“Hewn in a Wild Workshop”
This time of year always makes me miss Jernigan … and Wuthering Heights. Never mind that one is on the Yorkshire moors and the other in Russell County, AL.
In my mind, they are connected. Perhaps I miss them both around Halloween because Wuthering Heights is something of a ghost story, and because I grew up surrounded by ghosts in Jernigan.
From the first time I read Emily Bronte’s only novel – the story of Heathcliff and Catherine – when I was 16 it, to use Catherine’s words, “altered the color of my mind” and “stayed with me ever after.” Many of my friends half-expected that I would name my son Heathcliff. My family raised a ruckus at that suggestion 22 years ago, but I am proud to announce that a four-legged boy named Heathcliff has taken up residence at my house recently and is taking over as surely as Heathcliff took over the Heights.
Over the years, I have been asked many times why I love that particular book so much, just as I have been asked why I love Jernigan. I’ve always given any answer to defuse the ridiculousness of being asked to explain why I love something. I have never tried to explain how in my mind Wuthering Heights and Jernigan are connected, how the book and the place are, for me, both about isolation and passion, about barriers and entanglements, about love and hauntings.
The isolated landscape in Wuthering Heights must have resonated with me as a teenager because I spent a lot of time alone while growing up an only-child in Jernigan. I had two best friends to re-enact Nancy Drew books and episodes of Dark Shadows with, but still spent many hours by myself, either reading or daydreaming in the pecan orchard or the rye grass field. I was detached from the world outside Russell County, and bound to the landscape there.
Finding an arrowhead in a plowed field made me aware of a time and a people who lived there before I did. Empty houses held stories of relatives and neighbors who had lived and died before I was on the earth. The gravestones of ancestors in the cemetery at Jernigan Methodist church told tales of a past that did not include me, but from which I came. I understood that I was part of the land and of all those who had come before me. I understood that the land would still be there when I was gone.
During their childhoods, Catherine and Heathcliff, still unfettered spirits, played on the moors – picking heather, climbing Penistone Crag. When Catherine speaks of her love for Heathcliff as being like “the eternal rocks beneath,” giving “little visible delight, but necessary,” the astute reader understands that her love for him is no ordinary human emotion. It is tinted by their kinship with the natural landscape. His very name, after all, reflects their natural surroundings: the heath, its crags and cliffs. Isolation fuels strong passions, and wild places breed wild hearts.
So when my students or acquaintances tell me they “don’t get what’s so great” about Wuthering Heights – or Russell County – I silently wonder if it is because they have no connection to the land, to the past, to the concept that life on the planet did not begin with their arrival and it won’t end with their exit. I wonder if it is because they were not nurtured in a wild place, because they were never isolated. I wonder about their capacity for passion.
Wuthering Heights is about barriers, but it is also about entanglement.
Heathcliff is male, but illegitimate –a “gypsy orphan” — and Catherine is female in a society where only first sons count. Many barriers keep them apart in this world, and each makes choices that seem cruel – but regardless of how many scholars teach that Wuthering Heights is about something other than love, love does win. Ultimately, it overcomes social class, gender, and even death.
Catherine’s ghost breaks the barrier between life and death to come back to the window beside the paneled bed, to try to get back to Wuthering Heights, to the moors, to Heathcliff. And after Heathcliff dies, too, the local folk claim to see “the two on ‘em …on every rainy night since his death,” still haunting their wild moors. From the paneled bed that Heathcliff and Catherine slept in as children to their coffins with the sides knocked out -so their dust can mingle in death – it is their love story that makes the book memorable, that comes back to haunt.
We may not have moors or heather or heaths or even many cliffs in Russell County, but fields of goldenrods and French Mulberry can also engender wild hearts and grand passions. It’s lovely weather for a good novel. I highly recommend Wuthering Heights – but only for the strong-hearted.
My grandmother’s house is on the market.
It sold only a year ago, it seems, killing me softly. And now the new owners who “loved it” so much appear to be selling it after only one year. What they don’t know- can’t know – is how much life has been absorbed into the walls, into the floors, how many memories are lodged in every crack and crevice of that house. A price tag can’t be put on that.
