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Revisit: I still like prunes—a story of my Miss Mary . . .

This is a revisit to a post I made in August of 2010. It has languished in the Stygian darkness of prior posts and in that period of seven months it has garnered an astonishing total of three comments—one from a blogger in Virginia, a person that combines the talents of a writer, blogger, painter, wedding planner, party planner, sculptor, photographer, desktop publisher and gardener—and two comments from her father, the King of Texas. Yep, that blogger is the second-born of three beautiful girls that unashamedly admit to the world at large that I am their father.

I  take an enormous amount of pride in the story of Miss Mary—writing it was a labor of love and reading it is, for me, a return to a gentler world, one without nuclear energy, atomic weapons or rap music. Miss Mary influenced my life to such a degree that I still adhere to most—but not all—of the principles she taught me, her efforts aided substantially by her use of an 18-inch wooden ruler.

This story is true. I wrote it in 1987 when I lived for six months—an eternity—in Houston, Texas. The story has appeared in sculptor Tom Clark’s Cairn Studio quarterly issue, a publication that is distributed to dealers and collectors of the artist’s work in every county in every state in our United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.  Please note that any use of this document, other than brief excerpts, is prohibited by US and international law—it cannot legally be used in any other fashion without my permission.

Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes

On a special September morning in Mississippi many years ago, the air was crisp and clean and cool, and the woman standing in the doorway folded her arms against the chill. Her deep-set eyes, startlingly blue in a heavily lined unsmiling face, were fixed on a small boy as he neared the steps.

To a casual observer she presented a normal picture. A portrait from an earlier time, perhaps, than 1938, a time of black high-buttoned shoes and ankle length skirts, black and thickly pleated. Her white cotton blouse, high-necked and long-sleeved, was relieved in its starkness only by lace at the neck and wrists. Her hair was tightly plaited and shining in the early morning light, the heavy braids coiled and crossed in an intricate crown of silver.

I was that small boy, and I was not a casual observer. For me the picture was very different as my dragging steps brought me closer to my first full day of school. Fear of the unknown made me forgo any shortcuts between home and school, choosing the longer way to delay the inevitable. I was late, and as I squared the final corner the tardy bell rang. From the bottom step the black-skirted figure loomed gigantic, conjuring up visions of darkness, of beating wings, of things seen only in dreams.

I would come to know the woman as a pioneer educator that brought many innovations to her state and city educational systems. And I would come to love her. On that day I found a friend, and that friendship would be broken only by death.

Although past retirement age, she continued her position and her duties as an elementary school principal, and remained a dynamic figure and force in state and local school administration. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, she gained the respect and love of all that knew her.

We called her Miss Mary. She had another name, Stokes, but few of us knew it and none of us used it. She was simply Miss Mary. I spent my first six school years in the square two-story red brick building, my attendance broken only by the unpredictable moves of an itinerant carpenter stepfather.

Miss Mary ruled her school with an iron hand, and meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Always present in one wrinkled blue-veined hand was a wooden ruler. With deadly precision the eighteen inches of supreme authority landed on miscreant knuckles, shoulders and backsides of boys and girls alike.

I had the dubious distinction of being Miss Mary’s pet. Apparently to refute that notion, she punished me for the smallest infractions of a bewildering array of rules. The taps were delivered with love, but became painful through sheer repetition.

Lunch was closely supervised. With military precision we moved through the line, plates on trays, collecting helpings from long-handled spoons along the way. Everyone received the same items in identical portions. Conversation was kept to a minimum with Miss Mary moving among the tables, scolding here, praising there, coaxing us to eat everything on our plates. Probably the most disliked food was spinach—in spite of Popeye’s efforts—and stewed prunes ran a close second.

How I loved stewed prunes! At a time when happiness for other little boys was a Buck Rogers ring with a built-in compass, happiness for me was a third helping of stewed prunes. Served almost daily, they were usually eaten only through Miss Mary’s insistence. Not me—I needed no encouragement. I ate the prunes before I touched the main course. Seeing the affinity that developed between me and stewed prunes, Miss Mary told the ladies on the serving line to give me as many of the wrinkled dark delicacies as I wanted. My taste for prunes and Miss Mary’s indulgence probably made me the most regular kid in town.

