Thursday, February 18, 2021

Splash!

Originally published on January 12, 2016

From "Still Here" - a compilation of Open Road blogs, 2016

 

I just got home from taking my little pals to school.  For over a week Satish, Danta, and I had looked forward to spending a little quality morning time together before I dropped them off on my way to run errands.  A little snow won't get me down...especially when it comes to those two fellas.  By the time I arrived at the house, their sister's school had already cancelled for the day, but the boys didn't mind that she got to sleep in while they had to get up and get dressed.  Over chocolate chip pancakes, we talked about the NFL games we had watched over the weekend and who they think might make it to the Super Bowl this year.

Danta has high hopes for the Carolina Panthers.  Satish is rooting for the Patriots.  And while I listened carefully to everything they told me about the stats for each team, I really don't understand it all.  Still, as the boys grow older (Satish will be eleven in two weeks!), it's great to be able to talk with them about sports and school and everything in-between.  As they gobbled up the last few bites, I thought about the Monday nights when they were little and I would put them to bed after reading a storybook or two.

"Satish...do you remember the time I read you Froggy Learns to Swim and I asked you what your favorite word was?"

He shook his head.

"You said it was poof as in making something disappear when you're doing a magic trick."

"That's not my favorite word now," he said, shoveling in another bite of pancake.  "It's SPLASH!"

"Hey!" I beamed.  "That's my favorite word, too!  And it has been ever since I was a kid."

Satish smiled as if that was no surprise to him at all.

"I like it because when you say it, splash sounds like what it does," I explained.

"Yeah...that's right," he nodded.  "Spl...a...sh!"

Onomatopoeia never sounded so sweet. 

 

Last Friday I had my very first swim lesson.  Sure I've been in and out of the water since I was a kid, hanging out at the local pool, body surfing in the ocean, or dangling my feet over a dock whenever I've been lucky enough to visit a lake.  I can backstroke and sidestroke and dive.  But I didn't know how to simultaneously freestyle and breathe...until my friend, Melissa (who's a swimmer extraordinaire) took some time to show me a few pointers.

After we had warmed up at bit, she said, "Okay...show me what you've got."

I laughed.  "I got nothin'."

"Really?"

"Yeah.  I have no clue what to do," I told her.  "We can start at the beginning...I'm a blank slate."

When she told me to keep my arms up overhead, put my face in the water, and push off from the wall to see how far I could go, I pulled on my goggles and did what she asked, making frothy waves with my feet until I ran out of breath.

"Man, you've got a strong kick!" she laughed.  "Let's see if you can relax a little more and stroke."

I picked up on that pretty easily, then moved on to learning the breathwork.  Not an easy thing, especially since I'm not quite sure where to put my head when I turn my neck (something I'm learning both inside and outside of the pool).  Melissa was patient, kind, and encouraging, so before I knew it, I was able to go back and forth a few times with moderate success.

"Keep your eyes on the bottom of the pool or on the side when you breathe," she explained.  "That will help you float a little more, so your legs don't have to do so much work."

I thought, Focus on the vertical line and horizontal line...just like I do on my yoga mat.  While it wasn't easy, freestyling felt more natural when I let my body float on the surface and my arms gently guide me forward. 

Yesterday I spent part of the afternoon practicing at the gym and even though I still don't completely understand the movement, I love the freedom of being completely surrounded by water...no splashing necessary.  Over time, I imagine my inner-mermaid will come to life, and swimming will become a moving meditation.  But until then, I'll keep reminding myself what I often say to new clients:  You've only been doing this for a few hours out of your whole life.  Be patient...don't rush...it'll come along.

 

Two years ago this month I self-published my memoir, then the backlog of books I've been writing since 2000.  Last spring I published The Lace Makers and while it's been well received by readers who are familiar with my work, there's been no real interest from the world at large.  When I was younger, I had hoped that one or more of my books would make a big splash in the literary community, that an agent or a publishing house would read my work and offer me the opportunity of a lifetime. 

Alas, that hasn't come to pass...yet.

Thank God.

For I've learned that to make a big splash may be a lot of fun and rock the waters for a moment, but one small drop in a pond can create never-ending ripples that float on the surface and gently stir the waters beneath.  It's been a lesson of a lifetime to learn patience, to discover how to wait for circumstances to change, to accept that the process of life is often more important than the end result. 

As 2016 dawns, I've been given the rare opportunity to write a book with my friend, Tony, about his nearly four decades of experience as a Rolfer.  We started this past weekend after he told me the prognosis for his cancer treatment.  A lengthy surgery is planned that will result in a twelve-month recovery.  Hopefully by this time next year, we'll be opening up a smaller office in which he can continue to work with clients and teach classic Rolfing.  In the meantime, I'll be interviewing Tony about everything from Jujitsu principles to the experience of working with over a thousand people, watching their continual and often miraculous evolution. 

