In deed and in truth

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Last month, I had the great privilege of interviewing one of my heroines, Andi Ashworth, upon the occasion of the re-release of her book, Real Love for Real Life by the Rabbit Room Press. You can find the interview here, and I really urge you not only to avail yourself of the gentle wisdom of her replies to my questions (questions I would have asked her if we’d been sitting face-to-face, so this interview really was a gift to me!), but to purchase and read and share her book, as well. (And while you’re at it, check out my friend Janna Barber’s heartfelt review.) Andi has a perspective on caring as a lifestyle that is truly revolutionary. She brings the most practical expressions of love out into the light—things that might otherwise be considered mundane or insignificant—and shows the opportunity they hold to communicate the love of God to the people in our lives. Her words were such a gentle challenge—at once a cup of cold water and a bracing tonic. I’ve said this elsewhere, but the offering of this book to a weary and care-starved world is a gift of care in itself. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Reading this book and conducting this interview have both made me think deeply about the application of these things in my own life. I’ve been affirmed down to a soul level in things I’ve intuitively felt, but have received very little cultural validation in. And I’ve been challenged to remember the preciousness of the lives that so beautifully intersect with mine, and to keep thinking about how I can love them in creative, concrete ways. But I have also been reminded, in a very poignant way, of the manner in which I’ve been on the receiving end of all this practical love. I am really quite honestly overwhelmed at the ways the people in my life have communicated God’s love to me. They have literally been the hands and feet of Christ in the moments of my greatest need.

But their gifts have not only shone out in the darkness; they have crowned the happiest moments of my life, as well, the most radiant example of which was my wedding day. Philip and I celebrated our anniversary this past week, and with it always comes the yearly remembrance of the astonishing ways that our people loved us during that time.

Indeed, their gifts reached back well into the earliest days of our engagement. I think I’d had Philip’s ring on my finger for scarcely a week when we decided that we wanted to hold our reception at our soon-to-be home, the beloved old farmhouse which he had occupied up until then with a handful of roommates. To be sure, the roommates were scattering: one was going into the Reserves and one had started looking at houses almost as soon as Philip and I started dating. But they were leaving eight years of blameless bachelor living in their wake. The house was fine and sturdy, and had been generally well-cared for, but it was going to take an enormous effort to make it livable to my standards (as in not smelling like dirty socks and paring the collection of sofas and cast-off recliners down to an absolute minimum), much less prepare it for a wedding. The place needed a complete overhaul, from the tip of her highest gable to her boxwood-skirted porch. And we had less than five months in which to do it.

When the idea initially seized us, it seemed the most natural, the most beautiful thing in the world: to host all our friends on the first day of our life together in what was to be our home. It was like something out of a book, something our great-great grandparents might have done. As soon as we started assessing the situation, however, and making lists, I was completely overwhelmed—to the point that I started second-guessing our dreams. There just didn’t seem any possible way that we could pull it off.

And we couldn’t have. That’s where our people came in.

As soon as Philip’s parents heard of our hopes, they literally rolled up their sleeves and got to work. I think Philip’s dad almost lived here with him over those months, quietly going about the doing of things I wasn’t even experienced enough to have thought of. Philip’s mother threw her gifts into the reclaiming of a beautiful, well-established yard that had seen nearly a decade of neglect. And I can’t tell how many times I would come here after a long day, ready for a long night of work on some project or another, to find the kitchen—my one-day kitchen—absolutely redolent with the aroma of a home-cooked meal and my soon-to-be mother-in-law beaming at me as she drew a pot roast out of the oven. There is simply no telling how those happy little suppers around a formica-topped table fed my soul during that time, and gave me energy to tackle my to-do list with a strengthened heart.

My parents joined the effort, as well. There was hardly a Saturday that this old place was not abuzz with willing workers; the ring of hammers and power tools were the rule of the day. And my mother was incredible: in between managing my social schedule—which had suddenly erupted into a happy mêlée of parties and showers and dress fittings—and assuring herself that my trousseau met the requirements of a proper Southern girl, and basically trying to keep up with the visions of a very starry-eyed, albeit opinionated bride, she was at the house, pulling honeysuckle vines out of ancient crepe myrtles and weighing in on paint chips and helping me plant my flower garden. My Daddy took about 87 sofas to the Goodwill; my brother cut grass and cut bushes and trimmed up all our liriope-lined paths so that they would be in full, green lushness for our wedding day. Among about a thousand-and-one other things, Philip designed and built a rose trellis in the side yard, through which our guests would pass (and we would enter our reception) and a friend gave us established rose bushes from his garden so that they would have time to clamber up the latticed sides.

It was all so amazing that I really think I was unable to take it in at the time. I was overjoyed and deeply, deeply grateful. But it’s in retrospect that the lump rises in my throat and the wonder burns my eyes with tears. Friends helped us pull up carpet, helped us paint the rooms, helped us move furniture and hang pictures. In essence, they helped us make a home, which is one of the most beautiful things a person can do for another. It was like a long, drawn-out house-raising. And there, in the midst of it all, was my groom, working day and night to prepare a place, not just for our wedding, but for us. For me. Even in all that sweet tumult of work and waiting, the precious image incarnate in Philip’s labor was not lost on me.

At my trousseau tea (and, yes, I am telling you, there are still some Southern girls who have trousseau teas!) just days before the wedding, a sweet friend asked what I had left do to. I think she was expecting a litany of final fittings and bridesmaids’ gifts and packing for my honeymoon. But when I told her I was planning on making curtains for the bathroom, she was incredulous.

“No,” she said, with as firm a look as I believe her kind brown eyes were capable. “No, Lanier. You are a bride. This week that is all you need to be. I am making your curtains.”

She would not leave until the fabric was safely in her hands, and as I passed off all those yards of white muslin, I felt like a physical weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an act of pure love, and, as such, bore the fragrance of God’s love to me. She gave me the gift of hours in my bridal week, for which I was deeply grateful. There is hardly a morning I do not think of it, as I pull back those soft drapes on the eastern light of a new day.

Philip and I are still incredulous about what happened here the day before the wedding. I had always cherished a dream that the people I loved would all have a hand in my Day of days, would each have their fingerprint, as it were, upon this most unforgettable moment of my life. But I had no idea it would be like this—folks descended on this old place from the four corners of the compass. I remember wandering around in a complete daze, marveling at all the activity, my ever-present wedding notebook hanging idly at my side. One extremely talented soul had been named artistic director of the affair, and he had taken all my Avonlea-ish visions and translated them into living reality. That day he presided over a small army of women on our back porch, up to their elbows in roses and shell-pink zinnias and hydrangeas they had brought from their own gardens. Some were arranging flowers for the reception tables; others were fashioning exquisite little nosegays of old-fashioned perennials for the wire cones to be hung on the ends of the pews at the church. I have a mental snapshot of one of my bridesmaids on the patio amid a sea of daylilies and Queen Anne’s lace which another friend had gathered from her pasture that morning, and just beyond her, a small army of teenagers throwing out fresh pine straw in all the beds around the house. I went inside and found my sister twining thyme and Russian sage into a curving letter ‘I’ to top our wedding cake, and saw one of her friends hanging over the stair railing, grasping a can of Brasso in one hand and an arm of our rather age-patinaed chandelier in the other.

Midway through the day, my mother had a meal of fried chicken and vegetables brought in for everyone, with leftover cakes from my trousseau tea, and lots and lots of iced tea. And just about the time we were all indoors and lined up to make our plates—it started to rain. I couldn’t believe it! An outdoor wedding reception was the only thing we had accounted for—there was no Plan B. I stood at the den windows watching the downpour in disbelief. I knew there was much more to getting married than a perfect wedding day. But I had never so much as considered the fact that it might rain! The faithful crew at our house, however, was undeterred. Nothing daunted, they simply finished up their lunch and plunged into a new round of tasks, trudging around in the rain as if there was not a thing in the world to worry about. My sister and another friend soaked themselves weaving ivy garlands and hanging them on the front gate; many of the women did the same, festooning the reception tent with curtains of tulle and ribbons with rain running down their faces and arms.

It rained again the next morning—June can be such a fickle girl in Georgia! I’m very much afraid that by that point I was too far gone with the joy of what the day meant to really care about the weather. (My mother knew she had lost me and my opinions the day before when she had innocently asked what I would like to put the dried lavender in, which would be distributed to our guests to throw as Philip and I left the reception. “Oh, I don’t care,” I said, with a wave of my hand. I think that was her first moment of real panic surrounding my wedding. From there on out, she knew she had to go on without me. ;) ) I remember sitting with my coffee on my wedding morning, looking out at the dripping day, asking my mother rather absently why it was raining.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

I heard her bedroom door close, and in a few moments it opened again.

“Your Daddy said it was going to be allright,” she told me with a brave smile. I little knew then how brave.

Quite frankly, that was enough for me. I floated on through the morning in a bridal haze of utter preoccupation. My bridesmaids started arriving, tripping daintily up the front walk under umbrellas, and the beloved friend that had agreed to do my hair managed to set me down before a mirror and get to work. Another dear one, who also happened to be our wedding coordinator, stopped by on her way to the church and repacked my suitcase (which was a complete mess) and the florist dropped off my headpiece. The whole house was a happy beehive of feminine industry, and there I was, useless and cow-eyed in the midst of it all. My mother came in when I was dressed, just as my sister was lowering my diaphanous veil, and her radiant face did not bear the least trace of the anxieties she had known that day.

It wasn’t until I returned from my honeymoon that I learned what went on at my house the morning of the wedding. A friend had procured some emergency cabana tents, and he and my dad and brother set them up in the rain. My mother had her work cut out convincing the cateress (a Southern maven of the old school, who had literally come out of retirement to do my wedding) that moving the reception to another site was not an option. Seeking our ‘artistic director’ for moral support, she found him on a ladder by Philip’s trellis, calmly wiring wild rose canes and blossoms over the lattice. Looking down at her with rain pouring off the brow of his hat, he cheerfully concluded that there was nothing more to do but press on and pray hard. (He actually pressed on so hard that he missed the wedding. I remember catching a glimpse of him at the back of the church when we were having our pictures made, no less dapper for his late drenching, smiling with all of us over the joy of the breaking clouds outside and the summer sunshine that was pouring in through the tall windows.)

Yes, it did clear up. The good Lord heard that host of prayers and was kind enough to part the clouds on our account. On the way to the reception, Philip and I saw a double rainbow spanning over our way. It was like a kiss from God. And when we pulled up before the house—our house—my mother-in-law greeted us on the front walk with the dearest words in the world: “Welcome home!”

So many memories from that day seem to swirl in a cloud of tulle and sweet peas and blushing organza. It was everything I had ever dreamed it would be—from the children in smocked dresses chasing each other under the trees, to the lemonade on the front porch, to the hot tea served from a dear one’s family heirloom of a silver service—because people who loved me had made it so. And in the goodness of God we danced on the lawn that day with our wedding party and sealed the vision we shared for the kind of home we wanted to establish: one that would literally overflow with the very love that had launched us into our life together. That love laid a hallowing touch on the smallest details of our day, and demonstrated to us in an unforgettable way that, indeed,

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
…through the features of men’s faces.

Photo credits: Frank Gibson

A Goodly Heritage

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

the king of the bottomlands

Thanksgiving, like any other beloved memorial with which the years are reckoned, has its own certain types, its venerable standard of ‘brightest and best’ against which each year’s observance is weighed. They may all—or most—be cherished in our hearts, a mellow, collected memory of loved rituals and the loved ones that give them meaning. But for each of us, there is a Thanksgiving or two amid our personal gathering of days that shines out like a beacon, a flashing lamp of gold scattering any hint of dark discontent or faltering hopes and illumining each successive holiday with the inspired light of God’s faithfulness. A Thanksgiving that epitomizes the meaning of the day—a thanks that is as much a forward-reaching as a tallying of the past and grants a brief, albeit unforgettable taste of the gratefulness that should overwhelm us all every moment of our lives.

Such a Thanksgiving was mine the year I was twenty-four.

It wasn’t the first time Philip had taken me to the farm—we had been on a jaunt one Saturday earlier that autumn, scarcely two months into our relationship, on the distinct errand of meeting his grandparents, towards whom he held the most reverential love. I had been honored that day with every possible mark of kindness and affection: a steaming country breakfast during which I sat in the old kitchen trying to take it all in with wide-eyed amazement, nodding helplessly as Philip’s grandmother offered more eggs and blackened bacon and crisp toast with a homemade grape jelly that still haunts my dreams. An afternoon spent wandering over the farm itself (of which Philip’s grandfather knew every square inch) and a sudden opportunity to distinguish myself with a rifle and a tin can. Homemade ice cream for supper simply because I happened to let fall the comment that I loved it. It was one of the happiest days I have known, and deserves a story all its own. I was loved without pretense that day and without scruple—lavishly, as practically as only real salt-of-the-earth people can love, nourished body and soul and enfolded with acceptance simply because I was their Philip’s girlfriend.

