediately gravitate to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, as if those settings somehow render their work more legitimate or profound. What’s wrong with setting a novel in an area the author knows? West Central Georgia is just as legitimate a locale as is Southern California or any other location. To me, the legitimacy of a novel lies primarily in its characters and what they have to say through their actions as well as their words. The link below will take you to information about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Valley Resettlement Project. You will learn a bit about Pine Mountain Valley and the valley houses I mention in my book setting.

http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/historical_markers/county/harris/pine-mountain-valley-resettlement-project

 

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Land of the Trembling Earth

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Land of the Trembling Earth

I love my character Mr. Dewberry, an energetic young teacher. For me, he represents a teacher somewhat ahead of his time in 1960. Unlike so many of the teachers Spud and Sissie encounter in Slippery Branch Elementary School, the older ones who insist on prescriptive rote learning and strict discipline, Mr. Dewberry is excited about teaching. He creates a friendly learning environment where his students can experience the joy of learning. In a kind way, together with an older mentor, Miss Raven, he refuses to allow students to ridicule other students during their informative speech presentations. He senses how nervous his students are, and he tries to make them feel at ease about public speaking. He knows Sissie loves and respects reptiles and amphibians. In On the Other Side, in the chapter “Crossing Over,” Mr. Dewberry gives Sissie an assignment he thinks she’ll like:

     “… Mr. Dewberry asked us to write a two page report about something we found interesting in science. I wasn’t sure where to begin. Everything in science was interesting to me. He gave me a good suggestion.

      ‘You know, a lot of folks think they have to travel all over the world to find fascinating things. But sometimes the most amazing things are not that far away. Since you love reptiles and amphibians so much, why don’t you write about this topic?’

     He handed me a slip of paper with two words scribbled on it: Okefenokee Swamp. The more I read about the swamp, the more I loved it. The Okefenokee Swamp was the best of two worlds... snakes and spirits..."

When I wrote Mr. Dewberry’s assignment for Sissie, I suddenly realized: Now I need to do my part and visit the Okefenokee Swamp to do research for my next book, Chinaberry Summer: Down by the Water. I’ve often read about the swamp, and I’ve always been fascinated by the translation of Okefenokee's Native American name: “Land of the Trembling Earth.”

How many times have we driven through Waycross, Georgia, on our way to a summer vacation at Jekyll Island and Saint Simons Island? I’ve seen the roadside Okefenokee signs dozens of times over the years. But this year, my visit might finally happen. And it did!

Alligators! Alligators! Biting yellow flies that caused small spots of blood on my ankles because the flies’ saliva has an anticoagulant in it. Cottonmouths and coral snakes, though we didn’t see any snakes in the wild that day. It was too hot, so they were cooling off, hidden away under bushes and tall plants. We did see a mighty big, healthy timber rattler (canebrake) who was sharing a large glass cage with a sleepy diamondback rattlesnake in the nature area. Not to mention a huge black bear having a cool soak in what looked like a metal bathtub. Upwards of 900 black bears live in the swamp.

Sissie’s dream came true. I held a grey rat snake for the first time. Sissie’s favorite snake. We saw a sassy baby mud turtle in the nature presentation, but we weren’t allowed to hold it because it bites. I did get to hold a colorful male box turtle and learned how to tell the difference between the male and the female. The colors and the shapes of their carapace. The male is more colorful. The female’s carapace (shell) has a higher hump so she can store her eggs there before she finds a place to lay them.

And then there was the swamp water itself. Despite appearing to be black, the water is crystal clear. Clouds and trees create reflections on the surface of the water. It’s as if you’re looking down to see the blue sky above. The peat moss underneath gives the water its black appearance. Our boat guide told us the water is safe to drink and tastes slightly sweet from the cypress trees that grow in the water. He invited us to reach down and bring up a sample sip. No way was I going to put my hand in the water and drink a sip.

He also told us, “If you should fall out of the boat, don’t panic. Just stand up. The water is only three to five feet deep. Of course, something will have already eaten you by then.” At times it was difficult to concentrate on his presentation because of the yellow flies nibbling on my ankles. Oddly, their bites didn’t hurt. I just saw the blood trail they left behind. The guide added, “I’ve been donating to them all morning.” At least I was wearing long jeans, long sleeves, and a hat. Some people showed up (in a swamp) wearing shorts and T-shirts.

And there were turtles. Three big turtles were swimming together in a nature area, among others. In my photos, the turtles are hidden under the reflections of fluffy white skies on the water’s surface. I recognized their air bubbles in the middle of the cloud reflections.

