Who Do You Say That I Am, by Susan Byrum Rountree

Who Do You Say That I Am?
copyright 2011 by Susan Byrum Rountree

Years ago, I opened my mailbox to find an unsigned letter that can only be described as hate mail. A few days before, I had written an opinion piece in the local newspaper — my first — about the ‘academically gifted’ designation at my daughter’s school. She was not labeled as such, scoring abysmally on those end of grade tests I came to abhor by the time she hit high school. Not ‘gifted’, according to a set of questions with bubbled answers, she was among a handful of students left in her grade one day while the AG kids went on an overnight trip to a museum in a city across the state. Even the teachers went. And everybody spent the night in the museum. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Those left behind had a substitute teacher and watched Disney movies as I recall.

After the piece ran, a few people from our school I served with on the PTA board wrote letters to the editor challenging me, and I was glad for it. Some of us have to be bench sitters — sometimes not picked at all. We can’t all get the blue ribbon at the end of the swim meet. But my frustration was not at the gifted program per se, it was the treatment of the ‘non-gifted’…the expectation that a day watching movies was the best they deserved.

(In later years, I would teach writing to all levels of kids from first grade to high school, and among the best writers were those designated as ‘academic’.)

I don’t want to start this debate again. We’ve moved on.

Back to the letter. The writer — who felt she knew just enough about me to make it personal — suggested that if I read something besides Babysitter Club books to my child maybe she would be gifted. (Now how did this person know what my daughter brought home from the school library?) She went on to write that if I spent less time mopping my kitchen floor and more time engaging my children that they both would be gifted. Really? (For the record, my son was later designated as AG in language arts, so I guess I left crumbs on the floor for at least a day or two and paid him some attention. The dog was bound to lick them up anyway.)

As I read the letter I thought: this person has been in my house. She is someone who hates me thinks she knows me, though apparently hadn’t snooped around not well enough to know what titles my children’s bookshelves contained. My daughter loved the babysitter club books, yes, but at home we read the classics, the Newberys and the Caldecots. (True: By the time my kids had reached the fifth grade they had passed me in the math department, but don’t attack my reading list.)

What makes me angry as I think about this now is not only did I feel attacked for my mother skills— and my daughter attacked for something she could not help — but I allowed that letter to stop me from writing for a very long time. From the thing that is my soul. I shrank from expressing my opinion for fear of the backlash.

Somehow, though, my child didn’t shrink. I knew her inner beauty, her humor, her brilliance — and her sheer tenacity — would take her places, even if her bubbled answers said she wouldn’t go far. And so we kept at it, encouraging her to be our own Little Miss Engine That Could.

Those test scores would never earn her the ‘gifted’ moniker of most of her friends. Yet she thrived. Excelled in student government, edited the school newspaper, even earned a couple of small scholarships. (I admit to wishing she would, just once, be tapped for the honor society, but it was not to be. Damn that geometry! Curse the chemistry!)

When the time came, she was wait-listed for the college of her choice — on her very first visit she knew in her soul it was the place for her. “I’m going to see them,” she told me when the letter came. And she did. Walked right into the office of the dean of admissions saying:”Just let me in. I won’t disappoint.”

“She’s borderline,” the dean said, but a few days later, they accepted her.

And she did as promised. Graduated in four years if not with honors, then honorably, proudly, beautifully — with a major and a minor.

“If only every one of my students could be like her,” her advisor told her dad and me.

Within three months, she had a job in her career field — pr— in NYC — a goal she had set for herself when she first saw the city at 13. Two years ago, she found a new job, where she recently won the office’s “unsung hero” award. She writes about her life there on her blog.

And this morning, she reported to the corporate communications office of one of the largest — and among the most respected — newspapers in the country. She’ll be working there one day a week. My child. My beautiful apparently ungifted child.

My friend Mel writes a terrific blog. She is not afraid to put her mind down on paper, but after just her second post, a riled up reader posted a comment that disturbed her. What do I do? she asked. “It’s part of the game,” I told her. “But don’t let it stop you from saying what you need to say.”


I burned that letter long ago. Got back to writing at last, choosing most often to write about my own life — knowing any wrath would most likely come from my husband. And I can handle him. But I always wondered who might have been so angry at me to write it, and to put it in the mail. I have learned enough in the years since to wonder what in her own life was so unsettled that she felt the need to attack me and my child. Did I know her well? Do I know her still?

Back then, I wanted the chance to answer her, to shake my fists in her face and say just watch what my daughter can do. But she didn’t do me the courtesy of signing her name. Now I want to say SEE? And this: that some of us don’t need a piece of paper to predict how we’ll do in the world. Some of us become our best selves because it never occurs to us that we can’t. Or shouldn’t. Or won’t. And sometimes we do it because of the silly paper, we know so strongly that it is wrong.