But Thanksgiving was a little overwhelming, excited as I was to be going back to the farm and thrilled to hold that place at Philip’s side. The front porch was filled with cousins as we drove into the yard: the little house seemed to be bursting at the seams. Inside the clamor was gorgeously unruly. At this distance it all appears a blur of laugher and bellowed greetings and hand-shakings and back-slappings. What felt like a thousand introductions amid a dizzying array of kinfolk and a constant noise of doors slamming and the happy clanging of pots and pans like a ripening overture issuing from the kitchen. And over all, the pervasive aroma of fried okra, ‘accidentally’ burnt just like Philip liked it.

I hardly fathomed how we all fit into that minuscule kitchen, with its whitewashed walls and open shelves bearing the household wealth of tea pots and home-canned goods. But we managed to form ourselves into a semblance of a line and made our way, plates in hand, down the festal countertop bearing a year’s bounty of garden and orchard (among which my little jar of cranberry conserve made a shy showing). And we all managed, likewise, to find a place to perch with our food: Philip and I sat on the porch swing in the benevolence of one of our mild November days and chatted with cousins on whose names I kept inwardly drilling myself.

Philip’s grandfather had taken us out over the farm on foot, at a firm clip we could scarce keep pace with, pointing out all the newest marks of his industry with the serenity of an artist that knows his handiwork is good. A watering hole for the cows, freshly dug; a row of hedge knocked down; a section of pasture newly cleared. Philip and I walked beside him hand in hand as he strode over the grassy hilltops, tranquil king of his domain, talking all the while of this land he loved so fervently and which had been loved before him by those long gone.

After lunch we set out in the Explorers, Philip’s brothers and his father and grandfather, bouncing over the rutted lanes to the very loveliest part of the farm: the bottomlands. There was a fallen tree about the eastern fringe that must needs be split into firewood: a thinly-veiled ruse for male companionship in manly labor which I now know characterizes this clan of industrious souls. It was just that time in the afternoon when the waning autumn light was throwing out its last glittering standards of the day, spears and arrows of radiance amid the long, spare shadows of nearly-leafless trees. The remaining bits of brightness among the branches, tatters and shreds of a late finery, glowed as if the light had consumed them and granted in the act the real identity of their color.

the bottomlands in autumn sunlight

As the men fell to work, splitting and hauling with many a cheerful observation on the task, I sat by on a log, needlework in hand, chatting with the lovely young woman I was trying not to let myself think would be my sister-in-law. The sun went down before our eyes in a glory of rose and gold and a train of apricot cloud that reached far over our heads and away to the east. It was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen, and I never set foot on the bottoms without the memory of it. But the loveliest part of it—the beauty behind the beauty—was the setting and the significance. These people all gathered for love: three generations working together for love and their ladies sitting by for love and the look in Philip’s eyes as he glanced up at me from time to time. Such burdens of joy can scarce be borne by our frail human frame and such moments are as eternal as eternity itself. What timelessness towards which their fleeting instants point and their golden standards raise!

When the trees were dark against the horizon and the dusk took on a chill, we all loaded into the trucks and headed back. How lovely to come upon that little clapboard house by the road, all cheerfulness of chrysanthemums and tidy shrubs without, all the gladness of warmth and light and good food within. It was no surprise to find dinner on the table, crowned with the legendary holiday delight of Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes. Men may laud the immortal savor of a good mess of greens and women may perfect to a high art the delicate layerings of a true angel biscuit. But give me Philip’s grandmother’s teacakes any day for real Southern comfort food. As I sat there at the table among these people I never dreamed I’d even know a year previous, it suddenly dawned on me with a quiet, confident joy that these would be my family. That this would be my life—a life for which I had been prepared for all my life at the side of this man for whom I had prayed for as long as I could remember. The thought took my breath and I blinked at the happy tears in my eyes.

“Father,” was my silent thanksgiving, “I couldn’t have asked for this.”

I wouldn’t have dared had I dreamed enough to ask it.

Quick as a flash a sweet response met my rejoicing, a bit of Browning that had lain in hopeful repose for so many years:

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”

It was the last big family Thanksgiving on the farm, and thanks be to God, not a one of us suspected it. By the next year Granddaddy was gone: Philip’s aunt had sung Poor Wayfarin’ Stanger for him one last time at a standing-room-only funeral and Philip’s grandmother had moved back permanently to the little house in town, the twinkle in her eye making a brave show for the sake of those she loved but the light behind it gone out this side of heaven. By the next June she had followed her husband of sixty years on his long journey—gladly, as I can only believe.

A few Thanksgivings ago we drove over the farm to the little white house, affectionately known as ‘Old Granny’s’ after Philip’s grandfather’s mother. While the marks of renovation indicating a cousin’s imminent occupation made me glad that it would no longer stand empty, the absence of those bright spirits that had illumined it once and made it a place of happy pilgrimage for a close-knit family brought an overwhelming sadness—curiously, though not unequally, yoked with joy. I looked at the desolate flower beds with their few straggling survivors and saw a bright array of mums that will be there forever. We stepped up on the porch and my mind echoed with the laughter of a day that will never grow old. We walked around to the little well house at the back with its sagging roof and the yard was suddenly populated with well-fed cats and their kittens, one orange tabby of their number which made my heart leap in my throat.

“Nothing can be as it has been,” it has been well said. But the fact that it has been—ah, such treasures are safe forever, uncorrupted by moth or rust.

Philip made the comment the other day that our typical expressions of thanksgiving tend to be immediate—Thank You, God, for this new job, this return of health, this gorgeous day—while the gratefulness illustrated in the Bible points to an even more comprehensive outlook. Not that the former is without merit—certainly not—but it’s really only the beginning stages, primary grades in the school of thanks. Throughout the Psalms we find God’s people praising Him for things that happened before they were born, in addition to deliverance promised in the future. Over and over again God’s past mercies are recounted, His long-ago victories lauded. The songs and stories were written down, not just for the immediate satisfaction of the writer but for ‘children yet to be born’—for us.

Looking back over this little flash in the pan I call my own history, I am overwhelmed with the legacy I see stretching in all directions. It’s worth wondering if the present blessings we all enjoy are largely owning to the faithfulness and the prayers of great-great grandmothers and grandfathers. I am certain of it. And though I should be celebrating it every day that I am alive, this Thanksgiving I am especially keen to the heritage of godliness that has gone into the framing of my own story and the birthright which I have been entrusted.

Both from my blessed ancestry and the one I was privileged to marry into.

LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance. ~Psalm 16

Thank You, Lord. I don’t know what else to say.

the creek

Storied Lives

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

a personal Memorial Day, August 2007

It was a glorious November day, stark and long-shadowed as only South Georgia can make it. The road we traversed was a familiar one—as familiar as the drive to my own home—and every field and house and stand of pines was a familiar friend. Even the red dirt roads veering off to the left and right which I’d never traversed but in fancy were known to me. I remembered straining my child-eyes down them as we whizzed past in that lumbering Buick station wagon, my sister crouched up against the opposite window with a book and my brother hanging his elbows over the seat from the ‘back back’ and infringing upon my highly affronted personal space, and knowing what their sudden curves and tree-hung shadows held hidden from the passing view. I saw the old white farmsteads and the barns weathered black with their rusted tin roofs and another pine-guarded pasture stubbled gold in the light of a vanishing year. And if the imaginative sprite was strong upon me, I saw the folks that inhabited them: women fiercely womanly whether their labor lay in a garden or a schoolroom or an immaculate kitchen, and men whose veteran integrity infused humble origins and working clothes with a courtly grandeur. I both saw and knew such phantom figures, for they were none other than composite daydreams of the kith and kin I had heard stories about all my life.

On this day my husband was driving, and the celebrated station wagon, long gone to its own place with wreaths and laurels, was supplanted by a Ford Explorer. We were going to the funeral of my father’s oldest sister, a laughing light that had gone out at ninety-six, and though my mother and I managed to keep up an unflagging stream of talk in the back seat, my mind and eyes were awake to the scenes through which we passed. A funeral is always a solemn errand, no matter how graceful a soul may have been in dying (and such was the case with my Aunt Elise), and to combine it with a soul pilgrimage to the source of one’s springing is at once a trust and a gift.

A memento mori.

I love the way South Georgia makes me feel. I love the memories it kindles and the love of those long-dead that flares and flames amid the quiet streets of the town in which my father grew up. Who could guess that such unassuming spots as a certain street corner or an overgrown garden or a rusty swing set could be thronged with so many happy ghosts, all but elbowing one another aside for sheer joy of the company? I’ll bet a thousand cars a day pass that little grey house that used to be yellow where my grandmother once reigned, never dreaming that to someone on this earth it is a sacred shrine, hallowed with the undying lamp of remembrance.

There was one place that we passed on the way into town, however, that gave me a turn and an unfailing shiver. It was the railroad trestle spanning the road about which my father had recounted tales that had made my blood curdle deliciously as an six year-old and now, as a thirty-something, provided that tantalizing sense of murky recollection that shrouds so many of the legends of childhood. What was that guy’s name? I leaned forward to ask Daddy, but he and Philip were talking politics. And any good Southern girl knows that that’s not a conversation to interrupt, unless it’s to put an exasperated stop to it. So I leaned back and tried to remember on my own. Something dreadful…the train…made his hair turn white…

Many people cherish childhood memories of their parents reading to them at night, tucking them in with a prayer and a kiss. I have all these, and reverence them with their due. But I have something more—something uniquely precious and entrusted to me alone. I have my Daddy’s stories. When Daddy tucked me in at night, I spurned the fairy tales and little-rabbits-living-in-the-roots-of-trees kind of books that had my heart at all other times. Requesting such from Daddy was an unconscionable waste of natural resources.

“Tell me about when you were a little boy,” I would unfailingly say. “Tell me about you and Bobby.”

I can still feel the tingling thrill of that new Schwinn for Christmas, green and gold. The pathos of cigar boxes of buried treasure in the backyard to which no earthly map would ever lead. The storied splendor of Lynch’s Flowerland across the street and the high glories of playground fights. The hot, helpless anger rises yet at the thought of the anonymous poisoning of Bobby’s dog, Pal. The wonder shines untarnished at the miracle of a tin can telephone.

Bobby was Daddy’s best friend and as inseparable from him as David from Jonathan. Nearly all the stories had Bobby in them—I grew to envision him as an almost god-like entity of healthy, joyous boyhood, brown-eyed (I have absolutely no idea what color his eyes were) and abloom with life from the dew of the morning. Thus was Daddy’s reverence translated to me. When the stories reached the point of Bobby moving away, I could hardly bear it. I remember lying in my little white bed staring into the dark after Daddy had given me my kiss and turned out the light, suffocating with the impossible, senseless tragedy of it. It was my first exposure to the world’s pain.

Years later, when my own best friend moved away, the tales of Daddy and Bobby gave context to the story of my own heartbreak and helped transfigure it into a desperate joy for the blessing leant of her nearness all those years. I came in from seeing her off on a life adventure with her new husband and found my Daddy reading in his chair in the den. I crossed the room at a bound, and without ceremony, curled all of my twenty year-old lankiness into his lap and sobbed.

“When Bobby moved away, I thought I was going to die,” Daddy said quietly.

And it was enough.

There were other stories: family legends, winding narratives of the community, anecdotes that Daddy could hardly get through for laughing. I wanted to hear—again and again—about the Coca-Cola plant his daddy managed and about the chug-a-lug contests among the workers. About the pearl-handled pistol my grandfather relieved a would-be robber of. And the time Daddy knocked over all his grandmother’s beehives just to see what would happen and received the only serious scolding she ever gave him in her life. These accounts, and thousands like them, gave me the dead back again to see and know and love (both Daddy’s father and Bobby were gone before I was born), and they laid a foundation that serves to this day to convince me that real life is an epic story that’s worth the trouble of both living and telling well. It’s the model for the fairy tales, not the other way around.