We were duly warned. Sometimes when alligators are asleep, they appear lifeless, almost like fake props. Signs stated, “The Okefenokee Swamp Park has no fake alligator props in the outdoor areas.” Visitors must stay on the wooden walkways and must not approach a sleeping alligator. And no pets are allowed. I couldn’t help but shake my head. Someone actually had to warn visitors about fake gators and pets on leashes? Other signs said, "Do not spray insect repellent on you inside the gift shop." 

As we left the nature park that day, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the wild, untamed beauty of the Okefenokee, 700 square miles of a major ecosystem that’s considered one of the seven wonders of Georgia. And I came away with ideas for a chapter,  “Land of the Trembling Earth and Gemma.”

My precious husband Hugh has accompanied me to so many snake presentations and research forays, something I’m sure he didn’t sign onto when he married me forty-seven years ago. He tagged along this time for my visit to the swamp, but he cautioned me, “This is the only time I’m doing this.” We’ll see.

 

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How big is that lizard?

I don’t have much patience with some people. You know, the ones who squeal in a shrill voice and jump around acting silly when they see a lizard or a harmless snake. I’ve heard those strange utterances coming from males and females alike, mostly adults. I want to say to them, “Look at yourself. How big is that lizard (or snake)? How big are you?”

A few years ago I was strolling through a local public garden. I heard three women screaming. I didn’t even need to investigate because I had already guessed the object of their fright. I just didn’t know what “kind” it was. I investigated anyway. The critter that struck terror in their hearts was a small garter snake scurrying across the dirt path. It was halfway under a bush when I finally spotted it.

Again, how big is that snake and how big are you?

Lizards and snakes are quick and crafty. They have been on our planet, in one form or another, for thousands of years. Their ancestors, the dinosaurs, were once walking around like bosses. But today’s snakes and lizards in the USA, unlike archaeopteryx, have one huge thing in common: They don’t have wings, so I can assure you -- they won’t be flying up and attacking you.

Forewarned is forearmed. That being said, educate yourself! For example, here in Georgia we have 46 kinds of snakes, but only six are venomous: Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Pygmy Rattlesnake,  Cottonmouth, Timber Rattlesnake (Canebrake), Copperhead, and Eastern Coral Snake. Learn how to identify them and teach kids to do the same. You may be surprised. Kids often know much more about snakes than adults do.

The simplest response to a snake encounter is to walk away if you see one. A lizard, well, there’s no excuse for screaming and generally acting ridiculous because of a lizard. Lizards are amazing little creatures who are harmless to you unless you’re an insect.

I once was called over to a neighbor’s house. She was freaking out, in panic mode, because a lizard had slipped into her house. She had followed it into a bedroom. She informed me that she had already hit it with a broom and sprayed bug spray on it. Why?

I caught the frightened little critter in a jar, took it home, and released it in the woods. As I turned it out to freedom, I reminded the lizard, “You are one lucky little critter.”

I never forgot that poor lizard, so I incorporated a version of that story into Chinaberry Summer: On the Other Side. This time, it is Aunt Pearl who shows no mercy to a lizard who dares to venture into her pristine kitchen. Sissie and Spud manage to wrangle the little lizard into a Mason jar and release it outside on a nearby azalea bush before Aunt Pearl can inflict mortal wounds on the helpless critter.

Reptiles and amphibians are unique animals that serve a vital role in our ecosystem. They stand between “us and them.” Were it not for snakes, our crops would be overrun by rodents. Frogs and lizards eat enormous amounts of pesky insects.

Enjoy lizards in your yard. They are always on duty, doing their job. If one gets inside your house, it's not a big deal. Kindly put it outside. You don't have to like lizards, but you don't have to harm them either.

My advice to people who try to rid their yards of nonvenomous snakes is always this: You may not like the snakes, but you’re really not going to like what comes to live there when the snakes are gone.

How big is that snake? How big are you?

 

 

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Written in Ink

In the chapter "The Great Poetry Writing Contest," Sissie writes a poem entitled "The Rat Snake." Spud asks her to read her finished poem to him, but she refuses. Her explanation is simple.

"Not just yet. It has to be written in ink first. That way it will officially be a poem."

Later at home Sissie sits down at the dining room table with a bottle of black ink, a sheet of crisp white paper, and her pink and gold fountain pen. She delights in the smooth feel of ink flowing on paper, not the sound of scratchy #2 pencil points.