As with all activities at Miss Mary’s school, playtime was highly regimented and closely supervised. Boys and girls were separated and each grade had its own area for recreation. If one of us strayed into another zone we were reprimanded and returned to our own.

There were exceptions. Miss Mary felt that in sports and at play children should be evenly matched. If one of us was appreciably smaller than our classmates, or lagged behind in muscular development and coordination, we were assigned to an area where we could compete more effectively and where the chances of injury were reduced.

I was smaller than most of my classmates—perhaps because of the prunes—so I spent my playtime with the next lower grade. There were some advantages. I was better coordinated than the younger boys, and I often spent the entire play period at bat by intentionally hitting foul balls. The rule was, “99 fouls and you’re out.”

Miss Mary ended her career in education at the same time I began mine in military service. Our friendship endured as the years passed, but our visits became infrequent because of my duty assignments. Returning to my hometown after several years overseas, I learned that Miss Mary, nearing the century mark in age, lived near the sister I had come to visit. After a call to her nurse and a short walk to the house, my sister and I were ushered into Miss Mary’s parlor. In the cool dimness of the room with its heavy drapes drawn against the bright fall sun, we saw the tiny figure seated in a massive rocker.

Her frail shoulders sagged under the weight of a thick brown shawl. She sat slumped forward, head down and eyes fixed on skeletal folded hands. Silhouetted against the single dim lamp she had an ethereal quality, her skin almost translucent, the diffused light a halo for her bowed head with its wispy strands of white hair. She seemed unaware of me, and paid no heed to my gentle reminders of the past. The nurse said that long periods of withdrawal were common, that Miss Mary might not recognize me or correspond in any way. I tried several times to talk to her, but there was no indication that she knew me or even heard me. Feeling awkward and ill at ease, and filled with a deep sense of loss and sadness, I told the nurse that I would come back later. I stood and moved toward the door and then I heard it.

“Do you still like prunes?”

Each word loud and clear, the voice deep and strong, lightly dismissing the long years, pushing back time and space to another day when a small boy found an unexpected and lifelong friend. Memories flooded over me as I turned back, sat down and replied, “Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes.” But that was all. Not another word. She remained silent and unmoving, head down and hands folded, and did not respond to me or to the nurse. Throat swollen and blinded by a scalding rush of tears, I stumbled to the door and out of the house.

I never saw her again. She died several months later, peacefully in her sleep according to newspaper accounts. Tribute was paid in eulogies by leading citizens and educators from all over the South, and the press detailed her long career and her many accomplishments. All the pictures in the newspapers were of a stranger. Not one was of the woman I remembered. Not one of them was of my Miss Mary. And not one of them was the Miss Mary in my strongest memories, the first time and the last time I saw her.

My sister did not hear Miss Mary ask me the question that day. She heard my answer that I still liked prunes, but thought I was trying to bridge the gulf with another reminder of the past. Nor did the nurse hear the question. She heard only my answer. Did Miss Mary speak to me? Did she remember me? Did the other two people in the room simply fail to hear the voice I heard so clearly? Could I have wanted recognition so badly that I imagined she spoke to me? Or did Miss Mary somehow transcend the need for speech and reach out to me without words?

My old friend spoke to me that day. I did not imagine her voice. I heard it. She knew me and in order to show that she remembered, she asked the one question that would identify me among the many thousands of people whose lives she had touched and shaped and strengthened.

“Do you still like prunes?” She knew me and she spoke to me and she heard my answer.

I have no doubts, no misgivings. I know it.

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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Alabama sans bathrooms . . .

I lived with my family in several houses before we moved from Alabama to Mississippi. Our first home in that city was on Fifth Street South. Click here for a sordid but hilarious tale of the itch, and of two naked kids undergoing treatment for their supposed infection of scabies.

The images shown at right show outhouses ranging from the most basic to the most outlandish. Note the brick outhouse in the center—is there anyone, anywhere, that has not heard this remark? Boy, she’s built like a brick—uh, like a brick—well, you know, like a brick outhouse! The last privy pictured is perhaps the ultimate outhouse, a two-story number with a ground entrance and a sky walk for the upper floors.

