Monday, December 24, 2007

Mo' Better Blues

We sent out invitations to our Christmas party right after Thanksgiving, so even though I wasn't really in the mood for a celebration this year, there was no getting out of having one. When I got serious about planning the party, my first reaction was negative – I don't feel like it; I don't want to do it; WHY am I doing this? – I was determined to either wallow in misery or just sulk.

Somewhere along the line, though, I began to think about how being sad affects the way I view the world, and it occurred to me that happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive emotions, and that, in fact, each of them magnifies the other in ways that aren't always obvious on the surface. Walking down the street, peering into shop windows, in itself, has no meaning; but spying a little china cat in a shop window, one like my great-grandmother used to collect , well, that changes things entirely. A little tug on the heartstrings or a remembrance of past happiness has the power to change things altogether -- if you let it. So, as I planned my party, I let it.

We had two tables of food: one for appetizers and one for desserts.

When I set up the dessert table, I thought about the meaning in each thing I placed on it. The flowers, the china, and the table runner were given to me by Auntie. I've had the china the longest; Auntie bought it on one of her overseas sojourns and Mama and Papa Barber brought it to me when they visited us in West Virginia in our first year of marriage. It is one of my prized possessions and I never miss an opportunity to show it off. Auntie gave me the table runner much later, along with a chest that has a scratched top. The chest is in the other room and the runner usually stays on top of it, but I put a different runner on the chest, so Auntie's runner could add a little meaning to the dessert table for the party. Auntie also gave me the gorgeous pink poinsettias for Christmas this year. The sterling, which I spent hours polishing to mirror-perfection, originally belonged to my grandmother's sister El. It was given to me a couple of years ago by her other sister Mackie, and it is also one of my prized possessions. In addition to assorted cookies, petit fours from Neiman Marcus, and a fondant cake from a New York bakery, the table contains some culinary treasures baked by DH: his famous biscotti, the yummy lemon cake that he bakes for my birthday, and the chess cake that my other grandmother, Bonnie, used to make for Christmas each year.

The appetizer table, which I didn't have time to photograph, contained all sorts of wonderful tidbits, including some that also had meaning. There, we used the rice china given to us by Auntie, and we had more of DH's delectables, including his amazing meatballs and corn muffins made from Mama Barber's buttermilk recipe.

The party was wonderful and it was also meaningful – I made a point of mentioning the origins of the dishes, silver, and recipes whenever anyone commented on them. Each time I did so, I felt a little tug on my heartstrings and each little tug added a layer of meaning to my life. Each time someone asked about the roll-top desk that belonged to my great-grandfather, where we'd set up the bar, I thought about the history of the desk and I added a layer. Each time someone commented on the china and the silver (and nearly everyone did), I talked about their history and I added a layer. The corn muffins were popular and I explained how my grandmother made them for years and years, but she only wrote down the recipe so my grandfather could make them when she was visiting Auntie in England. And I added another layer.

After everyone had gone, I looked around in amazement. Our house had turned into a vision of light. It was almost as if each layer of meaning had also added a bit of extra glow to the room!

May your holiday season have layers of meaning too.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Thanks and Thoughts

Thanks to everyone, particularly Gillian, for the condolences and kind words about my grandmother.

DH and I were talking about her yesterday and he said something to the effect that the thing he found fascinating about her is that she was the most influential person he'd ever met and yet, she wasn't rich or famous and she never gave unsolicited advice or instructions. She was, he said, a person for whom people wanted to care without any prompting, and that was down to nothing more than who she was: a model of the best sort of person anyone could hope to be. (I knew there was a reason I love this guy!)

I was thinking about DH's words in the shower this morning and it occurred to me that while I agree with him absolutely, there was a lot more to my grandmother than merely being a "good" person. I mean … of course she was good, but there are a number of simplistic stereotypes about what constitutes "goodness" – e.g., words like vapid, inane, and judgmental come to mind – yet nothing could be further from her essence than words like those. The fact is, my grandmother wasn't cast in the mold of anyone's sweet little old granny.

I relate this not because it will be important to anyone else, but because as a writer, creating realistic characters is important to me, and I feel my grandmother's personality gave me significant insight into complex characters. For instance, she told me once that when she was young, she really had a temper and that she'd worked hard to overcome it. I don't recall exactly why she mentioned this, but I suspect it was because I'd told her something I'd done in a fit of my own horrible temper – like the time I stove a hole in the wall by hurling an iron at it. She said not a word of censure about me behaving like a giant's horse's arse (although I did), she just casually mentioned her own temper. She wasn't being facile though; in 44 years of knowing her, I saw her get truly angry exactly one time and I can only thank Christ it wasn't me she was mad at me cos I'm pretty sure that incident gave me a better understanding of the phrase "scorched earth." That was 30 years ago, and though I spent a lot of time with her in the intervening years, she never did it again. She won the battle to conquer her temper completely.

The funny thing is, I don't think she was trying to live up to idealistic notions of being "good;" I think she just didn't want to be a person who acted like a horse's arse. And she wasn't; not to mention the importance of showing me that it could be done (I still haven't attained it, but I live in hope!).

The reason this is relevant is because if I were to try to write about a character like my grandmother, it would be difficult to avoid the pitfall of assigning her behaviour to the influence of cultural stereotypes of womanhood in the patriarchal South. Of course we are all going to be affected by cultural influences somewhat, but there is a big difference between wanting to be a perfect lady and not wanting to be an equine posterior.