My thoughts exactly. There is nothing quite like writing in fluid ink and allowing it to flow onto the page. It's as if a bit of my heart and soul slips out onto the sheet of paper along with the ink. I can't get the genuine touch of word to page any other way. Not a ball point pen or a gel pen, not a pencil that scratches its way across the paper, but an honest-to-goodness pen. For other writers, any kind of writing instrument may do just fine. As for me, I prefer my calligraphy pen.

A pen keeps a writer honest. Erasures are not an option. Oh, there may be scratch-outs galore, but the writer's process and mistakes are still visible. A writer or a poet can't hide in ink. Even a heavy blot of ink that attempts to cover a word or two is a sign of a slip-up or a change of heart.

And almost always some of my ink finds a way to stain my fingertips. But that's okay. It proves the human and ink connection. This poem or this note was written by a human being who was making a commitment to the written words.

Sometimes the ink smudges. That's okay, too. The smudges are me. At times a poem may present itself in manuscript and at other times in cursive. And after the ink dries, it's not simply sitting on the surface of the paper. It has found a way to seep into the very fibers of the page. It exists for real. It has become a poem.

I find joy and freedom in allowing my thoughts to flow through the ink of my pen into what I am creating. The work is uniquely mine, created with pen in hand. It's official.

Yes, I write my book drafts on the computer. But all over the house I have slips of paper and notebook sheets with inky notes scribbled by the nib of my pen. Maybe it's a plot idea, a snippet of dialogue, a brief description, or lists of characters.  Maybe it's a line or two of a future poem. The notes are everywhere. Sometimes I have to do a walkabout to find them all.

Books have their own temperament. But, for me, the nature of a poem demands immediate commitment. A poem can be written so many different ways, and it might never actually be finished. So the ink seals the deal. Enough. Commit to the words. It's now officially finished.

In "The Great Poetry Writing Contest," it will soon be Valentine's Day in Slippery Branch, and students are to write a poem about something they love. Of course, Sissie loves snakes, and the final version which she submits is written in ink. In her mind, it's complete. Whether she realizes it or not, the truth is that her poem is now dressed and ready to go. Sissie has moved into that dreaded realm that so many writers understand. A place of great vulnerability. She has not simply submitted a poem. She has revealed a piece of her soul to be scrutinized and judged by others.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Although she wins the grand prize for her poem, her accomplishment is not without difficulty. A teacher, Miss Maude Jones, accuses her of plagiarism. Not because of the quality of the poem, but because the irascible Miss Jones simply cannot believe that Sissie is capable of writing a poem, especially one about a snake. After all, Sissie is a girl, and girls just don't write about snakes. Sissie is unyielding. She is honest. Because she nurtures her poem from its birth as an idea until its final draft in ink, "The Rat Snake" is officially a poem. In fact, it is officially her poem.

Sissie is right. When a poem is at last presented in ink, it's ready. It's dressed, and its hair is combed. It's not running around in its underwear. By writing her poem in ink, Sissie shows reverence and respect for her subject. Her poem is, after all, a paean to something she holds dear, a much maligned yet valuable creature in our ecosystem. Not only does Sissie love snakes, but she also values their importance and understands their worth as God's creatures.

Maybe her approach to writing poetry is childish and simplistic; however, in her uncomplicated perspective, Sissie reveals truthfulness, determination, and reverence for writing ̶  important standards for a life well lived and a poem well written. In ink, of course.

 

 

 

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                             In Memoriam: The Death of Innocence

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In Memoriam: The Death of Innocence

 

            Sissie Stevenson and Spud McKenna grew up in a much simpler time. There were no social media posts, smart phones, texts, selfies, or any high tech electronic gadgets and gizmos. Just the one black rotary-dial phone attached to a cord running to the telephone jack on the baseboard. Just the local radio station or an old black and white TV until the NBC peacock tail turned into rainbow colors on the screen of the new RCA color TV in Sissie's living room right before the Cartrights rode up in Bonanza. Kids played outside until dusk, and the greatest fear in their world was accidentally stepping on a venomous snake or getting struck by lightning in a summer storm. Or getting the full blast of Mama's evil eye.

            But there were moments of awakening along the way. Spud's grandmother Sharon and his mother Rose explained that teen-aged girls in their day who found themselves "in the family way" were not allowed to complete their high school education, while the teen-aged fathers were often allowed to go on with life, often without consequences, unless their families forced them to marry each other. Sissie and Spud witnessed their friends at school being bullied by other students. Or, in Spud's case, he actually experienced bullying at school by students and by his teacher, Miss Maude Jones; and then he went home to be belittled even more by Aunt Pearl. They learned from their school friends Joe Borders and Jack Hammer what it was like to be physically abused and neglected by a parent and the lasting effects of constant mistreatment. Both Sissie and Spud experienced what it was like to have a relative or friend die suddenly without warning. They grew to understand the relentless power of a tornado or the painful effects an unexpected spider bite.