My aunt’s memorial was a time of story, as well. During the family lunch, people took the floor, one after another, not to eulogize, but to tell such tales of Elise and her ‘singing heart’ as to bring her vividly to life in every mind and heart present: as vivid as she must be this moment in her Lord’s glory. It was a rollicking, joyous time, and I felt so fierce-grateful for the blood that courses in my veins. I love the rock from whence I’m hewn; I loved looking around that room and seeing all those blue eyes and patrician chins and hearing that deep, unmistakable laugh rolling from my Daddy, the laugh he inherited from his father.

I heard it again later that afternoon, visiting Aunt Ernestine, who wasn’t well enough to come to the funeral, but received all the family members in state, legs swinging girlishly over the side of her sickbed, blue eyes fixed keen and uncompromising on whomever she addressed. She reminded me of a queen, from whom every word and gesture meant something important. And there that laugh swelled and rolled, again and again, irrespective of lung cancer and all the rest of earth’s sorrow. She was so beautiful I could have stayed in the room all day, just gathering bits of light from her. Her laugh like Daddy’s and her eyes like mine, and that definite, dominant joy that filled the room and made us all laugh, though her breath came in gasps.

She patted Daddy’s knee beside her. “This is my Daddy when I was your age,” looking at me. For some wild reason, I felt like she had given me a gift, a bequest. This wonderful, wondrous Granddaddy I had heard about all my life; this immortal Daddy of mine—sitting right here together on the side of Ernestine’s bed.

On the way home I plied Daddy with questions. I was desperate—frantic—to hear the stories again. To gather as many to my heart as one four-hour drive could grant me. When one tale was told I fed him another. I kept catching Philip’s eye in the rearview mirror: he was enjoying it as much as I was. But I was more than enjoying—I was cataloguing. I was lining my childish impressions up against the experience of adulthood and logging them away as fully-matured accounts of human existence, in all its agony and ecstasy.

We passed the railroad trestle again and I leaned forward, imperative this time.

“Daddy, tell me again about the man on the train—the dreadful thing that turned his hair white.”

Daddy was thoughtful for a moment, as if gathering up the threads of a tale that had lain dormant for nearly thirty years.

“Well, I don’t rightly remember—,” he hedged. “What was that man’s name?”

I was aghast.

“How could your forget?” I demanded. “It was so dreadful—,”

“Oh, yes.” Daddy laughed to himself and the past glimmered in the sound. “Sidney—Sidney McCorckle, that was it.”

“So what happened to him? It’s haunted me all my life.”

Daddy smiled his slow grin.

“Aw, Sidney McCorckle? I made him up.”

The moral to that story is that if I possess, in addition to a reverence for the ‘true tall tales’ which make up my personal history, an irrepressible penchant for fiction, you’ll know who to blame.

Elise and Ernestine, August 2007

In which a Marsh Hen makes Legend

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Disclaimer: the post that follows professes to no merit or significance, literary, theological or otherwise. It’s just a silly story. And it’s quite long. Consider yourself warned. ;)

Beach Picnic, 2010

It was too easy.

We had come laughing over the golden sands, we six: my husband and I and his brothers and their wives. It was an outing as traditional as vacation itself. Vacation five years running that feels like always in the old house by the sea with thirteen around the dinner table and beds to spare in the regions above. Where the very bricks of the floor and the timbers over our heads and the rattling fans on the porch ceiling keep memories of children that grow and adults that are not nearly so old as they think they are, and where the walls must ring with the echoes of our mirth long after we’ve gone for another year.

And each year we’ve had our night of enchantments, my beloved and myself and these other four whom I love with the love of the nearest and dearest. Often we’ve donned our finery, ladies in wisps of summer frocks and gentlemen in coats and ties, to board the fairy coach that looks very much like a Ford Explorer, bound for a neighboring island and a grande dame of a hotel and an evening of dancing and crystal sconces turned low and a muted trumpet crooning out the tune the band always plays for us.

Dinner Dance, 2007

But our plans don’t always align with those of the powers that be that schedule the dances, and we’ve had other adventures on other years, other nights just as memorable, if not slightly more so for the variation. If there’s one hallmark that characterizes them all, though, it’s the absolute, downright, side-splitting, endearing fun that we all have together. There are few on earth that can make me laugh like these newly-acquired kin of mine, and few that can slip so easily from hilarity to the thoughtful ponderings and quiet talk which my soul loves just as much as the fun.

We had decided to keep it simple this year: a sunset picnic on our own beach, less than half a block from the little wooden gate in the vine-covered wall that meant Home to us for the week. We watched the tide charts carefully and prayed for the weather. And on the night appointed we loaded a little cart with the merest essentials: a wicker basket provisioned with Blue Willow china and damask napkins and lovely cheeses, a cooler packed with fresh Georgia shrimp chilling on ice and new potatoes swimming in butter and fresh peaches and a bottle of champagne, roughly enough chairs for us all and an old white counterpane upon which to spread the repast.

Our blanket fluttered into the wind just as the sun met a bank of foaming clouds, turning them rose-hued above a perfectly placid sea and flinging out tints of lavender and gold over the water like a victor’s retreating standard. We lit our lanterns without any fuss, unwrapped the china and passed it around, fell upon the olives and cunning little stuffed peppers before they were well out of the basket. Philip opened the champagne and we lifted our glasses in a decorous little toast. A skimmer bird sailed low along the shoreline, its open beak tinkling lightly against the surface of the water. The sun threw out a final volley of golden rays before slipping to its rest beyond the edge of the world. It was utterly, blessedly quiet and lovely.

Edie was the first one to laugh.

I think it had been brimming in each of us, but hers was the first to escape.

“I was just thinking—,” she began with an impish smile.

But we all knew what she was thinking. A chorus of ‘do-you-remembers’, both spoken and unspoken, charged the air between us and we were all laughing in a moment and talking over each other.

She was thinking about another picnic, one even more elaborate and not nearly so successful, and of the evening that preceded it which would have given The African Queen a run for its money.

She was thinking about the Marsh Hen and of certain misadventures off the coast of Georgia.

Captain and First Mate of the Marsh Hen, 2009

A sturdy little craft, the Marsh Hen, with the heart of a steel trawler and the boyish pluck of a sailboat. We haven’t the heart to tell her she’s only a wooden fishing boat, and an old one, at that, 18’ with a 25 hp motor. My dad and Philip rescued her from a pawn shop for a mere $500 and she’s since paid us back in joy and adventure a hundred times over. She’s a lovely old girl, yet, though her trim red and white paint is peeling in places. And we hope she’s forgotten the incredulous fisherman that was leaning over the bridge when we brought her in one afternoon off a grey sea that the wind was whipping into white caps and peaks who yelled down: “You went out—in that?”

It was an off-year for the dinner dance, and it had been my idea to take the Marsh Hen to the coast with us for a sunset cruise and a picnic under the stars on nearby Jekyll Island. Seasonal regulations prohibited our beaching the craft, however, so the evening was cheerfully divided into Part One, being the cruise, and Part Two, being the picnic.

It was a perfect evening, calm and still, with just enough clouds to give a good canvas for the sunset. The boat launch was deserted, which was exactly to our liking, and Michael backed the trailer into the water while Andrew minded the hull and Philip steered her into the channel. We ladies waited on the dock, in our characteristic finery and with what looked like provisions for a week, and we were handed into the boat with all the chivalry of an affair of state. Cruising out into the waterway, we let down the bimini top to take on more speed and threw back our heads to the salty wind. It was everything I had dreamed it would be, everything the heart could desire for beauty and pleasure. The channel before us flourished out ahead into the Sound and the sun was dropping into position as if on cue.

Just as we drew opposite the aforementioned grande dame and began to wave at the people on the wharf eating oysters, just as I began to reach towards the cooler for the evening’s appetizers and libations, the Marsh Hen began to make a strange noise. Her engine started to churn and gurgle and strain and she gave a few gaspy little jerks and heaves. And at the selfsame moment we all noticed something else equally strange. The seagulls that were fishing and skimming along the water nearby seemed suddenly absolutely weightless—so much so that they were actually standing on the water.

“Those birds—you can see their toes–,” began my scientist brother-in-law.

But before he could finish, the Marsh Hen uttered one last choke and came to a dead stop in the middle of the channel.

Prow of the Good Ship Marsh Hen

Anyone who has traversed the Intracoastal Waterway knows that the channels among the barrier isles of Georgia are notoriously shallow at low tide, to which the huge dredge pile in the St. Simons Sound attests. To which the propeller of the Marsh Hen attested as Philip pulled it up with a horrible sucking sound and watched in dismay as the sticky black muck oozed off its blades in dismal plops.

“I think the Marsh Hen just became the Mud Hen,” Andrew quipped.

But Philip looked grim. He knew that it would be hours before the tide would lift us from our predicament, and an evening marooned in front of the Jekyll Island Club with nothing to eat, for all the show of provisions, but little cream cheese-stuffed endive leaves was not his idea of fun. So, peppered with a cascade of useless suggestions from the womenfolk, the three brothers put their heads together: engineer, scientist and brilliant English major. Stepping into the mud to free her was useless, they agreed, if not downright dangerous, as the paddle dipped overboard into the mire came back with difficulty and plastered with suffocating mud.

“We just have to stay calm,” said my husband, who is the past master of calm.

A fishing boat sped by us, in the real middle of the channel and Heather gave them a breezy wave that suddenly became a little more directed. Then she was standing up, waving both her hands, but they passed on, shaking their heads. There was no way any craft with any person of sense at the wheel was going to venture into that muck to help us out. But it gave us an idea. At our captain’s direction, Edie, Heather and I stood up in a line in the middle of the boat with our hands on each others’ waists. Andrew and Michael each manned a paddle and Philip sat ready at the helm. And we waited.

It wasn’t long before another boat came whizzing down the channel, a bit larger than the one that had passed before. We watched its approach intently, every one of us focused on the respective job we had to do. Perhaps they knew what we were up to, perhaps it was merely chance or the illusion of hopeful thinking, but it seemed that as they drew near and assessed our situation, the other boat took a slight, cautious dip in our direction.

But it was enough. We watched and waited more intently still as the wake that was our path to freedom approached. And just as it began to lap at the sides of the Marsh Hen we ladies went to work. There, in full view of the people dining on the wharf and strolling the ‘green colonnades’ along the river, directly in front of the most elegant hotel in the Southeast, we held onto one another and rocked back and forth, our bright sundresses flapping in the breeze. It was like some kind of grim, ritualistic dance as we pitched to and fro, Edie calling out “Right! Left” as if we were galley slaves and Michael and Andrew foisting us off with all their might and main.

"as if nothing had ever happened..."

With a sickening squadge we lurched forward and the Marsh Hen bobbed and buoyed underneath us once more. Philip dropped the motor as soon as prudence allowed, and within moments we were cruising down the channel again as if nothing had ever happened. We entered the Sound just as the sun was dissolving into the silvery water beyond the bridge with its graceful sweeps and arches growing misty against a gently-colored sky. Edie spotted a dolphin and Philip cut the motor. Instantly we were surrounded, capering and rolling their sleek bodies for joy in the waters around us, almost near enough to touch. It was magical: the light, the glistening creatures appearing and disappearing on every side, the utter peace of a rocking craft in the calm of a friendly sea. We didn’t want to turn back. But the magical light was fading, and Philip wanted to get the boat out of the water and back onto the trailer before it was utterly dark. And I had a feast to spread on the beach on the other side of the island, for which I was equally desirous of those last fleeting moments of afterglow.

So we swung our little boat around and headed back to the launch, waving artlessly at the same people on the wharf and looking back over our shoulders at the glory of sky and sea we were leaving behind. As soon as were deposited on the dock (with slightly less ceremony than before) Edie and Heather and I jumped into one of the cars we had brought and sped as fast as a 35mph overall island speed limit would allow to the beach on the eastern side, while our gallant captain and his crew navigated the Marsh Hen towards the landing in the vanishing light. A broken motor linkage, which suddenly prevented either stopping or backing up, and a concurrent close encounter with the nets of a shrimp boat moored alongside the dock, was only spice to the soul of these noble seamen, and amid such brushes with destruction they maneuvered their craft onto the trailer and out of the water. With many a ‘good riddance’ from the fishermen leering over the rail of the shrimp boat, no doubt.

But we all reached the shore, safely and intact, and by the time the gentlemen found us, we ladies had unearthed the contents of two baskets and a cooler. We had spread our white blanket on the sand and we were in the process of unsuccessfully lighting about a half-a-dozen little mercury glass lanterns in a gale force wind. Still charged with his late victory over the nets and the steering challenges, Andrew rose to the occasion and managed to provide us with some illumination before night was upon us in very deed. To the fairy twinkling of our silvery lanterns, I spread the plates, passed out silver and linens and arranged the fruit for our centerpiece while Edie and Heather took the chilled lemon linguine out of the cooler and tossed the salad and unwrapped the baguette.

