Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Desk

When my parents got married in June of 1948, and settled in St. Louis, my dad worked for the furniture store Styx, Bayer, and Fuller. Since he received a discount on purchases, in the first years of their marriage, they bought several good pieces: a desk, end tables, lamps, and a bedroom set.

All of those pieces, distributed among us when my parents died in 1995, and their home closed, still remain in my family,

I inherited the desk.

I call it “the desk” because that’s how we referred to it as children. Always a fixture in our living room, the desk traveled from St. Louis to Jacksonville to Atlanta, where it moved two more times in my parents’ lifetime as they lived in two house in Atlanta, and then finished out the last sixteen years of their lives in Roswell, Georgia.

I primarily remember my father sitting at that desk. His tall back slumped a little, Daddy pulled a Pugh chair, which actually wasn’t the right height for the desk,  to the front of and using the working surface, begin to do his weekly correspondence – which in a time before, well, you know, a time before now, had to be kept up with by and through handwriting.

He wrote and answered letters, paid bills, and each Saturday evening in order to be ready for the mad dash of getting a family of six ready for church, took a tithing envelope from a pigeon hole and wrote the check for the tithe.

When the fall front of the desk was down, which was most of the time, the desk was a messy place: mail, opened and not, keys, pens and pencils, various periodicals, writing paper, and other desk detritus lay about. It was never very neat – and the only time the fall front was closed was when we expected company.

Many a time in anticipation of visitors, I shoved the pile on the desk’s writing service to the back, sometimes crinkling and smashing things together, and closed the fall front to give the appearance of order. I never remember the desk being in a state of clutter free – it was always open – the curved pieces of metal which held the flip top exposed.

We were chastised many a time for leaning against that flip top and straining its strength.

Since the desk lay in between the hall door and the front door a major thoroughfare in our small house, anyone could bump into one of the sharp corners of the writing surface and be mortally wounded. 

On the very top of the desk was usually a light and a clock and various hard back books, supported by book ends. Above the desk hung a painting of Jesus knocking at a door, an image created by Warner Sallman. That painting, known as Christ at Heart’s Door, is a part of my siblings and my memories, but none of us knows what  happened to it – *sigh*. We don’t even remember if it made Mother and Daddy’s last move.

As a curious child, I loved to poke and prod in the confines of that desk. 

 I run because I can -- it's 1955. Desk is at right.

When the desk’s fall front was open and its working surface exposed, also clearly in view were the many “cool” storage spaces. I imagined what kinds of secrets could be hidden in the six pigeon holes (used mainly by Daddy for envelopes, old letters, and for some reason playing cards), four small drawers which held stamps, return address labels, anonymous old keys, and old small black and white photo of people long dead), and in the center of the work space – the absolutely most fabulous space -- a little door with a small door knob that opened and closed. What lay behind that little door now has left my memory.

I peered and peeked and examined everything in that desk – looking for some secrets I knew had to be hidden there. I never found any, but it didn’t keep me from snooping.

As my brother Hunter noted, “That desk was always there.”

 In St Louis in 1950, brother Hunter plays with a toy, given to him by his Aunt Eleanor -- desk is to the back right.

The other day I opened the desk that now belongs to me and sorted and tossed stuff that had gathered there. I have primarily used it for storage, and I haven’t sat at it at a long time and used its writing surface – even though, once, when I was teaching school, I had the wild notion that it would be super for grading papers. Actually, a super place for grading papers does not exist – but I digress.

As I cleaned out the desk’s many places, I came across the address return labels from my parents’ second home in Atlanta – one they left in 1979, as well as some old stamps and old keys. I guess I moved it as it was in 1995, and didn’t bother to clean out those small drawers.

Behind the small door, I had put a 20 ml bottle of Liquid Paper.


The other stuff I found --- well, readers, is for another blog.

 Brother Hunter in some nifty black socks stares at the parents on his graduation from kindergarten, 1955.

In 1958, my sister did some vamping for the camera.

 Sister Margaret and I pose before ... a fashion show... bwha... kidding -- Easter, 1967.

ETA: I couldn't find a single photo of my brother Kenneth in front of that desk. Sorry, bro.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Circle Time with Tallulah




Come on.

Point out the circle.