            Along with Sissie and Spud, I grew up in those simpler times. Everything wasn't rosy and perfect. My school building had no real heating system, and there certainly was no air-conditioning. I suspect that some teachers said and did things back then that today would become viral videos on YouTube or CNN. And not for good reasons. On one day in particular I guess my fifth grade teacher had had enough of a student in our class and subsequently experienced a meltdown. She shoved the student against the blackboard, grabbed him by his shoulders, and shook him against the blackboard while repeatedly calling him a jackass. Like I said, no smart phones and viral videos back then. My classmate lived, and he's a nice guy.

            But, overall, we never genuinely feared for our lives. There were no gunmen lurking around with an AR-15 ready to take us all out with a backpack full of bullets. We didn't need to lock ourselves in our classroom and hide quietly in a corner of the room waiting for a gunman to decide who lived and who died. In fact, throughout my school career, especially in high school, the only time a police officer ever came to our school was as a guest speaker.

            I spent over forty years teaching students from kindergarten through university. The Columbine shooting happened on my birthday. Countless other shootings have taken place since then. I taught in open college classrooms that I could not lock. I have been surrounded by ground level classroom windows and doors with glass panels. As a college instructor, after Virginia Tech occurred, I wondered: What is my plan? How can I protect my students? Will I rise to the occasion should the unthinkable occur?

             And here we are today, yet again, trying to make sense of something that will never make sense. Trying to understand what will never be understood, no matter how much pundits spin. No matter how much politicians try to blame the other party. Another school shooting. Another individual striking out against the sanctity and scholarship of a public school. A troubled man-child carrying a weapon of war into a place of peace. A weapon he should never have possessed at all.

            Yesterday was both Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day. I imagine there was lots of red throughout Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School  ̶  hearts, carnations, roses, and balloons. Maybe small stuffed animals were exchanged between friends. Maybe the cheerleaders or the SGA or the Senior Class was selling flowers as a fundraiser. Yes, I imagine there was lots of red everywhere. And after the gunman completed his rampage, there was more red left in his wake.

            Indulge me as I return to my past again. My graduating class had 67 students with an overall school population of 350 plus. All of the faculty knew us, and they knew our parents. Many of today's high schools have two or three thousand students who are herded from class to class throughout the day. It is easy for a troubled student to slip into complete anonymity in a crowded world where very few know many others, and small circles of friends become tight and exclusive. Teachers can't possibly know every student who passes through the crowded hallways. Social media provide relentless platforms for bullies to torment their victims and for shadowy groups to offer enticing dark websites where students do not need to venture.

             Since the unthinkable events unfolded in Parkland yesterday afternoon, over and over I have heard weeping mothers and fathers on TV, their anguish palpable because they will never see their children grow up. They will never realize what their children would have become as adults. One mother grieved aloud because she wasn't there to protect her daughter. And all the seventeen souls did was simply go to school to teach or to learn.

            Weapons have no place in our institutions of learning. Bullying has no place there either. It would be nice to live in "idyllic times," but those times do not exist. Perhaps they never really did. But once upon a time innocence lived. It lived in the hearts and minds of learners of all ages who carry their pencils, notebooks, textbooks, and hopes to their schools in search of an education. Innocence lived in the hearts and minds of parents who put their trust in the American government to keep their precious ones safe. Innocence lived in the hearts and minds of educators who work long hours and care about their students, even though those educators are often underpaid and disrespected.

            Innocence died yesterday. It has, in fact, already died a number of times in 2018 in schools all around America, with dozens more school shootings in just the past few years. Innocence has also died at concerts, clubs, and churches.

            Spud finally had enough of bullies. He had enough of people in power who did nothing. Some of those powerful people made his life even more difficult. We find ourselves in the same predicament on a much larger scale. In Chinaberry Summer /On the Other Side, he sums up the loss of innocence after a very troubling encounter with a violent bully at school.

            "You know, Sissie, I just don't understand it. Why can't we go to school to learn in peace? Why is there always someone there who just wants to start trouble? Why is that? You shouldn't have to risk your life to go to school."

            Innocence, may you rest in peace.

 

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Dowdell's Knob

     "All  this bad weather's not comin' over Dow'ell's Knob and settlin' on the valley. It's blowin' in from the west," Daddy explained.