“This beach is always deserted,” I said. “Especially at night.”

Nothing could have been more to our tastes. Michael bent over his vintage Victrola, tested the needle and gave the turntable a spin. Then he lowered the arm and amid the creakings and snappings of an old 78, Dinah Shore’s voice wafted out onto the silent night:

The moon belongs to everyone,
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone,
They gleam there for you and me…

I had just popped the cork off our bottle of champagne with a little shriek of surprise and a corporate burst of laughter when suddenly we realized that we were not alone. There were not six of us gathered around the twinkling lights and the festal blanket and the Victrola. There were seven. And that seventh was all dressed in dark clothing and their head bobbed with the red and green lights of night-vision goggles. I was too startled even to be afraid. But it was speaking:

“The lights, the lights,” whispered a woman’s voice from behind the goggles. “The lights—put them out! Put them out!”

I saw Andrew hesitate: it had been a battle with the elements to get them lit in the first place. But she went on, more urgently than before:

“No lights—no noise! The turtles!”

I have been coming to this island for half my life. I have had picnics innumerable upon this very same shore. But I had completely forgotten that it was smack in the middle of the sea turtle nesting season. And on this island above all others, it seems, they are protected with a vengeance. I’m all for it, truly I am—it’s just never directly affected me before. No lights. No noise. Nothing to lure them in the wrong direction or scare them off.

Michael took the needle off the record. The woman passed her goggles to Andrew for further validation with an almost frantic gesture towards the encroaching surf. He uttered an exclamation of awe and delight and passed them to each of us in turn. There, greenish and ghostly in the illumination of the goggles, we saw in what was otherwise pitch darkness, the strangely graceful lumberings of a sea turtle that was heaving itself, fin over fin, out of the tide. And it was heading straight for us.

“You’ve got to go,” the woman urged. “The lights—they misguide them.”

Andrew and Philip blew out the lanterns and we girls started packing our yet-untasted feast in the dark, the sea turtle patrolwoman assisting somewhat eagerly.

I chinked one of my plates against another.

“Shhhh!” she insisted.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

Shhh!” she replied.

We stumbled in the darkness back across the sand and loaded our worldly goods into the cars. Then we stood around in the parking lot, looking at one another and feeling ridiculous. Animal lovers all; two vegetarians on principle in our midst, two other thoughtful conservationists—especially where this island is concerned—and a scientist, to boot! We weren’t really as irresponsible as we looked. But we had to admit that it didn’t look good.

“We were just trying to set the mood for the turtles,” quoth the gentle Edie.

At which we all laughed our discomfiture away.

We relocated under some loved oak trees on the other side of the island and took dishes out of the cooler and a rather sandy bowl of linguine out of the picnic basket. And by the time we had arranged everything for the second time and sat down to eat it was nearly midnight. But it was safe harbor at last, after an evening of mishap on land and on sea, and it was lovely. If not a wee bit tame for our tastes, newly whetted with adventure as they were.

The Midnight Picnic

We’ve laughed about it so many times since. And we laughed over it again, that night on the beach scarcely a month ago. And we ate our shrimp and we wiped our fingers on damask napkins and sipped our champagne and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly for the moments that the tide had allotted to us.

But as much as if it were a tacit acknowledgment between us, we all knew that there was something missing. Lovely as it was, the evening lacked a certain flavor. Andrew, sensing this, perhaps, livened things up for a moment with a real, live ghost story. The thrill was genuine, if fleeting. But we all knew that this was not the kind of evening that we’d be spinning yarns about and slapping our knees over for long years to come. It’s not the perfect times, dear as they are, that make for immortality.

It was Philip that roused us from our self-contained enjoyment, hemmed in as we were by the light of our (perfectly legitimate) lanterns. The stretch of beach upon which we reposed with such languor (and such goods and chattels) was really something of a sand bar that reached further out into the sound than the rest of the shoreline and the tide was coming in fast. With the alacrity of a ready crew we all jumped to our feet, dumped out our glasses, snatched up blankets and chairs and threw the remaining cargo into the baskets like able-bodied seamen sniffing adventure on the breeze. As we made our way back across the beach, over sands glittering with new waves in the light of a slim crescent moon, we kept one eye on the shoreline while Andrew explained the technicalities of a swiftly rising tide. The wooden steps back to terra firma seemed to retreat as we approached, but at last, and just as the waves began to slap at the lowest planks, we reached our refuge. The men hoisted the cart up to the top and we all stood, looking back upon the spot wherein we had so lately dined under the stars: it was completely submerged.

Right in the very teeth of adventure.

Our beach at high tide, 2009

p.s who can identify the source of the Marsh Hen’s name?

The Brotherhood of Man

Monday, June 7th, 2010

1962 Airstream 'Tradewind'

I want to begin by saying that I have no intention of titling every post henceforward and forever after Innocence Mission songs. It just so happens that I’ve had a lot of poignant moments lately—some happy, some not so much; all under the Mercy—that Karen Peris’ lyrics have been a literal soundtrack to.

One for sorrow, two for joy…

If the sorrow of May was our loss, then the joy of it was a retreat to the seaside in our 1962 Airstream.

“I’m fleeing as a bird to my island,” I told Philip as we sped over the causeway, the same road to joy that has led me back into peace and quietness and all those “dearest freshness deep down things” times out of number since the days of my girlhood. And never more so than now. There was healing in the very brace of salt wind that tore in at the open window and wrenched my hair from its moorings. I closed my eyes and opened my soul to the goodness of God in its salute.

“The cure for anything is salt water,” wrote Isak Dinesen, “—sweat, tears, or the sea.”

I certainly had my share of tears and sea in those blessed days. (And perhaps I got a bit dewy sitting on the beach. ;) ) But there was another cure in that merciful sojourn, and one which I hadn’t even thought to look for: the strong goodness of human contact. Crossings both likely and unlikely; the balm of those who knew everything and of those who knew nothing.

1958 Airstream, "Safari"

We had traveled with some of our best friends in the whole world: a real, old-fashioned Airstream caravan of our ’62 Tradewind and our in-laws’ borrowed ’58 Safari. Five teenagers and a barking dog. Four bicycles and a tent to house the boys and about 8000 beach chairs and jelly jars of peonies and roses clipped from our gardens and Debra’s copper tea kettle and my little brown pot. What a sight we must have been, clambering into the campground at dusk—a sight, doubtless, to strike dismay into the hearts of all the dignified 65-and-older “full-timers” with which the campground was populated at that point in the season.

The first night our boys got a friendly reminder from the camp host that they needed to ‘keep it down’ after 10. But by the end of the first day we’d been, if not endeared to our neighbors, at least graciously welcomed. The lady in the Montana across the way invited me in to see her new dual-fuel refrigerator and meet her dachshund, Maggie. Sean struck it up with our gentleman camp host from Boston and Philip renewed acquaintance with the owner of the ’58 Globetrotter whom we’d met the summer before, and learned that his Airstream had been part of the famous ‘Capetown to Cairo’ caravan of 1959! Before the morning was out Philip and I had been visited by a couple in their 80’s on bikes, who wanted to know ‘what year is your tin can trailer?’ and ‘is the inside original?’ Moved by the earlier example of my neighbor, I invited the wife in for a tour where we chatted ninety-to-nothing for about five minutes.

Airstream 'Capetown to Cairo' caravan, 1959

“What a fascinating lady,” I told Philip as they pedaled away.

“How much could you possibly have learned in that amount of time?” he grinned.

“Well, not much. Only that she was a schoolteacher. And that she and her husband met in the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox Theater and that he taught dancing and that they have a son and a daughter and that she is the most blessed mother on earth and that they are fixing up a ’68 and that they got stuck in their camper once on the New Jersey turnpike outside of Newark and that her husband kept giving directions to the same English lady that kept coming by over and over again and she wishes that they hadn’t waited so long before they had children—,”

Waiting at the airport on my suitcase,
a girl traveling from Spain became my sudden friend,
though I did not learn her name.

And when the subway dimmed
a stranger lit my way.

This is the brotherhood of man.

as good as a little brother...

Laughing around the campfire at night with our precious friends was the warmth of sunshine. It was good to know that I could actually laugh again—there are times in life when we all doubt it—and I just wanted to hug those teenaged boys for reminding me. And I doubt there’s a shoulder to cry on in all the world more sympathetic than Debra’s. But there was the coolness of moonshine, no less lovely for its remoteness, in the kindness of the strangers that surrounded us, and when Sean and Debra and their brood had to break camp early and head back home (only to establish themselves at our house to give us a few more days’ refuge and rest) we felt the sudden joy of kinship with people with whom at first glace we had only our humanity in common.

And humanity, as I realized with a stab of vicarious pain, is enough. I remember watching people walking hand-in-hand on the beach smiling at one another, and thinking with a lunge of compassion, “They have suffered because they are human.” I saw the couple across the way from us coming and going, playing with their dog, feeding the squirrels, and thought of what they had told us about the husband’s impending heart surgery: “They have known pain, and not only of the intangible variety.” I talked with the wife of our camp host, a lovely Vermont lady and erstwhile sheep farmer who said she almost came over to our campsite one day and joined me at my needlepoint because she “missed that common bond with other women”. I wish that she had. I know there is much that she could teach me—and not just about sheep.

We are in the wind, planting the maples.
We meet an older man who seems to know
I miss my dad.

And he smiles through the limbs.
We talk easily with him
until the rain begins.

This is the brotherhood of man.

July 2009

There’s so much I love about my dear Silver Turtle. And not the least of which is the connection it affords with people we might not otherwise be privileged to meet. We’re still glowing over the connections of last summer: the little man with the cleft palate at the convenience store that rode by on the bright yellow golf cart and told us with joyful candor how many states he had visited since his retirement and exhorted us to “travel all you can while you’re young!” And the lady in the Walmart parking lot in a tiny south Georgia town who stopped to ask us about our Airstream and chatted long enough to discover that she not only knew my kinfolk several towns over, but that her nephew worked for my cousin!

But this time people were coming over to tell us goodbye when we left. And as we lumbered out where we had rattled in a week-and-a-half earlier, I was waving out the window, my silver charm bracelet jingling, and new friends were calling their farewells to our dog by name. If only they could have known what it meant.

Homeward Bound

We made a pit stop somewhere in lower middle Georgia and talked for half an hour with the gentleman who was pumping gas beside us. He was English (he was interested in our camper; I was interested in his accent) and without knowing anything about us, he told us that he had been a fourth–generation shepherd in the Yorkshire Downs. Now he raises goats, but he patiently fielded our questions about shearing and laughed good-naturedly at our feelings of inadequacy over the whole thing.

“But you know,” he suddenly volunteered and without warning, “there’s just something about a goat. They just can’t stand to be alone.”

I teared up, and shot an anguished look at Philip.

“No, goats are social creatures,” he went on, unconscious of my painful association. “Why, I’ve even seen a goat lie down with a dog!”

His unconscious kindness, it seemed, spilled over even to my Puck and my Diana, lonely goat and dog at home, learning to be one anothers’ comrade.

“Thank you,” I said. But what I meant, of course, was God bless you.

I never can say what I mean
but you will understand,
coming through clouds on the way.

This is the brotherhood of man.

all lyrics, Karen Peris, 2007

The Last of the Amazons

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I could tell by the tone of my mother’s voice that something had happened–even over the phone I sensed the gentle sadness–and I knew with a pang of kindred sorrow what it was. Aunt Ruth had died.

Quietly, my mother told me, in her sleep. 104 years old and the last of my grandmother’s sisters. The last of a generation that was mighty upon the earth.

I never thought the Aunts would die. It never seriously occurred to me to fear it—they were too foundational to the proper functioning of the world in general and my life in particular: like Corinthian columns fluted and lovely and made to bear the enormous weight of life with seemingly effortless grace, especially in such a precision of placement as these five sisters had aligned themselves. Even frail little Aunt Ruth, an invalid these forty years, had borne her load manfully, with a core of iron and steel beneath her thin housecoat. Out of all these mighty pillars only she had remained, her faded, almost transparent little body but thinly veiling the light and fire of a still-vibrant mind within.

And now she was gone, too.

