Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eve and the Serpent: One More Time

I opened the car door and turned to get out. My breath hit the still, hot air like an egg hits simmering water and hovered there – poached oxygen. My arms were instantly damp and sticky and my clothes, light and comfortable that morning when I put them on, suddenly collapsed onto my skin like Saran Wrap. I forced my bare feet onto the concrete of the carport and felt a brief moment of relief.

June in south Georgia. Ah, yes.

I gathered up the mail and my briefcase and my gym bag and the shoes I’d kicked off the moment I’d left the office. Arms full, brain distracted, I started toward the back steps.
Something moved. Just a little something, but enough. I stopped. Squinted my eyes. A snake. Stretched out his full length along one of the steps, his pointy little head raised up toward the clapboards, reconnoitering a possible breach whereby he might invade my sanctuary.

My heart clutched just a second. I quietly set down my burdens, forgetting for a moment that the audacious reptile couldn’t hear, and backed away toward the only weapon anywhere close.

I pulled the hose pipe from its wheel, turned on the faucet and began an aqueous assault that would have made any seaman proud. Water firing toward his head in a violent stream, the snake turned slowly away from the wall and inched bit by bit down the steps. It took at least five minutes to herd him off the carport, through the hostas and under the deck.

Only then, less than three feet from the deck, did I see the two additional snakes, twined together around the deck post just outside the bedroom door, a live caduceus. I turned the spray toward them. This time it took longer.

When the immediate crisis was past and they were dangling from the other side of the deck, twisting and turning like exotic dancers, I did what I always do: I went for Daddy.

Within 10 minutes, the two deck snakes had been sent to their reward by deadly-accurate shotgun blasts. (The first, I truly believe, was prayed away by my friend Mandy who had called in the midst of the initial assault.)

The friend I call Mr. Green Jeans has reprimanded me for my malevolent reaction, reminded me that those snakes feed on the mice that I hate even more and accused me of disturbing the delicate ecosystem around Sandhill.

Sorry. It’s just that, well, I don’t like interlopers. I don’t like my security being breached. I don’t like being reminded of my vulnerability.

None of us do. We pretend to embrace our humanness with its inherent fragility. We pose as sensitive creatures who are moved to tears by sunsets and big-eyed puppies and giggling toddlers, but it’s all a sham. And it lasts only until the snake crawls out of the branch and stretches out across the path blocking the way. At that moment, whether the snake is a reptile or another human being posing as one, what every one of us wants to be is bullet-proof and Teflon-coated, an unshakeable monolith inspiring the awe and respect of weaker souls.

Good luck.

Because what we all have to ultimately admit is that there are no bullet-proof, Teflon-coated people. And there are no impenetrable walls. The best for which any of us can hope is to have within reaching distance another soul with a shotgun or, better yet, an available prayer.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Stitching and the Art of Love

The dressing rooms on the second floor of Minkovitz Department Store were poorly lit and small, just big enough for a narrow stool and the floor space for one person to dress and undress. To get a full view of whatever it was that one was trying on, one had to leave the dressing room and walk out onto the sales floor where God and the sales ladies and, worst of all, possibly somebody popular who was also shopping could see how tight the skirt was through the hips or how inadequately the bodice was filled.

I was subjected to this torture only a few times as, for all the hours I spent in a Minkovitz dressing room, we – Mama and I – never had any serious intention of actually buying anything.I take that back: Mama never had any intention; I was always hopeful.

From the day Mama and Daddy brought me home from the old red brick hospital on Grady Street, whatever I wore was homemade, floating forth from under the presser foot of Mama’s Singer sewing machine in a froth of soft cotton batiste, crisp gingham and velvety corduroy. The Peter Pan collars on my church dresses were finished in double-stitched scallops and the tiniest of pin tucks framed rows of shiny pearl buttons down the fronts.

Somewhere around second grade I figured out that not everyone dressed the way that I did. Some of them had skirts that looked exactly alike. They had small satin tags sewn into their necklines and, occasionally, some writing or an animal on the outside. And, because the need to be "like" and "liked" arises early in girls, it was somewhere around second grade that I began to resent the fact that none of my clothes came from Minkovitz or Belk or – Be still, my heart. – The Children’s Shop.

By the time I got to junior high, Mama, who just couldn’t justify spending money on clothes that were not as well-made as the ones she sewed, and I had reached a compromise: We went shopping, just like all my friends, dragging an armload of skirts and blouses and dresses into the dressing room, plastic hangers clicking and getting tangled together. I tried each outfit on and stood very still while Mama, pulling out her little Blue Horse top-bound spiral notebook, drew detailed pictures of what I was wearing.

She made notes like "grosgrain ribbon trim" and drew arrows to the place on the dress where said trim would be placed. She rubbed the fabric between her knowledgeable hands and then wrote, "polyester and cotton" or "100% wool." She drew every detail – square pockets and notched collars and 2" cuffs.

After closing the notebook, dropping it back down into her patent leather purse that closed with a loud click and gathering up all the clearly not-up-to-snuff garments, Mama would walk out to meet the sales ladies while I dressed. Through the heavy fabric curtain at the dressing room door I could hear her say, "No, we didn’t find anything today."

An hour later we would be leaving the fabric store weighted down with a Simplicity or Butterick pattern, a couple of yards of fabric folded into a nice square with a paper tag pinned to the top, thread, zipper, buttons, sometimes elastic, all of which would go into the magician’s hat that was Mama’s creativity and be transformed into an infinitely better version of what I had been craving since the moment I saw it on the rack at the department store.

I was not so wise at 13 to recognize the gift of a mother who could work this magic. I did not always have the most pleasant attitude as I sat on the stool at the counter flipping through the pages of the pattern books to find the one that most closely resembled what I’d just tried on.

I did not, as I recall, one single time ever tell Mama that I appreciated what she did. I didn’t because I didn’t. I didn’t tell her because I didn’t appreciate it. I had not the capacity yet to understand love in its tangible forms. I have it now. Because she taught me.

So, in case I haven’t said it in a while, thank you, Mama.

Copyright 2009