Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Circles in Time

I am growing more and more convinced, especially of late, that time must come to us in circles rather than in lines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no astrophysicist. Stephen Hawking probably could tell you much more on that subject than I have ever known about the intricacies of space and time—and likely more than I care to know, for that matter. Perhaps you are beginning to ask questions about my qualifications or maybe even my sanity. Let me put your mind at ease and tell you how I arrived at my cosmic conclusion. I’m a Southerner, and this part of my identity seems to permeate to my very depths. The land, the food, the music, the stories and people—all these flow through me like the mighty Mississippi winds its way through my homeland’s loamy soil.


Sometimes when walking on a sun-dappled path or meandering down a country road, I tend to disappear. I could just as easily be walking on the periphery of an antebellum garden party or on my way to meet a steamship down by the river. When I lived in Washington DC, I often would go to the National Museum of Art to relish masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, and Degas. My real treat, however, entailed stopping in the rotunda to see the burst of azaleas that bloomed there every spring. One look took me far from the bustle of subway trains, honking car horns, and posturing politicos. The sight of those azaleas transported me to Easter Sunday morning in Monroeville, Alabama—complete with new pants for church, a slightly sick stomach from too much Easter candy, and fighting with my brothers as my mother tried (in vain) to take a picture of us in front of the azaleas and still make it to Sunday School on time.

If I bite into a sumptuous dessert, suddenly I’m sitting at my Granddaddy TJ’s kitchen table years ago and biting into a piece of his chocolate pie. Granddaddy’s not making pies in this world anymore, but if I follow his recipe I swear I can almost smell his Old Spice aftershave and hear him say, “Now Matthoo…” In a similar way, a good devilled egg always takes me back to those formal Sunday dinners at Mrs. Etta’s house. I couldn’t have been older than about six or seven, but I remember biting into those salty, creamy bits of goodness and sitting up extra straight in her slightly musty but exceedingly proper parlor. The marble-topped tables, velvet-covered furniture, and imposing draperies seemed to whisper dinner conversations from another world.

And the music? Well, I could write for years and never scratch the surface of that topic. Sitting down at a grand piano never fails to transport me to Mrs. Saranne’s house. What a magic place that was! I can still hear the clacking of her laquered fingernails up and down that keyboard. Chopin preludes take me back—given just a few more years, I know she would have had me playing them. My lessons with her are just as productive now as they were then. They just occur in another dimension, in my own soul. (And yet even now, all these years later, I still cannot bring myself to write on my music in pen. She did tend to live on the edge like that.)

More even than the land, the food, and the music, the South’s stories and people are the cosmic movers that send me reeling through time. I grew up literally in the shadow of the Old Courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama. Back then, we really could hear the bell in the clock tower strike on the hour. I first read “Ms. Nelle’s” book, To Kill a Mockingbird, before I could begin to understand its angst. While in middle school, I memorized passages from the book, put on a pair of overalls, and played the role of “Jem” in my town’s springtime performance. With my friends Kelli and Stewart alternating in the role of “Scout,” we sat in the balcony overlooking the courtroom where trials such as Tom Robinson’s surely took place. I did my algebra homework while I listened to Atticus and Mr. Gilmer fight for Tom Robinson’s life. No wonder I made better grades in literature than in algebra! While we read Mockingbird in my eighth grade English class, I watched the events of that incendiary trial play out every Tuesday night during practice. We were amateurs, for sure, but dichotomies such as art and life, the now and the not yet, yesterday and today, real and imagined—early on in my life these distinctions began to blur.

I reread the book every few years, and each time I read it, the magic of Ms. Nelle’s words take me in and out of time and in and out of reality in new ways. While working in community mental health in rural Kentucky, I listened to a recording of Sissy Spacek reading Mockingbird. The distinctive lilt in her voice pricked my conscience at least to try to follow Atticus’ advice to consider life from the other’s shoes—or maybe even from inside their skin. This sounded like a noble pursuit over the speakers in my car. As I pulled the car into a potholed driveway and walked into a house surely only inhabitable by Ewells, Atticus’ words proved more of a challenge.

Last week I had a new experience with this timeless story—maybe it would be better described as a “time-full” story—too bad Webster doesn’t consider that an actual word. It seems to me that the best stories of the South are not timeless at all—instead, they encompass every time and all times. One evening last week I went with a friend to see a community theater production of To Kill a Mockingbird. To be honest, my expectations were not very high. Having read the book in the very town that nurtured its author during her formative years and having experienced with work with actors (amateur though they were) who could just as easily have been characters in the novel, I expected to watch the play with detached amusement. Not so!

From Miss Maudie’s opening lines to Scout’s closing, “Good evening, Mr. Arthur,” I cried. My tears soaked through the barbeque-smeared napkin left in my pocket from dinner, through my friend’s stash of Kleenex, through both my shirtsleeves, and even onto one of my socks. (I’m pretty bendy from my weekly yoga class. What can I say?) The theatergoers seated around me must have thought of me as Boo Radley’s cellmate out on a day pass. This time the themes of acceptance, equality, and justice did not so much pluck my heartstrings. No, this time the faces of Ms. Nelle’s characters—or more accurately the faces of my friends and cast mates—spoke to me from years gone by, and I scarce could contain my tears or my laughter.