 

Dowdell's Knob appears in both of my books. In fact, it's the setting for Chapter 12, "Destination Unknown," in Chinaberry Summer. The name may be spelled Dowdell's Knob, but local folks pronounce the name Dow'ell with one syllable. Click on the link to learn more about the amazing history and beauty of Dowdell's Knob.

https://www.atlantatrails.com/fd-roosevelt-state-park/dowdells-knob-loop-pine-mountain-trail/

                                                                                                                                                            

 

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Wild Black Honeybees

In the chapter "Love at First Sight," including Davey Morris as a student who suffers through the embarrassment of stuttering while giving a speech in front of his sixth grade classmates was a purposeful decision, although I didn't initially set out to create a character who stutters.  It may sound strange, but my character Davey decided to stutter. I allow my characters to develop on their own, and I don't force them to fit perfectly into my preconceived notions. I don't write my books  with a clear, sharp idea of the fullness of my characters. They seem to develop traits on their own. They have their own unique voices and personalities. And I allowed Davey to be Davey. He first appears in Chinaberry Summer,  while receiving a severe tongue-lashing from Miss Maude Jones because he dares to talk in line, and later on he tries his best to explain to the principal why Sissie isn't at fault for the class bully Rusty Jackson's unfortunate encounter with a common Southern toad. I decided to bring him back again in On The Other Side.

Among the storytellers in my family was my grandfather, Grover Cleveland Smith. Born in April 1892, he unfortunately lived in a time when high blood pressure and strokes dogged so many people, and not many medications were available to treat blood pressure problems or prevent strokes. So there he was, a man who stood six feet three and was rail thin, felled by a stroke at 65. He remained bedridden at home and passed away in 1960 at the age of 68.

Before his massive stroke left him unable to talk well, we often sat together on the front porch in the swing, and he told me stories between drawing puffs of his Camel cigarettes or cigarettes he rolled from the tobacco in his can of Prince Albert tobacco he carried in his overalls' pocket. Neither of those vices helped his blood pressure issues, and he always walked with a homemade cedar cane because of previous small strokes he had suffered through the years. He told me lots of stories, a few of which have appeared in my books. I loved to hear him describe what it was like going to school when he was a young boy. His turtle hunting. The games he played as a child. The friends and relatives he knew that I would never know except through his stories. I  thought he was old, because, well, I was in the single digits of my youth. And he did look older than a man his age would look today because of his ongoing health problems.

He wore a hearing aid, the kind with a wire that extended from his ear down to a shirt pocket where he kept the battery. He lost much of his hearing in his twenties training stateside for World War I, a war he never saw because heavy artillery training damaged his ear drums.

A few years ago after a family member passed away, we were greeting guests at the visitation in a nearby town. That funeral home has seen more than one of my relatives safely delivered to the cemetery. One of the local folks, Mr. Marion, came up to my sister and me and struck up a conversation.

"I knew your granddaddy, Mr. Grover. In fact, I remember the time he tangled up with some wild black honeybees in the woods." Mr. Marion was quite a storyteller himself.

I already knew that my grandfather had tried his hand at robbing honey from beehives when he was younger, but he usually carried a smoker and wore a protective net. It seems that particular time his gear failed him. He had to run for cover and jump  in a creek as the angry bees stung him all the way there. He had apparently regaled Mr. Marion with the bee misadventure.

Mr. Marion went on to tell us, "Them bees sure do sting, don't they, Mr. Grover?"

"Y-yep, they sh-sure d-do!"

Outwardly, I chuckled at the story and pictured the scene in my head, but , like Sissie, my mind was suddenly struck by a question that needed an answer.

One of the last times I visited my late Aunt Janie, I asked, "Did Pa stutter?"

She smiled. "He sure did, baby."

How did I not know that? How did I not remember that?  Fifty  years had passed, and I had no recollection that my grandfather stuttered. Then an explanation hit me.

I didn't remember Pa's stuttering, not because I was young, but because I loved hearing his stories. I simply didn't notice. I didn't concern myself with judgments and observations. I cared about him. I loved spending time with my grandfather, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. And sitting in that swing with me, just a man talking to his young granddaughter, must have given him a sense of ease that he could talk to me and pass down the stories and adventures of his life without worrying about how he spoke. Without worrying about being judged.

So when Davey stands before the class, it takes an enormous amount of courage for him to give his informative speech about the beautiful barred owl that patiently rests on his arm. His uncle is there giving him moral support, and the serene owl serves as his "wing man."

