Friday, July 31, 2015

Like kudzu, come to think of it

sometimes the words i throw out into the world scatter and create new stories, all by themselves. sort of like children, i suspect. you raise a story up from that first uncertain word until it blooms into 700 or even thousands of words and then you nudge it out, into its own journey.

such is a story i published two weeks ago now, about the farm i share with my siblings — though none of us could wield a plow if we had to. shortly after the story ran, the emails began, mostly from people who hail from Sunbury, the little village near where the farm sits. a cousin i had never met contacted me, as did strangers with my own last name, sharing their own memories of the place i had written about. as my quiet little story picked up steam, i lured in a couple of new blog followers, and six on twitter. #wow! 

still more strangers shared it on Facebook, on their own pages and even on a page dedicated to memories of Gates County. as the days passed, i responded to the emails, marveling at how connected people felt because of my few words about, well, connecting.

of course the email chain faded, as happens, and i set my sights on work and other things, wondering what in the world i'd write next.

a couple of days ago, a new email landed in my inbox, a delightful tome from a woman on the west coast whose Tar Heel sister had sent her my column. her own grandparents lived near our family farm, and she recalled her father's home:
"...a real crossroads with their house, an uncle's and across the street the country store and owner's house where my warts were wished off one Sunday afternoon."
her own family farm stands not far from ours but it is out of the family now. i wrote back, saying that we were practically neighbors, to which she responded: probably 14th cousins, several times removed. 

this is such a part of what i love about writing: readers who take the time to tell you how much your little story means to them. these comments are no small thing to me. 

we continued to email each other, unknowingly setting into motion a "whole 'nother story," as they say where i come from. 

as i learned more about her, we discovered link upon link to each other: our grandfathers were contemporaries. she grew up on one end of Halifax County and i on the other. she gave her sister my book a few years ago. she loves Nags Head as much as i do, and the beach cottage her family rented when she was a child? owned by her "Cousin Joe Byrum," who was my grandfather's brother and married to her grandfather's first cousin. can you follow? i might need to diagram it.

(wouldn't that make her a cousin to me by marriage? maybe 14th, several times removed?)

no people. you can't make this stuff up. 

photo copyright Watson Brown. Used with permission.
this morning, i found myself lured back to my Sunbury connections on Facebook, when i stumbled upon a photograph of our farm, taken last year by Watson Brown, the exceptional photographer of weathered old buildings and the beautiful landscape of eastern North Carolina. Another accidental connection.

I don't know Watson personally, but we have many mutual friends, and i've followed his work for the past couple of years, drawn to his images of home. there is a great beauty in the art he finds among the ruins. 

His calling is to document the fading history that connects all of us who call 'God's Country' home. he travels the back roads and dirt paths in search of life as it was once lived out.

browsing through his work, i image the voice of an aproned mother calling her kids across the field to home, the scrape of a father's boots on the back porch on his way in from a long day of fielding, the sounds and smells of something fried drifting out of the kitchen window toward the noses of those children, who turn and run, hurdling the rows of cotton, so as not miss a morsel of a summer supper.

my new friend on the West Coast and i hope to meet next time she comes this way. i have no doubt we'll find even more connections that link our families. in fact, i have a second cousin i'd like her to meet. his grandmother was her grandfather's cousin, Irma, so they are actually related. maybe we will share our family trees and see the many ways they do connect. 

if i've learned one thing in all my years of writing, it's that a story can take root and grow right where you sow it, standing tall and strong against the sunlight like a weathered old oak. but sometimes a story lifts itself up and spreads like kudzu all over the landscape, one thread leading to another until it's hard to tell if there is any beginning or end.

this is a story like that, i think, and i hope it will keep on growing. 