I do have to say that my daughter likes to keep her home clean. Comes to see us and can’t wait to do the laundry and clean out the dishwasher. I’m not nearly as manic in my mopping as I was when she was a child, but I love the fact that I taught her something when she was growing up in my very clean — if not particularly gifted — house.

Bio: I’m a writer and the author of Nags Headers (Blair, 2001), a regional history set on the Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, (Chapel Hill Press, 2003), a collection of essays.I’ve published numerous newspaper and magazine articles in many publications including The News & Observer, Elegant Bride Magazine and Southern Living. I write regularly on writemuch.blogspot.com. The mother of two grown children, I live in Raleigh with my husband, my dog and an assortment of bluebirds. And I don’t mop my floor nearly as often as I used to.


Providential Pairings

Providential Pairings
by Scott Owens

My friend, Gregory, was perhaps the greatest female impersonator the city of Charlotte has ever seen. For the eleven years that I knew him, he was Patti LaBelle, and he was so good at it that after every performance he was surrounded by men who wanted to be with him and overwhelmed by invitations to go home with them. But the invitations came almost exclusively from men who didn’t know Gregory because those who did, knew that every night he was going home with Sean. Part of what made Gregory so good at what he did was how much he loved the attention his performances brought him, but most of all he loved the attention of Sean, who in eleven years, and probably for much longer than that, never missed a single one of Gregory’s performances.

The most “in-love” couple I have ever known were Lisa and Lana. Lisa was an English professor at UNC Charlotte, and Lana was the very successful owner of a real estate business in the area. When I met them, they had already been a couple for eighteen years. They were so kind to each other that it seemed almost impossible, almost too good to be true, but I came to know them well and discovered that their kindness was one of the truest things I would ever experience. I did odd jobs for them while working my way through college. I worked on their house, their yard; I even house sat for them when they traveled. And when I lost my home through divorce from a heterosexual marriage that was rushed into to take advantage of the favorable tax and insurance rates offered to married couples, I lived with them for a while. So I was able to observe firsthand a closeness unlike any I had seen before or since. When Lisa had a decision to make, her first thought was always what Lana would want, and Lana’s was always of Lisa. They routinely looked into each other’s eyes far longer than I could imagine it being comfortable to do so. They held hands and hugged often, but even more they seemed to touch somehow constantly and so gently that it was almost imperceptible. When Lisa developed ovarian cancer, Lana moved her office into their home and was with Lisa every moment of her two year struggle with the disease. They cried together, laughed together, remembered and regretted together. Lana pursued her business only when Lisa slept. And when the two years ended tragically, it was Lana who held her when Lisa took her last breath.

Perhaps the two best men I’ve ever known are David and Manuel. They own a small business in a small town in North Carolina. Separately they are each thoughtful, nice, hardworking, and honest. Together they have become a veritable force for good. They and their business are the living epitomes of the word “charity.” They not only contribute time, energy, and money at a level that seems beyond their means, but they facilitate opportunities for others to discover ways of coming together for a cause and contributing as well. Over the years they have done more to support the arts, the health and safety of children, the advancement of women, the awareness and research of various diseases, and the humane treatment of animals than any dozen other people in the community. Their business is widely recognized as a hub of artistic and charitable efforts. One can hardly mention their names without hearing back, “Aren’t they wonderful!” And I’ve yet to hear anyone, even those I know frown upon homosexuality, contradict that claim.

Two other good friends of mine, Amanda and Carol, have been together for thirty years. Unlike the others I’ve mentioned, they are not characterized by traits commonly thought of as “genteel.” They are rough and crude; they curse like sailors; they smoke; they dress badly; they operate a farm together and are often seen with dirty hands and dirty clothes. Yet, like the others I’ve named, their lives seem defined by true gentleness, as well as by kindness, compassion, and commitment. Granted, Carol had a child in a conventional marriage before admitting to herself which way her heart was truly directed. But after rescuing her son from her violent husband, being granted a divorce, and spending a few years alone with him, she and Amanda raised him together. Now, pushing 70 themselves, they work together to help Carol’s 96-year-old aunt finish her years with peace and dignity.

Despite recent reports that child abuse is virtually nonexistent in lesbian relationships, I am not naïve enough to think that all homosexual relationships are faultless, and I know that they can be far from perfect. But I grew up the abused son of heterosexual parents who between the two of them have had thirteen divorces, and as a community college instructor, I’ve seen enough bad heterosexual relationships to know with certainty that there is nothing particularly providential about the pairing of a young man with a young woman. So, when I hear the rhetoric of those opposed to gay marriage, I can only wonder, especially given the dubious history of marriage as an institution, how anyone can feel they have the right to tell someone else who they can or cannot marry. Or how anyone can tell another that because their commitment is not to someone of the opposite gender they have to pay higher tax, life insurance, health insurance, and car insurance rates. And when I think about Gregory and Sean, Lana and Lisa, David and Manuel, and Amanda and Carol, I cannot fathom how anyone could dare say to them that their love isn’t good enough for anything.

