Girl in the Snapshot

Looking at old photographs is not something I do much. I live here, after all, in the present tense. Last week, however, I got a jolt. A friend sent me a few old photographs. I wasn’t expecting them. In fact, I didn’t even know these pictures existed until the moment they popped up in a text message—pictures of pictures. 

SNAPSHOTS

She had come across them in a photo album. They came from the time before smart phones, back when taking a picture was an intentional act. You had to have a camera. With film in it. You had to get the film processed. You had to store the pictures, in this case in an album. You had to value them if you were going to hang on to them. She valued these snapshots.

THE OFFICE

One was taken at work. She and I were part of a larger group who were friends because we spent so many long hours together at work. There are ten of us in the picture, all laughing. I wonder about the joke. What is it we find funny as we pose in a conference room of the law firm where we worked? Papers strewn about on the table in the foreground; we must’ve been taking a break in the day, maybe lunch. Someone had a camera. 

WHO’S THAT GIRL?

I recognized others before I recognized myself. In fact, I wondered at first why I wasn’t there. Then I saw someone I couldn’t place; the girl in the middle, in the front, smiling big and laughing. Me! I was shocked. When that snapshot was taken, I was around 25 or 27 years old. Over thirty years ago. 

1988, that’s my guess. Give or take a year or two. Chicago. Married. I look so happy. I don’t remember being quite that happy. I don’t remember feeling so sure of myself, confident like the girl in the picture. Proof that what’s outside is no reflection of the turmoil and doubt surely swallowing her up on the inside. But why? Why such doubt and insecurity? Look at the girl. She sits surrounded by people who like her, care about her. She is dressed in her designer office attire with her hair combed straight and long. Her eyes shine. She is pretty. Why would such a woman be so lacking in self-esteem? Looking back, it makes no sense. 

THAT GIRL NEEDS SOME ADVICE

I would like to talk to that girl, tell her some things.  First of all, I keep referring to her as “girl” when, in fact, she is a woman. 

Stop fighting independence, I would like to tell her, stop wanting to be taken care of and embrace your autonomy. Pragmatism now will lead to time and space for self-expression later. Be kind to yourself and believe in yourself, your dreams. Stop fretting and live your best life. Don’t believe the myth, I’d tell her, the white-picket-fence is not for you and that’s okay! Create the life that works for you. And above all, stop compromising! 

If only I could give her a hug, talk to her and prevent the pain and poor choices that were to come. 

To all young women I say, please be kind to yourselves, listen to your heart, have the confidence to live your dream.

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

Chasing Squirrels

 

Sometimes I think writing this historical book is a trick I am playing on myself, a sleight of hand that isn’t working. It’s a distraction from what I am really supposed to be writing—something close and personal and oh so painful, a raw story that reaches to the very bone of my existence.

In high school speech class, we were asked to choose a poem or speech to recite to the class. Others chose the obvious such as MLK’s dream speech. It was supposed to reflect something about our identity. As painfully shy and insecure as I was, I was terrified to reveal anything about myself—that is what my teacher later told me, and he was right. I chose a poem from my favorite book of all time which, I guess, is revealing in itself, but the poem was literally nonsense. I chose “Jabberwocky” from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. My teacher felt I was hiding behind it and he encouraged me to express myself, to search myself but that is something, even now I tend to avoid.

When I try to write about the events in my life, both my own mistakes as well as things I may have had no control over, I freeze up. I don’t want to face it. Sometimes even the good parts (and there are many) are difficult for me. Why am I still so afraid? Afraid of myself? Afraid of what’s inside of me? I doubt my own goodness, that is why.  I feel deep down that I am not a good person; but why? The crippling effects of self-doubt prevent me from accomplishing what is most important to me—self-expression. That mean voice tells me, “no one wants to hear this self-loathing, self-absorbed blabber. Stop whining.”  But sometimes I think the world needs to hear it, at least some people. Sometimes I think that by sharing what is deeply personal, I might be able to help others get through life more easily.

And then I think that might just be an excuse. I convince myself that I am lazy. That if I worked harder I could get into the minds of my characters and they would guide me through this novel. These characters, like me, refuse to reveal themselves. We all wear masks.

My first memory of writing was the age of seven. I was given a little white and pink diary with a tiny gold key. I loved that thing and I wrote every day. I have been writing ever since. That is not entirely true; I have been writing in fits and starts ever since. The excuse is that life always gets in the way. That, and the fact that I am forever seeing squirrels. I am an idea person. I’ve got lists of amazing ideas for novels, for a memoir, short stories too. Year after year, I flit from one idea to another, never settling on one project to focus on. I have tried, am trying. All my writing will be devoted to this one amazing novel. No, too overwhelming. I will start it as a short story and move on from there. But then I chase rabbits, I see squirrels and I am off on something else.

Then I wonder if perhaps I am meant to blend these personal experiences into my novel. Maybe there is some sort of connection. Perhaps the character is me but in another time? The story is there in my head but the events occur now in the 20th/21st centuries but the setting is in the 19th century on an island in the Mississippi sound.

Hey look, a squirrel!

ChasingSquirrels

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.