The last time I saw her was on a broiling day in late August, nearly as stifling indoors as out in typical Deep South fashion. But it was a warmth that enveloped me like an embrace and distilled with it the essence of summer days long-ago but not lost. We came in through the kitchen and the scent assailed me even more potently than the heat had done, for it was precisely the smell of every other Aunt’s kitchen, a kind-of incense of sausage and cornmeal and Wesson oil, with simmering field peas thrown into the mix. (Grandma’s kitchen always seemed heavier on the sausage-side for some reason, and Aunt Tiny’s, of course, was imbued with the perfume of caramel icing.) Though there were no field peas simmering that day, nor any other indication of domestic activity, there had been enough over the years, I imagine, to steep the very walls with nourishing aromas so that they exuded a collective memorial of the sovereigns in print aprons that had presided there for so long.

Aunt Ruth was lost in a recliner and a pale green afghan and her eyes wandered listlessly while the conversation went on because she could hear so little of it and see nothing at all. But the minute my mother asked for a tale or a reminiscence from the past those eyes came to life. They sparkled; they shone like a girl’s in the first headiness of youth. The little hands worked excitedly and the honey-sweet voice droned on and on about the old days with a lilting that was like music. She told us about the first automobiles that they saw down on the river roads, and how every time a car went past their old farmhouse it would honk for sheer neighborliness and all the children would come running out to see it and wave. How the first time she drove a car herself she was twelve years old and her mother was sick and she had to go and get her daddy. How on her honeymoon in ’29, she and Uncle Bugg drove to Washington D.C. in a red Ford Roadster and went up for a tour in an airplane.

She spun a magic that afternoon in her simple words so fraught with happy remembrance, so that the steamboats on the Altamaha wavered into existence once more and plied their course through the murky waters. And the live oaks that arched over the deep tram road down in the swamp rang with the voices of children long-since departed, swinging across the chasm like so many monkeys. Even the terror of the stunt flier that crashed into the Number One bridge before their very eyes when they were picnicking on the river as a family had a certain conjuring of grotesquerie about it, like something one might encounter within the pages of Flannery O’Connor. Her manner changed with the telling of that tale, her voice dropped low and the bright eyes were hooded with an unforgotten horror. A dark thread amid the brighter ones, throwing color and joy and light and goodness into sharp relief.

Philip fed her just the right sort of questions, shouting politely across the room, and the glances he and I exchanged expressed our mutual enjoyment. How often, after all, does one have the opportunity to spend the afternoon with someone who can boast of over 100 years’ worth of experience in this world? And yet, as we sat in Aunt Ruth’s parlor that day we could have been in the ‘Front Room’ of any of the Aunts. There were the same 1950’s-era portraits of her girls on the wall, the same best furniture, the same aura of gentility and dignity. Each of the sisters’ homes had their own unique stamp, but some indefinable likeness in Aunt Ruth’s parlor invoked all of them at once. From this distance they all seem to have been painted the same pale, limey green, though I know they were not: Aunt Tiny’s was splashed with the color of her bold and vivid oil paintings, and Aunt Babe’s had pale carpet which was stiff on bare legs and religiously unsoiled. Grandma’s had marble-topped tables and a beautiful antique lamp dangling with crystal prisms which was the absolute only thing in her house she ever worried about us breaking. Nevertheless a uniform impression of coolness reigned on those sultry afternoons when we’d sit in state in one or another of them and give an account for ourselves: our grades–first in preeminence–and then our music and perhaps our ballet recitals or tennis matches. (Too many ‘extracurriculars’ were somewhat suspect, the general consensus being summed up in my grandmother’s fear that we might be ‘jack of all trades; master of none’.) And they wanted to know about our friends, which says the world of their genuine interest in our lives. My grandmother knew every one of my friends by name, though she’d never met most of them, and she kept such a detailed mental account of them that whenever we talked she could ask me if Jenifer was still in the marching band or where Ann was going to school or if Amanda and her new husband had bought a house, a fact which, naturally, I took for granted at the time, as we do some of the most precious and genuine things in life, but which strikes me now with a sweet stab of belated gratitude.

(We didn’t always sit in the Front Room, of course. Only on such calls of ceremonial reckoning. On other occasions we’d settle comfortably in rockers and recliners under the ceiling fan in the den, or in aluminum folding chairs in the back yard. But no matter where you ended up, you always came in through the kitchen. No one ever entered an Aunt’s house any other way. And no one ever knocked—a bang of the screened door and a trilling “Yoo-hoo!” was the only announcement a visitor required.)

I was in a state of resolute bliss that August afternoon at Aunt Ruth’s, overwhelmed alike with her memories and my own, and every sense sated with time-erasing impressions. I clung to the moments almost desperately, dreading the time when we had to go, back on the highway, back to the city and the present age and the noise and confusion and hurry. I wanted to be a little girl again with a new piece to perform on Aunt Ruth’s piano—always a bit trying as I was constantly reminded that Aunt Ruth had done the very elegant and appropriate thing of going to Conservatory. (Though I really think as a child that I had some nebulous notion of Aunt Ruth sitting in a starched white dress in a room full of palms and tall windows.) It would have been wildly inappropriate for any of her sisters to have done something so purely ornamental; but for Aunt Ruth it fit her personality like a fine, kid-leather glove.

The whole afternoon was a gift, a window opened mercifully, if briefly, upon my past, granting me glimpses of things I thought vanished forever. Aunt Ruth was enough like my grandmother, in voice, in appearance, even—though so shrunken and tiny—to make me believe for one sweet moment that a beneficent Providence had brought her before me once more. I wanted to throw my arms around Aunt Ruth’s neck that afternoon, and kiss her wrinkled cheek in tearful greeting, for Grandma’s sake, and for her own self-effacement in looking so much like her to me. That’s what I was doing inside as I knelt beside her chair and pressed the beautiful claw-like hands that were once so proficient in Chopin and Schubert in my own young ones.

For even now, so many years after Grandma’s death, it’s only the sight of her tombstone that makes me realize she’s really gone. And Aunt Babe just down the way. Aunt Mary Mac nearby and Aunt Tiny over the hill. And now, at the last, little Aunt Ruth, laid to rest beside her parents. It just cannot be. These were the Immortals; these were the Amazons, these diminutive ladies with their cool fresh front parlors and their very decided opinions on the cut of a roast and the year’s crop of mustard greens and the dispensations of the young lives in their charges–lives loved better than their own.

They are the stuff of legend, and fittingly so. For the world will not see their kind again.

Touch Hands!

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Valentine's Day, 2010

February 12, 2010

The phone calls started the night before and continued into the morning:

“Are you going?”

“Do you think the roads will be safe?”

“What does your husband say? What does your mother say?”

I had been watching the weather forecasts just as intently as everyone else. And I was just as torn up about it. Any other day, was the track along which my anxious thoughts kept running. But not the afternoon of my precious friend’s party, the Valentine Tea that’s become legendary not just for the number of years we’ve enjoyed it in succession, but for the overflowing love of our hostess, perennially delighting us with the art of her kitchen and the warmth of her home. The years are so crammed with memories that they all seem to blend together in a tender mural of glitter and lace, homemade chocolates and heart-shaped scones. Little hands dispensing their tokens of affection and larger ones just as eager to impart theirs. Buoyed and borne upon oceans of hot tea and haunted by the music of feminine conversation: by times intense and passionate, and light-hearted and shrieking with laughter.

And though some of our girls have grown up and wandered far over land and sea, the same memory draws us all, and there’s still a handmade Valentine to be looked for in the mail—and last year even a high-tech Skype call from Sarajevo!

And so it was with a decidedly conflicted heart that I pored over the forecasts and discussed possible outcomes. I mean, snow down here in God’s country is a treat; a holiday! A fleeting miracle of what Brenda so endearingly calls Narnia-magic. If only we could have the magic without the potential danger of those roads winding up to my friend’s mountaintop home!

The Eastern Fence

It must be understood: we Southerners are famously chicken-headed about snow. (And characteristically proud of it, I might add. ;) ) When I look at the pictures of Mid-Westerners’ snowy lanes and New Englanders’ high-piled gardens, I confess it’s not without a shade of completely ignorant envy. And a rather liberal dose of admiration for the indomitable cheerfulness and creative joy with which the privations of winter are met in such regions. I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country, but the appearance of so much as a single flake in the five-day forecast will literally clean out the bread aisles in the grocery stores in an afternoon. And the steady campaign of a storm already dubbed ‘Southern Fury’ headed our way was certainly enough to give us pause.

Experience is a great teacher, however, and wisdom is often its fruit. And as my mother has more of both in stock than any of us younger women put together, we tallied up the smiling but conflicting suggestions of our husbands and we asked her what to do.

I’m going,” said the indefatigable Claudia. “And if anyone wants to go with me, they’re welcome to.”

The only thing certain about snow in the South is uncertainty, she might have added. No one really knows what’s going to happen till it’s happening. And as there wasn’t a snowflake in sight—not so much as a pellet of sleet—it did seem rather overly cautious to forego the joys that awaited for a prediction of snow that might prove just as mistaken as the half-a-dozen previous this winter.

Offerings of Friendship

All we needed was a leader, it seemed. And we fell in line with alacrity, glad to have someone at the helm and the party beckoning on the horizon once more. Ashley and Edie met at my house along with my intrepid mother. Rachel and Debra and their collective girls set off together. JJ was to meet us along the way.

And just as we got in the car and slammed the doors shut with a giggle at our former indecision, it started to snow. Heavily. We turned around at the end of my driveway in distrust of my half-hearted windshield wipers and piled into my mother’s sedan in even higher spirits than before. Edie transferred, along with her dainty basket of Valentines, a brown paper bag from my car to my mother’s. It seemed that her husband had insisted upon her taking a change of clothes. Just in case

“It’s too warm to stick,” we assured ourselves. “It’s just a wet, slushy snow.”

“But it’s pretty,” Ashley said.

We were all imagining Wendy’s home, tucked up among its trees like a picture in a storybook with the poetically harmless snow falling outside.

But about a half-an-hour into our trip we started getting nervous. The interstate was growing sluggish, and the roadsides were becoming decidedly white. And the flakes weren’t melting on the road quite as quickly as we’d like to have seen.

“I don’t feel good about this,” my mother said in a voice just as firm with conviction as her earlier assertions had been.

When once the confidence of our captain wavered, the crew wasted no time in following suit. Edie piped up from the back seat, and I, never one to scruple over voicing an opinion, threw in my oar with an emphatic concurrence.

Sebastian in the snow

We pulled off at the next exit and we made my mother put in the hateful call to Wendy. Almost tearful with the disappointment we all shared, she broke the news that we just didn’t think we could go any further—that we were turning back. It broke our hearts to consider all the tender care Wendy had gone to; the knowledge of what we were missing finished the job. And we couldn’t even let ourselves think about the four little baskets of handmade Valentines that had accompanied us on our failed voyage. Husbands started calling and were called to confirm the decision; Rachel and Debra, ahead of us on the road, were forced to abandon the mission shortly thereafter. And poor JJ, in the lead of us all and waiting patiently at the meeting point, had no choice but to navigate onwards alone.

It was Ashley who broke our glum silence.

“We could stop at the French bakery.”

I turned around in my seat and grinned at her, so pretty and stylish in her 1950’s pink velvet hat and soft lavender scarf.

“I’ve got some gorgeous white tea,” I said.

“We could sit by your fire,” my mother added, only taking her eyes from the road long enough to cut her eyes hopefully in my direction.

“I have some little cookies in my basket,” Edie said in her sweet way.

The very thought cheered our way, and we were able to be glad that we had tried and failed instead of accepting defeat without a fight. That’s one thing that I love about my mother—one thing that the day’s little misadventure illustrated in vivid color: she’s not afraid of anything. She faces the mountains in her life with the unflinching eye of faith. But she has wisdom enough to heed the pluck of prudence at her sleeve, and she’s keen enough never to mistake ordinary foolhardiness for courage. A small picture of a great reality. But no less striking for its delicate subject matter and compact frame.

When we got back to my house, Ashley put on the kettle and got out the dishes while I laid the fire, and my mother peeled some blood oranges and Edie sliced some nice cheese to go with our exquisite pastries from the bakery. I turned on the Little Women soundtrack, which always takes us back to Valentines long past, and we feasted and laughed and enjoyed one another and the absolutely breathtaking aspect of the falling snow. It was such a sweet moment of companionship, held in the pristine silence of the materializing wonderland outside. Unlooked-for and perhaps all the sweeter because of it.

