Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wild Gratitude

Frank McCourt's death brought C's house to mind. The author's stories of poverty, about being bitten by fleas in a bed crowded with siblings, sent me hurtling back to that small place nestled in a narrow curve in the road, at the edge of a creek, in danger of being overtaken by the deep woods.

That house was a magnet.

C and I were in fifth grade when her father passed away. The former school truant officer had moved his family for a better paying job. Like my father, he couldn't bring himself to settle in the city near that job, so chose a farming village near the Tennessee line. But a heart attack struck him down as he watched his two oldest sons play football. He wasn't even 40.

He left the woman he had married when she was still a girl, five bewildered children ages 3 to 14, and no money to speak of. Relatives who could have cushioned the blow were back in Tennessee. But the new life in Alabama was their dream, and she was determined to stay. Somehow she scraped by.

The house was bedlam. C's gentle mother filled the house with pets and guests, children especially, and placed no time limits on visits. We ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches, mountains of them, washed down with Kool Aid. On Saturdays, the tall, skinny widow cooked a country breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and white gravy on homemade biscuits, puffed to perfection with soft White Lily flour.

I don't know what my parents were thinking. Sometimes all three of us, my brother, sister and I, spent entire weekends at C's house. In the summer, I seemed to be parked there pretty much fulltime. We acted like other kids in the daytime, went to the pool, tennis courts at the school, played piano and baseball.

Pale and exhausted by day's end, C's mother retired early. The two oldest brothers and mine went out with a teenage pack, to town with girlfriends before coming in late to sleep a few hours. So there in the lush green Tennessee River Valley, four girls aged 10 and 7 or so, and a little blond-haired brother who would not be ditched, headed out into a night unpierced by streetlights.

We hoarded material for small boats we put together to float down the creek that ran beside the house. These we hid away until midnight. We needed solitude for the boats, no cars on the road.

Then we found an old coffee can and hid. When a car drove by, one of us threw the can and yelled "hubcap!" This was supposed to make the driver stop, thinking he'd lost a hubcap. No one ever did. Until the night someone (not ME) threw the can with such pitiful aim that it hit the car. Then the driver was mad. He stopped. And hauled his full self out of the car cursing. We scattered into the protective thickets of the woods, into places such a big man could not negotiate.

Later we retrieved the boats. C and I, small and wiry, were captains with opposite styles. She was a stern taskmaster, barking out orders. She had two brothers and more expertise in the building arts. My parents kept me pretty closely under their thumbs at home. So at C's house, the enthusiasm and imagination I kept bottled up as a matter of course, through seemingly endlessly hours in church and other obligations, exploded out of me.

Laughing and yelling, we piled kindling into the boats, old hoisery, balled up newspapers. Then out came stashes of matches. One at a time, we placed the boats on the edge of the creek, lit the contents and pushed them off, into the water's current.

We jumped up and down, danced on the creek banks, cheered our handiwork. We stared in awe as the flames curled into the sky, spitting sparks high as a burning boat drifted down the creek, through the drain pipe, and out again past the winding country road. We were mesmerized, following as far as we could on the muddy banks, feet wet, falling in at times, keeping our eyes on the boats and on the red glow from the fire. Finally, then, even the faint orange melted into black night.

The last boat offered up to the stars, the sky and the moon, we straggled back to the house. But we weren't done. We thought somehow this pagan act would draw space aliens to the property. Older brothers encouraged this. So we would crawl out a back window onto the rock ledge of the house, halfway between ground and roof. We stood out there, flattened against the house wall, staring into the night waiting for a sign from the outer limits.

The space men never came to visit.

By then the energy was ebbing in the younger kids. Little brother might be passed out on the living room floor. And our little sisters were not far behind.

So, C. and I usually moved back outside. This time with cigarettes filched from her brothers. We sat in her mother's car in the driveway into the early morning hours, listening to the radio (WLS-Chicago had a powerful signal), smoking, pretending to inhale, talking about ditching our hometown when we grew up. We planned for the time we would no longer be children. When we could call the shots and do what we wanted. A new life.

In the cocoon of night we whispered, scanning the skies for lost space aliens, our feet streaked with dried mud from creek dancing. Breathing in sweet clean air, we celebrated water, fire and earth, a blanket of dense trees hiding us from prying eyes and rules.

Eventually we stumbled into the house and slept like kittens, four to a bed, my friend and her sister, my sister and me. We woke up in the morning scratching flea bites, mosquito bites, chiggers picked up while sitting and lying in the grass, nasties that dig in deep and resist departure.

But I never wanted to leave. Because for hours, days, nights and even weeks at a time we were free. The truth is I've never been so free, not before, not since.

Yet this isn't a lament for lost youth, a wish to go back.

It is a thank you letter, an expression of profound gratitude for having been there. Bearing witness in words for a time when the life pouring from me matched my surroundings. Young, wild, bare feet running through the creek, the deep south night soaking through my pores, into my bones and my blood. Sustaining me. Keeping me. Cradling me through the rest.


  1. That's a beautiful story. I feel like I was there.

  2. You would have fit right in, Blognut. You give yourself away in your own blog!