The Day I Touched Rick Moody’s Hair, by Ted Wojtasik

The Day I Touched Rick Moody’s Hair
by Ted Wojtasik

I was in Rome, Italy, in the Keats-Shelley House, peering into a glass case at locks of hair from John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I had never seen a poet’s lock of hair before, and there was something rather thrilling to be looking at these locks of hair from these Romantic poets. There is also a reliquary that holds a lock of hair from John Milton.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Glenway Wescott’s novels (an expatriate writer who lived in Paris in the 1920s), and in his second novel, The Grandmothers, he describes a “hair album” that bewilders the protagonist “when his grandmother explained that this book took the place, in those days, of a photograph album.” Those days were the mid-nineteenth century. A photograph album would bewilder the young today because they now have Facebook. I knew that people kept locks of hair from lovers or family members. Parents often keep a lock of their child’s first haircut as a keepsake. Nevertheless, I was still startled to be looking at these locks of hair and I thought about two unusual incidents in my life that involved hair.

One memory about hair concerns Katherine Anne Porter, whose book The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966. I met Katherine Anne the summer I finished college and we became close friends. She was 89 years old at the time, bedridden, and had good days and bad days. I used to visit her about once a week to have coffee and to talk about books, writers, and her life.

One afternoon, she asked me what I was reading, and I said, “I’m reading you.” I had a paperback copy of The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. She asked to see the paperback copy because she had not seen that edition before and then asked if she could borrow it until my next visit. Of course I let her borrow the book.

I knew she had read the book (or just parts of it) because I found that she had underlined various sentences and made markings in the margins. However, between pages 194 and 195 in her essay “Act of Faith: 4 July 1942,” which describes our entry into World War II, I found a single short strand of her famous white hair.

On occasion I would give the book to friends of mine to read and I would never mention anything about the strand of hair and I always wondered if it would still be there when I got it back—it always was. (Which meant that my friends didn’t read the entire book or that the strand of hair was simply turned along with the page.) Finally, I decided not to take that risk anymore and I simply don’t let anyone borrow that book. I still have that paperback copy with that single short strand of Katherine Anne Porter’s white hair.

And then I thought of the day I touched Rick Moody’s hair. It happened in the student lounge of the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University in the spring semester of 1986. This was the time of spiked hair, punk rockers, brightly colored hair, and blue jeans with torn knees, the kneecaps peeking out at the world from a ragged hole of denim. Rick has gone on to great writing success with such works as Ice Storm, The Black Veil, and The Diviners.

One afternoon Rick arrived with his short brown hair thickened into a collection of gel-hardened little spikes as if Marcel Duchamp had created an assemblage on his head. Everyone wanted to touch his hair. Both men and women. And Rick willingly obliged. His hair was stiff and bristly as though I had touched a cactus without getting pricked.

Bio: Ted Wojtasik is the author of two novels, No Strange Fire and Collage, and many short stories published in various literary journals, such as Cold Mountain Review, New Delta Review, and Cairn. His first novel received a Silver Angel Award from Excellence in Media and a gold-starred review and “Editors’ Choice” in Booklist in 1996. His second novel was one of five finalists for the Lambda Literary Award in 2004. He served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003. His short story “Scars and Frost” received honorable mention in O. Henry Festival Stories 2000, a short story competition, sponsored by Greensboro College in North Carolina. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in 20th-century American literature from the University of South Carolina.

From the Seat of a Tractor, by Jim Averett

From the Seat of a Tractor
by Jim Averett

I have always liked old things. I like junk yards. I like antique shops, old houses, and old cars. When I look at these things, I think about the people who used them and what their lives were like. I remember them, if I knew them, or remember others who used similar items if I did not. Another old thing I like is a tractor, not a shiny or decorative thing, not a trophy tractor, but a real tool in someone’s hand, used daily with a purpose. Many people restore old cars or refinish furniture, but I have fond memories involving tractors. No, I was not farmer, nor did I plow forty acres to plant tobacco; I simply kept up a garden my parents grew when I was at home. I said then if I ever wanted to plant a garden when I grew up that someone should just shoot me. I don’t feel that strongly anymore.

With each year that goes by, I think of my granddaddy and how he took me with him to work. He worked on tractors; I was only nine or ten at the time, but he took me along anyway. I must have been more in the way than I was a help when other mechanics at the shop would let me change parts, but they let me do it anyway, showing me what to do and letting me learn for myself what not to. I loved going with my granddaddy when he went on farm calls. We would go fix a tractor out in the middle of a field, in the hot sun, but I didn’t mind at all. You see, my granddaddy couldn’t read, so I never had the experience of sitting in his lap while he read me a book. But while he worked on tractors, he told me stories — stories about his childhood, about people who lived around there, about just about everything. Now, when I think about buying an old tractor, all of these memories, all of those stories, come rushing back. My granddaddy has been dead for twenty years, so buying a tractor like the ones he worked on gets more and more important.

