Birthday Murmurs

Portrait of the Artist as a Suckling

I don’t know about my paternal grandparents’ nuptials, but elopement was the means of marriage for both my maternal grandparents and my own parents. Back then, in those pre-FDA-pill-approval [1] days, it seems that some women dare not their chaste treasures open [2] even to the the most insistent importunities of non-husbands.

In my parents’ case, benighted by the long shadow of Victorianism, carnal inclinations short-circuited the pauser reason, so rather than waiting to marry until she finished Roper nursing school and he Clemson, they eloped. Inconveniently, they lived in separate cities until she dropped out of Roper and moved into married housing at the aforementioned land grant agricultural college whose main hall is named for Pitchfork Ben Tillman, a bigot who makes quasi-Klansman Roy Moore seem like Hubert Horatio Humphrey in comparison.

But I digress.

Perhaps my un-and-underemployed parents had never heard of condoms because a mere 10-and-a-half months later, 65 years ago today, on a snowy Sabbath in Summerville, SC, I was born.

It was a difficult birth. Forceps, strawberry hemangioma strewn across my squashed, dented head. On the bus back on his way to Clemson, my father looked so woebegone that a woman asked him what was the matter. “Lady,” he said, “my wife just gave birth to a seven-pound four-ounce monkey.”

So thus began my life, and I’m very thankful for my parents’ lack of discretion. So many little things can make such big differences: my late wife Judy’s not getting into her first-choice graduate school; she and I impulsively riding out to Folly Beach one Saturday and buying that very day the lot where we built our house; and two decades later, on what had been a very sad day, a propitious happy hour at a bar on Spring Street a few blocks from where my father grew up.

To all who have wished me a happy birthday, thanks so much. I feel, if not exactly blessed, fortunate.

[1] Certainly, the Germans have a word for this.

[2] Here’s how No Fear Shakespeare renders Laertes’ pleas: “Then think about how shameful it would be for you to give in to his seductive talk and surrender your treasure chest to his greedy hands.” A more than a little is lost, methinks.

Despite Death’s Persistence

Poor old dead Daddy with his poor old dead brother David outside their poor old dead grandaddy Ackerman’s drug store on Spring Street circa 1937

It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving would be somewhat death-haunted. After all, I was driving Judy’s car to see Judy’s sister and her family.

Once I arrived, I found myself staring at sister Becky because she reminds me so much of Judy. It’s as if they share/d identical metabolisms. Both move/d slowly, deliberately; their eyes blink/ed slowly.[1] Anyway, I warned Becky that if I seemed to be staring at her a lot, sisterly likeness was the reason. She smiled a slow sweet that’s-okay smile.

We enjoyed a beautiful five days weatherwise, the setting Reynolds Preserve, a residential golf resort with autumnal foliage ablaze. Companionshipwise, a beautiful five days as well, son Ned was there and brother-in-law Big Dave and my nephew Scott and his wife Jessie and their daughters, the grandnieces, Emily and Annie, six and four, lovely and smart and honest. I overheard Emily say, “[. . .] Aunt Judy, who’s already dead.”

Here’s a mandala Emily drew celebrating the gathering.

artist Emily Hudson, who calls her grandmother Becky “Beppy”

Saturday, on the way back, I stopped in Aiken for an hour and had dinner with my Aunt Maria and cousins Pamela and Scarlet and their brood: spouses, in-laws, children, and children’s children. It seems I only see these kin when someone is dying or dead — Uncle David, Daddy, Mama, Judy — so I wanted to make a point of talking with Aunt Maria, a spry, car-driving eighty-three, while she was upright and smiling. A war bride, she has been living in Aiken County going on 70 years. I especially enjoy hearing what’s left of her now Southern-smothered German accent. Her elongated vowels have unclipped the Teutonic cadences. Yet German lies underneath, like a sonic archeological lower layer.

Aunt Maria’s parents’ gravestone

I could only stay an hour because I wanted to pick up Ms L. Muldoon from the Charleston airport. She had seen the night before a production of James Joyce’s “The Dead” at the New York Irish Historical Society. She texted about the “heaviness” at the end “with the snow and all.”