At the onset, I was incredibly intrigued.  Now that we've started, I'm humbled by the knowledge and wisdom I'll be privy to as the manuscript unfolds into something neither of us can quite explain right now.

When I asked Tony if he had any ideas about the format, he replied, "Why don't you just ask me questions, although I don't know if I'll be able to answer them.  All I can think about is the surgery."

I nodded, turning on the tape recorder.  Gently I said, "Why don't we start at the beginning.  How did you first become introduced to Rolfing?"

Tony began to speak effortlessly about grad school, his mentors, his first meeting with Ida Rolf.  His voice shifted, became more calm and clear.  I stopped taking notes and sat in silence, for I trusted that everything I needed to know would be captured on tape, and I didn't want to miss a moment of listening to Tony unfold this incredibly dynamic part of his life.

Later, when he was talking about training at the Rolf Institute, I asked, "What was it like to touch your first client and feel the work beneath your hands?"

Tony's response brought tears to my eyes, and it was then that I knew I wouldn't have to write a word of his book.  I would simply turn the transcripts into something akin to Joseph Campbell's masterpiece, A Joseph Campbell Companion:  Reflections on the Art of Living.

At one point Tony was talking about how our society has atrophied into mayhem.  "The end of civilization as we know it is near," he told me. 

"Then why do you still Rolf people?" I asked, intuitively knowing what he might say.

"Because I can't change the whole world," he said.  "But I can help people change one at a time."

I smiled.  "Yes...I remember you told me years ago how you quietly, but persistently do some pretty subversive stuff in that little office of yours."

Tony laughed.

"I think I do the same thing in my yoga studio...and in my office," I said.  "One student, one blog, one book at a time."

 

It's not splashy, but it's honest and enduring, this life I now lead...and not at all as I had imagined it might be when I was younger.  But as Joseph Campbell wrote, We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Now I find the joy in embracing quiet moments of kindness.  The sweetness in an email that completely takes me by surprise.  The laughter of a little boy who I love as if he were my own.  An enchanted snowfall that covers my home in silent beauty.

And the grace in knowing that these quiet moments are all incomparable parts of a life worth waiting for.





Thursday, December 24, 2020

Another silent night

           Somehow it’s hard to believe today is Christmas Eve.  Sure, all of the presents have been wrapped and delivered to doorsteps around the city.  The baking is done, the stockings are hung and carols are playing on Pandora.  Still, there’s a quiet sadness that permeates the season for all of us.  Nearly everyone I know is missing someone they’ve lost this year, either through Covid or disease or estrangement.  Some are missing their grandchildren.  All are missing the human touch of loved ones near and far.   

           Yet even in the midst of grief, Christmas always comes…no matter the state of our world, our nation, our hearts and minds.  And like the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the winter solstice, the holiday season shines through the darkness and lights the way through this unprecedented time in our lives. 

 When I was seven, I performed in a children’s choir at Zion Methodist Church.  Matthew Swora was our enthusiastic, charismatic director who led us in song on Sunday mornings.  Woe the child who misbehaved during rehearsals, for the punishment was a seat directly beneath his podium.  “And my nose runs,” he said with a mischievous grin.  “So don’t blame me if you go home with a wet head.”

In the fall of 1973, Mr. Swora pulled out Christmas sheet music, just in time for Halloween.  “This one is going to sound familiar,” he smiled, nodding to the pianist who gently plodded out the chords for Silent Night.  “But I’m going to teach it to you in German...and if we do it right, we’ll make your mothers cry on Christmas Eve.”

I remember wondering why we would want to make our mothers sad on the most special night of the year, but didn’t question Mr. Swora for fear of having to take my place in front of the choir – and right beneath his dripping nose. 

Mr. Swora meticulously taught us the song line-by-line to make sure we understood the lyrics and to polish our diction so every syllable was pronounced with a perfect German accent.  Every week he would remind us that our Christmas Eve performance was much anticipated by the whole church, but all I could picture in my mind was a bunch of sobbing women, dabbing their eyes with tissues. 

By mid-December, we were ready to practice on the altar.  Being one of the youngest, I stood in front and sang my heart out to the empty pews.  “That’s just wonderful!” Mr. Swora beamed after we sang it twice for good measure.  “You will be the hit of the Christmas Eve service.”

On the night of our final performance, Mr. Swora silently invited the children’s choir to the altar, then gave us wink and a smile.  The sanctuary was dark, except for candles lit behind us and in the hands of the congregation as they sat in quiet anticipation.  Tapping his baton on the podium, Mr. Swora nodded to the pianist who softly played the introduction.  I looked at the people staring at us, their eyes shining in the candlelight, and waited for the waterworks to begin. 

Sure enough, by the last strains of “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh” I saw many adults wiping away tears.  But they were smiling, too, and that didn’t make any sense.  How could you be both happy and sad at the same time?  It would take years before I could understand that tears represent a host of emotions…and that Christmastime often stirs us all to experience more than we bargain for. 