One has many things to consider when comparing old tractors. Unlike new ones, all of which have and have had for some time high horsepower, multi-gear transmissions, live lifts, and independent PTOs (power take off), old tractors were all different and changed just about every year up until the 1960s when lifts became independent and PTO became “live” by using a two stage clutch.

I like the Ford 601 Workmaster series from the early 60s because it looks very much like the 8n Ford, the 601’s 25-year-old predecessor, my granddaddy gave my dad when I was young. He was always finding tractors to fix up, so we always had a different tractor around our house. The 8n came when I had not yet driven a tractor, but with a lot of begging, on my eleventh birthday, I got to drive it. There is not enough room in this essay to tell all the stories I have about this tractor, like the time we drove Mom’s 60 Plymouth down into the woods to pull the 8n out of a ditch. Suffice it to say just thinking about that 8n calls up enough memories to bring the past back to life.

One of the tractors I’m considering buying is a 661 Ford, a member of the 601 family. If painted correctly, a 601 series tractor should be all red except for the fenders, wheels and grill, which should be painted Ford gray. The 661 is a better tractor to actually use than an 8n or other 601 family members because it has a live lift, five speeds, a live PTO, and a three point hitch. Any tractor I will consider will have a three point hitch. This system, originally designed by Harry Ferguson, a partner of Henry Ford, uses two lift arms and a center stabilizing link to attach implements. The Ferguson System was used in a “hand shake” agreement on Fords until a falling out between the partners. Even though Ford lost a law suit regarding the system, they paid a large settlement to be able to continue use of three point hitches. Ferguson went on to build his own tractors with these hitches. Today, most tractors come with three point hitches.

Having owned a Zenoah 4×4 diesel tractor, I will look for a 661 with a diesel engine. Before I had the Zenoah, I would only have been interested in a gas engine. Zenoah is a Japanese co-op Kubota tractor built to the co-op’s specifications. I like the diesel engine for how it pulls and how hard it is to stall. The 661 diesel produces 34.24 horsepower at the PTO to drive a power attachment, such as a three point tiller or a brush cutting mower. It can pull just over four thousand pounds in first gear.

Another tractor I will consider is a Massey Ferguson 35 Deluxe Diesel, which started production just a few years after the 661. Massey Ferguson was the brand sold by the tractor shop I would go to as a boy. I can still remember sneaking up front to look at all the new tractors, but even then, my favorite was an old 35 Deluxe. The 35 Deluxe is one of the most popular Masseys, having replaced the FE 35. Looking very much like an 8n Ford, it was the first Massey to be painted in their well-known red and gray, referred to by many as Ferguson gray. The TO 35, TE 35, and FE 35 were all painted solid gray and were stronger versions of the TE 20, an 8n look-alike referred to by Henry Ford as the “Grey Menace.” The Deluxe has about 32 horsepower at the draw bar and 37 at the PTO. The PTO is live and can be controlled by a two stage clutch. Nearly four thousand pounds can be pulled by the draw bar in second gear. The tractor has six forward and two reverse gears via a three speed transmission with high and low range.

I have been a Ford, Lincoln, Mercury technician, so I like the Ford tractors, but memories always come back in Ferguson red and gray, and I admire a man who was honest enough to agree on an handshake but then fight for his rights when crossed and ambitious enough to go on and build a rival company that exists to this day. I grew up with these tractors and learned my mechanical skills on them. When I look at one, I can hear my granddaddy’s voice telling me how to do something or saying, “Let’s take a break and get a Mountain Dew.” I remember the tractor shop, the cattle auction beside it, and the grill we went to in the afternoon.

The more I think about it, even though a Ford is a good tractor, a Massey carries the greater burden of my memories and will be what I look to buy. The day I bring my “new” old tractor home, I will stop to buy a cheeseburger with lettuce, mustard, slaw and chili. I will sit on the trailer with a Mountain Dew, eating the sandwich and remembering the tractor shop and the grill where my granddaddy and I ordered cheeseburgers that way. Then I will unload it and start making memories with my grandson.

Tracing a Civil War Soldier or Sailor, by Ann Chandonnet

by Ann Chandonnet

As her cousin Helen lifted the pot lid aside, Thirza Gibson could see that the fire kindled for breakfast was now mere embers. Thirza moved closer to the big stove to warm her hands, chilled from her stint in George Foster’s attic sorting through his and his mother Eliza’s things. She lowered her eyes to her hands, chafing them.

When she lifted her eyes again, she was shocked to see Helen dropping in envelopes. Envelopes with stamps from the 1860s. Parcels with New Orleans postmarkets. Pocket journals, deeds, fans engraved with Abraham Lincoln’s sad-eyed portrait–all dropped into the stove.
“Wait!” Thirza cried. “What are you doing?”