Edie's Valentines

But it made me sad for all my delight when the others produced their Valentines—such exquisite little creations can hardly be conveyed, each one a small labor of love—for the baskets still brimmed with the offerings for all those other dear ones whose company we missed that afternoon. Ashley had crafted lovely paper swallows with glittered wings, and Edie had fashioned tiny treat boxes daintily trimmed with ribbons and flowers and sentimental ephemera and filled with the aforesaid cookies. We divided up the lot according to who was going to see whom next—I took Rachel’s and JJ’s, while my mother took Wendy’s and Debra’s—and soon after the party broke up in the interest of everyone getting safely home. But it was even a lovely picture as I stood at my door and watched them down the front walk, laughing and waving, traversing the snow in flimsy heels with white flakes starring their coats and hair and velvet hats.

The Next Morning

A sequel of phone calls the next day confirmed that corresponding little fetes had taken place that afternoon by Debra’s kitchen fire and at Wendy’s, as well, with the troopers that were able to make it, in what my mother is calling the Cell Group Valentine Party. But scattered though we may have been, as effectually as the aforementioned wanderers, there was a great sympathy of friendship binding our hearts that day. And a figurative, if not literal, touching of hands…

Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on
and heads grow gray, how fast the friends
do go. Touch hands, touch hands,
with those that stay. Strong hands to weak,
old hands to young…Touch hands! Touch hands!

~William Henry Harrison Murray

My Garden

My Grandmother’s Love Story

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

“Do you know what today is?”  My Granddaddy leaned back in his chair and regarded me through partially closed eyes.

August 18th—what Civil War battle took place on that date?  My mind roved frantically through a jumble of generals and statistics field maneuvers that he was always parceling out to me like choice sweets.  But my helpless expression must have given me away, for presently he smiled bemusedly and folded his hands.

“It was fifty years ago today that I met your Grandmother.”  He opened his eyes wide and looked straight at me.  “Fifty years ago.  And I still remember it like it was yesterday.”

The little woman who passed through the swinging door from the kitchen at that moment bore but faint resemblance to the dark-haired beauty he had first seen and fallen in love with on a summer afternoon in 1939.   The pitiless hand of Alzheimer’s was already beginning to reveal itself in her oft repeated stories and her frequent confusion.  But her eyes still lit up with admiration whenever Grandaddy came into view.  And when I was over I usually noticed a love note from one of them left on the kitchen table for the other to find.

As Grandma’s dementia increased over the years that followed, her cherished family tales began to drop from her repertoire one by one.  But never the story of the day she met her man.  It was told to me in unwavering detail until she was altogether unable to tell stories at all.  Had I heard it only once, however, I believe I would still see it as clearly played out in my mind as I do at this moment.

I would comprehend the willingness with which her parents saw her off on the train to visit casual acquaintances in Florida, hoping that the sunny climate would erase the last vestiges of a winter’s bout of pneumonia.  And I would remember just how it happened, that the Satterwhites would invite a couple of nice college boys over to meet the pretty girl from Atlanta and that Grandma would know at first glance which was the one they had described to her as ‘Claude Jr.’.

            “I was sitting on the front porch,” the story went, “and I looked up and saw two young men come in the little gate and amble up the walk.  But I really only saw one of them.  And I said to myself, ‘Why, that’s Claude Jr.—and that’s the boy I’m going to marry.”

It was just like that.  Both of them testified to ‘love at first sight’.  And though that’s a rather dubious concept in our ‘enlightened’ age, I have to say that I believe them with all my heart. 

Thus ensued a courtship that was to last nearly 60 years.  To be sure, as in any relationship, there were hurdles to overcome, not the least of which was my Grandaddy’s intimidation with this elegant young woman who looked like Judy Garland.  “He thought I was a ‘city girl’,” Grandma would laugh indulgently.  “Why, the roads weren’t even paved in Smyrna then!”   But it didn’t take him long to see that the heart in those beautiful brown eyes was only for him.  All the love she had saved up in her affectionate little soul was his for the asking.

He officially asked in the fall of 1941.  A moment’s bliss—and then the war.  Grandma’s eyes always grew misty when she got to that part in the story.  Granddaddy was one of the first to go, and one of the last to return.

            “Forty-eight months in the South Pacific,” she would murmur, as if to herself.  “And I always knew he’d come back.”

For their first Christmas after they were engaged, Granddaddy, who was already gone, had a beautiful cedar hope chest shipped to her.  It sat table-high, with a carved apron resting on graceful Queen Anne legs.  Opening from the top as it did gave it a rather ominous appearance, however, and Grandma’s fun-loving sisters teased her mercilessly.

            “Uh-Oh!  Laura Alice’s opening her coffin again!” they would chant whenever she lifted the lid to examine the contents or add some new item. 

But she ignored them and went right on hemming sheets and embroidering pillowcases with which to furnish her future linen closet.  For four years, riding to and fro on the streetcar to Atlanta where she worked in her daddy’s optometry shop, she stitched dainties for her home and chatted with her best friend whose new husband was also stationed overseas. 

And every single night she penned him a letter, always opening with the same wishes and hopes for the day when they could be together and start the life they were so tirelessly dreaming of.  Claude saved them all, carefully sorted in sequential order, as she saved his daily letters or ‘v-mails’; they’re stored away in my attic now, awaiting the day when they are pieced back together to form a marvelous chronology of such a perilous and moving time in our nation’s history.  But first and foremost those letters are the history of a love.  It was a love that displayed a commitment few in our modern world can comprehend. 

Looking back on a long and loving marriage, it might be easy to glance over those years of forestallment, such a small portion of the whole.  But I really think that the harsh reality of that waiting and perseverance and heart-ache and longing was the story behind the deep appreciation they always seemed to have for one another.  Waiting for the one you love to come into your life is hard; waiting when they are already in your heart and yet out of reach is torture.  Generations to come will be indebted to that faithful resolve; it’s a heritage that I know I am enjoying the benefits of today.

So Claude went on facing death and danger for the sake of people yet to be born.  And Laura Alice went on working and waiting and hoping, putting on dances with the Military Maids and writing letters for disabled servicemen whom she visited regularly in the hospital.  And one day in late November she received a telegram—how her heart must have stopped!  Claude was in San Francisco, and he was coming home.  Not to Florida where his family was, but to Smyrna where his heart was.  I can only imagine the half-shy raptures with which Laura Alice greeted her returning gallant at the station.

They were married December 30th, 1945, barely a month after his homecoming.  Out came the lustrous satin dress that Laura Alice had been saving all those years and the yards and yards of silk tulle veil.  There was a whirlwind of teas and festivities, and the planning of the home reception.  And two lives set forth as one, hands firmly clasped against whatever hardships lay ahead.     

Their romance was such that when Granddaddy died after 55 years of marriage, something died in Grandma, too.  A light was snuffed out.  A
nd though it’s sad to see it, I can’t help but thank God for the strength of such a love, and rejoice that they will be reunited again someday after this last long separation.

 

The Good Life

Friday, July 15th, 2005

for Marshall–Nulla dies sine linea

Those who know me best would never label me a ‘big camper’—that is, until the Airstream came along.

I was driving home from my book club one afternoon, navigating the rush hour traffic, when something along the roadside caught my eye.  I smiled and progressed to the next red light.  But it wouldn’t let me go.  The light turned green; I went on a bit further.  And in a sudden break in the stream of oncoming cars I wheeled a tight left and went back.  Stepping out onto the dusty gravel drive, cars whizzing by close at hand, I looked up at this great strange entity with a sense of awe.  An arching frame sheathed in aluminum with a blue tag welded above the back window: Airstream. If I had ever seen one before I hadn’t noticed it.  Now as I stared, edged closer and emboldened myself to peek in a window or two, a vision began to grow in my mind.

I could hardly wait till Philip came home that night.  In glowing tones and with many a hand motion for emphasis I told him what I had seen—and what it could mean to us.  An easy escape when the cares of life began to crowd in too thickly; a portable home in which to flee when the noise and confusion of modern life drew too near.  “It’s like a silver turtle,” I told Philip in the heat of enthusiasm, “carrying all its worldly goods on its back.  Think how free we would feel!”

Philip took the dream and ran with it, and four months later found us making the road trip from Georgia to Indiana to pick up our 1962 Tradewind.  The intervening time had given us leisure to decide exactly which model and floor plan we wanted; we had scrutinized the digital pictures provided us with exacting care; but when I stepped into that wood-paneled camper for the first time I honestly couldn’t believe it.  Original porcelain front refrigerator, tiny gas stove, two closets, a bath!  Philip had coached me most of the way to Indiana on how not to appear too eager when discussing terms with the seller, but all my vigilant reserve went right out the window.

“This is our Airstream,” I said, as if in a dream.  “Can we take it home—right now?”

After our Maiden Voyage in the spring of 2004 we took a few more jaunts to state parks and the farm.  Each time it was harder to come back home; the taste of freedom more sweet.  And still we were dreaming of the Great Escape, the cross-country ramble, the gypsy-ish liberty of Toad’s Open Road soliloquy in The Wind in the Willows:

There you are!’ cried the Toad, straddling and expanding himself. `There’s real life for you, embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changin’!’

Not long after my sister’s wedding, she and Marshall had us to their apartment for dinner.  We had a wonderful meal and a rousing game of Uno, but we were soon to discover that these were not the only reasons for which we had been invited.  In a way, it was something of a summons.  Marshall had a proposition:

Road trip.  This summer.  The four of us.  The Airstream.

The Open Road beckoned and we obeyed.  Summer 2005 became the catch phrase for adventure.  And all the more touching was its call owing to the fact that September would find Liz and Marshall moving to New York to pursue an adventure of another sort at the Art Students League.

But on the summer morning of our departure they still had not the slightest notion of where they would be living in the great metropolis, or even when they were leaving.  All that mattered to each of us was that the journey was underway.  The year was 1962.  Kennedy was in office; C.S. Lewis was still alive.  The sun was shining and we were fancy-free.

I turned up the Airstream mix that Philip had compiled and we all sang John Denver’s Country Roads at the tops of our lungs.  The car was charged with the utter delight of unaffected corniness.

“Now, that was what I’d call a sing-along,” Marshall said, settling back with satisfaction.

“Who d’you think Kennedy’ll appoint to the U. N.?” Philip posed.

“Do you imagine they’ll ever put a man on the moon?” I wondered.

Liz peered over Jackie O. glasses with a coy smile.  It was obvious that she cared more about period fashion than politics.  From plastic beads to vintage aprons, we both were prepared to dress the part, and if Liz’s cache of costume jewelry was considerably larger than mine she was only too willing to share.  Playing dress-up—never a problem for either of us—was part of the travel pact.

Friends of friends had offered us the use of their farm outside of Lexington, Virginia, and it was thither we trekked, our bright silver camper rambling behind.  As we neared our destination I glanced up from the map I was trying to make sense of and caught my breath.  A slight rise in the highway spread a golden vista before us: cow-studded hills in a late afternoon gilding, brick farmhouses half-hidden by ancient cedars, pastures domesticated by miles of white-painted fences.  It was so beautiful that it almost hurt to look.

“I think this is our exit,” Philip said.

A rapture of praise went up in my heart.  It was too good to be true.

The farm was as beautiful as that soaring glimpse had promised.  We set up camp with merry hearts, and as the sun dropped below the trees on the mountain behind us Liz and I went into the Airstream to start dinner.

“This is the galley,” I explained with the pride of a 1960’s homemaker.  I opened the cabinets one by one and acquainted her with their inhabitants.  “Tea here,” I set the aluminum canister behind the stove, “dry goods here,” with a flourish towards the cubby that curved with the arc
of the trailer, “and the stove’s name is Princess.”   I indicated the blue and gold emblem on the door and Liz nodded, her mouth drawn up in a little bow of comprehension.

“Apron!” she cried, thrusting me a handful of blue organdy ruffles.

As darkness fell we gathered around our vintage-spread table with bistro lights swinging above and candles twinkling to enjoy a delicious pizza hot from the oven.  The night grew black around us and we talked and laughed and marveled at our situation.  I always forget what real darkness is until I’m camping.  And silence that teems with the din of night creatures.  A screech owl gave us all a bit of a shudder—except Liz.

“Don’t worry,” she assured us with the sagacity of a true outdoorswoman, “that’s just a pony.”  I’m ashamed to admit that we laughed her to scorn.

When it was time to turn in we pulled sofas into beds and threw open overhead compartments for pillows and linens.  Everything so tidy and cozy, it wasn’t hard to close the door against the night and snuggle up with respective spouses.  And how wonderful to fall asleep with no thought for the morrow but that it would surely be fun.

The dawn was a beautiful gift.  I blinked sleepily at the golden haze pouring over our enchanted valley, suffusing the garden, the barn, the pastures beyond with a living light.  I had been afraid that I had dreamed it all.  But the morning only revealed that I had not remembered how lovely it was.

