A Surprise Visit

As cousins living miles apart, Paul and I have a Facebook relationship that has become almost a daily occurrence. Our common denominator was his mother and my cherished Aunt Flippie who passed away a couple summers ago. When she was alive, Paul, his brother, and two sisters seemed somewhat puzzled by the attention Aunt Flippie bestowed on me. Her sister, my mother Grace, had died over thirty years ago, so Aunt Flippie appointed herself my maternal surrogate. She came to help me upon the birth of my second daughter after I experienced a difficult pregnancy. She always sent Christmas gifts to my girls, a bit late just as my mother would have done.
But once Aunt Flippie died, Paul reached out to me in a way that surprised me. Armed with a second cup of coffee and my Lab Rudy busied with a long-lasting chewy bone by my side, I recently perused Facebook. Cousin Paul is in a barbershop quartet. He is a short, round, pretty-faced man in his late sixties. His big, handsome smile almost precedes the rest of him when he appears in person or on screen. As I quickly scrolled my newsfeed that morning, I noticed a video of a performance that Paul was in. Tickled that he had shared it, I pressed the play arrow. It only took seconds for my heart to stop.
“You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips,” crooned the bass singer of the quartet as Paul smiled and swayed next to him.
Then it happened, “And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips,” Paul sang back in his sweet, tenor voice.
I was once again in the shed of our East Winslow, Maine farmhouse which smelled of dust, dirt, and the oil barrel that stood in one corner. And one more thing-cat shit. Even though my mother, armed with a broom, went after any cat she caught turning up in the dirt by that oil barrel; she couldn’t catch them all, and the scent lingered.
I had to hide by the kitchen door. My much older brother Wayne would get angry with me if he caught me spying on him. He was crouched at the top of the steps on the stairs that led up to a loft above the kitchen. An extension cord dangled down from there to a plug that powered his red and black record player. A stack of 45s was piled beside it, but Wayne played one record over and over again-the Righteous Brothers. Wayne was a tiny, pretty-faced teen with a beautiful tenor voice and a handsome smile. He never attempted the bass part of the song, but he would chime in enthusiastically with the tiny blonde Righteous Brother.
I could only watch that video once that morning. Wayne has been gone twenty-three years now, and I’ll be damned if I can even remember the title of that sixties classic that I heard all one summer so long ago.

“Jackknife Fred”

Second Post 10/2/2018 “Jackknife Fred”

This is an except from “Gracie and Albert” where Grace has just been asked by her psychiatrist at Augusta State Hospital if she ever had anyone care for her. Grace tells the doctor of the character who lived in a small shack behind her own humble home in Windsor, Maine in the 1930s:

Grace rustled in the chair she could have fit four of herself in. She looked out the window. She appeared to have no answer. Dr. Knowles noticed her file on the top of his desk. He grabbed it and started to thumb through it. Age had taught him to be patient. He didn’t want to scare this little creature into silence again. When he looked up from his paper, he noticed Grace was studying him with large, childlike, blue eyes. Her left cheek had a nasty, jagged scar. She immediately put her hand to her face and looked down.
They sat quietly for a few more minutes. “Had one person,” Grace said.
“Yes, can you tell me more?”
Grace looked out the window again and let out a small laugh. “Jackknife Fred. He cared about me.”
“Jackknife Fred? What a name!”
Silence filled the office as Grace peered out the window while occasionally glancing at the doctor. Then the story of her childhood friend began to pour out of her.
“Jackknife Fred lived in a shack behind our house in Windsor when I was a kid. Don’t know why he did. Our house weren’t much more ‘n his. I used to go around to the back of our house and run up the path to his abode and bug him.” Gracie suddenly grinned. “Jackknife and I both had scars, see. Jackknife Fred’s scar had always mystified me. It started at the left corner of his mouth, just missing the outer edge of his lips. It ran diagonally over his left cheek to the top of his neck, below his ear, and then shot immediately down toward his shoulder. Usually a shirt collar stopped the study of this fascinating mark, but this was different. Jackknife was busy digging a hole behind his shack one day when I startled him. His shirt lay in a heap behind him.
I said to him, ‘Hey, Jackknife! Lordy, I never realized that goddamned scar of yours went right down to almost your belly bottom! Heavens!’ I stood and admired the line on my favorite neighbor.
Jackknife wiped his face with his free hand and shook his head. ‘Jesus Christ, Miss Murray, you startled me half to death. Don’t you know better than to sneak up on a man like that? You might be sporting a scar yourself, by God.’
‘Already got me a scar, so there!’ I stuck out my left cheek to him with my tongue jammed in it to fully emphasize the mark.
‘So you do.’ Jackknife grinned back at me and rested on his shovel. ‘Can’t remember when that happened. Remind me.’
‘First off, call me Gracie.’
‘I may live in this old shack, but I do have manners. I’ll call you Gracie if I have your permission.’
‘You and me should be on a first name basis, Jackknife. We are good friends.’
‘All right, Gracie. Don’t be telling your mother about this friendship, though. Now what are you doing back here pestering the likes of me? You here to tell me about your scar?’
‘Jackknife, remember I got this scar a couple years ago when the Brann’s damned German Sheperd attacked me on one of my trips to get goat’s milk. ‘Member, I was eight. Ma couldn’t make enough milk for Ira John.’
‘Jesus, I do remember when you got mangled like that. Damned dog was a menace. So you come up here to talk about scars, did you?’
‘Oh, no. Ma says I have to find my father. Why, I don’t know. I certainly don’t miss him, but she seems to think she needs him for something. Jackknife, how did you get your scar? No one seems to know.’
‘How ’bout your old man?’
‘Shit on him,’ I told Jackknife. ‘Ma’s better off without him. Won’t you tell me about that there scar? Please?’
‘For heaven’s sake, child.’
‘Please, with molasses on it?’ I begged him.
Jackknife sat down on the pile of dirt he had created with his digging. I plunked down near him.
‘First things first, little girl. Your father got in a fight last night at a poker game at Chester Whyte’s. Last I saw him, he was sleeping off a few hard whacks to the head he received trying to cheat someone. Well, that and quite a bit of drink in Chester’s barn.’
‘Ayah, Jackknife. Sounds about right. But how ’bout that scar?’
‘I was doing something here, you know.’
‘Digging myself a hole for a new outhouse here.’
‘Most people just clean out the one they got.’
‘Well, Gracie, I ain’t most people,’ Jackknife says back to me.
‘Ma would agree with you on that!’
‘Oh, yeah? Just what does she say about me now?’
‘Ain’t pretty, Jackknife.’
‘Do tell. Tell me anyway, young ‘un.’
‘Ma calls you a foul-mouthed, shady, poker-playing bastard.’
Jackknife Fred looked at the ground then and said, ‘Really?’
‘With a heart of gold, though. Unlike the poker-playing son of a bitch of a drunk she up and married. He takes off for days and don’t worry about us starving or freezing to death. She appreciates you bringing firewood and meat, even if it just be squirrel at times.’ I grinned at him.
A smile broke out across Jackknife’s face. ‘Lord, Gracie, you’re spending way too much time with folks like me. No amount of soap could wash out that mouth of yours!’
‘Don’t care none. You gonna tell me ’bout that scar, or not? That little Christer of a brother of mine is gonna wake up soon from his nap and give Ma trouble. You know Ira John. I don’t have all day.’
‘Then you best off scoot right now to help with Ira John, Missy.’ Jackknife stood back up and fussed with his shovel.
‘Why won’t you tell me?’
‘The story of this here damned scar, Gracie, takes a good hour to tell decently.’
‘Can I come back tomorrow and have you tell it to me?’
‘If I’m here, I’ll gladly tell you.’
‘Promise? Is it the very reason for your name?’
‘Tomorrow, Gracie. I think I hear a commotion coming from your way. Maybe you best get along and let a man finish the work he done cut out for hisself.’
I turned and started down the dirt path to my house but then stopped and looked back. ‘You’ll be seeing me tomorrow, Jackknife.’
‘Okay, little one. Don’t forget to tell your mother about your old man now.’
‘Christ, Jackknife, let’s hope he turns into Rip Van Winkle and gives us a good break without him.'”