Helen paused over the basket of dusty papers she was carrying. “No one wants this old stuff,” she replied, smoothing back her hair with her free hand.

“You’re wrong! I do,” exclaimed Thirza, skirting the stove, reaching toward the wicker basket. “Eliza is my grandmother. How dare you?”

Shocked at being contradicted, Helen pushed the basket toward Thirza almost as if it burned her palm.

It was 1936. George, Eliza’s only son, had just gone to his last reward. Eliza, a New England mill girl, wife and widow, had perished of consumption in 1867. George scarcely remembered her, but he and his uncle, Andrew Bean, had preserved her diaries, rent receipts– even the black silk veil she had sewn to wear to her husband’s funeral. Eliza’s faithful Henry had died at the Third Battle of Winchester–a battle no one remembered now.

It’s a truism of family trees that most individuals do not know their grandmother’s maiden name. One of the reasons for this lack of knowledge is the constant battle against clutter we all commonly wage. If genealogical records and knowledge have been casualties of this war in your family, it’s important to know that such losses do not have to be permanent.

If, for example, one of your ancestors served in the War Between the States, and you want to know more about his military or naval career, here are some research tips.

Begin by consulting Civil War Soldiers & Sailors (www.cwss). This federal website is one of the most comprehensive listings of veterans. CWSS contains service records for each regiment, North or South, as well as the names of the individuals in specific companies. If your ancestor is listed, you can find here his rank at enlisting and his rank at mustering out. If your ancestor’s name doesn’t come up readily at this site, don’t despair. Names were often misspelled and/or duplicated, so that Irwin D. Johnson, Erwin Johnson and Irvin W. Jonson are all the same individual.

Another vital source of information are regimental histories. About 80 percent of all regiments boast such histories written by a member of the regiment. Although the original editions may be out of print, Higginson Book Co. (www.higginsonbooks.com) has published facsimiles of many of these volumes. Higginson is also a trustworthy source for records, letters and journals from prisons at Andersonville, Camp Douglas (Chicago), Richmond, and Elmira, New York.

Once you have names to work with, the next step is to Interview the oldest member of your extended family.

If you know your ancestor’s place of birth, you can also consult city directories or U.S. Census records for additional details. Twenty years ago, research would have necessitated travel to the town or county to view such records, but today many of these documents are readily available on the Internet.

To get a feel for what your ancestor experienced, you might also attend a reenactment. The Iredell Blues (4th North Carolina, Co. A) schedule reenactments every August at the Allison Woods Living History event in Statesville, N.C. The three-day weekend includes activities for children such as a watermelon seed spitting competition and a bingo game using period pictures instead of numbers. Adults can witness mock conflict, view an 1860s fashion show or take a lantern tour on the thousand acres of pasture and woods set aside for conservation by the Allison family. Visit http://www.iredellblues.com or historynet.com for details.

Spending a few hours in a genealogical library can be quite productive. Where I live now, the Patrick Beaver Memorial Library (Hickory, NC) houses a large collection of reference materials in a special room on its upper floor. Just inside its main entrance, the Catawba County Museum of History (Newton) features a comfortable room stuffed with reference books, bound volumes of newspapers, file cabinets of photos and other materials invaluable for genealogical research. The museum is a major repository of Civil War objects including a colonel’s field desk and a Colt 45 swiped from Stoneman’s Raiders by a Newton lad. Family-file research requests are welcome, and staff assistance is available for $10 an hour. Most communities have similar repositories of genealogical and historical information.

One of the most enjoyable options for this sort of research is to walk a battlefield or “viewshed.” The Civil War Preservation Trust (www.civilwar.org; 1-888-606-1400) is engaged in saving hallowed ground like the Snyder Farm at Gettysburg from being taken over by shopping malls, casinos or transmission lines. CWPT installs self-guided walking tours with interpretive markers. For instance, you can walk a one-mile trail on Rose Hill Farm in Winchester, Virginia, scene of heavy fighting during the First Battle of Kernstown. The property is owned by the Museum of the Shenandoah; for more information, http://www.shenandoahvalleymuseum.org.

Similarly, in Kentucky, Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site surrounds the historic H.P. Bottoms House. The 12 miles of interpretive trails at this 140-acre site–part of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s autumn 1862 invasion of Kentucky– are considered one of the best interpretive trail systems in the country. Visit the website at http://www.perryvillebattlefield.org or call 859-332-8631.

Another source for images of everyday Civil War life and camp life are drawings made on the spot. Artist Joseph Becker worked for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the war. Becker’s great-great-granddaughter, Sheila Gallagher, has compiled most of his sketches and those of other illustrators, a total of nearly 700 drawings. The images in the Becker collection may be used for non-profit lectures and research. See http://idesweb.bc.edu/becker/ or http://www.firsthandexhibit.org/

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is reviving interest in state and local history and historic preservation. Those interested can attend a program at a Civil War landmark, a living history museum like Latta Plantation (Huntersville, NC) or a Civil War Round Table.