*tee hee*


Loving Frank

Nancy Horan writes in her Afterword, “Loving Frank is a work of fiction based on events relating to the love affair of the brilliant and controversial architect Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his clients, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.”

When Mamah Cheney and her husband Edwin commissioned Wright in 1903 to design a house for their family in Oak Park, Illinois [also childhood home of Ernest Hemingway], Mamah and Frank developed a intellectual relationship that eventually led to an affair. The depth of that affair and its repercussions, imagined by Horan, covers a period in history from 1907 to 1914.

Since very little is known about Mamah Cheney, Horan, “as close as possible,” used a historical approach to document this period in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.  Using Wright’s closely examined life as her basis, Horan filled in Mamah’s as it “played out in her letters and other records” and laid it with the “ideas and events that enlivened the times and places in which they lived.” By doing this, Horan created the personal relationship that Cheney had with Wright.

Loving Frank is well done historical fiction;  part novel, part history, and part imagination, Horan’s work is believable, realistic, and compelling.  About ½ through the book, I emailed my friend Celia, who loaned it to me,  and told her that I did not like the “selfish” Mamah or the “arrogant” Wright. She emailed me back -- “just wait.”

Keenly interesting, Horan builds a momentum that kept me turning pages to see what happened to end the affair, and so subtle is Horan‘s writing, that I didn’t see it coming.

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Really Smart" with a small tribute to Mr. Burger

As I talked to my oldest brother this past week on the telephone to wish him sweet returns for his 63rd birthday [he lives in Boulder], I asked him about what he remembers about the oratorical contests he entered about fifty years ago.

Note: He entered three different years [it was probably an age qualifier] -- and placed each time.

My mother, who had encouraged him -- better word -- made, was thrilled when he did so well.

My oldest brother Hunter has a lovely speaking [and singing] voice, which came in handy when he gave his valedictorian speech at his high school graduation in 1967, and handsomely paid off as he wrote a speech and presented it at this local speech contest for the Optimist Club. This learned skill gave him the poise and aplomb to later deliver that speech at graduation, or at least, that's my version of it.

He doesn’t remember how old he was exactly [he guessed 12 or 13] when he entered those Optimist oratorical contests, but he does remember that my mother relentlessly hounded him until he performed the speeches perfectly.{I have the best memory in the family -- thus, the writer that I think I am as I chronicle these childhood events.}

I’ve written about my mother's task-mastering spirit [see blog on weeding, kitchen chores, etc.],  and my single recollection of these competitions involved his being a pretty reluctant contestant.

My oldest brother Hunter had/has some serious brains. A natural linguist, mathematician, as well as avid reader, he grew up with  having academics come easy to him.  In elementary school, he had the reputation as a child prodigy. Students in our young era weren’t labeled as “gifted” or “talented” -- they were called “really smart."  By high school, as three primary schools converged into one school, everyone knew him as "smart. Really smart." My mother recognized his abilities and wished for him to capitalize on it. He, well, wasn't that keen on "capitalizing."

As a student he did little work outside the classroom as he could pretty much listen in class and be done with it. I wanted that. Didn’t have it.

By the time I got to high school in the fall of 1967, Hunter, graduated and headed to the University of Virginia, left behind at Sylvan HS his academic legacy. Not fun to follow.

Each teacher I had, who had taught Hunter, seemed amazed that we shared a common biology.

Math teacher: Are you sure you are Hunter’s sister?

History teacher:  You’re Hunter’s sister? Really? You're kidding?

Science teacher: I take it you are not related to Hunter.

Social studies teacher: You? No. Hunter’s sister?  *rolls eyes in disbelief*

The hardest academic area  in which to follow Hunter was Latin. Taught by the infamous Mr. Rufus Burger, a frightening Academician with high standards, I enrolled in Latin I as an eighth grader, and the struggle to master it began. I have no ear for language, and the toil I endured to conjugate verbs with the right inflection, learn vocabulary quickly -- as many as 100 words a week, much less translate those epic battles involving Julius Caesar in the Gallic wars, those long, boring stories of the travails of Romulus and Remus, or the daily life of Cato  --- still give me nightmares.

Bloody argh.