To me, this is important because even though I, too, am a daughter of the South and I'm well aware that there's more to it, I also see how easy it is to fall into defining complex behaviour as either conforming or subversive. However, this is not only simplistic; it's just plain wrong. All I need to do to convince myself of this is to look at the other women in my family. I suppose one might define them as "ladies," but I doubt very seriously that one could make a case for any of them fitting the cultural stereotype of Southern women (otherwise known as "doormat"). For example, Auntie, who has recently started her own blog, left Arkansas for Washington DC when she was a young woman and forged a brilliant career in the US Foreign Service. She may have defied cultural stereotypes of the 1950s, but she didn't defy her parents – they were proud of her, always. One of my female cousins is a rising star at a major corporation and the other is a Math teacher. I can't speak for them, but I can't relate to that stereotype because I've always done what I wanted with the encouragement of my dad, my grandfather, and my husband. That specific patriarchy was never anything but beneficial to me.

My grandmother vanquished her temper because she wanted to be a better person, illustrating a multifaceted character, and inspiring me to work on my own temper in the process. She also showed me that curbing one's temper does not a doormat make. Useful stuff!

Beware scorched earth.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Vale Mama Barber

My grandparents, Mama and Papa Barber, were there for me from the moment I was born. I adored them, and when they moved to Florida when I was seven, I was heartbroken at the thought of not seeing them anymore. But the outcome of that move made me theirs in a way that might not otherwise have happened. I begged to visit them so often that the next summer, my parents and my grandparents arranged to drive to Mobile, Alabama (a halfway point), and I accompanied Mama and Papa back to Tampa so I could spend some time with them. That time turned into a whole summer, and the next seven summers as well. I loved my parents, but every year, I counted the days until I could go back to Mama and Papa's house. In all my life, that never changed -- wherever Mama and Papa lived felt like home to me too.

Mama died yesterday, while I was on the plane, on the way to see her. Her death was not unexpected, and it was not terribly sad in the sense of her having an unfinished life, but it is painful because her passing leaves a hole in the world. It most definitely leaves a hole in the world.

This is for her.

My grandmother, Mildred Beasley Barber, was born in 1914 in Warren, Arkansas. She was the third of five children born to Benjamin Beasley and Mai Smith Beasley. Her father was a lawyer who was also elected to two terms as Clerk of the Circuit Court for Bradley County. She went to college during the Great Depression, and hated it - it was a hardship for her family. She finally decided to leave school and she returned home to Warren and a while later, married my grandfather, Graham Nathaniel Barber.

When I was here two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving, my grandmother and I talked for hours. She told me that she knew my grandfather from the time she was eleven or twelve, but although they were friends in high school -- they shared books and notes -- he dated her friend Lucille. When she came home from college, though, all grown up, their friendship took a new course.

They had four children, including my dad, all of them exceptionally successful, and a life filled with joy and pain and fishing and books and travel -- and through it all, for those who loved them, my grandparents were the moorings, the port in the storm, the balm for what ailed us -- they were quiety, utterly dependable.

When I was in Florida, they took me fishing. Papa taught me to bait a hook and Mama taught me about love and loyalty. Mama loved to read, and rather than doing much fishing, she'd take a grocery bag full of books to read while Papa fished. I once asked her why she went at all if she wasn't going to fish -- she said it was because Papa loved to fish and she didn't want him to go out in his boat alone.

Mama took me to the library twice a week. She would help me cart home my 14 books (the most you could check out), and she would run interference with the well-meaning librarians who wanted to restrict me to the cihldren's section of the library. Mama's sister El was a librarian and she asked El for advice on what she ought to let me read. El said, "Turn her loose and you'll make a reader for life." El was right. When Mama and I talked on Thanksgiving, she laughed about how strange it was to see her ten-year-old granddaughter plowing through the Warren Commission, The Exorcist, and Shakespeare!

And what a wonderful role model she was. Mama read at least one book every day, and before she lost her eyesight, she did crosswords. She could zoom through the Sunday NYT crossword in record time. She always kept a dictionary nearby and if I ever asked her about a word she couldn't easily explain, she would immediately look it up. When I was in my Shakespeare phase, I would take a part and she would take another, and we would read it aloud as a play. Sometimes, when I begged her, she would even sing "Clementine" for me -- a song I remembered from my early childhood. No matter how difficult I was (and there is NO doubt I was difficult!), Mama was incredibly patient with me.

When I was twelve, I played clarinet in the varsity band. I wasn't really talented, but I was competitive and I challenged my way up to second chair. Rosie, the first chair, was better than me, but she wasn't old enough to play in the state finals, so I took the gold medal -- and was promoted to the Concert band, which was mostly made up of older students. I went from being arguably the best clarinetist in Varsity band to unarguably the worst in the Concert band, and I went with the band to the national championship in Orlando, Florida. The Concert band had won 20 consecutive championships and I was petrified that one of my mistakes would cost them a 21st. Looking out at the audience, I was on the verge of pretending to play, thinking that a missed part wouldn't be as bad as an audible mistake, and then I saw them. Mama and Papa Barber had driven all the way from Tampa to Orlando on a work-night, just to hear me play. Seeing them out there reminded me that I had a part to play and the right thing to do was to play it to the best of my ability, regardless of the outcome. So I did it for them, and I did it well -- and we won.

Mama and Papa were at my high school graduation. They helped my dad move me into the dorm at University of Arkansas. They held my hand and shared my grief when my dad died. Papa walked me down the aise at my wedding in my dad's place, and Mama was beaufiful in pink in the front row. They welcomed my friends into their home; they welcomed my husband; they welcomed my dogs, and they always always welcomed me.

I always felt my dad lived on in them, and now I feel that they, Mama and Papa and Daddy, live on in me.

Vale Mama Barber -- Requiescat in Pace