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. [Gabriel] watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

So when I left Pamela’s, headed back to Charleston, I listened to Donal Donnelly’s reading Episode 6 of Ulysses, the Hades episode, when Bloom rides in a carriage to Dignam’s funeral and burial. I was on back roads, taking Highway 4 through Springfield and Neeses, (dare I say) dying Orangeburg County towns, and it seemed like every four miles I passed a cemetery in some podunk country churchyard with a chain-linked fence surrounding the graves.

Meanwhile, in his carriage Bloom reads from the obituary page of the morning paper the names of the deceased, “[i]nked characters fast fading on the frayed breaking paper.”

Through the carriage window:

White horses with white frontlet plumes came round the Rotunda corner, galloping. A tiny coffin flashed by. In a hurry to bury. A mourning coach. Unmarried. Black for the married. Piebald for bachelors. Dun for a nun.

— Sad, Martin Cunningham said. A child.

Highway 4 is a lovely road that rises and falls through horse country before flattening out near Orangeburg. I usually listen to AM gospel radio stations when passing through Orangeburg County – I dig the vocal groups, the church announcements, and especially, the high-octane iambic admonitions of preacher men– but Joyce and his medium Donnelly had me hypnotized.

Mr Bloom came last, folding his paper again into his pocket. He gazed gravely at the ground till the coffincart wheeled off to the left. The metal wheels ground the gravel with a sharp grating cry and the pack of blunt boots followed the barrow along a lane of sepulchres.

Bloom, who has lost a father to suicide and his young son Rudy to disease, sees death for what it is, inevitable and commonplace:

A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else.

I was already in the town of Orangeburg by the time Dingam’s

gravediggers put on their caps and carried their earthy spades towards the barrow. Then knocked the blades lightly on the turf: clean. One bent to pluck from the haft a long tuft of grass. One, leaving his mates, walked slowly on with shouldered weapon, its blade blueglancing.

Dingam was six-feet under, and Episode 6 had run its course, so I reached over for some early Stones.

“Come On” came blasting from the speakers. I had turned the Joyce, as Lucinda Williams would say, “way up high.”

But I didn’t turn it down. I was on the Interstate doing 75 airport bound.

[1] Becky was a 10/10 match for the marrow transplant never to be.

Southern Gothic Great Aunts

“Forest Sleep” by Kelly Louise Judd

When I was a child, I spent, relatively speaking, a good bit of time with my great aunts on both sides of the family. My mother’s aunts, Pearl and Ruby, were the daughters of a god-fearing Baptist farmer from Orangeburg County, and my father’s aunts were snobbish women who valued table manners above morality. I saw Aunt Ruby the most often because she lived the closest. Here’s a snippet from a earlier post with the fetching title “Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood”:

Aunt Ruby lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. Zilla is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Khrushchev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.

The house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible abound.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. My brother David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.

We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.

Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.

Up the road in Sumter, where Aunt Pearl lived, things were a bit more laid back. She and my grandmother, “Mama Blanton,” spent their afternoons shelling beans, watching soap operas, and gossiping. Once, when I was seven or so, I saw Aunt Pearl naked through her cracked open door. It was by no means a pleasant sight, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away as in the clichéd horrible-wreck-on-the-freeway scenario.

Because of their Baptist upbringing Ruby, Pearl, and Hazelwood (aka Mama Blanton) considered alcohol an abomination, though once I witnessed Mama Blanton and Aunt Ruby swapping barbiturates like M&Ms.[1] So, anyway imbibing hooch in the house was banned, so my grandfather was reduced to hiding half pints in shoes stored in his closet.

Kiki, what’s this?” I asked one morning after finding a bottle of Old Crow in his tennis shoe.

“Hey, what you doing in that closet?  Get out of there!  Don’t you tell your grandmama, you hear?”

I found my daddy’s aunts to be much more interesting. Aunt Lou, who resided in Columbia, had married a Canadian shipping executive, and according to her, at one time lived at the Waldorf Astoria where she lent the actress Jean Arthur a mink for an audition and had struck up a friendship with “Tony Fokker,” the founder of the aircraft manufacturer who supplied German in WWI with their fighter planes.

Anthony Fokker

When I was in the 7th grade, David and I rode a Greyhound to Columbia to spend the weekend with her and Uncle Harry. She took us to the revolving restaurant at the top of Capstone dormitory and to a movie called The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

Later in life, Aunt Lou and Uncle Harry would come stay with us in Summerville. Every afternoon, she would get tipsy on sherry and tell us the same stories over and over and over, like time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired. This was very same Sarah, the sister of the wife of my second cousin, who had managed to burn a hole in my sweater with her cigarette one Christmas Eve.

