Monday, November 19, 2012

Tales From Uncle Remus

When I was a little girl, our vacations always sent us north toward Rock City and Ruby Falls, Stone Mountain and Grant Park, Cherokee and the Great Smokies.   And, in the absence in those days of an interstate highway system, our trek always took us through Eatonton, home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus. 
Fast food dispensaries were, like the interstate, a fixture of the future and the thought (not to mention the expense) of eating in a restaurant was anathema to my parents, thus we used up most of the car trunk space to, in the words of my mother, “pack a picnic lunch.”  The picnic area at the Joel Chandler Harris Museum became our regular stopping point and when I remember those summer road trips the memories always include the physical sensations of the cool concrete bench under my bare legs, the softness of Sunbeam bread collapsing in my mouth, the feel of thick green grass under my bare feet.  And the laughter.

Oh, the laughter.  Mama and Daddy with their best friends and traveling companions, Mr. John and Miss Frances.  Me and Keith with their children.  Everything was funny.  Even the mishaps.  It was summer and we were on a road trip and the trunk had been too full of sandwich meat and potato chips and powdered doughnuts to leave any room for seriousness.

Last Saturday I was back in Eatonton for the first time in probably thirty years.  I’d been invited to speak to a women’s conference.  I arrived early, greeted my hosts, and got my bearings. I turned down an offer of coffee, explained that I take my caffeine cold and carbonated, and asked for directions to the nearest place open at that hour that could provide the same.

I’m certain that the directions were good, but the IGA to which I’d been pointed didn’t come into view when I thought it should, so I kept driving.  Though it had been a while, but I’d figured out that Eatonton hadn’t grown so much that I was going to get lost looking for a Diet Coke.

I was admiring the quaint shops in downtown, the well-kept yards in the Victorian houses on the side streets when I came to a stop sign and, trying to decide which way to go, realized that I driven right up to the Uncle Remus Museum.  Thoughts of caffeine momentarily left me and I pulled into the parking lot.  It all looked exactly the same – picnic table, log cabin, statue of Brer Rabbit, and the placard of Brer Rabbit with the big arrow tucked under his arm pointing the way to the museum.  

I felt my face stretch into a smile.  I felt my chest begin to vibrate with laughter.  Under my long sleeves I could almost feel the summer breeze, could almost taste the Kool-Aid and the Pecan Twirls.

It has been a long time since I felt like a child.  Actually felt in my body that lightness, that expansiveness, that wholeness that exists when you don’t yet understand the concept of boundaries.  When you have not yet experienced limitation or loss.  When being certain is all you know.

And it has been a long time since I felt so scolded.  Scolded because –  it should be clear, I suppose – that if the mere sight of this place where the innocence and security of childhood was epitomized can send me straight back to those moments, that posture, I should be able to get there at will.  I should be able to remove myself, when need be, from the things and people that would steal my joy, kill my optimism, destroy my faith.  All I have to do is remember.

It is almost Thanksgiving.  The leaves that are left on the sycamore are limp and the color of cured tobacco.  The ones that litter the ground at my feet are brittle and leather-brown, their edges curling like a hand making a fist.  The marshals who enforce the laws of nature are finally, after weeks of effort, wresting those hands loose from their grip on summer.  

I close my eyes and fold my arms across my chest against the chill wind, but under the jacket and the sweater, my arms are bare and I feel the warmth of June sunshine.

Copyright 2012

Monday, November 05, 2012

By The Waters Of Babylon

Our ninth grade literature textbook included the post-apocalyptic short story, “By The Waters Of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The story follows a young boy, the son of a priest in a primitive society, as he journeys far beyond the borders his people have long honored. His long and dangerous quest takes him to the city of the gods where he stumbles across the ruins of the great towers that once filled the city. Two of the rocks have words written on them, words he doesn’t understand: UBTREAS and ASHING.
I remember this part of the story particularly well, probably because Marcia Lanier quizzed and prodded and cajoled us so thoroughly on what we thought those two words might mean. Probably because the entire story turned on those two strange words. Probably because when we finally put it all together and figured out that the words were really only parts of words, it became clear that the stones were fragments of landmarks in New York City, the United States Subtreasury building and a statute of George Washington, and that the story took place not in the distant primitive past, but in a very possible not-so-distant future.
Just the other day I found myself remembering “By The Waters Of Babylon” and wondering what a young priest or priestess who came tip-toeing through the wreckage of one of our cities might find. She might stub her toe on a large piece of signage on which was written “ART” and be led to think that the tower over which such a designation had hung had once been dedicated to truth and beauty. Or that he might trip over an equally large section on which was written “ALM” and think perhaps that the place had been an temple where care was provided for the poor and ill. Both of them would, of course, be wrong.
Because, of course, both ART and ALM would be broken off pieces of a Walmart sign.
That’s right, Walmart, the store into which I walked two weeks before Halloween to find Christmas decorations already available for sale and realized two things. First, the date upon which I have to stop going into Walmart until after Christmas (the actual December 25th Christmas) in order to avoid crowd-induced anxiety attacks and general ill-temperedness has reached a record early date on the calendar. And, second, when the apocalypse does come most of the bodies will be found inside Walmart Supercenters under mounds of flat-screen televisions, cartons of 500-count LED Christmas lights, and Dora the Explorer pajamas.
Okay. Maybe mine is an extreme reaction. Maybe there are those who don’t mind, who actually enjoy navigating a maze of aisles lined with plastic holly wreaths and Lady Stetson gift sets in search of candy corn. Perhaps there are people who are not disturbed by the odd juxtaposition of a jack-o-lantern with the Baby Jesus on the end-cap of the express lane. There is even the possibility that, living here among my own people, there are folks in whom there is not created a sense that can only be described as the heebie-jeebies when one is accosted by the voice of Bing Crosby crooning away about a white Christmas from behind a rack of Darth Vader masks.
Extreme reaction or not, I couldn’t help wondering, when our end comes, if it is in the nature of a cataclysm, whether we will be leaving behind anything worth rummaging through, stumbling over. For the ones left behind or coming after, will they think we were dedicated to truth and beauty, that we provided for the poor and the ill? Or will the evidence of our existence leave them thinking, as the young boy in Benet’s story thought, that we had lived in a place of great riches but that we had squandered their magic?
I want to believe that somewhere, between the racks of Spiderman costumes and the shelves of scented candles, between the fun-size candy bars and the needle-pointed stockings, behind the scarecrows and hay bales, under the blow-up snowman, those great riches still exist. I think we can find them.
Copyright 2012