This year especially. 

Christmas Eve holds a magic all of its own.  For me it’s a time of quiet reflection and relaxation after all the holiday work has been done.  Every year I spend this evening in meditation, in silence, in stillness…in anticipation of the light yet to come. 

This season, my mind often wanders to that Christmas Eve long ago, when I stood in wonder at the power of children’s voices singing so beautifully in another language that it moved our mothers to tears.  The tears we shed this year are more than sentimental.  At best they’re bittersweet, but I imagine the collective grief we feel for our world leaves us feeling as though we have to learn a new language in order to understand it all.  And for many, there are no words to describe our sorrow.

In the silence of this night, may you and your family and circle of friends be surrounded by peace.  May you know you are loved and held close in my thoughts.  May we all awaken from this darkness and create new light. 

May you all be blessed.

 

 


 

 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Lace Makers - Chapter 2 - Karin

Karin

 

At four o'clock in the morning Aufseherin Grese kicks my bunk.  I struggle to get up quickly because when I don't wake fast enough, she hits the bottoms of my feet with her baton so bruises won't show on my body.  Kapitan Dieter would beat her if she left a mark that he could see, but he doesn't seem to take notice when I hobble around for days with swollen feet. 

"Number 811993, get up!" Grese growls.  "Kapitan Dieter wants you!  NOW!"  She sharply pokes me in the ribs and shines a flashlight in my eyes.  I hate her...everyone does...and not only because she smiles when she thrashes one of us for not moving faster.  For not washing thoroughly. 

For still being alive.

Kapitan Dieter always calls for me before Appellplatz where I must stand and be counted, sometimes waiting for hours to make sure all of the calculations are correct.  The dead must be accounted for, the bodies hauled from the barracks by unlucky prisoners while I wait in agony.  But this morning I'm not sure what will happen, if we will have to meet for roll call or not.  There's been gunfire in the distance, and everything is different since the S.S. ordered most of the prisoners to be evacuated, since the officers started packing their belongings, rushing around the camp yelling, "Schnell!  Schnell!"

Faster, faster. 

Even the executions are done hastily, then the bodies piled up near open pits or stacked in wagons.  For weeks the unholy flames of the crematorium never seem to stop and cannot keep up with the countless corpses littering the camp. 

When Grese pokes me once more, I rub my eyes and rise to my feet, careful not to wake Simka, my friend who traveled with Mutti and me from Buchenwald a few months ago.  We share the bunk, one of the better ones that's lined with straw, yet filled with bugs.  Mutti says I'm lucky to have it.  Lucky to be near the door where I can breathe better air, unlike so many others crammed into their bunks where the air is dank and rotten and heavy. 

I don't sleep well anymore as I dream of steam whistles screaming in the distance that startle me awake.  I dream of boxcars crammed with too many men, women, and children all crying out for water, for bread, for air.  I have nightmares in which spruce and pine trees are set afire, their elongated branches bursting into flames so the endless piles of corpses can keep burning.  I used to love the scent of the forest, but now the sweet smell of evergreen will be forever tangled with the odor of death.

Before Grese can stomp on my feet, I quickly shove them into a pair of worn-out wooden shoes and follow her out of the barracks.  I don't say a word, don't make a sound as we pass the piles of corpses, left to rot in the open air.  I pretend I'm walking past vegetables harvested from Mutti's vegetable garden, that the corpses rotting on the earth are piles of corn she will soon grind into flour. 

The stench is unbearable.  The sight, even more so.  I no longer remember the smell of clean air as the cloying odor of burning flesh remains lodged in my throat, smothering me with a relentless warning.  I know that with one swift decision, my life could also be snuffed out.  Every night, I close my eyes and say to myself, If God wills it, I will wake again tomorrow.  But I don't know what is the real nightmare...what I see in my dreams or what I experience upon waking. 

As we pass the Appellplatz, corpses still hang in the gallows - a warning to us all about the dangers of escape.  Leah's body swings from the rope and I remember what she had told me last week...that she would rather die trying to escape than die waiting for the war to end.  But death is an every day occurrence here and my mind has become as tough as shoe leather so I can bear it.

When we reach the disinfection building, I strip, then stand in the scalding shower, my raw skin all but numb to the the hot water which feels like sharp pins and needles.  I gag as Grese throws a cup of delousing powder on my head which stings my eyes and mouth.

"WASCH DU!  SCHNELLER!  SCHNELLER!" she shrieks. 

Wash...faster...faster!

Frantically, I rinse my legs and arms, scrubbing harder at the tattoo on my left arm.  It should have been six numbers long, but the S.S. officer took pity on me when my mother shouted,  "Wir sind Deutsch Christen!  Deutsch Frauen!  Meine Schwester is Deutsch!""

We are German Christians...German women.  My sister is German!