Has the young wife who is selling it ever made a Butter Roll in Mymama’s kitchen? Has she ever even heard of Butter Roll? Does she know that dough is made from the flour that was in the can on the top shelf over the stove, and that to get the flour down Mymama batted at it with the big butcher knife till she got it close enough to the edge of the shelf that she could make it fall, and that she would deftly drop the butcher knife in the nick of time to catch the can of flour, making a mess and not caring because the focus was on the Butter Roll? Mama was afraid she was going to cut her wrist or her jugular vein one day batting things down with that butcher knife, but she never did. Has the new woman stood at the counter and rolled out dough with a Coke bottle or just the perfect jelly jar turned drinking glass because, for some reason, there is not a rolling pin?
Mymama died in that house, as she always said she would. “When I leave my house,” she said, “it’ll be feet first.” And so she did. A very few short weeks before she died, she instructed my Aunt Vivian that she wanted me, her only living granddaughter, to have her mother’s diamond ring. Her fingers had become so gnarled with arthritis at the ago of 99 that Vivian had to cut the ring off. I had the ring reset in an identical setting and was able to show it to her on my finger the last time I saw her alive. These days I spent a lot of time in her old blue bathrobe, and sporting her diamond ring.
Some mornings, in the summer, I take notions to make scuppernong ice cream the way she used to. Did the new woman stand at the big, big enamel sink and squish scuppernongs to get their juice? Did she reserve the squished hulls to boil and use in a scuppernong hull pie or “puff” because “to waste not is to want not”? Has the new woman ever tasted scuppernong ice cream or scuppernong hull pie? Has she ever had a fried “puff” when it was still warm? I take the diamond ring off while I squish the scuppernongs, while I work dough. There was dough still on the diamond when I had it reset. Does the new woman’s diamond have dough?
But this story is about the house.
We usually walked in from the side porch, through the side door, into the dining room. The dining room is where Hidaddy took off his hat when he came home from the depot everyday. If the fedora was on the dining room table, we knew Hidaddy was home. If it was not, then he was still at the depot. Does the new husband wear a hat? Does it smell faintly of Hav-A-Tampa cigars? Does he hide peanuts in his shirt pocket because he is not allowed them on his diet, and candy in his coat pockets because he is diabetic and not supposed to eat sugar? Does the new wife sneak around and smoke her cigarettes but leave the butts lined up little midget soldiers standing in formation on their filter ends in outside windowsills, on the shelf in that little built-in niche in the hall for the phone? For years before Mymama quit smoking we would find stubs standing on their ends in various places. Mama was sure she would burn the house down that way, but she never did.
Does the new woman watch the neighbor stretching “like an idiot” with one foot on a tree before he strikes out jogging in his short shorts while she eats her biscuit and sausage off the bathroom windowsill? In her blue bathrobe, I sometimes watch the world through my window. Cup of coffee in one hand, diamond ring on the other, I think about her wondering “what’s the matter with that old fool that makes him take off running like that?” I laugh. I get the joke. It is a trait I inherited as surely as I inherited her name, Marie. Things like that are funny to us. We do not take people seriously, especially not ourselves. And especially not people who take themselves seriously. That is why we live so long.
There is an archway leading from the dining room into the living room. In the quadrant of the living room between the fireplace and the archway is where the Christmas tree always stood. That is where we all gathered on Christmas and on Thanksgiving. That is where we sat on warm Sundays with the side door open. That is where Mama Brown’s furniture came to when she died. In that living room floor, over fifty years ago my aunts, “the twins,” taught me to pronounce my “y” and “sch” sounds before I started to first grade at Western Heights Elementary in Eufaula. Aunt Jean said I couldn’t start to school pronouncing it “cruel.” Once I started first grade, even though I had a wonderful teacher, I realized how “cruel” the playground really was compared to the pecan orchard and rye grass field I had grown up in, in Jernigan, compared to the living room floor at Mymama’s surrounded by family.