“I don’t think Sarah knew the gun was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when that gun went off.”

Twice-widowed Aunt Lila we saw the least. Like a character out of Flannery O’Connor, she ran a 100-acre cotton and tobacco farm in Marlboro County with the help of her son Alec, who had not only a swimming pool in his backyard, but also a clay tennis court. Alec unfortunately had drinking issues and buried bottles in hades-hot tobacco barns to keep his wife Jenny from tearing into him. Daddy claimed that the only time he refused a drink was from Alec who had disinterred a bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and extended it to my father.

Aunt Lila lived in a circa-1810 plantation-like house complete with columns (see below). It hadn’t, I don’t think, ever been renovated. I remember a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling providing light for the kitchen and a giant ship’s wheel in the foyer. Of course the house was haunted by some woman who had died there. Aunt Lila herself had seen the ghost on several occasions. She also claimed to possess the power of prophecy. Whenever she dreamed of diamonds, someone died. On the night before her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, perished in a car/train crash with two of her friends from Winthrop College, Aunt Lila had, of course, dreamt of diamonds and had warned Lila Moore not to go out.

Mimosa Plantation

Unfortunately, I don’t see my own great nieces often, but two of them, both under seven came to the house after my wife Judy’s memorial service. Emily, the older one, with that wonderful candid openness of children, asked if she could see the bed where “Aunt Judy died.”

So I showed her – actually it was a futon – and told her a little bit about the death, and she listened wide-eyed, fascinated, so maybe I too am keeping the gothic great aunt/uncle tradition going.

[1] In fact, in grad school I actually copped a downer from Mama Blanton to settle my jangled nerves before a presentation.

The Death of the First Summer of Act 3

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Now that I’m not hanging in the Social Security office or at the estate law offices of Kuhn and Kuhn (whom I robustly recommend) or the Charleston County RMC office, I have in the last couple of weeks been able to revert to being a simple beach bum.

It’s the life of Jimmy Buffett, sans the Hawaiian shirts – it’s sandy, gritty, humid, free.

Had a great weekend just past. Gave my first surf lesson in four years on Saturday and spent part of the Sabbath promenading Walt-Whitman style up and down Center Street where I bantered with a twangy husband and wife with matching calf tattoos.

Saturday evening as I was leaving Mosquito Beach, an old black man with a walking stick stopped me, climbed onto the hood of my car and lay spread eagle with his back against the windshield.

After maybe ten seconds, he hopped off laughing.

Once on his feet, he performed the old-fashioned roll-down-the-window cranking pantomime and welcomed my companion and me with a friendly greeting laced with f-words. He was happy; we were happy.

The night was just getting started. Fun ahoy!

But now, just when the summer has become like a sort of typical summer for me (i.e., not teeming with post-mortem to-dos), it’s time to stick a fork in it. Next Thursday, I need to show up not-hungover at my school and begin my 32nd year of striking through linking verbs and offering alternate phraseology. Pontificating about the great linguistic blessing of William’s kicking Harold’s ass at Hastings. Tapping talkers in chapel on the shoulder to shut them up.

Anyway, this, my last week, I’m going to embrace it, to rage, rage against the dying of the reggae riff.

Chico Feo on a December Saturday

Around four today, I went down to Chico Feo with my 9th graders’ summer reading book and annotating pen in hand. A loudmouthed young man (i.e., early forties) smoking a cigar at the bar asked if there were any other “hidden gems” around the beach. Greg, the bartender, said, “We generally don’t like plugging the competition.”

But then Greg caved and mentioned the Jack of Cups, adding, “It’s not really hidden though.”

The cigar-chomper started talking about how cheap everything was down here compared to Ohio — even downtown Charleston in the touristy places — and just when I was getting ready to reposition myself out of earshot, Jeremy, one of the cooks, sat down beside me.

Unfortunately, you don’t get to know the cooks at Chico Feo as well as the bartenders because, duh, they’re in the kitchen rassling up Mahi tacos or a noodle bowl or a batch of curried goat.