Mutti lied when we arrived at Auschwitz.  She knew we would be separated if the S.S. thought she was my mother, so she told the guard we were sisters and he let her live, let her walk with me to a room where we were ordered to strip naked and shower, let her watch as a guard laughed while shaving my head and body, then endured the same humiliation herself before we were taken to be tattooed. 

The S.S. who had a death grip on my arm put down the needle, then shoved me out the door, but I was left with 811 inked in bluish gray over the triangle of freckles near my wrist.  Now I will never again be simply Karin Vogel, my mother's oldest child.  Even if I do survive this war, there will always be a truncated number to remind me of what I've become.

There's no towel to dry myself, so I quickly throw a thin dress over my head, then tie a kerchief around my head, thankful for even that bit of warmth.  The wooden shoes rub layers of blisters on my heels and toes.  I can't walk properly in them, so trying to get from the barrack to the workhouse or the Appellplatz or Kapitan Dieter's room is hell on earth.  It's been an uncommonly frigid winter, and even though I work making lace near a cast iron stove, I'm never warm enough.  I'm never full enough, though I eat more than most because Kapitan Dieter is an important man and always gets what he wants.  He doesn't want me to be skinny and dirty like so many of the poor girls in the camp left to rot and die in their own filth. 

I don't speak in his presence, but I know his name - Herman.  And I know I'm nothing more than his prostitute because he tells me, "Your payment is you get to live."

I'm supposed to feel grateful, but I don't know why I've survived for years while so many others have died.  Perhaps now I won't live that much longer either.

Mutti says I have to.  She says I have to do whatever the guards want.  Whatever Kapitan Dieter wants.  Whatever Kommandant Kramer wants.  Whatever Grese wants.  I have to do what they say in order to stay alive so I can bring more food to Simka. 

"You're young and pretty, and that's what they all want," Mutti once told me. 

So I lie in Herman's bed, a hollow shell, all the while staring at the wall or the ceiling or the knobs on the small glass cupboard that's filled with cans of evaporated milk and chocolates and creamy caramels...the one Herman said I must never touch.  I know he wouldn't hesitate to shoot me with the pistol he keeps strapped to his leg.  I've seen him use it more than once, and he's deadly when he's angry and drunk. 

"You can take bread and cheese from the trunk," Herman told me the first time I was ordered to his room.  "But if you touch that cabinet, you'll be dead before you can turn around." 

Herman digusts me, yet I owe him for saving Mutti's life and my own.  Often in the middle of what he does to me I think, How can a man be both a sadist and a savior?

 

This morning, Herman is quick about it, his tight, angry body all at once on top of me and then not.  He doesn't make me sing before or after, neither does he mock me by calling me his little songbird.  I stare at the calendar on the wall while Herman gets dressed and wonder why the compound is so busy at this hour.  The living are made to carry corpses for burial or burning while the S.S. rush here and there, yelling at each other to be prepared for the end.

The end of what?  I think.  The war?  This camp?  The end of our misery or the end of our lives?

“I’ve been good to you, 811993...Karin,” Herman says as he buttons his coat.  “You will say how good I’ve been to you, yes?”

I frown.  He's never called me by my name and I'm surprised he even knows it...or cares to.

“I’ve never beat you or hurt you,” Herman insists.  “I let you take extra food whenever you wanted it.  I protected you from the other prisoners.  I saved you and your sister from the gas.”

I nod, my eyes swollen with shameful tears.

He knots his tie.  “So if anyone asks, you will tell them I am a good man, won't you?”

Why is he asking this? I wonder.  No one in power asks me anything.  Not who I am.  Not what I want. 

When I say nothing, Herman comes to the bed where I sit pulling my dress over my head.  He kneels, then gently strokes my face.  “I’ve always been good to you.”  He kisses my forehead, then whispers my name.

I cringe and curl away from him, but Herman presses his warm, damp lips to my ear.  “Remember what I said," he says.  "If you tell anyone about what happens in this room, I can't be responsible for what happens to you.”

I look at the floor and nod my head in compliance.

“Good girl,” Herman says, rising.  Then he struts out the door as if he has won the silent war between us. 

 

A gray light gradually fills the room where I've been making lace for more than three hours...waiting for orders from the guards.  For almost four months I've spent eight hours a day, six days a week knitting hats and mittens and scarves.  I knit cable-knit sweaters and woolen socks.  I knit yards and yards of lace that are sewn into curtains and sent to all corners of Germany where the S.S. live in luxury while those of us slaving in the camps can barely remember what our parents' faces look like.

I shiver in my threadbare dress and wonder, How many girls wore this rag before me?  Are they all dead?  Will I be soon?  My shawl slips to the back of chair, and as I pull it up over my shoulders, I study the other women's faces as we endure the harsh silence of this cold, dank room, our knitting needles clicking and clacking while we do our duty for the Fuhrer.  They've all become shadows of their former selves...and I know I have as well.

