Origin Story

She came up out of the mud where the Mississippi River washes the continent’s silt into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Sound was her place of birth, her embryo, her mama’s womb. She knew the familiar cadence of languages mixed as in a boiling pot. There was the French providing spice, the savory meats of English and the Spanish paella blended to a sound so sweet and soft. A person didn’t have to understand the words, not if she was in tune with this small world and its past. Just listen to inflection, follow the pattern, the hand gestures and facial expressions.

Go sit on the dock at her grandfather’s wharf, pretend to check your crab traps, pretend to watch the boats go past and listen to the old men. There they sit in the shade, Jax beer in hand, talking quietly amongst themselves, a chuckle here, an occasional outburst of laughter there. Their bellies evince years of fried food and pie consumption; a life, if not well-lived, certainly appreciatory of the simple goodness their world provides. Their hands are large and calloused, their eyes deep and tender. They speak of fish and boats and family. They don’t know it, but they speak of love. They offer favors and shake on it. Using few words, they offer comfort when needed, giving each other a pat on the back and maybe slipping a handful of neatly folded bills when necessary. It will come back around.

Find a corner in the kitchen and allow yourself to be forgotten. What you witness will be much the same. Women sit around the table smoking cigarettes and talking about the children or the neighbors. Or the men on the wharf, their husbands.  A grandchild wanders in and is offered a bowl of warm blackberry jam and homemade vanilla ice cream—a reward for picking the blackberries. She is sent away to enjoy her treat on the shady porch. The women carry on with their gossip.

This is the world she returns to in her mind, the world that haunts her and follows her no matter where in the real and present world she might find herself. When she drives up the interstate in Texas, filled with thoughts of traffic, errands, politics, work, suddenly she is back on the bayou watching the shrimp boats go out at dusk. The briny, humid air is the embryonic fluid that kept her buoyant and thriving and she feels it draw her home. Ghosts follow her everywhere. The ghosts of those who came before, whose DNA she shares. They are trying to tell her a story. They want her to understand that she is here now, doing this because they were there then and because of the choices they made.

And what of the others? The ones who came long before the grandparents and great-grandparents? They also haunt this woman, this woman who came from the very chemistry of this American sea that curls into the continent like a bowl being protected in the arms of some great god. She sometimes looks over her shoulder to see a woman, her bare feet, sand encrusted, her skirt hem stiff from sun and salt water. How did she get off the island, ghost or not? How is it that she is here, this Marie, wandering through an air- conditioned grocery store complete with piped in Musak and computerized cash registers? Is she covetous of this new century or disdainful? And why is she so restless that she must follow this descendant, this Elizabeth, who seems so untethered herself?

Elizabeth sees the past through a filter. It appears to be idyllic. Oh, but it was tough! And her ancestors must have been fierce to survive the weather, geography and the culture!

Elizabeth is a child and she dives down for starfish and seahorses. She races along the beach, bare feet pounding hard packed wet sand. She plays and explores. Time is meaningless. Farther up the island, the sea oats dance in the breeze where the sand is dry and deep and thick. It’s hot too but her bare feet are tough and capable. Her thighs are capable too as she marches through deep sand as other children might march through snow drifts. Over on the gulf side of the island, the wind always blows. It whips her hair into her face, slapping sand and salt about. She watches the waves and she can see them all the way to the horizon, so much bigger on this side. It’s wilder over here and exciting. On this side, it is much easier to believe that she is alone, a lone remnant of humanity. This is her origin story.

Gautier & Byrd-Bait Shop, Boat Dealership

AirB&B

 

bayou

Recently, I learned an astonishing thing. My grandmother’s house where I spent my childhood summers has been made into an AirB&B. Who’d a thunk it! Helen’s house is a simple yellow brick ranch home. To the passer by it is nothing special. The house is a small three-bedroom, two bath that sits atop a small hill overlooking the bayou and the woods. The screened in back porch was perfect for picking shrimp or eating watermelon. The kitchen was tiny but so was Helen; it was easy for her to get around and reach for things. The dining room table sat in front of the large sliding glass window with a panoramic view. In those days, that table was perhaps the most important part of the house. It is where we would gather for dinner every afternoon and say the blessing. Sweet tea and fried chicken.  My brother and I would pour Kraft French Dressing on green beans and mashed , mixing the potatoes to make a white and orange swirl. At supper it was hamburgers or gumbo with Ritz crackers.