When he reigned over his Latin classroom in the late 1960s, Mr. Burger seemed elderly. He might have been in his 40s -- hard to know since under his tutelage, I stayed a nervous wreck -- he had a daunting presence and elicited respect.

Mr. Burger, in his horned rims, paraded his classroom by moving up and down each row with his hands behind his back, the waistband of his pants seemingly high on his short waist-ed physique, his tie and white shirt impeccably tucked, and his eagle eye trained on any student who might be out of line, and if one dared cross him, he'd quip, "I'll have your life's blood." Funny now. Then, not so much.

As he tapped the front of my desk with his forefinger and demanded in his deep voice, “Read, girl, read," I took a huge swallow and prayed that I could get through even some of my weak and less than fluid translations with some accuracy.

Mr. Burger’s classroom demands were legendary: not only translating the long Latin passages, he also crazily and randomly called on us to conjugate any Latin verb in any tense or demanded for us to recite the   declensions of any pronoun in the masculine or the feminine. Hic -- Haec -- Hoc....


I dared not show up un-prepared -- but I did show up average.

I mostly let Mr. Burger down, and he and I both sighed with relief when I stopped with the required two years of foreign language with Latin II. Hunter, of course, had taken up through Latin V, some of them independent studies, and made Mr. Burger proud. Very proud. Magnificus.

Mr. Burger adored my smart brother Hunter, who also picked Mr. Burger as his Star teacher, a recognition by the student with the highest SAT score in his class for the teacher who was most influential, and when I came after with my puny skills, needless to say, I was a disappointment. Hopefully, Mr. Burger found me amusing -- :-)

All of my siblings and I took Latin [my parents thought it a better language to study] and “following Hunter” not fun --- as I couldn’t measure up. Not even close. But I digress as usual.

One of the years that Hunter entered the Optimist Oratorical contest was 1962. With my mother’s relentless coaching and critiquing of his speech and always on his back to work on it or practice it or refine it or polish it, his total lack of enthusiasm had him half-heartedly writing his speech [the topic provided by the club] and then, go figure, winning.  So. Hunter.

My memory, of course, is of the constant struggle of wills between Hunter and my mother, both so alike in their trench digging and drawing of lines in the sand. An obedient son, perhaps not dutiful, and an accomplished procrastinator, he did as she asked, but he wasn’t happy or in a hurry.

He dragged his feet a lot on the writing of the speech and then on the practicing of it; we all suffered together. We were that kind of family. *snickers*

For many evenings and weekends, she sat by his side as he went through the speech over and over until every sentence, word, syllable had been analyzed for the maximum effect.  She did it out of love for wanting to showcase his talent; he did it because she expected it, but he wasn’t about to make it easy.


As I noted, Hunter doesn’t remember too much about it -- not the topics of the speeches, not how many other boys and girls entered, not even giving them, but he does remember how much he hated the preparation for it. We lived in a small house, I reminded him, and we hated it too.

He did tell me this: the year he won first place -- he thinks he might have been in seventh grade -- the prize for winning was a trip to St. Simons Island, Georgia, with the rest of the first place winners from the state. He said, “As we toured the area, I thought it was the neatest place. The history fascinated me.”

BTW: In the summer of 1962, my brother Hunter and I spent a week in Virginia with my aunts where we toured Appomattox Civil War historical park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Those are the pictures I posted on this blog. There is a picture somewhere of Hunter and his trophy for winning the oratorical contest, but I couldn’t find it.

ETA: About ten years ago, Mr. Burger died. He outlived my parents who died in 1995. As a career educator spanning over forty years, he left the Atlanta Public School system in the late 1970s and went to the private sector. He lived into his late 80s. A terrific teacher, he deserves a place in my family's collective memory. 

Requiescat in pace

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Confederacy of Silence

In 1995, as most of the country [not I, btw] was captured by the murder trial of former NFL player O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles, California, the small town of Batesville, Mississippi, had its own trial of a former football player in that of Handy Campbell of Greenwood, Mississippi, in the murder of one of his friends [the trial moved to Batesville, about 75 miles north of Greenwood, because no one in Greenwood seemed unacquainted with either the victim or the defendant].