Simka sniffs and wipes her nose.  Dark circles shadow her eyes as she pushes a curl behind her ear.  Kapitan Dieter let all of us grow our hair back so we would look more presentable.  He says women in his service are to look like women, and yet my breasts and curves aren't like Simka's.  We've only been here since January, but the food her friend, Vitya, steals from the kitchen and the bread I bring from Kapitan Dieter's room keep her healthier than the rest of us.  Even though I long to taste the sweet yams and mashed potatoes Vitya smuggles to her in little tin cans, I cannot ask Simka for even one bite.   

The baby hidden inside of her needs it more than I do.

Still, my gnawing hunger never goes away.  When we were in Auschwitz, my mother used to slip me her bread before the guards could see.  Before any one else could grab it out of my hands and shove into their eager mouth.  If there were a stray pea at the bottom of her soup bowl, Mutti would press it into my palm and beg me to swallow it.  "Eat, Karin.  Survive, Karin.  Live one more day.  Then live another.  One day when we are liberated, we will remember what we saw here and tell others so that this madness will never happen again."

Now Simka winces, holding her stomach, and I'm afraid of what will happen when the pain gets worse.  I've seen what the S.S. do to people who can't work, who show any type of weakness.  I try to forget as I mindlessly work the yarn back and forth.  My hands ache, but the bony knuckles and tissue-paper skin toil until I can no longer feel my joints.  Instinctively, I work the needles back and forth in a rhythm that still has the power to calm me, even now when everything is so uncertain.

I think back to more than ten years ago when Mutti taught me how to knit.  At that time, everyone was worried about the uprising of the Nazi Party.  In 1935, work was scarce.  Money even more so.  It was cheaper to light the stove with the paper money my father had hidden in his fishing tackle box than to use it to buy kindling.  Vati worked hard at the theater he owned with his friend, Herr Zweig, whom he had known since the Great War.

Herr and Frau Zweig had three boys of their own, Heinrich, who was my age, Georg, who was seven, and Fritz, who was only three.  They usually visited on Sundays after we came home from church.  The Zweigs went to Temple on Saturdays, so they arrived with a nice brisket or a basket of freshly baked apple dumplings while we were changing out of our good clothes.

My parents visted with Herr  and Frau Zweig while I played tag in our backyard with Heinrich and Georg.  Fritz preferred to hunt for worms, bugs, and other dirty things in Mutti's garden.  She gave him a small trowel and a metal pail, saying, "Just make sure you don't harm my vegetables."

In the evening all of us went to the theater for an evening of Volkslieder...folk songs.  Vati invited a host of people from the neighborhood and welcomed them warmly at the door.  Mutti played the piano, Frau Zweig the violin, and I would lead everyone in song. 

Vati especially loved to hear me sing "In stiller Nacht" to end the evening.  Tears filled his eyes, and like Mutti who loves twilight, he was carried away into the imminent darkness of the words, the sorrow in the lyrics that foretold what our lives would soon become.

 

In the quiet night, at the first watch,

a voice began to lament; sweetly, gently,

the night wind carried to me its sound.

And from such bitter sorrow and grief

my heart has melted.

The little flowers - with my pure tears -

I have watered them all.

 

Back then, Mutti was expecting a baby.  My brother, Jurgen, was tucked inside her belly and I loved to feel his little hands and feet kick and punch through Mutti's dress.  I sang Guten Abend, Gute Nacht to him, leaning against our mother's side, rubbing the little knobs and bumps of his elbows and knees.

When Mutti saw how much I loved Jurgen, even before he was born, she gave me a ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles, saying, "Karin, let's make something for our baby." 

For years I had sat by Mutti, watching her create intricate pieces of lace which filled our modest home with lovely tablecloths, placemats, and doilies.  Several delicate shawls hung on a peg near the door so Mutti and I could wrap one around our shoulders when we walked into the garden at sunset.  My favorite was a Queen Anne's Lace pattern interwoven with open stitching that Mutti had created all by herself. 

So I was overjoyed when she placed the polished rosewood needles in my hands.  First she taught me how to cast on, then how to knit and purl.  After that I learned how to make little hats and booties.  Next came a simple sweater for Vati.  Then a pair of socks for my baby brother.  By the time Jurgen was two, I asked Mutti to teach me how to make lace.  Under her gentle guidance, I learned how to yarn over and knit two together.  To pick up stitches and create tiny hearts and leaves and shells. 

Mutti marveled at how quickly I garnered the skill.  "Wie deine Gesangstalent, deines Stricken ist auch ein Geschenk," she said proudly. 

Like your singing talent, your knitting is also a gift.

Now this gift is saving my life...and Mutti's as well...such as it is.  But I know that without her, I won't survive either.