Finally, with a little online research you can locate and Visit a Civil War cemetery with your grandchild. St. Luke’s (Lincolnton, NC) contains Confederate graves.

Bio: Nonfiction writer and poet Ann Chandonnet, a resident of Vale, is co-author with her third cousin Roberta Pevear of the 2010 book, “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 (Bethel Historical Society). In 2066, Ann retired to Vale with her husband, a prize-winning fiction writer, after 34 years in Alaska.

Stanley Kunitz, the Gardener and the Poet, by Ted Wojtasik

Stanley Kunitz, the Gardener and the Poet

by Ted Wojtasik

I just finished reading The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine. The cover photo, however, most impressed me because it managed to recall a strong visual image I have of Stanley Kunitz standing in his Provincetown seafront garden—a consciously remembered image. I lived in Provincetown for the summer in 1989 where I wrote the first draft of what would become my second novel.

And I lived, really, just a five-minute walk from his house on Commercial Street. I was living in a cabin-like structure with a bathroom, a kitchen, and one other large room that functioned for everything else. That summer was a season of walking and bicycling, and I would often walk by or bike by Stanley Kunitz’s house and, usually, I would stop to admire his handsome garden.

The garden shifted ever so slightly week to week. The garden itself is deep and long because the house is set far back. I would guess it would be about half the length of a basketball court and perhaps just as wide. This was not just a small plot of land—this was the entire front yard filled with brick terraces, walkways of crushed seashells, trees, shrubs, hedges, and flowers. The rich odor of the sea and the pungent aroma of flowers produced a pleasant scent. On a few occasions I saw Stanley Kunitz himself working in his garden: sometimes far away near his house and sometimes close to the white picket fence that lined the front of his property.

At Columbia University, where I was enrolled as a graduate student, I had attended his retirement party in the fall of 1985. He had taught at the University for 22 years in the writing program for The School of the Arts. Although retired, he still maintained close ties to the MFA program as a lecturer and as a friend. I had also briefly studied with him. The writing program each semester offered a one-point class to study with a guest lecturer who turned out to be Stanley Kunitz for the spring semester of 1986. I immediately enrolled in his class.

The course entailed four three-hours-long classes over a two-week period. What he taught was part writing workshop and part lecture. We wrote poems, he talked, we read poems from Edmund Waller to Wallace Stevens, and he discussed them.

Stanley Kunitz was 81 years old that spring. He had a slight figure, dressed in a light brown jacket with black leather elbows. He had prominent, piercing dark brown eyes. His head was bald but for wisps of gray hair on the sides with solid white sideburns and a steel-gray mustache and steel-gray eyebrows. He had rather large hands and rather large ears. I noticed, also, that often he would look off at the corner of the room or up at the ceiling when speaking as though he were searching for the words or the phrase or the image in the air. There was a distinct lull to his voice and, for some reason, he reminded me of an owl. One of the most moving prose pieces in this new collection for me is “Mansfield Center, Connecticut: Owls in the Attic.”

One basic theme that he addressed in class was the absence of the father. He said, “The quest for the father implies the absence of the father.” He claimed that most poets are forever trying against the odds to recapture their innocence—it is one of the secrets of survival. He also said that Franz Kafka wanted to collect all his work under the title How to Escape from Father. In terms of writing poetry, he said that an American poet has two primary tasks: 1) create the person who will write the poem (character building or what John Keats called “soul-banking”) and 2) create the idea of the audience that will read the poem. He talked some about the corruption of language and that the world is one web, one continuous tissue and if you tear that tissue the entire tissue shudders—this idea is clearly expressed in The Wild Braid. He spoke about the lyric and said that one of his favorite lyrics is “The Lily and the Rose,” a poem written by an anonymous poet from the 15th or 16th centuries. He thought the lyrical voice needed to be rediscovered. He spoke about the line as an object and that it must be perceived as both object and process. A poet “needs to know the weight and the measure of a line.” Let the poem speak for itself. And, finally, he said, “The ending of a poem must be both a door and a window: closed and open at the same time.”

Because I had studied with him and I was a graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, I had some type of connection to him. On one occasion, when he was working near the fence, I called to him, and he called back and walked over. (If I didn’t have any type of connection to him, then I would never have called out.)

I knew he couldn’t possibly know who I was, so I explained that I had taken his course at Columbia and so on. He was pleasant and sociable. Then I let him get back to work in his garden. Ever since then, I would wave to him, but that was the only time we ever talked.

One afternoon I was walking by and saw Stanley Kunitz near his house with his hands held behind his back, leaning forward, and staring into a pail. I stopped. I watched him. Minutes passed and he did not move. I made the conscious decision to remember this moment to imprint it in my memory.