It is my sincere hope that young people or adults who read my books will find characters that speak to them. Maybe readers will learn from Davey that it's more important to hear what Davey and others like him in the real world wish to say rather than how they express themselves . Maybe Davey will speak to a young reader who feels marginalized by some aspect of his own speech or physical appearance. Maybe someone who feels embarrassed or fearful to speak in front of classmates will identify with Davey.

And, by the way, an owl really did wink at me during an informative speech in the sixth grade. And I have loved owls every day of my life since then.

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The Moral Compass

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The Moral Compass

When I visited with seventh grade Language Arts classes at a local middle school to talk about Chinaberry Summer, the students asked me great questions. One student wanted to know: "Who's your favorite character in your book?"

The Moral Compass

Now his question was something that I had never really considered until that moment because each of my characters is obviously my favorite. After all, I created them, and their personalities developed inside my head. I wrote the words that they say to one another, and I described how they interact with other characters. All of them are members of the world of the Stevenson family in the fictional location of Slippery Branch, Georgia.

Now some of my characters are quite ornery and unlikable (Aunt Pearl). One is a sneaky thief (Joe Borders), and one is a cruel, worrisome bully (Rusty Jackson). Several of the teachers need to ask themselves why they became teachers. And let’s not forget Raleigh Brown, the week-end visitor and family scourge from town. Two of these characters undergo dramatic changes in my second book.

But who is my absolute favorite character in my book? Since Chinaberry Summer is written in first person from the perspective of Sissie Stevenson, readers might assume that she is my favorite character. However, without hesitation, I answered the student, “Grandpa Stevenson.”

Without a doubt, Grandpa Stevenson is the family patriarch who gently steers the course of the Stevenson clan. Even the extended family reunion takes place every year at his house. So a compass appears several times in the book: At the beginning, in the middle, and toward the end. Sissie sees that most of the adults in her family are good at giving directions to others, but they cannot always read the points of life’s compass very well for themselves. Then the compass turns up again at Christmas, a time when Sissie is struggling mightily with her school year while simultaneously trying to help Spud avoid bullies and find his own identity. And then there’s the last time, but you’ll need to read the book to find out about the final appearance of the compass. No spoilers! 

Spud and Sissie naturally relate to Gemma and Grandpa Stevenson. Sissie loves them for being her kind, understanding grandparents who provide a safe place where she can be herself and find answers to her many questions. Although Spud is more distantly related, he loves Gemma and Grandpa Stevenson for being nonjudgmental and caring, which is the opposite compass point away from how he is treated at home and at school. But both Sissie and Spud, without consciously realizing it, migrate to Grandpa Stevenson because he appears to be the compass of the Stevenson family as he points out life’s directions to Spud and Sissie without judging them, without preaching at them, and without criticizing them or others. He simply answers life’s questions and models the kind of persons they need to aspire to be.

Character development can be a tricky business. I believe that in order for a writer to create an honest and memorable character, the writer must hold that character in the highest respect, even if that character is a flawed individual. And sometimes the writer has to step back and let her characters take her where they want to go. As a writer, I must listen to each character’s voice. I cannot force the characters, or they will be stunted and unrealistic caricatures. Their actions will not be true and believable.

So how do I say without hesitation that Grandpa Stevenson is my favorite character? I can’t imagine Chinaberry Summer without his presence. He adds heart and soul to the story. He is the storyteller, passing down the family’s history and stories to the next generations. Sometimes flowers and “critters” remind me of what he might say to Sissie. And sometimes, in a quiet place, if I start to think about Grandpa Stevenson, I have to wipe away tears.

It was a joy to develop his character and to write his words. He’s not a wealthy man, but he is rich in friends. He’s real, he’s believable, and he illustrates the powerful influence that a flawed, imperfect person can have over others so long as he presents himself as honest and nonjudgmental. One who loves people the way they are. One who sees the importance of answering a child’s questions with respect. One who takes the time to help his grandchildren find their true direction as they struggle to find their place in the world. And through his words and interactions with Sissie, Spud, and the other characters in Chinaberry Summer, Grandpa Stevenson proves that not only does he know how to read the points of life’s compass very well, he is the family’s moral compass.

 

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Aunt Pearl

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Aunt Pearl

"Children should be seen and not heard." Aunt Pearl

"Old busybody religious fanatics should not be seen or heard." Grandpa

            Two of my favorite chapters in Chinaberry Summer are "A Come to Jesus Meeting" and "Shall We Gather."  In those chapters I take my readers to the annual Stevenson family reunion on the third Sunday in July.

