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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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2 Comments

Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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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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Et al . . .

A special note from the writer to the reader: Please be forewarned—I wrote this story with my tongue pouched firmly in my cheek. The dictionary defines tongue-in-cheek speech and writing as “Ironic, slyly humorous; not meant to be taken seriously.

From Wikipedia:

et al, a Latin abbreviation meaning “and others” (‘et al.’ is used as an abbreviation of `et alii’ (masculine plural) or `et aliae’ (feminine plural) or `et alia’ (neuter plural) when referring to a number of people); “the data reported by Smith et al.”

The family that I will introduce to you in this posting would not know a Latin term from a monkey’s rash, but you will soon learn that the family is closely related—to the Latin term, not to the monkey.

The aforementioned family lives and reproduces in a mountainous region somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is an extended long-lived family that includes members from several generations, members ranging from great grandparents to great grandchildren, all crowded under the same roof.

For many years the family enjoyed the companionship of a beloved pet, a lady pig reared from its piglet status to adult pighood. She had a sparkling personality, and readily responded to the name Al, a diminutive term for Alberta. Al’s name was diminutive but she was not—she tipped the scales at 1,000 pounds, and for many years was awarded the title of Healthiest and Heaviest Hog at the state’s annual Hog Festival—she was much larger even than Godzilla, an Alabama boar hog pictured at right (you will note that Godzilla is now deceased).

The family’s rationale for naming their pet Alberta is unknown, but it’s doubtful that it came from any sort of written material, unless from can labels or printed feed sacks—most of the family was neither inclined nor capable of deciphering literary symbols—in fact, the only printed material to be found in the home, other than can labels, seed catalogs and printed feed sacks was the Sears catalog, delivered to the family annually by a postal worker leading a mule. The mule carried the mail while the postman walked, but following the last delivery the worker was authorized to ride, if he so desired.

Note: I have walked and I have ridden mules—astride—and I would much rather walk.

One more thought concerning the name Alberta—one may reasonably surmise that the home may have housed one or more immigrants, legal or otherwise, from Italy or Spain, or perhaps from Mexico, Central America or South America, all locations with considerable numbers of Spanish-speaking people, hence the name Alberta, the feminine form of Alberto.

The Sears catalog, a thick periodical comprised of thousands of smooth and very slick pages with thousands of pictorial images, was handled so much by everyone, including the very young and the very old, that the pages were softened by its constant use, especially in the section that presented images of underwear-clad models of both sexes.

Each year, in a time-honored practice initiated immediately following the delivery of the new catalog, the previous year’s publication was exported to a small house located a few yards to the rear of the big house, to be used for a secondary purpose—although very few members of the family could read, some wag had posted a crudely lettered sign in the little house behind the house that read, “Blot, do not rub,” a reference, perhaps, to the catalog’s remarkably smooth pages.

Please forgive me. I have inadvertently digressed from my original purpose, that of telling the story of the family’s beloved pet, a tremendously talented pig named Alberta—Al for short.

Now to continue the saga of Al:

Al lived with one of the family’s grandmothers—a kindly woman, an Aunt Bea type that cheerfully welcomed all visitors that came to see her highly talented pet perform. Al was a very intelligent pig and very light on her feet— she could, on cue, perform various tricks including dancing wildly on her back legs to tunes played by one of the younger boys in the family. That worthy was a lad that never did well at his studies—fact never entered a schoolroom, but he was a music maestro with a banjo in his hands. Oh, and Al also did a remarkable imitation of the belly dance performed by Little Egypt in1893 at the Egyptian Theater on the World’s Columbian Exposition Midway in Chicago (pictured at right).

In addition to her dancing abilities, Al could also emit a staccato series of grunts and squeals that were easily identifiable as the tune of The Star Spangled Banner. People came from far and wide—over the river and through the trees, to grandma’s house they came—just to hear Al sing our national anthem. The highlight of Al’s performance was when she hit the high notes in the final stanza, the part that goes, ” . . . o’er the land of the free . . .” When she inhaled deeply and then squealed out the word free, thunderous applause erupted, with the audience according recognition and appreciation for a performance that would equal or surpass the applause for any rendition of the song at major league baseball games.

The family prospered for many years, but in time the area fell on hard times, a deep economic depression that required them to forage for sustenance over a wide range. They had a plentiful supply of poke salad, a type of green made from pokeweed, a plant that grows wild over a wide range. When properly prepared, pokeweed is a palatable and digestible green, similar to turnip greens and spinach. However, preparation must be meticulous because, if not properly prepared, the weed is poisonous—it has the ability and proclivity to kill a person soon after its ingestion. The images on the right show the living plant and a woman preparing a meal that includes poke salad—ummm, looks tasty!

Not long after the depression hit, visitors seeking entertainment from the family’s beloved pet were told that the pig was not available. On questioning Al’s whereabouts, they were first briefed about the hard times on which the family had fallen, with emphasis on its inability to adequately nourish the children, primarily because poke salad did not furnish the protein necessary for survival. So in answer to the question, the grandmother would furnish a prepared answer, one couched in the form of a poem:

“Our young’uns was hungry,

And we was too,

So we done the only thang

That we knowed to do.

We et Al!

We et everthang ‘cept her squeal, and we shore do miss ‘er!”

Please don’t laugh—this is a true story, as told to me by the banjo-playing boy from Deliverance, a great movie that starred Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty—if you can find it on VHS or DVD, check it out—it’s well worth the watch!

In an odd way this posting is related to the movie, because in one scene the script called for Ned Beatty to squeal like a pig—Ned squealed beautifully, so well that he was awarded Hollywood’s Oscar for Best Squeal of the Year. The award could better have been titled Best Squeal Ever.

And just in case that a reader of this posting—any reader—really believes this is a true story, as told to me by the young banjo picker in that movie, I stand ready to offer that reader a fantastic deal on some ocean-front property near Flagstaff, Arizona—I’m reasonably certain that we can come to an agreement on the price.

Just one more thought, a word of precaution to anyone that harbors thoughts of using the poem above for mercenary purposes—the poem that reveals the fate of the fair Alberta. The poem is my creation, given birth by me. It should be obvious to any viewer that I expended a considerable amount of my time, talent and energy in its creation, and the fruits of my labor should not be harvested by others. Beware—the poem has been properly copyrighted and made a matter of record in all the appropriate venues.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.



 
 

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