So I make lace like my mother taught me, and with every stitch, with every row, I weave in the memory of those who are gone forever.  A stitch for Olga.  One for Anne and Mary and Elisabet.  A stitch for the woman who died of typhus in the bunk above me two days ago.  A whole row for Frau Daiga and her daughter.  Rows and rows for the Zweig family who perished long before I came to this place.

Countless stitches for my father and Jurgen.

And always...every stitch for Bruno.


The Lace Makers - Chapter 1 - Emerald

Emerald

 

The sun peeping over the old barn where I hear the cow moaning to get milked.  The air sharp like little pins and needles where my arms be peeking out from my shawl.  I watch the sky turning the color a egg yolks Mama like to break jest to watch 'em get runny.  She do that sometimes.  Break them egg yolks for Massa and keep on frying 'em 'til they hard as shoe leather. 

He don't say nothing.  Jest gobble 'em up like they be the best thing he ever et.  Sometime Massa even say, "Lord, Ruby...these eggs are truly delicious." 

He know to keep his mouth shut 'round Mama 'bout eggs and such.  He the Massa and all, but he owe my mama a lot.  He owe her a husband.  He owe me my daddy.

Massa done gambled Daddy away in a poker game two year ago.  He told a mean old man that 'stead a paying him money, that man could take any one a his slaves.  My sisters and me was scared out our minds...'fraid one a us gone be chained to his wagon and made to stumble 'hind like a dern mule as Mister Rotten drove back to his plantation. 

They older than me...my sisters, Pearl and Opal.  When my daddy got taken away, I was only six.  They was fourteen and twelve back then.  Big girls.  Now they has husbands and Pearl having a baby a her own come summertime.  Opal say a baby coming over her dead body, but I don't know what that mean.  She gone kill herself when the baby come?  Or she not want any babies at all?  I hear some slaves kill they own babies, but I cain't imagine my mama doing such a thing 'cause she loves me like a bird loves to fly.

I know I don't want no babies a my own 'cause I know they ain't gone be mine anyway.  Anything we got, it be Massa’s first.

When I tell Opal that, she say, "Emmie, you is smart!  I chew my cotton root ever day since Hale and me jumped the broom and you ain't gone find no baby in my belly, no suh.  Hale and me say that when we be free, we can has babies then."

I has no idea 'bout what it mean to be free 'cause I been a slave ever since I took my first breath.  Since Mama put knitting needles in my hands when I was only three and say, "Play with 'em, Emerald, and soon you be making hats for Massa's chil'ren."  Mama say she done teach me how to sew and make lace and all them fancy things so I can stay with her in the big house, not like my sisters who gots to work in the fields and such.  I's lucky 'cause I get to be with Mama always...and that jest the way I like it.

My sisters called Pearl and Opal and I called Emerald 'cause Daddy say he got him a bunch a precious jewels living under his roof, such as it be.  Plus my eyes be green and that how I got my name ‘cause they look like that pretty stone Missus wear on her ring finger.  Mama don’t have green eyes and neither did Daddy. 

But Massa do. 

I figure I gone be his slave 'til the day I die...or 'til he do.  But Opal say the war that raging all over the country 'bout setting us all free, that one day, they ain't gone be no more slaves.

What gone happen then?  Will I get taken from Mama...or she from me?  What from I already done seen, they ain't no telling.

 

Two year ago, Pearl and Opal was standing near the barn when that mean man, Mister Rotten, stumble toward the place where my daddy do his work.  Mister Rotten not be his real name, but I's naughty and call him that under my breath whenever he come on Massa's land.  His real name be Mister Birch like them trees growing in the back a our shack.  But the only thing white 'bout Mister Rotten be his skin 'cause his words be black as tar and his soul be dark as the bottom of the well where I pull up buckets a water to tote to the big house. 

 When Mister Rotten went past the folks in the yard, I heard him yelling, "You niggers get back to work!"  He and Massa was drunk as skunks.  I could tell by the way they was walking, and ain't nothing good ever come when Massa be drinking.

Daddy look up from the anvil where he been banging on a piece a iron.  He be the best horseshoe maker in the county.  Or least he was.  Now he dead, so I 'magine him in heaven doing God's bidding. 

Mama was in the house with me on that horrible day.  She been cooking supper while I sat knitting at the table near the open window so I could hear what was going on outside.  Mama always say I has a gift from the Father God Almighty.  She tell me I make lace an angel be proud to wear.  When she say that, I feel my chest puff up and my heart grow wings.

But not on the day Daddy got taken away from me. 

Mister Rotten pointed his shaky finger toward the barn.  "That buck's uglier than sin," he snarled.  "But he'll do just fine."

Mama knew something bad gone happen, and she always been right 'bout things like that. "You has the gift a lace-making, Emerald," she told me one time.  "But you also has the gift a insight, jest like I has it and my mama and her mama 'fore her."

"What insight?" I asked.

"Knowing when things gone happen," Mama said.  "Like a prophecy."

I looked at her like I still confuse. 

"Don't worry, baby girl," Mama told me.  "You gone learn how it feel soon enough."