            The food is going to be a heavenly blend of classic Southern dishes washed down with Dixie cups filled with icy sweet tea served up under loblolly pine trees. But the best part of all will be the people in attendance. It's blazing hot, the yellow jackets are buzzing, and all that remains for an entertaining afternoon is the appearance of Raedean Brown in a very bad mood.

            Now all of those family members are completely fictional in the usual sense. But I assure you that many of them have turned up in most families. And still do. And that doesn't just apply to families in the Deep South.

            Does every family have a relative like Aunt Pearl heavily perched somewhere on a limb of the family tree? Maybe. If not, perhaps a few family members' personalities can be rolled together into a composite recipe for Aunt Pearl. Mix together a cup of self-righteousness, a cup of regular attempts to control everyone in the family, another cup of the continual desire to kill small critters to teach them a lesson, another cup of church gossip, and a large dollop of old-fashioned notions about women and religion. Stir and sprinkle the mixture heavily with bitterness and constant criticism.

            Then there are those other fictional relatives. The ones who can scarf down fried chicken  and deviled eggs while still managing to breathe and gossip at the same time. The ones who wear overpowering floral perfume applied by the ounce, creating a flowery cloud of dueling fragrances. The one who talks sweetly to a cousin and then loudly denounces her to other relatives when she gets out of earshot.  The ones who visit only one day a year, and that’s one day too many. And, of course, there's the rest of the family. The ones who watch in disbelief as other dysfunctional relatives use the occasion to embarrass themselves in one way or another. Really? At a family reunion?

            How true is the old saying: We get to choose our friends, but there's not a single thing we can do about choosing the people who are kin to us. And sometimes there's nothing quite like a family reunion on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in July to remind us of that fact.

 

 

 

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Red, White, and Pink

Cabin Roses.jpg

Red, White, and Pink

A Chinaberry Summer Short Story

(Fiction, Of Course)

The sweet month of April dropped off the insurance company calendar in Gemma’s kitchen, and May slipped right down to take its place. The cooler, uncertain days of rainy April weather gave way to May’s warmer days and gentle breezes.

I was tired of being cold. It felt good to be able to warm up in the slanted rays of the morning sun. Even as afternoons turned into evenings, their warmth lingered for a while. Our front porch swing afforded me fine opportunities to think while I was serenaded by a multitude of different birds singing during the day and by the raucous sounds of frogs singing to one another in the night.  

Early on Saturday afternoon I left my swing and carried my thoughts with me. As I walked across the grass near the chinaberry tree, bright sunshine spread its rays over the front lawn. I stopped for a moment, stretched out my arms, closed my eyes, and turned my face toward the sunlight. I imagined that I was a butterfly warming my wings before taking flight.

Chinaberry trees are beautiful, but not easy to climb.  I turned my attention to the spreading, leafy branches of the mimosa tree and climbed up into my favorite perch. Then I began to think about Gemma’s calendar. What if months had a color? April would be yellow. Yellow for the jonquils, daffodils, and forsythia.  For the glorious beds of yellow tulips and the fiery colors of native azaleas.  And for the wafting clouds of pine tree pollen that set our runny noses to twitching and sneezing and brought on paroxysms of coughing every spring.

May would be green.  For its birthstone, the emerald.  For lilies of the valley and the trees’ tender foliage that changed from translucent green to deeper shades of jade. You know, the kind of leaves that actually provide shade and don’t leave you sitting outside to slowly roast in the Georgia sun.

April has Easter, but May has Mother’s Day.  And every Southern daughter knows that she had better pause on that hallowed date and pay homage to the woman who brought her into the world. It’s a moment for –  respect. It does not matter if the daughter is married and has children of her own. She must pause and remember from whence she came – specifically from whom she came.

Now it was always our family’s custom to wear a rose to church on Mother’s Day. We didn’t go out and buy expensive roses. Heavens, no. Biddie and I kept a sharp eye on Mama’s rose bushes in the front yard, and we held our breath, hoping that we would be able to find perfect red roses to pin on our Sunday dresses. The roses had to be red. Not the pink or white or yellow ones. No other color would do. Mama explained to us that we wore red because our mother was alive. Others whose mothers were not alive would wear white roses.

It so happened that the next day was Mother’s Day. Mama had a particularly vexing morning. She didn’t appear to be in a Mother’s Day mood at all as she fussed over breakfast and tried to make sure that we were all presentable for church. Even Daddy. I knew the day had started off wrong because Mama took two aspirins before we even left for church instead of after the service. I was certain that she sometimes didn’t have much religion left when we all finally presented ourselves at the kitchen door, dressed and ready to hop into the car for the short trip down the dirt road to Mount Olive Baptist Church. Today was no exception.