In his book Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, published in 2002, Richard Rubin heads south in 1988, as a “cub” reporter for the one newspaper in Greenwood, Mississippi: his primary beat  -- sports. In the football loving Delta, Rubin meets Handy Campbell, an African American quarterbacking phenom, who wows the fans of Greenwood High School as he takes them to a state championship. When Rubin packs his bags to head back north after a year working in Greenwood, Handy’s future seems assured  --  a football scholarship to Old Miss, and after a stint at the collegiate level, the National Football League. 

Six years later, Handy Campbell sits in jail awaiting his trial, and Rubin returns south to investigate what happened in the years in between the state championship and a murder rap. The South that Rubin encounters this time is not the one he left before….and even he was surprised by the changes.

Filled with anecdotes, interviews, personal life narrative, history, social commentary, and well-drawn characters, Rubin’s honesty, direct style, and fascinating look at  this small Southern town stuck in the past held my attention. At times, Rubin’s comments on racism and religion smarts if you care about stuff like that, but his confronting  his own flaws, feelings, prejudices, and perhaps at times, total misunderstanding of situations makes his attempt to make sense of what went wrong palpable.

If you like thorough examination of everything from state roads to murder trials, this book's for you -- Rubin did his research and weaved a fine, but tragic, story.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ladders, Hummers, and Rules

Not that easy.
Climbing ladders.

Just make it look so.
I'm pretty magnificent.

However. I.
Look pretty darn good sitting up here.
What a view! Of myself. That is.

 Hummers! Hummers!
I love those little hover-ers.

What to do now that I am up here?
Few choices.

 I don't do anything ever. Really.
Never mind.
Such a silly, silly, dog thought! 

 I do this ALL THE TIME!

Big, ground creatures.

Too big for pursuit. 
Plus, they're protected 
[No hunting signs everywhere -- like I'm gonna pay attention to that- bwha.
 Besides --  I can't/don't/won't read.]
 here in this mountain refuge.

Rules are for dogs.
Vaccum cleaners.
Other cats.

Gotta exit.
That porch chair is calling me.

Back paw not feeling anything.

That's it, paparazzi. 
Out of my face.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

878 Pages

That’s how long the last book I read is --- when I picked up the tome from the public library, I thought -- dang, is this guy the British Dostoyevsky?  Only Russians, in their long winters, seem so --- verbose. After I read about two hundred pages, I discovered that the book is actually three plus two "Interludes." Duh. Totally reined in by the first book, I determined to finish it -- and in spite of my late nights, and now cramped hands from holding the huge thing, I have completed the saga.

BTW: I hear those of you out there chuckling as you think -- dummy, get a Kindle or E-reader. Eh. I liked the heft of the thing -- it reminded me of reading Michener, Dickens, Dumas, Tolstoy, or Cooper.  When I'm done, I know I have accomplished something. What? I dunno, but something. :-)

The Forsyte Saga, emphasis on “saga,” by John Galsworthy, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, follows the lives of the Forsyte family [what was your first clue?] for three generations.  Even though there is lots of  family in this noveau riche clan, Galsworthy focuses on Soames and Jolyon [I had to keep saying Jo Lion, Jo Lion, Jo Lion, in my head for that name to stick -- for some reason I wanted to call him Joe Lynn as if he was a character in Li‘l Abner], two first cousins, and their wives and their problems, then the children and their problems, and then, of course, the problems of the time [money, property, propriety, manners, money, money, scandal, property] to create a compelling and witty novel about members of the “class” in their last throes of comfort.

The story begins in 1886, when the Forsytes assemble at Old Jolyon’s to celebrate the engagement of his granddaughter, and ends in 1920, when the clan gathers once again to bless the marriage of his great-grand niece. With the setting of England consistent as background, Galsworthy examines the effect of “Beauty in the lives of men“ [which controls their actions in his humble opinion], instead of on the many transitions that England went through in those forty years.

Quite funny in places, this British satire takes the time to analyze the history while telling the story, and Galsworthy is quite good at being --- clever. From the obsequious and oily Soames to his thrice married golden boy cousin Jolyon, Galsworthy pokes fun at all of them.

Note: Thankfully, Galsworthy includes a family tree in the front of the novel -- I referenced it many times. This flipping to the chart reminded me of when I taught Wuthering Heights and the students couldn't get the characters straight --- I finally provided them with a family tree. WH is child's play compared to this family. Just sayin'.