I wondered what he was looking at. Was it dirt or some plant or some small creature? Then I thought the pail could be empty. If so, then this great, gentle, giving man was lost in meditation or thought or the creation of a poem. I watched him a minute or more and then continued my walk. That was the last time I ever saw him. The cover photograph of Stanley Kunitz in his garden forcefully recalled this mental image I have of him. And I could not be more grateful or more humbled to have that memory of Stanley Kunitz as part of my life history.

In many ways, Stanley Kunitz was a poem, and like the ending of a poem his death was both a closed door and an open window.

Bio: Ted Wojtasik is the author of two novels, No Strange Fire and Collage, and many short stories published in various literary journals, such as Cold Mountain Review, New Delta Review, and Cairn. His first novel received a Silver Angel Award from Excellence in Media and a gold-starred review and “Editors’ Choice” in Booklist in 1996. His second novel was one of five finalists for the Lambda Literary Award in 2004. He served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003. His short story “Scars and Frost” received honorable mention in O. Henry Festival Stories 2000, a short story competition, sponsored by Greensboro College in North Carolina. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in 20th-century American literature from the University of South Carolina.

Sandy, by Beth Browne


by Beth Browne

It was written on a small plastic table in a shaky pencil stroke:  Sandy’s table.  I think that’s how I guessed his name.  It wasn’t until much later that we found out his real name.  He commanded a spot on the beach near the parking lot of the vacation rentals, tucked into a V-shaped section of unpainted picket fencing whose original purpose was to protect the dunes.  On the far side of the “V” he had a large piece of driftwood decorated with shells.   He had collected some nice large whelks, a piece of an iridescent fan and a few of those big sand colored clams that are so common on Carolina beaches.

He always had two chairs set up, with the table between them, often laid with a battery-operated radio set to an AM news/talk station and his large red plastic restaurant water cup filled with warm beer.  Along with these he kept a small cooler, a white five-gallon bucket and a tackle box.  Some days he fished.  Some days he set up his stuff at the water’s edge but judged the fishing no good and never put out a line.  Maybe he didn’t have bait that day.

One day we went up to what my kids called The Beach Store.  A block from the beach, the kids thought it was beyond cool to be able to go in a store with no shoes on.  Beach stores have special rules, I explained.  We needed some sunscreen because I had neglected to bring any since it was December.  I hadn’t expected the mild stretch of weather we were enjoying.

I asked Sandy if he needed anything at the store.  He took me aside while the kids ran circles around us and said he was embarrassed to ask me.  I tried to imagine what he could possibly want that would be embarrassing.  Condoms?  That would be embarrassing.  Hemorrhoid medicine: Also very embarrassing.  Maybe he wanted me to buy him beer.  Would I refuse?

“When you go in,” he explained sotto voce as the kids flew off down the sand, “to the left of the door, behind the counter.”  Oh dear, I thought, here it comes.  “There is a little case of sandwiches.  Turkey is good.  They are wrapped in plastic, you know?”  I breathed.  A sandwich.  A sandwich is embarrassing?  I guess if you’re living on the beach, having to ask for food is embarrassing.

Up at the store, we picked out packages of cheese crackers for the kids, admired a colorful plastic fishing set and paid too much for sunscreen and a sandwich.  At the last minute we picked out a package of mini chocolate covered donuts as a treat.

Back across the squeaky sand, we delivered the sandwich to Sandy where he sat contemplating the surf, but not fishing.  He got a big kick out of the donuts and joined the kids in consuming several.  The tide was coming in and threatening the little table and chairs so the kids and I pitched in and helped him shift up the beach.  I took the extra chair as if it were there just for me.  Maybe it was.  It was a green plastic molded chair and the arm was broken.  It was still good for sitting and I was quite pleased to have a chair and not have to sit on the sand and get my butt wet.  I had not thought to bring a beach chair to the beach in December.

While the kids splashed in the surf and fed crackers to the ever-growing flock of sea birds, Sandy pulled out his wallet, a fat handful of leather, cards, papers and whatnot.  He showed me a photo of his ten-year-old daughter and said she had been “Miss Folly Beach” some years back.  He was very proud of her and remarked on her beauty as he gazed at the photo.  I wondered what his eyes looked like behind his mirrored sunglasses.  His skin was very dark from the sun and he was missing more than a few teeth.  I wondered what he was like ten years ago and what woman had become pregnant by him.  He called her his wife and I wondered what woman would marry this man.  From the wad in his hand, he produced a blank piece of paper and asked for our address.  I pulled out a pen and gave it to him.

One day we saw him in the parking lot.  For a minute I didn’t recognize the man with the lovely blue eyes.  I had never seen him without his sunglasses.  I wondered how old he was, my age?  And I wondered whether he had once been handsome, with his blue eyes and a tan.  He told me once that he was a Cherokee Medicine Man and I thought it was entirely possible.  He was a quiet, thoughtful man who seemed not to have an aggressive bone in his body.