We hunted up straight pins and hurried outside to gather our red roses fresh off the thorny branches. We picked one for Daddy and an extra one for Spud in case Aunt Pearl thought it was foolish for him to wear one. We dodged the sharp thorns and smelled the sweet fragrance of the dewy blossoms.

And, of course, the Mother’s Day celebration didn’t end there. During our morning worship service, The Preacher recognized the oldest mother, the youngest mother, and the mother with the most children and grandchildren present in church. The youngest mother category was never a problem. The winner was too young to see the point in competing over childbirth. It was the other two categories that usually proved to be challenging.  Most women, especially ones of a certain age, usually decline to reveal how many years they have been on this earth. So it was amazing how readily the older ladies stood up, looked around at each other, and shamelessly revealed their age, all with the hopes of winning a crystal glass candy dish from the five and ten cent store.

And the ones with the most children and grandchildren present. That was another interesting category. Aunt Pearl usually huffed a bit about that one. She knew she could never win that prize. It was impossible.  Everyone knew that Miss Inez would win it, because she won it every year. What did she do with all those candy dishes? Aunt Pearl would have to set her sights on winning the competition for the oldest mother. She would simply have to hold on and live long enough to be older than most of the other ladies in the church and then outlive the older ones. That was possible. In fact, she was so contrary that it was very likely.

“Besides,” she grumbled later, “other women in the church besides Inez could win that award if they could just convince all their children and grandchildren to go to church on the same Sunday. If they even go to church at all.”

After all of the maternal recognition had ceased and each bright-eyed winner was clutching her dime store treasure, The Preacher started in on the sermon. It was about Gideon and the Midianites, which didn’t have a lick of anything to do with Mother’s Day. Why didn’t he hold on to that one for Father’s Day? Of course, it wasn’t long before he commenced to yelling. He somehow managed to yell even louder than usual when he shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Now, truth be told, that used to be one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament, but The Preacher pretty much killed it for me.

After the morning service at last came to an end with the singing of “Amazing Grace” twice, the congregation escaped outside to the fresh air where we could fellowship for a few minutes in the churchyard and visit with Miss Inez’s relatives who only came to our church on Mother’s Day. The sun’s heat began to bear down on us. Our roses started to look wilted, and so did we. We hopped into our cars, with images of broken earthenware jars, torches, trumpets, and swords still dancing in our heads and with The Preacher’s lengthy sermon still ringing in our ears. After hearing about Gideon’s army lapping water like dogs, I was plenty thirsty for a big glass of iced sweet tea.

So it was on to Gemma’s house for Sunday dinner. She had outdone herself. Ham, potato salad, sweet potato casserole, sliced juicy tomatoes, corn, and green beans. She topped off the feast with a fresh chocolate pound cake.  

It should’ve been a wonderful Mother’s Day celebration, but, of course, warm Sunday afternoons brought on naps, pesky mosquitoes, and visits by relatives, not necessarily in that order. The trick was to finish dinner, help Gemma with the dishes, and head home fast before any of the pests showed up. Relatives, not mosquitoes. Daddy escaped in time, but Mama wasn’t quick enough, so she had to hear all about Aunt Ida’s gallbladder surgery. We left as soon as we could, just as Aunt Georgia started telling Gemma all about her arthritis pain and her new false teeth.

When Mama, Biddie, and I stepped into our kitchen, dirty breakfast dishes were in the sink. In the living room, Daddy was lying sound asleep on the couch, snoring away, with the Sunday newspaper scattered on the floor. The television was blaring out some kind of golfing program. Daddy didn’t even play golf.

Mama looked at us and said, “You know, you should’ve picked pink roses this mornin’.” 

We looked at her with puzzled expressions. “Why, Mama?” we both asked together.

“Because right about now, I’m half dead.”

And with that, she turned on her heels, marched out the back door, and headed to the woods without looking back. From what we could tell, she spent over an hour and a half sitting alone in my fort. We didn’t dare disturb her. Happy Mother’s Day, Mama.

 

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Predator

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Predator

I look more carefully into his watchful eyes

Dark orbs that reflect a history that cannot be spoken

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The Quilt

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The Quilt

I asked him if he needed a bedspread. He quickly replied, "Actually, I'd like to have that old quilt that your greatgrandmother made." I was delighted to send him that quilt. I was even more delighted that he asked for it because, in a sense, that quilt represents the fabric of our family. A traditional touch.

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