Rubber Band

The smell of dust, body odor and overly sweet air freshener permeated the air within the stuffy cab. Cabs always made her want to bathe after even a short ride. The driver watched the road. He didn’t speak. His disinterest in the passenger precluded him from noticing her profound sadness that brought her close but not quite to tears. She sat completely alone and empty in spite of her swollen belly. She was not capable of a simple smile, much less her usual small talk toward a stranger. Any mention even of the weather would cause her to break down uncontrollably. So she sat silently and watched the city pass her by. She observed her immediate surroundings of the cab’s interior—the dark-skinned man at the wheel, the dusty plastic seats, a photograph, perhaps the driver’s daughter, clipped to the sun visor. Also on the visor was a large bunch of scraps of paper, receipts perhaps or licenses, held together with twenty or so rubber bands. Maybe he was an avid reader of the daily paper, she thought, and each morning when he unwrapped the rubber band from the paper he would wrap it on the visor from habit. She watched pedestrians cross at a red light. She thought about her husband whom she just left. She thought of him returning to their empty apartment, alone without his pregnant wife. She wondered if he would bring his girlfriend there while she was away. Would he cook for her? Play her records on the stereo? Her face went red and burned at the thought of that. As she stared through the front windshield one of the rubber bands, old and rotting, suddenly cracked, broke from the papers and shot into her face. She was startled. The driver didn’t see. They drove on.

Everyone Has a Drug

Everybody has their drug whether it’s meth, alcohol, or Jesus. We find a salve that works and bathe in it to varying degrees. For some it’s music.

Me, I like words. I swim in the cadence, the meaning, the origin of sounds and letter combinations on the page. I love the varied nuances of words making meaning as they are strung together in sentences, stitched into paragraphs. Make a cross stitch sampler as haiku or a tapestry of an epic novel, a prayer shawl of gratitude, or a blanket of grief. Sometimes a crossword puzzle is enough—deciphering definition, rolling back thought in its opposite pattern.

I eat words, smoke books. I cough them up into the air. They can be diseased or purifying. Words have power. Words always make me stronger. With words I can turn my mistakes into art. That said, I have no excuse not to be prolific. Iron bitter grief flat with language. Float elation like a balloon in a blue sky. Make all experience good. Turn fear inside out so the seams show. Show the dark side. Show the bright side. Expose everything. Do it poetically. In a poem, even the ugly is glorious.

Ship Island

When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at the beach. We would sail in my grandfather’s boat, the “Dixie Flyer” or my parent’s boat, the “La Moette,” to the islands off the Mississippi coast.  Ship Island was where we would go most often. When I need a place to go, when I need to make a mental escape from the world, when I am trying so hard to sleep at night, that is where I go.

I can’t remember the last time I was actually, physically there but I often go there in my mind. And the Ship Island of my mind and heart may or may not be what it was then or what it is now. I only know my reality of it.

I remember playing on the white sand beach for hours on end. I was sun-kissed and happy. My brother and I would dig trenches and have hermit crab races. Of course we would build sandcastles and swim. The water was so clear in those days. We would dive for sand dollars! I remember that.

Sometimes we poured Mountain Dew over the stern of the boat and watch the swarms of catfish the sugary liquid would attract.

Ship Island is unique because in the very middle of the island there is an artesian well with an old pump. After a day of sun and salt, we would run through the sea oats, take turns pumping and allow the fresh, pure water to pour over us. Wonderful!

I recently  took a trip (a mental trip) to Ship Island to see the little girl who was me. I thought I might tell her some things. Instead, she told me.

She runs along the beach, bare feet pound the hard, wet sand. Wet hair slaps her tan shoulders. Her tongue licks the salt and sun from her lips. She runs. She wants to see how fast she can be. Her skinny legs will take her far.  Her skinny legs will move her forward to the future.

But now there is a woman who wants to see her, talk with her and hold her little hands. That woman is me.

“Be kind to yourself,” the little girl tells me. She smiles.  “Look,” she says, “I swam deep as my brother and got these sand dollars. It’s hard to go that deep,” she says, “but this is what you get for it.”

I love that little girl so much.

She’s not surprised or disturbed by my presence. She is quite accepting that I’m there. In fact, she acts like I am always there with her—a companion, of sorts. She is astounding. She flits here and there. Digs in the sand for a while. Runs through the sea oats stopping to watch a flock of seagulls.  She finds a stick to write her name in the sand. My name. She writes it big and proud then adds a heart at the end. Drags the stick. Drops it. Runs, then wades, then swims to the boat for lunch. Sandwiches, Barq’s root beer, cold watermelon. I stand on the beach alone. She looks up and waves.

I have nothing to tell her. Her life will be good and sweet. It will be bitter. She’ll have long stretches of sunny days. She’ll have sadness and anger that seems unending. But the sadness will end to be replaced by more sunshine and calm. Back and forth, her life will go. Like any life. Like everyone to different degrees. That’s ok. She’s telling me the same thing. Be kind to yourself. Smile a lot. Look at the sand dollars and seagulls. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. The rest will follow.

“Be kind to yourself,” she tells me.