The next day he took me aside again.  I tensed.  “It’s embarrassing,” he said again.  Oh dear, I thought, what now?  “Now, I don’t mean to be critical, now,” he began in his Lowcountry drawl.  “That sandwich was OK,” he shook his head and held out three fingers, “But man, three dollars for that sandwich is just too much.”  Ah, a kindred spirit!  While I fervently agreed with him, he went on to explain that for three dollars I could get a whole loaf of white bread and a package of turkey and he could make six sandwiches.  He knew exactly how many slices of bread were in a loaf and the cost.  I had no trouble persuading the kids to make the hike to the store with me.

I vacillated over whole wheat vs. white and settled on white.  I knew that was what he wanted because he had told me how much it cost.  Exactly.  $1.49.  The whole wheat was more money, but I worried about embarrassing him further by buying a more expensive loaf of bread.  We got the loaf of white, the turkey, potato chips for the kids and a bigger box of donuts with a variety of toppings.  At the checkout we picked up some postcards and a locally produced calendar with historic photos.

Sandy was delighted and we shared the donuts with two young men who had come on the scene while we were gone.  Sandy introduced them by name, as his friends.  At 10 am, they too carried mysterious beverages in brown paper bags.  Were they headed for a life on the beach with no teeth?  They couldn’t be much over 21 and they obviously knew Sandy fairly well.  I wondered if they were the next generation of Sandys.

The day before we left, Sandy asked the kids if Santa was coming to see them.  I could tell he was fishing around for information because he wanted to give them a Christmas gift.  I caught my breath when he asked them if they had bicycles.  He was begging money for food.  Where did he think he was going to get a pair of bicycles?  To my immense relief, the kids told him they already had bicycles and Sandy frowned in disappointment.  Then he looked at the sand for a minute.

“What about scooters?” he asked.  The kids looked at each other.

“Nope.” they said, no scooters.  I started to protest that we don’t have a paved driveway to ride them on but Sandy continued.

Slapping his thigh in disbelief, he said, “You don’t have no scooters?”

Soberly, they shook their heads.

“Ya’ll come down tomorrow, now, before you go.  Sandy’s gone have a present for you.”

I tried to think of a way to protest.  I didn’t want to think about how Sandy would procure two scooters because I knew it would not involve an exchange of cash.

The next day I got up early and started packing.  It was raining and Sandy was not in his usual spot.  I thought we might get away without seeing him.  I worried that the kids would be disappointed if he did not produce any scooters, although I had warned them not to get their hopes up.

As I went out to take a load to the car, he appeared.  He helped me carry the bags down the stairs but said he would let me load the car.  He sat in our deck chair and looked out at the sea through the drizzle while I hunted around for super balls and playing cards under the furniture.

When I locked the door to the condo, he became animated and insisted we “wait right there.”  He disappeared and came back with two scooters.  Slightly rusty, but perfectly serviceable, the kids were thrilled and rode in tight circles in the carport while Sandy and I looked on in amiable silence.  I tried not to think about where the scooters had come from.  Sandy was delighted to watch them whiz around each other until the time came to say goodbye.  I put the scooters on top of the suitcases and shut the hatchback.  The kids gave Sandy big thank-you hugs and told him they loved him.

“I love you, too,” he said, “and ya’ll write to Sandy, ya hear?”

While the kids were buckling up in the back seat, I gave Sandy a farewell hug and asked him what I could do for him.  This time, he was not embarrassed.

“Kin ya spare me a twenty?  A twenty’ll get me through the week.”

*   *   *   *

We were all in a flurry over Christmas preparations two weeks later when the postcard arrived.  It was dog-eared and unstamped, but somehow the post office had prevailed.

“Hey, miss U hope U have a great xmas I found 3 shark’s teeth I’ll send U 1.  Can’t wait to see U again But we’ll keep in touch.  Write me, send me your change so I can get some bait.  Gone to have fish fry Fri.  Write me ya’ll” On the other side of the card we learned that Sandy’s real name was Marvin.  His address was General Delivery.

I couldn’t help but worry about Sandy.  The weather had turned much colder and I wondered how he would manage on the beach in really freezing weather.  The kids each tucked a precious dollar of their allowance in an envelope with a handmade thank-you card for the scooters.  I put a twenty in mine.  Maybe it’ll get him through one more week of living on the beach.  Maybe he could buy his daughter a belated Christmas present.  I know that you’re not supposed to give homeless people money.  But in the end, all we really have to offer is friendship and love.  And it seemed to me that that was all he really needed.

Bio:  Beth Browne’s writing has been published in various print and online journals and she was the recipient of a 2008 Regional Artist Project Grant for Literature. Ms. Browne divides her time between her great grandfather’s 1887 farmhouse near Raleigh, NC and a charming cottage on the Eno River near Durham, NC.  She is currently working on her seventh novel.  Her blog is at: bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.