I’d talked to Jeremy before a few times on slow nights and knew he was from Louisiana. I told him I was headed to New Orleans in early September, and he said that he’d just gotten back from there yesterday. He and his extended family had spent ten days on the southern coast fishing, eating, and drinking beer. He said that the youngest of that clan were teenagers and one of his parents had chided him for using foul language in front of them. “I try to use polite language when I’m in polite company,” he said, “but I’m never in polite company,”

We had a wide-ranging conversation in which I discovered Jeremy has a way with words, a sharp wit. He had a roll of blue tape with him, and I asked him what it was for, and he said, “labeling things in the kitchen.” He said he had been looking for the tape all day. “That’s why I like living alone,” he said, “because I know where everything is.” This reminded me that in my recent widowerhood, I had developed an incredibly efficient way to load the dishwasher.

Me: Do you have a dishwasher?

Jeremy: No, I don’t have any dishes.

We started about talking about New Orleans, and he asked me if there was anything specific I was going to do, and I said I was definitely going to hit the Rock and Bowl, which, as it turns out, was one of his favorite high school hangouts because back then the drinking age was 18, he was tall, and never carded.

“Tell me about a cool spot I should go?” (asking like the Ohioan for the inside scoop on hidden gems).

“Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge.”

Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club

I’ll leave you with one last of his witticisms. Greg was emptying ashtrays with a pair of vice grips, and I said, “Man is a toolmaker, a user of tools.”

Jeremy said, “or just a tool.”

So with that, I bid this Monday a fond farewell, will saunter downstairs (saunter’s a stupid verb, by the way) and have a chat with John Jameson.

Confessions of an Impulsive Procrastinator


people say I’m the life of the party

Certainly, I’m no stranger to what Eliot called “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.”  One of my few memories of my family’s 9-month stay in Biloxi, Mississippi, is leaping from a chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse Roy Rogers style, an act of derring-do that produced buckets of blood and pain so intense that it is pointless to even attempt to describe it.[1]

Alas, I could enumerate more recent acts of stupidity spurred by impulse rather than contemplation, whether it be driving my MG Midget down steps leading to the campus police department, an act of bravado that cost me a reckless driving fine of $200 dollars, an overnight stay in an establishment with bars (way too many in fact), and six points from my license. Even more recently, in the present century, impulsiveness has led to my machine-gunning undiplomatic emails and cc-ing everyone from the Pope to Mr. Peanut.

On the other hand, when it comes to everyday non-academic living, I’m the worst type of procrastinator. For example, my upper-story AC unit shut down last Wednesday, and I’ve just set an appointment to have it fixed tomorrow. The handle one of the doors leading to screen door has been broken longer than Barron Trump has been alive.[2]

Often when things do get repaired, it’s thanks to my neighbors. Friday, I was piddling around in my sweltering study upstairs when I heard banging below.

It was next-door neighbor Jim and his pal Gino working on the door. This morning another neighbor Whitney, whose landscaping company provided our yard maintenance before she and her husband sold Good Natured Gardening, arrived with a fellow to offer a quote for cleaning up the vine ridden back yard (think of Faulkner’s Miss Emily’s yard in Jefferson).

Asiatic jasmine, not a lawn, is hidden beneath the vines.

I did get a couple of things done. Went to my new classroom to draw it for my friend Kris who’s going to feng shui it. I contacted Judy’s life insurance company to hear the welcome news that after 12 weeks the claim is finally in the process of being processed. I also deposited Judy’s social security death benefit check, $255 dollars that I will no doubt spend unwisely.

Can you tell it hasn’t been feng-shuied yet?

However, these small victories were offset by failures.[3] I was rejected in my attempt to buy fill dirt for the almost always water-filled swale in my driveway that dips and rises like a ride at Six Flags.[4] My rejector suggested several other places to call, which I may one day. Also, I can’t find the red Chinese envelopes I need for the feng-shui-ing. Nor did I call a plumber to fix a toilet in the guest room bath, which I will get to tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. In fact, among today’s a dozen to-dos: “clean bedroom, read 50 pages, finish civil rights presentation, dispose of no-longer necessary artifacts “ all remain undone.

But I did crank out number 9 on the list – “create a blog post” — and accomplished something not even listed – boiling three pounds of peanuts.

So farewell sloth, hail gluttony.

[1] Okay, I can’t help myself.  Imagine vice-squeezed testicles (my landing on the saddle of the spring-loaded rocking horse) coupled with a bully taking you by the hair and slamming your face on the sidewalk (my face-first landing on a tiled-floor).