As Calpurnia, the Finch’s cook and maid who reared the children after their mother’s death, swatted and fussed at Jem and Scout, I thought of Ms. Lena, our Cal. While the actress playing in last week’s cast fit Ms. Nelle’s description of “all angles and corners” to a tee, some folks might have thought our Calpurnia miscast. Sweet, good-natured Ms. Lena had not seen an angle or corner on her figure in years. A retired home economics teacher, she was all curves and hugs and stories, and I loved her. She died several years ago, and in that moment I missed her deeply.

Then there was Reverend Macmillan, or “Mr. Mort,” our Atticus. In his seventies when he played my Mockingbird dad, sometimes we laughed and called him “Granddaddy Atticus.” Despite his advanced age, he lived the role in a way that last week’s Atticus could never hope to achieve. Mr. Mort, a retired Presbyterian minister, lived and worked in Alabama during the Civil Rights era. Surely like Atticus, he could have said of Mockingbird, “…this is no ideal to me. It is a living, breathing reality.” I had not seen Mr. Mort in years when I heard of his death. When I heard, I could almost hear Mr. Crook, our Reverend Sykes, say, “Scout, stand up. Stand up. Your father is passing.”

I laughed as I watched their Miss Maudie attempt in vain to mask her Minnesota accent. My Miss Maudie, now a U.S. Circuit Court Judge, was then a lawyer in town whose riotous laugh could undo the entire cast with a mere giggle. When I worked at her law office during high school, I learned to appreciate the beauty of a good story—and a well-placed expletive! Yep, I loved every minute of it—except for the moment on Valentine’s Day when I wrecked my car while taking her children home from elementary school. Oops.

In that darkened theater as Ms. Nelle’s Pulitzer plot unfolded before me, I laughed and cried as faces passed by my mind’s eye. Mr. A.B., our court reporter, died last year. His late wife, my beloved Ms. Saranne, lives on all these years later. I think she's become my muse. But Mr. A.B. was special to me in his own right—he sang for nearly thirty years in my dad’s choir at church and brought me candy every Wednesday night after choir practice. When I was an awkward thirteen year old with a cracking, creaking, changing voice that couldn't quite make up its mind whether I should sing boy soprano, adolescent tenor, or just sit there with my mouth shut, none other than Mr. A.B. gave me a glimmer of hope. He said, "Matthew, if you'll just keep right on singing through the break, you won't ever lose your voice. That voice'll deepen and you'll never miss a lick." Those were kind words to a would-be pubescent soloist with a four note range, you'd better believe it! Even at eighty years old, A.B.’s voice was so mellow, so lovely. I remember hearing him sing “My Tribute.” How, can I say thanks / for the things he has done for me…” I pray I have a voice like that when I'm eighty.
The truth is so much stranger than fiction. As I walked into The Beehive today (a local coffee shop/bookstore and my Monroeville writing spot), I was greeted by the owner’s mother-in-law, Ms. Pat, another of our “Miss Maudie’s.” She mentioned in passing that Charlie McCorvey, our Tom Robinson, died a few weeks ago. Mr. McCorvey was a reading teacher at the middle school, and he played the role with a quiet dignity that moved me to tears even as a kid. If I had known of his death last week as I watched the play, I surely would have had to leave the theater.

Sometimes fiction is all too real, and real life is all too surreal. The lines blur, and time is less of a forward march and more like so many currents in a river. The same water that carried Mark Twain down the Mississippi cycles through and somehow fills my parents’ pool. The same dirt that made up the floor of those sparse slave quarters now grows the tomato—that on a sandwich with white bread and real mayonnaise makes a perfect summer afternoon. I can’t explain it—and an explanation just might ruin the magic.

For now, I’ll join the chorus of voices. Maybe I’ll play tag with Scout and welcome Kelli’s new baby girl into the world when she makes her debut in a few weeks. Lord knows I've got stories to tell that precious little one--her Mama would kill me, though. And even now, I know I’d better obey Calpurnia or face my peril. In moments when I need a hug from Ms. Lena, I’ll have to wait till I cross that river and meet her on the other side. I pray justice for all the Tom Robinsons of the world, and I'll mourn the loss of Mr. McCorvey, who taught many of my friends to read. When I sing our songs, I’ll remember Mr. A.B. and Mrs. Saranne. And come to think of it, while I’ve never spoken with her at length, every time I hear a good story, maybe I’ll breathe a silent thanks to Ms. Nelle, and all those wise folks who chronicle our comings, our goings…and our circles in time.

6 comments:

Courtney said...

Excellent. Lots of memories...I was a "Scout" too. Hadn't thought of some of those people in years, thanks for the trip down memory lane. :)

Cynthia said...

Magical...I may just go pick up my copy of Mockingbird and read it again! Love you!

Kay Taylor said...

Matthew,
Courtney suggested that I read your "tenderhumiliations" and I am so glad that I did!!! Having grown up in Monroeville, I can relate to a lot of the things about which you wrote. What a wonderful heritage we share! I am planning to re-read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the near future.

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