I can still see with my mind’s eye Mama’s sisters draped across the furniture or lying in the floor in the living room. When they were young, her three sisters were tall and thin. The twins, Jean and June, looked like Ann-Margaret to me, and Vivian like an exotic dark-eyed foreigner. Mama was the short one, taking after Mymamma and Mama Brown. Mama looked more like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights. Mama did not drape or lie on the floor. She hardly sat still. The new couple pulled up the worn carpet and redid the floors. Did the memories sink into the cracks between the hardwood, or were they thrown out with the carpet?
Off the living room is the “front” bedroom. That is the room Mama Brown stayed in when she visited. It was decorated in her favorite colors, pink and rose and wine. There were prisms on the dressing table lamps that caught the sun when it came through the Venetian blinds, refracting it before it was then reflected in the dressing table mirror. Both Hidaddy and Mymamma were moved to that room in their last months, him in 199_ and her in 2007. The daughters took the antique bed down and replaced it with a hospital bed so that neither parent had to go to a nursing home. They hired nurses to help. Keith helped Mymama take care of Hidaddy. Years later, Deborah helped the daughters take care of Mymama. Mymama died in that room calling for her grandparents, Big Mama and Big Daddy. Are her final dreams still trapped in that room? Are her memories of Big Mama and Big Daddy still there? Do the new husband and wife feel crowded by ghosts and other peoples’ dreams and heartaches and memories? Is the house too little for all the life that has been lived there, and new lives too?
Back in the den, Mymama and Mama Brown sat making the pink net over satin dress I wore in the Little Miss Eufaula pageant when I was seven. I did not win. A girl who wore pink sponge rollers to school that day took the prize with her ringlets. My dress was prettier, though, and even then I knew that I would rather not win than to wear pink sponge rollers in public. They also made my fairy costume for the first grade play. I was fancier than the Queen of the Fairies, causing a little stir among six-year-old sprites. Thanks to Mymama and Mama Brown, I was the only fairy whose halo and wand were covered with both silver and gold glitter and fringe. The Queen had only tinfoil. And they altered the adult size kimono Daddy brought back from Korea when the next year I was a Geisha who “came from old Japan/a very beautiful land.” When Mymama sewed, she talked with pins in her teeth. It made Mama cringe; she was sure that she would suck a pin down her throat and choke to death, but she never did.
She used to sit on the floor furnace in the hall and eat ice when I was little. I realize now that she was probably anemic at the time, pica. We didn’t know back then that chomping ice was a sign of anemia. She must have gotten over it. She lived 99 years, even though she “walked the plank” till she was in her eighties: the door to the basement is at the end of the hall near the kitchen. If you open that door, there is a space that is actually under the stairs to the attic. She used that cranny as an extra pantry. It was a cool space, perfect for keeping food fresh. But here is the rub. To get to it, she extended a plank that was about five inches wide and six feet long between the top step to the basement and the little cranny of space. To get a can of peaches, a box of macaroni, she would walk the board till she could reach the storage nook. Under her was nothing but ten cement steps and a fifteen foot drop onto a hard basement floor. Mama kept telling her she was going to fall and break her neck, but she never did. I wonder if the new man and woman ever walk the plank. I hear they tore the kitchen out and made it more modern. I wonder if they replaced the plank. Perhaps they suspended the plank and replaced the bare bulb that hung over it, or maybe they just added cabinet space in the kitchen.
The back bedroom is where Hidaddy and Mymama slept. Every time I got a chance, I rambled through Mymama’s jewelry box on the dresser, through the box Hidaddy kept cigar labels in. I can’t remember why he saved those labels, but I liked to stick them around my fingers and pretend they were rings. I liked his pins and clips with Lion’s Club emblems on them. When the new couple bought the house, I got the mattress off the bed. I sleep on it now wearing the diamond, with the blue bathrobe across the foot of the bed. Recently, I dreamed she and I went on a Tour of Homes and rolled our eyes because in every house we went in there was a giant plasma television on the mantel over the fireplace in the Bonus Room. I hope the new people did not make a Bonus Room in Mymama’s house. Bonus Rooms are as funny to us as old fools are that stretch on tree trunks and then take off running around town in short shorts.
