Friday, November 21, 2008


If that's not a word, it SHOULD be. It's a feeling and a lifestyle and a hobby and a blessing, all in one.

Books are the bellwethers of magic---all kinds of both. I covet them, I love them, I caress and smell and open them with reverence tinged with impatience to get in there and see what's to offer. I coveted BIG TIME the National Geographics of the people catty-corner across the street. We lived too close to school for the bus, and SO far to walk on cold or rainy mornings.

I'd set out all bundled up, and sometimes would knock at the back door of those neighbors, whose daughter was two years older, a sophisticated, snappy dresser whose gleaming short perm was the envy of my little braids-wearing heart. The son was a couple of years behind me, a budding pyromaniac who later set fire to several neighborhood porches and quite a few garbage barrels left unattended in the neat back alleys where the trucks came through. Today, he's with Pixar---hope it's in CGI, and he can get his kicks from that.

The cook would let me into the back what-would-today-be-a-mudroom and I'd stand, inhaling the scents of morning toast, peeking through to the breakfast room---a small sunny place with two white-painted, high-backed benches in the wall and a table secured between. I watched obliquely as the son of the house consumed slice after slice, just the insides of the triangles, from the great stack set before him by Mattie. I could hear his clicky crunching sometimes, and see him turning pages of the newest comic book from the drugstore.

But mostly I looked at those shelves of golden treasure---all those years of NG standing proudly on shelf after shelf, their golden spines speaking of Madagascar and Algeria and all those deepest darkest Africa places---I wanted to dive into those like off the highboard with nobody lookin'. They just sat there---I never saw anybody with one open, or a gap in the shelves, or even one lying spine-broke on the footstool, waiting to be returned to and finished. It was kinda like the having was the thing---not the reading and absorbing and living in.

Jeannie would emerge into the kitchen, her aura of AquaNet sweeping through the dining room, and get her big glass of orange juice---I knew it wasn't fresh-squeezed; we had the tiny Minute Maid cans in our own freezer, which we made up in a red-flowered carafe with teensy glasses to match. We were each allotted one tiny glass at breakfast, and that was it---the container went back into the fridge for next morning. But her tall tumbler---that said Nancy Drew as plain as day---their Mattie converted into a white-uniformed black version of Hanna Gruen, pouring out the gallons of juice with a free hand.

And I would wait, hat in hand, so to speak, as their Daddy finished his newspaper, Jimmy finished the comics and toast, and they made their leisurely way to the big pinky-gray DeSoto in the carport. Big, solid clunks of all four doors, and we rode in silence---I just KNEW there would be something to talk about, about those Trobrianders or the Icelanders or even Australians, who were far away and strange, but at least spoke our language.

Nope. Not a word, even goodbye to their Dad; my soft "Thank You" was the only concession to civility of the whole ride; we could have been four strangers taking the El, with just that much relationship and notice.

Their parents did not work---my Mom didn't yet at that time, but both their parents "owned land" and the rentals and all the estate from his family kept them in DeSotos and National Geographics---a mighty fine state, to my way of thinking. And you never saw Mrs. Burgess in the morning---she got her beauty sleep, had her coffee delivered to the sunroom, and got bathed and primped up for whatever club or organization met that afternoon. (She put on her stockings EVERY DAY, soon as she got her bath) Several times a month, the half-dozen cars would line their drive on weekday afternoons, a sure sign that the Wednesday Afternoon or the Thursday Afternoon Bridge Club was in residence, with Mattie bringing out the little cream-cheese-and-pecan sandwiches and the Bridge Mix and coffee, and later, the Manhattans. (And them a mere two houses from the Baptist Church).

In Summer, sometimes I'd be over there to visit, and we'd see all the festivities, braving the clots of smoke to listen and giggle from the hall. We also got to scavenge at the limp, leftover trays of dainties. That's where I first saw "checkerboard sandwiches"---a tooo-twee concoction involving spreading crustless white bread with good sharp heavy pimiento cheese, stacking them someway criss-cross, and making a pattern that you cut down through, stack again, rotating each one ninety degrees, and cut again, so that the slices laid on the luncheon plate are little yellow and white checkerboards.

Quite striking and a lotta trouble, plus you had to have a fork to eat the thing, so they must have broken for refreshments instead of munching out of hand like we always did at our cutthroat games of Rook or Monopoly.

What we had and did were never quite enough or classy enough or stylish, or whatever, but that the Burgess household did it better and more often, to boot. Jeannie was a ladylike girl, whose propensities leant toward dressing beautifully on Saturdays, and spending the day sitting demurely in the front-porch swing with a few magazines, a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and a glass with a straw, and perhaps a bit of embroidery at hand, though I don't think I ever saw anything she'd completed.

I embroidered all the time---still have some of the pieces---"dresser scarves"---remember the art deco bedroom sets with the big oval mirror standing up, and recessed shelves in the middle, with two wings of drawers on the side? That's what my bedroom set was, with the smooth roundness of the Guggenheim, and a fat-poster bed (which was MINE---they said it was, and so, after watching so many movies and TV shows with the spread that draped gracefully all the way to the floor, with no footboard or posts to get in the way, I took Daddy's miter-saw to my own bed, leveling the two foot-posts to the height of the mattress, so that the spread went across and over in one smooth line).

I also did "pillow slips" in all sorts of colors and patterns---flowers and birds and scallops and waves. Mother had one of those sewing machines that you put in a round tooth-edged die into the slot, and the needle would do whatever fancy stitch along the edge of your pillow slip (or any other item)---she'd stitch around with variegated purples, say, and my Mammaw B would crochet in the same colors---an inch-wide lacing of beautiful crochet. I still have quite a few of those crochet edgings, joined round as hoops, all folded together in a box---in hopes of tacking them to some wedding gifts for the grandchildren---wouldn't that be a lovely thing---something handmade five generations ago by your own GREAT-great.

And books. My favorite gifts to give and receive will forever be books.


Nora Bee said...

What fun this was to read! My parents had the NG stash as well, it was one of my favorite refuges in our house.

Keetha said...

I can just picture that pitcher of orange juice, the matching glasses. She had a Nancy Drew tumbler all of her own. My goodness.

Your posts are so evocative and descriptive.

Can I guess the town you grew up in? For some reason, I'm thinking Yazoo City. No, wait. Greenville. I don't know.

Kouign Aman said...

I wrote to my husband's mother, asking for a favored recipe from his childhood. It was a delight to get the copy - a photocopy of HER grandmother's recipe, in her hand. For our child, this recipe will be a 5-generation hand-me-down.