The house on Fifth Street was my first exposure to running water in the house and its accompanying refinement, a bathroom equipped with a bathtub and a commode. My prior residences in Alabama had neither, nor did the homes of our relatives in Alabama. Water was hauled in from the well or pumped from an underground source and hauled in, and baths were taken in a #2 wash tub or via a wash pan and a wash cloth. We mostly didn’t call them wash cloths—we called them wash rags because that’s what they were, squares of cloth taken from ragged sheets or towels or other cloth items that were no longer used for their original purposes. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were way ahead of the current recycling craze now sweeping the country!

In lieu of an inside toilet, our necessaries were outside and away from our domiciles, usually placed but not always, downwind from the house, depending on the direction of prevailing breezes, and at some locations the necessary was in any location at a distance from the house that provided a modicum of privacy, regardless of the prevailing breezes—get the picture? When a man-made structure existed, it was called privy, toilet, outhouse, the little house behind the big house and numerous other names, mostly vulgar terms. Regardless of its name, location or composition each adhered to this corruption of Shakespeare’s immortal line, namely That which we call a toilet, by any other name, would smell the same—hey, I said the line was corrupted, didn’t I? And it rhymes!

Now for the gist of this posting—it relates to personal cleansing, or bathing. I hesitate to use this term for an early Alabama bathing facility, but I don’t know how to get around using it, so I’ll borrow a truism from one of our former presidents—it is what it is, and it was what it was, so I’ll call it a wash hole and continue from that point.

A wash hole in my childhood days was any declivity in a stream that held enough water to enable one to get wet all over, and through the use of soap cleanse oneself—take a bath. As a child I was exposed—literally—to bathing in wash holes, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Farming in my early childhood days, in my area and my era, was a full time job from daylight till dark beginning with Monday’s daylight  and ending at Saturday’s noontime—from that point farm work ceased. Menfolks would leave their toils at noon, eat a hearty dinner, nap for awhile in the shade, usually on the front porch and then head for the wash hole for their weekly overall bath—seriously!

That Saturday afternoon bath held good through Saturday night and all the way to the next week on the following Saturday afternoon, and then the process would be repeated. In that interim period of one week, ablutions were restricted to face and neck and hands and arms and feet—unless one were caught in the rain, nothing else got wet until wash hole time came around again. I cannot speak for womenfolks and their bathing habits. At my tender age I was never privy—pardon the pun—to their bathroom habits or their methods or frequency of ablutions. Whatever methods were involved, the women always managed to appear and smell much better than their male counterparts.

Armed with soap, towels, clean shirts and overalls or trousers following Saturday’s dinner and brief siesta, the men and boys, regardless of their ages—even the little ones such as I—would head for the wash hole and once there, strip and wade in or dive in if the depth of the wash hole allowed it. It could be a small pond, a deep spot in a creek or a gravel pit filled with spring water. Diving required a working knowledge of the wash hole’s depth—click here for a tragic tale of a wash hole’s depth overestimated.

The hours from noon on Saturday until Monday’s return to the fields provided a respite from toil and worry, and virtually everyone–men, women and children headed for town. In my case the nearest town was five miles distant—as a child I have covered that distance in conveyances ranging from a mule-drawn wagon to a Ford Model A to an interstate bus. The trip in a wagon brings up more pleasant memories. The men sat on the wagon seat and in the wagon bed—upright cane-bottom chairs were placed for the womenfolk, and the kids were left to hang on anywhere they could find room. Depending on the length of the wagon tongue, one or two kids could sit on the rear portion for a really rocky ride. For most of the five miles we ranged ahead of the wagon chasing rabbits, picking blackberries along the roadside, throwing rocks at flying birds—we never hit one—and luxuriating in all the pleasures of childhood. Once into town with the mules tied up at the courthouse square and munching on hay, we were pretty much on our own.

The two things I remember best about the town square were Wimpy’s Hamburgers—a name taken from the Popeye comic strip featured in most newspapers—and the movie house, placed on opposite sides of the square. Movies were shown only on Friday and Saturday nights, the same films on both nights, and they usually ran for several weeks. The fare usually consisted of two feature-length films, termed a double feature, one a cowboy show and the other a detective or love story, supplemented by newsreels, cartoons and previews of coming attractions, all presented in black-and-white—-color was still in the future.