“But he didn’t. He came home and wreaked his usual havoc in our house. Ira John and I hid under my bed while he had at my mother. Think he passed out that particular time before he could do her too much harm.” Gracie whispered this last line to Doctor Knowles. She suddenly looked embarrassed and started playing with the tie around her waist.
“What a story teller you are!” Dr. Knowles leaned back in his chair. “Do you know what happened to this Jackknife?”
“Nope. Couple years later Ma took really sick, and my little brother and I were taken by relatives. Well, he was snatched up, and I was passed around to whoever would take me. I asked a couple times about Jackknife, but no one thought I should worry about the likes of him.”

“Writing a Memoir”

September 2018 Writing a Memoir

There are many noble reasons for writing a memoir about an aspect of one’s life—sharing family history for future generations, clarifying familial issues for present relatives, or honoring a lost family member. But the upmost purpose a memoir serves for many of us is to “rip a bandage off a festering wound.” A dear friend gave me that expression, and it certainly fits what I have done for the anthology entitled Compassionate Journey: Honoring Our Mothers’ Stories. This friend would know as she has a similar festering wound herself. I hope reading my essay in the anthology somehow helps her.
The memoir process starts simply for most of us, particularly those who enjoy writing. A death or moving experience encourages us to start jotting down our thoughts about it. It feels good. A few workshops and writing groups later, a memoir starts to take shape. For me, personally, a workshop where the leader asked us to bring a picture of our mother and then prompted us to write about rather provocative subjects really started me down the memoir path. I became completely hooked after gathering with several other women writers who wanted to write poignant essays about their mothers. I spent more than four years meeting regularly with a gathering of specific women. Our project changed over time. It gained honesty and depth. As writers, we all dug deeper and deeper into family history. I sent away for psychiatric hospital records concerning my mother’s stay there over a half century ago. Some writers in the group sought therapy. Others interviewed family members. We all had different ways of pulling forth memories, both good and bad.
Now that the anthology I was involved with is published, I am surprised at my own reaction. Having daydreamed forever of holding a book I was part of in my hands, the anxiety I have felt about sharing it with the world has puzzled me. At first, I felt like a stripper about to disrobe as the book launch date approached. Books have been selling online and from the box in my dining room to friends close by, and I have watched nervously wondering what people’s reactions would be to my essay in the anthology. The reviews are mixed. While many rave about the honesty and courage I have shown in my writing, one or two have wondered how I survived, with one friend spending time at a dinner out gazing at me with confused pity. Some of this has made me feel self-conscious and question why I ever did it in the first place. I pore over the praise blurbs we have received from published, noteworthy authors in the Maine writing community and wonder if my essay stands up to the glorious reviews given by them. Is this all part of the creative process?
Then a friend shared with me that her mother had mental health issues, and she really identified with my essay. Others did, too. The reason for writing this raw story is reinforced for me, and I am glad I wrote it. I even participated in a local television interview and then agonized over how it would be received. The rollercoaster keeps going, but I am staying on it for the ride.
Summer 2018