And ain't it the truth if I do. 

When Mama ran to the barn after Massa and Mister Rotten, I felt a little cornbread I jest et start to curl up in my stomach and fix to pop right back out.  It didn't though,  jest ride up my throat a little, but I swallowed it back down. 

"Massa Sam!" Mama cried, running like her feet on fire.  "Please Massa Sam...please don't let him take my babies!" 

By the time she reached Massa, she was shaking 'cause she so upset.  Angry and scared both, and I ain't never seen her like that 'fore.  I stood in the doorway a the kitchen, my heart banging in my chest, but I couldn't move 'cause my feets felt like they was nailed to the floor.

Mama pulled on Massa's sleeve, crying, "Please Sam...don't give him my Pearl or Opal!  I begging you!  I do anything you want.  Please!"

Massa looked at Mama and a strange look crossed his face.  He ain't never hit none a us.  Run a clean plantation where the slaves be happy to work -- or at least that how he tell it.  He be the boss, the overseer, and the owner all in one.  Not like some a them plantations we hear 'bout from Earle, the slave who sometime ride along with Mister Rotten when they make deliveries to the big house.  Earle say some slaves get whipped.  Some get hung 'til they nearly dead.  Some get sold to places far away from Lincoln County, Tennessee.

But Massa ain't never been mean to none a us...least not that I seen.  When he been drinking, it always be Missus he take his anger out on and I feel right sorry for her.  But when Mama beg Massa, I knowed she done embarrass him in front a Mister Rotten. 

Maybe he gone hit her now, I thought. 

But I ain't never seen no whipping on Settler's Plantation.  No hanging neither.  There been slaves living here since Massa Settler's daddy built this place fifty year ago.  Long 'fore I was born, and ain't nobody ever tell Massa what to do. 

'Til now.

When Mama thought Pearl and Opal gone be taken away, she screeched like the devil and pulled on Massa's sleeve.  She screamed.  She cried.  She begged something fierce.

"You got yerself one righteous nigger, Samuel," Mister Rotten said, his voice all mean-like.  "But I do like a spitfire...maybe I'll change my mind about that buck."

It then I think Mister Rotton gone take my Mama, so I ran to her side and grabbed her skirt, holding on tight.  "Mama," I cried.  "Don't let them take you away!"

Massa looked at Mama and his eyes be wet with tears.  "You and your girls aren't going anywhere, Ruby.  You have my word."

Mama fell at his feet, taking me right on with her.  "Thank You, Jesus," she wailed.  "Thank you, Sam!"

But when she dried her eyes enough to look up, she see my daddy be talking to Massa and Mister Rotten.  Daddy's eyes was filling up.  He bit his lip.  His shoulders shook. 

"Mas-sa," I heard him say, the word sticking in his throat.  "Massa...please don't do this...I do anything you want.  I do anything.  Work like a dog all winter long.  You can hire me out to Massa Birch here...I go to his place to work and then come back and be with Ruby and my chil'ren."

Massa Settler shook his head, and I knowed this be the end, and I ain't never gone see my Daddy again.  By the way Massa looked at Mama, I knowed he feel he gone owe us plenty for what he jest done.

Daddy didn't fight.  He didn't do nothing but hug Mama.  Hug Pearl.  Hug Opal.  Hug me.

He whispered in my ear, "Baby girl, you and I gone see each other 'gain.  We is...I promise.  I gone get free and we all going up north once this war be done.  I gone come back for all ya."

I didn't say nothing, jest let my tears fall while I hugged my daddy like I was trying to memorize the way he feel.  His face was covered in stubbly hair.  His muscles was tight.  His skin soaked in sweat.  He been working hard, but I know this sweat was from fear.  Back then, I was too young to know what of, but I learned right quick.

Daddy tried to get free too soon.

He run off once and get his back whipped something awful. 

He run off again and get hung from a rope 'til his tongue turned black. 

The third time he tried to run and come back to us, Mister Rotten said he done had enough a my daddy and hang him 'til he dead.  Ever day since then, I's scared he gone come back and take Mama, too.

But Earle say now Daddy in heaven watching over us every day.  "Him and Jesus both," he told me while he be drying my eyes.  "They ain't gone let nothing bad happen to you or your sweet mama."

Poor Earle got whipped for crying when Mister Rotten kilt my daddy.  I heard it right from the dern horse's mouth 'cause Mister Rotten brag 'bout it to Massa.  He say any slave who spill a tear for another one deserve to suffer a little, too.

I know Mister Rotten be the devil right here on earth and he gone suffer plenty on the other side when hell be the only place wicked enough to hold him.

 

Now the sun rise higher over the barn and I hear a shrill train whistle in the distance.  Shivering in my shawl, I head to the big house where Mama be waiting on me to help cook breakfast.  It be early April, or so Missus Settler say.  She oughta know.  Got her nose stuck in books and calendars all day long. 