Upstairs. The attic fan. The long bedroom with beds lined up for grandchildren. The little room with the slanted ceiling. The cedar chest. The closet with the boxes of Christmas decorations. The brick garage. The yard that she loved so much. The magnolia tree that Papa Brown planted when he built the house. Twice after she was already older than Methuselah, Mymama worked in her flowerbeds till she passed out, and neighbors or passersby rescued her. Once she lost the diamond ring in the dirt in one of the flowerbeds. My Daddy sifted dirt till he found it, and now I wear it on my finger as I write this memory, it and her old blue bathrobe.
So the house is on the market again, but the memories are not for sale.
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When I was a little girl, I loved empty bottles: medicine bottles, wine bottles, perfume bottles, even broken bottles. Each spring my family planted a garden in the back of a vacant yard where Miss Annie Cunningham’s house had once stood. Miss Annie must have had an epic garbage dump on the spot where we planted our garden because year after year that newly plowed plot was a treasure trove of bottles and jars.
In addition to digging for buried treasures, I also begged older relatives to save their empty medicine bottles for me. Even the customers at Daddy’s store knew to save me their cobalt blue Milk of Magnesia, Vick’s Salve, and Noxzema bottles and jars.
When I was a little more sophisticated, I discovered that many ladies – such as my Aunt Lillian and my great Aunt Evelyn – would give me their beautiful empty perfume bottles. My own mama didn’t wear make-up or perfume, so a whole new world opened up to me the first time I took the glass stopper from an empty Chanel No. 5 bottle and smelled the lingering scent. (Jungle Gardenia by Tuvache didn’t seduce me till later, but I remember the exact moment — I was fourteen — that I picked up a sample sheet saturated in the luscious smell of gardenias while standing at the counter at the Rexall waiting for a vanilla coke.)
Last week, more than fifty years since I first smelled Chanel No. 5, I came across an Internet blog on which someone asked if “anybody out there” knew the recipe for Chanel No. 5. About five bloggers wrote back to the effect that the girl who asked the question must be stupid if she thought that information was available. They said she might as well ask the formula for Coca-Cola or KFC. Of course, I found the blog in the first place because I was looking for the recipe for Chanel No. 5, so I was grateful that a courtly sort named Starbuck modestly answered her with this simple message:
Top Notes: Aldehydes, grasse jasmine, neroli
Heart Notes: rose, ylang-ylang, iris, and lily of the valley
Base Notes: amber, patchouli, vanilla
A gentleman with real information instead of a smart Alec with a comeback is something
to value, as is a wonderful scent. The Chanel No. 5 web page confirms that Starbuck
was correct. It describes the scent this way:
“Launches with bewitching notes of Ylang-Ylang and Neroli, then unfolds with Grasse Jasmine and May Rose. Sandalwood and Vanilla round out the fabled composition with unforgettable woody notes.”
Reading that recipe I realize that over the years my favorite fragrances — ylang-ylang, patchouli, amber, neroli, and even vanilla — were most likely influenced by that first empty bottle of Chanel No. 5 that Aunt Lillian or Aunt Evelyn gave me for my bottle collection, that my interest today in scents and essential oils probably started there, too. Those vessels weren’t empty after all.
copyright, Marian Carcache, 2010
January 1, 2010
As a new year begins in which I will turn 56 years old, I realize something I have never known about myself. I have never thought of myself as a person who cares much for cosmetic counter perfumes. Many of them change scent on me. Most make me sneeze. Since Patchouli days, I have preferred essential oils. But a series of events over the last days of 2009 has caused me to rethink my history with perfumes.
On New Year’s Eve night, my friends Bob and Gail Langley picked me up to ride with them to Jimmy and Joanne Camp’s party. The second I got in the car, Gail asked if I smelled her. I answered, “why, yes, but I thought it was my lapel.”