The house was quickly built after Hurricane Camille wiped out my grandparents’ Biloxi beachfront home.  It was worlds’ apart from the Biloxi house which had hardwood floors, mahogany furniture and proper Limoge china. The Biloxi house, surrounded by mighty oaks and magnolia trees, looked across Highway 90 to the beach and Deer Island. Early in the morning, my brother and I would sit on the front porch and look for Cuban refugees drifting ashore in bathtubs. He had me convinced but we never spotted any.

But it was the Ocean Springs house I loved! I was a little older and have more memories there. But it wasn’t just that; the house on the bayou was relaxed, less formal and we really lived there. Every summer, I was eager to get to Helen and Deda’s house where we would roam the woods, play on the bayou and sail in the bay. We had so much freedom. Everyday was a new adventure building forts, picking blackberries, riding bikes into town or sailing to Deer Island. We had the ease of going where we pleased and the knowledge that we were safe, and that dinner would be waiting.  People knew us. They knew who our parents and grandparents were and because of that we were expected to behave and show respect. Are small southern towns still like that?

Deda liked to spend his time in the shed, a carpenter’s dream of a shop equipped with every kind of tool. It was hidden in the woods just below the house. It was the original “man cave;” his escape from domestic life. The scent of fresh cut wood and the sound of Deda whistling or singing a song. He was a carpenter and an inventor and there was no one else in the world like him. He loved to feed the birds, rabbits and turtles. He would name each rabbit and turtle that came into the yard as if he could tell them apart. He could whistle the song of any kind of bird. I wonder if the shed is still there. My guess is that Katrina took it, or the current owners tore it down.

I hope the visitors to the AirB&B can sense the specialness of the place. I hope they appreciate it.

How I Came to be Here and Why it Matters

“Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

From the time I was a very young girl I had an ideal of living far away from any civilization where I could have solitude and think about things. I had other dreams too; I wanted lots of animals and lots of children. I wanted a man to love who loved me in return.  I wanted family and friends.  I wanted to live in the city and be anonymous. I wanted to live in a small town and be known and loved by everyone.  I wanted it all.

I read Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. I read everything and voraciously. I let the waves of life push me along the beach, sometimes gently, sometimes with more force until I was nearly drowning.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have many experiences. I have attended cocktail parties at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, I’ve traveled the locks in Amsterdam on my parents’ boat, I’ve hauled hay and mended fence line. I have inoculated pigs and cows.  I have given birth to a perfect child.  I’ve read the best books and speak several languages. I can sew and knit and can pickles.  I’ve danced the two-step (albeit not well); I’ve attended punk rock concerts in Austin and the symphony and opera in Chicago. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and I’ve walked the trails of the Texas Hill Country.

I’ve been beautiful and young. I’ve been ugly and I’ve said things I regretted. I’ve been happy to the point of elation and so sad that I had to be scraped from the very bottom of humanity and put back together. I have loved people and sometimes not loved them enough. I never loved myself enough.

I never stopped to take care of myself, to know myself. For a long time I have been busy trying to make other people happy.  I never really believed that I could have a “room of my own.” In the homes of my failed marriages, I tried to make a space for myself—a corner or room—but it never felt right. It was never truly mine. I realize now, it wasn’t about the physical space. The space in my heart was far too crowded to allow me the “room” to right down my words. I never imagined that it was really possible for me to have a little place all my own just to write, create, and think about things. I never imagined that I deserved it.

I came about having such a place quite by force. A big wave pushed me there and said, “there you are—you asked for it!” So now I am happy counting my pennies to make ends meet, using my little space heater when I must, going to the Laundromat, and heating my food on the stovetop (no microwave). I also watch the sun rise and set, observe the deer and quail, and listen to the funny birds. I am truly so incredibly happy.

I don’t worry so much about money but I am taking care of it.  I’ve given up the man who is my best friend, the love of my life and I miss him terribly but for the first time in my life I have myself.

When I am not at work or attending classes, I can write, I can heal my relationship with my daughter, I can heal myself, and I can make of this life what I was intended to make of it—something very good.

I have no apologies for sounding very selfish. I am being selfish. I also want other women to know that they don’t have to go through an entire life feeling insecure or insignificant. You can learn about yourself and take care of yourself. You can know that all the things you do hold tremendous value in this world.

This blog is intended to be the story of my time alone in my little cabin.