Category Archives: Memphis

A New Year Begins

Like many women of a certain age, I’ve had a few past lives. When we lived in Memphis I organized a non-profit literacy program focusing on creative writing. It was called WriteMemphis. We had 27 volunteers working with inner-city teen girls in several Memphis locations. These young writers created awesome poetry and prose about their lives in Memphis – from the strong women in their lives to gunshots through the front door to becoming teen mothers. When I left Memphis in 2014 I gave the program to Literacy Mid-South, which was a natural fit for the life-changing work they do.

Fast forward to where I am today. New Orleans. New business. New home. New life.

I miss writing. I really do. Even though I love the work I do every day in our shop I miss the creative energy of word to page. I have resolved to make more time for writing in 2017. And in celebration of that promise to myself, I want to share exciting news! One of my essays is included in a new anthology (slated for March publication) edited by my friend Susan Cushman,  A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be.

A Second Blooming includes work by fabulous writers – Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Beth Ann Fennelly, and my friends Ellen Prewitt, Susan Marquez and Nancy-Kay Wessman – twenty-one in all! I am in awe of these fabulous women and I am honored to be among them. Readings and signings are scheduled in Memphis TN,  Jackson MS and soon in my home city of New Orleans.  I’m so excited I’ll let the world know when that will be! Here’s the catalog page from Mercer Press:asb-mup-catalog-page

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House Just Gone

I drive by Georgia’s family’s house today. And it’s not there. Nothing. It has been bulldozed down, and the lot cleaned up, as if the house never existed, as if Georgia and her family never existed. I eased my window down and asked a neighbor, who was out picking up trash in her yard: What happened?

I don’t know, one day they’s there and the next day they’s gone. Then the house just gone. Don’t know where they gone to. Thank you very much. I drive on, thinking about the bizarreness of the entire sight.

About a year ago, Georgia, at the cajoling of her friends, joined a neighborhood writing group that I facilitated. She was fourteen years old. Too young, I thought. The other girls were fifteen and sixteen. When I found that Georgia was pregnant, I changed my mind. Does having sex make you mature enough to process your thoughts into words of fiction, or even truth? I asked. Of course, said the girls. I invited Georgia to stay.

Have you been to the doctor? I ask Georgia. No. Ain’t got no way. So I take her to the clinic at The Med. Georgia goes to the counter to check in. I stand quietly behind her overhearing the conversation. Georgia turns to make a phone call, then hangs up and looks at me with tears in her eyes. I need $40. They say they won’t take me without me paying $40.

Here. I’ll pay the $40. Do you take credit cards? So this is all she will have to pay, then she’s covered by Medicaid?

Yes. All is covered. Except the $40. So I wait, and wonder how many young pregnant women decide not to seek medical help because they don’t have $40. No wonder that Memphis has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation.

Georgia emerges from the hallway, and she has seen the doctor who confirms the pregnancy and gives her the necessary prenatal exam and vitamins and tells her it’s a girl.

We’re happy it’s a girl, because Georgia knows what to do with a girl. She is the oldest of the four sisters in her family and has cared for the other three since she was ten or so, when the youngest, now five years old, was in diapers. I think that Georgia’s baby will have an Aunt who is only five years older than she is.

Over the months of her pregnancy Georgia continues coming to the group. We write poetry and she focuses continually on her baby and her dreams for her baby having a better life than she has. We write essays on our families and Georgia writes about her family and how angry her mother is, how bad her home life is, and how discouraged she is about ever having a better life.

But somehow underneath the sadness, there is a hope in Georgia, a Pollyannish attitude that tomorrow will be better than today. If only I marry my baby daddy I can live a life on Easy Street.

Georgia calls me every time for the doctor appointment. We go to the Health Center. Everything is going fine, baby is healthy, Georgia is healthy.

My phone rings at 10pm one night in January. Come quick, I’m in labor. Mama’s at work. Contractions are five minutes apart. I truck Georgia to The Med. Georgia seems to have no problem. No, the labor does not really hurt, she says. I wait, holding her hand, until her mother arrives. Georgia gives birth just after midnight. A Casearean Section, because the baby is big, around eight pounds, and because of Georgia’s young age. A healthy baby girl. Cute, with lots of black curly hair. At last I go home to sleep.

Two days later Georgia calls. Can you come get me and my baby Sara? Of course. I have a car seat. They give me one here at The Med. I be ready to go about 2pm this afternoon.

I carry baby Sara, as Georgia shuffles, somewhat in pain, to my car. She slides in the passenger seat with the help of a hospital assistant while I figure out how to buckle the car seat with tiny little Sara in the back. Done.

Four days later I get a call. Can you come get us? I have to take Sara to The Med to be certified for WIC and they said to come back today. Yes. I’ll be there in two hours.

We truck up to The Med. I let Georgia out (she’s still sore she says) and carry little Sara in the car seat inside and settle them both on a bench while I go and park a block away. They wait.

Georgia knows exactly where to go. I carry little six-day-old Sara in the car seat. Georgia has all her paperwork and answers the caseworker’s questions. She has a folder with everything inside. I am amazed that at fourteen she is very mature to have planned this through, and to have every document that the caseworker asks for. I retreat to the waiting room carrying the carseat with sleeping Sara.

I look into the infant’s face. Her forehead is wrinkled as if to ask what in the world are you doing here? She can’t focus yet, I tell myself. She does not know I’m some strange white woman. It’s the bright lights. I look around and I’m the only white person in the room, until a young tattooed couple come in, looking lost. But they’re in the right place. Her belly bulge gives her pregnancy away. They look maybe fifteen.