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

summer sentence 2015

i sit, staring into the eyes of
my five-week-old great niece Lucy, 
the two of us bound together
by blood
but not yet by story;
the only missive
we share is our 
week together
saying 'good morning'
and touching noses,
me bouncing her soft body
when she cries,
me trying to soothe, 
her trying to discover 
her new world;
and on this morning, 
our last together, 
she turns the corner 
of her mouth, just so 
into a soft, baby smile
and i know she is thinking
about the times
her mother fed her, or
my mother rocked her
or when her sister 
(2, plus some)
held her and 
kissed her face, 
of the times her uncles
took her into their arms 
and showed her 
their world at that moment,
bound by beach and sound and sky;
or of when her grandfather 
danced with her
in afternoon 
delight for both;
and as i look into her
family-blue eyes and
marvel at our same chins,
i wish she could remember
what i have seen of this week —
my sister holding and bouncing
her new granddaughter,
my brother walking into the
surf with his grandson, 
now 8, who
asked my nephew
about girls and French kisses,
and Monopolized our evenings;
our beach party dance-off
with no misunderstanding
from our
part-time partytime
how her mother ate fresh peaches
and slept when she could
(and cried a little),
not able to stick her toes 
in the sand often enough
like her namesake, 
my grandmother
always liked to do;
how we ate shrimp 
and how we watched
the sun set
over the blue waters
of the inter-coastal waterway,
my husband wishing
he was out there, skimming
the smooth surface,
under sail,
or my son
casting chicken necks tied to string
in search of crabs for his
Maryland love;
or how my daughter
lifting the paddleball
into the air or tossing it
into the ocean 
with her husband,
who sweated
into soccer heaven
with the 8-year-old, 
all of them no longer afraid 
of the sharks 
they had read about 
in the news;
how i sat with my
nephews for the 
first time in a year, 
learning about jobs
and life
as they see it,
shared an early-morning coffee
with the newest girlfriend, 
her eyes crisp as
the ocean water 
we were about to leave;
and how after supper,
on our last night,
my mother sat
at the kitchen table
with her grands,
holding stories
in her lap as
softly as she did her
hoping to pass 
her own history on.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

still the same, at heart

For the life of me, I can't recall what the story was about, but it involved Pinocchio, Geppeto, a mailman, a bunny, girls with hearts and Jiminy Cricket, and me — the girl on the second row, right end, scared to death of the cowboy next to me who claimed kin to Earl Scruggs. I remember I wore an itchy petticoat and white gloves (if you look closely, you can see them.) I am listed in the program only as 'girl'.

We were the Class of 1962 in Miss Lottie Welch's kindergarten — a tiny house in her back yard where she tried to teach our town's smallest to sit still, get along with others, sing songs and finish the puzzles we took off the shelf. We'd miss recess of we didn't, this I know because I'm guilty of it. 

And this afternoon, a baker's dozen of these kids will gather for the first time in 20 years.

Some of those little ones moved away and we lost track of them. Two of the girls died of cancer a few years ago. In the last couple of years through Facebook, I found out that the cowboy really is a distant kin to Earl Scruggs. 

I look at these small faces and see each one as a gift. One of us is really good at poker. Another at growing tomatoes. The pretty girl on the back row holding the big heart is a fashion designer. The boy in the middle of the first row in the striped jacket is a history teacher who is trying to preserve our town's history on Facebook, though few of us live there anymore. Pinocchio is a musician and will bring his tunes to us tonight. Jiminy Cricket is a successful businessman. I'm not sure what the mailman grew up to be, but I can't wait to ask him. There is a coach in there, and a hospital administrator. And the girl on the back row sitting with a heart in her lap is an artist, and she created my daughter's bridal bouquet.

I have known this group since I was that chubby freckled girl, some of them since birth. Six weeks ago, 'the girl next door' and Jiminy Cricket and I  chatted on a sunny Sunday morning and said, you know, it's our 40th year out of high school, so we ought to get something together. It is amazing to me in that short span of time we've pulled together a reunion of some of those pictured here, and some who joined our school from neighboring towns. There will be a few who didn't graduate with us and a surprise or two, and the chatter that this event has created over these past weeks has been heartening.  