Missus teach me all kinds a things.  Like I know it be the day after Palm Sunday, and that be the celebration of Lord Jesus when He come to Jerusalem and all a them folks be waving palm branches and yelling stuff like, "Hosanna!" and "Blessed is He who come in the name of the Lord." 

I read all 'bout that in Massa's big Bible.

I can read and write good as his kids, even though that against the law.  Missus Settler could get in a heap a trouble if anyone find out, so I keep my mouth shut and my eyes busy whenever she hand me a book. Massa and Missus' kids, Little Sam and Marybelle, be 'round the same age as me, and we all learn together.  Marybelle be better at learning figures, but Little Sam and me be quick as lightning with new words.

Missus nice to me and all, but I know my place in the order a things 'round here.  Ever time I finish my lessons, Missus say, "Now Emerald, please go fetch me a cup of tea." 

She ain't never ask her kids to do nothing but put they books back on the shelf 'fore they go outside to play.  Mama say I may be Missus Settler's student, but I always gone be her slave first.  No matter how smart I is, I still gone be colored 'til the day I die. 

But then Mama say not to worry 'bout such things.  "You cain't change nobody's mind but your own," she tell me.  "So keep reading and learning so you can keep on changing for the better."

So I do.

Jest last night I finish the second McGuffey Reader. I read all 'bout Jimmy getting up in the morning.  The sun is just peeping up over the hills in the east, it say.  I memorize them words so I can repeat 'em back to myself while I knit or sew or dust or sweep.  Never forget, before you leave your room, to thank God for His kindness.  He is indeed kinder to us than any earthy parent.

This morning as the sun be rising, I say my prayers and thank the Lord for all the things I love.  Mama and my sisters.  My lace making and reading and all the things I be learning.  And like always, I thank Him for it being one day closer to when I gone see my daddy.

Then I walk to the kitchen where I know Mama gone be breaking Massa's egg yolks and he gone be eating 'em like they fit for God Hisself.



Thursday, May 7, 2020

Write on!


Originally published in December, 2013

            When I was a teacher at Greenwood Elementary School in the nineties, I was blessed to have worked for an incredible principal, Mr. George Baker.  A consummate professional in every sense of the word, there was nothing Mr. Baker would ask of his staff that he was not willing to do (or had already done) himself.  I only just realized I've known him for more than half of my life.  Mr. Baker's undeniable strength of character has been the measuring stick for what I could experience in a work situation, and since he retired and I moved on from the classroom, there has been no one in my life quite like him.
            Mr. Baker was darn near perfect....except for one little thing:  his handwriting was nearly illegible for most of the staff.  But not for me. Every morning when I arrived at Greenwood and checked in at the office, there was a hand-written morning message from Mr. Baker that let us know the news of the day.  More often than not, I was called back to the office to decipher Mr. Baker's seemingly-encrypted code.  And every time, I was able to do so with ease.
            "I teach first grade," I once said to someone.  "I'm used to wobbly letters and having to get into the right side of my brain to understand what he's trying to say."
           
            There's a box in my basement filled with cards and letters, pictures and stories written by my students during the eleven years I spent teaching little ones.  I have saved letters from parents and even a "welcome to our family" adoption certificate from one of my favorite first graders who signed his name in beautiful script.  What a joy and a gift to lift the lid and revisit happy memories.  To read the invented spelling.  To remember the gap-toothed smiles when each child presented me with his/her creation.
            How sad it is to hear that schools no longer have the time to teach handwriting skills, as teachers must comply with the demands of testing and ever-changing concepts of how children learn best.  Make no mistake....I value the speed and ease of email.  I learned how to type when I was in second grade and oh, what a joy to BANG, BANG, BANG on that old Smith Corona!  When I learned how to use a word processor, I felt like a bird being released from a cage.  What a freedom to finally have a tool that could keep up with the speed of words that passed through my imagination.
            Still, I journal by hand as well as compose thank you notes and cards I send through snail mail.  Writing this way not only slows me down, it allows me to personalize a gift, a gesture of goodwill, a kindness with something that is uniquely my own.  
            When my grandmother died, my mom gave me a stack of letters all tied up with a ribbon.  "We found this in Grammy's desk drawer, Kate," she said.
            There in my hands was every single letter I had ever written her...from the early 1970's through my college years and beyond.  I brought them home and then, after pulling out a stack of all the letters and cards she had written me, I put them in order by the postmark and spent a bittersweet weekend reading about her life...my life...and all that two lives can experience over the course of a few decades. 
           
            Just yesterday I received a Christmas card from Mr. Baker in which he wrote a very kind and sweet personal note.  Even now...twenty-odd years later, I could still read every single word.  For you see, as a writer myself, I intrinsically know the power of the pen (and pencil and crayon) which often express what speaking cannot. 
            No matter how it arrives in my hands...it always goes straight to my heart.