Lexington offered us a boon almost from our very first footfall on its undulating little streets.  Liz and Marshall saw it at the same time:

Stonewall Jackson Thrift Store!

I had been chattering about wanting to see the Stonewall Jackson house, a few short blocks above the VMI campus where the great general had thought to live out his days quietly teaching natural philosophy.  But surely it would keep for another half an hour.

Inside we found a perfect windfall of vintage clothes.

“Lexington junk is lots better than Atlanta junk,” Liz declared, heading for the dressing room with laden arms.

Our trophies proved her right and the boys were proud.

“Beetle, you just bought your fall wardrobe for 18 dollars!” Marshall exclaimed, clapping his arm around Liz’s shoulder as we went back out into the sunlight.

Though we’d all seen them before on family vacations, like good Southern children we made the rounds of Washington and Lee, admired the sweep of green lawn from the prospect of the president’s house and paid our respects at Traveller’s grave.  (For those uninitiated in the lore of a Southern upbringing, Traveller was Robert E. Lee’s faithful horse who was interred outside of the Lee Chapel while a spirited UDC matron played Dixie on the organ.)

Camp life was of the utmost amiability.  Late afternoons saw us pursuing our individual quiet pursuits: writing, painting, napping.  Liz and I took long walks over the farm and tried not to think about our coming separation, stopping by the vegetable garden on the way back to gather high summer bounty for our dinner.  The evenings lengthened into endless starry enchantment as we lingered at the table conversing on deep life issues or sat by the fire laughing over nonsense.  With sparklers, ghost stories, s’mores and Rummikub we set by those hours among some of the dearest of our lives.

Liz and I both wore our new dresses for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We embarked in the morning with an amazing assortment of maps and a full picnic basket and wound our way through some of the most beautiful scenery this country has to offer.  With the windows down and Befriended on the CD player the sense of possibility was high.

Our heart’s desire was a secluded spot to spread our repast, and like everything else on this trip it was granted beyond all expectation.  A grassy path to a scenic overlook seemed promising and Philip pulled over for Liz and me to inspect.  Cresting a little knoll we found a spreading tree that seemed to have been planted on the sunny hillside just for us.  The grass was long and sweet, and the views that opened in every direction were of waving fields crossed with old fences and dark stands of cedars and hardwoods.  We ate our sandwiches in the happiest frame of mind, talking little but to extol the prospect around us; when that was done Liz served tea and we all settled comfortably with our books, the silence broken only at intervals for Philip to share a passage or two from Walden.  After digesting some rather weighty thoughts of Chesterton’s I set off on a little solitary ramble to give my mind a chance to recover, and as I wandered through the grass among Queen Anne’s lace and shaggy lavender bee balm my heart was singing a wordless thanks for God’s wonderful kindness.

“We’ll come back here someday,” Philip whispered as I turned for one last glimpse before piling into the car with the others.

But there was an even harder goodbye awaiting us the next morning.  As we broke camp, code named Bingo by our intrepid captain, Philip filled our heads with bright promises of what was just over the next hilltop on the Open Road.

“You mark my words,” he assured us, “Wiggle will have its own adventures.”  And not one of us doubted him, any more than we questioned his ability to christen campsites.

So we ambled out where we had ambled in so happily a few days before.  We said goodbye to our temperate valley, to the willow at the bend, to the horses, and then edged out into the old tree-canopied lane.  There was a waver of a sob beneath my laughter as I joined in the merry banter that is conversation with Liz and Marshall; but my spirits rallied considerably when someone suggested stopping for ice cream on the way out of Lexington.

Back in the car, Liz was as happy with her overflowing ‘single scoop’ as the rest of us but she was defeated before her ice cream dipped below cone level.

“Here, do something with this,” she said, passing it off to Marshall with easy unconcern.

“And what would you like me to do?”

We were careening conspicuously through neighborhoods at that point, past some of the most dignified establishments the genteel old town had to offer.

“Look, there’s a trash can!” Liz cried, pointing under Marshall’s nose to a receptacle rapidly nearing on the right.  “Just toss it in there.”

In Marshall’s defense, a perfect marksman would have been challenged under the circumstances of combined speed and short notice, but if nothing else his sincere effort was worthy of merit.  Top-heavy ice cream cones have a mind of their own, however, and this one seemed to possess a liberal streak of willfulness.  With the wind in his face and the sun in his eyes Marshall made his best shot—and landed it cone up in the very center of a pristine lawn.

“Step on it, Philip!” Liz cried from the back seat.

“Like they’d never recognize us loping through town with an Airstream behind!” I muttered.

“It’s okay,” Marshall said with his wide grin, “we’ll just say it’s our calling card.”

We went out of our way to see the Natural Bridge Caverns, passing as we did a couple of deserted roadside attractions of the Shenandoah Gothic variety, including a life-sized replica of Stonehenge made completely out of foam.  The name?  Oh, yes—Foamhenge. High on a hill it gleamed in the afternoon sun, luring us to stop and gaze in wonder, tempting us over the low gate for a surreal picture or two…or four or five…

The Caverns guaranteed all sorts of miraculous statistics, but aside from a treacherous wet stairway into the lower regions and a tour guide with a malevolent smile we found very little to recommend them.  There was a brief shadow of excitement when the lights were cut at the climax of a ghost story, but the story fizzled out, the lights came back on as planned and we all trudged back to the surface feeling very jaded and not a little cheated.  Our only regret in leaving was that we had no ice cream cones to pitch out the window as we drove away.

Hours later we were installed at Wiggle on the James River, bistro lights twinkling from the awning and steaming plates of Italian sausage and rigatoni before us on the table.

“To The Good Life!” was our toast, clinking plastic goblets.

Despite its other notable features, Wiggle proved to be a bit on the buggy side, but it was no hardship to pile up in the Airstream for a round or two of Old Maid or a heated Monopoly match that carried us into the wee hours of the morning.  I seriously thought that our patient, good-natured Philip and our feisty, fun-loving Liz would part company over the latter, all for the sake of one notorious blue card, but the minute the game was over Philip’s smugness and Liz’s fury were swept away with the wooden houses and Community Chest cards.

For Williamsburg Liz and I rallied our very prettiest vintage clothes.  We crossed the James on the ferry from Scotland, and our hopes for the day were as bright as the morning sun that leapt off the blue water in myriad dazzling rays.  Leaning over the rail from the observation deck I took my life-long visions of the revered place in hand.  If it’s not just as I’ve pictured it, I told myself firmly, then it will be better. But even my imagination could not prepare me for what better was.  I loved Williamsburg from my first step on its graveled walks, my first gaping glance at the regal Governor’s Palace, my first glimpse of a sunny garden over a wooden paling.

“That’s what I want for my birthday,” I told Philip, indicating a white-painted dovecote with a cedar shake roof.  “With doves.”

“Naturally.

“You can build it, darling,” with an eye-batting smile.

“I’ll have to,” he replied.  “I don’t think you can just go out and buy those anymore.”

Our last dinner was a bittersweet affair.  And as with all of our meals, highly photographed.  I twirled my fork on the pink plastic plate of stir-fry and couscous and suggested that we make a slide show when we got home confined to what we had eaten on the trip.  Rousing approval ensued.

We took solace in reminiscence that night, musing over favorite moments as if they inhabited the distant past.  Liz and I shared the same—the picnic at the overlook.  Marshall harked back to the night of the sparklers and the Roman candles on time-lapse.  Philip’s best time was watching the sunset out by the campfire with the happy chatter of Liz and me getting dinner ready in the Airstream…what golden hours!

“You know,” Marshall mused, turning his glass of Moscata before the candle flame, “I really think that Bingo was a lot like Heaven’s gonna be.”

We all concurred with silent nods then Liz added softly, “I’ve always thought that my happiest times have been little glimpses of Heaven.  It’s like the home of all our joys, the real thing.”

“Do you think the Airstream’ll be there?”  A smile lurked in Marshall’s earnest gaze.

After a moment’s speculation, we decided that on the hope that the things we loved would foreshadow Heaven we could pretty much expect to see it.

“Next stop, Niagara Falls!” Philip cried, lifting his glass.  Pretending that we were moving on was the only way any of us could deal with the sad business of breaking camp in the morning.

We did make our slide show when we got back.  (Though featured prominently, the meals took second place to the girls who prepared them.)  And at our going-away party for Liz and Marshall we set up a huge screen and projector in the den to show all our friends what fun we’d had on our summer vacation.  Selections from the Airstream mix accompanied the pictures as they flashed up larger than life in the darkened room.  The effect was magical, hilariously funny as the sappier of our medley predominated.  To Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea Liz and I marched about Lexington; to You Can Fly Roman candles exploded into a starry night.  But The Green Leaves of Summer gave me a sentimental turn—at the line It was good to be young then… I felt a funny little burning at the back of my throat.  It was good—it was very good.  It was The Good Life.

Finding the Beautiful

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

It was our last Big Adventure as a family, though we didn’t know it at the time.  Perhaps only Mama had some premonition of the changes that lay in wait for us upon our return from the trip to Boston, Bar Harbor and Prince Edward Island.  Of course, she couldn’t have forseen that I would meet the man who would eventually become my husband only two days after we got home, but the difference that Elizabeth and Zach starting to college in the fall would make was plain enough.  What was not plain was that the age of gold in which the whole world spread itself from our front door was coming to an end.  One by one we would soon step forth over that threshold, figuratively, if not literally—I into love, Elizabeth into art, Zach into engineering—and find that our own worlds awaited us in the Great World beyond.  But that summer we were untroubled by any portent of revolution in our midst.  I have always preferred my lasts to steal up behind me like that—when they have center stage they take some of the reality from the moments that we most want to realize.  Firsts can be flamboyant and fair-haired, but lasts are always at their best when demure and unassuming.

We flew out of Atlanta on a Wednesday morning.  Our friend Frank agreed to drive us to the airport on the condition that we go by way of The Dwarf House in Hapeville for a few unforgettable fried pies and some coffee, but I confess that the charms of this novelty were completely lost on me, transfixed as I was with the cold apprehension of my entire family boarding an airplane.  I had flown four times across continents and oceans, but had not yet abandoned my horror of take-offs and landings. 

Despite my forebodings, however, we were deposited without incident at Logan International, five people and fourteen suitcases, at the mercy of the ‘T’ at rush hour.  Daddy had been to Boston before, and while the rest of our carefully mapped vacation was Mama’s realm, this strange, frantic city where American history and intellectual loftiness lifted their heads as high as any skyscraper was his.  He talked like he had laid out the subway himself as he steered us through the jostling crowd, cheerfully pontificating on the ease with which one might whisk from one corner of this dizzying metropolis to the next.  And such is the case for a man traveling alone with a garment bag and maybe a brief case in tow, but the effortlessness begins to unravel a bit as you add an additional four people each bearing an average of three bags a piece.  The great daily exodus from the city had made a mighty chaos of an orderly system, and Mama called out frenzied instructions to her scattered brood as Daddy leapt without warning from a stopped train or raced down the side of the tracks to board another. 

I comforted myself with the fact that our hotel in Cambridge was ‘only steps’ from the subway as work-weary Bostonians looked down their noses at the goods and chattels assembled at my feet.  But as any seasoned traveler can attest, the use of the word ‘steps’ in the travel industry has a very dubious denotation.  We stumbled out into daylight, blinking like some newly emerged underground creatures, and stared at the sloping hill of pavement that rose before us alongside a coursing thoroughfare.  Heaving bags onto shoulders and pulling rolling suitcases behind, we set forth, trudging along in the August heat, ignoring as best we could the gaping bewilderment of residents stopped in traffic to our left.  A tribe of itinerant nomads we must have seemed, carrying all of our worldly goods on our backs, seeking a place to make camp for the night.  Eventually we all began to disregard Daddy’s optimistic assertions that the hotel was just ahead, only another block or two, and Mama turned to me with a grimace and panted, “This is the kind of thing that people get a divorce over.”

Our first evening in the city was given to Harvard.  Daddy could hardly wait to show us the ancient yard with its cool green solemnity encased in sturdy red brick walls.  So much of it we recognized from his photographs of when he had studied there at a judicial seminar a few summers before, but his enthusiasm in sharing it all with us gave his recollections a boyish slant.  How much more is something ours, even our own memory, when we can impart it to those we love.  I still remember his glowing and lucid descriptions of the famous paintings in the Art Museum depicting Rossetti’s Blessed Damosel and feeling that his viewing had been my own experience; though we were unable to see them for ourselves that week it seemed to me no great loss.  I had already seen them.     