New Year’s Eve is also Bob and Gail’s 26th wedding anniversary and Gail had asked for a bottle of J’Adore Perfume by Christian Dior, a “radiant, sensual, sophisticated … fragrance that celebrates the renaissance of extreme femininity and the power of spontaneous emotion with a brilliant bouquet of orchids, the velvet touch of Damascus plum, and the mellowness of amaranth wood.” ☺ Gail continues to surprise me. I never pegged her as a girl who would ask for perfume, but she sure did smell good.
Just as Gail surprised me in asking for perfume as an anniversary gift –she and Bob had exchanged cremations for Christmas after all — I surprise myself in realizing that the luxury I have indulged in during my Christmas break from teaching has been to stop in at the mall several times a week to spray myself with Chanel No. 5, alternating of course between the tester at Dillard’s and the one at Belk. I cannot in good conscience pay nearly $100 for a bottle of perfume when there are homeless creatures in the world who need money more than the Chanel empire does, but for some reason, it has given me comfort this Christmas season to smell that scent that so many women from my childhood wore
I’ve written before about my early “love affair” with Jungle Gardenia by Tuvache. How melodic even its formulas is: “top notes of sage, clary oil, bitter orange oil, cyclamen, heliotrope. Middle notes of gardenia, tuberose, tarragon, ylang-ylang, violet leaves, jasmine, lily of the valley. Dry down notes of oak moss, musk, sandalwood and benzoin.”
As a junior high school girl, I could never afford my own bottle of Jungle Gardenia, but I snuck to the Rexall back then the way I am sneaking to the department stores now for Chanel No. 5, almost as if I am slipping away to a romantic interlude. And I never forgot Jungle Gardenia, the way we never forget our first love. Even when I was an awkward adolescent, it transported me to another reality. It appears that Elizabeth Taylor felt much the same way about it, and even developed her own Gardenia perfume a few years back. When Irma Shorrel bought the formula and started making what is supposed to be the original scent again, I bought a bottle. It smells very similar, but somehow not quite the same as it did in the Rexall when it was forbidden and I had to face the disapproving eye of the matron behind the counter when I tested it over and over. All she saw was a junior high school girl using up the tester with no ability to buy. She couldn’t see that I transformed into Jackie O, Audrey Hepburn, or Princess Grace with a couple of sprays of that magical elixir.
During the 1960s, I rendezvoused with Yardley’s Oh! De London. Sporting long straight hair and bangs, mini-skirts and white boots, a couple of sprays of Yardley turned me into Jean Shrimpton, Olivia Hussey, Jane Asher, Patti Boyd. Sadly, O! De London was gone by the 1970s. There were also brief interludes with Tabu, Ambush, Tigress, and Kiku, — and my Wind Song surely stayed on somebody’s mind. I could never forget Charlie, or the brief dalliance with Forever Krystle during the heyday of Linda Evans, John Forsythe, and Dynasty.
In the 1980s, my friend, Nadya, introduced me to Pheromone by Marilyn Mignon. When she changed to Jessica McLintock, she gave me most of a boxed set of Pheromone, and I continued to wear that fragrance into the 1990s. Pheromone not only smells exotic and wonderful but also comes with a story worth repeating. The Mignon website relates that “in her search for a scent unlike any other, Marilyn Miglin traveled the four corners of the world visiting the place where perfume were held in higher esteem than gold. Egypt. There, she examined unearthed jars, which once contained cherished essences and found that traces of fragrance remained after 5,000 years. From a search of carved temple reliefs and ancient hieroglyphs, she uncovered astonishingly complex and unforgettable formulations. Upon translation, ancient secrets for compounding and blending were unlocked from recorded time.”
Not only that. To make Pheromone, “Jasmine blossoms in full bloom during the night must be gathered before dawn when their scent reaches its highest level. Tonka extract come from a rare tree in Venezuela. Its tiny Ambrette seeds require precise soaking in rum before they are dried in the sun and ready for extrusion.”
The recipe for Pheromone sounds as exotic as the silks and dyes in that handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona that was a gift from a gypsy lady to his mother, its silk having coming from hallowed silk worms and its color from the blood of mummies.