Unbuckling little Sara, I lift her out, her lightness surprising me. I cuddle her next to my neck and notice the smell of baby powder and sour milk and I smile, remembering. She squenches up her little body and yawns. I enjoy holding her.

Georgia comes out, papers in hand, holding a sack of sample formulas and such. Down we go to the first floor, where I settle them again on a bench while I retrieve my car.

I ask Georgia questions about the visit, if she needs anything. Any formula? Naw, I breastfeed. She don’t need no formula. My Auntee says give her sugar water some, so I do that. Does she sleep good? She sleeps about two hours at a time. Got to get her to sleep through the night though. Where does she sleep? In bed with me and my sister. Georgia, we’ve got to get you a crib. Sara needs to sleep in a crib. It’s dangerous for her to sleep in bed with you two girls. One of you could roll over on her, I say.

I got a crib. My grandma give me one. But I like for her to sleep with me.

Georgia, I’m telling you it’s too dangerous. Rollover deaths of infants is very common. Listen to me now. I hear you. I’ll put her in the crib starting tonight. My sister been complaining that she can’t sleep no ways, so I’ll put her in the crib tonight. Good, I say, relieved.

Next day, Can you come and take me to the health center? My baby needs a checkup. She’s six days old.

We repeat the scene of going to The Med, but this time we go to the Orange Mound Health Center. I go inside, take a book with me, and wait and read. Young girls and babies come and go. Many fathers are with their wives and babies. I smile. At last Georgia comes out, we’re done, and we go home to her house. I unbuckle the carseat and lift it out of my car while Georgia grabs the medicines and papers. She unlocks the high chainlink gate and we enter the tiny front yard.

At once, 2 pit bulls bound from under the house, growling and barking and heading right for me and little Sara. I lift the carseat as high as I can and scream for Georgia to call off the dogs. The dogs grab my pants leg, while Georgia picks up an old boiling pot and creams the dog over the head. Both dogs run crying back to their shelter under the house. I step up the rickety steps and Georgia unlocks the door. We go inside.

The living room is sparsely furnished. A green naugahyde couch and loveseat are shoved against one wall. Boxes are stacked against another wall. There is no lamp, the overhead light is on and seems bright and too intrusive in such an economy of dwelling. A coffee table with a broken leg sits in the middle of the room. I sit the carseat on the table and it begins to slide off, and I catch it.

Thank you. You’re welcome Georgia. Any time. Remember the crib. Okay. I will.

What about those dogs? There’s the pot, just pick it up and they’ll leave you alone. I ease down the steps and take giant steps toward the gate, whoosh it open and close it fast. The dogs are sleeping under the steps. That’s the way it was.

The next week Georgia calls. She wants to come to the writing group and asks if I can come get her, and I do. Georgia writes that day about what her dream is for her baby. To have a better life than I have. That my mother will start doing right and that my sisters will have a better life and that I will finish school and get a good job for me and my baby. That my baby daddy love his daughter. 

The next week I stop to pick her up, but on that day, she was gone. On that day, house just gone.

The Paradox of a New Place: Geographic Change Influences Creativity

Jennifer

My daughter Jennifer and her family have recently moved to New Orleans. When my daughters were small we traveled down to New Orleans from Jackson, MS, occasionally. We would stroll around Jackson Square and Jennifer always said she wanted to sell paintings like the other artists who hung their wares on the iron fence across from Cafe du Monde.  Her entire life she’s wanted to be with the tarot card readers, the fortune tellers and the street musicians.

Jennifer and her husband have yearned for years to move to the Crescent City. Now they live in the inner-city in an old second-floor walkup with a claw-foot bathtub and window air conditioning units just a stone’s throw from the Maple Street Bookstore. He’s a chef. She’s always been an artist. But somehow since the move her work has gotten better, and she’s moved toward a more independent lifestyle.  They have four children, so life has always been a little chaotic and I’ve wondered how she manages to find time to paint and write while caring for a pre-schooler and an infant.  I know. You just do it. Now she’s part of a New Orleans Art Collective and is selling her artwork in the French Quarter. And working on illustrations for her first children’s book.
   
When my husband and I moved to Memphis four years ago (and yes, time has moved too fast), I took a self-imposed sabbatical of sorts to get to know my new hometown.  I visited Elmwood, the Memphis Botanic Garden, The Brooks, Civil Rights Museum, Stax, Soulsville, and dozens of other sites, and of course the riverfront.  I’ve watched many sunsets from Mud Island.  And I cannot count our visits to Shelby Farms, probably dozens and dozens. Each one of these visits has inspired me in many ways. I began to paint for the first time in my life. I’ve written more, created more, in this new place.

What struck me most about Memphis is its diversity.  I read letters to the editor in the newspaper from residents who complain about Memphis, then the next day there are letters of praise.  It’s never consistent one way or the other, and there seems to be no consensus. The feeling residents have about their hometown of Memphis is a deeply personal thing.

What I’ve noticed about geographic moves is that generally, if a person is relatively content, then they are content everywhere.  If they are unhappy, they’ll be unhappy where ever they go. If the person is hostile and lives in fear, then they will be hostile and fearful everywhere. We must have passion about what we do in life, and I believe it is within that that we find meaning. If we have no meaning in our lives we will not have much happiness and contentment. There is no person, place, job or thing that will give us permanent joy. Find meaning, and you’ll find your joy.  Life is like that.

Jennifer’s book, Hot Moon, is now published, and available on Amazon.com.