Our historian will remind us that our education began in some ways, when an Air Force jet flew over our playground that year so close to the ground we thought it would crash on us. (It did crash just north of town, killing the pilot.) Our years continued with the Kennedy assassination our first grade year, took us through the walk on the moon, the Vietnam War, race riots and marches in our streets and the end of segregated schools, our soundtrack the Beatles, Three Dog Night, The Spinners and The Temptations. Some of us lost parents to tragedy, others to old age, and a few of the lucky still have them both.

Browsing through old scrapbooks and yearbooks in the past few days, I have been reminded of what a rare gift it is to travel from kindergarten through high school graduation with some of the same people. These folks knew me before I knew myself, and I, them, and sometimes, sometimes, you just need to go back to that place before the world happened to you, and see if they — and you — are still the same 5 year-olds who graced the stage that day, some of them holding hearts in their hands.

(look for me in the News & Observer on Sunday, June 20, as I begin and new stint as an  Our Lives columnist)

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Has a nice ring to it

On a spring day in 1981, I sat at my future husband's family kitchen table wondering just when he would tell his parents that we were getting married. He had asked me in theory a few months before, and since we'd asked my parents for their permission a couple of weeks before, my mother's wedding machine was already in motion.

I think we even had a date.

We had been in Atlanta all weekend, sharing meals and conversation with his parents, and through each one I waited for him to share our news. 

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Sunday came, and i sat the kitchen table, wondering if I would have to call my parents and tell them that the wedding was off. he was just not saying anything 

We were minutes from leaving, when the man I had fallen in love with just five months before finally took a seat beside his mother and spoke.

'We've got some news,' he said. 'We're getting married.'

'Why didn't you tell me?' She countered and with those words, she took the diamond off her finger and handed it to me.

A few months before, understanding, surely, that I was the one, she had told me about the ring. It had belonged to my husband's grandmother and became hers when she and her handsome army pilot decided to marry. Family tradition required she hand it down to her son's choice. her only son. I hoped at the time she would be pleased for me to wear it.

I loved the ring, more for what it stood for than for its actual beauty. We reset the small diamond into a setting that suited me, married a few months later and set about making our life together, the heirloom reminder of the legacy of long marriage that came with it circling my hand.

Some years later, I lost the diamond (a whole 'nother story as they say). When I finally told my mother-in-law, she said only: it's a diamond, not your marriage.


I will tell you that certain moments every mother cements to memory. That first giggle and step, the random day when your boy plays with his sister in the attic in the rain, or when he drives out of the dmv parking lot with you riding shotgun. that day when he says he wants to make his own decisions — which amounts to what time he wants to go to bed — when he leaves the house, heading to the first job that means something to him.

And there is that day when your son sits with you at the supper table where he asks to make those first decisions about his life and tells you he wants to continue the family tradition. with the ring.

The days following that day have filled my life with joy. Meeting him at the jewelry store to figure out just how we would keep it secret. The fact that my current ring is not the one that belonged to his grandmother and great-grandmother didn't matter. We were helping him create a new legacy out of an old one, and we were certain that legacy would matter to the young woman who will be his bride. 

When I joined him the day he picked up the newly reset ring, he apologized for not bringing a handkerchief to wipe my tears. I cried anyway, knowing this particular day, like so many other in my memory, would not repeat.

A week ago tonight, we gathered with the people who will welcome my son into their family, and the four of us waited for our children to arrive. Two hours before, my son had taken his girlfriend on an ordinary walk with the dog to the park, and she had come back wearing the diamond that I had worn on my own hand for the last 12 years.  

And then they joined us, mothers and daughter crying, fathers and son smiling, restaurant patrons offering to take pictures, stopping by the table with best wishes and congrats.

At our center we sparkled, this moment of clarity, cut to memory for us all.

stay tuned. i begin a new journey writing once a month for the News and Observer on Father's Day 2015 as an Our Lives columnist. I did this 12 years ago, and they have asked me back.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.