So I have surprised myself: not a perfume girl I thought. For years, I have claimed interest only in pure essential oils and have turned up my nose at “store bought” perfumes, but a little retrospection has unveiled a truth about myself that until now I have not embraced. So I welcome a new year with the thought that in the last days of 2009, a few weeks before turning 56, I know myself a little better. What might I discover in 2010? Not sure, but I will be smelling good when the epiphany comes!
Kris Kristofferson: Poet, Picker, Prophet
In the early 1970s, sunbathing in the backyard in Jernigan in one of those aluminum lounge chairs with green and white vinyl webbing, I was idealistic, even naïve. If somebody had tried to tell me that Fortune is a fickle hellion, I would not have believed it. At 16, slathered in baby oil with iodine (no fear of UV rays), probably reading Cosmopolitan magazine (instead of required summer reading for school) in the sun’s glare (no fear of cataracts), I had Big Dreams. There’s a very good chance that I had rinsed my hair in apple cider vinegar and was waiting for the wonderful southern summer sunshine to bring out those red highlights I’d inherited. Life was good. Maybe there was iced tea involved, or even an icy bottle of Bulldog that I had slipped from the cooler at Daddy’s store. Probably either WDAK “Big Johnny Reb” or WPNX “Kickin’ Country” was playing on the little red transistor radio, my constant companion. Amidst all those mindless distractions, there he was in whatever magazine I was flipping through: Kris Kristofferson. And I focused.
I knew his name; he was a brilliant songwriter. I knew he wrote several of the songs my friend (and math tutor) George McLendon sang on Sundays when Mama would call him to come rescue me from a math meltdown. I would always remind her, “Tell him to bring his guitar,” and George would accommodate. I didn’t retain much of the math that George so patiently tried to teach me, but I knew every word to a song he sang called “The Pilgrim” by Kris Kristofferson, every nuance of “The Silver-Tongued Devil.” So when Sammi Smith and Ray Price and Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash had hit songs from “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “For the Good Times,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” I already knew Kris Kristofferson. It was not until that summer day, though, that I was able to put a face with the name. In the next year or two, he won Song of the Year a couple of times, as well as Songwriter of the Year, and the rest of his story is well known.
Over the years, I have taken refuge in Kris’s songs when times have gotten tough. But I had given up on the dream of ever seeing him in person until a couple of weeks ago when a marvelous someone sent me tickets to see Kris in concert at the Bill Heard River Center in Columbus, and an old dream I had abandoned came true.
Still stunning at 73 years of age, Kris stood alone on the stage with only his guitar and harmonica and a couple of speakers. My tears started midway into the first song … and continued. My son, who has grown up with Kris playing in the background (if our lives were a movie, Kris would play the soundtrack), may have shed a few tears too, but he concealed them better. Part of the beauty of Kris Kristofferson’s songs is that when the raw truth of them breaks us down to the tears, it also helps us up, dusts us off, and gives us the courage to try again.
Kris broke my heart and put it back together again on January 26, 2010 at the Bill Heard River Center. His soul-wrenching lyrics and gravelly voice cut through the scar tissue that hearts form to protect themselves as the years go by and ideals tarnish as dreams fade. His words found that girl from Jernigan again – the naïve, but idealistic one. She’s smarter now about UV rays and stuff, but it took an evening with Kris Kristofferson to remind her of what matters, to breathe life into her dying dreams again.
Click on the link below to listen to an interview with Marian.
“The great surprises are poets Honoree Fanonne Jeffers and Fred Chappell and relative newcomer Marian Carcache, all of whom use economy of language and near perfect detail to create transcendent stories.” (Library Journal on anthology “Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic”)
Marian Carcache provides a master class in economical storytelling. Her “The Moon and the Stars” is by turns grubby, beautiful, sensuous and tragic.” (Nick Smith, author and filmmaker)
“Under the Arbor is one of the most charming works to appear on the operatic stage in decades.” (Kirk Browning, director “Live from Lincoln Center”)