[2] Though Judy did get someone out to fix it 5 years ago but he fiddled with it for an hour, left, and never came back.

[3] Shut up, Microsoft word suggestion; that sentence needs to be in the passive voice.

[4] It does, however, dissuade tourists on golf carts to hang a right on my property.

Back to School, Then and Now

I never really liked school, except for kindergarten. I got lost on the second day of first grade by going to the wrong entry, the first sign of a sense of direction so challenged (i.e., damaged/unsound/defective) that a generation later I would spend over an hour looking for my car in the North Charleston Coliseum parking lot after my niece’s high school graduation.

Anyway, in the lower grades, I was mistaken for an academic superstar because of my verbal skills, but by 6th grade math, the jig was up, and when the rest of my alpha-grade-skipping group took Algebra I in the 8th grade, I was in regular classes and continued to struggle there among the not-so-gifted. Disorganized, lazy, rebellious, I always had something to dread — the lost band music, the undone homework, the choice of “suspension or three licks.”[1]

We are wonderful/We are fun/ We’re the class of ’71 (from SHS 1971 yearbook)

In the glorious summers, I was free to roam acres of undeveloped woods surrounding my neighborhood, later to pop wheelies on my banana bike under the glow of moth-crazed streetlights, and finally to sneak kisses waist-deep in Lake Murray on a weeknight with someone who signed her notes “I will love you forever.”[2]

And no matter whether it was in elementary, junior high, or high school, an established pattern developed: mental mourning on seeing back-to-school ads followed by a sense of growing anticipation about returning to check out the tans, the clothes, the new teachers.

I went to kindergarten in the school year 1957-8, the same year that the Little Rock 9 integrated Little Rock Central High. This year, I’m teaching my first history course, a semester elective called “America in the ‘60’s,” so I’ve been scouring the internet for material and ran across this remarkable film.  I invite you to enjoy its artistry and shudder at its content. Seriously, I consider this 3-minute film by Brittany VerHoef, Down Corwin, and Travis Cameron a minor masterpiece.


The horrible thing is that those divisions are all too alive and all too well exactly 60 years later. Do the enraged white people in the film remind you of any group today?

[1] I.e., three burning smacks on the ass with paddle or strop (I suffered both in my career as miscreant). Whoever it was delivering these blows, whether in junior or high school, was inevitably a former football coach now serving an administrative role. (If you were a girl the female basketball and golf coached did the whapping. (TMI?)

[2] And it was true! I received a sympathy call from her after my wife Judy’s death after decades of non-contact. My former girlfriend’s voice on the answering machine was choked with emotion over my loss. Maybe if you truly love someone, you continue to love him or her forever. It’s certainly true for me in regards to this caller.

O, the Years, the Years

Jack, cat killer

33 years ago yesterday Judy Birdsong woke me up with this message: “I have some good news and some bad news.”

She was a week overdue, and I had slept in the guest room to avoid the ocean swells generated by our waterbed when she turned over or got out of bed to use the toilet.

She was smiling, so I knew the bad news couldn’t be all that bad. “Okay, let’s have it,” I said.


Judy in Rantowles pregnant with Harry petting Jack’s mate Sally

“The good news is that I’m in labor. The bad news is that Jack’s killed a neighbor’s cat.”

Jack was a springer spaniel, very agile, adept at killing cats, squirrels, and raccoons. This was when we lived in Rantowles off Chaplin’s Landing Road in our first bought home, a ranch style three bedroom brick house overlooking Log Bridge Creek. Judy had taken Jack for a walk through the woods, and he had bolted and snagged and dispatched a cat.

Judy explained where the crime had occurred, on the corner of the adjacent street, Burrow Pit Road. So I went to deliver the news to the cat’s owner, retracing Judy’s steps through the woods. When I reached the house, I encountered a couple of fossilized automobiles, you know, the kind with four flat tires. The good news was the place was crawling with cats.

scene of the crime as it appears on google maps today

I went up and knocked on the front door. And older lady opened up and greeted me.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my dog killed one of your cats.”

She actually chuckled. I’m not making this up. “Oh, don’t worry about that, honey,” she said. “That’s just human nature when it comes to dogs and cats.”

So that was that. I hightailed it home and got into the Lamaze mode of timing contractions. Harrison was born the next morning in the wee hours.

Time flies, but actually it doesn’t seem like yesterday at all. It seems like a hundred years ago.

17 July 1984