I adored the high-brow feel of the bookshops and the brownstones, the aristocratic archness of the swans in the Public Gardens, the dingy feistiness of the North End.  And we saw it all, au pied.  That illustrious ‘Freedom Trail’ which has led tourists of all tribes and nations scrambling over the hallowed spots of America’s infancy became a thing of notoriety to us as we tramped along in the wake of Daddy’s purposeful stride, and by the end of the first day we had re-christened it ‘The Trail of Tears’.  How bitterly I lamented the decision in favor of fashion over comfort which had bade me turn up my nose at a perfectly respectable pair of tennis shoes in favor of the tiny, ill-suited sandals which were my lot for the entire trip.

We covered in two days what Daddy had perused in two weeks—we saw tea from the Boston tea party and ate clams at Legal’s Seafood; we visited the Old North Church, Copp’s Hill, and the ‘Cheers’ tavern; we shopped at Quincy Market and (some of us) went to a game at Fenway Park.  In the end, I couldn’t have taken another day of it, exciting as it all was.  But Elizabeth was in her element.

            “Someday I’m going to come back and live among the Italians in the North End,” she declared.

            “Not me,” I thought. “Give me a bit of earth and a house o’ dreams.”

           

On Saturday morning we stood outside of Hertz gazing in silent dismay at the Ford Taurus, dwarfed by our mountain of luggage piled beside it, which would take us to Maine and on to Canada.  By some amazing feat of nature we were able to squeeze everyone in, an achievement which required that the three of us in the back each hold a bag with another stuffed at our feet, while Mama ran a crude sort of canteen out of the front seat.  The nightmarish quality of the drive was broken at intervals by a pleasant stop at one or another of Maine’s idyllic coastal towns.  We would extricate ourselves from the painful positions we had assumed—at Ogunquit for lunch at a sandwich shop which hadn’t been altered since the 1950’s, at Camden for a visit with the statue of Edna St. Vincent Milay which was beloved of Liz and me by long association with Victoria magazine, at some hamlet in the middle of nowhere for McLobsters beneath a pair of golden arches.  But the journey must resume, for much as we might wish it otherwise, Bar Harbor was not coming to us.  And lest there be any mistake about it, it is a long, long drive from Boston to the tip of Maine. 

Bar Harbor itself would have bee
n worth twice such a trek, however.  We were little prepared, I believe for the exuberance with which Maine folk welcome their short season of warmth and sun, and were dazzled at every turn by grateful displays of floral profusion.  Borders of snapdragons and marigolds and impatiens and begonias before every house and along every fence; bushy ferns as high as a porch railing and window boxes spilling over with petunias; and where there was no earth planters and baskets overflowing with violas, dusty miller and ageratum.  All of this abundance, with a backdrop of impeccably tidy shingle ‘cottages’, snapping American flags, and the blue of the harbor shimmering in the distance was enough to wring ecstasies of poetic sentiment from the most prosaic of hearts. 

Our hotel was on the water, and every morning we ate our breakfast on a stone terrace watching the busy little harbor awaken for the day.  A walk to the shore was the next order of business, and the three of us would climb down the steep wooden steps to a beach that was unlike any we had ever seen before with smooth grey stones instead of sand and funny little mussels and clams for shells.  Liz and I would settle ourselves on boulders close to the water to sketch and write, respectively, and Zach would make daring forays down the rocky shore to see what lay beyond the bend in this strange new country.  But most often I would just sit in the breezy morning warmth with my head thrown back and let the peace and the quietness and the love of God in all the loveliness I saw restore my soul. 

On evening ventures into the little village we felt our Southern-ness most keenly when some idiosyncrasy of Northern speech or behavior in the natives we met puzzled us.  Shopkeepers and waiters spoke in a foreign tongue, and perfectly respectable, everyday words became snares and confusion when handled in this odd nasal accent.   It was then that one or another of us might remark to the rest in dark tones, reminiscent of Cooper’s Mogwa, ‘These are the ways of the Yang-ees’.  I found myself emphasizing my accent most shamelessly as if in compensation for frequent quandaries over what had just been said to me, and smiling a wicked inward smile when asked to repeat myself.           

The strolling night-life was winsome in its innocent sense of leisure.  Whole families wandered about enjoying ice cream cones, musicians got up concerts in little courtyards, and lovers sat on green painted benches overlooking the velvety water beneath the firs and the stars.  We had our own favorite coffee shop, whence we would wander nightly, and it gave us a sense of belonging, a bit of home.  The proprietor would be playing a haunting album by the yet unheard-of Sarah McLaughlin, and we would smile at each other over steaming mugs and say perhaps we could find it when we went back to Atlanta. 

At home, Zach always seemed to have a penchant for anything that read ‘market price’ on a menu, and it was, I believe, with a sense of relief that Mama and Daddy were able to satisfy this appreciation for the finer things in life by several visits to the waterfront shanties where lobster could be had for a mere pittance a pound.  My first experience was rather alarming, requiring detailed instructions and, much to my chagrin, one of those tacky plastic bibs, and I endeavored with all my might and main to banish the thought of Miss Hewitt’s biology class.  But by the end of the week we were all performing the rite with casual confidence, talking but little and laughing a bit between succulent mouthfuls at the thoroughness with which Zach approached his task. 

The wilds of Acadia were ours during the day.  There among pines and brooding firs and blue waves crashing upon a red-bouldered shore we found the heart of Maine in all its rugged simplicity.  One afternoon, leaving Liz with her sketchbook at a breathtaking vista, and Zach at the foot of a rocky slope that was just asking to be hiked, Mama and I took a carriage ride through the park, savoring the more refined of its rustic charms.  It was a lovely drive, but most of my enjoyment lay in beholding my mother’s pleasure as we ambled through the trees, the horses’ hooves ringing on the gravel drive. We stopped at the Jordan Pond House for tea, served on the lawn in Adirondack chairs since the late eighteen-hundreds.  I won’t admit how many warm popovers with fresh strawberry jam were consumed between us—it remains a closely guarded secret to this day.  I dream of them yet, right down to the butter running indecorously down my chin. 

Every night we watched a ferry enter the wharf just next to our hotel, and every morning we’d watch it chug out again bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The mere fact that Halifax was close enough to Prince Edward Island to attain even the slightest mention in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books leant enchantment to this hulking, noisy monster of commerce; Liz and I would stand on the balcony as it went and confer upon what we would do first when we finally reached The Island.  Wispy fears fluttered unspoken between us—would it be all that we had dreamt of?

           
To my dying day I will never forget my first sight of Prince Edward’s shore.  In a mad rush of joy Liz and I scrambled over the dunes, halting in silent amazement as the red sand and blue St. Lawrence gulf came into view.  Then we laughed—laughed out loud together for sheer delight.  It was too beautiful to be true.  And there we were in the midst of it, as if we belonged.  Lucy Maud had given us our passage long ago, and so with the uncanny sense of ownership that one assumes so readily in a dream we set forth upon the solitary beach.  We strolled far, speaking little, the waves lapping our feet and the wind, wild and happy, grabbing our skirts and tossing our hair.  I was filled with such unutterable joy—it seemed to me as if some mystic veil had been drawn aside revealing God’s pleasure in our maiden bliss.

We were staying across the road at none other than the White Sands Hotel—Dalvay-by-the-Sea in real life.  Dark and richly-paneled, with wide verandahs, deep armchairs and fires crackling in every grate, it had the feel of an English country house.  There was a wide front hall, which Liz and I made a point of promenading very carefully in our Victorian clothes.  In the afternoons we took tea with scones and Devonshire cream and dainty assortments of sandwiches and cakes.  In the evenings after dinner we would sit in the library or in the hall by the great fireplace, with our journals and books of poetry.  And afterwards perhaps a stroll under a silver moon that seemed to shed its radiance abroad just for us.  In short, the very portals of heaven for two very romantic girls who had not the slightest trouble imagining themselves heroines in a gilded age novel.      

All was not polish and elegance, however, for one must keep in mind that the Adams family as a whole is a rather lively band.  This compounded with the fact that we had spent two weeks sleeping in the same hotel rooms, there will be found some justifiable cause for the hilarity that erupted one night over Zach’s trundle bed which simply would not lay flat.  There he sat with his legs straight out before him and his back like a ramrod, till he threw his weight against the bed, reversing his situation so that his head was in the proper position but his feet pointed up towards the ceiling. &nb
sp;The more we laughed the more he rocked to and fro, falling each time with a resounding thump on the polished wood floor.  At length the matter was sorted out to a satisfactory conclusion, and Daddy had just turned out the light when there was an imperious knock at the door.

            “We must ask you to keep quiet—other guests are trying to sleep,” came the discreet whisper of the desk clerk, and with it some indistinguishable mutterings from a disgruntled neighbor in the hall.  Pillows were employed to stifle giggles as Daddy apologized through the door and the mutterings stiffly replied.  The next morning at breakfast we were keenly conscious of the glares pointed in our direction from the table to our left.

            “Why, I thought you were in room two!” their server exclaimed genially as she took the check. 

            “We were, until late last night,” the gentleman replied.  “We were compelled to move to another part of the hotel.”  This he said with his eyes fixed on us so piercingly that only a sheer force of will held another explosion at bay until he and his wife had left the room.         

Green Gables was nice, and owing to a slight drizzle most amiably deserted.  But it was at Park Corner, the home of Lucy Maud’s beloved Aunt Sallie and her rollicking cousins, that we really found the essence of her world.  This house, with a whispering spruce wood behind and a golden sweep of meadow before, was Silver Bush in every particular.  I half-expected Judy Plum to amble down those steep attic stairs into the kitchen and offer us a ‘leedle bite’ at any moment.  Lucy Maud spent some of the happiest days of her life in that house, and her love of it is evident, not only in her portrayal of it specifically, but in the tender handling in her writings of what any true home should be.      

One of the very best moments came, oddly enough, just as we were leaving the Island.  Liz and I had our hearts set on seeing ‘Gus’ lighthouse’, endeared to our souls by familiar association with the Avonlea series.  Far from the traditional tourist route, a sketchy little paragraph in the back of a brochure one of us had chanced to pick up was all that we could offer by way of directions, but Daddy was confident. 

            “Leave it to me—we’ll find it!” he cheerfully asserted.

Mama groaned and scrutinized the map spread across her knees.  She had known Daddy’s navigational skills of old. 

The road wound past fields and through birches and poplars and became a ribbon of red between the rows of rich green.  A misting rain began to fall and each twist and turn deepened our growing conviction that this lane knew how to hold its own counsel.  But just as we began to lose hope a red turret broke above the spruces and suddenly we were at its foot.  Liz and I tumbled out of the car before Daddy even had it stopped and ran about with little shrieks of glee.  Fortunately there was none but ourselves to see the spectacle the two of us made: umbrellas blowing inside-out in our wild circuit, clapping and squealing, dropping to our knees on the step and gazing up adoringly with clasped hands.  Daddy remarked that the keeper on that lone point must have stroked his grizzled beard and wondered to himself at these strange American lighthouse-worshippers!     

It was situated on the edge of those dear red cliffs, fringed beyond with weathered spruces and, farther on, a secret field of waving golden grass.  Liz and I stood there in the wind and misty sunshine, rapt with happiness, our arms about each other.  To this day I am deeply moved by this token of the Lord’s tenderness towards the dreams that we carry.  This little spot, the tossing sea below, the very caress of the wind represented more to me than I could articulate—a host of lovely girlhood fancies; a glittering ideal of the future; an indelible impression that God meant life to be beautiful…

           
I carried many tokens and treasures home with me: a book of Handel’s arias from a music shop in Boston, a tiny sterling lobster for my charm bracelet, pressed wildflowers from the sea cliffs beyond the lighthouse.  But the very best, I believe, of all that I brought back was one cherished thought—simple, yet startlingly vital.  It was the realization that I lived in my very favorite place on all the earth.  I belonged there, and it belonged to me.  Lucy Maud Montgomery’s capable pen captured Prince Edward Island in all its pastoral beauty and immortalized its varied moods and seasons; but it was her deep love for it that shed glory on the everyday and endeared it to her readers.  I looked about at my oaks and pines with new eyes; I felt the warm sweet Southern breeze on my cheek and saw the molten gold of sunset sparkling through the verdant arms of trees in summer dress and thought, Out of the whole world God has given me this place to love.  Its particular beauty was mine to value, to commend to others if I might.  It was my own charge, this sweet search for splendor in the commonplace.  Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it within us, or we find it not, wrote Emerson.  But perhaps it is the greatest fortune of all to find it where we have been all along.