But I digress—back to the wash hole. I learned to swim in various wash holes by lying in shallow water and propelling myself along by my fingertips along the bottom, and graduated from that to pulling myself along in deep water with the same motion—the only difference was that my hands were pulling water towards me instead of pulling me along the pool’s bottom. From that point I mastered virtually every one of the dozens of swimming strokes—nah, not really—I still use my hands to propel myself along to keep my head above water to avoid drowning, a simple act that would eliminate drowning as a cause of death if learned and practiced by everyone.

The unvarnished truth is that I really learned to swim when my brother-in-law Elmer tossed me off a bluff into Pearl River, a stream that runs through the Hobolochitto Swamp in south Mississippi. In those years the swamp included alligators of all sizes, and I could feel teeth nipping at my toes from the time I hit the water. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the bluff, I thrashed and splashed my way successfully to the opposite side of the stream. I was reasonably sure that Elmer would rescue me if I foundered, but I decided not to risk sinking to the bottom in order to be rescued. No, I didn’t use the crawl I learned in wash holes. I combined the overhand front crawl with some stupendous flutter kicking—any alligator would have avoided the area on the belief that it was occupied by a monstrous specimen of its own species or perhaps of an unknown species.

My tale of being tossed into an alligator-infested river is true—I know—I was there! Sometimes, depending on my audience, I tell the story differently. I claim that I survived by swimming faster than the alligator that came after me, a Herculean feat made possible by the fact that I was swimming in clear water, as opposed to what the alligator faced.

That’s my story of bathrooms, outhouses, swimming and alligators and I’m sticking to it!

 
2 Comments

Posted by on September 27, 2010 in Humor, sports, swimming

 

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I still like prunes—a story of my Miss Mary . . .

This story is true. I wrote it in 1987 when I lived for six months—an eternity—in Houston, Texas. The story has appeared in sculptor Tom Clark’s Cairn Studio quarterly issue, a publication that is distributed to dealers and collectors of the artist’s work in every county in every state in our United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.  Please note that any use of this document, other than brief excerpts, is prohibited by US and international law—it cannot legally be used in any other fashion without my permission.

Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes

On a special September morning in Mississippi many years ago, the air was crisp and clean and cool, and the woman standing in the doorway folded her arms against the chill. Her deep-set eyes, startlingly blue in a heavily lined unsmiling face, were fixed on a small boy as he neared the steps.

To a casual observer she presented a normal picture. A portrait from an earlier time, perhaps, than 1938, a time of black high-buttoned shoes and ankle length skirts, black and thickly pleated. Her white cotton blouse, high-necked and long-sleeved, was relieved in its starkness only by lace at the neck and wrists. Her hair was tightly plaited and shining in the early morning light, the heavy braids coiled and crossed in an intricate crown of silver.

I was that small boy, and I was not a casual observer. For me the picture was very different as my dragging steps brought me closer to my first full day of school. Fear of the unknown made me forgo any shortcuts between home and school, choosing the longer way to delay the inevitable. I was late, and as I squared the final corner the tardy bell rang. From the bottom step the black-skirted figure loomed gigantic, conjuring up visions of darkness, of beating wings, of things seen only in dreams.

I would come to know the woman as a pioneer educator that brought many innovations to her state and city educational systems. And I would come to love her. On that day I found a friend, and that friendship would be broken only by death.

Although past retirement age, she continued her position and her duties as an elementary school principal, and remained a dynamic figure and force in state and local school administration. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, she gained the respect and love of all that knew her.

We called her Miss Mary. She had another name, Stokes, but few of us knew it and none of us used it. She was simply Miss Mary. I spent my first six school years in the square two-story red brick building, my attendance broken only by the unpredictable moves of an itinerant carpenter stepfather.

Miss Mary ruled her school with an iron hand, and meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Always present in one wrinkled blue-veined hand was a wooden ruler. With deadly precision the eighteen inches of supreme authority landed on miscreant knuckles, shoulders and backsides of boys and girls alike.

I had the dubious distinction of being Miss Mary’s pet. Apparently to refute that notion, she punished me for the smallest infractions of a bewildering array of rules. The taps were delivered with love, but became painful through sheer repetition.

Lunch was closely supervised. With military precision we moved through the line, plates on trays, collecting helpings from long-handled spoons along the way. Everyone received the same items in identical portions. Conversation was kept to a minimum with Miss Mary moving among the tables, scolding here, praising there, coaxing us to eat everything on our plates. Probably the most disliked food was spinach—in spite of Popeye’s efforts—and stewed prunes ran a close second.

How I loved stewed prunes! At a time when happiness for other little boys was a Buck Rogers ring with a built-in compass, happiness for me was a third helping of stewed prunes. Served almost daily, they were usually eaten only through Miss Mary’s insistence. Not me—I needed no encouragement. I ate the prunes before I touched the main course. Seeing the affinity that developed between me and stewed prunes, Miss Mary told the ladies on the serving line to give me as many of the wrinkled dark delicacies as I wanted. My taste for prunes and Miss Mary’s indulgence probably made me the most regular kid in town.

As with all activities at Miss Mary’s school, playtime was highly regimented and closely supervised. Boys and girls were separated and each grade had its own area for recreation. If one of us strayed into another zone we were reprimanded and returned to our own.

There were exceptions. Miss Mary felt that in sports and at play children should be evenly matched. If one of us was appreciably smaller than our classmates, or lagged behind in muscular development and coordination, we were assigned to an area where we could compete more effectively and where the chances of injury were reduced.

I was smaller than most of my classmates—perhaps because of the prunes—so I spent my playtime with the next lower grade. There were some advantages. I was better coordinated than the younger boys, and I often spent the entire play period at bat by intentionally hitting foul balls. The rule was, “99 fouls and you’re out.”

Miss Mary ended her career in education at the same time I began mine in military service. Our friendship endured as the years passed, but our visits became infrequent because of my duty assignments. Returning to my hometown after several years overseas, I learned that Miss Mary, nearing the century mark in age, lived near the sister I had come to visit. After a call to her nurse and a short walk to the house, my sister and I were ushered into Miss Mary’s parlor. In the cool dimness of the room with its heavy drapes drawn against the bright fall sun, we saw the tiny figure seated in a massive rocker.

Her frail shoulders sagged under the weight of a thick brown shawl. She sat slumped forward, head down and eyes fixed on skeletal folded hands. Silhouetted against the single dim lamp she had an ethereal quality, her skin almost translucent, the diffused light a halo for her bowed head with its wispy strands of white hair. She seemed unaware of me, and paid no heed to my gentle reminders of the past. The nurse said that long periods of withdrawal were common, that Miss Mary might not recognize me or correspond in any way. I tried several times to talk to her, but there was no indication that she knew me or even heard me. Feeling awkward and ill at ease, and filled with a deep sense of loss and sadness, I told the nurse that I would come back later. I stood and moved toward the door and then I heard it.

“Do you still like prunes?”

Each word loud and clear, the voice deep and strong, lightly dismissing the long years, pushing back time and space to another day when a small boy found an unexpected and lifelong friend. Memories flooded over me as I turned back, sat down and replied, “Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes.” But that was all. Not another word. She remained silent and unmoving, head down and hands folded, and did not respond to me or to the nurse. Throat swollen and blinded by a scalding rush of tears, I stumbled to the door and out of the house.

I never saw her again. She died several months later, peacefully in her sleep according to newspaper accounts. Tribute was paid in eulogies by leading citizens and educators from all over the South, and the press detailed her long career and her many accomplishments. All the pictures in the newspapers were of a stranger. Not one was of the woman I remembered. Not one of them was of my Miss Mary. And not one of them was the Miss Mary in my strongest memories, the first time and the last time I saw her.

My sister did not hear Miss Mary ask me the question that day. She heard my answer that I still liked prunes, but thought I was trying to bridge the gulf with another reminder of the past. Nor did the nurse hear the question. She heard only my answer. Did Miss Mary speak to me? Did she remember me? Did the other two people in the room simply fail to hear the voice I heard so clearly? Could I have wanted recognition so badly that I imagined she spoke to me? Or did Miss Mary somehow transcend the need for speech and reach out to me without words?

My old friend spoke to me that day. I did not imagine her voice. I heard it. She knew me and in order to show that she remembered, she asked the one question that would identify me among the many thousands of people whose lives she had touched and shaped and strengthened.

“Do you still like prunes?” She knew me and she spoke to me and she heard my answer.

I have no doubts, no misgivings. I know it.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 7, 2010 in Childhood, education, friends, Writing

 

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